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Review of Arguing the World (January 7, 1998)

NEW YORK -- The conventional wisdom about political ideology and personal growth has always been that as we age we inevitably cast off our youthful dreams of changing the world and become increasingly conservative.

Biology has something to do with it. We instinctively want to hang on to what we know, which as time goes by becomes the distant past. But in the 20th century, at least, it also has to do with what history has shown.

In the 1930s, when communism was in its infancy, Marxism seemed an attractive new ideology to a generation of young, Jewish intellectuals growing up in New York City in the lean years of the Depression. Radicalism is easier to embrace when you're poor. Or to paraphrase Bob Dylan, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.

The heady dream of Marxism put into action for a more just and socially equitable world died a painful death with the rise of Stalin and news of his purges. Inevitably, many '30s radicals began questioning their Marxist ideology.

By the '60s, when most had achieved levels of material comfort and academic status that had seemed unimaginable in the '30s, they found themselves defending the establishment under siege from a new brand of radical. They suddenly discovered they had a lot to lose.

Joseph Dorman's documentary "Arguing the World," which follows the lives and careers of four eminent New York thinkers -- Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol -- all of whom attended City College in the '30s and belonged to leftist organizations, makes the softening process seem clear and inevitable.

This fascinating film, whose lean, information-packed narrative doesn't waste a word, succeeds in compiling sharp, concise portraits of its four articulate and complicated subjects.

More important, it presents them as figures in a larger historical and cultural context that is urban and Jewish with close ties to Europe.

As they talk about their lives and evolving political sensibilities, you have a sense of powerful individual minds and personalities continually butting heads with history and with unforeseen events that react to produce strong political attitudes.

Using old photos, reminiscences and commentary, the movie does a wonderful job of evoking the romantic appeal of socialist thought in the '30s, when almost everyone was poor, when New York City abounded with fiery street-corner orators, and when, in the words of one speaker, a "radical atmosphere permeated life." City College is remembered for its "fervent, overly excited intellectuality."

After lingering over the details of life in the '30s, the narrative nimbly accelerates, remembering how the news of Stalin's Moscow trials and the murders of communist revolutionary leaders threw the first dashes of cold water on the dream.

Moving forward, it follows the four men's emergence as literary and social critics debating one another in fledgling journals like Partisan Review and Commentary, their responses to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (whom Kristol defended in the pages of Commentary) and the publication of important, position-defining works like Howe's essay "Age of Conformity" and Bell's book "End of Ideology, the Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism."

Covering the '60s, the movie is especially deft in its appraisal of the bitter disputes between the increasingly conservative Old Left and the Students for a Democratic Society, whose ideals the '30s radicals viewed as naively utopian. One commentator goes so far as to compare the radical leader Tom Hayden with Stalin.

The film's most poignant moments are reminiscences by Glazer and Bell, who were professors respectively at the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University in the late '60s, about finding themselves defending their institutions against student uprisings devoted to shutting them down. For both men, the pain still smarts.

Of the four men whose lives are examined, Kristol made the longest journey, going from radical to the theoretical founder of neoconservativism. (He wittily recalls: "Ever since I can remember, I've been a neo-something. I'm going to end up a neo, that's all: neo dash nothing.") Howe, whose 1993 memorial service ends the film, remained the closest to his radical roots.

At the end of this enthralling film, which opens Wednesday at Film Forum, you don't feel you've been harangued by political polemics. The movie offers one of the deepest portraits ever filmed of the fluidity of ideas, as good minds grapple with the cataclysms of history and the human condition and have the temerity to keep searching for answers.

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