Commentary Magazine


The Education of an Anti-Capitalist

“Didn’t I see you under attack again somewhere?” asked my dinner companion. He is a professor, a reader of the same magazines I read and write for. Perhaps I am growing punchy, but I had to think about it. “Wasn’t it in COMMENTARY?” he asked. And then I recalled that it was, though from the standpoint of someone now used to a bit of intellectual trench warfare, it was scarcely a full-blown assault. My name had come up in a letter that the sociologist Dennis H. Wrong wrote to this magazine indicating that I had betrayed the cause, given up the fight, and gone over to the enemy. “Retreated” was the word Wrong used.

All of which is quite true, at least from Dennis Wrong’s point of view. I don’t think Wrong would much object if I described his point of view, and that of the intellectuals he feels ideologically close to, as left-wing anti-Communism. If one wonders what remains of leftism once the hunger for Communism is removed, the answer, I suppose, is a hunger for socialism. But since most American intellectuals who hold this view have never been able to give a shred of a hint of a clue as to what it is they have in mind by socialism, I think it might be less disingenuous, a good deal more straightforward, to say that at the center of left-wing anti-Communism is the hatred of capitalism. And here Professor Wrong has me nailed. If the cause, the battle, the war, is against capitalism and its attendant evils, then there is no question, I must be reported AWOL. I just do not despise capitalism the way I once did—I do not say that I love it, but, no argument about it, the old hatred is no longer there.

Now as it happens, on the day before this dinner, I had spoken over the telephone with a philosopher who had sent an essay to the American Scholar (of which I am the editor) about intellectuals and capitalism. After reading his essay I had written to the philosopher to say that it fell, for me, into a category I think of as “interesting if true”; it was the essay’s truth, or—to use a less absolute term—persuasiveness that troubled me. I was immensely interested but far from persuaded by the case he put forth, which, though hedged around with careful qualifications, went like this:

Whenever he, the philosopher, argues with an intellectual about capitalism, he finds himself able to back his opponent down on every point. Yet defeat for his opponent never ends in final victory for the philosopher. In every case he senses that, though he may have won the argument, his opponent goes away no less convinced of the nastiness of capitalism than hitherto. Rather like an article of faith, the hatred of capitalism on the part of these intellectuals, the philosopher has come to conclude, cannot be defeated by mere ratiocination.

Yet, the philosopher goes on to ask in his essay, how has this unshakable faith in the nastiness of capitalism come into being? Essentially, he argues, intellectuals—chiefly intellectuals concerned with the arts and social sciences—are people who were lavishly praised and rewarded for doing well inside the school system in which they spent the key years in their lives, those between five and twenty-five. Once having passed through this system, however, they discover that it is not the only means of conferring reward in society. Many people who did quite poorly in school do well, hideously well, outside of school: in business, in politics, in the great world at large. Intellectuals, even though their condition as a subclass has improved greatly in recent decades, are not always sought out for advice, nor do they garner society’s grander material rewards. In sum, the reason these intellectuals do not honor capitalism—quite the reverse—is that capitalism does not honor them, certainly not in the manner they deem appropriate.

Interesting, as I say, but not quite convincing. As arguments go, it does not seem to me to go quite far enough. It leaves uncovered all those tens of thousands of people who did quite well in school but who chose not to become intellectuals at all, veering off instead into medical and law and business schools, where they greet capitalism with friendliness enough. The argument is also a bit too psychological for my taste, implying as it does that intellectuals dislike capitalism chiefly out of resentment. Many may do so; but many others, my guess is, do not resent capitalism, semi-, sub-, or un-consciously, for reasons of pique. Finally, I find this explanation less than compelling for a quite personal reason—it is an explanation that doesn’t fit me, not now and not when I was myself a fine hater of capitalism.

Nor does it quite fit my friend Jack, with whom I argue often about the evils of capitalism. Jack and I go back to high-school days; we have known and liked each other for more than thirty years, and now we both teach in a university. Jack is very far from being an intellectual conformist; within “the profession,” as university teachers rather pompously call their work in its collective and institutional aspects, he is thought a maverick, even a “crank.” That’s fine with Jack; and it’s fine with me, too, for one of the things I like about my friend is that he is utterly lacking in, almost oblivious to, status anxiety.

I think, however, that I have begun to make Jack anxious in another way. When old friends no longer agree on fundamental things it is always a bit nervous-making. One of the fundamental things we don’t agree on is capitalism. I don’t happen to think it is so bad; as Churchill once said of democracy that it is the best of all inadequate systems of government, so have I come to think of capitalism as the best of all inadequate economic systems. Jack thinks it’s pretty damn bad. He has no real training in economics, nor do I, so much of his dislike of capitalism begins and ends in aesthetics. Capitalism chews up the countryside—and the city; it yields ugly buildings and McDonald’s and pollution. It is no respecter of tradition but respects only “bottom lines.” It makes inevitable such sorry spectacles as the “consumer society,” which, propelled by advertising, has people in thrall to everything from costly status items to fraudulent therapies. Capitalism grinds people down; it fails to provide enough good work; it lives all too comfortably in company with racism. This isn’t the whole of it, but it is a large part of Jack’s case.

