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The Illiberal Imagination

At first sight, the idea of an intellectual biography of Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling seems more than a little strained. Chambers was a devout Christian and staunch conservative who served as the primary witness for the prosecution in the 1948 trial of Alger Hiss. Trilling, by contrast, was a secular Jew, a liberal, and a highly refined literary critic who tended to avoid direct political engagement. Is the fact that both men, before abandoning their youthful radicalism, were enthusiastic communists—with Trilling penning numerous essays in support of the Bolshevik Revolution and Chambers going so far as to serve as a spy for the Soviet Union—really enough to justify pairing them in a single work of history?

As Michael Kimmage convincingly demonstrates in this meticulous and illuminating study, the answer is yes. Kimmage traces in considerable detail the circuitous paths that led Chambers and Trilling into and out of the communist orbit. But he is equally interested in the contribution of each man’s anti-communism to the development—and more important, the moderation—of political ideology in postwar America. (That is the “conservative turn” to which Kimmage’s title refers.)

Until the mid-1950s, American conservatism was less a coherent ideology than an irritably reactionary mood: reflexively hostile to the federal government, staunchly isolationist, explicitly anti-modern, proudly agrarian, and incapable of distinguishing between communism and New Deal liberalism, which were treated as twin forms of modern tyranny. Thanks in no small part to Chambers—whose religiously inspired turn to anti-communism became a significant influence upon conservative ideology owing to his classic memoir Witness, his friendship with William F. Buckley, Jr., and his essays for National Review—mainstream conservatism eventually came to support the use of American power in the world and to accept the legitimacy of a strong (if strictly limited) role for the federal government in American life. I do not mean to exaggerate: conservatism still comes in many varieties, and the conservative movement would remain sympathetic to states-rights arguments and continue to serve as the preferred ideology for Americans who felt alienated from modern, urban civilization. Yet Chambers’ brand of conservatism—steadfastly focused on confronting the Soviet Union, and willing to compromise on issues peripherally related to that world-historical struggle—ultimately won the day, helping to transform conservative ideology from an impotent grumbling on the sidelines of American politics into the governing philosophy of an ascendant center-right electoral coalition.

Liberalism, meanwhile, faced very different problems in the immediate postwar years. Whereas liberals of the period recognized the threat posed by right-wing political movements both abroad and at home, they tended to be less concerned about the dangers of left-wing totalitarianism. Some of this indifference could be traced back to habits forged during the National Front movement of the 1930s, which encouraged every faction on the left—including liberals, democratic socialists, Trotskyists, and Stalinists—to join forces in opposition to the rise of fascism. But there was also a tendency among many liberals of the time to view the Soviet Union and its American supporters with a modicum of sympathy—as if a communist were merely a liberal in a hurry. Stalin’s means might have been execrable, but his ends, it was often thought, were admirable.

In his postwar essays on politics and culture, Trilling (and a few other brave souls among the New York intellectuals) sought to foster a form of liberal thinking that would be as immune to the lure of the far left as it was to the far right. The key, for Trilling, was to cultivate among liberals a spirit of openness to (as he famously put it in the introduction to The Liberal Imagination) “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” Far from leading to self-doubt and indecision, Trilling was convinced that liberalism would be invigorated by a confrontation with competing ideas, including conservative ideas, and that liberals who had developed habits of self-criticism would be more inclined to resist the Stalinism of the mind that prefigures and makes possible political totalitarianism in all of its forms.

What Trilling took away from his close encounter with communism was thus the polar opposite of the lessons that Chambers drew. Whereas Chambers traded one form of orthodoxy (communism) for another (Christianity)—and insisted, in an argument still affirmed by leading conservatives that every significant dispute in political life ultimately boils down to a clash of orthodoxies—Trilling claimed that liberalism at its best was not just another form of orthodoxy. It was, on the contrary, an antidote and alternative to orthodoxy—to the dogmatism to which politics, morality, religion, and perhaps even human thinking itself is always prone.

Kimmage is a perceptive and insightful guide through this territory, deftly weaving the ideas of his protagonists together with the story of their lives and the history of their country over nearly half a century. His book is an impressive work of scholarship—one marred only by the author’s tentativeness in drawing conclusions from his material. Throughout the book Kimmage hews to the widely accepted line on both Chambers and Trilling—that the former decisively influenced the conservative movement that came to power with Ronald Reagan and that the latter’s liberal anti-communism helped to shape the neoconservative sensibility that has played such a prominent role in our nation’s politics since the 1970s. There is much truth in both assertions, as there always is in conventional wisdom. But as is usually the case, the conventional wisdom conceals as much as it illuminates.

As Sam Tanenhaus showed in both his magisterial biography of Chambers and his recent short book, The Death of Conservatism, Chambers differed sharply from most members of the contemporary right in being deeply ambivalent about populism. Realizing that conservative anti-communists would be tempted to ride the tiger of populist resentments to power, he presciently worried that they would end up being consumed by it. Is Chambers’s high-minded and moderate form of conservatism sustainable in an era dominated by Fox News, talk radio, and other forms of demagogic vulgarity? And if not, might American conservatism at the present moment be reverting to what it was before writers like Chambers and Buckley worked to civilize and domesticate it—namely, a politically marginal expression of cultural alienation and demotic rage? Our evaluation of Chambers and his contribution to the “conservative turn” in our nation’s politics during the past half-century will depend in large measure on how we answer these questions.   

As for Trilling, however much his writings might have influenced the urbane and skeptical sensibility that prevailed among the neoconservatives who edited and contributed to The Public Interest in the 1960s and 1970s, it is hard to imagine him feeling any affinity for the ideologically doctrinaire body of ideas that shrouds every corner of the contemporary neoconservative mind like a dense, icy fog. When it comes to contemporary liberals, Trilling would no doubt worry that, like their opponents on the right, they are beginning to show signs of lapsing into old and intellectually discredited habits. At the so-called “netroots,” especially, liberalism today is far more earnestly incurious, impatient with debate, dismissive of criticism, and close-mindedly dogmatic than it was when Trilling originally set out to moderate and ennoble the liberal imagination. 

Was the “conservative turn” of the mid-twentieth century something lasting in American politics—an enduring development in the direction of political and intellectual maturity? Or was it, instead, an anomalous and fleeting episode of sobriety in the otherwise troubled and turbulent history of American democracy? In preparing us to ponder these searching and essential questions, Michael Kimmage has done more than produce an important work of scholarship. He has contributed to our civic self-understanding.

Damon Linker’s next book, The Religious Test: Six Political Commandments for Believers and Atheists, is due out from W.W. Norton in the fall. He also blogs for The New Republic online.

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