What is liberalism? One magazine has grappled with that question for a century.
In 1914, the New Republic was founded by a group of well-heeled, well-educated progressives eager for political and social change. “The magazine,” writes its current editor, Foer (How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, 2004, etc.), “was born wearing an idealistic face. It soon gathered all the enthusiasm for reform and gave it coherence, and intellectual heft.” This collection amply testifies to that intellectual heft: Writers include Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, Andrew Sullivan and Irving Howe, arguing against “the ludicrousness of political correctness.” Organized by decade, the essays ring in on urgent issues: In 1917, for example, philosopher John Dewey argued against “isolated national sovereignty,” reflecting the views of the magazine’s hawkish editor, Willard Straight, and many liberals who believed war “would stir new feelings of community and connectedness.” The 1920s featured essays by Margaret Sanger (“The Birth Control Raid”), John Maynard Keynes on Soviet Russia; and Bruce Bliven on liberals’ despair over the Sacco and Vanzetti case. In the 1930s, Edmund Wilson reported on the effects of the Depression. At the time, under the desultory editorship of Michael Straight, the magazine “despised” Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the 1940s, Lewis Mumford lambasted the “weakness and confusion and self-betrayal of liberalism.” Liberals, he wrote, by opposing America’s entry into the second war raging in Europe, “no longer act as if justice mattered, as if the truth mattered, as if right mattered, as if humanity as a whole were any concern of theirs: the truth is they no longer dare to act.” Nearly 40 years later, Daniel Moynihan, considering “The Liberals’ Dilemma,” quoted Renata Adler: “Sanity…is the most profound moral option of our time.”
As this rich anthology shows, the debate over the meaning, viability and political effectiveness of liberalism continues—and not only in the pages of the New Republic.