“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.
Again crudely reduced, Howe’s complaint against the New Left is that it has refused to recognize the strength and value of those institutions that the radicals of the Thirties helped to establish:
Right now, the unions look pretty sluggish and drab. Still, two leaders…have recently been toppled by membership votes (and when something like that happens to a trade union leader in Russia, China, Cuba, North Viet Nam or Zanzibar, please let me know).
And elsewhere (in the course of an unpublished debate with Tom Hayden of the Students for Democratic Socialism in May, 1965):
Is the United Auto Workers a shell? Go tell it to General Motors.
The idea of coalition or realignment politics as advanced by socialists is not a rigid formula, or a plot to deliver our souls into the hands of the Establishment. It is meant as a strategy for energizing all those forces within the society that want to move forward toward an extension of the welfare state…in Texas, there is a coalition of labor, liberal, intellectual and minority groups within the Democratic Party—and by all accounts a pretty good coalition.
Now, aside from their tone, the observations are not, in the first case, responsive to a real complaint or, in the second and third cases, descriptive of an actual situation. No one suggests that the United Auto Workers is a shell. It breathes in the real world with the results usual for such an existence. In 1962, a UAW convention framed a resolution criticizing the government’s wage increase guidelines as inadequate; the resolution was withdrawn in deference to President Kennedy. Walter Reuther’s utterances on foreign policy, despite intermittent efforts to break free, have never been directly in conflict with the views of George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, which are no more critical of his government’s war than the trade unions of North Vietnam, who might have less reason, are of theirs.
Howe’s citation of the Texas liberal faction of the Democratic Party is a curious example of the superiority of coalition politics over New Left dedemands that “we-go-it-alone.” A presumed contrast to the Texas coalition would be Stokely Carmichael’s Black Panther Party, which ran an all-Negro slate for the local offices in Lowndes County, Alabama, and lost the election. Carmichael has been blamed for having made possible, by his refusal to coalesce with the more moderate among the whites, the election of the worst among them. But Howe’s Texas coalition has done exactly the same thing; by refusing to support the last two Democratic nominees for United States Senator, it has twice re-elected Republican Senator John Tower, an authentic Goldwater Republican.
MY OWN DISPOSITION is to respect equally the right of Stokely Carmichael and of the Texas liberals to say, in a given situation, that there are comrades one does not choose. Still there is a difference; as Newfield reminds us, Stokely Carmichael, at least at the beginning, was talking about something rather more substantial than just the privilege of choosing comrades, the main resource left to the middle-aged radical:
The county courthouse has always been the symbol of oppression for the rural Negro. But we’re going to make it a symbol of liberation…We’re going to emancipate the Black Belt courthouse by courthouse. We’re gonna build political parties run by poor people that will run candidates for everything that runs.
Now that this vision has run its course, you may very well say that Carmichael overestimated what he could do with the means and the morale of the poor farmers he had available for the work. What cannot be said is that Carmichael failed to understand what needed to be done, or that he did not aim for the one thing within their reach that might give the Negroes of Lowndes County faces their neighbors could recognize as those of grown-ups. He made his mistake about something real. When he chose what he might call the principled over what we might call the practical, the goal was a revolution in Lowndes County; when Howe’s Texas coalition took the same posture, the goal was a liberal Democratic Governor in Texas.
I have gone on so long, with undiminished respect, about what may seem rather trivial errors in the citations Howe chooses for his brief, only to wonder why it remains so much more important to him for the opinion to be correct than for the description of reality to be persuasive. It was a failure in the work of his friend, C. Wright Mills, he acutely recalls, that he could not command the “absolute rightness of description” of the Lynds or Cash or Myrdal. “Mills knew this,” Howe remembers, “and, at one point in the mid-Fifties he read Balzac voraciously in the hope of discovering the secret of narrative specification.”
Now there is the point: we end judging the political intelligence not for its opinions but for its descriptions; the test is narrative specification. Just because of this fundamental single lack in his own work, it becomes terribly difficult to believe that Howe takes politics as seriously as he thinks he does.
But, after a while, there arises from the pattern of his inconsistencies a suspicion that he is very serious about something else. If Stokely Carmichael and the Texas liberal coalition each caused the election of the worst elements through their refusal to accept the putatively better, then why does Howe think of the Texas coalition as “by all accounts pretty good” and grant Carmichael only a silence probably hostile? The only visible difference is that Carmichael is young and scornful of the opinion of his elders, and that the Texas liberal coalition represents the accumulation of the experience of the Thirties and the majesty of those institutions which are its bequest.
Then again, Howe is warmly enthusiastic about the Berkeley student rebellion and he prints his observations on those events right next to his essay detailing his reservations about the New Left.
A question asked by friend and foe alike has been this: Don’t you find some contradiction in outlook, or at least temper, between these two essays, one of them sympathetic to the student rebels and other critical of the ideas some of them hold? My answer is, I think not…. That some of “the new leftists” I criticized were also involved in a positive way, in the Berkeley events is certainly true; what we do in one of our roles, we may undo in another.
