The larger question lurking behind the debate over “cancel culture” is the one about liberalism—to wit, what is liberalism, anyway? And why should we care about it? I signed the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” last month because it beams a clarifying spotlight on the cancel phenomenon, and on its progressive or left-wing version, in particular: “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” But I signed also because, in the course of making its point, the Harper’s letter scatters a few additional illuminations on the larger background question, as well. It is a nuanced letter. Its tone seems to me agreeably old school, recognizable from liberal debates and manifestos of long ago—which, to be sure, the letter’s detractors may regard as one more reason for dismissing the debate and the document and the signatories and their worries. But sometimes it is good to be reminded of times gone by.
Cancel culture is a new name, but the ideological coercions of an overheated left are not, after all, a new problem. They have a history, and, by my reckoning, they even have an origin, which goes back to the 1920s. The American Communist Party was founded in that period in the inebriating belief that Marxism in an updated Russian version was the last and irrefutable word in social science. And, bewitched by that idea, the Communists in New York and California and a few other places where their party was strong awarded themselves the right not just to harangue their rivals and opponents (which is everyone’s right), but to crush them, their left-wing rivals in particular, in the name of the human race.
They set about trying to impose their doctrine on the socialist or social democratic unions and on all the other organizations of the American left, on pain of destruction. Especially they tried to suppress anything unfavorable to the Soviet Union that was spoken from a lectern or printed in a book, which made for a very disagreeable campaign, typically on the edge of violence, or over the edge, with goon squads and boycotts, lasting throughout the 1920s and ’30s—a campaign with not much influence on a national scale, but quite a lot of it in Manhattan, the publishing center, and in a few other places, more than anyone seems to remember today (though you can read about it in the memoirs of Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, and other writers).
Then again, the people who found themselves getting pushed around also have a history. The modern civil liberties and human rights movements got started in the same years as the Communist Party. And the activists in those movements and their friends among the intellectuals and especially in the unions put up a resistance—sometimes at a delay; sometimes undercut by episodes of gullible delusion about the Soviet Union, which was an intermittent oddity of the American Civil Liberties Union; and, then again, sometimes with a brutality of their own, which was pretty common in the unions.
But the resistance found its style, after a while. It was a firm resistance, which was also a nuanced resistance—a resistance that condemned the Communist coercions on principle, and, at the same time, was capable of acknowledging that, in spite of everything, the Communists in America sometimes played a helpful role on one specific issue or another. Nor did the resistance wish to see the government come in and smother the entire American left under a blanket repression. Nor did the resistance wish to ease up on the ancient struggle against the mobs and demagogues and coercions of the political right. Lucidity, balance, and persuasion were the idea.
In New York, the resistance to the Communist Party and its bullying tended, in the early years, to go under the names of “socialism” or “social democracy” or some other label of the radical left and the labor movement—though self-proclaimed liberals also played a role, not always as reliably as the socialists. But by the end of the 1930s, even the socialist intellectuals, some of them—even Sidney Hook, a principal figure in these battles, sword in hand—began to accept, maybe a little reluctantly, that “liberalism” was the appropriate term. Liberalism, the word and the concept, began to dominate the debate. And liberalism did prove to be persuasive.
Coercive impulses on the left (and on the right, which is its own story) are a hardy thing, though. You can read about them in Thucydides—in his account of revolutionaries in the city of Corcyra, where the democratic and anti-oligarchical fervors tilted into madness. And sooner or later the impulses go back into bloom. There was the case of the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s. The New Left in America got underway largely as a liberal movement. But somehow a Maoist inspiration took root here and there, together with a few inspirations from Fidel Castro and the Algerian revolution, until, by the end of the ’60s, a small and annoying percentage of the young New Leftists, irrigated by the hysterias of the era, responded by working up a mob brutality. And they set out to exact vengeance on the enemies of the human race, defined this time as the agents of imperialism, which meant, of course, the liberals. “Putschism” was Irving Howe’s left-wing phrase to describe the left-wing obnoxiousness. Or the New Left launched persecutions of New Leftism’s own erring heretics, who were practically everybody, after a while.
It was the old Stalinist crap in a new version, disorganized this time, instead of institutional, which made it hard to fend off. In the end, the crap was self-defeating. Even Maoists were human beings, and they could abide their own absurdities only for so long. But the challenge meanwhile for people who wanted to think of themselves as liberals was not a little bit perplexing. The liberals had to be firm, or, at least, not wobble too much, in the face of the New Left craziness. Then again, the liberals were sometimes distantly fond of the New Leftists, given the liberal origins. The liberals had to recognize that, even if New Leftism had taken a bad turn, it had meanwhile proved to be wonderfully productive in strengthening or revitalizing or even generating a bouquet of causes that are sometimes derided as “identity politics,” but that, even so, represented splendid new possibilities for a modern society. But was it possible to be anti-putsch and pro-innovation at the same time? To be firm, and also nuanced? It wasn’t easy. The worst of New Leftism had the good grace to disappear, and the best of its contributions continued.
And yet, post-New Left, something about the old coercive impulse still lingered on, if only in a version so odd as to be halfway comic. This became visible among a tiny number of people who, having been shaped by the identity-politics strands of the New Left insurrection, pursued conventional careers related to the arts, perhaps as academic literary scholars, or in the art galleries. These were not really political people, in the normal sense. Nor did they think of themselves as Communists in some updated version, except for a few, even if they did enjoy reading art magazines with Bolshevik names like October.
They fell under the influence, instead, of a series of avant-garde philosophical theories from France, which offered a novel combination of poetic meditations on language and anthropological observations on society—marvelous theories, designed to sprinkle a shimmery dust of the new on any topic that came to mind. In their American application, though, the marvelous theories were taken to be radical extensions of Marxism, capable of revealing the ultimate source of oppression. The ultimate source turned out to be the structures of language and word choice, combined with a universal will-to-power in the cause of social hierarchies of every kind.
Those were unusual ideas. Some people found in them a left-wing permission to escape from the rigidities of old-fashioned Marxism—a permission to explore, say, the cultural emphases of a modern feminism. But other people, having inhaled the new possibilities, lost themselves in an unspoken supposition that oppression, being linguistic in origins, is psychological in its results. They entertained the notion that, if you wish to know whether you are in the presence of the tyrannies of language structure and the will-to-power, you ought to consult your own injured feelings. And they launched mini-campaigns against anyone who wandered down the humanities department corridor using a vocabulary that might trigger bad feelings, or could be given a dangerously reactionary interpretation.
The campaigns were designed to humiliate the accused individuals or, in extreme cases, to damage their careers. There were not a lot of those campaigns. Still, the campaigns were disagreeable in the extreme to anyone who had to undergo them. Philip Roth captured the atmosphere in his 1990s college novel The Human Stain, about a professor who uses the wrong word. Eventually the campaigns subsided. Partly it was because Roth was not alone among the old-school liberals in saying, “Are you kidding?”
And the campaigns subsided because the avant-gardists themselves, some of them, began to acknowledge how over-the-top were the formulas about language and power. Or they began to notice how cruel and pointless were the humiliations—how reminiscent the humiliations were of the not-quite-forgotten Stalinist past. The phrase “politically correct,” which has ended up a right-wing insult, began, after all, as a left-wing insult. It was a rueful phrase, ironic and self-critical, which was lifted from the rhetoric of the Marxist past by reasonable people on the left for the purpose of ridiculing the unreasonable fanatics whose leftism was too much even for leftists to bear.
And yet, something about those campaigns, too, peculiar as they were, managed to linger on. It was a matter of viral mutation. The avant-garde philosophical reasoning of the 1970s and ’80s dropped away in favor of a more conventional English-language vocabulary (though with a continued insistence, in the spirit of linguistic determinism, on neologisms as the sign of social progress), which rendered the reformers’ zeal appealing to the dean’s office. And technology intervened. Roth’s novel takes place in the age of email, when a wrongly pressed “reply to all” button leads to disaster. But the age of social media is wilder.
