Anyone who wished to trace the tides and fortunes of American socialism since the 1930’s could do worse than examine the intellectual and political development of Irving Howe: critic, writer, editor, and socialist par excellence. To be sure, Mr. Howe’s career—not unlike American socialism itself—has kept him in an only glancing and sometime connection to the Socialist party as such. But in both the nature and order of the issues that have presented themselves as central to him, and in his response to those issues, one can find a fair summary of the movement of American socialist thought over half a century.
He began, in boyhood, as a committed Marxist; took part in the great internal Marxist battle on the side of Trotsky and in bitter, impassioned opposition to the forces—both political and cultural—of Stalin; and has ended as a considerably less impassioned but no less fully preoccupied foe of an enemy he calls “conservatism,” by which term he means mainly the abandonment of the Left by a number of his former associates and allies. His language and mode of analysis have gradually moved from the realm of the political, namely the realm in which he once, long ago, sought to make the revolution, to the realm of the moral, in which he speaks as a man devoting his mind and heart to the “steady work”—to borrow the title of one of his own books—of inveighing against the real in the name of the ideal.
The story of this development he has attempted, quite selectively, to set down in a new book entitled A Margin of Hope.1 The book is subtitled “An Intellectual Autobiography,” clearly in an effort to deflect any expectation on the part of the reader that he is being invited to inspect the kind of private, inner detail generally associated with the enterprise of autobiography; for of such detail there is virtually none. Three entirely casual references to Mr. Howe’s wife, for instance, provide no hint that these are in fact three separate wives. Children make no appearance at all. His mother and father are introduced and play a brief role, serving largely to furnish the social and cultural stage on which he makes his entrance. But where they came from or who they really were is permitted no importance in the strictly bounded account Mr. Howe gives of himself. For this, it is by and large enough to know that they were East European Jewish immigrants, spoke Yiddish, worried about, and sometimes shamed, their son, and worked in the garment center.
Nor is there even much of friendship. Figures are sketched—party comrades, teachers, mentors, and later, a number of fellow literary intellectuals and professors—and, though his literary gifts lie elsewhere, in some cases the sketches are done quite interestingly. These figures serve in the story, however, only as they have bearing upon, or in some way influence, Mr. Howe’s own career or development. In short, it is the author’s forming and changing attitudes that constitute the only real subject of his account. To present oneself this way is perfectly legitimate, but it does in Mr. Howe’s case result in an oddly enclosed and unmoving piece of work. The formation of his attitudes, despite the fact that in one way or another he has most of the time declared his fealty to some larger group or “movement,” evidently strikes him in retrospect as having been a solitary process: an unmediated confrontation, as it were, between Irving Howe and something imagined to be society writ large.
Irving Howe was born and grew up in the Bronx. When he was around eleven years old, his family migrated from the West Bronx to the East Bronx, which meant then, as it probably would now, that they had suffered a decline from the middle to the working class. His father, a failed storekeeper, became a presser and his mother, a sewing-machine operator. Unremitting labor was the permanent requirement of the household, but the young Irving Howe was nevertheless to go to college and be afforded the time and freedom to become a roving radical intellectual.
Years later, he would pay tribute to the life and times of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant in New York in a best-selling volume called World of Our Fathers. Reading it, one would suppose that the entire population of East European Jewish immigrants went through a passage during which, in response to the combined awesomeness, hardship, and liberty of the New World, they were radical or at least vaguely and sentimentally socialist. For the legendary world of Mr. Howe’s fathers included virtually no synagogues, no yeshivahs, no rabbis, a few Democratic ward-heelers but certainly no Republicans, and above all, no representatives of that strange and to Mr. Howe hostile breed known as Zionists: only workers dreaming of the advancement of their children through education, street-corner idlers and agitators, theatergoers, journalists, café intellectuals, political and union leaders, and, as I have said, leftists of one variety or another and nascent New Dealers. It is a world of gripping photographs by Jacob Riis and mannered Yiddishist memories.
The world he so popularly depicted may have been the world of Mr. Howe’s elected “Fathers,” but his own flesh-and-blood father happened to be a Jew of a less photogenic kind—indeed, a kind altogether familiar to anyone with a less stylized grasp of the reality of that time. Howe Senior was, for example, without being demonstratively observant, still linked by old loyalties, or perhaps just by propriety, to the synagogue. His son became a bar mitzvah. He was, moreover, opposed to his son’s attending the nearby Yiddish school run by the Workmen’s Circle, a socialist fraternal order, because “he felt ill at ease with the bluntly secular. It was as if he knew what ‘the real thing’ was in Judaism, even though himself gradually slipping away from it.” Therefore when the fourteen-year-old Irving Howe nevertheless fell into the arms of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), lying in wait for him in the loft occupied by the Workmen’s Circle school, his father was far from pleased. As was the case with so many immigrants of his time and circumstance, Mr. Howe’s father emerges from the brief references to him in the book as a man mainly governed by nagging problems of self-respect. (To be poor when others were poor was for most people in the early 30’s a considerable sop to this problem; later, for those who remained behind, it would nag decisively.)
