Commentary Magazine

The Old People's Socialist League

A wonderful man, Irving Howe. He’s done so much for Yiddish literature and for me. But he’s not a youngster any more, and still, still with this socialist meshugas.

—Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1981

All things considered, the literary critic and political intellectual Irving Howe is having a good afterlife. Since his death in 1993, his reputation, at least in certain quarters, seems only to have grown greater. Every so often one reads a worshipful word about him in the New Yorker or the New Republic or the New York Times Book Review. In a recent book, Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty comes very near to apotheosizing Howe, ranking his essays with those of George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, praising “his incredible energy and his exceptional honesty,” and closing with the thought that, although “Howe would have loathed being called a warrior-saint, . . . this term does help catch one of the reasons he came to play the role in many people’s lives which Orwell did in his.”

And then there is the documentary film, Arguing the World. This film chronicles the undergraduate careers of four New Yorkers—Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and Howe—and follows their political peregrinations since college days. In it, Howe seems to appear on screen more than any of the others, and to be talked about more admiringly; the last word is his; and, by virtue of the fact that he traveled the least far from his early political radicalism, he is subtly made to seem the hero of the story.

Howe is usually counted among the central figures of the group known as the New York intellectuals: a circle of writers and critics who gathered around Partisan Review in the 1930’s and later around COMMENTARY. Born in 1920, he was in fact a bit younger than the main figures in the group, and seems also in many ways to have been a psychologically less abstruse and more clearly driven character. Suffering no known writers’ blocks, never (apparently) an analysand, he was an immensely productive writer—the author and editor of more than thirty books—as well as, starting in the mid-1950’s, one of the founding editors and the main force behind the quarterly magazine Dissent.

Before going on to consider his career, though, I need to acknowledge a debt to Irving Howe, who encouraged me when I was a young writer. For a special issue of Dissent on blue-collar lives, Howe asked me in the early 1970’s to write an article on the town of Cicero, outside Chicago. I was free-lancing at the time, and the fee, $500, seemed to me rather grand, especially given the proletarianized look of Dissent. Although Howe was not an impressive editor—Dissent, then as now, had a fairly high unread-ability quotient—he did see it as part of his job to bring along younger writers. Certainly, he attempted to do so with me. I wrote three or four more pieces for Dissent over the next few years, including an attack on the then-emerging movement of neo-conservatism and an introduction to the magazine’s 25th anniversary issue.

I met Howe during this same period when he came to Chicago to read from World of Our Fathers, his big book about the immigrant Jews of New York that was then still a work in progress (it would be published to immense acclaim in 1976). When he arrived at my apartment, I was rather surprised at what seemed his lack of physical vanity, especially in a man one of whose weaknesses was said to be women (he married four times). To a friend who asked about Howe’s appearance, I said that he looked as if his shirt were out of his pants—only it wasn’t. He was tall but, after a New York youth in the socialist movement, there was nothing athletic or physically graceful about him. His tie was loose at the neck, his thin, receded hair barely combed. For a man who could command a rather elegant prose style, his physical style had about it something of the shleppoisie.

A kinder word, of course, would be haimish, or old-shoe, and Howe did have a way in conversation of making me, a youngish contributor to his magazine, feel myself his contemporary and even peer. While staying in Chicago, he was also able to convince his host, the then-chairman of the English department at Northwestern University, to offer me a teaching job. Since I had no Ph.D., and no teaching experience whatsoever, this must have been an interesting piece of persuasion. Twenty-five years later, I am still there.

When my own politics changed, Howe and I never had an official falling-out, only a falling-away. He may have thought me, in the old leftist phrase that was a favorite of his, a “sell-out”; more likely, he did not think of me at all, except perhaps as another younger writer who had slipped away. I continued to read him, mostly in the New Republic, sometimes in the New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review. I was asked to review his autobiography, A Margin of Hope (1982), but found it rather a joyless book and declined. By then, in any case, I had come to read Howe rather differently. I read him through a political loupe and with a slightly skeptical heart.



But this brings me to a new intellectual biography by Edward Alexander entitled Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew1 When, a few years ago, I heard that Alexander (a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle, and politically a conservative) was planning this book, I thought, as Igor Stravinsky is said to have remarked whenever he was presented with some new avant-gardeish musical creation, “Who needs it?” Howe was not, after all, a major figure even among his contemporaries. But now that preparations are apparently under way to make him into the American Orwell, it is good to have all the facts of his intellectual life before us. Alexander has written a solid and useful book.

Because of constraints placed upon Alexander by Howe’s family—he has not been allowed, for instance, to quote from Howe’s letters—Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew is also a relatively impersonal book. Although they knew each other (according to Alexander, Howe used to refer to him as his “favorite reactionary”), and although, from time to time, personal exchanges figure in the narrative, this is for the most part, as Alexander says, “a biography of Howe’s mind”: an attempt to understand the various positions, political and cultural, taken by Howe over a lengthy and contentious career.

The three terms in Alexander’s title—socialist, critic, Jew—have the priorities in precisely the right order. Howe was first a socialist; then a critic; and finally a Jew, secularist division, literary branch. The three categories often fed into one another: the socialist in Howe often set the program for the literary critic, and both socialism and criticism aroused his interest in Yiddish literature, thus bringing out the Jew. But socialism was paramount.

Howe came of age in the mean teeth of the Depression, and no doubt it was the central public event of his life, conditioning and coloring all else. His father’s grocery store went bankrupt in 1930, when Irving was ten, and the family, as he would report in A Margin of Hope, began “dropping from the lower middle class to the proletariat—the most painful of all social descents.” His parents now worked in the dress trade—his mother as an operator, his father as a presser—and Howe grew up with memories of dispossessed families, all their belongings on the sidewalk.

Much more important to the young Irving Howe than the storefront shul in which he had his bar mitzvah was the headquarters of the Workman’s Circle, where he became attracted to what was in those days known as the “movement” and would soon become, as he later called it, “my home and my passion.” At fourteen, as he tells it in A Margin of Hope, he began attending Sunday-night meetings of the Young People’s Socialist League. He would in time acknowledge that his early socialism provided something akin to a replacement for the religion he never had; once he was under its spell, “everything seemed to fall into place: ordered meaning, a world grasped through theory, a life shaped by purpose.”

Howe was never a member of the Communist party; he claimed that, as a boy, he was much put off by the Communists’ stringent discipline. But he did become a Trotskyist. One gathers that he never altogether lost his admiration for the figure of Leon Trotsky, who seemed to excite a great many intellectuals through his ability to wield, with stunning success, both pen and (as commander of the Red Army after the Bolshevik Revolution) sword. Howe was always an anti-Stalinist—anti-Stalinism was at the heart of Trotskyism—and he was later a strong anti-Communist. But socialism itself, backed up by an early and thoroughgoing belief in Marxism, gave him all the rope he needed to tie himself in knots.

As an undergraduate at the City College of New York, Howe studied English literature—“it struck me as the easiest major, where I could bullshit the most”—and was smitten, like so many other young men with literary flair, by the work of Edmund Wilson, whose “moral gravity moved me.” He also changed his name (he had been born Irving Horenstein). He was hardly the only Jew in the “movement” to do so, the ostensible purpose being to secure a broader American audience for the views of these budding radicals. Thus, Daniel Bell was originally Daniel Bolotsky, and Philip Rahv and William Phillips, the founding editors of Partisan Review, were born Ivan Greenbaum and William Litvinsky.

As a young man, Howe, who had discovered in himself a gift for political oratory, must have been an intolerable prig. Irving Kristol remembers Howe from their CCNY days as “thin, gangling, intense, always a little distant, his fingers incessantly and nervously twisting a cowlick as he enunciated sharp and authoritative opinions . . . the Trotskyist leader and ‘theoretician.’ ” Ransacking the files for his early writings, Alexander finds Howe accusing the Communist-party Daily Worker of the heinous sin of being “pro-American.” The wartime suicide of the exiled Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig is attributed by the adolescent Howe to Zweig’s cowardliness as a petit bourgeois. An ideological opponent, Louis Fischer, is attacked as “king of the philistines,” and “prince of liars.”

The first large issue on which Howe, barely out of his teens, weighed in was World War II. He did so as the editor of a four-page sheet called Labor Action, and the line he took was that this was a war “between two great imperialist camps”—Nazi Germany on the one side, Britain and America on the other—“to decide which shall dominate the world.” It was a war, in other words, “conceived and bred by world capitalism,” and therefore neither side deserved the support of socialists. Although he was not alone in this view—Dwight Macdonald took it, and the philosopher Sidney Hook once told me that he had to argue Philip Rahv and William Phillips out of adopting it as the position of Partisan Review—one is inevitably reminded here of George Orwell’s famous crack that there are certain things one has to be an intellectual to believe, since no ordinary man could be so stupid.

Howe was drafted and served in the Army in Anchorage, Alaska. But throughout the war he continued, under a pseudonym, to attack America’s participation in the conflict—this, despite the fact that Hitler’s systematic massacre of the Jews of Europe was becoming widely known. Anyone who did not support the so-called “third-camp” position (neither pro-Allied nor pro-Nazi) was dismissed by him as villainous at worst, a boob at best. As late as 1947, Howe felt it a mistake for the U.S. to have entered the war; in a piece discussing the Nuremberg Trials, he claimed that the “real victims of Nazism” were the German working classes. Although he would later admit to the obtuseness of his views on World War II, he remained touchy, according to Alexander, about who had the right to remind him of them.



Edward Alexander understands the historical forces behind Irving Howe’s turn to socialism, and he recognizes, too, what kept the socialist myth alive in Howe’s mind and spirit up until the day of his death. Socialism apart, Alexander gives his subject high marks for acting with honor in his work as an anthologist and high cicerone to Yiddish literature in America, for his opposition to the student radicals and New Left intellectuals of the 60’s and 70’s, his attacks on those who attempted to politicize the teaching of literature in universities in the early 1970’s, and his later stand against deconstructionists and other practitioners of literary theory. Alexander esteems Howe’s worth as a literary critic, and he seems genuinely to have liked him as a person. He strains to treat him fairly; and in my view, he succeeds.

But this hardly means that he forgives all the misbegotten ideas that socialism led Howe to adopt. Politically and intellectually, Alexander holds Howe’s feet to the fire. He declines to allow, as softer people often do, that Howe was somehow right even when he was wrong, or was right precisely for being wrong—that his putative idealism canceled his mistakes, from his neutrality during the war to his on-again, off-again feelings for Israel to his willfully blind refusal to credit the reality of the success of American democratic capitalism. Throughout, Alexander stays on Howe’s case, nailing him for errors both of commission and of omission. In this exercise, too, I believe he treats Howe fairly.

Still, taking up Howe’s political positions one by one, demonstrating how many of these positions look foolish in the light of history, or in the light of one’s own (inevitably) more sensible positions, has its limitations. This is a method of judgment, after all, by which few people can hope to ’scape whipping, history being more cunning than the human beings who make it, and opinions—especially intellectual opinions—being as volatile as biotechnology stocks. A more interesting question is one that Sidney Hook put to Howe after a brutal exchange in the 40’s, in the course of which Howe actually called Hook a tool of the Vatican (now there’s a notion to make one smile on a gray day): “I do not know whether it is your politics or your character which makes it constitutionally impossible for you to do elementary justice to people with whom you disagree.”

Elementary justice is not easy to achieve with an opponent, particularly in politics. But what about in literature? Did Howe’s politics also get in the way of his literary judgments?

Howe did not come to literature through advanced academic training, for he had no Ph.D. and he was never aligned with any particular school of criticism. Beginning with his war years in Alaska, he did a vast amount of reading; he seems to have gained his education in public (as many critics do), learning as he wrote. In 1953 he was given a position at Brandeis, where Philip Rahv also taught, and he remained a university teacher—a very good one, it is said—for the rest of his days, later moving to the graduate center of the City University of New York.

As a literary and cultural critic, Howe had a genuine talent for dramatizing ideas. He was much aided in this by his penchant for heightened phrasings. In his prose, militancy is “clenched,” youth is “tensed with conviction,” Faulkner’s characters are “chafed” by the “clamp of family,” and Debsian socialism is invaded by “the dybbuk of sectarianism.” These rhetorical flourishes, which do not always bear too close scrutiny, can give Howe’s prose an impressive tension and luster.

Howe was a perceptive, even a penetrating, reader—which is all that one can ask a critic to be—but his efforts were oddly unconcentrated. He wrote often about the phenomenon of modernism in the arts, but he came too late, as a critic, to add much to the enshrinement of the great modernist writers—Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Eliot—in the canon of Western literature. His three books on individual writers (Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Thomas Hardy) are respectable but not memorable. He could, however, write the good general essay (on Edith Wharton); the stirring essay (on T. E. Lawrence); or the surprisingly well-informed essay (on the 19th-century story writer Nikolai Leskov). And he was excellent on Yiddish literature; if I had to bet which of Howe’s literary works has the best chance of surviving, my money would be on the 1953 anthology, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, which he edited with Eliezer Greenberg and to which the two men supplied a lengthy and brilliant introductory essay that put the subject of Yiddish literature on the American intellectual map.

Unlike Edmund Wilson, Howe was never able to direct the literary traffic when it came to the reputations of his contemporaries. He never wrote at serious length about Norman Mailer, whose wretched essay “The White Negro” originally appeared in Dissent. (Howe later apologized for it.) He left Saul Bellow pretty much alone. He once advised Ralph Ellison to align himself more strongly with the protest tradition in black writing, and got absolutely scorched by Ellison in a brilliant reply. But he did resoundingly put down the early feminist writer Kate Millett, at a time when it was useful to do so. And in a 1972 essay in COMMENTARY he crushed Philip Roth, who was so rattled that he composed an entire novel, The Anatomy Lesson, to dispatch a critic undeniably modeled after Irving Howe.



“Politics in a work of literature,” wrote Stendhal, “is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a tiling to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.” Howe quotes this famous sentence at the outset of his own book of essays on Politics and the Novel (1957). Although he has been praised by his admirers for keeping politics out of his literary criticism, and for his capacity to judge works of art in their own terms, the truth is rather more complicated.

Not that Howe’s literary criticism had an entirely polemical intent. But when it came to the crunch, he could not do what, in his essay on Leskov, he remarked that all great writers do—namely, write “in opposition to his own preconceptions.” In Politics and the Novel, which he published while still in his thirties, Howe’s politics forced him, in effect, to deny the gifts of two of the greatest writers in the history of the novel: Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

That Howe was not an all-out admirer of James is less than shocking. James is, after all, not everyone’s cup of caviar, and Howe’s taste generally ran to more strongly patterned, less finely textured, more conflict-laden, less subtly nuanced fiction. In Politics and the Novel, the text for Howe’s anti-James sermon is The Princess Casamassima (1887), James’s coruscating psychological study of the radical temperament. In considering the novel, Howe gives out little grades—this character is strong, that one wanting in credibility—but then finally dismisses it altogether, largely on the grounds that James’s cultural position renders him ill-equipped for his subject. “James’s conservatism,” Howe writes,

was peculiarly the conservatism of an artist who has measured all the effort and agony that has gone into the achievements of the past and is not yet ready to skimp their value in the name of the unborn and untested future.

This is hardly the only place in his criticism where Howe reveals his own preference for the ideal over the real; that “unborn and untested future” he alludes to is, of course, the possibility of Utopian socialism, while “conservatism,” for a New York intellectual of that day, was a word that had the status of a profanity. But he is mistaken about James. What Howe identifies as political conservatism is really something else—a disbelief in the centrality of politics itself. In a key passage in The Princess Casamassima, James writes:

The figures on the chessboard were still the passions and the jealousies and superstitions and stupidities of man, and thus positioned in regard to each other at any given moment could be of interest only to the grim fates who played the game—who sat, through the ages, bow-backed over the table.

This is a passage that Howe neglects to quote, and little wonder: the tragic view of life it encapsulates is entirely at odds with his own, politics-ridden, mentality.

The case against Conrad is made even more vehemently in Politics and the Novel. Conrad wrote two of the great political novels in the English language—The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1910)—and both are devastatingly anti-revolutionary. Both, that is, come out strongly for the real over the ideal. In considering these novels, Howe begins by maintaining that all of Conrad’s views were formed by his father’s experience in Poland, where as a fighter for Polish freedom he and Conrad’s mother were seized by the Russians and subsequently died in exile, and by Conrad’s own guilt not merely over his failure to continue his father’s struggle but over his need, his “conservative” need, for personal order.

A good bit of critical heavy breathing, of backing-and-filling, accompanies Howe’s attempt to defuse the power of Conrad’s two novels. Only at chapter’s end does he allow that “in our fiercely partisan age it is difficult to read books like Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent without fiercely partisan emotions.” Imagine the emotions of Howe himself—who actually brings Trotsky in at one point to refute Conrad—when he came upon the following passage from Under Western Eyes:

[I]n a real revolution—not a simple dynastic change or a reform of institutions—in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and leaders. You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.

Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured—that is the definition of revolutionary success.

Joseph Conrad wrote that in 1910, calling every shot in the Russian Revolution that was still seven years away. You might think that he would win a point or two for political prophecy, instead, the passage, which Howe quotes in part, is answered by him with a rather pathetic retort in the form of a well-worn quotation from Orwell: “All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.” (In the modern age, truth to tell, they just about all are.)



George Orwell, like Irving Howe, had a little socialism problem of his own; he, too, could not quite let go of the subject. But Orwell, who died a relatively young man in 1950, was also a more honest writer. Irving Howe could never have written The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell’s excruciatingly truthful account of the squalor of the working class and the kookiness of those attracted to socialist remedies for its problems. Going to Spain to observe the revolution in progress and join the fight against fascism, Orwell looked the Communist devil in the eye, and when he returned home he once again told the truth in Homage to Catalonia (1938).

Hilton Kramer has written about Irving Howe that “whenever the mystique of radical politics in general and the myth of socialism in particular have been allowed to dominate in his work, the result is all but worthless.” This is a hard judgment but, I believe, a correct one—correct as applied to his literary criticism, and much more correct as applied to his writing on politics, which tends to be turgid, divorced from reality, and nearly unreadable.

Why did Howe invest so much intellectual and spiritual capital in so desiccating an idea? Socialism was, of course, the great compulsion of his youth, and it gave him both a social life and a way out of the immigrant Jewish milieu in which he was born. Socialism also provided the one political tradition in which intellectuals seemed to be able to exercise leadership and attain status. Nor is the power of displaced religious belief to be ignored. The last word in Howe’s Selected Writings, 1950-1990, his final collection of essays, is given over to the conviction that the fall of the Soviet Union has in no way disqualified the socialist idea but that, to the contrary, once “the shadow of Stalinism recedes,” socialism will emerge in its purer, uncontaminated form. Talk about waiting for the messiah.

From an early age, Howe had locked himself into a strict definition of the role of the intellectual. In his view, the intellectual was always the outsider, and intellectual life was really only valid when one lived it as a member of a minority. This minority was to be in permanent opposition, in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Only thus could one’s radicalism be preserved intact. “I am dissatisfied, profoundly so, with the world as it is,” said the late Alfred Kazin, who took an even greater pride than Howe in his own brand of self-righteous radicalism. “But I would be dissatisfied with any world. And I’d hate to lose my dissatisfaction.”

The irony is that for Howe (as for Kazin), precisely this posture of alienation should have proved a winning ticket to the kind of worldly success he was forever claiming to deprecate. Unlike Orwell, who suffered material damage for his brave dissent from the party line on Spain, Howe never suffered at all for his radicalism. It helped land him a distinguished professorship, lectureships at Harvard and Princeton, a major commercial publisher, a MacArthur fellowship, and, now, posthumous beatification as a “warror-saint” of our age.

Did Howe ever sense that the heavy bag of largely false ideas he had chosen to carry through life had marred much of his literary criticism and guaranteed the irrelevance of his politics? One wonders. To judge the real against an imaginary ideal and always find the real wanting; to refuse to repudiate one’s youthful positions, no matter how callow, lest one be thought to have grown cynical; to consider oneself in permanent opposition to the life of one’s time; to dramatize the fear of selling out, even as the world makes a comedy of the drama by continually showering one with rewards; to live out one’s days hostage to so many wrong ideas, notions, and biases—did Irving Howe ever say to himself, how do I put this bag down and take life as it and for what it is? I suppose it would be merciful to think that he never did.



1 Indiana University Press, 284 pp., $35.00.


About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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