If Irving Kristol is the godfather of neoconservatism, Carey McWilliams is his counterpart on the Left. To travel with McWilliams through his crusading career is to undertake a kind of Pilgrim's Progress of American radicalism in which the Left finds itself ambushed by evil, waylaid by temptation, and oppressed by power. McWilliams as "public-interest" lawyer, as long-time editor of The Nation and as concerned citizen, has placed himself squarely at the center of controversy for more than half a century, toiling to define, expose, and rectify injustices. From Sacco and Vanzetti to Dr. Spock, from blacklisting to black power, he was a participant-observer at the creation of modern American radicalism.
McWilliams' life has been a full and fascinating one. Even before he joined The Nation, his world had intersected those of social criticism, poetry, politics, law, literature, and science. He helped to launch the careers of a long and lustrous roster of writers. His own titles, which number more than a dozen, managed to achieve a notable timeliness, celebrity and influence. His early predictions (in the pages of The Nation) of the consequences of McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and other Cold War excessed demonstrated his courage and vindicated his judgment.
How, then, is one to account for the emotional flatness and intellectual aridity of this book? McWilliams notes at the outset that his purpose is not to pen an autobiography, but rather "a personal political memoir."
Whatever that genre means to him, it becomes in his hands a very unsatisfying literary vehicle. Facts, impressions, and anecdotes are scattered about with little structure or analysis.
Meandering from expose to cause to protest, he reveals remarkable little of himself or his ideas. Speaking of his transformation into social critic under the tutelage of H. L. Mencken, for example, he tells us only, "I had rebelled against aspects of the dominant culture, and my reading of Bierce had provided an antidote to the brassy optimism not merely of the (1920s) but of the conventional reading of the American experience. I felt alienated from the Main Street consensus but remained committed to the view that rebellion was form of protest without specific ends."
There is a curious antiseptic quality to those words, a quality that pervades much of the book. They amount to something more than mere slogans, something less than developed in sights. They leave us thirsting to know more and to know more deeply, only to be disappointed as McWilliams heads off on another white horse for yet another Armageddon.
McWilliams is at his best when writing of the McCarthy period. His brief portraits of friends whose lives were destroyed in America's orgy of orthodoxy are simply written but haunting. His accounts of the innuendo and red-baiting engaged in by bastions of liberalism such as James Reston, Paul Douglas, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the American Civil Liberties Union remind us that free inquiry, civility and tolerance are fragile values that are placed at jeopardy in an environment of corrosive fear. Truman's oppressive loyalty program, the mindless blacklisting of entertainers on the basis of gossip and hearsay, the widespread use of informers and other instruments of conformity recall to us not only that systematic repression can happen here, but that it did.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book is less illuminating. McWilliams does not so much analyze an issue or argue a point as simply present us with his moral conclusions and judgments. He seems to assume that neither his premises nor his chain of reasoning need be examined or justified. It is as if he had cannibalized 40 years of back issues of The Nation, Borrowing the conclusion from each article.
In view of the state of disarray into which American liberalism (in the Americans for Democratic Action sense) has fallen, one must ask whether that intellectual approach will do any longer. It is simply not supportable to blame the Cold War, as McWilliams does, on the "aggressive policies" of the U.S., while failing even to mention the postwar Soviet occupation of eastern Europe or its brutal invasions of Hungary, Polands, and Czechoslovakia in the '50s and '6os. Nor does it seem defensible to romanticize the "counterculture" of the '60s, ad McWilliams (borrowing from Theodore Roszak) does, on the ground that society had ignored the feelings" of the new generation, which "did not relish the idea of being locked into a future about which they had not been consulted."
McWilliams is no mindless ideologue or protest groupie. Indeed, he does not shrink from identifying (in one short paragraph) some fundamental questions concerning the consistency between the socialism he has embraced and the liberal values he also cherishes. Characteristically, however, he fails to explore those questions.
In the end, the most curious aspect of this book is that McWilliams, who proudly describes himself as "an unreconstructed, unapologetic radical," offers neither an analysis of society or culture nor a vision of the good society. He does say in conclusion that he believes in 'radicalism, socialism, democratic principles, Christian humanism and the autonomy of art, ideas, and values, " but he does not bother to elaborate. One had hoped that the long and varied "education" of this obviously sensitive and humane man would yield more profound instruction for the rest of us.