The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Politics and Culture in the Era of the Cold War by Hilton Kramer. Ivan R. Dee, 363 pages, $27.50.
October 7, 1999        

One of the many unfortunate consequences of Stalinism, Maoism, and Third World totalitarianism is to have made life difficult for critics of the status quo in the West.Of course this is a less important matter than those regimes’ other sins: the murder, imprisonment, and deportation of scores of millions of innocent people, the impoverishment and oppression of hundreds of millions more, the wholesale poisoning of the environment, the degradation of politics, morals, and the arts. Anyone who doesn’t know about these things has a lot of catching up to do; and anyone who knows but still advocates a one-party dictatorship with exclusive state control of the economy -–i.e., Marxism-Leninism, the forerunner of Stalinism and Maoism – has a lot of explaining to do. Fortunately, for several decades there have been very few such people in the United States, at least among critics of the status quo with an audience above the low three figures. Nevertheless, so prominent were Stalinists in the American left of the 1930s and 40s, so loud were the tiny fringe of Maoists and Third Worldists in the 1960s, and so attractive has the delusive rhetoric of “revolution” proved throughout modern history, that anyone urging radical changes in the American economy and polity has an obligation to show that these changes are fully compatible with democracy.

If this is anti-Communism, count me in. As we all know, however, anti-Communism has sometimes been more than this. It is a useful standard of intellectual and moral seriousness, but like any other standard, it can be applied crudely, mechanically, or in bad faith; in this case, to discredit criticism from the left without engaging it. Undiscriminating anti-Communism is less common and less damaging now than when there were Communists around, but in concentrated doses it can still be harmful. The Twilight of the Intellectuals is a very concentrated dose.

Hilton Kramer is one of America’s leading art critics and editor of The New Criterion, one of our best and most influential literary-intellectual journals. Twilight is a portrait gallery of (mostly) American intellectuals of the Thirties through the Sixties, from Edmund Wilson through Partisan Review and the Congress of Cultural Freedom to Susan Sontag. Although Kramer’s range is broad, his purpose is narrow. In his “Introduction” he writes: “[I]t was not the Western defenders of Communist tyranny who suffered so conspicuously from censure and opprobrium in the Cold War period but those who took up the anti-Communist cause.” Kramer has set out in this book to right the balance single-handedly. Twilight is a continuous, controlled discharge of censure and opprobrium. Though elegantly written, it seethes. But ideological animus has its pitfalls. Genuine “Western defenders of Communist tyranny” were usually obscure and obtuse, so Kramer has had to find more interesting, even if less appropriate, objects for his retaliatory indignation. Hence anyone with doubts about the fundamental fairness of capitalism or the wisdom and benevolence of American foreign policy is liable to be excoriated as unpatriotic (“anti-American”) or mindless (“incapable of serious thought about politics”). This habit, virtually a reflex, of denunciation extends to many people no less intelligent and honorable – or, for that matter, anti-Communist – than Kramer himself.

For example, Edmund Wilson’s “political thought – if it can be called that” is derided in these terms: “no talent for politics … pacifist cliches … an embarrassment … fairly primitive .. historical simplifications and moral insensibility … abiding incomprehension of the political life of his time.” In other words, he was more skeptical than Kramer about the professed goals America’s military intervention in the Philippines, Cuba, and elsewhere. Dwight Macdonald was a fool, a fantast, a jester, a dandy, a snob, and a lightweight; also a cad who left his first wife. He changed his mind a lot, so he was essentially unserious. Curiously, perhaps, other anti-Communists saw him differently, like Czeslaw Milosz, who described himself as an “assiduous reader” of Macdonald’s and praised him as a successor to “Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville … a specific American type – the completely free man, capable of making decisions at all times and about all things strictly according to his personal moral judgments.” (Macdonald’s rebuke to his overzealous student hosts at Columbia’s “counter-commencement” in 1968 was probably, by the way, a more effective blow in defense of Western civilization than all of Kramer’s thunderbolts.) Irving Howe’s politics amounted to nothing but sentimental piety and ideological opportunism; they were an “utter failure” except as “a ticket to the establishment in a period when his sort of Left-liberal values presided over, and continue to preside over, the precincts of cultural power.” The New Criterion, incidentally, received more foundation support in its first year than Howe’s Dissent did in its first thirty years.

Kramer’s unquenchable vindictiveness generates endless unfairness and misjudgment. George Steiner’s “blistering attack” on Solzhenitsyn and Mary McCarthy’s “furious attack” on Orwell were nothing of the sort, as I read them – certainly they were puff pieces compared with Kramer’s blistering and furious attacks on just about everyone. Susan Sontag’s allegedly “adoring” essay, “Trip to Hanoi,” intended to “deify” the North Vietnamese regime, contains this passage: “Having stated my admiration for the Vietnamese (people, society) as bluntly and vulnerably as I can, I should emphasize that none of this amounts to a claim that North Vietnam is a model of a just state. One has only to recall the more notorious crimes committed by the present government: for example, the persecution of the Trotskyist faction and the execution of its leaders in 1946, and the forcible collectivization of agriculture in 1956, the brutalities and injustices of which high officials have recently admitted.” Not completely “adoring,” then. Kramer savages Diana Trilling’s exquisite memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, which I (and most reviewers) found to be full of tact and moral delicacy, as cruelly tactless and “utterly indifferent to questions of moral delicacy”; and he blasted Mrs. Trilling (eighty-eight, blind, and failing when his essay appeared) for her “harsh verdicts,” “ungenerous characterizations,” and “lack of magnanimity.” If he does say so himself. He professes disgust with Irving Howe’s famous essay, “This Age of Conformity,” for being “so abusive, so hypocritical, and so unforthcoming about himself at the very moment he was heaping his anathemas upon so many of his contemporaries, some of whom were in fact attempting to deal with the cultural and political situation … more honestly and intelligently than he was.” Just what Howe never did, here or elsewhere; and just what Kramer regularly does.

