Norman Podhoretz
Norman Podhoretz; drawing by David Levine

The title and subtitle together make up a quotation from Lionel Trilling. The book is made up of nine essays: on the writers of The God That Failed group; on Camus and his critics; on Orwell; on F.R. Leavis; on Henry Adams; on “The Adversary Culture and the New Class”; on Kissinger, on Milan Kundera, and on Solzhenitsyn. All of the essays contain—though in varying proportions—both literary criticism and political comment. In his introduction, Mr. Podhoretz reasserts his belief “that it is possible for a critic to speak openly from a particular political perspective and to make political judgments without permitting such judgments to replace or obscure literary values as such.”

I agree with Mr. Podhoretz that this is indeed possible. I also believe that Mr. Podhoretz genuinely set out to separate “political judgments” from “literary values”; and that he also genuinely believes that he has been successful in this undertaking. I think he has been occasionally successful, and more often not. He tries to be good, but when his “political” blood is up—and it is, much of the time—he can’t help forcing a “literary” point (or any other point if it comes to that).

I should however, at this point, declare interest. I happen to be among Mr. Podhoretz’s targets, in his essay “Camus and His Critics.” A short book of mine on Camus, published in the 1970s, is found by Mr. Podhoretz to be a “travesty” offered “in the name of art,” but actually in the service of my “anti-anti-Communist political passions.” So I am accused of having succumbed to the very temptation—that of politicizing literature—which Mr. Podhoretz believes himself to have consistently resisted. And when—as here—I doubt the extent of his success, I fear such criticism may be imputed again to the power of those political passions which he assumes to hold me in their fell grip.

As the reader will already appreciate, argument along those lines could become tiresome. I mention the matter as a kind of “health warning,” in justice to Mr. Podhoretz and to the reader, and leave it there.

Politically speaking, the most ambitious of these essays is “If Orwell Were Alive Today.” This essay ends with the words, “I am convinced that if Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left.” The claim here is, of course, made on behalf of a group of which the essayist is himself a leading member: Mr. Podhoretz is described on the jacket of this book as “America’s most outspoken neoconservative intellectual.” How important it is for the essayist to be able to claim Orwell for his neoconservatives may be inferred from a passage near the beginning of the essay “If Orwell Were Alive Today.”

This enormous reputation by itself would make Orwell “One of those writers who are well worth stealing” [a phrase of Orwell’s own, about Dickens]. It is, after all, no small thing to have the greatest political writer of the age on one’s side: it gives confidence, authority, and weight to one’s own political views.

This passage is not, of course, programmatic. That is, Mr. Podhoretz is not here signaling his own intention to “steal” George Orwell; although he may possibly be inadvertently revealing the power of a temptation to do just that. Rather, he is rebuking other people for their efforts to steal a writer who properly belongs to the neoconservatives—Mr. Podhoretz’s own group. As a matter of fact, Mr. Podhoretz’s point about left-wing efforts to “steal Orwell” has acquired more force since he first made it (in January 1983). In Britain, the year 1984 brought on an influential and misguided effort to depict the book Nineteen Eighty-four as a satire impartially—from a democratic socialist point of view—directed at both East and West, the Soviet Union and the United States. This effort, backed (or rather, led) by the considerable authority of Professor Bernard Crick—Orwell’s biographer, and editor of the annotated Nineteen Eighty-four—may indeed rightly be described as “stealing Orwell.” Nineteen Eighty-four is highly specific in its satire of Soviet Society—and in its warning to Britain against the danger presented by Soviet Sympathizers—and contains hardly anything that can be construed, without twisting and wrenching, as satire on the West.

