Leaving the Sect: Reflections on Irving Howe’s Portrayal of His Intellectual Journey Into the World


One of the most interesting stories of Jewish-American intellectual life in the 20th century is that of Irving Howe who, for years, was an iconic thinker, a storied American literary critic, and a politically active member of the pre- and post-WWII American left.  It was only after I read Howe’s essays on Yiddish literature – where he establishes his rationale for pursuing  Yiddish translation and the promotion of a Yiddish literature (in translation) project that put Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel the Fool,” the first literary schlemiel translated into English, at the forefront – that I became very interested in what led him to this literary project.  Howe’s argument for why it was necessary for Yiddish literature to be injected into the American bloodstream was that Yiddish literature could introduce “sweetness and light” into an American milieu that had – after the war – become much too serious.

Howe was not turning to literature because he was turning away from America.  He turned to it as a way of entering the world .  After having been cut off from it by virtue of what he called “the movement” (a “sect”), literature opened up the world to him that he had never seen.   Later in his life, Howe situated his particular life in relation to the “World of Our Fathers” and not to the “movement.”

In order to figure out what prompted him to go in this direction, I took up his “Intellectual Biography,” entitled A Margin of Hope.  In the second and fifth chapters of the book, entitled, respectively, “Life in a Sect” and “Into the World,” I think that I have found what I have been seeking.  In these chapters, Howe, in the most honest, self-reflexive, literary, and phenomenological manner, looks back at his life and his journey.   The metaphorical frame he uses to disclose that life, which for him is through-and-through political, is “the sect.”  His story describes: 1) his life in the sect; 2) his desire and decision to leave it; and 3) what that process, “of entering the world,” consisted of, historically.

The epigram of his second chapter (“Life in a Sect”) comes from the American poet, Emerson.  It anticipates the crux of the chapter: “If I know your sect I anticipate your argument.”  What was Howe’s sect?  And why would he use a religious register to denote it?

Howe was not a part of a religious sect. He tells us that he was – after the war – a part of a political sect.  In America, he argues, “we have hundreds of left-wing sects, but they have seldom thrived.  When you think about it this seems odd, since there is a long history of religious sectarianism among us”(37).  According to Howe, there are three aspects that contributed to the “rigidity of our radicalism”: Protestantism, the tradition of dissent from Emerson and Thoreau, and Debsian socialism.   They were the “children of the dawn” but “our potential sects have withered while the religious one’s have flourished.” He notes that sometimes there has been a “crossing of energies,” but this has brought “little good.” It is the “fundamentalist temper,” argues Howe, that has “been a recurrent disaster in American radicalism”(37).

Howe describes the sect in terms of a kind of “little world” that must “huddle” in its own “bit of space”:

The sect crates a life apart, casting aside the imperfections of the world as given and hoping, through disciplines of withdrawal, to establish its own “little world” as  a haven for the elect.  It is chosen to be the vanguard of History, a vessel of the Idea…It must huddle in its own bit of space. It endures a hibernation of waiting. Its members know they must suffer the pain of hopelessness, and in time they learn to celebrate this pain as a sign of vindications to come.  (37)

Howe, purposefully quoting a sociologist, Lewis Coser, notes that while the political party is inclusive, the sect is exclusive.   The political party must “remind itself not to slump into withdrawal from the world which often seems its natural condition, perhaps even its deepest desire”(38).  Even so, the irony is that, according to Howe’s reading, the American Marxists that he was a member of were not a political party, they were a sect (38).   And, in violation of the political imperative not to “slump into withdrawal from the world,” it did.

Howe tells his reader that “these are observations of retrospect, purchased at the price of error”(38).  He went through those errors and is now telling how he, so to speak, was a part of a sect and not a political party that situated itself in the world.  Recalling the appeal of the Trotskyists to American Marxists, he notes how they were “nervous in the bristling style that self-educated people affect in the presence of trained intellectuals” of the Partisan Review, like Philip Rahv and William Phillips.    While he appreciated the fact that the Trotskyists gave a critique of Stalinism and the “intellectual world of those befuddled writers who praised Stalin’s dictatorship as a ‘higher form of democracy’” and were “among the few people in the thirties telling the truth about Stalinism, or at least part of the truth,” he takes note of the fact that, once they tried to gain credence in America, they “shrank to a historical oddity”(41).

Howe recalls how, in 1938, it did seem as if the “Trotskyists might break out of their isolation” when the “Nazis announced a meeting in Madison Square Garden”(41).  The “Jewish community failed to respond in any dramatic way” but a SWP (Socialist Workers Party) leaflet calling on people to demonstrate at the garden was “reproduced in The Daily News.”  When this happened, the “leader of the Minneapolis teamsters” came in to train them in the “arts of street combat”(41).  The young Howe was excited about how “thousands stormed through the streets.  Rapport with the masses, a path to their desires”(42). But this was short lived.   He tells us that the masses “only cared about demonstrations” and not about their “program.”  They went “back into our familiar isolation”(42).

Even so, that moment lived on for Howe. He recalls his devotion to the sect:

To yield oneself to the movement – really a sect, but we called it “the movement,” and out of courtesy to the past so shall I – was to take on a new identity.  Never before, and surely never since, have I lived at so a high, so intense a pitch, or been so absorbed in ideas beyond the smallness of self.  It began to seem as if the very shape of reality could be molded by our will…What mattered was the movement….it gave my life a “complete meaning,” a “whole purpose.” (42)

Although that may have been the case, Howe sees, in retrospect, that the movement was itself “hermetic”(50).  A “despite all their efforts to break out of sect confinements, the Trotskyists still accepted the idea that…it was impossible to build a mass movement”(50).  All one could do is speak to other groups.  Even so the “movement was my school in politics, my school in life”(51).   By virtue of the movement, he could “take positions” and he could have a “coherent perspective upon everything happening in the world”(53).  And this was his education.  He developed intellectually and even culturally.  However, the movement, he admits, remained worldless.

