Neither Trotskyism nor Neoconservatism
American Writers and Radical Politics, 1900-39: Equivocal Commitments
By Eric Homberger
Publisher: St. Martin's
Pages: 268 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
It is America’s longest-running soap opera. It began over 50 years ago and continues to enthrall its devotees. Although it does not play to large audiences in the provinces, the ardor it evokes in New York, Washington, Cambridge, New Haven, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Berkeley compensates for its relatively low Nielsen ratings. True to the genre, it leans heavily upon a cast of regulars, supplemented by fresh faces who divert the storyline in unexpected directions. Taking a cue from such hot tickets as All My Children and Days of Our Lives, it subjects the characters to a dizzying whirl of chicanery, feuding, duplicity, fickle affections, titillating entanglements, melodramatic revelations, and astonishing turns of plot.
Over the years it has kept viewers on edge: What would happen next? Would Sidney betray Philip and William? Would the beauteous but capricious Mary desert Philip for Edmund? Would Delmore go completely around the bend? Would Alfred get his revenge? Would Midge and Norman dine at the White House? Would Irving find happiness on Wall Street? Would the buxom Hannah triumph over her detractors? TV magazines log the show under the title As the New York Intellectual Turns, but rumor has it that the producer will soon switch to Lionel Abel’s recent coinage, The Intellectual Follies.
The show has spawned a raft of books to satisfy fans’ hunger for inside information. Numerous members of the cast have authored memoirs and autobiographies, the latest of which is Sidney Hook’s Out of Step. Delivering what the aficionados crave, these books divulge secrets, dish up succulent morsels of gossip, settle old scores, re-open barely healed wounds, and set readers abuzz over the shenanigans of their favorites. Biographers have zeroed in on individual actors; James Atlas, for example, has recounted the sad antics of the drunken and demented Delmore Schwartz, at one time the show’s most promising young actor. Not to be outdone, historians have invaded the territory; within the last two years Alexander Bloom and Alan Wald have sought in separate books to chronicle the full story and to fathom the secret of the show’s amazing longevity.
The protagonists of this tumultuous saga are the self-denominated “New York Intellectuals,” that much publicized (and astutely self-publicizing) coterie of journalists, professors, novelists, and litterateurs who have been scribbling furiously, arguing incessantly, and hogging the intellectual spotlight since the 1930s. Originally known only in circles where political sectarians wrangle hairsplitting points of doctrine, some of them have soared to stardom on the Reagan Right. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Sidney Hook, for example, have animated conservatism with a brio it has seldom evinced. Others of their number, while not necessarily exuding the Reaganism of these individuals, occupy positions of authority on the cultural and intellectual scene. Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Diana Trilling, and Hilton Kramer — to name only a few — have, as they say in the world of high finance, clout. The hall of fame of those who have gone wherever departed intellectuals go, is imposing: Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, James T. Farrell, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz, James Burnham.
The outsider approaches the New York Intellectuals with the wariness of a police officer called to break up a domestic spat. The ferocity of the altercation stuns him, and fear prickles his spine as he realizes that the bonds of family may prompt the combatants to turn their ire upon the interloper. This is a tightly knit family, and though its members scrap, bicker, and savage one another with the viciousness of a clatch of jealous Ottoman princes, they do not look kindly upon intruders.
What do they quarrel about? Politics, politics, and more politics: as Sidney Hook remarks, “The intensity of the animus generated by political differences among intellectuals during the last half century can hardly be exaggerated.” Hook should know, for if he were to author a cookbook it would bristle with contentiousness. In the realm of Aristotle’s political animal, these people can be as mean as a junkyard dog.
They are not unique in regarding politics as a species of warfare. In the South, election-day brawls are touched off by insults that spill over into violence when everyone reaches for his gun. But this involves such mundane considerations as Who Gets What? – the practical matter of who holds office and ladles out the boodle. The New York Intellectuals, by contrast, have waged their battles over (inconceivable to Southerners) ideas. Radical ones at that: the 1930s formed the watershed for the New Yorkers and during that decade, as Lionel Abel notes, “The Stalin-Trotsky controversy became the most bitterly discussed and violently argued issue wherever radical politics were discussed.”