A social media mob can do without the blessings of avant-garde theory. And yet, a few hints of advanced theory can make a mob appear to be respectably engaged in the praiseworthy policing of language infraction. Students, having spent their undergraduate years afloat in the atmosphere of the new ideas, found it natural to bring its inspirations into their own professional careers at the universities, or at the magazines and newspapers, and to yield to its impulse. This was the impulse to denounce and humiliate the perceived linguistic enemies of the anti-racist and anti-sexist cause. And the impulse flourished—such that, as Russell Jacoby says a little nervously on the first page of his new book, On Diversity, “To criticize diversity is to invite ostracism; you might as well climb on a desk and yell, ‘I am a racist and a fanatic!’”
It has added up to a vogue on the part of people who deem themselves to be diversity’s finest champions to ruin the careers of other people who may likewise be diversity’s champions, but whose zealotry is lacking, for the crime sometimes of choosing the wrong phrase, or the crime of clinging to a vocabulary judged to be outdated, or, in the case of editors, the crime of publishing even a single disapproved article or composing a wrong headline. The results do not amount to Stalin’s Great Terror, redux. They amount to Roth’s novel, expanded. Or they are something out of Hawthorne, who recalled the Calvinism-gone-mad of the 17th century, or out of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which, in pretending to recall what Hawthorne recalled, conjured the hysterias of McCarthyism.
In the precincts where the vogue for those persecutions flourishes, everyone does see it. Everyone notices the creepily uniform adaptation of certain new and pointless phrases (i.e., “enslavers” instead of “slave owners”) in the magazines and some of the newspapers, and a certain piety in the philanthropic and arts foundations, and a tiptoeing around certain issues, e.g., the doctrines of the Islamist movement. Everyone with a range of acquaintances in the universities hears the stories of professors in one school or another who are frightened for their own careers—serious scholars who are reluctant to discuss ideas with their students, and are reluctant to assign the classics of literature, and are reluctant to broach certain political controversies or even to exhibit posters, for fear of meeting the enraged militants of correctness and getting hauled into the courtrooms of Salem, where Title IX investigations take place.
These stories may seem exaggerated if you take them to mean that every school in the country has fallen under a shadow, and every last professor dwells in fear, which is not the case. And yet, some incidents are beyond exaggerating. Here, for instance, are roughly 350 professors at Princeton just now who have affixed their signatures to a letter addressed to the president and officers of their very fine university calling for, among other measures, a special committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty”—which is amazing to see, even if some of the professors have told Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic that, in signing the letter, they never meant to endorse its most salient provision, which is the call for the special committee. They signed, though. It is hard to believe. Then again, it is easy to believe. Irving Howe, in his A Margin of Hope, described the university professors of the 1930s who fell under a Stalinist influence: “At least as troubling was the need felt by serious people for a ritual abandonment of intellectual independence—indeed, for a ritual abasement before the brutalities of power.”
The little circle of writers who composed the Harper’s letter last month—Thomas Chatterton Williams, Mark Lilla, David Greenberg, George Packer, and Robert F. Worth—are merely a group of friends, variously literary, academic, and journalistic. They do not control a magazine or command a budget, and they do not come from similar philosophical backgrounds, which means they lack even the vague power that emanates from being a clique. But, having written their statement, they appear to have had no trouble at all in obtaining the signatures of 153 people, some of them rather well known (the world’s leading children’s novelist, the world’s most famous trumpeter, not to mention Noam Chomsky!), without even having bothered to round up, in addition, some of the writers who have preceded them in blowing a bugle on these issues.
