Irving Howe And The Legacy Of Dissent

Jim Burns 

When Irving Howe died in 1993 one of the tributes paid to him was that he was "a man of books and of journals, and not of the media," and reading that it struck me how true it was. You somehow couldn't imagine Howe happily participating in slick chat shows, nor could you see him churning out quick newspaper pieces which simply tried to attract attention by being controversial. Howe was from a different tradition, where intellectual depth was required and it was expected that a writer would have a commitment to something other than mere personal advancement. He was often linked to that "herd of independent minds," the New York Intellectuals, and yet he was very much his own man. When other New York writers and critics gave up on political involvement, or swung to the right, Howe continued to keep the faith by espousing socialist ideals. 

But who was he and where did he come from? He wasn't perhaps well-known in this country, though some of his books were published here, and a man who could seriously state that his ambition was to be an intellectual is likely to be treated as if he's some sort of oddball and viewed with suspicion. The British are rarely comfortable with people whose chief currency is based on ideas, but Howe's high-mindedness never caused him to be pompous, though he always refused to compromise by lowering the level of his arguments. 

He was born in the Bronx in 1920, the son of poor Jewish parents. The area

"formed a thick tangle of streets crammed with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, almost all of the poor. We lived in narrow five-story tenements, wall flush against wall, and with slate-coloured stoops rising sharply in front. There never was enough space. The buildings, clenched into rows, looked down upon us like sentinels, and the apartments in the buildings were packed with relatives and children, many of them fugitives from unpaid rents. The tenements had first gone up during the early years of the century , and if not quite as grimy as those of the Lower East Side in Manhattan or the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, they were bad enough. " 

Howe's picture of those years, as he later painted it in A Margin of Hope, is vivid and compelling. His parents worked in the garment trade after his father's grocery store failed during the Depression, and Howe, as a thirteen year-old, was pulled into the world of the left as the 1933 strike brought out garment workers all over New York, It was a significant experience for him, and he remembered how, once the strike was won, his family lived a little better and even managed to buy him a new shirt:

"The garment unions were an essential part of immigrant life, helping to ease its hardships and giving our people a fragment of dignity, In later years, whenever I heard intellectuals of the Right or Left attack unionism, I would be seized by an uncontrollable rage that then gave way to frustration, how to explain to young people what the strike of 1933 had meant, how to find words to tell of the small comforts the union had brought, meat on the table and 'grownup' shirts?" 

It was typical of Howe that he never forgot his background, nor what it meant to be poor and what trade unionists and others had done to improve matters, In this respect it's important to provide an account of his early years as a guide to what came later . He joined the Young Peoples Socialist league when he was fourteen and was soon involved with the argumentative life of the left.

"For several decades European Socialists had been struggling to work out a political response to liberal government enacting welfare reforms (social security, unemployment insurance, public works, pensions, and so forth) within capitalist society. For American Socialists this had hardly been a problem, since the welfare state-what passes for one among us-came here later than in Europe. The far right of the European social democracy virtually blended into welfare liberalism, contenting itself with modest reforms. The far left, while not opposed to such reforms, saw them as mere palliatives and tried to maintain a revolutionary perspective. Between these polar tendencies wobbled the social democratic centre, dominant in most of the parties, which favoured reform programmes while maintaining-sometimes only on Sundays-a commitment to basic change, Similar divisions now flared up in the American movement, and all through the early 1930s they took a fierce, even ugly form, The problem was new to American Socialists, who had often contented themselves with sweeping denunciations of "the system," The very smallness of the movement in America made it almost certain that ideological disputes would be fought to the edge of death,"

This factional fighting, so typical of the time and place but later even flavouring the cultural battles of the 1950s and beyond, continued when Howe went to the City College of New York and became involved with Trotskyism. It was a period of high hopes and intellectual ferment, as Howe explained in A Margin of Hope:

'The culture of New York was then still a culture of the word. For many young people the public library was still a place of refreshment and pleasure. Daily newspapers were numerous. but not yet challenged by other 'media.' Theatres presented plays with acknowledged scripts. Serious magazines really influenced educated opinion. Men with free time gathered in cafeterias and parks to discuss politics. Political campaigns meant speechmaking. not just handshaking. A high-school graduate would have read at least a novel by Dickens and a play by Shakespeare. There was a shared belief in the value - indeed, the honour - of gaining a high-school diploma, even among many who did not stay long enough to get it. This was not utopia. far from it. But the city did have a unity of culture, and that unity has since been broken. "

Howe attended CCNY between 1936 and 1940, with "a mediocre record. except for an unplanned course that lured me into unplanned enthusiasm." The formal syllabus rarely provided the stimulus he needed. and some of the teaching was of poor quality, though Howe recognised that the nature of CCNY , with its heavy teaching loads and high turnover of students didn't lend itself to first-rate tuition. The college had something of an open door policy at a time when student numbers elsewhere were restricted and Jewish students, in particular, found it difficult to gain admittance to other establishments. But extra-curricular activities were important, and Howe said that the Trotskyist movement was "my school in politics. my school in life." and that it was his real introduction to the world of ideas and literature, especially literary modernism. The Trotskyists "tilted towards highbrow culture." Trotsky set an example through his own skilful literary criticism and his friendship with Andre Breton and Diego Rivera. The first American follower of Trotsky had been the talented writer Max Eastman. and the main spokesmen in American were (Max) Shachtman and (James) Burnham, both intellectuals. Furthermore, our fondness for nuance and casuistry predisposed at least some of us to the problematic modes of modernist literature." The drab cultural aims and interests of too many communists and socialists were not those of the Trotskyists. 

After leaving CCNY . Howe spent a short time as editor of Labor Action a Trotskyist magazine. and then went into the army. When he returned to New York in the mid-1940s he realised that things were changing. The war years had brought a boom in employment. and most left -wing parties and groups had increased their memberships, but the Cold War was soon to bring a clampdown on left -wingers, and the expansion in both the American and European economies persuaded many people that the need for radical action was past. Howe went back to working for the Trotskyists. but doubts were creeping in: "Now we were all a little older and the question of earning-a living, once so jauntily brushed aside, took on an urgency it could not have had in the Depression years. Meanwhile our political expectations were crumbling. The capitalist world, by no means in its 'final crisis,' was entering several decades of economic expansion. so that whatever remained of American radicalism was bound to suffer confusion." There is a short story. "The Party," by the now almost-forgotten Isaac Rosenfeld. which was published in 1947 and neatly satirised the Trotskyists and their impossible dreams. As Howe said.

"Rosenfeld's story hurt to the point of rage, perhaps because we knew that in its fantastic way it was scraping against the truth."

Howe had always read extensively, and developed his literary as well as his political interests, and he began to publish literary criticism in magazines. He worked with Dwight Macdonald on Politics. obtained work. almost by accident. as a book reviewer for Time. and began to contribute to Partisan Review, virtually the house magazine for the New York Intellectuals, and "the vibrant centre of our intellectual life... its prestige still high in the late forties." "He had almost abandoned his Trotskyist involvements and, like many of his friends, was

"beginning to see that for us the prime value was democracy. and that without it we could not even imagine a desirable socialism. The casual talk about 'revolution' one might still occasionally hear was a mere verbal hangover. We were becoming Social Democrats or, if you prefer, democratic Socialists. " 

This seems to me to highlight Howe's movement towards the world he was to become identified with that of the New York Intellectuals, as well as towards the combination of political commitment (along the lines he outlined) and literary criticism that occupied him for the rest of his life. It was a time when what

"began to absorb the New York writers was a search for some principle by which to order the world after Hitler, culture after the Holocaust. The idea of centrality replaced the ideology of Marxism, though the idea can be seen as a stepchild of the ideology. To be central meant to engage with questions that gave our time its peculiarly terrible character. "

Howe thought that the idea of the central was "slippery ." which was what made it attractive in some ways, though this could lead to problems. People searched for something they could call "central" and. as a result, novelty flourished. ideology declined. and personalities bloomed. Howe himself was slowly

"stumbling upon an idea that could be traced back to Matthew Arnold and would soon be picked up by Randall Jarrell: that in a secular age literary criticism carries a heavy burden of intention. becoming a surrogate mode of speech for people blocked in public life. Unable to fulfill directly their vision of politics, morality and religion critics transfer these to the seemingly narrower channels of literary criticism."

