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Irving Howe

Intellectuals’ Flight From Politics

A Discussion of Contemporary Trend

(October 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 8, October 1947, pp. 241–246.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The intellectuals are the most delicate sensorium of the life of society. In their remarkable ideological fluctuations of the past 30 years, one can read the history of contemporary society in oblique, distorted yet revealing terms. Bolshevism and Stalinism; pacifism and Vansittartism; pragmatism and existentialism; militant atheism and neo-mysticism; revolutionary activism and secluded quietism – the list can be extended indefinitely. A discussion of these shifts which merely denounces the intellectuals’ “irresponsibility” is largely a waste of time, even if morally or emotionally satisfying. For the intellectuals’ instability (which at least indicates reaction and awareness) is largely a reflection of the failure of the major social classes to resolve the crisis in which we are jutted. Any other view grants the intellectuals a degree of social independence they do not in reality enjoy.

The political development of the American “left” intellectuals since the great depression may be charted in four major trends: their attraction to radical politics in the early thirties; their subsequent break from Stalinism and turn to Trotskyism; their retreat from Marxism in the late thirties; and finally their flight from politics in general. [1] In this article I wish to discuss only the last of these trends, the flight from politics.

Though not a class in the Marxian sense, the intellectuals wield an influence far greater than their direct socio-economic strength. Because of their characteristic concern with ideas, they are able to wrench a certain limited freedom from their social milieu; they are not merely linked to the present, they can “live” ideologically in either the past or the future. To analyze their present situation, we must therefore not only place them in their general position vis-à-vis the major classes of society, but go further by examining some of their ideas.

In few instances have the intellectuals formulated their flight from politics into an explicit system or rationale, and that only by the scholastics or academicians. Such a codification is impossible for the left intellectual whose background is at least partially political. For it is such a patently absurd idea to suggest that modern men can live without politics or solve any of his fundamental problems without politics, that few have had the courage to justify their behavior by a theoretical elevation. Instead a variety of half-conscious subterfuges are adopted. One sneers at politics as “dirty” – which is in a sense true but which skirts the central problem of whether men must sometimes engage in activities which are “dirty.” Another turns to “ultimate” problems of life – man’s basic nature, cosmic anxiety, death, “fear and trembling” – which, whatever their other areas of relevance, are certainly not a logical substitute, even if an emotional one, for the problems with which politics is concerned. And still a third says that politics is “dull” by comparison with other intellectual activities – which, again, may or may not be true but which is irrelevant if only because politics recommends itself not for esthetic reasons but by its claim to be unavoidably necessary. Obviously none of these subjectively formulated motivations expresses the basic cause for the flight from politics. For though the intellectuals may develop a considerable ingenuity in the means by which they negotiate this flight, its causes are largely rooted in the immediate crisis of society.

To the intellectuals politics seems to offer no way out; it seems able only to embroil us further in the current catastrophe. This feeling is the direct consequence of the failure of the revolutionary upsurges of the twenties and thirties, the most shattering experience of our time: shattering to people, to movements and to ideas. An entire generation of intellectuals was politically destroyed just as virtually an entire generation of revolutionists was politically destroyed. [2]

The intellectuals feel themselves trapped in a dead end: the bifurcation between knowledge and action. They feel that nothing matters any more; that no matter what one does, one cannot challenge the political power of omnipotent bureaucracies. (Kafka’s novel, The Trial, gave anticipatory expression to this sense of powerlessness in its view of man as a victim.) In an article by C. Wright Mills, a radical sociologist, the feeling is vividly described:

We continue to know more and more about modern society, but we find the centers of political initiative less and less accessible. This generates a personal malady which is particularly acute in the intellectual who has labored under the illusion that his thinking makes a difference. In the world of today the more his knowledge of affairs grows, the less effective the impact of his thinking seems to become ... He feels helpless in the fundamental sense that he cannot control what he is able to foresee. (The Powerless People, by C. Wright Mills, Politics, April, 1944 – My emphasis – I.H.)

