According to a current study of the politics of the “intellectual elites” in a number of countries, the four journals read most regularly by chairmen of humanities and social-science departments in the major American colleges and universities are the New York Review of Books, COMMENTARY, Partisan Review, and Dissent. An astounding tribute, this, to the apparent influence of the “New York intellectuals,” since all of these journals are unmistakable products of the essentially non-academic New York milieu in which they originated. Of the four, the New York Review has in the seven years of its existence more and more come to be regarded as the most representative voice of that milieu, and indeed of the intellectual community in general, today more than ever concentrated in the academic world. The New York Review is also the most successful of the four, its circulation of close to 100,000 (40 per cent of it concentrated among teachers and graduate students) being about one-and-a-half times larger than that of COMMENTARY, and over ten times that of Dissent and Partisan Review. No other intellectual magazine, not even Partisan Review in its heyday during the late 40’s, has ever achieved so widespread an acceptance in America or the prestige that goes with such acceptance.
Initially, the New York Review embodied the mood and concerns of the New York intellectual community at the end of the 50’s. Its original aim was to communicate the style, critical standards, intellectual seriousness, and sophisticated liberalism of this world to a larger audience than that reached by COMMENTARY, Partisan Review, or Dissent. All three of the latter journals had been created between the late 30’s and the middle 50’s, and expressed in different ways the literary, political, and social concerns of the febrile, omnivorous, and argumentative New York intelligentsia. But Dissent was primarily political, striving to keep alive the sobered, anti-Stalinist socialist convictions of its editors; Partisan Review had become increasingly a journal of academic literary criticism; and COMMENTARY maintained a central interest in Jewish affairs. The editors of the NYR wished to avoid the limits on readership inevitably imposed by these specialized interests in order to compete effectively with such journals as the New York Times Book Review and the Saturday Review, long the most widely-read book-reviewing media, whose genial commercialism made them vulnerable to a more “advanced” and critically rigorous rival.
Launched in February 1963 at the time of a New York newspaper strike, which guaranteed it maximum attention, the NYR drew most of the contributors to its early issues from the New York intellectual “family” (as Norman Podhoretz has called it), including the founding editors of both Partisan Review and Dissent, several former editors of COMMENTARY, and an assemblage of poets, writers, and social commentators whose work had first appeared, or first been publicized, in these magazines. One reader, responding to the demonstration issue of the NYR, wrote a witty letter to the paper spoofing the ingrown professional, intellectual, and even marital and kinship ties shared by the editors, contributors, and authors of the books selected for review. “Partisan Review on butcher paper,” someone jibed in the first few months of the new paper’s existence.
But this initial coterie flavor was soon partially overcome. The NYR began to feature big literary “names” from outside the mental environs of New York—W. H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Muggeridge—and a growing number of its contributors were English: the Times Literary Supplement seemed to have become its model, rather than a more accessible Partisan Review for the growing academic legions. The reliance on English writers and scholars has remained evident to the present time, although with the politicization of the NYR it now resembles the New Statesman of the Kingsley Martin years more closely than the TLS. In fact, seven of the eleven contributors to the most recent issue before me as I write are English, although, significantly, the three pieces dealing with contemporary politics are by Americans.
The New York intellectuals were, of course, largely critics or creators of literature and the arts, or political journalists, most of them one-time radical ideologues. Their number included a few professors, mainly men who had found berths on the faculties of institutions in or near New York City. The NYR soon revealed a greater breadth and catholicity in the range of ideas and scholarship it dealt with than the journals with which so many of its editors and contributors had previously been associated, reflecting the expansion of higher education in the 60’s and the continuing trend toward the centering of both critical and creative intellectual life in the university. For all its vigor and brilliance, the old Partisan Review, which served as a kind of graduate school far more exciting than the real one for so many of us, suffered from an often arrogant intellectual parochialism. I remember a friend, a recent PR graduate who had just joined the faculty, as it were, commiserating with me in 1954 over my impending return to my native city to teach at the University of Toronto because he was sure I would have no one to talk to there. (He did, I recall, suggest one possibility: a professor of English named Marshall McLuhan.) To a degree that was never matched by the old Partisan Review, the NYR discusses works of a difficult and technical nature in natural science, the psychology of learning, economics, analytical philosophy, theology, historical scholarship, and several other fields. Nowhere else in America can one acquire as easily as from the NYR’s long essay-reviews such quick and reliable summaries of the state of present knowledge on the causes of the Crusades, developments in contemporary evolutionary theory in biology, the elements of symbolic logic, or current trends in art criticism. No doubt this is a major reason why the editors have turned so often to England for contributors: English scholars have long been much better than Americans at the lucid and intelligent presentation of complex ideas and dense accumulations of knowledge—at the enterprise of haute vulgarisation.
The NYR ‘s coverage of the American cultural scene has also been admirably broad. Back in 1952, Lionel Trilling complained (in Partisan Review) that American intellectuals knew nothing about the training of ministers and social workers, “the practice among the schools of the big cities,” “just what is happening in psychology,” the fate of Freud’s ideas in the hands of the medical profession, or the content of college courses on marriage and sex. Much of this ignorance has been remedied by the NYR—to a fault, one might add, in the case of educational theory and practice, on which Trilling especially dwelled. One unanticipated but by no means unwelcome result has been that few of us today would care to affirm Trilling’s conviction that “the literary mind, more precisely the historical-literary mind, seems to be the best kind of critical and constructive mind that we have, better than the philosophic, better than the theological, better than the scientific and the social-scientific.”
Yet successful as the NYR has been in keeping abreast of the best in contemporary culture and scholarship, its achievement in this regard has been uneven. Apart perhaps from the authors of some of its political essays and journalism—which are to be my main subject here—it is hard to think of a single critic or writer whose reputation rests primarily on what he has published in the NYR, nor indeed of any who have won recognition as a result of the attention they have received in its pages. No doubt a few established reputations have been savaged, and perhaps a few hopeful comers have been shoved back or held down in relative obscurity; but that is another matter. Nearly all of the NYR’s regular contributors are middle-aged or older and were already well-known when the journal was founded; and the same can be said of the majority of the authors they have reviewed. The NYR has launched no promising young writers or critics, nor has it brought to the attention of a wider intellectual public very many established scholars who had not previously contributed to general cultural and intellectual periodicals in England or America. Although there have been drop-outs among the early contributors to the NYR—most of them, one readily surmises, for political reasons—the editors have continued to rely on a dozen or so men who have been regular contributors since the first few years of the journal and who reappear in issue after issue. Similarly the editors have often been spotty and arbitrary in their selection of specialized subject-matter, omitting much that might have been treated—the spreading influence of phenomenology in American philosophy and social science, for instance; or Noam Chomsky’s linguistics as opposed to his political writing; or new approaches to the study of deviance in sociology—to mention only a few examples that come immediately to mind.
These failures need not be seen as evidence of the “cliquishness” and “in-group back-scratching” so often alleged by critics of the NYR. American intellectuals and academics are now more numerous and more widely dispersed across the country than ever before, and their work appears in an enormous variety of journals and publishing outlets. New York still occupies a commanding position in American intellectual life, but to an even lesser extent than in the past is it the headquarters of a national intellectual elite or “Establishment” comparable with London and Paris in English and French culture. Thus a journal with the far-reaching aims of the NYR is bound to fall short of its goals and to inspire rival complaints of catering to a small, localized coterie on the one hand, and of publishing too many big-name writers and foreigners on the other.
In the last few years, however, the political stance of the NYR has lent greater justice to charges of unrepresentativeness. While it is still looked upon as the political voice of the intellectual community, the NYR has become, in effect, a vehicle of what might be called haut New Leftism. Comparisons with Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman are almost unavoidable, or—closer to home but in other ways less apt—with the Nation in the late 30’s and early 40’s when Freda Kirchwey was editor and Margaret Marshall ran “the back of the book.”
