A Prophetic Minority
The Fifteenth Ward and the Great Society
The Airtight Cage
“They have clubbed us off the streets they are stronger, they are rich, they hire and fire the politicians the newspaper editors the old judges the small men with reputations the college presidents.
“all right we are two nations.”
—Dos Passos, The Big Money
Certainly the judgment that America is two nations is almost never a statement of the intelligence but nearly always a broken utterance of shocked sensibility—a revelation we can achieve when we are sitting in the emergency room of a public hospital. Still, if we were not two nations, Irving Howe and Jack Newfield would not be quarreling with each other as if across boundary lines.
The personae of Jack Newfield’s A Prophetic Minority are those young people we designate as the New Left, a disparate assemblage of Christian Socialists, revolutionary pacifists, pagan missionaries, bearers of a dozen conflicting doctrines but together in their common disillusion with what liberalism has handed down to them in their preference for the direct protest over the electoral process, and in their scorn for the powerful and their hope for the powerless.
A Prophetic Minority does not assert itself as a manifesto of the New Left. Still, since Newfield is a journalist with many of the virtues of engagement and few of the vices of commitment, his work probably serves their impulse better than a manifesto could. The arguments of the young have more to teach us when they flow freely in the spontaneous conversations Newfield sets down than when they are frozen into the formal utterance of their official literature.
Newfield is then a witness for one America which, disarmed, attacks, and Irving Howe bravely represents the other America which, armed, defends. Steady Work gathers the essays which seem to Howe best representative of his often lonely, never discouraged effort to subject the history around him to his always high, if not always consistent, standard of socialist purity. Howe’s struggle to remain current has always been his most engaging quality as a political man; and one thinks that he would wish less to be appreciated for his old quarrels with Sidney Hook about the Smith Act than for his new and vivid one with those figures of the New Left who seem to him
…perhaps not as well-equipped dialectically as older leftists, semileftists and ex-leftists, and certainly not as wide-ranging in interest or accomplished in style, yet endowed with a self-assurance, a lust for power, a contempt for and a readiness to swallow up their elders that is at once amusing, admirable and disturbing.
To Howe the argument seems to be between his realism and the New Left’s fantasy. It may also be crudely reduced to the very old one between the reformer (Howe, perhaps too simply) and the revolutionary (Stokely Carmichael, as packaged for commerce) over which can do the most to change a social order that neither seems able to do much about at the moment.
THE QUARREL between Howe and the people in Newfield’s study immediately attracts us because it is so direct and personal. But what attracts can also rather unfortunately distract us from the too-long-deferred business of finding out just where we are in America. Newfield especially commends himself to us as a witness because he is so reluctant a party to the quarrel: he finds that the argument between Howe and the New Left is so often “unreal and unnecessary” and thus is a part of the national tradition of fake controversies. In his impressive book, The Airtight Cage, a study of the desperate life of New York’s upper West Side, Joseph Lyford gives a good reason for this fakeness:
Our physical and emotional distance from each other, combined with our national reverence for competition, helps explain why we respond so much more energetically to controversy than we do to “cooperation”…It is natural for the isolated an to be “against” rather than for something, so we are against anything that threatens our equilibrium; but it is difficult for us to be for a positive ideal—and the only meetings we attend in very great great numbers are those where a decisive and bitter argument is in the wind.
And so the debate between Irving Howe and the New Left is incessantly fought out in public forums where Howe seems to the young to scold and they to him to sulk. One admires him just for enduring these occasions; they are a species of private philanthropy unique to him, although one might wish that he brought more charity to the tone in which it is dispensed.
But the quarrel does have reality at its roots, however much it can be agreed that its stated terms do not. The tension of much of the radical experience ends up nowadays as between the duty of refusing to fink on one’s own generation and the duty of refusing to fink on one’s own class. It is the ability to maintain that tension which has made Norman Thomas and A. Philip Randolph our special Men of the Left and I. F. Stone our special journalist of the Left. Howe is braver than most of us in dealing with it; still what really divides him from his juniors is most often just a body of unshared experience.
Twice Newfield quotes Stokely Carmichael, in a passage which contains all the theory Carmichael needs to sustain him at this stage of his life:
Man, every cat’s politics comes from what he sees when he gets up in the morning. The liberals see Central Park and we see sharecropper shacks.1
The parties in the controversy were young at different times. Here, perhaps unfairly to describe the difference, is Howe remembering what could happen to a young Trotskyite in the Thirties:
Even among the Stalinists the fact of Jewishness counted in surprising ways. I remember one evening when a street meeting was being harassed by a gang of Jewish Stalinists, and a screeching lady heckler jostled a friend of mine, causing her to fall and break her glasses. My friend started bawling that her mother would berate her for breaking her glasses and the Jewish lady, suddenly sympathetic, took the girl to a store and bought her a new pair. For the Communist lady, my friend had a few minutes earlier been a “Fascist,” but, when trouble came and the glasses were broken, she must also have seemed a nice Jewish girl.
FOR HOWE THEN, in the worst moments, there existed always the chance of an end in communion, even with the enemy. For the pilgrims of the New Left, the worst moments end only in the unappeasable rage of strangers. Newfield provides a dozen instances of this difference in experience; what Travis Britt remembered of what happened to him when he escorted four country Negroes down to register at the county courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi, can serve for all of them:
A tall white man, almost middleaged, wearing a khaki shirt and pants stepped up to me and asked “Boy, what’s your business?” at which point I knew I was in trouble. The clerk came to the backdoor leading to the courthouse with a smile on his face and called to the white man, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” At this point the white man who they called Bryant, hit me on my right eye. Then I saw the clerk motion his head as if to call the rest of the whites. They came and all circled around me, and the fellow that was called Bryant hit me on the jaw and on the chin….