Here we have a more or less conventional sketch of an immigrant family, but the convention is of a rather different kind from that which controlled Mr. Howe’s recent and far more colorful literary voyage into the American Jewish past. This present tale is one for which the reader presumably has ample experience and requires little guidance from the author—the tale of a bright son sent off to make his way in an alien America and there, painfully for all concerned, becoming an alien himself.
For Irving Howe the journey of assimilation into the “real” America was begun in the socialist movement. If such a mode of assimilation now seems improbable, it was far from unique to him. In the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth arm of Norman Thomas’s Socialist party, he found a whole gang of others just like him. Together they roamed the neighborhood, and from there the city, distributing leaflets, arguing till the wee hours over cups of coffee in cafeterias, going to foreign films on 42nd Street (how much of the history of contemporary intellectual life is bound to memories of Grand Illusion and Alexander Nevsky on 42nd Street?), preaching Marxism and revolution at street corners, and no doubt—though the book is elegantly discreet about this—fumbling around with the female comrades.
In YPSL, he quickly encountered the two major quarrels that were, in a number of variations and on a number of occasions, to rive the American Left. There was the quarrel, or in the parlance of the Left itself, the “split,” between the moderates and the militants. Crudely stated, this was the rift between those who sought to bring about socialism through gradual reform and those who believed in making the revolution. Mr. Howe was a militant. Next there was the quarrel between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists, that is, between those who saw in Stalin’s murderous brutality the betrayal of the revolution and those who defended or denied it, or both.
From his position of militancy within the Socialist party—though as with most of the hard facts of Mr. Howe’s political history, A Margin of Hope is here quite unforthcoming about the specifics—it was a short move into the camp of Trotsky. It was, of course, the Stalin-Trotsky split that was to remain decisive in Mr. Howe’s life, as in the life of everyone who came within, or even near, the orbit of Trotskyism. Whatever the twistings, turnings, splittings, and sub-splittings that followed, and there were several, an undying hatred for Stalin’s regime and its defenders, for the society it established in the Soviet Union, and for the political culture it spawned elsewhere, would remain key.
The Trotskyite movement, which was called the Socialist Workers party—small enough already, God knows, within an American Left dominated by a combination of the witting loyalists and the dupes of Stalin, among them famous writers, journalists, Hollywood and Broadway celebrities, and millionaires—split in 1940. This time the rift, though those who took part in it may not at the time have agreed to so simple a formulation, was over the issue of Bolshevism. The question as it was posed was: does Stalin’s betrayal of the revolution deprive the Soviet Union of its status as the workers’ fatherland? On one side were the people, including Trotsky himself, who were prepared to remain committed to the Russian Revolution and to blame Stalin alone for the crimes perpetrated in its name. On the other side (though still calling themselves Trotskyists) were those who, led by a brilliant and magnetic leader named Max Schachtman, were (for the time being) prepared to say that the true, the genuine revolution had not happened yet. Irving Howe was one of these. In 1940, he and his comrades broke away from the SWP and established the Workers’ party, membership at most 1,000. He became, in other words, a member of a tiny fraction of a small fraction of a larger fraction of the world revolution. He was not yet twenty-one years old.
It is all too easy from this safe distance in time to be amused by the antics of the anti-Stalinist Left in those years, by the desperate factional fights over questions of how to reorder the world conducted by groups whose very existence may not have been known to more than a handful of their fellow citizens. But, as all too many of us all too often need to be reminded, people who fight over ideas are fighting for their lives—and frequently for ours as well. The positions taken by seemingly laughably tiny groups of intellectuals often reverberate through places and among people who will never even have heard of them.2
In any case, Irving Howe spent his years at City College of New York—he was graduated in the year of the split, 1940—as a Trotskyite leader and organizer. Much has been written about City College in those days, if for no other reason than that a disproportionate number of the country’s most serious and articulate future journalists were in attendance. As a result, City College in the late 30’s is widely deemed to have been a great school. Judging from Mr. Howe’s memories, however, little of the education it provided took place in classrooms. His own college training certainly did not but was provided, largely by himself, in the lunchroom. There were the two storied alcoves, the all-day hangouts respectively of the Stalinists and the Trotskyites. And there he and many others, for the most part disregarding classes, sharpened their wits in rehearsal of the leftist political and polemical battles raging in the world outside.
