Commentary Magazine

The Impact of America on European Culture

America the Beautiful and Damned
The Impact of America on European Culture.
by Martin Cooper, John Lehmann, Perry Miller, J. E. Morpurgo, Sean O’Faolain, Bertrand Russell.
Beacon Press. 100 pp. $1.75.


Of the six essays in this book about America’s influence on European culture—one by an American professor, one by an Irish writer, the four others by Englishmen—at least three find the influence harmful, implying that America exports reaction to Europe. Sean O’Faolain takes us to task because Irish priests are more “illiberal” in this country than in Ireland; J. E. Morpurgo argues that American culture, dominated by Hollywood, has outlawed the rebel; and Martin Cooper, in a discussion of American music, concludes that our “democratization of taste” makes for empty proficiency in musical performance and generally debases art. The essay by the lone American, Perry Miller, is seemingly a defense of the homeland, but it turns out that what Miller likes about America is that in its own way it is even more revolutionary, more Marxist, than Europe.

The two best essays are by Bertrand Russell, writing with his usual urbanity and insight, and John Lehmann, providing a sensitive comment on American literature. But even these two informed and judicious pieces occasionally fall in with the stock picture of America abroad, as when Russell says that America, once a symbol of radicalism, has now become the “bulwark of capitalism,” and Lehmann claims that much of our recent fiction is given to an unhealthy cynicism and “spiritual emptiness” that “may have a corrupting influence on European literature.”



What these essays have in common is the assumption that this country is on trial—an assumption behind much European writing on America today. We are familiar with the crude anti-Americanism now popular on the Continent, and its routine charges of vulgarity, imperialism, reaction, militarism, commercialism, intellectual emptiness, etc. But this indictment has become so much a part of European thinking that even people friendly to America are placed in the position of attorneys for the defense, compelled to marshal evidence showing that our virtues outweigh our faults.

Such an approach to American (or any other) culture is neither fruitful nor normal. Nor am I convinced that there is a “question of American culture” apart from the social and aesthetic problems of all modern culture, affecting Europe as well as America. In the past, a national culture or period in history was generally examined in all its diversity and as part of the larger patterns of civilization, not simply to determine whether it was good or bad. Who has ever thought of evaluating 19th-century Russia, or France in the 18th century, or Elizabethan England, in such black and white terms? Even totalitarian societies, which are after all beyond the pale of our social morality, are not approached that schematically.

This is not to say our critics are entirely wrong. On the contrary, I think it might be stated once and for all that much criticism of America by Europeans—and American liberals—is at least partly true. What is objectionable is that it is one-sided, excessive, and usually made by people who are far from disinterested and whose own social and aesthetic values are hardly superior. One would be sympathetic if our critics spoke for a community of letters or a true internationalism—but then they would also be detached from the dominant trends in Europe and opposed to the regimes beyond the Iron Curtain. We are suspicious, however, when writers who are in no sense rebels and have accommodated themselves to Stalinism, suddenly discover that America is the arch enemy of progress. In the name of what higher form of democracy does Sartre, for example, or O’Faolain—or any one of our own “liberals”—find American institutions reactionary? And where is the more advanced aesthetic?



The most telling criticism is directed against our commercial mass culture, what Martin Cooper calls the “democratization of taste.” Yet those who object to the enormous consumption of culture in this country forget that it is an outgrowth of our free-wheeling democracy. I think the question of the kind of art our culture favors is serious, but it involves the relation of art to social stratification, and the tensions between aesthetic tradition and the uninhibited forms of an “open society.” Though we arc deeply committed to the great tradition of European art, the fact remains it was created by an elite in a class society, and one cannot raise the banners both of cultural and social democracy without exploring the connection between the two. Our anti-American critics have it both ways: they condemn our art in the name of aristocracy, and our politics in the name of democracy.



The current anti-Americanism is neither profound nor consistent. Why then should it have arisen?

The causes are many and complex, but I can only touch on the primary ones here.

Perhaps the most important factor is what might be called the “Stalinization” of European thinking and of much of our native liberalism by which I do not mean that all the intellectuals affected arc Stalinized, but rather that Stalinism has managed to impose many of its assumptions and attitudes on them. The image of America as a political and cultural menace, here as well as abroad, is something that has been propagated by the incessant efforts of the Communists; and many of the Europeans who question this image do so only in terms of size—that is, they believe that America may be the lesser evil by contrast to Russia.

But there is a larger sense in which Europe—and “advanced” thinking throughout the world—has been Stalinized: it has been infiltrated by the Marxist ideology of progress and socialism to the point where it is ready to accept as historically inevitable the doom of Western civilization and the messianic role of the proletariat in the creation of a new world. As a result, the “progressive” mind here and abroad, confined in the past to liberal ideas and reforms, has acquired a new faith in the forces of revolution. And to contain the ambiguities of such a position there has arisen a “progressive” myth, joining 19th-century liberalism with elements of the Communist philosophy, that has radically affected the thinking of many people who do not follow the Marxist line in every respect and in many cases even regard themselves as anti-Marxist. On the whole, identification in one way or another with this myth has come to be synonymous with enlightenment, with the triumph of humanism—with simple decency. Much of the idealism of our time has been soaked up by this blend of good will with a fatalistic view of history first conceived by Hegel and then given a practical twist by Marx. That such a force as Stalinism has not only won a monopoly on socialism but is also the beneficiary of our zealous humanitarianism is a final irony.

An essential feature of the “progressive myth” is that it carries the determinism and libertarian spirit of the Marxist tradition without being directly committed, at least on the surface, to the specific theories of Marx and Lenin or to the distinct aims of Stalinism—at the same time that it does have a soft spot for any movement that presents itself as “revolutionary,” especially if led by the Communists. This is why, it seems to me, most sympathizers with Stalinism both here and abroad connect themselves with the ideals of justice proclaimed by the Marxist system rather than with the totalitarian state in Russia. Or why Communist “peace” slogans are so attractive to people who vaguely recall that Lenin was against war but choose to forget that Lenin opposed only “imperialist” wars and supported “progressive” ones, both of which are specifically defined within the Marxist scheme only according to Marxist canons.



The question remains why the mythology of history and progress that has grown up around the Communist movement and is so shrewdly exploited by it should have become so potent just now, thirty-five years after the Russian Revolution. The chief reasons, I think, lie in the economic and physical exhaustion of Europe, and a blundering American policy that permitted Russia to become so powerful. Caught between its own moral defeatism and fear of the Red Army, the Continent has naturally been attracted to a revolutionary ideology that promises everything—peace, progress, economic improvement, Russian friendship, and above all a resurgence of national energies. And if the millions of Europeans who seem to be under the sway of Stalinism have not been affected by the terror of the Russian regime, it is because they are moved by a vision of an equalitarian and creative society, which they imagine the Communists will help them to achieve.

Even non-Communists, who have only the vaguest idea of goals and policies, have dedicated themselves to being revolutionary at all costs, competing with each other in their “radicalism” and their opposition to “reaction.” In this atmosphere it is not surprising to find a prevailing friendliness to Stalinism, and a widespread “neutralism” or hostility to America, the symbol of all the reactionary forces thwarting man’s salvation through history.

American culture has in the past often been questioned by Europeans, as in the famous attack by Duhamel; while the idea of a mass tyranny of taste in this country goes back to de Tocqueville. But the criticism was not necessarily identified with progress, and only recently has it become part of a campaign against America. Unfortunately for those of us who are not uncritical of American life, the current “trial” of America, far from having any therapeutic value, can only serve the purpose of Stalinism, or promote a native chauvinism in reaction, and generally increase the present confusion. It is, perhaps, the paradox of our time that one of the greatest obstacles to political clarity and aesthetic advance—and therefore to progress—should be the mythology of progress that has grown up under the aegis of Marxism.



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