Foundations and Social Change

Diana Johnstone is a radical journalist and author of two books, The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe’s Role in America’s World (Verso, 1985), and Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusion (Monthly Review Press, 2002). This interview was conducted by email in June/July 2010.

MICHAEL BARKER (MB):  Could you explain what you see as the main differences between hard and soft power?

Diana Johnstone (DJ):  This is a distinction made by others, who I assume have defined their terms. From my simple viewpoint, soft power is what is exercised most of the time, and hard power is the last resort when soft power fails.

MB: I tend to think that most radical writers have neglected emphasizing the importance of soft power in legitimizing and extending capitalist relations: what are you thoughts on this matter?

DJ:  I haven’t read enough of radical writers to make such a generalization. However, since, as I mentioned above, “soft power” is in my view the usual form, especially in our capitalist democracies, it may well be neglected. “Hard power”, as I understand it, is more dramatic and more likely to arouse opposition, so perhaps radicals emphasize it in hopes of arousing opposition. However, there is quite a lot of criticism of the media (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, among others), which is an important form of soft power, I assume.

MB:  When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations? What was your initial reactions to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former “big three,” the Ford, Rockfeller and Carnegies foundations.

DJ:  To be perfectly frank, the first critiques I recall are my own. I have been suspicious of the influence of these foundations from the start. I have not had much occasion to write about those particular foundations, although I have criticized the role of humanitarian NGOs in international affairs. To be more precise, I consider that there is a relationship between the collapse of the organized left, roughly around 1970, and the rise of NGOs and foundations. I would not venture to say which is the cause and which is the effect, but private funding started siphoning off intellectuals from independent movements around that time. This favored single-issue activism as opposed to any global intellectual analysis of the economic social system as the basis for activism. This was very obvious to me in the early 1970s.

MB:  For readers not familiar with your work could you just highlight some of the NGOs that you have critiqued.

DJ:  I think I expressed my basic criticisms of NGOs in my book, Fools’ Crusade. Rather than name names, I would prefer to emphasize structural causes. I see the rise of NGOs as a following naturally from the decline of militant political organizations and parties. This goes along with the rising power of financial capital and the growing sense of political disempowerment at the level of electoral politics or labor struggles. Humanitarian and human rights organizations appeal to people who want to “do something for the world”. This is a form of privatization. Instead of vigorous political debate over how public resources should be used, individuals are exhorted to write checks to save the children, save the whales, etc. Concerning foreign countries, some NGOs can contribute to making bad situations worse by proclaiming that “we” can and must intervene in complicated and often obscure conflicts. This is going on right now concerning Darfur, by groups who have managed to put punishing the Sudanese president ahead of any search for a peaceful solution to the conflicts there. The economic, historic and environmental causes of conflict are ignored in favor of a Grimms’ fairy tale of some wicked ogre wanting to massacre children.

MB:  Following on from the last question, could you could briefly explain what you think about the academic/activist literature that is critical of liberal philanthropy?

DJ:  I haven’t read it, but I am prejudiced in its favor.

MB:  Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

DJ:  Ha! Because biting the hand that feeds is no way to get a grant! I have been struck by the extent to which the “baby boom” generation has considered that the first thing to write is an application for a grant. I have always preferred to write first what I have to say. Of course, this makes publication very difficult, if not impossible.

MB:  How have liberal foundations and/or elite philanthropists influenced your own research priorities?

DJ:  Not at all. I shun them, and they shun me.

MB:  How would you describe the general impact of liberal foundations on the evolution of research within universities and on intellecutals more generally?

DJ:  It can’t be all bad, and for people who are naturally conformist – the majority, perhaps – it doesn’t make them more conformist than they already were. But it certainly sets the limits of what is “acceptable”.

MB:  As a result of publishing your own work, what sort of opposition have you encountered from those involved in sustaining elite knowledge networks? Could you please explain how you dealt with such resistance.

DJ:  Well, the main way I dealt with it in the mid-1970s was to start my own little newsletter, The Owl. This led to invitations to write for Le Monde diplomatique, In These Times, and others. In short, I tend to circumvent obstacles rather than try to fight them head on. Today, the internet makes this incomparably easier than it was then.

MB:  It would be nice if you could talk a little about how you started The Owl (funding, helpers etc), and it might also be interesting to point out how much you have been paid for contributions to alternative media during your career.

DJ:  There is nothing to say about that. I had no funding and no helpers at the start, although along the way a kind and generous friend helped me with mailings. I began by offering my newsletter to a few people, who recommended it to others, and so it grew. I had another full-time job at the time, so it soon grew to a point that I had to quit one or the other, and in fact I went to a third option. There are no lessons in my story for anyone now, since everyone (but me) now has a blog. I can’t remember how much I was paid, but it wasn’t much, and today it would be much less. I have never held back on criticism of anything I wanted to criticize.

MB:  Do you think anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilize liberal foundation funding to develop an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

DJ:  I doubt this very much. Who pays the piper calls the tune. Karl Marx was supported by his friend and comrade Friedrich Engels (subject of a splendid recent biography), [1] not by some foundation.

MICHAEL BARKER is an independent researcher who currently resides in the
UK. His other articles can be accessed at


[1] Tristram Hunt, The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Allen Lane, 2009).





Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).