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Liberalism Under a Microscope : THE NEW REPUBLIC READER: Eighty Years of Opinion and Debate, Edited By Dorothy Wickenden (Basic Books: $28; 518 pp.)

August 07, 1994|John Patrick Diggins | John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is "The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority" (University of Chicago Press)

Liberalism has had a strange career. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the American struggle against English monarchy and Southern slavery had a liberal purpose in republican government and freedom from domination, and in the 20th Century the Progressive movement sought to bring the economic power of corporate capitalism under democratic control. These historical achievements had been carried out with the assumption that America is progressive and enlightened and the rest of the world backward and beyond political redemption.

Today, however, while liberalism has inspired political democracy in eastern Europe and has made some progress in South Africa, much of South America and parts of Asia, it finds itself in retreat in America, where the "L" word has become synonymous with the sickly welfare state. How did this ironic turn come about?

The best place to find the answer to this question is in "The New Republic Reader," a rich repository of writings that span the turmoils and triumphs of the 20th Century. TNR, as the weekly magazine has come to be called, started in 1914 through the financial assistance of Dorothy and Willard Straight (Standard Oil and J.P. Morgan affiliations) and the intellectual leadership of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, who sought to "start little insurrections" and create a "temper of tolerant inquiry" in America. TNR championed such causes as labor, political reform, women's rights and social welfare.

It also supported Woodrow Wilson's efforts to bring the message of liberalism to Europe by means of America's intervention in World War I, an effort that had the backing of leading intellectuals like John Dewey, who assumed, as a philosopher of pragmatism, that military means could be directed toward democratic ends. With the failure of Wilsonianism at the Versailles settlement, intellectuals felt betrayed and herein lies one possible answer to the fate of liberalism in the 20th Century: the identification of liberalism with wars that cannot be won (Korea, Vietnam) or with those won on the battlefield but lost at the conference table (Versailles, Yalta).

Dorothy Wickenden, for many years managing editor of TNR, has selected the essays for the Reader with considerable judgment. The imaginative organization is thematic rather than chronological, and the Reader offers such timely topics as "The New World Order" as envisioned by American writers, social and cultural commentary, race and the "Crisis of Caste" and "Fights" or "What Do Liberals Hope For?"

Wickenden has also written a valuable introduction that takes us through the many ordeals of modern liberalism, including the controversies over the Popular Front in the '30s and McCarthyism in the '50s, the crisis over Hitler and the outbreak of World War II and the discovery of the fate of European Jewry, on which the then young literary critic Alfred Kazin was one of the first to report; school desegregation, which TNR endorsed, and the more recent policy of affirmative action, about which it remains ambivalent.

TNR is the place where intellectuals and journalists go who seek to study reality rather than theorize about it. Since its beginning the magazine has been critical of Marxism and today one finds in its pages some of the best critiques of poststructuralism, deconstruction, and multiculturalism. In addition to the insightful political writings of relatively young voices such as Michael Kinsley and Charles Krauthammer, TNR has served as a forum for rich, telling debates between older giants such as John Dewey (espousing participatory democracy) and Walter Lippmann (defending enlightened political leadership).

When Martin Peretz bought TNR in 1974, the magazine became an advocate of the cause of Israel and at the same time critical of Zionist arrogance. More recently, with the appointment of Andrew Sullivan as the new editor, TNR has opened up to a new cause of liberalism--homosexuality and gay rights. That Sullivan himself is an undoctrinaire conservative, as are more gays than one would assume, may indicate that contemporary liberalism accepts what the middle class rejects.

Many of today's TNR writers came of political age in the early '70s as New Leftists who supported George McGovern only to see him overwhelmingly defeated by Richard Nixon. The New Left had all along been skeptical of government, in contrast to older generations of liberals who looked to FDR's New Deal to save America from the ravages of depression. Older liberals believed in building coalitions; neo-liberals champion individual rights and often unpopular causes like spotted owls. The older tradition of interest group politics succeeded only to eventually fail as the groups that benefited took their Social Security and other entitlements and ran over to the Republican Party.

TNR has all along identified with the Democratic Party, and thus it was inevitable that it would endorse the Clinton campaign. But politics always involves a conflict between moral conscience and practical results, between integrity and success, goodness and grub. The Clinton Administration, so proudly confident it can deliver and so complacently compromising when it cannot, indeed so bent on spin control that politics has become the arena where sin hides itself, will present TNR with its own ultimate test of integrity.

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