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Rank-Breakers: The Anatomy of an Industry

George W. Bush has done a favor for the intellectuals who hate him so much: he has made them celebrities. His War on Terror has triggered an impassioned debate on the left over the direction of American foreign policy. On one side are interventionists such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens who claim it is essential to confront “Islamofascism” and the left’s appeasement of “soft jihad,” especially in Europe—what Berman in an upcoming book calls The Flight of the Intellectuals. On the other side are liberal intellectuals such as Tony Judt and Ian Buruma, who want to unmask liberal hawks as neoconservatives après la lettre who, in Judt’s phrase, “provide an ethical fig leaf” for the Bush administration’s brutish foreign policies.

The argument has proceeded with rancor for well over six years, with each participant fine-tuning his positions and always keeping an eye out to see if any of the others have retreated from theirs. Has Hitchens now finally joined up with the neocons once and for all? Has Judt’s ambivalence about Israel taken control of his argumentation? In arguing for rapprochement with Europe’s restive Muslims, is Buruma recapitulating the appeasement of intellectuals in the 1930s?

For all the heat it has generated, for all the moments of good theater it has provided, the debate over the War on Terror has also called into question the role of public intellectuals today. In a prior time, these intellectuals could be judged by their output; today it is by the noise they make and the comment they generate. Even a publication like the celebrity-drenched New York Observer now dishes the literary-industrial complex with the same enthusiasm it applies to catfights among supermodels. One recent headline shouted, “New York’s Liberal Intellectuals Are Back at Each Other’s Throats—Buruma and Berman Slug It Out over Political Islam.”

There is nothing new in intellectuals hurling anathemas at each other, of course, or using the autobiographic torque of their lost illusions and quests for redemption, as well as their defense of orthodoxy, to wage intellectual war by other means. If the politics of excommunication has historically been an effective way of controlling the discussion, so has the politics of rank-breaking. Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, and others made serious political points when they broke with Marxism in the 1930s. At different points in their own political odysseys, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Francis Fukuyama abandoned neoconservatism with similar effects. In his classic study, Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander details how left-wing intellectuals, who often romanticized Communism, reacted when they went “over into the future” and bumped into the sharp realities of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, and other utopias.

With lifelong fights over changes of position, charges of intellectual treason, and tortured explanations to rationalize the party line, the political was personal in the 1930s and 1940s in a way it never was during the 1960s. But in recent years something has changed. Those who’ve set up shop as public intellectuals, with their keen sense of how high-stakes arguments were waged in the past and their equally keen appreciation for the role figures such as George Orwell played in those debates, have tended to be referential and self-referential in positioning themselves for maximum effect. Rather than the hard and solitary work of writing and thinking and achieving an output that far overshadowed their public presence, today’s intellectuals often succumb to celebrity culture, shouting on FOX News and MSNBC rather than arguing their ideas in books or in the pages of magazines.

While the stakes are arguably as high today as they were in the 1930s, our current crop of public intellectuals has resurrected some of the acrimony of those heady times, but little of the substance. What in an earlier era were battles grounded in strenuous intellectual engagement today often amount to little more than highbrow food fights and, in some cases, nifty career moves. The life of significant contention that the critic Lionel Trilling once lauded as the intellectual’s calling has been overtaken by a life of competing for significant attention. Compared to their predecessors, who staked everything on disputes over fascism, Stalinism, and imperialism, today’s rank-breakers are mere epigones.



During the 1930s and 1940s, a small band of American intellectuals slugged it out from all sides as they “argued the world.” As the postwar era began, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, James T. Farrell, and others broke ranks to begin an uncertain crusade against Communism that would, as their foes struck back, become a fight about anti-Communism and anti-anti-Communism.

Led by The Nation, “progressives” such as Lillian Hellman scorned the newly minted liberal anti-Communists as traitors. The charge was born that would be applied to those who would break ranks later on: that they were merely exchanging one extremism for its opposite. As Murray Kempton complained in Part of Our Time, “The most conspicuous . . . ex-Communist of the fifties is a witness against the thirties, violent, vengeful, and insistent, as he was in the thirties, that he alone understands and that all save him are soft and apathetic. In this manifestation he remains, as he was then, the committed soldier in a society of noncombatants.”