Now, honesty requires that we acknowledge that this feeling is not confined to the intellectuals, the “powerless people”; it is a feeling which must also seize the revolutionist who correctly analyzes each revolutionary situation only to find in its defeat still another tragic confirmation of the validity of his analysis. (There is, by the way, an easy way to avoid this feeling and even to enjoy the most delicious optimism: simply live in another world ... and chalk up each defeat of the socialist movement in this world as a victory in your private world.) But the crucial difference between most intellectuals and the revolutionists is that the revolutionists continue to resist reaction; that they have maintained their conviction of the necessity of political activity; and that they have not elevated moods of the present into philosophies of presumed universal relevance. Shortly before the Russian Revolution, Lenin, in a moment of deep pessimism, told a Swiss audience that he doubted if the Russian Revolution would come in his lifetime – which didn’t prevent him from trying to nullify his prediction.

There is the greatest weakness of the intellectual: if he responds most readily to the times, he also succumbs most easily to its pressures. A glance at the present intellectual situation in America indicates the extent to which this is true. One need but list a few indices: the disintegration and atomization of American intellectual life; the pathetic quest for novelty, often at the expense of basic relevance and validity; the belittling of science and the elevation of the irrational; the reappearance of musty theories of social utopias; the growth of academicism in literary life; the popularity of the doctrine of man’s essential and unavoidable isolation.

Perhaps even more alarming than the reappearance of reactionary ideas is the intellectuals’ loss of rebelliousness. By and large they have become, at least in a physical-economic sense, comfortable citizens of the community. Most of them have settled down during recent years to the security of the good life, even if that good life is occasionally conscience-torn. Gone is the sensitivity to the world’s sufferings which was such an admirable trait of the intellectuals of 15 years ago. So immersed are they now in man’s cosmic suffering that they maintain their silence about the here-and-now sufferings of men; so fascinated are they by their private problems that they are indifferent to the social catastrophe which tortures all humanity. [3] Or if not indifferent, then helpless and hopeless. Marx’s statement that the task of philosophers is no longer to philosophize about the world but to change it has been amended to read: “but to mourn for it.”

The directions which this flight takes are many, but in this article I wish only to note briefly four of them: the turns to religion, absolute moralism, psychoanalysis and existentialist philosophy as substitutes for politics. It goes without saying that where literary material is cited, I intend neither literary analysis nor evaluation.

The Turn to Religion

That, a substantial group of intellectuals should accept religious notions as relevant to modern man’s situation is perhaps the most striking tendency of contemporary intellectual life. Though the causes of any individual’s conversion are often complex and perplexing, the turn to religion in general is not difficult to explain. Each age of defeat and dissolution sees similar developments. Where men fail, miracles are needed; where chaos reigns, men yearn for order. And who can offer miracles as acceptable or an order as comforting as the church? Hence the resurgence of religio-emotional primitivism among sophisticated intellectuals.

The consequences of this turn are enormous. For those who revert to religion must necessarily break with the entire tradition of modern thought as it stemmed from the Enlightenment and twisted through the 20th century. The assumptions of rational inquiry and scientific method; the reliance on intelligence as a means of social investigation; the conception that man need seek no sanction for his quest for dignity and meaning outside of himself and that a tragic view of life is derivable from an acceptance of a naturalistically-ordered universe which is not a function of some external cosmic power – all of these traditional postulates of western thought, which Marxism accepted the better to drive them to total realization, are now discarded by the religious converts who can urge only intuition, mysticism and faith. They abandon not merely Marx and Freud and Dewey and Einstein and Darwin and all the other names which have become the symbols of modern thought; they abandon as well the intellectual progenitors of the bourgeois revolution. They move back beyond the Encyclopediasts to pre-bourgeois ideology.

Notwithstanding the strained attempts of a few “left” Catholics and Protestant socialists to wed religion to some mildly leftist politics, the large-scale adoption of religion can lead only to passivity and indifference. How could it be otherwise among men who find this world so painful that they seek another? [4] And though religion does serve as emotional nourishment and a source of mythic symbolism for individual artists (e.g., the talented young American poet, Robert Lowell), its general domination of the cultural scene could lead only to obscurantism, stultification and in some instances regimentation. For today religion is a hard crust on the social organism shutting off the breath of freedom, generosity, and experimentation.

