Bravo, old sport

Christopher Hitchens

  • Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Post-War America by Neil Jumonville
    California, 291 pp, £24.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 520 06858 0

Each morning, the great, grey New York Times publishes a box headed ‘Corrections’, which box makes a sort of running auto-adjudication on the performance of the journal of record. On one day, there is a matter of spelling or nomenclature set right. On another, a date or a place. Occasionally, the correction goes so far as to specify what the paper might, or even should, have said. Some see, in this parade of scruple and objectivity, a Victorian combination of public rectitude and private hypocrisy whereby the more influential subscribers get their chance to ‘set the record straight’. Others discern a sort of semiotic inquisition, useful for disciplining errant or over-imaginative reporters into the uses of impartiality. (Alexander Cockburn comes right out and says that its purpose is to convince the public that everything else in yesterday’s Times was historically and morally true.) Anyway, last November the paper ran a ‘Correction’ which is unlikely to be bested:

An article on Saturday about Israeli efforts to control violence after the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane included an erroneous identification, supplied by Israeli officials, for a man detained as a suspect in the killings of two Palestinians. The man, David Axelrod, is not related to Leon Trotsky. A man with the same name, who is a descendant of Trotsky, was questioned briefly by the police in a case of mistaken identity.

The arcane character of this item, which was at the top of that day’s menu, might make it appear incongruous among the Saks and Bloomingdales ads, the opinion-poll findings, the Broadway listings and the remainder of the quotidian fare. But all across the Upper West Side of the city there is still a constituency, or at any rate a readership, to which any news of any relationship between Trotskyism and Judaism is as vivid and important as any despatch from Trump Tower or Wall Street. In this circle, or set of interlocking circles, the names of Rudolf Slansky, Ehrlich and Alter, Max Schachtman, Andres Nin, Amadeo Bordiga and John Dewey are, still, names with which to puncture an argument, break up a friendship, revise an article or inaugurate a new and daring small magazine. Keywords include ‘Doctors’ Plot’, ‘Deutscherite’, ‘PR Crowd’, ‘Vyshinsky’ and ‘neo-con’. New York is the last intellectual capital in history to concern itself with both the Surrealist Manifesto and the Platform of the Left Opposition.

Neil Jumonville’s book contains rather more references to Trilling than to Trotsky, which, given the reverse emphasis in most discussions of his subject, is by no means disproportionate. Mary McCarthy described the fell consequences of getting the proportions wrong in her essay ‘My Confession’. Having airily declared, at a fellow-travellers’ publishing party, that Trotsky should be allowed his day in court, she found her signature conscripted by a Trotskyist ‘defence committee’ that hadn’t troubled to ask her permission. Before she had time to object, she was pelted with so much obloquy by the Stalinists that it seemed ignoble to remove her name. And then she began to look into the matter:

It is impossible to take a moderate tone under such conditions. If I admitted, though, to being a little hipped on the subject of Trotsky, I could sometimes gain an indulgent if flickering attention – the kind of attention that stipulates: ‘She’s a bit off but let’s hear her story.’ And now and then, by sheer chance, one of my hearers would be arrested by some stray point in my narrative: the disparaging smile would slowly fade from his features, leaving a look of blank consternation. He would go off and investigate for himself, and in a few days, when we met again, he would be a crackpot too.

Some of these people turn up in The Group. At approximately the same time as Mary McCarthy was chivvying and being chivvied all over Manhattan, Saul Bellow submitted his first short story for publication in the student magazine of Northwestern University. (It took third prize in the competition.) Entitled ‘The Hell It Can’t’, the story was intended to rebuke Sinclair Lewis’s Popular Front novel It Can’t Happen Here. I once went to the labour of digging up this un-anthologised tale, which describes an episode of vicious fascist violence, and could see in it, if I chose, premonitions of Bellow’s later impatient pessimism.

