Prescient and passionate critiques of American politics and culture from one of the 20th century’s most important critics.
“How shall we live?” Howe (1920-1993) asked in an essay published in 1971; “this question has obsessed thoughtful people throughout the modern era…and it has obsessed them with increasing anxiety and intensity.” It is the question that informs many essays in this collection, judiciously selected by Howe’s daughter. For more than 40 years, Howe’s essays on politics, society and literature appeared in a variety of publications and established his reputation as one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time. In 1954, he founded Dissent: “When intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine,” he remarked. “But starting a magazine is also doing something: at the very least it is thinking in common.” As an American socialist, he acknowledged that he stood “precariously on the margin of our politics.” He was frustrated that Americans refused to understand socialism’s essential commandment: “the participation of the workers…as self-conscious men preparing to enter the arena of history” by playing a role in public life. Howe disparaged liberals’ ineffectual hand-wringing and predilection to conform. Liberalism, he believed, “bleaches all political tendencies.” In the 1970s, he worried that higher education was in serious trouble: “When a society does not know what it wishes its young to know, it is suffering from moral and spiritual incoherence.” In a scathing critique of Reaganism that Howe wrote in 1986, he noted, “[w]hen lined with religious passion and cast as an agent of traditional values, right-wing politics takes on a formidable strength.” Problems he identified as urgent still persist, including “the inequities of our economic arrangements, the maldistribution of our income and wealth, the undemocratic nature of our corporate structures.”
This important collection allows a new generation of readers to hear Howe’s uncompromising voice.