Review of Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary

by Morris Dickstein

Benjamin Balint: Running Commentary—The contentious magazine that transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
290 pp. Public Affairs. $26.95 978 1 58648 749 2

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, August 20-27, 2010

Serious journals, like individuals, appear to have a natural life span, an inevitable cycle of flourishing and decline. In the case of little magazines like Horizon, Scrutiny, or Partisan Review, when the founders pass on or the original idea outlives its moment, the journal either expires or becomes a pale imitation of itself. Commentary magazine is a notable exception. In its sixty-five years it has been through not one but two brain transplants, first under a new editor, then under the same editor but with a completely different set of writers. In each phase it occupied a different corner of the political spectrum, shifting from cold war liberalism to a moderate 1960s radicalism to fierce neoconservatism. Yet it has never lost its polemical edge, its intellectual outreach to general readers, or its sense of pursuing an urgent cultural mission, even as that mission has changed dramatically.

For Commentary’s first editor, Elliot Cohen, one goal was to create an exacting forum on Jewish and general subjects where writers and intellectuals could address a wider public. As in his earlier job as managing editor of the legendary Menorah Journal in the late 1920s, he sought to avoid the parochialism of the institutional Jewish community, with its defensive boosterism and distrust of the free play of ideas. At the Menorah Journal he had nurtured gravely talented young writers who would later form a nucleus of the New York intellectuals, such as Lionel Trilling, at the same time he stimulated their slender self-awareness as Jews. During the thirties some of the group, now radicalized by the Depression, would help float Partisan Review as a political and literary journal. In the immediate wake of the Holocaust, Commentary became the setting in which some of them reclaimed their buried Jewish identity without sacrificing their intellectual rigor or their disdain for the Jewish middle class and the Jewish establishment.

Cohen himself grew up as the son of a shopkeeper in Mobile, Alabama. After a brilliant career at Yale, where he was the youngest member of the class of 1917, he gave up taking a doctoral degree, since there was no future then for a Jew teaching English literature. All his life he was a blocked writer, dogged by excruciating scruples that forced him to develop ideas by commissioning articles and editing (or more often rewriting) other people’s prose. Like most New York intellectuals he was first drawn to Communism in the 1930s but then turned strongly against it. As William Phillips, the Partisan Review editor, put it, he “inhaled Communism and exhaled anti-Communism.” His increasingly “hard” anti-Communism became part of the DNA of Commentary at the same time – the 1940s and 1950s – that it began to play an important, sometimes destructive role in American life. The final part of his mission, the one stressed by Benjamin Balint in Running Commentary, his new history of the magazine, was the integration of Jews from the margins into the mainstream of American life. As Cohen put it in his opening issue, “Commentary is an act of faith in our possibilities in America.”

Before 1945 no group was more committed to modernist notions of alienation than Jewish intellectuals. Many of them were children of scarcely acculturated Yiddish-speaking immigrants. The poverty of the ghetto and the idealistic solidarity of working-class socialism had shaped their early lives. The Depression exacerbated their distrust of capitalism but also of America’s typically optimistic individualism, reflected in popular culture, much of it produced by Jews in Hollywood and show business. Before the war these young Jewish intellectuals were bit players on the cultural scene, bohemian outsiders; at this time Jews were still excluded from many professions, neighborhoods, and social clubs, their numbers limited by quotas in elite educational institutions. This mountain of prejudice and discrimination began to dissolve after 1945, partly out of guilt over the Holocaust but mainly because the prospering economy, hungry for talent and initiative from any quarter, became the proverbial tide lifting all boats. Cohen and Commentary were determined to help it along, to drive the final nail into the coffin of thirties Marxism and cultural alienation. “If the system has been this good to us,” Leslie Fiedler observed, “it can’t be as bad as we thought it was.”

