Herbert Croly, founding editor of the New Republic

Herbert Croly of The New Republic, by David W. Levy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 335 pp. Illustrated. $32.50. At a time when the most facile political nostrums are dignified by the term ``philosophy,'' when it is widely assumed that Big Government began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and when huge conglomerates consolidate ever-expanding empires amid talk of free competition and the marketplace, it is salutary to turn to the life and times of Herbert Croly (1869-1930), who really was a political philosopher and whose lifelong advocacy of a strong central government was based upon his conviction that bigness was a feature of American life that could not simply be wished away.

The founding editor of The New Republic first made his mark on the American intellectual scene in 1909 with the publication of his book ``The Promise of American Life.''

Unlike William Jennings Bryan and other reformers of the time, Croly considered it pointless to dream of breaking down complex structures in order to return to the simpler values of the past. His vision of America's future included large, efficient corporations, whose power to exploit workers would be held in check by labor unions and whose effects on the general public would be regulated by a strong federal government.

Croly's hopes for a ``Hamiltonian,'' yet democratic, nationalism were focused on one man in particular: Theodore Roosevelt. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt admired Croly's book almost as much as Croly admired Roosevelt.

In 1913, when Willard and Dorothy Whitney Straight offered their moral and financial support to establish a weekly journal of opinion, Croly recognized a rare opportunity. He gathered around him a group of talented and knowledgeable journalists, including the brilliant young political writer Walter Lippmann. Although Croly hoped that The New Republic would eventually be able to support itself through its subscriptions, and although circulation figures would rise impressively, the journal was fundamentally dependent on the backing of the Straights, who always encouraged -- indeed, insisted upon -- its editorial independence.

From its earliest issues, the journal attracted such contributors as John Dewey, George Santayana, Morris R. Cohen, Van Wyck Brooks, Charles Beard, Ford Madox Ford, Rebecca West, Theodore Dreiser, and H. G. Wells. It championed such causes as academic freedom, birth control, woman suffrage, and the rights of blacks.

And, despite Croly's reservations about Woodrow Wilson, whom he considered too ``Jeffersonian'' in his allegiance to small business and small government, the journal could not but be impressed by many of Wilson's reforms, from the creation of the Federal Reserve System to the establishment of an income tax.

Before long, The New Republic was seen by some as a mouthpiece of the Wilson White House. In fact, as professor Levy's excellent account of this period demonstrates, the relationship was far more subtle and complex. Still, the editors were understandably pleased when the President, in 1917, outlined a plan for ``peace without victory'' (a phrase coined by The New Republic), which incorporated many of the ideas the journal had been urging.

The enormous gulf between Wilson's original peace plan and the actual terms imposed by the vindictive victors in the Versailles Treaty marked a turning point in history -- and in the life of Herbert Croly, who saw his hopes for the future blasted.

His despair deepened through the '20s, as he contemplated the red scare, the Palmer raids, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the corruption of the Harding administration, and the shortsighted, reactionary policies of Calvin Coolidge. Progressivism seemed dead.

The New Republic devoted more space to cultural and literary affairs (Edmund Wilson joined as an editor in 1921). Croly himself turned inward in search of self-understanding and religious enlightenment. He did not live to see progressivism revived by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Professor Levy's sympathy and admiration for his subject never degenerate to mere partisanship: While explaining the rationale behind Croly's intense nationalism and concomitant impatience with constitutional restraints, for instance, Levy retains a keen awareness of the perils and limitations of such an attitude.

His account of Croly's youth sets out the influences on Croly's thought with clarity and vigor. Croly was a shy man, whose life lacked outward adventure. His personality was not especially intriguing. Although he was a serious thinker, he was scarcely an intellectual giant -- or even a memorable conversationalist.

Yet in writing his life -- which was truly a life of the mind -- Levy manages almost miraculously to re-create the sense of intellectual excitement that animated those years. Lucid in content, lively in style, this book is an inviting introduction to an important figure in the history of American journalism.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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