On the New York Intellectuals

by Corey Robin on July 26, 2015

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 Howe was an object of great attraction for someone like me, the epitome of the independent left 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 left intellectual lost its allure for me. Howe’s star fell somewhat. Which is ironic because Howe was one of the few anti-Stalinist intellectuals who managed to keep his bearings during the McCarthy years.

This past year, I’ve been re-reading Howe. His literary criticism, which I used to love, now leaves me cold (I’d add to my list of resentful essays I discuss in that post his bitchy reassessment of the battle between Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett.) But to my great surprise I’ve been newly impressed by his political criticism. When he’s not obsessively whacking Tom Hayden or the Berkeley radicals, he can be astonishingly keen and prescient about the weaknesses of the American Left, the contradictions of the welfare state, and the long-term impact of McCarthyism. Free of that crabbiness of spirit that so often mars his judgment and makes his voice so grating, he can see what’s moving and what’s 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). They feature that pugilism that Howe is so often celebrated for but which now seems so tiresome and familiar. When he’s not rehearsing his case for the prosecution, Howe can really rise above the material. 

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 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 came into their own, the battle for Joyce, Eliot, and Pound had been won). They were late to the radical experience: by the late 1930s, Communism was above all else a problem for the left. 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. Despite our sense that they were at the center of the action, they felt they were late to the party, that everything had happened before them. Which is something I often feel about my generation. I wonder if it’s congenital to the left or to intellectual life as a whole.

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

4. The New York Intellectuals made no real contribution to political thought; their main contribution was a style. Howe may be at his 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 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.

On a related note, a brief plug for George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For?, which features some terrific essays on the New York Intellectuals. In what may be one of its best seminars ever, CT hosted a wonderful set of contributions and debates on George’s book. Read that seminar, then buy the book. George has a new book of essays coming out later this year: Low Dishonest Decade. I’ve just begin it in manuscript. It seems to be every bit as good as What Are Intellectuals Good For? I’ll keep you posted.

{ 70 comments }

1

ZM 07.26.15 at 3:08 am

In terms of striving for a certain brilliance I think the 60s and 70s Australian intellectuals like Clive James, Germaine Greer, and Robert Hughes, and the people who ran Oz magazine etc, also sought this, but they were all quite young at the time.

“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.”

Robert Manne’s recent essay in the The Monthly on Pope Francis’ climate change Encyclical Laudato Si’ starts with a similar point:

“When I was young the intellectual milieu was shaped by the need to come to terms with the unprecedented crimes and the general moral collapse that had taken place on European soil following the outbreak of great power conflict in August 1914 – Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust and the Gulag, the concentration camps and genocide, the tens of millions of deaths that had occurred in two unprecedentedly barbarous wars. For me the most important book on the contemporary crisis of civilization was Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism…”

Manne then goes on to look at what the equivalent is now:

“In our own age we are faced with a crisis of civilisation of equivalent depth but of an altogether different kind – the gradual but apparently inexorable human-caused destruction of the condition of the Earth in which human life has flourished over the past several thousand years, at whose centre is the phenomenon we call either global warming or climate change.”

And then likens the impact of Laudato Si’ to Origins of Totalitarianism:

“It was however not until last week that I read a work whose tone and scope seemed to me, like Arendt’s Origins, fully adequate to its theme. That work was Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home “

Some more excerpts:

“The encyclical enjoins wealthy nations to abandon the ambition of economic growth and assist poorer nations to pursue a growth that is called “healthy”. To make progress in the interconnected struggle against global warming and global inequality, the encyclical also talks of the need for a world political authority. It acknowledges that none of this of course will happen without what the encyclical calls a profound “cultural revolution”.”

“Of all major contemporary political thinkers of whom I am aware, the one who most closely resembles Francis is Vaclav Havel in whose great work, The Power of the Powerless, several major tendencies of the encyclical can be found – hostility to the technological-industrial-consumer society, profound democratic faith, and a notion of transcendence grounded in the idea of the human spirit.”

“Sentiment is however not enough, as [Bill] McKibben himself concedes. It will take considerable time for the meaning of the encyclical to be absorbed and assessed. When I think back on the impact on my political thought of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, I can recognise now that, while I learnt an enormous amount from it, on certain issues I was seriously misled.”

https://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/robert-manne/2015/01/2015/1435708320/laudato-si-political-reading

2

Meredith 07.26.15 at 5:15 am

http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2015/07/20/all-grasshoppers-no-ants/

I read Corey’s post first and found myself overwhelmed by memories. Then I read this any found myself overwhelmed by the present.

At the same time, past and present began to come together.

3

Harold 07.26.15 at 7:21 am

Um, didn’t one of them write a book called “Making It”?

4

Corey Robin 07.26.15 at 12:53 pm

“Um, didn’t one of them write a book called ‘Making It’?”

Yes. Ironically, it may be the one piece of writing of Podhoretz that has any claim to long-standing significance, the one piece of writing that has three pages — more than three pages — that might live.

5

Lee A. Arnold 07.26.15 at 1:52 pm

Corey Robin: ” …they felt they were late to the party, that everything had happened before them. Which is something I often feel about my generation.”

Are you quoting Howe here, or expressing your own feelings?

6

Corey Robin 07.26.15 at 2:00 pm

The first part of the quote is me paraphrasing Howe. The second part is me expressing my own feelings.

7

CJColucci 07.26.15 at 2:37 pm

Quite by coincidence, I recently read Bloom’s (not Allan) The New York Intellectuals, McNeill’s A Better World, and Diggins’s Up From Communism, along with Tanenhaus’s bio of Whittaker Chambers. And I’m old enough to remember the last gasp disputes of the late 60’s to Reagan. All of this seemed to confirm my impression at the time that a bunch of people with no particular claim to expertise and little history of sound political judgment — whatever side they took — were squabbling over snubs at upper west side cocktail parties. Obviously something of an exaggeration, but maybe not much of one.

8

jake the antisoshul soshulist 07.26.15 at 2:57 pm

” All of this seemed to confirm my impression at the time that a bunch of people with no particular claim to expertise and little history of sound political judgment — whatever side they took — were squabbling over snubs at upper west side cocktail parties. Obviously something of an exaggeration, but maybe not much of one.”

Something like the Very Serious People (villagers) and their attitude toward access to
DC cocktail parties?

9

NickS 07.26.15 at 3:59 pm

They also came at the end of the Jewish immigrant experience in America.

I hope I’m not too far off topic, but I recently discovered a song by Leon Rosselson, which I hadn’t heard before and which I think is one of his very best (which I meas as the highest praise possible) called, “My Father’s Jewish World. It covers a number of topics, but it includes a touching description of what he saw of his father’s Jewish Immigrant experience (“My father came here as a boy from Czarist Russia . . .”). Perhaps it is only because the song has been on my mind, but I think it’s an interesting companion to the discussion of New York Intellectuals (transcription mine, so I apologize for any errors. Emphasis also mine, I thought Corey would particularly appreciate the last two lines of they quoted verses.)

He lived in England half belonging half a stranger
Always feeling much as I do, on the outside looking in.
In time he grew to be an unbeliever,
Religion had become a mental chain
Abandoned God, became a Jewish atheist
and then, with pride a communist until the day he died

So no more bible, but instead the Daily Worker
people came and people argued asking questions, “how” and “why?”
Revolution staring Trotsky, Soviet Russia
“Two Jews, three opinions” so they say.
“God loves the poor and helps the rich,” the Jewish father tells his son,
And so you’ve got to chose which side you’re on.

As they say, listen to the whole thing (including a critical verse about Israel) , but I also think you might enjoy the invocation that me makes in the closing verse

That precious strand of Jewishness that challenges authority
… The Jewish anarchists and socialists who fought to free the poor
The ones who meet injustices with anger and will not let their dreams drown in despair.
Who speak up for the refugees, defend the weak against the strong
It’s for these rebel Jews I sing my song.

10

bianca steele 07.26.15 at 4:09 pm

Nothing I’ve read about that generation (I haven’t read the most recent contributions, though) has answered the questions I have about their motivations, context, etc. I’m in the middle of Marc Greif’s book now, which seems to come at the whole thing from a totally new direction . . . pausing to finish a novel before wading into two chapters on Bellow, however leavened with the presence of Ellison, which seems to be the price of getting to read about O’Connor and Pynchon.

Harold Bloom is (ironically) the locus classicus of belatedness, but Chaim Potok’s novel The Book of Lights foregrounds it with respect to Einstein and the Manhattan Project, on the one hand, and a thinly disguised Gershom Scholem, on the other. (I suppose now that Reuven Malter, in Potok’s earlier books, is about to find that Wittgenstein has made his planned life work moot before he begins.)

11

Lee A. Arnold 07.26.15 at 4:32 pm

Corey, Please don’t feel that way. For one thing, those old guys were all screwed up because Civil Rights, the sexual revolution, women’s lib, and environmental awareness had barely begun. And for many of their readers, the Soviet Union still posed a severe ideological challenge to intelligent discussion of welfare economics, as well as a big security threat. So one reason that now is a better time, is because the view is clearer, the intellectual argument cleaner and more advanced, than before.

For another, I think that now we have much more information than they did; quicker and easier access to widespread media and feedback to our ideas; and we are getting reports from all over the world that increasing numbers of people recognize that the System is cracking, in many ways. So the second reason why this is the best time, is that more people are getting on board and getting involved in the discussion.

12

Daniel Oppenheimer 07.26.15 at 5:07 pm

Putting aside the question of their merits and contributions as thinkers and writers (and I suspect I differ pretty dramatically from CT commenters in my assessment of those), one thing that’s always drawn me to the New York intellectuals, and still attracts me, is the degree to which it seems they really did, for a time, constitute a vibrant community of intellectuals.

I’m sure Corey’s right that many of them felt they were late to the party. Podhoretz, about whom I’ve written, certainly felt that way. But I’m pretty sure they had an actual party for a while, which is cool. It was possible, within that community, to live an exciting, engaged intellectual life in a way that seems historically the exception rather than the rule.

The example that comes to mind, as evidence of this community, is a kind of odd and very late one in the life cycle of the New York intellectuals. Town Bloody Hall, the DA Pennebaker documentary about the 1971 Norman Mailer-anchored panel at Town Hall in Manhattan, is by far the closest I’ve ever seen film come to capturing on screen the genuine excitement of intellectual life. And so much of that depends on the people on stage and in the audience being part of the same “family.” They shared the same reference points, assumed in each other a certain level of good faith, and, though they didn’t all like each other, they all felt familiar with each other.

No question the community-ness of the New York Intellectuals has been romanticized and exaggerated, but I think there was something rare and real there nonetheless.

13

bianca steele 07.26.15 at 6:05 pm

I think the problem comes in here, in the penultimate paragraph, when Howe suggests that with the loss of what the Intellectuals represented, with the loss of veneration for the Intellectuals themselves, we no longer have any restraint on action:

Against me, against my ideas it is possible to argue, but how, according to this new dispensation, can anyone argue against my need?

I don’t know why the relativism he sees is only against raw wants, and not against ideas or ideas, but from a retrospective feminist point of view, what I worry is that the restraint he envisions will amount to traditional heterosexual marriage and little more than that. And beginning with a belief that tying oneself down to a woman will civilize the male, one becomes satisfied with the sense that having tied oneself down to a woman, only in the legal sense, will save the uncivilized male from himself and save society from him as well.

14

bianca steele 07.26.15 at 6:05 pm

yuck. ideas or ideals

15

William Berry 07.26.15 at 8:52 pm

@Daniel Oppenheimer:

“Putting aside the question of their merits and contributions as thinkers and writers (and I suspect I differ pretty dramatically from CT commenters in my assessment of those . . .”

Wow! Now that’s the way to leave us wriggling on the hook!

16

William Berry 07.26.15 at 9:02 pm

Fascinating post.

I still like to browse, from time to time, through the old issues of Partisan Review given to me by one of my English profs way back when. You can trace the neo-con sclerosis setting in as the years go by (esp. in the writings of Kristol and Podhoretz).

IMNSHO, Dwight McDonald was the best of the lot. Though his association with the PR ended early, he was a New York intellectual, in the best sense of the term, to the end.

17

cassander 07.26.15 at 9:35 pm

It seems to me that the disillusionment with stalinism was far more a consequence of Kruschev’s secret speech and invasion of Hungary than anything else. WEB Dubois’ paen to the man on his death in 53 was not far from the mainstream. And while dubois remained an unrepentant stalinist until his death, most on the left found it easier to endorse the “good” communists like Mao, Castro, and Ho while accepting the orwell/trotsky line that Stalin was an aberration. It wasn’t true, of course, and the red baiters were considerably closer to the truth than the defenders of Hiss et. al., but it was enough to perpetuate the dream for a few more decades, particularly after McCarthy managed to completely discredit the anti-communist effort.

18

Daniel Oppenheimer 07.26.15 at 9:36 pm

@William Berry

Just off the top of my head: Leslie Fiedler was utterly brilliant, and way ahead of his time. Lionel Trilling was great. Edmund Wilson’s greatness preceded, and transcended the New York Intellectuals, but he was connected to them. Howe’s short book on Trotsky is awesome. Dwight Macdonald. I guess everyone hates Sidney Hook these days, but he wrote a long piece on Marxism in 1932 or so, the starting point of what became Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, that’s pretty epic. etc.

