New styles in "leftism"

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Irving Howe


With this issue DISSENT opens up a discussion of the "new leftism," in which, as always in our pages, a wide range of opinion will be welcome and each person will speak for himself. One view is expressed below by Irving Howe; a sharply divergent one by Staughton Lynd appears on p. 324. Certain editors of DtssENT have indicated an interest in writing on aspects of the subject where they disagree with one or another of these articles; and within limits of space and competence, we shall be glad to print opinions from readers.-F.Drroxs.

I propose to describe a political style or outlook before it has become hardened into an ideology or the property of an organi

zation. This outlook is visible along limited portions of the political scene; for the sake of exposition I will make it seem more precise and structured than it really is.

There is a new radical mood in limited sectors of American society: on the campus, in sections of the Civil Rights movement. The number of people who express this mood is not very large, but that it should appear at all is cause for encouragement and satisfaction. Yet there is a segment or fringe among the newly-blossoming young radicals that causes

different from id

eas one disturbance-and not simply because they have

persons like myself, who neither expect nor desire that younger generations of radicals should repeat our thoughts or our words. For this disturbing minority I have no simple name: sometimes it looks like kamikaze radicalism, sometimes like white Malcolmism, sometimes like black Maoism. But since none of these phrases will quite do, I have had to fall back upon the loose and not very accurate term, "new leftists." Let me therefore stress as strongly as I can that I am not talking about all or the majority of the American young and not-so-young who have

• This text consists of a somewhat condensed and edited version of a lecture given at a New York DtssENr forum in April 1965. I have left it pretty much in its original outline-plus-notes form.

recently come to regard themselves as radicals. Much should be said about the positive aspects of youthful radicalism, as in part I have said in an essay, "Berkeley and Beyond" in the May 1, 1965 New Republic.

The form I have felt obliged to use here-a composite portrait of the sort of "new leftist" who seems to me open to criticism-also creates some difficulties. It may seem to lump together problems, ideas and moods that should be kept distinct. But my conviction is that this kind of "new leftism" is not a matter of organized political tendencies, at least not yet, and that there is no organization, certainly none of any importance, which expresses the kind of "new leftism" I am here discussing. So I would say that if some young radicals read this text and feel that some of it is relevant to them but the rest is not, I will be delighted by such a response: the more any of them feels that parts of my portrait don't apply to him, the better it is. I do, however, believe that through this composite portrait I am touching upon an observable reality, a noticeable trend.

And a last introductory word: there are other trends among the radical young which, no matter whether one agrees with them entirely or not, merit discussion and an exchange of ideas. Certain of the writings produced by spokesmen for Students for a Democratic Society, for example, deserve a fraternal scrutiny which I do not even attempt here, since I am dealing with something else, another problem.

A) The society we live in fails to elicit the idealism of the more rebel

lious and generous young. Even among those who play the game and accept the social masks necessary for gaining success, there is a widespread disenchantment. Certainly there is very little ardor, very little of the joy that comes from a conviction that the values of a society are good, and that it is therefore good to live by them. The intelligent young know that if they keep out of trouble, accept academic drudgery and preserve a respectable "image," they can hope for successful careers, even if not personal gratification. But the price they must pay for this choice is a considerable quantity of inner adaptation to the prevalent norms: fur there is a limit to the social duplicity that anyone can sustain.

But the society not only undercuts the possibilities of constructive participation, it also makes very difficult a coherent and thought-out political opposition. The small minority that does rebel tends to adopt a stance that seems to be political, sometimes even ideological, but often turns out to be an effort to assert a personal style.


Personal style: that seems to me a key. Most of whatever rebellion we have had up to-and even into-the Civil Rights movement takes the form of a decision as to how to live individually within this society, rather than how to change it collectively. A recurrent stress among the young has been upon differentiation of speech, dress and appearance, by means of which a small elite can signify its special status; or the stress has been upon moral self-regeneration, a kind of Emersonianism with shock treatment. All through the 'fifties and 'sixties disaffiliation was a central impulse, in the beatnik style or the more sedate Salinger way, but disaffiliation nevertheless, both as a signal of nausea and a tacit recognition of impotence.

I say, recognition of impotence, because movements that are powerful, groups that are self-confident, do not opt out of society: they live and work within society in order to transform it.

Now, to a notable extent, all this has changed since and through the Civil Rights movement-but not changed as much as may seem. Some of the people involved in that movement, show an inclination to make of their radicalism not a politics of common action, which would require the inclusion of saints, sinners and ordinary folk, but rather a gesture of moral rectitude. And the paradox is that they often sincerely regard themselves as committed to politics-but a politics that asserts so unmodulated and total a dismissal of society, while also departing from Marxist expectations of social revolution, that little is left to them but the glory or burden of maintaining a distinct personal style.

