Somebody reviewing one of Michael Moore’s movies once commented that while Moore’s ability to drive entire audiences to a standing ovation is a notable feat, a film maker who is a true artist ought to prefer that his/her film has audiences arguing in the aisles as the credits roll. I thought it was a good point, but I was hard-pressed to come up with a documentary film which could accomplish just that. And then, recently the recommendations robot at Netflix directed me to a documentary film entitled Arguing the World. In terms of stimulating thought and argument about the larger political issues, I can think of no more effective documentary film.
The film focuses on four dynamic figures of a group which became known as the New York Intellectuals, characterized primarily by Jewish ethnicity, radicalism in youth tempered by anti-Stalinism, cultural critique in middle age, and anywhere but anywhere in old age. The four are Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell. They were all raised in poverty in Jewish ghettos in New York City. They met at City College of New York during the 1930s. City College became known as the “Jewish Harvard,” because of the prominence of working class children of Jewish immigrants who would ditch poverty as adult career intellectuals. As legend has it, the professors themselves were mediocre, but the students would read and learn through arguing with each other. The dining hall contained various horseshoe shaped alcoves, and each one was claimed by some sort of clique (jocks, Catholics, etc.). As it happens Alcove One was perennially occupied by anti-Stalinist socialists, either Trotskyist or Second International variety (the SWP and SP actually merged for awhile, weird as that sounds to modern students of sectarian politics), while Alcove Two was occupied by the Communist Party activists and their fellow travelers. Often there were arguments and even altercations between the two, but more often each group kept to itself. The Alcove One denizens infused literature readings into their politics, lacing their Marxist analysis with smatterings of Dostoevsky, Proust, T.S. Lewis, the Bronte sisters, etc., and moved beyond even the Frankfurt School of Marxism in the blending of cultural criticism with politics. The subculture was also characterized by intense arguments, sometimes stimulated by alcohol consumption (a darker aspect of the old left which is known to the families but not often discussed even in the narrative histories).
These four began as Trotskyists, which leads me to my favorite quote in the film (I’m not quite remembering who said it): “We didn’t know he [Trotsky] was right. We only knew he was interesting. And in the Village then, to be interesting was to be right. Certainly to be uninteresting was to be wrong. And I’m not sure I don’t still hold to that.” I have to admit that I probably hold to that as well, as I frequently find my self disagreeing even when I agree. And Trotsky was a more interesting figure than Stalin, or even Lenin, and certainly more interesting than Norman Thomas (you get to see a rare clip of a Thomas speech in the film), though maybe not quite as interesting as Debs or Shachtman.
As they got older and left CCNY, the four, and others, pooled resources and joined as writers a magazine entitled Partisan Review – intending to be a literary magazine with a political philosophy emphasis. Now the film doesn’t get into the history so much, but Partisan Review actually has roots in the Greenwich Village intellectual milieu, which included John Reed, Max Eastman, and the Masses Crowd, and it may overemphasize a bit the divide between Alcoves One and Two in the broader sense, but perhaps not as it applies to these four individuals.
They were integral to the formation and development of Commentary Magazine, which began as an attempt to integrate Jewish radicalism into American democratic culture with complex cultural criticism, but the magazine ultimately slid into a more straight-jacketed ideological neo-conservatism, and exists now as a shadow of its more intellectually challenging past. But by the time the four were writing for Commentary, all of them, including Howe, had abandoned their CCNY-era radicalism and embraced a more skeptical and pragmatic liberal outlook, which sent them into different directions. The film examines the directions they took and attempts to find answers to the question of why like experiences could leave Irving Howe in the socialist fold (even if most self-proclaimed socialists regarded him as neo-conservative) while pushing Irving Kristol into the the Reagan camp.
When McCarthyism came into full swing, these intellectuals found themselves in a tight spot. They had become anti-communist to the point that they were slamming not only the C.P. itself for its ties and loyalty to the Soviet Union, but also the liberals who downplayed the American communist’s complicity with the mass killings carried out by their more “successful” Soviet counterparts. None of the intellectuals’ was particularly enamored with McCarthy as a matter of style, but while Kristol protests that he referred to McCarthy as a “vulgar demagogue” while implicitly supporting the carnage McCarthyism was wreaking on innocent people and the culture at large, he and other Commentary writers did not object to the underlying witch hunt process which ruined the lives of people who had been guilty of nothing more than attending socialist meetings while in college. At this point, Irving Howe broke away from many of his friends; and while slamming communism and even to some extent defending American culture, he attacked McCarthyism on civil liberties grounds- a frame that the others were unable or unwilling to adopt. Their defensiveness as exhibited in the interviews of the film is remarkable. On the one hand they protest that they did in fact “question” methods being used, but on the other felt that some sort of process was necessary.
