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 …