Still, long after he had himself ceased to be a Trotskyist, Bellow had the generosity to make his hero Augie March run into the Old Man in Mexico, and to speak of him thus: ‘I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave – no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue – of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from the high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it’s stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things.’ Augie March reports Trotsky as ‘very gingery and energetic, debonair, sharp, acute in the beard’, which doesn’t go all that badly with Mary McCarthy’s ‘small, frail, pertinacious old man who wore whiskers, wrinkles, glasses, shock of grizzled hair, like a gleeful disguise for the erect young student, the dangerous revolutionary within him’.

The variable elements that went to make up the unstable but attractive elements of Trotskyism might be summarised, through Trotsky’s own personality and experience, as a register of the following: Intellectual, International, Jewish, Secular, Literary, Classical, Modernist. Moving from adjectives to nouns we would hit upon: Generalship, Dissidence and – perhaps above all – Exile. These are potent dialectical combinations: the stiff-necked atheist and the unapologetic Jew; the author of Literature and Revolution and co-signatory, with André Breton, of the Surrealist Manifesto; the companion of Frida Kahlo; the defender of embattled Einsteinians and Freudians; the founder of the Red Army and the pitiless opponent of Great Russian chauvinism. What do we have here but the ideal-type, of the cosmopolitan, the modernist, the essayist and the man of action, that was yearned for by the diaspora of Partisan Review?

We have one more thing: the most nerve-straining title of all and the one discussed long ago by George Steiner in his Trotsky and the Tragic Imagination. Isaac Deutscher, the non-Jewish Jew par excellence, hesitated in calling his Trotsky trilogy The Prophet. There are messianic traditions after all, and there are messianic traditions. Yet surely Irving Howe, currently the very model of New York social democracy and of its literary counterpart, is not exaggerating when he calls the following excerpt from Deutscher ‘Shakespearean in quality’. Trotsky, on the run from Stalin, is in Norway in 1936. The social-democratic government, quailing before Moscow’s allegation that Trotsky is a Hitler agent, asks him to be silent. He replies:

This is your first act of surrender to Nazism in your own country. You will pay for this. You think yourself secure and free to deal with a political exile as you please. But the day is near – remember this – the day is near when the Nazis will drive you from your country, all of you.

‘After less than four years,’ Deutscher writes, ‘the same government had indeed to flee from Norway before the Nazi invasion; and as the ministers and their aged King Haakon stood on the coast, huddled together and waiting anxiously for a boat that was to take them to England, they recalled with awe Trotsky’s words as a prophet’s curse come true.’ (Trotsky’s persecutor in Norway, who was trying to appease Vidkun Quisling’s local Fascist movement, had been Trygve Lie, later first Secretary-General of the United Nations.) Prophet or not in the Old Testament sense – and his prescience about capitalism and Communism seems to have exhausted itself lately – Leon Trotsky was the first and for some appreciable time the only world-class figure to warn against both Fascism and Stalinism. Even Churchill in his Great Contemporaries gives credit for some part of this achievement to the Old Man.

Taking Trotsky’s measure in this way, as human being and as theoretician, we see that all the strands of the ‘New York intellectual’ milieu are in some sense Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist. This is because, even if all Jewish imagery and emotion could be winnowed from the mix, and even if all Marxist terminology could be purged from the records of those concerned, he remains the century’s most arresting instance of the aesthete and the intellectual in politics.

From the world of Partisan Review (’the PR Crowd’), which was the fountainhead magazine of the New York school (and never mind for the nonce that Bellow is from Chicago and Susan Sontag from Los Angeles), several streams have originated. The dissident Left – as opposed to the proto-Communist Left – symbolised by Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv and others. The Cold War hardliners, such as Melvyn Lasky, Irving Kristol, James Burnham, Sidney Hook and later Norman Podhoretz. The ‘End of Ideology’ liberal professoriat: Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Lewis Coser. And perhaps most enduring in their contribution, if only because they partook of all wings and of none, the Europeanised cultural and literary Modernists such as Clement Greenberg, Delmore Schwartz, Harold Rosenberg and, to a different degree, Malcolm Cowley – those who found Partisan Review an alternative to callow nativism, a transatlantic lifeline to Eliot, Malraux, Silone. To give the roll-call of magazines, as Jumonville does, is to tell off from the New York Review of Books by way of Dissent, the New Republic, the New Leader, Commentary and the Nation, without exhausting the list. And almost all of the above-cited writers knew one end of a Trotskyist internal disputation from another. In their own worlds, however far they moved from the Old Man, they preserved the imagery of the faction-fight, the confession, the recantation and the necessity for long memory and sarcasm in argument. They also showed an occasional un-Trotskyist taste for historical rewriting. Professor Norman Birnbaum told me that in 1984, of all years, he asked the PR board what it proposed by way of a 50th-anniversary symposium. ‘But Norman,’ replied the now-thoroughly conformist William Phillips, ‘PR was Stalinist in 1934. We thought we’d wait until 1986 for our half-century. Why remind people?’

