A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Biography
In what is left of the old community of New York intellectuals, we find writers trying to reconstruct and validate their pasts, while retaliating for old injuries and making conflicting claims about the intellectual disputes of the last few decades. Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks and William Barrett’s The Truants both deal very differently with some of the events and literary figures that Irving Howe describes in A Margin of Hope. At a time when this community has never been more bitterly split, Howe’s “intellectual autobiography” provides valuable insights into how it fell apart, if not much hope for bringing about future amity.
That Howe is now able to regard his own contentious past with a certain bemused detachment inspires trust in his treatment of the intellectual dogfights and sectarian struggles of those argumentative years. If not precisely self-effacing, his tone is pervaded by ingratiating self-criticism. He makes it clear, for example, that he and his Trotskyist friends at City College in the 1930s were so concentrated on the evils of Stalinism and capitalism that they did not see clearly the threat of Nazism as World War II was about to break out. Without losing his appetite for argument, he is able to look back coolly on his own motives, and to arrive at a relative understanding of the motives of his contemporaries.
These contemporaries include such New York intellectuals as Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz, Paul Goodman, Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Hannah Arendt, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Schapiro, most of whom Howe recalls not only perceptively but with affection, drawing their portraits against the background of the magazines with which they were associated: Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent. Howe’s account here seems to me considerably more comprehensive and generous than that of other recent writers—one has only to compare the sense of troubled comradeship in his recollections of Philip Rahv with Barrett’s hidden vindictiveness or his measured view of Trilling with Podhoretz’s vengeful tone of injured rejection—partly, I suspect, because he looks at the intellectual landscape from an unwavering socialist perspective.
I am surprised to find myself saying this because, to me and others of my generation, Howe’s socialism always seemed his grayest feature. Since Marxism was usually less appealing to those of us who were children of the Forties than to the older writers of the Thirties, many of my contemporaries were possessed more by the hope of altering the nature of the imagination than by the hope of changing the social system, which is to say our radicalism tended to be more cultural than political. For this reason, Howe was regarded, no doubt unfairly, as one of that sober squad who, no matter what ideological side they took, were too intent on social engineering to respond to the anarchic impulses of modern art. In discussing his doubts about Action painting and his differences with the New Critics, and also in his remarks about Lionel Trilling’s ambiguous response to modernism, Howe suggests that artistic tastes are usually linked to political biases. But whereas Partisan Review usually managed to accommodate both a belief in radical politics and a commitment to avant-garde culture, Howe’s socialist politics were joined by an essentially conservative view of art.
“Wasn’t it possible,” Howe asks, “to bring together the dialectical reflectiveness encouraged by Trilling’s criticism with a readiness to engage publicly in behalf of liberal or radical ideas? In principle, yes; in practice, not so easily.” That Howe wrestled with this dilemma can be gathered from his previous writings, where his interests are either dominated by socialist ideas, or seem wholly divorced from them. When he was a student at City College, he found himself “disobeying my sterner Marxist self” in finding pleasure in The Faerie Queene, but that sort of truant delight rarely found its way into his political thinking. His books, for example, fall into three distinct categories: tracts bearing on socialist politics such as his studies of the American Communist Party and Walter Reuther’s UAW; editions and translations of Yiddish fiction and poetry (and other works on Yiddish culture such as his best-selling World of Our Fathers); and works of literary criticism.
Howe’s literary studies, intelligent as they are, are almost entirely devoted to established novelists (William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Hardy); no contemporary work of literature has excited him more than Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Similarly, while Howe is eager to establish Isaac Bashevis Singer’s place among great American novelists, he rarely shows the same enthusiasm toward the European avantgarde or even toward the more outrageous American Jewish writers—Bellow, Malamud, Roth—who were testing the genteel tradition. Radical in his politics, Howe is somewhat academic in his literary tastes, and one senses a split between the ethical and aesthetic sides of his imagination.