I bat all his points back at him. I ask him what examples of socialism in today’s world we in the United States ought to emulate. I point out where his distaste for capitalism doesn’t seem to mesh with his professed taste for democracy. (Somebody, after all, must like all those McDonald’s.) I am always especially pleased to note contradictions, when I learn of them, between the expression of anti-capitalist ideals and what certainly looks like patrician capitalist behavior: a contributor to the New York Review of Books who is supposed to have a full-time Chinese chef; a radical-professing theater critic whose father scored heavily in the rag trade; the latest young leftist who, for sheer hustling ability, makes many a used-car dealer look like St. Francis. Jack admires Orwell. I do, too. Yet even here I cannot resist jiggling the stick in his ribs. “Doesn’t Orwell say somewhere that if he sees a worker struggling with a policeman, he doesn’t have to ask whose side he’s on?” Pause. “Maybe it would be better to ask—the guy could be a rapist.” Or: “Orwell says that all revolutions are failures but they are not all the same failure.” Pause. “But did you ever think how amazing it is that most of them essentially are the same failure?”

But I cannot shake Jack. Mostly I suspect that these conversations embarrass him a little. I mean, here is his old friend Epstein, turned into a kind of right-winger. That is what it has come down to, I fear; if you don’t hate capitalism, you must be a right-winger, which in intellectual circles in this country is clearly not a good thing to be. Besides, sometimes I wonder if I am not being foolish in attempting to argue Jack out of his anti-capitalism. What, after all, would he do without it? It is the linchpin of his political being. Remove it, and a good deal else in his intellectual life will fly loose. He might no longer be able to think himself large-hearted in voting for liberal candidates. He might have to alter his positions on several other fronts—welfare, foreign policy, reform. With anti-capitalism as his lodestar, his views on these issues are already neatly set. If he could not blame capitalism for much of the evil he finds in the contemporary world, he might even have to change his ideas about human nature. It is a lot to ask. Yet I seem to be asking it. Sometimes, when arguing with Jack, I feel myself in the position of a faith healer. Throw away those crutches, boy, I want to say, you’ll see, you can walk fine without them. But most intellectuals would rather go with the crutches. I don’t find this at all hard to understand. After all, for a number of years they worked well for me.

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How did it first occur to me to dislike the vague bag of ideas and notions and sentiments, the loose network of economic arrangements, known as capitalism—and to go from disliking it to blaming it for much of the world’s woe? Nietzsche says that the origin of every idea can be found in autobiography; and Joseph Conrad, in The Secret Agent, says that “the way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.” Yet in some lives this phenomenon turns up more obviously than in others. If one had been born to parents who were Communists or fellow-travelers or socialists or even active in the labor movement, or to parents whose lives were filled with economic disappointment, then a certain animus against capitalism would be understandable enough. It would come, you might say, by way of social inheritance.

But none of this was the case with me. My father was until his recent retirement a businessman, and a quite successful one. I grew up in a neighborhood where a great many families were in similar condition. My friends’ fathers tended to own their own small businesses; a few were doctors, dentists, lawyers. Occasionally, it would be claimed that someone must be immensely wealthy, but for the most part the families among whom I grew up were, as modest people in those days said, comfortable. (“Are you comfortable, sir?” asks a bystander of a little Jewish man who only a few minutes before has been hit by a car and is now lying still, awaiting an ambulance. “Comfortable I don’t know,” answers the man, “I make a nice living.”)

With only two exceptions, none of the fathers of the children I grew up with worked for a corporation. This was because it was said then—I am talking about the years between 1945 and 1955, when I was between eight and eighteen years old, and first conscious of such things—that Jews were not welcomed in large corporations. One of the exceptions was an officer in a small, Jewish-family-owned scrap-metal company; the other worked in the public-relations department of a large canned-foods corporation, where, because he had an ethnically neutral name, it was thought that no one knew he was Jewish. I mention all this because I want to make clear that, even for one growing up in relative economic prosperity, it was impossible not to recognize that the world was filled with injustice—especially if one were Jewish. “Never be surprised,” my father told me more than once, “if someone hates you because you are Jewish, and for no better reason than that.”

I also recognized fairly early in life that injustice was not the lot only of Jews. Negroes, too, were victims of injustice, though, unlike many of the Jewish families I knew, Negroes by and large did not seem to know how to work the economic system in their favor. My father felt an affinity between Jews and Negroes. He sent checks off to the NAACP and to the United Negro College Fund. He hired a Negro woman as his secretary and bookkeeper, which then was not an ordinary thing to do. He would occasionally bring home a copy of Ebony magazine, which I read with fascination. He thought less of anyone who used the word “nigger.” My father used to say: “The Jews and the Negroes have more in common than either would care to admit.”

Ours was otherwise a most apolitical household. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I would meet students, most of them from New York, who had been reading the Nation and the New Republic since the age of twelve or thirteen. Later still, in the memoirs of such writers as Irving Howe and Daniel Bell I would read about boys in short pants passing out Trotskyite pamphlets on street corners, or arguing the merits of Plekhanov on the subway and later in the alcoves in the cafeteria at CCNY. But no such political precocity was evident in my case, and in retrospect I do not feel I missed out on much. The only political name I recall being mentioned in our family was that of FDR, whom my father admired for getting the United States into the war against the Nazis. Because of his admiration for FDR I assumed my father was a regular Democrat. Yet when I was much older and a most earnest liberal I was surprised—and a touch chagrined—to learn that he had twice voted for Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson.

Politics, then, was not a dish very often served at our table. Neither did I have it for dessert out on the street with my friends, among whom talk was chiefly of sports, sex, and other solid adolescent subjects. Nor was I much of a reader, though I did go in for novels with slum settings. Some of their titles were The Amboy Dukes, A Stone for Danny Fisher, Knock on Any Door, The Hoods. I found the slums fascinating, perhaps even a mite erotic. I often imagined myself poor, as, I easily imagine now, a poor kid might have imagined himself middle-class. Driving across the city to visit relatives, or riding above it on the Chicago Elevated, I was endlessly interested by down-at-the-heel neighborhoods, by scenes unsightly and squalid. Thoughts of the world’s injustice were slowly building in me.

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Still, it was injustice of an impersonal sort that I felt. It was not until I went off to college that injustice began to seem more personal. As a student who finished well down in the lower half of his high-school graduating class, I had no choice but to go to the state-university, the University of Illinois, which in those days was compelled to accept all graduates from state high schools. At Illinois I joined a fraternity, a Jewish fraternity, for in fact there was a strict segregation between Jewish and Gentile fraternities at the University of Illinois, and the chief choice open to a Jew, as I saw it then, was to become a second-class Gentile. I was not a very Jewish Jew, but I had grown up in neighborhoods where roughly half the people were Jews. But now, at the University of Illinois, for the first time I felt myself at odds with my environment. I still didn’t have a true political thought, only an instinct that told me to beware of conforming to something I did not particularly admire.

Such politics as I might be said to have had were those of anti-conformity. Among other things, I no longer wished to be—or even to think myself—a fraternity boy. A late bloomer, I caught intellectual fire at the University of Illinois. I began to make respectably high grades, and, in partial protest against the reigning ethos at Illinois, applied to the University of Chicago, where, much to my delight, I was accepted.

Although I was far from being a brilliant student at Chicago, the university was to prove a decisive influence on my life. Unlike Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the University of Chicago had no social cachet; one did not make connections there that might be useful later in life. Unlike Stanford and Berkeley, it gave no signals that university life might have its pleasures, no sense of fun in the sun. The University of Chicago was monastic, otherworldly—devoted, so it preferred to think, chiefly to things of the mind. It taught many things and one of the things it taught—to those who listened attentively—was a contempt for business civilization.

It did not do this in any of the ways one might suppose. During the years I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago—1956-58—I never had a teacher who was a Marxist or who, in the classroom, pushed any line at all. Whatever a teacher’s politics might be, he kept them, if not altogether to himself, at least out of the classroom. There were some fringe political groups on campus—Students for a Sane Nuclear Policy, also Young Socialists—but I had not the slightest interest in them. No, I learned my antipathy to business by reading, with some care and a great deal more earnestness, Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Max Weber, Freud, and many other powerhouse writers. In one way or another, the work of every great writer addresses itself to the question, What is the good life? No writer I ever encountered as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago so much as suggested that business had anything to do with the good life. Quite the reverse. Business represented, for young students who took their great writers seriously, a falling away from the good life. To be a businessman left one in a category perhaps a millimeter above Aristotle’s “natural slave.”

One of the consequences of a fairly good undergraduate education is that it leaves one enormously impressed—perhaps too much impressed—with art and with ideas. While no one ever said so at the University of Chicago, the point of education in the years I went there was clear. There were only a small number of worthwhile things a serious person could do with his life. He could become an artist or an intellectual; or, failing the ability and courage to do either, he could teach about art and the life of the intellect. He might be a scientist, preferably doing pure research. A serious person could also have a public life, though at a level no lower than that of Adlai Stevenson; it was permissible to be a statesman but not a politician. That, I believe, was it. Below this line no one could live, or really had any chance to live, anything even faintly resembling the good life.