The letter is only three paragraphs, but, even so, it has turned into a topic of conversation on a world scale, not just in the English language. Mario Vargas Llosa (the world’s leading non-children’s novelist, arguably) and a hundred cultural and scientific figures in the Spanish-speaking world have produced their own letter in support of the Harper’s letter and in condemnation of la cancelación and el linchamiento—two contributions by the United States, sad to say, to the global vocabulary of tyrannical behaviors.
And yet, when I say that everyone sees the problem, what I actually mean is that everyone ought to see it. To cite the example most in view lately, everyone ought to see something troubling about the firing of James Bennet, the New York Times op-ed editor. Bennet’s error was to do what op-ed editors at the Times have always done, which is to publish op-eds now and then by Attila the Hun, meaning in this case Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas, whose contribution was titled, of course, “Send in the Troops.” Wrote Attila: “Nihilist criminals are simply out for loot.” The value in publishing this sort of thing has always been, in the past, to allow the readers to see the actual words unmediated, which is distinctly useful, and to bow symbolically in the direction of open debate, though without necessarily suggesting that Attila is a worthy debate partner. And the value has been to show the world that even Attila recognizes the universal status of The New York Times. To publish Attila has always been a power move, at the Times.
In the present atmosphere, though, the editor was deemed by a large number of his indignant colleagues not just to have made a mistake, but to have committed a career-ending crime—which, because the Times is, in fact, the universal newspaper, can only mean that executives everywhere in the world of liberal institutions had better find ways not to offend the enraged militants. Here is el linchamiento: a lynching intended as a message to the world. The lynching is an obvious outrage to the traditional liberalism of the Times itself. And yet, many people plainly do not see an outrage. Nor do they see an intimidation of other journalists or professors. Nor do they see a curious ritual self-abasement by The New York Times, nor any problem at all. They see social progress.
This has been one of the revelations produced by the Harper’s letter—the indignant response of people who, in not seeing any of the troubling developments, earnestly believe that accusations of anything suggesting ideological coercions on the left add up to a right-wing slander. A lengthy manifesto bearing the signatures of more than 160 journalists and academics—“A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate”—makes the argument that the Harper’s letter represents a systematic hypocrisy, designed to conceal the stifling of oppressed voices.
But then, as various commentators have noticed, still another virtue of the Harper’s letter has been to provoke responses that confirm the diagnosis. I notice an op-ed by Pankaj Mishra at Bloomberg News under the title, “No, Cancel Culture Isn’t a Threat to Civilization” (nor are straw men a worthy rhetorical tool), which associates the Harper’s signatories with Donald Trump (whom the signatories explicitly deplore). And the op-ed concludes by regretting, with a wistful glance at the glistening blade, that various of the signatories, myself included, have not yet paid for their ideological crimes by having their careers severed at the neck (though no sooner did Mishra’s regret appear in print than Bari Weiss, one of the signatories, felt it necessary to give up her own career at what used to be Bennet’s section of The New York Times—Bari Weiss, whose commentary on the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of 2018 is one of the most emotionally powerful condemnations of the violence of right-wing bigotry to have appeared in the Times or anywhere else in the press during the last several years).
So the Harper’s letter has proved to be a fine example of a self-verifying manifesto. It points out a problem, and, by attracting a response, demonstrates the reality of what it points out.
But the deeper virtue of the letter, as I say, is to scatter a few light beams on the liberal idea. One of those beams illuminates a central mystery of these several controversies. This is the question of where to draw the line between liberalism and various doctrines and impulses that claim to stand further to the left—a murky question because a series of popular conceptions insist on drawing the line in every place except the right place.
It is sometimes thought, for instance, that any line between liberalism and a more radical left should be more of a smudge, without sharp definition. Liberalism and a more radical left should be recognized as pretty much the same, except that liberalism is more pragmatic, or perhaps less imaginative. Or liberalism is more polite, or more upper class, or cowardly. But finally liberalism and the more radical left agree on their progressive social goals. Or it is thought that liberalism is not actually the same as a more radical leftism, but is, instead, an enemy of social progress, which hides behind a cloud of respectable-sounding and meaningless words. Liberalism is a right-wing backlash, disguised as a left-wing forward leap. Liberalism is an imperialist plot.
