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The Retreat From Liberalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1986

The past few years have provided a number of intellectual magazines with anniversaries on which they could survey their roles in contemporary politics and culture. In 1985, in a 20th anniversary issue, The Public Interest reviewed its increasingly skeptical contribution to policy debate, while in a 40th anniversary issue, Commentary asked how well America has met its responsibilities since the Second World War. Both magazines had, starting in the late 1960’s, undertaken a neoconservative rethinking of liberalism, the dominant tradition of American intellectuals. Immediately preceding these two magazines, in late 1984 the older and still liberal New Republic and Partisan Review observed their 70th and 50th anniversaries, respectively. Both put out special issues that can be read as responses to the neoconservative challenge. By examining these special issues it is possible both to view the vicissitudes of liberal thought in this century, and to describe its current status.

The New Republic defined itself as liberal from its beginning in 1914. Partisan Review evolved from communism in the early 1930’s, through an anti-Stalinism that remained politically radical, to an evolution over the past dozen or so years to what most of its contributors seem content to call liberalism. The contemporary liberal tradition of which the Partisan intellectuals are now a part might well be defined as the product of the flowing together, not altogether smoothly, of the intellectual traditions represented by the two magazines. From the former radicals comes a well-informed anticommunism coupled with one or another degree of disillusionment with liberal positions of the 1960’s and 1970’s on domestic social issues. From the longstanding liberals comes an attraction to arms talks, cultural exchange, summit meetings, and other hopes of peaceful accommodation with the Soviet Union. This optimism is continuous with a firm commitment to the liberal outlook that produced the Welfare State.

In the process of taking stock on their anniversaries, both journals have looked critically at their most vulnerable areas: Partisan Review at domestic politics; The New Republic at foreign policy—particularly its attitudes toward Soviet totalitarianism. The New Republic’s mode of presentation makes it possible to examine the magazine’s record on foreign affairs with relative ease. Its special issue contains an editorial introduction and a long essay, by historian John Diggins, tracing the vicissitudes of the magazine’s liberalism. Starting with sympathy for the Russian Revolution in 1917 and for the Bolsheviks’ draconian consolidation of power in the 1920’s, this liberalism repeatedly offered a modified and humanistic but nevertheless willing acquiescence in programs and ideas more radical than its own. The editors advised their readers to vote Socialist or Communist in preference to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Later they joined Popular Front defense of the Soviet Union in all its acts, including the brutal Moscow Trials. At this point in the history Diggins writes, “one can only feel liberalism rushing into the sewers.”

Diggins is implacable in his demonstration of the magazine’s continuing failure to recognize the nature of Stalinism and its crimes right through the Second World War and into the period of the Cold War. The editorial introduction to the 70th anniversary issue, moreover, states that:

The scandal in the history of this journal is that in the ’30s and ’40s it accommodated to the Zeitgeist (with occasional and important dissents from eminent intellectuals tied to the early history of TNR, like John Dewey) by downplaying at best and justifying at worst the crimes of Stalinism.

Such editorial forthrightness is an attractive feature of the present New Republic.

The Partisan Review special issue consists of an introduction by longtime editor William Phillips, a reprint of the editorial from the magazine’s first number, a selection from the notebooks of Lionel Trilling, poetry and prose by present and past contributors, essays by current contributors, and a section of comments in response to the statement: “The culture and the country have changed enormously over the past fifty years. How have you changed in your literary, political, or cultural views?” Yet though far more extensive than the New Republic special issue, Partisan Review proves to be less forthcoming about its past. Thus William Phillips covers over a wealth of contradictions when he volunteers that “our intellectual principles and our literary values have been fairly constant.”

No doubt this assessment is meant to recall Partisan Review’s founding in its present form in 1937, when it set up as a radical but anti-Stalinist journal (the 50th anniversary traces back to the founding of a previous, Communist Party-dominated journal of the same name in 1934). Phillips’ implication is that the magazine has faithfully adhered to its antitotalitarianism. Later in the special issue, however, Phillips reveals an abandonment of that position in the 1940’s. It seems that both Partisan contributor Clement Greenberg and editor Dwight Macdonald vigorously opposed the Second World War. Macdonald, writing elsewhere in the special issue, recalls his opposition without apology in an interview with Diana Trilling. And, in a chapter of his forthcoming memoirs titled “The Radical Comedians,” Sidney Hook adds the name of another editor, Delmore Schwartz, to those who opposed the war. Phillips, it is to his credit, now states that when faced with the momentous issue of the war by the other editors, “I was in conflict, which I now see to have been wrong.”

