Commentary Magazine

I. The New York Intellectuals

The New York Intellectuals, the first of the two exchanges which follow, was occasioned by Irving Howe's article, “The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,” which appeared in the October 1968 COMMENTARY. Irving Kristol is vice-president of Basic Books and editor of The Public Interest.

Irving Howe's article has so many good things in it that one is loath to enter a dissent. He has obviously tried to be fair—but the effort falls short of success. This failure, one surmises, is connected with the undue measure of self-righteousness in his tone—something which, while no monopoly of self-styled radical thinkers, does seem peculiarly to affect them.

Thus, I find it interesting to note that Mr. Howe makes only the most fleeting reference to changes in his thinking over the past two decades. An innocent reader might get the impression that Mr. Howe has been, all these years, the Unmoved Mover of democratic socialism, and his radical posture spared him from all those varieties of insidious revisionism that the rest of us succumbed to. But of course this isn't really so—as I know, as Mr. Howe knows, and as his critics on the New Left know. Mr. Howe today is considerably less radical than he was twenty years ago. Indeed, from the vantage point of his earlier opinions, he would have to judge himself as having succumbed to what he calls “the politics of acquiescence” when referring to others (including me). His case is as interesting and revealing as anyone else's. Why is he so shy about discussing it?

Believe me, I write this in no polemical vein. It's just that I am getting weary of receiving transcendental admonitions from Mr. Howe which suggest that, because people like me have ceased being radical or socialist, we have somehow descended from the kingdom of intellectual responsibility to the realm of mindless and spiritless “conformity.” Yes, in the late 30's and early 40's, I was—together with Mr. Howe—a young radical. By the mid 40's, I was no longer so young and had ceased being a radical. There was nothing mysterious or sinister about this transition. I ceased being a radical or a socialist because, upon reflection and with greater experience of the world, I concluded that political radicalism was, more often than not, inherently self-defeating and that socialism—in any meaningful sense of that term—was intrinsically utopian. At first I reached this conclusion with some reluctance and regret. In retrospect, however, I am pleased that I reached it when I did.

Behind Mr. Howe's perspective there lies an unexamined premise: that there is something unnatural in an intellectual being anything but politically radical, a man of the Left. The reason this premise remains unstated and unexamined is that it is obviously false—and Mr. Howe, as a historian of ideas, certainly knows it to be false. He even knows—must know—that it is as common for politically liberal or politically conservative thinkers to get to “the root of things” as for politically radical thinkers. Yet I submit that, without this premise, his article and his argument make no sense whatsoever. It is this premise that permits him to regard New York's ex-radicals as “scholars in retreat,” as somehow being deviants or dropouts (or cop-outs), and to view a change of mind as a form of apostasy. This is, intellectually, on a par with explaining Mr. Howe's stubborn radicalism as nothing more than a case of the true-believer doubling the strength of his convictions when faced with incontrovertible evidence that they are false. Such explanations are agreeably self-serving, but in truth they explain nothing at all.

What gives this tempest in a teapot a special flavor of irony is that, on many specific political issues, the gap between Mr. Howe's views and my own is of relatively modest dimensions. (I am sure this occasionally bothers him!) I interpret this as meaning that, despite Mr. Howe's detestation of the idea of “the end of ideology,” the idea must have some substance to it. Doubtless Mr. Howe has his own explanation. But, in any case, it would be pleasant to be able to discuss this and other matters without indulging in childish blackballing. It used to be the practice of doctrinaire left-wing sects, in the 30's, never to accept anyone's resignation. If a member resigned, he was promptly expelled. Well, I resigned from the Left a long time ago—and Mr. Howe has been expelling me ever since. It's a sterile exercise, and I wish—more for his own sake than for mine—that he would cease and desist.

I feel that I must also comment on a couple of points in Mr. Howe's article which make explicit reference to me.

Mr. Howe quotes approvingly from a 1955 article in Dissent by Michael Harrington, as follows: “In an article by Kristol, which first appeared in COMMENTARY . . . one could read such astonishing and appalling statements as ‘there is one thing the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.’”

I fail to see what precisely is “astonishing” or “appalling” about that statement. Richard Rovere has suggested that I ought to have said “there is one thing the American people believe about Senator McCarthy,” etc.—since the implication that Senator McCarthy sincerely cared about Communism, as against the political opportunities he calculated the issue offered him, is highly dubious. I am perfectly willing to accept that emendation. Senator McCarthy was—as I said in that same article—a “vulgar demagogue,” and in my article there was no attribution of sincerity to him. But this does not affect the main point of the piece, which was that a major reason McCarthy achieved his popular influence was that the majority of articulate liberals—in New York, in Washington, but above all in academia generally-had given the American people reason to think they were incapable of distinguishing Communists, even espionage agents, from authentic liberals, social-democrats, and other dissenters from the status quo. In my article I gave several striking instances of this apparent incapacity, and I am not aware that Mr. Howe or Mr. Harrington think otherwise than I do about them. Nor can I believe they disagree with my argument that, when liberal spokesmen claimed Communists to be a species of liberal, only perhaps a bit more to the “Left,” they made it that much easier for Senator McCarthy to proclaim that liberals were a species of Communist.


Mr. Howe provides another quote from Mr. Harrington: “When Irving Kristol was executive secretary of the ACCF [American Committee for Cultural Freedom], one learned to expect from him silence on those issues that were agitating the whole intellectual and academic world, and enraged communiqués on the outrages performed by people like Arthur Miller and Bertrand Russell in exaggerating the danger to civil liberties in the U.S.”

I was executive secretary of the ACCF for a period of eight or nine months, sixteen years ago, and I must admit that my memory of that period is a bit hazy. But I simply do not remember any such burning issues on which I was reprehensibly silent and cannot in fact believe there were any such. On the other hand, I do recall issuing protests against one instance after another of McCarthyism: the witch-hunt against the Voice of America, the denial of visas to ex-Communists, and other instances of cultural vigilantism. I also recall that the American Committee was wracked by a major strategic dispute at that time. One section wanted to launch a campaign against Senator McCarthy, pure and simple. A second group, which eventually prevailed, argued that, since 1952 was an election year and the Committee was non-political, it ought to limit itself to specific cases of violations of cultural freedom. (I was of this opinion.) A third group consisted of a handful of members (most notably James Burnham) who were still regarded as “liberals,” but who in reality were on their way toward becoming supporters of the Senator: They were averse to any action, and were shortly to leave the ACCF altogether. Now, Messrs. Howe and Harrington are free to think that I, and the ACCF, were wrong in taking the measured attitude we did. But I do not think they are free to insinuate that I, or the Committee, was somehow intimidated into silence by the McCarthyist wave, or was in secret sympathy with it. There were serious differences of opinion within the New York intellectual community on why McCarthy had the following he did, and what ought to be done about it. In retrospect, one sees more clearly than was possible at the time that these different opinions represented different political philosophies, emerging from the disintegrating radicalism of the previous two decades. But McCarthy himself was never really an issue among us. Nor did any kind of fear of Senator McCarthy exist among us. After the elections, Sidney Hook, chairman of the ACCF, wrote a personal letter to the Times suggesting the formation of a national movement to retire the Senator from public life. I had an editorial hand in that letter. Neither of us was under the impression that we were doing anything exceptionally bold. And, of course, we weren't.


Irving Howe

Irving Kristol has been hearing voices. They entreat him, they admonish him: Come back to the raft, Irving honey, come back to your earlier socialist convictions. And when he refuses, they judge him.

But where do these voices come from? Who has been “expelling” him “ever since” he resigned from the YPSL? My recollection is that when he handed in his resignation—and as life would have it, handed it in to me—it was received with calm. I have checked my collected works for the last twenty years and prior to my October COMMENTARY essay find a grand total of one reference to Mr. Kristol, and that fifteen years ago. Since then, nothing. Where then have I been “expelling” him over and over again? In his imagination? And where (utopian project) has anyone been directing transcendental admonitions to him?


The larger question he raises, concerning the relation between political disagreement and moral response, is more interesting. That there has been a tendency within the socialist movement to regard withdrawal as apostasy and betrayal, is true. That, being mere weak flesh, I may sometimes share in this tendency, I wouldn't deny. If guilty of self-righteousness, I beg forgiveness. Each kind of politics no doubt gives rise to its distinctive moral temptation: one to fanaticism, another to self-righteousness, a third to smugness. But let me also add that there are times when a moralistic judgment of those who abandon socialism is warranted.

When someone abandons socialist convictions because he has come to the serious conclusion that the humane ends which originally prompted him to become a socialist can no longer be served by those convictions, or when someone concludes that socialism may be desirable but is not reachable and we must therefore settle for the next best, then I might want to argue with him politically but could not condemn him morally. Yet who would want to say that in periods of conservatism, such as the one just after World War II, the turning away from socialism can be explained solely or even primarily as the result of conscientious reflection and humane consideration?

Many of the intellectuals who then dropped—dropped, rather than turned away from—their socialist convictions, were scurrying along as part of “the herd of independent minds,” just as in the 60's some of the same ones are scurrying “leftward.”

Now, in supposing that intellectuals (other people, too) are not supposed to run in packs, I may be guilty of naiveté: a fault Mr. Kristol is always prepared to correct. I may be idealizing in an absurd way what the intellectual calling amounts to, and thereby leading myself back to self-righteousness. Without some such premise, however, I don't see that it's worth bothering to think about the intellectual life at all. Either we do try to live by some value or ideal, or we're not worth a minute's notice.

And it's not as if in my zeal to pass judgment I hadn't noted some of these qualifications in my essay:

Nor is the main point of moral criticism that the intellectuals abandoned socialism. We have no reason to suppose that the declaration of a socialist opinion induces a greater humaneness than does acquiescence in liberalism. . . . Still, it might be said by some of the New York writers that reality itself had forced them to conclude socialism was no longer viable or had become irrelevant to the American scene, and that while this conclusion might be open to political argument, it was not to moral attack. [You see, I knew Mr. Kristol would be sending in his letter. . . .]

Let us grant that for a moment. What cannot be granted is that the shift in ideologies required or warranted the surrender of critical independence which was prevalent during the 50's. [Emphasis added—I.H.]

I think this ought to meet Mr. Kristol's claim that I was gratuitously moralizing at the expense of people who simply sat down—all of them together, as it were—and decided socialism was a delusion.

Ah, someone will say, but what about you? Are you exempt from the pressures of the times? Were your political changes—for Mr. Kristol reveals that I've changed some of my ideas—free from the cajolements of the Zeitgeist? It would be foolish if I were to make such a claim, and when someone else gets around to his study of the New York intellectuals, then no doubt he'll turn a cool eye on me. I'd only offer the very partial defense that both in the 50's and 60's I found myself holding views that were decidedly unpopular within the intellectual community. And if it then be said in reply that this indicates a self-comforting desire for unpopularity, “there is nothing left for me,” as Turgeniev said, “but, in the words of the gypsy song, ‘to take off my hat with a very low bow.’”

Still, asks Mr. Kristol with unaccustomed sternness, why didn't you cite yourself as a “case?” To which I reply with no less than four reasons: 1) I was writing a “chronicle,” not a memoir, and I have a distaste for the displays of sincerity that have become part of personal journalism; 2) My “case,” for good or bad, is clearly not characteristic of the development of the New York writers; 3) Explanations, apologies, defenses of my political course have appeared elsewhere and (I'm told) at tiresome length; 4) Some indication of that course was given when I remarked that among the intellectual gains of the 50's was the fact that “those around Dissent . . . cut whatever ties of sentiment still held them to the Bolshevik tradition and made the indissoluble connection between democracy and socialism a crux of their thought.”


Mr. Kristol wonders if I'm uncomfortable because the gap between his views and mine is of “relatively modest dimensions.” Well, let's look at that gap for a minute. What we share is that both of us profess a commitment to democracy and to at least some civility in political discourse. Right now, in truth, that is no small matter, mostly because some intellectuals, in what they regard as “radicalism,” are compromising their commitment to democracy and encouraging a kind of politics which in syle if not content revives many of the worst features of Stalinism. Still, that doesn't make the gap between Kristol and myself of “relatively modest dimensions.” I suspect that on this matter he has been brain-washed a little bit by the New Left. . . .

I admire Mr. Kristol's rhetorical strategy: in effect, “Aw, come on, Irv, you don't really believe in all that socialist stuff, do you?” But I do. It's lamentable, I know, and a sign of cultural lag. But I really want to see the major segments of the American economy socially-controlled and democratically-operated, and I really want a major redistribution of power and wealth in the U.S. What exasperates me about the current political situation is that the polar irrationalities now in fashion get in the way of what ought to be the main political struggle of our time, that between Mr. Kristol's conservatism and my socialism.


Why was Harrington astonished and appalled by the sentence he quoted from Mr. Kristol concerning Joe McCarthy?

Harrington was astonished and appalled by the clear implication that Joe McCarthy, since he was “unequivocally anti-Communist,” enjoyed a major advantage—and more than a tactical advantage—over “the spokesmen for American liberalism,” about whom it couldn't be said that they were “unequivocally anti-Communist.” And “the American people” (no less) had “some justification” in feeling that McCarthy enjoyed this advantage over “the spokesmen of American liberalism.” What's right is right: and “the American people” knew it.

If no longer astonishing, all this is to me still appalling, not merely for its tacit comparison between McCarthy and “the spokesmen for American liberalism,” which must be seen as scoring points for the former, but also for its characterization of “the spokesmen for American liberalism.” What Mr. Kristol wrote was true for some types around the Nation, but “the spokesmen for American liberalism?” By the 1950's?

I really can't believe that so sophisticated a man as Irving Kristol failed to see why many people would find his statement outrageous.

No one suggests the ACCF was in “secret sympathy” with Joe McCarthy. What Harrington charged was that dominant figures in the ACCF were inclined to subordinate the fight against McCarthy to a campaign against those deluded liberals who, in the name of anti-McCarthyism, dismissed the threat of Stalinism. Harrington was saying that both represented major assaults upon freedom, and that within the U.S. itself, during the 50's, McCarthyism was clearly the more immediate danger. The question was: where did the most intense concern, the major thrust of the ACCF lead to—and here I think Harrington's judgment was right. Nor were Harrington and I alone in that judgment, as Mr. Kristol surely knows.

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