Requiem for a Big Little Magazine

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

After eighty-six years, eighty-two in print and the last few in cyberspace, the New Leader, a quintessential American "little magazine," is folding. Like all good publications, it both embodied and analyzed a world of its own, a world worth remembering.

The New Leader was founded as a weekly in 1924. Edited by James Oneal, a partisan of the "old guard" Socialist party, it published the likes of Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas, and the great Yiddish journalist Abraham Cahan, all of whom believed in spreading socialism by elections rather than revolution. In 1930, Sol Levitas, a Russian emigrant who had been vice-mayor of Vladivostok under the short-lived Menshevik government, joined as business manager and then as executive editor, his internationalist and anti-Communist perspective clashing all the while with Oneal's brand of homegrown American socialism. With Oneal's final departure and Levitas's triumph in 1940, the New Leader became, in the words of Levitas's eventual successor Myron (Mike) Kolatch, "the only place the Mensheviks ever won a revolution." 

Under Levitas's editorship, during years when the much-higher-circulation Nation and New Republic often ran acrobatic apologies for Stalin, the New Leader became a bi-weekly platform for what was then known as liberal anti-Communism. Its voices were literary (George Orwell, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Ignazio Silone), intellectual (Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, Bertrand Russell, Sidney Hook), and political (Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey); the categories regularly overlapped. Thanks to his own extensive contacts behind the Iron Curtain, Levitas was able to publish news and comment unavailable elsewhere. Examples include an early, path-breaking report on the persecution of Soviet Jewry, Nikita Khrushchev's historic "secret speech" denouncing Stalin, and the writings of major dissidents like Milovan Djilas, Andrei Sinyavsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Leszek Kolakowski, Joseph Brodsky, and Evgeny Yevtushenko. 

In domestic affairs, the magazine devoted special attention to the American labor movement and the cause of civil rights: it was in the New Leader that Martin Luther King first published his epochal "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Levitas also had a generous eye for young talent, as would his protégé Kolatch, and through the years the New Leader featured the writing of then-relative unknowns like James Baldwin, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Elie Wiesel. Indeed, as the decades went by and Communism passed into history, it may have been as a venue for new writers that the magazine made its greatest contribution. Despairing young scribblers could publish several thousand words on topics almost as obscure as themselves, receive exacting tutorials from the fastidious Kolatch, see their names in print alongside those of long-time contributors, and get paid as much as $50. 

Officially non-sectarian, the New Leader was unmistakably a creature of New York's Jewish intellectual milieu, not only in articles discussing Israel, Jewish affairs, or the Holocaust but in its mix of intellectual seriousness, skepticism, moral purpose, and endless reckonings with the meanings and consequences of the failed Revolution on which so many Jews had staked so much.

The New Leader was sustained for decades by the sale proceeds of a social-democratic summer camp. In 2006, when that resource was spent, arrangements were made to strike the tent and send the archives to Columbia University. A New York Times article on the magazine's imminent demise spurred renewed interest, and for the past few years it has published electronically. Now those funds are gone, too, and Kolatch will finally have the time to write a book on the magazine's history.

That history will necessarily center on the spirit and the sensibility of liberal anti-Communism, a disposition galvanized into being by the horrors committed by the Soviet Union but with a message—about the need to see and name evil for what it is while safeguarding the values of democratic civility—that resonates far beyond any single historical moment. 


You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/newleader


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