The central and most representative figure in the turn to religion is T.S. Eliot, who helped initiate the trend. Unlike many other converts, Eliot was never a radical in politics and unlike many others he has taken his conversion most seriously. He has accepted the ceremonies and dogmas of Anglo-Catholicism with apparently literal belief; he has not hesitated before some of its least credible or savory implications. And he has transmuted church values into his literary criticism and his politics. When as distinguished and sophisticated an intellectual as Eliot could write in a manner worthy of a parish priest announcing an index prohibitorium that

In ages like our own it is necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of the imagination, with explicit and theological standards. (After Strange Gods, by T.S. Eliot – my emphasis, I.H.)

then the implications of the religious revival for political and cultural freedom become clearer.

Eliot has even attempted a political application of his religious doctrine. In his book, The Idea of a Christian Society, he constructed a Christian Utopia which, having been established as a platonic idea, he held to be more significant than the worldly reality of church political behavior. He argued that the practice of church politics is a merely transient aspect of Christianity while the idea of a Christian society is its indestructible essence. Just as it is helpless before the self-contained structure of solipsism, so reason is disarmed by this bland dismissal of actuality in the name of a formal ideal. In this instance one can only put aside the idea and insist on an examination of the reality; one can only place Eliot’s argument for what it is: a traditionally-formulated apology for church reaction.

Yet if Eliot represents the most rigidified personification of the intellectual reaction to which religion must eventually lead, he still remains a major voice in contemporary poetry. Which should warn us against too easy correlations between religiosity and cultural sterility. For despite the occasional intrusion of his dogma, Eliot’s poetry still draws, as it usually has, on the emotional tensions of contemporary life for its major substance.

Few of the other converts to religion have been able to adopt the faith as rigorously as has Eliot, even when their difficulties led them to mystical extremes. Such writers as Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh – paralleling the philosophical vagaries of Jeans and Eddington – have desperately run to the shelters of faith; but even after they entered God’s castle they still could not find peace. For none of them has genuine religious faith. They have a will to faith, a yearning for faith, a faith in faith, but faith itself they do not have. And though the skeptical intelligence of such minds as Huxley, Waugh and Isherwood may even be driven to a conviction of the need for faith, the quality of faith itself eludes them. Much of the undeliberate pathos of the later novels of Waugh and Huxley derives from this insistence on a faith they have not really captured. Their faith is largely verbal: a chimera which they feel could give them solace if only they could grasp it.

Huxley’s conversion indicates still another basis for the escape to mysticism. Running like a thread of reproach through his novels is a pervasive fear of life and especially of the modern organization of life (Brave New World, though purporting to satirize a future Utopia actually described modern society). His fear of life manifests itself in his equivocal attitude toward sex: in his Ends and Means he urges sexual sublimation for “the enlargement of culture.” Is it any wonder that this writer’s conversion resulted not merely in a deterioration of his talent but also a rupture from all the vital sources of modern life and feeling?

But the most pitiful and in a way terrifying, result of the turn to religion appears in the poetry of W.H. Auden. Not only does Auden prostrate himself before his God; he exults in the prostration, in the utter renunciation of man’s powers of reason and in the promiscuous proclamation of man’s guilt. The brash rebelliousness of his youth is now twisted into a masochistic abasement before his Lord. In his talented poem, For the Time Being, a Christmas Oratorio, he brings to ultimate reduction the surrender and self-denial of the intellectual-in-quandary.

By Him is dispelled the darkness wherein the fallen will cannot distinguish between the temptation and sin, for in Him we become fully conscious of Necessity as our freedom to be tempted and of Freedom as our necessity to have faith. And by Him is illuminated the time in which our freedom is realized or prevented, for the Course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves, and spontaneous in the degree to which each man loves God and through Him his neighbor.

It is Auden as well who urges on modern man the Calvinistic dogma that:

“... even in
The germ-cell’s primary division
Innocence is lost and Sin,
Already given as a fact
Once more issues as an Act.”

The religious conversions of the intellectuals have their low-brow equivalents: Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, who proclaim Christianity as a Rotarian dogma equally good for ailing souls and worldly troubles and who trot out all the theological paraphernalia (original sin, salvation through redemption) in hearty Salvation Army style; and finally Lloyd Douglas, who concocts profitable fictional miracles in the apparent belief that the Bible didn’t provide enough with which to write best sellers.

The Quest for Morality

Yearning for a steady anchor in a terrifyingly uncontrolled world, a group of intellectuals have turned to absolute morality as a secular equivalent of the turn to religion. Though each participant in this quest for the moral grail establishes his own emphasis, there is one supposition common to all of them: the rejection of the social matrix of morality and the insistence upon a supra or extra-historical set of moral values.

Ultimately any sharp dichotomy between “social” and “individual” morality must result in confusion, for it tends to polarize “society” and “the individual” as unimpinging abstractions. Both extremes fail to see the individual inextricably in society and society necessarily composed of individuals; they are hence unable to develop a dynamic and active view of morality and its context in existence, or as the current jargon would have it, its existential context. Either extreme must necessarily lead to a static and passive view of morality.

In practice few people can cling to these extremes. Once, however, one admits to an interaction of individual and social or rather once one admits an indivisible coexistence in which both terms are really short-hand descriptive abstractions of linked aspects of human existence – then there is still the main problem: what is the relationship between these two necessary abstractions and what, if any, is their causal sequence? Here, I think, Marxism provides a valid and operationally useful answer: it sees man in context, within limits; it defines thereby the area of his freedom. (Since it must be based on complete indeterminacy, “absolute freedom” is no longer actual freedom; there is nothing in relation to which to be “free.”)

When Marx said that “man makes his own history, but not out of the whole cloth,” he was, I think, saying something along these same lines; he was suggesting that the scope of moral action and the limits within which moral choice is possible are largely conditioned by the situation in which man finds himself, that is the society in which man lives. This does not mean that all moral problems are thereby automatically solved; on the contrary. It does, however, help us to define them and to test their relevance. Nor does it mean that all moral problems are reduced to social problems; on the contrary. It does, however, insist upon that connecting link, with context without which the moral problem becomes reified and thereby divorced from human situations.

Now the most interesting thing about the turn to absolute morality is that, when viewed in historical perspective, it is itself so clearly conditioned by the very temporal and contingent social conditions from which it tries to free itself. The attempt to discover again absolute morality is in the present historical situation clearly a result of the sense of impotence the intellectuals feel before the social problems of the world. Were the intellectuals engaged in activity which they felt would make a difference, they would not try to climb the cliffs of absolute morality. So there is more than a touch of irony in the fact that the turn to absolute morality can be explained only by an approach which is its antithesis.

The source of this tendency in the feeling of social impotence is vividly described by a socialist writer.

Justice and Truth are capitalized and it is felt that it might thereby be possible to regain for them a lustre which was lost, in the daily grind of earthly contact. This reminds one of the word magic practiced in certain primitive cultures: if a tribesman does a forbidden thing he constantly cries aloud that he is doing the Good and Rightful, thus hoping to fool the Gods. The current cry for Justice and Truth seems to be a related phenomenon; here also word magic replaces coping with the real world. (Digging at the Roots or Striking at the Branches? by Louis Clair, Politics, October, 1946.)

Once, however, the categories of absolute morality have been established and capitalized, where then? What are the consequences? To live according to the precepts of this morality? But that is impossible, literally impossible. The moralist’ must live in this world, in capitalist society; he must still, like it or not, behave as a unit of a commodity-producing society. He may publish a magazine advocating absolute morality, but all the conditions of his act of publication – from the cost of printing to his ability to pay his contributors – are determined by factors which violate his absolute morality. He has only three choices: to split himself; to isolate himself; or to try to change the social conditions in which his dilemma is rooted. If he chooses the last, then he must become a politician; and no politician of any sort ever has, ever can or ever will be able to function according to absolute morality.

Apart from the fact that this tendency leads to an impasse for social activity, it leads to something perhaps as unattractive: unlimited banality. Thus Dwight Macdonald, the man who went from Karl Marx to Paul Bunyan, discovers – hold your breath! – that people in big cities are unfeeling and calloused, that in fact cities are too big and that men should never hurt each other. If Macdonald urges men to turn the other cheek to society, his co-thinker, Paul Goodman, urges men simply to ignore society. Goodman tells people to stop working for wages, to quit their jobs when they find their work uninteresting. He neglects to mention how people are to eat and feed their children if they follow his advice, but then no thinker can be expected to make his system completely foolproof.

