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The Evolution of Commentary

[1]2,688 words

Benjamin Balint
Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
New York: PublicAffairs, 2010

Running Commentary is a lively and well-researched work of intellectual history that is of interest both as an account of how a group of alienated dissidents came to revolutionize American politics and as a history of neoconservatism that details the movement’s Jewish origins. The author’s main thesis is that the link between neoconservatism and the anti-Stalinist Left is not coincidental but rather parallels societal shifts that occurred during the twentieth century as Jewish alienation gave way to assimilation into the mainstream. Neoconservatives who were initially anti-Stalinist Leftists include Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Seymour Martin Lipset, and others.

Commentary was the epicenter of this transformation. Founded in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee, it initially was a bastion of anti-Stalinist Leftism. Under Norman Podhoretz the magazine shifted rightward and was responsible for the founding of the neoconservative movement. Since the late 1970s it has fiercely defended neoconservatism. Balint characterizes Commentary as a multivolume “American Talmud” chronicling the entirety of the post-war American Jewish experience and thus frames neoconservatism as a Jewish movement.

At the heart of what was to become Commentary was a close-knit circle of New York Jewish intellectuals referred as “the Family,” united by their working-class immigrant upbringings and political radicalism. Most of them were educated at the City College of New York, where they engaged in spirited political debates in the student cafeteria and acquired an ability for “verbal pugilism” that later characterized the magazine. The New York Intellectuals were ardent Trotskyites and many of them belonged to Young People’s Socialist League (then Trotskyist in orientation).

“The Family” was a fitting moniker for the group and the circles in which they traveled. They not only shared common ancestry and upbringings but also intermarried among each other and forged personal and professional bonds that lasted for decades. They helped each other obtain jobs, promoted each other’s work, and groomed their children to succeed them. The connections among them are too numerous to list. This contributed to their rapid rise later on.

Their opposition to Stalinism was shared by Jews at large. Stalin was not an anti-Semite on principle but nonetheless was despised by Jews on account of his purging of thousands of Jewish Bolsheviks and his opposition to Trotskyite internationalism, having implemented a form of nationalistic communism by adopting the idea of “Socialism in One Country” as state policy. Communism also acquired a socially conservative bent under Stalin; this among other factors led Trotsky to proclaim that the revolution had been “betrayed.”

This created a split among American leftists that culminated in the founding of the Committee for Cultural Freedom in 1939 by John Dewey and Sidney Hook (himself a frequent Commentary contributor whose intellectual trajectory paralleled that of the magazine). The CCF denounced Stalinist totalitarianism and promoted liberal democratic reforms. It was funded by the CIA, who used it as a vehicle to exert influence upon American cultural life. The CIA via the CCF also directed funds to Partisan Review and Encounter and promoted artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism and intellectuals such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, and others. Commentary was never the recipient of such funds but many of its contributors benefited from CIA funding. (In response to allegations that this compromised the magazine’s intellectual integrity, Norman Podhoretz, editor of the magazine from 1960 to 1995, published a symposium in 1967 entitled “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited” as a defence of the firm anti-Communist stance that Commentary had espoused in the 1940s and 50s.)

By the time Commentary came into being in 1945, it had positioned itself on the side of the anti-Communist liberals as a matter of course. Their anti-Communism was distinct from the right-wing anti-Communism of Joseph McCarthy or Father Coughlin; hewing to what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. termed “the vital center,” they championed liberal democracy, civil rights, and the ideal of the open society.

By this point they had also reconciled themselves to America. As Harold Rosenberg put it, “It has come to seem more reasonable to get to the top floor by taking an elevator than by blowing up the building.” A review in Commentary of Saul Bellow’s The Victim praised the novel for its attempt “to consider Jewishness not in its singularity, not as constitutive of a special world of experience, but as a quality that informs all of modern life.”

Commentary soon became a leading periodical with a circulation of 20,000 readers by the late 1940s. It effectively carved out a new literary establishment. The prominence of Jews in the literary world grew to be such that Truman Capote complained of a nepotistic “mafia” of Jews who gave each other a leg up at the expense of gentiles.

From its inception, Commentary was committed to cultural and ideological warfare as a means of bringing about political change. Elliot A. Cohen, the magazine’s first editor, insisted that the fight against Communism was a battle of ideas and that “America should not only fight Communism on the diplomatic playing field, but also wage an ideological war and export American values abroad.” One writer would later claim that “the decisive battle of the Cold War was waged not with tanks and missiles but with typewriters and ideas.” Indeed the neoconservatives’ meteoric rise proves the efficacy of the metapolitical approach advocated by the New Right. Within decades of its founding, Commentary reached the corridors of the White House and was in a position to influence public policy.