One can hardly blame the NYR for turning so sharply toward politics and even active political engagement considering the cultural situation of the 60’s. Politics was where the action was and the editors wanted a piece of the action. I would not go so far as Richard Hofstadter and describe the 60’s as the “Age of Rubbish,” but few new writers emerged during the decade, let alone new culture-heroes for intellectuals, and few new ideas stimulated debate and polemics. In fact, one often observes a split between the cultural and political sides of the NYR: literary products of the swinging “new sensibility” are vigorously criticized—see, for example, the recent dismissal of Kurt Vonnegut and earlier reviews of Andy Warhol and the Living Theater—while silence is maintained toward the more idiotic slogans of the New Left, or they are sympathetically interpreted as expressions of a new “life style” not to be taken too literally—see Stanley Diamond and Edward Nell on the New School sit-in (NYR, June 18, 1970). (Does anyone recall that Max Weber is the source of the term “life style” that has become such a tiresome cliché?) Periods of political turmoil, activism, and uncertainty are not usually marked by intense intellectual creativity. The contrast between the 20’s and the 30’s is comparable with that between the 50’s and the 60’s. The 50’s are now thought of as a dull, sterile, reactionary decade, which to a great extent they were politically, but not necessarily intellectually—the 20’s, after all, were similarly regarded until after World War II. Even the distinctive themes of New Left protest were first advanced in the 50’s by C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, and others, and they have undergone little development or elaboration since—rather the reverse in recent years.
With the exception of the work of the revisionist historians, some of which has been printed and reviewed in the NYR, no body of new scholarship in the humanities and social sciences inspired by the New Left has yet appeared. In my own field, sociology, radicals have largely confined themselves to denunciatory rhetoric directed against Parsonian functionalism, the “end-of-ideology” writers, theories of political and social pluralism, and other points of view ascendant in the 50’s, while extolling as alternatives, but not emulating, the work of Mills and, of all unlikely people, Pitirim Sorokin, both of whom are dead. One recent exception to the emptiness of radical theorizing is Alvin W. Gouldner’s The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, but Gouldner is fifty, his intellectual roots stem from the Old Left, and he is always finding himself compelled to dampen the rhetoric of the younger radicals by reminding them of how much they owe to the very “academic sociology” they excoriate.
Understandably, then, the NYR turned early in its existence to political journalism and commentary. Nine months after it came into being, President Kennedy was assassinated, and the editors made their first major departure from straight book-reviewing in running a symposium on the reactions of leading American intellectuals to his death. Since then we have been overwhelmed by a succession of unanticipated and often unprecedented political events, most of them violent and disastrous: the capture of the Republican party by its extreme Right wing in the 1964 election; the Johnson administration’s intervention in the Dominican Republic and escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965; large-scale rioting in the black ghettos of major American cities between 1965 and 1968; student revolts against the universities led by New Left radicals, from Berkeley in late 1964 through 1970; the insurgent Presidential candidacies of McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, and police attacks on young demonstrators at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968; abroad there was the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and through the entire last half of the decade the miserable, endless war in Vietnam arousing an equally endless succession of protests and demonstrations against it by the Left. Small wonder that the NYR has turned increasingly to essays and reporting on these events which have so shadowed our lives, advertised them in large colored type on its cover, along with David Levine’s hideous caricatures of politicians, and featured them prominently within the journal, often as the lead articles or as “special supplements.”
Vietnam became, and remains, the most frequent subject of the NYR’s political journalism. In attacking forthrightly the deepening American involvement in the spring of 1965, the NYR undoubtedly helped to mobilize intellectuals against the war, especially through the reports on Vietnam itself by Jean Lacouture and the late Bernard Fall, and on policy formation in Washington by Hans J. Morgenthau, Joseph Kraft, and Theodore Draper (all of whom, to be sure, were writing on Vietnam in other magazines, including of course COMMENTARY, as well). From the time of the ill-fated White House Arts Festival in the spring of 1965, the NYR also rallied leading writers and intellectuals to engage in active protest against the war through petitions, demonstrations, and campaigns of civil disobedience.
But by 1966 and 1967 a new tone of extravagant, querulous, self-righteous anti-Americanism began to creep into the NYR’s reports on Vietnam, especially those of Noam Chomsky, Mary McCarthy, and I. F. Stone. The war seemed increasingly to provide the occasion for an extreme and bitter repudiation, marked by an unmistakable touch of Schadenfreude, of a great deal more in American life than the Johnson administration’s foreign policy, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and the wretched clichés of cold-war propaganda. An especially bizarre sign of the direction in which the paper was moving was the publication in the summer of 1966 of a long supplement by Richard Pop-kin attacking the Warren Report and advancing an ingenious but far-fetched theory of a successful conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. For a couple of issues the letters columns were virtually taken over by the then-active Kennedy assassination “buffs,” each advancing his own—often sound—criticisms of the Warren Report and advocating his preferred version of a right-wing conspiracy. In the fall of 1967, the NYR featured an article by Popkin entitled “The Case for Garrison.” But since the total collapse of James Garrison’s case in a New Orleans courtroom, the NYR has dropped the entire subject of the assassination, perhaps because so many of its readers no longer require persuasion by rational argument of the possibility of a politics of conspiracy and murder in the United States.
The NYR‘s short-lived concern with conspiracy theories of John Kennedy’s assassination may, however, be of more than merely symptomatic significance. It has become a journalistic platitude to date the internal troubles of the present—the loss of confidence in American institutions and the spreading tolerance of incivility and violence—to the impact of the assassination on the American people. This, I think, is largely sentimental nonsense, but it has truly been an extraordinary piece of bad luck that the United States should have suffered at this historical moment the successive Presidencies of two such men as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of them “accidental” Presidents, the latter on the—sound, I believe—assumption that Robert Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination and the 1968 election had he too not been assassinated. I remember predicting in a gloomy mood back in the 50’s that the 1960 Presidential election might confront us with an impossible choice between Nixon and Johnson, but never, even at my most pessimistic, could I or anyone have foreseen that we would get both of them in succession.
In any case, I recall a conversation a few months after President Kennedy’s death with a well-known New York intellectual who was then on intimate terms with the NYR editors and their immediate circle, although he has since broken with them on political grounds. He expressed vehement indignation at the popular idea that European-style political assassinations simply did not and could not occur in America, that it was so quickly and easily taken for granted that the deed must be that of a lone psychotic. Why does no one even think of asking “cui bono,” he insisted, and at least suggested the most obvious answer—the Vice President and his allies? I sympathized with his argument, though doubting its relevance to the actual facts of the President’s murder of which, to be sure, he took an admittedly speculative view.
This incident indicates the mood of disbelief in the pieties of official America prevalent among intellectuals in the early 60’s, a mood which was as yet lacking any definite focus. The Vietnam war provided the focus. Nearly a decade later, there is a sense in which the entire experience of the 60’s can be seen as the belated Europeanization of American politics: the emergence of a large, disaffected left-wing intelligentsia in league with a rebellious student movement; an ominous increase in the autonomy and political initiative of the military and the police; a sharpening of divisive ethnic emotions sparked by the long-overdue assertiveness of the Negroes; and an atmosphere of heightened, violence-prone ideological conflict. These developments scarcely hold the society totally in their grip—American democracy is still much more stable than Weimar Germany or even the Third and Fourth French Republics—but they are unlikely now to be entirely effaced or reversed by the ending of the Vietnam war or the easing of racial tensions.
