Irving Howe: Old School Democratic Socialist


Irving Howe

From 1981 Dissent Mag: On the Moral Basis of Socialism:

In a luminous sketch the Italian writer Ignazio Silone recalls an incident from his childhood. He once saw “a small, barefoot, ragged little man” being dragged down the streets of his village. “Look how funny he is,” the boy said to his father.

My father looked severely at me, dragging me to my feet and led me to his room. I had never seen him so angry. . . .

“What have I done wrong?” I asked him. . . .

“Never make fun of a man who’s been arrested. Never!”

“Why not?”

“Because he can’t defend himself. And because he may be innocent. In any case, because he’s unhappy.”

This anecdote yields a moral perspective that sustains a politics of socialism. We are asked to concern ourselves with the victim through an act of imaginative relation. We are instructed tacitly in the oppressive weight of power. We are incited to the values of skepticism and sympathy, the two responses that, together, form the basis for whatever remains of civilization in the 20th century. Without invoking God or religion, though these may nevertheless lie behind it, Silone’s story affirms the essence of moral response: a lively awareness of what the other needs and how the other feels. Silone’s anecdote thus has its evident ties with the Kantian view that each man, as a rational moral agent, is owed respect simply as a man—and, adds Bernard Williams, “since men are equally such agents, [this respect] is owed equally to all, unlike admiration and similar attitudes, which are commanded unequally by men in proportion to their unequal possession of different kinds of natural excellence.” The respect put forward in Kantian theory is a kind of secular analogue to the Christian conception of what is owed equally to all men as children of God.

Somewhere in Marxism there is buried an infatuation with Justice. There is intense moral indignation in Marx’s Capital that cannot quite be reconciled with his claim to be a mere scientist charting the course of capitalist economy. It is, oddly enough, in Lenin that one can see most sharply the contradiction between the claim to historical objectivity and the energies of moral passion. He writes that “Marxism contains no shred of ethics from beginning to end”; but he also invokes “the revolutionary consciousness of Justice,” which, capitalized or not, surely must contain at least a shred of ethics; and he tells us also that “Men liberated from capitalist exploitation will gradually become accustomed to abide by the elementary rules of social life known from time immemorial”—which sounds suspiciously like a relativist casting a warm eye at rudimentary absolutes.

To assert that a commitment to socialism somehow entails moral virtue is to risk collective arrogance, which, in breeding fanaticism, is far more dangerous than individual arrogance. And when socialist groups are small, there is a special temptation to fall back upon moral posture: we are powerless, ergo, we must be good. It might, after all, mean we are wrong. The moral value of a political position must always be tested anew. It rests much more with immediate, particular consequences than with cloudy, ultimate ends.

Socialism must always in some sense be a Utopia, that is, an envisioned good society enabling and guiding our conduct of the moment; but it withers into lifelessness, and can even be a menace to freedom, if allowed to become an absolute in the name of which anything may be justified or nothing done. The vision of the good society enlarges moral life insofar as, through the very grandeur of its claims, it reinforces small actions.

In this same article he gives clear indication that democratic socialism if it is to actually reach people, actually produce a viable alternative to the elite liberalism and right-wing capitalism of the market society of plunder and wage slavery then it must envision what a Good Society actually is, and it must provide a path toward such a society that does not entail false means to that end (i.e., a world of violence and upheaval, destruction and chaos, etc.). As he’ll suggest, socialists must listen to the arguments of its enemies and realize the dark side to which socialism tends in authoritarian structures and notions of bureaucratic centralization:

That the effort to construct a socialist society must necessarily entail a large amount of bureaucratic centralization, which, in turn, means the danger of authoritarianism. Have we not, explicitly or tacitly, granted at least some force to this argument? Do we not recognize that a completely nationalized economy, insofar as it places a fearful power in the hands of the state, contains a probable thrust toward authoritarianism? That is why we have moved away from statist visions of socialism to stress decentralization, political freedom, workers’ control of production—the last would become especially important if we could ever determine what we mean by it. [my italics]

Democratic socialism must necessarily be an imperfect system, as are all forms that seek to democratize government (i.e., humans being fallible, egoistic, prone to power plays, violence, desires, etc.):

That there is an inescapable conflict between liberty and equality, which the effort to build socialism would excite in deplorable ways. Allow sufficient liberty and society must turn increasingly inegalitarian; try to enforce equality in stringent ways and you do so at the cost of liberty. There is, we now recognize, “something” to this, and thereby our vision of socialism becomes “less perfect” but perhaps better.

