- Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
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 subtitle. 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 [End Page 164] 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 tat 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...