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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/What are intellectuals good for? A discussion with George Scialabba

What are intellectuals good for? A discussion with George Scialabba

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


On Thursday November 19, 2009, Platypus Review Editor-in-Chief Spencer A. Leonard discussed with author George Scialabba a new volume of essays entitled What are Intellectuals Good For? (Boston: Pressed Wafer Press, 2009). Their discussion was conducted live on “Radical Minds,” a radio show Leonard conducts weekly with co-host Greg Gabrellas on WHPK 88.5 FM in Chicago. Leonard and Scialabba’s discussion focused chiefly on a single theme of the book, the connections and disconnects between the intellectuals of the anti-Stalinist Old Left forged in America in the 1930s and the New Left that emerged decades later in the early 1960s. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.


Dwight Macdonald, editor of the Partisan Review during the years 1937 to 1943, speaking at the "Counter Commencement" of Columbia University in June 1968. Generally friendly to the Columbia student left, he spoke of them as "the best generation I have known in this country, the cleverest and the most serious and decent." At the Counter Commencement, Macdonald reversed himself, arguing that the students risked destroying the university, in which case "they would have nothing to replace it."

Spencer Leonard: Recently published by Pressed Wafer Press in 2009, George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a collection of book reviews that, taken together, constitutes an extensive tour through the ruinous history of modern American leftist intellectualism stretching back into the 1930s and beyond. Now regarding the book, I wanted to start off by asking your views on the New Left, who receive considerable treatment in this book, albeit in a largely oblique way. I say this because the views you express here on the New Left, and of your own generation’s political experience, are marked by a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, you celebrate its questioning, almost naïve character, as evidenced for you by the Port Huron Statement; on the other hand, you lament your generation’s failure to produce towering leftist intellectuals and, by implication, a strong Left capable of achieving a more just and emancipated future. You seem largely to agree with Russell Jacoby and others who claim that something has been deeply amiss on the Left for a long time now. For instance, on page 4 you say, “the New Left, for all its promise of vitality, originality, and engagement now seems safely integrated, largely insulated from public influence.”You note the evacuation of leftism from the New Left, yet it seems that to a large degree you exonerate the New Left from the charge of being inadequate to the tasks of its time. Instead, you attribute the eclipse of the Left politically and of leftist public intellectualism generally to external factors, such as the growth of empirical knowledge and the proliferation of mass media. But how far can this be defended? Can we really speak of the age of information as overwhelming intellectuals’ ability to speak critically in a way qualitatively distinct from the situation obtaining earlier in the century?

George Scialabba: No one is adequate to her time, especially among 17–21 year-olds. I am, on the whole, an admirer of the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s. Among contemporary leftists, the New Left is less a living presence or project than it is a slightly awkward memory. It is widely thought that the New Left played a large part in preparing the way for Nixon’s victory and for the general backlash against liberalism, the New Deal, and the Great Society. I think that is overstated, but it is partially true. Certainly, there were a lot of loudmouths and rowdies and other obnoxious people in the New Left. There always are such people in every social movement, and they get more than their share of publicity. But the New Left did do something profoundly important: to invoke a slogan of the times, they questioned authority in a way more direct and unashamed than most of their predecessors in American intellectual and political history—they had a more direct and unashamed moral passion. They saw the promise of American life. The Port Huron statement is really in some ways a paean to the American republican tradition. They understood that civic virtue really was essential to a viable society and to the health of American democracy. They were not young Maoists or Leninists deluded and besotted by ideology. They simply wanted America to live up to its promise. They saw the massive injustice of racial inequality and the barbarity of the technological onslaught in Indochina, and they responded with a certain intellectual clarity and an unmistakable moral passion. They did not give their arguments the high finish that appeals to editorialists at the New York Times, but they accomplished something very important. They faded away ingloriously and left tangled memories behind, but on the whole, it was a very salutary response from which the contemporary Left can learn.

Leonard: I agree with the idea that there is much in the New Left in its formative period that vanishes without a trace. But both in your answer and in the book you refer to the retread of Stalinism that we saw with the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and many other prominent groups that arose from the mainstream of the New Left—so, I still wonder how to connect the kind of honesty, naïveté, directness, and plain speaking that you admire in the New Left with the inadequate organizational and ideological expressions that came out of it. It seems we would need a more complex account of the forces that gave rise to the New Left and the dynamics that operated within it to explain how it collapsed as a Left in the 1970s and 1980s.

