Final Thoughts on The New Republic

Alex Gourevitch and I have a piece in Al Jazeera America on the demise of The New Republic. Here are some excerpts:

“When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine,” socialist critic Irving Howe, an erstwhile contributor to The New Republic, said. If he’s right, what does it mean when that magazine dies? That intellectuals have something else to do? Or that it’s no longer an intellectual magazine?

The New Republic was founded by intellectuals whose main aspiration was to represent the moral authority of the state and its culture over and against the self-interest of capital. Not by aligning with the labor movement or a socialist party but by bringing to bear the force of reason itself, as represented by the state, upon the small men of money. In its self-understanding, The New Republic has stood apart by standing above, a Platonic republic of mind taming the passion of the market.

But the oft-observed irony that the magazine has been buried by the very class it was meant to contain is no irony at all. For The New Republic had a hand in its undoing.

Here, at least, The New Republic remained true to one of its original tendencies. The magazine’s founders cheered U.S. entry into World War I as an opportunity to transmute domestic differences into national unity. Troubled by his former editors’ militarism, Randolph Bourne formulated the epigram “War is the health of the State.” They rejected him as soft and unpatriotic. So began the magazine’s primitive accumulation of political influence, casting off its left wing like so many vestigial body parts of the past.

In “1919,” John Dos Passos described Bourne “hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the State.” Reading The New Republic of the last three decades, it’s clear why. That manic mantra, repeated by Bourne three times in his essay on “The State,” reveals the mindlessness of the high-minded warrior. Whether it’s the Kaiser or the Commies, Noriega or the Sandinistas, the incantation is always the same: murderers are on the loose, appeasers are preparing their way, it’s time to march.

In the end, the brittleness of that rhetoric, its freakish remove from any discernible reality, gave the game away: Since the 1980s, when the magazine managed to engineer a genuine shift in sensibility, The New Republic had lost its way. Subsisting on a diet of ginned-up controversy — The Bell Curve! Hack Heaven! The cheapness of Muslim life, most notably to Muslims! — it had become a magazine about a magazine, its “contrarianism” contributing less to the world of ideas than to the brand (and scandals) of its writers and editors. What it lacked was a project: not a line but that metabolism of thesis and antithesis that marks the formation of any new way of thinking about power, privilege and prerogative.

“There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching,” former TNR literary editor Alfred Kazin complained about the magazine in 1989. “I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing — beyond a certain parvenu smugness…I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington.” But in Washington they were, Kazin reminded his readers, “and no real ideas ever start here.” It was no longer an intellectuals’ magazine. Time to become a “sustainable business?”

Hughes has made much of the magazine’s return to New York. But there’s Kazin’s New York, an immigrant metropolis full of social friction, where new projects — and magazines, like The New Republic — are born. And there’s Hughes’ New York, the seat of capital. However much the magazine believes it belongs to Kazin’s New York, it has spent the better part of the past four decades preparing its return to Hughes’ New York. For all the intellectual highways and political byways its writers and editors were willing to traverse, the bridge too far was one they crossed long ago.


  1. Mitchell Freedman December 14, 2014 at 10:47 am | #

    There was also a time, during the 1930s and 1940s, when The New Republic, under the influence of Bruce Bliven and Michael Straight, were to the left of The Nation, and were more consistently pro-Soviet. And it attacked those liberals who supported the Dewey-Hook Commission looking into the Stalin purges….Now that’s some intellectual irony!

  2. weshamrick December 14, 2014 at 11:38 am | #

    I don’t disagree with this analysis really, but it’s worth pointing out how “insider baseball” this all is. For all its ostensible influence (I’m not denying that it had influence), there’s a huge portion of the politically informed public who have never read the magazine before and truly don’t care about its demise. I think that’s an important data point in these discussions.

    I’m not sure what to conclude from this, but I think it says something about the demise of magazines more generally and the attenuation of their ability to shape a particular agenda or worldview. Anyone read “National Review” lately? Whatever you think of that rag, it’s now a comic book version of what it was a couple of decades ago. I think the internet has much to do with these developments and I’m convinced that’s a very good thing.

    • weshamrick December 14, 2014 at 11:40 am | #

      EDIT: “inside baseball”

  3. thom prentice December 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm | #

    WTF does this mean, anyway?: “vertically integrated digital media company”. It would be an improvement to use ordinary nouns and ordinary adjectives semantically and syntactically than this gobbledygook.

    ***”Gobbledygook”*** is a term invented by “maverick” commie pinko San Antonio, Texas Congressman Maury Maverick during the New Deal era to describe the verbiage issuing from the new alphabet federal agencies. Maverick was an advocate of “plain speaking” — and also, I guess, “plain writing”. The ***gobbledygook*** migrated from the government bureaucracy to the corporate bureaucracy, and Wall Street financial, ahem, “industry”…, or so it would seem…

    WTF do these terms mean?: “transparency” and “Too Big to Fail” and “Quantitative Easing” and “War on Terror” and “Homeland Security” and “Homeland” “Protect and Serve” and “posse comitatus” and “American Exceptionalism” and “derivatuves” and “credit default swaps” and, and, and — what do they actually, really, and truly mean?

    It is come to the point that the most important question to ask of arrogant, conceited, narcissistic, psychopathic, rich little white frat boys in corpoROTified business, industry — who transmigrate back and forth into gummint — and who are really just Aryan photogenic nouveau riche white trash is this: “what does that word mean” or “what does that meme mean” or “what do you mean” or “can you actually DEFINE the three or five or six words you just used and both IN and OUT of the context you just took for granted…?” And then attack the flaks with the same questions for terms they just spent hours in “business meetings” brainstorming to “create” the end of distracting and misinforming and hiding…

    Why the damned useless “reporters” and “journalists” in deecee and on “the street” don’t ask these basic, fact-seeking questions is beyond me.

    No, actually, its not beyond me. They are paid and get their status from NOT asking the simple, basic questions that would tend to reveal the unclothed emperors to whom they pay extreme, bowed obeisance…

    Gosh, I hope I wasn’t too harsh…

  4. xenon2 December 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm | #

    Do you think there could be more ‘digital ink’ in this blog?
    ‘Gray on white’ isn’t easy to read.

    How about ‘black on white’?
    Like it is in the AJA article?

    I’m very interested in the topic.
    but it’s so difficult to read.


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