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Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neconservative Right, by Benjamin Balint. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2010. 290 pp. $26.95.
Benjamin Balint’s new book, Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right, is an exceptionally well written book that describes with enthusiasm the major transformation identified in the sub-title. It is a thoughtful analysis of American intellectual and ideological history from the 1920s to 2009 by describing three generations of Commentary editors (a fourth was very recently selected), the ideological views of those editors, the Commentary “Family” that each editor represented, and the impact of Commentary’s arguments, especially those of Norman Podhoretz, on American politics. Moreover, the book considers the developing disconnect between Commentary’s neoconservatism, since 1980, and the American Jewish voter, who has continued to support an older, more liberal tradition. From beginning to end, the book summarizes the continuous exciting debates that have covered the pages of Commentary and have made the magazine what may well be the premier intellectual journal in the United States in the twentieth century. Balint’s thoroughly researched book is an example of very solid American intellectual history. But it is more: it provides real insights into the nature of post-World War II American political history.
The decade and a half from 1945 to 1960 is the starting period of Commentary which, under the exceptionally capable editorship of Elliot Cohen, would become one of America’s foremost intellectual magazines and whose fine writers would, in the early years of Commentary’s history reflect the legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt—liberalism and internationalism.
Balint insightfully traces the early twentieth-century development of the American Jewish intelligentsia. His study begins with an analysis of the nature of the difficulties encountered by early twentieth-century Jews as they were confronted by American antisemitism, collegiate quota systems and exclusion, alienation from American society, and sometimes alienation from the American Jewish community. Here is a rich description of the infighting among Jewish intellectuals—especially leftists—some of whom reflected a variety of progressive and/or socialist views and others who favored differing shades of communism. In spite of differences, “Those who would midwife Commentary magazine into the world resembled nothing so much as a loosely knit, self-formed Family. . . .They practiced their hypercritical intellectual gamesmanship—a form of close infighting—en famille” (p. 6). Balint’s description helps to confirm the old quip: “two Jews, three opinions.” Within this context, the goal of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in founding Commentary in 1945 was to create a journal worthy of American Jewish opinion.
In seeking to create a worthy journal, the editorial staff and writers—the Family—of the post-War period increasingly recognized that much of the American bigotry and antisemitism of the early twentieth century was over. “Like American Jews in general, it now struck the Family with the force of epiphany that religion could be a means of American belonging. . . .” Balint concludes that “[f]amily members discovered ethnic assertion as a sign of Americanization—that here they could draw sustenance from distinctiveness” (p. 46). The Family also discovered that Jews were not the only alienated group in the United States and that Jews could be defined more broadly than through defensiveness from antisemitism. This all opened up the possibilities for greater self-respect and intellectual dialogue. Under Elliott Cohen’s splendid editorship, Commentary’s growing sophistication drew readers and authors from among the most prestigious of thinkers and writers. Balint recognizes that Commentary reflected the judgment that “as boosters and detracters could agree, America’s new Jewish writers had come into their own” (p. 58). But, even more broadly than its Jewish significance, Commentary had become a forum for intellectual exchange and a significant chapter in twentieth-century American intellectual history.
The formative years of Commentary under Elliott Cohen were also a period of profound American concern about anti-communism. The pages of Commentary reflected the national concern as leftists, socialists, progressives, liberals, and conservatives debated their respective views. Irving Kristol argued that “liberals who worried about the civil liberties of American Communists were often driven by an ideological sympathy” for those whom they defended, while Irving Howe, in Partisan Review, insisted that Commentary’s anti-communism “was an ideological mask that blinded the Family to the need for radical social change” (pp. 71–72). Balint holds that during the last half of the 1950s, and under the increasingly depressed state of mind of Elliott Cohen, Commentary was diminished somewhat in quality, although many excellent articles continued to appear in the journal. Finally, in the spring of 1959, beset by anxiety and depression, Cohen committed suicide. He was replaced as managing editor by Norman Podhoretz.
At the beginning of his administration of the journal, Podhoretz cleaned house by replacing Cohen’s staff with his own people, but, as Balint indicates, “Commentary remained in its essence a one-man magazine.” Circulation of Commentary during the decade of the 1960s more than tripled (p. 86). Neither Podhoretz nor his staff were especially supportive of the new Left. Nonetheless, Commentary, under the leadership of Podhoretz, supported “reform in poverty, education, housing—and especially civil rights” (p. 89). Moreover, Podhoretz became less anti-communist than in his earlier years and increasingly in the 1960s he became ever more opposed to the war in Vietnam.
The youth rebellion of the last half of the 1960s, however, made Podhoretz and Commentary increasingly resentful. They deplored the youth rebelliousness; they saw the new left and the youth culture as increasingly supportive of rebelliousness domestically, while romanticizing the authoritarianism of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Gamal Abdul Nasser, and Ho Chi Minh and the efforts of communism to expand around the world. Moreover, Podhoretz and Commentary were deeply troubled by the attack of youth culture and the new left on the establishment, including the universities. While Podhorez had, in the past, been supportive of the ideological left, as the 1960s wore on, ideologically he and Commentary shifted to the right. “They were shocked, that is, by the unwillingness of liberals to defend liberal values” (p. 101). They were also shocked by African American vilification of the Jews, by the Black Power movement, by the Islamic war against Israel, and by U.S. liberal support of the Palestinians against Israel in the Middle East. In the late 1960s and 1970s all of these views fundamentally transformed the views of Podhoretz and Commentary into a commitment to self-interest and especially Jewish self-interest. The underlying ideology of Podhoretz and the Commentary Family became “What is bad for the Jews is bad for America and for the West itself” (p. 115). In this transformation, Podhoretz and the Commentary Family became neoconservative. They loudly advocated anti-communism and anti-Islamic fundamentalist views, consistent support of Israel in the Middle East, and strong opposition to liberalism in U.S. domestic policy.
Balint also describes the ways in which Podhoretz and the Commentary Family supported the domestic and foreign policies of Ronald Reagan, along with the Bush presidencies. Podhoretz retired from the editorship of Commentary in 1995, surrendering the post to his second-in-command, Neal Kozodoy, but the journal continued to be neoconservative. Strongly favoring Israel in the Middle East, Commentary supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and involvement in Afghanistan during the presidency of George W. Bush. Interestingly enough, the neoconservative position of Podhoretz and the Commentary Family did not win the support of the majority of American Jews. When asked about this by President George W. Bush, Podhoretz expressed his hope that American Jews would give up their “political delusions” and recognize where their true interests lay (p. 212). American Jews disagreed with Podhoretz while continuing to read Commentary. An especially interesting and important intellectual history, Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary is highly recommended.
Purdue University Calumet