The companion to this charge was that the transformation, particularly if it went (as the vast majority did) from left to right, involved “selling out,” which was really a way of accusing the traitor of having taken full citizenship in America. But the era’s most prominent defector from Communism never found a real intellectual home after leaving the Party and always bore the marks of his apostasy. Having more in common with the experiences that Arthur Koestler chronicled in The God That Failed (still the bible of rank-breakers) than with the fast-talking New York intellectuals, who swapped ideas and girlfriends with equal brio, Whittaker Chambers actually joined the Stalinist movement and became a spy, something that made him an object of fascination and envy for intellectuals such as Trilling (who had known Chambers for two decades when he made him the lead character of his 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey).

Chambers was roundly condemned as a turncoat by Communists and their fellow travelers for fingering Alger Hiss, and, since Hiss had been at FDR’s side during Yalta, for helping loose the “paranoia” that created the Cold War. For Chambers, breaking ranks had nothing of the tabloidized support system that celebrity offers someone like, say, Christopher Hitchens today. Rather it was a grim and pessimistic journey through the abyss, as Chambers chronicled in his great memoir, Witness, which involved “leaving the winning side for the losing side.” Standing alongside the testimonies of Koestler, Andre Gide, Igazio Silone, and others whose god of Communism failed, Chambers’ odyssey would become the gold standard against which the experience of future generations of rank-breakers would be measured. Needless to say, few of those today accused of petty treasons—not against the Party but against intellectual fashion—have endured even a fraction of the torments experienced by Chambers, who at one point went underground for fear of being hunted down by Stalin’s agents. Even when he emerged into political daylight, he led a life of misery that fully vindicated his martyr’s complex.



The first generation of New York intellectuals had been profoundly rooted in its love of heady ideas and extravagant disputation, with a dose of score-settling thrown in for good measure. Lionel Abel recalled that he had been afraid to go to the bathroom at parties for fear of being verbally knifed in the back. Later on, Norman Podhoretz and other chroniclers of their movement compared them to an extended “family,” with all the dysfunction, intramural spats, and shifting alliances that give family life drama. They were very interested in where they stood with each other, but for the most part oblivious to how they were seen by the wider world. By and large, the New York intellectuals let their work do their talking for them. Hannah Arendt earned reknown with her inquiry into the origins of totalitarianism, for instance, and Richard Hofstadter for his study of the paranoid style of the radical right. Their relationships with others in the family of public intellectuals would not be of interest until decades after their deaths. As Daniel Bell noted in The Winding Passage, “There was a pride in the group that what was important was really ideas and one should not talk about people as celebrities.”

This had changed by the advent of the New Left. The intellectual personalities who drove the 1960s were always conscious of standing in the shadow of the 1930s and at times tried to sculpt their debates to reflect the style and substance of that earlier era. But it was a matter of history repeating itself first as tragedy and second as farce. As Bell later observed, the 1960s was a gigantic media event. All that was required to join the debate was a soapbox and a megaphone.

The New Left intellectuals aimed their writings and street politics at liberal centrism, which had survived a challenge from the right only ten years before. Manifestoes about revolutionary violence, black power, and imperialism replaced the passionate argumentation of the thirties. A few members of the old guard fought back. Irving Howe memorably said that Tom Hayden “gave opportunism a bad name.” Most of the rest caved. One of the New York Review of Books’ most notorious contributions to the dialogue about law and order was to print the formula for a Molotov cocktail on its cover shortly after the Newark riots.

Soon, the personal was political not only in the Movement, but also among more established intellectual circles, where, as Tom Wolfe showed in Radical Chic, a whiff of tear gas wafted into the salons of New York. The lust for public recognition among intellectuals became a sort of addiction, taking over and deforming the careers of figures such as Norman Mailer and making them barely distinguishable from those of Abbie Hoffman and other low-budget narcissists. The 1960s ushered in the era of the celebrity intellectual who flitted from one topic to the other with nothing more than an outrageous opinion.

Substantively, it was the reverse of the 1950s, when Time magazine ran a cover story hailing the reconciliation of the intellectuals with America. Now, for intellectuals on the make, breaking ranks with America offered a path to “relevance.” Breaking ranks also offered a fast lane to celebrity, as Norman Podhoretz’s career demonstrated. In the early 1960s, Podhoretz, who had an astute sense for cultural trends, sensed that politics were about to move further to the left. He briefly embraced revisionism about the Cold War and broke with his mentors, denouncing Trilling, Hook, and other New York intellectuals as out of touch with the new age. The beauty of this break was that in no time it positioned Podhoretz for another one—this time with the radicalism that had killed off liberal centrism—which would draw even more attention.

