In response to:
Left Face from the October 12, 1967 issue
In the Cage from the October 12, 1967 issue
Radicalism is again becoming chic in the intellectual world, a fate not even its worst enemies could suppose it to deserve. This is not, to be sure, the radicalism of desperate Negroes and disaffected youth which, for all its political failings, is at least grounded in urgent experience. No; the “radicalism” now arising in the intellectual world is in quality and content as crude, fashion-driven, smugly moralistic, and supremely verbal as was the turn to conservatism in the Fifties. It is a “radicalism” of posture, gesture, and frisson. It is a “radicalism” of a vicarious and thereby corrupt apocalyptic fantasy: to make an omelette you need not only break eggs, you need a strong dash of black blood. It is a “radicalism” of the attic and the playground: old souvenirs dusted off, creaky limbs pressed to swing baby swing.
One decade anti-Marxism and end-of-ideology are in; next, Black Power and peasant revolution. Lemming-like, the “herd of independent minds” rushes after the latest thing. The New York Review, preparing the cadres for the streets, prints a cover diagram of a Molotov cocktail. Guerrilla squadrons will be formed as soon as midterms are graded: will they assemble at the Paris Review ball? And now, after nearly twenty years of planful circumspection, appears Philip Rahv [NYR, October 12] offering Michael Harrington and myself Little Lessons in Leninism. A delicious spectacle for the theater of the absurd: Rip Van Winkle wakes up and fancies himself at the Smolny Institute.
1.) About one thing Rahv is clear: he has no faith in “the messianic revolutionary role of the proletariat,” or in any of the proposed ersatz proletariats (hippies, Negroes, poor, etc.). For the present at least, he sees no class capable of realizing the Marxist goal of social revolution. So far, so good. But to say all this is tacitly to answer a question he has posed to me: for it is to suggest that bourgeois society now seems capable of avoiding the more cataclysmic of the economic crises that have afflicted it in the past.
Thereby Rahv cedes the ground from which he might assault me for lacking “revolutionary” politics. For the truth is that he has none either. He has summoned memories of revolutionary sentiments; he hopes to convince the young they are in the presence of a veteran of 1905; but in reality he accepts pretty much the same limitations for US politics as those that arouse his scorn when attacking me.
Now if all this is true; and if one remains a principled opponent of the society; and if one also believes that major social changes are needed now, what follows? We can fall back on anarcho-utopianism, the community of the good in the crevices of evil—something neither Rahv nor I accept. Or:
(a) We can advance proposals to mobilize people in behalf of urgent social needs, what I have called “coalition politics” to “extend the welfare state,” while trying also to educate for a politics that would “transcend” the welfare state;
(b)We can engage in long-range social criticism and theorizing to perform what Rahv, quoting Hegel, calls “the labor of the negative.”
Between (a) and (b) there is in principle no conflict, though clashes of stress and priority are possible. I would opt for both, and like to think I have been so engaged for some years. But Rahv expresses contempt for (a)—it is “conciliatory” and lacks “deep social content.”
Let’s translate “extend the welfare state” into a concrete politics. We are living through a tremendous crisis; in shorthand: the crisis of the American cities. To “extend the welfare state” means to struggle for that massive allocation of social resources which can alone cope with this crisis. Concretely: decent jobs for Negroes, tearing down slums, altering patterns of education, starting large-scale public works, building hospitals, schools, and new cities. Such a program can only be realized through major political battles and, as a preliminary, ending the Vietnam war. What strikes Rahv as “conciliatory” about this I fail to see; why it should fail to excite intellectuals whose middleclass snobbism is linked with half-remembered Marxist phrases, I see all too well.
How can such a program be achieved? No pat answer; “coalition politics” is a paradigm, not a step-by-step tactics. In the US there is no radical party of significance, nor is there likely soon to be. But there are major social forces—unions, Negroes, churches, peace groups, students, intellectuals—which recognize, with varying urgency, the need for largescale social advance. This means struggle: at the polls, in Democratic primaries, through strikes, in the streets, all the agencies and avenues of a democratic society. And this strategy is genuinely radical because it speaks to the needs of millions; because it offers the possibility of mobilizing large segments of the population; and because it does not demand, as a preliminary certificate of purity, belief in “the labor of the negative.” It may well be that as long as the Vietnam war continues, the possibility of such a coalition nationally is small; if so, that means the possibility of satisfying our immediate needs is also small.
BUT LIMITED coalitions remain possible and urgent. If the Meany-type unions campaign, as they have, for a two-dollar minimum wage, I cooperate with them. When they support the war, I part company. If Reuther proposes, as he has, an end to bombing North Vietnam, I will work with him for that end. When he endorses LBJ for reelection, I go my own way. All this is ABC, something the radical movement, even in its most sectarian moments, has always understood—that is, until Rahv and Oglesby, aflutter for their virtue, warned us that there are dangers of being “co-opted” by Reform Democrats. But dear friends: you who doubt your capacity to withstand the lures (such as they are) of Reform Democrats, you are going to make a revolution?
