Michael Kimmage


On his book The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism

Cover Interview of September 10, 2009

In a nutshell

The Conservative Turn is an intellectual history of American anti-communism told through the biographies of two intellectuals, Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers, who met as Columbia undergraduates in the 1920s.

Both of them were communists in their youth, and both would become anti-communists in the 1930s, only to travel in two separate ideological directions, representative men for the purposes of this book.  A scholar and a literary critic, Trilling was an architect of liberal anti-communism, an advocate of secularism and political pluralism who sought a reasoned moderation as the antithesis to Soviet communism.  Chambers, a Christian and a conservative, saw the Cold War as a battle of competing faiths, a revolutionary atheism on one side of the Iron Curtain and an open question on the other.  Ideally, for Chambers, America would fall back on its Christian resolve, though he was convinced that the Soviet Union would win the Cold War.

The Conservative Turn comes together around a single book, Trilling’s novel of the 1930s, The Middle of the Journey, published in 1947, in which Chambers is one of the main characters.  In this novel Trilling traces the demise of radicalism, the travails of liberalism and the birth of an American conservatism.  The Conservative Turn tells the story of a particular generation, whose experience with communism was first-hand and in a sense life-long; at the same time, it provides a portrait of the early Cold War, when the Left was moderating its position and the Right was coming into its own as a force in modern politics.

This moderation and this modernization together constitute the core of my argument: that anti-communism’s legacy was a moderation of the American Left and a modernization of the American Right.

Though The Conservative Turn is a work of scholarship, with footnotes and such, it is not intended for specialists.  It addresses fundamental themes in American history – the radical Thirties, the start of the Cold War, the rise of the conservative movement – and it uses biography and narrative history to bring these themes, and these transitions, to life.