Left Wing to Right: The Journey of Four Marxist Intellectuals

[from CCNY's radical "alcove" of the 1930s] January 3, 1998

NEW YORK -- "I became radical because I thought I had good reason to become radical. I became liberal because I thought I had good reason to become liberal. And then I became conservative because I thought I had good reason to be conservative. It seems to me perfectly natural."

That is how Irving Kristol describes his ideological odyssey, one that took him from the left-wing hothouse of City College of New York in the late 1930s to the center of the Reagan revolution four decades later. Three other Jewish sons of New York's poorest neighborhoods and City College, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell and Irving Howe, took similar journeys at the same time on the same ideological subway from left to right, though each hopped off well before Kristol did. The stories of these four men, of the extraordinary intellectual milieu they occupied and how they evolved within it, all while looking over their shoulders at one another, are told in Joseph Dorman's documentary, "Arguing the World." The film opens Jan. 7 at the Film Forum, 19 stops south on the IRT Broadway local from their alma mater.

All four men were the products of a vanished intellectual era in New York, a time when ideas were debated ferociously, when politics was more than a spectator sport, when what happened in Madrid, Spain, or Moscow reverberated around Union Square and the Upper West Side.

Their careers encompassed and were shaped by the epochal events of their generation: World War II, the McCarthy era, the student protests of the 1960s, Vietnam, the Reagan era. Three of them evolved from fringe leftists to centrist or right-wing figures; through their scholarly work and in magazines like The New Leader, Commentary, Dissent and The Public Interest, all remained vitally interested in what governments can and cannot do, should and should not be.

Fellow film buffs warned Dorman that most documentaries about ideas are deadly. Even Howe, who died in 1993, had his doubts. "How could a film about us possibly be of any interest to anyone?" he asked during the shooting. Watching these men at their word processors is, in fact, not very exciting, but recalling their intellectual interactions with one another and what was happening around them -- how their theories coincided or collided with reality -- is. So is the novelty of their bygone world, along with their intelligence, charm and occasional contrition.

"There were so many ideas to cover that the film constantly threatened to fly out of control," said Dorman, who has produced several previous documentaries for public television. The welfare state, Marxism and Stalinism, and the useful and destructive forms of social action were the leitmotifs of their lives.

"Arguing the World" opens with newsreel clips from City College circa 1936. Against the backdrop of the school's familiar Gothic castles (fabricated, appropriately enough, from schist dug up during the construction of the nearby subway) are hoards of earnest-looking, dark-haired and bespectacled young men in jackets and ties milling, laughing, talking, eating, hamming it up, waving banners.

"Schools, Not Battleships," states one. "Down With Imperialist War," proclaims another. On the soundtrack is the simulated hum of intense conversation plus nerve-jangling modernist music signaling what Howe described as the "atmosphere of perfervid, overly heated, overly excited intellectuality" that then characterized the campus.

For the most part, education at City College took place not in class but in the cafeteria, more specifically in particular corners of the cafeteria, where students, self-divided by ethnicity and politics, ate brown-bag lunches and argued endlessly about politics and everything else.

"It became a kind of heder," said Bell, referring to Jewish religious schools built around disputation. Shaped by poverty and economic calamity, hungering to escape their claustrophobic ghettos but retaining Jewish notions of justice, having little sense of themselves as Americans, the four young men were drawn to left-wing ideology. They were divided only over whose Marxist vision held out the prospect of the most glorious future.

Some, including the four men portrayed in the film, frequented what was known as Alcove 1, the domain of radical leftists disillusioned with Stalin's Soviet Union: Trotskyists, Lovestonites, socialists.

The far more heavily populated Alcove 2 next door belonged to card-carrying Communists and fellow travelers.

"Someone made the wisecrack that the only place where the fight between Stalin and Trotsky could be conducted freely was in New York City," recalled Howe.

In fact, the two groups loathed each other and rarely interacted; the divide was literary as well as political.

"We prided ourselves on reading Joyce and Thomas Mann and Proust -- maybe not completely, but at least dipping in -- whereas they were reading palookas like Howard Fast," Howe said.

World War II made such distinctions irrelevant, at least for a time. It also helped transform all of the men into Americans, which in turn helped transform their ideas and politics. Two of them, Howe and Kristol, became soldiers, exposing them to the world beyond the five boroughs.

"I was a New York Jewish kid," Kristol recalled. "I didn't know anything about America. I didn't know anything about most ordinary people."

They, along with Bell and Glazer, saw a new side of the United States. A country that fought Fascism was one to which they could truly belong.

The process of assimilation only accelerated after the war, when they began to enjoy the fruits of American capitalism. Suddenly, miraculously (at least to him), Kristol could afford to own a car, get married and move into Manhattan ("The City," as it was then known) rather than live with his in-laws. Of the four, only Howe remained an unreconstructed leftist. The others moved right, particularly as the Soviets occupied Eastern Europe and more about Stalin's atrocities became known.

