A Partisan Century: Political Writings from Partisan Review edited by Edith Kurzweil. Columbia University Press, 409 pp.
April 1, 1997        

The first two Partisan Review anthologies, published in 1946 and 1953 and now out of print, were of an almost unbelievable richness. The contributors whose names began with “A” were Lionel Abel, James Agee, Conrad Aiken, Sherwood Anderson, Hannah Arendt, W.H. Auden, and Erich Auerbach. Those whose names began with “B” included Isaac Babel, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, R.P. Blackmur, Louise Bogan, Paul Bowles, and James Burnham. ... You get the idea. Writers and Partisans: A Partisan Review Reader published in 1983 and also out of print, was slenderer but still distinguished, with essays by Arendt, Bell, Camus, Chiaromonte, Howe, Koestler, Macdonald, Milosz, Sontag, Spender, and Trotsky, among others. The book length 50th-anniversary edition (1984) was a grand family reunion, with contributions from eminent members of every Partisan generation.

A hard act to follow. But then, A Partisan Century isn’t really meant to be definitive, or even representative. There is no poetry, fiction, or literary criticism, and except for Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and two or three other pieces, no cultural commentary of the the kind whose breadth, verve, and authority made the magazine famous. The new anthology is designed, rather, to answer the question: What have Partisan Review’s politics been during its sixty years?

The short answer is: liberal anti-communism. True, the magazine started out well to the left of liberalism. (An “Editorial Statement” in the inaugural issue announced, a trifle solemnly: “Partisan Review is aware of its responsibility to the revolutionary movement.”) And on the other hand, in recent years its liberalism has largely consisted of (infrequent) digs at neoconservatism, whose proponents nonetheless seem very much at home in Partisan’s pages. For the most part, though, “liberal anti-communism” will do. Politically, the magazine has majored in criticizing America’s critics, with a (substantial) minor in criticizing America.

A reasonable choice, I hasten to add— someone had to keep left-wing intellectuals honest (or try). And Partisan was, after all, primarily a literary magazine, not a policy review or a newsmagazine or even a journal of political opinion. Investigative journalism, programmatic advocacy, and scholarly research were not its bailiwick. Its specialty was generality; its purpose was to make overall sense of facts and judge the quality of arguments; to penetrate ambiguities, disclose incongruities, and highlight ironies; to leaven political debate with that famous sense of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty. Culturally, they were players; politically, they were kibitzers. That was why Dwight Macdonald left in 1943 to start politics which (like Dissent a decade later) was everything Partisan Review ought to have been -- if it had been a political magazine.

The kibitzing was, however, abundant and, at least as represented in A Partisan Century generally of high quality. Gide’s “Second Thoughts on the USSR” (1937), is still inspiring and Trotsky’s “Art and Politics” (1938) still provoking. George Orwell’s “London Letter” and Nicola Chiaromonte’s “Paris Letters” evoke the cosmopolitan though beleaguered intellectual camaraderie of the 1 940s. The celebrated polemics can still get one’s juices flowing: e.g., Macdonald and Clement Greenberg’s “Ten Propositions on the War” (1941), urging non-support for Roosevelt and Churchill, with Philip Rahv’s scornful reply; and William Barrett’s “The Liberal Fifth Column” (1946), a slashing attack on the pro-Soviet apologetics of that era’s Nation and New Republic Diana Trilling’s “The Oppenheimer Case” (1954), a close reading of the transcript of Oppenheimer’s loyalty hearings, shows that the interpretive subtleties of lawyers are child’s play compared with those of a skilled literary critic. James Baldwin’s “A Letter from the South” (1959) shows that the same relation holds between the descriptive powers of journalists and those of novelists. And among the anthology’s unexpected pleasures are these still eloquent avowals by the young Norman Podhoretz from a symposium, “The Cold War and the West” (1962):

"I don’t believe for a moment that “the intellectual values and freedoms and the political and civil liberties we all affirm” are inseparable from the particular complex of political and economic institutions that now exist in the West. On the contrary, I would even go so far as to say that certain of these institutions are positively hostile to the values and freedoms they purport to serve. ... What we need -- and what until very recently the extraordinarily willingness of intellectuals to think about everything in cold- war terms (which means precisely thinking in terms of the assumption that there is a rough identity between the institutions of American society and the values “we all affirm”) has deprived us of -- is an energetic and unremitting effort to keep a vision of the good society alive and to judge existing institutions as they actually/unction by the extent to which they further that vision. Let me point out that a commitment to such visionary ideals, no matter how utopian they may seem, is the best conceivable safeguard against being taken in the by the lies of politicians and ideologues, West and East.

