Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right by Benjamin Balint
A few years ago, when I was discussing over lunch with the late Irving Kristol the breakdown of Western civilisation (as one did), he asked a question.
Why was it, he inquired, that there was no organised fightback in Britain to defend its core moral principles and cultural traditions as there was in America?
Why hadn’t someone started up a magazine such as The Public Interest or Commentary to challenge the deadly grip of the neo-communist Left on the British print media? (This was, I hasten to add, in the days before Standpoint was even a twinkle in the editor’s eye.)
I volunteered some of the obvious explanations — grip of the welfare state, erosion of philanthropic instinct, demoralisation of political and religious elites. But the real reason was staring at me across the dining table. It was that Britain simply hadn’t produced anyone quite like Irving Kristol, the grand-daddy of the culture wars and nor was it ever likely to do so.
Now a new book expands much further on this very point. Benjamin Balint’s riveting history of Commentary magazine is much more than an account of an influential publication. It is a chronicle of what has happened since the Second World War to American society.
And it is also the story of American Jews — more specifically, a group of American Jews, including Kristol, which constituted a truly amazing constellation of political and intellectual brilliance, and which quite simply helped change the face of America.
For without this group’s unique combination of titanic intellectual energy, political insight and moral courage, it is arguable that there would have been no culture wars in America, but instead a rout of the kind that has forced Britain to its cultural knees. And the crucible of this American resistance was Commentary.
From the start, it dazzled with the stellar quality of its output due to the creative and intellectual genius of its editors. It is astonishing now to look back on the work it introduced to the public: the early fiction of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick; the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe; analysis of the Holocaust by Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt.
It always conceived of itself as a Family, bound by a common language and frame of reference. But that frame of reference was to be turned on its head in a series of dizzying political gyrations — all promoted with ferocious single-mindedness, and turning Commentary into the driving force of often vitriolic national debate.
The magazine was started in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee and run by a group of fiercely anti-Stalinist Trotskyite intellectuals, children of poor immigrant Jews from eastern Europe.
Their dissident leftism hardened into anti-communism. Constantly in the eye of whatever intellectual hurricane happened to be blowing, the magazine then lurched during the Sixties to the New Left under its second editor, Norman Podhoretz.
And it was Podhoretz who performed perhaps the most stunning volte-face of all when, gazing upon the handiwork of the Age of Aquarius that he had promoted, he was appalled by what he saw — a drug-ridden rejection of bourgeois conventions and self-restraint which he now believed threatened civilisation itself.
Podhoretz had been “mugged by reality” — and so neo-conservatism was born. Through the pages of Commentary, he and like-minded souls effectively refashioned conservatism as a counter to the counter-culture and a muscular defence of American and Western values. The Jewish Left turned into the neoconservative “Right”.
Not that the majority of American Jews identify with the Commentary crowd: they mostly define themselves by the secular liberal universalism to which they remain myopically attached.
And not that traditional conservatives — or “paleocons” — took kindly to liberal apostates who were clearly still more concerned with winning the battle of ideas than elections. With their erstwhile liberal comrades now shunning them as beyond the pale, the neocons thus found themselves isolated.
Then 9/11 happened. The rest, as they say, is history — or to be rather more accurate, the rewriting of history: about Iraq, the Middle East and neoconservatism.
The magazine’s serial gyrations also represented the progressive struggle of American Jews to negotiate their national identity in a land where they felt outsiders.
The original question, however, remains. Why have British Jews not also developed this neoconservative insight and the urgent impulse to try to stem the anti-Western, post-moral tide?
Well here’s a theory. While the great neocon “conspiracy” beloved of the “Bush lied, people died” crowd is a fiction, there is surely a case for saying that neoconservatism is a movement infused with Jewish ethical values.
Despite its founding fathers’ secularism, it is all about reasserting the moral codes of the Hebrew Bible which underpin Western culture: individual freedom, human equality, self-restraint in the interests of others — and above all, a passion for justice at every level of human society.
And here’s why it plays differently on different sides of the pond. When Jewish immigrants arrived in Britain a century or so ago, they were absorbed into an ancient culture that expected them to fit in. They went to English grammar schools, learned to play cricket and (absurdly) wore top hats in their synagogues.
But the American Jews had a very different experience. The Commentary intellectuals were educated as often as not in the City College of New York — considered the “Harvard of the proletariat” — where they tended to be taught by other brilliant Jewish intellectuals.
Schooled in the sense of their own particularity, the Commentary writers came to realise that America was a society formed in large measure by outsiders. They found that alienation was not a Jewish disease. Yet paradoxically, as they came to identify Jewishness with America itself, this perpetuated their sense of themselves as a distinctive group bound by shared values and experiences.
Podhoretz’s famous jibe that American Jews earn like Presbyterians but vote like Puerto Ricans should thus be expanded: they also think like Jews. And that was surely what led people like him and Kristol and the rest to mount their heroic defence of Western civilisation of which Commentary — despite the fact that its glory days may now be past — remains the beacon and shining star.