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An undergraduate education at the University of Chicago effectively blotted out any prospect of my ever going into business; and certain journals that I began to read during my final year at Chicago confirmed me in my revulsion against business. These were Partisan Review, COMMENTARY, Dissent, and Encounter. I wonder if anyone has ever properly accounted for the educational significance of such magazines. I know they were at least as formative in my own education as any courses I took. In any case, if the University of Chicago put the blacking on my anti-capitalism, these journals supplied the polish. All were anti-Communist, but so were they all anti-capitalist. In COMMENTARY in those days one could read Michael Harrington, behind an array of quite confusing statistics, claiming that somewhere between a fifth and a third of the American population was definably poor. In Dissent—and, later, in COMMENTARY—Paul Goodman wailed away at the dehumanizing quality of capitalism and all social and economic arrangements centered on large organizations. C. Wright Mills, a broadax man if ever there was one, never let up on capitalism, blaming it for everything damaging in life except tooth decay. Harold Rosenberg—waiting, as a wag once said of him, for Marxism to get its third wind—could always be counted upon to argue that capitalism was subtly geared to subvert aesthetic taste and indeed the very quality of our perceptions.

I was greatly impressed with all these writers, but the writer I took most pleasure in reading was Dwight Macdonald. Soon after leaving college I had acquired a copy of his book, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1956), and it knocked me out. It wasn’t the least bit profound, yet with the exception of H.L. Mencken I had never before come across prose imbued with such passionate energy and winning dash. The 1950′s were Macdonald’s best years as a writer; the essays in Against the American Grain (1962), most of them attacks on products of middlebrow culture, were easily the most brilliant things he wrote. Macdonald’s was an almost wholly destructive talent; when praising he was never quite convincing. What he specialized in destroying was the work of large capitalist institutions: Hollywood, the Henry Luce magazine empire, large publishing firms. He was not alone in this activity, of course. Edmund Wilson, a writer I admired much more than Dwight Macdonald, took quite the same view: the two greatest enemies of talent in America, Wilson used to like to say, were Hollywood and Henry Luce. But Macdonald said it better, more clearly, with more raucous laughter the reward for his readers.

Dwight Macdonald seemed so confident as a writer during these years because he traveled with so clearly marked a moral map. On this map, painted in black for bad were the following: business, the military, mainstream politics, the general tenor of American life, which he saw as cramped in spirit, philistine in taste, and probably hopeless. Painted in white—a dot here, a dot there—was highbrow culture, represented by a few modernist writers, a few European movie directors, and intellectuals of radical bent; and radical, as Macdonald was fond of pointing out, meant going to the root. As should be immediately evident, Macdonald’s was an overwhelmingly dark map, and with no allowance made for topography. It showed a country fraught with danger: artists were always in danger of selling out, radicals of losing their ideological purity; McCarthyism could return at any instant. Again, Macdonald was not alone here. This was also the general view of Norman Mailer, who, in his novels, spiked it with existentialist mutterings and an interest in the mechanics of fornication. Paul Goodman imbued this view with an air of idealism. But Dwight Macdonald, through his really splendid journalistic powers, gave it far and away its clearest expression.

This, for the better part of my twenties, was also my view. As someone who had determined to become an intellectual—and who was proving himself one by beginning to write for the intellectual journals—I took it as the standard view of the community. In this I was not mistaken. Leftward was the intellectual drift; left the wing on which intellectual thought flew. “First of all,” said Jean-Paul Sartre in an interview with Jean-Claude Garot, “I don’t think you can have an intellectual without his being ‘left-wing.’ ” I, at twenty-five, agreed with Sartre. Great minds think alike.

Luckily, I had earlier read a good deal of the writings of Sidney Hook—I recall being especially taken with a collection of his essays entitled Political Power and Personal Freedom—which prevented me from ever approving Communism or Communist regimes. Yet I was also still much taken with the revolutionary tradition, about which I read a great deal at the time, and noted with not a little pride that so many of the people in this tradition were Jews. Knowing the evils that had resulted from their work did not prevent me from admiring what I saw as the idealism behind it. I used to think that, had I been an adult during the worst years of the Depression, perhaps I should have been sympathetic to Communism, too. (Now I hope I would have been smarter than that.) Nor did knowing the evils of Communism prevent me from dwelling on the evils of capitalism—not, admittedly, so great but still bad enough. My view of life in the United States was that it was pretty much a shuck and a swindle (Madison Avenue), with the wrong people in control (military-industrial complex), and the dreariest element (Wall Street) raking in most of the chips. In these circumstances—or, more precisely, what I then imagined the circumstances of the country to be—radical seemed to me a shimmering, an altogether honorific word. A radical, actually, is what I fancied myself.