Nowhere was this emergence more striking than among Jewish writers, once little more than a sidebar in American literature. Though melting-pot assimilation remained the social norm, a new ethnic pluralism emphasizing cultural roots came into fashion. With a heightened sense of the multiple threads in the larger American weave, both Jews and blacks, often in tandem, moved to center stage: Bellow and Ellison took aim at the Great American Novel, James Baldwin published reports from the racial barricades in Jewish-edited magazines, Bernard Malamud wrote parables about immigrant lives darker than anything since Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, and Philip Roth satirized the new prosperity and ostentation of suburban Jews in his early stories . This ethnic awakening charged up the literary side of Commentary. Another department called “From the American Scene” featured a more light-hearted anthropology of Jewish American life, dealing with subjects like the Jewish delicatessen. Besides Commentary itself, there were other markers of the reconciliation between America and its errant intellectuals, including the famous opening of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March (“I am an American, Chicago-born”) and the landmark 1952 Partisan Review symposium called “Our Country and Our Culture.”

Some of the best known Jews of the modern era had been social critics, even revolutionaries, but Commentary, though it valued stringent criticism, was determined to show that Judaism and Americanism, ethnic loyalties and universal values, could be compatible. This accommodation to American life was the mainspring of the American Jewish Committee, which sponsored the magazine. It meant that the magazine (like the AJC itself) was initially cold toward Zionism, even after the Holocaust gave it an overwhelming new rationale. For them America was the true Zion of the Jews. But this celebratory cast of mind had a darker side, a hostility to dissent at a moment in the cold war when every shade of left-liberal opinion under siege. According to Norman Podhoretz, Cohen’s successor, “all articles were carefully inspected for traces of softness on Communism: a crime of the mind and character which might even give itself away in a single word.” In a notorious piece in 1952, the young Irving Kristol, a Commentary editor, accused liberals of voicing concern for civil liberties as a mask for a progressive agenda that was soft on Communism. Though he dismissed Senator McCarthy as a “vulgar demagogue,” Kristol insisted that “there is one thing the American people know about McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” At a time of blacklists and purges in many fields, this was, at the very least, the wrong end of the stick.

A deeply troubled man in his last years, Cohen took his own life in 1959, and when Podhoretz succeeded him the following year, the obsession with Communism, which had long been a spent force in American life, was the driving motive he tried hardest to reverse. The cold war consensus had been breaking down all through the late 1950s, and Podhoretz was nothing if not attuned to the Zeitgeist. Enlisting liberals and anarchists like Paul Goodman, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, and Philip Rahv along with younger radicals such as Staughton Lynd, Podhoretz turned the magazine away from its anti-Communist roots and toward measured criticism of every facet of American life, from race, welfare, and poverty to the escalating Vietnam War. His political break with his predecessor came to a head with a 1967 symposium on “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited,” in which a generation of left-wing anti-Stalinists helped lay the whole enterprise to rest. “Communism today,” wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “is a boring, squalid creed, tired, fragmented and, save in very exceptional places and circumstances, wholly uninspiring. La guerre est finie.”

That same year Podhoretz published the first of his memoirs, the once-notorious, now largely forgotten Making It, mounting a broad defense of the new radicalism and a eulogy and critique of the New York intellectual tradition that had formed him. Born in 1930, raised in Brownsville, a poor section of Brooklyn, Podhoretz had been one of Trilling’s favorite students at Columbia. He had then studied with F. R. Leavis at Cambridge before returning, first to the Army, then to a job at Commentary. Podhoretz made his reputation as a critic with brilliant but pugnacious reviews that reflected a temperament as different from Trilling’s as could be imagined. This street-fighter’s mentality, which later did so much to poison the well, came through in the part of Making It that repelled nearly everyone, including Trilling: Podhoretz’s insistence that raw ambition, the quest for success and attention, was the “dirty little secret” behind the intellectual’s high-flown ideals. This was neither new nor shocking, but it was certainly reductive. He was engaged in the familiar modern device of striking through the mask, but for many he had unmasked only himself. Podhoretz did not invent the polemical memoir – lapsed Communists like Whittaker Chambers and the authors of The God that Failed had already done that – but to this day the book is a gift to those who see his whole career as an exercise in aggressive opportunism and grubby ambition.