There is a related progression, involving upward mobility and assimilation, which fits the jagged pattern of class and ethnicity against the smoother curve of political ‘maturation’. Many of the leading members of the New York group came from plebeian homes where English was not the first language. They educated themselves at places like City College and in Talmudic logic-splitting among the groupuscules. They sought to gain acceptance as Americans and as dissidents, as well as to better their lot. Not all of these objectives were strictly compatible – remember that as late as 1936 Lionel Trilling was being told explicitly by Columbia University that ‘as a Freudian, a Marxist and a Jew’ he could not expect to be allowed to impart the great traditions of English Literature. His response was to make as little as possible of the ‘accusation’, or definition, and to metamorphose into a refined gentleman-liberal. His novel The Middle of the Journey is patterned on the classic Communist-into-ex-Communist evolution; effectively eliding the stage of Trotskyist anguish in which many of his contemporaries dwelt for longer than they now care to remember.

These others were spikier, and did not seek ‘tenure’ in a time when credentials mattered less than they do now: a consideration well-caught by Russell Jacoby in his book The Last Intellectuals. But there was always a subliminal status-pressure at work. In a recent review in the New Republic of Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, Irving Howe asks himself why he and his peer-group, who were ready enough to convict Ezra Pound of racialism, hesitated to attack Eliot in spite of his very crass and blatant attacks on ‘free-thinking Jews’. First, of course, there was the intense excitement felt in Partisan Review circles at the first publication of The Waste Land. But was there not something else?

Reading Eliot’s poetry a half-century ago I felt so strongly (if not always lucidly) attuned to its inner vibrations that I had little desire to be critical, especially of what might be passed over as a few incidental lines of bigotry. With a supreme hauteur, Eliot had made the journey from provincial St Louis to cosmopolitan London.The New York writers could not match his hauteur, but perhaps they could negotiate a somewhat similar journey front Brooklyn or the Bronx to Manhattan. I doubt that this comparison occurred to many of the New York writers, but I am convinced that it figured in our feelings.

The intellectual in politics is always faced by the problem of élites, and by the much less precise notion of élitism. Should the masses or the intelligentsia be the proper target of enlightenment? Ought one to be a civilising courtier or a déclassé agitator? Trotsky himself was celebrated for his panache and individualism and his contempt for vulgar ‘public opinion’ and ‘common sense’. In his raillery against the dull Stalinist hacks in Russia, and the even more stupid Communists in Germany who thought that Hitler would give them their chance, he made many a resentful, bovine, ‘ordinary man’ type of enemy. Though no snob, he was no populist – and he was a conspicuous member of the world’s most visible minority. (He became the first to write seriously about the role of anti-semitism in the Stalin worldview, and the first to predict that Nazism might lead to an actual extirpation of Jewry.)

Consider how the New York school, itself committed to an integrated, mobile version of American society, for itself and others, interpreted the question of élitism. First, and perhaps above all, we have Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay in Partisan Review, entitled ‘Avant Garde and Kitsch’. This was a trumpet-blast against massified, homogenised culture and was expanded by later writers into an attack on the political uses of conformity, nativism and provincialism. Without Greenberg it is almost impossible to imagine the Abstract Expressionist painters getting critical sympathy or attention and it is interesting to note, as Jumonville does, that he derived his position from an essay by Trotsky in Partisan Review which had stated that ‘the struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. Without this there is no art.’ Take out the ‘struggle’ bits, and scale down Greenberg’s own views of the ‘revolutionary’ potential of Pollock and de Kooning, and you have a defence of high-bourgeois artistic integrity: initially set against the barbarities of Zhdanov but equally to be wielded against Hollywood, advertising and Henry Luce. Even the post-war Partisan Review symposium ‘Our Country and Our Culture’, which in 1952 elected to celebrate, as the use of the possessive might indicate, a more rounded and reconciled view of America on the part of the intellectuals, was shot through with dislike for commercialism and manipulation.