Through my twenties I wished to shape myself into an intellectual, and during this time I came to believe that an intellectual was, by the very nature of his calling, a radical. My view of the intellectual was roughly that put forth by Lewis Coser in his book Men of Ideas, which I reviewed favorably in the New Republic when it came out in the spring of 1965. This view held that the intellectual functioned best as a critic of his society—skeptical, detached, theoretical, but above all critical. I recall Coser, in the pages of COMMENTARY, roasting Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to a fine turn for giving up his intellectual credentials when he hitched his wagon so firmly to the star of John F. Kennedy. I don’t remember Coser saying that the intellectual must perforce be a man of the Left, but then he didn’t have to. He wrote a great deal about how hard it was “to resist the lure of a culture that has become as absorptive as our own”; and he quoted David Riesman’s question, “Were not intellectuals of more use to this country when they had less use for it?”

Besides, if one thought oneself an intellectual, and if one were educated to an antipathy for business, one was not very likely to become an intellectual of or on the Right. As with examples of successful socialism, so with impressive intellectuals on the Right—they were extremely tough to find, and not merely in this country but in this century. In France the intellectuals of the Action Française were anti-Dreyfusard and hence tinged with anti-Semitism; later, in the 1930′s, right-wing French intellectuals collaborated with the Nazis. A movement of conservative intellectuals had arisen here in the 1920′s and 30′s around Albert Jay Nock and the Freeman, but it sputtered out. William F. Buckley, Jr. and his friends had begun and continued to publish the National Review, but the intellectual atmosphere of that journal always seemed to me—as it seems to me even now—pretty much Ivy League-sophomoric.

The upshot was that if intellectuals were to function as critics of their society, they would have to do so—as they had done since the time of Voltaire—from the Left. What other choice was there? That intellectuals might find an honorable place to function from the Center simply did not seem a serious possibility. How, after all, does one criticize from the Center?

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If I had an ideal ambition at this time, it was to become a kind of American Fabian. I wanted to be brilliant and I wished to do good. It was with these notions and aspirations among my intellectual baggage that, in 1965, when living in Little Rock, Arkansas, I became the director of the county anti-poverty program. It was a most interesting time to be living in the South. It was a time of rare moral clarity. The civil-rights movement was under way in earnest, formed to accomplish a specific and wholly admirable task: to remove from a number of Southern states a great many laws and statutes—in education, in accommodations, and in much else—that were strongly and perniciously biased against Negroes. This was a clear good cause, made all the more impressive by the fact that it called for physical courage and had already resulted in the loss of human life. So simple, so pure, a moral drama has not since been played in America in my lifetime.

As director of Little Rock’s anti-poverty program, I saw myself as an agent (though not much of a provocateur) for the ideas of liberalism. A large part of my job was writing up grants, and those I cared most about had to do with undermining what I was pleased to think of as “the system”: voter registration among Negroes (under the guise of holding elections for our program’s “poverty board”) and legal aid (with which in a number of class actions I hoped the poor would sue the city of Little Rock). I was also a public-relations man for the War on Poverty, as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society then styled it. I spoke at Negro churches around town, explaining how the anti-poverty program worked, and was charmed and amazed at the hearty response to my rather dull talks on the part of Negro church audiences. I became a local television bore. One night I would be on the evening news announcing the arrival of a new grant; the next morning, wedged between a high-school gospel group and the woman from the newly opened gourmet food shop, I would talk about poverty in this nation of the wealthy. That same afternoon I might bring a tear to the eyes of the ladies of the Junior League by informing them that there were children in Harlem who had never seen an orange.

Meanwhile, wily for the public good, I was tunneling information, on the quiet, to the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on how they might make use of anti-poverty funds for their own purposes. I attended weekend Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) seminars where I gave instructions on anti-poverty grantsmanship. Many of the young men and women in the civil-rights movement I found very impressive. The leader of SNCC in Arkansas at this time was a young man of my own age (then twenty-eight) from Cincinnati named Bill Hansen. Hansen was white, married to a Negro woman (itself at that time very daring), tall, lean, and the veteran of many a beating during sit-ins and nights spent in jails throughout the South. Bill Hansen was a single-purpose man and, as with all single-purpose men, somewhat humorless. I recall our having lunch together once at a Negro luncheonette; as we got up he left a tip (a quarter and two dimes), which, for some reason, caused me to remark, “You know, Bill, Trotsky never tipped.” “He didn’t,” he said, and promptly picked his coins off the table.

The civil-rights movement was also becoming, especially for graduate students from New York and Boston, a summer camp of a sort—providing a kind of moral tourism. Students came down South, some to work in the movement, some to teach without pay at Little Rock’s two Negro colleges (Philander Smith and Shorter). The level of naiveté could run very high among them. I remember one young man, a literature student at Columbia, recounting to me his travail in attempting to teach Valéry and the French Symbolistes at Philander Smith. “They don’t seem to go for it much,” he said.

