A SHORT HISTORY OF THE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS
ew York Intellectual Lionel Abel wrote that New York City in the 1930s was "the most interesting part of the Soviet Union." Radicalism was on the rise and the American Communist Party,. after years spent in obscurity, was drawing many leading intellectuals like Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson into its orbit.
As the Great Depression hit in the early part of the decade, everyone seemed to be looking for an answer to the sudden collapse of the economy.. The city blossomed with radical groups. Among their strongest adherents were the East European Jews who had immigrated to America in the years before and after the turn of the century.
Among many of the New York Intellectuals, radicalism had been a family tradition. Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell all had parents who belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers and voted for the Socialist party, while Irving Kristol's father was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. While still in their teens both Irving Howe and Daniel Bell joined the Young People's Socialist League.
Socialism promised more than a better economic future; it held out the hope that they might move beyond the narrow confines of their immigrant world and the stigma of being Jewish. Alexander Bloom, author of Prodigal Sons, The New York Intellectuals and Their World, writes that, "The cosmopolitan philosophy of the radical causes offered the hope of a world where being Jewish would not make any difference." he writes. At the same time, "Rather than forcing a total break with their parents, [socialism] allowed a degree of continuity with their own past and traditions and served as part of a transition from the ghetto margins to the larger society."
Radical political life was played out in parks like Union Square or on neighborhood street corners where speakers would seduce passersby to gather around them. Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol both remember stopping to hear these speakers, while Irving Howe and Daniel Bell actually mustered the courage to mount the street speaker's ladder themselves.
he triumph of Soviet communism in 1917 had bolstered the fortunes of the Communist party in America, lending it an aura of power and possibility. With the growing Fascist menace of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe Soviet leader Joseph Stalin declared the era of the Popular in1935.
The American Communist party, once militantly revolutionary, embraced President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal; Party Leader, Earl Browder who had been unalterably opposed to American politics, now equated communism with "20th Century Americanism." To build mass appeal, they created "front" organizations secretly controlled by the party such as the League Against War and Fascism and the League of American Writers.
The Popular Front would mark the party's greatest popularity in the U.S. and the period of its greatest influence. Party members like literary critic Malcolm Cowley and Howard Fast and intellectual "fellow travelers," sympathetic to the party, such as playwright Lillian Hellman helped to popularize the cause of the Soviet Union. Many more joined in the Party's wide array of front organizations.
At the same time the Popular Front generated a controversy over the nature of the Communist party's influence in America, which would later inform the liberal community's debate over communism during the McCarthy years.
Despite the Party's overtures, most other groups on the Left were wary of the Popular Front and critical of its newly found "Americanism" its creation of front groups, secretly controlled by the Party. "All the way through in the Popular Front period, the question of communist manipulation and communist domination, communist bad faith was a central problem," Irving Howe recalls. For those opposed to communism like Howe, Bell, Kristol and Glazer the party, its front groups and its sudden embrace of Roosevelt, were no more than tactical maneuvers.
he rise of Stalin to absolute power and his perversion of the ideals of the communist revolution set many people against communism. Even during the Popular Front in 1936, Stalin began conducting a series of spectacular show trials. The defendants -- all Bolsheviks who had helped lead the revolution -- were accused of being counter-revolutionary traitors.
In one trial after another these old guard revolutionaries were found guilty and condemned to death. One's attitude to the trials ultimately became a litmus test of loyalty to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Though many in the party supported Stalin, many saw the trials for what they in fact were: a destruction of those in the party who threatened Stalin's power.
In 1939 Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and Communist parties across the world suddenly suspended the Popular Front. For the non-Stalinist left in America, the treaty and the subsequent twists and turns of Communist line seemed ultimate proof not only of Stalin's cynical politics, but of the slavish obedience of the American Communist party to Moscow's dictates.
Disgusted with Stalinism, some on the left flocked to the banner of exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky. Originally a leader of the Bolshevik revolution Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union by Stalin, ultimately settling in Mexico. Attempting to battle Stalin from exile, Trotsky attempted to form his own rival communist movement, the "Fourth International" and attracted a number of important American intellectuals to his side.
