Irving Howe: A Leftism of Reason

Fred Siegel

The mid-1970s were a bleak time in America, even bleaker if you lived in New York City, which teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The war in Vietnam was over, but post-Watergate, the country was mired in cynicism, animosity, and apocalyptic forebodings. One of the few thinkers who managed to think his way through the miasma was Irving Howe, the storyteller of ideas.

Irving Howe, for those who haven’t had the pleasure of knowing him, was at times a gruff man who seemed to end telephone conversations in mid-sentence. A devoted socialist and a marvelous Yiddishist, he was most strikingly a penetrating writer and wide ranging public intellectual. Born in 1920, Howe passed away in 1993, making this year the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Howe is probably best known to the general public for his 1976 bestselling World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life they Found and Made, an engaging and magisterial work documenting Jewish immigrant life in America. More narrowly, he was a central figure in that group known colloquially as the “New York intellectuals,” which shaped mid-twentieth century American intellectual life through its cluster of “little magazines”: Partisan Review, a quarterly; Commentary a monthly, and Dissent a socialist quarterly Howe founded in 1954. They were largely first generation Jews (though there were some quite prominent non-Jews among them) and included writer Alfred Kazin, historian Richard Hofstadter, essayists Hannah Arendt, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, art critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, and literary critics Lionel Trilling, Lionel Abel and Leslie Fiedler.

The New York Intellectuals Explained

In a 1969 essay written for Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Howe wrote that the New York Intellectuals were what resulted when the intellectual energy accumulated by generations of downtrodden Eastern European Jews suddenly broke free in the first American generation, like “a tightly gathered spring, trembling with unused force.” Howe himself was an exemplar of that energy and insight.

The New York intellectuals were once an exemplary but now obsolete meld of literary modernism and anti-Communist leftism. It is “a style,” writes Adam Kirsch, “that excels in lucid abstraction, forensic vigor, historical perspective and strength of conviction.” Sad to say, the New York intellectuals have had no heirs. To a degree, they have been succeeded by dry as dust academic theorists who helped foster the campus cult of political correctness.

I first met Irving in the mid-1970s while I was working on my Ph.D. thesis, a study of the economic history of the Piedmont city of Danville, Virginia. It was the last capital of the Confederacy, a place where desperation led to promises of manumission should the slaves continue to manufacture arms for the Confederacy. It was a highly quantitative account, part of a passing phenomenon known as the “Cliometric Revolution.” Nonetheless, I thought I was a pretty good writer, and when my dissertation was finally completed in the late 1970s, it was published by the University of North Carolina Press without so much as the change of a comma. While caught up in the dreary task of finishing my dissertation, I was invited to attend Dissent board meetings as a guest. I relished the Dissent gatherings and after a few years I was asked to join the board. Irving liked what I was saying and asked me to write for Dissent.

One of Howe’s best essays, “New Styles in Leftism,” foresaw the terminus of the 1960s revolution as early as 1965. While traditional leftists saw the great racial issues of the day as a clash between integration and revolution, Howe saw that the so-called New Leftists approached politics as a matter of style. New Leftists, said Howe, were “victimized by a lack of historical sense.” Instead they attempted to assert a profoundly personal style of politics through “gestures of moral rectitude.”

New Leftism, said Howe, is at times a strategy of exclusion . . . it reduces differences of opinion to gradients of moral rectitude.” Some New Leftists “don’t want the Negro poor integrated into a rotten middle-class society and thereby end up with two cars, barbecue pits and ulcers.” Indeed, Howe continued, “there is something a bit manipulative in the view that Negroes should be preserved from the temptation that, presumably, all the rest of us are entitled to.” At the time I was horrified by where Howe’s argument was going. But after watching fifty years of Great Society failures, I’ve come to see Howe’s insight that “[t]here is only one way to be certain that the poor will remain beyond the temptations of our society, and that is to keep them hopelessly poor.”

Bound to poverty, inner-city African Americans have become the political cat’s paws of the 2020s, heirs of the New Left’s moral exhibitionism. Back in the 1960s, Howe explained,

Some of the people involved in that movement show an inclination to make of their radicalism not a politics of common action, which would require the inclusion of saints, sinners, and ordinary folk, but, rather, a gesture of moral rectitude. And the paradox is that they often sincerely regard themselves as committed to politics—but a politics that asserts so unmodulated and total a dismissal of society, while also departing from Marxist expectations of social revolution, that little is left to them but the glory or burden of maintaining a distinct personal style.

What holds most of the various styles together is “a crude unqualified anti-Americanism,” said Howe. It draws on contradictory sources such as the aristocratic piffle of T.S. Eliot and Ortega y Gasset, Communist rantings, and the resentments of postwar Europe. The upshot is what the French call derapage, in which the resentments skid into one another producing an ugly pileup.

