Trotsky in Alcove 1: Birth of the New York Intellectuals

Reference: PBS: 'Arguing the World: The New York Intellectuals

by Irving Kristol

Excerpted from “Memoirs of a Trotskyist”

Originally published in The New York Times Magazine, January 23, 1977

I was graduated from City College in the spring of 1940, and the honor I most prized was the fact that I was a member in good standing of the Young People’s Socialist League (Fourth International). This organization was commonly; and correctly, designated as Trotskyist (not “Trotskiyite,” which was a term used only by the official Communists, or “Stalinists” as we called them, of the day). I have not set foot on the City College campus since my commencement. …

It is not that my memories of CCNY are disagreeable. On the contrary: When I think back to those years, it is with a kind of nostalgia. It was at that place, and in that time, that I met the young men – there were no women at the uptown campus then – who became my lifelong friends. The education I got was pretty good, even if most of it was acquired outside the classroom. My personal life was no messier or more troubled than any adolescent’s. True, I was poor – but so was everyone else, and I was by no means the poorest. …

Is it then perhaps my radical past, now so firmly disowned, that bothers me and makes CCNY unhallowed ground? I think not. I have no regret about that episode in my life. Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.

But my feelings toward those radical days are even more positive than this kind of general reflection suggests. For the truth is that being a young radical was not simply part of my college experience; it was practically the whole of it. If I left City College with a better education than did many students at other and supposedly better colleges, it was because my involvement in radical politics put me in touch with people and ideas that prompted me to read and think and argue with a furious energy. This was not a typical experience. I am talking about a relatively small group of students, a particular kind of student radical. Going to City College meant, for me, being a member of this group. It was a privileged experience, and I know of no one who participated in it who does not look back upon it with some such sentiment. …

The changing connotation of the term “alienated” tells us much. At City College in the 1930s we were familiar enough with the word and the idea behind it. But for us it was a sociological category and referred to the condition of the working class. We were not alienated. By virtue of being radical intellectuals, we had “transcended” alienation (to use another Marxist term). We experienced our radicalism as a privilege of rank, not as a burden imposed by a malignant fate. It would never have occurred to us to denounce anyone or anything as “elitist.” The elite was us – the “happy few” who had been chosen by History to guide our fellow creatures toward a secular redemption…

Alcove No. 1 was located in the City College lunchroom, a vast ground-floor space which even we, who came from slums or near-slums, judged to be an especially slummy and smelly place. There was a small semicircular counter where one could buy franks or milk or coffee. I suppose they also sold some sandwiches, but I certainly never bought one, and I do not remember anyone else ever committing such an act of unmitigated profligacy. ….

I would guess that, in all, there were more than a dozen alcoves, and just how rights of possession had been historically established was as obscure as the origins of the social contract itself. Once established, however; they endured, and in a manner typical of New York’s “melting pot,” each religious, ethnic, cultural, and political group had its own little alcove. There was a Catholic alcove, the “turf” of the Newman Society, a Zionist alcove, an Orthodox Jewish alcove; there was a black alcove for the handful of blacks then at CCNY, an alcove for members of the athletic teams, and so forth. But the only alcoves that mattered to me were No.1 and No.2, the alcoves of the anti-Stalinist Left and pro-Stalinist Left respectively. …

City College was known at the time as a “radical” institution, and in an era when most college students identified themselves as Republicans the ascription was not incorrect. If there were any Republicans at City – and there must have been some – I never met them, or even heard of their existence. Most of the students, from Jewish working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds with a socialist tint, were spontaneously sympathetic to the New Deal and F.D.R. The really left-wing groups, though larger than elsewhere, were a distinct minority Alcove No.2, by far the most populous of the “political” alcoves, could rarely mobilize more than four hundred or five hundred out of a total enrollment of perhaps twenty thousand students for a protest rally, or “action”; we in Alcove No.1 numbered about thirty “regulars” and were lucky to get an audience of fifty to one hundred for one of ours. But then, as now, student government and student politics were a minority affair, and what the passive majority thought really did not matter. …

I shall not say much about Alcove No. 2 – the home of the pro-Stalinist left – but, Lord, how dreary a bunch they seemed to be! I thought then, with a sectarian snobbery that comes so easily to young radicals, that they really did not and never would amount to much. And I must say – at the risk of being accused of smugness – that in all these intervening decades, only two names from Alcove No.2 have come to my attention. One is now a scientist at a major university. The other was Julius Rosenberg. …

Alcove No. 1 was the place you went to if you wanted to be radical and have a “theory.”  I mean that in the largest sense. We in Alcove No. I were terribly concerned with being “right” in politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, history, anthropology, and so forth. It was essential to be right in all of these fields of knowledge, lest a bit of information from one should casually collide with a theoretical edifice and bring the whole structure tumbling down. So all the little grouplets that joined together to make Alcove No.1 their home were always in keen competition to come up with startling bits of information – or, better yet, obscure and disorienting quotations from Marx or Engels or Lenin or Trotsky – that would create intellectual trouble for the rest of the company.

The Trotskyists, with perhaps a dozen members, were one of the largest grouplets and unquestionably the most feverishly articulate. Almost as numerous, though considerably less noisy, were the Socialists, “the Norman Thomas Socialists” as one called them, to distinguish them from other kinds of socialists. Among these other kinds, none of which ever had more than two or three representatives in Alcove No.1, were the Social Democrats (or “right-wing socialists”) who actually voted for F.D.R., and the “revolutionary socialists” who belonged to one or another “splinter group.” … What held this crazy conglomeration together was, quite simply, the powerful presence of Alcove No.2, and, beyond that, the looming shadow of Stalinism with its threat of so irrevocably debasing the socialist ideal as to rob humanity of what we were certain was its last, best hope.

Obviously, in such a milieu certain intellectual qualities tended to be emphasized at the expense of others. We were strongly inclined to celebrate the analytical powers of mind rather than the creative, and we paid more heed to public philosophies than to private ones. It cannot be an accident that so many graduates of Alcove No.1 went on to become professors of social science; in a sense, what Alcove No. I provided was a peculiarly intense undergraduate education in what is now called social science but which we then called (more accurately, I sometimes think) political ideology. …

In some respects the quintessential representative of this milieu was Seymour Martin Lipset, now professor of sociology and political science at Stanford – a kind of intellectual bumblebee, whose function it was to spread the pollen of ideological doubt and political consternation over all Alcove No.1’s flowering ideologues. Irving Howe, in contrast, was a pillar of ideological rectitude. Thin, gangling, intense, always a little distant, his fingers incessantly and nervously twisting a cowlick as he enunciated sharp and authoritative opinions, Irving was the Trotskyist leader and “theoretician.” In the years since, he has gone on to become a famous literary critic and a professor of literature at the City University. But he has remained politically engage’, though slowly moving “right” from Trotskyism to democratic socialism (as represented in his journal Dissent). Since I have abandoned my socialist beliefs altogether, I feel that I am still ahead of him politically. Daniel Bell, now professor of sociology at Harvard, was at the opposite pole from Irving. He was that rarity of the 1930s, an honest- to-goodness social-democratic intellectual who believed in “a mixed economy,” a two-party system based on the British model, and other liberal heresies. …

Others who later found, to their pleasant surprise, that what they had been doing in Alcove No. I was what the academic world would come to recognize and generously reward as “social science” were Nathan Glazer (Harvard), Philip Selznick (Berkeley), Peter Rossi (Johns Hopkins), Monroe Berger (Princeton), I. Milton Sacks (Brandeis), Lawrence Krader and Bernard Bellush (City University), Seymour Melman (Columbia), Melvin J. Lasky…

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