Why the CIA Cares About Marxism

Photo by Ann Wuyts | CC BY 2.0

In a widely read essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled “The CIA reads French theory: on the intellectual labor of dismantling the cultural left” (February 27, 2017), Gabriel Rockhill spins an intriguing yarn about the CIA and their interest in keeping abreast of French political theory throughout the Cold War. “According to the spy agency itself,” Rockhill observed, “post-Marxist French theory directly contributed to the CIA’s cultural program of coaxing the left toward the right, while discrediting anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism…” Here the professor was making particular reference to a recently declassified CIA report, authored in 1985, that focuses on the intellectual milieu around Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan.

Abundant evidence of course exists of the CIA’s complex cultural interventions into French intellectual affairs — but it is critical to recognise that it was the political shortcomings of communist organizations themselves (i.e., Stalinists) that had the determinant impact on the obscurantist trajectory of left-wing academic ideas. The CIA’s own determined cold warriors were well aware of these problems on the Left, and hence these are exactly the arguments they put forth in 1985 within their then internal document “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals.” This “research report” — referred to within Gabriel Rockhill’s essay — is clear, the CIA sought to examine the changing attitudes of French intellectuals so as to “gauge the probable political impact on the political environment in which policy is made.” So considering the intriguing theoretical focus of this report it is worth dwelling upon some of the arguments presented therein, if only as a starting point for exploring the failures of the most influential parts of the French Left in the aftermath of World War II.

Certainly bearing in mind the ferocity with which the CIA waged the intellectual war against the Left — with the aid of assorted liberal elites (Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power) — it is notable that the imperialist logistics of this battle remain largely overlooked within the CIA’s own report. Leaving aside this significant oversight, the anonymous CIA author does at least emphasize that it was the repeated disillusionment of the working-class with the French Communist Party (PCF) that undermined the popularity of Communist and socialist ideologies. Indeed, time and time again the French working-class sought out political ideas on the Left to help them in the critical task of democratizing society, but all too often they were betrayed by Communist intellectuals who ultimately had no faith in the working-class to change society for themselves.

The CIA report thus touches briefly upon the betrayal of the socialist Mitterrand government in the 1980s, and Mitterrand’s backtracking from his party’s progressive economic policies and “adopt[ion of] austerity measures that drew embarrassing criticism from both the left and the right…” The intelligence author writes: “the dose of austerity that these policies eventually forced rang the death knell of leftist ideology for many informed observers.” This fatal reversal served to compound the destructive and more “traumatic events of May 1968” which were characterised by the PCF’s betrayal of a genuinely revolution movement of working-class solidarity (yet again). Thus the CIA report accurately surmised:

“In May-June 1968, after months of intensifying protests, students threw up barricades in the university section of Paris and initiated a period of guerrilla warfare in the streets of the Latin Quarter. The protest spread to other university cities; students were joined by 7 million striking workers (who occupied the factories); transportation and public services ground to a halt; and the 10-year-old government of General de Gaulle tottered. Marxist students looked to the Communist Party for leadership and declaration of a provisional government, but PCF leaders were already trying to restrain worker revolt and denounced the student radicals as woolly-minded anarchists. Many students concluded that the PCF had made a deal with de Gaulle, who eventually put down the riots.”

In the wake of the PCF’s abandonment of the revolutionary uprising of May 1968, and the failure to overthrow capitalism, it is rather unsurprising that conservative forces of reaction would seize this opportunity to intensify their challenge to Marxism. On this score, the CIA report refers to the success of the “New Philosophers,” whose anti-Stalinist and anti-Marxist ideas were widely championed in the mainstream media (throughout the 1970s) with the aid of Bernard-Henri Levy’s highly influential Grasset publishing house. The CIA author then describes how these New Philosophers had become disillusioned with the Left, observing how “the traditional leftist parties’ pusillanimity during the student revolt of 1968 tore the scales from their eyes, causing them to reject their allegiance to the Communist Party, French socialism, and even the essential tenets of Marxism.”

