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The death of Melvin Lasky,
editor of Encounter



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

June 9, 2004

LONDON - At the height of Indira Gandhi's "emergency" when democracy, India's most precious asset, was suspended, India's great intellectual, the late Minoo Misani, used the pages of Encounter magazine, the Cold War's "journal de combat", to sound an eloquent clarion call against her misrule. Where else at that time in the English speaking world  was there a better place to sound off against authoritariansm, didacticism and  the paronoia of rulers who, by their petty acts of repression, clearly thought that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword?

Encounter has been dead a dozen years or more, a victim of the end of the Cold War, the resurgence of democracy and liberty and the urge of today's younger readers to forget the old intellectual battles of the past. Two weeks ago, just as the Indian electorate had demonstrated once again its democratic maturity,  the long time editor of Encounter, Melvin Lasky, an 84 year old  American, died in Berlin, the city of his adoption. If he heard the result before he died I know he would have smiled with satisfaction- he had a wicked smile like Lenin whom he physically resembled- and made a telling quip,  probably to the effect that the grave yard of  those who played with religious and ethnic bigotry was filling up.

Encounter was the magazine that gave birth to Nancy Mitford´s  "On English Aristocracy" with its "U´s" and "non-U´s", C.P. Snows's description of the two cultures, and Isaiah Berlin's dazzling evocation of the great age of the Russian intelligensia before the Crimean War.  "Its purpose", wrote George Urban in a memoir, "was simply to reclaim the political heritage of the Enlightenment from the disaster that had befallen it in 1917 and, specifically, to challenge Leninism/Stalinism on its own ground."

Politically where was Encounter? Lasky once answered the question for me.  "We upset Lukacs, angered Brecht, pleased Djilas, elated Pasternak. In the West we broke with Andre Malraux, dropped Dwight McDonald, remained loyal to Gunter Grass, rallied to George Kennan, and thought the cult of  Guevara, Charles Reich and R.D. Lang just too ludicrous." Perhaps that just placed it where the 1950s CIA thought it should channel its money- a scandal, although unresolved, that haunted the magazine until its demise. In London, where it was based, liberal intellectuals publicly derided it but secretly read it, and later on one by one began to write for it.

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They found it difficult to swallow the notion that perhaps it was better that America spent some of its government funds on paper and ink rather than more missiles- and the CIA bankrolled great orchestras too, of which no one speaks. They could not easily acknowledge that in its long time columnist, Goronwy Rees, who I dare to say was the best political commentator of the late twentieth century, it had an ardent voice for civilized,  non confrontational behaviour, even during the darkest days of the Cold War.

If controversy was the weakness of Encounter it was this very weakness that presumably won it friends in high places in Washington. It could not have prospered if Washington and  numerous private American benefactors had been more narrowly zealous or single-minded. Perhaps, too, was the urge to batter the left with its own stupidities. Not content merely to analyze, Encounter polemicized. And sympathetic articles on Malcolm X (by this writer) or Frantz Fanon have to be weighed against the over frequent italicized boxes that revealed the editor's strong feelings for the latest nastiness of the Black Panthers , the European students of the ´68 generation, the Labor party of the 1980s, the unions and always Jean-Paul Sartre.

Encounter struggled financially. Lasky's friend, the sovietologist, Leo Labedz, blamed it on a "deteriorating elite" - the inability of modern man to read anything longer than a couple of thousand words. Lasky reminded me once that in Erasmus's time a print run of a book was about 2,000 and now it is about the same. An indication, he said, that intellectual growth over the last 400 years has not quite amounted to progress. Yet an hour or so later he contradicated himself, a typical Lasky way of conversing,: "A couple of hundred years ago one could in a couple of years read all the influential books there were. Now that is impossible… So our job is to mediate between the really knowledgeable specialists and the general intellectual audience who try to influence the world".

Sadly for him, once Encounter finally ran out of money, he found it hard to acknowledge that that tradition remains alive and well- in Prospect magazine in Britain and the Atlantic Monthly in the U.S., among others. The baton had been passed to a different generation with new interests.

The world of ideas isn't such a bleak place as he sometimes liked to think.



Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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