The NYR turned unmistakably toward the New Left in the closing months of 1966 and throughout 1967. In September 1966 the editors gave top billing on the cover to an article by Stokely Carmichael attacking “white liberals,” demanding to know whether they were “capable of the shame which might become a revolutionary emotion,” and referring in passing to the “exploitation [of blacks] by Jewish landlords and merchants.” This was Carmichael’s only appearance in the NYR and could be dismissed as no more than a cashing in on the publicity value of a newsworthy personality, for Carmichael was the creator of the new slogan “black power.” But in the next few months regular contributors began to move beyond the Vietnam war to reject a wider range of liberal attitudes and spokesmen: Christopher Lasch criticized contemporary liberal anti-Communist views of the 30’s, and I. F. Stone in a three-part series reviewed the flawed record of Senator Fulbright, then emerging as the leading dove in Washington. In February 1967 Noam Chomsky appeared for the first time with his now-famous address, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in which he blamed the war not only on liberal intellectuals like Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy who were policymakers in the Johnson administration, but also on—among others—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Daniel Bell, both critics of the war and one-time contributors to the NYR itself.
One is tempted to regard Jason Epstein’s essay “The CIA and the Intellectuals” (NYR, April 20, 1967) as a turning-point in the relation of the NYR to the New York intellectual milieu out of which it grew, if only as an explicit statement of the direction in which the paper was already tending. (This article in part inspired COMMENTARY’s 1967 symposium on “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited.”) Epstein began by describing the political boundaries of the New York intelligentsia in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Essentially the same story has been told by Norman Podhoretz in Making It and by Irving Howe in “The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique” (COMMENTARY, October 1968), and the “future Proust of Manhattan’s Upper West Side” foreseen by Epstein will find all three accounts invaluable primary sources, including the different perspectives from which their authors look back upon their experience. The main purpose of Epstein’s account, however, was political rather than historical like Howe’s or biographical like Podhoretz’s. His aim was to show how the anti-Stalinism which was the common heritage of the New York intellectuals led some of their number to so close an identification with American cold-war policies that they were ready and willing to serve unquestioningly as spokesmen for American democracy at conferences of intellectuals abroad and in foreign publications subsidized by the CIA.
Politically, the point of Epstein’s essay was to extol the position of the Left faction that had begun to emerge within the New York intelligentsia in the late 50’s as against the Right faction for whom “the ghost of Stalin, already an ember in his obscure grave, was still more present than the flesh and blood of America’s increasingly arrogant and aggrandizing recklessness.” Epstein proclaimed, in fact, the historical vindication of the Left faction as a result of the urban crisis in the United States, by an America which he accused of “fouling its landscapes, poisoning the streams and skies, trivializing the education of its children,” and, most of all, by the war in Vietnam and the revelations of CIA funding of cultural projects that were the occasion for his article. (Oddly, he scarcely mentioned the plight of the blacks.) If “it seemed absurd fifteen years ago to dismiss the threat of Soviet aggression,” this was no longer the case, and the corrupting influence of the CIA possessed the same significance for contemporary intellectuals that the Communist party had had for an earlier generation, while the moral repulsiveness of the Vietnam war could be similarly equated with that of Stalinism.
Epstein carefully avoided any assessment of differences in the objective historical importance of these two sets of events, but—as I shall indicate later—he came close to the truth in endowing them with equal significance in the experience of American intellectuals. His indictment of America was marked by the anti-bourgeois, aesthetic overtones characteristic of a certain literary tradition, as in his stress on the ugliness and pollution of the environment, the inadequacies of education, and the crassness of “familiar philistine expansionism” as “the middle class grunted its way upward.” Reading Epstein’s article at the time of its appearance three years ago, one wondered where the logic of its anti-Americanism would lead him—and the NYR. His own reaction to a famous article by Irving Kristol which seemed to “carry the logic of anti-Stalinism to its utmost point” was apposite. One felt impelled to ask Epstein and the NYR, as he reported he had once been moved to wonder about the anti-Stalinism of Kristol and his supporters, whether there were any consequences of the current “radicalization” of the young and the intellectuals “which he or they might ultimately find intolerable.” Epstein’s conclusion that this “was an interesting question and one still awaits the answer” is no less appropriate to the anti-Americanism of the 60’s than it was to the anti-Communism of the 50’s.
Certainly in the months following the publication of Epstein’s article there seemed to be few if any manifestations of contemporary radicalism that the NYR was not prepared to tolerate. It was as if Chomsky’s jeremiads against the experts and “policy scientists” in the universities, on the one hand, and Epstein’s repudiation of the past positions of the New York highbrows, on the other, had removed all barriers, released all inhibitions. In the spring of 1967 Andrew Kop-kind, a young journalist previously associated with Time and then the New Republic, began to write regularly for the NYR, urging his readers to reject the “illusions of reform” offered by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, warning that Kennedy was becoming a “cult hero” with a powerful appeal to “the near-New Left,” and, with a rhetorical display of mock heroics, exhorting left-wing intellectuals to “remain outside” and become a “saving remnant” since Kennedy’s programs “will not remake the society” (NYR, June 1, 1967).
In August of that same year, just after the Newark and Detroit riots, there appeared the famous issue of the NYR with the diagram on the cover showing how to make a Molotov cocktail as a visual accompaniment to the announcement of articles by Kopkind and Tom Hayden on the theme of “Violence and the Negro.” The drawing has often been regarded as a put-on, a Dadaist jeu, but turning the page one finds that the opening words of the issue are: “The Movement is dead; the Revolution is unborn. The streets are bloody and ablaze. . . .” Their author was Kopkind, ostensibly reviewing a book by Martin Luther King whom he proceeded to patronize as an amiable, ineffectual, do-gooding relic of the past. Kopkind went on to announce with obvious satisfaction that “it is not a time for reflection, but for evocation. The responsibility of the intellectual is the same as that of the street organizer, the draft resister, the Digger: to talk to people, not about them. The important literature now is the underground press, the speeches of Malcolm, the works of Fanon, the songs of the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin . . . the duty of a revolutionary is to make revolutions . . . and King made none.” A few paragraphs later he declared that “Morality, like politics, starts at the barrel of a gun”—perhaps the most offensive and offending sentence ever to have appeared in the NYR. With the issue of August 24, 1967 the NYR had in four years come a long way from its beginnings as an organ of high culture and liberal humanism.
The NYR did not, however, subsequently become an extension of the underground press. The Molotov cocktail drawing and Kopkind’s characterization of morality drew wide criticism, much of it voiced in the NYR’s own letters columns. The suggestions of “Might is right” and “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver” in Kopkind’s statement did not escape notice. His phrase might have attracted less attention if, instead of echoing Mao, he had merely quoted Thrasymachus’s “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” which is literally what he meant, though his disdain for King’s ethic of nonviolence and his lyrical exultation over the revolutionary potential of the riots, in sharp contrast to Hayden’s more realistic first-hand appraisal in the same issue, carried more sinister implications of advocacy. In any case, one detected a certain drawing back from total and open identification with the revolutionary romanticism of the New Left in later issues of the NYR. Like Stokely Carmichael before him, Hayden disappeared from the paper, though a year-and-a-half later the NYR printed a self-indulgent tirade by Jerry Rubin, apparently following a policy of occasionally publishing bombastic pronouncements by New Left “activists” popular on the campus while continuing to rely on older, established intellectual figures for the bulk of its political reporting. (Credit should be given where credit is due, and the NYR deserves some for, unlike Partisan Review, never having opened its pages to those two doyens of swinging radical journalism, Jack Newfield and Nat Hentoff.) Even Kopkind, after contributing a double-talking apologia for the comic opera New Politics Conference in Chicago in the fall of 1967, ceased to write as often for the NYR thereafter.
