Originally published in the Wilson Quarterly in Spring 2003.
Even after World of Our Fathers (1976), a popular elegy to Jewish immigrant culture, made him rich, Irving Howe (1920–93) never abandoned his radical ideals. The cofounder of Dissent devoted much of his life to brilliant commentary on the meaning of socialism in America. His range and power of discrimination as a critic, essayist, and autobiographer won respect from opponents and reverence from allies. Among the latter is Gerald Sorin, whose new biography, Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent, shines with admiration even as it records the personal flaws that shadowed Howe’s “passionate dissent.”
According to Sorin, a history professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, loneliness drew 14-year-old Howe to the Young People’s Socialist League in 1934. Principle kept him there. Socialism, Howe found, reflected the “ethic of solidarity” pervading the Yiddish neighborhoods of his East Bronx boyhood. At the City College New York in the late 1930s, he led Trotskyists against Stalinists and distinguished himself by “overblown rhetoric, heavy-handed sarcasm, and a seemingly unbreakable attachment to intellectual agility rather than reflection, to dialectic rather than investigation and analysis.” The proletarian revolution allowed no room for nuance.
As revolution passed America by, Howe’s hot-blooded socialism cooled. He stopped talking of class analysis and began calling himself a humanist rather than a Marxist. By the end of the 1950s, he was counseling radicals to vote for liberal Democrats. Lacking manifest political content, his socialism became what he termed “the name of our desire.” And so it remained, unsatisfied, until his death in 1993.
Socialism might not mean utopia, but it could mean a better tomorrow, and Howe did as much as any American of his generation to identify the political legacy of socialism with democracy, civil liberties, human decency, and intellectual integrity. Yet if he was a “hero of sorts,” as Sorin concludes, his was the heroism of the believer, not of the actor. For all his knowledge of international radical politics, Howe sent barely a ripple through the realm of political action. He opposed World War II as a clash between imperialists, then recovered so much faith in American policy that he failed to see the illiberal character of the Vietnam War until 1968. By that time, the antiwar movement had grown up in spite of him, followed by the counterculture and second-wave feminism. Howe treated these with the same withering condescension he had once dispensed to enemies at City College. The “ethic of solidarity” always looks better in theory than in practice.
If Howe’s temperamental excesses weakened his political leadership, they also reflected his honest attempt to confront the dilemmas of 20th-century radicalism. He was too smart to retreat into dogmatism, too faithful to betray his beliefs. At this best, he lived by social hope. This might not have amounted to heroism. But it was no mean achievement in troubled times.