By Michael Kimmage
Sunday, June 28, 2009
The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
By D.D. Guttenplan
Farrar Straus Giroux. 570 pp. $35
I.F. Stone was among the most interesting of 20th-century American journalists. He had a voice as distinctive as H.L. Mencken's and an appetite for research comparable to Seymour M. Hersh's. The longevity of his career matched William F. Buckley Jr.'s, and eventually he obtained the institutional independence of an Andrew Sullivan. Stone began his life in journalism in the 1930s, working at the great urban newspapers; he had formidable access to the Roosevelt administration; and he was an American journalist present at the creation of the state of Israel. In the 1950s, he pioneered a new form of journalism, a self-published newsletter that merged political advocacy with investigative fact-finding. I.F. Stone's Weekly was an inspiration to the New Left and to left-leaning journalists in general. Stone can credibly be called America's first political blogger, though his blog was typed, printed, mimeographed and then mailed out to readers.
D.D. Guttenplan, a London correspondent for the Nation, offers a vividly written, avidly researched biography in "American Radical." Stone was born Isadore Feinstein to Jewish parents, his father an immigrant from Russia, and he grew up in small-town Pennsylvania. Guttenplan lovingly recreates the world of early 20th-century journalism, as well as the cultural ambiance of the Popular Front, a wave of progressive enthusiasm in the mid-1930s that made a lasting impression on Stone. The Popular Front embraced FDR's New Deal and Stalin's Soviet Union; its anti-fascism and expansive radicalism were ideally suited to Stone's sensibility.
The center of Guttenplan's book is the McCarthy period of the 1950s, when the Popular Front was under attack. Unlike most in his generation, Stone emerged from the 1950s a "radical who kept hold of his ideals." Guttenplan concludes by examining "The Trial of Socrates," published in 1988, Stone's book-length essay on ancient Athens. Stone had learned Greek after retiring as a journalist, immersing himself in classical scholarship to evaluate the timeless intricacies of political dissent.
Throughout his biography, Guttenplan emphasizes Stone's salience as a political thinker, not just as a talented, spirited journalist. He portrays Stone as a progressive unencumbered by party line, capable of criticizing the left and courageous enough to resist conservative repression. Stone tracked the civil rights movement in the early 1950s, when it was not headline news, and he penetrated behind the official government story on Vietnam long before the anti-war movement was popular. When it came to the Soviet Union, Stone's radicalism did more to confuse than to clarify his political judgment. Stone was robustly pro-Soviet in the late 1930s; in 1937 he called the Soviet Union "the greatest social experiment of our time." Recent scholarship suggests some connection between Stone and Soviet intelligence, a connection he never discussed. Ultimately agnostic on the issue, Guttenplan hopes that there was no such tie. This question matters most to those with an emotional investment in Stone's radicalism. If Stone was a spy, he was not a significant one; but if he did work for the Soviets, the independence he claimed as his journalistic trademark would be a damaged commodity.
Quick to attack injustice in America, Stone was slow to acknowledge the criminal nature of Soviet governance. Over time he came to see the Soviet Union as tyrannical and to identify with the anti-Soviet dissidents, but this was not the story he wished to tell as a journalist. Had he granted deeper meaning to the great famine in 1932 or to the Moscow trials and mass atrocities of the late 1930s, he would have complicated his relationship to the Popular Front. After World War II, he did not engage in self-criticism. Doing so might have given comfort to Sen. McCarthy and his supporters on the House Committee for Un-American Activities, and it might have bolstered the neo-imperial hubris of Cold War America.
Stone's primary focus, in any case, was never Soviet Russia. It was the United States, from the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to that of Richard Nixon. As an observer of the United States, Stone produced much superb journalism, presented with literary flair and salted with humor. His public voice oscillated beautifully between heart-felt emotion and a Yiddish-inflected sarcasm. His achievement was the fashioning of this voice, in his writing and public speaking.
Guttenplan argues for a larger achievement, for Stone's lasting importance as a political thinker. This is unconvincing. Stone was a socialist who revered FDR and Lyndon Johnson; he was a radical who critiqued the Washington establishment even while being part of it, "a radical celebrity," as Guttenplan calls him. A hero to the New Left, Stone lived a life of upper-middle-class discipline and decorum. None of this was hypocritical, though it was all intellectually contradictory. Stone's legacy was not a coherent set of radical ideas but an innovative practice of radical, self-published journalism, long before the Internet.
Michael Kimmage is an assistant professor of history at the Catholic University of America. His first book, "The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism," has recently been published.