Running Commentary

The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right


By Benjamin Balint

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In the years of cultural and political ferment following World War II, a new generation of Jewish- American writers and thinkers arose to make an indelible mark on American culture. Commentary was their magazine; the place where they and other politically sympathetic intellectuals — Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and many others — shared new work, explored ideas, and argued with each other.

Founded by the offspring of immigrants, Commentary began life as a voice for the marginalized and a feisty advocate for civil rights and economic justice. But just as American culture moved in its direction, it began — inexplicably to some — to veer right, becoming the voice of neoconservativism and defender of the powerful.

This lively history, based on unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and dozens of original interviews, provocatively explains that shift while recreating the atmosphere of some of the most exciting decades in American intellectual life.



Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.

BY VIRTUE OF THE ARTICLES they had shepherded into print and their long-cultivated habits of mind, the editors of Commentary magazine, the flagship of the neoconservatives, felt well equipped to respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001. On an old, seldom-used television set in the midtown Manhattan office, they watched as Jihadi hijackers, screamers of Allahu akbar, felled the Twin Towers, and the editors knew then that America's ten-year "holiday from history," as columnist Charles Krauthammer called it, was over. The cold war may have been history, but the modes of apprehension it had taught were very much alive. These men were confident that their prestigious magazine of opinion could offer—with a clarity long absent from American foreign policy—the most cogent ideological template for the post-9/11 reality. Their contentious, tough-minded monthly, which had for decades wielded an outsized influence on American politics and literature, had long put resolute faith in the fundamental goodness of American power and urged a greater expansiveness and assertiveness in its uses—a faith that would now be tested anew. Twenty months before that terrible day, Commentary had run a symposium on "American Power." The first of the contributors, published alphabetically, was Elliott Abrams, son-in-law of the former editor and soon to be tapped as an adviser on George W Bush's National Security Council. "Preserving our dominance," Abrams wrote then, "will not only advance our own national interests but will preserve peace and promote the cause of democracy and human rights. Since America's emergence as a world power roughly a century ago, we have made many errors, but we have been the greatest force for good among the nations of the earth." 1
This hadn't always been the magazine's credo. In the decades since Commentary came to life just after World War II, the magazine had abandoned the liberal anticommunism of the 1950s for a species of 1960s radicalism, which it in turn rejected for the neoconservative sensibility of the 1970s and after. Through both apostasies, the magazine's political passions endured, as did the polemical style in which these passions were so forcefully expressed. Commentary's first editor, Elliot Cohen, presided over a group of defectors from socialism who articulated in the magazine's pages a strong case against Communist tyranny. As he traveled the road of self-creation from Brooklyn obscurity to uptown respectability, Norman Podhoretz, the second editor, first steered hard left into fashionable 1960s radicalism, and then, in revulsion against the excesses of the politics with which he himself had flirted, he threw the tiller the other way and made his magazine host to the much-castigated neoconservative cold warriors. In veering into its neoconservative phase, Podhoretz's Commentary sharpened old divisions and created new ones as it helped advance the rise of a powerful new Right from the remains of the old Left and redefined the role of American power at the very time that power was reaching its zenith. The third editor, Neal Kozodoy, in filial fidelity to his predecessor, guided the neoconservatives from the cold war to the war on terror—from World War III to World War IV, as they would say—laying along the way the intellectual foundations for the Bush Doctrine and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country's biggest foreign ventures since Vietnam. A once marginal group of ex-leftists found that their ideas were extraordinarily relevant to the country at large. Their quarrels had foreshadowed larger political shifts; their ideas had become the politics of governments; their preoccupations had become the country's.
"A magazine is always a date, 'an issue,' a moment," literary critic Alfred Kazin once wrote in Commentary; "it is created out of an exacting sense of time." Throughout its long life, Commentary registered the life of its times. It looked intently at America, and it offered a running commentary, for lack of a better term, on the decisive moments in postwar American life: from the cold war and the lasting effects of Europe's totalitarianism on American politics, to Vietnam and the counterculture, to 9/11 and the war on terror. Commentary's story, in other words, bears closely on the life of the nation during the last sixty years.
And yet this American drama was all the while enacted on a Jewish stage. Commentary was founded, after all, by the American Jewish Committee in 1945 "to meet the need for a journal of significant thought and opinion on Jewish affairs and contemporary issues." For the eloquence with which it did so, there was none to compare. The same magazine that would host the neoconservative ascendancy ran the early fiction of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Cynthia Ozick, as well as the powerful literary criticism of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe. In essays of the highest distinction, Commentary grappled with the Holocaust, the birth of Israel, and the Six-Day War. Its pages were the first in America to feature The Diary of Anne Frank. It published incandescent essays on Jewish theology by Gershom Scholem and on Jewish nationalism by Hannah Arendt, not to mention Norman Mailer's six-part series on Martin Buber's collection of Hasidic stories. Over time, the magazine, fascinating in itself, became one of the most important journals in Jewish history, an incomparable barometer of the climate Jews came to enjoy in America. Commentary was deeply representative in some respects and deeply unrepresentative in others, but either way it registered Jews' negotiations with America and the complications and conundrums thereof
What did the magazine's political trajectory have to do with the curve of its Jewish arc? By what alchemy had a liberal magazine, founded by marginal, disaffected, ex-radical children of immigrants—alienated from the Jewish tradition and America alike—become the bible of neoconservatives? Therein hangs an unusual but most instructive tale.


