INTRODUCTION
In
The Vital Center,
his highly influential revisionist history of the
liberal tradition published in 1949, Arthur Schlesinger heralded the
emergence of a new generation of liberal intellectuals whose faith
in human nature had been shattered by the extermination of mil-
lions of Jews and the dropping of the atomic bOlnb. Unlike older lib-
erals, whose cultural politics had been influenced by the Comlnunist-
dominated Popular Front, Schlesinger's generation had supposedly
learned to question the efficacy of human agency. The rise of totalitari-
anism had revealed to it a "new dimension of experience-the dimen-
sion of anxiety, guilt, and corruption," which taught it to view conflict
as an inevitable part of the human condition.
1
Schlesinger explained
that "the Soviet experience, on top of the rise of fascism, reminded my
generation rather forcibly that man [sic] was, indeed, imperfect, and
that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world."2
Although his claim that his generation was united in the belief that
human nature was inherently corrupt may have been wishful think-
ing, Schlesinger was not alone in wanting to reclaim liberalism from
the influence of the Popular Front. Lionel Trilling, for example, sim-
ilarly thought that the liberal tradition had been seriously compro-
mised by the fellow traveling of the 1930s. In the preface to
The Liberal
Imagination
(1950), he argued that the postwar critic's primary respon-
sibility was "to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of
variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complex-
ity and difficulty."3 Leslie Fiedler made a similar argument in "Hiss,
Chambers, and the Age of Innocence," an essay published in
Commen-
tary
in 1950 in which he claimed that "we who would still like to think
of ourselves as liberals must be willing to declare that mere liberal
principle is not in itself a guarantee against evil."4
In claiming that the liberal tradition had been seriously compro-
mised in the 1930s, anti-Stalinist intellectuals such as Schlesinger,
Trilling, and Fiedler participated in the production and consolidation
Previous Page Next Page