Howe’s steadfast commitment to democracy and human rights made him an intellectual port in the storm. For me it was a safe harbor in the stormy seas of the Sixties. Nonetheless in June of 1967 he wrote a short piece for Dissent asking “Is this Country Cracking Up?” America, he wrote, was facing a “mounting loss of social confidence and solidarity.” “Vietnam,” he noted, “couldn’t be mentioned without contempt.” Public discussion was marked by an “escalation of vocabulary and gesture,” while LBJ was forfeiting what little that remained of his credibility. Johnson it seems, Howe wrote, “is not fit” to be president. “The dabblers in apocalypse” saw LBJ as fostering a deep crisis of “common belief and mutual respect.”

In the years from 1967 through 1975 both Howe and America went through considerable changes. Dissent, which had always been run on a shoestring, had always been anti-Stalinist and anti-Joe McCarthy. But when it was founded in 1954 Howe still clung to a version of radical politics which maintained an emotional attachment, though fading, to Leon Trotsky, the bloody Bolshevik who was also a talented literary intellectual. In the mid-70s, I got to talk with him, in passing, about Trotsky’s lingering appeal. Our conversations left me puzzled, as did the choppy, less than coherent book, Leon Trotsky, he wrote about his former inspiration in 1978. Part of the reason he eventually put Trotsky to the side was that the early 1970s were punctuated by more than 2,500 bombings as the Weathermen and other heirs of the 1960s tried to follow through with a bloody revolutionary agenda.

“Every political tendency on the left,” wrote Howe, “has to face the question of what if the working class turns out not to be the revolutionary force that Marx had supposed, what then?” The alternative options seemed even more problematic. “The spectrum nominated substitutes from union bureaucracies to insurgent kindergartens, from technocratic experts to soulful dropouts,” but didn’t seem promising. At the same time, liberalism as both an idea and value came under fierce attack. “The expected benefits of reason were scorned as either being deceptive or unneeded.”

In 1968 in the midst of the anti-Vietnam upheaval, Howe published an entire issue of Dissent devoted to Arnold Kaufman’s book titled The Radical Liberal. The “counterculture,” wrote Kaufman, “threatens the very qualities upon which our best hope for a brighter future depends—a disciplined ability to reason and a morally passionate commitment to a politics that is both rational and relatively independent of the quest for personal salvation.”

Howe used Kaufman’s insights for the coming decade as a launching pad. The opening sentence of “What’s the Trouble: Social Crisis, Crisis of Civilization or Both,” which served as the lead essay in Howe’s 1975 collection The Critical Point, proclaims, “The rhetoric of apocalypse haunts the air . . . people yield themselves to visions of gloom as if it is through surrender of rationality they might find a kind of peace.”

The central focus of this powerful essay concerns the intergenerational transmission of values. The Vietnam War, he notes, served to break ties of loyalty with the society and earlier generations. The welfare state, Howe noted ruefully, “has small attraction as an end or ideal in its own right and little gift for inspiring the loyalties of the young.” The whole enterprise of education is in great trouble, as it is marked by anxiety, as “denormalization and often retreat becomes sheer panic . . . when a society does not know what it wishes its young to know it is suffering from moral and spiritual incoherence.”

“What I propose to assert,” Howe wrote, “is that we have been living certainly not in the age of revolution about which Trotsky spoke, but also in an age of counterrevolution that has assailed mankind from Right and Left.” There follows a terrible confusion in which problems often “become encumbered with metaphysical and quasi-religious issues while efforts are vainly made to bring it into the political. These ‘metaphysical’ and quasi-religious issues are beyond the capacity of politics to cope with.”

The salient social problem at hand in the 1970s was the breakdown of the family, as divorce—which reached half of all married couples—inflicted enormous social pain. However, “[i]t would be self-deceiving,” warned Howe, “to suppose we’re just going through another normal struggle between generations which in time will work itself out.” What we were beginning to witness is a new religious experience or perhaps experience as a religious feeling. “What we are beginning to experience are religious feelings that cannot be easily embodied in religious terms and it must therefore assume the often misshapen mask of politics, culture, and lifestyle.” Almost a half-century on we’ve come to describe such sentiments as “woke.” The “woke” believer has seized the mantle of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Peering into the future, Howe saw grim prospects ahead. “The future of humanity can expect,” he wrote, “say fifty or sixty years from now, to live in a low-charged authoritarian state, very advanced in technology and somewhat decadent in culture, in which there will be little terror and not much freedom.” Faced with this future, he argued that “the sacred task” on which intellectuals must not compromise is the defense of freedom.

Despite it all I began to drift away from Irving and Dissent over the issue of crime. When Irving passed away in 1993, at the time I felt an enormous loss. The Sixties have never ended so that today when I’m confronted with a new wave of formless apocalyptic rhetoric from twenty-somethings who are morbidly trying to recreate the spirit of the Sixties, I’m once again forced to re-read Irving Howe. Irving had joked about “insurgent kindergartens” but he wasn’t far off; some of our middle schools are suffused with the spirit of Maoism.

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