I’ve been reading about the prehistory of the Cold War university world I entered in 1964 as a college freshman, and it has been utterly depressing. The message I get is that international politics and war trump domestic politics, and above all that they trump attempts at radical change or even reform. Great-power slush funds overwhelm everything else.
This book tells the story of the trajectory of the New York Intellectuals (Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, Public Interest) from their beginnings as very poor working-class radical Jews with literary interests through Stalinism and anti-Stalinist radicalism to anti-Communist liberalism and influential positions in American culture and the American university.
Citing Diana Trilling and Leslie Fiedler, Bloom notes that some of the intensity of the New York Intellectuals’ post-WWII anti-Communism may have been a result of the simple fear (or even guilt) felt by people who had dirty hands themselves — with the Rosenbergs serving as an expiatory burnt offering. The ferocious anti-Communist Sidney Hook had been a ferocious Communist during the Thirties, for example, and most of the New York Intellectuals had been isolationists right up until Pearl Harbor.
At times liberal anti-Communism just looks like a factional vendetta, where the prosecutions of the pro-Soviet Communists work as revenge for the Smith Act prosecutions of the anti-war Trotskyists. (Bloom doesn’t underline the fact, but many of the anti-Stalinist radicals redefined themselves as anti-Communist liberals without any previous history of liberalism, and the first thing they did was to attack existing civil-libertarian and anti-anti-Communist liberals of long standing).
In part because American foreign policy temporarily needed non-reactionary American anti-Communists to front for their European operations (The Politics of Apolitical Culture, Giles Scott-Smith) , and in part because the U.S. was moving in an authoritarian direction domestically, anti-Communist quasi-liberalism proved to be the road to success, though often enough it was merely a half-way house to full-blown Strauss-Schmitt-Hayek anti-liberalism.
As I said above, war and foreign policy trump everything else. Little as I admire the New York Intellectuals’ 1950s position, I am not sure that there was a better one available to be taken. If they had acted in a way more to my liking, I suspect that they would have retuirned to obscurity while someone else was found to get the job done. The post-WWII Eurasia / Eastasia switch, rather like an earthquake, destroyed all earlier political positions and severely limited post-earthquake possibilities. At least members of the losing faction weren’t subject to the death of a thousand cuts, as they might have been in the Chinese or the Byzantine empire.
All of the New York Intellectuals were very, very serious — Elliot Cohen, the first editor of Commentary, called them humorless. More evidence for my conviction that ambitious players without a capacity for fundamental unseriousness run the risk of becoming apparatchiks.
P.S. Yes, this is a worst-case reading. Caveat emptor and YMMV. This has been a sore point for me for years.