Left History on-line review

Joseph Dorman, Arguing the World: The New York Intellectuals in their Own Words, (New York: The Free Press, 2000)
Readers in search of gossipy oral histories have an interesting choice: they can either pick up The Beatles Anthology, a hefty volume which tells the story of the rise and break-up of the fab four in their own words or the much slimmer Arguing the World which performs the same service for a group of septuagenarian New York intellectuals who spent their lives in esoteric debates about Marxism and modernism. This might be a minority opinion but I for one opted to read Arguing the World.

As with the Beatles in their heyday, the New York intellectuals come with extensive media tie-ins. The book is in fact a spin-off of Joseph Dorman's 1998 documentary of the same name, now available on video. Like his documentary, Dorman's book focuses on the intersecting life stories of four men: Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer. All four were born to poor immigrant Jewish families in New York in the years immediately following the First World War. Growing up at the bottom rung of Depression America, they were quickly radicalized, often before going to college. (At age 13, Bell proclaimed the socialist gospel on an actual, not proverbial, soapbox.) Despite being attracted to socialism, they learned early to distrust the underhanded behaviour of the American Communist party. Their radicalism, therefore, had an anti-Stalinist edge, leading them to support the great dissident communist leader Leon Trotsky, at the time living in exile in Mexico.

Given the anti-Semitic quotas and high tuitions of Ivy League universities, the four men ended up being educated at City College in New York, which was close to home and free. Here they battled against both the obtusely reactionary administration (which invited fascist speakers in the late 1930s) and many of their fellow student radicals (who tended to be in the orbit of the Communist Party). The feverish political atmosphere allowed the four men to hone their debating skills. Their education was furthered by contact with the older generation of writers associated with Partisan Review, a magazine that combined Trotskyist politics with high literary standards. Of course, Trotsky was a difficult master to follow. William Phillips, editor of Partisan Review, recalls an argument between Trotsky and one of the magazine's staff: "Trotsky turned viciously against Dwight Macdonald . He said everybody had a democratic write to be stupid but Dwight Macdonald abuses the privilege! The sequel to the story is that some people came around raising funds for Trotsky and they rang Dwight Macdonald's doorbell and asked him to contribute to Trotsky. Macdonald said, 'Tell Trotsky to go fuck himself!'"

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a quick succession of shocking events transformed the New York intellectuals from being anti-Stalinists into hard-line anti-Communists: the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, followed closely by the Soviet invasion of Finland and the assassination of Trotsky. The dream of revolutionary socialism had turned into a nightmare, forcing the New York intellectuals to rethink their politics.

Howe and Bell remained socialists, but of a democratic variety, distrustful of the elitist Leninism that led the Soviet Union to ruin. Glazer became a moderate conservative, skeptical of ideology and wavering between left and right on a host of issues. Kristol underwent the most dramatic change - initially he became a reformed liberal, but then kept moving to the right. By the early 1970s, he was the leading U.S. neo-conservative thinker, much admired by politicians such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich. (A photo from the early 1980s shows Kristol chatting amiably with George F. Will, Lee Iacocca and Reagan. Kristol's former hero Trotsky is nowhere in sight).

Even after leaving behind their youthful radicalism, the New York intellectuals kept arguing with each other and with the world. They were all anti-communists, but they disagreed about the best way to fight the Soviet Union. Kristol even flirted with McCarthyism - offering, in the words of Howe "a kind of backhanded apology" for the anti-communist demagogue. Glazer, always a bit of a fence-sitter, moved back and forth on the execution of the Rosenbergs.

The rise of the New Left in the 1960s provided more issues to argue. Howe tried to win over student radicals to his brand of democratic socialism. Unfortunately, his prospective converts thought socialism was too sober and "boring" an ideology for a world that offered LSD, the Black Panthers and Jimi Hendrix. Forgetting their own past, Kristol and Glazer were especially horrified by the excesses of these students and moved further to the right. Kristol came to believe that hippies were created by a spiritual vacuum. Thus, he became an outspoken advocate of using religious orthodoxy as a tool of social control and allied himself with Christian conservatives (despite the nebulous nature of his own religious beliefs). Kristol is surprisingly indifferent to the anti-Semitism of some of his right-wing allies, notably Richard Nixon and the Reverend Pat Robertson.

About his journey from Trotsky to Reagan (and beyond), Kristol says, "Ever since I can remember, I've been a neo-something: a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, a neo-conservative I'm going to end up a neo. Just neo, that's all. Neo-dash-nothing."

Arguing the World is a well-crafted book, where the interviews are neatly arranged to tell a coherent story. As such, it does work as a Beatles Anthology for intellectual groupies. (The Beatles book brings together comments by Paul, George and Ringo, along with the spliced-in voice of the late John Lennon. Arguing the World gives us Glazer, Kristol and Bell along with the spliced-in voice of the late Irving Howe, who died in 1993).

Oddly, the book is less satisfying than the original documentary, a rare case of film being intellectually more effective than prose. In the documentary, Kristol is quoted as saying that he finds Howe's magazine Dissent to be "utterly irrelevant." Then the camera pans over to show us one of Howe's books on Kristol's shelves. The book version lacks this piquant detail, just as it lacks the ironic inflection we hear in these intellectuals' voices when their lives.

Arguing the World is a splendid documentary in part because there are so few other films that deal well with intellectual battle. The book, by contrast, has to be compared unfavourably to the many l volumes written by and about the New York intellectuals. In particular, Howe's superb memoir A Margin of Hope (1982) stands out for its retrospective honesty: unlike his glib neo-conservative peers Howe was unwilling to forget the historical events that drew him into radical politics. Also noteworthy as a guide to the shifting politics of the group is Alan Wald's The New York Intellectuals (1986), a volume memorable for its sharp political insights.

Unlike these more critical books, Arguing the World glides over the weaknesses of the New York intellectuals. For example, it has long been clear that their single-minded obsession with communism made the New York intellectuals blind to the struggles for sexual and racial equality. As the late literary critic Diane Trilling recalled, "Unless a man in the intellectual community was bent on sexual conquest, he was never interested in women ... They always wanted to huddle in the corner and talk." This comment is recorded by Dorman but not followed up on.

In general, Arguing the World is closer to fan magazine gush than a hard-hitting unauthorized biography. However, a fan can never get enough of what they love. Just as the Beatles Anthology is a must-have item for lovers of the sixties sound, devotees of the New York intellectuals will enjoy this latest entry into a crowded field.

Reviewed by Jeet Heer, co-editor, Left History


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