But the NYR in no sense retreated from its previous political line in choosing to present it in more nuanced and discriminating versions. In October 1967 Philip Rahv compared an anthology from Dissent edited by Irving Howe with a book by two New Left spokesmen as differing expressions of American radicalism. Quoting approvingly Kopkind’s earlier strictures on King, he was critical of “the used-up formulas of the Old Left as exemplified by [Michael] Harrington and Howe, who are obviously drifting toward Social-Democratic positions of a specifically American sort.” Howe replied a month later, and the readers of the NYR were treated to the spectacle of a full-scale debate replete with the old marxistical fire and dash between a founding editor of Partisan Review and a founding editor of Dissent, which, like Dwight Macdonald’s Politics a decade earlier, had been created in the early 50’s to reaffirm the socialist outlook increasingly abandoned by Partisan Review during World War II and the subsequent cold war. Now Rahv was attacking from the Left, and Howe quoted back at him his past political pronouncements while Rahv retaliated in kind. Howe jibed at the fashionable radicalism of the NYR and pointed out that, despite Rahv s revival of a familiar Marxist vocabulary, he himself expressed his disbelief in the revolutionary possibilities of the proletariat or any of the favored New Left candidates for its traditional mission, which reduced his radicalism to nothing more than a species of attitudinizing.
There have been few political confrontations such as this one in the NYR. If its cultural range has been wider than that of the old Partisan Review, it has failed to provide anything like the exchanges among Sidney Hook, Dwight Macdonald, James Burnham, and the editors, Rahv and William Phillips, which were a mainstay of the old PR. These debates often seemed interminable, hairsplitting, and entered into with a polemical fervor out of proportion to the issues dividing the participants, but they provided an education in theory and the nature of political argument for which the journalism of the NYR, let alone the self-preening moralism of some of its political writers, is no substitute.
After the exchange with Rahv, Irving Howe appeared only once more in the NYR with a pro-McCarthy statement in the spring of 1968 when the NYR shifted back briefly to a more ecumenical mood in response to the Presidential candidacies of McCarthy and Kennedy. After having later in the year enlarged in COMMENTARY upon some of the criticisms of the NYR itself he had first made in the exchange with Rahv, Howe was dropped altogether as a contributor, although he had previously been one of the NYR’s most frequent critics of the Vietnam war and a leading strategist of the protest movement against it.
The division, to which the dropping of Howe pointed, between the NYR and its former friends of the Old Left was deepened by its treatment of two local New York City events in 1968: the Columbia student revolt in the spring, and the teachers’ strike in the fall arising out of the dispute between the teachers’ union and the governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. In the course of several heated exchanges Dwight Macdonald mustered his polemical skills in support of the students in the one conflict and the local school board in the other—although, especially with regard to Columbia where he was on the defensive, his famous talent for the witty deflation of cant seemed to wear a little thin, degenerating into mere flippancy and feeble late Shavian frivolity. The NYR’s general coverage of Columbia, however, in well-informed articles by F. W. Dupee and Allan Silver, was more valuable, despite the fact that the paper did not report the more destructive and violent currents already evident in the student movement (an omission in its coverage of campus disturbances which had become altogether characteristic by 1970).
The school strike posed even more abrasive issues in pitting traditionally liberal forces against each other: trade unions and a large segment of the Jewish community on one side, spokesmen for ghetto blacks and educational reformers on the other. Ocean Hill grew into such a mountain—or ocean—of briefs and counter-briefs, motive-mongering and imputations of conspiracy, that no short summary of the conflict is possible. Whatever the whole truth may have been about the complex issues involved in the school strike, the NYR’s commentators stood squarely for community control, decentralization, and the colonialist view of the blacks in the city slums, and minimized the importance of the anti-Semitism of some black leaders, displaying an insensitivity to specifically Jewish interests on this, as on other matters, which has been so marked as to suggest calculated indifference. In short, the NYR treatment of the Ocean Hill controversy, though argued in specific and sometimes convincing empirical terms, was supportive in general of New Left sentiments on trade unions, black power, public bureaucracies, official liberalism, and—implicitly—the concerns of Jews.
In the past two years the NYR’s political outlook has not only remained the same but has become thoroughly predictable. On Vietnam and Indochina the editors have relied more and more exclusively on Chomsky’s long, heavily documented exposés of American misdeeds in which enormously detailed descriptions of local situations in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia are interspersed with far-reaching generalizations and sweeping, unqualified declarations of the total moral corruption of American policymakers and those scholars and intellectuals who maintain any sort of advisory relation to them. I. F. Stone continues month after month to record the efforts of Pentagon officials to expand the arms budget and undermine all disarmament negotiations. There have been long accounts, sympathetic to the protesters, of campus disturbances and demonstrations where police provocation has played a major role, as at Berkeley and the State University of New York at Buffalo, or where students, faculty, and even administrators have presented the appearance of unity, as at Yale and Princeton, but silence has been preserved on institutions such as Harvard, Cornell, and Wisconsin where radical or black students have taken actions for ephemeral reasons with divisive effects on the rest of the student body and the faculty. Murray Kempton has been a kind of roving reporter for the NYR, covering Washington demonstrations, the Black Panthers, the Mafia, and sundry other topics with his typical mixture of Weltschmerz, heavy irony, and the arrogance of proclaimed humility.
The journalism often consists of personal evocations of the scene in Hanoi or Washington or Oakland, more disciplined and less self-indulgent than the kind of piece that appears in the Village Voice, just as the muckraking is less strident and defamatory than similar material that appears in Ramparts. But there is little theoretical analysis or ideological statement going beyond simple moral assertion. No doubt this is by design, for the editors appear to be shrewd judge’s of their heterogeneous constituency. Having participated, moreover, in one major change in the political temper of the university and intellectual communities, they are careful not to climb too far out on a limb against the possibility of yet another. Campus and black radicals are thrown the odd sop in the occasional publication of a message or exhortation from Carmichael, Hayden, Rubin, Michael Rossman from jail, or, most recently, Daniel Berrigan from “the American Underground.” But the NYR continues to publish the old Weimarians—Hannah Arendt, Walter Z. Laqueur, George Lichtheim, and Hans J. Morgenthau—to whom so many of us owe a debt for our awareness that politics is fate and that the density of history surrounds all our present acts and choices. They have also published valuable essays on American society and the university, critical of both contemporary radicalism and official liberalism. Yet these efforts invariably come from writers—such as Paul Goodman, Barrington Moore, Jr., Eugene Genovese, Christopher Lasch, and Robert Heilbroner—who were identified with the New Left in the past and are still widely perceived on the campus as “radicals” and sympathizers of “the Movement.” With the exception of an occasional eminence like Lichtheim or Theodore Draper, writers and scholars, whether liberal, conservative, or socialist, who have been outspokenly critical of the New Left in other periodicals or who have prominently opposed the NYR’s position on particularly sensitive issues like the New York school strike or the Berkeley and Columbia revolts, no longer appear in the journal, although their number includes many former contributors.
Some rough statistics are in order: of the 43 contributors to the extra-large first issue, 21 of the Americans, whatever their primary disciplines, write frequently on political and social subjects (I have omitted from this total one NYR editor and one contributor who died soon afterward). If we drop six names that no longer appear in the NYR for reasons almost certainly having nothing to do with politics (Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag are among them), we are left with a list of 15. Eight of these, or more than half, have not published in the NYR over the past three years or more. All of them have been critics of the New Left and of student radicals and have written for journals (like this one) that have featured such criticism.1 Another test: of 11 American contributors (omitting two who wrote for the NYR only on this single occasion) to the NYR’s symposium on John Kennedy’s assassination, the journal’s first break with printing anything but ostensible book reviews, seven no longer appear in its pages, all having elsewhere criticized political positions favored by the editors.2
The political subjects the editors choose to deal with in articles, as well as those they do not, reveal considerable canniness, which extends, though much less consistently, to their choice of books for review. Their coverage of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia was adequate, although they did not discuss the liberalization under Dubcek until after the Soviet invasion. While I have no sympathy at all with people who complain that radicals should balance every negative judgment of the United States with a comparable criticism of the Communist countries—after all, America is where they live—I find it equally unnecessary for Ronald Steel to spend several opening paragraphs of a report from Prague drawing parallels between American in terventions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and the Soviet suppression of Czech freedom (NYR, September 26, 1968). The NYR has, of course, avoided the fatuity, not to say blasphemy, of mentioning Chicago in the same breath with the Nazi camps and the Soviet purges, a standard rhetorical equation in much of the radical press. But except for Czechoslovakia, the NYR has paid little attention to Eastern Europe, even though, despite the New Left mystique of Third World figures like Mao, Ho, Fidel, and Che, the experience of Sovietized Europe suggests more lessons with some application to industrial societies than that of any of the underdeveloped countries. (I am in total accord with such NYR writers as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Christopher Lasch on the irrelevance as a model for our domestic politics of the entire Third World.)