Almost every active radical or liberal is in practice committed to a version of coalition politics. (Even Oglesby, so alert to the threat of liberal sellout, fancies a coalition—with the Far Right! A lovely vision: Oglesby and Buckley, Spock and Goldwater campaigning together against them federal bureaucrats.)
Item: Dwight Macdonald has joined a drop-LBJ group in the Democratic Party. Will Rahv urge him to leave, in order to escape the danger of being coopted by Theodore Weiss?
Item:Carl Stokes, a Negro liberal, has won the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Cleveland. Would Rahv interrupt his “labor of the negative” for a few minutes to support Stokes?
Item: Senator McGovern, outspoken dove, comes up for reelection. Would Rahv advise the South Dakota New Left to refrain from supporting him out of fear of being “swallowed” by the Establishment?
Item: Suppose in Massachusetts Stuart Hughes runs as a peace candidate in the Democratic primaries. Will Rahv say: “I agree with you on the war, but you really can’t expect me to get mixed up with this sort of social democratic conciliationism….”
Now if Rahv replies that in such instances he would indeed favor participation, he accepts some version of “coalition politics”—and what then is he grumbling about? But if he would not so participate, his leftist reincarnation comes to no more than a cover for an all-too-familiar quietism.
Ah, thunders Rahv, but people will not die to “extend the welfare state,” forgetting that not all of us share his heroic temper. And he forgets something still more important: many people have died to “extend the welfare state,” many have died for union recognition, civil rights, labor demands, social welfare. In any case, it’s hardly an argument against a program for social renovation that it fails to ignite Rahv’s appetite for ideological melodrama. Far better that people fight and live for what they need than talk about dying for it!
THIS WILL NOT yet be socialism? Then the few of us holding a socialist perspective will have to continue speaking for a vision of society which reforms within the present order may not by themselves yield. Our involvement in the struggle for such reforms might, however, help people to see the need for going beyond them. And if not, it remains our duty, precisely as socialists, to throw ourselves into the struggle for the reforms millions of people need now.
The “labor of the negative”? By all means, but with two cautions: 1) a theoretic criticism neglecting the living urgencies of men can only end as ultimatistic, elitist, and manipulative: check the history of US radicalism for examples. 2) Much of what now passes for social criticism is anti-intellectual, primitive, nihilistic. The idiocy that in the US liberalism is the main enemy and that we should press for a polarization into extreme Right and extreme Left (who would triumph in such an event?)—all this indicates the need for sharp discriminations concerning criticism, lest the “labor of the negative” degenerate into the “negation of labor.”
But Rahv is not alarmed. He preaches the value of “activism” as “a school of politics.” Suppose, then, we assume the recent New Politics Chicago convention was a graduation from this school: what did the students learn? The vulgarities of black nationalism; the descent into maneuvers that would make Reform Democrats look like babes by comparison; the notion that ghetto riots are to be applauded as a training school for revolution; the denunciation of “imperialist Israel”—some school! some politics!
2.) Rahv lists reactionary US policies in Latin America, Vietnam, and Greece, and, to smash “reformist” heresies of Harrington and myself, asks whether “these are all mere accidents and mistakes perhaps.” Accidents and mistakes are not to be discounted—consider how many have occurred in the countries Rahv so delicately describes as “a kind of socialism.” There is an overdeterminism which sees everything—a given act and its possible opposite, anything the US does abroad and anything it fails to do—as evidence for a fixed thesis about imperialism, so that there is no way either of validating or refuting it. Still, I’d say: no, US foreign policy in Latin America, Vietnam, and Greece is not the consequence merely of mistake and accident; there are deep-rooted causes in our social arrangements for such reactionary policies. But the key question for anyone wishing to affect US foreign policy—e.g., anyone wishing to get the bombing of North Vietnam stopped somewhat before the outbreak of a US revolution—is whether its reactionary components can be changed, whether there may not be conflicting pressures at work, and whether democratic politics can lead to a more humane and intelligent policy.
Let me quote Conor Cruise O’Brien, a writer closer to Rahv than to myself, about US power in the world today:
…granted the existence and extension of the power, it can be used with greater or less responsibility and good sense. It is inevitable that this country should have predominant influence in the Caribbean; it is not inevitable that it should send its troops to the Dominican Republic. It is inevitable that this country should have influence in Asia; it is not inevitable that it should send its Army to fight there…. Capitalist governments, like others, can learn by their mistakes and are especially apt to learn to avoid doing what their adversaries tell them they must inevitably do.
