Printer Friendly

The New Republic Reader: Eighty Years of Opinion and Debate.

"What do the liberals hope for?" Edmund Wilson asked readers of The New Republic in 1932. Writing in the pit of the Depression, Wilson sought to move the foremost organ of Progressive-era politics leftward by taking aim at its pre-Crash program of reformed capitalism. Wilson denounced liberals like Stuart Chase and Walter Lippmann--and, by implication, most of TNR's editorial board--for their failure to break once and for all with the values of a business civilization and embrace socialism. "Though they are better informed and more enlightened than the average American business man, their imagination does not extend much further nor their logic cut much deeper. Their political thinking is mediocre because their solidarity is middle-class." No wonder the liberals tended to write "in bursts of language that left you blank": Their response to Henry Ford's America was to promise that industrial capitalism was evolving on its own toward a more cooperative future.

Not so, replied the magazine's editors. What liberals hoped for was planning "designed to hasten the alteration of capitalism in the direction of an economy efficiently serving social purposes." This formulation of a social-democratic politics, poised barely to the right of socialism and anchored in a faith in the power of reason to bend social forces to human purposes, has recurred throughout The New Republic's history. For John Dewey, writing in 1928, it was the logical result of "the adoption of the scientific habit of mind in application to social affairs." Gunnar Myrdal, writing in 1964, identified the program as "a Marshall Plan to eradicate poverty in the nation." And Stokely Carmichael pushed the magazine's politics to its radical limits two years later when he wrote, "I place my own hope for the United States in the growth of belief among the unqualified that they are in fact qualified: they can articulate and be responsible and hold power."

These days, liberals are less likely to admit their hopes publicly, in the pages of The New Republic or anywhere else. Reading Dorothy Wickenden's anthology of articles drawn from the magazine's eighty-year history, one is struck by the evaporation of the reformist and radical programs that inspired its editors and contributors from 1914 to the late sixties. In her useful introduction to the collection, Wickenden admits that "brisk news analysis" has replaced the "earnest soul-searching about the future of liberalism" that formerly occupied so much space in the "front of the book" at TNR. Where once the magazine's confidence in "the scientific habit of mind" generated a program of political economy (thanks to the efforts of such stalwart social democrats as George Soule and Robert Kuttner), The New Republic is now more likely to scold the Kennedy-McGovern-Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, Palestinian nationalists, advocates of affirmative action and "hard" multiculturalists than it is to venture any positive social agenda. During the eighties, TNR's passion was the "Reagan doctrine" of a cold war conducted by mercenaries. Wickenden's anthology ends with the controversy surrounding the magazine's 1986 editorial in support of the Nicaraguan contras, which provoked far more energetic submissions on both sides than any domestic issue of the decade.

Loyal Nation readers may attribute the competition's diminished aspirations to the tutelage of Martin Peretz, the magazine's publisher and owner since 1974. In fact, as Wickenden observes, leftist criticism of The New Republic's right turn has a long pedigree, dating back at least to 1920, when founding editor Walter Weyl denounced his former colleague Lippmann and other "tired radicals" as "immature men, grown to clever reactionaries," who "after shedding all ideas become absorbed in business, practical politics, or pleasure, retaining only an ironical, half regrettable pity for their callow days of radicalism." Then and now, the left derides the world-weary tone of the magazine's "realism." But the disappearance of liberal hope in The New Republic has deeper causes than the arrival of neoconservative and neoliberal writers to its masthead, and Nation readers should approach its recent history in a spirit of humility and mutual recognition. For if The New Republic lacks a concrete program or a compelling set of animating principles, much the same could be said of virtually every organ of the intellectual left.

Twenty years ago, Hans Morgenthau wrote an epitaph for the hopes that animated the magazine from its founding, when he noted that the catastrophic history of the twentieth century had spared no secular "political faith"--least of all the expectation of "salvation through the democratic republic or the classless society of socialism." But unlike other would-be realists, Morgenthau refused to celebrate such disillusionment as the necessary price for political maturity. "No civilized government that is not founded on such a faith and expectation can endure in the long run. This vacuum will either be filled by a new faith carried by new social forces that will create new political institutions and procedures commensurate with the new tasks; or the forces of the status quo threatened with disintegration will use their vast material powers to try to reintegrate society through totalitarian manipulation of the citizens' minds and the terror of physical compulsion." With few exceptions, today's TNR contributors seem untrouble dby Morgenthau's grim diagnosis; most are too busy cheering on the information highway and the new global marketplace to worry about the need for a "new faith" for democratic governments. But The New Republic is not alone in evading the challenge Morgenthau posed in 1974, nor is its neoliberalism the only politics haunted by ideological drift and demoralization.