Some of these battles Mr. Howe tends to skip over rather lightly—and not without reason. The Trotskyite war with the Stalinists, with rare and honorable exceptions the only contention against Soviet Communism that even came near to exposing its true horror in a culture grown besotted with the word “progressive,” had nevertheless found no common ground with “bourgeois capitalism” (i.e., Western democracy). In Trotskyite eyes, Hitler and fascism were not seen as the arch foes of that democracy but rather its end products. They were not held to be, as we now understand them to be, the monstrous offspring of a kind of primitive (“national”) socialism grown malignant, but rather the direct lineal heirs of capitalism. Thus as Hitler moved across Europe, it was no business of the Trotskyites: the struggle against Nazism and the struggle against bourgeois imperialism were one and the same. They were opposed to American intervention in World War II—and remained opposed throughout the war. They were in effect in a coalition with the isolationists and reactionaries of America First.
Along with his comrades, Irving Howe argued firmly against American participation—though he does not quite say so. He says rather that the position they took in public did not precisely reflect their real views. Deep down, he tells us, he and his comrades recognized that there was “some truth” in most people’s feelings “that Nazi Germany signified a social evil far greater than that of capitalism.” “We moved, I suppose, to what Marxists called a position of ‘critical support’ for the war, though we didn’t make this explicit—” and with one of those admissions of error that are the gentlest form of self-exculpation, he adds, “and I don’t want in the least to deny the deep error of not making it explicit.”
Be that as it may, for a Jew, any Jew, to have proclaimed World War II merely a war between two “imperialisms”—whether he held in reserve the capacity to make certain distinctions between them or not—had to have been a significant and haunting act. The level of moral and political comprehension it reveals aside, it signaled a refusal to be bound by the imperatives of what was one’s ineluctable own. Mr. Howe had taken himself beyond the cultural, and personal, identity given him by his birth into an immigrant Jewish family. This was, to be sure, a process undergone by the vast majority of the children of East European immigrants, and wittingly or unwittingly encouraged by their parents. For him, as we have seen, this move was accomplished—again not uniquely—by throwing himself into socialism. To be a socialist was to become a citizen of the whole world. Justice, morality, social equity were to be sought on behalf of and among the whole of mankind taken all together—or failing that, on behalf of and among an equally abstract universal, the workers of the world. That mankind, or “the workers,” had an overriding common interest above family, clan, and country, if they but knew it, was and remains a notion hard for socialists to shed; indeed, it constitutes the ineradicable, arrogant blind spot of socialism.
So faced with the Nazi persecution of the Jews, everyone who continued to speak the language of “fascism/capitalism” and “imperialism” was announcing that there were more important things to consider than the lives of mere Jews. Loyalty to the interests, not to say survival, of one’s own was parochial and tribal. The Algerian-born Albert Camus once earned the opprobrium of his fellow French intellectuals (it sticks to his memory until today) for refusing to side with the rebels in the Algerian war on the grounds that they might easily kill his mother. Such a declaration always comes as a profound shock to the nervous system of the Left.
There were those among Howe’s Jewish comrades who discovered, possibly to their surprise, that when push came to shove it mattered to them that they were Jews and that Hitler was slaughtering their brothers. And there were also those among his Jewish and non-Jewish fellow intellectuals who discovered that they were being impelled by such simple, albeit unfamiliar, emotions as love of country. All this quite apart from the fact that the distinction between the social order bred in capitalist democracy and that of Nazism was one that could have been made by any unperverted ten-year-old. “Critical support” for a war between Britain or the United States and Nazi Germany, especially when that war was so clearly an all-or-nothing one, was hardly to be deemed support at all. Were Mr. Howe able to see this now, and say so; were socialists able to see that politics in the 20th century has a way of presenting people with stark choices and that the pretense of commitment to a third alternative is itself always a choice—on the wrong side; then both Mr. Howe’s history and that of socialism would make a brave and salutary story. Alas, they do not.
Well into the book, and speaking in another connection, Mr. Howe defends himself for having had so little to say about the Holocaust. He observes, justly, that Holocaust-mongering is not necessarily the sign of a deeper or truer feeling; that there is still, finally, something incomprehensible in the deliberate, systematic murder of six million people; and that silence is perhaps not the least appropriate response. The self-defense is, however, curious, and comes at a curious moment. For what Mr. Howe says is widely acknowledged; no one worthy of respect has to my knowledge condemned anyone else for a failure to speechify on the subject. One cannot escape the impression that the self-justification in this instance refers to something else: to that period during the war when Mr. Howe—nowadays a kind of Jewish literary hero, author of World of Our Fathers—held himself to be outside or above the issue of the particular, parochial survival of either his people or his country. The reckoning here would seem to be with himself, though once again without “making it explicit.”