Further: I offer Rahv a second list of US actions abroad—the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, saving Titoist Yugoslavia, economic aid to under-developed countries, the atom-test treaty, Point IV. Still more important: the crucial role played by the US in destroying Hitler, Mussolini. and Hirohito. Were these too “all mere accidents or mistakes perhaps?” That they may have been in the interests of US capitalism I would not deny. What I am asking is whether the designation “imperialist” is enough to explain or characterize US actions in foreign affairs and enough to provide us with a political guide for responding to those actions.
There is surely a phenomenon to be called US imperialism. But we must distinguish among those elements of US policy which, no matter what their motivation, are worthy of our support and those elements which are not. And once we make such discriminations, we tacitly admit the possibility—greater at some points than others—of pressuring that policy in desirable directions. Right now there are political spokesmen of US capitalism who favor invading North Vietnam, others who favor the current policy, and still others who favor a dove-like course. All may be defenders of imperialism, but it makes an enormous difference which win out; and without ceasing criticism of any, a serious politics will want to give some support to certain of them and no support to others.
The term “imperialist” has become a catch-all and in most current usage means little. Traditionally, in Marxist-Leninist formulations, it had a precise significance that could be tested. Rahv uses the term as a kind of intonation to make the rains of profundity fall. At one point, however, he does turn to a version of Leninism: “…the American economy is fundamentally expansionist, and secure commercial colonies are essential to its survival.” That sounds like “deep social content,” but will it help us to understand US policy in Southeast Asia? Statistics for 1964 show that total US domestic and foreign investment came to $1.3 trillion and of this sum only $16 billion, or about one percent, was invested in the “third world,” Latin America, Asia, Africa. Of the total overseas US investment, nearly 60 percent was in Europe and Canada, only 7 percent in Asia. Do these figures jibe with the Leninist view of an imperialist economy spilling over into backward areas to extract raw materials and employ surplus capital? The reality seems more likely to be that because investment in the industrialized countries is often more profitable, and because synthetics keep reducing dependence on raw materials extracted in underdeveloped countries, the growing danger will be “neglect” of the underdeveloped countries by the rich ones.
Now a case can and should be made out for a kind of US imperialism in Asia as a consequence of military, economic, political, and ideological factors. But to do this would be to locate foreign policy in particular choices, open to at least some degree of change, rather than to see it as fixed and fated on the path of reaction.
But is Rahv really interested in the problem of imperialism? Or is he turning to a new vocabulary—I mean an old vocabulary—in order to prepare himself for a shift in political allegiance?
He speaks of “the kind of socialism established in the East.” A slip of the tongue? A concession to popular usage? Apparently not. For he proceeds to tell us that “it [the “kind of socialism”—what kind?] exists as a global force and no consistent radical can afford not to reckon with it.” For clichés of such magnitude we hardly need Philip Rahv: “not to reckon with it!” We’ve all been reckoning with it for years and years. The real question is, in which political-moral terms do you propose to reckon with it? A few sentences later we read, in terms of evident approval, that “Oglesby does not exhibit or stress his anti-Communism.” Marvelous phrase: “does not exhibit.” But if Oglesby thinks, as I think, that the Communist countries are enemies of freedom and socialism, then he is evading his elementary intellectual duty in not “exhibiting” anti-Communism. If, however, he thinks these states are essentially “progressive,” then he ought to be man enough to “exhibit” his support of them. To “not exhibit or stress his anti-Communism”—that’s neither serious nor courageous, it’s merely fashionable.
And the same goes for Rahv.
In a Partisan Review article, May 1948, Rahv heaped scorn on the “muddle-headedness” of liberals willing “to accept the mere fact of the abolition of bourgeois property relations as a proof of the existence of socialism.” (He also wrote that “something more than the profit motive stands between us and the good society” and that “American ‘imperialism’ is the bogey of people who have not yet succeeded in getting rid of their Stalinist hangover”—but let that pass.) Rahv continues:
…what has been erected in the Soviet sphere on the basis of the abolition of bourgeois property is a system of state serfdom—a system to which, from the standpoint of culture, individual liberty, human decency, and labor’s right to wage an independent struggle for the improvement of its status, liberal capitalism as we know it is vastly superior.
At which point, dear Philip, did the Soviet Union cease being a society of “state serfdom?” When were the serfs freed—I mean the second time? The rations are better; neither workers nor bureaucratic rulers are as vulnerable to terrorism as before; but the society remains a police state, a dictatorship in which the masses are speechless, powerless, and without independent organization. And this you call “a kind of socialism”?
