This piece first appeared in the December 1985 issue of Chronicles.
“Liberty, the daughter of oppression, after having brought forth several fair children, as Riches, Arts, Learning, Trade, and many others, was at last delivered of her youngest daughter, called FACTION.”
There are many things wrong with this book, beginning with its title. The Liberal Mind is not what this book is about. (Nor were the 1940’s and 1950’s really a Conservative Age—but let this pass.) It is about the intellection of the New York left. Liberality of mind is a desirable condition—yes, also (and perhaps especially) for political conservatives. It is an overall desideratum and not a term properly applicable to the designation of specific conventicles of intellectuals. Professor Pells’s book is about the closely circumscribed and often cramped and airless circle of the latter. There were all kinds of men and women among them, good and bad, but in the 1940’s and 1950’s their influence on the course of the Republic and on the life of its people was nonexistent. Pells argues that their ideas were important; that, as is the case with certain writers, thinkers, artists, etc., they were the antennae of the race; that their arguments were forerunners of what would happen later. “In effect, the intellectual skirmishes which took place between 1955 and 1960 were rehearsals for the full-dress battles that continued to convulse the nation long after the age of Stalin, Truman, and Eisenhower had given way to Vietnam, Watergate, and a renewed Cold War.” Not at all: those intellectual skirmishes were drearily limited; they meant nothing.
Yes, Ideas Have Consequences (the title of Richard Weaver’s early conservative book): but in different ways. Since 1960 an American meritocracy began to emerge, so that all kinds of Presidents became dependent, at least partly, on academics who had crawled and kicked and chewed their way to the top by means of publicity. Also, the significant event in American intellectual—or, rather, ideological—history in the 1950’s was the emergence of what goes under the name of “conservatism.” About this Pells writes nothing. Yet, say what you will, and, whatever their stylistic and intellectual merits, since 1955 the influence of National Review rose, while that of Partisan Review declined. I do not berate Professor Pells for not writing about Bill Buckley—after all, that was not his self-defined task—but there is not a word in this book about Weaver, Tate, Kirk, and Canon Bernard Iddings (not Daniel) Bell, of the early and perhaps neo-classical conservatives. Pells’s book is about the world of New York intellectuals. Yet he should have heeded Orwell who once wrote that intellectuals live in a world of ideas and have little contact with reality.
He does not mention Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station either, whereby hangs a tale—or, rather, this paragraph. For 30 years To the Finland Station was the biblical exegesis of American intellectuals for the understanding of Communism. Yet To the Finland Station was hopelessly—and I mean hopelessly—wrong. To understand the reality of the Soviet Union by stringing an ideological disquisition through the writings of Michelet, Hegel, Marx, Plekhanov, etc., is like writing a history of the French Revolution by discussing Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and ending up with Mirabeau.
Pells spends much time and enormous respect on the “seminal” books of Hannah Arendt, Richard Hofstadter, John Kenneth Galbraith. He does not see their enormous shortcomings, even now. These shortcomings were due to the fact—and it is a fact—that their authors were opportunistic and ephemeral. Their writings and their view of history were opportune, because they projected the past and the future from their view of the present, from what then seemed to be going on. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (“a towering figure,” “the political masterpiece of the postwar era”) was a typical example of that. Having—somewhat belatedly—recognized that Stalin’s regime was totalitarian and anti-Semitic, resembling in part (but only in part) Hitler’s, she sat down to write a book circa 1949 with three theses: first, that anti-Semitism is the inevitable ingredient of every totalitarian regime (not true: Robespierre? Lenin? Castro?); second, that a totalitarian regime inevitably becomes more and more totalitarian as time goes on (not true: was Khrushchev more totalitarian than Stalin?); third, that a popular revolt against a totalitarian regime is impossible. (Soon after the publication of her book came the East German and Polish and Hungarian revolts—with no effect on her reputation, of course.)
According to Pells, Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform was another “masterpiece”; it “remains a classic indictment of American liberalism.” Not at all: Hofstadter was a frightened American liberal professor. His book was his frightened reaction to McCarthyism, in which Hofstadter rightly recognized elements of American populism (something that had been recognized by Canon Bell, Peter Viereck, and even by this writer years before, but no matter). But Pells is quite wrong in writing that Hofstadter’s book was an indictment of Populists and Progressives. No: The Age of Reform deals only with the former, not the latter—the difference between the two being that the Populists became national socialists, while the Progressives remained wedded to an American version of internationalism, that is, to a form of international socialism. Also, while some of the Populists became anti-intellectual, the Progressives were proponents of intellectualism in every way. Hofstadter, the author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (which Pells does not mention) did not live to see the day when professional intellectuals such as Kissinger or Brzezinski or Mrs. Kirkpatrick were running in and out of the Oval Office to explain the world to Presidents of the Republic.