19

William Berry 07.26.15 at 9:47 pm

@Daniel:

Well, speaking for myself, I can’t really disagree with that assessment. Thnx for the reply.

My own passion, in my youth, was for literature, so I am much more drawn to the criticism than to the politics.

20

Corey Robin 07.26.15 at 10:27 pm

Cassander: Membership in the CP peaked during World War II at around 80,000. By 1955, it had plummeted to about 5,000, with as many as a thousand or so serving as informants for the FBI. By the time of Kruschev’s speech, the Party was a hollow shell. A whole range of factors contributed to its demise: the second Red Scare, dissatisfaction with its authoritarianism and slavish devotion to the Soviet line (the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was a major disillusioning force), purges from the labor movement, and more. By the time of Kruschev’s speech, most of the New York intellectuals had long broken with Stalin over the Purges in the Soviet Union.

21

Tabasco 07.26.15 at 11:15 pm

Now that Paul Krugman’s moving to CUNY in semi-retirement, and presumably become a permanent fixture at the NYRB, he is well placed to become the pre-eminent New York intellectual.

22

GRA 07.26.15 at 11:21 pm

>>Now that Paul Krugman’s moving to CUNY in semi-retirement, and presumably become a permanent fixture at the NYRB, he is well placed to become the pre-eminent New York intellectual.

Poor poor NYC.

23

cassander 07.27.15 at 1:07 am

@Corey

I’d actually be interested in seeing CPUSA membership numbers by year, though I’m not sure how useful it would be. A lot of the decline in the late 40s was mere re-branding in the face of popular anti-communist feeling, not actual abandonment of support for the USSR by the people who were supporting it. There were active spies up until at least 53, given how quickly the USSR was able to build a thermonuclear weapon.

24

Mike Schilling 07.27.15 at 1:29 am

@cassander

You’d have to subtract out FBI agents before the numbers meant anything.

25

Lee A. Arnold 07.27.15 at 1:41 am

Corey Robin #20: “…and more.”

Which conjunction ought to include the fact that the postwar economy was just starting to take off like a rocket, and socialist angst seemed ever less necessary. You could pump gas at a gas station, put a down payment on a house and start to raise kids.

26

BillWAF 07.27.15 at 1:50 am

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.

27

Meredith 07.27.15 at 5:18 am

I (very WASP) remember…. A number of my Jewish high school teachers in NJ in the 1960’s, red diaper babies I am sure (allied with Irish and Italian and German immigrants — it gets complicated fast). I remember my mother’s best friend (my alter-mother), a CCNY grad of the late 1930’s, and her politics (a rejection of the religion in her Orthodox upbringing but not its fundamentals — I treasure that her parents’ kosher plates lived in my parents’ NJ attic for ages, until my mother gave them to a very smart, dyslexic girl she’d gotten friendly with in her very Anglo habit of “contributing” by tutoring; the teenage girl’s parents were dismayed by all this kosher nonsense, but somehow my mother mediated). I remember so many more things, including an older woman I know who, when she was a young wife of one of the first Jewish hires here, was asked (respectfully and kindly by the nice WASP wives of faculty): “Where do you go?” (Whaa? Turned out, they meant what Protestant church?!?!) Well, said young wife went on to become a prof and dean. She grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of a communist candy-store owner.

History is texture.

28

Harold 07.27.15 at 6:53 pm

It’s not rocket science. As soon as they accepted money from the CIA they stopped being intellectuals and became government servants with a vested interest in ferreting out the hyped dangers of Stalinism.

http://www.bangor.ac.uk/creative_industries/abrams/Shofar.pdf

29

Corey Robin 07.27.15 at 7:43 pm

Their opposition to Stalinism and the Soviet Union long predates the CIA’s creation. Partisan Review was relaunched in 1937, under Rahv and Phillips, as an explicitly anti-Stalinist publication, a full ten years before the CIA was created.

30

CJColucci 07.27.15 at 7:52 pm

Somewhere in a buried notebook, I have a quotation from a letter to or from Max Eastman to or from, I think, John Dos Passos, where one criticizes the other for demonizing anyone who came to oppose Stalin– or, perhaps more accurately, say bad things about him, since nobody actually did anything — either too soon or too late, as measured by when the recipient of the letter (I think it was Eastman) changed his own political tune.
There was a time when reasonable people, in Depression-induced despair, could believe in good faith that the Soviet Union was the leading edge of a better future. Some people held that belief long after it was reasonable, but stupid politics, even willfully stupid politics, shouldn’t have been such a big deal. Hiss and (Julius) Rosenberg, probably, were spies, but why should sane people have cared about the politics of Edward G. Robinson or Dalton Trumbo? And a good deal of the hysteria was whipped up by people who had been silly enough to toe the Stalinist line for a long time and brought the same habits of mind and heart to their new politics.

31

Harold 07.27.15 at 7:56 pm

@27. So what?

32

Harold 07.27.15 at 8:00 pm

@28 I meant. There is more justification for respecting Philip Rahv, then.

33

Harold 07.27.15 at 9:37 pm

Or not: unding by the C.I.A.[edit]

Although vehemently denied by founding editor William Phillips through his dying breath, in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union it was revealed that Partisan Review was the recipient of money from the Central Intelligence Agency as part of its effort to shape intellectual opinion in the so-called “cultural cold war.”[8] In 1953 PR found itself in financial difficulties when one its primary backstage financial “angel,” Allan D. Dowling, became embroiled in a costly divorce proceeding.[9] The financial shortfall was made up by a $2500 grant from the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), a CIA front organization on the executive board of which editor Phillips sat throughout the decade of the 1950s.[9]

Additional CIA money came later in the 1950s when the ACCF terminated its operations half of the money remaining in the organization’s coffers was transferred to Partisan Review.[9] An additional funds came to the magazine to alleviate its financial problems in the 1950s in the form of a $10,000 donation from Time magazine publisher Henry Luce.[9] Luce seems to have been instrumental in expediting contacts between PR publisher Phillips and Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith.[9]

A successor organization established by the CIA to funnel money to sympathetic groups and individuals, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, stepped up to assist the magazine in the early 1960s, granting PR $3,000 a year for a 3-year period in the guise of foreign magazine subscriptions.[9]

34

Harold 07.27.15 at 9:38 pm

That is what wikipedia has to say.

