February 18, 1991
To be universally respected at the close of one’s career can be a bitter fate. For nearly five decades Irving Howe has scolded and coaxed, reasoned with and preached to, American society – on the whole futilely, as he would be the first to admit. McCarthyism, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Reagan regression, the conformism of intellectuals and the commercialization of culture have rolled along unaffected by the forceful, eloquent, scrupulously nuanced criticism perseveringly produced by Howe and his democratic-socialist comrades in their journal, Dissent, and elsewhere. Though radical in substance, that criticism has generally been moderate in tone; so American society, impervious to enlightenment but sensitive to ridicule, has gratefully accorded Howe a measure of moral prestige as an elder statesman for the “responsible” left. Even veteran radicals cherish respectability (and its perquisites, like the McArthur grant bestowed on Howe nearly four years ago). But I don’t doubt that Howe would gladly trade his for, say, the prospect of a modest national health-insurance program or a slight reduction in arms sales abroad.
Howe is by no means exclusively a political writer. Most of Selected Writings is in fact literary criticism: Howe was a professor of English for thirty years and has published books on Hardy, Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, besides several collections of essays and reviews. Nor are his literary interests and approach limited by ideology. Predictably, he has written with sympathy and insight about Zola, Dreiser, and Silone; less predictably but equally well about Wharton and Frost, Leskov and Pirandello, Whitman and Stevens, Edward Arlington Robinson and T.E. Lawrence. And his three major essays on modernism (two of them, “The Idea of the Modern” and “The City in Literature,” are included in Selected Writings; the other, “Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction,” is not) are definitive.
But Howe’s first love, or first vocation, was politics. The East Bronx in the 1920s and 1930s, where he grew up, was an ideological hothouse, from which the children of immigrant Jewish unionists generally emerged as one or another variety of socialist. At City College, this cohort of young radicals – Howe, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and a couple of hundred others – sharpened their dialectical skills debating each other about Capital, current events, and, above all, Trotskyist schism and Stalinist orthodoxy. (There’s a piquant sketch of this milieu in Howe’s 1982 memoir, A Margin of Hope.)
Howe was an active member of a small Trotskyist group, editing its journal and speaking at its forums, when he was drafted in 1942 and sent to Alaska. There he sat out World II in an undemanding clerical job and read, read, read. This enforced turn inward, and perhaps also the postwar collapse of revolutionary fervor throughout the American left, accelerated Howe’s ideological evolution. After a brief spell of renewed party activity, he abandoned Trotskyism for a non-sectarian, unaffiliated radicalism – moved, so to speak, from agitation to dissent. In 1954, with $2,000 and a few like-minded radicals, he started Dissent.
Meanwhile, on the strength of his freelance literary criticism in Partisan Review and Commentary, he was offered a job teaching at newly founded Brandeis University. Eventually he returned to New York, teaching at his alma mater and at Hunter College. Like many other children of immigrants, Howe returned also to his ethnic roots, editing and writing about Yiddish literature even as it became virtually extinct in the 1960s and 1970s, and producing World of Our Fathers, a panoramic (and best-selling) portrait of Jewish immigrant life.
The world of the children has, however, attracted even more attention. In the last decade or so, a spate of histories, biographies, and memoirs has traced the career of the New York intellectuals, from their spectacular debut in the 1930s and 1940s via Partisan Review, through their ascent to cultural prominence, their reconciliation with American society in the 1950s, and their (sometimes) re-radicalization or (more often) conservative turn in the 1960s and 1970s. The research has been assiduous, the interpretations ingenious, the polemics fierce. And with reason: they were an unusually coherent and distinguished group, including Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Sidney Hook, Meyer Schapiro, Philip Rahv, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Harold Rosenberg, Delmore Schwartz, Bell, Kristol, Howe, and quite a few others equally or only slightly less eminent. For a brief Golden Age, they seem to have attained or at least approached an intellectual ideal: a union of independence and community, integrity and commitment, cosmopolitanism and authority. All this, in turn, made their political evolution especially significant, as though it marked the inevitable trajectory of intellectual radicalism in America.
There was not, of course, only one trajectory, or even two. But there was a general movement that had, if not a common destination, at least a common point of departure. The illusions painfully and publicly shed by one after another of the New York intellectuals were, first, that a socialist revolution was possible in the foreseeable future; and second, that a pseudo-socialist or Leninist revolution, which would leave a single party in control of the state and the economy, was desirable, if only as a step toward genuine socialism.
Renouncing these beliefs did the New York intellectuals credit? But where did it leave them politically? Most of them it left in an apolitical limbo, from which they sallied forth only for an occasional Partisan Review symposium or cause celebre, such as the controversy over Hannah Arendt’s 1963 report on the trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann or the student strike at Columbia in 1968. Some let themselves be carried by the momentum of their rejection all the way into neoconservatism. Howe took the path of most resistance, determined to avoid the simplicities of orthodoxy and apostasy alike, to keep faith both with socialism’s original vision and with the victims of those who have falsely claimed to be realizing that vision in the 20th century.