He could be a lively cultural controversialist, as when he argued for a skeptical view of modernism, but he seemed to lose energy when he wrote about socialism; his political tone was that of his ideological mentor, Norman Thomas—passionate, sincere, dedicated, dependable, tending to drone on. Many of these qualities seeped into Dissent, which Howe founded, and whose limitations he acknowledges. Devoted almost exclusively to social and political issues, it lacked the liveliness of PR or Commentary, and its audience was therefore limited to readers interested in the theory and practice of democratic socialism. One of the few exciting pieces published in Dissent—Norman Mailer’s “White Negro”—proved an embarrassment. As his friend George Kateb told him: “The trouble with your social democratic politics is that it’s so boring!”
Still, Howe persisted in his grinding commitment, which continued to be the animating impulse of his life. A Margin of Hope opens with Ignazio Silone’s question, “When did you first become a socialist?” and the book is largely the author’s effort to explain why he still remains one. Howe describes his passage through and difficulties with various schools of Marxism (communism excepted—the most winning political writing in the book concerns the two alcoves at City College occupied by the warring factions of Stalinists and Trotskyists), first as a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League, later as a follower of the breakaway Trotskyist sect led by Max Shachtman, and finally as the radical humanist he calls himself today.
Howe can be vivid when he comments on the larger political events that overshadowed these disputes: the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s peace pact, World War II (which he spent in Alaska along with Dashiell Hammett), the Waldorf Conference, the Rosenberg trial, the McCarthy period. His writing is at its most bitter and intense when he recalls his anti-Stalinism—his angry and frustrated opposition to the Soviet dictatorship when not only communists but many liberals saw the USSR as a hopeful experiment. “How often,” he writes, “have I cursed the fate that impelled me and my friends to spend so much time struggling against illusory ‘leftist’ forms of the totalitarian idea…it is depressing to think of the waste of spirit it entailed.”
As his narrative approaches the issues of our own time, however, it loses some of its force. This is odd, because Howe was both courageous and prescient about the SDS, thus managing to alienate both those who supported the Vietnam misadventure and those who wanted to disrupt the campuses. His chapter on the New Left has less dramatic power than one would expect from a man who felt so “politically beleaguered, intellectually isolated,” during the 1960s; and his remarks about the feminist movement are perfunctory and unconvincing. Howe recognizes that his conflict with the young, who he thought should have been his natural allies, has soured him a little: “Those of us who have tried to resist the tug of fashion,” he remarks, “have paid a price in piety and stiffness.” That Howe stubbornly resisted these tugs earns him admiration, but the price it exacted is accurately described.
Howe lost old friends as he tried to persevere in his social criticism without joining either a fashionable opposition or a corrupt establishment. If he resisted the first choice in his criticism of SDS and facile radicals, he had earlier chastised the second in his contribution to the 1952 Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture,” as well as in his later essay “The Age of Conformity.” He was among the first to perceive that the anti-Stalinism of the Thirties was itself becoming authoritarian as its arteries hardened and its adherents turned into apologists for an unacceptable status quo. Later it would develop into the sclerotic condition known as neoconservatism. He attacked the intellectuals’ growing attraction to power, the new amalgamation of wealth and intellect, which Philip Rahv called the embourgeoisement of the intelligentsia, thus poisoning his relationship for a time with Trilling, as well as with Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, and any number of former allies. Howe considered the attempts by such intellectuals to accommodate to the received values of American life an effective abandonment of intellectual integrity.
“What followed was the absorption…of large numbers of intellectuals into government bureaucracy, the industries of pseudoculture, and the corporations,” Howe wrote, noting besides that the institutional world of government, corporation, and mass culture was not advancing but rather undermining the basic function of the free mind:
It does not want them as intellectuals. It needs them for their skills, knowledge, inclinations, even passions, without which they would be of no use. But it does not look kindly upon, indeed does all it can to curb, their traditional role as free-wheeling critics who direct their barbs not only upon enemies but friends and allies, too.