And he further noted that

"the most valuable critics have often doubled as cultural spokesmen, moral prophets, political insurgents." 

Along with this realization of the possibilities of literary criticism came a reappraisal of the role of the great modernist writers. Pound, Eliot, Yeats, and others, were not lovers of democracy. and though Howe had, at one time, considered that modernist art and modernist politics (Trotskyism) went hand-in hand, he was slowly changing his mind:

"It became fashionable in the earlier decades of this century for advanced writers - Joyce stands out as a wonderful exception! - to dismiss liberal democracy as a breeding ground of the mediocre masses and thereby an enemy of high culture. No, the union between cultural modernism and independent radicalism was neither a proper marriage nor a secure liaison, it was a meeting between parties hurrying in opposite directions, brief, hectic, messy."

The late-1940s debate about the activities of Ezra Pound ("a pro-fascist and anti-Semitic writer even if he had written the best poetry of 1948") crystallized matters for Howe, and he asserted that, when aesthetic standards and human values clash, as they did in Pound's case, then the latter should be seen as primary. In A Margin of Hope he quoted a marvelous passage from a piece by Clement Greenberg: 

"I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, more in our time than in any other: that art-silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist's part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. Psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society. "

It's fascinating to see Howe's working out of the position he was to adopt, give or take minor shifts of emphasis. for the rest of his life. Of course, the practical dilemma of how to earn a living had to be dealt with, especially as subtle changes were taking place in intellectual life. Howe noted that

"a major shift in cultural demography began in the 1950s, the dispersion of literary people from urban centres and bohemian enclaves to university towns across the continent."

He wanted to stand against this dispersal of energies, as it seemed to him, but had to face up to the fact that the

"lines of separation that had defined intellectual life-lines between high and middlebrow, radical and acquiescent, serious and popular-were becoming blurred."

How best to find a way to survive doing worthwhile work in such a situation? Invitations to teach began to come in, and Howe accepted a post at Brandeis University,

"a remarkable place mixing college, political forum, and kibbutz, where the abundant energies of Jewish intellectuals some of them free-lancers from New York and others refugees from Germany-found bread, speech, and audiences."

It was 1953 when Howe went to Brandeis, and after that his life was, from the point of view of a steady income, centred on academic work. He taught at Stanford University, and for many years at City University New York, but he always maintained a connection with the wider world through politics and his role as a social critic, his aim being to "write literary criticism like that which Edmund Wilson or George Orwell wrote." And he wanted to be "an intellectual, one of those free-ranging speculative writers who grapple with the troubles of their time yet command some of the accumulated knowledge of the past." He wasn't content to be an academic whose writing simply reflected what he taught. His next move demonstrated that quite clearly. 

"When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine," Howe wrote in 1954 as he and several others founded Dissent, the publication he was to be identified with for the next forty years. And he later commented "Dissent arose out of the decomposition of American socialism or what tattered bits and pieces of it remained in the fifties," a time when the Cold War, McCarthyism, and affluence, were combining to reduce interest in radical ideas to something pushed to the fringes of society. The magazine, financed by supporters and contributors, with the latter agreeing to write for nothing as well as giving donations to keep it going, pledged to combat conformism, to defend humanist and radical values, fight totalitarianism of any kind, and begin a dialogue with liberal opinion, And it also affirmed a belief in socialism. The launching of Dissent coincided with an important essay that Howe wrote for Partisan Review. It was designed as an attack on those one-time liberals who, Howe said, were now making their peace with the state, and he challenged this new orthodoxy. "Intellectuals," he wrote, "far from thinking of themselves as a desperate opposition, have been enjoying a return to the bosom of the nation." He agreed that there were tremendous pressures to conform, but insisted that there were greater virtues "In preserving the attitude of critical scepticism and distance." Howe was not the only New York writer to notice what was happening. Philip Rahv wrote that

"the Intellectual bohemian or proletarian has turned into a marginal figure nowadays, reminding us in his rather quixotic aloneness of the ardours and truancies of the past."