The NYR has actually printed only one discussion of the Middle East crisis. That was a review by I. F. Stone just after the Six-Day War (NYR, August 3, 1967) sharply critical of the Israeli position, which evoked a vigorous response from those who remembered that Stone had once held quite different views of Israel back in 1948 when the state was established with strong Russian support, and when Stone was a Stalinist fellow-traveler (though it’s considered dirty pool to recall such things today). Since then silence has reigned in the NYR on the subject of Arab-Israeli relations. Chomsky writes voluminously on Southeast Asia, but expresses himself on the Middle East in other journals where he argues an anti-Zionist point of view sympathetic to the claims of Al Fatah and the Palestinian Arab nationalists. In fact, no fewer than nine contributors to the NYR are listed among the 24 sponsors of the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East, the first action of which was to organize a speaking tour for a leader of the tiny Israeli Maoist group, who characterized Israel as a “National Socialist” (i.e., Nazi) state guilty of racism and imperialism and advocated its dissolution. Since the New Left student groups and the black militants are fervidly pro-Arab, while a larger segment of the liberal-left academic world still supports Israel, one suspects that the NYR editors find it politic to avoid the subject.
The letters columns of the NYR in the last few years reveal the extent to which the journal has become a communications center for Left initiatives and the airing of the complaints of self-styled victims of “repression” in the universities. Nearly every issue contains a petition or letter of protest with multiple signers, ranging from appeals for funds to support the trial costs of war resisters, to demands by a group of old CP members and fellow-travelers for American recognition of the Ulbricht regime. The NYR, wisely from its standpoint, did not report on the debacle at San Francisco State, but its letters columns have been full of bitter exchanges between present and former faculty members over alleged violations of academic freedom, “racist” hiring policies, and the like. One member of the embattled history department—not, one supposes, a card-carrying “fascist racist” since he writes for the Nation—remarked resignedly: “I recognize the futility of trying to set the record straight in a periodical dedicated to the proposition that nothing is as it appears to be. . . .” (NYR, December 4, 1969). A departmental crisis in another university, which is still the subject of controversy and vehement radical manifestoes in two countries, was precipitated by an advertisement placed in the NYR seeking applicants for a department with a “radical orientation” (NYR, March 15, 1969).
Since the New Left and “the Movement” amount essentially to a mood and a rhetoric embracing a wide variety of causes and often minuscule organizations frequently in conflict with one another, the editors of the NYR are able to cater to it without burning their bridges to the larger liberal-left intellectual world from which most of their readers are inevitably drawn. The present situation differs from that of the 30’s and 40’s when a left-wing journal could scarcely avoid an unambiguous stand in relation to the CP and Stalinist Russia. Thus the main component of the NYR’s political line is a pervasive anti-Americanism that draws almost as freely on aristocratic, conservative traditions as on neo-Marxist, anarchist, and populist sources. Culturally, the NYR remains pretty much what it has always been. Since to cherish the proper Left sentiments leads to no crucial test in action such as submitting to the discipline of a Communist party and embracing its cultural philistinism, the NYR is able in the present climate of opinion to have the best of both worlds. Hence the echoes of the symbiotic relation between latter-day Bloomsbury and fellow-traveling politics in Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman of the 30’s.
One example of a quasi-political theme that serves all these diverse purposes is the demonism of technology. If New Left radicals go in for much “shopping around for ‘ersatz’ proletariats,” in Philip Rahv’s words, a number of NYR writers seek to define the technical and scientific intelligentsia as a stratum of “technocrats” constituting a new bourgeoisie or ruling class. Chomsky’s attack on the “new mandarins” is one of the best-known instances of this tendency. But the fullest expression of the attitudes of the school can be found in a NYR special supplement by John McDermott entitled “Technology: the Opiate of the Intellectuals” (NYR, July 31, 1969). Blaming technology for defacing nature, fostering a new elitism, dehumanizing men, and subordinating social life to the demands of what Karl Mannheim called “functional rationality” is as old as the Industrial Revolution itself. But until fairly recently such evaluations were more commonly found on the Right, among romantic reactionaries, than on the Left.
McDermott never gets around to defining very precisely what he means by technology, though he complains that other people’s definitions are too “abstract,” but he insists that its demands require not only material inventions but “institutional innovation” as well. It is hard to see why institutional innovation, or the general principle of laissez innover which McDermott attributes to enthusiasts for technology, should be regarded as in themselves so sinister. Institutional innovation is surely the objective of the Left—McDermott himself calls for the “radical reconstruction” of American life. Predictably, his major example of technological determinism is the computer selection of bombing targets in Vietnam. “Not one person in a hundred,” he complains, “is even aware of, much less understands, the nature of technologically highly advanced systems such as are used in the Vietnam bombing program.” Technology, therefore, creates an elite with a special language of its own which the masses cannot understand and this brings about “a decline in one of the essentials of democracy.” Would McDermott, then, suppress science, which long ago divided into specialisms that are often as incomprehensible to each other as to the proverbial “man in the street” he invokes? And why stop there? How many of the non-scientific articles and reviews published in the New York Review reflect and create a “political and cultural gap between the upper and lower ends of American society”? The Catonist implications of this kind of populism should be obvious.
But McDermott is primarily interested in identifying “technology’s leading classes” whose expertise enables them to control the “technological systems” which are also hierarchical social organizations, non-egalitarian meritocracies. Here his concepts become as vague and rubbery as those of most of the writers who have previously tried to cope with this subject. He fails at the outset to distinguish between technology and bureaucracy, apparently not having read Max Weber. He also blurs the distinction between technical and bureaucratic “decision-makers,” on the one hand, and political powerholders, on the other. Here again Max Weber would have proved helpful, especially his writings on parliament and bureaucracy in Germany. The technical elite McDermott invokes as an anti-democratic bogey is expanded to include Presidents Johnson and Nixon and their advisers, “out-of office Kennedyites,” the senior (but not the junior) faculty in the universities, and such alleged ideologists of the technological demiurge as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Daniel Bell, and Herman Kahn—simplifying in other words, most of the people toward whom the contemporary radical is expected to feel proper indignation.
The various conceptions of an “educational and scientific elite,” or a “New Class,” put forward by such writers as Galbraith, Bazelon, and Heil-broner are not very satisfactory either; these writers view the new elite benignly and endow it with some of the qualities of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, seeing it as an outgrowth of the former, ready to assume the historical role of creating a more rational, post-capitalist society which Marx assigned to the latter. McDermott, Chomsky, and the anti-technocrats usually present little more than a negative mirror-image of these formulations in the service of a vague populist egalitarianism. Moreover, many of the strains in today’s youth culture which have shaped the ethos of the New Left actually increase the likelihood of a society in which, in the words of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler, “an oligarchy of technicians, engineers, the men who ran the grand machines . . . would come to govern vast slums filled with bohemian adolescents, narcotized, beflowered and ‘whole.’”