35

F. Foundling 07.28.15 at 7:04 pm

@CJColucci 07.27.15 at 7:52 pm
>Hiss and (Julius) Rosenberg, probably, were spies

As a citizen of a former communist country, I’m very grateful to all the spies who leaked American atomic secrets to the USSR and made sure there was a situation of mutual assured destruction and not just a situation where the US had the bombs and the socialist bloc didn’t. Nothing I’ve seen from US behaviour in recent decades or earlier makes me think that, in such a hypothetical situation, the bombs would not have been used.

36

F. Foundling 07.28.15 at 10:01 pm

@Lee A. Arnold 07.26.15 at 4:32 pm
>And for many of their readers, the Soviet Union still posed a severe ideological challenge to intelligent discussion of welfare economics, as well as a big security threat. So one reason that now is a better time, is because the view is clearer, the intellectual argument cleaner and more advanced, than before.

Except that, strangely enough, the greatest advances in welfare economics were made precisely during the time of the Communist threat, and as soon as the Communist threat was diminished, an economic right-wing tendency began of which there seems to be no end in sight. Why would that be, I wonder. Could it be that perhaps the real ‘threat’ that forced the elite to allow those advances was the existence of a real-life competing alternative, however questionable, and the spectre of a socialist revolution at home? As opposed to the ‘very big’ security threat of a Soviet tank invasion across the ocean, I mean.

>For one thing, those old guys were all screwed up because Civil Rights, the sexual revolution, women’s lib, and environmental awareness had barely begun.

Yeah, f**k those psychos. After all, we don’t even know what their stance would have been on affirmative action for solar panel-using black female transsexual happily gay-married neopagan Earth Goddess worshippers, who also happen to be twice-decorated Iraq war veterans. Not having addressed this issue, they might as well never have lived.

37

The Temporary Name 07.28.15 at 10:36 pm

Nothing I’ve seen from US behaviour in recent decades or earlier makes me think that, in such a hypothetical situation, the bombs would not have been used.

Not even the time when the US had the bomb and the USSR didn’t?

Imagining the imbalance after 1949 is a fun mental exercise though.

38

CJColucci 07.29.15 at 3:49 pm

As a citizen of a former communist country, I’m very grateful to all the spies who leaked American atomic secrets to the USSR and made sure there was a situation of mutual assured destruction and not just a situation where the US had the bombs and the socialist bloc didn’t. Nothing I’ve seen from US behaviour in recent decades or earlier makes me think that, in such a hypothetical situation, the bombs would not have been used.

There’s something to be said for that from the point of view of the Universe, but for any actual, existing, sovereign nation, hunting down and prosecuting spies sort of comes with — if you’ll pardon the expression — the territory. No one can be acquitted of an espionage charge in any country I’m aware of on the theory that the world as a whole is better off because you passed on secrets. Whether, morally, you ought to do it anyway is, of course, another question.

39

LFC 07.29.15 at 9:17 pm

I’ve just read the OP. I appreciate the quotations from Howe’s “The New York Intellectuals,” which I don’t think I’d read before (though one or two of the points sound sort of familiar). A small correction: the OP says the essay appeared in Commentary in 1969; however, the link goes to Dissent, which is presumably where the essay actually appeared and which would make more sense, for at least a couple of reasons (one of them of course being that Howe was co-editor of Dissent and for a quite a while did a lot if not most of the day-to-day running of the magazine).

40

Corey Robin 07.29.15 at 11:01 pm

Nope. It was Commentary. 1968, actually. Here’s the link. I just used the Dissent link b/c I found it there.

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-new-york-intellectuals-a-chronicle-a-critique/

41

engels 07.29.15 at 11:09 pm

the OP says the essay appeared in Commentary in 1969; however, the link goes to Dissent

I heard they’d merged.

42

LFC 07.30.15 at 12:12 am

Corey: sorry, I was wrong. I guess that was before Commentary’s right turn. I shd know the date of that offhand (esp. having recently read A. Hartman’s book) but don’t. Early 70s, I guess.

43

LFC 07.30.15 at 12:15 am

engels
I heard they’d merged.

The reverse. They diverged (that W. Allen joke notwithstanding).

44

F. Foundling 07.30.15 at 12:50 am

@The Temporary Name 07.28.15 at 10:36 pm

>>Nothing I’ve seen from US behaviour in recent decades or earlier makes me think that, in such a hypothetical situation, the bombs would not have been used.

>Not even the time when the US had the bomb and the USSR didn’t?

No, not even that, believe it or not. But sure, I do appreciate the absence of a single nuclear attack during those two whole years between the start of the cold war and 1949. That was really nice.

@CJColucci 07.29.15 at 3:49 pm
>There’s something to be said for that from the point of view of the Universe,

Please, it was just *my* humble point of view as an extra-US-ian human. I didn’t presume to speak on behalf of the Universe, the Absolute Spirit, or even at Galaxy level.

>No one can be acquitted of an espionage charge in any country I’m aware of on the theory that the world as a whole is better off because you passed on secrets.

You’re confirming my suspicion that defence councel is not the right career for me.

45

F. Foundling 07.30.15 at 12:53 am

That should have been ‘an extra-US-ian human in a certain region’, obviously.

46

PGD 07.30.15 at 3:45 pm

Isn’t the lasting political impact and heritage of the NY intellectuals to be found in the neoconservative movement? Kristol, Podhoretz, Decter all started out as part of the City College liberal but anti-Stalinist crowd. The neoconservatives have had a significant impact on U.S. politics and history.

47

steven johnson 07.30.15 at 8:32 pm

I’ve read and re-read the OP and am still a little lost on what’s supposed to be a insightful in Howe’s political criticism.

The OP says at one point, though, “It has two weak moments: when he’s rehashing his critique of the Stalinism of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940…”

It also says “3. The one political achievement of the New York Intellectuals was the delegitimization of Stalinism among socialist intellectuals. Which I can’t help but think was for Howe, who aimed to forge a vibrant and politically effective socialist left free of the Stalinist taint, something of a disappointment.” Where I get lost is the transition from the one statement to the other. Howe rehashes the critique of Stalinism because he wants to continue the fight. The question I should think would be more whether his political critique stands the test of time.

I do not know that it was necessary for there to be a Stalin to defeat Hitler. No one does. But I think it is highly doubtful that Bukharin could have. I do know that indifference to Hitler’s victory, or equating Hitler to Stalin via nonsense like “totalitarianism” isn’t left in any meaningful sense of the term. I don’t know how much the struggle over the domestic US understanding of the great show trials in the USSR contributed to the struggle against the left in the US. It is doubtful it contributed much to the struggle for or against the left in the USSR. So far as I know, it is quite true that the Nonaggression Pact was a huge crisis, with both the Stalinist and Trotskyist movements suffering what in hindsight seem to have been mortal blows.

So it seems to me that if we want to talk about vibrant socialist critique, we should examine this great rupture. In retrospect, we see that the vibrant, non-totalitarian, non-Stalinist left looked at the democratic diplomatic support for Franco; the failure of collective security to oppose fascist conquest in Ethiopia; democratic capitulation to Hitler at Munich; the Soviet defeat of the Japanese fascists at Nomonhan…and concluded that nothing was more important than supporting the West and anything less than perfect moral purity on the part of the USSR meant permanent condemnation, possibly to the necessity for supporting war against the USSR on behalf of Finland.

I am puzzled as to what could be insightful about Howe’s political criticism.

48

Harold 07.30.15 at 9:44 pm

@47 Indeed.

49

LFC 07.31.15 at 12:47 am

PGD @46
Isn’t the lasting political impact and heritage of the NY intellectuals to be found in the neoconservative movement? Kristol, Podhoretz, Decter all started out as part of the City College liberal but anti-Stalinist crowd. The neoconservatives have had a significant impact on U.S. politics and history.

A couple of problems with this comment. My memory about the neocons’ origins was refreshed recently by reading my Internet friend A. Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America (2015), the second chapter of which deals w the neocons. Some of the future necons did indeed start out at City College in the ’30s but they, generally speaking, weren’t liberals as students, they were leftists: the Trostykists in Alcove no. 1 of the cafeteria, Communists in Alcove no.2. However, Podhoretz, a bit younger, does not fit this pattern in that he did not go to City College; he went to Columbia, where his mentor (or one of them) was Lionel Trilling.

I can’t agree that the only lasting heritage of the NY intellectuals is the neoconservative movement. The NY intellectuals produced some good writing before the split of the late ’60s/ early ’70s, and those who stayed on the left (in one way or other) also produced some good writing after. The neocons did have a significant impact on U.S. politics, but they are not the only lasting legacy of the NY intellectuals. (Nor did all the neocons come out of that milieu, though many did.)

50

LFC 07.31.15 at 12:50 am

P.s. I did not mean to imply that only people on the left produced good writing, or that being on the left is a nec. precondition for writing interesting stuff. So pls. modify previous comment accordingly.

51

LFC 07.31.15 at 1:04 am

steven johnson @47 is predictable given his comments on other threads here.

The OP says:

[Howe] can be astonishingly keen and prescient about the weaknesses of the American Left, the contradictions of the welfare state, and the long-term impact of McCarthyism. Free of that crabbiness of spirit that so often mars his judgment and makes his voice so grating, he can see what’s moving and what’s stagnant in the American current.

Corey can speak for himself, but istm he does not say that this is all on display in Howe’s essay on the NY intellectuals; rather he is obviously referring to Howe’s political criticism as a whole. So I don’t think s. johnson did much of a job of reading the OP. Moreover, Howe’s take on the NY intellectuals, to judge from the excerpts in the OP, was that they were more noteworthy for their style than their political substance; given that this judgment was made in 1968, before the emergence of neoconservatism (which, however repulsive, was a significant political current), it seems not unreasonable.

52

F. Foundling 08.01.15 at 2:41 am

@steven johnson 07.30.15 at 8:32 pm

>I do not know that it was necessary for there to be a Stalin to defeat Hitler. No one does.

Some have argued that it actually took a Stalin to *almost fail* to defeat Hitler. Some in the Party, too. The man was just too busy killing commies, among other things.

>I don’t know how much the struggle over the domestic US understanding of the great show trials in the USSR contributed to the struggle against the left in the US. It is doubtful it contributed much to the struggle for or against the left in the USSR.

I’m inclined to think that any pressure potentially inhibiting the Stalinist regime’s ability to pervert and distort the left at home and abroad, including its ability to exterminate physically, well, leftists, would have been a good thing for the left in the long run, both at home and abroad. I don’t believe in keeping people uninformed for their own good.

53

steven johnson 08.01.15 at 4:45 am

F. Foundling @52 “Some have argued that it actually took a Stalin to *almost fail* to defeat Hitler.”

Perhaps. Let’s suppose that Stalin had magically disappeared right before the Non-Aggression Pact, a deed commonly held to be monstrously wicked, Soviet imperialism against the Baltic states and Poland and Finland, right? In this scenario, German armies would have conquered all Poland and the Baltics. Since the Poles had no intention of cooperating with Soviet armies, certainly one could not reasonably expect Soviet intervention without an alliance, which the British and French were not committing to. There really isn’t any good reason to think collective security was suddenly going to be their foreign policy when it wasn’t in Spain, Ethiopia and Czechoslovakia. Absent that, it is likely enough Hitler would have had support in many quarters in the West for his anti-Bolshevik crusade. Starting from the Baltic states and the Curzon Line borders of Poland, I’m pretty sure both Leningrad and Moscow would have fallen. I’m not sure that would have been final victory for Hitler, but still…Not seeing any sense to the argument yet.

Perhaps Stalin was supposed to have replaced after the Pact, but before he could be somehow surprised by the Nazi attack, despite the many warnings? And especially before he could forbid retreats, sacrificing huge numbers of soldiers? A politician who uses intelligence reports has to assess them using some intelligence. An intelligent appraisal of the situation was that the latter part of June is too damn late in the year to conquer an area as vast as Russia before winter. That Soviet industrial production gave it the ability to sustain a massive prolonged resistance that could eventually swamp the German war machine. That Hitler would have to be crazy, an ideological fanatic, an incompetent gambler to attack then. I’m not sure any replacement for Stalin would have been any better at predicting this, even with the assistance of intelligence reports, no matter how famous they are for their infallibility.

As for the notion that without Stalin, the armies would have been able to deftly bob and weave on their retreat, keeping up a fighting defense, never overwhelming (or even demoralizing) the rear as the came in? Well, maybe, if you say so. Certainly the generals did, and we know they are always correct about they would have won if it wasn’t for the politicians interfering. But then there’s the idea that if Stalin had vanished before the purges, particularly before the old officer corps was decimated, those guys, Tukhachevsky and other peers of Budyonny and Voroshilov, would have made all the difference, unlike the people who replaced them, Zhukov, Chuikov, Rokossovsky et al.?
Well, again, maybe. I don’t know whether you can be sure that the purges removed more talent than it left harsh discipline. I’m pretty sure that Kutuzov and Suvorov would have favored the discipline.