Granted this distrust of the mass, and of the mass counterpart in intellectual public opinion (what Harold Rosenberg termed ‘the herd of independent minds’), it became a question of what form élitism would take. It took, by my count, four distinct shapes. First, and easiest to dispense with, is the organised remnant of the Trotskyist vanguard. Dwight Macdonald, after his break with this outfit, wrote a scathingly funny article about the boast of James P. Cannon, leader of the Socialist Workers Party, that ‘the only really moral people’ were the Trotskyists. He showed how this sub-Bolshevik arrogance had driven away the few influential sympathisers, such as the novelist James T. Farrell, that the SWP ever possessed.

Some of these people, like James Burnham, retained elements of their Bolshevik identity when they offered their genius to the service of power. In The Managerial Revolution and The Struggle for the World, Burnham displayed a truly Trotskyist grandeur in his command of the twin subjects of productive relations and imperial rhythms. He merely altered some of the pluses to minuses, and in a third book The Machiavellians argued that power is always held by élites and that democracy is a sham. Victory goes to the élite that can best bewitch the masses. This ideology of conspiracy and manipulation, and its world-historical setting, outfitted Burnham admirably to become a CIA consultant and Cold War profiteer: a role in which he helped to evolve the Congress for Cultural Freedom and to recruit numerous intellectuals to an unfastidious interpretation of the Kulturkampf. His break with Trotsky was over the agonised question of Kronstadt: it was noticeable that those who had been most pure in this matter were later, as ex-Trotskyist and anti-Soviet campaigners, the least scrupulous about recommending the ‘pacification’ of Algeria, Vietnam and the Congo.

The third élite consists of those who remained broadly liberal on domestic questions and restrained on foreign policy ones until the second, Reaganite phase of the Cold War. By that time, the issues of Soviet Jewry, Arab terrorism, Third World subversion and black-versus-Jewish urban American dramas had become emotionally and to some extent intellectually melded. The ethos of the group, which became known as ‘neo-conservative’, was never more happily expressed than by its leader Norman Podhoretz, who remarked with irritated sarcasm that American Jews still had the voting habits of Puerto Ricans and the income level of Episcopalians. Here one got a more rugged interpretation of the assimilation/mobility question, together with a marked decline in Jewish solidarity with current or former ‘out’ groups and, in the pages of Commentary and the New Criterion, a developed series of attacks on cultural decadence, homosexuality, pacifism and ‘multi-culturalism’. Vicarious identification with ruling and victorious WASPs culminated in the warm relationship between Commentary and the person of Ms Jeane Kirkpatrick, many of whose staff and advisers were drawn from a tiny group called ‘Social Democrats USA’, which had its origins in a Trotskyist sect led by Max Schachtman, most brilliant of the sectarian defectors after Burnham himself. (I remember meeting Melvyn Lasky in the street in London and hearing his part-shy and part-proud confession that he had just flown to New York expressly for Schachtman’s funeral.) The condensed lucubrations of Schachtman and Burnham are lampooned by George Orwell in ‘The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism’ – ‘The Book’ within the book in 1984. It should be added that not all of the Commentary set went all the way. Daniel Bell, for example, protested and resigned when Partisan Review, which in its dotage has joined the general rout, proposed to publish an open attack on democracy by an organiser of Reagan’s Nicaragua and Iran policy, and Saul Bellow resigned from Podhoretz’s grandly-titled Committee for the Free World when it went overboard in defaming Norman Mailer.