There are kinds of fascism; there are kinds of Communism. Some fascist states were terrorist, others not. Some were anti-Semitic, others not. Yet all were oppressive and to be opposed utterly. No radical would think of lessening his opposition to Franco because he is less brutal than Hitler; no radical should lessen his opposition to Kosygin-Brezhnev because they are less brutal than Stalin.
To call Communist countries “totalitarian,” says Rahv, is “futile” in view of recent changes. Were our differences here merely semantic, I would desist. Radicals have described Communist society as state capitalist, bureaucratic collectivist, industrial feudalist, etc. No matter; so long as one does not use two precious words, “democratic” and “socialist,” for there the line of principle is drawn. In my view, Communist societies do remain totalitarian: they are single-party dictatorships totally dominating the state, preventing opposition parties from functioning, stifling autonomous organization by the people; the removal of terrorism, while a strong positive, does not change the socio-political character of the Communist countries, any more than the absence, for the most part, of terrorism under Mussolini was a reason for denying that his dictatorship was totalitarian. But I would not quarrel about a name. If Rahv wants to call the Communist countries “authoritarian,” fine. Or better yet, why not compromise on “state serfdom?”
What matters is the political attitude Rahv proposes to take toward Communist societies. Here he veers off into double-talk: radicals, he says, cannot “remain indifferent to the conduct and outcome of the Cold War [which radical has?]…they must recognize that the question of which socio-economic system demonstrates its ultimate superiority in competitive coexistence is inextricably bound up with the fate of Western socialism.” I see three possible glosses here:
(a) Rahv means literally what this sentence says—an insulting interpretation and therefore to be rejected;
(b) he proposes a kind of critical support vis-à-vis the US in the spirit of his PR article, where he favored “a strategic alliance…with bourgeois democracy” against “Soviet totalitarianism”—an interpretation which now seems to be excluded;
(c) he is getting ready, with all due qualifications, to adopt a view akin to that of Isaac Deutscher: that the Communist countries represent, willy-nilly, the “progressive” forces in the world today and therefore merit critical support. But I wish he would speak out plainly.
If he did, it would help me to understand what he has in mind about those “peasant insurrections.” I haven’t the space here to say anything on this matter; I argued it out with David Caute in the Spring Partisan Review. But let me make one statement and ask two questions. Statement: Perhaps the greatest scandal of US intellectual life these past few decades has been the cynical ease with which writers along the entire political spectrum have dismissed the possibilities for democracy in underdeveloped countries: something which millions of people in those countries do not do. Questions: If Rahv is now a partisan of “peasant insurrections” led by Communists, would he tell us whether he favors the guerrilla movement in Venezuela, which seeks to overthrow a democratic regime? Would he favor a similar guerrilla movement in Chile if it sought to overthrow the liberal government of Frei?
Meanwhile he is against making “anti-Communism the supreme test of political rectitude on the Left.” Such carelessness of phrasing! If by “supreme test,” he means that I make anti-Communism a sufficient condition for being a socialist, then he is utterly wrong—for there are all kinds of anti-Communists, as there are all kinds of anti-capitalists, and I would no more associate myself with the anti-Communism of a Nixon than the anti-capitalism of a Stalin or Sukarno. If however Rahv means that I believe anti-Communism to be a necessary—indeed, an integral—part of socialist opinion, then he is right. And why should that bother him? If it is not a “supreme” test of rectitude on the Left, does he propose that it be any test at all? Say, semi-supreme? As for myself, the matter was once stated beautifully, by Rahv himself in the Partisan Review essay from which I’ve already quoted:
…where there is no democracy there can be no socialism…. That was more or less taken for granted among radicals…until the Bolsheviks, to justify their terroristic dictatorship and exploitation of the masses, imposed a fetishism of collective forms of economy…. Actually, of course, in disregarding the social content which these forms may serve to conceal, one disregards the essence of socialism.
Exactly! And that is why, when Rahv complains that I put an “illimitable emphasis on the adjective ‘democratic,’ ” I proudly accept the charge. To me democracy and socialism are unbreakably linked; fifty years after the Bolshevik revolution—with all the blood, all the defeat, all the despair, all the broken hopes than followed it—this is the lesson to which I dedicate my voice.
Philip Rahv replies:
Irving Howe seems to be very angry. Too bad. In my piece “Left Face” I tried to express myself as tactfully as I possibly could under the circumstances. But obviously he cannot face any challenge to his comprehensive claims, so ill-concealed in his recent articles, of being a leader of the Left and ready expert in matters of strategy and theory. How else explain his obsessive raging against the young people of the New Left? Can it be that he is infuriated with them because they refuse to accept him as the éminence grise of American radicalism? In their view there is very little radicalism left in him. Perhaps they are right. And in his all too loquacious reply to my critical remarks about his political position he appears fully armed in his best polemical style, all punch and swagger, and even goes so far as to indulge himself in all sorts of personal sarcasms and innuendoes. It is not my intention, however, to contend with him in this vein. I would rather stick to the issues, leaving forensic maneuvers and the scoring of debaters’ points to Howe.
