The late literary critic and social democrat Irving Howe once quipped that when radicals fail to build a movement, they start a magazine. Howe knew what he was talking about—his own magazine, Dissent, was one of them. The latest example of this truism is a new webzine called Compact, established as a rallying point for writers and thinkers from Left and Right fed up with the prevailing liberal consensus. “Our editorial choices,” explain the founders, “are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right.”
The launch was greeted with a spasm of attention from the American press. The New York Times culture columnist, Jennifer Schuessler, published a lukewarm interview with the three co-founders. Two thinkpieces followed in New York magazine’s widely read online publication, the Intelligencer. The more thorough and devastating of these was by Eric Levitz, who methodically took apart Compact’s contradictions and the poor arguments of some of its contributors. At socialist publication Jacobin, meanwhile, Ben Burgis expressed skepticism about the editors’ declared sympathy for social democracy.
Compact is the political project of two religious traditionalists and a left-wing populist. Matthew Schmitz is a Catholic convert who was, until recently, senior editor at the conservative religious magazine, First Things. Edwin Aponte was previously the founder and editor of the Bellows, a Marxist webzine that stands for “working-class populism for the future.” Sohrab Ahmari is perhaps the most prominent of the three, having worked as an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal, then senior writer at Commentary, and finally as opinion editor at the New York Post from 2018.
During his short career as a writer and journalist, Ahmari has already undergone more political transformations than most intellectuals manage in a lifetime. Born in Tehran and raised in Utah after his parents divorced and his mother fled theocratic Iran for the US, Ahmari began his ideological journey by renouncing Shia Islam, devouring Nietzsche and the existentialists, and then embracing Trotskyism. This, he later wrote, “assuaged my own class anxieties,” but it did not provide spiritual satisfaction. Nor did “Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, post-structuralism, queer theory or any of the other fashionable philosophies I tried on, each in turn.” So, for a while, Ahmari became a liberal Reaganite foreign policy hawk. As a passionate and eloquent supporter of those struggling for democratic freedoms in the Middle East and beyond, he co-edited (with Nasser Weddady) a stirring collection of essays entitled Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran.
The convulsions catalyzed by Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency in 2016 produced another unexpected shift. Ahmari had converted to Catholicism the same year (a move he documented in his 2019 religious memoir From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith) and quickly ditched his NeverTrumpism in favor of the GOP’s new populism. “To hell with liberal order,” he tweeted when he discovered that drag queens were allowed to read stories to children in America’s public libraries. “Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.” Today he is a Catholic social conservative preoccupied with the decline of religious piety, social cohesion, moral standards, and traditionalist codes of dress and conduct. He takes particular exception to the sexual deviance and “degeneracy” that he now believes is the logical outcome of Western liberalism, and has developed a corresponding sympathy for the authoritarian systems he once despised. “I’m at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century,” he declared in 2021. “Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.”
Whether this is merely the latest passing phase of a dilettante or the final destination of a person temperamentally suited to political extremism and religious fanaticism remains an open question. Either way, Compact looks likely to reflect Ahmari’s present obsessions. The magazine’s masthead currently lists eight regular columnists including Christopher Caldwell, a contributor to the Trumpist Claremont Review of Books, and Tablet columnist Lee Smith. Once a fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Smith is now warning readers of Compact that “Ukraine is the Ruling Class’s Latest Propaganda Ploy,” and that America’s oligarchy “is at war with the American people.” Caldwell’s essay, meanwhile, offers a defense of the new far-Right populist governments and parties in Europe, including the illiberal Orbán regime in Hungary.
What any of this has to do with the editors’ professed goal of advancing social democracy is anybody’s guess. Social democracy was the project of activists from the late-19th century onwards who rejected the social revolution demanded by the followers of Marx. In its place, the German socialist Eduard Bernstein advocated incremental changes that would give working people representation and rights through the growth of parliaments and democratic institutions. In this way, socialist goals would eventually be met through democratic means without the need for revolutionary upheaval. The social-democratic state, he hoped, could curb the untrammeled power of corporations, increase social programs funded by higher taxes, and usher in more expansive safety-net provisions such as universal healthcare.
With the exception of Aponte, I’m skeptical that anyone writing for or editing Compact wants to see anything like that. Certainly, this agenda has not yet been apparent in the writings of Caldwell or Ahmari. Even a “non-libertine” Left would be opposed to some of the sweeping cultural changes that Ahmari and other religious traditionalists have proposed of late. Similarly, a sane socialist movement is likely to be firmly pro-choice rather than pro-life. Ahmari and Schmitz consider abortion to be murder, while most social democrats see it as a sign of progress for women’s rights.
Nevertheless, some overlap between the Left and Right is evident in the economic positions adopted by contributors to the first issue. In his first article, prominent writer David Rieff offers a left-wing critique of progressive “woke” culture and calls on the Left to make opposition to “material inequality” its “locus of political action.” And in a lengthy article demanding the resurrection of American trade unionism, Ahmari argues that unions declined not because of globalization and industrialization, but because of “union-busting employers”—an argument that recalls Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Papal Encyclical on Capital and Labor that opposed socialism but backed the formation of sturdy unions. It is presumably positions like these that tempted left-wing writer and First Things contributor Sam Kriss to join the magazine (although, for reasons unexplained, his profile and headshot have since disappeared from the masthead).
