The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism
by Michael Kimmage
(Harvard University Press, 419 pages, $45)
On the face of it, no two American intellectuals in the late 1940s were more dissimilar than Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers. Trilling was secular, urban, and liberal; Chambers was Christian, rural, and conservative. Trilling was slim, elegant, and well-groomed; Chambers was fat, rumpled, and in urgent need of dental care. Trilling was a distinguished literary critic, a Columbia University professor, and a high-brow’s high-brow; Chambers had been expelled from Columbia, had never gotten his Bachelor’s degree, and had no scholarly credentials to speak of. And then, of course, there was the crucial difference: Trilling had spent six years working on his doctoral dissertation, a well-received study of the 19th-century Victorian poet and literary critic, Matthew Arnold; Chambers spent six years in a rather different line of work: He was a Soviet spy, a member of America’s Communist underground.
It is the substantial merit of Prof. Michael Kimmage’s excellent study, The Conservative Turn, that by the time one finishes reading it, these differences seem insignificant compared to what Trilling and Chambers had, or came to have, in common: they both had towering intellects (according to the legendary Columbia University professor, Mark Van Doren, Chambers had the better mind), they both became passionately anti-Communist, pro-American, and pro-Western, and they both ultimately contributed to the rise of an American conservative movement that poses a serious alternative to liberalism.
That Chambers made a massive contribution to American conservatism will hardly come as news to anyone. After all, Chambers’ hugely influential book, Witness, which chronicled his conversion from Communism to Christianity, was a national best-seller that helped shape Ronald Reagan’s outlook — a fact President Reagan acknowledged in 1984, when he posthumously awarded Chambers a White House Freedom Medal (Chambers died in 1961), and again in 1988, when he turned Chambers’ Maryland farm into a national historic landmark. Chambers’ testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1948 also helped launch Richard Nixon’s political career, and the two became (cautious) friends. Not a bad résumé for someone who, at age 58, enrolled at Western Maryland college to finally earn his B.A. and begin working towards a Master’s degree in Romance languages.
In Trilling’s case, the link to conservatism — or, to be more precise, to neoconservatism — is far less clear. Indeed, in her 1993 memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, Diana Trilling, Lionel’s widow, wrote:
While I, no more than anyone else, am able to say beyond dispute what would have been the direction of Lionel’s politics if he had lived into the decade of the eighties [Lionel died in 1975], I am of the firmest belief that he never would have become a neo-conservative and that, indeed, he would have spoken out against this outcome of the anti-communist position.
Prof. Kimmage’s study strongly suggests that Mrs. Trilling was right — that her husband would have been deeply disappointed by the conservative turn taken by some of his most intelligent younger friends and former students. But Kimmage’s study also suggests that Trilling brought this unhappy denouement upon himself since, paradoxically, his peculiar approach to liberalism practically encouraged defection to conservatism.
Unfortunately, making any sort of firm statement about the thought of Lionel Trilling is very difficult, because that thought is so convoluted and many-sided, so hedged with qualifications and ringed with reservations, that almost anything you say about it is bound to be at least partially wrong. Then, too, Trilling’s prose, though never totally inscrutable, was not exactly scrutable, either. Take this sentence, chosen almost at random, from “The Smile of Parmenides,” an essay that appeared in the December 1956 issue of Encounter magazine:
One of the effects of Keats’s letters is to suggest that the writer holds in his mind at every moment a clear image of the actual quotidian world and also an image of the universe and a mode of existence beyond actuality yet intimately related to actuality and, in a sense, controlling it.
Having re-read this sentence half-a-dozen times, I have a vague notion that Trilling is referring to Plato’s Theory of Forms, which I first encountered nearly forty years ago at Brooklyn College — and even then I couldn’t make heads-or-tails of it. As for the Keats reference — is Trilling suggesting that Keats was a Platonist who believed in the existence of a realm of truth and beauty beyond the reach of time and space? Trilling’s essays are full of these little puzzles, which is why reading them is a bit like being on a quiz show — the winner is the contestant who can identify the most obscure words and references without resorting to a dictionary or encyclopedia. (I should add, in fairness, that this quality is also what makes Trilling’s essays so exciting: one has the sense of being in the presence of a Mind that has read and understood everything.)