The whole matter was once summed up to perfection by Dwight Macdonald before he departed from this world:

The essence of reactionary politics is to try to get people to behave in a class society as though it were a classless society, i.e., to stop “playing politics.” (My emphasis – I.H.)

Psychology as a Substitute

While the turn to religion is an atavistic reaction, the recent absorption in psychoanalysis by American intellectuals is a more complex phenomenon. Without question Freudianism is one of the major achievements of modern culture. We may accept as significant contributions to our understanding of human life Freud’s broad insight into human behavior while rejecting his sociological by-products. (His specific clinical procedures and methods of therapy should be evaluated only by specialists.)

The recent glazed fascination with which American intellectuals have turned to psychoanalysis is, however, not merely an alert reaction to a powerful theory; it is that, but it is also something else. For if the turn to religion involves an atavistic reaction, then the recent fascination with psychoanalysis involves a distention of materials. In the attempt to make psychoanalysis serve where politics presumably failed, a number of its less cautious converts have distended the discipline beyond its proper limits.

This distention takes two forms. First, the exorbitant claims made for a theory which is essentially a hypothesis for individual therapy and neither a Weltanschauung nor a method of social analysis (e.g., the uncritical analogical theory of “mass neurosis” of the German people). Secondly, though less tangibly, the evident element of morbidity with which the theory is espoused, its use not as a challenging tool for self-understanding but as a haven from responsibility and action. The human being becomes a passive and prostrate victim unable to act or react.

The most extreme distention of psychoanalysis is at present practiced by the political followers of the analyst, Wilhelm Reich. Proceeding from the most admirably motives, Reich’s writing is immersed in a thoroughly revolutionary spirit which rejects the capitalist status quo. In his book on fascism, Reich displays a historical sense not often found among orthodox Freudians: he attempts a correlation between political authoritarianism and sexual suppression which is suggestive if not conclusive. Yet the basic political effect of his writings, whatever their value for therapeutic practice, is to provide a plausible rationale for the flight from politics.

Reich develops a theory of sexual fabianism: he sees the authoritarian structures of capitalist society leading to a destruction of orgastic potency among its citizens. From this theory he concludes that before people can become genuine revolutionists they must first restore their orgastic potency; otherwise any revolution would merely perpetuate in new guise the authoritarian structure of the past and inhibit the development of free sexuality and the creative potentialities of mankind.

Even if we accept the hypothesis of an intimate correlation between political authoritarianism and sexual suppression, there does not at all necessarily follow its converse: that the achievement of sexual freedom will make people into, or is an indispensable prerequisite for people becoming, revolutionists. As has been remarked by critics of Reich, the tyro of the bedroom is not necessarily the hero of the barricades ... and vice versa.

In the meantime people attracted to Reich’s views, especially their popularization by his enthusiastic followers, find a rationale for political abstention: they must achieve orgastic potency first, and one doesn’t do that overnight, you understand. ... To justify this abstentionism, they raise the hoary question: how can a party of neurotics (substitute believers in violence, immoral people, etc., etc.) make a really liberating revolution unless its membership is first sexually liberated?

How, in the light of this question, past revolutions were accomplished – revolutions which certainly fulfilled the social tasks necessary and possible for them (the great French, the Cromwellian, the American, the Russian) – the Reichians do not explain. They are forced into the dilemma either of denying historical validity to all previous revolutions or of asserting that the parties leading these revolutions were composed of unneurotic, orgastically potent individuals.

Reich has explicitly repudiated socialist political movements, which he sees as perpetuating the present authoritarian structures. He calls upon the proletariat to liberate itself sexually. Whether this liberation is possible under capitalism and why capitalism is so bad if it is possible – these problems confront the Reichians. Is it not evident then that, whatever its value for therapy, this theory is a sexual variant of that school of absolute morality which insists that the individual must save himself before he can try to change society? Whether the call be to attain the True and the Good; or to find the Only God; or to achieve sexual freedom, the result is the same: the substitution of individual redemption for social revolution. Men are told what to be, not what to do. And how palatable is this substitution for those in flight from politics!