On foreign policy, Compact’s contributors seem to be united in their support for aggressive American retrenchment (or what they prefer to call “restraint”), in part to thwart the agenda of Western “globalists” and “elites” who act only in their own interests. On this much, a Red-Brown coalition of left-wing anti-imperialists and right-wing isolationists are in firm agreement. But this is hardly new. In the days before WWII, socialists like Norman Thomas and right-wing figures like the anti-New Deal activist John T. Flynn both joined the America First Committee to pressure the Roosevelt administration to stay out of the European conflict. During the Vietnam War, the influential paleolibertarian Murray N. Rothbard established a journal called Left and Right and contributed to the radical magazine Ramparts and the academic New Left journal, Studies on the Left. During the Clinton administration, opponents of military intervention in the Balkans held rallies at which the right-wing populist Pat Buchanan shared a platform with the late Stalinist journalist Alexander Cockburn.
In our current era, the Quincy Institute—a relatively new Washington, DC thinktank originally co-funded by the libertarian Charles Koch Foundation and George Soros’s progressive Open Society Foundation—fills that role. Its members include Nation magazine publisher and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, the foreign policy “realist” Stephen Walt, and the anti-interventionist conservative Andrew Bacevich. In a recent op-ed for the Boston Globe, Bacevich echoed the Democratic Socialists of America when he argued that “the United States has effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.” If not for NATO’s “Eastward march,” anti-war Left and Right implausibly contend, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would never have happened.
In his Compact article, Peter Hitchens writes that “the political inheritors of the anti-cruise campaigners are today all hot for NATO, which I am sure they would have despised in the old days when it preserved the freedom of Western Europe through masterly inaction.” These people, he asserts, are “the successors of the left-wing academics who once apologized for the USSR [and who] are now severe enemies of non-Communist Russia. The herbivores of 1982 are the warmongers of 2022.” While it is true that some Cold War anti-imperialists—including Hitchens’s late brother—grew up to become supporters of Western military intervention, many of those apologists for the old Soviet Union have remained consistent in their opposition to the post-WWII dispensation, and are employing the same argument in defense of Putin that their forbears employed in defense of Soviet tyranny—the West is trying to encircle Russia, heedless of its “legitimate security interests.”
The Trumpist Right, meanwhile, bears a striking resemblance to the old Taft Republicans who attacked NATO in the same terms as the anti-imperialist Left. Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft thought nothing of the Czech coup that ended democracy and brought the Communists to power. Since the country lay in Russia’s sphere of influence, he argued, this development was hardly surprising or dangerous. On the Left, Henry A. Wallace said precisely the same thing, arguing that Russia had a right to demand “friendly” governments on its border, just as the US needed governments that supported the Western alliance in Central and Latin America.
Today, Katrina vanden Heuvel and left-wing journalist Stephen Kinzer are both Quincy Institute members, and have never strayed from anti-interventionism or neo-isolationism. Cold War liberals like the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., on the other hand, supported NATO and an anti-Communist foreign policy in the 1940s and ’50s, and their liberal and neoconservative descendants support NATO and an anti-Russian policy today. Just as they supported cruise missiles being placed in Europe during the Reagan era, today they favor military budget increases among our Western allies, and shipments of heavy arms to Ukraine so it can defend itself against the brutality of Putin’s irredentist aggression.
It was no surprise, then, when Compact published an anti-interventionist petition and statement signed by prominent figures on the Left and the Right entitled “Away From the Abyss.” The authors declared their opposition to Western demands for “escalation” of the conflict in Ukraine, and warned that “imperial aggrandizement and schemes of regime change” could result in a nuclear war with Russia. While they allowed that the Russian invasion was “wrongful,” their sternest rebukes were reserved for “indiscriminate Western sanctions” and “the attempt to bog down Moscow in a long, devastating insurgency.” Ukraine’s “right to self-determination,” they wrote, must be balanced by due consideration of “Russia’s legitimate security needs,” as if the latter explains why Putin sent Russia to war in the first place.
Signatories include Pedro Gonzalez, the editor of Chronicles (a paleoconservative Old Right magazine), who recently speculated in the American Conservative that the Drama Theater bombing in Mariupol was actually a “false flag” operation carried out by Ukrainians. His evidence comes from the Russian propaganda newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and from anti-imperialist leftist Max Blumenthal, best known as an anti-Israel, pro-Assad, and pro-Putin propagandist.