The report’s author goes on to explain how “Raymond Aron, the revered dean of contemporary conservative thought in France,” had worked long years in his efforts to discredit “the intellectual edifice of French Marxism.” But importantly the report acknowledges: “Even more effective in undermining Marxism, however, were those intellectuals who set out as true believers to apply Marxist theory in the social sciences but ended up rethinking and rejecting the entire tradition.” On this score, the CIA analyst suggests:

“Among postwar French historians, the influential school of thought associated with Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel has overwhelmed the traditional Marxist historians. The Annales school, as it is known from its principal journal, turned French historical scholarship on its head in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily by challenging and later rejecting the hitherto dominant Marxist theories of historical progress. Although many of its exponents maintain that they are ‘in the Marxist tradition,’ they mean only that they use Marxism as a critical point of departure for trying to discover the actual patterns of social history. For the most part, they have concluded that Marxist notions of the structure of the past – of social relationships, of patterns of events, and of their influence in the long term – are simplistic and invalid.

“In the field of anthropology, the influential structuralist school associated with Claude Levi-Strauss, Foucault, and others performed virtually the same mission. Although both structuralism and Annales methodology have fallen on hard times (critics accuse them of being too difficult for the uninitiated to follow), we believe their critical demolition of Marxist influence in the social sciences is likely to endure as a profound contribution to modern scholarship both in France and elsewhere in Western Europe.”

What the CIA author leaves unmentioned in this concise historical statement is the role that US elites played in nurturing the theorists of the Annales school as a central facet of the cultural Cold War Thankfully this important moment in history is reviewed in Kristin Ross’s book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (1996).

“The French social sciences we are familiar with now were thus a postwar invention, and in all aspects of French modernization after the war their ascendency bore some relation to U.S. economic intervention. To a certain extent the turn to this kind of study was funded and facilitated by the United States in a kind of Marshall Plan for intellectuals. A review of the literature makes a convincing case that the foremost American export of the period was not Coca-Cola or movies but the supremacy of the social sciences. In October 1946, the director of the social science division of the Rockefeller Foundation proclaimed, ‘A New France, a new society is rising up from the ruins of the Occupation; the best of its efforts is magnificent, but the problems are staggering. In France, the issue of the conflict or the adaptation between communism and western democracy appears in its most acute form. France is its battlefield or laboratory.’ By expanding the social sciences in Europe, American sought to contain the progress of Marxism in the world.” (p.186)

Ross writes that the “main tactic” employed the Western-backed intellectuals at the Annales school “was that of cannibalism: encompass and absorb the enemies as a means of controlling them.” She refers to this approach as a “Science of empirical and quantitative sociology – the study of repetition – was erected against the science of history, the study of event.”

“In the 1950s and 1960s Braudel, Le Roy Laduirie, and others, ensconced after 1962 in the Maison des sciences de l’homme, produced what Braudel called ‘a history whose passage is almost imperceptible … a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever recurring cycles.’ Their most formidable enemies within the field of history lived across the street: the long lineage of Marxist historians of the French revolution – Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, and the like – housed at the Sorbonne. For what is at stake in the erasure of the study of social movement in favour of that of structures is the possibility of abrupt change or mutation in history: the idea of Revolution itself. The old-fashioned historians of the event par excellence of French history, each in turn occupying the chaired professorship for the study of the French Revolution institute by the Sorbonne after 1891, looked askance at their thoroughly modernized, well-funded, and well-equipped (with photocopiers and computers) colleagues across the way.” (p.189)

With specific relevance to the CIA’s comments on the rise and rise of French structuralism, it is useful to reflect upon Ross’s analysis of this field of study. As she states:

“[T]he rise of structuralism in the 1950s and 1960s was above all a frontal attack on historical thought in general and Marxist dialectical analysis in particular; its appeal to many leftist French intellectuals after 1956 was overdetermined by the crisis within the French Communist Party and Marxism following the revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary at the end of that year. After such messy historical events, the clean, scientific precision of structuralism offered a kind of respite.” (p.180)

Other than Febvre and Braudel, at this stage it is worth briefly reflecting upon the career of another famous proponent of French structuralism, Claude Lévi-Strauss. This is because in 1941, while living in exile in America, Lévi-Strauss had been offered a job at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where with the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation he helped found the École Libre des Hautes Études with an official charter from de Gaulle’s government in exile. After the war Lévi-Strauss then went on to work as cultural attaché to the French embassy in Washington, before returning to France in 1948 whereupon he became the director of studies in anthropology (1950-74) at the École Pratique des Hautes Études’ newly established VI section. As Kristen Ross writes:

“A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1947 helped finance the founding of the VI section of the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes under the directorship of historian Lucien Febvre, who had seized the initiative from a rival group of sociologists headed by Georges Gurvitch. Home to Fransois Furet in the early 1960s, this institution would be central to the future of the social sciences in France: in 1962, when Febve’s successor Fernand Braudel gathered all the various research laboratories scattered around the Latin Quarter and housed them in a single building on the Boulevard Raspaid, the Maison des sciences de l‘homme, the Ford Foundation helped finance the operation. In 1975 the VI section would in turn emancipate itself from the Ecole pratique and become the Ecole de hautes etudes en sciences sociales, with university status and the authorization to grant degrees.” (p.187)

The Ford Foundation’s decision, in 1959, to finance of the Maison des sciences de l‘homme proved to be a critical moment for the evolution of French social sciences as Ford’s $1 million grant certainly brought them great influence. Moreover shortly after this grant was dispensed, Ford also helped Raymond Aron to launch his Institute of European Sociology in Paris. Certainly it is not coincidental that Aron was already playing a prominent role in the undertakings of the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom – a famous anti-communist enterprise that had been set up in Paris in 1950 with the full support of America’s most influential liberal foundations.

Such assorted philanthropic interventions into French affairs “were complemented by support for the building of transnational institutions at the level of the European Community and for the fostering of transatlantic ties.” A key intellectual broker in this regard was French economist Jean Monnet, who, while working hand-in-hand with American philanthropists, had been one of the founding fathers of both NATO and the European Union. Monnet enjoyed his own liaisons with economic and political elites at the Bilderberg Club, and in the 1950s formed his own Action Committee for a United States of Europe. Furthermore, on top of such transatlantic efforts to consolidate capitalist interests, the “Ford Foundation invested in American-style management education all over Western Europe, and by 1960 the European Association of Management Training, with Pierre Tabatoni as its president, acted as a roof organization for these schools…”

Philanthropic projects seeking to guide European academic enquiries away from Marxism were of course not limited to the social sciences — a matter of influence that is expanded upon in John Krige’s book American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (2008). In reference to the development of French science most particularly, Krige points out how Warren Weaver, who was the director the Division of the Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation (1932–55)…

“and the foundation were not simply interested in supporting good science and new directions in France. They wanted to use their financial leverage to steer French scientists along quite definite lines. Weaver in particular believed that the French were parochial and inward-looking. He wanted to transform them into outward-looking, “international” researchers, using techniques and tackling questions that were current above all in the United States. It was a vision inspired by the conviction that, without a radical remodeling of the French scientific community on American lines and the determined marginalization of Communist scientists in the field of biology, the country could never hope to play again a major role in the advancement of science.” (p.81)

Another integral part of the ongoing post World War II battle for French minds was more fundamentally concerned with defanging the mass organisations of the working-class themselves — trade unions. This battle was eagerly taken up by the AFL’s Free Trade Union Committee, with many American trade union officials proving themselves more than ready to take up the war against Communism (and union democracy) by covertly intervening in the day-to-day affairs of foreign trade unions. In their developing connections with the Free Trade Union Committee the CIA was in luck and “found a dedicated and experienced ally, with extensive networks and years of experience in the covert manipulation of international labor movements.” The underhand nature of this long and undemocratic relationship is well summed up by “a government memo, unsigned but attached to a November 1948 letter from David Bruce, the Chief of the Special Mission to France addressed to Paul Hoffman, the Administrator of the Economic Cooperation Administration”:

“[…] it will not be enough to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into food, machinery, coal, and raw materials. We must find a means of not only aiding industry, of directly aiding the direct representatives of the workers. This is very difficult. The unions will not accept any aid from a foreign government. (If such aid does become available, it must be disguised and under no circumstances can the people here know anything about it. The whole matter therefore requires the utmost of discretion.) They will accept only trade union aid.”

After administering the Marshall Plan for imperial interests, Paul Hoffman then moved on from his role as head of the Economic Cooperation Administration to become the president of the Ford Foundation (1950-3) in America. The interrelated and sophisticated nature of such sophisticated interventions into France’s political affairs are usefully laid bare in Giles Scott-Smith’s incisive study Networks of Empire: The US State Department’s Foreign Leader Program in the Netherlands, France, and Britain, 1950-70 (2011). Scott-Smith surmises:

“The ability of the US to interfere in French affairs was unparalleled during that first decade [after the end of World War II], yet the governments in Paris were still able maintain an independent outlook and steer their own course, benefitting from their special place within US strategy towards Western Europe. The European Cooperation Administration, with its headquarters in Paris, exerted a tremendous influence on the French socioeconomic scene, yet it implemented it via its own version, the Monnet Plan. US financial and military aid was recycled to enable long-running colonial wars to be fought in Indochina and North Africa. French reluctance to support an economic revival of Germany soon became sublimated into structural plans for European integration, with Paris leading the way. While the CIA supported the Force Ouvrière trade union and a host of other anti-communist outlets like the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, French political elites willingly adopted their own strategies to undermine communist influence. US influence was therefore constrained by French political and social imperatives.” (p.327)

