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The story of an old-style liberal

Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era, by Jordan A. Schwarz. New York: The Free Press/Macmillan. 452 pp. Illustrated. $24.95. In 1982, at the height of the ``Reagan revolution,'' the conservative Hoover Institution sponsored a conference on a book published exactly 50 years before, in the depths of the Great Depression.

``The Modern Corporation and Private Property,'' by Adolf A. Berle Jr. and Gardiner C. Means, had served as the veritable bible of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Indeed, its conception of modern corporate liberalism/state capitalism continued to govern the terms of political discourse well into the 1960s and Lyndon Johnson's plans for a Great Society. When this liberal vision began to fade, the ascendant conservatives still found it important to scrutinize its underpinnings, if only to dispute and refute them.

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The book's thesis, amply documented by its authors' research (Berle was a corporate lawyer and an academic, Means an economist), was that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of large corporations threatened the individual liberty of the majority of citizens. As the Roman Catholic Church had dominated medieval society, as the nation-state had been the prime unit at the dawn of the modern age, so now the giant corporation held sway.

Needless to say, such thinking was anathema to old-fashioned Republicans like Herbert Hoover. Yet the solutions proposed by Berle and other corporate liberals also set them at odds with liberals like Louis D. Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, who believed in breaking up large corporations to restore free competition. Berle considered trustbusting a vain attempt to return to a simpler past. Bigness was irreversible. To protect the public from the imbalance of power and to leaven the materialism of corporate profitmaking with the spiritual values of the public good, government had to enter the economic picture.

Berle's ideas had much in common with those of John Maynard Keynes in England and with the general stance of earlier progressives, like Herbert Croly, who had edited the New Republic during the Wilson years only to see his ideals undone by the Harding and Coolidge administrations. But Berle was not just a theorist. In a phrase he often used and which is taken up by his biographer, Jordan Schwarz, Adolf A. Berle (1895-1971) led a ``causative life'': brain truster to New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, brain truster to Franklin Roosevelt, assistant secretary of state during World War II, architect of a postwar aviation policy that benefited America at the expense of Britain, ambassador to Brazil, advocate of the Good Neighbor Policy, chairman of New York State's Liberal Party, chairman of the board of trustees of the Twentieth Century Fund, and chairman of the Latin American Task Force that advised John F. Kennedy.

One of the many virtues of this outstanding biography by Professor Schwarz, author of an incisive study of Bernard M. Baruch, is that it examines Berle as a representative figure of liberalism while portraying him as an individual personality operating within the mesh of personal and political rivalries that frequently influenced the shape of policies almost as decisively as purely theoretical factors. Colleagues often criticized Berle's arrogance (his name, Time magazine once noted, was pronounced to rhyme with surly). Yet underlings found him courteous; his intellectually impressive wife, Dr. Beatrice Berle, found him the perfect soul mate; and nearly everyone, friend or foe, considered him brilliant.

Schwarz has also done an excellent job of tracing the course of Berle's thinking on a wide range of subjects: his belief in the importance of North-South ties in the Western Hemisphere, his antipathy to what he considered British (and later Russian) imperialism, and his advocacy of the rights of small nations, whom he believed would prosper under a Pax Americano. He did not foresee that some small nations might opt for the communist camp. When Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam appeared to opt unwisely, Berle thought it advisable for the United States to save them from themselves - by force, if necessary. Only in 1968, with the Tet offensive, did he change his mind about Vietnam. But the anti-intellectualism and ``materialism'' of the New Left disheartened him. ``Between fashionable leftists and fashionable conservatives,'' his bio-grapher sadly remarks, he had become ``anachronistic.''

Berle's story is in many respects the story of American anticommunist liberalism in the middle part of this century. It is also a story of one of the last liberals to emerge from a tradition of noblesse oblige who strove to fulfill his obligations in a manner that would enlighten and uplift without patronizing. This crisply written, extensively researched, thoughtful, and deeply knowledgeable biography gives us the man, the contours and content of his thought, and the complicated and changing political and intellectual milieus in which he lived and worked.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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