In response to:
I'd Rather Be Wrong from the June 17, 1965 issue
To the Editors:
Nothing could be more clearly illustrative of the bankruptcy of the style of politics espoused by Irving Howe than his concluding two paragraphs, [NYR, June 17]. I refer, first of all, to his querulous complaint that “disturbingly the campus protests have sometimes spilled over from entirely legitimate attacks upon U.S. policy in Vietnam to either an ingenuous or disingenuous support of the Vietcong”; and secondly, to his imperative of “dissociating ourselves unambiguously from the authoritarian ‘left.”’
On the former point, if there is any position that is “either ingenuous or disingenuous,” not to say dishonest, in regards to Vietnam, it is the pretense that the demand for U. S. withdrawal does not constitute de facto support for the Vietcong. Or is there, perhaps, some as yet unnamed “third force” that will govern South Vietnam if the U.S. is forced to pull out its troops and equipment? Cinderella? Or Lenny Bruce? Possibly Juan Bosch, since he appears to be in need of a country just now. Like it or not, one is stuck with an either/or proposition: either U.S. imperialism or the Vietcong; there is no “third force.” Whatever the alleged failings of the Vietcong, it is to me inconceivable that they can be any worse for the Vietnamese people than the barbarous attack presently being (to use the fashionable phrase) “escalated” by this country.
As for the “democratic left” with which Mr. Howe is so infatuated, the fate of Juan Bosch at the hands of the U.S. ruling class speaks more eloquently than any number of volumes. When push comes to shove—and as long as the U.S. Marines are around, push will come to shove—the “democratic left” invariably turns out to be more “democratic” than “left”—i.e., more ineffectual than not. Which is probably why Fidel Castro—that bête noire of Mr. Howe and his co-ideologue Mr. Theodore Draper—has been able materially to improve the living standards of the Cuban people, while Juan Bosch is reduced to an ineffectual wringing of his hands from the sidelines. If the Vietcong can do for the Vietnamese what Castro has done for the Cubans, what earthly reason can there be not to support it?
This leads me to my final point—Mr. Howe’s command to proclaim our virginal isolation from what he calls “the authoritarian ‘left.’ ” In less polite terminology, what Mr. Howe is calling for is a resumption of red-baiting. The futility of that stance should by now be fully apparent. Ultimately, it leads to where we have already been, back toward McCarthyism, rather than forward to create, in Mr. Howe’s own words, a “clear democratic radicalism.” The preoccupations of this generation, at least, of radicals, is not with the Soviet Union, not even with China; on the contrary, the chief problem we face is the uprooting of U.S. imperialism at home. Which is precisely what we cannot do if once again we make the mistake of Mr. Howe and his contemporaries, and channel the bulk of our energies into a campaign of “dissociating ourselves [sic] unambiguously from the authoritarian ‘left.’ ”
Irving Howe replies:
If Mr. Kofsky didn’t exist, there’d be people saying that anti-Communist radicals like myself invented him. Since I didn’t, let me propose to readers of this magazine that they inspect his words carefully: he represents something.
…either U.S. imperialism or the Vietcong…This is precisely the way the Pentagon and the Communist powers pose the issue: they all agree on cutting out other choices. They offer “escalated” bombing or totalitarian despotism. They leave no course for democratic radicals or authentic liberals. And the choice, as posed by the two man centers of power in the world, is gladly accepted by the new-style authoritarian “leftism” which I have analyzed at some length in the current Dissent.
Both at home and abroad the urgent need is for a politics that preserves and deepens democracy while effecting fundamental socio-economic changes. Time was when someone holding this view could call himself a socialist and everyone else, agree with him or not, would know what he meant. Today, however, the label has been soiled by apologists for one-party dictatorships and totalitarian regimes which give their people no freedom and little bread.
In a specific situation it is quite possible, alas, that democratic radicals can make no immediately relevant proposals, largely because we are crushed by an accumulation of errors, stupidities, and reactionary blindness. Vietnam is such a situation: it is too late. I urge negotiations with the Communists, knowing that little good can come of it for the Vietnamese people; but I urge negotiations not because I think the Vietcong represents “progress” or that it is likely, once in power, to do anything but institute a Communiststyle dictatorship. I urge negotiations because years of disastrously reactionary policies by both the U. S. and the South Vietnamese governments have destroyed the possibility of a radical-democratic alternative in Vietnam; because I believe we have no moral right further to inflict a war upon the Vietnamese people which they have suffered for twenty-five years and of which they are thoroughly sick; and because I believe that the only way of defeating the Vietcong militarily—a large-scale war, whether limited to Vietnam or not—would bring consequences for humanity far worse than would follow from a Vietcong victory. But I do not delude myself or others into the fatuous notion that the results of such necessary negotiations will be happy for anyone who cares about freedom. They would probably please Mr. Kofsky.
If there were a Juan Bosch in Vietnam with the kind of popular support he commands in the Dominican Republic, I would propose a sharply different policy. The tragedy is that there is no Bosch in Vietnam and that U.S. policy—vile, stupid, reactionary—is calculated to make sure that tomorrow there will be none in the Dominican Republic either.
Why can’t Mr. Kofsky understand this? Because he is the captive of the ideology of authoritarian power (hence, his repulsive remarks about Bosch).
Castro…has been able materially to support the living standards of the Cuban people, while Bosch is reduced etc. This is authoritarian “leftism” with a vengeance: the vengeance of simple-mindedness. How much Castro has in fact raised Cuban living standards is a question: but let us suppose he has. Does not Mr. Kofsky know that the same could be said for the fascist regime in Spain, for the Chiang Kaishek dictatorship in Taiwan, for Hitlerite totalitarianism during the Thirties, for other detestable governments? If material standards were a sufficient criterion for determining one’s support or non-support of a regime, then the ground would be cut from under almost every effort at radical politics throughout the world.
…Mr. Howe is calling for…a resumption of red-baiting…No, not really, we don’t have to go through that again. Not the chuckle-headedness that if you criticize Russian totalitarianism you are “playing into the hands of Hearst” (or the equivalent chuckle-headedness that if you criticize U.S. policy you are “playing into the hands of the reds”). Not the idiocy that if you attack the lack of freedom in China or Russia, you are “going back to McCarthyism.” Can’t anything be learned from experience? Isn’t it really possible for a grown man to detest and oppose both Communism and McCarthyism—and yet to favor for the supporters of both what neither favors for the other: civil liberties?
Mr. Kofsky declares he’s against channeling “the bulk of our energies” into a campaign dissociating ourselves from the authoritarian “left.” Agreed: not the bulk. But what proportion of energy would he direct to his task?
Oh, Kofsky, Kofsky, this Rip Van Winkle politics: this they call the new left?