Returning to the analysis presented in the CIA’s now declassified report, it is noteworthy that the report’s authors downplay the fascist/traditionalist orientation of the New Right forces that rose to prominence in the wake of 1968. In fact, the CIA initially simply refer to these forces in their report as the “new liberals.” Later on the CIA analyst states:

“Encouraged by writers and publishers who are associated in some way with right-wing press baron Robert Hersant, the New Right in France has taken up the ideas of reviving classic European liberalism as the elixir that France needs to recover from Socialist ‘mismanagement’.”

In a more revealing appendix to their report, entitled “Cultural aspects of New Right thought,” the CIA however go on to point out how:

“Conservative writers, many of them associated with the group for Research and Study of European Civilization (GRECE) and the Clock Club (Club de l’Horloge)… have found an outlet for their arguments in Hersant publications, notably Figaro Magazine, which is edited by GRECE kindred spirit Louis Pauwels.”

Here the CIA also draw attention to “the anti-egalitarian and even anti-Christian elements of GRECE/Horloge thinking”, but only to observe, how in recent years, this element of their thinking had apparently been toned down to better spread their toxic ideas. That said, the CIA report at least admits that GRECE were not really “new liberals,” as they point out that even:

“Raymond Aron, the revered dean of contemporary conservative thought in France, detested the New Right intellectuals, often equating their elitist anti-egalitarianism with the worse antidemocratic strains in French conservativism.”

Nevertheless in the wake of 1968 it is clear that the capitalist establishment in both America and France sought to do everything in their power to undermine the national and international unity of working-class struggle. Expressed in a blunt form this led a renewed focus on excluding certain left-wing voices from the mainstream media. Here a good example of such practices is provided by the activism of right-wing financier Sir James Goldsmith who in 1977 purchased the left-wing L’Express, a popular newspaper which the new owner had previously identified as “the source of intellectual sickness of France”. Sir James’ first move upon acquiring this newspaper was to impose Raymond Aron upon the papers staff. On a more mundane academic level, elite funding agencies also continued to support scholarly efforts to learn more about the threat posed by an increasingly militant trade union movement across Western Europe.

Ultimately, however, despite many notable gains and inspiring victories, left-wing forces were tragically beaten back by a resurgent and coordinated neoliberal assault upon democracy worldwide. As in France, this process of neoliberal transformation was made easier by the willing collaboration of the Communist Party with members of the ruling-class, and by the stark betrayals of the working-class by left reformists like Mitterrand. It was in these unfavourable conditions that the intellectually debilitating but well-funded postmodern theories of French post-structuralists subsequently gained an unwelcome foothold within both academia and to some extent the mainstream media. As the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton argues in his book Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983):

“Post-structuralism was a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968. Unable to break the structures of state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language. Nobody, at least, was likely to beat you over the head for doing so. The student movement was flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse. Its enemies… became coherent belief-systems of any kind – in particular all forms of political theory and organization which sought to analyse, and act upon, the structures of society as a whole.” (p.142)

Of course these dead-end and intellectually incoherent currents of ‘leftist’ retreat did not remain confined to France — as exemplified by the Ford Foundation’s support of a two-year program of seminars in the mid-1960s which gave a boost to French structuralism on American shores. Yet in spite of such academic set-backs for those on the Left, the possibility of emancipatory working-class struggles developing are once again visible on capitalism’s inhumane horizon. Early signs of this revival can be seen by the resurgent popularity garnered for socialist political candidates like Bernie Sanders (in America), Jean-Luc Mélenchon (in France), and Jeremy Corbyn (in Britain).

No doubt, the ruling-class and their intelligence agencies will, at this very moment, be frantically drafting up new “research reports” so that they may orientate their political activities in a vain attempt to neutralise this growing mood of resistance. So this time around we have to ensure that we have learned the appropriate lessons from history. First and foremost we must refuse to allow any new socialist leaders to mislead us in our bid for freedom. And so we must be clear that if our leaders are not up to the task of helping us build a democratic and socialist alternative to the bankrupt status quo then we must be ready to replace them, and ultimately be willing to seize power for ourselves.

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