Kevin Schultz, Assistant Professor
University of Illinois at Chicago
There’s a relatively new arrival in the world of twentieth-century American intellectual history (new to me anyway—it’s a 2009 copyright) in the form of Michael Kimmage’s The Conservative Turn, an intellectual biography about the intertwining lives of Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers.
Is there enough intertwining to merit a dual biography? I’m not certain. Does Kimmage make the most of this vehicle to tell an interesting narrative, to take seriously the claims of postwar anti-communism, which all too often suffer the weak and wildly incorrect “they were all horrible McCarthyites” diatribe, to write at times beautifully about the intellectual drives that pulsated through these two stimulating thinkers? Absolutely.
The story of this ebbing friendship begins in Columbia University in the 1920s, when the radical elite was not reading Marx and Engels but Fitzgerald and Proust, was not brazenly political but “disillusioned” and pushing the artistic, not political, edges of Western civilization. This was where Trilling and Chambers met, both of them yearning for bourgeois comforts while hoping to find something more supposedly authentic to sustain their deliberately contrived disillusionment. Thus they each were somewhat uncomfortable in embracing the cultural radicalism of the 1920s. But embrace it they did.
Then the depression happened, and cultural rejections began to take more political forms. In reading about the intellectual life of the 1930s, I am always impressed at the wide-openness of the debates, the seemingly endless possibilities for a politics of the future. The stakes were high, the options limitless, the intellectual horsepower revving right along.
This is colored, of course, by the subsequent thud of a realization that today’s politics seem incredibly narrow. Ours are politically pragmatic times, fueled by calculation and data, with ideas and ideals somehow consigned to being mere tools of an agenda, not causes worthy of a fight. The stakes seem low, the horizon limited, the viciousness present only for the sake of theater, a Kabuki sort of hollow politics. The kids in City College’s famous Alcove One are today almost certainly not debating the possibilities of Trotsky’s vision for America.
There are usually two components to the explanation as to why this apparent narrowing happened. First, the fight against totalitarianism in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s circumscribed both the Right and the Left, as neither Hither nor Stalin seemed like desirable role models — and rightly so. Second, the loss of faith in “the liberal Establishment” following Vietnam, Watergate, and the failures of desegregation made even the seemingly mature commitments of “liberal anticommunism” suspect. After My Lai, who again was in charge of “civilization?”
The first of these transitions — the anti-fascist/anti-communist one — has often come into play as a signifier of “the end of ideology.” But the tale was more complicated than that, something that Kimmage’s book deftly delves into. Both Chambers and Trilling embraced the communist Left in the 1930s, with Chambers famously becoming a Russian spy and Trilling becoming a more dispassionate Fellow Traveler. Trilling’s concern was to redeem Western civilization through culture not politics, and thus his political commitments were almost always relatively soft.
By the late 1930s, both had left their communist sympathies, embracing various forms of anti-communism. Chambers converted from one orthodoxy to another, from Communism to Christianity, while Trilling gave up his soft attachment to Stalin’s communism in order to embrace a fear of all orthodoxies, never becoming much of a fundamentalist in anything. His hopes for a liberal method that could be nurtured and invigorated by passionate outsiders came to fruition briefly during the Kennedy years, but was quickly usurped by the more radical complaints of the New Left and especially the conservative complaints of the New Right, neither of which he found all that appealing.
In the end, both men hardly spoke to one another, not out of disdain but out of a simple lack of overlapping interests. Beyond the basic dislike of communism, they really didn’t share all that much, especially in their visions of America.
That Kimmage is able to tell the story of their intertwining lives with such fine narrative force is certainly to his credit. That he was able to get into the deep roots of these thinkers’ intellectual trajectories is also marvelously done (he’s very good at locating the influences each thinker brought along). Personally, I wish Kimmage had pushed farther in staking his claims, in making a bolder argument about these two very important thinkers, rather than focusing as much on the narrative.
Instead, what we get is “the conservative turn” of the book’s title, by which Kimmage means that the narrowing of the political field led both Trilling and Chambers to fall back on simple anti-communism as the primary focal point of their politics, which led them both to advocate an active role in international politics and both to become, well, “conservative.” This occurred in varying degrees for each of them, with Chambers becoming instrumental in building the conservative forces that held sway in the Republican Party from the 1960s to the 1990s, and Trilling becoming one of the standard bearers for a politics of the anti-communist Left. Well, okay. But Kimmage then follows the traditional but problematic line that Trilling’s anti-communist Left morphed into the neo-cons of the late twentieth century, thus encamping both Chambers and Trilling as somehow “conservative,” although I highly doubt Trilling would accept this formulation. I wish that Kimmage had worked through this argument a bit more, showing more of the possibilities, examining how other causes besides anti-communism (economic equality? urban decay? racism? masscult?) shaped these guys’ politics. I’m not convinced the turn is completely “conservative,” nor that anti-communism was the only spirit that animated them, and this is especially true for Trilling. There seems to be a need for a bolder line between being an anti-communist and being a conservative. Being one doesn’t necessitate being the other. Not all anti-communists were horrible McCarthyites, and Kimmage had a golden opportunity to make it here, which he does, but which then gets swamped by the theme of “the conservative turn.”
That’s really my only complaint. Otherwise, it’s a really enjoyable book. Kimmage locates the psychological, social, and political events that shaped these men’s ideas. Trilling’s secular Jewish upbringing and his parents’ love of art and the trappings of the bourgeoisie sent him on a particular centrist course after his dabbling with communism. Chambers’ return to Christianity and his suspicion about the consumerism inherent to modern life were also borne during his early years as a barely middle class youth in rural Long Island. Kimmage then easily follows the trail to Columbia in the 1920s, communism in the 1930s, and anti-communism in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a good, enlightening book that complicates the picture of postwar anticommunism. It turns out not all anti-communism served on, or even appreciated, HUAC. This is a point many people all too easily forget.