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A Common Ground of Liberalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Freedom Is More than a Word. By Marshall Field. University of Chicago Press. $2.50. Public Journal: Marginal Notes on Wartime America. By Max Lerner. The Viking Press. $3.00.

Liberal pragmatism is the common denominator of the political philosophy of Max Lerner, foreign-born son of immigrant parents, scholar, and publicist, and of Marshall Field, scion of one of America’s richest families, businessman, and publisher. Although born on different sides of the tracks, each has reached a common ground from which to tackle the problems of our society in which they are passionately interested. It is not accidental that Field’s socially responsible use of money and Lerner’s equally responsible use of brains should have combined to make the New York newspaper PM the most challenging innovation in American journalism.

That the common ground of liberalism poses many dilemmas to Field, ultimately a capitalist, and to Lerner, ultimately a socialist, should not be surprising. Those who sneer at liberalism—whether from the irresponsible Right or from the irresponsible Left—naturally cannot understand the kind of liberalism which the fruitful co-operation of men as different as Field and Lerner personifies. This liberalism is necessarily full of dilemmas because it has no ready-made answers. But this is precisely its strength. Though conscious of final values, pragmatic liberalism can afford to look at facts without prejudice and formulate its program in accord with the needs of the moment rather than predetermined dogma.

The interesting point about Marshall Field’s “Freedom Is More than a Word” is not what its author writes, but that he writes it at all. There is little in his political and economic thinking that is in any way original. His is the point of view of the enlightened businessman who has an ardent desire to make the world a fit place to live in for every man, rich or poor, and who hopes that capitalism can be made to work in order to achieve this end. Field’s indictment of reactionary publishing—exemplified by his founding of the Chicago Sun in competition with Colonel McCormick’s Tribune, or his legal fight against the monopolistic Associated Press which refused to extend its service to the Field papers—suggests that Field has reached a political maturity shared only by a few of his class. Without a genuinely free press, unrestricted by special privilege interests, there can be no free society. This, in essence, is Field’s credo as a liberal and a publisher.

His dilemma as a liberal capitalist appears most clearly in his attitude toward monopoly. He feels that the use of regulatory commissions to enforce competition is not only traditional American practice, but also a much sounder method than resort to government ownership. But monopoly is not simply a conspiratorial move to preserve special privilege. There is something intrinsically technological and economic—in the literal sense—in the modern trend toward bigness. Field’s endorsement of Judge Learned Hand’s verdict in the AP case is relevant. A monopoly, Judge Hand declared in his District Court opinion, “of all those interested in an activity is no monopoly at all, for no one is excluded and the essence of monopoly is exclusion.” The alternative to monopoly, then, is not necessarily competition, but private co-operative or public ownership.

Similarly, Field believes that if we retain competitive enterprise, we should view “with equanimity the cartelization of industry and resources in other parts of the world. Our own freely competitive enterprise—to the extent that it is freely competitive—should always have an advantage over cartels in world trade.” The simplicity of this faith is unfortunately not substantiated by the economic facts of monopoly, It may be true that no world cartel is possible without American participation, but whether American business could advantageously compete with international cartels without being swallowed up, is extremely doubtful.

One of the purposes of PM was, as Field points out, to bring to bear upon news “all the available insight, research, background, and interpretation, without which the isolated ‘news’ item is like a shout in the dark.” In bringing Max Lerner to PM as chief editorial writer, the choice was certainly a happy one. Few of our non-fiction political writers write as well as Lerner, and even fewer are endowed with as much intelligence and learning. On PM itself, for instance, I can think of only one other who measures up to this prerequisite—I. F. Stone.

