Book Review: Breaking Ranks

This book review was originally published in the October 29, 1979 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Books: Radical Retreat

BREAKING RANKS by Norman Podhoretz Harper & Row; 375 pages; $15

Norman Podhoretz calls it, with pardonable license, the “terror.” No guillotine was set up in Greenwich Village, literary heads did not roll, but there were plenty of verbal executions in the late 1960s and early ’70s when radical thought held sway in New York City and many other parts of the country as well. As the editor of Commentary and a leader of centrist opinion, Podhoretz was a prime target of the Manhattan Jacobins. In a book recapturing the impassioned polemics of the era in sometimes powerful and sometimes sluggish prose, he tells how he survived the literary pummeling and went on to organize the counterrevolution.

Podhoretz’s retreat from radicalism takes the form of a letter to his son John.

The father was born to a radical heritage and not expected to stray. After writing several appreciative pieces about avant-garde writers, he took command of Commentary in 1960 and steered it leftward.

But as radicalism advanced in the decade, he began to have his doubts. He was an early opponent of the Viet Nam War, but he did not agree with his fellow intellectuals that the conflict was an indictment of the American political system.

With growing apprehension, he read the outpourings of the New Left as they castigated U.S. democracy as a sham, belittled middle-class values and began to compare “Amerika” to Nazi Germany.

Increasingly arrogant and authoritarian, they wanted to make over America in their imageā€”or else. “I simply could not recognize the country I lived in,” writes Podhoretz. “At their worst, they sounded like people writing about a place they themselves had never actually seen or at least hardly knew.” Beneath the surface of these fulminations, he adds, “there flowed a steady current of moral smugness and self-satisfaction … Everything was simplified into slogans for shouting and chanting.” At the height of the demonstrations at Berkeley in 1964, Podhoretz realized he must make a choice between “loyalty to radicalism as against loyalty to intellectual standards.”

He paid a partial price for his apostasy: sneers, vilification, few invitations to literary parties. Those who attacked him assumed an attitude of moral superiority. In an atmosphere of growing intellectual conformity, rational debate became irrelevant. During a discussion among antiwar protesters, for example, one participant expressed fear that the Communists might take over Viet Nam if the U.S. withdrew. Jason Epstein, who helped launch the New York Review of Books, scornfully responded: “So you like to see little babies napalmed.” End of discussion.

Still, fielding darts from captious intellectuals was not quite the equivalent of facing bullets or a mugger’s knife. Why then, ponders Podhoretz, did so many liberals let themselves be intimidated? He devotes much of his book to searching for an explanation and concludes that intellectuals suffered a failure of nerve. When confronted, they would not fight for their beliefs, especially if the opposition came from the left, which was supposed to be on the side of justice and humanity. They would not defend the integrity of thought against crude up-against-the-wall sloganeering.

Podhoretz refused to yield. He enlisted his Commentary contributors fo an all-out crusade: among them, Nathan Glazer, Pat Moynihan, Michael Novak, Dorothy Rabinowitz, Samuel McCracken, James Q. Wilson, Bayard Rustin, Joseph W. Bishop and Podhoretz’s wife Midge Decter. With sharp logic and biting wit, they drew considerable blood as they assailed radicalism on all fronts: its elitism, coercive utopianism, contempt for the common American, penchant for Government intervention, tolerance of Communist totalitarianism and its fatuous call for revolution. Intellectually at any rate, they soon had their adversaries on the run; many of the most voluble leftists of the period have faded from the polemical scene: Noam Chomsky, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Staughton Lynd, Jerry Rubin, Andrew Kopkind (“Morality, like politics, starts at the barrel of a gun”). The Commentary crowd, meanwhile, carries on the battle with undiminished gusto.

In seeming to uphold American political traditions, Podhoretz and his allies have been dubbed “neo-conservatives,” a label that causes them some discomfort. Podhoretz continues to claim to be a liberal; it is the radicals, he insists, who became illiberal. Such quib bling may be of greater interest to the author than to his readers. But if his book is often tedious in detail, it has a sweeping theme. At a time of testing, the Commentary group upheld standards of civilized discourse and thereby earned an honorable place in the history of American letters. They behaved as intellectuals are supposed to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *