Walking on Manhattan’s Upper West Side one chilly day in the 1980s—it was not long after a suggestion came from within the Reagan administration that ketchup replace vegetables in school lunches to save money—Irving Howe made a remark to me that captured a great deal about his own political journey: “I know how to debate with these guys about politics and economics, but how do you argue with social meanness?”
Howe, whose centennial we commemorate this year and who was Dissent’s founding spirit, could have easily launched into a dissection of capitalism. His political awakening began in the 1930s and 1940s as a teenaged Marxist. A half century later his aversions hadn’t much changed, but his ways of understanding had. Instead of an “analysis,” he expressed simple moral outrage. If his intellectual evolution has meaning for today’s left, and certainly it does, it is to be found in his struggle to transcend sectarian mindsets while remaining principled.
Two factors were particularly important in his case. One was an ability to speak frankly about things that had gone wrong on the left. The other was how literature shaped his sensibilities. When this “liberal socialist” used the word “critical,” it was not just against foes but to trouble his own deepest beliefs. Egalitarian humanism was at their core. However, the experiences of the twentieth century, particularly the damage inflicted on the very idea of socialism by Communist parties, taught him the need for modifiers. The word liberal implied not just individual freedoms but the importance of “self” and securing spaces for an individual’s life. Engaging literature fostered the self.
Political and economic unfairness made him bridle; he bristled if someone blamed those suffering social pain for their predicament. Howe, born Horenstein, said that he “stumbled” into socialism at the age of fourteen, but tripwires abounded: Depression at home, the rise of Hitler and Stalin abroad. And then there was the Bronx, to which his poor Yiddish speaking parents came from Bessarabia. Waves of Jewish immigrants had arrived in the “New World” fleeing upheaval and anti-Semitism. They felt, Howe wrote, as if always “on the edge of foreseen catastrophe.”
Varieties of radicalism sang compelling strains in Howe’s neighborhood of “narrow, five-story tenements, wall flush against wall.” Socialism’s melody was vibrant, and for many it was “an encompassing culture, a style of perceiving and judging through which to structure their lives.” There were parties, newspapers, and unions.
We read in A Margin of Hope, his autobiography, that when he was thirteen, his parents, then working in the apparel trade, joined picket lines in the “Great Strike” of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Un...
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