At the heart of Podhoretz’s defection from the left was the hostile reception that his book, Making It—in which he confessed to a greed for fame equal to his lust to succeed in the world of ideas—received from the Manhattan literati. Making It, which purported to reveal the “dirty little secrets” of the New York Family, epitomized the narcissism of the 1960s, in which the personal was often not political but simply personal.

Unlike Lionel Trilling, Podhoretz didn’t seek renown or eminence because of the profundity of his ideas. He sought celebrity. His entire oeuvre flowed out of his personal life and personal relationships. He relived his apostasy over and over again in a series of memoirs with titles such as Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends. In raw language, he described his humiliations as a child, his sexual voracity, and his seething political passions.

Yet for all the ginned-up psychodrama that infused his rank-breaking, Podhoretz was also genuinely horrified by what he saw as the growth of a dangerously anti-American counterculture that was radicalizing intellectuals and reviving arguments among opinion-leaders that were thought to have been banished forever when Stalinism was vanquished in the 1930s and 1940s. Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag now wrote books glamorizing North Vietnam, capturing the spirit of Walter Duranty’s apologetics in behalf of Stalinism. John Updike became something of a pariah because he had the temerity to write an essay titled “On Not Being a Dove.”

Dwight Macdonald epitomized the decline. He had left Marxism in the late 1930s (and received as a going away present Leon Trotsky’s comment, “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but comrade MacDonald abuses the privilege”), and embraced a fierce anti-Communism in the postwar era. Now, in the middle of the 1960s, he joined the carnival, showing up at the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale wearing a button with Eldridge Cleaver’s slogan, “If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem.” In 1968, he hung out with the rioting Columbia University students, calling their nihilistic endeavor a “beneficial disturbance.”

Intellectuals on the right had their own set of problems. William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review experienced a spate of defections, as Garry Wills, John Leonard, Arlene Croce, and Joan Didion—all early contributors—bolted to what Chambers had called the winning side. Wills would go on to write Confessions of a Conservative, setting the pattern for later shifts from right to left by intellectuals such as Michael Lind, who wrote his own memoir in the mid-1990s, Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America. Yet the movement from right to left would never achieve quite the status of a syndrome because conservatism, unlike its opposite, was not a secular religion that punished doubt by excommunication.

Looking back at all the accommodations with intellectual fads and fashion in his own lifetime, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, himself a former Trotskyist, asked, “How does a radical—a mild radical, but still someone who felt closer to radical than to liberal writers and politicians in the late 1950s—end up by early 1970 a conservative, a mild conservative, but still closer to those who now call themselves conservative than to those who call themselves liberals?”

It wasn’t really a difficult question to answer. Apart from the antics of the intellectual class, a new generation of student radicals enamored by Ho Chi Minh, Chairman Mao, and Fidel Castro had drawn a new party line. And, predictably, this caused a new wave of defections from onetime radicals such as historian Eugene Genovese and New Left radicals Peter Collier and David Horowitz, all of whom let it be known how their god had failed in the 1960s. For this, they, like their predecessors, were ostracized, vilified, and isolated by their former comrades. Ironically, in light of his own current shift, if not to the right then at least away from the left, one of these comrades—Christopher Hitchens—excoriated the rank-breakers in no uncertain terms: “Who needs yet another set of breast-beating recusants, this time accusing themselves of a past mired in terrorism, crime, and family maladjustments?”



Who indeed? In the first era of breaking ranks, intellectuals genuinely braved public condemnation for staking out heretical stands. In the second stage, during the 1960s, making the leap still required a degree of fortitude and personal courage. Today, however, rank-breaking has become an industry, and a rewarding one at that. There are several reasons for this. There is no longer a church of the partyline to institute excommunication proceedings. Intellectuals are no longer sent to political purgatory for attacking their former brethren; they’re rewarded for it by gaining entry into tabloid paradise. Our culture just doesn’t take ideas very seriously anymore. Today’s intellectual celebrity industry has no ability at all to audit the intersection between ideas and motive; the dark night of the soul that Chambers dramatizes in Witness is now more akin to an audition for American Idol.