In 1942, he was drafted into the army. Whatever his reservations about the war, he served. It was in fact the policy of the Schachtmanites to allow themselves to be drafted. He does not tell us so, but among the considerations feeding into this policy was the opportunity that would be afforded them by the military to get into contact with “the masses.” Unlike many radical intellectuals, particularly those of the Stalinist persuasion, whose notion of radical action was the sponsorship of meetings and cocktail parties attended by the celebrated and well-born, the Schachtmanites had actually “gone to the people.” Groups of them had been sent to the industrial centers of the Midwest, Detroit preeminently, to work in factories and to organize. In both cases, that of the factories and the armed services, the policy would prove to be a fateful one, for the movement itself and for its members. No movement can seriously engage its people in the day-today working lives of its supposed beneficiaries without being profoundly tainted by reality.
The reality that tainted Irving Howe in the army was not so much that of the actual nature of ordinary people—though that, too—as of his own actual nature. For within the political activist there had all along been beating the secret heart of a writer and literary intellectual, an essentially independent and solitary figure whose true companions were not agitators and comrades but books and the authors of books. For two years he sat with little to do at Fort Richardson outside Anchorage, Alaska, and there, all activism spent, he met his other permanent self. From now on, his services to socialism, whatever they might prove to be, would be provided largely by his pen.
He read all the “hard books” in literary criticism and social theory that had failed to call to him through the noise of the alcove in City College. He acquainted himself with a large dose of the best that had been thought and said outside the confines of Marx and Trotsky. In the army, then, he planted the seeds of what was to become his future career: a teacher of, and writer about, literature as refracted through the medium of social theory—what we have come to call a “literary intellectual.”
In so doing, he was preparing once again to encounter a very special group of his counterparts. They, too, were many of them Jews; they, too, were sworn enemies of Stalinism in all its manifestations; they, too, regardless of their level of academic attainment, were essentially self-educated, devotees of a new cultural amalgam, as yet alien to the universities and as yet untouched by the deadening hand of academic piety, known as modernism. Like radicalism, modernism addressed itself to the crisis of bourgeois society—in this case, bourgeois sensibility. Though many of its heroes and founders, e.g., T. S. Eliot, were reactionary in their politics rather than revolutionary, or rather, reactionary along with revolutionary, they trumpeted the death of the old order and broke through to a new way of seeing, sensing, and speaking.
Modernism, when it was alive and vital, lived in small magazines. The ground broken by the early pioneering of the avant-garde was now to be cleared, planted, made habitable by small communities of the initiated huddling around small publishing enterprises. What followed was a heady time, dubbed by the poet Randall Jarrell, with some irony but where no irony was required, the Age of Criticism. It was to these small magazines, and particularly Partisan Review, that Irving Howe, Trotskyite-turned-modernist, was drawn in the postwar years as the filing finds the magnet. In movement days, he had served for a time as editor (which in such cases also means author) of the Schachtmanite paper, Labor Action. Now, ensconced for family reasons in the town of Princeton—where, he tells us, he moved at the edges of the modernist enclave established there by R.P. Blackmur and at various times peopled by such promising young literary men as Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, and John Berryman—he learned to tame the fevered, strident literary persona of the agitator and to become a writer and critic.
It was of the essence of the Partisan Review world that its denizens were not “specialists” in the sense acknowledged by universities. Social comment, literature, philosophy, political analysis, if not strictly equal—for the prime jewel in this crown, of course, was Art—blurred into one another and jointly stood at the service of the highest form of criticism. Irving Howe’s placement in that world can most accurately be described by saying that he tended to occupy himself with American literature (though he wrote a good deal about European literature) and that he inevitably, sometimes without wishing to, stood at the nexus between literary sky and political earth. He was some years later to become a professor, as were most of his fellows. Not surprisingly, his academic career would commence at Brandeis University, a young institution founded and supported by Jews that had telescoped the normally long and painstaking process of becoming prestigious by taking on major faculty members not on the basis of academic accreditation but by virtue of their reputed achievements.
