The Atlantic Monthly has a sometimes thoughtful, at times irritating, article by Paul Elie on the late theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the political struggle being waged by the Left, Middle and Right over his intellectual legacy. An excerpt:
“The biblical sense of history can make Niebhur seem like something other than a liberal. In the ’60′s, his religiosity made him suspect on the New Left, and in the years after his death, his work resonated with the thinkers who were turning against that era’s liberal reforms”
It wasn’t Niebuhr’s religiosity that made him suspect with the New Left but his anti-totalitarianism, something that a movement deeply afflicted with an authoritarian certitude and spasmodic nihilism could ill abide; indeed, they still seem to despise Niebuhr for his unwillingness to equivocate about Leftist tyranny. Elie is correct though, that the original Neoconservatives (the ones who actually made an intellectual journey from Left to Right) such as Norman Podhoretz had high regard for Niebuhr’s writings. I myself first heard of Niebuhr from reading David Stockman’s bitter memoir The Triumph of Politics. Stockman may have repudiated Ronald Reagan but he remained true, almost adulatory, to Niebuhr:
“The scales fell from my eyes as I turned those pages [ of Children of Light, Children of Darkness - ZP] Niebuhr was a withering critic of utopianism in every form. Man is incapable of perfection, he argued, because his estate as a free agent permits-indeed ensures -both good and evil…Through Niebuhr I dimly glimpsed the ultimate triumph of politics” ( Stockman,24).
I do not profess to be an expert on Reinhold Niebuhr or his philosophy, having read only one of his books, but the polemical war over Niebuhr that Elie critiques has, in my view, an air of ahistoricality to it. Perhaps with not the completely unhinged lunacy of the similar debate over Leo Strauss, but like Strauss, Niebuhr has been lifted by both sides out of the mid-20th century intellectual context that illuminated his ideas, in order to serve as a barricade for the political battle over Iraq and the Bush administration.
My gut reaction is that Niebuhr, were he alive today, would be writing things that would not sit well with some of his would-be reinterpreters and with more nuance and wisdom than for which his contemporary critics give him credit.
Peter Beinart, who comes in for much criticism from Elie for the following link, on Reinhold Niebuhr.
Cross-posted at Zenpundit