RUNNING COMMENTARY: THE CONTENTIOUS MAGAZINE THAT TRANSFORMED THE JEWISH LEFT INTO THE NEOCONSERVATIVE RIGHT by Benjamin Balint.
Reviewed by Jim Burns - October 2010
290 pages. $26.95. ISBN 978 1 58648 749 2
Keeping a magazine alive for 65 years is something of an achievement, especially when the magazine in question is devoted to intellectual evaluations of political, literary, and cultural matters. Many publications of this kind often close down when they think they've achieved whatever purpose they had in mind when they started, or when the energy runs out, or someone of key importance to their existence dies or moves on to other things. The noted New York publication, Partisan Review, ceased operations in 2003 when falling sales, the death of William Phillips, and changes in the social, political and intellectual mood in America combined to remove its relevance. One report said that it had "become obsolete."
Iíve mentioned Partisan Review because one of its major rivals was Commentary, currently still alive and the subject of the book under review. And it's a book that could be seen as contentious in its claims that the Jewish left has been transformed into the neoconservative right. You only need to read Dissent or the New York Review of Books to realise that a large number of Jewish intellectuals continue to adopt a liberal position on social and political matters.
But let me go back to the beginning. The American Jewish Committee in 1945 asked Elliott Cohen to edit their new monthly magazine, Commentary, which they envisaged as "a journal of significant thought and opinion on Jewish affairs and contemporary issues." Cohen had a good track record as editor of an earlier publication, Menorah Journal, and jumped at the opportunity to be in control of a magazine that he could shape to his liking. The only snag was that he "edited his authors exactingly, even intrusively, even if they happened to be Thomas Mann or John Dewey." Cohen himself was a blocked writer who fulfilled his needs by rewriting other people's work. Not everyone reacted kindly to this and Balint quotes the art critic Harold Rosenberg as saying, "Listen Elliott, if you want to write, write under your own name"
Still, there's no doubt about the fact that, in its early days, Commentary was responsible for publishing some brilliant writing. And Cohen's staff included some talented young Jewish intellectuals who brought their own ideas to the magazine and helped shape its contents. Clement Greenberg, then just starting to make his name as an art critic, was one of them, and another was Robert Warshow, an early advocate of -paying serious attention to aspects of popular culture. It's worth noting that, at this stage, contributors to Commentary also wrote for Partisan Review on a fairly regular basis.
Elliott Cohen, like many other Jewish New York intellectuals had been attracted to communism in the 1930s, with Trotskyism being of particular interest, but he later turned against it and closely inspected contributions to Commentary for anything that might be seen as soft on communists. He rejected Robert Warshow's essay on Charlie Chaplin because the famous film-star was "a fellow-traveller of Stalin." Warshow then gave it to Partisan Review where it was published and praised. As the Cold War developed Commentary frequently ran articles critical of Russia and its actions. By the early-1950s, with Senator McCarthy on the prowl and fear and suspicion rife in American society, there were attacks on liberal intellectuals because they seemed to be too sympathetic towards left-wingers who had fallen foul of blacklists and purges. Irving Kristol thought that the rise of McCarthyism was due to liberals not taking a firm enough anti-communist position. McCarthy may have been a "vulgar demagogue," but everyone knew where he stood in relation to communism, whereas the public were confused about whether or not too many liberals were sincerely opposed to it.
To be fair to Cohen he did always aim for a high intellectual content in Commentary and its writers were prepared to say that they didn't care for the kind of populist anti-communism that McCarthy represented. But other New York intellectuals thought that the magazine seemed increasingly to be trying to persuade them to fall in with the status quo and not question it too closely. This was particularly seen as a problem for Jews because of their desire to be assimilated into the wider American society. The anti-semitism that had previously stopped many Jewish intellectuals from obtaining positions in universities was breaking down, and while this was obviously a good thing some writers worried that it might lead to conformity. Sociologist David Riesman asked, "Were not intellectuals of more use to this country when they had less use for it?" And Irving Howe was so disturbed by what was happening that he started Dissent, which by its very name indicated where it wanted to be in relation to the general situation in America. So far I've looked mostly at the political aspects of Commentary, and the magazine also printed literary criticism, fiction, and poetry, though when Norman Podhoretz took over as editor he upset poets by saying that he would edit their work as rigorously as he edited that of prose writers. Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, and Delmore Schwartz all published fiction in Commentary, though Balint doesn't delve too deeply into their work. One novel that does receive some attention, though none of it appeared in the magazine, is Isaac Rosenfeld's Passage From Home. It was reviewed by Irving Howe, who, praised it, and Daniel Bell described it as "a parable of alienation." The alienation factor was something .that intrigued American Jewish writers and intellectuals because of the discrimination that they often experienced and their consequent sense of apartness from the concerns of many other Americans. As noted above, this was changing but was still evident when Rosenfeld's book was published in 1946. It could be argued that Rosenfeld was something of a special case in that he made a point of rejecting attempts to absorb him into bourgeois society. He thought of the Jewish writer as "a specialist in alienation" and lived a life that could best be described as bohemian. Attitudes were altering, however, as opportunities for advancement opened up for Jews. In time the noted critic Leslie Fiedler could say, "if the system has been this good to us, it can't be as bad as we thought it was."