When did he cease to be a Trotskyite? Among the many things he glosses over is the breaking of his ties with the Workers party. Was there an occasion, a particular issue, or did he merely drift away, and when? True, the Workers party was itself to undergo a further evolution to dissolve, in fact, and enter—ultimately take over—the Socialist party. Moreover, Mr. Howe’s new literary companions on and around Partisan Review, in their continuing declared loyalty to the Left and their central devotion to anti-Stalinism, could be roughly characterized as in some sense Trotskyite. They were indeed often spoken of, in a phrase borrowed from the typology of Stalinism, as “fellow-travelers” of the Trotskyites. Such a characterization, however, was only a gross one, quite inapplicable to many of the individuals embraced by it. For Mr. Howe becoming an ex-Trotskyite, especially in view of the intensity with which party commitments were made and regarded by party comrades, had to have been a wrench. We may suppose, we are left only to suppose, that whatever the specific occasion for it, his conversion from convinced radical to unsystematic and unaffiliated socialist was somehow initiated by the war and completed during the 1950’s.
However and whenever it came about, as a token of this conversion, and of a continuing preoccupation with politics parallel to his newfound preoccupation with literature, in 1953 he founded a little magazine of his own, Dissent. As the magazine’s name implies, its purpose was to create a center for leftist criticism of capitalism and bourgeois society—particularly in their American variant—outside the purview of party and sect. He and the group of associates who started Dissent “all agreed that, if socialism had a future as either politics or idea, there would have to be a serious or prolonged reconsideration of its premises.” As the years between 1953 and 1960 wore on, and Dissent managed to survive, its circle of editors and contributors, in Mr. Howe’s words, “kept shedding more and more ideology.” By the latter date, Mr. Howe asserts, “most of us no longer thought of ourselves as Marxists. At times we seemed to have nothing left but the animating ethic of socialism.”
Perhaps, but something there was that contributed heavily both to Mr. Howe’s and to Dissent’s animation beyond the need to see what could be salvaged from the shards of a no longer ideologically anchored socialism. That was the now famous (and famously defamed) “conservative” cultural atmosphere of the 1950’s. He claimed to feel surrounded by intellectuals rushing in unseemly fashion, and from the unseemliest of motives, to desert their traditionally appointed posts as enemies of the status quo. Postwar America was growing rich and expansively hospitable to its heretofore excluded writers, thinkers, and dreamers (he himself, before going to Brandeis, had been employed as a book reviewer by Time magazine); and he found that with the honorable exceptions only of himself, a small band of associates, and a few odd loners, the intellectual community was on the whole responding to this hospitality by selling its heart and mind to the system. In a celebrated essay, published in Partisan Review in 1954, he characterized the period as “This Age of Conformity,” and in a tone bearing certain unerased vestiges of his early training in Trotskyite invective, accused his fellow intellectuals of having traded their critical birthright for the pottage of jobs, respectability, and honors. They had, in the idiom of radicalism, “sold out.” Some, he claimed, were merely being overgrateful for unanticipated material comfort; some were purchasing importance in the councils of the corporation and government; some were simply being cowardly in the face of a great new tide of conservatism sweeping over the country, a tide whose respectable expression was a new concern with such things as religion, ancient political philosophy, and Freudian theory, and whose capacity for ugliness was expressed in the vicious jingo anti-Communism of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
Playing in what Mr. Howe would have acknowledged was the respectable end of this tide, Partisan Review in 1952 published a symposium entitled “Our Country and Our Culture.” This symposium, a significant document of the time, posed the question to its contributors as to whether their former stance of alienation wasn’t being replaced by the wish “to be a part of American life.” Out of two dozen contributors to this symposium—aside from Mr. Howe himself, of course—only Norman Mailer, C. Wright Mills, and “in part” Philip Rahv, the magazine’s co-editor, answered the question to his satisfaction, i.e., in the negative. But even at the ugly end of 50’s conservatism, the McCarthyite end, he says—again save for Mr. Howe and his Dissent associates—the intellectuals had proved themselves at the very least inadequate. Partisan Review, he remembers, was insufficiently concerned, and COMMENTARY, emphasizing the threat to America from the Communists, was worse.3
Disputes about McCarthyism aside—and it seems that even after thirty years we shall never have done with them, providing so many people as they do with the opportunity to wrap themselves in piety and ignore the difficult and complex issue that actually lies behind them—Mr. Howe’s distorted account of the 50’s is the one, as we know, that has stuck. Seeing the 50’s as a period of cowardly or opportunistic conformity, of the intellectuals’ failure to maintain the degree of alienation toward American life necessary to the rightful exercise of their calling, has become pure convention. Indeed, despite his youthful radical temper, or no doubt because of it, almost nowhere in his voluminous writings on literature and society do we find an unconventional account of anything: neither literary work, nor idea, nor political issue. Even the nature of Jewish experience, an interest that came to him relatively late, came full-blown as the creature of sentimental leftist-Yiddishist convention.
