September 23, 2014
Norman Podhoretz in Black and White
Posted on Aug 20, 2010
Balint had a problem of narrative. Commentary began on the periphery of American intellectual life, moved rapidly toward its center (insofar as we had one), and then moved again, to a well-demarcated site on the side. Was it pushed, or did it march resolutely to its present position as the organ of a vociferous congregation, constantly rebuking its former members for their defection, and insisting on its claims to the truth? He solves the problem by constant reference to the changing concerns of those who, increasingly, set Commentary’s agenda by following their own, that large part of the nation’s community of thinkers and writers who now no longer bother to read it, but did—until about 1975.
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge University Press, 408 pages
Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
By Benjamin Balint
PublicAffairs, 304 pages
Balint gives a great deal of attention to the New York intellectuals, and presents Commentary as an alternative to Partisan Review, self-consciously Jewish where Partisan Review was in his view silent on Jewish issues, including anti-Semitism. Still, its founders, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, were very aware of their Jewishness. I knew Phillips quite well and would say that he was painfully aware of it. And that was true of my friend Clement Greenberg (who later worked at Commentary) as well. Trilling, who was also a major figure at Partisan Review, had an acute Jewish consciousness himself. One could not demand one of Macdonald, Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson—although Wilson at one point concerned himself with the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity—and in eruptive social movements.
Balint is right to expend a good deal of his energy on the New York intellectuals’ turn from Marxism, and on their being so much at home in the realm of homelessness, that generalized alienation that marked the spirituality of the past two centuries. Their turn from Marxism was quite consonant with the self-satisfaction that marked much American postwar social thought, occasioned not least by the social integration of even the most ideologically resistant of the intellectuals.
Despite the clarity and depth of Balint’s grasp of a very complex historical episode (the entry into American academic life and our national culture generally of the Eastern European Jews), he underemphasizes one facet of it. He concentrates on the attraction of the varieties of Marxism to many, on the socialist legacy brought to the U.S. by those who had been part of the Jewish labor movement in Eastern Europe. However (think of Justice Louis Brandeis), as Jews gradually entered American politics and the public sphere decades before the Great Depression, they were drawn to American progressivism. My father was a City College classmate of Sidney Hook and sat with him in the classes of the legendary Morris Raphael Cohen, the obdurately critical philosopher who thought much of Marxism untenable. The books I found at home were not by Lenin and Bukharin, but by the Beards, Dewey, the Lynds and Parrington. The American Communist Party’s Popular Front slogan in the ’30s, “Communism Is 20th Century Americanism,” was on the face of it grotesque, and yet had a certain logic, exemplified in Hook’s attempt to unite Marxism with pragmatism.
The New York intellectuals had plenty of readers in Washington, but in the years from Franklin Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter sent no one there. They were represented, to some degree, by John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, progressives by birthright. Michael Harrington appears in the text as a voice of social conscience. Like Moynihan, his spiritual roots lie in the Catholic segment of the labor movement, which is a large presence in the background of the book, one that might have had more explicit attention.
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