Exiled, wandering dumbfounded by riches,
Estranged among strangers, dismayed by the infinite sky,
An alien to myself until at last the caste of the last alienation.


The Jewish encounter with America began with two dozen refugees setting foot in New Amsterdam, the city on the Hudson River soon to be renamed New York, in 1654. No red carpet greeted them. Governor Peter Stuyvesant wished these members of what he called "the deceitful race" and "blasphemers of the name of Christ" to leave. He was overruled by the directors at the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam. The newcomers stayed and were soon joined by brethren who established communities in Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah.
A hundred or so American Jews fought in the Revolutionary War on behalf of a country unique in history, a country that from its very inception guaranteed the free exercise of religion. In the not-so-distant past, the Jews of Europe had lived at the whim of their hosts, who could—and did—revoke Jews' residential rights at any time. Jews had been expelled from Vienna in 1670 and from Prague in 1744. They were commonly seen—and saw themselves—as temporary settlers, as tolerated strangers. Resigned to political powerlessness, they learned to dwell in Jewish tradition itself, poet Heinrich Heine said, as a "portable homeland." George Washington, by contrast, assured the Jews of Newport that the U.S. government, dedicated to religious tolerance, "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
Though accepted as full citizens, Jews remained obscure in influence and small in number. Fewer than three hundred Jews lived in New York on the eve of the Revolution. Only 3,000 or so resided in the young republic by 1820—mostly descendents of the Jews expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. Starting in the 1820s, however, after the "Hep! Hep!" riots terrorized the Jews of Central Europe, a wave of German-speaking Jewish immigrants fled from Bavaria, Prussia, and Posen. Some of these "German" Jews—such as the founders of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue—brought with them Reform Judaism. Discarding ritual requirements and ideas of ethnic distinctiveness, throwing off the yoke of the law, these immigrants preferred to see Judaism not as a body of revealed law but as a set of ethical teachings. This only eased their way into American society, and most acculturated fast. Some of the German Jews made it big: investment banker Marcus Goldman; retailer Benjamin Bloomingdale; Nathan Straus of Macy's; Levi Strauss, who patented "riveted clothing" and clothed America's westward pioneers in jeans; mining millionaire Meyer Guggenheim. By 1880, more than a quarter million Jews lived in the United States.
But this, in retrospect, would come to be seen merely as the first and smaller wave of immigration. Between 1881, when the assassination of Czar Alexander II roiled Russia, and 1924, when the U.S. National Origins Immigration (Johnson-Reed) Act stemmed the tide of immigrants, 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe-Yiddish-speakers from the shtetls of Russia, Galicia, Lithuania, Hungary, and Romania, the poorest and least educated of Europe's Jews—landed on American shores. Driven away from the old country by pogroms, persecution, and poverty, and drawn by the promise of prosperity in the goldeneh medina (the Golden Land, in Yiddish), they gave New York City the largest Jewish concentration of any city in history. By 1910, they made up a quarter of the city's dwellers. By 1915, 1.4 million Jews made their home in New York. And by the end of World War I, more Jews lived in New York City than in Western Europe, South America, and Palestine put together.
