Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2014

Reflections on The New Republic shake-up

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

Martin Peretz in the early 70s, just before he bought The New Republic with his wive’s millions

Back in late 1987 I got a Bard College alumni newsletter informing me that Leon Botstein had added Martin Peretz to the board of trustees. Up until that point I had been a Botstein supporter but this announcement left me feeling betrayed. I wrote Leon a letter calling attention to the New Republic’s support for contra funding. As president of the board of Tecnica, a solidarity organization that recruited volunteers to work in Nicaragua, I pointed out that his editorials had led to the destruction of Nicaraguan schools.

Of course, Botstein made a shrewd decision in recruiting Peretz. His deep pockets would not only help keep the New Republic afloat; they would also help facilitate Botstein’s empire-building ambitions. As is the norm in American society, everything has a price tag—including liberal magazines and colleges. Peretz’s millions allowed him to turn the New Republic into a neoconservative outlet on foreign policy and a neoliberal one on domestic policy. They also gave Botstein the power he needed to help Bard College shake its reputation as “the little Red whorehouse on the Hudson”, as red-baiting gossip columnist Walter Winchell once put it—the very reason I am grateful for the education I received there in the early 60s.

For most of the twentieth century, The New Republic (TNR) and The Nation magazines were the lodestones of American liberalism. I have written about The Nation in the past but virtually nothing about TNR, mostly as a function of so few people having illusions that it spoke for American liberalism after Peretz’s takeover in 1974.

For all those upset with Chris Hughes buying the magazine and turning it into his personal toy, they obviously are not aware that this exactly what happened in 1974 when Peretz fired a bunch of people who were deemed obstacles to his rightwing turn.

When Peretz took over, the editor was Gilbert Harrison, whose politics were much more like those of The Nation. In 1968, Harrison ran editorials backing Eugene McCarthy for president rather than the warmongering Hubert H. Humphrey and even called for the creation of a new political party to be headed by McCarthy. In the early 1970s, there were people like Walter Pincus writing about Watergate and Stanley Karnow on foreign policy. That outlook resonated with an American public fed up with the status quo, so much so that the magazine’s circulation rose to about 100,000. It was a weekly at the time. Now that it is a biweekly, the circulation is only about a half.

That obviously reflects the public’s distaste for a magazine that promotes imperialist war abroad and austerity at home. In order for Peretz to force such an agenda on the magazine, heads had to roll—starting with the illustrious Gilbert Harrison who had refused to publish the articles that Peretz had submitted. He was the first to go. As the wretched Eric Alterman wrote, this caused the same kind of rebellion that Chris Hughes now faces:

Much of the staff, which then included Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, and Doris Grumbach, was either fired or chose to resign. The staffers were largely replaced by young men fresh out of Harvard, with plenty of talent but few journalistic credentials and little sense of the magazine’s place in the history of liberalism.

The New Republic’s new editor became notorious after announcing that he intended to “break stuff”. I doubt that he will do anything much different than what Peretz did after taking over. After all, as A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

Out of curiosity, I decided to browse through back issues of TNR, courtesy of my Columbia University paywall privileges, to see the route it has taken since being founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann, a principled liberal at the time, projected the magazine as an alternative to the NY Times, which he would view three years hence as writing biased attacks on the USSR. Like Lippmann, Weyl and Croly were public intellectuals associated with the Progressive movement. In order to put their ideas into practice, they needed someone with deep pockets to help launch the new magazine. That came from Willard Straight, the husband of Dorothy Whitney who inherited a fortune from her father William, a scion of the Whitney clan whose wealth came from steel, banking and steamships. This was pretty much how the Nation got started as well, from generous contributions from Henry Villard, a railroad robber baron.

In the very first issue, published on November 7, 2014, there’s a lengthy editorial defining the orientation and goals of TNR. In a sign that not much has changed in the last century, it includes a pitch for the minimum wage:

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.14.28 AM

Skipping ahead a few years to 1920, we discover a critique of NY Times coverage of the civil war in Russia that was very likely written by Walter Lippmann, given his unhappiness with the newspaper’s bias. In terms of things not changing much over a hundred years, this is the same complaint aired today in places like CounterPunch or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.18.53 AM

To its credit, TNR published a number of articles by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. While the magazine was home to Stalin apologists like Walter Duranty and Malcolm Cowley, it was even-handed enough to publish Trotsky, who was persona non grata in New Deal circles.

I suppose that when one hand giveth, the other taketh away. On March 23, 1938 Heywood Broun wrote an attack on Trotsky that was about as slippery and mendacious as they come. Broun, by the way, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1930s and close friends with the Marx brothers. Maybe his article was a Roland Boer type joke. Who knows?

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.32.12 AM

Finally, moving ahead to the 1960s, we end on a high note. Among those writing for TNR was Andrew Kopkind, a reporter that Alexander Cockburn once described as “the greatest journalist of his time”. The author of dozens of articles, Kopkind was a sharp critic of American society and a brilliant writer.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.55.34 AM

I shared that excerpt from Kopkind’s article on the first antiwar demonstration back in 1965 not so much because I agree with his analysis but because it reflects an outlook widespread on the left, namely that the SWP was not entirely open and transparent about its intervention in a movement that shook America to its foundations. I’d like to think that if someone more amenable to Kopkind’s approach were now in charge of TNR, it would be worth a subscription as Greg Grandin advised Nation magazine readers. Maybe so, I’ll just have to wait and see.