Although early issues dealt with Communism and the Holocaust extensively, Commentary initially did not dwell on Zionism or lend support to it. Most liberal Jews were wary of the concept of a Jewish state. Commentary deemed Zionism to be reactionary, seeing the Jews as a people “obviously chosen to be the protagonist in the fight against nationalism.” In an article on Theodor Herzl, Hannah Arendt expressed skepticism that the founding of a Jewish homeland would extinguish anti-Semitism and argued that creating a Jewish state surrounded by Arab nations would entail the constant necessity of self-defence against Arab hostility. Cohen pointed out that Jews in Israel would still remain dependent upon the outside world economically, rendering political independence meaningless.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Commentary began to concentrate more on racial issues. By this time Norman Podhoretz had succeeded Cohen as the editor of the magazine. Podhoretz was a staunch supporter of colorblindness and racial equality. In his first piece written for Commentary, entitled “My Negro Problem–and Ours,” he offered a candid recollection of his childhood experiences with blacks and advocated for “the wholesale merging of the two races” as the ideal solution to the race problem. The magazine also addressed poverty, crime, etc. and advocated welfare and other social reforms.

Commentary took a softer stance on Communism, which was characterized as an obsolete threat. In Schlesinger’s words: “Communism today is a boring, squalid creed, tired, fragmented and, save in very exceptional places and circumstances, wholly uninspiring. La guerre est finie.” Thus Commentary was critical of foreign policy aimed at containing Communism. The magazine also criticized American involvement in Vietnam (though Podhoretz distanced himself from more radical figures like Noam Chomsky, who compared American “butchery in Vietnam” to the Holocaust).

However as the 1960s wore on and the New Left gained ascendance, Podhoretz shifted to the right, and Commentary with him. Although the New Left was heavily Jewish, Podhoretz saw their attack on the middle class and the universities as a threat to Jewish interests given the Jews’ status as a high-IQ, upwardly mobile group. By this time, Jews had entered the professions and had largely risen beyond their working-class immigrant roots. Podhoretz was a prime example. (In Making It, one of his many memoirs, he unabashedly confesses his thirst for fame and status.) Having benefited from the economic opportunity America offered, Podhoretz was alienated by the New Left’s distaste for capitalism. He came to conclude that Jews were best served by identifying with America and using patriotic rhetoric to defend Jewish interests. This differentiated him from most Jews, whose identification with the underdog led them to embrace political liberalism.

Podhoretz also condemned the New Left’s support for authoritarian leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Fidel Castro, et al., which he saw as antithetical to the liberal democratic ideals that Commentary upheld.

Black interests and Jewish interests occasionally came into conflict over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. Jews historically benefited from meritocratic college admission policies and some feared that instituting affirmative action quotas would harm them as a group. Figures in the Black Power movement also generally opposed Zionism, seeing it as a manifestation of racism and imperialism, and sympathized with Palestinian liberation; many were overtly anti-Semitic.

Thus Podhoretz’s shift to the right was motivated by his belief that anti-Americanism and political radicalism were antithetical to Jewish interests, as Balint notes:

. . . he also reacted to the radical Left as a Jew who wished to persuade his fellow intellectuals and fellow Jews alike “that radicalism was their enemy, and not their friend.” He harbored a dual fear, in other words, of the illiberal fits of the counterculture. He identified a threat from the Movement not only to intellectual and democratic principles, but also to Jewish interests.

Balint identifies the events leading up to the Six-Day War as a turning point in Commentary‘s evolution. In May 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser began amassing troops in the Sinai Peninsula on the Israeli border, expelled the United Nations peacekeeping force from Gaza and Sinai, and threatened to destroy Israel. By early June, Israel had launched an airstrike in retaliation and declared war on Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel’s victory instilled a sense of national pride among both Israelis and many American Jews, 10,000 of whom had volunteered to fight for Israel during the war.

Commentary published dozens of pro-Israel articles over the course of the following decades. The magazine maintained the line that Israel was an innocent, enlightened democracy under constant threat of Arab aggression, and that moreover the imperative of protecting Israel necessitated American aid.

As leftists increasingly came to see Israel as a racist, colonialist power, Podhoretz became convinced that anti-Semitism had become the domain of the Left. This led him to advocate for a more ethnocentric approach to politics that placed Jewish interests above all other factors. His eventual break with the Democratic party was hastened by the leak of a meeting between Andrew Young (Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations) and a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1979. Young’s vocal denunciation of Zionism was met with Jewish outrage. Podhoretz and other Jewish neoconservatives voted for Reagan in 1980 and subsequently registered as Republicans.