Mr. Podhoretz’s resistance to the Orwell stealers of the left is fully justified. His claim to Orwell, on behalf of the neoconservatives, is another matter. Certainly, Orwell’s last two books—Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four are (pace Professor Crick) as anticommunist as the stoutest neoconservative could desire. But this doesn’t mean that Orwell would necessarily be attracted to neoconservatism. He was essentially a loner, with a marked and consistent distaste for cliques and coteries, and for politicoliterary intellectuals hunting in packs, on the scent—usually a distant scent—of power. In Orwell’s own day—and especially in his last years—the most conspicuous groups of that kind were active on the left. But I see no reason to suppose that he would have liked these phenomena any better when they turned up on the right, as they have in the last quarter of the twentieth century. For example, one of the intellectual manifestations which Orwell most despised was what he called “back scratching”: the politico-literary coterie practice of puffing the works of fellow members. And as it happens, the jacket of The Bloody Crossroads—in which a number of Mr. Podhoretz’s political friends praise him for his literary prowess—is a classic case of politico-literary back scratching. I really can’t see George Orwell dans cette galère.


Mr. Podhoretz quotes Orwell on “smelly little orthodoxies.” Without entering into the game of “if Orwell were alive today,” one may point out that while Orwell actually was alive, some of the things he most disliked about the “smelly little orthodoxies” were characteristics—like those mentioned above—which are today salient or sniffable in neoconservatism.

In his essay on F.R. Leavis—the best in the collection, and the most free from polemics—Mr. Podhoretz finds that Leavis (whom he generally admires) in his writing on D.H. Lawrence “sins against the disinterestedness in whose absence literary criticism becomes a species of covert ideologizing.”

Coming from Norman Podhoretz, that is a breathtaking judgment. What is admirable about it is its transparent innocence. Mr. Podhoretz really does believe himself to possess the kind of disinterestedness against which even Leavis could sin. And this disinterestedness which he confidently attributes to himself seems to be felt as a kind of talisman which automatically preserves his criticism from turning into ideologizing. Few readers of The Bloody Crossroads—outside the neoconservative camp—are likely to be convinced that Mr. Podhoretz’s talisman is really in working order. Not all the time, but much of the time, he appears to be forcing a critical judgment to make a political point.

This is perhaps most apparent in the essay on Camus. Mr. Podhoretz doesn’t annex Camus outright, as he does with Orwell. He is content with having “the best of Camus” on his side. Mr. Podhoretz the literary critic discovers, in his disinterested way, that the best of Camus is to be found in the work by Camus which happens to be most to the political taste of Mr. Podhoretz the neoconservative ideologue. This is Camus’s anticommunist essay of 1951, L’Homme révolté (translated as The Rebel). This is an eccentric opinion—since Camus’s reputation is based mainly on three novels—but it might be none the worse for that, if Mr. Podhoretz were to establish it by bringing out the neglected excellences of the essay he values so highly, and which other critics (including myself) have considered tedious and pretentious. But Mr. Podhoretz devotes only a few lines, with several laudatory adjectives, to The Rebel itself. His strategy for validating this particular piece of literary reassessment consists of: (a) flat assertion that The Rebel is “the best of Camus”; (b) attacks on the supposed political motivation—failure of disinterestedness—of critics who fail to rate the work so highly as Mr. Podhoretz says is its due; (c) depreciation, on what appears to be random grounds, of Camus’s other works, including the best known and most admired.

Camus’s sin, in Mr. Podhoretz’s eyes, was that he failed to keep going on about anticommunism as he had done in The Rebel. For Mr. Podhoretz to think thus is quite understandable. But Mr. Podhoretz goes much further than this. He has convinced himself that Camus himself felt this way. The sense of guilt that pervades The Fall has nothing to do with Christianity or anything of that kind, according to this critic. No, what Camus’s guilt was all about was his own failure to stand up for the United States, as Sartre had stood up for the Soviet Union.”Sartre…chose the Soviet Union and was not afraid to say so; Camus, in effect, chose the United States and was afraid to say so.” That is what made Camus a “penitent.” All that religious stuff in The Fall is just there to disguise and deaden Camus’s actual political guilt, for his desertion of Uncle Sam. Religion “provides Camus with a pretentious way to avoid the full and rigorous accounting with himself he so desperately needed and wanted to undertake.” What a pity the novelist did not have a neoconservative father confessor at his side, to get his penance right for him, and see his books got rewritten.


