Commentary Magazine


A Modern Master

What characterizes masters of social thought? Surely it is not alone, or even primarily, the quality of justness in their perceptions, the capacity to be right. It is not, again, the extent of their influence: charlatans, if only in the short-run, are sometimes more influential than their masterly contemporaries. Masterfulness has something to do with the resolution of the problem of flux, with the apprehension of perennial elements in historically specific moments. Put in another way, we may say that masters of social thought do more than depict the world: they create one, in the form of an imaginative construction more stark, more vivid, than the reality we experience in fragments or in uncertain and obscure illumination. There is, then, an irreducible element of artistry in social thinking—a resemblance to the process of thought in the natural sciences that is not quite appreciated by the positivist party in social science.

Two recent works by George Lichtheim exemplify these qualities.1 One deals with the history of socialism, the other with a considerable figure in 20th-century socialist thought, the Hungarian philosopher George Lukács, who died last month at the age of eighty-six. The book on socialism is exceedingly dense, the work on Lukács too compressed. It is some-what difficult to know what was intended by the title, A Short History of Socialism, but in this study Lichtheim touches upon—and integrates—more themes in under four-hundred pages than most competent scholars in twice that number. The work on Lukács falls within a new series on “Modern Masters”—presumably as the general editor’s tribute (Lichtheim himself is not enthusiastic about Lukács) to the late Hungarian’s role as the most prominent philosopher within the orthodox Communist movement—though Lichtheim’s treatment of Lukács can also be viewed as an extended subchapter of the larger study. Both works do continue, rather organically, the series of studies on modern society and Marxist thought which have already made Lichtheim’s reputation: Marxism: A Historical and Critical Study; Marxism in Modern France; The Concept of Ideology; The Origins of Socialism; The New Europe and Imperialism.2

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A Short History treats the socialist movement as the medium in which were refracted the larger conflicts of modern society and culture. A superficial interpretation might hold that Lichtheim emphasizes doctrine, or rather that he favors discussion of doctrine to portrayals of men and events. But Lichtheim is careful to set doctrine in its contexts. Doctrine, or socialist theory, provided the separate socialist groups with maps of reality and criteria of choice among political alternatives. Doctrine was, itself, a precipitate of the larger processes with which these groups had to contend. Men do not make history only in full consciousness of it; they also seek to impose their own, even defective, visions upon history. Lichtheim’s book is not least an exciting treatment of the role of ideas in history (and not socialist ideas alone, since liberalism, the varieties of modern irrationalism, and the democratic idea all come before us) . The ideas, however, are very much in and part of history. Summary, or recapitulation, is out of place here; it would untie conceptual knots the reader must attack himself if he wishes to profit from the book, so I will just cite some of the major themes, to convey something of the argument.

Nowhere else in his writing—not even in his major study of Marxism—is Lichtheim so clear on the historical specificity of Marxism: it was a Western European response to the cataclysmic emergence of industrial society. It dealt, further, only with industrial society in its bourgeois form, in which the market was the essential social relationship. The critical Marxist concept, on this reading, remains the concept of exploitation; the critical prediction, the self-destruction of the society through the exploding of the contradiction between its productive capacity and its failure to satisfy human needs. The contradiction was not simply moral—although Lichtheim insists, again, that Marx’s early moral philosophy is sublimated but still present in his economic theory—it was inherent in the developmental mechanisms of the market itself, and rested to a large extent on the specific notion of the extraction of surplus value by property owners from the propertyless. Lichtheim is especially challenging in his assertion that the attempt to found a socialism on other bases of economic analysis (as with the Fabians) foundered because of a lack of conceptual and, eventually, political direction. In some of the most suggestive passages in the work, Lichtheim examines the inadequacy of Marxism to deal with contemporary market, property, and political structures which call for new concepts, not now entirely visible on the intellectual horizon.