In The Affluent Society John Kenneth Galbraith, as Pells writes, “placed his greatest hopes” in the “further and rapid expansion of a New Class,” whose expansion “would be . . . the major social goal” of America; and since the continuing development of this New Class depended on the quality of the nation’s schools, a substantial “investment in education could replace the production of goods as the new and basic ‘index of social progress’ for the United States.” Soon after the successful publication of The Affluent Society (1958), American education got all the investments it wanted, with results that are as dreadful as they are obvious. Some index. Some progress.
Professor Pells read all of the issues of Partisan Review and Commentary, and some of Dissent. There is little or nothing in his work about periodicals such as The New Leader or The New Yorker or The Atlantic—after all, these reflected as well as contributed to the intellectual climate of those decades. He spends little space on the idiocies of The New Republic before 1949 and on those of The Nation even later. His book is also full of factual errors. World War I “appears in retrospect a mere skirmish compared to World War II.” Some skirmish! Picasso’s Guernica is “the most famous painting of the 20th century”—which is like saying that Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book is its most important revolutionary document. “The intellectual community marched to war in 1940 imbued with a desperate sense of solidarity and purpose.” Not at all: many American intellectuals remained pacifists. (As Irving Kristol, rather stupidly and self-contentedly, wrote but a few years ago, “the war of the worlds in 1940″—his words—was fought by “young giants” between Alcoves 1 and 2 of the New York City College cafeteria, between Stalinists and Trotskyists, of which Kristol was one of the latter. I would have thought that in September 1940 the war of the world was fought by the Luftwaffe and the RAF in the skies over England: but that, too, is another story.) Pells writes of “pressure groups like the Moral Majority” in the 1950’s when the Moral Majority did not exist. (What we have needed for a long time is a moral minority.) The New York intellectuals, disillusioned with Communism, “found themselves supplying the philosophical ammunition for the Cold War.” Not at all: that was the self-appointed job of people such as John Foster Dulles. “Kennan seemed a classic example of the intellectual as insider. . . . He argued that Moscow’s compulsion was to conquer the world.” Kennan argued nothing of the sort; and in 1947 he was light-years removed from intellectuals. For the New York intellectuals “Western Europe . . . London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Copenhagen [why Copenhagen?], Berlin were their second homes—filled with neighborhoods, shops, people, and experiences they could visualize in minute and passionate detail regardless of how long it had been since they last visited.” No: most New York intellectuals were neither interested nor very comfortable in Western Europe. Their origins were Eastern European: if there was one “European” country in whose culture they remained interested it was Russia. In 1956 the Eisenhower Administration “confessed its helplessness to intervene” in the Hungarian Revolution. Eisenhower confessed nothing; he merely explained the selfserving tactics of his Administration away.
According to Pells, the “years between 1947 and 1955 were fearsome,” and the firing of Communistic professors was “a carnage.” This kind of rhetorical exaggeration is an example of the often poor quality of his writing, which is also full of words such as “emblematic” and phrases such as “rites of passage.” On occasion there appears a good irreverent phrase (“after listening to [Paul] Goodman on the subject of children, one longed for W. C. Fields”) and an insightful remark (“Truman may well have triumphed [in 1948] because the electorate perceived him as the most conservative of the candidates”). He is properly respectful of Dwight MacDonald, a solitary figure, whom many of the New York intellectuals refused to take seriously. “If anything, he took politics too seriously in the sense that he cared what effect governments actually had on their citizens. . . . MacDonald was by nature an empiricist rather than an ideologue; he could not retrain his skepticism about grand designs, particularly when they wound up corrupting individuals, culture, and elementary standards of moral conduct.” This is very true; I wish that Professor Pells would write more about MacDonald; but I am afraid that, unlike MacDonald, he is too much of an ideologue and not enough of an empiricist.
[The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, by Richard H. Pells (New York: Harper & Row) $18.95]