Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984
Irving Howe is no ordinary Jewish intellectual. He is a famous one. Not only because of what he has written, but especially because of his political consistency. He is one of the few former reigning Jewish socialists who has not fled to the Right, who has not turned into a neoconservative. Howe remains a believing socialist — even though a chastened one.
As the creator and editor of a moderately leftist journal called Dissent, he is one of the major liberal voices for social democracy in America. Together with Michael Harrington and his Democratic Socialists, he preaches a non-dogmatic, non-revolutionary egalitarianism. He resists the elitism that many of his former colleagues now find so attractive.
As the author of the enormously popular World of Our Fathers, he has assumed a special place in the Jewish community. The socialist visionary has become the major presenter of Yiddish nostalgia to the English-speaking world. American Jewish roots have become his specialty. For a one-time universalist who found no important value in Jewish identity, his second career has a touch of irony.
Howe’s book A Margin of Hope is an autobiography. Like Making It by Norman Podhoretz (who defected to the Right), it is a confession of an American Jewish intellectual. But, unlike Podhoretz’s statement, it is refreshingly free of ideological repentance.
Howe had all the qualifications to become an American Jewish intellectual. New York City. Immigrant parents. East Bronx. Depression hardship. City College. Partisan Review. All the informal credentials for radical commitment. In addition, he had a perceptive mind and a talent for writing.
Dozens of other Jewish intellectuals form the setting for his radical activity. Max Shachtman, Morris Cohen, Isaac Rosenfeld, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and Saul Bellow were among his conversational circle. How ironic that so much universalism was confined to a few Jews!
The autobiography is a marvelous introduction to the political and intellectual controversies of the last five decades. Howe was in the middle of most of them, agonizing over which decision to make, which side to choose.
There was Roosevelt and the New Deal. Should a Norman Thomas socialist support this wishy-washy compromise of the Democrats just because the Democrats had a chance to win? There was Stalin and the purges. Should a defender of the Left give comfort to the Right by condemning the rulers of the Marxist motherland? There was Trotsky and the revolution. Was bold radical thought still preferable to the peaceful pleas of the social democrats? There was the war in Europe. Could an opponent of capitalism support a capitalistic war, even when the enemy was a fascist anti-Semite? There was the anti-Communism of the early fifties. Could a confirmed anti-Stalinist of the Left join forces with the rabid anti-Communists of the Right? There was the emergence of the Vietnam struggle and the New Left. Were the radicals of the sixties an undisciplined rabble of anarchists who would subvert the ideals of the Left? There was the rise of neo-conservatism. Had socialism turned out to be a dead-end path of betrayal and failure?
To read Howe’s story is to relive the drama of the arguments which dominated Jewish intellectual conversations. The Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath was a focal point of discussion. So much hope had been invested in the success of that upheaval that the subsequent failure was almost too much to bear. The crumbling utopia forced the socialist faithful to undergo painful changes. For the emotionally intense, it was easy to go from loving Russia to hating it. For many others, it took a long time to wake up to the truth. There was an understandable reluctance to be on the same side as the anti-Soviet fascists. Anti- Stalinists on the Left were torn between their socialist purity and the allies that awaited them.
Howe was consistently anti- Stalinist. But he does admit to a certain utopian naivete. There was too much faith in slogans and in the moral difference between workers and rulers. In the end, the Marxist sureness disappears. Socialism becomes an egalitarian wish with no guarantees of success. A pious dream replaces the forces of history.
As his socialist ardor was tamed, and as the fury of Hitler made his Jewish identity more important, Howe returned to the culture of his childhood. Unable by conviction to carry out religious observances, he found his Jewish niche in the Yiddish speech of his ancestors. He began to translate modern Yiddish stories and to discover the richness of that literature. In time he became a self-proclaimed secular Jew. Jewishness was no longer a reactionary parochialism.
Howe’s story has a certain sadness. His socialist dream loses its innocence in America. And his Jewish identity is attached to a dying linguistic culture. Nostalgia replaces optimism.
The secular Jewish radical ironically looks to the past rather than to the future. The “world of our fathers” becomes safer to talk about than the “world of our children.”
The autobiography is a good introduction to what went wrong with the secular faith of the first secular Jews.