The New York intellectuals, the rise and decline of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s to the 1980s.
by Alan Wald. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. 440 pp. $12.95.
1. by Paul Le Blanc
Long ago, in the 1960s, Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote these perceptive comments about that most ambiguous literary figure George Orwell: "His effect on the English left might be compared to that of Voltaire on the French nobility: he weakened their belief in their own ideology, made them ashamed of their cliches, left them intellectually more scrupulous and more defenceless.' (Writers and Politics, 1967, pp. 32-33) Something akin to this role was played by O'Brien himself--along with Noam Chomsky, Christopher Lasch, and others whose work appeared in the then left-leaning New York Review of Books--in regard to the Cold War anticommunist intellectuals who dominated our culture. The new political critics were helped by the winds of radicalization generated by the civil rights movement and the protests against U.S. aggression in Vietnam. What they did was important.
Times have changed. The New York Review of Books has become far less radical and interesting, as has O'Brien himself. A "neoconservative' counterattack tipped intellectual discourse rightward. Left-wing forces seem in disarray, without a clear vision of how to proceed, and have suffered defections to liberalism, neo-liberalism, and Reaganism. Yet capitalism remains, imperialism remains, and thus the need to struggle for a socialist alternative also remains. Particularly important, as we prepare to move forward, is a renewal of the incisive assault on anticommunist ideology. Monthly Review made a major contribution to this in distributing The Uses of Anti-Communism (Socialist Register 1984, Merlin Press) edited by Miliband, Saville, and Liebman. Another such contribution is The New York Intellectuals, by Alan Wald, Professor of English Literature and American Culture at the University of Michigan.
This important, provocative book is destined to be attacked by many of the most articulate defenders of the status quo. That is as it should be, and hopefully it will create a broader readership for a thoughtful Marxist study of intellectuals who have bulked large in the cultural and political life of our country.
Here is a partial list of the people discussed in The New York Intellectuals: Lionel Abel, Hannah Arendt, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, James Burnham, Elliot Cohen, Lewis Coser, Midge Decter, F.W. Dupee, Max Eastman, James T. Farrell, Leslie Fiedler, Clement Greenberg, Louis Hacker, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Harold Isaacs, Alfred Kazin, Hilton Kramer, Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, Eugene Lyons, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, John McDonald, C. Wright Mills, William Phillips, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Selznick, Herbert Solow, Ben Stolberg, Harvey Swados, Diana Trilling, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson.
These prolific academics, artists, writers, and critics have been among the foremost figures in the U.S. intelligentsia over the past four decades. They include people who have helped set the tone for a diverse range of influential, opinion-making publications: Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, the New Leader, National Review, the New York Review of Books, as well as Time, Life, Fortune, Business Week, even the New York Times and Readers Digest. One of the few things these publications have in common is that they are all hostile to revolutionary socialism. Yet with few exceptions, the people listed above were associated with an ostensibly revolutionary "anti-Stalinist left' in the 1930s, in some cases well into the 1940s. Even those who personally had not been involved in revolutionary politics absorbed the sensibilities of those who had. "Today's younger generation of intellectuals,' wrote Harold Rosenberg in 1965, "consists of the late arrivals to the generation that made its appearance as American "Marxists' and which has lived its entire life with Marxism (including, of course, anti-Marxism) as its central theme and interest. Without Marxism this generation is not only dull--it is nothing. It does not exist.' (p. 3) But its Marxism tended to be of a particular kind.