Mr. Podhoretz does not produce any evidence in support of this interpretation of The Fall, but then he can’t be expected to, can he? Camus himself—Mr. Podhoretz’s Camus—didn’t know what he was doing or, insofar as he did know what he was doing, was anxious to cover up the evidence, even from himself. So it is for Mr. Podhoretz, the literary critic, to divine intuitively what Camus was up to in The Fall. And it happens, as so often in these pages, that what Mr. Podhoretz, the critic, is able to divine is very much to the taste of Mr. Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologue.

Mr. Podhoretz’s idiosyncratically Americano-centric interpretation of The Fall is I think symptomatic of the main intellectual weakness of neoconservatism, its obsessive reductivism. Everything has to be about us and them, the United States and the Soviet Union, God and Satan. That, for example, a French-Algerian writer, Albert Camus, might have been more interested, in the late Fifties, in the Franco-Algerian war, then raging, and in his own painfully conflicting feelings about that, than in either the United States or the Soviet Union, does not occur to Mr. Podhoretz even as a possibility. Of Course the author of The Fall had to be thinking about the United States. What else, after all, when you get down to it, is there to think about? Except the Soviet Union.

The Orwell and Camus essays are, I think, fairly representative of Mr. Podhoretz’s politico-critical modus operandi. I don’t propose to consider the other essays in the collection in the same way, but shall instead consider a theme that greatly preoccupies the author and runs, in one way or another, through almost all the essays. That theme is the relation of intellectuals to power.

Mr. Podhoretz believes that intellectuals are powerful, whether for good or ill, and whether they know it or not. In “Henry Adams: The ‘Powerless’ Intellectual in America,” Mr. Podhoretz argues that Adams, who felt himself to be powerless, is actually powerful, for evil. “Thus one can say,” says Mr. Podhoretz, “that Adams has been kept alive as an incitement to and a justification of the hunger of the American intellectual class for the power, and especially the political power, that he himself, for all that he denigrated it, could never stop wanting and envying.” Yet in Mr. Podhoretz’s view Adams actually attained power, posthumously at least: “The great irony is that the case of Adams—who remains a force when the names of Rutherford B. Hayes or Chester Arthur are scarcely even remembered—demonstrates how much more powerful intellectuals can be in the long run than even the most successful of politicians.” Yet this is a bad thing in the case of Adams, who exercises a “malignant” influence in “encouraging a bigoted contempt for this country and in subtly denigrating and devaluing the life of the mind.”

The bracketing of “this country” and “the life of the mind” in this passage is significant. According to Mr. Podhoretz’s view of things, in all these essays uncritical nationalism and intellectual integrity always tend to converge, in the case of America (though not, presumably, in certain other countries). On this view “the treason of the clerks” and treason to the United States are in essence the same thing. I prefer Julien Benda’s original version, according to which uncritical nationalism was among the causes which could induce the intellectual to abdicate his proper function and deviate systematically from the truth. But Mr. Podhoretz does not mention the author of La Trahison des clercs.

In his essay on Adams, Mr. Podhoretz, by the context in which he uses the expression “the American intellectual class,” leaves the class in question firmly in the grip of the leftist baddies with their twisted minds. But things brighten up considerably, in Podhoretz terms, in the very next essay, “The Adversary Culture and the New Class.” The baddies are still at work—inside the Adversary Culture and the New Class—but now some intellectuals in white hats have shown up, in the form of “a group of dissident intellectuals, mostly, but not exclusively associated with magazines like Commentary and The Public Interest” and “often called neoconservatives.” Although this group still remains “a minority within the intellectual community,” its influence is not to be underrated, in Mr. Podhoretz’s book:

Certainly these intellectual adversaries of the adversary culture were exerting a marked influence by the mid-1970s. Their writings were being read and discussed in many circles, and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 could be, and was, seen as a mark of their spreading influence.

