History

The Political Struggles of Leonard Bernstein

He made West Side Story a paean to universalism. But he wasn’t so sure what he believed.

Leonard Bernstein, wearing a shirt and tie, sits in his office and examines some sheets.
Leonard Bernstein in his New York City apartment on March 11, 1956. Bettmann via Getty Images

The release this week of a new version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is reviving fierce debates over who is to blame for our country’s divisions. For many critics on the left, West Side Story epitomizes the hypocrisy of well-intentioned liberalism, reproducing hierarchies of gender and race under the cover of tolerance. Centrists and conservatives respond that the only cure for universalism is more universalism, casting the musical as a warning against divisive “identity politics.”

A historical look at Bernstein’s political journey, however, reveals how often his cause of civic unity has been betrayed not by radicals, but by their opponents. As Barry Seldes’ magnificent 2009 biography reveals, Bernstein was consistently willing to build bridges between political causes many considered unbridgeable: between universalism and particularism, conflict and consensus, moderation and radicalism. He faced constant opposition, however, from Cold War liberals eager to establish binaries between “respectable” and “unrespectable” political causes, leaving Bernstein isolated and without moorings. In this respect, Bernstein’s life reflects the tragedy of a center at once unable to hold on and holding on too tightly.

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New York in the mid-1940s, where Bernstein’s career began its ascent, was a city in ideological ferment. Anti-Stalinist communists, left-liberals, and socialists supported one another’s causes and candidates in a “popular front” that would become scarcely imaginable 10 years later. Bernstein joyously took part. He joined with activists like Paul Robeson to protest Spain’s fascist regime. He raised funds for strikers’ families and supported the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, who ran on the issues of universal medical care, civil rights, and full employment. Even his wartime ballets Fancy Free and On the Town (both of which premiered in 1944) pushed the envelope, featuring Japanese and Black dancers at a time of nearly omnipresent xenophobia and racism.

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By the late 1940s, however, the boundaries of political expression in New York began to narrow. Centrist liberals such as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and philosopher Karl Popper advanced an intellectual domino theory, linking “conflict-oriented” or “essentializing” theories to Soviet totalitarianism. Any political theory or practice that reeked of abstraction, conflict, or “anti-social deviance” was suspect. These Cold War liberals created their own kind of dogma out of nuance, even as their obsession with consensus permanently divided the American “popular front.”

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This monolithic center left little room for left-liberals like Leonard Bernstein. His ideological homelessness is reflected in his work of this time. In 1946 he performed and recorded Marc Blitzen’s militant play The Cradle Will Rock, a polemical paean to the labor struggle. A year later, he began work with Jerome Robbins to create what would in 1957 become West Side Story—a hymn to universalism and peace. In 1948 and 1949 he composed a symphonic setting of W.H. Auden’s despairing poem “The Age of Anxiety”—what he called a “record of our difficult and problematical search for faith.”

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[Read: Spielberg’s West Side Story proves the controversial musical shouldn’t be retired.]

Ultimately, a combination of outside pressure and careerism ended Bernstein’s vacillations, and his early gestures toward radicalism. His leftist activities in the 1940s got him labeled a “subversive” by the right-wing slander-sheets Counterattack and Red Channels, and in 1950 he was placed “off-limits” by CBS, which banned him from performing on the syndicate’s radio and television outlets. In 1951, the FBI Security Index listed him as a “communist”; he had his passport temporarily revoked in 1953. That year, Bernstein signed an affidavit asserting that he had never joined the Communist Party. This act helped restore his career—which the production of West Side Story in 1957 immeasurably accelerated.

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There are some elements of the old popular front culture peeking through in West Side Story: the mixture of musical genres, the nod toward urban pluralism, and the hope—going back to the works of Walt Whitman, Jane Addams, and Aaron Copland—that unity can be found amid the imperfect detritus of the modern city. At the same time, West Side Story forgoes the popular front’s emphasis on collective struggle, even as it reproduces that front’s damaging omissions and stereotypes of gender and race.

The uneven strains of popular front pluralism and idealized communalism that run through midcentury liberalism are reflected in the musical’s songs “Gee Officer Krupke!” and “Somewhere.” In “Gee Officer Krupke!,” gang members gleefully dismiss oversimplified—and contradictory—sociological explanations of their plight (“Krupke, we’ve got problems of our own!”). In this remarkable number, a collective of working-class young people speak back to authority in the form of police officers, judges, social workers, and psychiatrists. Later on in the ballad “Somewhere,” however, we see a vision of color-blind human unity, arrived at purely by love, and located not in the hectic spaces of the city but where there is “peace and quiet and open air.” (Is “Somewhere” set in suburbia?)

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This is not to say that West Side Story is politically bankrupt. The virtues of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation championed in this work are essential for every political project. “Radical” groups, after all, have to come to agreement among themselves, if not with others. The descent into factionalization, all too prevalent on the left then and now, is what happens when “liberal” values of dialogue and moderation are taken for granted. In this sense, the gorgeous music of West Side Story plays a crucial role in ennobling this necessary, if not sufficient, element of politics.

But we must not fall prey to the most universal of political sins: judging by intentions rather than consequences. Ultimately, West Side Story reflects the incompleteness rather than the strength of midcentury American liberalism. It carries forward the good intentions of radical social movements, but without articulating the radical analysis needed to make good on those intentions. Most theatergoers did not walk out of West Side Story eager to march for Puerto Rican rights, or gay rights, or even civil rights. There is no better symbolism of midcentury liberalism’s failings than Leonard Bernstein, anointed as pope of Lincoln Center, conducting hymns to social unity in a concert hall erected over the demolished tenements of workers. (This is a contradiction that Spielberg’s adaptation, which visually refers to that demolition, does not shy away from.)