Howe and other anti-Stalin socialists started the independent socialist quarterly Dissent (there is a recurring theme in the film that when Intellectuals don’t know what else to do, they start a magazine). The idea was to revisit socialism as a goal or a hope in a non-ideological manner, and outside of the auspices of any particular organization or program, while maintaining critical independence of thought and analysis. Kristol dismissed it as ideologically anachronistic and irrelevant, but by the time he was asked to comment he had already turned to the dark side and it’s unclear whether he was at that point unable to segregate his personal opinions from his political agenda. But the debate raged and an indication of the prominence of the debate in the NY Jewish subculture came a couple of decades later when Woody Allen, either unaware or uncaring that the reference was somewhat obscure on the national level, dropped a line into his acclaimed movie Annie Hall referencing a peace reached between Commentary and Dissent so that they merged to form the magazine Dysentery. Of the millions who have watched the Academy Award winning film over the decades since, probably only a fraction of them understand the reference. But that it made it into the movie is an indication of how strong the debate was in NY Jewish subculture.
The documentary then moves into the 1960s and the contentious relationship between the NY Intellectuals and the New Left. It doesn’t go into the initial discussions where Howe’s protege Michael Harrington attended the Port Huron conference and left with some frustration. The episode is described in some detail in Maurice Isserman’s If I had a Hammer, which is a brilliant summary of the history of the American Left. The film covers mostly the summit talks between Dissent and SDS. Howe and Glazer describe their interactions with upstart activist Tom Hayden, whom they regarded as a potential totalitarian – romantic utopian politics within a good looking guy completely into himself. The Intellectuals were paternalistic and condescending. The New Lefties were charged and emotional. It didn’t go well. There are interviews with New Leftists including Hayden and Todd Gitlin, and you can tell that it’s still a sore point.
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The film provides a framework – the NY Intellectuals were never known for their social graces in arguing with each other or anyone else. As Diana Trilling noted, “they didn’t know how to behave.” But they were frustrated at the oversimplifications and the refusals of the New Left intellectuals to grasp the dangers of moralistic politics at the expense of self-criticism and, more importantly, critical examination of the opposition to the forces you are opposing. In other words, they saw the New Left embracing Castro and Mao as better alternatives to Stalin, while rejecting anything positive about American culture (except as certain histories of protest might conform to the governing ideology), and became frustrated with canned political responses about “the establishment” and accusations of compromise motivated by vested interest in the system.
Not mentioned in the film is an anecdote (a short version found in his NYT obituary) where he spoke at Stanford (as told by Michael Harrington) and encountered a noisy Maoist group. One of them accused Howe of becoming a lackey for the status quo, and he turned to the student and said (paraphrasing from memory), “I have been a socialist all my life. In ten years I will still be a socialist. You know what you’re going to be? You’re going to be a dentist!”
From the Intellectuals’ perspective, the youngsters were making the same mistakes the Alcove Two folk had made in the 30s. Ironically, two of the four found themselves in critical battlegrounds during the 1960s. Bell became bitter and left Columbia State for Harvard, later joining Kristol at The Public Interest. Glazer had similar experiences at Berkeley when he criticized the Free Speech Movement, and one has to wonder if Dylan’s lyrics were in any way indirectly inspired by this particular conflict.
But here is the power of this documentary. They interviewed just about everybody. They didn’t take sides. And each side had its point of view, neither totally in the right nor totally in the wrong. Both sides were still sore about it decades later. Both sides feel things deeply. Both sides evolved. And at this point, audiences with any depth should have been arguing in the aisles. Except that the film was not over, and the storytelling took a fascinating turn.
The last part of the film covers Kristol’s final slide into what Michael Harrington would coin “neo-conservatism.” Frustrated with the left’s backing of McGovern, he tried to get his fellow Intellectuals to sign onto a NYT ad supporting Nixon. That was too much for Bell, Glazer, the Trillings, and many, but Kristol did get a significant number of signatures, and the movement was started. What characterizes the neo-conservatism of the time (it would later come to have a different meaning) is the birth of what Glazer described as the Bolshevik approach to conservative politics. Buckley, Kirkpatrick, and other conservatives are interviewed in the film, and credit Kristol for developing right wing think tanks and employing conventional left social analysis to apply to advancing the conservative agenda. He is credited as one of the architects of the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions. And when the Cold War ended, Kristol talked up and called for a “war on liberalism.”
This freaked Bell and Glazer out. They had plenty of criticisms of liberalism, but they still considered themselves liberals. Glazer had become very critical of the social welfare system, being directly involved in Moynihan’s findings that the loss of family rather than poverty was the primary issue for African Americans (and feminists have ever since slammed the report as an attack on black women for being too strong and thus driving off their men). But Glazer felt that the welfare system needed reform, not dismantling, and he felt that if Kristol was going to emphasize the moral decline in America that he ought at least raise the issue of corporate morality. Bell had set aside ideology for what Marx called a “rigorous critique of everything existing More importantly, they felt that Kristol had reclaimed his ideological youth trading for a new ideology, and had abandoned his skepticism and critical thinking. But what was especially fascinating to watch was Kristol’s clueless responses to those accusations, betraying filters very typical of a Trotskyist. He had become a true believer, and pursued his agenda with zeal, ignoring the data and facts which would undermine or even merely obscure the agenda. Kirkpatrick, from her point of view, may have continued to see him as an intellectual, but his friends did not.
