Hello to All That

The irony behind the demise of the Partisan Review.

Partisan Review, January-Febraury 1941

Depending on your point of view, or Weltanschauung, as Partisan Review contributors (and readers) used to say, it is either a supreme irony or a hilarious coincidence that the greatest of all Trotskyist publications should have announced its demise at the very moment that a belated species of Trotskyism has at last established itself in the White House.

The connection is not as tenuous as you might think. A number of commentators—Ian Buruma for one, Michael Lind for another—have recently observed that the architects of the Iraq war, and several of its most articulate supporters, seem transfixed by Trotsky’s idea of a “permanent revolution,” orchestrated on a very large scale. Yesterday it was decadent capitalist democracies that looked on the brink of transformation. Today it is the billion people held captive by “fascist” tyrants in the Middle East. In both instances the agent of change is an idea—the idea of oppositionism.

The original Partisan Review, founded by William Phillips and Philip Rahv, was born in 1934 as an outgrowth of the John Reed Club, the arts branch of the American Communist Party. The pair envisioned an alternative to the New Masses, the party’s monthly showcase, where new talents might flourish. But the quarterly found its true identity later in the decade, when disillusionment with the Soviet Union took the form of a fierce critique of Stalinism in all its guises, political and cultural. To align yourself with PR was to oppose the defenders of the Moscow trials and to deplore Stalin’s cynical pact with Hitler, which cleared the way for the Nazis to begin World War II. It was also to oppose the debasement of art into the low propaganda of proletarian novels (Clara Weatherwax’s Marching! Marching!) and agitprop plays (Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty).

It’s no surprise that a journal founded on these rarefied principles attracted only 15,000 subscribers at its peak. Who cared? Every initiate knew that revolutions are created not by the untutored mob but by the vanguard, who see with clarity “what is to be done,” in Lenin’s famous phrase, and know when the moment is ripe to do it. Bertram D. Wolfe’s history of the Bolshevik Revolution—the best one to come out of the New York intellectual scene—was titled Three Who Made a Revolution. Three was enough, as long as they were the right three.

You didn’t even need that many people to put out a “little magazine” (the phrase was a term of honor)—just a typewriter, a mimeograph machine, and a mailing list. Dwight Macdonald’s politics, a pinnacle of journalism in the 1940s, was a one-man operation. So was analysis, Frank Chodorov’s four-page broadsheet, which helped inspire William F. Buckley to create the National Review.

Today’s organs of influence are a lot richer but not much bigger and not much flashier. The combined circulation of Commentary, the New Criterion, and the Weekly Standard is 100,000, if that. Even the tony New York Review of Books still has the stripped-down news-sheet look of the old journals.

All but the last is a conservative publication. But for a quarter-century now, the most cogent oppositionist thinking has come from the right, thanks to the likes of Irving Kristol and more recently Christopher Hitchens, one-time Trotskyists who still know a good revolution when they see it.

Last fall, there was a memorial service in Manhattan for William Phillips, who died in September at age 94. The speakers—Cynthia Ozick, Norman Podhoretz, Roger Straus (one of the founders of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)—were impressive. So was the audience—Susan Sontag, John Patrick Diggins, Daphne Merkin. Everyone agreed the great days were long gone. The question was whether they could be revived. Edith Kurzweil, PR’s last editor, has given us the answer. It is no. Some wish she’d waited a little longer.

They miss the point. The announcement is a classic exercise in political theater, exquisitely timed. The Partisan Review is finished, but its vision has triumphed. Yesterday’s vanguard is today’s “coalition of the willing.” The “permanent revolution” moves apace, with Syria its next target. The oppositionists haven’t just won. They are in charge.