The development of socialism, then, is for Lichtheim inextricably bound to the fate—theoretic and practical—of Marxism. His conception of Marxism, however, has another dimension—that of political democracy. We sometimes forget that Marx himself became a reformist, of sorts, at the end of his life—if we take the term to mean not someone content with a modification of capitalism, but someone who thought that socialism could be attained by electoral means. This, too, had a precondition: the presence of an effective democratic system of representation. Lichtheim is eloquent on the way in which German Social Democracy was the bulwark of democracy in a society whose elites (and middle class) were never converted to the ideals of the French Revolution. He later hints that new movements in our own society (including the student revolt, of which he has not been a prominent supporter) may be seen as historical evidence of new forms of conflict. These involve not struggles between the propertied and the propertyless, but between subjects and technocrats. Marx hoped for, and expected, a democratization of society, a community of equals, as a consequence of the socialist revolution. Since then the political basis for that revolution, the organized working class, has diminished in political importance relative to newer strata: the technical intelligentsia and the technocracy which commands it. Revolts (or, the French 1968 convulsion aside, murmurings) among the technical intelligentsia suggest that the demand for a democratization of society may now emerge under conditions of social struggle not envisaged by Marx. We may—and Lichtheim is sympathetic to the attempt, while somewhat skeptical of it—term the technical intelligentsia a new part of the working class. There is, as he points out, some evidence that Marx glimpsed the future role of intellectual labor in advanced industrial systems. The socialist legacy in politics, however, leaves us little by way of guidelines through this, our new maze. The concentration and socialization of the means of production and administration, indeed, provide the basis for new forms of exploitation and domination—at the hands of the technocracy as an unexpected historical successor to the propertied bourgeoisie.

On one point, Lichtheim is clear. The younger European radicals (and some, now, in the United States) have recently begun a reassessment of the anarchist tradition. They hope, evidently, to find new possibilities for participation in economic and political processes, new modes of direct political action. The ossification of the social democratic parties and the bureaucratic terrorism of the state socialist regimes have moved them to revaluate the socialist tradition as a whole. For Lichtheim anarchism is a backward creed—backward in that it originated in pre-industrial societies, in that it refuses to confront the issue of the struggle for control of the state, and backward (if not worse) in its enforced reliance upon means which largely preclude the activation of popular revolutionary consciousness in industrial conditions. Briefly, in the struggle between Marx and Bakunin, Lichtheim’s sympathies go entirely to Marx. But can Bakunin be dismissed simply as a fanatic Russian nobleman, lost in a world he dreamed he could remake? Is there not something in anarchism missed by the central socialist tradition, with its Jacobin emphasis on the seizure of the state and the education of the nation? Lichtheim shows more sympathy for the anarcho-syndicalist tradition in France, which indeed reemerged in tentative and fragmented form during the 1968 revolt. Perhaps this line of descent in socialism is of more contemporary relevance than many of us had thought.

The vicissitudes of the Jacobin tradition, incorporated in socialism, constitute another of Lichtheim’s themes. Foreign, where not incomprehensible, to those in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Jacobinism for Europe has been a tradition of both political conflict and political renewal. Of course a doctrine can be held responsible for too much (did not Jean Lacouture term Charles de Gaulle a “Jacobin cardinal,” referring to his religious devotion to state and nation?). Lichtheim is persuasive, however, on the way in which the Jacobin model of revolution haunted and influenced 19th-century socialists. His account of the transplanting of the tradition to Russia, and its merger there with elements drawn from populism and Marxism, is a study in the irreducible specificity of history. Lenin held that he worked according to “scientific” laws; in fact, he had intuitively grasped the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasantry—and appropriated this, in turn, to ends not within the Marxist tradition, namely, the forced-draft industrialization of a backward country. Lichtheim’s dismay at the vulgarities of a certain version of Maoism does at times lead him to underestimate the continuities between Leninism and Maoism. If Mao has posed the problem of imperialism in a somewhat crude fashion, the problem remains unsolved within the Marxist tradition.