To me, the most hopeful development in years is the recent appearance of a body of utopian social criticism based on a very clear vision of what a decent life on this planet might look like and full of concrete ideas which, if they have little chance of being put into immediate effect, at least serve to refresh and nourish our fading sense of what the liberal-radical tradition has always stood for and how far short we still are of achieving it. The priests are forever distorting the prophets ... And the only remedy is for the prophets to say them nay and remind them of what the Lord really demands of man."

Podhoretz may have been gently chiding his editors; “utopian social criticism” was never Partisan Review’s strong suit. And now that the Cold War is over, the journal’s fierce anti-communism has been succeeded by a slightly mellower anti-utopianism, represented in A Partisan Century by Ralf Dahrendorf ’s “No Third Way” and Jeffrey Herf’s “The Polish Spring.” Both, interestingly, are addressed to Central European student audiences, Herf’s an address, Dahrendorf’s an open letter. Herf, earnest and fraternal, speaks for “deradicalized” American New Leftists; Dahrendorf wry and avuncular, for disillusioned West European social democrats. Both essays counsel patience, moderation, pragmatism, avoidance of rancor, eschewal of “system thinking,” and recognition of the political-economic law of gravity: capitalism is associated with freedom; socialism with unfreedom. Both essays, closely reasoned and attractively written, are eminently worth reading and arguing with.

One might begin the argument with Herf’s observation: “Why [are] some nations richer than others? The short and simple answer is that where governments allow markets, encourage entrepreneurship, and foster private investment decisions and the free movement of labor, economic growth takes place. Where, on the other hand, government bureaucrats have tried to plan economies, discourage entrepreneurship, concentrate investment decisions in the state, and prevent the free movement of labor, economic growth does not take place. The phenomenal economic success of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong has been a huge embarrassment for [radical critics of capitalism].” But haven’t South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and now China done nearly as much of the latter as the former? And isn’t the former a pretty accurate description of American economic policy in 1929 (and 1893 and 1873)? Perhaps Herfs “short and simple answer” needs some leftist qualifications, after all. Likewise Dahrendorf’s dictum: “Whoever sets out to implement Utopian plans will in the first instance have to wipe clean the canvas on which the real world is painted. This is a brutal process of destruction.” Logically, even syntactically, this statement rules out the possibility that utopian plans might be implemented, or at any rate pursued, democratically. Of course -- as the young Podhoretz might have pointed out -- a democratic utopian movement will have to be preceded by decades or even generations of “utopian social criticism.”

According to the memoirists, William Phillips did most of the work around the magazine and held together the Partisan circle. But Philip Rahv seems to have been its presiding spirit, at least during its first two decades; and Rahv’s “The Sense and Nonsense of Whittaker Chambers” (1952) is a quintessential Partisan Review essay. Chambers’ monumental Witness activated all Rahv’s critical powers: literary, philosophical, historical, and political. In authoritative accents he confirms Chambers’ indictment of the Popular Front mind, corrects his account of the New Deal, dismisses his anti-political mysticism and anti-rationalist metaphysics, and portrays Chambers’ curious sensibility as “Dostoevskyean in essence,” exhibiting “that peculiar note of personal intensity and spiritual truculence, of commitment to the ‘Idea’ so absolute as to suggest that life has no meaning apart from it, all oddly combined with a flair for mystification and melodrama.” The employment, in this fashion, of literary resources to interpret historical and political experience was the characteristic move of the New York intellectuals. (Likewise, of course, of European intellectuals such as Silone, Chiaromone, Camus, and Orwell.) The resulting critical gravity, nuance, and flair are uncommon nowadays. Also uncommon are ideologically discriminating judgments like the following, which make one regret that Rahv did not live long enough to turn his polemical scorn on contemporary conservative superficialities:

"[Chambers] reproaches Western civilization for its “three centuries of rationalism.” Now rationalism has its fallacies, to be sure, but is it fair to hold it to account for the horrors of the Russian police state, which has behind it not even one, much less three, centuries of rationalism? Soviet society bears the indelible stamp of the long Russian past of feudal- bureaucratic rule, an absolutist rule of the mind as of the body. Of course, the Marxist teaching is not exempt from censure for the consequences of the Revolution. It should be added, however, that this teaching, Western in its main origins and holding a heavy charge of Judaeo-Christian ethics, has suffered a strange metamorphosis in its Muscovite captivity. And now, in its movement deeper into the East, it is seized upon, with all the fervor of native absolutism, by the backward, semi-mendicant intelligentsia of the Asian countries. This intelligentsia, untrained in habits of social responsibility and unformed in the traditions of humanist and rationalist thought, has converted Marxism into a dogma of nothing less than incendiary content. Its detachment from the West is virtually complete."

Rahv is (along with Delmore Schwartz) the protagonist of William Barrett’s The Truants (1982), the best of the many books about the Partisan circle. It may not be the most accurate or complete account, but it’s the most literate, and its verdict on the whole enterprise -- conveyed by the book’s title -- cuts deepest. With none of the rancor that commonly disfigures such criticism, with affection even, Barrett rebukes his younger self and his former comrades for intellectual irresponsibility and bad faith. Infatuated by seemingly “original and sweeping ideas,” he writes, the contemporary American radical is prone to “conveniently forget the humbling conditions of his own existence”; in particular, that “his own continued existence as a dissenter depends on the survival of the United States as a free nation in a world going increasingly totalitarian.” Like the makers of the French Revolution -- those prototypical modern truants -- the Partisan crowd were “literary intellectuals” who “loved large and sweeping abstractions,” which blur ineradicable differences and intractable conflicts, thus making possible “the first step toward Gulag.” Their radical skepticism led them -- most poignantly the tough-minded Rahv, Barrett claims -- into a terrifying nihilism, which they could only escape through unquestioning faith in a socialist utopia. Wilfully, desperately, they blinded themselves to the most humbling and fundamental of moral facts, that “the truth about human nature is very bad news for socialism.”

No one should reject this diagnosis out of hand, at least when made as urbanely and charitably as it is in The Truants. But as Rahv would surely have pointed out, Barrett, like nearly all other religious critics of modernity, offers only warnings about skepticism, never reasons for belief. And as for Barrett’s suggestion that totalitarianism in other countries renders searching criticism of one’s own country frivolous, or that dissent somehow implies indifference to “the survival of the United States as a free nation” -- this is itself frivolous.

If the Partisan Review intellectuals are to be faulted, it must be for something homelier than nihilism or unpatriotism. It seems to me their moral imagination was simply-- like everyone else’s in every age -- a little stunted by their self-importance. “A generation of anti-Communists wasted its talents in obsessive polemics,” William Phillips lamented in A Partisan View (his own memoir, written partly in response to Barrett’s). Not really wasted, of course; anti-Communist polemics were a noble and necessary work. But there is a grain of truth in Phillips’ remark, and it betokens a moral failing as much as a strategic misjudgment.

For it does appear, in hindsight, that liberal anti-communists might perhaps have spared just a little of the time they spent denouncing Stalinism and even Nazism -- to which, after all, most American citizens and policymakers were already strongly opposed-- in order to decry some equally deadly evils, about which their countrymen were almost wholly ignorant or unconcerned. I mean the miseries of backwardness, for example malaria and diarrhea, each of which has probably killed more human beings in this century than the Holocaust and the Gulag combined. They were (and are) also far more easily preventable. But unfortunately, they do not offer the same rich opportunities for ideological virtuosity and polemical display, so they have commanded little attention among intellectuals in New York or elsewhere. Occasional Partisan Review editorials on this subject would not, of course, have had much effect on the perennial suffering of the invisible poor. But they would have placed the magazine’s reputation for intellectual and moral seriousness on an even firmer footing than the contents -- impressive enough -- of A Partisan Century.