The Third Chapter

New writing on twentieth-century Afro-Asian solidarity

Conferences held by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association were crucial assemblies for writers and intellectuals from Africa and Asia, encouraging cultural interchange, and facilitating discussions on shared challenges.
31 December, 2023

IN 1955, at the peak of the Cold War, a group funded by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency launched hundreds of balloons carrying copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and waited for the winds to carry them from West Germany into Communist territory. This may seem absurd today, but, as the historian Duncan White puts it, in his book Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War, “while the rival superpowers embarked on an arms race and competed over technologies of space flight, the first decades of the Cold War were also marked by an escalating ‘book race.’”

Cultural warfare became one of the main ways in which this particular conflict played out. Fittingly, huge amounts of money and time were spent on instituting various high-profile programmes that worked to distribute and promote propaganda via print culture around the world. Both the United States and the Soviet Union put in place book programmes, literary prizes and other publishing endeavors, such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was covertly funded by the CIA, or the Moscow-based Progress Publishers, to influence domestic and international perception.

This mobilisation of print culture was not particularly new. Much before the Cold War began, Soviet texts had made their way into colonised societies in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, often navigating intricate routes and undergoing multiple translations. The initial phase of Soviet engagement with the colonised world during the interwar period arguably holds even greater significance than the second in the mid 1950s. This was despite the considerably increased Soviet investment in supporting independence movements and newly decolonised states during the second phase, and that, as White notes, “during the Cold War, the production of literature in the Soviet Union escalated dramatically.” The United States, on the other hand, gauged the value of literary warfare mainly during the Second World War, with the Office of War Information making literature central to its propaganda efforts in 1942. The country tried catching up by also placing huge numbers of books into circulation.

“What the Cold War and the decolonization period show so crucially … is how seriously literature was taken at the time, and how instrumental print cultures were considered to be in order to wage and advance certain struggles and ideas. Literature was everything but innocuous,” the editors of a 2022 volume of essays titled The Form of Ideology and the Ideology of Form: Cold War, Decolonization and Third World Print Cultures, write in their introduction. Although the weaponisation of literature throughout the Cold War has been studied in depth, they argue that, until recently, much of the focus was on the United States and the Soviet Union—framing Asia, Africa and Latin America as “merely a battlefield for rival ideologies, falling under either American or Soviet influence.”