Perhaps the two writers most representative of the NYR’s outlook are Noam Chomsky on specifically political matters and Edgar Z. Friedenberg as a wide-ranging social critic. I have written elsewhere on Chomsky and shall try to avoid repeating myself.3 His most marked trait is to appear to deduce an extreme and harsh moral-political judgment of the United States from the premises of an intensive description of a highly particular and local situation which, however selective his documentation, can by no stretch of logic support his conclusion. In American Power and the New Mandarins (most of which first appeared in the NYR), Chomsky was unable to arrive at a definitive and unequivocal answer as to why the United States became embroiled in the Vietnam war in the first place beyond the longstanding criminality and rapacity he ascribes to American leaders and their intellectual advisers. More recently, he has suddenly discovered that the “controlling assumption” behind U.S. misadventures in Southeast Asia is the desire to maintain Vietnam as a market for Japan (NYR, January 1, 1970; NYR, June 4, 1970). Chomsky continually makes huge leaps from highly specific contemporary events in Indochina to unqualified accusations of vicious, arrogant, racist treatment of other peoples by the United States, which has allegedly dominated an unchanging American character throughout the nation’s history, beginning with the massacres of Indians in colonial Massachusetts for which Cotton Mather provided religious-moral justifications, just as Walt Rostow, Samuel Huntington, and Ithiel de Sola Pool have been ideological apologists for the Vietnam war.
The very title of Chomsky’s forthcoming book, At War with Asia, is an exaggeration. When Richard Nixon recently commented that those who question the domino theory “haven’t talked to the dominoes,” his remark was greeted with derision and indignation by the left-liberal press. Though it was specious as a reason for continuing the war, Nixon had a point concerning the maintenance of an American “presence” in Vietnam. Chomsky favors, of course, the total, unilateral withdrawal of American troops, yet in all his voluminous writings on Indochina I cannot recall any mention of the views of the leaders of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, or Burma, not to speak of India and Japan. (He does mention the governments of Thailand and the Philippines, but only to dismiss them as virtual American puppets.)
For all their display of the apparatus of careful scholarship, it is hard to see how anyone but the already persuaded could take Chomsky’s articles seriously any longer, or even bother to read them for that matter. Reality, even the reality of the misbegotten war in Vietnam, just could not be that mechanically consistent. Chomsky is an ideologist, masquerading sometimes as an up-to-the-minute journalist, sometimes as a scholar, sometimes as a plain-talking intellectual who belongs only—in his own words—to “the party that insists that grass is green,” and his consistency is the result of the fixed, unvarying premises with which he starts.
Edgar Z. Friedenberg is, like Chomsky, given to such extreme and absolute statements imputing evil designs to large numbers of Americans that one is often inclined to dismiss him as simply overwrought. In a recent letter to the NYR (July 23, 1970) he announced, “as Kent State goes, so goes the nation” and described the majority of his fellow-Americans as “honkies.” I confess I am still capable of shock at the spectacle of a Jewish intellectual characterizing the bulk of the citizenry by means of a derisive epithet originally applied to Slavic immigrants and then adopted by Negroes to refer to whites. In the early years of the NYR, Friedenberg, in a piece on Erik Erikson, derided the very possibility that such public figures as Adlai Stevenson, Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Kennedy, Robert Wagner, and, oddly, Leonard Bernstein might serve youth in this “age of the anti-hero” as models for identity “worthy of fidelity and disciplined devotion” (NYR, May 6, 1965). This bothered me a little at the time, not because I was an unbounded admirer of any of the men mentioned, but because it reminded me of Saul Bellow’s (or Augie March’s) wise rejection of “the opinion of students who, at all ages, feel their boyishness when they confront the past” and conclude that “we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings, beings of a different kind from times better and stronger than ours.” Recently, Friedenberg appears to have discovered contemporaries “of noble intent” possessing a renewed “vision of excellence” in—Abbie Hoffman and David Dellinger (NYR, June 4, 1970).
But although he shares the fashionable technophobia and juvenophilia of other NYR writers, Friedenberg’s outlook has greater unity and coherence. The “public world” and its leading figures are his primary targets and he does not hesitate to voice bluntly and straightforwardly his distaste for the traditional democratic and egalitarian sentiments of the American credo, giving expression to a cultural and spiritual elitism that is usually carefully muted in other NYR writers. Speaking more in the accents of the “new conservatism” of the 50’s than in those of the New Left (but of course the two tendencies have more in common and are far more compatible than a superficial glance would suggest) he sees democracy and equality, along with technology, as the source of the defects in the American character and American life, in particular of the violence and vindictiveness with which, in his view, blacks, educated youth, and those spiritual aristocrats, adolescents, are treated. Friedenberg is given to citing with approval Tocqueville on the “tyranny of the majority,” Weber’s most elitist characterizations of democratic government, Henry Adams, and such contemporary religio-conservative writers as Jacques Ellul and George Grant, a Canadian philosopher who is a follower of Leo Strauss.4 All this may seem to blend rather strangely with Friedenberg’s admiration for the youth culture and his status as a campus hero (he was the choice of radical students for the presidency of City College), but there is certainly nothing inherently objectionable in it—it seems a pity, in fact, that such hard-headed critiques of Enlightenment pieties, which deserve serious consideration, should most recently have been popularized among American intellectuals in connection with polemics against soft-on-Communist liberalism in the 1950’s.
But Friedenberg’s less theoretical diatribes against contemporary America, as in the letter previously cited, and many of his concrete observations, strike a more disturbing note. For example, he recently remarked that American racism and xenophobia are partly reactions against “egalitarian ideology” and that “social stratification” is preferable to “genocide”: “In pre-industrial Southern towns and cities there were no black ghettos and no need for them—racial caste provided a more than adequate substitute for racial segregation and the presence of black residents was not perceived by whites as a threat to the neighborhood” (NYR, June 4, 1970). One recalls that Friedenberg grew up in Louisiana and is grateful that he stops short of using the same argument to justify slavery, as others have done often enough in the past. Friedenberg also complains of “the unwillingness or inability of high-status adults to protect themselves and especially their children from harassment and constraints by lower-status sentinels hired for the purpose. As the roster of major public officials, general officers and diplomats, whose children are busted for pot or protest grows, no one . . . wonders why a ruling class should shamefacedly define its own children as completely vulnerable to constraint by their putative status inferiors.” My first reaction to this surprising statement is to imagine the howl that would be raised not only by those Friedenberg calls “honkies” but by his own black and New Left happy few, if evidence were to come to light that the Cahills, Samuelses, Shrivers, or Kennedys had indeed acted to shield their children in the manner he suggests. Friedenberg is truly the advocate of special privileges for gilded youth, confirming current working-class and lower-middle-class suspicions that campus protesters and suburban hippies are a pampered elite. He simply fails to consider that a principled belief in equality before the law—however questionable the particular law at issue—rather than expediency or spinelessness might influence the conduct of public officials whose children are in trouble with the police.
Friedenberg’s views, however curious to find them coming from a writer identified with the Left, are at least expressed vigorously and directly. The elitism and cultural snobbery of other NYR writers are usually a matter of tone and passing allusion. When Murray Kempton, for example, refers to “the politics of Northern New Jersey” as “an entertainment of circus animals” and observes that “Mafia transcripts . . . seem to constitute . . . the entire body of work published by residents of Essex County during the past year” (NYR, July 2, 1970), he sounds here, as elsewhere, for all the world like that old American Tory, H. L. Mencken—come to think of it, Kempton comes from Baltimore too.
Friedenberg’s rejection of American society seems so extreme as to be beyond conceivable political rectification. In this too his outlook resembles that of Burkean conservatives and the stoical anti-modernism of Leo Strauss’s followers. The Berkeley team of John Schaar and Sheldon Wolin present a more political version of the same outlook. Sharing Friedenberg’s extravagant admiration for radical youth and his animus against “the technological society,” they are fearful that some of the reforms sought by the Left might actually be put into effect by the present administration, thereby undercutting youthful protest (NYR, May 7, 1970). In embracing the cause of environmental restoration, Nixon, they argue, “has captured the issue which might allow for peace between the political system and the younger generation” and, regrettably, “in some half-conscious way the younger generation had already begun to grope toward the accommodation which the President later offered.”