Elliott Cohen committed suicide in 1959 and control of Commentary passed to Norman Podhoretz who was astute enough to see that its previous obsession with communism was largely irrelevant as the paranoia of the Fifties declined. The times were changing and Podhoretz began to publish critical pieces about race, poverty, welfare, the developing Vietnam War, and brought in writers like Paul Goodman, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, and Staughton Lynd to open up dialogues about these and other matters. Podhoretz could be seen as someone who wasn't afraid to admit that he was desperate to succeed in the New York intellectual hot-house. His book, Making It, unashamedly acknowledged that he wanted to be respected and to make a place for himself among people he admired (he was born in 1930 so was younger than them and hadn't been involved in the political turbulence of the 1930s). Making It wasn't liked by established figures such as Lionel and Diana Trilling, who considered it "crudely boastful," and one of Podhoretz's friends even thought he was going insane and ought to be committed. Podhoretz was intellectually tough enough to ride the storm and Making It is still worth reading for its account of a man scrambling up the ladder of success and for its picture of the New York intellectual scene of the 50s and 60s.
What had appeared to be a swing towards the left didn't last too long and the magazine soon began to react against what it saw as the excesses of the 60s. Podhoretz had, perhaps, shown his innate conservatism some years earlier when he wrote a piece for Partisan Review called "The Know-Nothing Bohemians" which was a savage attack on the Beats. And the rise of Black Power, feminism, gay rights, and the activities of the New Left, came under attack. In a way it's easy to see what bothered Podhoretz and his supporters. They weren't the only ones suspicious of many of the motives and actions of student activists and others. Their anti-intellectualism was hard to take if you were used to the intellectual rigour of Partisan Review and Commentary, or indeed to any kind of literary or intellectual experience that demanded more than a passing glance at slogans and crude gestures. Balint rightly points out that, "unlike the 1930s, the 1960s did not produce much in the way of a body of radical literature."
This reaction may have had its virtues but it was only the start of an increasingly right-wing swing that included, among other things, almost-hysterical outbursts against gays, support for Ronald Reagan, a militant pro-Israel policy, enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq, and much more of that nature. I'm not suggesting that such topics shouldn't be discussed in an intellectual magazine, but as even Balint (who worked for a time at Commentary) admits, the tone was often too shrill and there was a tendency to dismiss anyone with a different opinion as either misguided or motivated by a hatred of America. It's little wonder that, as the magazine became a mouthpiece for neoconservatives many of its one-time contributors drifted or were driven away. George Steiner was of the opinion that his work was ignored by Commentary because of his "doubts about Vietnam and my deepening fear about the development of Israel's policies and society." And Irving Howe said, "I contributed to Commentary when it was the natural voice of liberal Jewish debate."
Balint points out that, along with its right-wing politics, its coverage of the arts declined. Podhoretz had denounced "critics of the Left to whom art was a weapon, and who acclaimed or condemned novels for their positions on political and ideological matters," but he adds that "Podhoretz's own literary judgements - and by extension, the magazine's - had become ever more ideological." And he "began to see every product of the mind as something that reflected a political allegiance." Podhoretz, though, had achieved his ambition of "Making It" and in 2000, when George W.Bush was elected President, he wrote in enthusiastic terms about the dawn of a new day in American politics. His support for Bush didn't go unnoticed and in 2004 he was given the Presidential Medal of Honour, the nation's highest civilian award. For someone born in a poor part of Brooklyn to East European working-class Jewish parents it really must have seemed that he had made it.
I noted near the start of this review that the sub-title for this book is misleading, and Balint more or less admits it when he remarks that "from Franklin Roosevelt, who garnered 90 percent of the Jewish vote in 1940 to Barack Obama, who got 78 percent in 2008, Jews remained the most consistently liberal group in the country." And he goes on to say that the neoconservatives clustered around Commentary have never been able to come to terms with the fact that their fellow Jews can't or don't want to see that, according to the neoconservatives, they're not acting in their own self-interest. Perhaps they don't think that self-interest is the only reason for deciding which way to vote.
This is an informative book, tidily written and well-documented, and it adds to our knowledge of the New York intellectual scene.