Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 21, 2017

Robert Silvers, a Founding Editor of New York Review of Books, Dies at 87

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Robert Silvers

From the NY Times obituary:

Robert B. Silvers, a founder of The New York Review of Books, which under his editorship became one of the premier intellectual journals in the United States, a showcase for extended, thoughtful essays on literature and politics by eminent writers, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

Rea S. Hederman, the publisher of The Review, confirmed the death.

The New York Review, founded in 1963, was born with a mission — to raise the standards of book reviewing and literary discussion in the United States and nurture a hybrid form of politico-cultural essay. Mr. Silvers brought to its pages a self-effacing, almost priestly sense of devotion that ultimately made him indistinguishable from the publication he edited, and it from him.

He shared editorial duties with Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006, but it was Mr. Silvers who came to embody The Review’s mystique, despite, or perhaps because of, his insistence on remaining a behind-the-scenes presence, loath to grant interviews or make public appearances.

“I put my name on the paper, and the rest I don’t care to be known,” he told Philip Nobile, the author of “Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and The New York Review of Books” (1974). In a 2008 interview for the online program Thoughtcast, Mr. Silvers said: “The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”

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My take on the NY Review of Books from May 21, 2004:

In the winter of 1962-63, during a strike of the NY Times, Robert Silvers and a few close friends decided to launch the New York Review of Books, which is considered the premier intellectual print journal outside of academia.

When I first joined the SWP in 1967, I was a regular reader of the New York Review. Once when I was sitting at party headquarters thumbing through its pages, an old-timer named Harry Ring raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh, you’re reading the social democratic press.” Of course, I practically took the magazine out and burned it after hearing that. As I began shamefacedly apologizing for reading it, Harry reassured me that if he had the time, he’d read it too since it is important to keep track of the social democracy. These words were hardly reassuring. Did I have so much time on my hands because I was one of those half-digested petty-bourgeois elements that James P. Cannon railed against during the Shachtman-Burnham fight?

This is not to say that the New York Review of 1967 was something like the rancid Dissent Magazine of today. It regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and even ran a famous article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.” This was accompanied by do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail on its cover.

Like nearly everything else that was going on in the 1980s and 90s, the NY Review of Books began a steady shift to the right. To a large extent, this was a function of the growing commercial success of the magazine. It also reflected a general malaise of New Yorkers that something was deeply wrong with their beloved city, which was under siege from homeless beggars, crack-inspired violence and other threats to a perfect urban tableau lifted from the latest Woody Allen movie.

So instead of printing articles on the need for armed struggle, they ran countless articles by Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker/philosopher who was the George Soros of his day. Anxiously warning his upscale readers about the crisis of the system, his recommendations included the need for a more enlightened management in politics and a willingness on the part of the masses to accept austerity. During this period, Rohatyn was a frequent guest at a salon run by Robert Silvers and his literary and academic pals.

Around this time, novelist William Styron said, “I don’t regard it any longer as a journal with a specific point of view.” John Leonard, editor of The New York Times Book Review during the early 1970s and a respectable liberal, said, “I don’t think anyone would describe it as left-wing politically.” Citing The New York Review’s preference for such contributors as Felix Rohatyn on economic issues and Stanley Hoffman on foreign policy topics, Leonard commented, “It’s a lot closer to Commentary than it is to The Nation.” (The Washington Post, October 27, 1988)

The magazine became just the place for intellectuals to write an open letter about the treatment of some writer in a Communist dungeon, but not the sort of place to read a truly trenchant analysis of what was wrong with American capitalism. It was also a kind of command center for the wars in the Balkans with Tim Judah writing a flood of articles defending plucky Bosnian Muslims against murdering Serb hordes.

Considering this background, I was somewhat startled (but not too much so) to discover the magazine championed in the latest Nation by a chap named Scott Sherman. Titled “The Rebirth of the NYRB“, it advises the reader that the magazine is once again “a powerful and combative actor on the political scene.” Why? It seems that it published the resignation letter of Brady Kiesling, a career US diplomat, which stated among other things that: “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson…. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.”

I don’t know how to quite break it to comrade Sherman, but at this stage of the game just about everybody in the USA except Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Rumsfeld are beginning to feel exactly the same way. This morning, the 80 year old publisher of “USA Today”, a bland periodical that defends US interests nearly blindly, called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. As Willy Loman said just before his suicide, “The woods are burning.”

Sherman is cheered by Bard professor Ian Buruma’s scathing review of Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism,” a liberal call for war on Wahhabism. Perhaps Sherman did not grasp that Buruma might have seen Berman as competition in a field that he was carving out for himself. Buruma’s own “The Origins of Occidentalism” makes practically the same arguments as Berman’s, although ostensibly with less pomposity. I suppose anything is an improvement over the wretched Paul Berman, but hardly worth crowing about in the Nation Magazine.

In trying to explain the New York Review’s alleged shift to the left, Sherman calls upon Mark Danner, another Bard College public intellectual and frequent contributor to the magazine after graduating from Harvard in the early 1980s. According to Sherman, Danner “has recently produced some searching essays in the Review about Iraq”.

Just like “plastic” was a key word in “The Graduate”, Danner has a one word explanation for the New York Review’s return to the barricades: “Vietnam.” Danner is quoted as saying that, “If you look back over the Review’s history, you’ll find that periods of crisis bring out the best editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing.”

Characteristically, what Sherman fails to see is that despite all the “searching” in Danner’s articles, he remains a supporter of the war as should be clear from a recent New York Review article:

“President Bush’s audacious project in Iraq was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, but without political steadfastness and resilience, it had no chance to succeed. This autumn in Baghdad, a ruthless insurgency, growing but still in its infancy, has managed to make the President retreat from his project, and has worked, with growing success, to divide Iraqis from the Americans who claim to govern them. These insurgents cannot win, but by seizing on Washington’s mistakes and working relentlessly to widen the fault lines in occupied Iraq, they threaten to prevent what President Bush sent the US military to achieve: a stable, democratic, and peaceful Iraq, at the heart of a stable and democratic Middle East.”

I supposed beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this just strikes me as apologetics for the same old shit.


My take on the NY Review of Books coverage of Syria:

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.

As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.

On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:

While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.

Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:

[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.

While Glass could never be considered a world-class intellectual, NY Review regular David Bromwich occupies a rather lofty perch at Yale University, where he is Sterling Professor of English. A Sterling Professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to the elite’s elite. It has nothing to do with silver but is named after John William Sterling who graduated in 1864 and founded the white shoe New York law firm Shearman & Sterling. He bequeathed a ten-million-dollar endowment to feather the nest of superstar academics like Bromwich, who combines an academic career with less than stellar analyses of current events.

Bromwich wrote an article for the NY Review on June 20th 2013 titled “Stay out of Syria!” It was a collection of pro-Ba‘athist talking points.

While directed against NY Times editor Bill Keller’s urging that the US conduct an Iraq-style invasion, a position that was likely to offend the sensibilities of the NY Review’s readers and even more likely to never happen, Bromwich slid easily into slander against those who were forced to take up arms against a vicious dictatorship.

Our Sterling Professor takes the word of ‘qualified investigator’ Carla Del Ponte, a UN commissioner who denied the Ba‘athists had deployed sarin: ‘This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.’ This is the very same Del Ponte investigated for prosecutorial misconduct for her role in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia wars as the Guardian reported on August 18th 2010:

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

Bromwich makes sure to mention the crazed rebel who took a bite out of a dead Syrian soldier’s heart. Among those whose goal it is to make al-Assad seem reasonable by comparison, this singular act of a shell-shocked fighter has taken on iconic proportions. We must conclude that in our Yale professor’s moral calculus, the act of firing rockets originally intended to pulverize battleships or hydroelectric dams into tenement buildings is a normal way of conducting warfare, analogous perhaps to prizefighting.

The NYRB occupies a unique space in American belles lettres. Through its pages academics can address a broad audience about important matters on a weekly basis. It was launched by Robert Silvers and a few close friends during a strike at the New York Times in the winter of 1962-63. Previously Silvers held editorial posts at the Paris Review and Harper’s. As the Vietnam War and student radicalization penetrated American consciousness, the magazine regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even ran an article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.’ This was accompanied by a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail.

As Silvers and his staff grew older and wealthier, and as the 1960s radicalization faded, the magazine, with American liberalism, shifted toward the center – no longer a sounding board for the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party but just another voice recognizing the inevitability of Clinton-style neoliberalism.

If Silvers ever feels the need to defend himself against charges that the magazine is giving backhanded support to al-Assad, he points to the occasional article decrying rights violations in Syria, such as Annie Sparrow’s February 20th 2014 piece on the polio epidemic she describes as a ‘a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions.’ While nobody would gainsay the need for such articles, they are undermined by mendacious reporting of Glass and Bromwich which almost makes the case for the crimes of ‘truly epidemic proportions’.

The editors are reflecting the foreign policy imperatives of the Obama administration, which decided long ago that the preservation of Ba‘athist rule served American interests. Elite opinion is very sensitive to America’s role as hegemon, the first line of defense for liberal civilization. Just as it once decided that this meant holding the line against Communism, it now sees Islamic extremism as the first enemy.

For all the hysteria over looming American intervention in Syria, if it does come it’s more likely to strike jihadist elements of the rebel forces than the dictatorship. On March 13th 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

‘Extremists’ might be interpreted to encompass every fighter not conforming to the Obama administration’s definition of “moderate”, almost certainly including those who cry “Allahu Akbar” on destroying a regime helicopter.

3 Comments »

  1. A big “tell” for the “New York intellectuals” and relations has always been their stance on Israel/Palestine. I stopped reading the NYRB very much after about 1982, but I suspect their move to the right was consistent with at best complicit silence regarding I/P, for which the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was of course crucial.

    I did not understand until years later what the Rohatyn thing was all about, but you’re right that that was also telling.

    I recall one good article in the Nation by Scott Sherman regarding I/P on campus, but that’s not a topic he ever addressed again, although the Nation has modestly come around on that, I think: https://www.thenation.com/article/mideast-comes-columbia/.

    Comment by David Green — March 21, 2017 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Anyone interested in the Shactman-Burnham thing should read Shactman’s primary contribution to it, his Open Letter in Reply to Comrade Trotsky. Even if one doesn’t agree with him, one can only have grudging respect for this cogent polemic which shows Shactman for the formidable political leader that he was. Needless to say, this piece, available at MIA, was never included in any work by the SWP on this subject.

    I had a teacher in high school circa 1970, head of the local teacher’s union, who had been a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) when he had been in high school in Brooklyn in the late 1940s, a straight up decent guy. One can peruse through the Workers Party paper, Labor Action (editor: Hal Draper), and ask oneself as Shactman asked Trotsky and Cannon, “petty bourgois”? how so? Or is this an ad hominem innuendo that diverts attention from the burning political issues, the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Soviet Russia’s hardly defensive invasion of Finland? No, the WP was a working class group linked to organized labor. Perhaps Louis can research and publish a deconstruction of this as he did with the Cochran fight.

    Comment by Tom Cod — March 22, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

  3. Don’t know that I would compare NYRB’s Syria savants with Action Francaise, a monarchist trend that morphed in the 30s into a Nazi-Fascist outfit.

    Comment by Tom Cod — March 22, 2017 @ 3:52 pm


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