April 8, 2003
by Ronald Radosh
Irving Howe was undoubtedly one of our country's most eminent intellectuals, a man of passion and intelligence whose very being epitomized the now-lost world of the 1930s and '40s "New York intellectuals," a term that Howe in fact coined in a famous 1968 essay. By profession a literary critic who wrote about Celine, Faulkner, Emerson and other giants of literature, he eventually came to return his gaze to the world of the Yiddish-speaking community into which he was born and from whose ranks he brought to the world's attention in 1954 a little-known writer named Isaac Bashevis Singer. Howe, of course, was most well known for his paean to that community, World of Our Fathers (1976), in which he captured for his readers what his new biographer calls the "authentic, coherent, and enduring Jewish meaning in the collective experience of ordinary Jewish men and women."
But Irving Howe was also, as Gerald Sorin tells us in his appropriately subtitled Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, a lifelong socialist activist, a man for whom, as Howe often said, the socialist movement was his school and university. What Sorin has accomplished in this beautifully written, balanced and probing intellectual biography is the most complete picture we have of Howe, a portrait of how one Jewish intellectual and activist struggled daily to balance scholarship and politics and the life of the mind and a life of action.
Howe was the first of his immigrant parents' family to attend college. As with other Jewish New Yorkers, that meant the free City College of New York, where, rather than spend much time in what they considered to be meaningless classes, Howe and his friends spent their student days in the 1930s arguing politics and culture in the famous "alcoves" in the CCNY lunchroom. There Howe and his fellow socialist friend Irving Kristol were part of the Trotskyist student group that regularly challenged and derided the nearby alcove, composed of the followers of Joseph Stalin and the American Communist Party.
As Sorin reveals, the socialist movement may indeed have been Howe's actual university, but it was in many ways a stultifying, sectarian and isolated world, far removed from that inhabited by most Americans. Indeed, Howe was part of a small Trotskyist sect which believed that the Soviet Union and the United States were equally evil imperialist powers and that, when these nations found themselves threatened by Hitler's Germany, it was a socialist's duty to resist supporting any imperialist nation, even if it would lead to an alliance against fascism. Decades later, Howe was so embarrassed about his views during World War II that in his own memoir, A Margin of Hope (1982), he wrote that he and his Workers Party comrades held to a position of "critical support" for the war against Hitler. As Sorin shows, Howe greatly "overstated" the case; Howe's writings "indicate nothing like support for the war, critical or otherwise." His concentration was on attacking the bourgeois democracies and opposing those who favored participating in war against Nazism. Howe thought the only solution was a revolution against all the ruling classes.
Perhaps because Howe started out his life in politics in such a sectarian milieu, he spent the rest of his life struggling against the kind of political movements that led to meaningless activity and endless political infighting, while trying desperately to maintain the radical spirit that moved him to join such a movement in the first place—the goal to help create what he called a "world more attractive." He would seek respite from the storms surrounding him by retreating to contemplation of literature, writing and scholarship.
In the postwar era, Howe found that a position guaranteeing employment and a decent salary was to be had teaching at the college and university level—jobs available even to writers like himself, who were gaining a reputation in literary circles but who had no advanced academic degrees. No longer did the New York radical intellectuals have to get by on small advances from literary magazines or on reviews for mass circulation magazines for which they had nothing but scorn. His experience with journals of opinion at the same time led Howe to see that his search for a realistic radicalism could be advanced by creation of his own radical magazine, which he and the sociologist Lewis Coser founded in 1954 and named Dissent.
For Howe, socialism no longer was an actual possibility; rather, it became simply "the name of our desire." In reality, the former would-be revolutionary showed that he had what Commentary editor Elliot Cohen called a "social-democratic temperament." Acknowledging the accuracy of that observation, Howe would try for the remainder of his life to impart that very sensibility to a new generation, though Howe often found himself between friends and associates who moved firmly in different directions—some more radical, others more conservative.
In the 1950s, Howe's new journal became a vehicle for moderate opposition to what he saw as a new and dangerous conformity that threatened intellectual and cultural freedom as the power and influence of Sen. Joseph McCarthy grew. While many of his friends celebrated postwar America, seeing the United States evolving in a healthy and democratic direction, Howe remained skeptical and wary and resisted the drift to acceptance of the new status quo. Howe objected to friends like Sidney Hook, who, while having disdain for McCarthy, were more worried about "knee-jerk liberals" who were anti-anti-communist. But unlike others on the Left, who gravitated toward condemning the United States and who sought to continue the wartime Popular Front alliance between liberals, communists and their fellow travelers, Howe and Dissent firmly opposed both what they saw as a drift to conformity and the softness toward Stalinism and the Soviet Union held by many on the Left.