In the second paragraph of his new article Howe accuses me of offering to teach Harrington and himself “Little Lessons in Leninism.” In the context of the paragraph, with its satirical word-play, “Leninism” is used simply as a smear-word, or Schimpfwort, as the Germans say. This is unworthy of Howe, for I would have expected him to leave that sort of thing to the Cold Warriors. In their milieu, especially that of the ex-Stalinists and ex-Trotskyites among them living down their Marxist past—which they regard as a kind of original sin—the Russian Revolution is considered to be a crime against humanity and Leninism as little more than a criminal conspiracy. But the more astute Sovietologists, principally those of academic background, have long ago dropped this approach—instead of deriding Leninism they study it as an historical phenomenon. Moreover, Leninism, however we look at it now, cannot be divorced from the Marxist experience as a whole, and it ill behooves a man like Howe—whose main strength as a literary critic is derived not so much from an acute sensibility as from the lessons about the workings of society and ideology he absorbed from studying the Marxists, particularly Trotsky—to sneer at his progenitors, among whom I would certainly include Lenin.
Many of Howe’s sentences breathe fire at Marxism and Marxists. To be sure, Marxism, both in its classical and Leninist variety, is out of date in many respects (particularly in the advanced societies of the West), but Howe is deceiving himself in imagining he has gone very far beyond it—except maybe in the reverse direction. Merely backing away from Marxism, without replacing it with any equally serious and inclusive interpretation of historical development under capitalism and beyond it, is not necessarily an advance but rather more often a form of retrogression. He insinuates that I have reverted to Leninism—dreadful thought—while in the very next paragraph he writes: “About one thing Rahv is clear: he has no faith in the ‘messianic revolutionary role of the proletariat,’ or in any of the proposed ersatz proletariats…. For the present at least he sees no class capable of realizing the Marxist goal of social revolution.” That is exactly so, but having dissociated myself from any idea of the proletariat as a revolutionary class, how then can I be mistaken for a Leninist? After all, the Leninists thought of themselves as acting as “the vanguard of the proletariat,” and in their vocabulary “proletarian” and “revolutionary” are used virtually as synonyms. Once faith in the proletariat is excised from Leninism, it makes very little sense as a theory. (Needless to say, in speaking of Lenin and Leninism I am not thinking of the Stalinist regime. I don’t accept the simplistic account of the latter as the “inevitable” product of the former. Howe and his co-thinkers don’t believe in historical inevitability, except, that is, in the case of the Soviet Union, where everything is plain and clear to them.) As for his insinuations at my expense, one thing should be said: given the conditions and atmosphere of the Cold War, there has come into being in America such a phenomenon as Red-baiting with a liberal slant, and Howe’s attempt to stick me with the term Leninism—a term so obviously opprobrious in his eyes—is an example of it.
In the sentence immediately following the one quoted above, Howe tries to draw a conclusion from the fact of my admitted non-belief that any class now exists in America “capable of realizing the Marxist goal of social revolution.” But his conclusion—“it is to suggest that bourgeois society now seems capable of avoiding the more cataclysmic of the economic crises that have afflicted it in the past”—is a pure non sequitur. In the first place, I was not speaking of cataclysmic economic crises nor predicting any. There are other kinds of cataclysms, such as those produced by wars, invasions, military repression of radical forces abroad, and imperialist ventures generally. The war in Vietnam and the great protest movement it has aroused exemplifies my meaning. Howe is entirely too cavalier about this war, to which he is opposed but which he evidently regards as being of purely transitory significance: one way or another it will soon be finished, and then radicals and liberals will be free to resume playing the “coalition politics” that he advocates. Nor is there any social or intellectual logic in his assumption that the absence of a revolutionary class necessarily enjoins radicals to acquiesce in the workings of American neo-capitalism and its governmental apparatus. Even if the time is far from ripe for the criticism of weapons (if Howe will forgive my recourse to Marxist language) it is surely ripe for the weapon of criticism. But Howe will have none of that; he prides himself on his “realism” and his solution is “extension of the welfare state.”
IT IS RIDICULOUS, however, to believe that a country as dynamic, as proficient in pulling its weight in the capitalist world-market, and as bent on military domination as the US is in this era, will somehow benignly evolve (or rather dissolve) into a peaceful welfare state. There is a limited sense in which one may speak of Great Britain today as a welfare state, though it still has plenty of troubles of its own. But the teeth of British imperialism have been pulled, whereas America’s teeth are not only intact but growing bigger all the time. Russia, as well as several non-Communist countries, were impoverished by the two world wars, while America was enriched by them. The Americans are now a history-making nation, and history-making, as Howe should be able to grasp, is a process not to be contained by any such narrow perspective as welfarism. As a process it holds out the promise of great gains at the same time as it threatens immense catastrophes. And why does Howe tend to assume that “welfare” and democracy are somehow synonymous? In fact, there is more “welfare” in the Soviet Union right now, with free education and free medical care guaranteed to all, than there is here; and let us keep in mind, too, that Russia’s GNP is only half of ours. Still, there is no democracy there, nor did I ever claim there was.