During this period in the late '30s young Leftists like Irving Howe and Irving Kristol(by this time a radical as well) were won over to the Trotskyist banner. Others like Daniel Bell remained socialists. Still others like Nathan Glazer belonged to smaller groups such as Avukah, a socialist-Zionist group. Yet all were deeply opposed to Stalin.
ity College in Harlem was a school for the brightest of New York's poor. By the time of the Great Depression, swelling enrollments made it "a kind of proletarian Harvard," in the words of journalist David Boroff. The college's all-male student body consisted largely of the sons of East European Jewish immigrants, denied access to other colleges, both because of their poverty and because of restrictions recently instituted by many Ivy League schools.
Columbia University, just twenty blocks south was a training ground for the city's Protestant elite. Though it accepted the children of New York's prosperous German Jewish community, it had erected unofficial quotas in the face of rising applications from qualified but poor East European Jews. One of its administrators explained that, "Eastern European Jews lacking `social advantages' were not `particularly pleasant companions' for Columbia's 'natural constituency.'"
As in the city outside it, radical culture burgeoned at City College during the Depression. Much of it was centered in the school's basement cafeteria, a large, airless room ringed by a series of alcoves. By the late '30s, a small group of anti-Stalinist students began to gather in what became known as alcove one, among them Bell(class of '39), Howe('40), Kristol('40) and Glazer('44).. Along with their Left-wing cohorts in a variety of tiny splinter groups, the boys of alcove number one argued about everything from future revolution in America to the Moscow Trials to the nature of the Stalinist regime, testing each other's political acumen, verbal ability, and theoretical skill.
The college's much larger communist contingent sat next door in alcove two. "They were forbidden to talk to us," Kristol remembers. But the boys of alcove one could not resist the fight. " We had one fellow who had a foghorn voice, and he would hold up a left-wing paper and yell "Read about Stalin the butcher!" And they would become very aggravated and aroused, and sometimes we would just literally provoke them into entering a debate or discussion," recalled Howe.
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he greatest intellectual influence on the boys of alcove one was a young journal called Partisan Review, dedicated to joining Marxist radicalism with the modernist literary sensibility. PR had originally begun life in 1934 under the auspices of the Communist Party But its two chief editors Phillip Rahv, a Party member and William Phillips, a fellow traveler of the Party, soon found themselves chafing under the Party's dogmatic political and cultural dictates and its strident attack on modernism.
By 1937, Rahv and Phillips had broken from the Communist Party and begun to publish Partisan Review as an independent journal. The magazine's early board of editors and writer, all in their twenties and thirties, would become the core of the group that Howe would later christen "The New York Intellectuals." It included literary critics, F.W. Dupee and Lionel Abel; novelists, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow; political essayist Dwight McDonald; and Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, art critics who would, in a few years time, champion Abstract Expressionism.
Partisan Review and its essays ultimately came to define the New York Intellectual style: a self-consciously brilliant intellectual journalism that was unafraid to tackle almost any issue, cultural or political. The articles in Partisan Review were both densely written and wide-ranging in their scope. More than anything, they exhibited a sense of intellectual engagement that would become the hallmark of the group.
As Marxists, the PR writers were committed to changing the world, not merely writing about it. Though this attitude was, in part, a mark of the naivete of a group of young writers bent on political revolution, it left a lasting imprint on the group which led to a life-long political engagement with the central issues of their day.
Intellectual historian Terry Cooney, author of The Rise of the New York Intellectuals, Partisan Review and its circle 1934-1945, explains that, "Marxism and modernism came together for the new Partisan Review through the [Hegelian] ideal of synthesis. If it was to move forward [these individuals felt] literature must preserve the sophistication and boldness of modernist writing; yet it must combine with that the analysis of society inherent in Marxism, the whole package being held together by a positive sense of historical direction and purpose." The two movements were, however, often politically at odds: many of the modernists like Eliot were conservative and some like Ezra Pound were even reactionary. Yet they seemed also to share important concerns. Modernism, like Marxism, was preoccupied with the alienation and the moral squalor of the moment. Modernist literature offered, as did Marxism, strong attacks on industrial society. Modernist authors, like these young immigrant intellectuals, felt themselves to be at odds with middle class society and prevailing social values. World War One had confirmed for the modernists the moral and social breakdown of the West
The two movements' emphasis on an international vision appealed to these children of immigrants attempting to transcend the parochialism of their own lives. The Partisan Review writers and their City College acolytes fused these two tremendous energies into a radical critique of an American capitalist society in crisis, hoping to provide a path out of the darkness of the Depression.
