In an essay that got quite a lot of praise earlier this week, Jon Baskin attempted an indictment of the world of American left-wing “little magazines,” which he suggested are letting their commitment to ideas be deformed by political engagement.
Baskin recounts his path from an early internship the Center for American Progress, where he learned to craft political battle rhetoric and “win the narrative,” to his later move to New York and fascination with the magazine n+1. He eventually grew somewhat disenchanted with the world of “little magazines” as they supposedly took an activist turn and as he went to grad school and (this is mostly subtext) embraced the detached intellectual elitism so often characteristic of people associated with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. For some time, Baskin has telegraphed his irritation that the American intellectual renaissance is too left-wing and “anti-capitalist”; in this essay, he contests it less on political grounds than on the basis that too much militancy is threatening the quality and complexity of ideas: “The danger is that, in attempting to discipline our desires to our political convictions, we might allow our ideology to overrun our intellect. When everything is political, everything is threatened by the tendency of the political to reduce thinking to positioning.”
I don’t really disagree with Baskin’s belief in ideas for their own sake. The problem is that he has used his narrow and ahistorical conception of intellectual life—and the “left intellectual”—to misrepresent the actually-existing American public sphere and its participants. His clearest targets are n+1 and Jacobin, though he implicitly includes the entire world of left-wing “little magazines” (Dissent, The Baffler, etc.) He casually associates these with the propaganda tactics of the Center for American Progress and the humor podcast Chapo Trap House, quoting selectively across this range of mediums as if they employed the same types of people, engaged the same types of audiences, and operated in the same rhetorical register. “Just as for my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, for Jacobin’s contributors there are questions of strategy, but not of substance: writing just is a form of messaging,” Baskin writes. He takes offense at both Will Menaker’s famous “bend the knee” monologue and the “zero-sum logic” of a secondhand comment reported by an n+1 writer, which leads into his defense of such endangered concepts as “arguing with people who disagree with you” and “having your ideas tested” (my paraphrases). And then, of course, there’s the requisite disquisition on Plato and the notion of a place of “isolation and radical self-questioning” that is somehow beyond history.
This potpourri of references conflates several distinct sociological spheres and content mediums in a way that needs to be untangled. First of all, there is the world of the mainstream political media, where there is a war going on. The United States is a crumbling plutocracy with a post-literate cretin in the White House, a country with an economic elite that is militantly hostile to every intellectual value that I imagine Baskin and I both hold dear. It has an all but post-literate—certainly post-intellectual—political and pundit class that, far more than intellectuals of any political bent, has done its best to reduce democratic life to consulting and branding, slogans and “narratives.” We are in a moment of crisis, a turning point if there ever was one, a time to draw lines and name names. There are some hopeful signs that things could turn out for the better: the 2016 campaign produced two major insurgencies to challenge the undead political options on offer; since the election, political mobilization is at historic levels and even the labor movement is stirring to life. People are ready for something different, but the old order is not going anywhere without a fight. We’ve seen their game over and over, and we know it is mostly indistinguishable from unconditional surrender. The world of political media is the where the worst pathologies of American liberalism are disseminated and celebrated; it was in the context of a long-running critique of this order’s feckless representatives that Menaker made his “bend the knee” comment. He was speaking of a concrete battle between political factions in the world of political media, a world that is—and should be—a field of battle where “positioning” and aiming for ideological dominance are the point. This world has nothing directly to do with little magazines or the intellectual left.
Nothing directly, but plenty indirectly, and that indirectness needs to be kept in view. It’s true that the little magazine renaissance—and the legacy magazine renaissance, for that matter—is populated by left academic types, many of whom are probably more radical than they were a decade ago, and a small minority of whom have also become political activists of various sorts. There are many reasons for their increased prominence in the conversation, including the precarity of academic employment and the desire to reinvigorate a moribund political-intellectual discourse. But here, Baskin’s portrait of “martial” thinking and ideas calcifying into positioning bears almost no relationship to reality. Even if the general political stakes are heightened, most of what is published in these magazines is academics writing on politically-adjacent subjects in generally searching, open-ended ways. In personal conversations with a significant number of people who write for the publications Baskin mentions, there is little sense that anyone has the answers, but rather that all most of us can do is pose questions of ourselves and whatever we happen to research, and think in public in ways we hope will be beneficial to others. Baskin is annoyed that people are talking about concepts that do nothing but “advertise their moral righteousness,” like neoliberalism. To interpret the claim that writing about neoliberalism is virtue-signaling as anything other than willed obtuseness doesn’t put it in a much better light: it suggests that only disreputable, non-intellectual motives could lead one to care about a system of thought that has shaped every dimension of the world we live in and happens to be a vibrant (and conflictual) field of study across the humanities and social sciences.
