A Life of Passionate Dissent

By Gerald Sorin

New York Univ. 384 pp. $32.95

I heard Irving Howe speak once, back in 1989. Young and politically adrift, I had wandered into a gathering of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). As a leader of DSA, Howe might have been expected to give a recruitment sermon. Instead, he complained that collective gatherings created mindless passion. "Don't join," he said, "just go away and think about it." I was stunned by this bizarre pitch. Today, though, I realize this wasn't exceptional for Howe. Throughout his life, he was an intellectual committed passionately to socialism, but he was also open-minded enough to express his reservations. He was that rare leftist who could juggle opposing values without sounding confused. Having had more experience with the American left now, I realize what a rarity Howe was.

In this fine biography, Gerald Sorin shows us why we need more Irving Howes today. Sorin traces the shifts and turns in a life that wound up creating one of America's most thoughtful leftists. The story's beginnings are odd, for Howe started as a dogmatic and sectarian Trotskyite. During the 1940s, he argued that World War II was just another imperialist hoax and used the sort of brutal language -- one opponent became a "king of philistines and prince of liars" with a "record of filth and hypocrisy" -- that doesn't exactly prompt even-handed debate.

In view of such purist excesses, his later transformation into a leftist on friendly terms with self-doubt is all the more remarkable. Somehow, a foray into dogmatism produced a dogmatic anti-dogmatist. Sorin cannot explain Howe's origins but does describe how he left them behind. Like his friend Lionel Trilling, Howe learned life's lessons through Western literature, embracing the "sense of empathy" that good novels demand of readers. Sorin also stresses Howe's rediscovery of his Jewishness, which demonstrated how particularistic traditions can produce universal values. Most important, Howe read deeply in the liberal tradition and embraced its "code of intellectual tolerance and freedom."

It's odd to recall that Howe was a socialist, since reading Sorin often makes him sound more like a liberal. Socialism for Howe was merely a "regulative ideal," a poetic vision of democratic equality that had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or what was then called "actually existing socialism." Nonetheless, by holding onto these vague socialist ideals, Howe avoided the rightward drift of other New York intellectuals (Irving Kristol, for instance) while steering clear of the New Left's rejection of liberalism during the late 1960s. In his own essays and those he edited at Dissent magazine, Howe held socialism and liberalism in tension.

Other tensions marked Howe's life. He became an academic but hated the seclusion and dullness of academic life. He embraced D.H. Lawrence and other intellectual activists who felt "torn between the rival attractions of action and withdrawal." This universalistic thinker was a provincial New Yorker who cherished individual freedom -- the prerogative of a cranky intellectual -- while throwing himself into causes that transcended the individual.

These internal conflicts framed Howe's understanding of politics. They led him to appreciate both the possibilities and limitations of political action. When the civil rights movement broke through the apathy of the Cold War, Howe was thrilled. This is not at all surprising, since Martin Luther King Jr. combined moral energy with political acumen in a way very consonant with Howe's views. Though sympathetic to some of the New Left's beginnings, Howe worried about its confrontational politics, especially its romantic infatuation with Third World revolutionary violence. And not surprisingly, he saw nothing redeemable in the counterculture's laissez-faire individualism and drop-out ethic. In the late 1960s, he had the foresight to warn against a potential "backlash" if middle Americans were to reject liberalism in their understandable recoil from New Left and countercultural excesses. Need it be said that Howe was prophetic here?

Though right about many things in the long run, Howe made some silly mistakes along the way. He published Norman Mailer's irresponsible "White Negro" essay, which equated violence with rebellion, presaging later New Left wackiness. Mailer's essay helped boost Dissent's circulation, but Howe later regretted having run it. He also misread Ralph Ellison's argument for African Americans to move beyond protest fiction and ignored the legitimate criticisms made by feminists during the 1960s. (Sorin hints that Howe's rocky marital relations might also have played some role in his failure to reckon seriously with feminism.)

Additionally, Howe could go over the top when attacking the New Left, turning people off rather than getting them to listen. These are foibles, but they don't negate the lessons his life holds for progressive intellectuals today. A complexity of political views, a tension-ridden intellectual life (rather than academic careerism), an ability to criticize while remaining humane -- these are things we need a lot more of today. For reminding us of this, we have not just Irving Howe but Gerald Sorin to thank. *

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University and is the author of "Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970."

Irving Howe in 1980