Scialabba: Well, the Weathermen grabbed the spotlight, explosively, so to speak, but they were a tiny splinter. SDS had to some extent already run out of steam, or had, at least temporarily, run out of energy by then. The Weatherman, under the evil guidance of the old Left groups such as the Progressive Labor Party, seized leadership positions on national and some influential local chapters, and pretty much ran the institution into the ground. Students started getting bizarre Leninist/Maoist communiqués from the central committee and just kind of dropped off.

Leonard: Did you participate in that personally? Did you have a role in the student Left in the 60s?

Scialabba: In 1969–70 I was at Columbia University where I saw this unfolding. Though I was not really very involved, I was close enough to see it happening more or less firsthand. I think the media was actually looking for this sort of thing to play up in order to discredit the student Left generally, and the student leadership certainly played into those designs. These are young people: of course they are irresponsible and failing to show the proper degree of intellectual deference. Again, I do not mean there was any conspiracy, but I do think there is a good deal of intellectual dishonesty and poverty of imagination on the part both of the mass media and of academia in interpreting this sorry history.

Leonard: I recognize that this discussion threatens to edge away from the leading themes of your book, so to bring it back a little I want to ask, to what extent do you think that the Old Left generation—the kind of figures that you are talking about in the book, coming from the Partisan Review, people who had really cut their teeth on the critique of Stalinism in the 1930s—to what extent did that intellectual cohort really prepare and, in a sense, educate the generation that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s? To what extent, indeed, can the disconnect between the Old Left and the New be understood as merely a breakdown of inter-generational communication? And to what degree do you think that the innocence and naïveté of youth grew into a critical and theoretical failing of the New Left? Was their ill-preparedness for the political challenges that their generation faced a consequence of their inability to work through the problems they had inherited from the past?

Scialabba: I am not as versed in the specific history of the New Left and SDS as many others but my impression is that there was, and there always is with social movements, a smaller group, a few seed groupings, who were quite conscious of the American left-wing tradition, both of the native tradition of anarchists like Randolph Bourne, Paul Goodman, and Dwight Macdonald, and of the European leftist tradition, as with the Partisan Review group. To some extent, figures like Macdonald and C. Wright Mills bridged those traditions. I think those who were thus rooted in the American Left found a ready audience among their peers, especially given the rising consciousness of racial inequality and the rising tide of barbarism in Indochina. Students who were predisposed by whatever predisposes people to passionate political involvement responded to politically self-aware leaders. They in turn joined the movement, went out and demonstrated, talked to their families, their friends, and their neighbors—just the way social movements happen. And discouraging things happened, as the police became nasty, editorials became snooty, and professors became disapproving, they quavered and then, as I say, the professional revolutionaries, the Weathermen, the Stalinists, moved in to seize control, as is typical of Leninist, professional revolutionary, vanguardists. With their ideological delusions they wrecked a slow-moving and erratic but nonetheless genuine social movement. I do think that among those early people, the seed groupings, there was an awareness of, and a real desire to learn from, the older leftists. Tom Hayden, for example, and the other authors of the Port Huron Statement were eager to meet Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and Paul Goodman, and they did meet them. My admiration for Harrington and Goodman is very great, but the fact is—and there is plenty of blame on both sides—but the fact is, although their specific criticisms of the youngsters were true enough, the results were an emotional disaster.

Leonard: This you discuss in the essay on Irving Howe.

Scialabba: Well, they made more than they needed to of the students’ insufficient emancipation from Marxist ideology and revolutionary rhetoric. They were quite right, but it is something they did not give the students time to learn for themselves. They could have been encouraging, usefully critical, but instead they chose to come down on them like a ton of bricks. Then again, 17–21 year-olds are not always able to be discriminating. They heard this, felt cast out and furious, and the relationship between the Old Left and the New Left went to hell.

