I know of no other filmmaker who, like Joseph Dorman, so thoroughly captured the people, history, and ideas of an era as to go on to publish a book on the same subject through a major university (University of Chicago Press). This documentary is matchless. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The film covers both the lives of these four New York Intellectuals but also the socio-political thought of America in the twentieth-century.
Early in the feature, political philosopher Michael Walzer says, "If I try to think about the New York intellectual and specifically about these four New York Intellectuals, one of the most striking things about them....is, in a way, of thinking about the world. You can't being to analyze, say, the recent strikes in Detroit without starting with the division of labor in ancient Babylonia and working your way up: that's the context, the context is world history, and the questions you bring to your analysis are the largest questions, where are you going, where have you been."
In 1932, socialist candidate Norman Thomas, air to the party's Eugene V. Debs, won nearly a million votes in the presidential election, many of his supporters where from the new urban class of Jews. The socialist idea that inspired Daniel Bell and Irving Howe appeared first 100 years earlier by Karl Marx. Nathan Glazer's father read "The Forward," a socialist paper, and voted for Norman Thomas, Irving Kristol learned about radical politics from his sister who took him to the protest plays of Clifford Odets. Daniel Bell said, "When I joined the Epsilons in 1932, this is when Norman Thomas is running for president and a group of us would go from corner to corner with a step ladder to give talks...you don't know very much when you're 13 years old and you've got to speak for 10 minutes so I pretty much memorized the last section of "The Jungle" which is Eugene Victor Debs' speech and people would say oh how eloquent he is."
New York City College in Harlem was a school for the brightest of the city's poor, swelling applications during the Great Depression made its all male student body nearly the equal of Harvard yet more radical. Columbia, the city's more prestigious college, trained the protestant elite, and the few Jews it accepted were usually wealthy German Jews. Daniel Bell, class of 1939 said, "Columbia was for the genteel...Harvard was even much further out, totally abstract." He adds, "Most of the teachers [at NY City College] were all dodos so we educated ourselves." Kristol and Howe supported Trotsky at Alcove One where Nathan Glazer joined later. They debated, mostly, Alcove Two who were Stalinists. Alcove One watched with growing concern as fascism grew in Europe. "Partisan Review" was anti-Stalinist publication that combined literary modernism with Marxist politics, its first issues included pieces by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Edmund Wilson, and Leon Trotsky. Alcove One was inspired by "Partisan Review." Leon Trotsky was, for many, the paradigm.
In August 1939, the era of the Popular Front came to a sudden end when Stalin signed a nonaggressive pact with Hitler. American communists quickly abandoned their alliance with Roosevelt; a week later, Germany invaded Poland to begin WWII. In 2 years time, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Communists proclaimed the Popular Front again. Kristol spent the war as a soldier in Southern France; Howe spent it in Alaska; the "New Leader' hired Daniel Bell as its editor; while Nathan Glazer finished college.
In 1945, Glazer became an assistant editor on "Commentary" a new magazine on politics and culture funded by a leading Jewish organization, the magazine included many from "Partisan Review" as its writers. He met Kristol the following year when he joined is editorial staff. Kristol became the editor of religious topics at "Commentary." Kristol said, "My major memory of a dinner party was...I got a plate full of food and there was a couch and so I walked over and sat down in the middle of the couch....Mayor McCarthy sat down on one side of me, Hannah Arendt sat down on the other side of me, and Diana Trilling pulled up a chair and sat facing me and I was a prisoner I couldn't get out and they then had a long hour and half disagreement on Freud and they disagreed and I don't know what they disagreed about all I know was that I sat there terror-stricken." Bell said, "Reading Weber, reading Dostoyevsky's `The Possessed' made clear that the radical apathists position was not only self-defeating but could lead the some horrifying results."
The American Communist Party...hidden from view, they largely controlled the 1948 presidential campaign of anti-Cold War candidate Henry Wallace. The following year, a Communist organized peace conference attracted a large number of liberal intellectuals and celebrities. Alarmed at communist influence in the liberal community, Kristol, Bell, and Glazer joined the "American Committee for Cultural Freedom," which had been created to organize intellectuals against the party.
