All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1960

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1960/6

Ralph de Toledano’s Lament for a Generation (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 272 pp., $3.95), a spiritual odyssey written with warmth, poetry, and eloquence, is a token document of the times. It begins in the world of the Popular Front, when liberals thought they could make common cause with Com­munists, and it ends in a curious preoccupation with the problem of what (or who) constitutes an acceptable ally in the battle against the inroads of the Coer­cive State. It laments the lack of “program and certainty” among conservatives—but, aside from what must be taken as a plea for universal religious conversion, it offers no particular program of its own. There is hope expressed that Richard Nixon will turn out to be the “American Disraeli”—but one searches the text in vain for what an American Disraeli might be ex­pected to do.

Reading Mr. de Toledano, I found myself carried away by his warmth and sincerity. But after laying the book aside I had the feeling that is so well expressed in the Rubaiyat, that the attempt to go too deeply into ultimates is like making progress through a revolving door. When Ralph de Toledano is against, he is perfectly clear. The story of his break with the Communists in the days of the Moscow trials and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, a story that is told with sympathetic understanding for those who found it difficult to escape the clutch of a vision, is a document to place on the shelf alongside Freda Utley’s similar The Dream We Lost. Mr. de Tole­dano couldn’t stomach the com­munist belief that anything is moral that helps the Revolution.

Being against communist morals did not mean, at the time, that de Toledano was against socialist economics. It was not until after he had laid aside his U. S. Army uniform in late 1945 that he came to grips with the problem of try­ing to combine collectivist eco­nomic arrangements with the an­cient freedoms that are the eternal hunger of man. Taking part in a series of seminars held to discuss the “future of democratic socialism,” de Toledano discovered that his fellow laborites and socialists didn’t really believe that freedom could survive a rigorous attempt to make “all economic activity mesh.” Certain questions carried their own answers. Strikes? Under socialism wouldn’t a strike be con­sidered a blow against the State? Collective bargaining? But what would be the meaning of bargain­ing in a world where higher wages and shorter hours, duly signed for in the agreement, must collide with a plan already laid down? Either the bargaining agreement would force a new plan, or it would be bargaining for “advisory” pur­poses only, with the ultimate de­cision on wages and hours still re­maining in the hands of a na­tional board.

Planning, so de Toledano told himself and his fellow disputants, must lead to compelled labor serv­ice and to dictated consumption—and ultimately to silencing any journalist or book writer or public speaker who threatened to be per­suasive enough to cause a rebel­lion against the planners. In reach­ing this conclusion de Toledano found himself in agreement with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom; and he notes that the records of the semi­nars in which he participated might have served as an appendix to that volume. The seminars had not talked about the value of free­dom, but accepting the premise that freedom is the natural desire of mankind, they had let simple logic take the conversations from there.

The Question of Faith

At this midway spot in his book, however, de Toledano departs from any dependence on what he might call “mere logic.” As he walks the via dolorosa from 1948 on he is looking, not “merely” for freedom, but for a sign from the cosmos that freedom has other-worldly sanction. Mr. de Toledano was ab­sorbed by the Hiss-Chambers case, which he covered for his magazine, Newsweek. Part of his absorption derived from the unfolding of sinister spy work by agents of the Soviet, but as de Toledano listened to the testimony of Whittaker Chambers he became less and less interested in Chambers, the ex-Communist, and more and more in­terested in Chambers, the religious Quaker.

Chambers was the catalyst that led to a preoccupation with the question of faith. In a penultimate chapter, “The Experience of God,” de Toledano tells of “hearing the Voice that is no voice,” of being touched by a fleeting visitation of grace that “cannot really be put into words.” And having experi­enced his “Damascene” moment, de Toledano is suddenly impatient with all his new-found allies in the conservative camp.