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Lichtheim is at his best in the analysis of the origins and functioning of totalitarianism. He uses a reasonably rigorous definition: totalitarianism is the seizure of the state apparatus for the purpose of remaking society from above. He is able to show the structural similarities between Stalinist and Nazi techniques of rule, despite the obvious differences in their starting points and social bases. Indeed, the totalitarian phenomenon is for Lichtheim a case of what he would term the autonomy or rather the specificity of politics. One of the defects of a certain form of socialist thought was the conviction that, a broad socio-historical theory of society having been developed, the rest would follow. Marx’s theory, however, inserted socio-economic structure within national historical settings: Marx was aware of the difference between his general statements of historical tendency and the concrete conditions in which these worked themselves out. Lichtheim, himself a shocked onlooker (or younger participant) in what he elsewhere described as the European civil war, is aware that fascism was not merely monopoly capitalism’s successful manipulation of a supine populace. It drew upon deep reserves of irrationality, and the ideological adumbration of these, in the European middle class—especially in Germany. Perhaps the most telling passages of the book are these—but what do they have to do with socialism?

Rather a lot: socialism, as Lichtheim envisages it, is not alone a doctrine about politics and economics, and a political program (of a long-range kind) derived from this. It also entails a theory of human nature, derived directly from the optimism of the Enlightenment, and a conception of culture at once rational and Promethean. Lichtheim’s abhorrence for Stalinism is very great, but it is not at all uncharacteristic that he should in these pages acknowledge that Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist party, may have been both the most original Marxist of our century and the one closest to the spirit of Marx’s work. Gramsci saw that a “historical bloc,” his term for an ascendant alliance of social elements, had to be culturally integrated as well as united on proximate political ends. Cultural creativity, in the sense of finding new forms for the expression of human value, is, then, a political factor of very great and indispensable weight.

As Lichtheim sees it, the defects of liberalism, socialism’s great opponent, were three. It signally failed to grasp the inefficacy of the market mechanism, to put it in minimal terms, as a means of satisfying human wants. Its theory of politics, if noble in aim, was fatuous in effect: property was more important than citizenship. Finally, its notion of human culture presupposed as realities the autonomous human powers socialism wished to educate and release—and presented these in the vulgar form of random wants. It is now less surprising that Lichtheim, himself so versed in history and politics, should have turned to Lukács as a philosopher. The question at issue is the nature of human nature and the possibilities of a new culture. These questions, as treated by Lukács (and, in turn, Lichtheim), are eminently political.

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The book on Lukács may be read in three ways: as an account of the tortured career of a member of the Central European intelligentsia during our century; as a study in the history of modern German thought and culture; and, finally, as a pained, even bitter, analysis of a philosophical Marxism too close to politics to be of political use. Let it be said at the outset: this is a very difficult book. Not many readers in the English-speaking world will have much knowledge of German thought, and the book almost presupposes some. However, a reader curious about Lukács, Germany, or Marxism will come away from the text with his views enlarged. He may even have his confidence in the empiricism and positivism of social thought shaken.

One philosophical assumption permeates the text. A major aspect of the modern cultural crisis lies in the disintegration of philosophy. Positivism and empiricism hold that only scientific method, of the sort privileged to the laboratory sciences, can give us knowledge. The rest may be aesthetic or moral discourse, treated rather like the 19th-century remark that Christianity was interesting, if true, but permitted no objective claim to integrate our perceptions, much less guide our actions. The profound reasons for the anchoring of this philosophy in the English-speaking world need not now concern us; the theme requires a book. (Lichtheim, indeed, is writing one which will attack the subject, in the form of a history of modern culture and society.) Our own contemporaries in the English-speaking world are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with our heritage, and the young, for want of a serious metaphysical alternative, are often victims of obscurantism and cretinism of the worst kind.

Lichtheim shows that this crisis did not spare Europe. At the beginning of the century, cultivated Europeans were desperately seeking a way out of the dilemmas posed by the rise of positivism—and the concomitant decline of metaphysics and religion. Lukács was himself tempted by an irrationalist tendency in German thought, but he was also drawn to Wilhelm Dilthey’s effort to salvage an objective foundation for judgments about culture and history. This German philosopher held that culture analysis could intuit a world of human meaning—and insisted on an underlying unity of mankind. Lukács’s journey from his youthful aestheticism to Marxism, then, had a number of way stations.

One of these was his encounter with the sociologist Max Weber. Weber himself held a paradoxical position. He made use of Dilthey’s objective intuitionism to understand the ineluctably purposive component in action, but he held that sociology could proceed empirically, all the same, to establish general truths independent of all values. In politics, he came rather close to systematic irrationalism. The world was a chaos of competing value universes: a Hobbesian struggle prevailed among men, mediated by their ideas. Choice was possible, but only at the price of renouncing a reasoned basis for it. It is no wonder that Weber, torn in these ways, at one point went mad. The irrationalist aspects of his thought had fatal consequences for the rise of a fascist philosophy in Germany. The Weber taught to students in America is often denuded of these conflicts, and it is surprising to see Lichtheim treat him as one or another variety of empiricist. It was Weber who described his younger friends (Lukács among them) as drawn to socialism as a form of “intoxication.” Alas, his sober hopes for a more orderly politics than socialist revolution were as doomed to failure as theirs.

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How did Lukács, a rich young Hungarian Jewish aesthete, come to Marxism? The Russian Revolution, coming as the agony of the European war seemed interminable, promised a path to salvation for some of the intellectuals. Action seemed the exclusive domain of the irrationalists. The Enlightenment’s legacy was reduced to the philosophical search for a human essence, but this was essentially contemplative. The spectacle of a revolution which set as its goal not simply a change of regime but a change in the human condition seemed a lesson in philosophy become life itself. The promised appropriation of culture by peasants and workers seemed to meet the requirements not only of justice: it promised a higher social function, the ending of their isolation, to the intellectuals.

In the event, Lukács—once he had plunged into politics—almost immediately became prominent in the ultra-Left faction of Hungarian socialism. Lichtheim suggests that the general attraction of socialism for educated Hungarian Jewry (and, by extension, for Jews elsewhere in Central Europe) was heightened by the absence of a strong bourgeois-democratic tradition there. I once heard the late Franz Borkenau, to whom Lichtheim dedicates his book on Lukács, declare that Lukács had a Jewish sense of moral problems. This may be so, but the Jewish tradition is conspicuous by its absence in Lukács’s works. What motivated his ultra-leftism may well have been a remnant of the cult of action in the irrationalist doctrines Lukács encountered before 1914 in Germany. By 1922, however, he had philosophically refined his Marxism. It was so refined that his History and Class Consciousness, the essay collection he published that year, represented a major contribution to modern Marxism.

The book has been much discussed, but not always understood in its context (French and Italian translations of the German original have been available for some time, but the MIT Press has only recently published an English translation3) and perhaps Lichtheim’s readers might have been better served with a straightforward exposition of its contents. His discussion alternates between exposition, interpretation, and extrapolation. He shows the book as derived, not from Marxist politics or Marxist thought alone, but from Lukács’s struggles with the metaphysical tradition. The politics of History and Class Consciousness are relatively clear. These constitute a defense of the thesis that where the political development of the proletariat is insufficient, a revolutionary vanguard may act upon and for it. Looking back, we may see this as a variant of Leninist doctrine on the historic role of the party—but in that epoch the Leninists insisted that the party represented the proletariat in a direct sense. For Lukács to have explained that the proletariat need not be consulted was an embarrassingly frank avowal of Bolshevik practice—but one which many Communists had not yet permitted themselves. Lukács, an intellectual Communist leader who had experienced the reluctance of the Hungarian and German proletariats to embark upon a revolution, devised this doctrine to explain and justify his own politics. Such clarity, however, was unwelcome at the time to the less intellectual Communists.