It is true that a minority of left intellectuals have been involved in political and labor activism, and occasionally write about those subjects in n+1, Dissent, The Nation, etc. from the perspective of political militants. Even here, there is no particular evidence that political engagement deforms these writers’ work as intellectuals and academics, that it makes their publications more generally dogmatic, or that liberal and even conservative views are crowded from the conversation on the far left. Even Jacobin, whose project Baskin misunderstands as a general intellectual one rather than one of intellectuals thinking on particular topics as activists, militants, and theorists already committed to a particular political movement, has far more vigorous political debate than any liberal periodical published in the United States. Its project is explicitly socialist and an explicit challenge to liberalism, giving it the militant edge Baskin decries. But this hardly means that it is more about “positioning” than “substance.” Substantive issues that are controversial within the far left are debated there almost constantly, as evidenced by the constant waves of Twitter hatred from this or that left faction.
Baskin offers us a helping of pseudo-profundities on the eternal contradictions of the left intellectual that suggest he has little familiarity with left intellectual practice outside of the few magazines he has read as an adult and—maybe—the Partisan Review. What he calls the “old” and “probably unsolvable” problem is that left intellectuals have elite educations and tastes that make their audiences small and obscure despite their stated anti-elitist aims. But the way Baskin sets this up reveals, beyond a lack of historical specificity, a lack of curiosity about what left intellectuals actually do in the present. The “problem” is only “unsolvable” in the sense that history itself is “unsolvable”—in the sense that it keeps throwing us new situations to which we must adapt. If new situations have often required re-interrogation of the role of intellectuals to political movements and to the people who make them up, the majority of left movements in history have assumed that such relationships are necessary and possible. Anyone familiar with left or even general-interest publishing beyond the last 15 years in American history would see that there have been many ways to address the problems of different mediums, audiences, and registers. Parties, movements, and independent left intellectuals published purely theoretical-philosophical journals that had only loose relationships to politics, political journals and newspapers that dealt with more conjunctural analysis, and party and militant journals that discussed strategies and organizing plans. It’s not uncommon in my own research to find figures who simultaneously did first-rate, all-but-non-ideological academic work, wrote literary fiction, published multiple left journals aimed at audiences of different levels. They did so without any particular sign of dogmatism or corruption of their intellectual curiosity.
Baskin’s belief in the universal alienation of intellectuals from the masses is clearly shaped by his own class biases. This passage is particularly revealing: “They claim to speak for the underclasses, and yet they give voice to hardly anyone who has not emancipated themselves culturally from these classes in their pages.” It supposes, mistakenly, that every highly educated person of working-class origin has suppressed their own background and personal ties, that their family and friends are not aware of and even educated by their writing. It implies that even in the age of the internet, a significant number of people who are still not “emancipated” from plebeian ideas do not encounter, learn from, and even have their thinking transformed by so-called “elite” writing, as indeed the historically marginal always have. It’s even an insult to those who, despite their lifelong privilege, build cross-class ties in their organizing and activism, and use those relationships as opportunities to share their ideas with those who have less access to education and written argument.
It doesn’t seem, then, that the phenomenon Baskin tries to diagnose even exists, or that it is a problem of it does. The real problem is the constrained, unimaginative, and ultimately pessimistic nature of Baskin’s view of intellectual life. It mirrors the Mark Lilla project in putting intellectual life in a Platonic space outside of history where it can only be truly pursued apart from the complications of the world, which always threaten its purity and complexity. Ideas themselves are powerless to transform people’s thinking and transform their lives for the better; action can only be the perversion of ideas rather than their product and achievement. But this notion can only be maintained from a rarified philosophical distance that is long on stylized preconceptions of history and short on the sort of empirical texture that would reveal that in historical reality, problems get solved and unusual things fit together. People both entertain complex, open-ended, irresolvable intellectual projects and make practical commitments to participate in changing their material circumstances. In the real world, there is no requirement that these projects line up perfectly or any iron law dictating that the latter will corrupt the former.
Even the most materialist and anti-elitist of leftists should be champions of the inherent value of the open-ended life of the mind. But Baskin’s Platonic intellectualism, in practice, is about a kind of self-satisfaction that keeps ideas at a distance from the world when they are most needed, that clings to its illusions of transcendence even as flesh-and-blood enemies arrive at the gate.