Leonard: At the center of this book, even in the essays that do not directly address their writings, you come back time and again to a generation of writers that we would associate with the 1930s and 1940s, with the journal the Partisan Review, and with the city of New York. I want to ask about the reticence you have towards many of those writers’ Marxist commitments. A lot of them abandoned Communism for Trotskyism over the course of the 1930s. It seems to me that you tend to shy away from direct discussion of this. Indeed, your book really focuses only on those who broke their ties with Trotskyism, so that figures such as Max Shachtman, whose influence was surely considerable, fall out of the discussion. I wonder if your wariness of this kind of politics does not compromise our ability to understand not only what made that group of intellectuals great, but also what made them a group. After all, many of the “New York Intellectuals” shared a set of commitments and orientations, so that, for a lot of them, the turn to Trotskyism was a turn, not away from the Left, but towards it. They saw the Communist Party and others as more conservative than themselves and considered those organizations incapable of bringing about the kind of change that they wanted to see brought about. They recognized that, in a sense, the whole legacy of the European revolutionary tradition, from the French Revolution to the rise of the labor movement and of mass socialists parties, threatened to amount to nothing, or worse than nothing—a dread we can see expressed perhaps most clearly in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station. What do we say today of such political commitments, and how does that inform our sense of tragedy respecting that generation of intellectuals?

Scialabba: I have enormous respect for left-wing Marxism. I have studied Capital with the son of one of the great Marxist theorists of the 20th century, Paul Mattick, and I was affiliated for many years with one of the tiny libertarian Marxist groups that he founded in Cambridge. But, on the whole, I do not think Marxism historically has contributed much of anything useful to the American Left. I think the native tradition of Goodman, Edward Bellamy, Bourne, Macdonald, and others is more fruitful. One reason why I did not deal more with people like Shachtman and the Trotskyists you mentioned, is that the people I mostly wrote about were literary-political intellectuals; that is, they were people who drew much of their evidence for and standards in moral argument from the humanistic tradition. They may have started out as pretty rigorous orthodox Marxists, but they stopped arguing for the most part in Marxist terms and began mostly arguing as humanists. Again, Dwight MacDonald and the Partisan Review crowd in America, George Orwell in England, Albert Camus in France, and Nicola Chiaromonte in Italy—what they carried over from Marxism was something often lacking in American radicalism, a respect for European high culture and, of course, a sense of the importance of understanding capitalism as a system. But I do not know that the Marxist analyses of American capitalism ever proved to be very influential in the history of the American Left, nor am I sure that they deserved to be. I think that it is possible, and in fact likely, that an effective, stable, permanent, successful American Left can be built—if the world does not melt or blow up before then—largely from a basis of common morality, humanism, and simple democracy, as a fulfillment of American Western democratic ideals, and of the solidaristic, universalistic, moral imagination of Western radicalism from Tolstoy to William Morris and so on. I do not know that the Left needs or will get that much help from Marxist theory.

Leonard: One last question on that. I agree with the connection you make between the views of Michael Walzer and those of Richard Rorty, but I always had a problem with politics rooted in literary or moralist traditions, especially when these are conceived as national. Part of what I would take from Marxism is a vision of freedom that seeks more than justice, that is not straightforwardly ethical, and that looks to future, rather than tradition, for emancipatory potential. To me, Marxism seeks to do more than translate our morals into the political domain, but attempts to open the way to new forms of sociality that we lack a clear view of now. But you strike something like a tone of bemusement when you discuss Jacoby’s arguing for a world in which people work less and more fulfillingly and are capable of different and freer kinds of family, sexual, and intimate relations. If we lose touch with that critical tradition, which looks not to our national culture, but to global capitalist society and its potential, do we not risk losing the politics of emancipation?

Scialabba: I agree entirely. I must not have said it right in that piece on Jacoby, because I certainly endorse that kind of utopian visionary thinking. I was unhappy that he kept insisting that the social democratic reformists like Robert Kuttner or Michael Harrington, and journals like In These Times, The American Prospect, and Dissent, simply did not get it. This, to me, was not helping. As I said in that essay, I am a 20th century Utopian. I think we are going to get there, if we are to survive as a species.But it will be stepwise and, for the time being, I think the reformists he criticized are the people we should work with, rather than the negative utopians like Adorno. |P