Review – Wald, “The New York Intellectuals”


Alan Wald, “The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left From the 1930s to the 1980s” (1987) – Trots! People love ‘em, people hate ‘em. Me? I’ve known good and bad, the same with most kinds of people. I’d say I’ve known more good. They’re kind of like Quakers or anabaptists- irritating, sometimes, and they expect you to know and care about their arcana, but when the chips are down, in the worst spots, there they are, on the right side… usually.

Arguably, the place where Trotskyists (I’m told there’s some kind of distinction between “Trotskyist” and “Trotskyite” which marks the user as a Stalinist- I’m trying to use the nice one! Sorry if I fucked it up!) have, arguably, come closest to real power is America… but only ex-trots. Many ex-Trotskyists wound up as prominent public intellectuals with at least some political pull, figures like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, and many more big names, like Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow, were in and around the general milieu of radical politics and modernist art in midcentury New York (do we count the thirties and forties as midcentury, or only sexy Mad Men times?). Then, they abandoned it. The radical politics, anyway, and sometimes modernism, or else they held on to a version of modernism that ossified over the decades into a new classicism. At least some of them became leading neoconservative writers during the era leading up to Reagan’s election to the presidency. 

Something between the time, the place, and the people allowed this set to call themselves “the New York Intellectuals,” with the definite article, and get away with it. Maybe in part because this is America and no one really wants to call themselves “intellectuals”- and there was, from the beginning, some irony here. Communist organizing is always funny about the role of intellectuals, and the way the Trotskyist groups in New York in the thirties tended to recruit disproportionately from intellectual circles certainly led to some hand-wringing about working class bona fides (let’s just say this is a dynamic with which I have personal familiarity). 

In a way, the process of becoming “The New York Intellectuals” allowed the worst impulses of a number of sides in the contretemps to confirm their pre-existing biases. Anti-intellectual communists could conclude that intellectuals will always betray them (never mind their whole tradition was started by a guy who never had a job that didn’t involve writing about ideas). The ex-trot intellectuals could conclude that all under the sun is irony and compromise and the “adult” thing to do is take what you can. American readers, such as they were — and there were more, and more serious, readers at the time in this country than at any other, before or since — could decide that this overdetermined shadow puppet show was just what intellectuals did and do and they could take it or, as the case would eventually be, leave it. 

Well! Let’s see if we can put the horse back before the cart, here. Alan Wald is a historian and a Trotskyist organizer himself. He has delved deeply into the archive of the American left, in this and other books. As such, he has a “dog in the fight,” and emphasizes the milieu’s time on the left, roughly from the Depression until the end of WWII, more than he does its time in national prominence, roughly from the fifties to the eighties. He’s strongly critical of his subjects, though, being on the Trotskyist side of things himself, he sees their story as, at least partially, a story of lost opportunity. Trotskyism could have been a contender, Wald broadly implies, but between confused direction from the man himself in Mexico City, the endless fissiparousness of the movement and its infamous splits, and sheer historical bad luck, American Trotskyism never reached what Wald saw as its potential. 

Most of the things that went wrong in the American Trotskyist movement had some unfortunate ironies attached, mostly concerning the role of intellectuals in revolutionary organizations and relations with their bete noir, the Stalinists in the CPUSA. Much like elsewhere, some of the best minds in America joined the Trotskyist bodies that arose in the thirties. And not just writers and academics clustered around the cafeterias at CCNY, either, but organizers too. Not for nothing did Trotskyists lead the legendary Teamster uprising in Minneapolis, and followers of sometimes-trot socialist pacifist A.J. Muste spearheaded the great Auto-Lite strike in Akron.  

But Wald mostly focuses on, like the title says, New York intellectuals, and it does seem like a lot of the leaders of the fragmented Trotskyist scene did too. American Trotskyism means facing down the national guard in Minneapolis. It also means people like James Burnham, a transparently self-seeking wannabe intellectual big shot who was clearly attracted to Trotskyism in part because some interpretations of Trotsky (and Lenin before him) implied a strong powerful role in intellectuals such as himself in the revolution and the post-revolutionary dispensation. When Burnham realized — pretty late, for a supposedly smart guy — that the left wasn’t the way to power, he turned his coat, going well to the right of most of the neocons. More generously, a lot of American well-wishers to the Russian revolution, disgusted by the butchery and betrayals of Stalin, invested Trotsky and his fledgling movement with hopes they couldn’t possibly have fulfilled at the time. These disappointed hopes compounded the inevitable frustrations involved in any organizing. Out of the crooked timbers of humanity nothing straight can be made, as another overachieving European put it, and that frustrates people, especially pedants. See, I’m something of a pedant for failure and disorder- that’s how I manage. 