Ultimately the two movements were, in many ways, politically at odds; many key modernists like T.S. Eliot were politically conservative and others were simply apolitical. Though Eliot chose to attack what he perceived as the West's crisis of values through a radically experimental technique, he meant to recapture a lost past, not usher in a never-before-seen future. Beyond this lay another issue that would only begin to haunt the New Yorkers in later years. The subversive nature of modernism its critique of middle class values initially so appealing to them when they felt no economic or social stake in their society grew problematic as they matured and came to appreciate American society.
n the years after World War 2, Kristol, Bell, Glazer and Howe, now young men in their twenties, found their way into the circle of writers around Partisan Review. Glazer and Kristol joined the staff of the newly established Jewish intellectual magazine, Commentary, Bell became the managing editor of the socialist New Leader, while Howe began freelancing as a literary critic. "What really animated and drove [us]," explains Daniel Bell, "was a hunger for culture. In a sense going to college could be called a conversion to culture, coming out of slum or ghetto backgrounds and finding a whole world open that [we] had never known before."
While many of first generation New York Intellectuals had initially been turned away from the academy, the American educational system was expanding and jobs were suddenly available. In the '30s New York Intellectual Lionel Trilling, preeminent literary critic of his generation, had been the first Jew to teach in Columbia's English Department. Earlier, his friend and mentor Elliot Cohen, future editor of Commentary, had been refused a teaching job at Yale because as a Jew he was "deaf' to the 'Anglo-Saxon spirit' of English Literature."
In the years after the war with the tremendous expansion of universities, academia "broke wide open" for Jews as Daniel Bell recalled. Even those without formal doctorates, like the New York Intellectuals. Teaching appointments were given to emerging sociologists like Bell and Nathan Glazer by the University of Chicago. Irving Howe got a job teaching literature at newly founded Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
While success brought with it greater assimilation into American society, the tragedy of the Holocaust provoked the New Yorkers to reexamine their Jewish identities. They found themselves caught between two worlds, the "world of their fathers" as Irving Howe described it to which they could never return and an American society to which they felt they could never fully belong.
Daniel Bell talks of the "double consciousness" of being Jewish, of forever being caught between the immigrant neighborhoods and American society: "There was always the sense you lived in two worlds. The word alienation has become a cliche, but it was real in the sense not that alienation made you angry at the world, but you were not a part of it." Glazer, Bell and Kristol all came from Orthodox Jewish homes and though uninterested in becoming actively religious, formed a study group to read the Talmud. Irving Howe rediscovered Yiddish, literature and edited a landmark anthology at this time.
Old arguments from their alcove days reemerged in the more polished form of political and cultural essays. Together with first generation of New York Intellectuals, Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Mary McCarthy and Meyer Schapiro, they fought for and gained acceptance in the wider literary and intellectual circles of New York, along with other new voices such as black writers James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and essayists Elizabeth Hardwick and Murray Kempton. Ambitious for their voices to be heard they wrote for and worked at older journals like Partisan Review and The New Leader and newer ones such as Commentary(1945) and Politics(1944). Frustrated by the political bent of Commentary and Partisan Review, Irving Howe even began his own journal in 1954. With typical flair, he called it Dissent. These highbrow journals with relatively small circulations, were all edited by New York Intellectuals.
As their voices reached beyond the small circles of their youth these New Yorkers began to define a new intellectual style. They were, according to Howe, America's first intelligentsia: a group of intellectuals who had risen from the working classes and whose work was informed by political concerns. They were part street-fighter, part scholar and their style combined an invigorating mix of working class street savvy and intellectual sophistication. Their articles and essays, in many cases written expressly for one another, formed a civilized dialogue on morality, politics and culture under which a battle of strong willed -- and sometimes savage -- egos, continually surged.
