Breaking Ranks


by Norman Podhoretz
Harper & Row, $15.00
Norman Podhoretz’s new book offers itself as an explanation, to his son John, of the father’s abandonment of the radical politics he espoused in the fifties in favor of the “neoconservatism” now ascribed to him. The explanation is not as convincing as it might have been, chiefly because Podhoretz never deals satisfactorily with the philosophical distinctions between “liberal” and “conservative” beliefs.
That aside, Podhoretz has written a fascinating and candid book about his quarrels with writers, editors, politicians, and intellectuals, many of them former contributors to Commentary, the magazine he edits, and almost all of them more sympathetic than their erstwhile friend to the evolving canons of the radical left. The book has an odd tone, as if Podhoretz knew perfectly well that the “letter to my son" motif was a charade, and that he was speaking directly, and in some pain, to a number of old friends who had judged him harshly and often unfairly. But the editors of influential magazines are sitting ducks, and Podhoretz, because he takes critical judgment seriously, has regularly offended many of his doctrinaire readers, either because of what he would publish, or because of what he wouldn’t.
His new book is not generous, particularly to those who, like Jason Epstein, Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, have been both righteous and wrong-headed, in his view, in their criticism of Podhoretz and of his magazine. Others, such as Robert Kennedy, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, are assailed for shallower offenses, including obtuseness, priggishness, and cupidity. However, Podhoretz makes a forthright case for rational and moral policies in the areas of international diplomacy, race relations, and social reconstruction.
Podhoretz has made a specialty of high-risk memoirs, and this book will no doubt inflame the readers who were irked by Making It, an earlier book in which he confessed to driving ambition and an unspectacular childhood. Its snarls aside, Breaking Ranks is a courageous and thoughtful piece of work.