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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 95-113

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Irving Howe and the Holocaust: Dilemmas of a Radical Jewish Intellectual

Edward Alexander

[Irving Howe] phoned me before he wrote his memoir and asked me to have lunch with him. He wanted to know why we had failed to respond more strongly to the gravity of events. He asked me why we had written and talked so little about the Holocaust at the time it was taking place. Neither of us knew the proper answer, but we tended to believe that our residue of Marxist thinking and our preoccupation with the nature of World War II--was it an imperialist war or not?--distracted us from the mind-shattering slaughter of European Jewry. 1

How did Irving Howe, who was to become the most eminent Jewish public intellectual of the twentieth century, respond to the Holocaust? Did he bring his considerable powers of mind and capacity for imaginative sympathy to bear upon the news that the Jews of Europe were being done to death by the forces of National Socialism? Or did he fall prey to ideology, which--as Lionel Trilling, another leading Jewish intellectual, often pointed out--was not the product of thought at all but the habit or ritual of showing respect for certain formulas regardless of facts and experiences that confuted them? 2

Howe's political ideas between the time he left City College in spring 1940 and the time he entered the army in 1942 are best examined in Labor Action, to which he contributed regularly, and the theoretical journal, New International: A Monthly Organ ofRevolutionary Marxism, to which he was an occasional contributor. Labor Action was started in 1940 by the Workers Party, later the Independent Socialist League, which had come into being when the so-called Schachtmanites (disciples of Max Schachtman) left the Socialist Workers party. Its first editor was Joseph Carter, succeeded in about August 1941 by Emanuel Garrett (the pseudonym of Emanuel Geltman). When the WP sent Geltman, who had been very close to Howe, to serve as an organizer in California, Howe took on the editorship. He was assuming control of a paper that had already set itself in sharp opposition to the war against the Axis powers, just as its sponsoring organization had set itself against [End Page 95] the Stalinists for lapsing into "patriotic" support of Roosevelt's war policy. The 3 June 1940 issue, for example, carries on the left side of the front page banner the slogan "Let the Bankers Fight on the Maginot Line, Labor's Fight Is on the Picket Line!" On 9 July we find, in the same front-page location, "Workers! This Is Not Our War! It Is a War for Boss Profits! Join Hands in Independent Labor Action against the War!"

The Trotskyist character of the paper was clearly established before Howe took it over. Most of the issue of 26 August 1940 is devoted to the murder of Trotsky, which had taken place in Mexico a few days earlier. The material on Trotsky is assembled (into a kind of hagiography) by Dwight Macdonald, a frequent contributor to the paper who would later employ Howe at his journal, Politics. New International actually carried numerous articles by Trotsky until (and indeed after) his death, and, like Labor Action, it was preoccupied with him long after his demise. The editorial board of Labor Action could have been in no doubt about the political positions or the polemical ferocity of the young man they were considering for the managing editorship of their paper in the waning months of 1941 (by which time Howe was married to Anna Bader and living with her in Greenwich Village). In October, for example, Howe had published in New International an assault on the journalist Louis Fischer which was the journalistic equivalent of a blow to the back of the head. In an article delicately entitled "The Frauds of Louis Fischer," Howe identified his target as "for fifteen years...the journalistic high priest of the left intelligentsia...a Stalinist and...


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