A Margin of Hope

by Irving Howe

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A Margin of Hope has three major themes. The one that paradoxically receives the least attention in terms of space is his role as a literary critic. Howe—at least after his break with Marxism—eschewed any formal methodological framework. Although expressing a personal fondness for such individual New Critics as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, he faults the New Criticism’s narrow focus upon the text for its ignoring the social and historical context out of which a literary work emerged. In the final analysis, he remained a moralist “for whom criticism mattered because it could serve as open-ended humanist discourse.”

Howe’s moralism underlay what became his ambivalence toward literary modernism. In the 1930’s, he had postulated an affinity between radical politics and avant-garde culture because of their shared hostility to bourgeois values. The award in 1949 of the Bollingen Prize for poetry to Ezra Pound, however, led him to have second thoughts. The controversy not only underlined how many of the giants of literary modernism had taken the reactionary side politically but also forced Howe to question what had been modernism’s most cherished tenet, the principle of art for art’s sake. In his later years, the primary focus of Howe’s own literary interest shifted from the modernist authors to the Emersonian tradition in nineteenth century American literature.

The second theme is Howe’s struggle to come to terms with his father, or, to be more accurate, with his father as symbol of his own Jewishness. Like many of his generation, Howe had subordinated ethnic and religious loyalties to socialist universalism. His latent sense of Jewish identity was reawakened by the Holocaust. Nevertheless, defining what his Jewishness meant proved to be a difficult problem. He remained nonreligious, even antireligious. He did become—belatedly, as a result of the 1967 war—an admirer of the state of Israel, though far from an unconditional enthusiast. His personal solution to coming to terms with his past lay in his efforts to preserve the legacy of secular Yiddish culture. The climax of that effort was the romanticized account of the lives of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants in World of Our Fathers—a world that as portrayed by Howe appeared peopled almost entirely by sensitive radicals or at least nascent New Dealers.

The third, and most important, theme in A Margin of Hope is the shattering of the millennialist hopes of socialism. “If these pages yield a common thread,” he writes, “it can only be the idea that we have been witnesses to an age unique in its terribleness. . . . God died in the nineteenth century, utopia in the twentieth.” Nowhere were radical dreams more thoroughly frustrated than in the United States: “There is a gathering of energies, a fusing of discontent. A movement springs up, buoyed by evangelical expectations. An encounter follows with American politics— its corruptions, its recalcitrance, its opportunism—and then a profound lapse into despair.” In the wake of the debacle of the New Left, he was so disillusioned that he came to question whether there was any possibility of building in the United States “a radical movement both politically realistic and morally firm, devoted to the needs of the moment yet bringing to bear a larger vision of the good society.”

Howe himself left the movement, even abandoned Marxism. Yet he remained loyal to what he had seen as the broader Socialist aspiration. His goal was “to keep a socialist kernel while dropping the Marxist shell.” As he explains in his concluding reflections, “I am now inclined to think the case for socialism must be made increasingly on moral grounds: democracy in...

(This entire section contains 1000 words.)

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the work place as fulfillment of political freedom; an end to extreme inequalities of socio-economic condition; the vision of a humane society as one that requires a setting of cooperativeness and fraternity.” At one crucial point, he underlines, his brand of Socialism “overlaps with liberalism. . . . With liberty you can struggle for greater equality; equality without liberty is a new mode of enslavement.” He sees Socialism’s future role in the United States as primarily acting as a goad to peoples’ consciences by “offering an alternative vision of human possibility.”

As a Trotskyist, Howe was inoculated against the Stalinism that infected so many self-styled progressive intellectuals in the 1930’s. “The struggle to loosen the grip of Stalinism on the international Left,” he remains convinced, “has been a crucial political experience of our century—even now by no means finished or completely successful.” He strongly supported the American policies to contain Soviet expansionism in the aftermath of World War II. He similarly was one of the most outspoken antagonists of the New Left in the 1960’s. The direction that the New Left took offended his deepest instincts: his anti-Stalinism, his devotion to democratic principles, his commitment to rationality.

Paradoxically, however, Howe directs his bitterest attacks against those of his former comrades on the left—such as the philosopher Sidney Hook and the group associated with Commentary—who moved too far to the right for his tastes. He became the exemplar of that phenomenon known as anti-anticommunism. His blind spot on this issue is the more surprising because Howe is fully aware of the extent to which the Stalinists had succeeded in infiltrating and controlling key social and cultural institutions during the 1930’s. The difficulties in his position were most strikingly exemplified in his attitude toward the Vietnam War. He felt nothing but scorn for those in the antiwar movement who welcomed a North Vietnamese victory, but he could not bring himself to accept that support for the South Vietnamese regime was the lesser evil in a situation where there was no third alternative. The trouble was a legacy of his Trotskyist past: his almost visceral dislike of the one-time radical who “makes a safe politics out of anticommunism, correct as that anticommunism may be. He has lost that larger sympathy for the oppressed, that responsiveness to new modes of rebellion that a Socialist ought to have.”


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