Commentary Magazine

On Irving Howe, Cont.

To the Editor:

It is astonishing that Midge Decter [“Socialism & Its Irresponsibilities: The Case of Irving Howe,” December 1982] would write . . . an article that so flagrantly departs from the truth. Hardly any of her allegations about Irving Howe’s A Margin of Hope—and en passant about some of his other writings—can withstand comparison with the relevant texts. Is she so contemptuous of her readers as to assume that none of them, for instance, has read World of Our Fathers, and is therefore unaware that her epithet “legendary” (nothing about religious Jewry, “no representatives of that strange and to Howe hostile breed known as Zionists,” nothing but “gripping photographs by Jacob Riis and mannered Yiddishist memories”) is arrant nonsense?

The same—and even more so—is true about her indictment of Howe’s autobiography. She berates him for speaking disparagingly of his father: read his moving tributes on pp. 7-8 and 337-39 and judge for yourself. She asserts that Howe offers no “specifics” about “his position of militancy within the Socialist party”; that he neglects to disclose (and make sufficient amends for) his erstwhile views on World War II, particularly his attitude toward Hitler’s war on Jews; that he “glosses over . . . the breaking of his ties with the Workers party” (that is, the Trotskyites); that his “account of the 1950′s” is unqualifiedly one-sided; that he presided over a “lynching” of Hannah Arendt, in connection with her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem—a lynching for which his own “training” in the Trotskyite “department of public brutality” had fully prepared him. Howe’s pages on “the cultural and political rowdiness of 60′s radicalism,” particularly with respect to the Vietnam war, are marred, she says, by “a selectivity that goes so far as to invite the word ‘dishonesty’” and by (again, presumably, inadequate) “retrospective apology.” Most outrageously, perhaps, she accuses him of a “posture” from which “no failure of policy ever need be confronted, no error need be confessed.” All of which—as any reader of the book can readily ascertain—goes so far as to invite the words “lies—sheer, unadulterated lies.”

What kind of a book would Miss Decter have Howe write? Well, for one thing, I suppose, she would have liked him to be a bit more forthcoming (rather than “elegantly discreet”) about all that “fumbling around with the female comrades” that he and his fellow radicals in the 1930′s engaged in. Above all, however, she’d want him to confess—fully, abjectly, one might almost say in typical Bolshevik fashion (and here retrospectiveness would be jolly welcome)—that “politics in the 20th century has a way of presenting people with stark choices and that the pretense [!] of commitment to a third alternative is itself always a choice—on the wrong side.” Which is to say that in the 1930′s Howe should have supported the Spanish monarchists; that in the late 1960′s and 70′s he should have sanctioned the American war in Vietnam. And that he should acknowledge that COMMENTARY’s position on McCarthyism was correct. (Irving Kristol, 1952: “For there is one thing the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist.” Norman Podhoretz thirty years later: “. . . what McCarthyism did was mobilize support for an anti-Communist foreign policy by making the danger of Communism seem domestic and immediate”; about whether it was in fact, rather than seemingly, “domestic and immediate” the less said, the better.) In short, Miss Decter would want Howe to confess that he and his supporters are au fond enemies of freedom—as her rousing peroration has it. Nothing less would satisfy her lustily vengeful spirit.

I realize that in criticizing Miss Decter’s article, I have not offered a chapter-and-verse refutation of all her willful distortions and mendacities—nor, for that matter, of her equally willful omissions. . . . I can only once more urge the reader to read the book. Like the non-Jewish aficionado of rye bread, he need not share Irving Howe’s commitment to socialism. All that is required is a decent respect for truth, humanity—and literature.

Abraham Brumberg
Chevy Chase, Maryland



To the Editor:

Midge Decter’s article is aimed not only at Irving Howe’s A Margin of Hope, but at the man. Though I found some of the questions she raises about the book to be valid, they are drowned out by the shrillness and shrewishness with which they are articulated.

It does not suffice for her to show that Howe’s concepts are wrong, but that he is dishonest; that she has assessed his moral standards and found them wanting. Not only is the reader to be convinced that Howe’s works are overrated, that he wrote little or nothing of value, but that he is furtive, evasive, and disloyal, both as an American and a Jew; a man to be viewed with contempt. In short, Miss Decter’s aim is to destroy Howe’s reputation as a writer, an intellectual, and a public personality. The space and the prominence given to her article are to facilitate its use as a weapon to carry out a predetermined assassination of his character.

The purpose and style of her review are familiar to me, though, fortunately, I have not encountered them since 1948, when I was hatcheted in 118 pages of a “book” titled Under the Banner of Marxism, written by Max Schachtman, mentor of Irving Howe and myself in the quasi-Trotskyite group to which we then belonged. The occasion of Schachtman’s attack on me was my break with all forms of Leninist doctrine, as set forth in a 62-page statement of resignation from the group. Schachtman’s purpose, as is Miss Decter’s, was to destroy my reputation, standing, and intellectual authority, a form of literary terrorism designed to intimidate those who might wish to give open-minded consideration to my views. (The Soviet government under Stalin revived the term “enemy of the people” to serve a similar end.)

The technique of attacking the character of the author in order to destroy his work is at variance with the commonly accepted standard of intellectual discourse in liberal and democratic society where there is a mutual assumption of the honesty and benign purpose of an opponent’s views, despite the sharpness of differences. The latter practice results from what Karl Kautsky, preeminent theoretician of the Socialist International in the early decades of this century, referred to as “the civilizing influence of democracy upon conduct” (I quote from memory) in replying to Leon Trotsky’s defense of Bolshevism. (Trotsky considered Kautsky’s observation one of the most amusing things he had ever heard. Miss Decter might agree with him.)

Character assassination occupies a prominent place in the literary arsenal of authoritarians of both Left and Right. It is part of the moral abyss which separates them from decent human beings, even when they might be in political agreement with the latter from time to time. Example: the political convergence of the Communist party of the United States and the “Old Guard” wing of the Socialist party (Jewish Daily Forward, needle-trades unions, etc.) in 1936 and after on the proposition that President Roosevelt and the New Deal should be supported, resulted in their coming together to create the American Labor party. What caused the split of this party and the founding of the Liberal party was less political differences than the moral incompatibility between Stalin’s American supporters and the right-wing Socialists. Example: why was COMMENTARY critical of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the heyday of his power? The magazine hardly had reason to differ with his exposure of Communists in government or elsewhere. Was it not because COMMENTARY considered his methods, i.e., character assassination, to be morally incompatible with its standards of that period? After all, none of us objected when at an earlier date Walter Reuther, with an entourage of mainly democratic socialists, drove the Stalinists out of the leadership of the auto-workers union and then helped bring about the same result in a number of other unions. The Stalinists saw no difference between Walter Reuther and Senator Joseph McCarthy. (Nor, for that matter, between McCarthy and Senator Hubert Humphrey, who ran them out of the Democratic Farmer Labor party of Minnesota.) Since COMMENTARY does see a difference, how does the magazine define it? If you give this some thought, you will understand why Midge Decter’s review of the Howe autobiography is a page out of the book of Joe McCarthy. (Or, to cite an example on the authoritarian Left, out of the book of Lillian Hellman.)

The importance of what is at stake here goes beyond the need to rise in defense of Irving Howe’s character, whose honesty, decency, and dedication to democratic values, as he sees them, are, if anything, a notch above the average, especially given his career as public man and writer, its locus, and its time span. The ultimate importance of this issue, however, is the defense of the Western liberal tradition of decency in civil discourse. One need only read the history of journalism and literature in the final years of the Weimar republic to understand how fragile decency in public controversy can become when sizable segments of society no longer feel called upon to practice it. (The same thing happened in Russia in 1917.)

Certainly a lifetime of changing views and values, as set forth by Howe in his book, gave Miss Decter ample material with which to take issue, to criticize, to refute, without attacking the integrity of the author. Howe’s political stance with regard to World War II (which I shared) can be assessed without using it as evidence of moral leprosy. Or her allegations as to when Howe first showed concern with the Holocaust and how he reacted to it. Miss Decter is supposed to be reviewing a book, not conducting a star-chamber investigation or prosecuting a defendant at the bar. Her role models, therefore, need not be McCarthy or Vishinsky.

The view Howe (and others of us) held during World War II, viz., that it was essentially an “imperialist war,” seen at the time as a replay of World War I, was, of course, disproven by events, and Howe’s autobiography does not seek to argue with this judgment of history. He tries to explain what led him into such a totally erroneous interpretation. (Meanwhile, he and his comrades did serve in the American army, some never to return, others disabled for life.) But Howe’s admission of political error does not suffice for Miss Decter. She sees it as evidence of moral deficiency. Howe erred, she contends, not simply by a faulty reading of events, but because he lacked a “love of country” and concern for the Jews of Europe. (The fact that Howe’s political co-thinkers in Europe shared his view of World War II did not keep them from fighting in the anti-Nazi Resistance and dying in Hitler’s death camps, where they were in double jeopardy as Trotskyites in camps frequently run by Stalinist Kapos or “trusties” who had the power of life or death over fellow prisoners. See David Rousset’s The Other Kingdom.)

Did Abraham Lincoln, as a young Congressman, suffer from a lack of “love of country” in his opposition to the war with Mexico? Despite the popularity of this war, the voters did not judge him to be morally deficient in 1860 when they elected him President. Howe as editor of a tiny socialist weekly had less influence on World War II than did Representative Lincoln of Illinois in 1845. The American people might understand—even forgive and forget—but not Midge Decter.

Is this making too much of Miss Decter’s article? Then let her say that despite an ocean of philosophical and political differences with Howe, she accepts him as a loyal American and a concerned Jew, and—until convicted with due process by a jury of his peers—a normally honest and decent man who seeks to serve the best interests of his fellow citizens, as he sees them, in an (as yet) democratic and liberal society. And also let COMMENTARY set a standard in making a distinction between a person’s avowed values, conduct, and ideas, and his character, integrity, and honesty. If the evidence can be produced to sustain rejection of the person on the basis of the latter, it should be done with the knowledge that he is being placed outside the pale of civilized discourse. Are you prepared to render this judgment on Irving Howe?

Ernest Erber
Columbia, Maryland



To the Editor:

I read Midge Decter’s polemic against Irving Howe in the hope, if not the expectation, of finding something new in the way of a critique of socialist ideology. Some of Miss Decter’s remarks about the moral and political problems of socialism are intelligent, even thoughtful, but hardly either original or particularly notable. This in itself would not be an intellectual sin were it not that she taxes Howe and his comrades so heavily for not having anything “new or arresting to say.”

The substance of the article (aside from a demonstration that the author does not like Irving Howe or his way of writing) can be summarized in two points.

First, that it is “utopian” to believe that there is a way “actively and enthusiastically to oppose American society without at the same time giving aid and comfort to the Soviet Union.” If it is true that one cannot radically criticize basic aspects of American capitalism without becoming the moral equivalent of a KGB agent, then much of what has appeared in the pages of COMMENTARY, not only in its more liberal (even socialistic) days but recently, stands indicted.

Second, the notion that “mankind or ‘the workers’” have some common interest “above family, clan, and country” is “the ineradicable, arrogant blind spot of socialism.” If belief in a transcendent interest in something called “socialism” is absurd, what becomes of a transcendent interest in something called “democracy”?

What exactly does Miss Decter object to (politically) about Irving Howe? That he and some other American socialists—a tiny minority within the world socialist movement—hesitated to support World War II? But Howe long ago admitted, as Miss Decter notes, that he had been morally and politically incorrect in this. That some people use the vocabulary of “socialism” in the interest of totalitarianism or insanity? But, again as Miss Decter admits, Howe was notable for his courage among left-wing intellectuals for attacking the New Left in the 60′s on precisely this point.

It seems to boil down to Howe’s utopian arrogance in continuing to insist that a vision of a radically better, freer, happier world “is as needed by mankind as bread and shelter.”

One would hope that an author who presumably allows at least some value to the prophetic tradition would be less arrogant herself on this score.

James T. Burnett
Walnut Creek, California



Midge Decter writes:

Some intellectual enterprises are clearly dangerous; none more so, it appears, than offering up critical judgments of sacrosanct figures. Irving Howe, formerly an old battler, has surprisingly become one of these. Thus I am accused by my correspondents of “shrillness,” “shrewishess,” “arrogance,” “mendacities,” and other equally attractive things for no other reason than that I failed to sing Howe’s praises.

It is not so easy as these correspondents seem to think to account for their outbursts. For one thing, nothing they answer to bears the slightest resemblance to anything I said. Psychoanalysis—a body of theory I have not normally availed myself of in the course of a fairly long career of public argument—has taught us the concept of projection: the attribution to others of motives and behavior that are in fact one’s own. Never, I’m afraid, have I seen this concept better illustrated. Nowhere in a lengthy, careful, albeit admittedly stern analysis of Irving Howe’s account of himself will readers find the kind of aggression and distortion and free-floating, unsupported hostility that his defenders—all in the name of some standard of decency in controversy that I am supposed to have violated—indulge themselves in. Like the youth of the late 1960′s (whom Howe himself so firmly opposed for their assault upon the fundamental ethical rules of intellectual life), the writers of these letters evidently believe that the moral superiority they attach to their cause extenuates the grossness of their rhetoric and the wild inaccuracy of their characterizations.

As far as Abraham Brumberg is concerned, a couple of examples will have to suffice; to answer him point by point would entail reproducing my entire article. Mr. Brumberg says that I “berate” Irving Howe for “speaking disparagingly of his father.” Whereas what I observed about Howe’s father is that he was, by Howe’s own account, a very different kind of Jew, and a far more representative one, than the so-called “fathers” depicted in so stylized a manner in his book about New York Jewish immigrants. He was a small businessman forced by the Depression to become a “worker”; he was attached to the synagogue; he took a dim, or at least nervously disapproving, view of his son’s hanging around with the young socialists and speaking at street corners. I did not “berate” Howe, only pointed out that his own private experience should have given him a richer and more varied picture of Jewish immigrant life than he subsequently saw fit to give us. To say that my entirely parenthetical and meant-to-be humorous remark about fumbling around with the female comrades was a demand that he be more forthcoming on the subject is—sorry, the only word for it—just plain nuts. So much for Mr. Brumberg’s comprehension of the written word, particularly when it has been used with some care.

Moreover, this incomprehension seems to be retroactive as well. It was too much to expect that we might be spared another round on McCarthyism and COMMENTARY by someone in Mr. Brumberg’s ugly mood. He might have refrained, however, from using a technique borrowed straight from McCarthy himself. He selects two sentences, one by Irving Kristol (which has been willfully distorted by tendentious people since the day it was published) and one by Norman Podhoretz. In both cases, these authors were seeking to account for how the late Senator managed to collect such great power rather than to preach easy sermons about him.

As for Mr. Brumberg’s assertion that I in effect impose on Irving Howe the demand that he should have supported the Spanish monarchy and the war in Vietnam, it is beneath consideration. The subject was the so-called “third force” or “middle way,” and my claim, which Mr. Brumberg was free to argue with sensibly had he known how, was that there are situations (World War II being a notable example) in which there is no such thing. Therefore to cling to it is to opt out of making serious political choices. Radicals and socialists are of course free to construct an argument against this point. But one cannot help wondering why instead they almost universally resort to defamation.

Ernest Erber adds to the melee by stating that I have attacked Irving Howe’s moral character and loyalty as a Jew and an American. I ought, he thunders, to “say that despite an ocean of philosophical and political differences . . . [I] accept [Howe] as a loyal American and a concerned Jew, and . . . a normally honest and decent man.” First of all, Irving Howe and I do not have “an ocean” of differences—though it is he, not I, who has lately refused to acknowledge the fact; what divides us is rather a thin but ironclad fence, separating those who are willing to shoulder some of the burden of responsibility for the unhappy consequences of their earlier beliefs and those, like Howe, who are not. Nor would I demean him, as Mr. Erber has done, by passing him out a good grade for loyalty. It was not Howe’s loyalty I was examining, nor his moral character—Mr. Erber for all his high moral tone seems not to realize how presumptuous and patronizing that would be of me and is of him—but the real implications of his position. This is what is known as criticism.

As for James T. Burnett, my point about Irving Howe’s utopianism is that it is irresponsible. In some cases, as we have seen to our sorrow, utopianism is a good deal worse that that: the wellspring, indeed, of terror. In Irving Howe’s case, it represents an evasion, for the sake of looking pretty, of the kind of unpretty choices that are all too often necessary for the preservation of freedom. It was not nice and fine, for instance, for the British in World War II to answer terror bombing with terror bombing. Does Irving Howe, or Mr. Burnett, now wish they hadn’t?

Is all this so difficult to understand? I find it hard to believe. Something else is clearly at work here. I can only come to the conclusion that no one wanted to deal with the actual points I raised in my article. No one seems to realize, either, that to demand a reflexive piety toward so long and arduous and developing an intellectual career as Irving Howe’s is to cast that career in a far more suspicious light than I could ever dream of doing.

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