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: