from The New York Intellectuals, by Alan M. Wald (pp. 311-321):

"The Cul-de-sac of Social Democracy"

         What would happen if men remained faithful to the ideals of 
	 their youth?
         --—Pietro Spina in Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine 


For the New York intellectuals, the consequences of Cold War anticommunism extend far beyond the 1950s. The transformation in ideology and political consciousness consolidated in the early 1950s definitively and perhaps permanently shifted the axis of anti-Stalinism from its revolutionary anticapitalist premise, creating a movement that discredited more than it assisted the far left. Indeed, the behavior of the bulk of the New York intellectuals in the 1950s undermined the validity of the whole anti-Stalinist current of thought and even somewhat redeemed the Communist, fellow-traveling, and progressive liberals who acted heroically by comparison.

After all, in the face of the political repression -- the first real test for the generation that came of age in the 1930s -- most of the anti-Stalinists not only denuded themselves of past radicalism but developed sophisticated rationalizations for tolerating the essence if not the precise McCarthyite form of the witch-hunt. Responsibility for the bulk of the resistance among intellectuals, as well as for antiracist and anti-imperialist political activity, was handed over to the Communists, fellow travelers, and progressive liberals. These women and men may have suffered persecution at the time, but they achieved near martyrdom in the eyes of the next generation of left-wing intellectuals. Ignorance on the part of 1960s New Leftists was not the sole reason that apologists for Stalinism such as Lillian Hellman, Paul Robeson, and the Hollywood Ten were resurrected as moral beacons; their rehabilitation was the logical by-product of the dismal record of all but a few of the founders of the intellectual anti-Stalinist left.

Factors such as political vision and sustained membership in socialist organizations seem to have been more important than age in determining whether or not one accommodated to the witch-hunt and the foreign policy it was intended to legitimize. Moreover, the course taken by most of the generation of radicalized students who had come to anti- Stalinist Marxism during the middle and the late 1930s parallels that of the founders. Those who held membership in or were closely allied with the Trotskyist movement in the New York and New Jersey area comprised an impressive range of future intellectuals: Irving Howe, literary critic and editor of *Dissent*; Melvin Tumin, sociologist and anthropologist; Lawrence Kradar, anthropologist; Martin Diamond, political scientist; Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian; I. Milton Sacks, political scientist; Morroe Berger, sociologist; Peter Rossi, sociologist; Seymour Martin Lipset, sociologist; Philip O. Selznick, sociologist; Leslie Fiedler, literary critic; Irving Kristol, journalist; and Melvin J. Lasky, editor of *Encounter*. Of this generation, almost none considered themselves as socialists of any variety after the Cold War began, and a fair number subsequently evolved considerably to the right. Among the exceptions was Irving Howe, perhaps the most significant and capable radical literary critic of our time.

That Howe was able to bring an element of socialist discourse into American literary and academic circles during the Cold War years testifies to his considerable intellectual resources and certain strengths of character. That he vehemently turned against the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s, caricaturing its aims and activities, and even flirted briefly with the incipient neoconservatives and their campaign against the *New York Review of Books*, may be evidence of the limitations of the social democratic perspective that he chose as his political guide. Hardworking, an impressive literary craftsman, a critic of exceptional imaginative and intellectual powers, and a tireless fighter for his political views, Howe's inability to revitalize the anti-Stalinist left as more than an impotent wing of liberalism is due primarily to a self- defeating political strategy, not personal defects in morality or intelligence.

Howe was born Irving Horenstein in 1920, the son of immigrants who ran a small grocery store that went out of business during the Great Depression. A socialist activist even before he entered the City College of New York, Howe gravitated quickly to the Trotskyist wing of the Young Peoples Socialist League, becoming one of its national leaders after it broke from the Socialist Party to become the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party. On the City College campus he was a main leader of the Trotskyist students, full of fiery rhetoric and eager for militant action not so different from some of the most extreme {but nonterrorist) elements of the New Left of the 1960s. During the Spanish Civil War he would jump up on the tables in the alcoves to give speeches.

A leaflet attacking the campus Reserve Officers Training Corps declared: "We must wipe it out. It is the organ of American imperialism in the college." The major campaign of the Young Peoples Socialist League (Fourth International) was against the reformism of the Communist students who were insufficiently antiwar. In an open letter published in the *Campus*, the City College of New York student newspaper, Howe's group proclaimed: "The Stalinist leaders of the American Student Union are striving to lead the ASU along the road of their own social patriotism, and to the abandonment of militant struggle." Shortly after, the group issued a leaflet warning, "Our main enemy is at home: American capitalism. FDR is trying to line up the working class for the next imperialist war -- the second edition of 1914-18 may break out very soon." In late 1937 Howe and his comrades published a longer manifesto called "Red Herrings from the Right," charging that the Communists wanted to turn the American Student Union "into a Roosevelt machine" and insisting that the only correct program against war "is the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the govemment, to set up a workers' government which can really ensure peace." They called upon City College students to help "build a new International" and "to continue the struggle for the principles of Lenin." In 1938 they organized a "Strike against Imperialist War," which featured a rally with James Burnham and James T. Farrell and greetings from Sidney Hook. To protest cuts in education, the group called for mass picket lines and sit- down strikes. Howe himself edited a rough mimeographed publication called the *CCNY Red Book*, which denounced the university "as a striking example of the intellectual bankruptcy of the capitalist class." He also wrote for and helped edit *Challenge of Youth*, the national newspaper of the Young Peoples Socialist League (Fourth International).

An immediate and admiring supporter of Max Shachtman during the 1939-40 dispute, Howe's journalistic talents were quickly recognized by the Workers Party leadership, and many saw him as Shachtman's most promising protege. A few months after *Labor Action* was launched, Howe became the paper's managing editor, a post that he held until he was drafted into the army. Thereafter he contributed to the paper under the name R. Fahan. This seems to suggest *Rot Fahne* (Red Flag), the name of Rosa Luxemburg's newspaper. But it also conveniently resembled one of his party names, R. Fangston, which he was dubbed by a comrade because he had some sharply pointed teeth that were later filed down, although Fangston also suggested his aggressive, polemical style. After his release from military service, a good part of which was spent reading in Alaska, he became a member of the editorial board under the name Irving Howe, which he had by now legally changed from Horenstein.

Howe's articles in *Labor Action*, which touched on a remarkable range of subjects, were marked by stridency and an occasional utopianism with religious overtones. For example, in an article about the use of poison gas during the war, he declared, "There is hope in the world of chaos and destruction, the star of socialism shines with constancy and promise. Not the ceaseless war, the chaotic postwar disintegration, the dictatorial brutality which capitalism promises, but the peace, the freedom, the human brotherhood which socialism alone can bring. That is our road.'' Several years later, discussing the postwar situation in Europe, he declared, "If men would have a sense of dignity and purpose, a feeling that their lives are more than tribulation and suffering, they must fight for socialism. That is the path out of the desert.'' Polemicizing against the reactionary Senator Theodore Bilbo from Mississippi, he urged, "Let us summon our hatred of injustice and let us burn the filth of Bilboism off the skin of the land. And then let us use the plenty and rich of this land to build a new society of peace and equality, of plenty for all, of the brotherhood of all men, where the children of tomorrow will play in the streets and the fields unaware of the deforming hatreds that now poison our lives.''

In the late 1940s Howe devoted considerable attention to exposing social democratic reformism in the United States as well as in Europe. Especially scandalous in his view was the failure of the French social democrats to demand the immediate removal of their armed forces from Indochina, which stood in a sorry contrast to the position of the Trotskvists in France:

“We have special reason to be proud of our French comrades -- the Fourth International of the PCI [Intemational Communist Partyl, who, without the slightest ambiguity, have come out in support of the Indo-Chinese people; who have demanded the complete withdrawal of French troops from Indo-China; and who . . . defied the Parisian police to demonstrate their solidarity with their Indo-Chinese brothers in the streets of Paris. . . . We stand squarely by the side of the French Fourth International. They do not bow down before French imperialism; they rather defy it and send their brothers of Indo-China this message: We are with you in the struggle for independence; we are your brothers; we shall fight beside you against the Le Clercs, the Blums, and the Thorez's.

Howe concluded that in the behavior of the Socialist Leon Blum one sees "the true imperialist face of Social Democracy.'' In a follow-up article some months later he again attacked the French social democrats: "the sight of these pious liberals, these democratic worthies who are so ready to read us lectures about 'Bolshevik amorality' -- the sight, I say, of these liberals twisting themselves all over creation in the attempt to condone the French suppressions, is more than any socialist should be able to bear without anger.''

Howe also issued a lengthy criticism of an article written by his college classmate Daniel Bell in the late 1940s. In an issue of the journal *Modern Review*, Bell had proposed that socialists stop running independent election campaigns and strive to become the left wing of the Democratic Party on the grounds that such a policy was more "realistic." Howe, who in an earlier article had defined "realism" as "the first refuge of scoundrels," now defined it as a euphemism for "accepting the capitalist status quo." Howe asked, Can Bell be for "independent labor action" but not for a labor party? Bell believed socialists should work in the Democratic Party serving as "intellectual catalysts"; but to Howe this actually meant acting as "intellectual stooges" for the labor leaders, a "shameful" example of which had been already provided by Gus Tyler and Jay Lovestone. Such a policy, Howe insisted, would only serve the interests of the capitalist oppressors, who actually controlled the Democratic Party. In a closing paean to the Workers Party, Howe urged intellectuals to withstand the pressure to become "oppositionist liberals supporting the capitalist status quo" by having the "courage and wisdom" to struggle for "independent class action and the rebuilding of an independent socialist movement.''

Howe was an equally prolific contributor to *New International* in which he devoted much attention to the politics of culture. Several of his essays presented an ongoing critique of the *Partisan Review* for backsliding on the revolutionary commitments of its founding editorial statement. In the early 1940s Howe focused on Rahv's reversal of his internationalist position on World War II. During the late 1940s he dissected a rather astonishing *Partisan Review* editorial called "The Liberal Fifth Column," in which American liberals were berated for being too soft on the Soviet Union and adoption of a more belligerent U.S. foreign policy was urged.

Howe pointed out that obsessive anti-Communism only obscures the question of which forces one should ally oneself with to wage the battle against Stalinism; it can "only render impossible an effective struggle against Stalinism -- not to mention making hopeless any sort of positive aim." Howe explained that by rejecting "the method of analysis which characterizes the basic aspects of American foreign policy in class terms," the *Partisan Review* "has succumbed to *Stalinophobia*, a disease common among intellectuals who were once radicals; its major symptom is that regular tired feeling. *Stalinophobia* takes the form of bitter and quite justified denunciations of Stalinism without any corresponding effort to develop a sociological understanding of it. Hatred for Stalinism becomes an emotional block to its political analysis." Howe further identified the editorial with the "vulgar articles" published in the right-wing social democratic *New Leader*, "which always lead to support of one or another reactionary imperialism solely because of its conjunctural opposition to Russia.''

Between the summer of 1945 and the fall of 1947 Howe engaged in a complicated debate with fellow WP members over the work of Arthur Koestler. It began with a critical review by Peter Loumos of four books by Koestler. Neil Weiss, a poet and WP member, wrote a letter protesting that Loumos had allowed political prejudice to interfere with an objective assessment. Answering Weiss's letter, Howe agreed that Loumos had erred in "condemning Koestler because the main character of *Darkness at Noon*, Rubashov, is portrayed as a vacillating bureaucrat who capitulates to Stalinism rather than as an intransigent oppositionist." Howe then charged that Weiss was giving too much credit to Koestler's political criticisms of the Second and Third Internationals, especially as embodied in his essays, which had a value of "next to none." What was exciting about Koestler, what made him well worth reading, was his ability to brilliantly "touch the heart of the modern problem" (the growing complexity of world politics}, "despite all those in the revolutionary movement whose minds still function as if it were 1920." Howe concluded by making a sharp distinction between the forms of expression in formal essays and in fiction. The former demanded scientific rigor, especially in the discussion of politics; but "the impressionism which I find intolerable in political analysis does have value in the novel or informal essay; it does, on a *different plane of communication*, provoke insights and touch sensitive areas of existence, which can be of subsequent help to political analysis."

Eight months later there appeared a further exchange on the subject between Albert Glotzer, Shachtman's closest collaborator, and Howe. Glotzer insisted that Koestler should not really be judged as a novelist but as "a writer of fictionalized current events, or journalistic novels," thereby justifying Loumos's harsh critique. The meaning of the objection to Loumos by Weiss was therefore more serious than simply a "defense of literature" against vulgar Marxism; behind this pose, Glotzer contended that Weiss actually sympathized with many of Koestler's views. Thus he found it shocking that Howe had come to Weiss's defense. Apparently, in overreaction to Stalinist excesses, Howe was calling for a total separation of literature and politics, ignoring the fact that, even if literature had its semiautonomous sphere, the politico-social structure of society is what remains decisive in determining the nature of our lives. At the same time Glotzer pointed out that many of Howe's remarks on literature were themselves more political than literary—Howe's observation, for example, that "the world is no longer as simple as it was twenty- five years ago." In fact, Glotzer protested, "the world was not simple twenty-five years ago!" There were complex problems then, and the problems of today "are the extension of the unsolved problems of twenty-five years ago.... *What Howe fails to see is the continuity of the basic social problem and the continuity of its solution.*" Howe's response was essentially that Glotzer seemed determined to narrowly judge literature, not by party line as did the Stalinists, but as if it were merely a convenient vehicle for political content.

Other issues underlay this controversy, which expressed deeper problems and disagreements in the form of debates over literary criticism. To some extent Howe was already beginning to move toward his own sphere of cultural criticism. With publishing opportunities opening up to him in Elliot Cohen's new Jewish intellectual magazine, *Commentary*, and other journals, he naturally saw greater possibilities of exploration and discussion in the literary medium. Perhaps, too, he was reacting negatively against pressure from Max Shachtman to desist from a professional career as a writer, a career that Shachtman saw as a potential rival to party assignments such as the one he hoped that Howe would take as organizer of the Akron branch of the Workers Party. Moreover, since the early 1940s Howe had held the view that American literature must pass into a new phase of modernist sensibility, which resulted in a painful conflict with James T. Farrell, whose allegiance to literary realism was as ardent as was his openness to experimentation.

Indeed, this early debate over Koestler foreshadows to some degree Howe's famous treatise on modemist literature, "The Culture of Modernism" 1970, revised version). Throughout the Koestler debate and in the essay Howe asserted that unique forms of imaginative literature create a space free of political ideology. He contended that one must refrain from judging the political content of literature -- especially literature of modemist sensibility -- in the manner in which one judges straight political doctrine. This is certainly an improvement over the wlgar political coding of literary texts that had discredited the Communist literary movement. Yet, as in the case of Rahv, Howe's appraisal was partly based on a naive, pragmatist notion of "ideology" as formal political doctrine -- and often only doctrine with which one disagreed -- whereas he depicted authentic literature as an ideology-free realm of "experience." In a 1971 debate on "Literary Criticism and Literary Radicals," Howe endorsed the statement of the Austrian Marxist Ernst Fischer that art is "the triumph of reality over ideology," a formulation far too ingenuous. Favoring a "social approach" to literary criticism but eschewing a social method, or any other kind of authentic method, neither Howe nor any of the New York intellectuals went beyond pragmatist simplicities to the knottier problems of literature and ideology. Twenty-five years after the Koestler debate, "The Culture of Modernism" presented a brilliant description of the modemist sensibility; but it did little more than suggest, without elaboration, a historical origin in romanticism, and it failed to address the highly relevant issue of the ideology of form.

His burgeoning talents opened to Howe in the late 1940s the possibility of developing an independent life as an intellectual. These talents had been nurtured by the skills he had acquired as a journalist for the Workers Party. They were also honed by the intensity of the party's intellectual atmosphere from which he absorbed several of the traits that would make him distinctive as a critic: a remarkable polemical dexterity, reminiscent of Shachtman's orations; a firsthand knowledge of the international socialist movement; and a politico-historical consciousness about the social basis of cultural activity. Moreover, his first publishing opportunities had come through the assistance of more established intellectuals in the Workers Party milieu—Farrell, Dwight Macdonald, and Clement Greenberg (employed at *Commentary*). Yet at this very moment he began to have intense doubts about his commitment to the party.

The bitter diatribes he then published against the complacency of former revolutionaries who had obtained secure jobs may well have been a symptom of his own inner turmoil. In the fall 1949 issue of *Anvil*, published by the New York Student Federation Against War, an organization that had been initiated by the Shachtman group, he urged students to "at least be willing to take chances with their lives and to commit themselves in their hopes and dreams," rather than "accept a living intellectual and moral death as the price of creature comfort." He further concluded that "the number of ex- radicals who are today comfortable labor bureaucrats -- the kind who tell you that they too were once socialists (when they were young, you understand) or that they are still, in a sort of way, perhaps, socialists (but one must be practical, you understand) -- is appalling, the mark of the suicide of a generation of Americans."

