The BOOKPRESS September 1998

Radical Trajectories


Edward T. Chase

 
An unlikely, even astonishing achievement in creative film making this year, is Joseph Dorman's documentary, Arguing the World. In 107 minutes, the film covers the history of four central figures of the "New York intellectuals," from their 1930s student days into the 1980s. By doing so, it is a gloss of key political-ideological developments and ideas that have shaped the 20th century. The protagonists are Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and the late Irving Howe. Essentially a series of verbal portraits depicting the evolution of these four men in their own words, interspersed with historic newsreel shots and some priceless period footage, the film has real narrative momentum, much wit, incisive commentary, emotional vibrancy, and even an effective musical accompaniment.

As William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, put it, "These men believed that if their radicalism was to be desirable and fulfilling, their thinking, their arguing, must reflect the furthest reaches and the most profound forms of modern consciousness." Morris Dickstein makes a telling remark that characterizes the general evolution in their viewpoint, namely that, in the postwar years, the New York intellectuals became deradicalized. "In a way, the anti-communism of the New York intellectuals was prophetic of the direction that the entire country took after the war."

The film's basic point of departure is the "argument" over Karl Marx's theory of capitalism and the socialist ideal, these students' original inspiration. At City College, the anti-Stalinist Trotskyists were congregated in luncheon alcove #1, the Stalinists in alcove #2, the two camps being hostile and virtually incommunicado then and ever after. As they matured, their radical allegiances changed. Irving Howe stayed devoted to the socialist ideal, a democratic socialist to the end; Irving Kristol became the founding neo-conservative; Bell an anti-communist liberal ("cultural conservative, political liberal, a socialist in economics"); Glazer, never a Trotskyist, a middle-of-the-road liberal, typified by his ambivalent attitude toward affirmative action, for years "con," today "pro." Beside their incisive political commentary, they share wit, often self-deprecatory, always sharp. Relentlessly, the film moves on to the climactic episodes of the infamous 1936 Moscow show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the McCarthy hearings, the Vietnam War and the student riots of the 1960s, and the momentous breakup between Kristol and his neoconservatives, on the one hand, and Bell, Howe, Glazer and the liberals and social-democrats on the other.

Here is the consistently amusing Irving Kristol: "Ever since I can remember, I've been a neo-something, a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, a neo-conservative, in religion always a neo-Orthodox, even while I was a neo-Trotskyist and a neo-Marxist. I'm going to end up a neo. Just neo, that's all. Neo dash nothing."

Here is Dan Bell: When he had his bar mitzvah he said to the rabbi, "I've found the truth. I don't believe in God.... I'm joining the Young People's Socialist League. So he looked at me and he said, 'Kid, you know you've found the truth. You don't believe in God.' He says, 'Tell me, you think God cares?' Well, I was so angry at that."

Irving Howe: "A good street corner preacher could go on for three-quarters of an hour. I rarely lasted more than twenty minutes, even if that long. I had a certain gift. I could lose an audience in about three minutes."

Kristol: "Like most young people with some political consciousness in the 1930s, I assumed the world was coming to an end, and there would be no point in preparing oneself a profession. I knew absolutely nothing about City College. All I knew was that it was free."

Howe: "The Stalinists were middle brow, the Trotskyists were high brow, because they thought in the kind of terms that you had when Partisan Review started coming out, the union of two avant gardes, a political avant garde and a cultural avant garde. 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."

Lionel Abel: "He [Trotsky] had a literary verve, which was unmistakable. He was a great journalist, and the intellectual power of his criticism of the Stalin regime, most of which has been . . . is accepted nowadays as justified that he was right. But we didn't know he was right, we knew he was interesting. And, in a way, if you lived in the Village, what was interesting was right. Certainly, the uninteresting was wrong. I'm not willing to altogether give that up, even today."

Kristol: "My major memory of a dinner party, I got a plate full of food, and there was a couch, and so I walked over and sat down in the middle of the couch, not knowing who was going to join me, not really much caring. Well, what happened was that Mary McCarthy sat down on one side of me, Hannah Arendt sat down on the other side of me, and then Diana Trilling pulled up a chair and sat facing me, and I was a prisoner. I couldn't get out. And they then had a long, hour-and-a-half discussion on Freud, in which they disagreed, and I don't remember what the disagreements were. All I know is I sat there, quiet and terror-stricken."

The momentum of Arguing the World increases till the very end, with the death of Irving Howe. He and Daniel Bell are the stars of the film for this reviewer. The Jewish-immigrant world of New York is the starting point, with historic turn-of-the-century shots of bustling city slums. Each of the four protagonists tours his original home location in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and in the Bronx. Then the scene is their student days at City College-"The basic memory was tussles with the other radical students," Bell recollects. "At City College there was an atmosphere of perfervid, overly heated, overly excited intellectuality," comments Howe.

The opening crisis, the debate that established their intellectual framework, was over Russia's socialist "experiment," Trotsky versus Lenin and Stalin. Nathan Glazer, the youngster of the four, was a left-wing Zionist, joining Kristol, Howe and Bell in the anti-Stalinist alcove #1 at City College. The 1936 Moscow trials, featuring ludicrous accusations of foreign espionage, and equally ludicrous confessions, followed by execution, deepened their conviction that Stalin was a murderous dictator, that "tyranny arose out of the movement which was supposed to bring social justice to the world."

As the cast ages, the advent of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his congressional inquisition of communism is a central feature in the film. Bell remarks critically of McCarthy's left-wing victims, "Instead of saying 'We are communists, we have a right to be communists, we defy you, these are our ideas, you're trying to destroy us,' they didn't. They fudged. They took the Fifth Amendment or denied." He goes on to say the Communist Party and McCarthyites "both played each other's game, and the liberals were being caught between them."

About this time, Kristol and Howe, who at the time lived in the same apartment building, split decisively. Kristol expressed indifference to Howe's dissent, while Howe's thinking evolved to the point that "political struggle would become no longer between democratic capitalism and communist totalitarianism, but will now be a struggle between conservatism-Thatcherite conservatism or Reaganite or Kristolite conservativism-on the one hand, and social democracy on the other."

Kristol felt "expelled" by Howe; Howe simply states, "I made a big mistake with Irving Kristol and that was recruiting him to begin. He wasn't the . . . let's say good material, but he wasn't 'expelled' ever." A striking moment occurs in the film when Diana Trilling recalls, quite devastatingly, "Just before we [she and Lionel] went to Europe in 1972, Gertrude Himmelfarb, who was Mrs. Irving Kristol as you know, phoned to ask whether we would give our names to an ad in the New York Times for Nixon. I had much criticism of McGovern, but I wouldn't dream of giving my name to, for, Nixon, and neither would Lionel." This was the "Democrats for Nixon" movement, the very start of the neo-conservative movement, she avers, leading to Republican political victories in the White House.

Close lifetime friends and colleagues though they were, Bell split with Kristol also. Bell remarks that Kristol wrote, in The National Interest, that, "'For me, the Cold War is not over. To me it's a war against liberalism.' And I blink. I say, 'Well, you know, I can be critical of liberalism, but a war against liberalism? Why?' Well, liberalism is responsible for the moral decay of the country. Well, this I find quite wrong. If there's a sense of decay, it's been in the ethics of so much, not all, but so much of those business corporations, and the way in which they've simply lived lives of total luxury and spoilation, not a word of condemnation of this. So moral decay is always the poor blacks, homosexuals, others, as a form of family values, and nothing on the other side."

Irving Howe's comment brought a laugh from the audience at the showings I attended: "I look upon him [Kristol] as a political opponent and the fact we were together doesn't stir the faintest touch of sentiment in me. I wish him well personally, lead a long life with many political failures."

Michael Walzer, the current editor of Dissent, goes to the heart of the neo-conservative position when he remarks, "It seems to me that increasingly the neo-conservatives were in the grip of an ideology, and the ideology was the ideology of the free market, and they seemed to me to be Bolsheviks in the way they adopted and defended and promoted this ideology . "

Arguing the World is illuminating also in clarifying the "New York intellectuals'" relations with the student radicals of the 1960s. In 1968, student anger over the Vietnam War erupted on college campuses. Radicals attacked Columbia University, where Bell had been a faculty member for a decade. As Irving Howe put it, "We felt very strongly that by 1968 or so, the New Left people were not engaged in intellectual discussion or debate or political struggle with us; they were out to destroy our bona fides. They were out to deny that we had a right, so to speak, to exist, and this was one of the ways in which the idea of confrontation took place." Bell found negotiation with the takeover-radicals at Columbia impossible. He felt the great universities were the essential institutions for free debate and were complex and fragile. He tells that when police were called in at Columbia, he was with Lionel Trilling, came home at two a.m. and "burst into tears." He felt Columbia was all but destroyed, the faculty torn apart. He left for Harvard.