The eighty-one articles reprinted in Wickenden's anthology suggest that something more than political apostasy--the left's usual charge against the New Republicans--explains the crisis in liberal morale that lies just below the surface of the "brisk news analysis" in the front of the magazine. From the outset, The New Republic has been at war with itself about its relation to the popular mind, and about the relevance of its interventions in cultural criticism to its larger liberal project. The journal has always been uncertain about whether its mission is to mobilize public opinion as an informed, democratic force outside of the state and parties, or whether it should offer middleclass readers the illusion of privileged access to the halls of power in Washington. That choice has largely turned on how the magazine has interpreted the moral and cultural resources of ordinary Americans. When Herbert Croly launched TNR in 1914, with the assistance of Weyl and Lippmann, he certainly intended to subordinate cultural criticism to political and social criticism, but he also hoped that the magazine would draw inspiration for a new liberalism from the remarkable "Little Renaissance" in American art and letters of the prewar period. Whereas New York's two other "little magazines" of the teens--The Masses and The Seven Arts--advanced a Whitmanesque radicalism that reached out to popular traditions with deep roots in America's dissident past, Croly's magazine offered a rebuke to the Jeffersonian, populist and localist currents in American thought and politics. While the cultural radicals at The Seven Arts upheld Abraham Lincoln as a romantic nationalist who articulated the moral and political wisdom of the country's folk traditions, Croly celebrated Lincoln as the forerunner of a generation of new professionals whose distance from parochial concerns made them the natural leaders for an industrializing nation. Lincoln's countrymen venerate him, Croly explained in 1920, without understanding "how different he is from them."

Beginning with its inaugural editorial in November 1914, The New Republic adopted a policy of blaming Americans first for their "self-complacent isolation" in the face of the Great War in Europe. Six years later, when The Nation and other disillusioned progressives accused the pro-war liberals at The New Republic of leading the country into a pointless war that gutted the prospects for reform at home, Croly put the blame squarely on the American people for succumbing to war hysteria. It was not the war propagandists who were guilty of undermining liberalism, in his view, but those citizens who became "intoxicated with propaganda" and "thought only of victory and little of its supposed political objects."

Yet this calculated disdain for the popular mind has coexisted in the pages of The New Republic with a very different kind of political and cultural criticism, best exemplified in the magazine's early documentary reporting (represented here by Randolph Bourne's 1914 "In a Schoolroom" and by Hamilton Basso's minor classic of 1935, "The Riot in Harlem") and in recent complaints that the Democrats have lost touch with the values of their constituents. "The historical failures of American radicalism," Christopher Jencks wrote in a 1967 article on "The Limits of the New Left," are "linked in important ways to [a] distaste for American culture and American institutions." By contrast, British commentator Henry Fairlie recalled in 1983 Franklin Roosevelt's "astonishing sense of the nation... not divided against itself but united by a common citizenship to which his Administration's policies, as well as his own words, gave a meaning that ordinary people felt almost personally." Fairlie's tribute stands as an unwitting indictment of the dominant strain of liberalism at The New Republic for much of its history. The very notion of a politics joining the personal and the public in the practical experience of citizenship not only stands in stark contrast to the elitist contempt for public ignorance in the magazine's early editorials, it also challenges the insider political gossip and enthusiasm for free markets that have filled the vacuum left in the front of the book by the departure of any substantive reform program.

The New Republic's ambivalence about the popular imagination has parallels in the longstanding tension between its political and cultural commentary. Randolph Bourne complained constantly that Croly, Lippmann and Weyl had marginalized him by assigning him to cover educational and literary subjects while they determined the journal's political stance. The coming of The New Republic, he wrote a friend in 1915, "always gives my proud spirit the awareness that I am having nothing to say about its policy, and that I am a very insignificant retainer of its staff." In Bourne's day, the magazine walled off Greenwich Village's cultural radicalism from the editors' uptown policies. By the forties, the forward-looking progressivism of TNR's editorial pages clashed with the somber interventions of critics like Alfred Kazin and Lewis Mumford, whose meditations on the moral thinness of liberalism in an age of radical evil bred a profound suspicion of what Kazin called "the merely political thinking, the desperate and unreal optimism, with which we try to cover up the void in ourselves." Mumford charged that the modern "corruption of liberalism" by a shallow scientistic ethic explained the paralysis of TNR's editors before the Nazi threat of 1940. "Vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life," he argued, liberals had ceded "the fields of esthetics, ethics and religion" to reactionaries, "with the confident belief that they would eventually drop out of existence, mere vestiges of the race's childhood."

The schizophrenia between culture and politics has worsened in the past decade, as Leon Wieseltier has made the back of the book a showcase for such distinguished writers as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sean Wilentz and the late Christopher Lasch, whose cultural criticism is embedded in a deep sympathy for the democratic and populist traditions in American politics. But the effort of these and other writers to renew the politics of civic solidarity as an alternative to market-driven neoliberalism and welfare-state progressivism has made not the slightest impact on the magazine's editorial pages or political analysis. The new attention to gay rights under Andrew Sullivan's editorship is revealing in this regard. The border patrol still monitors the boundary between politics and culture: TNR's endorsement of civil liberties for gays and lesbians betrays no sympathy for gay and lesbian movements or for arguments for a distinctive homo-sexual culture.

The tragedy of the "new" New Republic is not that it has abandoned left-liberal verities but that it has so successfully quarantined its political commentary form any risk of infection by the ideas circulating in its back pages as to foreclose sustained exploration of what liberals might hope for in our time. If liberal intellectuals ever aspire to something more than "brisk news analysis," they could do worse than consider what wisdom lies in the moral speculation of a Kazin or a Mumford, and in the cultural criticism of their successors, for a reinvigorated politics.
COPYRIGHT 1994 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Blake, Casey
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 10, 1994
Previous Article:The Problem of Democracy in Cuba: Between Vision and Reality.
Next Article:It Does Not Die.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters