“Little magazines” are, for the most part, the mayflies of the literary world. Launched on implausibly idealistic manifestoes, briefly sustained by charity and overwork, and imperiled by an ever-worsening ratio of creditors to subscribers, they soon complete their scarcely noticed flights and sink away, to be replaced by swarms of others. Ephemerality is the little magazine’s generic fate; by promptly dying it gives proof that it remained loyal to its first program. Conversely, when such a journal survives for decades and effects a change in the whole temper of cultural debate, we may be sure that a metamorphosis has occurred. In outward respects—format, financing, even the number of paying readers—the magazine may still be technically “little,” but its editors will have shown a quite untypical gift for retreating from untenable positions, anticipating new currents of opinion, and harmonizing interests that would seem on their face to be incompatible.

This rule applies nowhere more strikingly than to Partisan Review, the longest-lived and most influential of all our magazines that began by being “little.” At its inception in 1934 it was not much more than a strident house organ of the Communist party and one of its literary brigades, the John Reed Club of New York City. The numerous members of its editorial board were to all appearances obedient Stalinists who would promote the official line of proletarianism—or, a little later, the relative latitudinarianism of the Popular Front. But by 1936 the most active of those editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, had learned all they would ever need to know about the nature of the Soviet dictatorship and the folly of allowing ideologues to enforce critical judgments. They ceased publication; the mayfly seemed to have fallen on schedule.

In fact, however, Rahv and Phillips were busy gathering collaborators, most of whom were recent converts to anti-Stalinism like themselves. In 1937, with the help of F.W. Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, and George L.K. Morris, they reconstituted the magazine, now advocating at once a purer radicalism than the Party’s and devotion to the highest critical standards irrespective of ideology. Before long Partisan had attracted contributions not only by such survivors of leftist militancy as Sidney Hook, Meyer Schapiro, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Isaac Rosenfeld, Delmore Schwartz, Clement Greenberg, Irving Howe, Lionel Abel, and Harold Rosenberg, but also by figures as eminent and diverse as Malraux, Ortega, Silone, Eliot, Auden, and Dylan Thomas.

No one could deny that the new Partisan was a success, even though no one could explain how neo-Marxist political commentary was to be reconciled with “The Dry Salvages” and highbrow discussion of the modern masters. Not even Trotsky, the idol of the hour for intellectuals who wished to regard themselves as having moved to Stalin’s left and not his right, could make room for James, Proust, and Gide on the revolutionist’s bedtable. But Phillips’s and Rahv’s eclectic policy was psychologically appropriate both for themselves and for their generation of former Communists. After years of monotonous proletarianizing, bright leftists were aching to do critical justice to complex and resistant texts—but they were not ready to admit that there is nothing especially radical about such activity. They gravitated to Partisan as the one journal in which they could bid good riddance to the Thirties without seeming to do so.

Partisan also became the vehicle for another and closely related adaptation. In the Forties and Fifties, the period of its greatest sway, the magazine was among other things a forum for debate about making one’s peace with America. Nearly all of its older mainstays had believed at one time that fascism was a logical development of capitalism and that any war joined by the United States would shift the country definitively into its totalitarian phase. But no prior dogmas could prevent well-informed Jewish intellectuals from grasping the special character of Hitlerism. In the pages of Partisan and in hairsplitting private encounters, they inched their way from pacifism toward lukewarm support of the war—a process that was capped by the pacifist Dwight Macdonald’s resignation in protest from the editorial staff in 1943. Less than a decade later, in a famous symposium canvassing the most prominent members of the Partisan circle, all but a few of twenty-four respondents concurred with Phillips’s and Rahv’s proposal that America had indeed become “Our Country and Our Culture.”1

Such a rapprochement with the patriots amounted to a conspicuous and at times mortifying compromise of the Partisan writers’ vanguard identity. It should be noted, however, that they had never constituted an avant-garde in the usual sense of the term. Politically, they had been drifting ambiguously toward the liberalism they professed to despise. Culturally, they welcomed association with such established and unradical personages as Eliot, Stevens, Tate, and Ransom. The poetry and fiction they wrote themselves were hardly experimental. And as judges of contemporary literature they shunned extremes, saving their approval for manifestly dignified ironists like the early Lowell and the early Bellow. For a supposed little magazine, Partisan was concerned to an unusual degree with previously established literary values such as complexity, moral seriousness, and a sense of the past.


In retrospect it seems evident that after about 1940, the radicalism of the Partisan writers was largely a matter of style. Their progress, at least until they became polarized by McCarthyism, was a fairly steady movement toward the American center; but they camouflaged that movement by drawing around themselves every available form of disciplined pessimism, from psychoanalysis and existentialism to the arid, elusive visions of Kafka and Eliot. As Alfred Kazin has said of them, “They would never feel that they had compromised, for they believed in alienation, and would forever try to outdo conventional opinion even when they agreed with it.”2 In this manner assimilation retained much of the urgency and energy of revolt.

In a society still rife with anti-Semitism and suspicion of radicals, however, the early Partisan critics were by no means assured of a friendly audience. As Lionel Trilling could attest from bitter experience, university departments of English not only had a narrow gentlemanly idea of “the tradition,” but also a gentleman’s agreement about blood qualifications for discussing that tradition. The championing of modernism in Partisan can be understood in part as a turning of the tables on the professors. Of course the Partisan writers were sincere in their taste for the thorny moderns. Yet we cannot fail to notice that by placing extremity and alienation at the very heart of modern experience, they were in effect supplanting one tradition with another—one that they were already better prepared to gloss than were the salaried connoisseurs of Keats and Browning.

In view of their standing as outsiders on probation, however, it is not surprising that the Partisan critics preferred their pessimism well diluted with cultural decorum. Writers like Céline and Henry Miller, irreverent beyond all civility, were not celebrated in Partisan; the ideal figures would be those who already had a foothold on respectability and who emanated more, not less, portentous allusiveness than the favorites of the academy. When a Partisan critic set out to analyze such a model modern, the journal’s usual tone of iconoclasm was apt to give way to a strangely incautious awe.

Thus Delmore Schwartz, a co-editor at the time, ingenuously entitled a 1945 essay “T.S. Eliot as the International Hero.”3 Schwartz doesn’t ask us to regard Eliot as a hero; he reminds us why we already do. The reason is that Eliot happens to be the quintessential modern cosmopolite, belonging to all and therefore none of the world’s capitals, haunted by war and decay, and attuned to the defining feature of modernity, namely impotence. “We ought to remember,” wrote Schwartz, “that the difficulty of making love…is not the beginning but the consequence of the whole character of modern life.” Modern man is like Gerontion:

He lives in a rented house, he is unable to make love, and he knows that history has many cunning, deceptive, and empty corridors. The nature of the house, of love and of history are interdependent aspects of modern life.

Such remarks, absurd in their literal content, tell us something about the anxieties and mannerisms to which Partisan writers could be susceptible. To treat “Gerontion” as an accurate picture of “our” condition was both to play one’s role as a bearer of grim tidings and to take social shelter beneath Eliot’s none too capacious umbrella. Readers were not reminded that Schwartz’s nondenominational mournfulness over “modern man” differed notably from Eliot’s exclusivism. Not a word about Hakagawa bowing among the Titians, or, more significantly, about the “Jew” squatting on Gerontion’s window still. To be fully critical about such details would have been to strike too personal and querulous a note—and before an audience not devoid of prejudices like Eliot’s. It was more prudent to write in universal terms, to ascribe prophetic souls to the gloomier modernists, and in so far as possible to overlook their often reactionary views.

The need to appropriate alienation, whether or not one still felt alienated oneself, also exacted a price in the Partisan critics’ ability to consider ideas on their merits, apart from their usefulness in conferring adversary status. This holds even for the mildest, subtlest, and most peripheral member of the circle, Lionel Trilling. He called Freud and Nietzsche to the witness stand to vouch for our imperiled condition, but he could not afford to cross-examine them about the cogency of their propositions; they were, after all, his spiritual guardians against such paddlers of the mainstream as Van Wyck Brooks and the Times Book Review’s vox populi, J. Donald Adams. Trilling needed little coaxing in order to rehearse the terrible antinomies of modern existence and the stern tasks allegedly confronting “us.” It seemed that liberalism, meaning the bureaucratic progressivism to which he was in fact quite reconciled, had to be fertilized by imagination; imagination had to be sobered by an unspecified political concern; the ego was not master in its own house; and modern literature was at once our finest possession and a seedbed of libidinous and nihilistic anarchy. The recompense for living with such difficult knowledge, such conflicting imperatives, was of course an awareness that the philistines of the mass culture weren’t up to doing so.


In the Fifties and Sixties, when the social climate had become less invidious and the Partisan writers had gained the recognition they deserved as our first and only intelligentsia, they could afford to begin dissociating themselves from what Bellow’s Herzog called “the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness.”4 Yet even then their bias toward modernism remained strong, for only the great moderns stood between them and a more threatening wasteland, the culturally chaotic one inhabited by trolls like Ginsberg and Kerouac. By the Sixties some Partisan graduates were looking back to the modernist classics with an almost professorial nostalgia, as the last serious writing our demotic Western world was likely to produce.

That may look like an oddly patrician stance for one time champions of proletarianism to assume. In truth, however, the seeming paradox of combining more or less left-wing sociopolitical commentary with lofty aesthetic discourse had never been much of a paradox at all. Behind both kinds of enterprise lay the same animus against the bland middle class, and more especially against “nativism”—the distinctly WASPish idea that American civilization is culturally rich in just those respects where it most sharply diverges from European precedent. What united Marx and Proust, Nietzsche and Joyce, Freud and Camus was their equidistance from lowa. The lapsed Marxists surrounding Partisan disputed many points with one another, but they all seemed to agree, as did the writers they most admired, that literary value was not a matter for the people to decide.

Yet if Partisan was held together by elitism, as a magazine of debate it was also significantly open to interaction with outsiders. The “we” so frequently invoked in its pages was meant to designate, not the immediate clique in favor with the editors, but all readers willing to acknowledge the modern crisis of values and the necessity of lodging belief elsewhere than in the Soviet Union on the one hand and warmed-over Christianity on the other. That was a numerous group, and Partisan helped to make it more so. Phillips and Rahv were always more concerned to publish intelligent speculative discourse than to promote modernism or any other fashionable cause.

Nevertheless, we are far enough removed from the Forties and Fifties to perceive that for a long while there was not only a recognizable Partisan style—wide-ranging, cutting, self-assured—but also a Partisan world view. It was a complex of attitudes and positions derived in part from the debacle of the American left, in part from the concurrence of separatist and assimilationist impulses within the so-called New York family, and in part from the personality of Philop Rahv, by all accounts the ruling figure at Partisan during its most influential period.5

Rahv, indeed, was in most respects the quintessential Partisan contributor. He was anti-nativist and pro-modernist; he distrusted the academy and its weakness for “idealistic” spiritual transports; he felt permanently betrayed by Stalin; he endorsed psychoanalysis as a body of truths too upsetting for optimists and literary professors to comprehend; he craved disputation and was ever watchful for new trends that would bear denouncing; and he treated well-known authors and problems as if no one had discussed them before, or never adequately. Most importantly, he tried in his own criticism to do what he and Phillips as editors were doing only by juxtaposition, namely to bring together sociopolitical consciousness and sensitivity to great literature. In making that effort, Rahv epitomized the magazine’s project of freeing analytic intelligence from party-mindedness without stripping it completely of radical purpose.

Before the Partisan critics broke with Stalinism they had been practitioners of revolutionary subordination: books were weapons in the class war, and the chief function of criticism was to identify which side was served by a given work. Once that phase was over, the question became how far to go in the direction of sheer aestheticism. Should one now praise The Golden Bowl as fervently as one had recently been praising The Lower Depths? Were an author’s ideas and attitudes nothing more than a donnée after all, incidental to the produced sensations that really mattered? What, if anything, could an ex-Stalinist say about literature that wasn’t already being said by the suave and ingenious New Critics?

Rahv’s answer was that ideas and attitudes counted as much as before, but no longer in the same way. An author lacking a sense of history or an awareness of the social issues of his time was still to be faulted—not, however, because of his deviation from Marx and Engels but because his imagination was incomplete. The critic’s task was first to submit himself to that imagination without making fixed ideological demands of it, but then, rather than lose himself in some contrived ecstasy, to draw back and ask what dimensions of the world were being ignored or distorted. Thus, for example, Rahv, who did much to revive interest in Henry James and wrote perceptively about him, eventually decided that James was too narrow, for he took his society for granted and “made a metaphysic of private relations, giving the impression that they are immune to the pressures of the public and historical world.” Other critics might challenge Rahv’s judgment, but all could recognize that he was writing from a thoroughly considered position. It was a kind of shadow Marxism, whereby one could still value mimesis and social compassion without insisting on determinism or dogmatizing about “structure” and “superstructure” or issuing veiled threats in the name of history.

The most important literary value for Rahv, however, was more Shakespearean than Marxian: a tolerance for contradiction, a capacity to grant full imaginative reality to people not of one’s own party. He found that value supremely exemplified in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, two writers whose more particular opinions he largely rejected. And he found it undeveloped in D.H. Lawrence, who tended to pit his “mouthpiece” characters against contemptible adversaries, and utterly lacking in the later work of Norman Mailer, whose vacuous superhero Rojack rapes and murders his way through a world that exists only as a field of megalomaniac desire. If Rahv was huffy about such cases, it was because he had learned from the major developments of his age that unmediated will and a failure to credit one’s opponents with humanity are defects that can entail appalling mass criminality.

It would seem, then, that Rahv had survived the Thirties with a rare combination of concrete historical awareness and individual morality, the best fruits of both Marxism and conservatism. To be sure, that fact did not make him a great critic. His ideas were mostly derivative, his range of literary interests was restricted to the novel from Gogol onward, and he was too much given to humorless scorn, righteously condemning tendencies he had managed to avoid himself. Yet he was also capable of sustained and generous appreciation; witness five completed chapters of his projected book on Dostoevsky, which his new editors, Arabel Porter and Andrew Dvosin, have now printed in sequence for the first time. Those chapters show a fine subtlety and empathy, interrupted only by the occasional squeaking of his hobbyhorse: settling scores with the Soviet Union. By reading selectively in this last collection—combining, say, the pieces on Tolstoy, Kafka, and Dostoevsky with such influential essays as “The Cult of Experience in American Writing,” “The Dark Lady of Salem,” “The Heiress of All the Ages,” and “Religion and the Intellectuals”—one can come away with the impression of a mind whose irritability and unforgivingness were more than overbalanced by possession of a coherent yet flexible outlook, neither as prescriptive as the ideologues’ nor as indeterminate as the aesthetes’.6

A rather different picture of Rahv emerges, however, when we attend to his strictly political writings, which until now have formed an inconspicuous part of the record. For reasons we can only surmise, he completely omitted them from his summa, Literature and the Sixth Sense. But Porter and Dvosin want to call attention to those writings, which Dvosin in his introduction claims to be pregnant not only with documentary value but also with “great political insight.” More than seventy pages of the new Essays are given over to such items as a 1932 declaration of Communist militancy, a 1938 indictment of the Moscow Trials, a 1939 autopsy on literary proletarianism, a 1952 denunciation of mass philistinism, a 1964 appreciation of Trotsky, a 1967 blast at liberal anticommunists, and a 1971 assessment of the New Left as insufficiently revolutionary.

Taken individually, these pieces make lively reading. Rahv was implacably and persuasively contemptuous of Stalin’s show trials, of the conformist atmosphere in postwar America, and of the zeal of penitents like Whittaker Chambers, who could pass so readily from Stalin to Jesus because they had been unworldly absolutists all along. Yet when considered together, the political writings make us conscious of a persistent and damaging evasion. More than anyone else in his circle, Rahv showed himself incapable of understanding that values as well as tactics were entailed in the general backing-off from revolutionary activism.

Even in the most superficial terms, Rahv’s politics were inconsistent. In his own view he had changed direction only once, when he repudiated Stalin as a traitor to Marx. Thereafter he considered himself an independent Marxist or, as he sometimes said, a democratic socialist. Little was heard of this Marxism in the Forties and Fifties, however; in that period Rahv conveniently simplified things by referring to himself and Partisan as “anti-Communist.” He and Phillips, for example, wrote in 1953 that their “ideal reader” would be someone “concerned with the structure and fate of modern society, in particular with the precise nature and menace of Communism.”7 But in 1967, emboldened by the newer collegiate radicalism, Rahv defiantly told Commentary that he had never broken with “communism, in its doctrinal formulations by Marx or even by Lenin” (emphasis added). He professed himself scandalized that official America still rejected “not the Stalinist aspect of communism but communism as such, authoritarian or not.”

One might say that the unclarity here could be resolved merely by attending to the difference between capital and lower-case c’s. Rahv was a communist, not a Communist. Fair enough—but apart from disapproving of mass murder and slave-labor camps, what difference in principle was involved? Was Lenin a nonauthoritarian, a communist with a small c? And hadn’t Marx himself accepted the necessity of concerted violence against those who stand to lose by the revolution? To ascribe Soviet terror entirely to Stalin was to indulge in an inverse cult of personality, a flight from essential issues.

Toward the end of his life, sizing up the imprudent radicals of the Vietnam era, Rahv began to sound like a born-again Leninist of the familiar type. In “What and Where Is the New Left?” he declared that “violent assaults on the class-enemy” are inadvisable “if undertaken prematurely,…before the challengers of the status quo can count on at least an even chance of victory in an armed struggle with the police.” With avuncular sagacity he pointed to the need for “a guiding organization—one need not be afraid of naming it a centralized and disciplined party,” practically and ideologically alert “so as not to miss its historical opportunity….” Rahv neglected to say how such a party, once its “armed struggle” was over, would wither away in favor of a nonauthoritarian democracy. A lifetime of political argument and observation had failed to teach him that repression flows naturally from defining others as “the class-enemy.”