The fourth classifiable group which can claim descent from the anti-Schachtman warriors in the great Trotskyist schism, still holds the view that the intellectual must be an independent, critical person, neither a celebrant of the status quo nor a marginal propagandist. Writers like Irving Howe and the group connected with Dissent magazine, who in a sense constitute the Right of the American Left, do not desire to be part of a Kissinger-style Judenrat, at the service of the empire. They wish to maintain dialogue with supporters of the Reverend Jackson, say, and with the new immigrant populations who are re-enacting the Ellis Island saga. They dislike the rise of the Israeli ultras and the allegory this imposes on East-West and North-South, to say nothing of Brooklyn-Harlem, relations. But they are also out of sympathy with the part-green, part-red mishmash which is most of what remains of the New Left and the peace movement. This suspicion dates from the Sixties, when Dissent flirted with quietism on the matter of Vietnam because it thought the SDS leadership was unhistorical and potentially ochlocratic. And today, when the question of Palestine comes up, they wince.

In the recent crisis over the Gulf War, all these currents and tendencies were on view; not always predictable in their verdicts or diagnoses. Many of the Trotskyist sects opened the bidding by compromising the anti-war movement and declaring Saddam and the Baath to be anti-imperialist. Commentary and the New Republic, for reasons that are connected both to Israel and to their need for a demonstration of American will, would have struck Baghdad harder and earlier than Bush and Schwartzkopf did. The heirs of James Burnham, now more or less fully transferred to William Buckley’s National Review, can see the shade of their founder in the grandiose rhetoric of the New World Order, which is, of course, an order imposed by the New World. The New York Review of Books published some learned pleas for a negotiated settlement and some consideration of ‘linkage’ but also more than one article justifying the use (if not exactly this use) of force. From Dissent circles came a number of arguments which sought to find a left-liberal pro-war position by defining the conflict (as, unluckily for them, Bush had done) as essentially anti-fascist. Only the Nation (for which, I should say, I myself write a column) opposed the escalation and published regular reminders that America’s role in the region is not that of a disinterested superpower. As I write, only the Nation has protested at the scale of Iraqi civilian and ‘collateral’ casualties.

The only quality exhibited in common by all four groups is a fixed attachment to the idea of minority, dissident status. When Whittaker Chambers (who appears as Gifford Maxim in Trilling’s novel) decided to make his break with Communism, he still thought it morally essential to proclaim that he was deserting a winning cause rather than snuggling up to the Nixonites and the FBI. Meetings of the ‘Committee for the Free World’, lavishly funded and often attended by serving members of the Administration, felt it necessary to talk as if they were a group of persecuted, reviled oppositionists. Many others signalled their acceptance of the mainstream by writing a confession entitled Against the Current, or words to that effect. Clearly the imagery of an embattled remnant does not lose its élite appeal even when politically metamorphosed.

Neil Jumonville’s book, which is agreeably written and well, if narrowly researched (there is no Burnham and no Schachtman), is an argument for pragmatism: for the solvent effect of the ‘real world’ upon grand or utopian systems. Pragmatism, indeed, was the theory and practice of John Dewey, who after all took years out of his life to defend Trotsky and to expose the gruesome frame-ups of the Moscow trials. But I detect a drift towards Bloomsburyisation: the latest on a groaning shelf-full of reminiscence, self-reference and the multiple glossings of clique-think. Alan Wald’s 1987 book The New York Intellectuals is a necessary companion volume and in the long run a more illuminating one, because it shows the germinal, contradictory force of revolutionary politics and the noticeable failure of those once singed by it to succeed, however much they may have tried, in escaping its implications.

In the rush of confession, revision, repudiation, self-advancement and mere ageing that has overtaken the New York crowd, the idea of the fearless unpublished, unimpressed and uncompromised intelligence has taken rather a beating. That is why, long after Trotskyism has become irrelevant, the admonishing figure of Trotsky himself has not. It just isn’t possible to imagine him on some fortified kibbutz, with an anti-Arab pogrom down the road. As Mary McCarthy wrote of him, keeping some part of her powder dry, ‘his shrug before the unforeseen implies an acceptance of consequences that is a far cry from penance and prophecy. Such, it concedes, is life. Bravo, old sport, I say, even though the hall is empty.’