Friday, August 31, 2012

BOOK NOTE: “A Partisan Century: Political Writings from Partisan Review”

There is no better way to end this blog’s “Month of Partisanship” (a month that even saw the Dionysium host a performance of the classic folk song “Which Side Are You On?”) than with a look at the anthology A Partisan Century: Political Writings from Partisan Review. 

Since Partisan Review was a left-wing magazine, gradually developing some neoconservative tendencies over the eight decades it existed, this also serves as a good start to this blog’s more bridge-building “Month of Reform.”  September 17 (8pm) at the Dionysium (at Muchmore’s in Williamsburg) will even see me hosting a political-spectrum-scrambling Occupy/Tea Party “Summit” – and so I will hereby strive to be suitably diplomatic.  Rescuing politics from politics demands it.

Sorry about the past couple decades.

But if you think political squabbles are ugly these days, you should have seen the 1930s, when well-meaning people often felt compelled not merely to pick between left and right (which is tragic and stupid enough) but literally between Stalin and Hitler.  (Troubling to think many people, even faced with those choices, might have declared a vote for Gary Johnson wasted – if they were even allowed to vote, that is.)  Partisan Review, to its credit, had Stalin pegged as a totalitarian monster from the very founding of the magazine (at least judging by the essays selected in this 1996 volume by the magazine’s final editor, Edith Kurzweil).

Contributors – including Trotsky himself – criticized the left’s passive acceptance of Soviet Communism as a form of democratic socialism.  They even criticized the facile equation of Freudian-toned sexual revolt with political change – but considering that it took another forty years for the naivete of the Sexual Revolution to become apparent to mainstream society and fifty years for European Communism to implode, I don’t think we should exaggerate the speed with which the left learns to curb its own excesses.  (I trust that fifty years from now, they will cautiously admit that Obama has made mistakes, but we cannot always wait for the left to crawl toward the light, no matter how fascinating the left finds its own writhing and self-correction.) 

The Partisan Review editors – way back in 1946 – were chastising “liberals” (a term they put in scare quotes pretty much for the same reasons libertarians today might) for having no clear principles yet always, always engaging in knee-jerk defenses of Russian Communism against the U.S., as if for no other reason than to oppose their own homeland.  (This is the intellectually-sophisticated criticism-from-within version of the much-derided Ann Coulter argument that modern liberals have a natural inclination toward treason, to use her phrase.)

That 1946 editorial named The New Republic and The Nation specifically and even said that it was suicidally insane for these magazines to defend Stalin’s right to nuclear weapons and a balance of terror, as if in the name of social-democratic consensus and peace, when, the Partisan Review editors said, real social democrats (like the editors themselves) were being murdered by Stalinists all over the planet – hardly a formula for lasting peace.

The almost-conservative cherry on the sundae is their terrified lamentation that former Vice President Henry Wallace was always in the Stalin-defending camp and might well have become president had FDR died a bit earlier.  They call the “liberals” a “fifth column” with no real allegiance to freedom and individualism of the sort that characterized liberalism in the pre-WWII days (and the nineteenth century), even as they stress their own social-democratic distance from those pre-WWII principles.  They predict – incorrectly (so far) – that modern liberals will be looked back upon with as much shame for their “appeasement” of Russia as were the appeasers of Hitler.

Partisan Review, with contributors that included Norman Podhoretz and the wise Daniel Bell in later decades, resembled some neoconservative publications and organizations in turning politics in large part into a narrative of gradual retreat from Trotskyism and toward an embrace of American culture that included skepticism of the New Left – even though many contributors remained explicitly Marxist.  (This decreasingly-radical arc is familiar to some inhabitants of the Upper West Side where I partied just last night.)

For a laissez-faire capitalist like me, it’s easy to forget sometimes just how conflicted modern liberals remain to this day about their relationship to socialism.  I read a long online comment thread just a week ago in which liberals argued over whether existing government programs are piecemeal “socialism,” and it was fascinating to see them tie themselves into knots due to differing assumptions among them about whether (A) socialism exists in the U.S., (B) socialism is bad, and (C) socialism involves government or, as at least one idealist asserted, is something wholly unlike government in which “the people” just communally do things without politicians and leaders through some sort of ill-defined direct action (if they really knew how to make that work, Occupy Wall Street might now be the world’s third-largest economy – but I will be polite from September onward about such things).

