Commentary Magazine

Irving Howe-The Socialist Imagination

Over the past decade or so there have seemed to be two Irving Howes. One, of course, is the literary scholar and journalist: the author of the fine critical biography of Sherwood Anderson, the intricate interpretation of Faulkner, the erudite and mostly objective book on Politics and the Novel. This is the Howe who also appears in journals as diverse as the New Republic and Hudson Review : his crisp, meticulous prose, his skill at literary description, his grasp of the relevant issue quite equal to any serious book or audience. He is almost always telling you something sound and worthwhile and he is almost always as clear as glass; except for a recent filler he wrote on contemporary criticism, he is the only critic I can think of who is not somehow defeated in writing for the New York Times Book Review. The other Irving Howe is, of course, the radical thinker and publicist: the co-author of books on American Communism and the U.A.W., and, more prominently, the embroiled editor and chief house writer of Dissent. This is the polemical Howe, the irascible idealist of the 30's joined to the rueful realist of the 50's—the enemy still in view but strengthened and camouflaged by affluence, his own position in need of reorientation and restatement, most of his best colleagues from the 1930's either demoralized or on long leaves of absence or succumbed to the blandishments of conformity. Amid his small band of hard-core socialists, disaffected social scientists, and surly graduate students, the political Howe is more natural but less impressive, more spirited but less intact, than the literary one. His Dissent prose typically comes on with its collar open, its sleeves rolled high, even a bit of shirt-tail hanging out—the hasty, edgy style of a militant radical eager to be back on the barricades and wide open to provocation.

Now and then the two Howes have seemed to inhabit the same essay. His famous pioneering attack on the conformity of the intellectuals begins in systematic cultural analysis and winds up in that special tone of lead-pipe sarcasm that helps one to live with his regrets at having missed all the “fun” of the radical years. Howe's recent essay on Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison is a more subtle but even more damaging combination of literary judgment and activist politicking. However, in reading through the rest of the essays in A World More Attractive,1 which brings together for the first time his literary and polemical writing, I was struck much less by deflections of purpose and discrepancies in quality between these two sides of Howe's work than by the strength of their relation, the complicated but intimate terms on which they relate and support each other. Like certain good marriages that don't quite make sense until you observe the couple living together, Howe's purposes as a man of letters and a socialist make up a close communion, and, at their deeper levels of effort and perception and bias, a moving one.


On the most immediate level of subject matter and approach, one sees that his view of the modern element in literature proceeds from and returns to the general perspective of his Marxist-Trotskyist background. For Howe, the dominant “style” of modern writing, as that of the age itself, is one of “extreme situations and radical solutions,” and its content is most typically the strange and bitter fruit of an “unprecedented” crisis of experience and perception, conduct and belief. Howe's radicalism is less a matter of socialist programs than of a steadfast and highly educated awareness of cultural crisis. We all like to say, particularly when we sink back into the swamps of the soul, that we are living in an age of crisis, but few are able to sustain the conviction and fewer are able to discriminate its proper terms and to develop them meaningfully. Thus most “crisis writing” merely reveals the darkling plain of the modern literary mind where clouds of vagueness clash with mists of banality. Howe, on the other hand, is a true scholar of the 20th-century imagination of “experiment and disaster, apocalypse and skepticism . . . rebellion, disenchantment, and nothingness.” His main advantage is that he is rooted in the intellectual tradition which has been best able to grasp the inexorably turning revolution of modern consciousness:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish . . . [this] epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind. . .

Nothing very “antiquated” about this statement, though it was made of the “bourgeois” epoch of one-hundred-twenty-five years ago by the two fathers of the socialist perspective. In the later writings of Marx and Engels, as well as of their followers and critics, the disintegration of custom and tradition and the manifold conditions of alienation were often reified or used for polemical ends, but the problem of bourgeois culture as it affected ideas and behavior continued to provide one of the deeper currents of Marxist thought. In observing Howe's attempt to forge a coherent perspective out of the complicated relations between the literature and the politics of the modern culture, to make sense of the testaments of modern poets and novelists as restatements of the perennial relation between the individual and society in terms of the personal experience of severe public disorder, one begins to realize how much he has profited from the diverse trends and revisions of the European radical tradition. No doubt someone better versed than I am in its literature could see more indebtedness than what Howe has chosen to make explicit in using, say, Mannheim's concept of “functional rationalism” to explore the recoil from utopianism in Orwell, Huxley, and Zamiatin, or Simmel's concept of the hero to focus the specific character and general significance of T. E. Lawrence's career, or insights from Marx, Durkheim, and C. Wright Mills to develop descriptions of the post-war mass society as it questions the socialist vision or attracts and stymies our novelists. However, one need not be a specialist to spot intellectual authority or to envy the pertinence, precision, and scope of Howe's investigation of the evidence and implications of the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions.”

As a literary critic, Howe is not a “Marxist” in the standard sense: he is much too concerned usually—though not always—with the individuality of a writer and with the problems and possibilities of the self to insist upon the class relations of a Céline or Hemingway, a Frost or Wallace Stevens as the principle source of his attitude toward experience. Still, the focus of his criticism of these writers is basically a more subtle and searching version of the view that Trotsky develops—and vulgarizes—in Literature and Revolution: that, in Trotsky's words, “the rearrangement of classes shakes up individuality,” that “Nature, love, or friendship” are closely connected with “the social spirit of an epoch,” that “a profound break in history” both decimates and renews the arts by establishing their fundamental problems from a new angle. Howe has read, and no doubt lived, with this view for so long now that it functions as an intuition—in the sense that Croce used the term to designate the source of true literary perception—of the specific effect on a writer of the loss of “ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” and the impermanence of “new-formed ones.” This intuition makes him a penetrating interpreter of Wallace Stevens and Frost, as well as of the more obvious cases of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, in their common struggle to capture some tentative basis for existence, or, in Frost's phrase, “some momentary stay against confusion.”


It is also evident that Howe's European socialist orientation has provided him not only with many of his general ideas but also with his method of reasoning with them. His skill at dialectical thinking is mainly responsible for the clarity and flexibility with which he deals with the literature of crisis. It allows him to control abstract and essentially fluid ideas within a tight logical framework and, at the same time, give them sufficient play to capture the distinctions and nuances that make for accuracy and depth of characterization. His essay on Céline, for example, is a stunning example of dialectical steadiness and agility. He begins by sorting out the principal contradictions that make up the temperament of the classical underground man and measures his general import in signifying “the end of the belief that the human being can be understood . . . as a unique ensemble of traits [rather than] as a history of experiences that are often impenetrable and gratuitous.” Noting the progressive deterioration of the type from Dostoevski's “whole man”—analyzing as well as suffering the burdens of consciousness—to the legion of modern nauseasts, Howe takes Céline as the most complete example of revulsion from the world and the self. He then reasons his way to the core of Céline's major work by shuttling between the opposing elements that produce its distinctive character of “exuberant disgust,” while relating them to themes and style. Eventually Howe arrives at the fundamental intuition that it is Céline's compulsive but powerful preoccupation with his own “biological ignominy” that both provides the energy of his disgust and sharply limits its satirical range. Capping this long display of dialectical prowess, Howe concludes: “the nausea that makes him recoil from experience is linked to the comedy that makes him relish the experience of recoil—beyond that he cannot go.” Having reached both the source and dead end of Céline's savage burlesque, Howe then sets up the final link of the chain: the resolution of Céline's impasse that Trotsky had suggested would lie in his choice between “an aversion to the lie” and “a disbelief in the truth.” Much less tendentious about “the truth” than Trotsky was, Howe restates the prediction in terms of the decisive inferiority of Céline's intellect to his imagination that inevitably led to an attrition of his powers and negotiated the eventual transaction between his nihilism and fascism. “Unable to transcend the foulness which was his authentic and entirely legitimate subject, he made ‘his peace with the darkness.’ And not he alone.”


I have paused over this one essay not only because it points up Howe's ability to zero in on a subject with an orderliness and precision of thought that is by no means usual in literary criticism, but also because it serves as a partial paradigm of the politico-ethical bias that underlies and charges his method. For the imagination of “extreme situations and radical solutions” is, to some extent, the source as well as the object of his work. In his short essay on Norman Mailer, Howe speaks of the bland, insulated circumstances in which most cultivated Americans increasingly live, with a “minimum of courage or failure, test or transcendence,” and, in an unusual personal aside, he testifies to the disorientation and dismay of “those of us raised, or ruined, by the ethic of striving, dissatisfaction, and renewal.” The formulation suggests the emotional core of Howe's perspective: the dialectic both of immigrant Jewish aspiration in which he grew up and of the Trotskyist ethos in which he came of age. Similarly, he characterizes the climate of contemporary socialism as one of “crisis, doubt, and reconsideration.” Conditioned by these climates, he writes as a man who has become habituated to the collision of one's best hopes with the recalcitrance and betrayal of the world. In almost every one of the essays in A World More Attractive, the underlying focus of description and judgment is fixed upon the drama of the individual writer—whether T. E. Lawrence or Edith Wharton or George Gissing—struggling to wrest from the disorder of the times and disarray of his own convictions some brave principle of transcendance, or failing that, of moral realism, in which to lodge the freedom of his spirit. In two of his most recent essays, those on T. E. Lawrence and Edith Wharton, the pressure of Howe's own stake in this ethic seems to break through the usual restraints of his rationalism and provides a new feeling of personal attachment to it. Here is Howe at his very best, a literary socialist stirred to eloquence by the spectacle of another “writer struggling with a vision he can neither realize nor abandon.” Too often in his other essays, he tends to take the theme of crisis for granted, so habituated has he become to it, and writes too patly and imperturbably about what were, after all, matters of spiritual life and death to his subjects.

This, then, is one side of the relation between Howe's literary and political purposes. The other side is his effort to provide imagination and complexity to socialist doctrine. For example, his essay, with Lewis A. Coser, on “Images of Socialism” makes use of his literary grasp of the algebra of conflict and renewal to provide a more dynamic and visionary concept of socialist ends than that of the highly centralized and spiritless pig-heaven which is already in the process of being realized by the post-capitalist mass society. To provide motive for the doctrine, Howe and Coser attempt to re-argue the relevance of socialism in terms of providing opportunities for social striving, tension, and productive conflict. Along with Richard Crossman, they affirm that the aim of socialism is “not the pursuit of happiness but the enlargement of freedom.”

Thus, the theme of effortful aspiration and conflict in Howe's literary approach joins to his faith in a hard-headed utopianism of liberating social struggle. In the main he has been attempting to introduce something of the literary imagination of the modern world into socialism in order to rescue it from the “functional rationalism” of its dream of collective security, which, whatever its sources of human misery and hopelessness in the 19th century, grows more and more dispiriting, if not ominous, in the shadow of 20th-century technology and bureaucracy.


To my mind, the body of Howe's work collected here would have been better titled “The Socialist Imagination.” The phrase, of course, recalls a famous collection of essays from the last decade on literature and society. A comparison between Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling is not likely to endear one to either party; nor would it be specifically fruitful except in pursuing characteristic differences in their respective critical positions and temperaments. However, it is not too much to say that both men have been involved in the similar enterprise of being teachers of their tribes of liberals and socialists respectively and that each of them has tried to re-state the nature of his political tradition by emphasizing its original impulse to human liberty and recalling it, in Trilling's phrase, from “the impulse to organization.” Thus their common emphasis falls, to quote Trilling again, upon “variousness and possibility, complexity and difficulty.” The last term, perhaps, is one about which contemporary socialists need no further education. In essence, though, Howe's new “image” of socialism is as committed to the possibilities and burdens of freedom as is Trilling's critique of American liberalism, and it is dependent in much the same way on literature as “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”

But if the main motive in Howe's work is to enlarge and quicken the socialist imagination along these lines, then his recent discussion of Baldwin and Ellison is particularly misbegotten. Speaking at the time—and, I suspect, under the spell—of the first unmistakable evidence of a civil rights revolution, Howe accuses the early Baldwin and Ellison of having written from the conformist ideology of the 50's rather than from their experience of “plight and protest” as Negroes. The operative term for the essay itself is “protest.” The “jug,” as Ellison subsequently put it, into which Howe was trying to force him was not so much his Negro identity as such as it was the imperative of “extreme situations and radical solutions”—that is to say, of militancy. Certain serious weaknesses of vision immediately follow wherever Howe's radicalism ceases to be critical. On the literary level, for example, he mistakes the tacit but powerful protest at the end of Invisible Man for one of the run-of-the-mill affirmations of the past decade. And on the political level, he battens upon the weaknesses in Baldwin's earlier writing in order to get in another blow at the ideology of conformity, but fails to bear down at all upon the much more relevant and disturbing incoherencies in the ideology of The Fire Next Time. Finally, he subverts his own philosophical basis for socialism—and, presumably, for Negro freedom—by prescribing, in effect, the limits of a Negro writer's freedom of consciousness. “What, then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be in this country . . . The ‘sociology’ of his existence formed a constant pressure on his literary work . . . with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove.” But what, then, was the experience of the Yiddish ghetto writers, one wonders, except usually that of poverty and fear and oppression, of quelled pain and outrage—and of the saving dignity of silence and irony. In his essay on Sholem Aleichem, Howe is a long way from suggesting that this great, impassive Yiddish writer was less than fully in touch with his experience.

Howe asserts at another point of attack on Ellison: “As if one could decide one's deepest and most authentic response to society!” But such a decision is precisely the one that he himself has made and kept to for many years now in having to regard socialism, in his words, mainly as “a commitment to a value and a problem,” or his own efforts as a struggle to “will” its image. Indeed, as I have tried to show, Howe's own value as a literary man as well as a radical derives in good part from his keeping independent faith—through a period of affluence and conformity—with his own “deepest and most authentic response to society.”


* Horizon Press, 307 pp., $6.50.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.