Personally, I have no quarrel with de Toledano for insisting that freedom must be grounded in a metaphysic which has the force of a religious illumination. I have never “heard a Voice that is no voice,” but I have the intuition that human life is sacred, and that my rights as a sacred entity depend less on Congress than on the na­tural law which Congress should be at pains to discern. My own be­lief in God is founded on a cer­tainty that a structured universe which shows purpose at work can­not be interpreted as a big, bloom­ing accident. And the very idea of purpose implies freedom. But if I can join with de Toledano in his feeling that individual rights must have a sanction beyond mere whimsical preference, I cannot fol­low him in his rigorous separation of sheep from goats in the con­servative—or libertarian—camp. At times he even seems to be tell­ing us that salvation depends on one public figure, the Quaker, Richard Nixon, which is assuredly an “indispensable man” theory that Nixon himself would reject.

Unorganized Conservatism

When de Toledano broke with American liberalism (he could not abide the modern “liberal’s” desire to solve everything by turning itover to the State) he found “many doors” closed to him. But his de­fection to the camp of the con­servatives did not provide any open sesame to “program and cer­tainty.” The conservatives demon­strated “historical peevishness.” They had their “King Charles’ heads,” their habit of dispersing their energies in futile “opposition to public education, or to govern­ment construction of highways.” They got lost in “antifluoridation, the notion that Justice Frankfur­ter headed the nation’s ‘secret gov­ernment,’ mental health in Alaska, the abolition of the income tax, etc.” All of this seemed somewhat negative to de Toledano, who was looking for something more in­spiring in his list of political and social priorities than a resound­ing battle over the fluoridation of the water supply of New York City.

Since I have my own list of priorities in which the question of fluoridation ranks considerably lower than, say, the coercion by the State of farmers who object to compulsory crop limitation, I can sympathize with Mr. de Toledano’s own peevishness against “histori­cal peevishness.” But when he im­plies that a whole host of his com­rades-in-arms (he lists Frank Chodorov, Frank S. Meyer, For­rest Davis, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, James Burnham, and this reviewer among them) makes no relevant contact with the contemporary world because of alleged lack of “program and certainty,” he is surely way off base. He seems intent on scoring off Chodorov and Meyer and the rest because they are not unduly preoccupied with problems of religion in their writ­ings. But some of the men he names don’t feel adequate to a pro­longed discussion of the faith that animates their programmatic thrusts. Mr. de Toledano talks of “the significance of Nixon’s Quaker roots,” and he tells of see­ing “in Whittaker Chambers and his family that quality of faith and serenity which had warmed me as a boy.” He says nothing on the other hand, of Frank Chodorov’s essay, “A Jew Comes to God.” He says nothing of William Buckley’s Catholicism, or Frank Meyer’s quest for a “non-utilitarian” sanc­tion for freedom.

Mr. de Toledano is a poet, and he has the poet’s delight in a phraseology that must seem mysti­cal to some people. Without criti­cizing his preferences, one must call to his attention that it does not necessarily imply a mean spirit when a writer on economics or politics uses the language of logic rather than the language of meta­phor. The main defect of Mr. de Toledano’s book, as it must seem to a reader whose own preference as a writer is to deal with politics and social affairs in terms of analysis, is its implied contempt for economists and political scien­tists as such. Mr. de Toledano is quite right in arguing that econ­omists and political scientists must come to terms with the universe as a condition of understanding the relation of their own specialties to the scheme of things entire. But one cannot forever be discussing the universe when one is talking about union coercions, or the sepa­ration of the powers, or the effect of the progressive income tax on investment. Faith must sometimes be taken on faith.

Mr. de Toledano is afraid that both East and West are moving down different roads to the same goal, “toward a world neither capi­talist nor socialist—a world in which power resides in those who control the means of production but do not own them.” He counsels the “Disraelian approach” to stem­ming the “wave of the future,” and calls for “dikes, breakwaters, and sand walls” to keep the wave from drowning us. But this is metaphor. What dikes, what breakwaters, what sand walls? Mr. de Toledano, in lamenting his generation’s lack of faith, should also lament its lack of specificity. It is a lack to which he should turn his attention now that his own problem of faith is solved.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.