Needless to say, some Americans were no more pleased by this inundation than Stuyvesant had been two and a half centuries before. In 1921, Albert Johnson, chair of the House Immigration Committee, quoted the head of the U.S. Consular Service as complaining that the recent Polish Jewish immigrants were "filthy, un-American and often dangerous in their habits." Several years earlier, in The Education of Henry Adams (1918), the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams had remarked on the threat the immigrants posed. "Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow—not a furtive Jacob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs—but had a keener instinct, an intenser energy, and a freer hand than he—American of Americans."
Along with the peddlers, tailors, bookbinders, shoemakers, and silver-smiths, the wave of Eastern European immigration carried ashore pious traditionalists who brought into the New World a reverence for study—rabbinic luminaries who would put their indelible stamp on religious life in the new country. The Orthodox among them started day schools (such as Yeshivah Torah Vadaath), yeshivas (such as the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary), synagogues (such as the Eldridge Street synagogue), and newspapers (such as the Yiddishes Tageblatt). Hasidic rebbes recreated their communities in Boro Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Scholars such as Solomon Schechter and Louis Ginzberg imported their European erudition to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which opened its doors in 1887. Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, immigrated in 1889. Bernard Revel, founder of Yeshiva College (later Yeshiva University), arrived in 1906.1
Still more numerous were the Jewish radicals who took to trade unions and socialism, men and women who pioneered the labor movement to relieve their bitter conditions in the sweatshops. Not all socialists in America were Jews, but Jews were disproportionately represented in the socialist ranks. After 1900, Jews predominated in socialist trade unions such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Jews Adolph Strasser and Daniel De Leon led the Socialist Labor Party. The Socialist Party, which broke away from the SLP, was led by Jews such as Morris Hillquit (born Moishe Hillkowitz) and Victor Berger, the first socialist congressman.2 (The only other socialist congress-man, a two-term representative from the Lower East Side named Meyer London, elected in 1914, 1916, and 1920, was also a Jew.) More than a third of the Communist Party membership in New York—concentrated in the upper Bronx—was Jewish. By 1917, the Yiddish socialist Forward, edited by an ex-yeshiva student named Abraham Cahan—nicknamed Der Proletarisher Magid (the proletarian preacher)—enjoyed 150,000 subscribers. It was joined in 1922 by a smaller Yiddish Communist paper, Freiheit.
Part of the Jewish Left consisted of intellectuals, many of whom would be driven even further to the Left by the Depression. Playwright and essayist Lionel Abel later quipped that New York City of the 1930s used to be the most interesting part of the Soviet Union, and indeed into the New York of the Red Decade crowded a mixed multitude of crypto-Communists and Communist sympathizers, Stalinoids and Stalinophiles, Marxist mavericks and socialist schlemiels and parlor pinks. Stalinists may have dominated the Left, but because Marxist politics acted in those days like a theology, there was plenty of heresy and schism to go around. Now-forgotten factions and splinters of factions proliferated like breakaway Hasidic sects: Shachtmanites and Shermanites, Cannonites and Lovestoneites, Fieldites and Fosterites. The distinctions between them were usually apparent only to those on the inside, and a decade or two later few would remember the questions over which these factions had so bitterly divided. Finally, starting in the mid- 1930s, these groups were joined by the Weimar émigré intellectuals, including Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Hans Morgenthau—Hitler's gift to America.