Their triumph both in the academy and outside it was instrumental in shaping a new cultural consensus around the modernist movement. Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals, American Culture in the Age of Academe, referring to the New York Intellectuals, has written, "... in the 1950s New Yorkers and Jews commanded the cultural heights, and often defined the terms and scope. Any study of recent American intellectuals must assess the New York and Jewish contributions." As professors and as critics, through courses, articles, and introductions to new editions of these modernist works they made a larger American populace pay attention to the writings of the great moderns.
Irving Howe went on to write studies of American modernists such as William Faulkner and a collection of essays on European and American literature, Politics and The Novel. Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg emerged as important art critics championing the work of the New York school of abstract expressionist painters. Yet as modernism came to dominate "high" culture, the New Yorkers were moving away from radicalism. Modernism, and its "adversary stance" as Lionel Trilling called it, became a purely aesthetic phenomenon, losing the political overtones it had once had.
n the postwar years, negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States over the political fate of Europe bred increasing misunderstanding and distrust. Ultimately, America's main wartime ally became her greatest enemy. In Greece and Turkey communist guerillas fought unsuccessfully for power, but in Eastern Europe, beginning with Czechoslovakia in 1948, one country after another fell under the sway of the Soviets. As the chill of the Cold War settled in, the New York Intellectuals' critique of Stalinism suddenly became relevant to American foreign policy.
During these years, the groups' anti-Stalinism was evolving into a larger skepticism about Marxism. Even before the war, Irving Kristol had shed his Trotskyism; by the late '40s he considered himself a liberal. Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer moved toward a mixture of liberal and socialist sympathies. Irving Howe, the longest of the four to remain a radical Marxist was, by the early fifties, a democratic socialist.
Each became convinced that Soviet Communism had given rise to a terrible evil. German Jewish émigré scholar, Hannah Arendt gave it definition in The Origins of Totalitarianism, likening the Soviet government in its total control of both state and society to the Nazis.
Kristol, Glazer and Bell also turned to the writings of the Protestant theologian and political activist Reinhold Neihbur who employed the language of Christian neo-orthodoxy to critique utopian politics. Man's sinful nature made a politically perfect world an impossibility, he felt.
Under Neibuhr's influence, the chastened young men gained an appreciation for the pragmatism of American democracy which promised less than utopian goals, but delivered greater political freedoms. The former would-be revolutionaries, now saw their intellectual task as a more affirmative one.
Irving Howe, saw his friends' affirmation of American society as a retreat from their former ideals and attacked what he viewed as their complacency in a 1954 article for Partisan Review, "This Age of Conformity." Howe accused his fellow intellectuals of discarding their radicalism and with it their critical acuity. For Howe the chief mission of the intellectual was to be an informed critic of society and the liberal anti-communism they espoused had become a defense of the American status quo. In the process, they had relinquished their proper role as intellectuals. They, in turn, were dismissive of what they perceived as Howe's unrealistically critical stand on the United States. They felt it was crucial to defend American political and cultural values as essential to the freedom of the intellectual enterprise.
Historian Neil Jumonville, author of Critical Crossings, The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America, writes "... from the late 1930s through the 1980s the group split over the proper amount of criticism intellectuals should direct toward their culture.... Conversely, how much dissent could critics avoid before they ceased to perform a useful intellectual function? That disagreement framed most of the debates among New York Intellectuals in the postwar period." As Bell, Kristol and Glazer began to act on their beliefs, this controversy with Howe continued.
n 1949 the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Sponsored and attended by notables from Lillian Hellman to Albert Einstein, the pro-Soviet conference provoked a tremendous reaction and many anti-Communists came to picket the hotel.
The New York Intellectuals feared the rise, once again, of the Popular Front. Philosopher Sidney Hook was outraged when he asked to speak at a panel and was refused. Other New York Intellectuals, like Irving Howe attended the conference in order to debate its organizers from the conference floor.
In protest over the Conference's propagandistic bias the Hook organized a counter conference which led to the creation of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom(ACCF). Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer all joined.
The ACCF was part of a larger international movement of anti-Communist intellectuals whose umbrella organization was the Congress for Cultural Freedom.(CCF). Both the CCF and ACCF were designed. to organize intellectuals just as the communists were doing. The ACCF published a steady stream of anti-Communist pamphlets in America while the CCF initiated a variety of new magazines published across Europe. In England Encounter was created and Irving Kristol moved to London for a few years to co-edit it.
Though all Glazer, Bell, Kristol and Howe had opposed the Waldorf conference, the new organization remained controversial. Irving Howe continued to disagree with his friends and declined to join the ACCF. He saw it as overly zealous in combating communism.
Yet for men like Kristol, who became an executive director of the organization, and for Bell and Glazer, who were active in it, the historical moment demanded action and organizing seemed like both a natural and necessary way to combat the well-organized communists. In doing so, they were helping to redefine the role of the intellectual as an engaged activist. In the 1960s it was learned that the CCF had been at least partially funded by the CIA and questions arose about the organization's independence.
remendous anxieties were generated by the onset of the Cold War and the birth of the atomic age. In 1947, President Truman under pressure from the right, instituted a new loyalty oath for all government officials. Though the Communist party was not as large as it had been during the Depression, many party members were active in unions, and other left-wing organizations. From behind the scenes communists controlled Henry Wallace's ill-fated 1948 race for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities(HUAC), which included then-Congressman Richard Nixon(originally created in 1938 and reborn after the war) conducted hearings on Communist subversion in Hollywood in 1947.
In 1948, Alger Hiss, a one time State Department employee, was accused of being a communist spy. Hiss had worked at the highest levels of government, even accompanying Roosevelt to Yalta, and his case became both a national scandal and a cause celebre for many on the left. Though he denied the charges, he was eventually convicted of perjury and went to jail. (In recent years the declassification and release of the government's long-held "Venona" intercepts of secret Soviet communications have confirmed Hiss' guilt in most scholar's eyes.)
The following year the eleven leaders of the Communist party were tried and convicted under the newly created Smith Act which had made it illegal to advocate or teach the violent overthrow of the American government. In 1950 Senator Pat McCarran created the Senate Internal Subcommittee on Security and began holding hearings to root out communists.
Joseph McCarthy, who gave his name to the era, rose to fame in the Senate that same year through a series of speeches in which he claimed have evidence that the government was riddled with communists. He began conducting his own hearings into communist subversion through his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
In one of the century's most celebrated cases Julius Rosenberg, once a young communist at City College and his wife Ethel were arrested in 1950, then tried and convicted of giving Atomic secrets to the Soviet government. In the midst of bitter controversy they were sentenced to death and after a final appeal to the Supreme Court, electrocuted in 1953. (Recent evidence confirms Julius' guilt. It also points to Ethel's innocence, the government's knowledge of this and its unethical use of her to place pressure on her husband to confess.)
Many in the liberal community stood up to defend Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. For the New York Intellectuals, who had no doubts that the American Communist party was guilty of Soviet espionage, these events were an intellectual call to arms. Commentary magazine and its editors were at the unofficial center of intellectual anti-communism, but articles were also published in Partisan Review, and the The New York Times Book Review, dissecting the Hiss Case and the Rosenberg trials.
Kristol, Bell and Glazer were anxious to prove to their fellow liberals that these people were guilty and that communist espionage was real. Yet they were loath to find themselves allies of the anti-Communist right which found its ultimate voice in Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In the end, the question of espionage only led to larger, more complex questions about the nature of communism and its place in American life. Investigations broadened out to a variety of areas such as those conducted by a number of states into communist subversion in the universities.
Did a university professor's allegiance to the Party preclude allegiance to the United States or to intellectual freedom? New York Intellectual Sidney Hook, a "hard" anticommunist and a scholar of Marxism attempted to set the terms of the debate over communism in his book, Heresy, Yes, Conspiracy, No. America, Hook claimed, had long tolerated dissenting political points of view -- so-called heresies from mainstream thought --but it could not tolerate communism, an organized conspiracy strictly subservient to the orders of Moscow. As conspiratorial agents, they were not entitled to the freedoms granted to others. Irving Howe, a staunch anti-Communist publicly disagreed with Hook's assessment that communists were unfit to teach.