The Vogue of Existentialism

The breathless adoption of existentialism by a number of American intellectuals is a striking instance of their desperate quest for novelty. They are not really interested, with honorable exceptions here and there, in its philosophical aspects, for the appeal of existentialism is as a mood rather than a doctrine. One must therefore differentiate between the philosophical school which has behind it a considerable history and the current Paris-New York vogue. Whatever the philosophical implications of existentialism – on which I am not in a position to comment – it seems that they are hardly such as to warrant all the excitement that it has provoked in American intellectual circles. Nor does one discern in existentialism proposals for human behavior or social action sufficiently radical or new to warrant so much excitement.

I have neither the desire nor the training to offer here any sort of exposition or criticism of existentialism. [5] But while refraining from such presumption, I think it is not too risky to say a few words about the existentialist tendency in so far as it is related to the contemporary intellectual flight from politics.

The reason for the current existentialist vogue is not a sudden interest in its attempt to upset traditional philosophical edifices; not, that is, in existentialism’s views on the traditional epistemological and ontological systems. Existentialist philosophers have attempted to deny the relevance of ontological problems as traditionally formulated – something which should be familiar enough to American intellectuals not to cause too much excitement.

The immediate importance of existentialism seems rather social and psychological: it accurately and dramatically portrays the moods of an entire generation and it extrapolates these moods from their social matrix by constructing them into a set of attitudes with which to counter the conditions from which they arose. In the hands of the French writers who are currently the most prominent exponents of existentialism, the theory is largely a matter of developing attitudes to life (what the man in the street often believes philosophy to be) rather than dealing with the usual philosophical problems.

In the view of its proponents, the human being is different from all other beings in that he possesses self-consciousness, he is able to feel concern about his own being and he must therefore always be aware of his unavoidable and possibly imminent death. For this reason his most fundamental attitude to life is “anxiety.” As a keen critic of existentialism, Paul Kesckemeti writes:

“In ‘anxiety’ existence comes nearest to a complete and adequate understanding of itself, because anxiety contains in itself the most fundamental piece of knowledge that is given to man, namely, the knowledge that his existence is finite. It is bounded by death.”

This sense of the nullity of life as stemming from its finiteness is expressed by Sartre when he writes that “every existent is born without reason, perpetuates itself out of inertia, and dies fortuitously.” To this acceptance of life as a journey from void to void, existentialism, at least in its French version, adds several other attitudes: man’s true nature, his “authenticity,” is most thoroughly developed when he squarely and fully confronts his “anxiety,” which is life’s fundamental heightening condition; the free individual is thrust into a “situation” not of his own making but he is always able to make a choice in his attitudes and actions and thereby possesses the freedom to “engage” himself. Camus, a writer associated with the existentialists though not strictly speaking of them, adds the concept of rebellion as the basis of man’s dignity for which the dramatic image is his myth of Sisyphus. He writes of Sisyphus, the symbol of man, that he

“... is the absurd hero. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life earned him the unspeakable punishment of his whole being being employed to achieve nothing.”

The connection between these attitudes and the dilemma of the leftist intellectuals within the French resistance during the occupation – a dilemma of having to reconcile political resistance with a fundamental desperation and sense of desolate helplessness – is well known and obvious enough. But what I find most striking in these attitudes of existentialism is that, if taken more in terms of imaginative projections than as factual descriptions of human existence, they express as vivid dramatic abstractions precisely the dilemmas of the intellectuals who feel themselves to be the “powerless people.” That the proponents of existentialism claim their generalized descriptions of their own historically caused and limited situation as a description of all human existence is merely an ironic footnote.

But I think it should be apparent that the obsessive concern with “anxiety” is the result of the historically provoked and multiple anxieties of contemporary life. Or that the preoccupation with death per se is the outgrowth of the terrifying domination of recent life by the death-politics of totalitarian society. One need not go too far back in history to show that men (as distinct from “man”) have not always felt death to be the dominating fact of their lives; that at various times men have accepted their death as an event of not too great moment and certainly as an event which did not make their entire lives “absurd” – and this after the loss of belief in an after-life. One need only point to as recent a period as that after the First World War, when there was a great wave of revolutionary enthusiasm. It is impossible to imagine the attitudes of existentialism being as readily accepted then as they are today. (The one country, Germany, in which existentialism arose and gained some influence during the twenties was, significantly enough, the most deeply wracked by the capitalist crisis in Europe.)