Phillips is not the only intellectual to have made such a confession recently. Irving Howe, who contributes a thoughtful evaluation of the shortcomings of socialism to the special issue, touches regretfully on his own ambiguity about the war in his recent memoir, A Margin of Hope. More vigorously, John Diggins’ history of The New Republic criticizes that magazine’s ambiguities about the war—and its failure to support the European nations fighting Hitler between 1939 and 1941. Diggins concludes that, “American liberalism seemingly refused to commit itself to defending the cause of Western freedom.”


In the postwar period, Partisan Review rededicated itself to the defense of Western freedom, notably in its 1950 symposium “Our Country, Our Culture,” most of the contributors to which announced their reconciliation with the United States and its world role. Then, in the 1960’s, the magazine’s perspective changed abruptly. Though this period is hardly mentioned in the special issue, it is the key to Partisan Review’s 1980’s liberalism. The contributors who do mention the 1960’s are the politically and culturally divergent former contributors—Lionel Abel, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz—who were invited to submit statements for the special issue. (Like The New Republic, Partisan Review has remained admirably open to divergent opinions, even when they are as damaging to its image as some of those in the special issue.) Irving Kristol, for example, judges Partisan’s response to the ideological and cultural challenges of the 1960’s counterculture to have been fragmented and futile. More damagingly, Norman Podhoretz charges a positive betrayal of the magazine’s “defining traditions” during the 1960’s. It abandoned not only its commitment to high culture, but also its original anticommunism and its maintenance of high intellectual standards. Partisan Review of the 1960’s “provided supporting rationalizations,” Podhoretz writes, “for the assault on high culture that was essential to the radical movement of the sixties.”

An apparent exception to these charges is Eugene Goodheart, a corresponding editor of the magazine. He recalls that in the 1960’s “I kept recognizing the Stalinist type in the arrogance and deceit of the new ideologues.” Goodheart also refers to “the philistinism of the counterculture” in that period. What he does not do is explain where one might find evidence in print of how he felt at the time. Similarly, William Phillips, in apparent confutation of Podhoretz, ridicules 1960’s-style attempts to elevate popular culture to the level of art. He mentions turning down an essay because it dealt with the television series “Kojack” “as a work of art to be treated as seriously as Bellow or Malamud or Mailer.” But Phillips does not explain how it came to be that under his editorship in the 1960’s Partisan Review printed a highbrow, high-art treatment of the Beatles, Norman Podhoretz confesses that in the late 50’s and early 60’s he had done “my own bit to plant these infections in the culture,” but Phillips omits his own relationship to them. (In his memoir A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life (1983), he does hint at “my own dilemmas and conflicts in relation to the cultural changes of the period,” and concedes that Richard Poirier, his coeditor at the time, “may have flirted too much with the counterculture.”)

Instead of dealing with the past, the contributors to the special issue have launched an unacknowledged attack on liberalism that can be read as a disguised, belated repudiation of the 1960’s. William Phillips, for example, unsparingly characterizes the contemporary Left as,

a complex of outworn Marxist notions, vaguely progressive ideas, trendy causes like environmentalism and various liberation movements, sympathy for something called the Third World, pacifism, anti-Americanism, an obsessive fear of nuclear power.

Turning from the Left to liberals, Phillips writes that “many of them have been swept up in the tide of worldwide pacifist and anti-nuclear agitation.” In contrast, “conservatives are often more concerned over the preservation of liberal and democratic values than are the liberals on the Left.” (Daniel Bell adds that in the 1970’s “the strength of neoconservatism had been its critique of the simplicities of liberalism and of Utopian illusions.”) Like Phillips, Kathleen Agena, a contributing editor, deplores “an ominous, nihilistic pacifism” that is “infecting Western societies,” and Edith Kurzweil, the magazine’s executive editor, concludes a critical report on a Marxist conference in Germany with the warning that “the German Left. . .may well bring about the end of our liberal world and become the handmaiden of Soviet domination.”

The Partisan Review authors deliver a similar critique of liberal and left culture. In addition to his disapproval of the counterculture, Eugene Goodheart rejects contemporary deconstructionist literary criticism for undermining reality with its too thoroughgoing skepticism. Phillips takes the same position on deconstruction, adding that some of it is “under the spell of a jargonized and outdated Marxism.” In addition, Phillips faults other critics on the left for their “total rejection of our culture as bourgeois, or masculine, or racist.” George Stade, also thinking of cultural special interest groups, offers a description of “the neofeminist movement” and its “apparatchiks” stronger than any I have ever seen in print. Stade speaks of the movement’s

puritanism, its hatred of the body, its assault on the family, its unisexualism, its insistence that children be raised from birth according to a strict ideological regimen, its recurrent revisions of the past, its denial of sensory reality and common sense, its frozen-faced fanaticism.

