On the New York Intellectuals

I first read Irving Howe in college, in Andrew Ross’ seminar on intellectuals. We read Howe’s “The New York Intellectuals.” I don’t remember what I thought of it; what I remember is that I admired Howe as the epitome of the independent political intellectual. At some point in graduate school, I grew less enamored of the New York Intellectuals as a whole (in part because of their compromises or collaboration with McCarthyism, in part because the ideal of the independent intellectual loosened its hold over me), and Howe fell in my esteem as a result. Which is ironic because Howe was one of the few anti-Stalinist intellectuals who kept his bearings during the McCarthy years. This past year, I’ve been re-reading Howe. His literary criticism hasn’t really held up for me (I’d add to my list of essays there his cramped reassessment of Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett.) But I’ve been newly impressed by his political criticism. When he’s not obsessively whacking the New Left, he can be astonishingly keen and prescient about the weaknesses of the American Left, the paradoxes of the welfare state, and the long-term impact of McCarthyism. At his best, when he’s not seized by that crabbiness of spirit that so often marred his judgment and writing, he can see from up high and down deep what’s moving and stagnant in the American current.

This morning, I re-read “The New York Intellectuals.” It first appeared in Commentary in 1969. It has two weak moments: when he’s rehashing his critique of the Stalinism of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940, and when he’s gnawing on the “new sensibility” of the counterculture and its spokepersons (Marcuse, Mailer, Norman O. Brown, even Susan Sontag). It’s those pugilistic moments that Howe is so often celebrated for—Howe the political and cultural polemicist—that I find the most tiresome and familiar. When he’s not rehearsing his case for the prosecution, Howe can really rise above the material. That’s the Howe I find most enduring.

Here are just a few observations of his in that essay that I thought were worth noting.

1. The European socialist intellectual ends his political engagement by breaking with the Communist Party; the New York Intellectual begins his engagement by breaking with the Party.

2. “They came late“: The New York Intellectuals were late to modernism (by the mid to late 1930s, when they had come into their own, the battle for Joyce, Eliot, and Pound had been won). They were late to the radical experience: by the mid-1930s, Communism had become a political problem for the left, and much of the New York Intellectuals’ engagement with radicalism was, from the beginning, a process of disenchantment. “Their radicalism was anxious, problematic, and beginning to decay at the very moment it was adopted.” They also came at the end of the Jewish immigrant experience in America. Overall, theirs was a condition of belatedness; despite our sense that they were at the center of the action, their own sense of things was that everything happened before them.

3. The one political achievement of the New York Intellectuals was the delegitimization of Stalinism among socialist intellectuals. I can’t help but think that for Howe, who aimed to forge a vibrant and politically effective socialist left free of the Stalinist taint, that would be something of a disappointment.

4. The New York Intellectuals made no serious contribution to political thought; their main contribution was a style. Howe may be at his most brilliant best in describing that style and its limitations.

Let us call it the style of brilliance. The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to “go beyond” its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transition and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form of or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers. Until recently its strategy of exposition was likely to be impersonal (the writer did not speak much as an “I”) but its tone and bearing were likely to be intensely personal (the audience was to be made aware that the aim of the piece was not judiciousness, but rather, a strong impress of attitude, a blow of novelty, a wrenching of accepted opinion, sometimes a mere indulgence of vanity).

In some of these essays there was a sense of tournament, the writer as gymnast with one eye on other rings, or as skilled infighter juggling knives of dialectic….

At its best the style of brilliance reflected a certain view of the intellectual life: free-lance dash, peacock strut, daring hypothesis, knockabout synthesis. For better or worse it was radically different from the accepted mode of scholarly publishing and middlebrow journalism. It celebrated the idea of the intellectual as antispecialist, or as a writer whose speciality was the lack of a speciality: the writer as dilettante-connoisseur, Luftmensch of the mind, roamer among theories.

The downside of this style, or at least one of them, was, its quick and easy descent into fashion, an inability to remain with a theory long enough to understand its ins and outs, and narcissism, a problem we often identify with our internet age but which long predates it:

The twists and turns were lively, and they could all seem harmless if only one could learn to looking upon intellectual life as a variety of play, like potsy or king of the hill. What struck one as troubling, however, was not this or that fashion (tomorrow morning would bring another), but the dynamic of fashion itself, the ruthlessness with which, to remain in fashion, fashion had to keep devouring itself.

In the fifties the cult of brilliance became a sign that writers were offering not their work or ideas but their persona as content.

5. The main cultural contribution of the New York Intellectuals was the consolidation of a canon. They were not the avant-garde of modernism; they were its curators.

6. What drove the New York Intellectuals was not money, power, or even fame; they were possessed by a “gnawing ambition to write something, even three pages, that might live.”

7. The influence of the New York Intellectuals has reached an end. (That was in 1969.)

8. On liberalism and the intellectual:

For those of us who have lived throughout the age of totalitarianism and experienced the debate of socialism, this conflict over liberal values is extremely painful. We have paid heavily for the lesson that democracy, even “bourgeois democracy,” is a precious human achievement, one that, far from being simply a mode of mass manipulation, has been wrested through decades of struggle by labor, socialist, and liberal movements. To protect the values of liberal democracy, often against those who call themselves liberals, is an elementary task for intellectuals as a social group.

9. On The New York Review of Books:

The genius of the New York Review, and it has been a genius of sorts, is not, in either politics or culture, for swimming against the stream.


  1. rhoward999@gmail.com July 25, 2015 at 9:56 pm | #

    Would like to know more about the influence of Lewis Coser– the Coser-Howe history of communism in the US is quite remarkable as I remember it. Coser is co-founder of Dissent, remained with it throughout. His wife, Rose, was named after Rosa Luxembourg, who was a friend of her mother… — Lots of paths for intellectual history.

  2. Justin Schwartz July 25, 2015 at 11:15 pm | #

    Sidney Hook’s two early books on Marxism, particularly Towards an Understanding of Karl Marx, are substantive, even brilliant, more than solid intellectual achievements, not just style without substance. So it’s not true that the NYI jade no major contributions to American thought.

    I’d be interred to see how you think Howe’s take on them compares with Alan Wald’s. I haven’t read Alan’s book for decades but recall being very impressed with it when it came out.

  3. jschulman July 26, 2015 at 12:56 am | #

    Wald’s book is very good but somewhat marred by its fealty to Ernest Mandel-style orthodox Trotskyism.

  4. Mitchell J. Freedman July 26, 2015 at 1:11 am | #

    Reading Dissent in the 1970s and 1980s was, along with the NYRB, most rewarding and enlightening reading, and I remain in the debt of those anti-Stalinist left writers who began their writing in the 1930s.

    Over the years, however, I had to also admit because so many were Trotskyists, they refused to engage in the Popular Front as the Communist Party members did. The Commies at least formed a coalition with the New Dealers in the 1935-1939 period that also brought about the legislation that we think of today as the workers’ side of the New Deal (the first period being more a regulation of Wall Street and the early National Recovery Act, which helped but then ran out of steam before being killed by the US Supreme Court).

    The anti-Stalinist left was definitely correct about Stalin and the horrorshow Soviet Union. But domestically, it would rather argue in alcoves at CCNY than round up votes, march in protests, organize black sharecroppers in Alabama (as the Communists Anne and Clyde Johnson did as recounted in Robin Kelly’s great Hammer and Hoe book), lobby for the NLRB, Social Security, the WPA, the PWA, the CCCs, TVA, FLSA, etc.

    It’s complicated, I guess…

  5. Thomas Rossetti July 26, 2015 at 1:39 am | #

    There were the normans and irvings and sidney, all students of Morris Cohen, but for consistent intellectual rigor in the statement of the liberal position the greatest of his generation was David Spitz, the longtime political theory editor of Dissent. He deserves more attention. As Irving Howe said “he did things the rest of us could seldom do. He could, I suppose, be called a socialist liberal, and we, liberal socialists. It would take a keen eye to see this difference through to the end.”

  6. louisproyect July 26, 2015 at 9:03 am | #

    I strongly recommend Howe’s “Margin of Hope” that has some really sharp observations about his membership in the Trotskyist movement.

  7. jschulman July 26, 2015 at 11:18 am | #

    “The anti-Stalinist left was definitely correct about Stalin and the horrorshow Soviet Union. But domestically, it would rather argue in alcoves at CCNY than round up votes, march in protests, organize black sharecroppers in Alabama (as the Communists Anne and Clyde Johnson did as recounted in Robin Kelly’s great Hammer and Hoe book), lobby for the NLRB, Social Security, the WPA, the PWA, the CCCs, TVA, FLSA, etc.”

    There were hardly enough Trotskyists in the U.S. to efffectively do all of those things anyway. There were never more than 2000 Trotskyists in the U.S. in the 1930s. There were 100,000 CPUSA members if one includes the Young Communist League.

  8. Kia July 26, 2015 at 11:53 am | #

    Harold Rosenberg, “Couch Liberalism and the Guilty Past” in The Tradition of the New is the indispensable Origin Story to this discussion.

  9. Paul Rosenberg July 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm | #

    A very nice encapsulation. The culturally conservative tendencies indicated makes the emergence of neocons from this same stream of history a good deal more legible, IMHO.

    • Mitchell J. Freedman July 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm | #

      To JSchulman: Too often, the Trots were vicious and dismissive of the New Deal because of their antipathy toward Stalinists jumping in to help New Dealers during the Popular Front. When Trots turned right, they joined happily in tarring New Dealers as “dupes,” “useful idiots” and “fellow travelers” when one may make a better argument that the New Dealers used the Communist Party members to promote the New Deal agenda more than anything approaching the other way around.

      Robert Cohen’s “When the Old Left Was Young,” a great book by the way, lays out how, when the Communists tried to formally take over the so-called “Front” organizations after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the organizations became hollowed shells of themselves as most of the New Dealers left the organizations. Certainly, they stopped being active members at the very least.

      • Paul Rosenberg July 26, 2015 at 4:06 pm | #

        Yes, the right’s claim that Moscow was behind every liberal advance was virtually the opposite of what actually happened. They were behind every liberal implosion was closer to the truth.

  10. GRA July 26, 2015 at 7:31 pm | #

    Too bad McCarthyism turned out to be true. Whoops.

    • Mitchell J. Freedman July 27, 2015 at 12:24 pm | #

      What made McCarthyism so wrong is that it conflated being a Communist Party member with being a traitor and a spy. Most were neither. And even those people believe are spies were not members of the Party, such as Harry Dexter White–who I have posited elsewhere in discussions on Crooked Timber (with Eric Rauchway) was not a spy, either.

    • Kia July 27, 2015 at 5:53 pm | #

      It didn’t.

  11. BillWAF July 26, 2015 at 10:03 pm | #

    I also posted this comment at Crooked Timber:

    I remember seeing Howe speak at what I guess was the plenary session at a Socialists Scholars Conference in or about the early 1990s. The panel was supposed to be about the future of the American left. Howe spent his time discussing the Soviet Union, stating that the then-new evidence showed it had been worse than he and his friends had thought.

    I remember wondering why he kept refighting this old battle. No one under 60 cared. It had no relevance to the future of the left. Some people might have addressed what Jesse Jackson’s most recent campaign for president revealed about the left’s prospects. Some might have discussed whether it could have been built upon. Others might have discussed the transition in South Africa. But no, Howe kept going back to the 1930s. It was self-indulgent and tin-eared at best.

  12. howard berman July 28, 2015 at 5:47 pm | #

    Might the decline of the new york intellectuals be tied to a shift of cultural cache and power away from New York?

  13. Drew July 28, 2015 at 8:03 pm | #

    Imagine if Irving Howe had ever complained ‘that New York is “under-populated,” meaning that it has too many Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews and too few WASPs; but there is no reaction to a reference to the “underpopulated Galilee,” meaning that it has too many Arabs and too few Jews’?

    More on the vicious racism of several well-known “New York intellectuals”:


  14. Kia July 28, 2015 at 9:08 pm | #

    No, they didn’t have any ideas. They had the trailing tail end of somebody else’s ideas and they thought that having ideas looked like them. See Harold Rosenberg, again, “Death in the Wilderness.”

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