THIS PAST FALL, in what used to be East Berlin, I attended a commemorative conference on “The Cold War and After.” It was sponsored by the late, lamented Encounter magazine, had been founded in London in 1953 by Stephen Spencer and myself, and which publication ceased last year. Though I left the magazine at the end of 1958, to return to New York, I have always felt a special sense of identity with it.
Encounter was accused of being a "Cold War” magazine, which in a sense was true. It was published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was later revealed to have been financed by the CIA. As a cultural-political journal, it published many fine literary essays, literary criticism, art criticism, short stories, and poetry, and in sheer bulk they probably preponderated. But there is no doubt its ideological core--its "mission," as it were--was to counteract, insofar as it was able, the anti-American, pro-Soviet views a large seginent of the intellectual elites in Western democracies and in the English-speaking Commonwealth.
Just how large this segment was, and influential, is now easily (and conveniently) forgotten. In France, it was practically impossible to work in the film industry unless you were a member of the Communist or a reliable fellow-traveler. In Italy, it was not very different. In Germany, the dominant posture of intellectuals was "neutralist"--i.e., asserting a "moral equivalence" between the United States and the USSR. Even in Britain and the United States, majority opinion in the intellectual elite was, when not fellow-travelling or "neutralist," insistent on distancing itself from America's Cold War policies as overly "militaristic."
This intellectual Weltanschauung derived from the fact that most intellectuals, every-where, were generally on the Left of the political spectrum. It was therefore easier to give the benefit of all doubts to the Soviet Union or, say, Cuba which were nominally "socialist" and ideologically egalitarian than to a vigorously capitalist United States. Only among the so-called "right-wing Social Democrats" did one find a consistent anti- communist" attitude--which was never, however, a simple pro-American one, for obvious reasons.
Under these circumstances, it is under-standable that the political coloration of Encounter was, on the whole, right-wing Social Democratic--something which annoyed those of my American friends who felt that an unqualified pro-American position was incumbent on us. Though by this time I had become skeptical of Social Democrats or "liberals" in the American sense--they came to the same thing--I appreciated the clear strategic desirability (perhaps even necessity) of such an orientation. But I was less than enthusiastic about it and took some satisfaction in publishing a few articles by some of the younger, more gifted British Tories.
The truth is that, by the time I came to Encounter, anticommunism or anti-Marxism or anti-Marxist-Leninism or anti-totalitarianism had pretty much ceased to interest me as an intellectual project. As a young Trotskyist in my college days, I had studied Marx and Lenin and Trotsky to the point of disillusionment. It was a useful inoculation that rendered me, not only immune, but positively indifferent to the ideological chatter around me. For almost half-a-century now, I have found it close to impossible even to read any apologia for a communist regime, any political analysis written from a pro-communist point of view, or any socio-economic analysis written from a Marxist or quasi-Marxist point of view. Only rarely did I feel moved to refute such writings. I was happy, for the most part, to leave that to others--scholars, journalists, publicists--being content to associate myself with their efforts to do God's work. I heartily approved of their Cold War but it was not my cold war.
My disillusionment with the Trotskyist version of radical socialism proceeded along its own path. I have never felt myself to be an "ex-Trotskyist" in the sense that some people conceive of themselves as "ex-communists." The experience was never that important to me, and my rightward drift commenced promptly upon its termination. I then defined myself as a "democratic socialist," though this was a movement so intellectually placid and politically inert that I am convinced I always understood it to be a convenient transitional phase.
In any case, my tepid loyalty to "democratic socialism" did not survive my experiences as an infantryman in the army. I entered military service with a prefabricated set of attitudes: The army was an authoritarian, hierarchical, mean-spirited, mindless machine--as later described by Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead--while the common soldiers, for all their human imperfections, represented the potential for a better future. Well, it turned out that, as a provincial from New York, I knew nothing about the American common man and even less about the army as an institution. Again and again, and to my surprise, I found reasons to think better of the army and less well of my fellow enlisted men. It is true that, since I was inducted in Chicago, my regiment was heavily populated by thugs or near-thugs from places like Cicero (Al Capone's old base), so my impressions may have been extreme. Nevertheless, my army experience permitted me to make an important political discovery: The idea of building socialism with the common man who actually existed--as distinct from his idealized version--was sheer fantasy, and therefore the prospects for "democratic socialism" were nil. The army may have radicalized Norman Mailer; it successfully de-radicalized me. It caused me to cease being a socialist.
BUT WHAT was I, then? When, after the war, I joined the editorial staff of Commentary, I accepted, for want of a better term, the designation of "liberal." After all, members of the New York intellectual community were all "liberals," with not a conservative (not one!) among them. It didn't matter that much to me because, in the immediate post-war years, I wasn't particularly interested in politics. My own writings, in that period, encompassed religion, philosophy, and literature. I was a member in good standing of the anticommunist segment of that intellectual community--Commentary, after all, was one of its major organs--but I do not recall writing anything about communism. It was a period--it lasted almost five years--during which, as a liberal editor, non-liberal thoughts germinated in my mind and soul. I was far from being a conservative, had no interest in "market economics," and the notion of voting Republican was as foreign to me as attending a Catholic mass. I suppose that, in today's terms, I could be fairly described as a premature "neo-liberal"--with the emphasis most emphatically on the "neo."
