Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092
Breaking Ranks is an intellectual odyssey; it is also an exercise in self-justification. It starts with the author’s espousal of the liberal anti-Communism of the 1940’s and 1950’s with its emphasis on benevolent government centralization, salutary economic growth, and integration as a solution to racial problems. It shows Podhoretz’s conversion...
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Breaking Ranks is an intellectual odyssey; it is also an exercise in self-justification. It starts with the author’s espousal of the liberal anti-Communism of the 1940’s and 1950’s with its emphasis on benevolent government centralization, salutary economic growth, and integration as a solution to racial problems. It shows Podhoretz’s conversion at the close of the 1950’s to the radicalism that was to characterize much of the 1960’s, a radicalism which attacked these positions. This memoir deals centrally, however, with the author’s “breaking ranks”—his dismissal of 1960’s radicalism as a self-defeating sham—and his attempt to define a new position in terms of his own interests as an American and as an intellectual.
When Podhoretz began his career as editor of Commentary in 1960, he immediately altered its ideological direction by publishing Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, serialized in the magazine’s first three issues. This spirited critique attacks American society as a creator of obstacles for people who want to satisfy “certain elementary needs of the human spirit—for useful and necessary work to do, for sex without shame or guilt, for a community to be loyal to.” In his support of Goodman and his desire to criticize American society and its public values, Podhoretz was at odds with his teacher and mentor, Lionel Trilling, and at one with his friend, Jason Epstein, whose New York Review of Books was on the forefront of radical ideology preferring a Communist victory in Vietnam, suspecting American motives at home and abroad, and glorifying youthful irresponsibility as political idealism.
Podhoretz, however, soon began to distance himself both from traditional liberalism and from new-style radicalism. This distancing can be seen in his essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours” and in his first book of memoirs, Making It. In “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz gives vent to his pessimism about integration: all blacks hate whites and all whites are “twisted and sick” in their feelings about blacks. Moreover, blacks “hate whites not only—or perhaps not even primarily—for social and political reasons, but also for psychological and spiritual ones.” This essay attained some notoriety, but Making It actually became notorious. Published in 1968, Making It was a memoir of the author’s craving for and attainment of success as a member of the New York intellectual community. His attitude toward success was essentially positive: it was right to want it and a pleasure to have it. Podhoretz’s affirmation provoked intense hostility. As one example among many, his friend, novelist and social critic Norman Mailer, who has praised the book in private, damned it in public as a “blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure and self-denigration.”
This concerted attack on Podhoretz’s views was only a skirmish in a major war: the bid for power and ideological supremacy on the part of the radical movement. A “New Class” of the educated and prosperous were “making a serious bid to dislodge and replace the business and commercial class which had on the whole dominated the country for nearly a century.” For all its supposed interest in the poor and the blacks, the radical movement which this class energized had one concern only: “to aggrandize its own power.” It was a movement that did not so much represent youth as use them for its own purpose as “commandos” and as a symbol “implying that [the movement was] the wave of the future.” Even the great linguistic scholar Noam Chomsky could be dishonest enough to attack those who disagreed with him on Vietnam as “no better than Nazi war criminals.” Chomsky and other leaders of the antiwar movement used language to intimidate, so that “those who continued speaking up in favor of American policy were isolated and even excommunicated by students and colleagues alike.”
This intellectual meretriciousness forced Podhoretz “to break political ranks.” To be loyal to radicalism was to betray intellectual standards, to give up the right to make valid distinctions and follow where truth leads. Therefore, in the early 1970’s, Commentary made its break with the movement; movement policy was called little more than the mindless generation of turmoil, and the movement’s chief intellectual organ, the New York Review of Books, was labeled as morally reprehensible yellow journalism of the left with no regard for the truth. Although Podhoretz claims that the purpose in this attack was “a deepening of the society’s sense of things, the refinement of its consciousness, the enhancement of its cultural life,” in fact, he was developing and defending his new political point of view. In foreign policy, he was anti-Communist, believing that only a strong American defense policy could protect the free world. He had few doubts that our foreign policy was conducted on a higher moral plane than that of the Soviets. In domestic matters, he objected to the refusal of the young “to assume responsibility for themselves by taking their place in a world of adults.” Supporting traditional American values of hard work and the politics of self-interest, he valued competition and success, but not to the point of eliminating the New Deal programs that eased the lot of the poor and the unemployed. He felt strongly about equal opportunity but was against affirmative action when it meant that race or ethnic background superseded merit.
Podhoretz eventually had an opportunity to put his political ideas into action. In 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an intellectual with views Podhoretz could support, became a popular figure because of his outspoken patriotism and his bluntness: for example, he called Idi Amin of Uganda a “racist murderer.” Moynihan was persuaded to run in New York’s Democratic Senatorial primary; he won in the primary and then in the election defeated his Republican opponent, James Buckley. He began “to define a liberal alternative . . . to the left and . . . to the right and to prove that this alternative commanded more popular support than either.” To Podhoretz, Moynihan’s victory was a hopeful sign that this country was still capable of political common sense.
Podhoretz’s political odyssey from traditional liberalism through the new radicalism toward a redefinition of liberalism in terms of contemporary political realities is worthy of attention. It will help to clarify an era many have lived through but few have understood. Breaking Ranks is one man’s story shaped by inevitable biases, but it carries weight and enlists conviction because of Podhoretz’s determined honesty about his motives and his mistakes. Despite his false starts and his frustrations, he hopes for and dreams of a better America which is truer to itself.