If we ask why Rahv was so obtuse on this point, I think the answer must be sought in an irrational appeal that Marxism makes to people of a certain prickly, combative, and power-hungry disposition. Where others need friends, they need class-enemies. Lacking such hateful antagonists, they would no longer be able to connect their will to domination with an ultimately benign historical drama, guided by transpersonal forces. In a word, they would be just plain bullies. By retaining faith, however inactively, in what he called “the principles of classic Marxism, its knowledge and foresight,” Rahv succeeded in mistaking his native Manichaeism for revolutionary vigilance. But he paid a price in squandered bile, not just against the capitalists (for in fact he had little to say about them) but more especially against everyone who struck him as following an incorrect line: Stalinists and professional anti-Stalinists, pacifists and patriots, McCarthyites and fellow travelers, ideologues and idealizers. Dissociation on all sides was his one strategy for retaining a sense of mission.

Like other Americans who rejected Stalin only because he was a counter-revolutionary, Rahv never admitted the extent of his debt to liberal capitalism. As an editor, he stood behind the shield of the First Amendment. As a judge of literature, he upheld a magnanimity of vision that could never flourish in a state founded on the victory of one former underclass. And as both editor and critic, he took for granted a readership of people who would believe that values can be absorbed from unorthodox books, and who would be free to change their minds and indeed their lives if they agreed with his own independent reasonings. The contemporary world offered no basis for imagining that such readers would be available under a Marxist dispensation.

The irony of Rahv’s political nondevelopment is that, unlike the sophists who warned against “repressive tolerance,” he actually did appreciate guaranteed liberties. After World War II he had to admit that America had thus far “sustained that freedom of expression and experiment without which the survival of the intelligence is inconceivable in a modern society.” Meanwhile the record of entrenched Marxism in the management of culture was unambiguous. But for Rahv to embrace the liberal institutions that protect “freedom of expression and experiment” would have been to jeopardize his adversary identity; he could no more do that than Trilling could question Freud’s gratuitously tragic ideas about civilization, or than Schwartz could reject Eliot on the grounds of his anti-Semitism. It was easier to keep hoping that history would one day give birth to a true realm of freedom as described by Marx, in which one would not have to thank the class-enemy for revocable favors.

Fortunately, the shallowness of Rahv’s political thought had little effect on his best literary criticism. We can now understand, however, why nearly all of that criticism was written in the Forties, when he and others were under maximum pressure to show that they could reach a nonsectarian audience. The Rahv we see in earlier and later periods reveals a sensibility dissociated between revolutionary impulses and a belief in cultural hierarchy.

Toward the end of his life that dissociation became painful; the New Left had reignited his wrath against the ruling class, but it had also quickly dissolved into a “counterculture” utterly alien to his temperament. Meanwhile, under new leadership, Partisan had turned its back on the great moderns and was flirting with pornography, rock music, and the newest of liberties, freedom from interpretation. Fulminating against “swinging reviewers” and “our contemporary porno-aesthetes,” Rahv sounded just like the academic traditionalists he had always disprized. Was there no way to restore cultural norms and simultaneously continue to struggle against the system? Modern Occasions was founded, and soon foundered, on that dim prospect.

Some cultural conservatives have argued that promoters of literary nihilism such as they claim the early Partisan critics were have only themselves to blame for the anarchy they now oppose. Trilling himself, appalled by the mood of the Sixties, is known to have spoken ruefully of “modernism in the streets.” Such remorse, however, betrays a teacher’s illusion that mostly unread books are more determinative of mass conduct than are wars and baby booms. In any case, the tasteful kind of modernism favored by Partisan was always less likely to lead to Molotov cocktails than to dry martinis. It would be especially far-fetched to accuse Philip Rahv of having incited the new anti-authoritarianism, for unlike some of his contributors, he had never equated modernity with the overthrow of moral restraint. As for his political militancy, it slumbered for three decades before being briefly aroused by the New Left.

Rahv’s program of political and literary seriousness was exactly the same in 1970 as it had been in 1940, but everything else had changed. In the early years he and his friends were sufficiently close to their leftist past for their devotion to literature to be seen as a courageous break with the party line, a more high-minded radicalism. Again, modernism was still a tradition to conjure with, not a staple of every curriculum. Above all, Partisan was just beginning its spectacularly successful work of propagating its cultural position. As the word from New York radiated outward, the adversary fever which had been so essential to the magazine’s self-image necessarily subsided. Then the veterans of the Forties found themselves inhabiting a larger world, full of prosperity, compromise, and chatter about the authors they had once claimed as their own. Rahv and his associates had helped to shape a new literary establishment, more democratic and sophisticated than its predecessor. In doing so, they phased themselves irreversibly out of business as spokesmen for an alien vision.

This Issue

November 23, 1978