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Arguing the World

By Michael Gill | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

When I think about New York Intellectuals, and specifically these four New York Intellectuals, what distinguishes them from their academic peers is a way of thinking about the world.
--Michael Walzer, political philosopher

Lunchroom chat is a commonplace, but there was something uncommon about the discussions that took place sixty years ago in the lunchrooms of City College of New York. Four young men would begin to argue the fate of modern society.

As the nation struggled against the ravages of the Great Depression, revolutionary ideas were in the air: communism, totalitarianism, socialism, and democracy mingled in conversation with the cosmopolitan, intellectual aesthetics of modernism. Politics and culture were intertwined. The students of City College were children of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to New York at the turn of the century. Most were on the edge of poverty, able to attend college only because City College was free.

Four classmate -- Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Howe -- left the intense encounters of the lunchroom to become the first important group of social policy critics from America's working class. Glazer is now a professor of sociology at Harvard University and a prominent critic of liberal welfare policy. Kristol is co-editor of The Public Interest and an intellectual architect of neoconservatism. Bell is professor emeritus of the humanities at Harvard and a pioneer in defining the nature of the post-industrial world. Howe, who died in 1993, was a professor of literature at the City University of New York, and the founder of Dissent magazine and the Democratic Socialists of America.

The intellectual evolution and ongoing argument among these four men is chronicled in Arguing the World, a new documentary produced and directed by Joseph Dorman. Arguing the World takes them from childhood to City College, and then traces their roles in the controversies of the Cold War, the New Left, and the rise of New Conservatism.

Using on-camera interviews and old newsreel footage, the documentary examines the historical and personal events that shaped the four and the impact of their ideas on society, as they eventually came to occupy positions across the intellectual and political spectrum. The film, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has its theater debut January 7, 1998 at the Film Forum in New York City before its release to theaters nationwide and to public television.

"A big part of what was attractive to me about these four men and New York intellectuals in general," director Joseph Dorman sums up, "is trying to chart the way their lives have influenced the lives of Americans. They have done this in a number of ways, and I think this is part of what the National Endowment for the Humanities is about -- how thought and culture can have a larger impact on the society."

Even while they were students at City College, when all four were radical leftists and their politics were most similar, Howe, Kristol, Glazer, and Bell differed. Bell was a Socialist. Howe and Kristol were Trotskyists. Glazer was a Zionist. As Dorman says, "They were always too independent minded to agree on anything. What they had in common was the passionate belief that ideas could change the world."

The four men began to argue their ideas with each other and other left-wing radicals both in the streets and in the lunchroom alcoves at City College. Bell recollects trying his hand at rousing a crowd with radical speech: "I was usually the first one up the ladder. And I would speak for about ten minutes. I pretty much memorized the last section of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which was a socialist speech by Eugene Debs, and people would say: 'How eloquent he is!'"

Within the college walls, the lunchroom alcoves were an arena for intense intellectual and political debate. Students cut class and headed there to argue. It was a place where they educated themselves. Philip Selznick, who graduated from City College in the class of 1939, recalls, "We used to use the phrase `having a discussion,' which meant something rather special -- a fairly passionate interchange: arguing about some interpretation or what have you, and doing it at the top of your lungs."

The denizens of Alcove One were the anti-Stalinist left. Their neighbors in Alcove Two were pro-Stalinists. Leaders of the young communist organization that met in Alcove Two forbade its membership to speak with the denizens of Alcove One.

Speaking in retrospect of the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, literary critic Lionel Abel comments, "We didn't know he was right. We knew he was interesting. And in a way, if you lived in the Village, what was interesting was right. Certainly the uninteresting was wrong."

In Alcove One, radical politics and the cultural avant-garde collided. Students prided themselves on reading books by authors not yet in the mainstream. In cultural matters, they were adherents of Modernism, which had as a tenet the opposition to middle class norms. Looking to stand apart from what they saw as parochialism, they wanted to define something new, a better way. For the four, this nicely fit their aspirations to become cultural critics. As Irving Howe explained, "In the thirties it was precisely the idea of discarding the past, breaking away from families, traditions, and memories which excited the intellectuals."

The debate itself was important. "As a group," says Dorman, "they formulated their ideas in arguments and often wrote -- even in public forums -- specifically for and against one another. They were public intellectuals. It is a phenomenon that some people feel is dying out in this country. These men were dedicated not simply to discussing ideas for themselves or for an academic audience, but they were interested in being a part of public debate and influencing public opinion. Academics are often thought to be removed from the public at large. These men believed that ideas could drive social change, and they wrote in prose meant for a larger audience."

One way they put their arguments into the public eye was to write and edit for magazines such as Partisan Review and Commentary, and even to establish their own magazines: Dissent and The Public Interest. Their cultural and political ideals fueled each other. Partisan Review, which started under the auspices of the Communist Party before editors William Phillips and Philip Rahv broke away, embraced cultural modernism and political radicalism simultaneously, featuring authors and ideas which were new to America at the time. Partisan Review championed such authors as Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot. Like the ideas these magazines put forth, these writers -- who were at the time not in the mainstream -- are now part of the curriculum at colleges and even high schools across the country.

One of the questions argued was whether the Communist Party in general, and Joseph Stalin in particular, ruled in the interest of the people. His rival Trotsky claimed that Stalin was a dictator, and reports coming out of the soviet state supported the allegation. Was there something inherent in Marxism and Leninism, which promised equality for the working class and equal sharing of the country's riches -- that led to totalitarian Stalinism?

The onset of World War II forced the New York Intellectuals to confront their own radical beliefs. In 1939 Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler, and Germany invaded Poland. The anti-Stalinist Left was convinced that the Communist Party was being manipulated to serve Stalin's needs. Then, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and the United States entered the fight against Hitler. The radicals could no longer dismiss the United States on ideological grounds because a war against fascism had begun, and America was fighting it. Irving Kristol spent the war as a soldier in southern France. Irving Howe served in the army in Alaska. Daniel Bell became managing editor of a magazine called The New Leader. Nathan Glazer, younger than the others, finished college.

After the war, Dorman says, "the issue became how one should become an anti-communist and how one should be critical of America. Because -- for all the faults they may have seen in the country -- they all believed that one has to side with America because democracy was bringing a large measure of prosperity to the people.

"The first real ideological split between them happened in the late forties and early fifties as Howe maintained an allegiance to Marxism and the Left longer than the other three."

Irving Howe still contended that Marxism did not inherently lead to totalitarianism, and he founded the magazine, Dissent, to promote his views.

In the flush years after World War II, the New York Intellectuals got jobs as college and university professors despite their lack of graduate degrees. They became part of the establishment. In the Cold War years, their early experience as men of the Left and their fluency in communist theory and practice gave their critique of communism an authority that would inform the national debate, shaping policies and attitudes.

The new defenders of U.S. policy opposed communism, but they also opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts on human rights grounds. This put them at odds with both the Right and the Left.

As the New Left arose in the sixties, some antagonism between generations was inevitable, even if the elders had at one time held similar views. The New Left and the student radicals of the sixties looked to the New York Intellectuals with a mix of respect and disdain. Members of the Students for a Democratic Society felt that the New York Intellectuals were too passive, that writing letters and magazine articles was not sufficient to affect the desired change. The New York Intellectuals felt that the students were being romantic and naive, and they feared that the movement was doomed to repeat the mistakes they had made in the thirties. "In the sixties, Dorman says, "there was a notion that the goodness of the idea could accomplish the task. The New York Intellectuals were not interested in stopping specific social welfare policies, but in building the policies in a way that wouldn't waste money or have counterproductive effects. Even someone like Kristol, who is the most conservative of them, had a great deal of respect for testing ideas in a realistic setting. It wasn't so much that social policy didn't work, but that in the rush to form policies to address our problems, there was a lack of testing of these programs."

In the mid-sixties, Kristol and Bell began The Public Interest, with the purpose of critiquing society. It was a new analysis of social policy. They began to apply a pragmatic strain of thought to the social programs that the Democratic Party was developing. "They wanted to determine whether these programs could actually have an effect on society -- not just if the idea was a good one, but to determine its practical effect," says Dorman. "Their looking at these programs lead to the change of social policy over the last thirty years -- the Reagan-Gingrich new conservatives, as well as the re-thinking of Democratic policy."

By the seventies Kristol had become a Republican, which started the split between Kristol and Bell. The two ceased to function as co-editors of The Public Interest, and Glazer took over in Bell's spot. Over the last twenty years the gap has widened. On the pages of The Public Interest, Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer laid the philosophical groundwork to create the neoconservative movement. Daniel Bell remained in the political center, and Irving Howe re-established his commitment to the left.

"These guys often get labeled, neoconservative, neoliberal, Leftist, whatever," says Dorman. "But labels are deceiving. Even Kristol, the most conservative of the four, believes in the possibilities of social policy. It's the particulars of liberal policy that he feels are deeply flawed. Nathan Glazer is a conservative, but he believes you have to keep on trying. Bell has been a lifelong Democrat and is very much a believer in trying to alleviate social ills with social programs, but the concern is that the programs will actually work in a practical setting. Howe, who was most the dreamer, maintained a greater faith in socialist ideals, but even he was critical of what he viewed as naive romanticism of the New Left. Even he felt that the desire to do good is not enough. What is important is to test your programs against reality. The idealism that pervaded the sixties didn't believe that."

The value of understanding new perspectives beyond the labels applied to them was one of the project's major attractions for Dorman. "The New York Intellectuals have forced me to rethink my own ideas. Reading their works was always provocative. One of the reasons I was interested in these four men was that I'd like people with left-leaning politics to come out of the film having thought seriously about Kristol. If you're on the other side, think seriously about what Howe says. If there's any lesson in the film, I think this is it."

About the Author

Michael Gill is a writer in Lakewood, Ohio.

Funding Information

Riverside Productions received $827,566 from the Endowment to script and produce Arguing the World.