From Memoirs of a Trotskyist by Irving Kristol
I was graduated from City College in the spring of 194O, and the honor I most prized was the fact that I was a member in good standing of the Young People's Socialist League (Fourth International). This organization was commonly; and correctly, designated as Trotskyist (not "Trotskiyite," which was a term used only by the official Communists, or "Stalinists" as we called them, of the day). I have not set foot on the City College campus since my commencement. The present president of the college, Robert Marshak, has amiably urged me to come and see the place again – it is very different but still recognizable, he says. I have promised to go, but somehow I think I may never find the time.
It is not that my memories of CCNY are disagreeable. On the contrary: When I think back to those years, it is with a kind of nostalgia. It was at that place, and in that time, that I met the young men – there were no women at the uptown campus then – who became my lifelong friends. The education I got was pretty good, even if most of it was acquired outside the classroom. My personal life was no messier or more troubled than any adolescent’s. True, I was poor-but so was everyone else, and I was by no means the poorest. True, too, it was not fun commuting by subway for more than an hour each way from and to Brooklyn, where I lived. But the memory of poverty and those tedious subway rides has faded with time, whereas what I now recollect most vividly is the incredible vivacity with which we all confronted the dismal 1930s.
Is it then perhaps my radical past, now so firmly disowned, that bothers me and makes CCNY unhallowed ground? I think not. I have no regret about that episode in my life. Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.
But my feelings toward those radical days are even more positive than this kind of general reflection suggests. For the truth is that being a young radical was not simply part of my college experience; it was practically the whole of it. If I left City College with a better education than did many students at other and supposedly better colleges, it was because my involvement in radical politics put me in touch with people and ideas that prompted me to read and think and argue with a furious energy. This was not a typical experience. I am talking about a relatively small group of students, a particular kind of student radical. Going to City College meant, for me, being a member of this group. it was a privileged experience, and I know of no one who participated in it who does not look back upon it with some such sentiment.
So why have I never returned to visit the place? Perhaps because I know it is impossible. That place no longer exists. It has vanished with the time of which it was so integral a part. Whatever is now happening at City College, I doubt that I am likely to comprehend, much less enjoy, it. For what I have seen of student radicalism on various campuses over the past dozen years baffles and bothers me. It seems to be more a psycho-logical than a truly political phenomenon. There is a desperate quest for self-identity, an evident and acute involvement of one's political beliefs with all kinds of personal anxieties and neuroses, a consequent cheerlessness and truculence.
The changing connotation of the term "alienated" tells us much. At City College in the 1930s we were familiar enough with the word and the idea behind it. But for us it was a sociological category and referred to the condition of the working class. We werenot alienated. By virtue of being radical intellectuals, we had "transcended" alienation (to use another Marxist term). We experienced our radicalism as a privilege of rank, not as a burden imposed by a malignant fate. It would never have occurred to us to denounce anyone or anything as "elitist." The elite was us – the "happy few" who had been chosen by History to guide our fellow creatures toward a secular redemption…
Alcove No. 1 was located in the City College lunchroom, a vast ground-floor space which even we, who came from slums or near-slums, judged to be an especially slummy and smelly place. There was a small semicircular counter where one could buy franks or milk or coffee. I suppose they also sold some sandwiches, but I certainly never bought one, and I do not remember anyone else ever committing such an act of unmitigated profligacy The less poor among us purchased a frank or two; the rest brought their lunches from home – hard-boiled egg sandwiches, cream-cheese sandwiches, peanut-butter sandwiches, once in a while even a chicken sandwich – and there was always a bit of sandwich swapping to enliven one's diet. There was also some sandwich scrounging by those who were really poor; one asked and gave without shame or reservation.
The center of the lunchroom, taking up most of the space, consisted of chest-high, wooden tables under a low, artificial ceiling. There, most of the students ate their lunches, standing up. (I looked upon this as being reasonable, since at Boys' High, in Brooklyn, we had had the same arrangement. To this day I find it as natural to eat a sandwich standing up as sitting down.) Around this central area there was a fairly wide and high-ceilinged aisle; and bordering the aisle, under large windows with small panes of glass that kept out as much light as they let in, were the alcoves-semicircular (or were they rectangular?), each with a bench fitted along the wall and a low, long refectory table in the middle. The first alcove on the right, as you entered the lunchroom, was Alcove No.1, and this soon became most of what City College meant to me. It was there one ate lunch, played Ping-Pong (sometimes with a net, sometimes without, passed the time of day between and after classes, argued incessantly, and generally devoted oneself to solving the ultimate problems of the human race. The penultimate problems we figured could be left for our declining years, after we had graduated.
I would guess that, in all, there were more than a dozen alcoves, and just how rights of possession had been historically established was as obscure as the origins of the social contract itself. Once established, however; they endured, and in a manner typical of New York's "melting pot," each religious, ethnic, cultural, and political group had its own little alcove. There was a Catholic alcove, the "turf" of the Newman Society, a Zionist alcove, an Orthodox Jewish alcove; there was a black alcove for the handful of blacks then at CCNY, an alcove for members of the athletic teams, and so forth. But the only alcoves that mattered to me were No.1 and No.2, the alcoves of the anti-Stalinist Left and pro-Stalinist Left respectively It was between these two alcoves that the war of the worlds was fought, over the faceless bodies of the mass of students, whom we tried desperately to manipulate into "the right position" but about whom, to tell the truth, we knew little and cared less.
City College was known at the time as a "radical" institution, and in an era when most college students identified themselves as Republicans the ascription was not incorrect. If there were any Republicans at City -- and there must have been some -- I never met them, or even heard of their existence. Most of the students, from Jewish working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds with a socialist tint, were spontaneously sympathetic to the New Deal and F.D.R. The really left-wing groups, though larger than elsewhere, were a distinct minority Alcove No.2, by far the most populous of the "political" alcoves, could rarely mobilize more than four hundred or five hundred out of a total enrollment of perhaps twenty thousand students for a protest rally, or "action"; we in Alcove No.1 numbered about thirty "regulars" and were lucky to get an audience of fifty to one hundred for one of ours. But then, as now, student government and student politics were a minority affair, and what the passive majority thought really did not matter What "happened" on campus was determined by them-the derniens of Alcove No. 2 or us. In truth, very little did happen; but at the time what did seemed terribly important. During my first three years, they controlled the college newspaper; in my last year we got control. it was a glorious victory, and I do think that we went on to publish a slightly less mendacious newspaper, but I have not even a vague remembrance of what we were slightly less mendacious about.
I shall not say much about Alcove No. 2 – the home of the pro-Stalinist left – but, Lord, how dreary a bunch they seemed to be! I thought then, with a sectarian snobbery that comes so easily to young radicals, that they really did not and never would amount to much. And I must say – at the risk of being accused of smugness – that in all these intervening decades, only two names from Alcove No.2 have come to my attention. One is now a scientist at a major university The other was Julius Rosenberg.
I do believe their dreariness was a fact,and that this dreariness in turn had something to do with the political outlook they took it upon them selves to espouse. These were young college students who, out of sympathy with Communism as officially established in the Soviet Union, had publicly to justify the Moscow trials and the bloody purge of old Bolsheviks; had publicly to accept the se1f-glorification of Joseph Stalin as an exemplar of Communist virtue and wisdom; had publicly to deny that there were concentration camps in the Soviet Union, and so forth,…
Which brings me to Alcove No. 1, where pure intellect –a certain kind of intellect, anyway – reigned unchallenged. Alcove No. 1 was the place you went to if you wanted to be radical and have a "theory." I mean that in the largest sense. We in Alcove No. I were terribly concerned with being "right" in politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, history, anthropology, and so forth. It was essential to be right in all of these fields of knowledge, lest a bit of information from one should casually collide with a theoretical edifice and bring the whole structure tumbling down. So all the little grouplets that joined together to make Alcove No.1 their home were always in keen competition to come up with startling bits of information – or, better yet, obscure and disorienting quotations from Marx or Engels or Lenin or Trotsky – that would create intellectual trouble for the rest of the company.
The Trotskyists, with perhaps a dozen members, were one of the largest grouplets and unquestionably the most feverishly articulate. Almost as numerous, though considerably less noisy, were the Socialists, "the Norman Thomas Socialists" as one called them, to distinguish them from other kinds of socialists. Among these other kinds, none of which ever had more than two or three representatives in Alcove No.1, were the Social Democrats (or "right-wing socialists") who actually voted for F.D.R., and the "revolutionary socialists" who belonged to one or another "splinter group" – the Ohlerites, the Marlinites, the Fieldites, the Lovestonites, and the who-can-remember-what-other-ites – which, finding itself in "principled disagreement" with every other sect, had its own little publication (usually called a "theoretical organ") and its own special prescription for achieving real socialism. In addition, and finally, there were a handful of "independents"-exasperating left-wing individualists who either could not bring themselves to join any group or else insisted on joining them all in succession, What held this crazy conglomeration together was, quite simply, the powerful presence of Alcove No.2, and, beyond that, the looming shadow of Stalinism with its threat of so irrevocably debasing the socialist ideal as to rob humanity of what we were certain was its last, best hope.
Obviously, in such a milieu certain intellectual qualities tended to be emphasized at the expense of others. We were strongly inclined to celebrate the analytical powers of mind rather than the creative, and we paid more heed to public philosophies than to private ones. It cannot be an accident that so many graduates of Alcove No.1 went on to become professors of social science; in a sense, what Alcove No. I provided was a peculiarly intense undergraduate education in what is now called social science but which we then called (more accurately, I sometimes think) political ideology, Nor can it be an accident that none of the graduates of Alcove No. I – none who were there in my time, anyway – subsequently achieved any kind of distinction in creative writing or the arts; in that ideological hothouse, the personal vision and the personal accent withered for lack of nourishment.
So I do not want to be misunderstood as claiming superlative merits for Alcove No.1 as an educational milieu. On the other hand, it was an authentic educational milieu. And this, I suppose, is why so many went on to become professors getting paid, as it were, for continuing to be interested in the things they had always been interested in.
In some respects the quintessential representative of this milieu was Seymour Martin Lipset, now professor of sociology and political science at Stanford – a kind of intellectual bumblebee, whose function it was to spread the pollen of ideological doubt and political consternation over all Alcove No.1's flowering ideologues. Irving Howe, in contrast, was a pillar of ideological rectitude. Thin, gangling, intense, always a little distant, his fingers incessantly and nervously twisting a cowlick as he enunciated sharp and authoritative opinions, Irving was the Trotskyist leader and "theoretician." In the years since, he has gone on to become a famous literary critic and a professor of literature at the City University. But he has remained politically engage', though slowly moving "right" from Trotskyism to democratic socialism (as represented in his journal Dissent). Since I have abandoned my socialist beliefs altogether, I feel that I am still ahead of him politically. Daniel Bell, now professor of sociology at Harvard, was at the opposite pole from Irving. He was that rarity of the 1930s, an honest- to-goodness social-democratic intellectual who believed in "a mixed economy," a two-party system based on the British model, and other liberal heresies. His evident skepticism toward all our ideologies would ordinarily have disqualified him from membership in Alcove No. 1. But he had an immense intellectual curiosity a kind of amused fondness for sectarian dialectics, knew his radical texts as thoroughly as the most learned among us, and enjoyed "a good theoretical discussion" the way some enjoy a Turkish bath – so we counted him in. Over the years, his political views have probably changed less than those of the rest of us, with the result that, whereas his former classmates used to criticize him from the left, they now criticize him from all points of the ideological compass.
Others who later found, to their pleasant surprise, that what they had took been doing in Alcove No. I was what the academic world would come to recognize and generously reward as "social science" were Nathan Glazer (Harvard), Philip Selznick (Berkeley), Peter Rossi (Johns Hopkins), Morroe Berger (Princeton), I. Milton Sacks (Brandeis), Lawrence Krader and Bernard Bellush (City University), Seymour Melman (Columbia), Melvin J. Lasky…
City College was a pretty dull educational place. The student who came seeking an intellectual community, in which the life of the mind was strenuously lived, had to create such a community and such a life for himself…