Irving Howe opened A Margin of Hope, his autobiography, by recalling a conversation in which Ignazio Silone asked him when he first became a socialist. “At the advanced age of fourteen,” was Howe’s reply. That would have been 1934, a year after Franklin Roosevelt became American president and Adolph Hitler became German chancellor, and two years before the Moscow trials began. It was in a world of depression, fascism, Stalinism, and global conflagration that Howe’s politics first took shape. A great deal of his mature intellectual energy was devoted to understanding the fate of the left in those years.
The cardinal conclusion he reached was that any divorce of socialism from democracy violated socialism’s animating spirit, the belief that ordinary men and women should and could
have authority over their lives. And there was no greater violation than Stalinism, an unmitigated calamity for the left—not to mention for the inhabitants of the Soviet Union. Howe felt a special kinship for and rage about the fate of socialists who were victimized by communism; these were the democratic socialists who hoped for “a world more attractive,” but who were consumed by regimes that legitimized terrifying brutality with the language of the left. In the decade in which I worked with him on Dissent, I often heard Howe comment about political cognitive dissonance and about the human capacity for moral rationalization. Sometimes he would muse grimly about it, but finally I suppose he was resigned to it. He had, after all, spent years engaging intellectual gymnasts who, without skipping a beat, had dispensed “left-wing” justifications of dictatorships, only to turn neoconservative “on principle” later, usually as the country’s mood shaded right. There was, of course, a certain consistency, for either way Howe’s politics was an enemy.