Still, with Prof. Kimmage’s help, a few generalizations about Trilling’s thought are possible. It seems clear that Trilling modeled his conception of the literary critic on the example of Matthew Arnold, and considered Arnold’s writings, in Kimmage’s words, “a storehouse of ideas that could be used to replace Marxism with a refined and relevant liberalism.” One of Arnold’s most important ideas is that the critic is the guardian of a nation’s culture; his job is to identify and encourage all that is good in it and to diminish all that is bad in it. Arnold was convinced that bad ideas, once they enter the culture through the medium of literature, can corrupt a people’s sense of reality and lead to national decline and even ruin, while good ideas can foster national growth and vitality. In a sense, a great literary critic was more important to Arnold than a Prime Minister, because while the latter dealt with such ephemera as the economy or foreign policy, the critic was the custodian of what really determines the fate of nations in the long run — their culture in general, and their literary culture, in particular.
In case this is becoming too abstract, consider how matters must have appeared to the youthful Lionel Trilling in the 1930s — America’s “Red Decade.” All around him, bright people, good people, liberal people were joyously embracing the prospect of a world renewed through Communism. (Even Lionel and Diana Trilling were Communists for a brief period, thanks to the brilliant proselytizing of Sidney Hook, who would soon become the archetypal anti-Communist, but who, in the early 1930s, was laboring under the delusion that Marxism was just an early draft of John Dewey’s pragmatism.) Nobody was willing to consider the mounting body of evidence that Soviet Communism — “Stalinism” for short — was as repressive as Nazism; indeed, even to suggest the slightest resemblance between Stalinism and Nazism was to be considered well-beyond the pale. And things only got worse in the 1940s, for now the Soviet Union was our ally against Hitler, Stalin had become Uncle Joe, and Stalinist attitudes (as well as Soviet spies) had penetrated official Washington and were influencing FDR’s foreign policy. (One of the few examples of people who successfully defied the Stalinist Zeitgeist was Whittaker Chambers, who, after his break with the Communist underground, became an editor at Time magazine, and almost single-handedly convinced its publisher, Henry Luce, to run anti-Soviet news and commentary.) The questions that came to obsess the staunchly anti-Stalinist Trilling were, first, “How could this be — how did Stalinism secure such a decisive hold on American thought?” and second, “How might this Stalinist stranglehold be broken?”
Being a good Arnoldian, Trilling naturally related the political and intellectual triumphs of Stalinism to the cultural failures of liberalism. American liberalism was an intellectually impoverished culture because it had no sense of tragedy, no grounding in history, and no understanding of evil. Consequently, it could not defend itself against the Stalinist onslaught. Reasoning along these lines, Trilling came to believe that the surest way to defeat Stalinism in the long run was to infuse the “moral imagination” of liberalism with conservative ideas — which did have a sense of tragedy, a grounding in history, and an understanding of evil. And Trilling didn’t worry that in so doing, he might be strengthening the conservative alternative to liberalism, because throughout the thirties and forties, a serious conservative movement simply did not exist. Trilling assumed that this happy situation would last forever.
Of course, he was mistaken. Shortly after Trilling famously declared, in the 1949 preface to The Liberal Imagination, that, “In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” conservative writers like Chambers, William Buckley, and the brilliant group of writers associated with National Review created a sophisticated conservative movement that could hold its own — and then some — in the vigorous cut and thrust of intellectual debate. Simultaneously, the young intellectuals whom Trilling encouraged to learn from conservatism learned so much that they actually began to think of themselves as conservatives.
Thus it happened that Lionel Trilling’s intellectual progeny gradually abandoned the liberal faith of their father and cast their lot with the intellectual progeny of Whittaker Chambers, leading to a “mixed marriage” of con and neo-con that is not without tension, yet is held together by the commitment of both “fathers” to Western civilization. “If there was any single thing [Chambers and Trilling] wished to conserve as anti-Stalinists,” concludes Prof. Kimmage, “it was Western civilization.… In turning toward communism and then toward anti-communism, they never turned their backs on Western civilization, the golden thread for these two lovers of it, connecting beginning to end and end to beginning.” So long as their offspring do likewise, their marriage — and the revitalized conservative movement built around that marriage — will prosper.