In his own article on this topic entitled “The Return of the Hawks,” Sohrab Ahmari worries about pro-war propagandists in the editorial pages of the American and European press, “aided by friends in Silicon Valley.” The “perilous escalatory response to Vladimir Putin’s misbegotten invasion” evidently causes him greater anxiety than Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians or the nauseating massacres committed by its ground troops. He shudders at the “fever of Russophobia” and the revival of cheerleading from war hawks and neoconservatives. And he is angered by what he calls “the ‘democracy’ export industry” represented by organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Freedom House, and individuals like Brookings analyst Victoria Nuland (now an advisor to Biden on Ukraine), and her husband, the “uber-hawk historian” Robert Kagan.
Ahmari adopts Putin’s worldview as his own, characterizing democracy’s advocates as warmongers who bear ultimate moral responsibility for the violence Putin is now raining on Ukraine:
Nuland in 2013 went down to Maidan Square to personally supervise the velvet revolution. The Ukrainians were promised integration, Westernization, NATO-ization—things Nuland and her bosses knew would raise blood pressures in the Kremlin, no matter who sat on the Russian throne. And here we are.
Fact is, Democracy, Inc. works concertedly to see off potential threats. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, for example, men like Carl Gershman, then head of the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House boss Michael J. Abramowitz convened defend-democracy meetings on both sides of the Atlantic. I know, because I was asked to participate as a writer with hawkish sympathies I have since renounced.
That last line implies that Ahmari declined the invitation. However, Gershman told me that Ahmari did indeed travel to Prague for one of the forums, and even signed the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal which opposed precisely the kind of authoritarian governance he now supports and defends. Ahmari now believes that democracy promotion is really just a means of imposing what he calls the “liberal imperium,” and working against populists like Orbán and Trump, whose only crime is to have “channeled popular discontent.” Unsurprisingly, Compact has since published a fulsome defense of the former, in which Orbán is depicted as a courageous dissident waging a righteous struggle against the EU. The same day, the New Republic ran an essay by a former member of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party detailing how Orbán captured state institutions to create an authoritarian state.
Elsewhere in Compact, a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Swansea University in Wales named Ashley Frawley objects to the demonization of Russians in general and Vladimir Putin in particular, which she warns, “endangers us all.” Saddam Hussein, she reminds us, was also the undeserving victim of a campaign by the “elite media” to get Westerners to “take a righteous stand against tyranny and wickedness.” After all, while Zelensky and his Western backers compare Putin to Hitler, Putin has also justified the war by the need to de-Nazify Ukraine. So who, we are invited to wonder, is to say who’s right?
It doesn’t appear to have occurred to Frawley that the Russian army and regime are being compared to the Nazis because of their own conduct in Ukraine. Non-military structures, including hospitals and schools, are being reduced to rubble by Russian artillery and air-strikes and thousands of Ukrainian civilians have already been killed. People have been tied up, tortured, and then executed by Russian occupiers of small towns in the suburbs of Kyiv. Only one side in this conflict is fighting a just war—Ukrainian troops are defending the sovereignty and independence of their nation, while Putin’s army is routinely violating the rules of war in an attempt to terrorize a populace he hopes to subjugate.
There is nothing especially original or insightful on offer in any of these essays. The fog of obfuscation, moral equivalence, adolescent whatabouttery, and disingenuous calls for nuance will be familiar to anyone who remembers the media quarrels of the last war or the one before that. So, do American readers of political opinion journals really need Compact magazine? I’m doubtful. All the opinions within it are already available in the various (mostly right-wing) magazines with which its editors are otherwise associated, and the American Conservative will likely remain the flagship outlet for paleoconservative isolationism and social conservatism. The current issue of Chronicles, meanwhile, includes an article by Pat Buchanan condemning President Biden’s “vilification” of Putin, while in another, Paul Gottfried cries “Long Live Orbán!” and elsewhere blasts neoconservatives for promoting “Grotesque Ideological Imperialism.”
Left-leaning articles criticizing the social and economic inequality produced by unrestrained capitalism can be found in the Nation, the Progressive, Mother Jones, and in much of the legacy press. The Nation’s editors combine anti-anti-Putinism with a radical approach to social and economic policy on domestic issues which is supposed to be Compact’s unique selling point. It will be interesting to see whether or not the new magazine’s left-wing contributors and readers have the stomach for endless copy bewailing homosexual degeneracy or expressing a maximalist hostility to abortion rights—the kind of social issues that really animate religious conservatives like Ahmari and Schmitz. The Nation’s editors and readers, after all, are overwhelmingly feminist, and are unlikely to be overjoyed by articles like Nina Power’s essay, “Why We Need the Patriarchy.”
It may be that readers of one ideological perspective read the contributions of writers opposed to their own worldview and rethink their positions. But this is unlikely. Most political readers know what they think, and will continue to read what they agree with. Some will find it hard to comprehend why such starkly different positions—Left on economic issues and far-Right on foreign policy and culture—are offered in one journal, and it is doubtful that either side will cough up for a subscription now that Compact’s paywall has come down. Their curiosity sated, they may simply decide to stick with the subscriptions they already have. It is early days yet, and the new magazine may yet find its feet and a distinct voice in an already crowded marketplace. But on present evidence, I expect that Compact will have a rather short life as a political magazine.