The New York Intellectuals: An Exchange

“The New York Intellectuals: An Exchange” (with Irving Howe), Commentary, January 1969.


Behind Mr. Howe’s perspective there lies an unexamined premise: that there is something unnatural in an intellectual being anything but politically radical, a man of the Left. The reason this premise remains unstated and unexamined is that it is obviously false—and Mr. Howe, as a historian of ideas, certainly knows it to be false. He even knows—must know—that it is as common for politically liberal or politically conservative thinkers to get to “the root of things” as for politically radical thinkers. Yet I submit that, without this premise, his article and his argument make no sense whatsoever. It is this premise that permits him to regard New York’s ex-radicals as “scholars in retreat,” as somehow being deviants or dropouts (or cop-outs), and to view a change of mind as a form of apostasy. This is, intellectually, on a par with explaining Mr. Howe’s stubborn radicalism as nothing more than a case of the true-believer doubling the strength of his convictions when faced with incontrovertible evidence that they are false. Such explanations are agreeably self-serving, but in truth they explain nothing at all.