Even worse, the process of embourgeoisement was beginning to affect the centers of criticism—first Partisan Review (though it later recovered some of its combative tone) and then Commentary, which, after a brief spell of radical enthusiasm, particularly for the work of Goodman and Mailer, quickly became the command center for attacks on “knee-jerk liberals” and “anti-anti-communists.” (Commentary‘s current review of Howe’s book, predictably, identifies him as a hero of those who are “hostile critics of so many of the things that freedom itself depends on”—as if criticism, even hostile criticism, were not first among the things that freedom depends on.)
Howe has been rebuked for failing to put more of his personal history into his book, and it’s true he doesn’t tell us much about his private life or feelings. He glances at his early years of poverty in the Bronx, makes passing reference to a mid-life crisis which broke up a marriage, gives a chapter to his army days in Alaska, and remarks upon his father’s death, but those interested in confessions or intimate gossip will find little of either here. From the army years, he recalls most affectionately his reading of Gibbon in the barracks. On the other hand, Howe is frank about his career, including his years as an uneasy, embarrassed book reviewer for Time magazine and his early tribulations as a university professor; and he is especially forthcoming about his ideas and commitments, past and present. Since he is a political person, it is no doubt by these that he wants to be defined. It may also be in his position-taking that he is most alive; certainly, the portrait of the author that emerges in A Margin of Hope has depth and conviction, even if he doesn’t tell us much about his marital difficulties or problems with his children.
For the book shows us a man determined to remain rational and, if possible, compassionate, in a world grown increasingly brutal. “This is a moment—the early eighties—of peculiar sordidness,” he writes in his concluding chapter.
It’s as if the spirit of the old robber barons had been triumphantly resurrected, as if the most calloused notions of Social Darwinism were back with us, as if the celebrations of greed we associate with the late nineteenth century were reenacted a century later…. What one finds in the country at large these years is a terrible coarseness of feeling, a contempt for the vision of fraternity, a willed brutality of value.
The passage suggests how Howe’s socialism has been most valuable to him—less as a political than as a personal discipline, less as a practical system for the future than as a humane influence, a kind of moral barometer for measuring changes in the American character and his own. Howe is correct in saying that this particular historical moment is one of particular awfulness, but the opportunism and callousness he refers to have spread well beyond the economic policies of the political order. They now pervade virtually every feature of our daily lives, and especially the conduct of the intelligentsia. For that reason, Howe’s moderate tone and sympathetic character provide a chastening corrective to the inquisitorial, brutal style of much intellectual argument these days, where simple disagreement has become the occasion for calls of excommunication and hysterical cries of J’accuse. No doubt there are strongly felt motives behind this intemperate behavior—deeply important things are always said to be at stake, like the existence of Israel or the survival of the free world—but it has transformed a segment of American intellectual discourse into something that sounds like the hectoring of a commissar.
In the midst of all this, Irving Howe has kept his balance, his reason, his hard intelligence, his cheer, and his hope, and it is for those qualities, finally, that one must value his book. The rationalist, secularist sensibility has not been in favor lately, for it lacks the strong apocalyptic energy that drives so much of modern art and politics, but Howe makes a convincing case for its importance to a darkening future. Sartre defines the authentic Jew as one “who asserts his claim in the face of the disdain shown him.” That is how Howe has continued to assert his socialism, persisting in his role as a lover of lost causes, as an outsider resisting even his own success.
Howe’s intellectual heroes are not the argumentative Jews he grew up with, but rather Edmund Wilson and George Orwell—the one for his “moral gravity” and independent character, the other for his moral passion and powerful style. His admiration for Wilson comes from a distance, since they seem so different in style and sensibility, but his affection for Orwell is that of a secret sharer, although his historical and aesthetic vision is not nearly so large. Like Orwell, however, Howe has tried to live his socialism; like Orwell, he has struggled to keep alive humane ideals in squalid times. In Trilling’s essay on Orwell, he recalls a student who shocked the class by calling Orwell a virtuous man. But the description seemed both awkward and correct, and, awkward and correct, it soon proved appropriate for Trilling. The author of A Margin of Hope has done much to earn it as well.