Espionage fears rose as the Rosenberg couple were found guilty, and executed for giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Kristol and Sidney Hook wrote a letter to the NY Times asking McCarthy to resign from public life, but Kristol and Bell were also becoming increasingly anti-communistic. "Irving Howe thought that a lot of the Cold War intellectuals, including former friends from Alcove One, by virtue of being opponents of communism they were joining in a great celebration of America, and it seemed to Irving Howe as an unwarned celebration." Howe published in 1954 "This Age of Conformity," which scandalized the left for losing intellectual and radical features. In 1953, Howe helped found "Dissent," a magazine of socialist thought, but not affiliated with any organization. Walzer, Co-editor of "Dissent," said, "you know Irving's line, `when intellectuals have nothing else to do they start a magazine.'" Glazer says, that the magazine criticized people who had "already abandoned socialism" and "fell into easy marxist modes of denunciation, sell-outs,...we were all becoming professors so I don't couldn't see the point in one group of professors attacking another group." Kristol began to co-edit a new culture magazine, "Encounter." Howe published, "Politics and the Novel," and was influential in the revival of Yiddish literature. Glazer's interests in sociology lead to writing, "The Lonely Crowd," and, "Beyond the Melting Pot." Bell's essay on labor and politics culminated in "Work and Its Discontents: the Cult of Efficiency in America," and, "The End of Ideology: on the exhaustion of political ideas in the fifties."
After WWII universities rapidly expanded and were now hiring Jews. Neither Bell, Howe, nor Glazer had received graduate degrees but they all found jobs. Tom Hayden, former president of Students for a Democratic Society met Daniel Bell after graduating from the University of Michigan. Bell said, "...what struck me most about Hayden, apart from the personality of the man which I never liked, somebody once called him the Richard Nixon of the left which I think is a nice apologia for Hayden, that these were people who had lost a sense of historical memory. The 30s were sort of lost in the fog, the 50s were confused for them and they thought they were coming out of themselves." How and "Dissent" reached out to SDS; but Hayden appeared to Howe as having a "czarist streak" that made him and his "Dissent" group uncomfortable with the absolutist position of non-violence that Hayden had.
Glazer, who went to UC at Berkley, eventually became one of the university's most vocal opponents of the free speech movement. Meanwhile, Bell was at Columbia with Lionel Trilling where another group of student protests occurred. Kristol took a skeptical view with Daniel Bell towards socialistic policies in a magazine they founded titled "The Public Interest."
George McGovern and the new democratic party was becoming increasingly leftist. Bell was critical of McGovern but voted for him, this vote lead him eventually to leave "The Public Interest." Though Glazer did not support Nixon he replaced Bell as co editor on the magazine. Neoconservatives like William F. Buckley of the "National Review" thought that their movement can be traced back to writings like "The Public Interest" and Walzer adds, "Increasingly the neoconservatives were in the grip of an ideology....of the free market, and they seemed to me to be Bolsheviks in the way they adopted, defended, and promoted this ideology." Howe prophesies, "In the coming decade or so, the political struggles will not be any longer between democratic capitalism and communist totalitarianism but will now be a struggle between conservatism, Thatcherite conservatism, or Reaganite, or Kristolite conservatism on the one hand, and social democracy on the other. Glazer does not think he is as conservative as Kristol. Bell calls himself a "socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture."
Howe helped found the Democratic Socialists of America. In the 70s and 80s Kristol wrote a series of papers to help channel the neoconservative movement, especially the religious right. Kristol says that religion has a "role to play in redeeming the country and liberalism is not prepared to give religion a role, conservatism is but it doesn't know how to do it." Bell says that for Kristol, "it has become a crusade for him." Howe said that he looks upon Kristol as "a political opponent and the fact that we were together 50 years ago doesn't stir the faintest touch of sentiment in me, I wish him well personally I wish him a long life with many political failures I hope." Howe died in 1997, the year production stopped for Joseph Dorman.