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During the 1960s, many centrist liberals once again lost their sense of proportion, pulling up their drawbridges in an obsession with policing the boundaries of “respectable” politics. For all their much-vaunted sense of pragmatism, these “crackpot realists” demanded a level of “purity” out of radicals that they never expected of themselves. As philosopher Marshall Berman recalled, many liberals seemed “more upset about kids at antiwar demos carrying Vietcong flags than about American bombs ravaging Vietnam.” Activists charged white moderates with preferring, in the words of Martin Luther King, “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

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There were many strains of New Left practice and culture that grated on Bernstein in the ’60s. His longing for harmony seemed at odds with both the political and musical tendencies of the time. Bernstein occasionally expressed his lack of moorings in works such as 1963’s Kaddish, a 12-tone cri de cœur against a God who would create a man “free to play With his new-found fire, avid for death.” He seemed adrift. “If I had any really deep convictions at this moment,” Bernstein lamented in 1967, “I think I would speak. But I’ve gotten to the point where I feel I know nothing. I know absolutely nothing.”

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If existential despair represented one pole of Bernstein’s reaction to the New Left, however, fervent participation represented the other. In that very same 1967 interview, Bernstein asserted that the “present crisis” was one of “world revolution,” and that “we of the West, who insist on the right to eat at other people’s expense, seem to be doing everything we know to prevent this revolution from taking place.”

During the late 1960s, Bernstein made his modest contributions to the world revolution. In the artistic world, this took the form of (tentatively) experimenting with atonality and exploring contemporary pop music. In the political world, this took the form of marching against the Vietnam War, meeting Martin Luther King in Selma, meeting and raising funds for the pacifist Berrigan brothers, and supporting the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.

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Enter the great Black Panther controversy. In the winter of 1970, Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, hosted a fundraiser to raise money for the legal costs of the Black Panther Party, at the behest of the American Civil Liberties Union. Attending that fundraiser was a mixture of leather-clad Black Panthers, various “beautiful people,” New York Times columnist Charlotte Curtis, and essayist Tom Wolfe. When “Field Marshal” Panther Donald L. Cox asserted at the party that “if business won’t give us full employment, then we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people,” Bernstein responded, “I dig absolutely.”

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After Curtis and Wolfe wrote about the event and reported these remarks, enormous controversy ensued, with commentators damning Bernstein—Mr. Humanism!—for the temerity of engaging with the Panthers. The New York Times castigated Bernstein for his “elegant slumming” with the “romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural set,” a vain exercise in “guilt-reliving fun spiked with social consciousness.” Ironically, these supposed defenders of tolerance echoed other radicals in claiming the impossibility of productive relations between center and left. They were telling Bernstein, in the words of West Side Story’s Anita, “Stick to your own kind!”

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There is, however, another way of understanding Bernstein’s meeting with the Black Panthers: as an extension, and not a negation, of West Side Story’s humanism. Just as many moderates ignored how Martin Luther King’s acts of civil disobedience were means toward the peaceful pluralism they (purportedly) valued, so moderates ignored how many of the Black Panthers’ goals—particularly Fred Hampton’s vision of a cross-racial Rainbow Coalition—were profoundly aligned with the cause of humanism. For Bernstein to risk awkwardness and embarrassment in order to form bridges with these “unredeemable” radicals reflects well on him.

True support, however, requires more than vague expressions of camaraderie (“I dig absolutely”). It involves, between political as well as romantic partners, raising difficult questions. And there were indeed difficult conversations to be had with the Panthers—over the efficacy of “protest” as opposed to “politics,” over sexism and antisemitism and homophobia within the New Left, over questions of strategy and means and ends. It would have been an awkward conversation—but as Audre Lorde understood, those conversations can lead to deeper understanding and empathy than censoring “civility” ever can.

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That Bernstein failed to ask these questions of the Panthers, or develop his political vision enough to think to ask them, suggests his lack of commitment to the movement’s ultimate success. In this respect, Bernstein merited Wolfe’s charge of “radical chic,” as he did two years earlier, when he publicly declared that liberals should support Nixon over the anti-war Democrat Hubert Humphrey in order to force a “short violent clash”—civil war—that could end the conflict in Vietnam. This is not the speech of someone serious about their politics.

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There were few incentives, however, for Bernstein to further develop his political vision. The storm of controversy, bad press, and angry letters (some of them FBI-penned) in the wake of the Panther meeting dissuaded Bernstein and other wealthy liberals from deepening ties with the Panthers and similar organizations. Instead, Bernstein stepped back from his support for the Panthers, insisting that his support was merely on behalf of their civil rights and not their broader platform. By the early 1970s, he had retreated further into confusion and despair. Lyrics in his 1971 piece Mass sum it up: “What I say I don’t feel/ What I feel I don’t show/ What I show isn’t real/ What is real, Lord, I don’t know.”

For most of my life, I rushed to West Side Story’s defense. Lonely, introverted, fearful of conflict, I looked to the burning chords of West Side Story like I looked to Whitman’s poetry or New York’s public spaces—as hymns to the possibility of communication across divisions. To criticize West Side Story’s treatment of empathy and understanding as naïve—or worse, malevolent—was to confirm my personal isolation, and foreclose the civic potential of urban life. I recognize the vehemence with which defenders of West Side Story rally to their icon’s defense. I recognize how the transcendent strains of “Somewhere” can hold the allegiance of humanists.

Today, however, I see the true heirs to Bernstein’s humanism not in his defenders, but in his critics. To ask that our country and its art better represent those who live here is in keeping with the intention of West Side Story. To ask that our country accept uncivil economic conditions and immoderate social divisions in the name of “civility” is not. Let centrists make their choice.

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