It was later, after he enlisted in the army (for four years) and returned to New York that things shifted and realized he had to enter “into the world” (the title of chapter five).  The watershed moment, claims Howe, was an essay he came across in 1947 by a “young writer named Isaac Rosenfled, who together with his friend Saul Bellow….published a story in Kenyon Review called ‘The Party’”(109).  The story helped him to realized that he was in a sect.   The short story parodied the movement in America: “They met after hours in cafes to draw up their program of action, which they called a program of inaction.  It was impossible to change the course of events….The party would change only when it was thoroughly bored with iself.  It was to produce in the members a state of boredom so great that they would be unable to attend their own meetings.”

The story, says Howe, was “like a finger pressing secret wounds”(110).  It “hurt to the point of rage, perhaps because we knew that in its fantastic way it was scraping against the truth”(110).  And now he realized that “the time had come to break out”(110).  Howe’s articulation of this is moving as it marks a major turn in his life out of the sect and into the world:

I needed to find some nourishment in the common air, refreshment in the world as it was, a world as badly flawed, no doubt, as we had always said, but still the only one at hand.  Grateful as I felt for what the movement had taught – even mistaught – me, it was a crutch that I could no longer lean on.  It was morally bracing to see myself as an ordinary young man who had to earn an ordinary living.  (111)

The break wasn’t easy.  “To quit a movement in which one has invested one’s strongest feelings can be terribly painful – at least as painful as leaving home or starting a divorce”(111).  He looks at his old friends, who still clinged to the movement, with pity.  They would hold on “just a little longer, in the hope that something might turn up”(111).  And, leaving them, he felt guilty (111).   He recalls his struggle with guilt and his realization:

I accused myself of opportunism – and who, looking within himself, will fail to find it? But neither could I shed the conviction that the time of the sect was at an end. Nor deny the charge of my own desires, the persuasion that I was a young man with energy, ambition, perhaps talent.  My friends – most of them – did not judge me: it was their understanding that tormented me. (111)

What is that understanding? According to Howe, it was their understanding that they were not in the world and were stuck in the sect while he was leaving it.  This torment is fascinating because it suggests that they are stuck in a sinking ship and, because of their nostalgia for the past movement and their desire to recapture certain moments that no longer existed, they were stuck.

Howe takes note that not only Rosenfeld’s short story helped him to dislodge himself and see the sect as a sect but Rosenfeld’s novel A Passage from Home.  It described the “inner experience of a Jewish boy, ‘sensitive as a burn’, breaking out of family and entering selfhood: from dark to dark”(112).  The book had an “overwhelming impression on him” because it exposed him to what he had buried away.  And this spurred him to write his own Jewish American experience as the son of an immigrant.   He turned this into a review that Clement Greenberg put through to Commentary.

After reviewing Rosenfeld’s book, he received a letter from the author praising him for showing how the “Marxist method” could be used in the “undogmatic flexibility of literary criticism”(113).  He realized that he had a new calling:

Not only was I now pronounced a literary critic, but I even had a “method,” though when writing the review I had merely released some personal responses, without a thought of using “Marxism” or anything else.  (113)

But, he says, there was a “cultural misunderstanding” that emerged out of this moment and lasted for decades.  What didn’t he understand?  In the last chapter of the book, he suggests that he didn’t understand the extent to which his relationship to the world was enhanced the more he listened to the novelists on the “margin,” who he calls the “witnesses.” The American is, in his view, a “witness to witnesses.”  And it is the testimony  of these writers on the margin – and they include names like Eliot, Brecht, Solzhenitsyn and Orwell, Kafka and Silone – that he wants to “identify.”

Howe recalls how he asks a “group of assembled writers” if they can “still be stirred” by these novelists and their testimonies. He recalls the poet Octavio Paz, whose book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, gave the answer: “desperate hopefulness”(351).  While Howe notes that Paz’s book was historically situated, the moment is gone.  That hope has changed, as have the witness.

Citing Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Howe suggests that comedy must take note of the desire for the “unity of their circle” but also that it is, like a sect, a closed one. Their utopia may lead, in other words, to Stalinism.   He left that movement behind and in the very end of the book he realizes that he can’t totally throw the baby of utopia out with the utopian bathwater.  For this reason, he calls for a “utopia of the skeptics” and, in the spirit of dialogue, puts a question mark at the end.  He poses it to “four writers” as he waits for their answer, he sees that, before they speak, they shrug and smile.   After all, a utopia of the skeptics is contrary to the sect but, at the same time, it may be a fitting term to describe a world that bears witness to history and all its disasters while, at the same time, finding a margin of hope in literary reflection.  Strangely enough, one could argue that this “utopia of skeptics” is what he found in Yiddish literature and in what he considered to be Jewishness.   His Jewishness, his “utopia of skeptics,” was the world he discovered after he left a worldless sect and its utopia of believers.

5 thoughts on “Leaving the Sect: Reflections on Irving Howe’s Portrayal of His Intellectual Journey Into the World

  1. I am a former member and current supporter of the Socialist Workers Party.

    Howe was not alone among intellectuals in exiting the working class movement after post-war strike wave and European revolutionary waves receded in late 1940s.

    It should also not be forgotten that he left the Shactmanite Workers Party as the Red Scare began. He and Coser wrote an anti-communist history of the CPUSA.

    Howe’s political role in the 60s and 70s was simple: oppose the mass anti-war movement and support U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and at home.

    Leon Trotsky’s last book, In Defense of Marxism, takes on the phenomenon of middle class intellectuals opposing the working class movement under blows of war hysteria.

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