Those unschooled in what Will Herberg (himself a quondam “right-deviationist Lovestonite”) once called “political psychopathology” may draw a blank over the “Stalin-Trotsky controversy.” Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals is invaluable in this respect, for he painstakingly unravels the tangled skein of leftist politics in the 1930s. Put simply, the rumpus pitted two camps in uncompromising hostilities: on the one side, members of the Communist Party and their fellow traveling allies who defended Stalinist Russia as the embodiment of the Bolshevik dream; on the other side of the barricades, anti-Stalinist leftists who lambasted Stalin for betraying the Revolution. Wald argues convincingly that among the latter, the Trotskyists — those loyal to the exiled Leon Trotsky — were most notable. “The American Trotskyist movement,” Wald avers, “had an impact on virtually an entire generation of New York-based intellectuals…” Although Sidney Hook would eventually declare, as he phrases it, “that Trotskyism was Stalinism manque,” for the nonce, Trotsky was hero to most of those who hankered for a revolution unblemished by the ossified thinking and thuggish praxis of Stalin and his American henchmen.
The New Yorkers of the 1930s did not invent America’s left-wing politics. For that, one looks to the late 19th century and the sprinkling of socialists that dotted the political landscape. The heyday of this socialism occurred in the decade before World War I, when, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party evidenced remarkable influence. Intellectuals turned leftward as never before. Eric Homberger correctly asserts, in American Writers and Radical Politics, that “it was not until the twentieth century that the forms of radicalism shifted away from ad hoc preoccupation with specific issues to a more general sense that the system itself was wrong, and that far-reaching changes were needed.” The repressiveness loosed by wartime patriotic zeal curtailed this migration to the Left. Never again would the Socialist Party command such devotion from either the masses or the intellectuals.
In the 1920s, when the first generation of New York Intellectuals was coming of age, the Left faced dismal prospects. Harding’s “Normalcy” and Coolidge’s business prosperity dampened enthusiasm for leftist causes. Dismayed with the politics of the age of Babbittry, intellectuals flocked to the bohemian haunts of Greenwich Village or lit out for Europe where one could escape the drab materialism of America. Socialism and the radical impulse in general ebbed. There were exceptions: Sidney Hook, always the precocious over-achiever, remained loyal to the socialism he had embraced in 1915 at the age of 13, and Will Herberg was deeply smitten with revolutionary politics.
Two momentous events altered the mood and impelled intellectuals to the Left in droves: the onset of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe. This atmosphere of crisis inspired not despair, but exuberance and expectancy. Lionel Abel recaptures the mood perfectly: “There was yet this exhilarating feeling: we were on the point of some real change, real change was possible.” The thirst for revolution awakened to new possibilities, and a reinvigorated radicalism emerged to exploit abundant opportunities. The Socialist Party benefited little, for the spectrum lurched leftward, transforming democratic socialists into “right wingers.” Communists, chanting the slogans of triumphant Bolshevism, defined the new standards. Mere socialism held few charms. As Abel recalls, radicals had a choice: either to pledge allegiance to the Party or “to find or to organize a better party than the Party.”
Preposterousness thrived in this climate; extremism recognized no bounds. One minuscule faction, the Fieldites, was so outre that when Abel first heard them denouncing Trotskyism, he “thought the party they were discussing was the Republican party.” With a penchant for doctrinal purity rivaled only by crazed religious fundamentalists, leftists carved out parties and factions to the far side of the Socialists. One story has it that a veteran of the factional fights of the 1920s and 1930s drew the net of orthodoxy so tight that he found himself a party of one; he then became schizophrenic and split with himself. In this milieu the young radicals cut their teeth on ideology, honed their polemicizing skills, and contracted chronic politicitis.
This leftism flourished far outside the mainstream, a course that in the 1930s flowed through the New Deal and the Democratic Party. In defining the middle way, Franklin Roosevelt reduced the Right to a collection of sputtering malcontents who were often as bizarre as the Fieldites. To hear them revile FDR, one would have thought they were talking about Stalin. On the other side, the New York Intellectuals dismissed Roosevelt as a hopeless troglodyte.