Anyone who was on the scene, however, and Mr. Howe most emphatically was, had to have experienced the 50’s within the intellectual community as exactly the opposite, as a time of unparalleled literary and intellectual vitality, of battles and discoveries, gropings, reconsiderations, examinations, fresh and independent judgments, and a veritable explosion of creativity. There were new writers—unmatched as new talents till this day—and newly directed modes of analysis, compared with which moving into the radicalism of the late 60’s and 70’s was like returning to an airless cell. America was discovered in the 50’s and so was Europe. It was during those years that America’s universities enjoyed their one brief moment of lively connection to the central creative impulses in the surrounding world. Whatever was going on in American society at large (and not the least important thing going on was the birthing and rearing in uncertain and indulgent fashion of a vast cohort of children who would be lying in wait to wreak havoc on our cultural life), those privileged to live within the spaces of the intellectual community were enjoying the highest of excitements.
How, then, did this period come to be fixed—with the considerable aid of Mr. Howe himself—as a dull and oppressive time? The answer to this question emerges starkly from Mr. Howe’s book. It was a time—who could know how brief it would prove to be?—when utopianism of every kind was in eclipse; the energy was elsewhere. The recognition of what Hitler and Stalin had wrought, undreamed of in the philosophies both of pious liberals and reckless utopians, had brought in its wake the recognition of much else. The whole world was open to reexamination.
It had in fact mattered desperately which of the “imperialisms” won the war. We had been brought back, it was no occasion for abstract chatter, from the brink of the abyss. Something had been wrong with the radical intellectual’s relation to society, and above all, with his relation to life. Bourgeois society, with all its acknowledged sins—and itself still uncomprehending, still in the grip of all its old fatuousness—had nevertheless saved us. It had not only saved us but had proved itself institutionally sound. Who could now dare to destroy it, and who could any longer be so recklessly arrogant as to dismiss it? In this recognition lay the source of the 50’s energy. And by the same token, in this recognition lay the opportunity, the only opportunity, for leftist opposition.
The “animating ethic” of socialism that Mr. Howe and Dissent were left with, sans the cutting edge of Marxist theory and Marxist ideology, was no more than a will to remain utopian: utopianism, as it were, without Utopia. Thus the magazine, Mr. Howe says so himself, was (and remains) dull, clotted with old thoughts devoid of any serious reference to reality and merely concerned with the purity of its appearance. “Often Dissent must have seemed anxious, distracted, even boring. For we had to turn in upon ourselves . . . yet [fight] hard against opponents who wanted summarily to dismiss [socialist] principles,” says Mr. Howe. In other words, committed to carrying on the tradition of full-throated opposition to bourgeois capitalist society, it has had to evade, or ignore, the inevitable question: in comparison to what? The truth is that ignoring inevitable questions leaves one with very little new or arresting to say.
The 60’s arrived for Mr. Howe, as they did for everyone on or near the Left, in a burst of hope. The Southern civil-rights movement, introducing a new mode of nonviolent resistance, carried with it among other things the momentary illusion for utopians that there was a way actively and enthusiastically to oppose American society without at the same time giving aid and comfort to the Soviet Union. Before the decade was half over, however, it had become clear to those with eyes to see that we were once more heading around the track of the 30’s. If the Soviet Union was no longer the name of leftist desire—the 50’s had at least seen to that—there were substitutes: mainly Cuba (to be followed by Chile, North Vietnam, Nicaragua . . .). If there was no respectable Communist network controlling the party line and hoodwinking naive liberals, there was nevertheless a growing radical student movement which had adopted both its styles of thought and its public manners—along with its breezily truculent, self-serving unconcern for the principles of liberty. Insofar as there could be anything in the least unfamiliar to a man of Mr. Howe’s youthful experience about the country’s disaffected youth, it would have been the allegiance of so many to the ideas and practices of anarchism. Nonviolence quickly turned to violence. The refusal to be bound by rules, any rules, turned children against their elders, impelled them to don rags and roam the country simulating poverty, destroy their brains with drugs, burn books, and rage against the very idea of responsibility, social, intellectual, or personal.
This was not what Mr. Howe or anyone else had bargained for in the halcyon days of sit-ins and freedom rides. Any illusions that the youthful turn to radicalism might be offering a genuinely fresh start to the process of social transformation had to be purchased at the price of denying what was before one’s very eyes. A new crisis of decision seized the intellectual community: to stifle one’s own hard-earned experience and become slavish to the easy insolence of the children, or to earn the epithets—epithets so recently put into circulation by Irving Howe himself and those he approved of—“establishment,” “conformist,” and “sell-out.” The record of response to this crisis speaks for itself and need not be rehearsed. The number of people who collapsed into silence, or greeted the intellectually and artistically barbaric effusions of revived Marxist and anarchist radicalisms with forced solemnity, or simply cowered and simpered and surrendered, was legion.