It is easy enough to tote up an imposing list of analysts and intellectuals who switched positions with no more trauma than changing clothes. Damon Linker, a former writer at the bellwether theocon publication First Things, has become the liberal go-to expert on the Christian right. Kevin Phillips, who devised Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, is now the left-wing expert on conservatism. Lawrence J. Korb, who served in the Reagan-era Pentagon, regularly lends his bio to op-eds arguing for massive cuts in defense spending. Jim Sleeper, a former fellow-traveler of the neoconservative movement who bashed away at affirmative action and political correctness, has now reinvented himself as a man of the left, bashing away in The Nation at moderates such as Chambers biographer Sam Tanenhaus for allegedly being neocons. (Disclosure: I myself am not entirely exempt from this category of no-fault apostasy, having recently written a book critical of neoconservatism, many of whose foreign policy tenets I once championed.)

These figures are mere pikers, however, compared to the heavyweights who broke the chains of past commitments after the events of September 11. One of the byproducts of the terrorist attacks was to give intellectuals a new sense of purpose. They were liberated from the torpor of the 1990s, a time whose only world-historical drama was a bit of DNA on a blue Gap dress. In the aftermath of the attacks, columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, “It turned out that the decadence and flabbiness [of the 1990s] were just summer wear, thrown off immediately.” Not far behind in the scramble to enlist, Norman Podhoretz, now out to pasture as a Commentary editor-at-large, wrote, “Beyond revenge, we crave ‘a new birth’ of the confidence we used to have in ourselves and in ‘America the Beautiful.’ But there is only one road to this lovely condition of the spirit, and it runs through what Roosevelt and Churchill called the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the enemy.” What Podhoretz labeled “World War IV” was in the offing, and it generated a new grand alliance in the intellectual world between liberal hawks and neoconservatives.

Paul Berman responded to the crisis by producing important works such as Terror and Liberalism. He was an exception. Most of the intellectuals who stepped up to the mics at FOX News spent more energy wondering if they were the next George Orwell than writing books that would cast light on what the country faced in a time of terror. Who would inherit Orwell’s mantle, and from what perspective, had been a subject of speculation for nearly twenty years when the terrorists struck. In early 1983, Irving Howe wrote “Was Orwell Right?” in The New Republic, declaring that the writer would have opposed the intellectual “apparatchiks” of Eastern Europe. A week later, Norman Podhoretz published an essay in Harper’s titled, “If Orwell Were Alive Today,” which insisted more particularly that Orwell, if offered a full menu of contemporary political positions, would have certainly decided to be a neoconservative. In large part because Podhoretz had made it, this assertion caused intense displeasure on the part of Christopher Hitchens, who immediately responded that Orwell was an independent man of the left, as he himself was.

Today, Hitchens (who has staked a claim by writing Why Orwell Matters) and fellow former Brit Andrew Sullivan, whose blog features a tagline from Orwell advertising his own willingness to react to events without the blinders of dogma (“To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle”) have styled themselves as fearless thinkers in the Orwell mold. So much so that Ron Rosenbaum asked in 2002 in the New York Observer, “Is there an implicit, unspoken competition between these two Orwell devotees over who will turn out to be the Orwell figure of September 11? Perhaps not consciously, but if there is, I’d suggest they deserve to share the honor, each for taking on his own political base.”

Orwell, the intellectual lone wolf par excellence, never had a “political base.” But it’s not hard to see why he appeals to intellectuals who see themselves as genuine apostates. He was the original rank-breaker and independent spirit; a warrior of deed as well as word, who had seen combat in Spain, battled Stalinists there as well as fascists, and nearly died after being shot in the throat. Returning home, he dedicated himself to a decidedly unfashionable anti-Stalinism by publishing Homage to Catalonia in 1938. From that point on he was an outlier, often living in penury. Hitchens and Sullivan, both of whom traded their green cards for gold cards, had neither of these experiences.

Richard Posner cites the craving for celebrity—and its availability because of radio and television talk shows and the Internet—as a reason for the decline of public intellectuals. He believes that their output today is characterized by “low average quality—low, and maybe falling, though it would be more precise to say that public-intellectual work is becoming less distinctive, less interesting, and less important.”