Could it be? And was it? And by whom? Clearly it could be and was, by Mr. Podhoretz and some of his pals; afflicted by galloping swelled heads. But did anyone else see it that way? Possibly some besotted left-wing intellectual, disposed to magnify the importance of his intellectual opponents, may have suggested something of the kind; though I don’t happen to know of any such case. But could anyone outside the charmed circle of a few intellectual coteries and countercoteries ever have dreamed of such a thing? How could a couple of magazines, and a couple of dozen individuals of whom most Americans, and most other people, have never heard, possibly have exercised a determining influence over an American national election? Of course you can imagine—if you are a neoconservative—the esoteric influence of Commentary, etc., as spreading out at secondhand, through the media, and so filtering down to the plebs who, when they pressed those levers, were indirectly under the spell of Mr. Podhoretz and his friends without ever having heard of them. But it all seems a mite fanciful to me. Far from thinking of that election result as a mark of the “spreading influence” of neoconservative intellectuals, I think that the only intellectual who clearly exercised a significant influence in bringing about the defeat of Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan was that eminent paleoconservative scholar, Imam Khomeini.

In general, the essays in this collection seem to be the work of a writer who knows quite a lot about literature, without any longer being much interested in the subject—and who is passionately interested in politics, without knowing much about them. As I read Mr. Podhoretz, that phrase of Edmund Burke came to mind: “Those who have nothing of politics save the passions they excite.” Such people exist, obviously, both on the left and on the right. But some of those on the right, these days, who fall into that category like to attribute to themselves, with some insistence, the possession of an exceptional and disinterested intellectual rigor: a quality not readily discernible in their writings to those outside the fold.

Politically, I don’t suppose the neoconservatives matter all that much. They are not so much turning America around—as Mr. Podhoretz, perhaps in one of his wilder moments, supposed—as sending a message to mainstream America: that not all eggheads are baddies. I don’t know whether mainstream America is much interested in that message, but the Reagan administration seems less interested in it than the leading neoconservatives may perhaps have hoped. There has been no neoconservative equivalent to the political career of Henry Kissinger. (Incidentally, Mr. Podhoretz’s essay on Kissinger seems astonishingly reverential coming from a writer usually free from that defect. When Mr. Podhoretz meets his old master, F.R. Leavis, in heaven he will have to answer for attributing literary “greatness” to the author of The White House Years. But perhaps what sounds unpleasantly obsequious is just harmless wistfulness. Mr. Podhoretz wrote Making It, but Kissinger really and truly made it. Had Kissinger, the politician, not made it I doubt whether Podhoretz, the critic, would have discerned greatness in anything Kissinger wrote. The literary greatness went with the political job.)

In case there are still any neoconservative intellectuals who would like to be presidential advisers, but have not yet received the call, let me offer a helpful hint or two. First of all, let Talleyrand be your guidé. Both Burke and Machiavelli are more interesting as political thinkers, certainly, but for making it, and keeping it, Talleyrand is the man. Burke spent most of his life in opposition, and had only one brief period of junior office. The author of The Prince ended a generally dismal political career by leading a delegation to the Friars Minor at Carpi, and glad to get that tiny job. Talleyrand, on the other hand, achieved the really astonishing feat of remaining close to the centers of political power in France—with only absolutely indispensable intervals—for the best part of forty-five years (1789–1834) and under five regimes. So Talleyrand’s worth listening to, if making it is what you want. And it happens that Talleyrand’s best-known piece of political advice is also the most relevant: “Surtout, pas de zèle.” (English writers often render this advice, with insular fogginess, as “not too much zeal,” and some of them then put their own amendment back into French: “Pas trop de zèle.” But the actual advice, accurately Englished, remains: “Above all, no zeal.” No zeal; none at all.)