Mr. Howe, as it happened, was not one of these. Fortified perhaps by his own memory of radical infighting and invective, he got the message and took it to heart: “I felt that some of the [New Left] spokesmen wanted not just to refute my opinions . . . but also to erase, to eliminate, to ‘smash’ people like me.” He became a resister. And like all resisters in those times, when the word “freedom” was on everybody’s lips but its exercise was being outlawed in the literary-intellectual community, he suffered great strain, personal as well as public, in his relations with that community. Old friends like Norman Mailer it was no longer possible to be playful with. There was a brutal exchange with Philip Rahv—once, as editor of Partisan Review, a central figure in the lives and careers of at least two generations of younger intellectuals—in the pages of the New York Review of Books (Rahv had “accused” him of being one of those social democrats who clung to the “democrat” at the expense of the “social”). Personal loyalty had never been any part of Philip Rahv’s public or private baggage, but there were others, more ordinarily endowed, who fell by the wayside as well.4
Behind this crisis of the intellectual community loomed the Vietnam war—more, as it turned out, an excuse than a cause. For only a very few members of that community supported the war. The debate turned not on whether the war was a good thing or a bad thing so far as United States interests were concerned, but whether it was moral or immoral to attempt to obstruct the “liberation” of South Vietnam by the Vietcong and Hanoi. Mr. Howe, as usual, took a third position: that American support for the government of Saigon was immoral precisely because it would assure the victory of the Communists. “Even if one judged the Saigon regime to be a ‘lesser evil,’ the reality in Vietnam was that once the civil war began, support to Saigon meant assuring the victory of Hanoi.” Opposing the war while viewing with dread the prospects of a Communist victory proved to be a minority position among the intellectuals. It was, though perhaps practically sound, a morally confused position; and it was not Mr. Howe’s alone but could be found throughout the so-called “responsible” precincts of the antiwar movement (including the pages of COMMENTARY). To defend this position with pride in 1982, however, as Mr. Howe does, is a rather different matter. The grim and politically dangerous results of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam may have been without alternative but they are certainly a moral blot on the advocates of that withdrawal. In any case, at the time conditions of any kind attached to one’s opposition to the war were enough to keep one in an embattled state.
Mr. Howe’s resistance to the cultural and political rowdiness of 60’s radicalism lost him old friends but brought him new ones, if all too briefly. The. socialist tradition of splits, new coalitions, followed by newer splits and newer coalitions, was to find a new translation. He writes at some length about Richard Hofstadter and Lionel Trilling, once dismissed as conservatives and now rediscovered as humane liberals. Other connections, such as that with COMMENTARY, seem to have fled from his memory altogether, but were nevertheless made. Though with a selectivity that goes so far as to invite the word “dishonest,” and with a good deal of retrospective apology (“I overreacted, becoming at times harsh and strident. I told myself that I was one of the few people who took the New Left seriously enough to keep arguing with it”), the point is made: the New Left was in his opinion fomenting a disaster, repeating, in fact, all the mistakes of his own youth and then some, and he refused to go along.
So deprived of any lingering hope of radicalism, Mr. Howe faced the 70’s. These were the years that were to solidify and broaden his fame as a writer. They were to provide a new movement for social progress—militant feminism—toward which he quickly suppressed his original impulse of opposition and took up his preferred posture of endorsing the ends and being occasionally regretful about the means. The 70’s were to bring him into relation with Israel, the same relation he had adopted toward the West during World War II, namely, one of “critical support.” They were to introduce into his life an enriching new passion, the ballet. They were to bring a side interest in Yiddish literature into full creative connection with his socialism, producing his longest, sprightliest, and best-received book, World of Our Fathers. They were to confront him with the death of his father, an event that, for middle-aged men especially, brings, along with grief, meditations as sweet as they are frightening on the meaning of their own lives. Above all, the 70’s brought the taming of the radical student movement, and with it, relief from the great burden of complexity in having to walk a narrow line between the Marxists and the capitalists, between Hanoi and Washington, between the young and the authorities. The territory of the Left had once again been cleared and opened, and he was able to return home. All in all, for Irving Howe at least, it was a good decade.
