In the long and laudable history of left-wing schism and self-inspection, this year’s winter issue of the progressive US magazine Dissent, which was founded in 1954 by a group of prominent intellectuals that included Irving Howe, constituted something of a ‘shirtfront’ moment. It carried a piece by the political philosopher and co-editor of the magazine Michael Walzer accusing the left, or a significant portion of it, of turning a blind eye to Islamic extremism. The left, said Walzer, had allowed its hatred of neoliberalism and economic imperialism to colour, and to temper, its ideological response to the rise of Islamic extremism as a global power. Declaring his intention to join what he called the ‘ideological wars’ against such extremism, and taking aim at the left’s cruising anti-Americanism, Walzer set out his case in terms designed to prick the conscience of his own side of politics: since Islamic extremism despises the very values of liberty, democracy and gender equality – ‘universal’ values, not ‘Western’ ones – from which liberals and progressives claim descent, any left that declines to confront it, or tries to find excuses for it, is turning its back on its own best traditions; and in turning its back on those traditions, preparing itself to march against them.
Walzer clearly intended his piece to provoke a reaction, and he was not disappointed. A week or two later, Dissent published a response on its website from Andrew F. March, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale and the author of a book on Islam and liberalism. Affecting to speak for those progressives with whose ‘moral and emotional rhythms’ Walzer was so obviously out of step, he suggested that the war on Islamic extremism seemed to be ‘taking care of itself’ and that the proper business of left-wingers and liberals lay in holding the current US administration, and the West more generally, to account for their crimes. ‘It is always easier to focus on the crime the other commits against you than on the crimes you commit, or abet,’ wrote March, adding, a little pompously:
It is hard work to ruthlessly subject your own affective feelings of disgust to the tribunal of historical perspective.
To anyone interested in the ‘moral and political health of the left’ (as Walzer calls it, also a tad pompously), this argument between ‘comrades’ will be instantly recognisable as yet another iteration of a longstanding disagreement. Put simply, or simplistically, this disagreement is between what might be called the anti-imperial (or anti-American) left and the anti-totalitarian left. On the one side, we have those for whom Islamic extremism is in part a response to imperialism, as well as the excuse for imperialism’s furtherance; on the other, we have those for whom Islamic extremism is in essence a manifestation of fascism and, for that reason, to be opposed above all else. The first group regards the ‘war on terror’ as a cover for neoliberalism, while the second, following Hannah Arendt, regards terror as the essence of totalitarianism – not a means to an end, but an end in itself. And while both sides, if pressed, would certainly declare themselves to be against both Islamic extremism and neoliberalism, too often what should be a matter of emphasis shades into apology and exculpation – of Islamic extremism in the first instance, and US militarism in the second. Thus members of the Stop the War Coalition mooch through the streets of London under signs reading ‘We’re All Hezbollah Now!’ – this to protest Israeli actions against Lebanon in the 2006 war – while liberals and left-wingers like Peter Beinart and Paul Berman lend support to the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant. In left-honoured fashion, both sides are referred to, and refer to each other, as ‘useful idiots’.
Clearly, this disagreement did not begin with the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – a fact of which the editors of Dissent are more aware than anyone. As Walzer notes, coming the old soldier slightly (‘March may not be aware of how familiar this argument is to someone my age …’), the essential lineaments of the debate have been in place since at least the early 1950s. Dissent itself was founded in the spirit of left-wing anti-communism, at a time when many on the left looked to Moscow for their lead. But its value as a magazine lay in its determination not to allow its anti-communism to become the kind of reactionary flag-wagging that would come to characterise, say, Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary. As the ecumenical organ of the beleaguered left, Dissent sought to steer a course between the two positions sketched (or caricatured) above: between left-wing apology for authoritarianism and aggressive pro-Americanism. Treating socialism not as a fixed piety but as an inherently problematic idea, it formulated a third position, at the heart of which was a serious investigation of the fraught and complex relationship between radical politics and (‘bourgeois’?) liberalism.
No doubt there will be many on the left who will take Walzer’s j’accuse as a sign that Dissent and Commentary have merged, in spirit at least, to become the Dysentery of Woody Allen’s imagination. But to the extent that Dissent has held its course in the past, and held it with a certain amount of style, a great deal of credit must go to its co-founder and longstanding editor Irving Howe who, when he died in 1993, was as out of sympathy with all the ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ (as his hero George Orwell called them) as he was in his youth. It is thus with an anxious eye of my own on the ‘moral and political health of the left’ that I take up this generous selection of Howe’s essays and ask whether it does its author justice, and whether its title, A Voice Still Heard, is a case of familial wishful thinking on the part of its editor, Howe’s daughter Nina. One of the twentieth century’s finest examples of a vanishing breed, the political man of letters, Howe was hugely influential in his time. But does he have anything to ‘say’ to us? And if he does, are we prepared to listen?
Howe was born in New York in 1920, the son of Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia in Eastern Europe (currently part of Moldova), and grew up in the immigrant slums of the east Bronx, where his father peddled linens from door to door. He was educated at the City College of New York (‘the Harvard of the proletariat’) and Columbia University. His background was, in all important respects, identical to those of the other writers and thinkers with whom he is invariably associated, the group known as ‘the New York intellectuals’. The disorienting experience of immigration, together with the Great Depression and the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, convinced him of the need for socialism, and at the age of fourteen he became a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth arm of the Socialist Party of America. In this, too, he was typical: the Jewish ghettoes were full of young people who had determined to swap their faith in God for a faith in the socialist future, the Talmud for the Communist Manifesto. Fiercely secular, and fiercely anti-Stalinist, these tyro intellectuals were also students of the great experiments of modernism emerging from the European maelstrom. This double focus – leftism and avant-gardism – was duly reflected in Partisan Review, founded in 1934 and the fountainhead of the New York ‘school’.
Podhoretz was apt to refer to the members of this school as ‘The Family’. But to the extent that Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg and Dwight MacDonald – to pick only a handful of its illustrious alumni – ever constituted a family, it was always a pretty dysfunctional one. Its ideological patriarch was ‘the Old Man’ himself, Leon Trotsky, the figure in whom the imperatives of reflection and action (and anti-Stalinism) combined. But his influence, though profound, was not enough to bind the New York school together, and it wasn’t long before differences of emphasis were revealed as differences of principle. Much later, in the 1960s, Howe would comment that the New York milieu was characterised less by back-scratching than by eye-scratching.
The Second World War gave the Intellectuals a new appreciation for the US, but the nature of that appreciation changed according to who was expressing it. For Howe, it took the form of an unshakeable belief that any truly socialist enterprise would have to be rooted in the liberal traditions of freedom and rationality. For Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and their cronies in the political establishment it came, over time, to sanction a belief in American exceptionalism and a deep suspicion of the countercultural types who had the temerity to call it into question – a mindset that led eventually to the phenomenon we now call neoconservatism.
That term was coined by the socialist writer Michael Harrington in the early 1970s to denote a liberal who had ‘moved to the right’. But even in the 1950s, Howe was alive to ‘the dilution of liberalism’ into something potentially reactionary. The key essay here is ‘This Age of Conformity’, the first in A Voice Still Heard, which is arranged chronologically by decade. Published in 1954 (year zero for Dissent, remember), it finds Howe digging in his heels against an increasingly facile anti-communism, not because he is in sympathy with the thing attacked, but because he recognises how smug and insubstantial and easy much of the attacking is – all qualities that mark it out as groupthink, as antithetical to genuine thought. Referring to ‘that least risky of occupations’ – ‘Marx-baiting’ – he suggests that while Simone de Beauvoir and Bertrand Russell are clearly being ignorant when they characterise the US as a terror-state, the ideological racketeers who make a living out of criticising their stupidity would have to invent them if they didn’t exist. This was, perhaps, rather cheaply expressed, but Howe’s central point was nonetheless sound: intellectuals who displayed a lack of rigour would end up toeing the party line, often while affecting not to. They would be posing as dissidents, but behaving like finks.
Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative was a liberal who had been ‘mugged by reality’ – a sharper, though no less complacent, version of the maxim misattributed to Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.’ (The attribution is self-negating: Churchill was a conservative at fifteen and a liberal at 35.) This attempt to mask ideology as its absence was, for Howe, a very bad sign. For him it was not reality but power that was mugging his former comrades. Once again, he was early on the point. As he demonstrates in an essay on Reaganism published in the 1980s, it was with power that those comrades would make their peace and from which they would eventually take their cue – to their shame, and to the world’s detriment.
But back to 1954:
the danger of Stalinism may require temporary expedients in the area of power such as would have seemed compromising some years ago, but there is no reason, at least no good reason, why it should require compromise or conformity in the area of ideas, no reason why it should lead us to become partisans of bourgeois society, which is itself, we might remember, heavily responsible for Stalinist victories.