Howe's disagreements with the Workers Party do not seem to have surfaced until late 1946; however, by 1948 they were fullblown at the same time that Goldman and Farrell were distancing themselves. In March 1946 Howe loyally defended the Workers Party in a strong polemic against C. L. R. James, the co-leader with Raya Dunayevskaya of those within the party who adhered to the "state capitalist" analysis of the Soviet Union. At this time, the James-Dunayevskaya group, known as the Johnson-Forrest Tendency, was moving toward a rapprochement with the Socialist Workers Party on the grounds that the Socialist Workers Party was more proletarian and revolutionary than the Workers Party. Howe accused James's formulations of being "an insult to the party for which we have worked the past six years," and he accused the Socialist Workers Party of cowardice during World War II by "playing ostrich in the unions" and for its theory of "telescoping" the struggle for socialism and the struggle against fascism. But in September of 1946 Howe published a review of a translation of Trotsky's *The New Course*, which caused considerable protest from Workers Party members because it raised reservations about Trotsky's strategy in the struggle against Stalin without coming to definite conclusions. When he was additionally attacked in the Inter D nal Bulletin for being too "hot-headed and impatient," and perhaps in need of consulting a psychologist, Howe responded bitterly that "those of us who have spent a good part of the last few years in writing polemics against Macdonald, Burnham, the editors of *Partisan Review*, and a number of other opponents of revolutionary Marxism, tend to get a little annoyed when we are accused of anti-Marxism."

In 1946 Howe had indeed launched a polemic against Macdonald in the pages of *Politics* magazine, which then employed Howe as a part-time assistant. Howe's line of argument was drawn from Burnham and Shachtman's "Intellectuals in Retreat": the "flight from Marxism of Macdonald and his friends" could be correlated to "the present period of reaction." However, these new backsliders persisted in deceiving themselves by constructing "rationalizations to withdraw from the struggle which continues to face humanity." Among the rationalizations that Howe refuted was the belief that the failure of the working class to transform society after World War II signified a permanent loss of its revolutionary potential, to which he replied: "The major social impulsions driving the working class to revolt persist; and the working classes of all countries do revolt. Sporadically, in disorganized and disoriented fashion, it is true, but they still revolt, even though doomed in the absence of revolutionary socialist leadership." Howe also claimed that Macdonald had caricatured Leninist party norms as "coercion," when, in fact, all that Leninism signified was "the discipline of a group1 of people who, voluntarily entering into certain associations from which they can just as freely withdraw, nonetheless believe that for a common purpose it is permissible to subordinate opinions on secondary matters in order to maintain continuous co- operation."

Yet, at the same time, Howe published an essay in Commentary suggesting that some of his thought was elsewhere. Called "The Lost Young Intellectual: A Marginal Man, Twice Alienated," Howe presented a largely autobiographical portrait of the young secular Jew alienated from the past but a misfit in the present. Howe concluded that no solution to this rootlessness existed at present, although someday it might be solved "if an American society appears in which both the Jewish intellectual and his people, along with everyone else, can find integration, security, and acceptance." Howe could not be expected to call upon the readership of *Commentary* to join the Workers Party, but the element of despair and passivity that pervaded the essay suggests that a second self coexisted in troubled tandem with the overconfident Howe of the *New International, Labor Action, and Politics*. Four years earlier he had written an article for the Workers Party on the "Jewish Question" that strongly insisted that "there is no such thing as 'the Jew'; there are rich and poor Jews, Jewish workers and Jewish bosses.'' Both a class analysis, which Howe had so emphatically defended as the sine qua non of any intellectual discussion, and a revolutionary internationalist point of view, were muted, if not entirely missing, in the *Commentary* essay. What is most remarkable is that both Howes, the confident revolutionary and the twice-alienated marginal Jew, could present their cases with equal conviction, abundant evidence, and a well-crafted felicity of expression.

  • Howe on how Americans personalize everything
  • Wald on James Farrell. And for an interview with Alan Wald about the Radical Novel Reconsidered series, click here.


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