There are many figures on the present stage who epitomize this slide, but none better than Sullivan. The critic Lee Siegel asserted in Harper’s in 2001 that Sullivan’s mental clutch slipped after the September 11 attacks, when he had written that the left in its “enclaves” posed the threat of a “fifth column.” Siegel ridiculed the notion that “the scattered lunacies of the Chomskyan left, out of whose pathetic powerlessness [Sullivan] has constructed a threat to national security,” rose to the status of a fifth column. In any case, as the war in Iraq faltered and questions of torture by U.S. troops and authorities arose, Sullivan jumped ship and declared that conservatism had lost its way. By November 2006, Sullivan was asserting that President Bush, whom he had previously praised as a new Churchill, had “lost his mind.” He has since moved on to penning fawning tributes to Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy.



The case of Hitchens is more intriguing. Hitchens has been something of a renegade on the left from the outset. (In his unpublished memoirs, Melvin J. Lasky recalled first meeting Hitchens in the late 1960s and predicting that he would abandon Trotskyism for conservatism.) Hitchens has denounced, among others, Henry Kissinger, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Winston Churchill. He has referred to Norman Podhoretz as “another moral and intellectual hooligan who wishes he had the balls to be a real-life rat fink.” As Paul Hollander, who has closely followed the peregrinations of American intellectuals, observes, “Hitchens does not aspire to nuanced judgments.” Hollander also notes that Hitchens views himself as nothing less than a new Orwell: “His admiration of the ‘common people’ is reminiscent of Orwell’s.”

It is true that after 9/11 such a strain entered Hitchens’ tributes to the “burly, uncomplaining, stoic proletarian defenders, busting their sinews in the . . . wreckage and carnage of downtown.” But more prominently displayed in his writing about the tragedy was a sense of personal mobilization, of reporting for duty after experiencing a “gamut of emotions from rage to nausea, I also discovered another sensation, and to my surprise and pleasure it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theological barbarism—in plain view.” The word “exhilaration” is key. Today’s public intellectuals require excitement. Pace Podhoretz, the September 11 attacks furnished Hitchens with a world-historical drama in which, at last, he could play a starring role.

Hitchens is too canny to admit that he has left the left or that he now chooses to inhabit a no-man’s-land beyond the reach of conventional ideological categories. But even though he has kept his second thoughts, if any, to himself, he has nonetheless become a hate fetish for some who once would have called him comrade. The British parliamentarian George Galloway, on a visit to the U.S. to defend himself before Congress on charges of illegal financial dealings with Saddam Hussein, referred to Hitchens as a “sodden Trotskyist popinjay.” But it is precisely this sort of enmity that energizes Hitchens, Paul Berman, and others in the first place. Attacks from their former brethren confirm their own view of themselves as lonely martyrs speaking the truth—the classic stance of the intellectual since Socrates downed the hemlock.

As the Iraq War has faltered, Hitchens has been forced to test the courage of his convictions. In the November 2007 Vanity Fair, he wrote, “As one who used to advocate strongly for the liberation of Iraq, I have grown coarsened and sickened by the degeneration of the struggle.” In chronicling his remorse at having inadvertently helped prompt a young man who had read his post-9/11 dispatches to enlist in the military and serve in Iraq, where he was subsequently killed, Hitchens reached once more for Orwell. “If America can spontaneously produce young men like Mark,” he writes, “it has a real homeland security instead of a bureaucratic one. To borrow some words of George Orwell’s when he first saw revolutionary Barcelona, ‘I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.’” Only a few issues later, however, Hitchens indulged in a lengthy self-portrait in which he underwent a variety of spa treatments, including various wraps and peels as well as cucumbers placed on his eyelids.

When Whittaker Chambers abandoned the Communist movement, he did so believing that the USSR would win the Cold War. Intellectuals like Hitchens and Sullivan are different. They have switched sides convinced that they were choosing the right side of history. In so doing, they have set themselves up for a fall. These would-be Orwells may actually be like their role model in one respect. Just as the Spanish Civil War exposed for him the facile illusions with which he entered the conflict, so may their impetuous support for the Iraq War require an unanticipated soul-searching on their part, an accounting for the positions they have taken and the rewards these positions have brought.

Several decades ago, Dwight Macdonald unwittingly captured the mixture of grandiosity and frivolity of many public intellectuals when he bridled at a description of himself as a plain journalist, asking, “For what is a journalist? Alas, an ignorant and superficial fellow, a kibitzer (rather than ‘a man determined to a goal of action and truth’).” Since then, the quest for sincere authenticity among America’s feuding intellectuals has become even more authentically insincere. For these proud refugees from their own arguments, the only enduring belief seems to be that it’s always showtime.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest and author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.

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