  1. My first semester at Bard, Annandale magazine interviewed new trustee Peretz. He sagely opined, no doubt after a thorough review of sociological statistics and research, that date rape was merely a media invention, and that year’s equivalent of endangered whales. Lovely fellow. I can’t say TNR has done much of interest in a long time, though Annia Ciezadlo’s piece on Assad would be the exception. -MB

    Comment by MB — December 9, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  2. Peretz’s purpose in purchasing TNR was to delegitimize the radicalism of the 1960s, politically and culturally. Among elites, he succeeded, although he was working amongst an audience already predisposed to his effort.

    I encourage people to read the linked Grandin article. It really exposes the centrality of TNR’s support for US counterinsurgency policy in El Salvador and NIcaragua as the means to reinvigorate US imperialism. Grandin’s autopsy of atrocious TNR articles during this period is first rate.

    As an aside, I can’t help but observing that the infliction of Michael Kinsley upon the rest of us is yet another Peretz atrocity that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 9, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

  3. It’s astonishing how much effort has gone and continues to go into the project of downgrading sixties radicalism in America’s universities and in those allegedly independent “intellectual” quarters (the Atlantic Monthly, TNR) where an anti-Sixties agenda remains the foundation of respectability.

    I had an uncle who was a noted Harvard professor–a wonderful man in many respects, but irrationally anti-communist in the old Kennedy way and enraged beyond all patience by Sixties radicalism–who died a little over five years ago at the age of 97. A memorial service was held in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. The family were asked to gather in something “the Pusey room.” Around the circumference of this biggish chamber there extended a large and elaborate molding of some rare-looking dark wood on which was chiseled in gilt uncials a single rambling and all-but-ungrammatical sentence full of vague references to Youth and Sunlit Uplands (etc.), which had apparently flowed (or leaked) from the incontinent pen of Nathan Marsh Pusey. The quotation, as far as I could tell, was pure nonsense, like something out of an English satire on university life.

    Pusey was the 24th President of Harvard University and a total mediocrity whom it was impossible either to love or to hate. According to Wikipedia, Pusey had at one time been a vociferous opponent of Joseph McCarthy, but his one claim to glory was to have called the cops on a crowd of student demonstrators (including yours truly) who in 1969 occupied the main university administration building to protest the Vietnam War. For this one act, the entirely forgettable Pusey (who retired in 1971) received an honor without precedent in the history of Harvard presidents.

    Hardly surprising that the never-very-radical Department of Government at Harvard soon fell under the sway of the right-wing demagogue Harvey Mansfield, who is to be blamed among other crimes for unleashing on the world the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Francis Fukuyama.

    And now we have a world in which it is nearly impossible for young people to act in solidarity with each other or anyone else, The contemptible Peretz and his ilk–both in and out of Harvard–have a hefty bill to pay.

    Comment by Pete glosser — December 9, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

  4. Is it accurate to characterize Hubert Humphrey as a warmonger? There was always a smog of cognitive dissonance about TNR — the connotation of progressive/liberal/ courtesy of its history — tnr seemed independent and authentically “liberal” but denotatively it was, well cognitively dissonant in what it started advocating — what we now consider neoliberal empire and austerity “forward deterrence”. For me, it was almost, “if TNR says so then I should probably consider it — whatever the “it” is” and that is how Peretz wormed his way into the minds of real liberals — like me — although I was FOR the Sandinistas and AGAINST the Salvadoran fascists, and basically the tnr/Tony Coelho/Clinton pitch slowly wore at liberals — esp in the face of the “Moral Majority” et al — and then neutered us. I just dropped TNR and relied more on The Nation. Now The Nation, except for TomDispatch, is suspect. So now CounterPunch is primary as are other alt media sites such as as this blog. What is with the animus against Trotsky? – Anyone Stalin hates that much ought to be of presumed credibility? Why the animosity among New Dealers to Trotsky? What little I have read about and of Trotsky speaks well of him and his ideas and I am learning more; same with Marx and especially Engels; not so much Lenin but they need to leave his statues untouched in Ukraine and elsewhere. Tearing the Lenin statues down is like the Taliban blasting at the Buddha mountainside art. Perhaps those who used Trotsky’s name as activists and organizers were more dictatorial? Had Trostky taken over the Soviet Union rather than Stalin, in what ways would it have been different or was Trotsky just another Stalin-in-waiting? Were the Trotskites misrepresenting Trotsky the way “St.” Paul misrepresented Jesus/Yeshua? When I was 20 I had a lot of answers; when I was 40 I had a lot of questions, and now that I am 60, I don’t have a lot of time lol….

    Comment by thom prentice — December 9, 2014 @ 11:40 pm

  5. “And now we have a world in which it is nearly impossible for young people to act in solidarity with each other or anyone else . . . . ”

    Yes, but things could be changing. I have been following the #BlackLivesMatter protests since the killing of Mike Brown, and they have been nothing short of amazing. Amazing in Ferguson, where people stood down the police day after day, despite tear gas and police harassment. Amazing in NYC, since the announcement that there would be no indictment in the death of Eric Garner. Amazing in Berkeley, where protesters have resisted both police repression (tear gas to break up crowd instead of arrests) and Black Bloc window smashers (who have provided the pretense for the police to attack everyone else).

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 9, 2014 @ 11:43 pm

  6. “In the very first issue, published on November 7, 2014,…”

    1914, correct?

    “Out of curiosity, I decided to browse through back issues of TRN…”

    TNR, correct?

    “….courtesy of my Columbia University paywall privileges, to see the route it has taken since being founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann, a principled liberal at the time, saw the magazine as an alternative to the NY Times, which he viewed as writing biased attacks on the USSR.”

    The USSR existed in 1914?

    Yes, agreed, TNR was an old piece of murderous shit, so let’s not give their corpse the satisfaction of a few cheap laughs at your expense.

    Comment by kjs — December 11, 2014 @ 9:04 pm

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