The neoconservatives also began to find common cause with the conservative anti-Communist fringe of the Republican Party, seeing the Soviet Union as a threat to Israel’s existence on account of its alliance with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. They opposed the policy of d├ętente pursued during the Nixon and Ford administrations; instead they took an aggressive stance against Communism and advocated the destabilization of the Soviet Union and its allies. In this they resembled the Likudniks, who generally advocated the dissolution of neighboring Arab states in order to protect Israel.

By the 1970s, Commentary had launched a full-fledged defence of neoconservative foreign policy. This was summarized in a 1975 piece by Patrick Moynihan entitled “The United States in Opposition,” in which he argued that American democracy could not survive unless democratic ideals were spread across the globe. (His speech in response to the UN’s resolution equating Zionism with racism, largely written by Podhoretz, was also a turning point in the history of neoconservatism.) Commentary began to feature articles arguing for more defence spending, for the expansion of NATO, against making arms negotiations with the Soviet Union, etc.

Podhoretz and his ilk encouraged the Reagan administration to view conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, etc. as an extension of the Cold War. Under the Reagan doctrine, the government lent military support to anti-Communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Commentary‘s influence reached a high point during this time. Reagan appointed Commentary writers to senior positions within the White House and consulted them frequently. In Balint’s words:

By resurrecting anti-Communism, a once marginal group of renegade leftists, who had felt themselves handicapped for American life, now found that their ideas had become extraordinarily relevant to their country during the great age of American power; their quarrels had foreshadowed larger political shifts. The squabbles of the Commentary clan had become the politics of governments. Its preoccupations had become the country’s, and its scale of ambitions widened accordingly.

The neoconservatives’ anti-Communist, pro-democracy crusade did not cease with the fall of the Soviet Union: it merely became concentrated upon the Middle East exclusively. Although their influence waned during the Bush (I) and Clinton administrations, neoconservatives regained prominence following 9/11, which provided an ideal pretext to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein in a mission to “drain the Middle East of terrorism by means of exporting democracy” under the pseudo-patriotic pretence of defending American freedom and democracy.

Balint’s account of Commentary‘s evolution is refreshingly candid in its assessment of the neoconservatives’ real motives. In his words, neoconservatives “simply regarded the Republican Party as a useful vehicle” for their own collective interest, which they “cloaked in the rhetoric of national interest.” (This was remarked on by Gore Vidal, who accused Podhoretz of wearing the American flag “like a designer kaftan.”) Balint also quotes Irving Kristol’s remark that the “historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”

Neoconservatives of course represent a mere fraction of the Jewish population. However this is not because most Jews are “self-loathing,” as Podhoretz would have it; both neoconservatives and their liberal counterparts generally pursue a strategy based on their conception of what best suits their group interests, whether consciously or otherwise.

Running Commentary also offers insight into the mechanics of obtaining political power. There are three main factors referenced throughout that account for the neoconservatives’ ascent: they were intensely committed to intellectual warfare; they formed a close-knit network spread throughout the media, think tanks, universities, and government; and they made alliances with those across the aisle who shared similar objectives.

The gradual displacement of traditional conservatism contributed to achieving Jewish hegemony across the political spectrum. The core tenets of modern liberalism–equal rights, democracy, individualism, free trade–have become enshrined as dogma in mainstream American politics in part due to the collapse of paleoconservatism and the rise of the neoconservative Right, in which Commentary played a central role. The paleoconservative tradition represented by figures like Patrick Buchanan and Russell Kirk has all but vanished from American political discourse, while neoconservatives have, at least in practice, achieved a degree of bipartisan support. Amid the recent anti-government protests in Iran, which were clearly spurred on in part by Western powers and the Israel lobby in an attempt to destabilize the region, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump alike spoke out in support of the protesters. Israel’s intelligence minister also expressed support for the anti-government protests, stating that “if the people succeed in achieving freedom and democracy, many of the threats on Israel and the entire region today will disappear [2].” Indeed Commentary (now under the editorship of John Podhoretz) has published a handful of articles over the past week beating the drum for regime change in Iran. One article last month made the case that America must prepare a military option on Iran, or at least aid Israel in doing so by pushing Iran out of Syria, curbing Iran’s ballistic missile program (Israel meanwhile possesses up to 400 nuclear warheads), and outlawing Hezbollah, arguing that “America must begin working now to make Israeli military action feasible at a reasonable cost [3].” Balint’s Running Commentary lays bare the Jewish impetus behind such calls for military action on Israel’s behalf.