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23 A Preface to the politics of Intellectual Life in Postwar America: The Possibility of New Left Beginnings The end of ideology closes the book, intellectually speaking, on an era, the one of easy “left” formulae for social change. But to close the book is not to turn one’s back upon it. —Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology, 1960 We seem to be in the early stages of a new concept of revolutionary and socialist politics, where we can hope for the present only to clear the ground, to criticize the old methods that have landed us in a blind alley, and to grope in a new direction. —Dwight Macdonald, “The Root Is Man (II),” 1946 The 1940s are often taken as a decade of American triumph. In 1941, the famous and wealthy publisher of Life magazine, Henry Luce, wrote that the twentieth century “is ours not only in the sense that we happen to live in it but ours also because it is America’s first century as a dominant power in the world.” This sort of bold enthusiasm seemed appropriate. America, after all, was victorious in World War II and now stood as a leading world power. Even if communism challenged the “American way of life,” as increasing numbers of writers referred to it at the time, there at least was a welldefined enemy that only helped highlight America’s own excellence. After all, World War II unleashed economic prosperity, represented in the cornucopia of commodities made available to large numbers of Americans. In the 1950s, when debating Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon simply unveiled a model of a modern American kitchen to his Soviet sparring partner. It seemed that the abundance of commodities was enough to prove America’s superiority over Russian totalitarianism.1 Intellectual life in America reflected this rising prosperity and confidence. As Richard Pells explains it (without endorsing the view), there has been a fairly standard and sweeping interpretation of the shifts in intellectual life 1. Henry Luce, The American Century (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1941), 27. My interpretation of the “kitchen debate” is indebted to Stephen Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 73–74. 24 Intellectuals in Action from the early twentieth century up to the 1950s: “Starting out as exuberant reformers in the Progressive Era, writers are supposed to have gained wisdom as rebels during the 1920s and as radicals in the 1930s, before reconciling themselves to society in the 1950s. . . . By the 1950s, they had finally grown up and settled down.” Prosperity induced intellectual comfort, so the story goes. The intellectual historian Stephen Longstaff argues that American “culture” during the Cold War “not only had careers, comfort, and fame to offer. It also wanted distinguished intellectuals to provide some tone to public sanctions at home and abroad, and it expected them to take their place among the representatives of the various interests and constituencies that make up the country’s official and unofficial elite.” As with the rest of the country, intellectuals grew fat and comfortable during the Cold War.2 This is typically seen in the path taken by a group of writers now known as the New York Intellectuals—the most important grouping of intellectuals in the post–World War II period. These modernist thinkers gathered around magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary and included Sidney Hook, the philosopher; Lionel Trilling, the literary critic; Norman Podhoretz, the social critic and editor; and many others. Bound together by similar experiences , many historians refer to these writers as the “New York Family.” Most members had grown up in Jewish enclaves within New York City, coming of age during the Great Depression and eventually attending the City University. As young thinkers, they debated their new secular faith of Marxism. Defining themselves predominantly as anti-Stalinists, many of them found consolation in the arguments of Trotsky, who preserved the revolutionary and vanguardist teachings of V. I. Lenin against Stalin’s practice of “socialism in one country.” These New York thinkers despised the Popular Front and its primary agent, the American Communist Party. They especially eschewed the populist sentiments they saw, rightfully or not, operating in the Popular Front culture of the 1930s, a culture that limped on into the 1940s. The New York Intellectuals embraced instead the intellectualism of high modernism in literature and art. They tried to marry—and it was an odd marriage indeed—the modernism of a T. S. Eliot...


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