As to whether the party cadres who were lost would have made all the difference, not to insult them, but, again, not so certain. There is one often over-looked way in which their sacrifice helped the USSR, especially the show trials: Disavowing the left in the most decisive way possible, killing them, made it a lot easier for Britain and France to hold their noses. This is all counter-factual, but even so, is it really so obvious that even Churchill would have picked Hitler over, say, Trotsky? I don’t think so.

But perhaps Stalin should have disappeared before the nightmarish failure of the Five Year Plans? Well perhaps a more balanced approach like that advocated by Trotsky could also have industrialized enough to face Hitler’s onslaught. But the real favorite for replacing Hitler was of course Bukharin. His slow growth program would have left the USSR doomed I think. One of Bukharin’s most attractive features for a certain kind of leftist, I think.

But maybe if Stalin had gone before the collectivization campaign? Maybe the Ukrainians wouldn’t have been so outraged that their vast uprisings against Moscow, ably assisted by the Nazi liberators wouldn’t have happened? Well, again, maybe a more balanced program like Trotsky advocated would have worked better. But this argument really boils down to a regret that the Nazis insisted on being Nazis when they marched into the USSR, instead of taking modern advice on nation-building.

Perhaps the Trotskyists are right that their man could have done a better job, but by the standards of a vibrant, independent anti-totalitarian left, Trotsky would have been a nightmare.

54

Stephen 08.01.15 at 6:59 pm

Steven Johnson@53: if we’re going into contrafactual history, how about this? Suppose that Stalin doesn’t decide that the real enemy in 1930s Germany is not the Nazis, but the Social Fascists, as the Communists chose to call the Social Democrats. Suppose that instead of Nazis and Communists opposing the SDs, there had been a Communist/SD alliance against the Nazis? Probable result: Nazis never come to power, all your subsequent contrafactuals irrelevant.

Admittedly, that would involve Stalin analysing the situation differently. As it was, the analysis was: we are now in the last days of Capitalism, and as good Marxist-Leninists we know that this will end in the inevitable triumph of Communism. Nazis/Fascists being the ultimate development of Capitalism, anything that brings them to power can only hasten the collapse of Capitalism and the inevitable triumph of Communism. Social Fascists, on the other hand, are even worse than real Fascists in that their policies, if implemented, will delay the collapse of Capitalism and the inevitable ….

There is some truth in that, since the SD policies, when implemented, did indeed delay and for the foreseeable future prevent the triumph of Soviet Communism, for which I am very grateful. And for Stalin or anyone else in the USSR to analyse things differently would require them not to be Marxist-Leninists. Still, if we are postulating ways to prevent the almost-triumphant spread of Nazism …

As for your other counterfactuals: yes, it is true that France and Britain in 1939 were reluctant to enter into an alliance with Stalin. How far would you say that was due to their perception of Stalin’s habitual breath-taking mendacity, ingrained hostility to liberal democracy, and well-established tendency to mass murder?

And as for the effects of Stalin’s purges on the Soviet army: you do know that it wasn’t just a matter of removing a few generals, it left the Soviet army desperately short of officers who had any training in commanding corps, divisions, regiments, battalions. Courage and patriotism are no substitute for having some idea what to do. Hence the almost-catastrophic disasters of 1941, and the subsequent problems.

55

steven johnson 08.01.15 at 8:24 pm

Yes, I am well aware the chistka affected lower ranks of the officer corps as well. I’m not so sure how much it affected the non-commissioned officers, though. Perhaps I’m wrong but I think it made very little difference there. And it is those officers most responsible for the basic fighting effectiveness of an army, I believe. I am not so convinced the officer corps is quite as vital as they preach. Possibly this is a correct correct criticism. It is notable that that this criticism of Stalin is not left-wing at all. The left wing criticism attacks the restorations of insignia and saluting and such. Your belief that avoiding the right turn have made all the difference may be true, but the argument is not compelling.

“How far would you say that was due to their perception of Stalin’s habitual breath-taking mendacity, ingrained hostility to liberal democracy, and well-established tendency to mass murder?” Similar perceptions led France and Britain into their eagermess to support Franco by “neutrality” aimed at a popularly elected government, or to allow Mussolini to lay waste toEthiopia, or to surrender collective security and Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich, but didn’t lead them to follow up the Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol, not even with simple diplomatic resistance to the Japanese. These perceptions are moralistic propaganda aimed at enemies, excuses not motives. It is long, long past time that adults stop spouting such malevolent nonsense.

When you claim that social democracy stopped the spread of Soviet Communism, you claim that social democracy includes: corruption of elections by the CIA, such as in Italy after the war; massive overt and covert propaganda, as in the Congress for Cultural Freedom; deliberate disruption of the USSR’s postwar economy by terminating Lend-Lease as quickly as possible; threats of use of nuclear weapons, as in Korea; massive wars killing millions, as in Korea and Vietnam; economic blockade and sabotage; political purges of labor unions and academia; restrictions on labor unions; police provocations and informers in socialist organizations; etc. All those would be a catalog of atrocities, except that it’s just business as usual for the vibrant, anti-Stalinist, non-totalitarian independent Left. This is why, even if Trotsky can propose a marriage to the SPD, it is by no means in either his nor Stalin’s power to make the SPD say “yes.” Trotsky forgetting that little detail doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a leftish stick to beat Stalin. The Nazis emerged from the Freikorps movement, an outreach of the SPD to leftists like Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Ralph Lutz, at the Hoover War Collection (later Hoover Institution) finished his bookThe German Revolution by observing how ominous a future these organizations and their contributions to freedom from Soviet Communism were. Speaking of details, it’s actually kind of hard to come by details for examples of Nazi/Communist collaboration against the SPD. But I think you can make a good case for SPD collaboration with Bruening’s rule by decree.

As for preventing Hitler from coming to power, I think you should first of all had your wonderful capitalist system not inflict a Great Depression on humanity. The NSDAP was
withering away until your guys gave us that! Barring that, von Papen might have choked on a champagne cork? Or von Schleicher’s natural oils might have caused a fatal fall on a staircase? Or, barring all else, von Hindenburg might have had a lucid moments, and said “Nein!” Frankly the easy assumption that a united front of SPD and KPD would have routed the Nazis from the streets presumes that the Nazis took power by street fighting, which they didn’t. Also, it forgets that a SPD/KPD coalition would likely have made the military and political intriguers even more eager to call on Hitler for his help, with less fear of him getting out of hand. I’m doubtful about “social fascism” but the SPD didn’t want socialism, and it was militantly opposed to revolution.

56

William Berry 08.01.15 at 8:58 pm

“Stalin’s habitual breath-taking mendacity”

I’m sorry, but that just struck me as hilarious.

I mean, Stalin was a mass-murdering psycho-path, after all. I immediately thought of Thomas de Quincey’s bit about murder leading to oath-breaking and incivility.