Wald notes that, "simply put, without Trotskyism there would never have appeared an anti-Stalinist left among intellectuals in the mid-1930s.' There was, of course, the anticommunism of mainstream liberals and conservatives, but this had minimal intellectual attraction when capitalism was in shambles during the Depression decade. The Stalinist politics of the Communist Party--which pointed to "a future that works' in the USSR--did exert a considerable influence among intellectuals, but many of the more perceptive came to see it as an authoritarian and nonrevolutionary movement. There was also the pale social-democratic radicalism of the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Federation, but "Trotskyism made it possible for these rebellious intellectuals to declare themselves on the side of the revolution (as opposed to the side of the social democrats who had just then succumbed to the Nazis without resistance), and yet also to denounce Stalin from the left as the archbetrayer of Lenin's heritage.' (p. 6) Not all of them were actually Trotskyists, but their initial contributions came out of a left-wing subculture in which the Marxism that Trotsky represented was a vibrant component. These early contributions, whatever their limitations, were exciting and showed great promise. They contained elements which could have enriched American Marxism and advanced the struggle for socialism
Almost without exception, however, these revolutionary-minded intellectuals were dislodged from their Marxist orientation. There were the pressures of the Second World War, generating support for a capitalist war effort in which imperialism donned anti-fascist garments; soon after, there was the high tide of Cold War anticommunism, in which opposition to Stalinist totalitarianism became a justification for imperialist aggression and witch hunts at home. The prosperity and economic opportunities of the post-Second World War period also made the socialist vision seem considerably less compelling to many upwardly mobile ex-revolutionaries. Some went much further in reneging on previous commitments than did others. But Wald sums up the trajectory of most in this manner:
The behavior of the New York intellectuals is suspect because of the hastiness with which Marxism was entirely abandoned in the absence of a viable alternative theory of society; the falsification of past history so as to erase the revolutionary anti-Stalinist tradition; the blind spot exhibited in regard to U.S. imperialism; the dissipation of militant anger against domestic racism and class exploitation; and the gross insensitivity to the costs of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. Moreover, there is a direct line of continuity between many of the New York intellectuals engaged in the [C.I.A.-funded] American Committee for Cultural Freedom and subsequent right-wing developments culminating in the neoconservative campaign of the 1970s agaisnt affirmative action and feminism, coupled with a new cultural elitism and a foreign policy somewhat to the right of Ronald Reagan. These are aspects of the New York intellectuals' behavior in the 1950s that give credibility to Rahv's charge that the liberal anticommunism of the time was the ideological rationale for embourgeoisement. (pp. 309-310)
Wald's book focuses on those who came out of the anti-Stalinist milieu of the 1930s, as opposed to those who became disillusioned with the symbol and politics of Stalin in later decades. Within this self-imposed limitation, he provides an account unequalled in its thoroughness and critical edge. It draws on innumerable interviews, vast correspondence, the internal bulletins of left-wing groups, aging articles and pamphlets and books, more recent memois and secondary studies, as well as illuminating fictional works by James T. Farrell, Mary McCarthy, Tess Slesinger, and others. What's more, he deeply cares about the story he tells, and he clearly wants it to strengthen a "Marxist political practice' which preserves what largely evaporated in the outlook of those under study: "a rigorously internationalist perspective; an uncompromising revolutionary vision of social transformation; activist affiliation with authentic counterinstitutions; and a determination to view the world from the standpoint of the oppressed groups in society.' (p. 373) The questions he grapples with continue to be alive in our own time, as many 1960s radicals shift rightward during "the big chill' of the 80s--most notorious being such figures as David Horowitz, Ronald Radosh, and Susan Sontag, whose stories Wald also tells.
Wald's book is also important because it tells the stories of some who didn't go along with the reactionary drift--those who sharply rejected "neo-conservatism' (Coser, Howe, Kazin), those who partially returned to previous radicalism (Dupee, Macdonald, McCarthy, Rahv, Selznick, Wilson), and those lonely few who were partially successful in holding onto a critical-minded radical orientation throughout (Mills, Swados). More than this, he tells at least some of the story of those who remained revolutionary socialists-- particularly the Trotskyists who "managed to chart an honorable course through the difficult World War II and Cold War years avoiding the Scyllas of Stalinism and the Charybdis of imperialism better than any other American radical group of its time.' (p. 309) While many readers will not share Wald's Trotskyist predilections, his own dual rejection of Stalinism and U.S. imperialism--and his quest for a Marxist alternative to both--is compelling. His exploration of the degeneration of many who had similar inclinations is therefore bound to be of absorbing interest for those grappling with a similar problematic. It is a serious contribution for all who are concerned with the history and future of American socialism.
Yet the book has weaknesses. While Wald brings a keenly critical intelligence to his work which leaves no one entirely unscathed, he is sometimes too accepting of appearances. For example, he seems to take the early revolutionary pronouncements of the various intellectuals at face value. One can wonder to what extent this is valid if we compare them with a very different list of European revolutionaries: Marx and Engels, the young Plekhanov, Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, Karl Liebknecht, Lenin and Trotsky and Bukharin, Christian Rakovsky, Alexandra Kollontai, David Riazanov, Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs, etc. These were people who--whatever their limitations and mistakes--committed what Lenin once called "the whole of their lives' to the struggles of the working class and the socialist cause. There was a durability, a consistency, a harmony of thought and action. Even those who ultimately found themselves in one or another dead end would, at the end of their lives, be able to define themselves according to their early commitments. A comparison of such revolutionary intellectuals with most of the people Wald discusses raises questions worth pondering.
Take the example of Sidney Hook. He grew up in a Jewish immigrant working-class neighborhood in New York, influenced by the grass-roots socialist movement led by Eugene V. Debs and Morris Hillquit. He debated Marxism with his high school teachers, was active in a Communist youth group in 1919-23, helped translate Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1927 (the same year he got his Ph.D. from Columbia University), and in the following year went to Germany and then to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow to advance his studies. In 1933 he broke with the Communist Party after the publication of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, A Revolutionary Interpretation, a clear, sophisticated, stimulating (if problematical) book which, as Wald notes, "should be recognized as a breakthrough in the development of Marxism in the United States.' (p. 127) If writing such things today, the young Sidney Hook would probably be publishing in Monthly Review. To his credit, he became a leader of the short-lived American Workers Party, whose central figure was A.J. Muste. In 1934-35 Hook was one of the prime movers in facilitating a merger of the AWP with the Trotskyists' Communist League of America. In his memoris Out of Step (1986, p. 202) he gave various reasons for wanting the merger and then added: "These were good reasons, but the real cause of my desire to see the organizational marriage was my resolution to drop out of political activity.'
This was on the heels of the Minneapolis and Toledo general strikes led by the Trotskyists and Musteites respectively, and on the eve of the rise of the CIO. Radicalism was spreading throughout the United States; and while fascism had recently triumphed in Germany, potentially revolutionary events were beginning to unfold in France and Spain. And as the Moscow purge trials would soon reconfirm, this was a time when it was particularly important to develop a revolutionary Marxist force that was unstained by Stalinism. While talking and writing of such things, even in 1935 Sidney Hook had other priorities. It was certainly his right to concentrate more of his energies in this momentous period on advancing his career in academe (he was about to assume the chairmanship of the Philosophy Department at New York University)--but this suggests that he was made of different stuff than the revolutionary intellectuals whose ideas he explained so glowingly in his books and articles of the period. Today, still claiming to be a "liberal socialist,' Hook is a supporter of Ronald Reagan. This appears to be wildly inconsistent with his resonantly proclaimed youthful ideals. But it flows logically enough from his own life-choices. As Marx and Engels noted, "we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive . . .. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.' Marx went on to explain that people tend to "produce . . . principles, ideas and categories in conformity with their social relations.' (Selsam and Martel, eds., Reader in Marxist Philosophy, 1963, pp. 190, 188) Marx and his authentic followers made a decisive break in their social relations. Hook did not. And he was one of the more serious ones!
More typical was Mary McCarthy's fictional "Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,' a bright young man caught up in the Trotskyist periphery. A pragmatist, he also "considered himself a Marxist, but he saw that the Marxists were never going to get anywhere until they stopped deluding themselves with theory.' Holding back from serious political commitments, "he believed that he was waiting for an issue big enough to take a stand on, but now all issues seemed flimsy, incapable of supporting his increasing weight. In a curious way, his ego had become both shrunken and enlarged; his sense of inadequacy had made him self-important.' Committed to a comfortable life style, his attempt to rationalize it could not "cover the abyss between theory and practice. He decided at last to let the abyss yawn, and in the course of time he fell into it.' (The Company She Keeps, 1970, pp. 241, 227, 175-176)
As Wald shows, some of these intellectuals--for example, Herbert Solow--did act, joining and playing a role in the organized Trotskyist movement. But few were to devote much time as activists before breaking away, often impatient with the insufficiently "revolutionary' qualities of the organization, sometimes indignant over one or another tactical disagreement, but also more often than not quickly abandoning revolutionary politics altogether. For example, by the late 1930s Herbert Solow was writing anticommunist exposes for the American Mercury, and by the 1940s he was the editor of Fortune magazine.