It is pointless for Howe to throw certain statistics at me. The total US investment in the “third world,” Latin America, Asia, and Africa, is very small indeed compared to the investment in Europe and Canada. This is no news to me. I have read these figures months ago in an article by Harrington. But I am not impressed by them, as I cannot believe in the possibility of American capitalism restraining its expansionist drive and setting itself up as an autarchy. After all, capitalists are in business not to produce “welfare” but to produce profits. A more proper recipient than I am for the figures Howe cites is the United Fruit Company, which he might well advise to drop its holdings in Central America and shift its investments to Europe, the economy of which American capital has for some years now been cannibalizing through its multinational corporations. The intention behind this investment-push may be in no wise political, but the consequences are nothing if not political, for it provides the American power-elite with one more weighty reason for intervening in Europe’s domestic affairs whenever it detects any real or imaginary signs of danger from the Left. As far as official America is concerned, the danger is always on the Left, never on the Right.
Never mind Lenin’s idea of imperialism. Let us stick to Carl Oglesby’s quite provisional but none the less satisfactory definition of it as “most basically the forcible (however indirect) management of one state’s political economy by another state.” In this sense the US is the power ultimately controlling the political economies of many countries, and this is what I mean by using the term imperialism. I don’t think Howe comes anywhere near showing that Oglesby is wrong. Generally, on the question of American imperialist policies, Howe huffs and puffs: now you see it now you don’t. He concedes (what a concession for a radical!) that our foreign policy “in Latin America, Vietnam, and Greece is not the consequence merely of mistakes and accidents; there are deep-rooted causes in our social arrangements for such reactionary policies.” (“Social arrangements” is a delicious euphemism—at this point Howe cannot even use such plain words as “capitalism” and “imperialism” without gagging.) He cites to the moral credit of the US such actions as “saving Titoist Yugoslavia…economic aid to underdeveloped countries…and, more importantly, the crucial role played by the US in destroying Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito.”
This is surely astonishing, coming from a writer presumably as sophisticated politically as Howe is. You might think that the US helped Tito’s Yugoslavia, not because of Cold War calculation, in the hope of widening the split in the Communist bloc, but strictly for philanthropic reasons. And what has economic aid to underdeveloped countries amounted to, not in dollars but in results? So far the US has nowhere shown itself capable of developing a backward area into a Western-style political economy; and the cause of this failure is implicit in the nature of our own social system, not to be explained by mere inefficiency or blundering. Conditions in Brazil, for instance, a country rich in resources which has received a good deal of economic aid are as miserable as ever, and even worse in a political sense. As for its role in the Second World War, America entered the War not to fight fascism but to safeguard its strategic national interests, mainly to prevent Germany and Japan (countries of whose ultimate intentions we could in no wise be certain) getting hold of the resources of the whole of Europe and of Asia. True, many Americans were moved by anti-fascist sentiments in supporting the war, but that has really very little to do with the anti-fascist national rhetoric of those years. And even then not a few people were classified as “premature anti-fascists” in the dossiers of the FBI. If official America were actually concerned with defeating fascism, it would have helped save the Spanish Republic, nor would it at present hand out vast sums to Franco and a host of lesser dictators and despots.
Throughout his article Howe makes great play with a phrase, “a kind of socialism,” plucked from the middle of one of my sentences, trying to make it appear that I characterized the Communist states as truly socialist. But this is sheer pretense. Plainly Howe is striving hard to nail me down on the horrendous Cold War charge of being “soft on Communism,” as the common phrase has it. What I actually wrote was: “Now people like Irving Howe and myself may not approve of or want to support the kind of socialism established in the East, but that is neither here nor there so far as my present argument is concerned.” That argument is known to the readers of my article; there is no need for me to repeat it. Further on in the piece I said: “It is true that democratic socialists have no business supporting the East.” I was not writing a comprehensive political treatise, and I had no occasion to expatiate upon the theme of the nature of Soviet society. Howe knows perfectly well what my opinion is, as I formulated it very carefully in the Commentary symposium of September, 1967. I presume Howe has read it, as he contributed to the same symposium:
What Soviet society is badly in need of is a fundamental political reform that would once and for all eliminate the one-party monopoly of power and the arbitrary rule of the bureaucracy. But this is a long-term prospect. It cannot be accomplished from the outside but only by the Russian people themselves as education and full-scale modernization in the economic sphere gradually promote among them more libertarian perspectives. Cold War anti-Communism, Washington style, can only obstruct their gaining of such perspectives, and a nuclear war would surely bury them for good. And so it would bury us.
