Brought to you by Hopkins at Home
June 15, 2020 - July 6, 2020 (4 weeks)
Mondays, 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm EDT
The purpose of this short course is to introduce (or reintroduce) alumni to an important chapter in contemporary intellectual history. The course studies several writers and scholars whose work in the early Cold War was decisive for casting the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States as a struggle between democracy (and pluralism) and totalitarianism. All of the writers in the syllabus were politically committed to the cause of the West. Koestler was the front man for the Congress on Cultural Freedom; Orwell was an outspoken critic of “fellow travelers” in Britain; Schlesinger was a founder of Americans for Democratic Action. Berlin, a native Russian speaker, was less overtly political, but he was influential behind the scenes in official Washington and London. His articles for Foreign Affairs, especially “Political ideas in the Twentieth Century,” and his radio lectures on Freedom and Its Betrayal in 1951 were genuine instances of academic thinking that had an immediate impact on public debate and even public policy.
Session 1: The Indispensable Intellectual: Arthur Koestler.
Date and Time: Tuesday, June 16, 12-1 pm EDT
This webinar will outline the pervasiveness of the “Soviet Myth” among intellectuals in Europe, especially in France, via a discussion of the life of Arthur Koestler. It will look at the success at Darkness at Noon, which appeared in 1940 in English but had a huge post-war success in France, and discuss the founding of the Congress on Cultural Freedom. Koestler is sometimes depicted as an anti-communist zealot: he would have replied that zealotry against Stalinism was no crime. All four of the writers discussed here, incidentally, would have agreed.
Readings: Darkness at Noon
Session 2: The Road to 1984: George Orwell.
Date and Time: Tuesday, June 23, 12-1 pm EDT
The quintessential British antifascist and anti-communist British intellectual, Orwell was formed, politically, during the Spanish Civil War. The brutal suppression by the USSR and the Spanish Communists of all left-wing sentiment that contradicted the party line, and the willingness of progressives around the world to falsify the historical record in order to justify the USSR’s actions, awoke the powerful and deep-rooted detestation of Stalinism that gave birth, eventually, to such classics as Animal Farm, “Politics and the English Language,” and 1984.
Reading: 1984, especially the chapters where Winston is interrogated by O’Brien. “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol. 1.
Session 3: The Ardor of Arthur Schlesinger.
Date and Time: Tuesday, June 30, 12-1 pm EDT
A founder of Americans for Democratic Action, Schlesinger in the late 1940s was the rising star of the historical profession. His Age of Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize; he would shortly embark on his trilogy about the New Deal. Schlesinger – greatly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr – attacked both the Stalinism of the USSR and what he saw as the shallowness of American progressives like Henry Wallace. His book The Vital Center insisted that liberals had to fight against the myth of Soviet progressivism and prevent civilized doctrines of social reform and greater equality from being hijacked by world communism.
Reading: Extract from The Vital Center
Session 4: History’s Uncertainties: Isaiah Berlin.
Date and Time: Tuesday, July 7, 12-1pm EDT
Born in Riga, Berlin’s family escaped the Bolshevik Revolution to come to Britain. Berlin became a part of the British establishment – he was the first Jewish Briton to become a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. His war service in Washington DC, where he provided political intelligence to London on the Roosevelt administration, made him a lifelong supporter of the Atlantic alliance, though, unlike Schlesinger, he never became a citizen of Camelot. Berlin’s period as a Cold War Liberal, I would argue, is crucial if one wants to understand Berlin’s broader political thought. Indeed, it was a prelude to it.
Reading: “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century.”
Further Reading: The best biographies of these four writers are:
Richard Aldous: Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian.
Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life.
D.J.Taylor: Orwell: A Life
Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual.
Mark Gilbert is a British citizen. He was educated at the University of Durham and the University of Wales, where he earned his doctorate in 1990. He has been professor of history at SAIS Europe, the Bologna Campus of the School for Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, since 2012. In 2018, he was president of the international jury of the Cundill Prize (https://www.cundillprize.com/). He is currently writing a book, to be published by Penguin / Allen Lane, on the Birth of Democracy in Italy: A Political and Social History, 1943—54.