Or it is thought that liberal idealism is a fraud, and that something like the Harper’s letter, which pretends to make a high-minded plea for open debate, is merely a maneuver designed to protect the elite privileges of the signatories, who are deemed to be, of course, wealthy whites (Ralph W. Ellison looks up from his writing desk, fascinated), determined on facing down democracy in action. But those are mistakes.
Liberalism is not, in fact, the same as a more radical leftism, given a few tactical divergences. Nor is liberalism a cloak for right-wing reaction. Nor is liberalism a centrism. Liberalism, properly understood, is its own tendency of thought. It upholds its own concerns. The first of those concerns is not even political. It is a commitment to a particular state of mind—to the mental composure that lends itself to rational thought and a playful imagination. And liberalism is a commitment to ensuring the political and social conditions that favor a mental composure of that sort.
It makes those commitments in the belief that rational thought and a playful imagination are desirable in themselves, and in the belief that a large part of everything else that is desirable in society depends on their prosperity. The Harper’s letter does not describe itself as liberal—and, to be sure, some of the signatories might prefer some other label, or no label at all, and certainly no label that a random commentator like me might propose. But I attach the “liberal” label to the letter, even so, because its principal concern is “open debate,” which means the kind of intellectual freedom that I am describing.
Then again, liberalism in the United States has idiosyncrasies all its own, and the Harper’s letter is a decidedly American document, even if it bears the signatures of people from other shores, as well. The hostility to the coercions of the American Communist Party that I have described from the 1920s and ’30s was a left-wing affair. And the liberal tradition in America during the next 90 years has tended to be dominated by people who have likewise stood in some fashion, vaguely or overtly, on the political left—people whose instinct has been to side at least in a general way with the various and sometimes contradictory grand causes of the last hundred years that comport with an idea of democratic progress.
The liberal tradition in America, seen in this light, has always been a tradition in favor of a double struggle—a struggle for a freer intellect and, at the same time, a struggle for democratic progress. The philosopher John Dewey used to loom as the master thinker of the liberal intellectuals in America, and his great inspiration was to work up the double idea into a philosophical system—a way of seeing the struggles for intellectual insight and the struggles for democratic emancipation as phases of the same development, which was a wonderfully 19th-century notion, with a provenance in Whitman, and in Hegel.
The Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” hits the double-struggle note even in its title. The letter acknowledges with approval the “powerful protests for racial and social justice.” It approves the “wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts”—which is to say, it approves the calls for social reform in the very corners of society that are inhabited by the signatories. And the letter insists that, in condemning what it calls “illiberalism,” it stands with the social protests, and not against them. “The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.” “We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”
Only, here is a point of difference between the people who may think of themselves principally as liberals, and the people who think of themselves as standing further to the left. The characteristic mark of the more radical left does not consist of any particular program for politics or economics. It consists, instead, of a certain kind of indignation, sometimes a glorious indignation, sometimes a problematic one, but which, in either case, rests on a belief about justice and injustice. This is the belief that injustice is ultimately a single thing, which means that justice, too, is ultimately a single thing. And it is the belief that radical leftism’s thrilling achievement is to have identified the terrible single thing that is injustice.
The name of that single injustice has varied over the years. To the Communists in the 1920s and ’30s, its name was capitalism, whose ultimate injustice was hostility to the Soviet Union. To the New Leftists who fell under some kind of Maoist or Third Worldist influence in the later 1960s and ’70s, the name was imperialism. To the humanities department avant-gardists of the 1980s and ’90s, the name of the single injustice was (in various versions) the structures of language in the service of racial and gender hierarchies, as conjured by an Americanized reading of sundry philosophers of the French avant-garde. To the aroused progressives of our own moment, the name of the single terrible thing is racism, or rather, the universal bigotry that is expressed by the word “intersectionalism”—the bigotry that takes a thousand forms, each of which intersects with all of the others, thereby making a mathematical whole. But finally the different names are the same. They are names of the omni-oppression, which, under whatever name, crushes its victims.