So what does the Bolshevik approach to conservatism look like? Well, everything from a Marxist is argued in historical context. As Michael Walzer says in the film that you have to understand how these intellectuals view the world, “you can’t begin to analyze, say, the most recent strike in Detroit without starting from the division of labor in ancient Babylonia and working your way up.” It rings true with my experience. One of my first research papers in college was on the Allende Coup in Chile. I found about eight books on topic in the library. About four or five of them were written by Marxists (James Petras, etc.). I think I had three written by liberals and one or two by a conservative. What was interesting is that all of the liberal or conservative books began in 1969, when Allende won his first term election. All four or five of the more radical analysis books began with the colonization of Chile by Spain and worked their way up. Of course, it laid some important context the more conservative books left out, such as the fact that the laws Allende used to seize factories shut down by corporations in protest of his policies were actually passed in the 1920s and not arbitrarily passed by him. It helped to know that Chile had been a three party system for decades and that therefor the conservative criticism that he was elected with only 38 percent of the vote was less compelling when you learned that such numerical results were routine in the country’s political history. But you also learned about the extraction-based economic developments – the country losing its salt-peter monopolies once a German scientist learned how to synthesize it, and a country saved by the ascent of electronic technology because it has one-third of the developed copper reserves. If you study the history, all of these developments become integral to understanding the coup. And so as a freshman in college, I correctly concluded that Marxist historians tend to address political issues with more historical depth. And yet, these were biased histories. They chose the facts which suited their arguments. That didn’t make them wrong about the coup, and I happen to agree with them about the coup. But the conservative intellectual approach, which was to consider primarily the US geo-political considerations in moralizing about the “radical” Allende regime, seemed anemic to me. I imagine that Kristol and others like him, have changed that equation. There are probably many more opportunities for students to come across histories in which facts are laid out to suit a conservative political agenda. A framework, as Walzer puts it, to analyze to answer the “largest questions: where are we going? Where have we been?” It captures the imagination. And thanks in large part to Kristol and others like him, there is a bona fide young conservative movement, even if it’s smaller in numbers than the progressive youth movement. That was a game changer, especially as the progressive youth movement doesn’t really know how to approach the culture war except to alienate just about everyone who doesn’t listen to Democracy Now regularly.
So, in the view of liberal/moderate Bell and Glazer, while Howe had not embarked far enough with them from idealism to skepticism, Kristol had traveled the skeptic road with them and abandoned it for an ideology as pure as the one they had left – perhaps even more so as even in their radical youth they would venture out of the box to see each issue in a new light. Kristol had no use for skepticism in his later life. He had unlocked the secrets of the universe and discovered that what he had been as a young man was the greatest danger to freedom and virtue. And he does not appear to have passed any nuance on to his son William Kristol, a frequent commentator on Fox News whose greatest moment of nuance thus far was to have candidly admitted that the whole “liberal media establishment” meme has been overblown by the right to “play the ref” and ensure coverage more to their liking. Other than that and his vocabulary, there is little to distinguish him from Sean Hannity. Kristol, Sr. was trying to be flippant early in the film, but it might have been stronger to put at the end his comment: “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a neo-something. A neo-Trotskyist. A neo-liberal. A neo-conservative. A neo-Orthox, even when I was a neo-Trostkyist. I’m going to end up a neo, that’s all: neo dash nothing.”
The film ends with closing thoughts from all of them, including some very interesting comments from Howe shortly before he died. Part of his memorial made it into the final edit of the film.
These four were not young. Only Glazer is alive today. Bell died earlier this year. But the journeys they took intellectually in response to the events of their lives is compelling, and timelessly relevant despite the apparent demise of the subculture. They made an art of political theory, and a livelihood of intellectualism despite very limited academic credentials, and their writings are still with us waiting to hatch a new renaissance of thought, reflection, and critical self-examination of the left. These are people who reversed the Marxist admonition to philosophers, suggesting that before we try to change the world, we ought to learn more about it- and more about ourselves. They won’t make it into the bulk of history books, but they impacted that history in ways in which the film only touched on.
It’s available on instant Netflix, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who thinks about politics (as oppose to those who merely partake in them). I’m ordering the disk because I want to see any outtakes or other special features. I am also looking forward to reading the book, which was actually published after the documentary and no doubt benefited from some intense input.
You can take the Arguing the World interactive quiz to determine your ideology. It turns out that I remain 54.5 percent socialist, and 45.5 percent liberal, but as usual I have some problems with the wording.
The only clip I can find is on youtube.