This does not mean that Lerner is always accurate and right. There are some articles which I have in mind—some of them included in “Public Journal,” a selection of his editorials in PM during the last two years, one wisely omitted—which do not appear to be written in the “room with a view,” E. M. Forster’s famous phrase that seems to inspire Lerner. I am thinking of his rather opportunistic endorsement of the so-called Morgenthau plan for German de-industrialization, his somewhat ephemeral enthusiasm for the accomplishments of the Teheran Conference, and his misinformed interpretation of Soviet federalism after last year’s constitutional changes. It should be said, however, that some of these pieces were written in the heat of battle, with the news hot off the wire and with little time to look out the window. They are among the casualties of daily journalism.

Although Lerner’s editorials probably represent some of the most distinguished of contemporary editorial writing, they do not and cannot compare with his earlier pieces, written more leisurely in the study room or magazine office and collected in “Ideas Are Weapons” (1939) and “Ideas for the Ice Age” (1941). No wonder that Lerner is at his best when he applies his scholarly training to those issues with which he is professionally acquainted as a political scientist.

I am referring to his pieces on the Bill of Rights, Congress, the Presidency, and other subjects in the field of American politics. These articles are admirable because Lerner is one of the few academic political scientists who bring imagination and fervor to subjects which., in other hands, appear flat and dull. He is equally exciting when he crosses swords with the Peglers, McCormicks, Eastmans, or Bullitts.

Less satisfactory are Lerner’s articles on economic matters. To some extent, I suppose, this may be ascribed to his awareness of the audience for which he writes. Partly it may be the result of that pragmatic realism of which I spoke earlier and which enables him to find common ground with a man like Marshall Field. While Lerner’s criticisms of our economic policy are stringent enough, I miss that sense of urgency so well expressed by the title of his first book, “It Is Later than You Think” (1938), in which he still talked a great deal about democratic collectivism.

The chief weakness of Lerner’s thinking appears in his pieces on European politics. They lack a certain degree of immediacy, not in the temporal but in the spatial sense. While his criticism of our foreign policy is well-reasoned and incisive, the articles dealing directly with Europe’s internal affairs go rarely beyond the viewpoint of an American, Lerner fails to think himself into the role of a European, in my opinion a prerequisite to full understanding. There is a tendency toward weasel-wording and double-talk where outspokenness is necessary. I am speaking of an unreadiness to state more frankly the revolutionary implications of the war in Europe which, if admitted, might scare liberal well-wishers or serve as ammunition to the hostile. It is, perhaps, the intellectual price paid by all liberals for their sense of political responsibility at home. It is certainly not Lerner’s sin alone, but a dilemma shared by this reviewer in his own writing.

On two matters, however, I have to enter a definite dissenting opinion. One refers to Lerner’s all too frequently ecstatic and lyrical “Americanism,” when he speaks, for example, of the “rich American earth,” or idolizes a young soldier who “was America to me: the America of fulfillment as well as promises, the America not only of today’s victory, but of tomorrow’s construction.” I have little use for this kind of patriotic rhetorical nourish which lends itself to abuse so easily, even if it flows from the pen of a liberal. Sentences like these can be applied to any country and used by anybody. Stripped of their symbolic associations—which Lerner is himself quick to uncover when employed by those whose political ideas he dislikes—they appear shallow and empty.

My other objection pertains to a certain tendency on the part of Lerner to subscribe to the “big man” theory of history. “It was Stalin’s will,” he writes, “which infused the whole vast Russian organism with the strength to surpass itself in resisting Hitler’s onslaught.” Statements, like this sound fine and may serve to drive the truth home to the possibly politically unsophisticated reader of PM, but I am confident that Russia could have resisted the Nazis without Stalin, however important his role may be, just as this country will have to carry on without its great late President, whose part in the nation’s greatest efforts, during war and peace, was outstanding.

It is difficult to do justice in a short review to a book made up of dozens of unrelated editorials which cover an even larger number of topics. Many of these editorials deserve to be discussed in detail, whether complimentarily or critically. But regardless of one’s preferences, the great majority of Max Lerner’s opinions are discriminating, stimulating, and worth being collected in a single volume.


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