57

LFC 08.01.15 at 10:09 pm

s. johnson @55
When you claim that social democracy stopped the spread of Soviet Communism, you claim that social democracy includes: … massive wars killing millions, as in Korea and Vietnam … All those would be a catalog of atrocities, except that it’s just business as usual for the vibrant, anti-Stalinist, non-totalitarian independent Left.

This implication that the non-Communist Left supported the Vietnam War is bizarre. One might be able to find a few self-described leftists who supported the war in the beginning but not that many. The majority were opposed, often from early on, and were often active in the opposition. Most of the people in the student anti-war movement prob. couldn’t be bothered that much with ideology, but I think one can hardly describe the Port Huron Statement, for example, as anything other than an expression of the “non-totalitarian independent Left.” Your repetition of this phrase as if it denotes something filthy and noxious is really offensive.

The Nazis emerged from the Freikorps movement, an outreach of the SPD to leftists like Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

The Freikorps movement was mostly right-wing WW1 veterans, or so I thought. This is the first time I’ve seen it described as “an outreach of the SPD to leftists like Luxemburg and Liebknecht.”

58

F. Foundling 08.01.15 at 11:03 pm

@LFC 08.01.15 at 10:09 pm
>>The Nazis emerged from the Freikorps movement, an outreach of the SPD to leftists like Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
>The Freikorps movement was mostly right-wing WW1 veterans, or so I thought. This is the first time I’ve seen it described as “an outreach of the SPD to leftists like Luxemburg and Liebknecht.”

Steven Johnson’s expression was odd, but I think it should have been clear which well-known facts he was alluding to: an SPD government shamefully collaborated with the far right military and paramilitary elements in order to crush the Spartacists and to murder extra-juducially Luxemburg and Liebknecht. This kind of thing does tend to make later alliances difficult. You know, ‘Wer hat uns verraten, Sozialdemokraten.’ Just like they’ve been prone to do, in other ways, in more recent years.

59

bob mcmanus 08.01.15 at 11:29 pm

“an outreach of the SPD to leftists like Luxemburg and Liebknecht.”

I saw this as some vicious fricking sarcasm immediately. That history needs to be spat at liberals, always.

60

Harold 08.02.15 at 1:08 am

I took it as Foundling did.

61

LFC 08.02.15 at 1:19 am

F. Foundling @58: ok, I get it now.

bob mcmanus @59:
I haven’t considered myself a liberal, at least as that term is used in contemporary U.S. politics; I’ve considered myself somewhere well to the left of liberal However, after being continually insulted, maligned, and (figuratively) spat upon at Crooked Timber apparently for being that loathsome thing, a “liberal,” I’m beginning to think that maybe I am a liberal. The amount and the intensity of venom directed at ‘liberals’ here is such that I am beginning to think I should hold myself personally and directly responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the world since at least 1900 (even though I wasn’t even born until the latter part of the 1950s). But I suspect you (b. mcmanus) would prefer it if I held myself personally responsible for every bit of misery, suffering, and evil in the world since, I don’t know, the Trojan War? Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps? The Albigensian Crusades? The defenestration of Prague? Or would you prefer another starting point?

62

F. Foundling 08.02.15 at 2:39 am

@steven johnson 08.01.15 at 4:45 am

What can I say? I am not convinced by your excuses for and downplaying of the intelligence warnings, the military purge, and the prohibitions of retreat. As for most of the other immoral and/or stupid and/or anti-leftist decisions that you’ve mentioned, I’m not sure I would use them as arguments specifically in connection with the handling of Nazi Germany, but I also don’t agree that they were remotely justifiable, let alone indispensable, and some of your justifications were outright laughable. The military purge was necessary to instill Kutuzov-like discipline? The Great Purge was necessary to please Churchill? Give me a break.

Should Stalin have been replaced? Absolutely. With whom? Well, how about anyone, just anyone who wouldn’t do the Great Purge, to start with? I know for sure that *that* would have been much appreciated by many people. But for some reason you want to consider only the two most plausible candidates as of circa 1928 (why not limit it further to the only plausible candidate as of 1936?), and you don’t like Bukharin’s economic policy, and *that’s* why people like Howe shouldn’t have criticised Stalin for the mass slaughters at all? They should have just accepted him as he was and learnt to love him with all of his minor imperfections? … … I’m sorry, but I still don’t follow. And I doubt I ever will.

Furthermore, your use of the whole who-can-defeat-Hitler counterfactual to criticise critics of Stalinism makes no sense whatsoever to begin with. The raison d’être of the Soviet regime from its inception was not to be some kind of device for the defeat of a potential future Hitler, nor was it to survive at any cost in general, it was to be a (truly) socialist state and to promote (true) socialism all over the world. Accordingly, that’s the perspective from which leftists, including Howe, were evaluating it, and should evaluate it. And from that perspective, Stalin, or rather Stalinism, ensured failure, and we are still reaping the fruits.

Re Stephen 08.01.15 at 6:59 pm, I mostly agree with Steven Johnson on this subject. The suggestion that Britain and France were motivated by concern for democracy and human rights – and not, say, hatred and fear of socialism – is a joke that I doubt even its proponents believe in. And while the ‘social fascism’ doctrine was silly, and a tactical alliance with the SPD would have been desirable, that really would have been very difficult for both sides in light of the events of 1918-1919 and later. Even if it had occurred, it is not at all clear that it would have succeeded in keeping the Nazis out, given how much the reactionaries at home or abroad wanted them in. But that’s just pointless speculation anyway.

63

thehersch 08.02.15 at 2:56 am

De Quincey:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

64

F. Foundling 08.02.15 at 3:28 am

@LFC 08.02.15 at 1:19 am
>However, after being continually insulted, maligned, and (figuratively) spat upon at Crooked Timber apparently for being that loathsome thing, a “liberal,” I’m beginning to think that maybe I am a liberal. The amount and the intensity of venom directed at ‘liberals’ here is such that I am beginning to think I should hold myself personally and directly responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the world since at least 1900 (even though I wasn’t even born until the latter part of the 1950s).

Ah, is there really need for so much passion? ‘Liberal’ is just a shorthand, and everything depends on the specific things that are meant by the person who is using the term negatively. Once that has been established, you can determine whether or not you agree with that characterisation of yourself, and then you can determine whether or not you agree that it is something bad, and if you don’t, you can seek and identify the causes of the difference in your assessments. And thus general understanding and enlightenment will be achieved, from which happiness and harmony will ensue. After the bodies have been carried away, of course.:)

65

Christ, Uhren, und Schmuck 08.02.15 at 9:20 am

“The raison d’être of the Soviet regime from its inception was not to be some kind of device for the defeat of a potential future Hitler, nor was it to survive at any cost in general, it was to be a (truly) socialist state and to promote (true) socialism all over the world.”