One can scarcely blame Schaar and Wolin for failing to foresee the Cambodian invasion, but the political sagacity they attribute to the Nixon administration as well as its freedom and willingness to neutralize protest from the Left are, to put it mildly, excessive. The ecology issue, they declare mournfully, possesses “uniquely ecumenical qualities” in contrast to “past controversies over the war, the draft, and educational reform [that] sharply divided the young from their governors and elders.” Moreover, the President will not merely “champion ecology” but also “guaranteed annual income, a more rational welfare system, and peace in Vietnam.” Schaar and Wolin almost sound like out-of-office politicians complaining that the opposition has stolen their program. Not like liberal Democrats, however, for in their view only the revolt of the radical young enabled “the Muskies, McGoverns, and Fulbrights to criticize the Vietnam calamity with political safety.” But “the system” possesses even greater capacities for taming the young: “The governors of the technological order could combine repressive legal measures with a welfare system which would merely have to extend many elements already present or probable, such as a guaranteed annual income and unemployment compensation. Subsidize the arts so that music would blare throughout the land, and then take the final step of relaxing drug controls. This seems incredible, but no more so than Senator Goldwater urging the relaxation of marijuana laws. When the incredible becomes credible, then the system will have systematically introduced juvenicide as public policy.” [my italics—D.W.].
Perhaps I fail to understand this rhetorical flourish with which Schaar and Wolin end their article, but does it not amount to a variant of “the worse it gets, the better it gets”? How dreadful that “the system” might be resourceful or sensible enough to do such things as end the war in Vietnam and legalize marijuana! I must say I find it rather less “credible” than Schaar and Wolin that the Nixon administration might adopt such policies. Yet Schaar and Wolin are not revolutionaries, for they dismiss “vulgar Marxism and Maoism” and “Weatherman adventurism” Perhaps they share Mr. Sammler’s dark vision of the future that I quoted above. (Why, incidentally, has the NYR failed to review Mr. Sammler’s Planet?) But in that event, they would surely have to abandon their juvenophilia and adopt a far more critical view of the Movement than they seem willing to entertain.
Critics of the NYR’s New Left sympathies usually attribute them to a compulsive editorial determination to be “with it” that has made the NYR, in Tom Wolfe’s words, “the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic.” Certainly intellectuals are less resistant to cultural fashions and the glitter of apparent novelty than they like to pretend. Such assertions, however, constitute descriptions rather than explanations of the NYR’s political tendency. Even if there is something to the view that modern societies (or all societies?) are subject to the regular alternation of Right and Left periods or phases, the events that precipitate the transition from one to the other and determine the depth and intensity of the prevailing phase cannot be ignored.
The crucial event delegitimating American institutions and values in the 60’s was obviously the Vietnam war. The civil-rights movement in the late 50’s and the election of Kennedy marked the beginnings of a turn to the Left after the cold-war stasis of the 50’s, but it was not until Vietnam that liberalism itself was challenged and a sizable segment of the young and the academic world began to define themselves as radicals, dally with ideas of revolution, and proclaim their total disaffection from American society past and present.
Vietnam has had a delegitimating effect of a special kind for the largely middle-aged intellectuals who contribute to and provide much of the audience for the NYR. Not the conventional pieties of American patriotism, but the set of ideological—or anti-ideological—beliefs about democracy, the possibilities and limits of change through political action, and the nature of the cleavages in modern industrial society held by liberal-left intellectuals have been thrown into question. The abandonment of past beliefs precipitated by the Vietnam war has been remissive in its psychological impact on many of the NYR intellectuals: they have experienced a sense of liberation, of expanding horizons, of the rekindling of long-buried sentiments, of the exultant hanging of question marks on what were thought to be settled and thus boring issues. In the late 50’s Daniel Bell rather smugly referred to his generation of intellectuals as a “twice-born” generation; if so, then a fair number of them have been born for a third time in the 60’s.
The remissive sense of release that the new radicalism has brought to a few has been almost perfectly articulated by Susan Sontag, a one-time NYR contributor who, although the youngest and perhaps the last of the old breed of New York intellectual, is still not so young as to have escaped the “twice-born” experience. She tells us in her recent, book Styles of Radical Will,5 that “only within the last two years (and that very much because of the impact of the Vietnam war) have I been able to pronounce the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ again.” “These recent linguistic decisions,” she indicates, had to overcome the persistence of “the old conviction of the inadequacy of that language, to which I was first introduced during my precociously political childhood when I read PM and Corliss Lamont and the Webbs on Russia, and later, by the time I was a junior at North Hollywood High School, worked in the Wallace campaign and attended screenings of Eisenstein films at the American-Soviet Friendship Society.” Freed at last of the inhibiting effects of her repudiation of this past, she has experienced a glorious deliverance: “That I’ve begun to use some elements of Marxist or neo-Marxist language again seems almost a miracle, an unexpected remission of historical muteness, a new chance to address problems that I’d renounced ever understanding.”
Yet Stalinism was an event that in its day had a very similar delegitimating and remissive effect on radical belief and on the intellectuals who responded to the discovery of its horror by moving in the opposite political direction. To be freed from the clichés of “progressive” thought, from the tyranny of having to adopt the correct, “politicized” attitude toward wide areas of experience, was a highly exhilarating experience at the end of the 40’s and in the early 50’s. “The American celebration” (a phrase coined derisively by C. Wright Mills) and the “end of ideology” as a new freedom from ideology were not merely self-serving sentiments under the cover of which intellectuals joined the “Establishment” and reaped whatever material and status rewards it provided them. Anti-Stalinism became the occasion for exactly the same kind of spiritual and intellectual opening of new vistas that opposition to Vietnam has been for some of the very same people in the 60’s. Whatever their differences in scale, Stalinism and the Vietnam war were, to be sure, tragedies and major historical disasters, and the moral response of intellectuals to them was a genuine one. But if it is the glory of intellectuals that they strive to universalize their personal and historical experience, their own biographical trajectories of belief, disillusion, and discovery, it is their weakness that they carry the impulse too far, project their own image too consistently and uncritically onto the recalcitrant materials of the historical process. Thus the excesses of one period, hardened into canonistic formulas and familiar incantations, produce an excessive reaction against them when a new shattering event tilts our perspective and forces us to seek new categories of understanding.
I have the impression that literary intellectuals have been more numerous than historians or social scientists among the thrice-born who have embraced the new radical dispensation. Let me hasten to add that I in no sense mean to imply by this anything so absurd or offensively arrogant as that because historians and social scientists specialize in the study of politics and society they are therefore “experts,” safely inoculated against infection from current political fashions. It is simply that professional students of politics tend to develop a vested interest in the assumptions underlying their scholarly work, assumptions shaped by the ideological concerns of a given period but, if the work is any good at all, transcending the particularity of these concerns. Literary intellectuals are not weighted down by this particular kind of ballast—note Miss Sontag’s reference to her new radical outlook as the consequence of “linguistic decisions”; it is hard to imagine a political theorist or economist so describing his use of the terms “capitalism” and “imperialism.” One recalls also that the New York Review, initially and still primarily an organ of literary intellectuals, has been far more resistant to cultural than to political fashions. Commitment to certain artists and works of art, to a literary tradition or a mode of critical discourse, is the literary intellectual’s equivalent of the historian’s commitment to a given view of American institutions or the sociologist’s to a particular theory of contemporary social structure. Philip Rahv, for example, may once again deploy the Marxist terminology of his youth, but he has very little use for the present cultural scene or the “trendy” critics whom he sees as betraying their standards by celebrating it.