The home to which he returned, facing the 80’s, had been pretty badly burnt out. Marxism was gone; radicalism had for a second and final time been ruled out; socialism, its name taken in vain by a majority of the world’s most ugly despotisms and its programs in practice leading everywhere to economic blight and progressive immiseration, had been permanently reduced to an “animating ethic.” No serious new ideas, large plans of action, or even, strictly speaking, near-term policies were to be planted in such charred and used-up soil. One thing only was left to cultivate, a growth impervious to the sterility and exhaustion of its surroundings: namely, Mr. Howe’s hostility to those who refused to return home with him.
Somewhere in A Margin of Hope he remarks, “Conservative thought in the 50’s, the kind that was openly declared, can seem fairly benign when compared with the rougher, meaner versions of three decades later.” What he is referring to here, of course, is the “movement” called neoconservatism. For Mr. Howe, neoconservatism is to be distinguished from the kind of conservatism for which he can now feel a muted, backward-glancing respect by the fact that the neoconservatives were once men of the Left who turned on it in its days of grief. Having seen and been chastened by the weaknesses of socialism, they offered their loyalty to capitalism. This in his eyes would have been mean enough, for it proved they had no “compassion.” But they did worse. They not only gave up the dream for the reality, but they proceeded to declare the dream the wrong dream. Moreover, they had the effrontery to offer moral arguments for doing so. Capitalism, they said, was not just the only alternative to socialist failure, it was actually the better alternative. They were, they said, not only accepting but embracing the implications of their experience. This was unforgivable, and saying so has been the major if not the sole source of Mr. Howe’s remaining political vigor, and that of his magazine, for some time. After all, the experience whose implications the neoconservatives had accepted and come to live by had been his experience as well; yet he had found no such acceptance necessary.
The “ethic” of a socialist whose socialism has no content beyond the hope of what Mr. Howe calls “a radical humanism”—a term that 20th-century history has in any case rendered an oxymoron—is evidently the ethic of merely assuming one’s moral superiority. It is a posture rather than an ethic, a posture adopted with the express purpose of holding one’s skirts above the mud of reality:
The kind [of Utopia] imposed by an elite in the name of a historical imperative—that Utopia is hell. It must lead to terror and then, terror exhausted, to cynicism and torpor. But surely there is another Utopia. It exists at no point in time and space, it is never merely given, it cannot be willed either into existence or out of sight, it speaks for our sense of what yet may be. Or may not. But whether a real option or mere fantasy, this Utopia is as needed by mankind as bread and shelter.
From this posture, no failure of policy ever need be confronted, no error need be confessed. Most of all, no choices need be made. Just as he could once hope for the defeat of the Nazis without “making explicit” his support for the war that was the means of bringing about that defeat, so now he can cling to his belief in the principles of liberty and his hopes for a worldwide improvement in the public welfare without having to involve himself seriously in the question of how those beliefs and hopes might actually be secured.
It is little wonder that he has become a figure to be applauded and cherished by all those—calling themselves socialists or sometimes, euphemistically, liberals—who wish to enjoy their freedom and yet for whom the freedom most to be cherished is the freedom to remain hostile critics of so many of the things that freedom itself depends on.
1 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 368 pp., $14.95.
2 James Q. Wilson, a political thinker hardly known for hasty or breezy judgments, some years ago quipped that the future of the Democratic party depended upon which of two warring factions among the Social Democrats U.S.A. would prevail. The factions he referred to were the group committed to the labor movement and the group advocating the so-called New Politics; the verdict is not yet in.
3 It would be hard to tell from reading Mr. Howe's account that both the earliest and most thorough analysis of the McCarthy phenomenon had appeared in COMMENTARY, nor that by 1954 McCarthy had been destroyed, and by a conservative administration. Nor would one know that the only “debate” about McCarthy among the intellectuals had been about whether or not he was the harbinger of a coming American fascism—a question whose historical outcome Mr. Howe conveniently neglects to mention. In compiling the record of opposition to McCarthy to which Howe refers, Dissent, only founded in 1953, must have been mainly conducting a post-mortem.
4 Mr. Howe of all people might have had ample preparation for this, for in the department of public brutality his own Trotskyite training had not vanished without leaving behind its vivid traces. He himself once called a public meeting—it is described with pride and satisfaction in his book—to further the controversy raging over Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. The meeting was, to put it mildly, unruly; if one can say such a thing of the treatment of a book, it was a lynching. Hannah Arendt's work fully deserved the outrage it occasioned, if for nothing else than its tone. Nevertheless, it did not then and does not now occur to Mr. Howe that gathering a mob against a book is not a proper form of intellectual manners. As a critic, he had available to him a better—one should say the only—decent means of conducting literary controversy, i.e., pen and paper. Thus, as he was to learn over and over on his own flesh, do the habits of radical activism incline one to spectacle rather than argument.