Fifty years ago, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling wrote his once-famous assessment of the place occupied by liberalism in American intellectual life. This is the key passage:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
Notwithstanding the undisguised condescension in Trilling’s tone—a condescension toward conservative thought widely shared by liberals at the time—it was not his purpose in that preface to impugn the totality of the conservative intellectual tradition. On the contrary, it was one of Trilling’s ambitions in The Liberal Imagination to persuade his fellow liberals that they might profit, morally and intellectually, from a careful consideration of the ideas of liberalism’s conservative critics. Believing, however, that there was no contemporary conservative criticism equal to the task of reforming liberal thought in the ways he wished to see it reformed, Trilling called upon liberals to perform, in effect, an auto-critique of their own most cherished assumptions based on the wisdom of traditional conservative thought.

This was widely taken to be a heresy at the time, and it instantly earned its author the enduring enmity of the intellectual Left. Yet, in attempting to persuade liberals that “it is not conducive to the real strength of liberalism that it should occupy the intellectual field alone,” Trilling cited an unexceptionable liberal precedent—John Stuart Mill’s essay on Coleridge:

Mill, at odds with Coleridge all down the intellectual and political line [wrote Trilling], nevertheless urged all liberals to become acquainted with this powerful conservative mind. He said that the power of every true partisan of liberalism should be, “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies… ; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”
To which Trilling added: “What Mill meant, of course, was that the intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge could exert would force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.”

Trilling’s bold project in The Liberal Imagination was anything but an exercise in abstract political theory. It was a keenly felt response to a historical calamity. The liberalism of his own generation—the generation that came of age in the 1930s—had been deeply compromised by its abject surrender to the mythology of Soviet socialism. To extricate liberalism from the seductions of the Soviet myth was no easy task, however. Socialism was the ideal toward which all liberal sentiment was inevitably inclined, and for many liberals of Trilling’s generation the Soviet Union—whatever its faults or failures—still loomed as the most advanced socialist society in the history of the world.

It was, moreover, in the very nature of Stalinism—as the ideology of Soviet apologetics came to be called—to stigmatize every deviation from its own orthodoxies as a sure sign of “reaction,” and there was nothing that liberals dreaded so much as to be publicly demonized as reactionaries. This is not to say that there were no liberals who harbored doubts about the Soviet “experiment,” as it was sometimes called. It is to say that, given the immense influence wielded by those loyal to the Stalinist cause, there was often a high price to be paid for the public expression of those doubts, never mind what could be expected to follow from more incendiary accounts of Soviet subversion, terror, and duplicity.

In 1950, the year that The Liberal Imagination was published, many liberals in high places—in the government, the media, and the universities—regarded it as a badge of honor to rally to the defense of Alger Hiss, even after he had been convicted of perjury for lying about his activities as a Soviet agent. Abroad, Stalin’s minions were exerting an immense influence on the political and intellectual life of Western Europe while embarking upon the military conquest of South Korea, and in Russia itself “Stalin’s murderous paranoia appeared ready to soar once more,” as David Remnick later reported in Lenin’s Tomb (1993), with his contriving of the so-called Doctors’ Plot— his farewell act of totalitarian terror.

It was in this historical setting that The Liberal Imagination marked a turning point in American liberal thought—the point at which a chastened liberalism sought to disembarrass itself of the Soviet incubus. Trilling’s was by no means the only or the most politically influential contribution to that endeavor. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center, published in 1949 and written in the immediate aftermath of Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign for the presidency as the candidate of the Progressive Party, struck a powerful blow in the same direction. “What is the progressive?” asked Schlesinger in a chapter called “The Failure of the Left,” and answered as follows:

The defining characteristic of the progressive, as I shall use the word, is the sentimentality of his approach to politics and culture. He must be distinguished, on the one hand, from the Communist; for the progressive is soft, not hard; he believes himself genuinely concerned with the welfare of individuals. He must be distinguished, on the other, from the radical democrat; for the progressive, by refusing to make room in his philosophy for the discipline of responsibility or for the danger of power, has cut himself off from the usable pragmatic traditions of American radical democracy. He has rejected the pragmatic tradition of the men who, from the Jacksonians to the New Dealers, learned the facts of life through the exercise of power under conditions of accountability. He has rejected the pessimistic tradition of those who, from Hawthorne to Reinhold Neibuhr, warned that power, unless checked by accountability, would corrupt its possessor.
And further:
His sentimentality has softened up the progressive for Communist permeation and conquest. For the most chivalrous reasons, he cannot believe that ugly facts underlie fair words. However he looks at it, for example, the USSR keeps coming through as a kind of enlarged Brook Farm community, complete with folk dancing in native costume, joyous work in the fields, and progressive kindergartens. Nothing in his system has prepared him for Stalin.