Years ago in this journal I criticized David Riesman’s advocacy of what he called “countercyclical thinking.” In counseling resistance to the dictates of the Zeitgeist, Riesman nevertheless seemed to endow it with too much power over our ideas and attitudes, to prescribe a degree of sensitivity to it that might very well be crippling. “If one starts by listening to what everyone else is saying in order to correct or balance their partial visions,” I argued, “one risks becoming enmeshed in the very nets of ideas one wishes to escape. There must always be thinkers who can look at the world with a fresh innocence, cats to stare at the faces of kings, and children to exclaim at the nakedness of emperors.” Fine sentiments, an exalted conception of the intellectual’s calling, but having since lived through one more turn of the cycle, I now see more value in Riesman’s notion. He was, after all, one of the first intellectuals to understand the pervasive influence of the mass media, especially television which was still new at the time he wrote, some years before McLuhan not only acknowledged but acclaimed the media as the only true legislators of the world. Today we witness the exploitation of the “counter-culture,” up to and including its revolutionary manifestoes, by the communications industry. Nor is this confined to the United States: several of the larger commercial publishers in West Germany have recently turned to the highly profitable mass publication of Maoist tracts for the New Left students and their following. The mental Gleichschaltung created by a national communications system reaching from elite organs like the New York Review to the campus, which has itself certainly become a mass medium, through movies and popular music to TV programs funneled into every household, makes any effort at counter-cyclical thinking resemble that of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.
The 50’s now appear to have been an exceptional period in the degree to which radicalism vanished from the American political scene. A great war was followed by the threat of an even more destructive one in which the Left appeared compromised through past association with the prospective enemy. But this seemed to coincide with changes in American capitalism—some of which were in fact if not by inherent necessity consequences of the militarization of the economy—that moderated past divisions in the society and made obsolete old political issues. The expansion of higher education, the publishing industry, and the arts in a time of prosperity made it all the easier for intellectuals to accept their embourgeoisement as an inevitable process. At the level of theory, social analysts of the 50’s were guilty of eternalizing the present, though it is often overlooked that this was as true of those like Mills and Marcuse who rejected the apparent status quo with despair and anger as it was of those like Bell and Lipset who accepted it in recoil from the Stalinist corruption of the radical impulse, or in a spirit of post-Marxist complacency or resignation as the most and the best we could hope for. It seemed urgently necessary in the 50’s to insist that the Promethean aspirations of the Left to reshape society in the image of greater freedom, equality, and self-determination were rooted as deeply in the human condition as the conservative yearning for order, stability, decorum, and institutional piety.
The 50’s can now be seen as an aberration in which the temporary obliteration of radicalism insured its crude and forceful reappearance in the 60s when the New Left, like a drowning man who mentally traverses his whole biography in an instant, recapitulated in a few short years the entire century-and-a-half history of radicalism in the modern West to end up in its present neo-Stalinist mood, more self-indulgent than its predecessor but also less politically effective in the absence of the organizational discipline of a Communist party directed by a powerful foreign dictatorship. Radicals do not, by definition, see the existing order as fixed and unchangeable, but they are susceptible to their own distinctive way of eternalizing the present, and there are ample signs today that they have fully succumbed to it. The radical projects present tendencies forward to a desired apocalyptic climax: revolution leading to the emergence of an unspecified “better society,” or, in a more openly catastrophist version, the triumph of reaction (“fascism”) as a prelude to the successful revolt of vastly expanded numbers of the oppressed and victimized. All political theories contain a self-fulfilling element to the extent that they influence the conduct of those who are persuaded by them, which then becomes a condition to be dealt with by those anxious to falsify the theories. There is also the hidden, often unconscious, will to be proven right, to see history vindicate one’s ideology. Thus those who continually forecast repression and violence are often legitimately suspected of seeking repression and violence—the shepherd who cried “wolf” clearly hoped for the pack to descend upon his flocks.
The New York Review is guilty of having fed all these tendencies, sometimes by directly encouraging them, sometimes by accommodating itself to them, in general by providing them with a cloak of intellectual respectability. It has thus contributed to the present prospect of a confrontation on all fronts between the Movement at its arrogant, mindless worst and the demagogic, patrioteering Right, a confrontation that will do little harm to the established intellectuals and tenured academicians who produce the NYR but which promises to hurt seriously the very groups whose interest they claim to uphold.
The first victim, however, has been the truth, or that part of the truth which has not found its way into the pages of the NYR. Reviewing Steven Kelman’s account of student politics at Harvard, Push Comes to Shove, Kenneth Keniston concedes the validity of Kelman’s charge that the SDS radicals “are undemocratic, manipulative, and self-righteous to the point of snobbery and elitism,” but then observes that although “Kelman’s angry book is written almost entirely to those on his Left . . . his book will mostly be read by those far to his Right, and it will be used (much against his wishes) to provide further ammunition for the Reagans, Mitchells, and Agnews in their politically profitable war against the alienated and radical young” (NYR, September 24, 1970). Is this not tantamount to saying that Kelman should not have written—or published—his book just now? One cannot help being reminded of those who thirty years ago argued that to tell the truth about Soviet Russia was “to play into the hands of the Hearst Press,” or, a decade later, of Joe McCarthy. The Left thus surrendered this truth to the Right, which promptly exaggerated it and twisted it for its own political ends with results from which we, not to speak of the Vietnamese, are still suffering. Yet after all this, one finds Keniston clucking his tongue over Kelman’s “expose of the dirty linen of cultural revolutionaries and political revolutionaries in Harvard SDS,” as if the only important consideration were what the right-wing neighbors will say.
The degeneration of the New Left into its present irrationality and moral authoritarianism is not unconnected with the at first obsessive and then complacent anti-Communism of the 50’s, acquiesced in and even furthered by too many intellectuals, that had the effect of stigmatizing any protest against injustice in America with facile references to the evils of Stalinism or the alleged larger urgencies of the cold war. Yet there is a real chance of avoiding any repetition today of the excesses of the anti-Communist liberals of two decades ago. Intellectuals are not now, as they were then, experiencing the subtle and not-so-subtle intoxications of a vast improvement in their social position and cultural authoritativeness, for that has already been attained. Our commitment to democratic values need not this time lead to an “American celebration” in which successful social mobility disposes us to see those values as fully embodied in our very imperfectly democratic institutions. Nor are we faced with the external threat that Russia seemed to present in the aftermath of a war that had already mobilized mass patriotic emotions in a crusade against a totalitarian enemy. The democratic Left is in a more favorable position to assert once again against usurpers the primacy of freedom and democracy, of a politics of substance rather than of gesture and rhetoric, and the enduring need for civility, tolerance, and intellectual rigor if we are to make any headway in changing American society in the direction of its own professed ideals.
Perhaps I am too optimistic in thinking that the democratic Left can now recapture the political initiative, for what happens within the liberal intellectual world cannot in the end be isolated from larger political events. But present priorities are clear, and we can expect little help, on the basis of past performance, from the New York Review in recognizing them. It is not essentially a matter of directing attention to the continuing tyrannies and threats to peace of the Communist powers, of exposing the irrelevance of Third World leaders and movements to the problems of American society, or of defending the university, properly divested of its involvement with the military machine, as a non-political center of learning and creativity, important as these may often be. Today, as more and more American intellectuals are once again coming to see, we need most of all to be reminded of the seductive poisons of unrestrained ideological thinking, of the brutalizing effects of political enchantments that trap men in the simplifying formulas of either-or, “kto kvo?, ” “he who is not with me is against me,” and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The real lesson learned by the anti-Stalinist intellectuals of the 40’s, whatever corrupt uses some of them may later have made of it, was the menace of the politicized will, feeding on its own self-righteousness, thrusting blindly forward in a frenzied activism until it finds or creates the resistance it seeks, a consummation which, now as then, can have disastrous consequences for all of us.
1 Their names: Lionel Abel, David Bazelon, Lewis Coser, Midge Decter, Oscar Gass, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Dennis Wrong.
2 In addition to Bazelon and Howe from the first list, they are: Benjamin DeMott, Richard Hofstadter, David Riesman, Richard Rovere, and C. Vann Woodward.
3 “Chomsky: Of Thinking and Moralizing,” Dissent, January-February 1970.
4 For Friedenberg's views on democracy, I have, in addition to his NYR pieces, drawn on two essays published elsewhere: “The Revolt against Democracy,” Change, May-June 1969; and a review-article in the American Sociological Review, December 1968.
5 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pp., $5.95.