This is the authentic voice of dissent, of the man who watches his own mind moving and refuses to take any side but his own; who apportions blame where blame is due and is unafraid of complexity; whose political commitments, in other words, are subordinate to his commitment to truth.
And lest these sound like platitudes, remember that the issue of intellectual integrity was especially fraught in the US at this time. The hysterical anti-communism of McCarthy was, for Howe, something deeply troubling; and yet many writers from the old neighbourhood – including Kristol and Elliot Cohen – sought to minimise the threat to civil liberties posed by the infamous Senator from Wisconsin, whom they were content to dismiss as a bully and a blowhard. For Howe, this was evidence that the independence of mind on which the New York intellectuals prided themselves was becoming, for certain among them, a shtick. With almost Newtonian predictability, the collision with Stalinism had propelled them back to the soft embrace of the status quo. (Incidentally, Howe’s reference to ‘bourgeois society’ and its responsibility for ‘Stalinist victories’ echoes something Churchill did say: namely that on the question of Spain the allies had put their class interests ahead of their strategic ones, to the benefit of Stalin and Hitler.) ‘Between the wilfulness of those who see only terror and the indifference of those who see only health,’ fumed Howe,
there is a need for simple truth: that intellectual freedom in the United States is under severe attack and that the intellectuals have, by and large, shown a painful lack of militancy in defending the rights which are the precondition of their existence.
If Howe’s primary target in ‘This Age of Conformity’ was the incipient neoconservative milieu, by the mid 1960s he had turned his attention to, and trained his guns on, the embryonic New Left. In his 1965 essay ‘New Styles in “Leftism”’, he isolates and analyses some emergent trends on the progressive side of politics, and finds little cause for celebration. Declaring himself in sympathy with the young’s revulsion at the ‘mixture of chauvinism, hysteria, and demagogy’ that characterised the Cold War years, he nevertheless deplores their tendency to confuse revolution with mere rejection and to dress up dejection as alienation. The New Left, writes Howe, is in many ways antithetical to the best traditions of the old one: ochlocratic, unhistorical, lacking in solidarity – more an assertion of personal style than a genuine effort to change the world. In particular, he laments the conspicuous lack of, or interest in, ideas on the left, a lack that he sees as tantamount to a tacit acceptance of the status quo. The degeneration of the civil rights movement into the ‘racist buffoonery’ of certain black nationalists is, for Howe, a case in point – as indeed is the facile distinction between ‘integration’ and ‘revolution’, on the basis of which those nationalists presumed to indict Martin Luther King. As Howe notes, quoting Baynard Rustin, the great civil rights leader and socialist, true ‘integration’ of Afro-Americans would require such a ‘quantitative transformation of fundamental institutions’ that it would constitute a ‘revolution’.
In his preface to A Voice Still Heard, the critic and historian Morris Dickstein is critical of Howe’s attacks on the New Left, and it is true that at certain times Howe can read like the late Robert Hughes at his grumpiest, especially when he moves away from his natural taxonomic approach and treats the ‘new sensibility’ as a composite. The ‘new leftist’, he writes at one point,
searches in the limited repertoire of sensation and shock: for sick comics who will say ‘fuck’ in nightclubs; for drugs that will vault him beyond the perimeters of the suburbs; for varieties, perversities, and publicities of sex …
But Howe’s central point was far more serious than these occasional descents into shrillness would suggest. In turning its back on liberalism, the left was doing itself irreparable harm. Responding, no doubt, to the mutation of liberalism into the aggressive anti-communism of Lyndon B. Johnson, the left had decided that liberalism was a sham, that democracy itself (or ‘bourgeois democracy’) was merely a veiled form of capitalist domination. For Howe, terms such as ‘liberal fascism’ and the use of the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe US society – Norman Mailer was one of the culprits here – were revealing of a profound confusion. Yes, the Cold Warriors in the US government were as invested in ‘liberalism’ as Dr King, but any left that dismissed the principles of humane tolerance and disinterested speculation that were the essence of the liberal tradition was making a mighty rod for its own back.