This was certainly audacious for a man with close ties to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party writing in 1949. Yet the liberalism of a “radical democrat” like Schlesinger was not without its own vein of sentimentality, especially where the New Deal was concerned. It was one thing to speak of “Communist permeation” in relation to Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party— or, for that matter, in regard to some of the big labor unions, as Schlesinger also did in The Vital Center. But it was quite another thing to acknowledge the reality of Communist penetration of the New Deal itself. On that subject, even a staunch anti-Communist liberal like Schlesinger was not prepared to face the worst, then or later, lest he be seen to ally himself with the forces of “reaction,” which in this case meant the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Thus, as late as 1967, at a symposium organized by Partisan Review at Columbia University, Schlesinger was still attempting to deny the importance of the Communists-in-government issue by drawing a specious distinction between what had occurred in the New York intellectual world in the 1930s—the focus of Trilling’s critique of liberalism in The Liberal Imagination—and what had befallen the “pragmatic” New Deal liberals in Washington in the same period, on which subject Schlesinger had himself become our principal mythologist. In regard to the politics of the New Deal, anyway, Schlesinger clearly had no interest in invoking the views of any conservative opponent as a means of forcing liberals, as Trilling had put it, “to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.” Reinhold Neibuhr was himself, after all, a bona fide liberal—and Niebuhr was about as “conservative” as Schlesinger was prepared to go in his attempt to reform the liberalism of his day.

By the late 1960s, however, the once potent moral influence of anti-Communist liberalism had been shattered by the radical movement that erupted in response to the Vietnam War. Between the Stalinism of the 1930s and the New Left radicalism of the 1960s, there were many differences in style and tactics, to be sure, but they were alike in one essential respect: in their power to persuade liberals to betray their professed ideals of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law by worshipping at the altars of illiberal gods. Stalin may have been discredited, but in the 1960s Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Tse-tung proved to be equally compelling icons for a new generation of liberals and progressives as eager to succumb to the totalitarian temptation as their elder counterparts had been in the 1930s. Indeed, it was one of the features of the politics and culture of the radical movement in the 1960s to rehabilitate some of the shabbiest reputations spawned by the Stalinism of the 1930s.

Trilling’s project to reform liberalism by calling upon it to perform an auto-critique of its own pieties and commonplaces was effectively buried in the culture wars that came out of the 1960s counterculture. But then, so was Arthur Schlesinger’s more narrowly conceived political project to reform liberalism by separating it from the simplistic illusions of progressivism buried on the same ideological battleground. “It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify,” Trilling wrote in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, and no greater proof of that assessment could have been imagined than the nomination of a simple-minded liberal like George McGovern as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1972—a candidate who answered to Schlesinger’s idea of the progressive mind in virtually every detail. As a consequence of the politics and culture of the 1960s radical movement, liberalism was itself reduced to sentiments that were now able to express themselves “only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

As a guide to what, in this last decade of the twentieth century, these liberal “mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” now consist of, consider the reflections of an avowed pragmatist like Richard Rorty, who, in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press, 1998), offers what he prefers to call the “reformist Left” a program for future renewal. Nothing more opposed to Trilling’s call for liberalism to embrace an “awareness of complexity and difficulty” could be imagined. For in Rorty’s updated version of the progressive vision, there are no complexities or difficulties to be entertained. All politics is painlessly reduced to a highly simplified Left and Right, and the Left is always right—morally right, even when politically wrong—and the Right is always wrong, morally and politically. Mill on Coleridge remains a closed book.

The contrast between The Liberal Imagination and Achieving Our Country is made especially piquant by the fact that—as Rorty is eager to tell us—he was himself born into the political and intellectual milieu that did much to shape Trilling’s thought:

My parents were loyal fellow-travelers of the Communist Party right up through 1932, the year after I was born. In that year my father ran a front organization called the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford (the Communist Party’s candidates for president and vice-president). My parents broke with the party after realizing the extent to which it was run from Moscow, and so I did not get to read the Daily Worker when I was a boy. By 1935 the Worker was printing cartoons of my father as a trained seal, catching fish thrown by William Randolph Hearst. But my parents did subscribe to the organ of Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party, The Call, as well as those of the DeLeonite Socialist Labor Party and the Shachtmanite Socialist Workers’ Party. I plowed through these papers, convinced that doing so would teach me how to think about my country and its politics.
Rorty continues:
As a teenager, I believed every anti-Stalinist word that Sidney Hook and Lionel Trilling published in Partisan Review—partly, perhaps, because I had been bounced on their knees as a baby. My mother used to tell me, with great pride, that when I was seven I had had the honor of serving little sandwiches to the guests at a Halloween party attended both by John Dewey and by Carlo Tresca, the Italian anarchist leader who was assassinated a few years later. That same party, I have since discovered, was attended not only by the Hooks and the Trillings, but by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers had just broken with the Communist Party and was desperately afraid of being liquidated by Stalin’s hit men.
All of which is quite interesting, of course. Growing up on what Rorty calls “the anti-Communist reformist Left” has meant, among other things, that he never became a Communist fellow traveler himself. It has also meant, in his case, that he takes a very dim view of what he calls “the Foucauldian Left,” if only because it has, as he writes, “little interest in designing new social experiments.” I am not sure myself that the latter criticism is entirely correct, but it is certainly the case that Michel Foucault’s notion of a desirable “new social experiment” would not be in accord with Rorty’s.

Nevertheless, Rorty’s experience of the “reformist Left” seems to have left him with a permanent incapacity for critical judgment about anything having to do with its social goals. What those goals amount to, in this account, is little more than a vaguely utopian version of the welfare state combined with the imperatives of 1990s-style political correctness. Yet about the woeful failures of the welfare state we hear nothing in this book, and about the coercive measures needed to perfect the kind of politically correct society Rorty enthusiastically endorses we hear nothing either. As a consequence, we are left with the impression that Achieving Our Country is neither a serious exercise in liberal pragmatism nor an attempt at political analysis, but something else: a historical romance.

About the actual history of the political Left in this country, Rorty does indeed have a very romantic view. In a passage that seems to call for something like a revival of the 1930s Popular Front, he implores us to “abandon the leftist-versus-liberal distinction, along with the other residues of Marxism that clutter up our vocabulary,” and thus “drop the term ‘Old Left’ as a name for the Americans who called themselves ‘socialists’ between 1945 and 1964.” As for the old Communist Party stalwarts, Rorty calls upon us to “remember that individual members of that party worked heroically, and made very painful sacrifices, in the hope of helping our country to achieve its promise. Many Marxists, even those who spent decades apologizing for Stalin, helped change our country for the better by helping to change its laws.”

For Rorty, “having been ‘on the Left’”— never mind which Left—is to have received the political equivalent of a mandate from heaven, and among its saintly recipients he lists Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson along with Irving Howe and Arthur Schlesinger— though not, of course, Lionel Trilling. He also has some kind words for those “socially useful thinkers”—Cornel West, Fredric Jameson, and Terry Eagleton—and grandly forgives them for regarding themselves as Marxists. Those whom he consigns to the “reformist Left” version of the outer darkness make an interesting list, too—“Calvin Coolidge, Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot, Robert Taft, and William Buckley.” Well, as Trilling said, “It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify.”

As might be expected from this cast of mind, in which an exhausted liberalism looks to radicalism in its most extreme manifestations as the only means of renewing its own vitality, Rorty reserves his highest praise for the uproars of the 1960s.

America will always owe an enormous amount to the rage which rumbled through the country between 1964 and 1972. We do not know what our country would be like today, had that rage not been felt. But we can be pretty certain that it would be a much worse place than it is.
In this philosopher’s considered judgment, “the New Left may have saved us from losing our moral identity.” If the New Leftists “had never taken to the streets,” he writes, “America might no longer be a constitutional democracy.” And in the name of what ideas or ideals does this champion of the “reformist Left” look to the future?” “Among these ideals,” writes Rorty, “are participatory democracy and the end of capitalism. Power will pass to the people, the Sixties Left believed, only when decisions are made by all those who may be affected by their results… . When they do, capitalism as we know it will have ended, and something new will have taken its place.”

In this pathetic exercise in nostalgia for the old radical pieties, one is vividly reminded of the intellectual bankruptcy that has now overtaken liberal thought and of liberalism’s betrayal of its own vaunted values. With a view to reexamining the historical sources of liberalism’s current impasse and its implication for a conservative alternative, we shall be publishing this season a series of essays on “The Betrayal of Liberalism.” Contributors to this series will include Roger Scruton writing on the origins of the liberal ethos in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Keith Windschuttle on liberalism and the writing of history; Roger Kimball on liberalism and the politics of liberty in the writings of John Stuart Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen; Robert Conquest on liberalism and revolution; Hadley Arkes on liberalism and the law; and John Silber on liberalism, culture, and civility. The series will be concluded in our June 1999 issue with an essay by John O’Sullivan on the conservative response to the liberal ethos.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 1, on page 4
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