If this is pro-Communism, let Irving Howe make the most of it.
PERHAPS IT IS too late in the day for Howe to grasp the limits of anti-Communism. We are not living in the Thirties or even Forties. There is no sense in pretending, as Howe consistently does, that American leftists, and the American intellectuals particularly, are in any danger of being bamboozled by the American Communist Party, which has no chance whatever of staging a comeback. Furthermore, the democratic socialists of the West have no means of influencing events in the East, which will take their own course according to the logic of the internal and external relation of forces. Whatever Russian propaganda still filters into this country is more in the nature of ordinary public relations than any serious attempt to capture the intelligentsia for the Communist faith. Under these conditions the brainwashing that goes on here issues almost entirely from native sources—official, mindlessly nationalistic, and profoundly bourgeois. But obviously the situation for Howe has not changed: he is still fighting off the dread specter of Stalinism. Anyone continuing with this line is lost to genuine radicalism. Willynilly he becomes a part of the Cold War anti-Communist consensus, which has really nothing to do either with any positive democratic aspirations in the West or any true concern with the establishment of democratic institutions in the East. After all, Howe is living in New York, not Moscow, Warsaw, or Budapest. In Moscow no one pays the slightest attention to him, but here just a few people might be influenced by his writings. We find the following sentence in the last paragraph of his article, “New Styles in ‘Leftism’ “: “To preserve democracy as a political mode without extending it into every crevice of social and economic life is to make it increasingly sterile, formal, ceremonial.” One might imagine that he is addressing himself to US Steel, General Motors, and other giant corporations. But no, the sentence is part of one of his usual sermons delivered to the East. There nothing else but the perfection of democracy will do, but here he is willing to leave the big corporations to their thoroughly undemocratic privacy so long as they sweeten their consecration to maximum profits with a little “welfare.”
Howe quotes an article I wrote in 1948, during the height of the Zhdanovite terror in Soviet culture and the arts and while there was still a distinct possibility of Stalinism expanding into Western Europe. But look, Irving, all that happened in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. I might quote certain pieces of Howe’s, written in the late Forties, including the one chiding the editors of Partisan Review for “supporting the State Department” against Stalinist Russia (an atrocious crime, as he saw it then, against the spirit of pure, unadulterated Trotskyism). But I will refrain.
No, I no longer think that a system of state-serfdom prevails in the Soviet Union. No doubt it is still authoritarian, still dominated by a single party. I cannot see how it can be described with any accuracy as totalitarian, whether we take our definition of totalitarianism from Marxist sources or from Hannah Arendt for example. But Howe insists, Howe won’t let go of the label “totalitarian” so essential to his political purpose. It is clear that he will settle for nothing else than a fully developed, fully democratic socialism, but only if handed to him on a silver platter. Otherwise he is disposed to “struggle,” with no reluctance whatever, for the preservation of the fabulous metamorphosis of the vast American imperial complex into a “welfare state” (read: the existing system). It does not occur to him that in a backward country like Russia, the scene of a great social revolution, a country racked by war and civil war, where in 1921 industrial production had declined to little more than one-fifth of its pre-war level and where grain production had virtually collapsed, and which not long afterward fell into the grip of the Stalinist ice-age for many years—that in such a country socialist democracy cannot be anything else but a conquest of the future, not a given, a donnée of the system, which is even now rapidly evolving in some ways not unfavorable to the mass of the population living under it. But of course, in speaking of such matters, I am not offering ideological guarantees, as I am no believer in historical inevitability.
I was not criticizing Howe in my piece “Left Face” for not being a socialist but precisely for persistently proclaiming himself a socialist while actually formulating a strategy designed for liberal members of the Democratic Party, not for socialists. “The fundamental task of a socialist strategy,” writes Lelio Basso, a radical European theorist, “is to link daily actions, the fight for specific demands, to the fight for anti-capitalist structural reform forming intermediate stages on the road to socialism.” Clearly, what I have in mind is not any romantic notion of the revolutionary seizure of power in the old Leninist style; I am thinking rather of the revolutionary process as a whole under Western conditions. This process does not at all exclude alliances, under certain circumstances, even with the pseudo-Left. However, as Basso observes, these can have only a provisional character, that is, they cannot serve as the principal policy of socialists seeking to achieve their basic objectives.