Many "progressive" or anti-anti-communist liberals disagreed with the New York Intellectuals. They were convinced that the New Yorkers were more interested in opposing communism than they were in protecting individual rights, thus helping to erode civil liberties in America. Some such as Lillian Hellman, and others grouped around The Nation, were openly sympathetic to the Soviet Union and American communism.
At the height of the McCarthy era Kristol and Glazer, then editors for Commentary, wrote articles that condemned McCarthy. Yet each also criticized the anti-anti-communists, Kristol explicitly, Glazer implicitly. In "Civil Liberties 1952 -- A Study in Confusion," Kristol wrote "There is one thing that Americans know about Senator McCarthy, that he is an anti-Communist. About much of the liberal community they know no such thing." A year later in "The Methods of Senator McCarthy" Glazer wrote: "It is a shame and an outrage that Senator McCarthy should remain in the senate, but I cannot see that [his staying in office] is an imminent danger to personal liberty in the United States." Howe strongly disagreed with Kristol and Glazer and felt they were ignoring the issue of civil liberties. Yet for Kristol Glazer and Bell the real threat remained communism, which the anti-anti communist liberals were overlooking.
he debate over communism has not gone away. In her 1976 book Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman (who had been called to testify before HUAC) criticized the New York Intellectuals for not defending the rights of communists and others more aggressively. She claimed that, "Many of them found in the sins of Stalin Communism... an excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies." Hellman's book unleashed a deluge of condemnation and praise. Nathan Glazer replied in Commentary that same year, "It was -- and is -- inconceivable to her that the communists she knew could be the enemy. Yet the communists ... advanced the interests of an awesome power that was ... the enemy of freedom throughout the world." Recent historians have been equally divided on the legacy of these New Yorkers. Historian Alexander Bloom explains their anti-communism as the result of guilt over their own radical past, "... in the explanations and analyses of various postwar investigations, their own sense of guilt appeared just below their surface complacency."
Historian John Patrick Diggins disagrees, "... the intellectuals who opposed communism had taken their stand long before the McCarthy era; indeed they tried to inform the public about the Soviet Union when the country was pro-, not anti- Soviet." In the end these remain complex questions of motive, not easily reducible to a single answer.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a host of once-secret material has become available to scholars documenting extensive control and financing of the American Communist Party by the Soviets. Archival material affirms agents of both the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, U.S.A conducted espionage in America. And, as mentioned above, documents point to the guilt of Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, while exonerating Ethel Rosenberg.
Still the role of American communists in American political life continues to provoke debate. Many historians see the new material as final proof of the corrupt nature of American communism. Others continue to point to those party members active in unions, the movement for civil rights and other left-wing causes as examples of the contributions the communist movement its members made to progressive causes in this country.
y the early sixties, the four men, now in their forties, had established themselves as important intellectual voices in the culture. Daniel Bell had published his classic compilation of essays, The End of Ideology, Irving Howe had written his influential study of literature, Politics and the Novel, Nathan Glazer, along with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had produced a groundbreaking study of ethnicity, Beyond the Melting Pot. They had also found a home at America's leading universities: Daniel Bell at Columbia University, Nathan Glazer at the University of California at Berkeley and Irving Howe at Hunter College in New York. Here they would confront a new generation of radicals springing up on college campuses across the country.
The New Left, as it came to be known had a kind of unofficial birth in 1962 when a number of politically-minded college students members of an organization called Students for a Democratic Society(SDS) gathered for a retreat in the wooded countryside of Port Huron, Michigan. Much of their inspiration came from the Southern civil rights movement in which blacks were taking "direct action" through sit-ins, marches and boycotts to assert their civil rights.
After a weekend of long, ambling discussions and deliberations, the earnest group of young intellectuals emerged with the written declaration known as the Port Huron Statement. Chiefly written by a young man named Tom Hayden, the statement called for the creation of "participatory democracy." America, the young students felt, was run by a complacent "liberal establishment" which inhabited the sprawling government bureaucracies and ran its now-huge universities. They hoped to reclaim political power for the average citizen
Though McCarthyism itself had largely subsided in the early 60s, America and the Soviets were still firmly locked in a Cold War. In the same year that the Port Huron Statement was written, Kennedy had faced down Kruschev over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Further away, America was beginning to send its first advisors to the East Asian country of South Vietnam, then locked in a struggle against its northern communist neighbor.
Early on New Leftists like Tom Hayden, sought out Daniel Bell and Irving Howe looking for advice from their political elders. Yet by the time Irving Howe and his group at Dissent met the leaders of SDS later in 1962, initial hopes of an alliance between generations turned to open conflict. Howe became alarmed at the New Left's dismissal of anti-communism and their admiration for Castro's new communist regime in Cuba.
"I should not have gotten so emotionally entangled in disputes with the New Left, but I did," explains Howe, "Perhaps I should have eased my way into the paternalism that some intellectuals adopted, but I could not. I overreacted becoming at times harsh and strident." The students of the New Left, having grown up under the shadow of Joe McCarthy's Anticommunism in the 1950s, were determined to be anti-anti-communists.
At Berkeley in 1964, Nathan Glazer found himself in conflict with the Free Speech Movement(FSM), comprised in part of students with whom he had once been politically allied. The FSM had broken out over the right to advocate political views on campus, staging protests and campus sit-ins. Glazer spoke out against the disruptive tactics of the FSM in the faculty senate and found himself strongly at odds with the new radicalism.
The escalation of the Vietnam War and the organization of an anti-war march in Washington in 1965, triggered the growth of the still small New Left into a nationwide student movement. Campuses across the country bred student radicals and radical groups, some loosely tied to SDS others completely independent.
At Columbia in 1968, the New Left became more frustrated and more assertive. Students, angry over the university's research for the Pentagon and the decision to build a gym in Harlem that they felt overlooked the needs of the local black residents, took over university buildings. Daniel Bell, deeply skeptical of the students and protective of the university community, was a member of a faculty committee that tried to negotiate between an unyielding college administration and the intransigent radical students. When student protestors would not leave the buildings they had occupied, President Grayson Kirk called in the police. Students were beaten and dragged from buildings. Upset over the police's actions, Bell nevertheless found himself diametrically opposed to the young radicals and their attempt, in his eyes, to politicize the university.
Once again the New York Intellectuals took up their pens. Commentary, which had, under editor Norman Podhoretz, published a piece by Nathan Glazer critical of the Free Speech Movement A year later Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell founded The Public Interest(1965) which soon published an entire issue on the student rebellion.. In Dissent Howe launched his own criticisms of the student protestors. In the sixties, even old antagonists like Howe and Kristol could find themselves in agreement in their antagonism toward the new student radicals.
These men, who had practiced an intensely intellectual radicalism in their youths saw the New Left as both naive and anti-intellectual. They couldn't tolerate the student's disdain for systematic political theorizing in favor of a more spontaneous action-oriented politics.
The students became increasingly angry at the war in Vietnam, seeing American culture and liberalism as essentially at fault. In contrast, the four men had come to increasingly appreciate American political and cultural values and were appalled at the New Left's belief in the "corruption" of American society.
At the same time, the New Left increasingly began to view the university as a staging ground for political activity, disrupting classes and other aspects of university life in order to make themselves heard by college administrations often tone-deaf to their arguments. The four New Yorkers saw the students' actions as a threat to the university which they felt should be protected from politics in order to safeguard free inquiry. The students' increasingly more radical tactics on campus like the use of physical "confrontation" in order to provoke a response from university officials and other authorities was deeply disturbing to all of these New Yorkers.
In turn at colleges like Columbia, the New Left saw professors like Daniel Bell as politically intransigent, blind to the problems in American politics and culture, and blind to the university's "complicity" in those problems through its "racist" housing policies as well as its participation in military research.. The New York Intellectuals, in their eyes, were protecting a problematic status quo and loath to cede any authority to a new generation of political activists.
Ironically for the New York Intellectuals, the cultural modernism that they had championed came back to haunt them. As literary critic Morris Dickstein wrote in Gates of Eden, American Culture in the Sixties, "At the heart of the rift between the established intellectuals and their rebellious students were differences in their conceptions of culture. What [Lionel] Trilling called the "adversary culture" of artists and intellectuals had come by the 1950s to be identified exclusively with high culture.... For the impatient students of ten years later, however -- whose "counterculture" actually inherited many of the ideas of the "adversary culture" ... culture was to be seen above all in its practical and political possibilities."
The modernist sensibility, once part of their youthful political radicalism in the 1930s had come to challenge the now middle-aged New York Intellectuals, through the New Left's attack on their own middle class culture. For the New Yorkers, who disagreed with much of the criticism, it was perceived as an attack on all established authority and therefore destabilizing to society.
By the late 60s and early 70s the New Left's dreams of building a unified, peaceful and progressive movement evaporated. Over the years the New Left and many of its leaders had become increasingly prone to violence, factionalism and extremist Marxist ideologies. Yet in its wake the movement had polarized the country and created a sea-change in American politics. In its fight against liberalism the New Left had pushed the Democratic Party further to the left, ultimately resulting in the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and his overwhelming defeat by Richard Nixon.
he New York Intellectuals, whose ties had been weakening for years, found themselves pulled apart by the shifting ground underneath the liberal left. Kristol, Bell and Glazer were critical of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and founded The Public Interest in 1965, to take, as Bell noted, "a cool(i.e. not ideologically passionate) look at public policy." They saw many of Johnson's poverty programs as full of good intentions but riddled by poor policy analysis.
Still, in 1968, Irving Kristol remained a Hubert Humphrey Democrat. In 1972, dismayed at McGovern's nomination and the Democrat Party's swing leftward under pressure from sixties radicalism, Kristol voted for Nixon. By the late 70s he had had become a registered Republican. "I became a radical because I thought I had good reasons to be radical," explains Kristol. " I became liberal because I thought I had good reasons to be liberal. And I became conservative because I thought I had good reasons to be conservative. It seems to me perfectly natural."
Kristol was among a group of intellectuals moving rightward including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer, who created in the eighties, yet another generation of magazines such as The National Interest, and The New Criterion. They were, in large part, responsible for revitalizing American conservatism.
Nathan Glazer, while remaining a Democrat, also found himself moving rightward, though less easily than Kristol. He found himself labeled a conservative in part because of his conflicts with the New Left, and in part because of his sharp criticisms of liberal social policy. In his controversial book Affirmative Discrimination, he criticized what he perceived as both the inequity and inefficacy of affirmative action policies. Of the attempt to ameliorate social ills since the sixties, Glazer explained, "I have to admit I'm a pessimist about our ability to change things but I feel we have to keep on trying." Through the nineties, Glazer's positions continued to change, at times to the dismay of his allies on the right. In recent years, he has significantly rethought his stance on affirmative action, now giving it his qualified support as a means of preventing wholesale resegregation in colleges and universities. .
In his 1983 book The Neoconservatives Peter Steinfels claimed Daniel Bell as a member of the neoconservative group, but Bell remained even more uncomfortable with the label than Glazer. He described himself instead as "a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture." After increasing political disagreements with Kristol, Bell quietly left The Public Interest, though he and Kristol remained friends.
In fact, in many ways, Bell remained what he had been for years, a centrist liberal, critical of both sixties radicalism and the Great Society on the one hand and of the conservatives attack on the federal government and their belief in a minimalist social policy on the other.
Until his death in 1993, Irving Howe continued to call himself a socialist, though, he, along with his ally Michael Harrington, in helping to found Democratic Socialists of America, decided to relinquish their position outside mainstream politics in order to act as a left-wing minority inside the Democratic Party.
He ultimately reconciled with many of his former foes in the New Left as both sides found common ground in the wake of the student movement. Howe, always a believer in the idea of Participatory Democracy, embraced at least part of the Feminist movement that had grown out of the New left, while old antagonists like ex-SDS president, Todd Gitlin, gained an appreciation for Howe's repudiation of communism and joined Dissent's editorial board.
More than fifty years after the four men' initial debates in the City College alcoves, communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but Bell, Kristol and Glazer continue to be engaged and influential social critics, and Howe's legacy as a socialist and literary critic remains strong through his own writings and through the now forty-five year old Dissent magazine.