They often hate each other, but Trotskyists and Maoists, in my experience, are alike in terms of their central method of managing disorder: the refinement and promulgation of doctrine, of “The Line.” They need to have answers to all questions. If they don’t, that would somehow mean that the transmission line of “scientific socialism” had been broken, or worse yet, lay with some rival faction. It has to go Marx-Lenin-Them, with these groups or else they’re not legitimate, somehow. And the line needs to cover every meaningful contingency. I get that this is an unhelpful mutation of an understandable impulse to develop explanatory mechanisms for the chaos of circumstance, to avoid the sort of unplanned (often degenerating into unprincipled) back-and-forth that characterizes so many other political actors. But I’ll admit, it was never my thing, and its excesses often make me queasy. “Bourgeois intellectualism” on my part, I guess, though that rather strikes me as the pot calling the kettle black. 

Anyway- Leon Trotsky died at a deeply inconvenient time, that is, before he could issue some kind of directive to his followers that would allow them to take a “line” on the Second World War that made any goddamn sense at all. Instead, you got a pained hodge podge, where the Trotskyist sects all tried to make themselves seem more correct to the words of the prophet (uttered, it’s worth nothing, before Hitler started gobbling up Europe): that any future war would be a simple inter-imperialist squabble and that the role of the vanguard should be to sit it out and encourage both sides to lose. This was, after all, what the Bolsheviks called for in 1918, and it worked out for them (eventually). 

Wald can admit that it was a “bad look” in wartime America for the Trotskyists to equivocate about who was the bad guy in the situation. He points, for good reason, to the sheer bald-faced opportunism of the Stalinists, who went from supporting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to embracing the war effort, and even undermining allied union organizers and anti-racist efforts to do so. But Wald misses the fact that all that means is it should have been a layup for the Trotskyists- support the war and antifascism, support the Double V and union efforts, agitate for a just peace. But, at least in part because of the many Trotskyist factions competing with each other to seem most legitimate, none of them could convey any such simple message. 

The failures of the Trotskyist groups during the war — along with the fact that the other, err, “socialist alternatives” at the time were equally unappealing — provided a lot of intellectuals a convenient exit strategy, but most of them were probably looking for the door well before then. There were, if you can believe it, even more reasons — more spaces on the little game board track, “move your piece X spaces away from radical organizing” — to quit socialist or communist movements then than there are today. The micro-physics of sectarianism in the thirties and forties was at least as vicious as the social media wars of today, as the careers of people like Max Shachtman (some of you may recognize that name from a throwaway line in “Inside Llewyn Davis”) attest to. Throughout the organizing space, the rocks of ego, stupidity, circumstance went smashing into each other erratically and made ejecta of many a potential movement leader. McCarthyism took hold, and like the situation with the war, the Trotskyists, while often seeing the stakes reasonably clearly, could not organize a coherent response, especially if it meant making common cause with the dreaded Stalinists. 

What’s more, there was a lot more in the way of opportunity then than there is now. One thing the endless line-refining and inter-group squabbling in little magazines that characterized Trotskyism proved to be pretty good training for was the boom in public intellectual life that occurred in the US after WWII. There was a bigger market than ever before for intelligent, critical — but not too critical! — writing on politics and culture. Academia was also expanding, and the barriers keeping Jews out of the academy started coming down. One of the things that had impelled many young intellectuals in the thirties away from the CPUSA and towards Trotskyism was the Stalinist’s insistence on kitschy socialist realism and disgust for any kind of artistic experiment. Ironically, Trotsky himself, while much less of a cultural philistine than Stalin, wasn’t exactly the proponent of free experimentation in the arts that his American followers might have wished for, but he had bigger fish to fry by the time he was in exile. 

The upshot is, a lot of major critics with an investment in modernism were at political loose ends after the end of the war, around the time when the American foreign policy establishment — themselves a richer, WASPier group of pedants and weirdos not totally dissimilar from the pedantic weirdos in the New York Intellectual scene — embraced modernism as a symbol of the freedom and progress to be had under American-style liberal democratic capitalism. It became a fat time for the people around magazines like Partisan Review, Commentary, and the universities. 

I would have liked to have seen more of that story, how these people went from “State Department socialists” and “Cold War liberals” to out and out neoconservatives (or, in a few cases, got more radical again in the sixties). It’s been told elsewhere but I’d be interested in Wald’s take. It seems like it’s a story involving race and money, and neither of those seem to be the subjects Wald is most comfortable with, preferring his (generally quite sharp and compelling) close readings of texts and the sort of biographical interpellations of all sorts of Trotskyism-adjacent cultural figures that dot the text. I often struggle with tone in these reviews, and I probably don’t convey how rich this book is when trying to give my analysis. These people lived interesting lives, and if they failed — if they failed themselves, in many cases — at least they often did so in compelling ways. I’m curious to track down Wald’s work on the broader American literary left sometime soon. ****’

Review – Wald, “The New York Intellectuals”

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