The American Committee for Cultural Freedom

The American Committee for Cultural Freedom

That the American Committee for Cultural Freedom is a grouping of some significance in our intellectual life, is not to be disputed. Its well-publicized statements are often taken as the quasi-official opinion of intellectual liberalism. It counts among its members, most notably on its masthead, the names of many intellectuals with a long history of devotion to cultural freedom. Nonetheless, this organization has recently suffered—and so far as one can determine, continues to suffer—a severe political crisis on the very issue of cultural freedom which is its presumable reason for existence. The immediate occasion for this crisis we shall describe later; for the moment we need only say that it concerns statements by its leading officials so compromising to any libertarian spirit that a number of prominent ACCF members have publicly protested. Behind this immediate crisis, however, lurk the larger problems that beset those American intellectuals who are sincerely devoted to cultural freedom yet are simultaneously involved with a politics that prods them to qualify, weaken and sometimes even negate this devotion.


Though it had a previous embryonic existence, the American Committee established itself after an International Congress for Cultural Freedom held in Berlin in June 1950. This meeting was attended by intellectuals from 21 countries and was followed by the formation of national groups. The basis of the international organization was a manifesto signed by a wide spectrum of intellectuals, from Ignazio Silone to Sidney Hook, from David Rousset to Jacques Maritain. Consisting primarily of rhetorical affirmations of freedom, the politics of this statement were as unexceptionable as they were vague, save perhaps for a sideswipe against “neutralism.”

The International Committee was conceived as a kind of “united front.” Answering the question “whether a real collaboration between Socialists and right-wing parties is possible or desirable,” it declared: “This collaboration is desirable if its objectives are limited to the task of uniting each free nation against threats to its freedom from within and without and thus acting as a deterrent against aggression.”

Now the concept of the “united front” has an honorable as well as a dishonorable past. Almost always it has served a useful purpose only when it led to various groups or individuals acting in common for delimited ends while not pretending to dissolve their larger differences. Nor is there any reason why a “united front” in defense of cultural freedom should not be possible and useful—provided, however, that there is a clear understanding as to how cultural freedom can be defended. The statement of the International Committee, one quickly notices, does not provide such understanding; once “the task of uniting each free nation” is raised, the inevitable divis...