Now these memories describe different countries. I hope that I shall not be thought of as saying that one time of being young has more merit in it than the other. Howe was at least as poor as Britt, but he was always protected; he never confronted an army whose troops had decided that he was not another human being. He missed the direct experience of engaging all the powers and principalities of the air. The tactile loss—Howe himself feels it—was itself a penalty of penury; it takes a certain capital outlay on someone’s part just to get beaten up for any sensible reason in this country. The history of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee could hardly have happened if the society had not been rich enough to subsidize it, even as badly as it has.
“I curse this country every day of my life because it made me hate it, and I never wanted to,” Mendy Samstein, a white SNCC activist told Newfield. That judgment is the reward of an opportunity and of a consequent wound quite unlike anything most radicals of Howe’s generation could ever have known so young. Mendy Samstein began with hope for the existing America and was pushed into isolation, whether rationally or not being not at the moment the issue. But Howe began in isolation. When he came of age as a radical, the revolutionary socialist movement was as used up in America as it was in the Soviet Union.
Howe chose Trotsky over Stalin, a choice which commends him relatively if not absolutely. But it was not a choice that could in any way be acted upon; the revolutionary commitment could not even be expressed except as an intellectual position. Isolation, if its victim is serious enough, is marvelous for the critical faculty: the closest approach to a sense of power over events that Howe seems able to remember from his youth was “his keen pleasure in picking up a copy of The New York Times and reading it with that critical superiority, that presumptive talent for giving a ‘basic’ interpretation to events, which our commitment enabled us to command.”
AT FIRST “COMMITMENT” seems an odd word to describe a process of engagement with the real world so confined to reading and judging pieces of paper. And yet, Howe’s uninterrupted earnestness ought to convince us that he possessed what deserved to be called a commitment; just by keeping at it, Howe has sustained the passion he found then for being correct when other persons were incorrect.2
That commitment has led him finally to place what seems much too high an appraisal on the value of the public political debate as a means of inquiry. Yet Steady Work has room for one essay on Pasternak full of that common and moral sense which reminds us that one never so much appreciates Howe, the literary critic, as when he is writing about a work that both you and he have read. In this case, Howe does not bother, to pick a vulgar instance, to wonder whether it was a defect in Pasternak to have got on so well with Stalin; that would seem to him the kind of literary history which he would know at once to be beside the point. So the point may be that Howe loves the poet and only respects the political man, out of some loyalty to a youth in which he believed that the political man was the important one. And it is odd how much less often one is vulgar in speaking about the object truly loved than about the object only respected.
Forceful as this point is, the continually useful Lyford reminds us that we decay too fast for any dramatic contrast, however revelatory, to keep its currency long. He provides this vignette left behind at a house he owned on West 92nd Street by a tenant who had fled its horrors: "I remember a light brown girl on the fourth floor of 38 (West 93rd). She would sit in the window on Sunday morning with her back against one side of the window and her knees bent up and toes against the other side smoking a cigarette, naked. She would gaze up at the sky, feeling the breeze . That was her summer place." If that poor girl had sat in a front window, she would have been looking at Central Park.↩
"Correct" is a word one somehow always associates with Trotsky at a time when he had no other authority except the pride of his association with that description. Trotsky, with reservations, remains Howe's special political man. The difference in image between him and Fidel Castro, the only successful revolutionary with much base of appeal to today's young radicals helps, I think, to describe what separates Howe from them. Trotsky was a revolutionary commander who read French novels on the train that was his headquarters; Castro fought in the hills, occasionally telling reporters he was reading Carl Sandburg on Lincoln. Howe is quite scornful of Castro, although it is difficult to argue that he has acted, in power, so much worse than Trotsky in power, which was indeed badly enough (as, to Howe's credit and James Burnham's, they both began to recognize, when they were orthodox Trotskyites). Again in crude terms, when Trotsky exercised the strongest command on Howe's imagination, he was the embodiment of a mind insisting on its power over events, long after they had escaped him, while the spectacle of Castro attracts the young as a kind of "happening."↩
Forceful as this point is, the continually useful Lyford reminds us that we decay too fast for any dramatic contrast, however revelatory, to keep its currency long. He provides this vignette left behind at a house he owned on West 92nd Street by a tenant who had fled its horrors: “I remember a light brown girl on the fourth floor of 38 (West 93rd). She would sit in the window on Sunday morning with her back against one side of the window and her knees bent up and toes against the other side smoking a cigarette, naked. She would gaze up at the sky, feeling the breeze . That was her summer place.” If that poor girl had sat in a front window, she would have been looking at Central Park.↩
“Correct” is a word one somehow always associates with Trotsky at a time when he had no other authority except the pride of his association with that description. Trotsky, with reservations, remains Howe’s special political man. The difference in image between him and Fidel Castro, the only successful revolutionary with much base of appeal to today’s young radicals helps, I think, to describe what separates Howe from them. Trotsky was a revolutionary commander who read French novels on the train that was his headquarters; Castro fought in the hills, occasionally telling reporters he was reading Carl Sandburg on Lincoln. Howe is quite scornful of Castro, although it is difficult to argue that he has acted, in power, so much worse than Trotsky in power, which was indeed badly enough (as, to Howe’s credit and James Burnham’s, they both began to recognize, when they were orthodox Trotskyites). Again in crude terms, when Trotsky exercised the strongest command on Howe’s imagination, he was the embodiment of a mind insisting on its power over events, long after they had escaped him, while the spectacle of Castro attracts the young as a kind of “happening.”↩