Both Bell and Howe found radical leader Tom Hayden off-putting, with a "very strong authoritarian, manipulative streak. We could see the commissar in him, and that put us off." Bell noted Hayden had been called "the Richard Nixon of the Left," and Bell agreed. He remarks here that, "Liberalism has no fixed dogmas. It has no fixed points; you say, 'this is the liberal position.' It changed because it's an attitude. It's a skepticism. It's a pluralism. It's agnostic." Howe says here, "To me, socialism is no longer a dogma or an ideology, but it's a vision, a hope, an expectation, for a world in which there will be greater equality, common ownership of major industries by people who work in industries, a gradual transformation from the ethic of accumulation and me-ism."

In his "defense" of the charge he had become a "champion of the growing political participation of the religious right," Kristol states, "The notion that a purely secular society can cope with all of the terrible pathologies that now affect our society, I think, has turned out to be false, and that is making me culturally conservative. I mean, I really think religion has a role now to play in redeeming the country, and liberalism is not prepared to give religion a role. Conservatism is, but it doesn't know how to do it."

Some useful criticism of Arguing the World has emerged. Bell and others have agreed with me that Sidney Hook was neglected. He was a potent voice on the very matters that engaged the New York intellectuals. Ellen Willis felt women were somewhat slighted, but Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Diana Trilling are quoted and are seen as "writers," not "women." Stewart Kalman was negative in The Nation. Bell himself, most omnivorous of readers, regretted the lack of detailed references to Stalin's campaign against the Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. Senator McCarthy's hearings at the time diverted attention from these crimes: the execution of Russian Jewish writers David Bergelson, Peretz Markish and several others; the staged murder of Jewish anti-Fascist Solomon Micheols; the purge trial of Slansky; the so-called "doctors plot," where sixteen Jewish doctors were condemned for an alleged poison plot against the Politburo.

Ann Douglas, in Raritan, doesn't deal with the film but slights the achievements of its cast. While conceding they were often, like Trilling, "geniuses," she echoes Dwight Macdonald's charge of insufficient "disinterestedness" but she criticizes Macdonald as a "leader in the group's reactionary charge against American mass culture" (italics mine). She feels they simply didn't get it. She excoriates Alfred Kazin and champions C. Wright Mills over all the intellectuals of that time.

Godfrey Cheshire, in the New York Press (1/7-13/98), writes perceptively on Arguing the World. He poses the question of why the ascent and prominence from the 1930s till the 1980s of "members of one new and very marginal immigrant subgroup became so central to the cultural and political life of a nation to which they were, at first, profoundly and almost belligerently alien?" He points out that another, later group of European Jewish refugees, immigrants or their children went on to become a potent cultural force in Hollywood, "an empire of their own," in the title of Neal Gabler's celebrated book. He credits Bell, Howe, Glazer and Kristol, et al. with likewise building "a principality of remarkable power and cohesiveness within, and having an ever-increasing impact on, America's intellectual realm." Well said.

The film has only been shown for short runs in a few cities and at selected places like the Film Forum and the Century Club in New York City. But it will be shown on national Public TV in April 1999, and doubtless shown in numerous venues in the coming months as word of its excellence gets around.

Most of the movie critics' comments so far are a good omen for the film's reception as it reaches a national audience.

"This fascinating film, whose lean, information-packed narrative doesn't waste a word, succeeds in compiling sharp, concise portraits of its subjects. The movie offers one of the deepest portraits ever filmed of the fluidity of ideas, as good minds grapple with the cataclysms of history and the human condition and have the temerity to keep searching for answers" (New York Times, January 18, 1998).

"It's all very moving and illuminating" (The New Yorker, January 12, 1998).

"Arguing the World captures it all with precision, humor, even a touch of emotion. In significant part, this is attributable to each of the four explaining the twists and turns of his own thinking over the past half century in a way that illuminates the usually little understood essential differences among them. In part, too, it is because of the useful running commentary provided by a host of involved contemporaries and later observers (including Morris Dickstein, Diana Trilling, Lionel Abel, Michael Walzer, and William L. O'Neill), plus the deft use of old photographs and newsreel footage" (The New Leader, December 29, 1997-January 12, 1998).

Edward T. Chase is the former editor-in-chief of New York Times Books and senior editor at Scribner.

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