By contrast, the radicalism of an earlier generation, though it had numerous faults, had at least this advantage: it did not have to start as if from scratch, there were available movements, parties, agencies and patterns of thought through which one could act. The radicals of the 'thirties certainly had their share of Bohemianism, but their politics were not nearly so interwoven with and dependent upon tokens of style as is today's radicalism.

The great value of the present rebelliousness is that it requires a personal decision, not merely as to what one shall do but also as to what one shall be. It requires authenticity, a challenge to the self, or, as some young people like to say, an "existential" decision. And it makes more difficult the moral double-bookkeeping of the 'thirties, whereby in the name of a sanctified movement or unquestioned ideology, scoundrels and fools could be exalted as "leaders" and detestable conduct exonerated.

This is a real and very impressive strength, but with it there goes

a significant weakness: the lack of clear-cut ideas, sometimes even a v feeling that it is wrong-or even "middle class"-to think systematically, and as a corollary, the absence of a social channel or agency through


which to act. At first it seemed as if the Civil Rights movement would provide such a channel; and no one of moral awareness can fail to be profoundly moved by the outpouring of idealism and the readiness to face danger which characterizes the vanguard of this movement. Yet at a certain point it turns out that the Civil Rights movement, through the intensity of its work, seems to dramatize ... its own insufficiency. Indeed, it acts as a training school for experienced, gifted, courage. ous people who have learned how to lead, how to sacrifice, how to work, but have no place in which to enlarge upon their gifts. There may in time appear a new kind of "dropout"-the "dropout" trained by and profoundly attached to the Civil Rights movement who yet feels that it does not, and by its very nature cannot, come to grips with the central problems of modern society; the "dropout" who has been trained to the fine edge of frustration and despair.

v The more shapeless, the more promiscuously absorptive, the more psychologically and morally slack the society becomes, the more must candidates for rebellion seek out extreme postures which will enable them to "act out" their distance from a society that seems intent upon a maliciously benevolent assimilation; extreme postures which will yield security, perhaps a sense of consecration, in loneliness; extreme postures which will safeguard them from the allure of everything they reject. Between the act of rebellion and the society against which it is directed, there remain, however, deeper ties than is commonly recognized. To which we shall return.

B) These problems are exacerbated by an educational system that often

seems inherently schizoid. It appeals to the life of the mind, yet justifies that appeal through crass utilitarianism. It invokes the traditions of freedom, yet processes students to bureaucratic cut. It speaks for the spirit, yet increasingly becomes an appendage of a spirit-squashing system.


The "new leftism" appears at a moment when the intellectual and academic worlds-and not they alone-are experiencing an intense and largely justifiable revulsion against the immediate American past. Many people are sick unto death of the whole structure of feeling-that mixture of chauvinism, hysteria and demagogy-which was created during the Cold War years. Like children subjected to forced feeding, they regurgitate almost automatically. Their response is an inevitable consequence of over-organizing the propaganda resources of a modern state;


exactly the same sort of nausea exists among the young in the Commuriist world.

Unfortunately, revulsion seldom encourages nuances of thought or precise discriminations of politics. You cannot stand the deceits of official anti-Communism? Then respond with a rejection equally blatant. You have been raised to give credit to every American power move, no matter how reactionary or cynical? Then respond by castigating everything American. You are weary of Sidney Hook's messages in the New York Times Magazine? Then respond as if the talk about Communist totalitarianism were simply irrelevant or a bogey to frighten infants.

Yet we should be clear in our minds that such a response is not at all the same as a commitment to Communism, even though it may lend itself to obvious exploitation. It is rather a spewing-out of distasteful matter-in the course of which other values, such as the possibility of learning from the traumas and tragedies of recent history, may also be spewed-out.

D) Generational clashes are recurrent in our society, perhaps in any

society. But the present rupture between the young and their elders seems especially deep. This is a social phenomenon that goes beyond our immediate subject, indeed, it cuts through the whole of society; what it signifies is the society's failure to transmit-with sufficient force its values to the young, or perhaps more accurately, that the best of the young take the proclaimed values of their elders with a seriousness which leads them to be appalled by their violation in practice.

In rejecting the older generations, however, the young sometimes betray the conditioning mark of the very American culture they are so quick to denounce: for ours is a culture that celebrates youthfulness as if it were a moral good in its own right. Like the regular Americans they wish so hard not to be, yet, through wishing, so very much are, they believe that the past is mere dust and ashes and that they can start afresh, immaculately.

There are, in addition, a few facts to be noted concerning the relationship between the radical young and those few older people who have remained radicals:

1) A generation is missing in the life of American radicalism, the generation that would now be in its mid-thirties, the generation that did not show up. The result is an inordinate difficulty in communication between the young radicals and those unfortunate enough to h of course, our Here, God help us, even gone beyond-the age of fty

failure is very much in evidence too: a failure that should prompt us


to speak with modesty, simply as people who have tried, and in their try ing perhaps have learned something.

2) To the younger radicals it seems clear that a good many of the radicals of the 'thirties have grown tired, or dropped out, or in some instances, sold out. They encounter teachers who, on ceremonial occasions, like to proclaim old socialist affiliations, but who really have little or no sympathy with any kind of rebelliousness today. They are quick-and quite right-to sense that announcements of old YPSL ties can serve as a selfprotective nostalgia or even as a cloak for acquiescence in the status quo. But it must also be said that there is a tendency among the "new leftists" toward much too quick a dismissal of those who may disagree with them-they are a little too fast on the draw with such terms as "fink" and "establishment."

All this may describe the conditions under which the new political outlook appears, but it does not yet tell us anything about the specific culture, so to say, in'wiich it thrives. Let me therefore indicate some of the political and intellectual influences acting upon the "new leftism," by setting up two very rough categories:

If. Ideologues and Desperadoes

A) Ideologues, white

The disintegration of American radicalism these last few decades left a good many ideologues emotionally unemployed: people accustomed to grand theorizing who have had their theories shot out from under them; people still looking for some belated evidence that they were "right" all along; people with unexpended social energy and idealism of a sort, who desperately needed new arenas in which to function. 1) The Remains of Stalinism

The Am








st party was broken first by McCarthyite and government persecution, and second by an inner crisis following Khrushchev's revelations and the Hungarian revolution. Those who left out of disillusionment were heart-sick people, their convictions and sometimes their lives shattered. But those who left the party or its supporting organizations because they feared government attack were often people who kept, semi-privately, their earlier convictions. Many of them had a good deal of political experience; some remained significantly placed in the network of what might be called conscience-organizations. Naturally enough, they continued to keep in touch with one another, forming a kind of reserve apparatus based on common opinions, feelings, memories. As soon as some ferment began a few years ago in the Civil Rights movement and the peace groups, these people were present, ready and eager; they needed no directives


from the CP to which, in any case, they no longer (or may never have) belonged; they were quite capable of working on their own as if they were working together, through a variety of groups and periodicals like The National Guardian. Organizational Stalinism declined, but a good-, part of its heritage remained: people who could offer political advice, raise money, write leaflets, sit patiently at meetings, put up in a pleasant New York apartment visitors from a distant state, who, by chance, had been recommended by an old friend.

2) True Believers. On the far left there remain a scatter of groups still convinced that Marxism-Leninism, in one or another version, is "correct." What has failed them, however, is the historical motor prosided by Marxist theory: the proletariat, which has not shown the "revolutionary potential" or fulfilled the "historical mission" to which it was assigned. Though the veteran Marxists cannot, for fear of shattering their whole structure of belief, give up the idea of the proletariat, they can hardly act, day by day, as if the American working class were indeed satisfying Marxist expectations or were the actual center of revolutionary ferment. Thus, in somewhat schizoid fashion, they have clung to their traditional faith in the proletariat as the revolutionary class, while in practice searching for a new embodiment of it which might provide the social energy they desire. And in the Negro movement they seem to have found it.

That this movement, with great creative flair, has worked out an indigenous strategy of its own; that it has developed nonviolent resistance into an enormously powerful weapon; that the Negro clergy, in apparent disregard of Leninist formulas, plays a leading and often militant role-all this does not sit well with the old Marxists. They must a therefore develop new theories, by means of which the Negroes become the vanguard of the working class or perhaps the "true" (not yet "boughtoff") working class. And, clustering around the Negro movement, they contribute a mite of wisdom here and there: scoffing at nonviolence, employing the shibboleth of "militancy" as if it were a magical device for satisfying the needs of the Negro poor, etc. They are experienced in "deepening the struggle," usually other people's struggles: which means to scorn the leadership of Dr. King without considering that the "revolutionary" course they propose for the Negro movement could, if adopted, lead it into a cut de sac of isolation, exhaustion and heroic blood. Understandably, they find allies in Negro nationalists who want not so much to deepen as to divert the struggle, and among young militants who dislike the idea that Negroes might, if successful in their struggle, come to share some of the American affluence and thus become "middle-class."

3) Authoritarian Leftists. In figures like Isaac Deutscher and Paul Sweezey we find the true intellectual progenitors of at least part of the "new leftism"; the influence they exert has been indirect, since they are not involved in immediate struggles, but it has nevertheless been there.

Sweezey's Monthly Review is the main spokesman in this country for the view that authoritarianism is inherent or necessary in the socalled socialist countries; that what makes them "socialist" is simply the nationalization of the means of production; that democracy, while perhaps desirable in some long-range calculation, is not crucial for judging the socialist character of a society; that the claim that workers must be in a position to exercise political power if the state can in any sense be called "theirs," is a utopian fallacy. At times this technological deterininism, put to the service of brutal dictatorship, has been given a more subtle reading by Sweezey: namely, that when the conditions supposedly causing the Communist dictatorship-economic backwardness and international insecurity-have been overcome, the Soviet regime would in some unspecified way democratize itself. In November 1957, after the Khrushchev revelations, Monthly Review printed a notably frank editorial:

The conditions which produced the [Soviet) dictatorship have been overcome ... Our theory is being put to the crucial test of practise. And so far-let us face it frankly-there is precious little evidence to confirm it. In all that has happened since Stalin's death we can find nothing to indicate that the Communist Party or any of its competing factions, has changed in the slightest degree its view of the proper relation between the people and their leadership ... there is apparently no thought that the Soviet people will ever grow up enough to decide for itself who knows best and hence who should make and administer the policies which determine its fate.

And finally from Sweezey: "forty years is too long for a dictatorship to remain temporary"-surely the understatement of the Christian Eral One might suppose that if "our theory is being put to the crucial

test" and there "is precious little evidence to confirm it," honest men would proceed to look for another theory, provided, that is, they continued to believe that freedom is desirable.

Eight years have passed since the above passage appeared in Monthly Review, the "precious little evidence" remains precious little, and Sweezey, once apparently dismayed over the lack of democracy in Russia, has moved not to Titoism or "revisionism." No, he has moved toward Maoist China, where presumably one does not have to worry about "the proper relation between the people and their leadership ..." Writing in December 1964 the MR editors declared with satisfaction that "there


could be no question of the moral ascendency of Peking over Moscow in the underdeveloped world." They agreed with the Chinese that Khrushchev's fall was "a good thing" and they wrote further:

The Chinese possession of a nuclear potential does not increase the danger of nuclear war. Quite the contrary. The Chinese have solemnly pledged never to be the first to use nuclear weapons ... and their revo. lutionary record of devotion to the cause of socialism and progress entitles them to full trust and confidence.

The logic is dear: begin with theoretical inquiry and concern over the perpetuation of dictatorship in Russia and end with "full trust and confidence" in China, where the dictatorship is more severe.

There is an aphorism by a recent Polish writer: "The dispensing of injustice is always in the right hands." And so is its defense.

B) Ideologues, Negro

1) Black nationalism. Here is a creed that speaks or appears to speak totally against compromise, against negotiating with "the white power structure," against the falsities of white liberals, indeed, against anything but an indulgence of verbal violence. Shortly before his tragic murder Malcolm X spoke at a Trotskyist-sponsored meeting and listening to him I felt, as did others, that he was in a state of internal struggle, reaching out for an ideology he did not yet have. For the Negroes in his audience he offered the relief of articulating subterranean feelings of hatred, contempt, defiance, feelings that did not have to be held in check because there was a tacit compact that the talk about violence would remain talk. Malcolm declared that he would go, not unarmed, to Mississippi, if the Negroes there would ask him to come: a condition that could only leave him safely North, since the last thing the Negroes of Mississippi needed or wanted was Malcolm's military aid. For both the Negroes and whites in the audience there was an apparent feeling that Malcolm and Malcolm alone among the Negro spokesmen was

sheer nothing his authentic because ... well, because finally he poke for

rage, for no proposal, no plan, no program, just

anger and pain. And that they could understand. The formidable sterility of his speech, so impressive in its relation to a deep personal suffering, touched something in their hearts. For Malcolm, intransigent in words and nihilistic in reality, never invoked the possibility or temptations of immediate struggle; he never posed the problems, confusions and risks of maneuver, compromise, retreat. Brilliantly Malcolm spoke for a rejection so complete it transformed him into an apolitical spectator, or in the language his admirers are more inclined to use than I am, a pure ..cop-out."

2) Caricature. If, nevertheless, there was something about Malcoin which commands our respect, that is because we know his life-struggle his rise from the depths, his conquest of thought and speech. Leroi Jones, by contrast, stands as a burlesque double of whatever is significant in Malcolm.

In his success as both a New School lecturer and prophet of "guerrilla warfare" in the U.S.; in his badgering of white liberal audiences; in his orgies of verbal violence committed, to be sure, not in Selma, Alabama, but Sheridan Square, New York; in his fantasies of an international race war in which the whites will be slaughtered, Jones speaks for a contemporary sensibility. But he speaks for it in a special way: as a distinctively American success, the pop-art guerrilla warrior.

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