It has been a struggle. In a much-quoted anecdote from Howe’s autobiography, a friend observes that although Howe’s politics are entirely admirable, they are, alas, “boring”; an abashed Howe agrees. I don’t, on either count. Howe’s politics have at times been less than admirable, but his political development has been a complicated, continuously interesting moral drama.
The essence of drama is conflict. Howe’s career has been marked by a symmetrical pair of conflicts: with the older intellectuals who, after World War II, made an ignoble peace with American society, and with the young radicals who, in the late 1960s, made incoherent war on it. “This Age of Conformity” (1954) was occasioned by the intellectuals’ response, or lack of response, to McCarthyism, and more particularly by the famous Partisan Review symposium, “Our Country and our Culture.” The willingness of Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, and other proto-neoconservatives to minimize McCarthy’s threat to civil liberties; the pseudo-religious vagaries of many New Critics; even Lionel Trilling’s Olympian nods of approval at mid-century American civilization – for Howe, these were symptoms of a subtle abdication of the critical spirit. “We have all,” he wryly lamented, “even the handful who still try to retain a glower of criticism, become responsible and moderate.”
“This Age of Conformity” was an effective polemic. Even the middlebrow journals, Howe noted ruefully a few years later, were soon “alive with chatter about conformity.” But the essay transcends polemic. Concisely and cogently, Howe identified the historical processes that had produced inescapable pressures toward conformism – above all, the advent of mass society, “a society in which ideology plays an unprecedented part.” Intellectuals were recruited en masse into administration, advertising, education, and entertainment. Appearances notwithstanding, the resulting gain in status was not a gain in real social power: it was in fact a loss, not of power (critical intellectuals had none to lose) but of autonomy:
The institutional world needs intellectuals because they are intellectuals but it does not want them as intellectuals. It beckons to them because of what they are but it will not allow them, at least within its sphere of articulation, to either remain or entirely cease being what they are. … A simplified but useful equation suggests itself: the relation of the institutional world to the intellectuals is like the relation of middlebrow culture to serious culture. The one battens on the other, absorbs and raids it with increasing frequency and skill, subsidizes and encourages it enough to make further raids possible – sometimes the parasite will support its victim.
Resistance to these pressures was undermined by the disappearance of bohemia, a casualty of prosperity and urban renewal. Three decades before Russell Jacoby’s acclaimed The Last Intellectuals, Howe’s essay described the integration of the literati into the universities and the transformation of the man of letter into the academic critic. The result was a “gradual bureaucratization of opinion and taste,” the creep of massification into the realm of the spirit.
“This Age of Conformity” was a masterpiece, one of the pearls in Partisan’s crown. Combining a rhetorical verve equal to anything of Sartre’s, a historical penetration akin to Trotsky’s (with a far more restrained and effective deployment of sarcasm), and an unsentimental humanism reminiscent of Orwell, it was not just astute but exciting. Not boring at all.
Howe’s reputation for tedious correctness is mostly derived, though, from his other major public controversy, with the New Left. As readers of Maurice Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer, Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties, or any other serious account of the period will know, relations were not always hostile. Dissent welcomed, even celebrated, the early New Left. Why things turned sour in the mid-‘60s has lately been the subject of almost as much research and debate as the political peregrinations of the New York intellectuals. The protagonists – Howe, Michael Harrington, Tom Hayden – all write memoirs during the ‘80s in which each one graciously assumed a large share of blame. But the issues remain.
What the older radicals – Howe, Harrington, and others from Dissent and the League for Industrial Democracy – wanted from the younger ones was a consistent, explicit, comprehensive anti-communism. The younger ones – Hayden and other leaders of SDS – demurred. Because they had learned anti-communism from J. Edgar Hoover and Reader’s Digest rather than Rosa Luxemburg and Victor Serge, they mistrusted it. Because Castro and Ho Chi Minh were targets of imperial violence, the younger radicals saw them as victims (which they were) but not as dictators (which they also were). It is notoriously difficult to keep two opposing truths in one’s mind at the same time, let alone figure out how to act on them. The young radicals couldn’t manage it, and the older ones were no help.
They were even, at times, a hindrance. It’s true the young were terribly provoking – the leadership’s swaggering arrogance eventually produced an open revolt among New Left women, which was the Lexington and Concord of contemporary American feminism. But although most of Howe’s strictures throughout the ‘60s were justified in tone and content, he finally, fatally, stopped complaining to the young radicals and started complaining about them. The result, predictably, was a deterioration of relations and escalation of angry rhetoric, and sometimes petty malice, on both sides. The episode was one of Howe’s few lapses from political grace.