The attacks on Lukács provoked by the book, which eventually led him to recant, had yet another cause. The most philosophical chapter, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” was a return to the Hegelian elements in Marxism. It was a return all the more remarkable for its consonance with the contents of those early Marxist manuscripts—first published in Germany in 1932—which contain a full exposition of the doctrines of “alienation.” Of some of their early writing, Engels had said that he and Marx were at one point content to leave it to the “gnawing criticism of the mice.” Lukács’s argument was, at any rate, a total repudiation of Engels’s “materialist” and “positivist” version of Marxism—and, therewith, a mortal philosophical danger for what passed in the Communist movement at the time as “orthodox” Marxism. Lukács treated revolutionary action as resolving a philosophical dilemma. Kant had held that morality could only tell us what ought to be, that moral judgments and empirical ones were totally distinct. The Neo-Kantians among the socialists were insistent on the moral claims of their doctrine, but could not relate it to any objective historical process. Engels’s version of Marxism converted “materialism” into a metaphysical substratum for history—not less metaphysical than Hegel’s world spirit, and a good deal more so than Marx’s early concept of human activity. According to this version of “materialism,” socialist thought was an empirical science of history and the task of the socialist movement was to follow history’s mechanical determinism. Socialism’s leaders, in other words, legitimated themselves by their possession of the knowledge of history’s objective laws—they were, at the same time, scientists of history and technologists of revolution. Lenin followed this reasoning in depicting knowledge and perception as “reflections” of reality, with, of course, Communist theory as the true “reflection” of history’s objective structure.

To this determinism, the moralizing socialists could only oppose the humanistic imperatives derived from Kant. Others, Lichtheim asserts, were driven from socialism to irrationalism by the depiction of humanity’s highest aspirations as a mechanical consequence of a universe devoid of freedom. Lukács’s originality consisted in cutting through the dilemma; he posed the problem in different terms. The proletariat had to be seen, he held, as an acting subject. In creating new historical conditions, it modified the objective course of events—in effect, it leaped from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. In doing so, it ended mankind’s bondage to a “reified” world of its own making, in which human activity imprisoned its very authors. The realization of the objective possibilities for human development was the proletariat’s task—but it had to assume it, and mechanical causation was excluded. Lichtheim depicts Lukács as striking a triple blow: at the Kantians, who were sure of right action but quite unsure that a moral world could be made by it; at the irrationalists, who held that men had to act intuitively, without any rational foundation either in motive or the structure of the historical world; at the “materialist” Marxists, who envisaged a mechanical triumph. Lichtheim insists that Lukács’s notions drew heavily upon the legacy of German classical philosophy.

Indeed, Lichtheim is bitterly critical of Lukács’s own repudiation of his philosophical and political daring. Had Lukács stuck to his position, Lichtheim holds, he might have contributed to the early development of a Western Marxism fully integrated with the Western philosophical tradition. This, in turn, might have won some of the Central European (and particularly German) educated class away from the irrationalism they finally succumbed to—with hideous consequences—in 1933. Lukács’s orthodox Marxist contemporaries, at any rate, were far from allowing considerations of this sort to influence them. They strenuously objected to Lukács’s return, as they saw it, to Hegelianism. It was true that Lukács had endorsed the notion of a vanguard. If the vanguard acted, however, not because it possessed the scientific key to objective historical laws, but in response to a metaphysical conception of human possibility, it could claim infallibility only with the greatest of difficulty. Lenin’s epistemology was intolerably crude, but it had its uses. If men did not simply “reflect” objective processes in their minds, as Lenin held, but created their own historical world, the way was open for all kinds of participation and spontaneity in revolutionary politics. Moreover, it was precisely Lukács’s effort to set Marxism in a line of descent from the central traditions of Western philosophy that enraged the philistines in the Communist movement, who were already in the ascendancy. Those who today think that politics can do without philosophy might reflect on the instinctive reaction to a philosophical challenge on the part of men not conspicuous for restraining their political ruthlessness. The Communist movement correctly saw in Lukács’s book a profound heresy.

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Lukacs’s later writings entailed a retreat from the position and the venturesomeness of History and Class Consciousness. Lichtheim is extremely critical of Lukács’s successive adjustments to party orthodoxy, while acknowledging that a man who lived for many years under Stalinism in Moscow had little choice but to conform or disappear. Lichtheim’s regret that Lukács had not stuck to his early path pays a serious tribute to the thinker. It also connects the larger book on socialism to the shorter one on Lukács, since the issues revolve around the assumptions and moral quality of a culture. Suppose Lukács had persisted in his effort to develop a Western Marxism; would he have made a considerable impact on a German buergertum more addicted to irrationalism? We do not know. We may observe that, at the moment, the democratic convictions of the students and intellectuals in the Federal Republic of Germany make of them Germany’s first democratic generation since 1848. There is more than an accidental connection between this fact and the influence of the fully Westernized (and anti-authoritarian) Marxism of the Frankfurt School. In any event, Lukács’s own later ventures in the explanation of German history and the rise of fascism strike Lichtheim as very inadequate. Lukács held that irrationalism was the ideology of a class unable to perceive, let alone solve, its problems—whereas rationalism is the philosophy of a rising class, about to master history. To this Lichtheim objects that the French and British bourgeoisie were no less bourgeois than their German counterparts, but distinctly more rational, and certainly not fascist. From the philosphical Marxism of History and Class Consciousness, Lukács had descended to a more derivative and mechanical historicism. In contrast, Gramsci’s notion of the cultural functions of a “historical bloc,” its task of cultural renewal in a national tradition, seems much more refined and profound.

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Lichtheim concludes his study with a treatment of Lukács’s aesthetic doctrine, especially as set forth in his 1963 treatise, The Specificity of Aesthetics. For Lukács, the specificity of aesthetic experience was that it united intellect and feeling, subject and object, individual and universal. Aesthetics was a realm which “reflected” a higher human reality. If it constituted an anthropomorphic cosmos, it was because the essence of humanity—its past triumphs, present tasks, and future fulfillment—lay in the humanization of the world. It cannot be said that Lichtheim’s summary renders Lukács’s aesthetics crystal clear—but the original text is exceedingly difficult reading. In it, Lukács attempted to mark his distances both from a crude and literal “socialist realism” (and from a literal “realism” in general) and from what he disliked in modern art, its supposed subjectivism. In many of his polemical writings Lukács had rejected the conception of a “human condition” (with the accompanying implication that alienation might be a permanent feature of it, not to be overcome even in “socialist” societies). In his philosophy of aesthetics, however, he returned to an idea of a human essence—to an objective realm of spirit and value, realized, to date, only in art. Lichtheim is quite convincing when he argues that the search for a human essence underlies both Lukács’s politics and his aesthetics. With this search, Lichtheim asserts, Lukács marks his continuity with classical German culture, and with the intuitionism of his youth. There is, certainly, something pervasively unmodern in Lukács’s aesthetics. The formal inventiveness, spiritual jaggedness, and explosive amorality of modern art are parts of a sustained critique of modern culture—as a world in which men are not at home. For Lukács, the ethical dimension in art is irreducible: it points, or ought to point, to a humane world. The notions of art as consolation, as sublimation, as play, are rather remote from the central elements in his thought. Perhaps this explains why the Communist movement’s most renowned aesthetician should have kept his distance throughout his life from doctrines of cultural revolution, from efforts to make art become life. The moralizing Marxist turns out to be a bourgeois under the skin. In any event, neither Lukács nor his critic writes very concretely about specific works of art: the whole is a debate conducted in philosophical categories.

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Like everything else Lichtheim has written, the work on socialism and the brief treatise on Lukács are united by a pervasive concern for the dignity of theory, theory not as pure contemplation, but as an image of man and the world which infuses action. The books are also distinguished by a deep sense of historical nuance, an understanding of the specificity of national traditions and cultures. These in turn fuse with a considerable acuity in the description of general historical tendencies as distinct from concrete historical situations. Few born outside the English-speaking tradition know it so well; few within it write so lucidly of matters so complex. Lichtheim, in these pages, is both a theorist and a historian: he can depict a world, and seize its inner principles of movement. Lichtheim writes of Lukács as a modern master; when will we recognize that Lichtheim himself is one?

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Footnotes

1 A Short History of Socialism, Praeger, 362 pp., $3.95; George Lukács, Viking (Modern Masters series, edited by Frank Kermode), 146 pp., $5.75 ($1.85 in paperback).

2 Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this last study which originally appeared in these pages in April and May 1970.

3 History and Class Consciousness, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 356 pp., $8.95.

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