On the grave, waltzing slowly: In Berlin Keith Botsford joins a confab of ageing intellectuals, now retired from fighting Communism but with plenty else to fear

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The Independent Online
When a largish group of intellectuals foregathers in Berlin, dines in the Reichstag and meets in the former East German party headquarters, a bit of gloating is in order. Time for a last Hurrah. The Cold War, in which many of the participants, most of them connected to that remarkable magazine Encounter, were redoubtable warriors, unexpectedly has been won; or the enemy has collapsed. (Encounter, edited by Melvyn J Lasky, chairman of last weekend's meeting in Berlin, was for many years sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which in turn was shown to have been indirectly funded by the CIA.)

Since by now most of these intellectuals are battle-scarred old men, it is a little difficult to convey to a newer generation just how fierce the battle, rightly described by Raymond Aron, a founding father, as a 'genuine struggle for the minds and hearts of mankind', had been: against the ludicrous subversions of the truth practised, with the collaboration of the media and the academics by Sartre, Brecht, Chomsky et al. A lot of people with good minds had believed in a utopia that never was, the results of whose collaboration were all around us in Berlin: in the form of Russian divisions skulking in their barracks a few miles away, degraded buildings and degraded apparatchiki, a number of whom participated penitently.

It had taken him 40 years, Gunther Schabowsky, the former East Berlin party boss, said, to realise that the system for which he worked so assiduously was a false one. But, like many, he had worked for it because it gave him opportunity and privilege. More honest was Vladimir Bukovsky, a genuine hero of the struggle, a leading dissident currently at Cambridge, who said that neither he nor anyone had really ever believed in it. 'Communism is such a stupid system that even at 14 that was obvious. Only intellectuals had a hard time understanding.' And how could anyone have believed? It made no sense - in human terms. As Richard Pipes, a Harvard historian, put it, it was against everything that makes us human: against religion, against property and against speech.

But, given that celebration was in order, how is it that over this meeting, which could have been as fundamental as that meeting 45 years ago from which Encounter was to grow, there lay a pall that fell when the subject shifted from the past to the present and future?

Part of it is due to the fact that so many participants had dedicated their lives to their roles in the great fight, and, in so doing, had lost their own humanity or sense of themselves as people, and certainly their sense of humour. Another part lay in the inevitable atmosphere of such intellectual conferences. This is a business, nay a profession, for so many of them. They shuffle, weary and complaining, from one venue to another, meeting only each other and lecturing their youngers with fast-dating lessons.

The format - oversized panels in which luminaries trotted out their 'numbers' like the intellectual vaudeville artists they were - did not help. When Joachim Fest, a German poet and writer, made an impassioned attempt to reach the higher ground, he was simply ignored. What everyone wanted to hear was Bernard Levin blowing his own trumpet - and theirs.

There were, of course, flashes of brilliance. Bukovsky suggested, with loathing in his voice, that Gorbachev was 'a Magic Man', a great man; whatever he touched disappeared. The hoary-haired Hugh Trevor-Roper announced that 'old philosophers don't need to be refuted, they die'. The modest and splendid Robert Conquest, principal western historian of Soviet politics, highlighted the illusion by pointing out that 'a dog with rabies is no less dangerous because he might drop dead at any moment'.

The truth is that the conference was supposed not merely to analyse the past, but consider where new threats to freedom lay. Here, I think, with a single exception, few had much to offer. They had been engaged so long in one struggle that with the withering of the enemy there were only irritating targets to shoot at: petty nationalisms (though no nationalism is petty to its nationals), political correctness, feminism, homosexual activism, racial disintegration - the usual targets.

The real enemies of our freedom - a world that abolishes history and rebuilds time into instant gratification, that reduces distinctions to the point where language begins to lose its meaning - were hardly mentioned until Sam Lipman, editor of New Criterion, the distinguished American political magazine, pointed a finger. The real enemy, he said, was instant pop culture and the multimedia multinationals that own and control it. What more sinister and destructive force could be imagined, he asked, than one that intruded into the home, broke the bonds of society and set parents and children to war with each other?

Unfortunately, the conference highlighted a defect long evident in Encounter itself. The dialogue in its pages, fascinating and exciting as it often was, lay between people who dealt with 'ideas'. They were mainly social scientists, analysts of society, political theoreticians, historians. They were, as Lipman cogently pointed out, people who dealt with 'process' not 'content'. Artists, those who created what they studied, and ordinary people, who suffered the indignities of the state, were among the excluded.

No one seemed to see the left-

over Vietnamese squatting on the cold pavements selling cigarettes; no one measured the misery ordinary people have undergone at the hands of a state, or projected super-states such as the European Community, driven by the same social engineers and ideas-men; there was little of the music of life; there were few young people to challenge the drones.

The seniores hogged the psychic space, rambled past their time limits, and blinked peevishly into a blank future. It had been a glorious struggle; the century had defeated two great tyrannies; what was left? In Lipman's words, 'a generation of orphans', alienated by the noise in their ears, crassly made for commercial gain and far more insidious than those tyrannies by seeming so very harmless.