New home for New Leader

The May 16, 1960 cover of The New Leader.
It’s been said that everyone who was anyone among left-wing intellectuals contributed to the political and culture magazine The New Leader during its 82-year run. In its pages, many Americans and Europeans read for the first time literature by Soviet dissident authors Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”; and anti-Stalinist essays by the likes of philosopher Sidney Hook ’27GSAS, historian Daniel Bell ’60GSAS, and future neoconservative commentator Irving Kristol.

After putting out the magazine’s final issue last year, long-time executive editor Myron Kolatch recently accepted an offer to house The New Leader’s archives at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The archives include more than 200 linear feet of manuscripts, editorial correspondence, original artwork, photographs, contracts, advertising, and back issues. Scholars will find Nikita S. Khruschev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, as well as Milovan Djilas’s essay “Storm in Eastern Europe,” which earned the Yugoslavian Communist leader-turned dissident three years in prison.

Columbia also is hosting Kolatch for a five-year appointment to write a history of the magazine, to edit a New Leader anthology, and to develop an archival Web site.

Founded in 1924 as a mouthpiece for the American Democratic Socialist Party, The New Leader later broke with the Socialist movement and by mid-century was known for publishing leftist writers opposed to communism. This led to criticism that the magazine helped enable McCarthy-era witch hunts — charges also leveled against the Partisan Review. In fact, The New Leader, which was influenced by the anti-Stalinist views of Columbia professor and eminent literary critic Lionel Trilling ’25CC, ’38GSAS, tended to publish sophisticated treatises criticizing both the oppressive nationalism of the day and the failure of many liberals to grasp the danger posed by Soviet totalitarianism.

Like Partisan Review, which folded in 2003, The New Leader lost its political relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The writing remained top-notch, but sales and funding slipped. The 76-year-old Kolatch, who had edited the magazine since 1962, insists that his publication never aimed to advance a particular ideology, and that this proved to be a strength and a weakness. “Today most readers and major financial supporters of magazines like the NL seek affirmation of their own views — what I tend to call psychological breastfeeding,” Kolatch wrote in the final issue. “Such sustenance, though, has rarely been provided in these pages.”