Radical media, politics and culture.

Louis Proyect, "On Neoconservatives and Trotskyism"

"On Neoconservatives and Trotskyism"

Louis Proyect

Reviewing "Arguing the World": a movie about the journey from Marxism to neoconservatism

Joseph Dorman's "Arguing the World" is a documentary study of the careers of four celebrated Jewish intellectuals from immigrant working class families who went to City College in the 1930s. While one of them, Irving Howe, stayed more or less critical of American society, the other three -- Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell -- evolved from establishment liberalism in the 1950s to neoconservativism in the Reagan era. I use the word career advisedly in describing their paths. Perhaps the most honest account of what it meant to belong to this group is found in Norman Podhoretz's Making It, where he admits that what motivated each shift in his political or cultural affiliation was how it would it advance his career.Although the film has almost zero value in conventional cinematic terms, consisting mostly of talking heads, it has a powerful cumulative effect as a psychological study. The skillfully conducted interviews encourage the three neoconservatives to speak unguardedly about their foibles and their ambitions. None makes the slightest effort to prettify themselves. Howe serves as a counterpoint to the other three, but even he does not come away unscathed. Although the documentary does not come out and state it in as many words, the conclusion it leaves you with is how all-powerful and ineluctable is the tendency for American capitalism to subvert the critical impulse.

City College was a hothouse of radical politics in the 1930s and the epicenter was the cafeteria which contained a number of alcoves where different political tendencies would congregate. The Trotskyists and anti-Stalinists could be found in alcove one. One anecdote reveals the peculiar nature of the anti-Stalinist left at CCNY. One of the regulars, who was gifted with a "foghorn voice," would hawk his newspaper within earshot of the CP's alcove. He'd cry out, "Read all about Stalin's murderous deeds" until one of the CP students would get provoked into an argument with the ideological opponent. This is a very sterile form of leftism that is obviously more geared to the head than the heart. Polemics for the sake of polemics has marred the Trotskyist movement since its inception. What the film reveals is that the training the four received in the polemical art gave them the skills they need to advance in the academic and journalistic professions.

The film spends considerable time explaining the importance of Partisan Review to their careers. Launched as a journal of the political and cultural avant-garde, it became a place where publication signified a certain level of achievement. In the late 30s it was the sole voice for anti-Stalinist intellectuals and stood against a well-entrenched universe of Popular Front publications and institutions that defended the CP line. When the CP was in good graces with the New Deal, getting published in such publications could open doors in the larger world of journalism and the academy. After the cold war started, the Partisan Review became much more useful career-wise as the Soviet Union was turned into public enemy number one.

For the three neoconservatives, publishing in Partisan Review served as a springboard into academic careers. By the late 1940s all had shed their radical beliefs and had gone to work for prestigious universities. They admit that the post-WWII boom had a lot to do with their political evolution. They never had it so good. For the first time in their lives they could afford an automobile. Furthermore, the hatred for "Stalinism" that they had cultivated in their youth had helped to sharpen their skills as defenders of American foreign policy. If one had a facile command of Stalin's crimes, there always was a writing or speaking engagement on tap in the 1950s.

McCarthyism opened up a fault-line between the three and American liberalism. Sneering at the civil liberties concerns of the liberal establishment, they gave critical support to McCarthy. Nathan Glazer admits in the film that their position was not "honorable" but, shrugging his shoulders, questions whether any other position was possible given their political evolution.

Nathan Glazer was hired by U. Cal-Berkeley, while Daniel Bell went to work for Columbia. Both became enemies of the student radicalization. While Glazer was opposed to the ban on political tabling on campus in 1964, he was even more opposed to the student sit-ins that were meant to overturn the ban. Bell was on a professor's committee to end the occupation of the administration building at Columbia in 1968. He was puzzled by the refusal of the students to enter into a debate about the role of the university. Both he and Glazer could not understand that the student radicals of the 1960s had little interest in the sort of scholastic wrangling that had marked their own undergraduate political career.

Irving Howe had broken with this group in 1954 around the time he launched Dissent magazine. His intention was to promote a "democratic socialism" which would retain the anti-Stalinist beliefs of his youth while developing a critique of American society. He comes across as tolerant of Bell and Glazer, while barely concealing his contempt for Kristol who became strongly identified with the Reagan revolution. What Howe shared with the other three was an inability to understand the student radicalism of the 1960s. When he met Tom Hayden, then a leader of SDS, he tried to get him to take a position on matters such as the Moscow trials. Hayden found Howe's preoccupations irrelevant to his own, which revolved around ending the war in Vietnam and racial oppression. Beyond their ideological differences, Hayden found Howe's style patronizing and offensively avuncular.

The thirties generation simply could not understand the 1960s. It was by and large a rejection of the rigid categories that had been established in the Stalin-Trotsky debate. After Marxism became an attractive option for these 60s radicals, there was an unfortunate tendency to gravitate to Marxist groups that still retained a lot of the ideological baggage that people like Irving Howe were carrying. Now that we have evolved past the sectarianism of the recent past, it is useful to consider the more long-term challenge to independent, radical critiques of American society which is embodied in the career of the three neoconservatives.

In every other country in the world where there is a tradition of Marxist thought, it is easier to make an affiliation with Marxism either as an intellectual or an activist. The United States provides a very hostile environment. Not only has it remained more prosperous, it has also elevated rugged individualism to the level of a religion. The average working person dreams of starting his own business, while the left-wing journalist or academician is preoccupied with his career. As "Arguing the World" reveals, when Marxism gets in the way of a career move, it is excess baggage easily dumped overboard.

When the next upsurge of the radical movement takes place, one can expect that the preoccupations of the CCNY crowd will have finally been put to rest. Facilitating that will be the accomplished fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists. Scraping away the barnacles of dead dogmas is always a difficult task, but our job is easier now that the institutional support for them has disappeared. Of course, there is one last sect-cult that has to be confronted and that is belief in the American free enterprise system itself.