Remembering Irving Howe

Remembering Irving Howe

I first encountered Irving during merger negotiations between his political organization, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, and mine, the New American Movement. It was 1979, and among NAM’s ex New Leftish, Gramsci-loving negotiators, Irving was known as the leader of their social democratic right wing. Over the next decade, he and I became official comrades (the merger did take place), collaborators when I joined Dissent’s board, and then, to my delight, friends. In reality, we had no political scores to settle. I had never been a sixties hardliner, and Irving (the socialist) had never been a social democrat.

I’ve tried to describe to people who didn’t know Irving or Dissent what it was like to work with him and what he meant to me. They inevitably tag him as a superb mentor. At first this surprised me; I’d never thought of Irving as a mentor. But if the term refers to someone who takes up residence in your mind as an unfailing interlocutor, as a touchstone, then Irving was indeed a mentor. When I finished reading an essay or novel, I wondered what he’d say about it. I wrote with his editing pen in mind (around Dissent, who didn’t?), and each article became a one-way contest to see how little he would change or cut.

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