The New Yorkers’ skewed vision arose from their predilection for abstractions, a habit that trapped them in parochialism. Although Sidney Hook discusses this problem in the context of World War I, his observation is germane to the 1930s. “Looking back,” he writes, “one pathetic oversight is apparent. We were completely oblivious to the fact that New York was not America. We did not know what most of the country thought and still less how it felt. We lived in the world of our ideas and imagination…” Abel adds that New York City “went to Russia” in the 1930s and “spent most of the decade there.” Upbraiding Americans for their provincialism, the radicals transmogrified themselves into something akin to the “little group of Dostoevskians” that Abel fell among in New York in 1932 — characters out of The Possessed who sought to impose brittle Marxist theory upon American circumstances. If the communists were most guilty of this, the Trotskyists were hardly less culpable. Will Herberg spotted the error in the late 1930s, maintaining, in Harry Ausmus’s words, “that for too long American radicals had looked to Europe for inspiration and guidance.” But most radicals mistook the cramped cell of ideology for a capacious abode.
In scrutinizing the New York Intellectuals one must turn sooner or later to the touchy issue of Jewishness. Touchy, because it evokes an image as stereotyped as that of Shylock: the Radical Jew, a character that infests the fevered imaginings of extremists. It cannot be gainsaid that a high proportion of the New York Intellectuals are Jewish. Alfred Kazin entitled his reminiscences New York Jew, a designation synonymous to many Americans with “intellectual” and “leftist.” A closer look reveals, however, that the club has always welcomed non-Jewish members. Mary McCarthy and William Barrett are gentiles, as were the now dead Dwight Macdonald, James T. Farrell, James Burnham, and Edmund Wilson. Nor was America’s first important crop of radical intellectuals Jewish. Eric Homberger devotes separate chapters to Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and John Reed – all gentiles. In Sinclair’s case, he came of an old Maryland family that boasted a Confederate general in its lineage. And who could be more quintessentially WASPish than Reed, that one-time Harvard cheerleader (who capped his career with an honored entombment in the Kremlin)?
Having said all this, one remains confronted with the Jewishness of the preponderance of the New Yorkers. But their Jewishness per se is not the key issue; more important is the way Jewishness relates to the radical vision of the 1930s. Lionel Abel comments that “if one was Jewish, one was expected, almost automatically, to join up with some group on the Left…” These young Jews brought a unique perspective to the question of radicalism’s relation to the United States. To put it succinctly: they had no roots embedded in the American experience. Aha! — the Rootless Jew, that figure of contempt that prompted T.S. Eliot to admonish in 1934 that a society cannot tolerate a surfeit of deracinated Jews. No, that is not what I mean.
The Jewish radicals belonged to the most recent wave of immigration to break upon America’s shores. Either their parents were adult immigrants or, as with Philip Rahv, they themselves had been born in Europe. Sidney Hook describes the environment created by these newcomers: “If any reader born within the last fifty years were to turn to the scenes of my childhood [the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn], he would feel… that he was visiting a foreign country.” New York City became their metropolis, and given the city’s emotional migration to Russia in the 1930s, the Jewish radicals were in a sense transported back to their origins just when they were coming of age in their new homeland. It is not odd that Lionel Abel should have encountered “Dostoevskians” in New York; their background and surroundings were made to order for the creation of such characters.
Alan Wald observes of the Jewish writers who gathered around the Menorah Journal in the late 1920s that they “were neither outcasts, as were the east Europeans, or deeply integrated into the existing society and its established values, as were the English and the French Jewish intelligentsia.” Hook denies that he and his contemporaries thought of themselves as “non-American” or “anti-American,” but, he adds, “we sought continuities with the American revolutionary past.” The American past was not very revolutionary in the French or Russian sense, and by the 1920s what remained of the revolutionary tradition was, at best, attenuated. The Jewish radicals were disadvantaged, then, in three ways. They dwelt in an untypical American city. They were not woven into the fabric of the American experience. By seizing upon a problematic aspect of the American tradition, they mistook a part (and a tenuous part at that) for the whole. It is little wonder that, as Hook admits, “we did not know what most of the country thought.” It is hard to imagine how they could have.