In Howe's view, the institutional world of government, corporation, and mass culture needs intellectuals because they are intellectuals, (but) it does not want them as intellectuals. It needs them for their skills, knowledge, inclinations, even passions, without which they would be of no use. But it does not look too kindly upon, indeed does all it can to curb their traditional role as free-wheeling critics who direct their barbs not only upon enemies but friends and allies, too." And when intellectuals become absorbed into the accredited institutions of society they not only lose their traditional rebelliousness but to one extent or another they cease to function as intellectuals." It is, of course, possible to see Howe himself, newly accepted into academic life, worrying away at how it would affect his role as social critic but this doesn't lessen the value of his comments. And it's also possible to understand that starting Dissent was, perhaps, a means of maintaining some sort of independence, and an outlet through which he could channel his radical tendencies. 

This is not the place to attempt a history of Dissent which, over the years, mixed matters of immediate concern with long-term political strategies and a range of cultural topics, but Howe was always heavily involved in both producing and writing for the magazine. He did much of the routine work of editing, raised funds, and somehow also managed to fulfill his academic tasks and write a large amount of literary and political journalism. He additionally wrote a number of books on a variety of subjects, including histories of American Communism and American Socialism, critical studies of William FauIkner, Thomas Hardy, and Sherwood Anderson, a book on Trotsky , and several collections of essays. He edited a number of anthologies, some of them of Yiddish literature. and put together collections of the essential works on socialism and the writings of Trotsky . Two of his most important works were Politics and the Novel and World of our Fathers. In his survey of "political novels," Howe considered the general idea of how and why writers deal with politics in their work and looked at specific examples by Conrad, Stendhal, Turgenev, Koestler, Orwell, and others. It was written, he said, that moment when I was gradually drifting away from orthodox Marxism.., orthodox Marxism in its serious version or versions, not the corrupt authoritarian slogans of the Communist movement," 

World of our Fathers is generally regarded an Howe's finest work, and is, probably the one that will survive the passage of time. Researched over many years, it re-creates the turbulent world of New York's Lower East Side when it was mostly a Jewish ghetto, with its Yiddish newspapers and poets, its pushcarts and dreamers its sweat-shops and the unions that tried to change them, and its long history of work, family, culture, and dissent. As Howe said:

"We cannot be our fathers, we cannot live like our mothers, but we may look to their experience for images of rectitude and purities of devotion, It is the single commanding power of the Yiddish tradition that it seems immediately and insistently to thrust before us the most fundamental questions of human existence: how shall we live? What are the norms by which we can make judgments of the 'good life'? What modes of conduct may enable us to establish a genuine community?"

And he added

"We need not overvalue the immigrant Jewish experience in order to feel a lasting gratitude for having been part of it, A sense of natural piety towards one's origins can live side by side with spirit of critical detachment, We take pleasure in having bee related to those self-educated workers, those sustaining women those almost-forgotten writers and speakers devoted to excitements of controversy and thought,"

It was a personal note and yet could apply to the feelings of many people reflecting on their roots. 

Howe achieved a small measure of fame with this book an admitted to feeling uneasy about it and almost relieved when he once again became "simply a stoop-shouldered man with a bald spot" who could sit unrecognised in a restaurant. 