Not all of the people discussed in The New York Intellectuals fall into these categories, but many seem to. One of the most serious shortcomings of Wald's book is a failure to explore to what extent these intellectuals were actually involved with the labor movement and the workers' struggles of their own time. How much of their "revolutionary activity' was concentrated on writing and talking to other intellectuals? What was the nature of their involvement with radicalizing workers? The point is not to establish some kind of "proletarian' litmus test in order to verify if someone is "truly revolutionary.' (After all, the former dissident-Communist Jay Lovestone and his followers were immersed in trade-union activity yet ended up as reactionaries too.) The fact remains, however, that to understand what happened to the "anti-Stalinist left' from the 1930s to the 1980s, one must also understand what happened to the American working class, giving more attention than Wald does to the interrelationship between the two.
Alan Wald's valuable book doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but it does offer a wealth of information and ideas for those who are wrestling with the old question of "why is there no socialism in the United States'--and especially for those who hope to make the question obsolete.
II. by Annette Rubinstein
Reviewing an early novel by Melville, Hawthorne concluded: "It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a good deal better.' One is tempted to say the same thing about this fascinating and, in part, exasperating 480-page account of "The New York Intellectuals' by Alan Wald.
This book obviously represents an enormous amount of intelligent, meticulous research, voluminous thoughtful reading, resourceful exploration of long deceased periodicals, of ephemeral inner-party bulletins, correspondence, diaries, and unpublished manuscripts, as well as a fantastic number of personal interviews. Furthermore, all this is skillfully organized so that the reader is seldom drowned in detail, and balance is almost always maintained between individual case histories and the general line of development. Finally, while the author candidly emphasizes his admiration for Trotsky and his general agreement with Trotsky's positions, he gives as nontendentious an account of the "anti-Stalinist left' as in humanly possible. In fact he regretfully concludes (p. 311):
After all, in the face of the political repression--the first real test for the generation that came of age in the 1930s--most of the anti-Stalinists not only denuded themselves of past radicalism but developed sophisticated rationalizations for tolerating the essence if not the precise McCarthyite form of the witch-hunt. Responsibility for the bulk of the resistance among intellectuals, as well as for anti-racist and anti-imperialist political activity, was handed over to the Communists, fellow travelers, and progressive liberals. These women and men may have suffered persecution at the time, but they achieved near martyrdom in the eyes of the next generation of left-wing intellectuals. Ignorance on the part of the 1960s New Leftists was not the sole reason that apologists for Stalinism such a Lillian Hellman, Paul Robeson, and the Hollywood Ten were resurrected as moral beacons; their rehabilitation was the logical by-product of the dismal record of all but a few of the founders of the intellectual anti-Stalinist left.
What then in lacking in the book? Nothing, certainly, that it needs to make it an invaluable, remarkably readable, reference work for anyone interested in the individual careers of such "New York intellectuals' as Daniel Bell, James Burnham, Elliot Cohen, Max Eastman, James Farrell, Leslie Fiedler, Clement Greenberg, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, William Phillips, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Delmore Schwartz, Harvey Swados, Diana and Lionel Trilling, or in the development of such periodicals as Commentary and Partisan Review.
Yet, although it seems absurd to say so of a book with such chapter heads as "Dissident Communists,' "Revolutionary Intellectuals,' "The Moscow Trials,' "Cannonites and Schachtmanites,' "The Cul-de-Sac of Social Democracy,' and "The Bitter Fruits of Anti-Communism,' what is profoundly lacking is a sort of political awareness--or rather an awareness of political life, the political life of the American people.
It is not simply that the internal differences, theoretical and personal, within the various Trotskyist parties are treated as so significant that most readers will be startled to learn (on p. 300) that the national membership of the largest and longest-lived, the Socialist Workers Party, ranged from a low of 399 to a brief high of 1470. After all, Castro began with less than a tenth of the smaller number and probably neither the Mensheviks nor the Bolsheviks could count many more than ten times the larger. But there is no serious sense created, there is in act hardly any mention made, of the political activities which one would suppose were the raison d'etre of any radical party. There are a few cursory references to the remarkably successful teamster strike led by the Trotskyist Dunne brothers in 1934, but even that is mentioned only to explain how it strengthened one faction or another within the party. Otherwise public activities-- elections, petition campaigns, union organization, picket lines, all of which were often surprisingly substantial in terms of the party's membership--are completely ignored.
True, the specific activities of the intellectuals who are Wald's subject were writing and publishing, and these are treated in great detail. But until the beginning of the Second World War, which saw the "apostasy' of one intellectual after another, there is no awareness of any broader political world or its impact on the "New York intellectuals.' If they were indeed all unaffected by the hunger marches, evictions, sit-in strikes, militant union organization, WPA struggles, etc., certainly this negative, like "the incident of the dog in the night time,' is crucial and demands discussion.
It is of course also true that during the mid-thirties the comparatively large CPUSA (Communist Party of the United States) was genuinely influential, if not dominant, in almost every radical or left-liberal circle, so that any left opposition groups were virtually isolated and the temptation to use their dammed-up energy in a family fight must have been almost irresistible. It is not during boom times that partners are most likely to quarrel. But Wald, who can know the Thirties only at secondhand, and whose achievement is therefore all the more remarkable, does not seem even to consider what effect this isolation, necessary or self-imposed, had on the "anti-Stalinist left.' Such a consideration would certainly go far to explain the greater steadfastness of the non "anti-Stalinist' left on which he so ruefully remarks.
Unfortunately the terms in which he has cast the opposition also prevent Wald from dealing with, or even hinting at, any Communist Party activities other than those involved in being "apologists for Stalin' and enemies to his critics. It is not that he attacks or even judges the CP's relations with the non-Communist wold of unemployment, starving sharecroppers, vigilantes, lynchings, etc. It is that here, as with the Trotskyist and occasional other opposition parties, the world in which the radicals lived is virtually nonexistent, and its absence subtly distorts much of this otherwise admirable book.
This is particularly true in the first six chapters where even the leftward turn of one youthful intellectual after another is presented in more or less idealist terms. For one who lived through the period, this interpretation seems seriously to underemphasize the practical impact of the Depression on bright, ambitious, well-educated young men and women.
Happily Wald does not similarly underestimate the effect of the new postwar material conditions which offered such enormous rewards for a change of mind, or heart, to those now somewhat older young people. Nor does he oversimplify their process of self-serving rationalization, although he is perhaps overgenerous in accepting all distortions of history as genuine, if willed, errors of memory. For example, on p. 291 he quotes a careful textual examination of Sidney Hook's McCarthyite pamphlet, "Heresy Yes--Conspiracy No.' This examination shows how Hook disgracefully misquoted Lenin by omitting, often without even indicating any ellipse, key words and phrases. Wald then quotes Hook's early laudatory review of Lenin's "What Is To Be Done?' contrasting that praise and other such enthusiastic comments by Hook with his flatly contradictory statements in 1955--statements which avoid any hint of an earlier judgment or its revision. But surprisingly on p. 292 Wald says: "Since there is no reason to believe that Hook is intentionally dishonest one must attribute such extraordinary lapses to the Stalinophobic fanaticism that overtook his generation, causing genuine memory lapses in those instances when historic facts conflicted with the ideological needs of the Cold War.' Many other, perhaps slightly less shocking, examples of convenient autobiographical amnesia are quoted from the public statements of an extraordinary number of the "New York intellectuals,' again including Hook as well as Burnham, Cohen, and the Trillings.
The book includes short physical descriptions and thumbnail biographies of a large number of well-known writers and some less well remembered political figures. These are vividly presented, but perhaps the most interesting, if not the most important, single chapter is the eighth, "The New York Intellectual in Fiction.' This is devoted to a succinct, sensitive analysis of individual short stories or novellas by Saul Bellow, Eleanor Clark, Mary McCarthy, Isaac Rosenfeld, Tess Slesinger, Lionel Trilling, and others. It also includes a somewhat longer discussion of Farrell's work and some comments on the literary criticism of Philip Rahv and a much younger Marxist, the English critic Terry Eagleton.
Wald's discussion of the thematic content of a number of the stories, notably two by Trilling in relation to their author's own shifting attitudes, is a carefully shaded one which avoids any hint of reductionism. Here, even in so limited a personal compass, there is given a sense of the larger world in which the intellectuals perforce lived, and Wald uses this fully in his interpretation. Perhaps it is unreasonable to wish that he had also attempted to recreate that world in other earlier chapters so that his protagonists might be seen to live in reality as truly as they do in fiction. But if Wald has not quite given us the world itself he has given us an exceptionally interesting and authoritative map.
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|Author:||Le Blanc, Paul; Rubinstein, Annette|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1987|
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