The two intellectual godfathers of my neo-ism were Lionel Trilling and Reinhold Niebuhr. It was Trilling who, as early as my college years, and even while I was a Trotskyist, pointed to liberalism's dirty little secret--that there was something basically rotten about its progressive metaphysics that led to an impoverishment of the imagination and a dessication of the spirit. It was he who pointed out that among all the modern novelists and poets we admired, and which he taught in his Columbia University course, there was not one who could properly be called a liberal. This theme Trilling went on develop and deepen in the decades that flowed, and I greedily seized upon every word he wrote. Oddly enough, he never ceased to think of himself as a liberal, albeit a disturbed and dissident liberal, and while always respectful of religion, he was irredeemably secular in his sensibility. His mission as he saw it, apparently, was to liberate liberals rals from the confines of liberalism. But toward what, he could never say.
Reinhold Niebuhr could say. His two-volume Nature and Destiny of Man was the first theological work I had ever read and it pointed me beyond liberalism. To be sure, I had always had a vague, positive feeling about religion and was especially fond of religious poets (Donne, Hopkins, Eliot). Indeed, may have been through poetry that my predisposition to religion was formed. But I had neither the intellectual vocabulary nor the intellectual grammar with which to think about religion. It was Niebuhr who introduced me to the idea of "the human condition" as something permanent, inevitable, trans-cultural, trans-historical, a transcendent finitude. To entertain seriously such a vision is already to have disengaged oneself from a crucial progressive-liberal piety. It enables one to read the Book of Genesis with an appreciation that approaches awe. After Niebuhr, I plunged into theological literature with an ecumenical enthusiasm. By the late 1940s, religious thought was my most passionate interest--though, in the secular-liberal milieu in which I lived and worked, it was an interest to be revealed with prudence. The fact that Niebuhr, like Trilling, was generally regarded--and regarded himself to be--a member in good standing of the liberal intellectual community was reassuring to me. Perhaps it was possible, after all, to reject liberal metaphysics while remaining, to some degree and in some way, politically liberal. The following decades were to reveal to me how utterly impossible it was.
It was in 1951 that I started writing about politics again, if only intermittently. My first such effort was a book review of a prominent fellow-travelling liberal, in which I tried to analyze the rhetoric of this kind of liberalism--not so much to argue with this rhetoric as to demonstrate how it shaped an utterly false view of the world. This was the beginning of my cold war--a persistent critical inquiry into liberalism, trying to figure out what were the passions and the intellectual preconceptions that moved otherwise intelligent people to take a relatively benign view of communist tyranny in power and of communist movements that strove to establish such a tyanny. I was grappling with the phenomenon of left-wing political romanticism and utopianism that infected the intellectual classes of the West, and of the Westernized elites in the "Third World."
I was indeed a "Cold Warrior" (a "Cold War liberal" was the familiar ascription) but I was not engaged in any kind of crusade against communism. It was the fundamental assumptions of contemporary liberalism that were my enemy. For without the moral legitimation of communism provided by Western intellectuals--all the Soviet intellectuals had perished or were in prison camps--the "Cold War" was reduced to a raw, power conflict between totalitarian tyranny and constitutional democracy. This Cold War was a very serious business, as war always is. And there was certainly a crucial ideological dimension to the conflict. The Soviet rulers were authentic Marxist-Leninists, though the peopies they ruled were nothing of the sort. But there really was no good reason why the bizarre beliels of communist leaders should have provoked ideological turmoil in the West, should have given rise to the notion that there were agonizing choices to be made. It was only the prevailing liberal ethos among intellectuals, academia, and the media that imported this complication into our lives.
In the decades that followed, this ethos moved consistendy leftward as I moved consistently rightward. My liberal credentials became tattered, in my own eyes as well as in the eyes of others. Eventually, by the late 1960s and early 197Os, something that was to be called "neo-conservatism" came into being as a new category of political identity for persons like myself. I found it a relief to be so designated and to be removed from that narrowing portion of the political spec-trum labelled as "anticommunist liberal."
Anticommunism had long since ceased being an interesting intellectual issue for me. Resistance to the imperialist designs of communist totalitarianism was essential, of course. How to make such resistance maximally effective was a political challenge, as was resistance to the ever-mounting passion for appeasement evident in liberal circles. But what began to concern me more and more were the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society--a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism. And the more contemporary, the more candid and radical was this agenda.
For me, then, "neo-conservatism" was an experience of moral, intellectual, and spiritual liberation. I no longer had to pretend to believe--what in my heart I could no longer believe-that liberals were wrong because they subscribe to this or that erroneous opinion on this or that topic. No--liberals were wrong, liberals are wrong, because they are liberals. what is wrong with liberalism is liberalism--a metaphysics and a mythology that is woefully blind to human and political reality. Becoming a neo-conservative, then, was the high point of my cold war.
It is a cold war that, for the last twenty-five years, has engaged my attention and energy, and continues to do so. There is no "after the Cold War" for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers. We have, I do believe, reached a critical turning point in the history of the American democracy. Now that the other "Cold War" is over, the real cold war has begun. We are far less prepared for this cold war, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case withour victorious war against a global communist threat. We are, I sometimes feel, starting from ground zero, and it is a conflict I shall be passing on to my children and grandchildren. But it is a far more interesting cold war--intellectually interesting, spiritually interesting--than the war we have so recently won, and I rather envy those young enough for the opportunities they will have to participate in it.