Towards the end of his life Howe produced a short piece for Dissent in which he outlined his belief in the need to dream, to have a concept of utopia always in mind, even if not in a scientific or systematic sense, As early as 1954, Howe and Lewis Coser. with whom he co-operated on various projects, wrote an essay in which they looked at different utopian theorists (Saint-Simon, Fourier Cabet, etc,) and noted their tendency to be dogmatic and even tyrannical, if it suited their purpose, But, they pointed out, "Utopia without egalitarianism, utopia dominated by aristocracy of mind, must quickly degenerate into a vision of useful slavery." As a rider to this, however, they said that "a life without some glimmer of a redeeming future (is) a life cut off from the distinctively human," Almost forty years later he re-iterated his conviction of the necessity of hope. What he called "the great historical disaster" of the decline and fall of the communist dream had led to suspicion of radical politics generally, and the consequence was an interval of weariness, disillusionment pragmatism, and diminished expectations," The exhaustion could clearly be seen in the so-called intellectual journals:

"Some are sour (usually edited by ex-radicals) and others are timid (usually edited by quasi-liberals). Some subsist by mocking the hopes of their youth, others avoid any long-range expectations or desires, still others narrow their focus of concern to the daily routines of politics, sometimes saying useful things, though not much more,"

What Howe observed wasn't just typical of America, and although he didn't decry dealing with the immediate he stressed that long-range options were of equal importance. It was necessary to "avoid the provincialism of the immediate," and

"utopianism is a necessity of the moral imagination. It doesn't necessarily entail a particular politics: it doesn't ensure wisdom about current affairs, What it does provide is a guiding perspective, a belief or hope for the future, an understanding that nothing is more mistaken than the common notion that what exists today will continue to exist tomorrow, This kind of utopianism is really another way of appreciating the variety and surprise that history makes possible-possible, nothing more. It is a testimony to the resourcefulness that humanity now and then displays (together with other, far less attractive characteristics), It is a claim for the value of desire, the practicality of yearning-as against the deadliness of acquiescing in the 'given , simply because it is here," 

This version of utopianism was not only Howe's personal belief, but also what he wanted Dissent to represent, and to those who had their doubts about this position, he said:

"to friend and foe, at a moment when the embers of utopianism seem very low, I'd say: You want to call us utopians? That's fine with me," 

Irving Howe was not without his critics, and anyone interested in knowing what they had to say can easily refer to the histories of the New York intellectuals and the memoirs of individual writers and activists, such as Sidney Hook and Norman Podhoretz, But even those who didn't necessarily agree with him politically often admired his integrity. Alfred Kazin remarked that, as other one-time radicals exploited the "cynical possibilities of ex-Marxist opportunism" he "looked to Irving Howe to uphold a fundamental standard of decency." And Kazin pointed out that, at a time when too many were swayed by political correctness into lowering standards, the more he "looked to Irving to remind a negligent administration of a teacher's duty to stimulate the mind, not to flatter the helpless. And it took an autodidact to do that." 

Howe's daughter remembered that he had "conveyed to me a deep love of literature," and that his collection of books "was fascinating," but she also made it clear that "he was a man of many worlds, and I marvel at how this was reflected in his day-to-day reading." And others spoke of the breadth of his knowledge. Leon Wieseltier, who was not at all in agreement with Howe's socialism, knew Howe and liked him. Howe, he said, "understood the importance of the common touch, even if he lacked it. He suspected things that dazzled. He liked ideas more than theories, reasonableness more than correctness. " Wieseltier also stated that Howe's "greatest thrill was high art that felt democratic," which is why he wrote books about Anderson, Faulkner, and Hardy, "masters of form who found in ordinary people difficulty and dignity enough," and why he loved Walt Whitman's poetry. And he added, perhaps slyly, that he always thought of Howe as a welfare state liberal with a fluency in the Marxist tradition." In the end, though, the labels don't matter. It's the motives that count, and Irving Howe had the right ones. 


I've tried to use Howe's own words as much as possible, and have drawn extensively from A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (Secker & Warburg, London, 1983). Many of his important essays are in Selected Writings 1950-1990 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1990), and a smaller, posthumously published collection, A Critic's Notebook (Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, 1994) has some of his shorter literary pieces, with clear, concise comments on Arnold Bennett, Kipling, Dickens, Tolstoy, and others he admired. Politics and the Novel, originally published in 1957, was re-issued by Columbia University Press, New York, in 1992. World of our Fathers appeared in various editions and the one I used was published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1976. Finally, an anthology, Legacy of Dissent, with a selection of material from Dissent magazine, was published in 1994 by Simon & Schuster, New York.