The left, he argued, must acknowledge its roots in, as well as the necessity to go beyond – to expand upon – the liberal tradition; it must come to recognise the unity of socialism and democracy, to see socialism as the means through which democracy can be spread to the economic sphere, and not fall for the ‘pseudo-Leninist’ line that Western-style democracy is an impediment to social justice. Howe was in no doubt at all that liberalism was insufficient to solve the problems of equality and injustice. But he also knew that any left that failed to give liberalism its due would slide quickly into either authoritarianism or irrelevance. Perhaps it would not be unfair to suggest that the fate of the New Left, in the US and elsewhere, was to slide into the second, while evincing a callow sympathy for the first.
Nina Howe’s selection gives a good account of the full range of her father’s political concerns, but it is much less impressive when it comes to the matter of how these concerns played themselves out in his literary criticism. The book contains a number of short reviews, which, while never less than accomplished, seem rather piffling next to Howe’s major pieces. Nor is this an insignificant failing, given the milieu from which Howe emerged and the intellectual circles in which he moved.
The New York intellectuals did not regard literary or cultural criticism as incidental to their political interests. Rejecting the limited scope of the New Critics, they saw literary criticism as a form of lay philosophy, as a discipline through which it was possible to interrogate the relationship between the individual and society. Theirs was, in short, a political criticism and not merely – or not only – a literary one. Their attitude to literature is perhaps best summed up by Lionel Trilling, the greatest of the New York critics, in his preface to The Liberal Imagination (1949):
if between sentiments and ideas there is a natural connexion so close as to amount to a kind of identity, then the connexion between literature and politics will be seen as a very immediate one.
Such an approach does not deny the work of art its inner life, and critics who belonged to the New York school were invariably sensitive to its formal qualities. But they were also aware of the deep connection between its formal qualities and its content, and of the relationship of both to the political realm, by which they meant not party politics but, as Trilling put it, ‘the organization of human life toward some end or other, toward the modification of sentiments, which is to say the quality of human life’. As Howe argues in the introduction to his collection of essays A World More Attractive (1963):
There is strong reason to stress the integrity of the work of literature, as an object worth scrutiny in its own right and in accordance with its own nature; but I would also insist – and in the last two decades it has become quite necessary to insist – that the work of literature acquires its interest for us through a relationship, admittedly subtle, difficult and indirect, to the whole of human experience.
Howe’s anxious engagement with modernism is especially interesting in this regard, and it is disappointing that A Voice Still Heard does not contain one of Howe’s pieces on the topic. ‘The Culture of Modernism’ and ‘Beliefs of the Masters’, both collected in Decline of the New, are fine examples. It does contain an excellent essay on the city in literature, which is certainly pertinent to modernism; but apart from that, there is very little. In fact, the selection contains two pieces – defences of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Arnold Bennett – which, if not set against Howe’s engagement with modernism, might give a skewed idea of his literary interests.
Howe never wrote with such verve, with such sweep and enthusiasm, as when writing about modernism, which posed a fascinating challenge to ‘the PR crowd’ – which is to say the left-wingers and liberals who read, and appeared in, Partisan Review. As Howe noted in ‘This Age of Conformity’, left-wing politics and the avant-garde often made for uneasy bedfellows – such that there was, in his early thinking, something almost belletristic about his defences of modernism. (‘The struggle for Joyce mattered only as it was a struggle for literary standards …’) But when Howe begins to contextualise, historically, the modernist ‘vision’, its relevance to his political interests becomes apparent. Modernism, he saw, contained a warning. An attempt to register a new reality – a reality changed out of all recognition by modern warfare and modern science, by alterations to ‘the natural order’ (social, sexual, existential) – it could often descend into reaction and nihilism. Modernism, like socialism, was to be understood as a departure from a particular tradition; and both displayed a tendency to leave the baby out on the soaking flagstones.
The twentieth century was ‘an age of extremes’ and its literature reflected that fact. As the private individual came under pressure from the ‘Shuddering insidious shock of the theory-vendors’ (as Louis MacNeice put it), literature – and the novel in particular, as the form in which the private individual is accorded a certain structural privilege – sought to register and to dramatise the resulting tension. Howe was always very good on this tension, and good too on what we might call its prehistory, which he found in some unlikely places: in the novels of George Gissing, for example, and in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In ‘The Problem of Heroism’ (which is included in more than one collection, though not, alas, in A Voice Still Heard), he characterises Lawrence’s book as an example of a form that would be perfected by the students and victims of twentieth-century totalitarianism – by Huxley, Orwell, Zamyatin and Koestler. Lawrence, he writes, is ‘the prince of our disorder’; he is the idealist challenged by the world as it is:
what finally draws one to Lawrence, making him seem not merely an exceptional figure but a representative man of our century, is his courage and vulnerability in bearing the burden of consciousness.