Considering the character of experiment (rejection of the concept of ‘permanent revolution’ for the alternative concept of ‘socialism in one country’), arguably survival and the defeat of a potential future Hitler was precisely its raison d’être.

66

F. Foundling 08.02.15 at 2:50 pm

@Christ, Uhren, und Schmuck 08.02.15 at 9:20 am

The point is that survival was not an end in itself. Not even Stalin advocated survival at the cost of betraying socialism, he just denied that he was betraying it. The *purpose* of the survival of the Soviet regime was to be a socialist state, which included building socialism at home and promoting it abroad. So it was, and is, a very important question whether that goal was being achieved.

@steven johnson 08.01.15 at 4:45 am

In general, Steven Johnson, you seem to be extremely determined to prove that somehow there was just absolutely no alternative to having this specific leader whose characteristic approach to governing included, among other ‘shortcomings’, ordering and/or encouraging the arrests and killing of an enormous number of people on false charges. I think most of the people arrested and killed in his idiotic so-called ‘purges’ (who, incidentally, included some of my [Communist] relatives – not that this in itself should lend any additional weight to my argument) would agree with me when I say to you: Comrade, please … get a f***ing grip.

67

F. Foundling 08.02.15 at 3:08 pm

I’m out.

68

Stephen 08.02.15 at 7:38 pm

steven johnson@53: “Yes, I am well aware the chistka affected lower ranks of the officer corps as well. I’m not so sure how much it affected the non-commissioned officers, though. Perhaps I’m wrong but I think it made very little difference there. And it is those officers most responsible for the basic fighting effectiveness of an army, I believe.”

At a smal-unit level, yes, you are entirely right, competent NCOs are essential for effectiveness.

At higher levels, not so.

From Soviet sources, the Army Purges accounted for:
3 of 5 Marshals
13 of 15 Army Commanders
50 of 57 Corps Commanders
154 of 186 Divisional Commanders

and, according to others who were there at the time, most regimental commanders.

Now, supposing you are an Army/Corps/Divisional/Regimental commander being attacked by German panzer divisions in 1941. Would you have any educated and well-informed idea what to do? Would you suppose your suppose your subordinates had any idea what to do?

Blame it on Churchill if you feel you have to.

69

Stephen 08.02.15 at 7:56 pm

F.Foundling@52: “The suggestion that Britain and France were motivated by concern for democracy and human rights – and not, say, hatred and fear of socialism – is a joke that I doubt even its proponents believe in”.

Well, I think one could put forward a very reasonable argument that the French and British governments in the 1930s did have a very serious concern for liberal democracy, in their own countries, as it was then understood. “Human rights’ as per the left-wing early 21st century, probably not, but why should they have?

Bear in mind the French Popular Front government of 1936, the British Labour governments of 1924 and 1929: yes, I can’t see why you say these states were not liberal democracies in the way that Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s or Lenin’s Russia, Franco’s Spain or Hitler’s Germany were not.

That they hated and feared Socialism as per Stalin was entirely true. Given Stalin, that was surely right. Other forms of socialism: no, see above.

Which is not to say that, with hindsight, one can approve of every Franco-British governmental decision in the 1930s. But bear in mind: they knew very well the Great War had been a disaster, they believed (quite rightly) that a second great European war would be an even worse disaster, and they tried to avoid it. That, in 1939, they realised disaster was unavoidable does not entirely discredit their previous efforts.

70

steven johnson 08.02.15 at 11:38 pm

bob mcmanus @59 “vicious fricking sarcasm” Well, one tries but fails. Successful sarcasm demands a good writer.

F.Foundling @67, etc.
“Rejoice, for Stalingrad is fallen!
Be glad, for Leningrad is no more!
St. Basil’s is lord over the tomb of the usurper,
and guides our steps away from the time of sorrows.
The motherland is free again!”

This is the basic notion being advanced: Dead and failed Communists like Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Gramcsi, Trotsky and Bukharin are vastly more attractive than winning Communists. Their socialism in no country is the real workers’ paradise, which has nothing to do with any unseemly excesses involved in kicking the bourgeoisie’s ass. In the past Cromwell ruined the country, discrediting the Puritan revolution, until the Glorious Revolution salvaged what was clean and decent. Robespierre ruined the country, discrediting the Jacobin revolution, until Napoleon salvaged the nation. And like them, Stalin, with his collectivization and his Five-Year Plans ruined the nation, discrediting the socialist revolution, until some nicely safe and tame version compatible enough with the old order can decorously…oh, so, decorously…dance across the stage (not arena) of History.

I am unrepentant. I still disagree.

I thought it was obvious that I favor Trotsky in the pointless speculation horse race, but full of myself as I am, I’m still not arrogant to assert his programs would necessarily have worked. I specifically said I don’t know Stalin was necessary…but he might have been, and all I’ve tried to show is that the supposed manifestly true condemnations are not so manifest. It shouldn’t be necessary. After all, does anyone really think the NEP Stalin, the Third Period Stalin, the Popular Front/Bukharin Constitution Stalin, the war Stalin and the post-war Stalin really have the kind of continuity that makes it easy to talk about “Stalinism.” Of course not, “Stalinism” is short hand for socialism.

For one trivial example of nonsense, the purges Russia as a whole were almost certainly not Stalin’s premeditated program of murder, but a chaotic attempt to keep his personal power during the throes of rapid industrialization to meet the fascist threat. (Fighting fascism is not a part of true socialism, you say? Give me a break!) But internationally propagandized show trials attacking Trotsky (Mr. Revolution) weren’t necessary. They were shows, with a moral and you damn well better believe they were meant to portray Stalin as someone who the democratic powers could work with, who’d uphold collective security. The purges in Spain, undertaken to support the bourgeois democratic government, reinforced this. It would take real gall to criticize Stalin for both the Third Period drive for revolutions and for committing to collective security, were it not so easy with bad faith argument!

“The raison d’être of the Soviet regime from its inception was not to be some kind of device for the defeat of a potential future Hitler, nor was it to survive at any cost in general, it was to be a (truly) socialist state and to promote (true) socialism all over the world. Accordingly, that’s the perspective from which leftists, including Howe, were evaluating it, and should evaluate it. And from that perspective, Stalin, or rather Stalinism, ensured failure, and we are still reaping the fruits.”

Well, F. Foundling you are plainly an intelligent man who knows his enemies, and as you say, the bourgoisie isn’t one of them. But I thought they were the main enemy. Are we really comrades?

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