Liberalism, though—liberalism in the peculiar American style, which worries not just about “open debate” but about “justice”—does not share the idea about a single terrible thing. Liberalism may worry about economic exploitations, or imperialism, or racial and gender hierarchies, or any number of oppressions. But it does not assume that all oppressions figure within an omni-oppression. Liberalism is anti-intersectionalist. It does not believe that every oppression is comparable in some mathematical fashion to every other oppression. Liberalism believes in the many, instead of the one—to borrow a phrase from Michael Walzer, whose signature appears on the Harper’s letter.
And so it is in the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter speaks out against the illiberalism of Donald Trump and, without naming them, the other populist demagogues of our moment. It speaks out against the injustices that have rightly brought millions of people into the streets during these last months, which are the injustices of American racism. But it speaks out also against the very different oppression that is liberalism’s unique calling to denounce, which is the censorious pressure on writers and thinkers and artists to conform. And it chooses to speak about the censoriousness even if, by citing objectionable realities that come from the left and right alike, it presents the awkward spectacle of a social analysis that points its accusatory finger in more than one direction.
The Harper’s letter casts one other light on liberalism—or, at least, in my interpretation it does. And, since I have been going on about the 1920s and ’30s, I will describe the further aspect by citing a precedent from those times. This was an incident in the American history of mass-signature intellectual manifestos, dating from the spring and summer of 1939—terrifying months, perhaps not unlike the months that we ourselves have been living through.
John Dewey was 80 years old in 1939, and Sidney Hook, more than 40 years younger, was Dewey’s most vigorous disciple. The two of them and a little circle of friends put together a committee, with Dewey as chairman, Hook as organizer, and the journalist Eugene Lyons as prose-improver, to compose a “Statement of Principles” and solicit signatures. In May 1939, they published their statement in The Nation. The best account of it appears in Hook’s memoirs, Out of Step, from 1987. The statement addressed an issue that was not otherwise generating a lot of attention in the United States. This was the vocation of thinking independently and creatively. And the statement addressed the state of freedom around the world that allows for that kind of thinking, and that allows for independent and creative thinkers to express their thoughts. The statement said, all too accurately: “Never before in modern times has the integrity of the writer, the artist, the scientist and the scholar been threatened so seriously.”
The threat to the integrity of writers, artists, scientists, and scholars came from what Dewey and Hook and their committee described as the “totalitarian idea” and its “unvarying hatred for the free mind.” The unvarying hatred produced “artistic sterility, an enslaved intellectual life, a tragic caricature of culture.” Dewey and Hook and the committee saw a danger of this sort in America. “Even in the United States, its beginnings are all too evident—in the emergence of local political dictators, the violation of civil rights, the alarming spread of phobias of hatred directed against racial, religious, and political minorities.”
I am not sure which local dictators they had in mind. Were they afraid of Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, a notorious despot, doubly powerful because he was allied with Franklin D. Roosevelt? Were they worried about the populist legacy of Huey Long in Louisiana? Father Coughlin, the fascist radio priest—the first of the right-wing radio blowhards—must have frightened them. But it is obvious what they had in mind in speaking about phobias of hatred. Anti-Semitism was at high tide in the American 1930s, and the Ku Klux Klan was a prestigious national movement.
But mostly the threat was in other parts of the world—in “Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and Spain.” In those countries, “intellectual and creative independence is suppressed and punished as a form of treason.” The victims in their thousands had been “silenced, imprisoned, tortured, or hounded into exile.” And, from there, the threat, in spreading to still other places, was producing a panic among writers and thinkers around the world, who, in fear or despair, “hasten to exalt one brand of intellectual servitude over another,” and seek to make “fine distinctions between various methods of humiliating the human spirit.”