Commentary in the 1960s was one of the best magazines every published in the United States. It caught a wave of radicalism and social criticism as Cohen’s Commentary had been buoyed by cold war liberalism and the postwar surge of ethnic and national pride. But where much of sixties radicalism was angry and rhetorical, Commentary typically delivered probing analysis rather than slogan and opinion. Its opposition to the Vietnam War, for example, was developed by realists with impeccable cold war credentials, such as Hans Morgenthau. The level of writing was remarkable, if impersonal – the sure sign of engaged editing. Podhoretz’s own book, Making It, as much a cultural history as a memoir, was just as cogent in its pragmatic radicalism and its critical appraisal of the cold war anti-Communism on which he had been weaned. Discussing the violations of civil liberties that were one of the results, he made amends for his own “brutal insensitivity” on this issue.

As personal history, it was a much better book than its harsh reception suggested – a reception that left the author permanently embittered. Despite its callow and tawdry moments, when he puffs up his own achievements and sounds like the Sammy Glick of the intellectual life, and despite its overwhelming concern with status, the book has a voice of its own – consistently intelligent, evocative, and fully alive. Rereading it recently for the first time in many years, I found large chunks of it still vivid in memory. Podhoretz’s account of his own upbringing, his experience at Columbia and Cambridge, and his literary education always rang true to me, especially since my life covered some of the same ground a decade later. His collective portrait of the Partisan Review intellectuals as the “Family” and his shrewd account of the origins and evolution of Commentary are simply taken over by Balint for his book, including the awkward terminology, which few others have adopted. Best of all, Making It is the only one of Podhoretz’s innumerable memoirs in which he does not shower himself with courageous independence and everyone else with opprobrium. Once he had turned Commentary to the right, he was quick to impute mean motives, especially cowardice, to former friends and mentors, including Trilling, Norman Mailer, and Phillips, who (he said) lacked the stomach to join his increasingly strident crusade against the political and cultural left. Self-inflating books like Breaking Ranks (1979) and Ex-Friends (1999) read more like position papers or vendettas than memoirs. In the latter book he manages at once to boast of his famous friends, including Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, the Trillings, and Mailer, to insist that he was always the first to break with them, and to wax nostalgic about their earlier intimacy and good times together.

What the older Podhoretz did to his friends was as nothing compared to what he did to the magazine, which he edited from until 1995 before turning it over to a trusted lieutenant, Neal Kozodoy, who, to everyone’s astonishment, passed it on to Podhoretz’s son John in 2009. Balint provides an impressive roster of writers who departed or were exiled as the magazine moved towards neoconservatism in the early 1970s: Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Ted Draper, Edward Hoagland, George Steiner, Daniel Bell, Herbert Gans, Dennis Wrong, William Pfaff, and many others, including notable fiction writers, such as Malamud. Eventually, even friends or longtime contributors like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert Alter dropped away, alienated by an unremitting culture wars agenda that included vitriolic attacks on gays and feminists. They were replaced by veteran cold warriors like Irving Kristol and party-line writers supported by conservative think-tanks and foundations, which took over the funding of Commentary itself in 1990.

With rare exceptions, the magazine’s cultural coverage fell apart, including its once-stellar book reviews, since every book was vetted for its ideological tendency. As Balint puts it,

The magazine’s literary criticism in its neoconservative phase had become a form of ideological gate-keeping, a way of establishing the true canon. More than ever, Podhoretz and the Family began to see every product of the mind as something that reflected a political allegiance. They increasingly put literature through a political grinder. (150)

This sort of critical comment is rare in the first two hundred pages of Balint’s book, which chronicle the stages of Commentary’s history with a show of neutrality. This peculiar default of judgment in effect ratifies Podhoretz’s claims that Commentary’s later history was the heroic fulfilment of its earlier mission, especially with its intrepid resistance to the supposed hegemony of the left over American culture and politics and its pursuit of a politics of self-interest over the universalist traditions of Jewish liberalism.

