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FINDING MY WAY TO THE ALCOVES

By Joseph Dorman, director

"Where I grew up in the Bronx," the late literary critic Irving Howe told me, "politics was meat and drink… historical consciousness came to one unbidden at the kitchen table" The child of Jewish immigrants, Howe had grown up in an impoverished New York neighborhood intoxicated with the heady aroma of radical politics. Communists vied with socialists for allegiance. Unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers or the Fur and Leather Workers defined one’s world, not simply one’s working life. Street Corner speakers -- men and women armed with a belief in revolution and a stepladder -- captured audiences for hours. Democrats seemed a rarity, other political parties non-existent.

I came of age forty years later and a world away in the suburbs of Detroit. My father was a psychoanalyst and it was Freud, not Marx who ruled our kitchen table. Of course, growing up amidst the riots and protests of the sixties, a vague political awareness could not help but creep into my consciousness. But by the time I entered high school, radicalism had spiraled into violence and Nixon’s Washington seemed hopelessly corrupt. Though I never lost interest in politics, like many in my generation I became deeply skeptical that political engagement might make the world a better or even a very different place. And then, some years later, having become a filmmaker, I stumbled upon an intriguing memoir by the essayist Irving Kristol -- first published in this magazine -- about his days as a Trotskyist radical at the City College of New York.

City College, a school of mainly poor immigrants’ sons, had been an intensely radical school during the Depression. Kristol and his friends -– all devout Marxists -- would steal away to an alcove in the college cafeteria to argue politics and revolution. Those friends turned out to include a number of others who had become influential intellectuals, among them Irving Howe, and the sociologists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer. "It was [in the alcove] one ate lunch, played Ping-Pong… argued incessantly, and generally devoted oneself to solving the ultimate problems of the human race," recalled Kristol.

Despite belonging to a variety of radical groups, they were drawn together by their implacable hostility to Communism as it existed in the Soviet Union and among the members of the Young Communist League who inhabited the alcove next to theirs. They spent their days feverishly trying to understand how the socialist ideal of political and economic justice had ended in Joseph Stalin’s murderous tyranny. "We were raising some of the most fundamental political questions of the twentieth century," remembered Howe, "though we wouldn’t have put it that way."

Trying to capture that youthful idealism on film was an irresistible idea. My hope was to follow the threads of those early conversations as they wove themselves through the course of their lives and through some of the most interesting events of the twentieth century -- from the terrors of McCarthyism through the hope and anger of the radical sixties to the present. I wrote to each of them and was surprised that they were actually willing to entertain my idea.

Asking these men to reveal their lives, I found myself at times taskmaster, inquisitor, supplicant, but most often student. Filming Daniel Bell on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side where he had grown up, we found a dilapidated synagogue. Raised in an orthodox Jewish household, Bell had been lured toward socialism when he was just thirteen. He informed his rabbi that he no longer believed in God. The Rabbi shot back, "So you don’t believe in God. Tell me, do you think God Cares?" A precocious street corner speaker whose ambition outstripped his knowledge, he had memorized a speech of the great socialist leader Eugene Debs from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a means of stirring his audience. Over the past sixty years Bell has retained the passion of his street corner days, his several books, though now infused with his enormous scholarship, are still intimately bound with his vision of the future.

It was daunting to question these dazzling talkers who could answer any question in seamlessly composed paragraphs, who could use words with easy, and at times, barbed elegance. Though initially reluctant to criticize one another on film, it was also clear that they could not really resist it. Irving Howe, a lifelong socialist whose fight with the neo-conservative Irving Kristol had become increasingly bitter over the years, would erupt into an attack on him, then pause to caution me in my efforts to edit his words, only to begin helplessly to pounce once more as the camera rolled again. Argument had been the glue that had kept them together from the very beginning and it had produced not simply an intense rivalry but a brilliant body of work.

That argument had begun in the cafeteria at City College. The apparent hopelessness of their lives -- caught as they were between depression and oncoming war -- gave them a freedom to entertain large dreams, dreams that began in naïve thoughts of revolution but led to a lifelong passion for thought as a mode of action, as a way of remaking the world. Almost thirty years later, in the mid-sixties Irving Kristol along with Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer began The Public Interest, the magazine Kristol still co-edits with Glazer. Disgruntled with the political landscape, Kristol recalled that "… I didn’t run for office…. I started a magazine… it was the only thing I could think to do. We had an initial circulation of a few hundred, but that didn’t bother us. With a circulation of a few hundred you can change the world." And, through the band of intellectuals who gathered around the magazine -- later branded the neoconservatives -- these men did much to alter the way people, both in and out of government, thought about social policy.

From the beginning, the four have managed to mix their passion for prophecy with the tough realism of the ghetto. Nathan Glazer remembered that "one of the characteristics of [our] group was a notion of its universal competence… culture, politics, whatever was happening we shot our mouths off on… It was a model created by the arrogance that if you’re a Marxist you can understand anything and it was a model that even as we gave up our Marxism we nevertheless stuck with." Arrogance they had in abundance, but it was tempered by what Bell called a "greed for knowledge," a kind of voracious curiosity that, combined with their brilliance and prodigal efforts, enabled them to have an impact on our cultural and political life.

My encounter with these four men has made me all too aware of the difference between their generation and my own. Bred in poverty and economic chaos, they had found hope in passionate political engagement. My generation, born into affluence and political scandal has taken refuge in skepticism, a skepticism that for many, over the years, has withered into cynicism. It was these mens’ belief -– at times in spite of overwhelming odds -- that the world can be changed which first drew me to them and it is their lifelong political passion that, for me, remains perhaps their most important legacy.

 
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