- Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right, and: Norman Podhoretz and Commentary Magazine: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons
It appears that we can’t get enough of the political lives of the so-called New York intellectuals, the young men of CCNY’s famous alcoves who encompassed communism, anti-Stalinism, Roosevelt New Dealism, Cold Warriorism, New Leftism, and postwar neoconservatism. In the week that I completed this review, Daniel Bell died at the age of 91, meriting international obituaries; Irving Kristol’s book The Neoconservative Persuasion was published and widely reviewed; and the New York Times magazine ran a short piece about Martin Peretz, a complicated son of Jewish neoconservatism in his own right.1
Two main lines of inquiry should inform a history of neoconservatism. First, what were its effects on postwar liberalism and American politics generally, and second, to what degree was neoconservatism “Jewish” and where does it fit in the history of Jewish politics? Many of the books on neoconservatism assume a relationship between these two lines of inquiry because of the prominence of Commentary magazine, the feisty periodical published by the American Jewish Committee for most of its history. While both works under review seek to assess the Jewishness of postwar neoconservatism, only Balint provides a historical argument about that relationship. Running Commentary makes a smart and lively argument that Commentary’s pages reflected a process of Jewish acculturation to America. Balint states that the magazine “registered Jews’ negotiations with America and the expectations and conundrums thereof” and [End Page 83] marked the transition of a group of alienated (male) immigrant children from deracinated outsiders to rooted insiders who, after World War II, “thrust themselves from the margins to the innermost hubs of American politics and letters” (xi, 203). Nathan Abrams’s biography Norman Podhoretz and Commentary Magazine is, unfortunately, so preoccupied with relegating most of his subject’s decisions to bald political and social opportunism that he barely engages in any serious discussion of how or if Podhoretz’s political trajectory informs any understanding of modern Jewish political culture.
Proceeding chronologically, both books survey the well-worn ground detailing the City College and later Columbia College—in the case of Norman Podhoretz—origins of the Jewish neoconservatives; their prewar anti-Stalinism and postwar Cold War liberalism; Elliot Cohen’s brilliant stewardship of Commentary during the 1940s and 1950s and Podhoretz’s precocious ascension to editor in 1960; the latter’s turn toward political radicalism in the mid-1960s; Commentary’s opposition to the Vietnam war, but its revulsion against some elements of the New Left; the support of these former leftist Democrats for Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign; their disorientation at the Cold War’s end; and, finally, the reassertion of neoconservatism and its typological thinking in what Podhoretz called World War IV, the fight against “Islamofascism.” Its readership peaking in the late 1960s, Commentary seemed to speak for American Jewish liberals, but something happened in the aftermath of the Six Day War and the rise of the New Left to put the magazine on a crash course with its own political past. Commentary gradually turned right and Republican, yet most American Jews stayed liberal and Democratic. What happened, and why has this political turn garnered so much scholarly attention?
It is critical to emphasize that many prominent non-Jews, such as James Q. Wilson, Michael Novak, Francis Fukuyama, Peter Berger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick, Fred Barnes, and Bruce Bartlett were neoconservatives, so the phenomenon of neoconservatism cannot be considered solely a Jewish affair. Yet if one is interested in the Jewish aspects of neoconservativism—as these books are—then it is necessary to push Balint’s integrationist argument beyond its twentieth-century U.S. concerns. I would like to suggest that we view postwar Jewish neoconservatism as part of two...