In one of his essays Ignazio Silone says that, as a child, he once laughed at the sight of a man being dragged through the street by the police. His father reproved him harshly, telling him never to make fun of a man who has been arrested. ‘Because he can’t defend himself. And because he may be innocent. In any case because he is unhappy.’
Irving Howe wrote that he found that last sentence ‘overwhelming, worthy of Tolstoy’. Anyone familiar with Howe’s work will understand why it moved him. At the heart of Howe’s long intellectual career was a basic sentiment, one that never wavered. You could call it a sense of outrage about the insults suffered by people without power; you could call it a sense of identity with the insulted. You could call it, simply, a feeling of brotherliness.
Howe died suddenly this spring at the age of 72. For the small community of the democratic Left in America, the loss is bone-deep. Howe sustained a thorough engagement with the idea of socialism, as both problem and goal, for over fifty years; in the light he provided, many of us learned to see.
The child of immigrant parents, Howe grew up in the Bronx, at a time when ‘socialism, for many immigrant Jews, was not merely politics or an idea, it was an encompassing culture’. He joined the Socialist party of Norman Thomas in 1934, at the age of fourteen. When a few hundred Trotskyists were expelled fro the party three years later, Howe went with them, attracted by the elan of thinkers like Max Schactman and James Burnham—and not least by that of the ‘Old Man’ himself. Though Howe spent only a few years in Trotsky’s orbit and came to think him mistaken—worse than mistaken—on fundamental matters, Trotsky remained for him a figure of heroic and tragic dimensions.
In 1940, in the wake of a split with Trotsky over the nature of the Soviet Union, Howe followed Schachtman into the Workers Party, later renamed the Independent Socialisit League (he remained a member until 1953). The debates with Trotsky led Howe to a belief that democracy was a sine qua non for any society that could be called a workers’ state—for any decent society of any kind. For the rest of his life he never swerved from the conviction that socialism would be democratic or it would not be socialism at all.
At the same time, along with the poet Eliezer Greenberg, Howe began translating Yiddish poetry and fiction into English; among the writers they ‘discovered’ was Isaac Bashevis Singer. Howe’s engagement with Jewish culture was a labour of love and of rescue, culminating in 1976 with World of Our Fathers, his rich evocation of the experience of immigrant Jewry in America. He came to identify most closely with the tradition of secular Jewishness—the effort to preserve a distinctive Jewish culture in the space between faith and assimilation. He believed it a tradition in irreversible decline, but no less precious for being a lost cause.