If we remain skeptical of existentialism’s dramatic abstractions as valid descriptions of life “in general” (because we are skeptical of any descriptions of life “in general”), we must still recognize that existentialism mirrors in conceptual terms the “alienation” of the modern intellectual. Existentialism seems to me essentially a reflection of a period of social defeat and decay. (Sartre’s doctrine of “engagement,” while it stresses the need of making choices does not yet prove the need for taking action.) It too tells man what to be, not what to do; it is a symptom of our times, related, though indirectly, to the flight from politics.

I have tried to chart briefly a few of the directions of the flight of the contemporary intellectuals from politics. Once these tendencies are understood, there is little more to say except this: We are living in the midst of a terrible cataclysm, the disintegration of a putrescent society. And the tendencies which have been described here are the result of this disintegration: the collapse and surrender of the human intelligence before the terrors of our times.

But if the intellectuals flee from politics, politics pursues them relentlessly. Ultimately they cannot escape it. Yet it seems reasonably certain that with one or two exceptions and surprises none of the older intellectuals (those who reached their maturity in the thirties) can be expected to resume any sort of active or close relationship with the socialist movement. If the road away is a smooth and gentle decline, the road back is uphill and rocky.

What then will happen when the depression bursts in a few years? Some of the intellectuals will succeed in providing themselves with relatively comfortable cushions to soften the fall; others will lose their marginal jobs and seek out the equivalent of WPA if there is one. But the younger intellectuals of tomorrow, those who are still in college or beginning their work – what about them? Here we can expect a genuine revolutionary ferment, a political rebelliousness which may result in a new leftward trend.

It is to this group that we look forward with some hope for a new flowering of revolutionary intellectuals. We cannot expect that so accomplished or brilliant a group as gravitated to Marxism in the thirties will appear in the near future. But we can work with small beginnings: we can try to build the kind of movement which is sympathetic to the needs and problems of young intellectuals and which by its democratic nature and its lively and undogmatic attitude to ideas will be able to attract them. It is in such elements – one can already discern the first dim signs of their appearance – that we can find a counter-influence to the current flight from politics, a flight which is perhaps the last chapter in the history of a generation of American intellectuals.


1. The reader may have noticed a shift in focus from “intellectuals” to “left intellectuals.” It is really with the latter that I am here concerned, though to understand their development we shall have to discuss general intellectual tendencies. It goes without saying that many, perhaps most, American intellectuals did not participate in the four trends I have mentioned.

2. The most pathetic evidence of the destruction of an entire revolutionary generation is the fate of the Loveatone group. This once proud Marxist tendency committed suicide en masse at the outbreak of the war, an act which has few precedents in the socialist movement. Of its three main figures, one, Lovestone, has become a “think man” for a trade union bureaucracy; another, Wolfe, is now a Menshevik who defends Chiang Kai-shek’s regime (see American Mercury, August 1947); and the third, Herberg. has been converted to orthodox Judaism. Tempus fugit, indeed!

3. A revealing instance is the indifference and silence of the bulk of American intellectuals about the recent colonial repressions by French and Dutch imperialism in Indo-China and Indonesia. Fifteen years ago such events would have evoked an immediate and powerful reaction from at least a section of the American intellectuals.

4. Theoretically religious converts could attempt to bring God’s order to earth, as a few iconoclasts have seen their task; but most of the recent converts have sought a haven in religion rather than a creed of public action.

5. The best brief account of existentialism of which I am aware is in an article by Paul Kesckemeti in the March 1947 issue of Modern Review. Other references are: William Barrett’s pamphlet, published by Partisan Review, which discusses mainly Heidegger, an existentialist codifier: Hannah Arendt’s scholarly but difficult article in the Winter 1946 Issue of Partisan Review; and Jean Paul Sartre’s fragmentary Existentialism, published by Philosophical Library.

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