About the New Left, in Kramer’s opinion, there is nothing good to be said. It was in every way a disgrace, simply Stalinism in a new guise. The New Left indulged in a “vociferous revival of the totalitarian ideal,” in “the glorification of totalitarian systems,” in “an adamant refusal to acknowledge the moral superiority of American democracy over Soviet tyranny,” and much more in the same vein. No evidence is offered, though doubtless some could be found. But it would need to be set against this passage from the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society and by far the most influential text within the New Left:

As democrats we are in basic opposition to the communist system. The Soviet Union, as a system, rests on the total suppression of organized opposition, as well as a vision of the future in the name of which much human life has been sacrificed, and numerous small and large denials of human dignity rationalized. … Communist parties throughout the rest of the world are generally undemocratic in internal structure and mode of action. Moreover, in most cases they have subordinated radical programs to the requirements of Soviet foreign policy. The communist movement has failed, in every sense, to achieve its stated intention of leading a worldwide movement for human emancipation.

Anyone who offers unqualified pronouncements about the totalitarian sympathies of the New Left ought not to have been unacquainted with this basic text.

This raises the question: what is Kramer’s intellectual authority for calling so many people so many names? How persuasive is his own view of how the world outside Manhattan actually works? The Twilight of the Intellectuals contains exactly one sentence of geopolitical analysis: “What, after all, was the Cold War about if not the conflict between American (and Western) democracy and Soviet tyranny?” This is by no means an idiotic position. It is not, however, the last word. It does not rule out of court, as Kramer seems to believe, every other conceivable interpretation of twentieth-century American foreign policy. The radical interpretation, that this policy has been “guided by a primary commitment to improving the climate for business operations in a global system that is open to exploitation of human and material resources by those who dominate the domestic economy” (Noam Chomsky), is debatable, of course. But nothing in The Twilight of the Intellectuals suggests that Kramer knows enough about history or political economy to make his contemptuous dismissal of all such views anything but bluster and impertinence.

Kramer does have something good to say about a few people: Matthew Arnold, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling. But I doubt they would have had much good to say about Kramer, at least in his rancorous moments (i.e., most of the time). Arnold, most obviously; in the first place, because Arnold invariably began by putting his opponent’s case as fully, generously, and dispassionately as possible – a procedure of which Kramer seems constitutionally incapable. And in the second place, because Arnold subscribed to one or two of the “radical pieties” that Kramer is continually jeering at. Arnold advocated democratic state action to lessen economic and social inequality. Only then, he believed, could the masses be brought to Culture. He would have been aghast at Reaganomics, the largest transfer of wealth from the non-rich to the rich in all of history. Half a trillion dollars could, after all, have brought the masses a lot closer to Culture. Kramer has no objection to Reaganomics.

Orwell, too, was an egalitarian and a democratic socialist. Kramer acknowledges this and makes absolutely nothing of it. His only interest is in arguing that the left has disingenuously sought to “re-interpret the meaning of [Orwell’s] work in order to blunt its effect”. Once again, the shoe appears to be on the other foot. I think Orwell would have reminded Kramer, as he reminded his readers in 1938: “It is an unfortunate fact that any hostile criticism of the present Russian regime is liable to be taken as propaganda against Socialism; all Socialists are aware of this, and it does not make for honest discussion.” (Italics in original.)

Lionel Trilling is, quite appropriately, Kramer’s lodestar. Kramer too is multifariously erudite, and his prose does occasionally approach the grace and polish of Trilling’s – no small achievement. But the unfailingly courteous Trilling would have been appalled by Kramer’s unrelenting harshness. More important, the unfailingly subtle Trilling would have been dismayed by Kramer’s relentless simplifications. In New York Jew, Alfred Kazin made some shrewd observations about Trilling that may also help to place Kramer. “Trilling wrote as if the only problem of society was the thinking of the ‘advanced intellectuals.’ … In his America there were no workers, nobody suffering from a lack of cash; no capitalists, no corporations, no Indians, no blacks. … Like many less gifted and interesting ex-radicals, he was limited to New York, to his intellectual class, to friends who could never forgive themselves or anyone else for having in misguided youth trafficked in Socialism. But what raised Trilling above the dull zealots, informants, and false patriots of this agonizing period was the critic’s gift for dramatizing his mind on paper. A writer of tremulous carefulness and deliberation, he nevertheless became the master of a dialectical style that expressed his underlying argument with himself. There was an intellectual tension in his essays … .”

In Kramer’s essays, there is no drama, no intellectual tension, because there is no underlying argument with himself. There is only assurance: ungracious, self-righteous, one-dimensional. Kramer is hardly dull; on the contrary, he is as sharp as a wasp’s stinger. But he is, alas, a zealot.