Some other passages of note in the anthology, in chronological order:

•F.W. Dupree observes the revolutionary English writers of the early twentieth century trying to reconcile their individualism with their socialism.

•A despairing Stephen Spender recounts how well-meaning young intellectuals he met in Germany – even a young Jewish female – sometimes embraced Naziism in its early stages precisely because they hoped that, for all its defects (as they put it), it might be the socialist movement they’d been waiting for (no one reading this sad account could retain the illusion, so prevalent among modern liberals, that fascism and communism were wholly unrelated and dissimilar movements – they were co-dependent enablers, like the right and left generally). 

•Spender also notes Yeats’s eventual fascist sympathies, a reminder of the dangers of lauding strength and intensity – and nationalist consciousness – without clearer principles and safeguards.  Like some of the other writers, Spender also laments the drift into hedonism caused by mistaking sexual liberation for a sufficient substitute for political awareness.

•Orwell writes a letter to the editors revealing in its frankness about the fact that many leftists during WWII were comfortable with (even happy about) the militarization and regimentation of society so long as it meant a step toward socialistic, centralized control of society. 

•Sidney Hook recounts the inanities of communist-front conferences with irony almost worthy of P.J. O’Rourke.

•Hannah Arendt and others struggle with the question of the proper position of the U.S. in the Cold War, and she at least recognizes that even as humanity is confronted for the first time with the potential for self-destruction, we almost simultaneously joined the first generations in human history to see war as aberrant and pathological instead of a necessary, heroic, or even routine and ethically-neutral way of life.

•Norman Podhoretz, still writing from the left in the very-early 60s, strikes an interesting note of idealism in the same Cold War forum, lamenting that realpolitik too often gets in the way of utopian thinking – an interesting reminder, lest we forget amidst the harsh lingering realities of wars in the Middle East, what complicated blend of noble democratic ideals and brutal compromises fed into the creation of the neoconservative mind.  (Bush is usually spoken of today, when people on either left or right speak of him, in his capacity as a bumbler, but recall how, just a few short years ago, he was also routinely called “Wilsonian,” for good and ill.)

•Susan Sontag’s epochal “Notes on ‘Camp’” essay is here, and I was surprised how serious and subtle a thing camp seems in her telling after the thorough basting in irony and retro-nostalgia and meta we’ve all received care of Quentin Tarantino, Internet memes, and the like over the past two decades.  I began reading the essay without fully recalling that camp didn’t pervade the culture when it was written.  Once in a blue moon, you saw an especially dorky Godzilla movie or Reefer Madness, but you weren’t saturated all day in borderline-offensive kids’ cartoons and cats altered to spout political commentary constructed out of lines of dialogue from Star Wars. 

•Future “communitarian” Amitai Etzioni levels legitimate criticism at neocon Samuel P. Huntington (lest we overestimate the neocons’ escape from collectivist thinking) for a poetic yet profoundly creepy passage praising the “ordered serenity” of military barracks and the moral superiority of “the rhythm and harmony which comes when collective will supplants individual whim.”  Huntington, approvingly making comparisons to Sparta, asked if “the disciplined order of West Point has more to offer than the garish individualism of Main Street.”  Not just Wall Street, mind you, but Main Street! 

(If that’s not sufficient reason to adopt an attitude of skepticism toward the right – along with the left and every other not-quite-true creed humanity’s taken a stab at thus far – I don’t know what is.  Again, we’ll wrestle open-mindedly with all the unanswered questions and what to do about them in September’s “Month of Reform.”)

•A 1993 piece by Steven Marcus praises Orwell’s “On Politics and the English Language” and criticizes “political correctness,” around the time it peaked (and around the time I was in college). 

I have had Orwell’s writings misrepresented to me by leftists on three occasions over the years, each time in some strange way that completely undermines or reverses Orwell’s core messages: first, at Brown when several others in a class on writing chastised me for praising “On Politics and the English Language,” calling the essay fascistic in its admonishment to avoid politicized jargon; next, at a job where a colleague, misremembering 1984 in a profoundly ironic way, tried to convince me that Winston Smith clung to the relativistic belief that 2+2 = 5 as an expression of his freedom while the Party tried to oppress him with the claim that 2+2 = 4; and most recently, when some online leftists argued that Orwell was not warning us in part about left-wing excesses but about the danger of conservatives using surveillance cameras.

But then, as Orwell knew, many problems transcend the usual right/left divisions, and I will keep that in mind at our Sept. Occupy/Tea summit.

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