Of course Howe himself became a rather vociferous anti-communist. His problem was rather unique. Having rejected the Trotskyist "third camp" sectarianism of his youth (in which radicals rejected taking the side of either American or Soviet imperialism), he moved toward what some facetiously called a "second-and-a-half camp," in which he supported the West in the struggle against Soviet totalitarianism but rejected many of the anti-communist policies pursued by various administrations, such as the armed overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954. Yet, as Howe continually reiterated, a democratic radicalism could not be reborn unless one first rejected any kind of association with totalitarian communists.
As the 1960s erupted, the birth of the civil rights movement proved encouraging to Howe's dreams, the anti-Vietnam War movement helped produce a new radicalism whose participants described themselves as a New Left, and Howe's anti-communism produced a new set of problems. As the self-proclaimed young radicals practiced direct action, a new militancy and a strong rejection of liberalism—along with adopting a newfound Marxist rhetoric—Howe's view of them turned sour. The tensions between Howe's generation of old social democrats and the New Left of figures like Tom Hayden quickly approached a breaking point. Howe and his younger-movement associate Michael Harrington favored a coalition of socialists with organized labor and the middle classes, with a goal of forcing a realignment of the Democratic Party into a formidable liberal political force. Not only did this goal pit them against the New Left's rejection of coalition politics, but the two sides also broke apart over the communist issue. When Hayden and the new radicals, the Students for a Democratic Society, wrote their 1962 manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement, they emphasized what they called "participatory democracy" and rejected any calls to exclude communists from membership in their group as "red-baiting." In addition, the new radicals identified with Third World Marxist revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, blamed the Cold War primarily on the United States and completely rejected any form of anti-communism, including Howe's left-wing variety.
Howe responded by writing a stern essay, "New Styles in Leftism," and demanded in a 1965 debate with Hayden that the young radical criticize "the so-called socialist countries," to which Hayden fired back: "I won't be red-baited." At that point, Hayden stormed out of the debate, accompanied by myself, Jack Newfield and Nat Hentoff, and we commiserated at the obstinacy and irrelevance of the old social democrats. It was an unbreakable divide. As Sorin writes, Howe saw young people "ignorant of the past and unwilling or unable to learn from other people's experience ... who were going to repeat the mistakes of the Old Left." Hayden and the others saw the social democrats as obsolete apologists for the American Empire, with whom they could not in good conscience cooperate.
From that point on, Howe's name became anathema to most of the New Left. At some colleges, Sorin tells us, Howe's very presence at the lectern would "elicit a loud chorus of jeers." The audience would shout even before he uttered one word—the type of treatment usually afforded the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick during the Reagan years. With the war in Vietnam escalating, Howe's attempt to lead a moderate opposition failed. The mass movement demanded unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops, which meant in effect a communist victory. Howe called only for negotiations and a bombing halt, even though he feared that eventually the outcome would be a disastrous North Vietnamese triumph, which he did not favor but would reluctantly accept as inevitable. Yet in the New Left's eyes, Howe was in effect supporting the continued war.
Sorin treats all Howe's differences with the emerging New Left in detail. But in his book's last chapters, in which he tries to deal with just how Howe coped with the failure of America to reach the dream of his socialist desire, Sorin writes as one who seeks to vindicate Howe's hope that socialism remained a "valuable guide to human action." Indeed, he writes that a few days before his death, Howe was still trying to "explore possibilities for rebuilding the movement."
While this sentiment has a somewhat quixotic character, Sorin fails to address the point made to Howe by Nathan Glazer when Dissent first started: that just possibly one could honestly reach different conclusions based on reexamining old assumptions in "response to changing conditions." Howe had a right not to join Kristol and others in moving toward neoconservatism, but one searches for an explanation of what led Howe to discard his lifelong anti-communism, move toward forging alliances with the New Left remnant he once criticized and, in the 1980s, move toward support of the Sandinistas when people like Mexican writer Octavio Paz were pointing out that these new rebels were emulating the Cuban-Soviet path.
Howe became in his last years obsessed with Reaganism, and that obsession pushed him further left. The former Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, writing in the journal Howe had come to disdain as the voice of neoconservatism, Commentary, pointed out that socialism had finally "met its Waterloo." Rather than face what this development actually meant for the modern world, Howe followed the path sarcastically noted by Genovese, who wrote that those who remained socialists preferred "to happily dwell on the evil legacy of Ronald Reagan." Howe could not acknowledge that there might be some validity to some of the criticisms made by conservative critics of the welfare state; nor could he ever acknowledge the failure of so many of the old liberal bromides.
Irving Howe was a man of his times; he refused to move from his steady rock when others he started out political life with moved on. Yet he always showed thoughtfulness and a firm commitment to democracy, and was always willing to open the pages of his journal to those with whom he vigorously disagreed. In his last years, he even approached Sidney Hook to explore working against the new political correctness he saw emerging in academia. Sorin has ably captured the life and passion of this most unusual man, whose commitment to democracy is a legacy still worth cherishing.
Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, Gerald Sorin, New York University Press: 386 pp., $32.95
This review appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 6.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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