My own naiveté was not quite so high, but during this time, with the aid of my confident anti-capitalism, I made a number of fairly dopey observations on the scene right before my eyes. One steamy afternoon I visited one of Little Rock’s “poverty areas” with a Negro grade-school teacher, a woman in her fifties, of evident solidity of character. We went into a number of dilapidated houses—shacks, really—many of them with tarpaper walls, rough wood floors, no screens on the windows, outhouses in the back. Like the sound anti-capitalist thinker I was, I remarked to my companion on the irony that every one of these houses, for all their deficiencies, had a television set, usually with children staring at it. “Mr. Epstein,” she replied, “I am afraid I can’t allow you to criticize those television sets. Without them, you know, many of these children would come to school with scarcely any vocabulary at all. The television may not be Shakespeare, but these children do learn an awful lot from it that they would not otherwise know.”

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I sensed that things were beginning to be a bit shaky for me as a fifth-columnist out to tumble established arrangements when one day James Ridgeway, then a hot young reporter for the New Republic, telephoned from Washington to say that he wanted to come down to write a piece about me and the Little Rock anti-poverty program. (I was at the time a fairly regular contributor of book reviews to the New Republic.) I suspected that what Ridgeway really wanted was a guided tour of our local bigots, after which he would return to Washington and write a piece saying that the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, for all the director’s good intentions, was not making much of a dent in the larger problems of the poor, and ending with a call for more radical measures. (I suspected this chiefly because that was the piece I myself, as a good anti-capitalist, would probably have written.) I told Ridgeway that I didn’t require any publicity at this time, thank you very much, adding that if he came down to Little Rock I would do my best to set up a welcoming committee of rednecks and German police dogs to meet him on arrival.

Then one day not long after this I received a phone call at my office, from a graduate student spending her summer with SNCC (back to Harvard in the autumn), informing me that a large demonstration was planned for later in the week at the state capital building, and that everyone there hoped I would march in it. If I did, I told her, my usefulness in my job would be at an end. She said something like that was for me to work out, man—either I was with them all the way or I wasn’t. Put like that, I replied, I guessed I wasn’t. But this taste for unnecessary confrontation was an indication of something larger going on in the civil-rights movement.

This something larger turned out to be the beginning of the end of the movement. It had begun to come to an end in part because of its own successes. The year 1964 saw the passage, under Lyndon Johnson, of a strong Civil Rights Act. Legally the movement had accomplished much that it had set out to accomplish. But the movement itself had changed—separatist elements within it had become dominant. I marked the moment of change from the time the slogan “Black Is Beautiful” was first put into circulation. From that point on, integration of the races—my own dream—began to be superseded by black consciousness-raising. Whites were now made to feel unwanted—first in leadership roles, then anywhere at all. From here it was a short jump to declaring anyone who wasn’t a Negro a racist. The dream of racial harmony was all too soon replaced by the reality of interracial bitterness. No sadder public event has occurred in my lifetime.

This change accompanied a further radicalization of the Left in America generally. The methods of the civil-rights movement—civil disobedience, lofty moral rhetoric—were now taken up by the “free-speech” movement in the universities and ultimately by the anti-Vietnam-war movement into which the former naturally fed. For myself, my own anti-capitalism made it extremely difficult to be other than sympathetic to either of these movements, even though I instinctively felt in both the strain of nihilism bursting to break free. As an anti-capitalist, how could I be other than sympathetic to the student movement, which held that universities were in thrall to big business (a jug of wine, a book of verse, and Dow) and to government, which, through the Pentagon and the munitions industry, was itself hostage to big business? Hadn’t the university itself turned into a kind of quasi-governmental big business?

So, too, with the anti-Vietnam-war movement. As an anti-capitalist, I found it difficult to be against it. Although I had already served in the U.S. Army, and although I had the gravest doubts about the righteousness of older men advising younger ones to burn their draft cards, I was—again as an anti-capitalist—in general sympathy with the Marxist notion that we were in Vietnam essentially to secure U.S. markets, to make the world safe for American big business. Wasn’t the Vietnam war merely one more shuck put over on the country by the military-industrial boys? I was never so foolish as Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Noam Chomsky, and others who idealized the North Vietnamese as a gentle people filled with socialist idealism and forced into war by American business and government. I was instead a “plague-on-both-your-houses” man. That I happened to be living in one of these houses was not a staggering problem. The tradition of intellectuals neatly took care of that. With only rare exceptions, intellectuals, by their nature, were not supposed to feel at home, especially not in their own country.