STILL IF THERE IS NOT a contradiction, there is at least a substantial disparity in the tender of trust. Now why does the Berkeley case seem different to Howe? For one thing, he knows what the Berkeley revolt was about; his own experience can explain to him more vividly why a student should feel cheated by the multiversity than why the poor should feel cheated by the public agencies and the labor unions, which pretend to be their institutions as some students think the colleges pretend to be theirs. For another, at Berkeley, there was a trusted tie between Howe’s generation and the rebellious young; his old friend Harold Draper was an elder advisor of the student rebels valued by them enough to be summoned to speak for them on their platforms. Perhaps it is unfair to tax Howe with my own weaknesses but, as I grow older, it is more and more a struggle to feel myself relevant; and perhaps what I see in Howe is only what I fear in myself—a tendency to judge the new only by what small elements it contains of the familiar. Thus, when some of the “New Left” seems to him offhand about liberty under the revolutionary regimes abroad, he remembers those distasteful familiars, the Stalinists: when he looks at Berkeley, he sees that trusted familiar Harold Draper and knows that matters are in safe hands.
And still from the fear of becoming irrelevant, there arises the temptation to assert the authority of a tradition, in Howe’s case suddenly the progressive tradition of the Thirties. Yet Howe knew that the New Deal was inadequate when it was fresh and flowing; when its institutions froze in the Fifties, he was one of the very few radicals who resisted that complacency about them to which I myself was a victim; and now, when only the stones are left to mark the stream bed, he has a hope for and a fidelity to them which no one else of his years can still summon unless he happens to be on some payroll. Howe just cannot say, one supposes, that our generation failed, even though he deserves less blame than almost anyone else for the particular illusions that contributed to its failure.
But no one can draw from the social institutions established in our lifetime enough stuff to dress us decently in the authority of success. What we have to teach is the authority of failure. And that happens to be the assistance which the best persons in Newfield’s assemblage stand most in need of now. His work is not long enough, but it is complete in the sense that it ends at the moment when the New Left has ended; in less than six years, this extraordinary history has run its course; their problem has also become how one remains revelant.
What is striking about their history is the limitless sense of possibility they brought to its beginning and how much they did just by acting on an inaccurate assessment of what could be done. Newfield has been taxed for his tone of melodrama, but I do not think these events can be written about except in the key of romance which he brings to their beginning and the unsparing but sorrowful recognition that it is all over, which he brings to what so clearly appears to be their end. Their short history essentially begins in the summer of 1960 when Robert Moses went alone to Amite County, Mississippi, to attempt the registration of Negro voters. We have gone that swiftly from a time when SNCC’S faith was in the unnoticed deed to a time when its only resource seems to be the television act.
“I just got into that Bob Moses bag. I had to see what I could do in the place no one else would go,” says Stokely Carmichael, the link between the way SNCC felt then and the way it feels now, in explaining what took him to Lowndes County, Alabama. Carmichael does not come to us any longer in that simple, boyish form, having been generally noticed only when he was defeated and reduced to a stage figure, as if our every social drama can finish only as a bad television adaptation.
I remember only last spring watching the State Police of Mississippi tear gas Stokely Carmichael and his troops because they had insisted on tenting on property owned by the School Board of Canton, Mississippi. What can never quite be forgotten in that scene was its absolute coldness and its perfect fixity of preparation. We were in a hunting preserve watching game being beaten. And the next morning the Attorney-General of the United States let it be known how gratified he was that the Governor of Mississippi had limited himself to enforcement of the law of trespass.
HOW MANY TIMES must that sort of thing have happened to them, the cold countenance of the F.B.I. man to whom one of them complained of a beating, the essential indifference of even the comfortable people upon whom they depend for money, the speeches in the Senate blaming them for hurting their own cause? One young man in SNCC told Newfield that what he was seeking was the moral equivalent of blackness. Perhaps, more than that, the white young among them were seeking the moral equivalent of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, that high and special occasion which set the radical apart from the rest of America; when such moments end, all who were engaged in them are where Dos Passos was: we try to instruct them in adjustment, and they cry back that they have been clubbed in the streets and that we are two nations.
There is nothing that we who are their elders can tell them which is remotely relevant unless it can help them to find some way out of that circumstance of isolation which seems now so likely to constitute the rest of their youth, as it did most of Howe’s and mine. To offer them what passes for active social change in America is hardly enough. For one thing, even those extremes of rhetoric towards which their isolation has driven them have a disturbing way of sounding rather closer to reality than the common sense which they affront.
Mr. Newfield is sensibly and responsibly aware of the “absolutist emotionalism” to which the New Left has been driven; as an example, he cites these words from Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden:
…we refuse to be anti-communist. We insist that the term has lost all the specific content it once had. Instead it serves as the key category of abstract thought which Americans use to justify a foreign policy that often is no more sophisticated than rape.