Another is his apparently invincible antipathy to Noam Chomsky, the leading left-wing critic of American foreign policy, with whom Howe has, as far as I can tell, few or no fundamental political differences. Chomsky’s criticism’s of some of Howe’s more embattled formulations about the New Left and the Middle East, while largely correct in substance, have been excessively harsh in tone. Still, Howe edits a journal and Chomsky does not, a circumstance that imposes unequal obligations. That the best journal of the American left is, in effect, closed to the most important writer on the American left, however personally difficult; that Chomsky’s awesome logical powers and appetite for facts and Howe’s verbal, psychological, and moral subtlety and tact have, instead of supplementing each other, reacted on each other like gasoline and water – this is a large misfortune. And that the embargo, or at least inhospitality, extends to Gabriel Kolko, Michael Klare, Thomas Ferguson, Joel Rogers, and other talented radicals who might both improve Dissent’s foreign-policy coverage and themselves benefit from comradely criticism by its editors and others contributors – this is a small tragedy.
Howe’s politics have never been more admirable, however, than in his frequent restatements of the socialist ideal. From “Images of Socialism” (1954) to Socialism and America (1985), Howe has anxiously but unflinchingly demanded: “Can one still specify what the vision of socialism means or should mean?” After Stalinism and Maoism, it’s obvious what socialism doesn’t mean. Less obviously, perhaps, but just as surely, it doesn’t mean merely the electoral triumph of a socialist party, as Mitterrand’s painful experience shows. The only way to answer Howe’s question is to gather up fragments from the tradition – cries of protest and invocations of solidarity, heroic lives and utopian fantasies, analytic strands and programmatic patches – and fuse them imaginatively. The resulting unity will be only temporary; the ideal will need to be reimagined in every generation. But this is how traditions live. In our time, Howe’s efforts, as much as anyone else’s, have kept the socialist tradition alive.
A volume of selected writings, especially one covering four decades, invites a summing up. After all his political positions are noted and literary judgments weighed, what kind of writer/critic/intellectual has Howe been? Anyone considering Howe’s work must first of all be impressed -- whether favorably or unfavorably, as superb ambition or absurd presumption – by its extraordinary range. Howe has lived by his own dictum: “By impulse, if not definition, the intellectual is a man who writes about subjects outside his field. He has no field.” Howe has in fact characterized his work better than anyone else could, in yet another brilliant, definitive essay, “The New York Intellectuals”:
The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to “go beyond” it subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle …
At its best, [this style] reflected a certain view of the intellectual life: free-lance dash, peacock strut, daring hypothesis, knockabout synthesis. For better or worse it was radically different from the accepted modes of scholarly publishing and middlebrow journalism. It celebrated the ideal of the intellectual as anti-specialist, or as a writer whose specialty was the lack of a specialty: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.
The New York style, like every other, had the defects of its virtues. “Impatience with dullness” could decline into smugness and condescension; an exquisite sense of the problematic could turn into a fetish of complexity. “No easy certainties,” Howe once write about the responsibility of intellectuals, “and no easy acceptance of uncertainty.” The later failing is rarer and in a way more honorable. But it is still a failing, one to which Howe himself is prone. His frequent thrusts at the “crude simplicities of left and right” occasionally sound reflexive – as though it’s the energy rather than the crudity of his opponent’s formulation that really annoys him. A comparatively unsophisticated leftist – Howard Zinn, say – can scarcely negotiate, or even perceive, the analytic and strategic that exercise Howe. But Zinn has done useful work over the years in rousing the citizenry. If he skirts, and sometimes falls into, demagoguery … well, as Barbara Ehrenreich remarked in defense of Jesse Jackson: What’s wrong with a little (she meant a little populist demagoguery? Dissent aims to produce a refined and complicated political awareness among its readers. It’s a noble aim. But someone or something else must first have produced an elemental political awareness.
The New York intellectuals are passing from the scene, along with the conditions that produced their distinctive style: the immigrant background’ fascism, Stalinism, and global depression; the innovations of the great modernists. So much is inevitable and even desirable. No style can remain fresh and original for long. But as Howe, Jacoby, and many others by now have lamented, the very ideal of cosmopolitanism, of the intellectual as “anti-specialist,” uniting political and aesthetic interests and able to speak with some authority about both, is obsolescent.
It’s a troubling prospect, and an ambiguous one. The cult of professionalism and expertise, the “bureaucratization of opinion and taste,” are not merely mechanisms of social control or a cultural failure of nerve. They are also in part a response to genuine intellectual progress. There’s more to know now than in the ‘30s, and more people have joined the conversation. Perhaps the demise of the “public intellectual,” of the “dilettante-connoisseur,” is a symptom of crisis: a sign that intellectual wholeness is no longer attainable; that the classical ideals of wisdom as catholicity of understanding, and of citizenship as the capacity to discuss all public affairs, must be abandoned. Perhaps we’ll have to learn to live with that.
If so, then those who come after, when reckoning the costs of progress, will want to consider a few exemplary specimens from the world they have lost. Among 20th-century American intellectuals, they could do worse than to choose Irving Howe.