Those who would midwife Commentary magazine into the world resembled nothing so much as a loosely knit, self-formed Family (as future paterfamilias Norman Podhoretz would call it), bound by a common language and frame of reference, a shared ordering of values, and an intense crisscrossing alertness to one another's judgments. These were kinsmen of a common cause, a common past, and a common set of ancestors. They practiced their hypercritical intellectual gamesmanship—a form of close infighting—en famille.
The Family for the most part emerged from the dissident, fiercely anti-Stalinist Trotskyists, a tiny minority even on the Left. Many had belonged to the Trotskyist Young People's Socialist League (YPSL), City College division. They had looked to Leon Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronstein) as the "good" revolutionary: a founder of the Soviet state, theoretician of the Russian Revolution, leader of the Red Army, archinternationalist creator of the Fourth International (antagonist of Joseph Stalin's Third International, or Comintern), brilliant polemicist and writer of manifestos, a man intoxicated with politics who took literature with high seriousness. His example encouraged the Young Trots to feel like a small but potent ideological vanguard. (In 1917, after all, when Trotsky lived in New York for several months, there were only 40,000 Communists in a Russia of 70 million, and look what they wrought.) Like Trotsky, his American acolytes—revolutionaries duped by the revolution—loathed Stalin's dictatorial tendencies. Refusing to rationalize away Stalin's crimes as somehow necessary to the revolution, they insisted that Stalin had betrayed the revolution. Following Trotsky's example, too, the Family theory-spinners learned to think hard about politics from an internationalist perspective—with great independence of mind and ideological fervor. They pored over the Trotskyist journal the New International and Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924); they talked incessantly about what had gone awry with Communism. Haunters of public libraries who got an education via the little magazines, seekers after coherence and comprehensiveness, they took positions. They staged debates—rhetorical jousts, really—at Irving Plaza off Union Square.
For formal education there was the City College of New York (CCNY). Many Family members—"sturdy sons of City College," as the school's alma mater song wishfully hailed its graduates—thought of the neo-Gothic perch overlooking Harlem as the Harvard of the proletariat. William Phillips (class of 1928), later an editor of Partisan Review and a contributor to Comm entary, called City College "the poor boy's steppingstone to the world."3 Being both free of quotas and free of tuition, City College was in the late 1920s and 1930s at least three-quarters filled with Jewish boys (the girls were at Hunter College, on East 68th Street).
Members of the Family's City College branch picked up a high combative style from an acerbic Minsk-born philosophy professor named Morris Raphael Cohen (class of 1900), who taught at CCNY from 1912 to 1938—the first Jew to join the philosophy faculty there. Cohen's witty Socratic style made him a popular teacher. According to the 1935 yearbook, "Dr. Overstreet may be chairman of the department, but to the cognoscenti there is but one God ... and his prophet is Morris Raphael Cohen."4 After class, and under its influence, Cohen's Trotskyist students spent brown-bagged lunchtimes in their alcove in the cafeteria of Shepard Hall debating the finer points of Charlie Marx's thought: Was the Soviet Union a degenerated worker's state? When would the class structure wither and a genuine proletariat emerge?
If these preoccupations now seem arcane, a more consequential question closed the Red Decade. Although most American Jews wholeheartedly supported American entry into World War II, the Young Trots opposed America's involvement, not because they were isolationists, but because they could not help seeing World War II as a war to extend capitalist domination. They wanted no part in a war between rival imperialisms.5 They could not bring themselves to support a capitalist regime, even against Hitler. Nazism seemed to them just capitalism in extremis—fascism as the last, desperate convulsion of capitalism. "That the Nazis wanted to murder every Jew they could get their hands on was the last thing about Nazism that interested us," said Milton Himmelfarb (CCNY 1938), later a Commentary contributing editor. "For us the big question, the question that called forth all our dialectical virtuosity, was, Is Nazism the final stage of capitalism?"