For Howe, this burden of consciousness as it appeared in ‘the fiction of anti-utopia’ was a return to the choice posed by Dostoevsky’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov: ‘the misery of the human being who must bear his burden of independence against the contentment of the human creature at rest in his obedience’ (note the rather clever shift here from ‘human being’ to ‘human creature’). This choice is given piquancy by the fact that most of the ‘anti-utopians’ were men of the left or liberals – progressives of one kind or another. As Howe states:
The peculiar intensity of such fiction derives from the writer’s discovery that in facing the prospect of a future he had been trained to desire, he finds himself struck with horror. [Emphasis added.]
What the anti-utopians feared, suggests Howe, was not that history would suffer a ‘miscarriage’, but that it would give birth to a ‘monster’; they evinced not a crisis of faith in progress, but a fear of what progress might entail.
The work of these writers is a systematic release of trauma, a painful turning upon their own presuppositions. It is a fiction of urgent yet reluctant testimony, forced by profoundly serious men from their own resistance to fears they cannot evade.
All of which brings us back, of course, to the questions of socialism and of critical independence, and to the fact that, in Howe’s mind at least, these two things were connected at a deep level. And the things that connected them – if I may labour the point – were the (‘liberal’) principles of freedom and rationality: the principles of which totalitarianism was the enemy, of which the New Left was either ignorant or dismissive, and of which neoconservatism was a travesty.
Re-reading Howe, I thought many times of a passage from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s introduction to Writers and Politics (1965) – a passage in which he meets directly the ‘charge’ that he is ‘a liberal’ and thus not the real socialist deal. Not so, writes O’Brien, for at the heart of liberalism is a concern with intellectual freedom, and without that there is no socialism worth having. Why? Because this intellectual freedom
may be seen as an aspect of a wider phenomenon: respect for facts – and intentness on their relations – as the basis, since the emergence of our species, of our survival and success, at the expense of species dedicated to considerations of more immediate utility. And the importance of the freedoms associated with liberalism lies in the degree of protection they afford to the deployment of the peculiar faculties of Homo sapiens in relation to the world and to himself. Even after revolutions and counter-revolutions, and their vociferous unanimities, man’s need to think for himself, and to hear himself thinking, reasserts itself and redevises codes for its safe, or less precarious, fulfilment.
There is no call for smugness here; as O’Brien points out earlier in his introduction, liberalism has often been a false friend to the poor, especially the poor of the developing world. But there is no need for masochism either. To the extent that liberalism has been, and remains, a positive force in human history, intellectual liberty – the freedom to think – is the jewel in its lopsided crown.
There is a Yiddish folktale that Howe rather liked – that seemed to him to encapsulate his own relationship to politics and culture. The story concerns a resident of Chelm, the mythical village of the East European Jews, who is appointed to sit at the entrance to the village and look out for signs of the coming messiah. For many years he performs this function – dutifully, and to no avail. But one day he becomes frustrated with his lot and complains to the elders that his pay is too low. ‘You are right,’ they reply; ‘your pay is low. But look at it this way: it’s steady work.’
That humdrum phrase, ‘steady work’, would appear in Howe’s oeuvre as the title for a collection of political pieces and it is pertinent in two ways. First, it implies a certain balance and poise; a consistency of outlook, if not of opinion; a meticulous, qualified, honest prose; a principled worrying at one’s own assumptions. And second, it implies the nature of the task (which will appear Quixotic to some) this intellectual set himself: of waiting, like the old man of Chelm, for a sign of something that may never come. ‘We have learned that the effort to force men into utopia leads to barbarism,’ wrote Howe in 1971; ‘but we also know that to live without the image of utopia is to risk the death of imagination.’ And so it was without apology that Howe took up his place at the gates and trained his sceptical eyes on the horizon. That it was his lot to send a few false prophets packing rather than welcome the messiah into town does not diminish the importance of this task, nor the integrity with which he performed it. Howe’s hope was, in his own phrase, a ‘disciplined’ hope. He knew the just city might not exist and that even if it did it might not be just. Whether his is ‘a voice still heard’ is, I suppose, a question for the bookseller, but certainly I can think of many people who would benefit from hearing it.