If the story of the New York Intellectuals were nothing more than a fragment of that bygone era known as the Great Depression, it would hold little significance for other than historians and garrulous old-timers. But it is much more, for the story continues up to our own time. Alan Wald’s book recounts it in its entirety; unfortunately, once he reaches World War II he becomes more polemicist than historian. Wald enters the lists to chastise the New Yorkers for repudiating their youthful attachment to Trotskyism, a tradition Wald wants to reclaim in order to promote “radical political and cultural activity that is both Marxist and anti-Stalinist.” Few sins of the fathers escape his wrath; according to Wald, the former anti-Stalinists forsook the Left for the power, prestige, and comfort that the Establishment enticingly proffered. Having sold out their ideals, they betrayed their best self: they armored themselves as cold warriors, persecuted faithful leftists, condoned McCarthyism, battened on CIA money, ignored American imperialism, cast a benign eye upon racism, and ceased to champion the exploited classes. Some of them — James Burnham, for example — decamped to the Right fairly quickly while others followed a more leisurely course that led them from cold-war liberalism to neoconservatism and on to shameless union with Reaganism. Perfidy is thy name, O, ex-Trotskyists!
Like the Bourbon monarchs, Wald has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. His solution to America’s ills? — Trotskyism, or some facsimile of that discredited creed. Wald inhabits the hermetic world of the 1930s where Marxist intellectuals burbled about revolution and quibbled over arcane dogmas, while the New Dealers tackled the quotidian exigencies of a society in disarray. Like his radical forebears, he dismisses social democrats as mere temporizers, unwitting (and sometimes witting) apologists of the status quo. Wald calls for a “higher democracy,” a term that has often justified the commissars in liquidating “reactionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries.” One is not reassured by Wald’s comment that the neoconservatives dominate “the far-right terrain among intellectuals in the 1980s.” Far right? This sounds suspiciously like the communists’ denunciation of social democrats as “social fascists.” Wald longs for the brave new world of the future, but he is imprisoned in the sectarian revolutionary politics of the past.
If Alan Wald dwells in cloud-cuckoo-land, the neoconservatives have their own problems. Although Wald exaggerates his indictment to the point of absurdity, the nub of his case has merit. Kristol, Podhoretz, Decter, Hook, and their fellow born-again neoconservatives offer alternatives only slightly less distasteful than Wald’s Marxism. If the Jewish radicals of the 1930s were insufficiently American, the Jewish neoconservatives have become, as it were, more Catholic than the pope. Kristol celebrates capitalism, Podhoretz eggs Reagan on to new foreign adventures in behalf of America’s interests, and Hook inveighs against critics of the United States. Corporate wealth funds their think tanks and journals, and businessmen who formerly eschewed the company of Jews in their country clubs and swank men’s establishments now welcome Jewish intellectuals to the corridors of power. Once prey to utopian fantasies, the new conservatives have metamorphosed into consummate hard-nosed realists, belittling those who refuse their prescriptions in foreign and domestic policy.
Most veteran conservatives delight in their new friends who speak the right (and Right) line on politics and foreign affairs. Moreover, the converts have access to prestigious journals of opinion, can tap the coffers of fat foundations, and – with their braininess and erudition — can carry the battle into the liberals’ own front yard. This marriage of old and new conservatism is curious, to say the least. Sidney Hook’s Out of Step has received lavish praise from conservative reviewers. Because the book runs to over 600 pages, one wonders if they managed to slog through to the end. (No easy task; Will Herberg once jotted in the margin of one of Hook’s articles: “Poor Hook! He is such a bore.”) If they did read the entire book, then what does one make of their silence on this passage on page 598? “I am an unreconstructed believer in the welfare state and in a steeply progressive income tax, a secular humanist, and a firm supporter of choice with respect to abortion, voluntary euthanasia…” Or this gem? “I have held the lifelong conviction that faith in the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving god has no more intellectual justification than faith in the existence of a cosmic Santa Claus…” How can the typical conservative swallow Hook’s credo? Apparently, conservative principles are elastic enough to permit Hook his atheism, welfarism, and pro-choice stance as long as he applauds the Right’s muscular foreign policy and implacable anti-communism.