The “Statement of Principles” was an historic manifesto. It was the first time that American intellectuals had stood for intellectual freedom on a global scale, in every continent. It attracted an impressive set of 142 signatories. Philosophers, most importantly: not just Dewey and Hook but Rudolf Carnap, the Vienna Circle positivist in his American exile, and Arthur O. Lovejoy and others. A series of novelists: John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Edna Ferber, George S. Schuyler, and others. Poets: Babette Deutsch, Countee Cullen. Max Ernst, the lead lawyer at the ACLU, was a signatory. Economists: Abram Harris. Norman Thomas, the Socialist, signed, and so did Carlo Tresca, the anarcho-syndicalist. The painter John Sloan. The historians Carl Becker, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., Merle Curti. Judged by the standards of that time, but described in the language of today, the signatories amounted to a notably “diverse” group, too, as some readers may notice from the names I have just mentioned.
But it was also a controversial manifesto. Everybody could see that, in making its call for intellectual freedom, it was an anti-Nazi and anti-fascist manifesto. But it included Russia in the list of countries that had fallen under totalitarian rule. And it made clear that, in warning about the brands of intellectual servitude, or the methods of humiliating the human spirit, it had in mind the ruling doctrines, different as they were, of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Fascist Spain, imperial Japan—and Russia alike, which meant Soviet Marxism.
A second group of people therefore put together a counter-manifesto. The second group was a “Committee of 400,” and their counter-manifesto was addressed “To All Active Supporters of Democracy and Peace.” The counter-manifesto denounced the “Statement of Principles” for having included Russia in the list of totalitarian countries. And the Committee of 400 denounced the signatories of the “Statement of Principles” as “fascists and their friends.” The counter-manifesto, too, ran in The Nation, with the signatures of less than 400 people, but, even so, some distinguished names: Dashiell Hammett, James Thurber, I.F. Stone, the young Richard Wright.
And barely had the counter-manifesto appeared than Hitler and Stalin announced their military alliance, which made the Committee of 400 look ridiculous. Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were, in fact, brothers, or, at least, cousins. Far from identical, but with the same jut in the chin. The persecution of writers and thinkers and artists in one country did, in fact, resemble the persecution in the other country—resemble, that is, by being total. The alliance of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was not even a surprise—not to the circles around Dewey.
But I tell this story to make a different point. Analytically speaking, the difference between the one manifesto and the other turned on the question of injustice. The Dewey-and-Hook “Statement of Principles” hazarded the idea that injustice might come from multiple directions—from the extreme right, but also from the extreme left. The Committee of 400 entertained no such possibility. Injustice, in the view of the 400, came only from the right. And if you insisted on saying that it might also come from the left—well, you were a “fascist or a friend of fascists.” Which is to say: Given the opportunity, you should be, as it were, “canceled.”
Here, I think, was the difference between liberalism and the more radical left—the expansive American liberalism of those days that had room for socialists and anarcho-syndicalists and other leftists, but was, even so, a liberalism, with its belief that injustice is multiple; and the more radical left that could not abide the idea of multiple sources of injustice. Here was something further, too. Here, in the Dewey-and-Hook “Statement of Principles,” was a liberal mobilization determined on drawing the line between liberalism and the non-liberalism of the left.
For what is liberalism, finally? It is not a political party, and not a faction. Liberalism is a temper of mind, a set of ideas, perhaps a sense of tradition. And yet, sometimes liberalism does pull itself together to become a force, if only in the shape of informal little committees that mobilize for the purpose of recognizing that a first principle does exist. This is the principle of independent and creative thought, which ought to be the vocation of writers and scholars and artists, and in some degree ought to be within reach of everyone in a democratic society. It is a principle that can prosper only in the healthy zones of social and political freedom—a principle that, in our own day, is not even remotely at death’s door, as it was in 1939, knock on wood, but is, even so, under a pressure, however modest the pressure may appear to be. And pressure requires resistance.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.