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In The Crack-Up F. Scott Fitzgerald speaks of the special ability of the artist and others to keep two opposed ideas in balance in one’s mind at the same time. He should have added that they didn’t necessarily have to be good ideas. Thus I found it fairly easy to be both anti-Communist and anti-American. Nor did I find it any more difficult to condemn capitalism while prospering under it. I had at this time a very well-paying job as a senior editor for a large corporation, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.; I had a wife and children; I was even a home-owner. None of this prevented me from speaking out against a system under which I myself flourished. Similarly, in electoral politics, I thought myself a Democrat, albeit at the leftmost reaches of the Democratic party. Yet it was with an excitement bordering on glee that I watched the Democratic party ruined by the riots during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago—an event from which, to this day, the party has yet completely to recover.

But then Schadenfreude, delight in another’s failure, is the pleasurable emotion most often engaged in by the anti-capitalist. And no greater pleasure is to be had than the spectacle of a large American institution failing. What is behind this Schadenfreude, of course, is the sense of alienation that the anti-capitalist tends to feel, almost to cultivate. It could hardly be otherwise; if one is an anti-capitalist one is perforce against “the system”; and to be against “the system” in its turn guarantees a sense of alienation. The logic here is circular and ineluctable. It is thus extremely difficult to be anti-capitalist without allowing one’s anti-capitalism to lapse into anti-Americanism. How, after all, can one love a country run by a system one hates? This was a question I from time to time thought about—but not too hard.

No harder, really, than I strove to acquire a serious knowledge of economics. I had read some Marx, though I didn’t have the intellectual stamina to push all the way through the often turgid pages of Das Kapital. Yet I never considered myself a Marxist, or had any desire to become one. Although I was doctrinaire enough in a general way, something in me refused to follow a specific doctrine. I sometimes considered myself a Keynesian, though here, too, I must confess that I was barely able to get through Keynes’s General Theory. What I liked about Keynes was his elegance, his sang-froid (he had made a killing as a speculator), the fact that he was a true writer, and his anti-capitalist bias. I used also to claw my way through lengthy pieces by Robert Heilbroner in which Heilbroner (the son, I believe, of a successful retailer) used to predict the imminent demise of capitalism—like the premature newspaper stories of Mark Twain’s death, these reports too were greatly exaggerated.

But the truth, I now see, is that I was an anti-capitalist not out of economic reasoning but by default. I wanted to be an intellectual, and to be an intellectual meant to be a man of the Left, and to be a man of the Left in the United States who was not also a Communist or a Communist sympathizer put one—put me—in a position where I had only anti-capitalism to fall back on. No other criticism of my country remained but the economic one. I could not truly fault the United States for its lack of freedom, since I recognized that freedom here was plentiful. I could not fault it for being boring, since there was no country in the world that seemed to me livelier, no country I preferred to live in. I could—and did—fault the United States for its philistinism, but I never felt a clean conscience about this, being myself of the philistine middle classes and sensing, while watching Gore Vidal take up this line on television, how loathsomely snobbish it not only seemed but was. No, all that remained to me was anti-capitalism. That I had no serious knowledge of economics was simply not permitted to deter me. I saw injustice around me; I blamed it on the economic system. Case closed.

As a writer, I was provided by anti-capitalism with a clear if not original point of view. In considering the work of other writers, I could run a little checklist: was a particular writer sound on “the underdog” (for), “business” (against), “idealism” (for), “the status quo” (against)? To this list nowadays would have to be added “women and all minorities” (for) and “America and Americans in other countries” (against). Among critics of anti-capitalist bias, a certain amount of switching and crossing occurred. Philip Rahv, an anti-capitalist if ever there was one, was fascinated by Dostoevsky—though not so entertainingly fascinated, I suspect, as Dostoevsky would have been by Philip Rahv. Yet by and large anti-capitalist literary critics voted the party ticket. Alfred Kazin blamed drinking and other failures among American writers on American society—American society, like the devil in Flip Wilson’s comedy routines, made them do it. If one reads through a book like Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel, one discovers that Howe does not quite approve any novelist—Conrad, James, Dostoevsky, Koestler—whose politics do not mesh with his own anti-capitalist, waiting-for-Elijah, socialist utopianism.

This sort of thing has been going on for a long while. Thus it is scarcely surprising that the writers most ardently promoted by anti-capitalist critics tend to be alienated figures, or at any rate figures for whom a good case of alienation can be made out. In the standard anti-capitalist account, for example, a crude business culture all but destroyed Mark Twain’s talent. That Mark Twain, eager to pile up millions for himself, may have been a man of weak character—this is scarcely allowed to come through. Instead, Twain’s troubles—from which he had to be bailed out by H.H. Rogers, an associate of John D. Rockefeller—are blamed on the Gilded Age, which means on the age of the Robber Barons, which means, finally, on capitalism.