In pondering the deadlock between Wald and the neoconservatives, one begins to apprehend how unfortunate it is that America’s political discourse has failed to produce someone comparable in moral stature and compelling influence to George Orwell, a man who could unmask the idiocies of the Left without endorsing those of the Right. Despite what the editors of Commentary and National Review think, Orwell’s disenchantment with the Left did not induce him to transfer his allegiance to conservatism. He transcended the Left-Right dichotomy and climbed to a vantage point from which he could espy things that eluded those spellbound by regnant political categories.
Will Herberg, the subject of Harry Ausmus’s informative and scrupulously evenhanded book, came close to what I have in mind. Herberg is little appreciated today, invoked occasionally by conservatives who probably have not read him carefully, and condemned by leftists who remember only his association with National Review. Herberg was more than either side reckons with. During the 1930s he avowed a Marxism that was both anti-Stalinist and anti-Trotskyist. During the next decade he searched for a “third way” that would escape the rigid boundaries that delimited the debate between communism and capitalism. He found it initially in what he called “libertarian socialism,” a socialism, in Ausmus’s words, “rooted in an ethic based on the uniqueness of each individual human personality.” As Herberg himself said: “If socialism prevents us from acting and feeling as human beings should, there is surely something spurious about it.” In the 1950s he moved further rightward, but he excoriated McCarthyism, advocated a “responsible neo-Burkean conservatism,” and “continued” (to quote Ausmus) “to hope… for a resurgence of some kind of socialism” of the Norman Thomas variety. Dismayed by the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement and the nihilism of the student rebellion, he tilted further to the right in the decade before his death in 1977.
Neither the Right nor the Left can kidnap Herberg for its own purposes. Just as he cultivated his own strain of Marxism in the 1930s, so he devised a unique brand of conservatism from the 1950s onward. Though he wrote for National Review, he continued to mine Marxism for analytical insights, and he never relinquished his lifelong devotion to the labor movement.
Herberg complemented his reassessment of Marxism with a recognition of the poverty of his atheism. His welling need for divine transcendence led him to return to the Judaism of his ancestors. Immersion in the writings of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Buber inspired him to formulate a “biblical perspective on democratic society,” an angle of vision that enabled him to ground faith in democracy upon an acceptance of man’s sinful nature. His discerning examination of religion and society engendered his most important book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, a volume now dated in its sociological thesis, but still pertinent to the discussion of religion’s relationship to the social order. Herberg plumbed the religiosity of the 1950s and found it woefully inadequate, for ultimately, he decided, it constituted an idolatrous worship of the “American Way of Life”; it substituted religion-coated patriotism for true biblical religion. “The constant danger of conservatism for Herberg,” writes Ausmus, “was its tendency to transform genuine religion into a national cult.”
Herberg’s combination of profound biblical faith, keen social analysis, and freedom from narrow political orthodoxy should hearten those who continue to seek a “third way.” Although he was a Jew, a New Yorker, a leftist, and then a conservative, he did not run with the New York Intellectuals. Unlike Sidney Hook, Herberg was authentically “Out of Step.” In this he has more to teach than do the celebrated New Yorkers, whether in their radical phase of the 1930s or in their more recent and conservative manifestation.
Enjoyed reading this?
READ MORE! REGISTER TODAYSUBSCRIBE
You May Also Enjoy
Is "theoconservativism" the revolutionary religious idea that is transforming the political and cultural landscape of our time?
The road from the Hiss-Chambers case to an American president’s advocacy of the idea of the Evil Empire was straight, though slow.
Hungary still bears the scars of four decades of communist misrule combined with three generations of atheistic indoctrination.