But Howe disapproves: don’t I agree with him that “in the US today there is no radical party of significance, nor is there likely soon to be.” Yes, I do. Yet from the mere realization of this fact it does not follow in the least that what does exist of the Left must at once knuckle under to the so-called reform Democrats, who are not even an organized wing of the Democratic Party but only a tendency among some of its prominent members, most of whom are professional politicians who understand very well the nature of power, which for them chiefly means power at the polls. And so far as the other kind of power is concerned, power in the streets, the mere threat of its appearance makes Howe very nervous: it might frighten the centrist, middle-of-the-road adherents of the future lib-lab coalition.
I wrote that the American Left is at present “composed of a conglomeration of random groups in ideological disarray, undivided only with regard to Vietnam, and lacking an organization or movement or party that has developed a unifying platform and distinct identity and discipline of its own….” The total mess that was the outcome of the recent New Politics at Chicago proves exactly my point, not Howe’s. So long as the Left groupings cannot even agree among themselves, how can they possibly enter a coalition headed by professional politicians without compromising themselves and being finally engulfed? It seems to me that Howe does not really understand the nature of a political coalition, which is a compact between two or more parties, each of which gives up something of its own in order to gain something. It implies mutual concessions and a firm commitment to follow a joint policy on certain immediate issues. But the Left in America, lacking a distinct program, identity, or discipline of its own, is in no position of organized political strength to exact concessions from the partners Howe proposes for it. Actually, what he is talking about is gratuitous support, not “coalition politics” in any true sense of the term.
He writes: “If the Meany-type unions campaign…for the $2 minimum wage, I co-operate with them. When they support the war, I part company. If Reuther proposes, as he has, an end to the bombing of North Vietnam, I will work with him for that end.” Here he is speaking of individual support, not any kind of coalitionism. And what makes Howe assume that either Meany or Reuther is in the slightest degree interested in his support or non-support? I hope he is not so deluded as to imagine that the tiny group around Dissent, numbering not much more than a dozen people or so, constitute some kind of Social Democratic party that has to be reckoned with by the powers that be. It is one thing for Willy Brandt and Herbert Wehner to enter Herr Kiesinger’s cabinet in Bonn (not that I admire this latest exhibition of Minister-Sozialismus). After all, the party they lead does represent considerable power at the polls. But for an inconsequential group of political-minded intellectuals, who are by no means activists, to set itself up as the mentor and guide of the entire Left is an excercise in sheer illusionism.
A VERY STRANGE political advertisement, signed by Howe among others, appeared in the pages of this Review on June 15, 1967. Too long to reproduce here, I can only give the political gist of it. In effect it said: the war in Vietnam is dreadful, a disgrace to America, but don’t you militants of the anti-war protests and demonstrations go too far lest you arouse the hostility of “the bulk of our citizens…the mainstream of American life.” We must concentrate on “mobilizing those who stand politically at center or a bit left of center.” A key sentence reads: “Let us approach the small band of Senators that has begun to speak out more forcefully against the war and persuade them that it is their duty to move out of Washington, into the countryside, to barnstorm and rally support.” Now who is going to do all this “mobilizing” and “persuading” of Senators? Obviously this advertisement is not addressed to “the mainstream,” scarcely to be reached through this Review, but precisely to the activists whose militancy has proved so alarming to Howe and his friends. The Senators they speak of, in spite of their disagreement with Johnson on Vietnam, can on no account be induced by gentler behavior on the activists’ part to endanger their political careers and stump the country against the President. Most of them, whatever their quarrel with Johnson, are members of the “Club” in good standing, and the Democrats among them will mostly support the President in 1968; Robert Kennedy has already pledged himself to do so.
Furthermore, Vietnam is hardly the sort of issue, like a severe economic crisis of immediate concern to all classes of the population, through which “the bulk of our citizenry…the mainstream” can be readily reached. Most American families are quite unaffected by it. The reaction of “the mainstream” is either one of apathy or of an unreflective, automatic kind of patriotism. But that does not mean that the minority actively protesting and demonstrating—most of them middle class people in whom the atrocity of the war has touched a sensitive moral nerve—has been ineffective. On the contrary, I think it has been very effective, if not in the sense of stopping the war then at least in making it infinitely harder for Johnson to put over his glib and thoroughly misleading justifications of his brutal interventionism.
Vanguard action is always accomplished by minorities, and the fear of alienating the majority is the fear of action itself. Howe has forgotten this patent truth, confirmed by all historians of significant political struggle and forward developments. At best, under favorable conditions, the inchoate majority can be neutralized but only in an extremely desperate situation can it be drawn into strenuous campaigns of resistance to official policies. The appeal that Howe has signed is at bottom a call to passivity, designed to discourage activism that exceeds the bounds of “propriety” and political respectability. This is what the “welfarist” view of American society and an abstract conception of “coalition politics” lead to in practice.
November 23, 1967