Politics was the Family's alpha and omega, a master light of all its seeing. Saul Bellow, who would head the novelist branch of the Family, used to say he first heard of V. I. Lenin and Trotsky "in the high chair while eating my mashed potatoes." Daniel Bell (CCNY 1939), destined for prominence as a sociologist at Columbia and Harvard, had joined YPSL at the precocious age of thirteen. At fourteen, future literary critic Irving Howe (CCNY 1940) had joined a YPSL circle in the East Bronx.
In such company it was nearly impossible to remain a noncombatant. To be liberal was considered wishy-washy; to be Republican, unthinkable. "If there were any Republicans at City," Irving Kristol (CCNY class of 1940 and later a Commentary editor) said, "and there must have been some, I never met them, or even heard of their existence." Outside the Family, there was, in the 1930s, a smattering of Jewish anti-Communists, including Eugene Lyons and Isaac Don Levine. But if in the Family politics was everything, Marxist socialism was politics, a style of perception entire unto itself. Marxism offered a comprehensive theory of history, a coherent view of human experience, an ebullient and tantalizing purity of purpose.
The Family's radicalism was, as they used to say, overdetermined; it drew from several sources, each of which would have been sufficient alone. As if it weren't enough that they were Jews and intellectuals, they were also prodigal sons of working-class immigrant families, intimates of poverty and prejudice. These young men, whom we shall meet later as adults, had grown up in tough neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Sidney Hook (City College 1923), a son of a garment worker, had grown up in a Williamsburg tenement slum. Lionel Trilling's father was a tailor, and his father-in-law, an immigrant from Poland, made straw braid. Irving Howe's father peddled linens door to door, and Clement Greenberg's worked as a necktie wholesaler. Irving Kristol's father, who worked in the clothing business, suffered several bankruptcies. "We were poor," Kristol said, "but then everyone was poor, more or less." Nathan Glazer (CCNY 1944), the youngest of seven kids, was born in East Harlem and raised in the East Bronx, where his father spent his days bent over a sewing machine. When the young Glazer later got an editorial job at Commentary, wielding his blue pencil over manuscripts, his proud if uncomprehending mother could only tell her friends, "My Nathan is in the pen line."
In the 1930s, dreams of a classless society answered Depression anxieties and immigrant disorientations both. The Zionists and the Orthodox separatists had their answers; the Jewish socialists had another, which involved an escape from the barbarisms of capitalism and an entry into the wider family of humanity. As far as the Family was concerned, capitalism was not just unviable and unjust; it was also through. The Family felt especially drawn to socialism's moral concern. Its dramatic doctrine—its collective hope for humankind—offered rootless radicals the exhilaration of replacing Jewish parochialism with universalism, the relief of transposing loyalty from nation to class. Trying to dissolve the indissoluble, they looked to socialist universalism as a means to transcend religious distinctions and to escape Jewish difference into a higher allegiance, in which the relevant distinction was no longer between Jew and goy, but between worker and capitalist. This universalism would allow them, command them even, to overcome their origins, to become men of broad sympathies, to make them, to use Shelley's line, "equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless"—citizens of the world.
Before World War II, then, Marxism, with its calls for social justice, acted upon the Family like a substitute faith, enthroning Man in God's place. Its dogma of progress through class struggle offered a secularized account of collective redemption. "We'd read Kapital the same way we read Humash [Pentateuch]," Daniel Bell remembered. "Line by line." Irving Howe said that Karl Marx's formulas were taught with "talmudic rote." As a boy, Clement Greenberg (who would serve as Commentary managing editor) believed Judaism and socialism were synonyms. The sacred canon of Marx and Friedrich Engels offered another eschatology, one that assigned the working class—the Family included—a progressive, even messianic role in history and guaranteed the triumph of that class. Family members could believe they were the persecuted, the chosen by History. ("What's a Communist?" asks a character in a Harold Brodkey story. "A man trying to act like a Jew without getting mixed up with God.") Marxism seemed to bear the same structure as Jewish belief—a yearning for harmony regained.
THE YEARNING would go unfulfilled. Some in the family had broken with the Communist Party before World War II, recoiling in revulsion from the Moscow trials of 1936—1937 and from the Stalinist purges and show trials that covered the Soviet Union with a "darkness at noon" (the title of Arthur Koestler's influential 1940 anti-Communist novel). They reacted with horror to the Hitler-Stalin pact in the summer of 1939 (between the man with a little mustache and the man with a big mustache, as Yiddish writer Chaim Grade used to say), and to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov's announcement during a visit to Berlin the next year that fascism was a matter of taste. The execution in late 1942 of the leaders of the Jewish Bund in Poland by Stalin's secret police caused Family members great distress. For others, the "disintoxication" took slightly longer. The Stalinization of Eastern Europe, the suppression of writers, the dissidents sent to the KGB's Lubyanka prison, the millions sent to rot in the gulag's forced labor camps as "enemies of the people," the brutality, the fear, the poverty—all these made it rather harder to look to the Soviet Union as a shining emblem of progress.
By the end of the war, the Family's anti-Stalinist socialists had become hard anti-Communists. ("There's not a man in this room who's hard enough for me!" Diana Trilling—Lionel's wife and an unforgiving literary critic in her own right—declared of the political convictions of her fellow guests at an after-dinner party.) Their hatred for Stalinism remained, now amplified by a newfound appreciation of America as a bulwark against the totalitarian horrors still freshly imprinted in memory. Their radicalism was behind them, but the experience of it remained. Daniel Bell remarked that radicals of the 1930s bore, "as on invisible frontlets, the stamp of those years on their foreheads." "Joining a radical movement when one is young," his friend Irving Kristol added, "is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment." Radicalism—and the way they wrested themselves from its grip—had left a deep mark as much on the way they thought about their place in America as on their thinking about America's place in the world.
Certain youthful notions now seemed utterly refuted. Commentary


On Sale
Jun 1, 2010
Page Count
304 pages

Benjamin Balint

About the Author

Benjamin Balint has written for the Wall Street Journal, the American Scholar, the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, Haaretz, the Forward, the Claremont Review of Books, and Commentary, where he served as an editor from 2001 to 2004. Originally from Seattle, he earned a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Washington. Balint is currently a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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