Passages such as these present the paradox of a group of intellectuals who are concerned to call themselves liberal but often sound antiliberal or even neoconservative.


The conservative columnist and editor at National Review, Joseph Sobran, puts it that The New Republic, at least, has secretly abandoned liberalism. He calls the editorial prefacing the 70th anniversary issue “an Aesopian manifesto” in which the rhetoric of the past is retained while the magazine actually pursues “its new mission of shepherding liberal opinion onto a new path.” This analysis would seem to make too conscious what seems to be a quite ingenuous shift in outlook, especially where Partisan Review is concerned. Instead of secret neoconservatism, what appears to be at play among certain intellectuals is a need to distance themselves from the excesses of the 1960’s without sacrificing their association with the term “liberal” and all of the implied idealism and high mindedness that it can convey. The convenient form commonly taken to reconcile these two aims is the denunciation of neoconservatism. Exactly because that denunciation is so loaded with ulterior purpose, it is probably the best guide to the intellectual politics that today chooses to call itself liberalism.

Several of the Partisan Review contributors mention or allude to the most commonly voiced criticism of neoconservatives: that they lack compassion. Morris Dickstein identifies liberal politics with this imaginative capacity, “without which civilized life can hardly continue.” George Stade finds “the Right” to be “too mean-spirited, short-sightedly self-interested, and mulish to bother with.” Alfred Kazin is “struck by the principled coldness and rejection on the part of so many social theorists.” He gives as an example a remark by Irving Kristol that political discourse is lowered when we concentrate on narrow issues such as that of school lunches. Yet George Stade makes a point similar to Kristol’s when he warns us to “beware” of “politicians who go on about the tribulations of the aged.” Surely, it should be possible for a nonliberal to warn against political demagoguery without being branded as lacking in compassion.

The second defect attributed to neoconservatism has to do with its rhetorical style. Daniel Bell, quoting Sidney Hook on “the ethics of discourse,” very properly insists that civility, “temper,” and “tone” are “central to the nature of political discourse.” Ranging among different kinds of neoconservatives, he finds a “relentless combativeness,” and “an attitude of self-righteousness and rectitude.” Phillips says that neoconservatives “abuse anyone to the left of them.” And Eugene Goodheart finds them “stridently confident, predictable, and even fanatical in their opposition to every liberal or radical tendency.” Goodheart is again reminded of Stalinism, though one might have expected him to recall the disputatious style of the New York intellectuals for which Partisan Review itself is well known. Indeed, when Daniel Bell remarks that in the past he complained of bad manners “to liberal and Left intellectuals” just as he does now of others, he could well be referring precisely to the Partisan slash-and-pound style of disputation. That style was probably best exemplified by Philip Rahv, the magazine’s joint editor with Phillips for most of its history. As it happens, in his interview with Diana Trilling, Dwight Macdonald recalls that Rahv was “a pretty brutal guy in many ways.” The failure of civility, like the lack of human sympathy, deserves to be criticized wherever it appears, yet it seems fair to say that this failure cannot be identified with any single ideology.

Similarly with Daniel Bell’s impression that “the neoconservatives sound and talk often like a hunted band of men and women huddled together against the “cultural hegemony” of the liberals and the Left.” Perhaps they do, though it would be surprising to find one of them using the term “cultural hegemony,” except in irony. But what does Alfred Kazin sound like when, speaking from within an academic and intellectual class that has overwhelmingly and vociferously denounced American nuclear policies, he declares that “no one dare question” the buildup of American arms? As for Bell’s contention that the neoconservatives fail to distinguish between “social democracy and communism,” a similar conflation of ideological positions can be found both among the contributors to the Partisan Review special issue and other liberals when they lump together neoconservatism, conservatism, “the Right,” and the Moral Majority (not to mention Eugene Goodheart’s comparison with Stalinism).