Not long ago I wrote something about the American critic Van Wyck Brooks, who in mid-career attempted to fashion, as he put it, a “usable past” in American literary history. For this effort Brooks’s fellow critics rounded on him—and quite brutally so. F.O. Matthiessen claimed Brooks had lost his edge, had given up the lead. Dwight Macdonald would later call Brooks “our leading mouthpiece for totalitarian values.” When the first volume of Brooks’s literary history of America, Makers and Finders, appeared, Malcolm Cowley pronounced that Brooks had “withdrawn from the battle.” Battle? Had I missed a war here? Of course, the battle being referred to was against America and American capitalism. In this battle, you had to be on one side or the other. Again, case closed.

_____________

 

And closed, so far as I was concerned, the case would have remained had not something extraordinary happened. What this something extraordinary turned out to be was not an epiphany, not a vision, no single momentous event but the fact that, at some unspecified date, the ideas clustered around anti-capitalism gained ascendancy in this country—and became the conventional wisdom. How, precisely, it happened I still do not exactly know, though it could, I suspect, be traced historically. But happen it did. Who would have expected the surrender to be so unconditional, the victory so complete? In my view it began in the universities and radiated out from there. I myself had only begun to teach in a university in 1974, but by then the victory of anti-capitalism was near-total. Would anyone dispute that, apart from certain religious schools and certain colleges in the South and perhaps in Utah, the reigning ethos in American colleges and universities today is the anti-capitalist ethos?

Even this might not have been of much moment but for the fact that, while anti-capitalism was becoming the conventional wisdom, university enrollments rose higher and higher, until more than 60 percent of the young in the United States were partaking of higher education, and hence in one form or another were being sold this particular line of ideological goods. The better—or, to be more precise, the more prestigious—the school, the more the ideas of anti-capitalism tended to hold sway.

From the schools to the culture at large: Joseph Schumpeter, in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, had foreseen the process years before it had quite come about: “Perhaps the most striking feature of the picture,” he wrote, “is the extent to which the modern bourgeoisie, besides educating its own enemies, allows itself in turn to be educated by them. It absorbs the slogans of current radicalism and seems quite willing to undergo a process of conversion hostile to its very existence.”

Most anti-capitalist intellectuals are not ready to admit the truth of this insight. Neither are they ready to admit that the logic of anti-capitalism ends, inevitably, in anti-Americanism. Yet it is the embarrassing fact that if you are against capitalism you have also to be, in a spiritual sense, against America, the capitalist country par excellence. True, it is very much part of the intellectual tradition to criticize one’s own country; the mentality of the intellectual, as Raymond Aron has said, is “one of permanent opposition.” Yet in the current state of the world, with large swatches of the globe Communist, the Third World’s hatred of the United States exceeded only by its hatred of Israel, and America’s allies either vastly weakened (as in the case of Britain) or dependably unreliable (as in the case of France), to continue flailing away at the United States seems, even for an intellectual, hopelessly foolish. Not that the United States isn’t riddled with faults and flaws, but oughtn’t these to be regarded like faults and flaws among the members of one’s family, to be regretted, to be criticized, to be reformed? But the strongly anti-capitalist intellectuals have gone a long step further; they see the faults and flaws in their country and have chosen to disown it.

As a former anti-capitalist, I can testify that there is something in this particular political faith that makes one hate capitalism rather more than one might love democracy. The passion of the anti-capitalist is for justice over freedom. In his view, without justice—for which read equality—there can be no real freedom. I once believed this, but the events of the past two decades have caused me to believe otherwise. Of the few political thoughts in which I have serious confidence, one is that justice has the best chance of being attained where freedom is greatest. For all that can be said against it—that it can be inhumane, that it can encourage greed, that is is no respecter of tradition—capitalism, of all known economic forms, does the most to maximize freedom; and it does respect and reward discipline and effort, which remain the best known ways—perhaps the only known ways—to attain those freedoms most worth having. “I have in my own fashion learned the lesson that life is effort, unremittingly repeated,” observed a young non-anti-capitalist named Henry James, adding: “I feel somehow as if real pity were for those who had been beguiled into the perilous delusion that it isn’t.”

These views make me, in the well-worn formulation of anti-capitalist intellectuals, a sell-out. Dennis Wrong was in fact being rather polite when, in his letter to the editors of COMMENTARY, he said I had “retreated.” Implied in this accusation is one of the oldest clichés in political psychology, namely, that as one grows older one loses one’s ardor, one’s youthful idealism, even one’s sympathy—in short, one becomes more conservative. “The danger of success,” Jules Renard noted in his journal in 1908, “is that it makes one forget the world’s dreadful injustice.” I have not been successful enough to forget the world’s injustice. I do happen, however, to have come to believe that the best way to combat injustice is not through demonstrating what a large-hearted fellow I am by hating capitalism.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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