I finally got around to watching Arguing the World, Joseph Dorman’s 1998 film about four of the most important New York intellectuals: Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and Irving Kristol. I’m not sure what took me so long getting around to this, since it’s a film all US intellectual historians should watch, especially those, like me, interested in postwar political culture. I’m currently in the midst of writing a chapter on the neoconservative response to the sixties New Left—important to the early formation of what would later come to be called the culture wars. Kristol, and to a lesser extent, Bell and Glazer, figure in this chapter, so it seemed like a good time to watch the film. (Plus, I recently noticed it is available to stream at Netflix.)
I really enjoyed Arguing the World. I think it nicely captures the intellectual history of these four men. It focuses on all the important episodes in recent American history that shaped and changed their ideas. Often, however, the film parrots the views of the subjects without interrogating them more thoroughly. For instance, echoing arguments he made back in the 1950s, Howe claimed that the anti-Stalinist leftists at Partisan Review were cultural highbrows while the Popular Frontists were cultural middlebrows. Trotskyists read Proust, Communists and Fellow Travelers read Howard Fast. Warren Susman later expanded on this analysis, calling the 1930s Popular Front culture conservative in its kitschy celebration of “the people,” made clear in how the Popular Front song, “The Ballad of the Americans,” was co-opted as the theme song of the 1940 Republican Party National Convention.
The film accepts these normative claims at face value. In his important 1997 book, The Cultural Front (the subject of my first ever USIH blog post in January 2007!), Michael Denning makes a compelling argument against Howe and Susman’s interpretations. Denning argues that what makes the Popular Front culture interesting, complex, and ultimately radical is not its celebration of “the people” but rather the way it “mediates on the absence of the people: on the martyrs, the losses, the betrayals, the disinherited.” I’m not here suggesting Arguing the Worldneeded to consult Denning, whose book likely came out just as the film was in the final stages of production. Rather, this is my mild way of saying that the filmmaker might have done a better job challenging the assumptions of the subjects.
As the film moves forward in time, as the subjects themselves began to take on very different points of view, the film gains an easier mechanism for challenging their ideas. They began to argue with each other, mediated through interviewers. For instance, in the early stages of the Cold War, all but one of these former leftists became Cold War liberals. Howe, the one holdover, started Dissentmagazine in his attempt to keep the flames of social democracy alive in what he thought of as a conformist intellectual culture. He even wrote a famous essay on conformity where he was critical of several of his former comrades. Kristol said he never took Dissent seriously because it seemed like nothing more than “echoes from the past.” Glazer said Howe and Dissent were too bitter about “sell outs.”
Conversely, Howe, Glazer, and Bell all had critical things to say about Kristol becoming one of the leading intellectuals of the conservative movement by the 1970s. Bell said Kristol had become the embodiment of the thing that the two of them hoped to stamp out when they founded The Public Interest in 1965: “ideological.” Bell was particularly taken aback by Kristol’s infamous claim in the early 1990s that his Cold War was just getting started—that it had morphed into a war against liberalism. Glazer, who, aside from Kristol, came closer to being a full-blown neoconservative than the others, was mildly critical of Kristol for having given up any hope that government can improve people’s lives. Howe, of course, was the most scathing. He said he still felt attached to most of his old Alcove No. 1 comrades, including Glazer and Bell, but not Kristol, for whom he wished “a long life filled with many political failures.”
One of the underlying assumptions made in the film—in interview after interview with the subjects and with scholars, including Morris Dickstein—is that no matter their political trajectories, these four New York intellectuals “carried over a cast of mind of Marxism.” What made this the case, according to Arguing the World? They sought to espouse a universal understanding of the world, and believed that any problem, no matter how provincial, should be related to larger forces at work. I agree with this assessment. In my chapter I argue that they maintained the analytical Marxist tendency for diagnosing problems in relation to root causes, internal logics, and overarching structures. Do you agree? Is this a Marxist thing?