That certainly is emotional and simplistic, and it could be dismissed entirely if, as definition, there did not remain in it more that is true than is false. After Stokely Carmichael went it alone, Newfield says, “The first act of the new SNCC was the release of its statement rejecting the invitation to the White House Conference on Civil Rights.” He describes that statement as “couched in the exaggerated cadences of an underground manifesto,” and so it was; yet there remains to taunt us this paragraph:
We believe that the President has called this conference within the US at a time when US prestige internationally is at a low ebb due to our involvement in the Vietnam civil war, the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa and other parts of the Third World.
We cannot be a party to attempts by the White House to use black Americans to recoup prestige lost internationally.
How comfortable life would be if only, once we notice that a statement is exaggerated, we could honestly avoid recognizing that it is true.
AND, AS FOR THE PROSPECT of anything so much better coming to us from the instruments of change now at our disposal, it is not easy to imagine testimony more depressingly suggestive than the works of William Lee Miller and Joseph Lyford, the one celebrating a success with those instruments, the other lamenting their failure.
The Airtight Cage is Lyford’s altogether remarkable examination of the life of the poor on our Upper West Side, an area utterly resistant to the City of New York’s flaccid essays at social rehabilitation; Miller’s The Sixteenth Ward and the Great Society is an account of the salvation of New Haven by Mayor Richard Lee, whose prodigies in the expenditure of federal funds for social progress its author witnessed at close hand as an alderman. Miller’s New Haven is, then, a witness for the reformers, although his good cheer, charming as it is, would certainly seem philistine to Howe. Lyford’s West Side is a witness at least for the analysis of the revolutionaries, although his distrust of all remedies, whether “realistic” or Utopian, hardly accords with their vision. By 1965, New Haven’s rehabilitation a triumph, Mayor Lee could run for re-election with these achievements:
The city was seeking a Class I fire rating, which no city had ever achieved. There would be a half-million-dollar improvement in the city airport. The city’s unemployment rate was at a new low…[A] job-training place for the poverty program was opened with appropriate speech-making…. He cited figures showing a ten percent reduction in class size in the city’s elementary schools. Retail sales of $556 million were predicted for New Haven stores in 1965…a new record.
And yet, with all this success, most of Miller’s recollection of life as a New Haven alderman turns out to involve unrelieved and unappeasable ethnic conflict. There is the squabble over busing Negro children to white schools; the Board of Education stood up to the resistance, but, after a year or so of punishment, even the respectable integrationists conceded that the board would have to limit its goals. Then there was Lee’s experiment at dispersing public housing through the city; one proposal was that a frame house in a middle-class neighborhood in his ward be taken over by the City Housing Authority and one “project” family installed in it.
In the end, after an agonizing bout with our national disease of fake controversy, the New Haven Housing Authority abandoned its plan for even this small demonstration. On both these matters, Alderman Miller struggled patiently and gallantly against the will of his constituents; and it is understandable that, when election time came, he was glad to see that “the busing issue pretty much faded away.”
Even so, Miller found his constituents anything but tolerant of his deviations; he was finally reelected by only six votes, pulled in by Mayor Lee who had silenced all critics with his “central downtown project,” “with a new department store and a new hotel…together with a new office building, new shops and garages.”
“If we hadn’t got Macy’s it would have been just awful,” one of Lee’s administrators told Miller. New Haven seems then to be a success because Mayor Lee has satisfied its middle class more often than he has troubled it, and, when he has troubled it to any small degree, he hasn’t troubled it long.
NEW YORK IS JUST A FAILURE; and Lyford is able, without distraction by progress, to concentrate on the tendency of those social institutions which the liberal coalition set up for the protection of the mass of the poor to end up as agencies only for their general neglect and occasional oppression.
One ends up deciding that even if New York were a success and began, like New Haven, “to win all the awards,” that condition would remain unchanged.
The most important facts about the city [Lyford says near the end of his book] are what I call tidal facts…When I say tidal facts give the essential truth, I am comparing them to facts about institutions like churches or the Department of Real Estate or what officials say about themselves…. The trouble is that one of the functions of a political and social institution—and of some people—is the manufacture of lies about itself and its environment. Although tidal facts cannot be counted or heard…there is no mistaking one when you come across it. One of the tidal facts that impressed me most is the continual waste and loss of human life that is taking place in our city. I am not talking about the murders or assaults that have terrified most of the people I know—poor people, middle-class people, well-to-do people. I am talking about the destruction of children.
It would seem, without attempting to be hortatory, that the tidal fact about the New Left and those of us who are older but still have trouble lying to ourselves is that none of us know what to do. We are at one of those moments between the defeat of the anarchists and the failure of the Social Democrats when someone has to sit down and write across his title page “What is to Be Done?” Let us pray the results turn out better.
January 26, 1967
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.” ↩