U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Arguing the World

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?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew: Didn’t you feel like the film was mostly on auto-pilot, not challenging any of our conventional narratives about the NY intellectuals? It’s certainly an enjoyable film, easy on the brain, but that it seems to me is one of its basic flaws. What you say about what it says about the Popular Front could be applied to the whole thing: it barely challenges a single preconceived notion we have of them and their trajectories. Bell and Howe repeat their standard claims against Kristol (and vice versa), with Glazer appearing as the mediating voice. I really wasn’t surprised by much of anything in there. Actually, not entirely true: the one thing that did surprise me was how much of a mensch Glazer comes off as in the film. I had had some inkling of that from reading various books about these guys, but Bell comes off as irredeemably smug, Howe as irredeemably nasty, and Kristol as irredeemably Kristol. Glazer on the other hand really seems to be the one and only decent person among them. Otherwise, though, I really saw and heard nothing new.

  2. Corey: Yes, “easy on the brain” is probably an accurate way to describe the film. I suppose I wasn’t expecting much more than that since most narratives of the New York intellectuals are easy on the brain. I watched wondering if the film might challenge my assumption that neoconservatism arose as a “reaction” (ahem) to the New Left. My assumption was confirmed, especially by Diana Trilling, who says in the film that the origins of neoconservatism should be dated to the NYT advertisement that Kristol and 45 others signed in favor of Nixon over McGovern, showing their distaste for the “new politics.”

  3. I absolutely agree that a comprehensive perspective is a Marxist thing, and a neoconservative thing. Most regrettably, it is not generally a “liberal” or “progressive” thing, probably for reasons related to funding. So-called “progressive” foundations are generally just as corporate as the conservative ones. They manipulate funding in such a way as to discourage their beneficiaries from taking a systematic approach, and even from speaking out about the problem:

    White, Curtis. The philanthropic complex. Jacobin. 2012 Spring; 6:24–28. Available from: http://jacobinmag.com/spring-2012/the-philanthropic-complex/. [annotation]

    If the Left is ever to be a major force again, it must recover the Marxist proficiency in taking a comprehensive perspective. This is a separate matter from any adherence to Marxist orthodoxy of doctrine. Whatever you believe, try to formulate it in a way that links philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, history (including intellectual history!), labor organizing, political theory, journalism, everything.

  4. I loved this movie (obviously) and showed it to the class I taught on US intellectual history. I own the DVD. The standard Jewish critique of the movie is that (surprise surpise) it wasn’t Jewish enough. There are a few ways in which that is the case. These four men is some ways encapsulated the 20th century American Jewish experience, from insider to outsider, most moving to the liberal center but some remaining on the left and others veering far to the right. The movie downplays their Jewishness. I don’t think the movie mentions that Glazer wrote a seminal (if mostly now discredited) book on American Judaism in the 1950s. I know it mentions Howe’s “The World of our Fathers,” but not too much. The movie barely mentions Israel if at all, which was a complicated issue for Howe, much less so for the others.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation. Please mind the pronoun imbalance of your articles, though.

  6. It’s been a long time since I saw the film, so I don’t have much to add specifically about it.

    I think what you refer at the end of the post as “a Marxist thing” is a tad more complicated. A focus on root causes, internal logics, and overarching structures may be simply a certain intellectual cast of mind (hedgehog v fox?), not necessarily Marxist, and certainly not, as Douglas Edwards rightly says above in his comment, anything necessarily to do with Marxism as doctrine.

    All four of these men of course were well-read (probably to varying degrees) in the Marxist (or Marxian socialist) tradition, but none would have self-identified as a Marxist after their youth (or early middle age). Bell btw wrote a highly critical review of Michael Harrington’s interpretation of Marx in The Twilight of Capitalism (reprinted in Bell’s The Winding Passage). I liked Harrington’s book so probably disliked Bell’s criticism at the time. Not sure where I would come out if I were to re-read the controversy today (I have The Winding Passage on the shelf but The Twilight of Capitalism I had to discard, unfortunately, when some insects got to it). Sorry for rambling on.

  7. @Anonymous 5:33: I re-read Andrew’s piece in its entirety, paying close attention to his use of pronouns. I don’t see a pronoun used inappropriately. I don’t see any feminine pronouns — but I don’t see any female subjects in the post either. However, since Andrew addresses the readership with the plural and inclusive “you,” I as a female reader am included in that gesture. But if your reference to the “pronoun imbalance” is supposed to be a subtle way of suggesting that Andrew’s posts should be more attentive to women as subjects, I would simply ask: why the subtlety?

    • I was not talking about male/female pronouns, but rather first personal pronouns versus others. Andrew (and I suspect other bloggers on this blog) talk about themselves far too much. Intellectual history should have less to do with the historians and more to do with the intellectuals and their ideas.

    • I can appreciate that. Sentences like “I really enjoyed Arguing the World,” “I think it nicely captures the intellectual history of these four men,” or “I argue that they maintained the analytical Marxist tendency for diagnosing problems in relation to root causes, internal logics, and overarching structures” are worth having you involved in the picture. But look at the first paragraph:

      “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.)”

      Here’s what I would have written.

      “I just watched 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 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.”

      Your book project is relevant. When and how you are watching the movie are not. Omit needless words.

      (Again, thanks for the heads-up on the movie. This is just a recommendation for future posts.)

  8. Ah. So instead of a substantive critique, this is just some petty grousing about style. (Just for you, Andrew!) Thanks for clearing that up, Anonymous.

  9. Like Andrew said, it’s a blog. I’m a total copyediting hardass (just ask my poor students) and I think this is petty. Oops–sorry for using the personal pronoun multiple times in one sentence!

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