Now this means that a prudent Prince or President will not be inclined to include among his close advisers an intellectual who is publicly known as a zealous champion even of the very ideas to which the Prince or President is publicly committed. For the ideas which that intellectual is out there championing only sound identical to those to which the Prince or President (henceforward PP) is committed. The PP is committed to those ideas as he personally interprets them, and with the knowledge that it may become politically expedient for him, in certain circumstances, to interpret them in ways that may seem peculiar, on the face of it, to some of those who have most admired the PP’s commitment to the ideas in question.

For example, a given PP may be widely admired for his determination to resist some Evil Empire or other. But then political necessity may require the PP to sell a lot of grain or something to the EE in question, thereby presumably feeding its capacity to do evil. In such circumstances, the kind of intellectual the PP needs to have around the place is the kind that will help draft the kind of speeches that are needed in the circumstances: not the kind of intellectual that will ask, What the hell’s going on around here? or talk about bolting, or even perhaps actually bolt. And the more vehemently an intellectual has published about the ideas to which the PP is thought of as committed, the less reliable that intellectual is likely to be found to be when the going gets rough.

A politic intellectual who wants to get close enough to a PP to wield some PP-derived power must be prepared to serve the PP, on the PP’s terms, especially when the going gets rough, rough, that is, on principles, ideas, consistency, and so on. It is true that, in certain circumstances, the politic individual may ditch his PP; Talleyrand ditched no fewer than four sets of his (sometimes by getting himself ditched by them, while they were slipping). But in the nature of things, an American intellectual adviser is unlikely to have many opportunities to ditch his PP, Talleyrand-style. Loyalty to the PP has necessarily a higher place in the equipment of the politically ambitious American intellectual than any such quality had in the case of Talleyrand. Otherwise, Talleyrand remains the exemplar: the service intellectual, without ideology, enthusiasm, or worries about principles.

Henry Kissinger is in the Talleyrand line, although he has had more to say about Metternich, the man of principles. Talleyrand would have approved of that presentation too. Now I greatly fear that Norman Podhoretz yearns—or yearned—to be the Kissinger of the right. Perhaps he does not—I am not in his counsel—but it seemed to me as I read the Podhoretz essay “Kissinger Reconsidered” that that yearning was rising at me from the page, like a feverish miasma. Mr. Podhoretz should stifle any such yearning. He is most unlikely ever to make it that way. He is burdened with ideology, attachment to principles, zeal. He has published far too much, and too pugnaciously, about contemporary politics, and so given too many hostages to fortune. He lacks too many relevantly desirable qualities: patience, good humor, smoothness, masked cynicism. Any PP could see from a mile off that Mr. Podhoretz would be an awkward crew member to have on board. So—for reasons the foremost of which are creditable to his personal honesty and integrity—Mr. Podhoretz seems unlikely to get the call.

Once actual political power is denied, there remains, theoretically, another kind of power. This is the kind that Mr. Podhoretz attributes to Henry Adams: the power of the writer, through his writing, over others, through generations. But I doubt whether Mr. Podhoretz is really much interested in that stuff. Paul Valéry’s “horribly laureled consolatrix” is hardly everyone’s cup of tea. Mr. Podhoretz’s writing seems mainly concerned with the other kind of power. He writes competently, but in an off-the-cuff sort of way, like a man who has a bus to catch. I think his bus is a mirage, and I don’t think the things he writes, in that rush to the mirage, are likely to be memorable. In short, Mr. Podhoretz is neither Henry Kissinger nor Henry Adams. And he is not so much an authority on “the bloody crossroads” as another of the romantic and power-infatuated victims with whom that crossroads is bestrewn.

Mr. Podhoretz will no doubt have the satisfaction of ascribing this largely negative review to the “anti-anticommunist passions” which he believes are seething in the bosom of this reviewer. It would be unkind to deny Mr. Podhoretz that satisfaction. About anti-communism and anti-anticommunism, and the general phenomenon of neoconservatism, I hope to have something to say on another occasion.

This Issue

October 9, 1986