NORMAN PODHORETZ, now 49, was the willing son of powerful fathers. The celebrated literary critic and teacher, Lionel Trilling, adopted him at Columbia University in the late 1940s. The equally famous British critic and teacher, F. R. Leavis, took over the next three years during graduate work at Cambridge. When the precocious disciple returned to the States, Philip Rahv and William Phillips of the prestigious Partisan Review added their protective wisdom; in other words, Podhoretz was already writing with his fathers in his bones when he began to publish mature literary articles at 25.

Practically all of Podhoretz's fathers were Jewish intellectuals who had been brief communists in the 1930s and now considered themselves "liberals" or "socialists" out of revulsion to Stalin and Russian totalitarianism. So, of course, did Podhoretz. But in an effort to be honest to the conscience of his own generation, he published Making It in 1968 and admitted that middle-class success was as important to him as nobler concerns. This first break with his fathers (and older brothers like Norman Mailer) brought real and imagined wrath down upon his head. The Leftist high society in which Podhoretz traveled was no longer so hospitable to him, nor was the liberal/-socialist outlook he had inherited from his dads.

Breaking Ranks reviews this past and tells us what has happened to Podhoretz since. It is personal history, political history, self-justification on both scores and an earnest, pugnacious defense of the American system against those critics within, who Podhoretz feels are selling out the country and its traditions to some form of New Leftism. In 1960, as he reminds us, Podhoretz took over the editorship of Commentary magazine and slowly began to change it from the easy liberalism of the time to its present stance of "centrism" or "neo-conservatism" -- into opposition, at any rate, to the political and cultural permissiveness which to him has become The Plague.

Now, with his new book, he has packed all these long-festering antagonisms into a common charge and sounded a declaration of war.

As Breaking Ranks makes plain, Norman Podhoretz has always had a sufficient sense of self-importance to think that his concerns were of vital significance to the state of the culture as well. This can become embarrassing as when he tells us that his early essays on Nathanael West and Norman Mailer put these novelists over the top -- less self-applauding critics have done more memorable work on each -- or when he exaggerates his slight involvement with "radicalism," which was strictly of the safe armchair variety. But for all the self-righteousness with which Podhoretz now puts down the radical chic of former friends (Mailer, Lillian Hellman, William Phillips, Irving Howe, founders Jason and Barbara Epstein of The New York Review of Books ) we know when reading him that personal one-up-manship is not his chief goal.

Podhoretz is truly a man holding a torch aloft. The success he has tasted as a poor boy from Brooklyn who has risen to a position of influence with movers and shakers, like Senator George McGovern (now on Podhoretz's bleep list) and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has helped make him (1) a diehard believer in Only in America , and (2) a sleepless foe of all those Leftist literary utopians who were once his looked-up-to guides and counselors. He now sees them as outdated as well as misguided.

In a real sense, one can view Podhoretz's turn to the Right as the long-delayed assertion of his own repressed manhood after such a long period of apprenticeship. This is not to say that his sharp confrontations of liberal "self-hatred" and soft-headedness about integration, plus his own hard-headedness about sentimentalizing the environment and the need for a strong national defense against the Podhoretzian monster, Communism, aren't stirring. They are, all the more so because he has the grit to go to the edge of the Unpopular Cliff with his convictions. Equally convincing is the pragmatic swivel he has discovered for his three-part identity as American, intellectual and Jew, using "the politics of interest" (frank defense of one's own turf, actually lobbying) inside the existing framework. All this is genuinely reasoned and challenging to read, even if he sometimes takes forthrightness to almost self-parodying lengths because of his lack of humor.

But isn't all this, too, part of the son becoming a father with a vengeance? It's not fair to either Podhoretz or his book to reduce them to only manhood symbols -- he is too specific in his attack on New Left values for that -- but throwing off the radical intellectuals who loved him as a brillian son, and kid-brother, obviously came out of a profound need to be his own man at last. And in the arena of ideas that a "professional intellectual" like Podhoretz identifies with, this means above all asserting and defending his own ideology. The irony is that in spite of his romantic belief that he was once an authentic radical who has now seen through it, any reader who has followed Podhoretz in both Making It and this book knows that the position he has arrived at is hardly a big surprise.

It was always as clear and loud as a Brooklyn tugboat-horn that Norman Podhoretz was eager for tradition, respectability, power and big-league clout at the expense of the more subtle influences of literature and the products of the imagination, which were his putative field. Now he has come home. What makes it an event is the fierceness, the wholeheartedness, with which he has rushed into the straitlaced clothes waiting for him and the way he has defiantly torched all those bridges to his past. Even if you bristle at what he now stands for, you want to shake his hand for going all the way. CAPTION: Picture, Norman Podhoretz, Copyright (c) By Jim Kalett