Balint himself was an editor of Commentary from 2001 to 2004 and evidently approves of the magazine’s right-wing campaigns if not its ideological policing of the arts. His hands-off approach works well enough to sustain a readable narrative, and his expansive endnotes furnish a census of the themes and writers who filled Commentary’s pages over the years. Yet he remains unflappable in the face of outright provocations and excesses, as when Podhoretz blames the AIDS epidemic on “the suicidal impulse at work in homosexual promiscuity” on “men who bugger or are buggered by dozens or even hundreds of other men every year.” This is as much sympathy as Podhoretz can muster for lives snuffed out by the worst plague of modern times.

Balint’s bland chronicle of this and other bomb-throwing episodes too often reads like a silent endorsement. Earlier this year, Nathan Abrams brought out the second of two much more critical studies of the magazine’s history, Norman Podhoretz and Commentary Magazine, based on more extensive research in the archives, including Podhoretz’s papers in the Library of Congress. Balint concentrates on the sixty-five years of the magazine itself, treats it as “a single, multivolume work, a kind of American Talmud” that sheds light on a “larger story about how Jews over the last half-century embraced America and how they were changed by that embrace.” (213) But the magazine, especially in its latter days, represents too narrow a sliver of Jews or intellectuals to provide a vehicle for this larger story. Balint’s subtitle is especially misleading: “The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right.” It has indeed been contentious, which is why its story cannot rightly be told in a faux dispassionate manner, but only a minority of the Jewish left or the intellectuals took this track. Apart from Kristol, Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer, and, more moderately, Nathan Glazer, few other prestigious figures signed on. Bell and Kazin remained liberals, Howe morphed from a socialist to a social democrat, and so on. In journals like the New York Review of Books, Dissent, and The New Republic, other New York intellectuals took a different route. Too often Balint attributes attitudes to the “Family” that pertain only to its right-wing splinter. The later Commentary transformed a vigorous forum into the cheerleading paper of a sect. As the nation moved right it periodically exerted real political influence, but within the larger community its venomous and toxic attacks ultimately fell on deaf ears. Today it publishes articles like “What Kind of Socialist Is Barack Obama?” and only true believers take it seriously.

In a strange about-face, Balint adds an epilogue saying as much, laying out every charge that can be leveled against Commentary in its present incarnation: that it is utterly predictable, no longer a “hot book”; that it has fallen into the mindless groupthink it often criticized on the left; that it “cloaked self-interest in the national interest”; that it craved power and influence when it abandoned literature for politics. Its writers could be seen as

overanxiously Americanized Jews, as hyperacculturated, overidentified, overzealous converts to America who proclaimed their love of country rather too loudly. . . .What they saw as successful assimilation, others saw as accommodationism. They curried favor, it was said. They truckled, they traded alienation for blind affirmation, they worshipped power and success, they strained too hard to prove their patriotism – in short, they were seen as the hofjuden, the “Court Jews,” of America. (213)

Balint doesn’t exactly endorse this indictment but serves it up as a surprising coda to his book. He could have added the magazine’s repeated failure to seduce its core constituency with its conservative agenda. For all their promotion of a “politics of interest” for American Jews, both Kristol and Podhoretz were frustrated by their seemingly unshakeable loyalty to a liberalism grounded in notions of progress, social justice, and universal moral values. In overwhelming numbers, prospering Jews continue to vote their anxieties and ideals, honed by centuries of discrimination, rather than their pocketbooks. This seemingly irrational liberalism was the subject of Podhoretz’s last book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, and even of his previous book on the Hebrew prophets. Kristol, more bluntly, derided “the politics of compassion” and once wrote an article “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews.”

The later Commentary’s one notable success has come in pushing for a more bellicose foreign policy – a confrontational posture toward the Soviet Union during Reagan’s first term (before both Reagan and the Russians reversed course), unquestioned support for the right wing in Israel under George W. Bush, a chorus of support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the unending “war on terror,” and the current face-off with radical Islam, especially Iran. This drumbeat for war, with its nostalgia for simple moral polarities of the cold war, has taken the magazine a long way from the liberal anti-Communism and the wry Jewish pride of Cohen’s original Commentary, let alone the more complex, more nuanced universe of Commentary in the 1960s.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.