Bell’s point about the lumping of categories has the merit of being a substantive one. Elsewhere in his own discussion and in the remainder of the special issue, though, it is difficult to identify exactly what is supposed to separate the liberals of Partisan Review from neoconservatism. One does gather from passing remarks that some of the contributors object to American policy in Central America and to a nuclear arms buildup. But as we have seen, these are not the views of William Phillips, the editor. Nor, presumably, would he agree with Mary McCarthy, who contributes a sensitive account of “Hannah Arendt and Politics” in which she voices the very anti-Americanism that Phillips deplores in his editorial introduction. During the Joseph McCarthy period in the 1950’s, Mary McCarthy recalls, Arendt “was looking for signs that concentration camps were opening” in this country. Amazingly, Mary McCarthy comments:

Well, when you remember Nixon, that is not such a joke. In fact, though, it did not happen, or has not yet happened— whichever you prefer.

McCarthy’s indifference to the distinction between whether or not America has become a place of concentration camps typifies the wooly end of the contemporary liberal spectrum at Partisan Review. It is this end of the spectrum, with its politics of whichever you prefer, that poses the editors with a contradiction yet to be solved. Over the past dozen years, they themselves have pulled back from their liberal positions along a front of issues ranging from the ideological to the political to the aesthetic. (Ironically enough, in the course of their retreat they have, without quite realizing it, traced the route of changing opinions previously taken by the neoconservatives.) Yet it remains important to the editors that they continue to be called liberals. Torn, therefore, between opinions that they share and attitudes they are not prepared to repudiate, they publish and honor the old leftist attitudes. Rather than be associated with those slightly to the right of them with whom they agree, in other words, they prefer to publish those with whom they disagree.

To justify looking two ways at once, as it were, the editors have settled on a “stance” in place of a political position. Eugene Goodheart, for example, places himself politically “in that uncertain place between rival camps and conflicting convictions.” William Phillips poises himself in a similar fashion by identifying with those who “now know that Left or right stances are, as they say, part of the problem not the solution.” The politics of posture—a literary politics, really— had great resonance in the early days of Partisan. But the truth about the literary intellectual mode—and this is admitted with some regret by a continuing practitioner—is that in the past 16 years the social scientific intelligence has gradually relegated it to a secondary role.


At Partisan Review’s founding in the 1930’s, social programs were, as they are now, a major domestic issue. Yet it was possible to gain a dominant intellectual position without mentioning the specifics of domestic politics. Thus Sidney Hook writes that in the early days, “the editors regarded the basic questions of education, law, philosophy, economics and social thought as academic and boring,” and that they “would plead that they were revolutionists not concerned with such superficial, quotidian questions like job and pension plans, labor legislation, unemployment insurance, or educational reform.” Throughout its history Partisan Review avoided a still more parochial and earthbound set of issues—namely, those concerning the Jews, Nathan Glazer alone raises this matter in a contribution to the special issue titled “Jewish Intellectuals.” He asks why “there was almost nothing on Jews and Jewish issues in PR,” despite the intellectuals around the magazine being predominantly Jewish. The answer, of course, is that in their politics they chose the universalism offered by the Marxists, while in cultural matters they chose the universalistic side of modernism. Glazer looks forward to a greater willingness among them to recognize Jewish issues. But in the meantime the idealistic caring represented by liberalism seems to have taken the place of Marxism in fulfilling the universalistic need of certain Jewish intellectuals.

Whatever the future of Jewish issues at Partisan Review, at The New Republic they have clearly been central to the magazine’s retreat from liberalism. The publisher, Martin Peretz, is a supporter of 60’s radicalism who found himself disgusted by the Left’s antipathy to Israel. In his own writing and obviously through his influence on the magazine, he introduced a more favorable editorial climate toward Israel. One suspects that initially Peretz wished to accomplish little more than righting the balance. But his effort logically could not stop with Israel. For, support of Israel’s right to exist challenges one liberal position after another. Liberal antipathy to the military is challenged by the evident need for American military might and an internationalist foreign policy to protect Israel. Antipathy to nuclear power is challenged by the need for policies calculated to make us less dependent on Arab oil. Dislike of America’s Central American policies is challenged by the importance of opposing political movements like the Sandinista revolution when they prove to be sympathetic with the PLO.

Whether from a coming together of Jewish particularism and a direct interest in social programs, as at The New Republic, or more abstractly, as at Partisan Review, liberalism is undergoing significant changes. For the time being the intellectuals at both magazines appear to be overridingly concerned to maintain their nominally liberal identities. For some of them this may well be a matter of self-respect. For others it may reflect a desire to remain within the embrace of the overwhelmingly liberal academic community to which most of them belong. However these intellectuals identify themselves, though, it seems clear that the liberal consensus will continue to be eroded, and the gap with neoconservatism narrowed. And as the process goes on, one can expect liberal intellectuals to grow ever more insistent in asserting the utter incompatibility of the two outlooks.


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