For Howe the Symbolic Order within which we share our commonality must be grounded in some acceptable system of laws, codes, and rules:

The transformations of modern society prompt us to ground the case for socialism more strongly than ever in moral claims. Precisely our strong reasons for doing this may constitute—at least if one has some skepticism about the human enterprise—strong reasons for being cautious, modest, self-critical in our moral assertions. We want to link the guiding ideal with the immediate purpose, but to invoke the need for doing so is not the same as doing it. Perhaps there is only one way of minimizing our mistakes, and that is to see democracy, the freedom embodying our moral values, as the foundation of all we do, all we want, all

Howe was an Old School Socialist whose vision remained in the Enlightenment Project of secular humanist traditions. Even through the whole postmodern era he would challenge the New Left in his magazine Dissent. Many want to deride the old secular humanism as if it were now dead and mute issue, which it is not. Many have turned away from the human in our time toward the anti-human, inhuman, non-human, etc. Yet, there were some who kept to the old ways of being human in a world among humans and others, holding open a skeptical and challenging gaze upon external and internal forms of injustice. Howe was one such light bearer of justice in our world. As he said: “Perhaps there is only one way of minimizing our mistakes, and that is to see democracy, the freedom embodying our moral values, as the foundation of all we do, all we want, all.”

A completed democracy has yet to be attained, even here in America we have seen bitter wars fought on the very concept of the Good Society. We’re seeing as we move into this new cycle of Republican ascendency the anger and resentment of many who were left out in the cold by the Obama factory progressivism and corporate vision. With the door slammed in Hilary Clinton’s face due to lack of votes from those she expected the Mevillean Bartleby effect of “No” was in effect. Many just said no to Hilary…

Now the Party masters and their media pundits are trying their best to rewrite the disastrous consequences of their failure and present another false image to appease. Let this not happen, otherwise there will be the same old same old repetitive politics of defeat in the democratic party. I’ve been an Independent for a long while now, unable to accept either party, seeing in both the power of Corporate Inversion and tyranny by proxy of our government through political pay back and chicanery of foundations, funds, jobs, spin, etc. We do not have a democracy anymore, we are living in a Plutocracy in which oligarchs hold sway over the moneyed classes.

We’ve forgotten our enemy: the moneyed classes. Howe was one who kept reminding us of that fact.

Like many New York Intellectuals, Howe attended City College and graduated in 1940, alongside Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Upon his return, he began writing literary and cultural criticism for the influential Partisan Review and became a frequent essayist for Commentary, Politics, The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. In 1954, Howe helped found the intellectual quarterly Dissent, which he edited until his death in 1993. In the 1950’s Howe taught English and Yiddish literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. He used the Howe and Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Stories as the text for a course on the Yiddish story at a time when few were spreading knowledge or appreciation of these works in American colleges and universities.

Since his CCNY days, Howe was committed to left-wing politics. He was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League and then Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, where Shactman made Howe his understudy. After 1948, he joined the Independent Socialist League, where he was a central leader. He left the ISL in the early 1950s. As the request of his friend Michael Harrington, he helped co-found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in the early 1970s. DSOC merged into the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, with Howe as a vice-chair. He was a vociferous opponent of both Soviet totalitarianism and McCarthyism, called into question standard Marxist doctrine, and came into conflict with the New Left after criticizing their unmitigated radicalism. Later in life, his politics gravitated toward more pragmatic democratic socialism and foreign policy, a position still represented in the idiosyncratic political and social arguments of Dissent.

Known for literary criticism as well social and political activism, Howe wrote seminal studies on Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, politics and the novel, and a sweeping cultural history of Eastern European Jews in America entitled World of Our Fathers. He also edited and translated many Yiddish stories, and commissioned the first English translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer for the Partisan Review. He also wrote A Margin of Hope, his autobiography, and Socialism and America.


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