Their thoughts, bandied about in the soirees of Partisan Review, were lofty, but they sometimes involved tough choices and tougher consequences.

During the McCarthy era, when political demagogues and opportunists championed a more primitive version of the anti-Communism that they now espoused, Kristol, Bell and Glazer were forced to weigh competing principles: their hatred and fear of Soviet Communism and their professed civil libertarianism. More often than not, the former concerns prevailed. They said little when fellow leftists lost their jobs, fled the country or worse.

Nearly 50 years later, Kristol, still convinced that these leftists merely paid the price for their naivete, is unapologetic. "I referred to (McCarthy) as a vulgar demagogue," he said. "I thought that was enough."

Bell contends that when congressional investigators asked the writers, artists and academics they had summoned before them whether they had ever been Communists, they should have fessed up rather than fudged.

For Glazer, it isn't so easy. Throughout "Arguing the World" he is an ebullient spirit, laughing easily amid his memories. But asked about the McCarthy era, he pauses, shakes his head slowly and bites his lower lip.

"Even at the time and also in retrospect, we never managed to figure out a good position, one that was respectable and moral and responsive to all the complicated issues raised," he says in an affecting moment. "I still don't think we have one."

Former radicals are forever being faulted for selling out, for abandoning their principles, for ceasing to remain radical enough. That is what Howe, in the mid-1950s, accused his colleagues of doing, forsaking their principles for an uncritical patriotism and conformity.

"I lived in the same building with Irving Howe; talk about conformism," countered Kristol, whose omnipresent cigarette seems as dated as his one-time Marxism. "What was I conforming to? To what? I could never get an answer to that question."

In fact, in their time and place, these men may never have been very radical at all. Among the Jewish students at City College in the 1930s, Republicans were rarer than passenger pigeons, and Karl Marx would have gotten far more votes than Alf Landon or Wendell Willkie. Rarely did these men venture beyond the world of ideas. Their notion of direct action seems to have consisted of cutting class. When they took to the streets, it was usually to head to a bookstore.

Barely 20 years later, immersed in their cerebral lives, seeing universities as sacred sanctuaries, strikingly forgetful of their own romantic student days, they had little tolerance for the more strident protests of the next generation.

As moderate as the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, Calif., came to seem (its leaders wore coats and ties to protests and did Israeli folk dancing while occupying the school's administration building) and as legitimate as its grievances were (until then, political protests on campus had been banned), Glazer, then a member of the Berkeley faculty, still condemns what he called their "enthusiastic and euphoric rejection of forms and norms."

To Jackie Goldberg, then a student activist, now a member of the Los Angeles City Council, Glazer and his ilk were control freaks. "The liberalism they espoused was an armchair intellectual liberalism," she told Dorman. To them, "protesting" was sending a letter to a congressman.

A few years later, Bell, teaching at Columbia, tried to negotiate with the students who had shut down the university. When that failed and the police came in, he walked home to Riverside Drive -- and cried.

Howe, editor of Dissent, remained spiritually closest to the new crop of protesters. But a summit meeting off Central Park West between Dissent editors and the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society, led by Tom Hayden, proved disastrous.

"They didn't appear to be doing anything," Hayden recalls.

To Howe, meanwhile, Hayden conjured up the very figure he'd most loathed. "We could see the commissar in him, and that put us off," he says.

In The Public Interest and in their own academic work, Glazer, Bell and Kristol outlined their skepticism about the Great Society and liberal government in general. But still resolved to make a flawed philosophy work better, Glazer and Bell speak with sadness in the film; Kristol, who was a member of the Young People's Socialist League, speaks with glee.

In the end, Glazer and Bell remained Democrats; Kristol enlisted with Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, championed the religious right, condemned liberalism and embraced the free market. To his critics, he had come full circle, abandoning one orthodoxy for another.

"The fact that we were together 50 years ago doesn't stir the faintest touch of sentiment in me," Howe said of Kristol. "I wish him well personally -- a long life with many political failures, I hope."

For his part, Kristol boasts of never having read Dissent. "It didn't exist on my horizon," he said. But as Dorman spoke to him, he spotted Howe's "World of Our Fathers" on Kristol's bookshelf.

The intellectual and emotional crosscurrents between the four men are deep and complex. That no two of them are ever seen together in the film is, one suspects, not simply a matter of logistics.

And yet for all their philosophical differences, for all their great successes, there is a kind of wistfulness in reflecting on this lost era. Even when he chastises Kristol, Howe has an impish, almost affectionate grin. The very evident enjoyment with which all the men recall their lives among "New York intellectuals," betrays how much they all shared, how much the world they loved has largely disappeared, how sorely they miss it. And how nothing seems poised to take its place.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/ccny-alcove.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:42 EDT