There's an old self-serving saying which goes that "a person who isn't liberal when he's young has no heart, and who isn't conservative when he's old has no brain." Substitute "vested interest" for "brain" and you come closer to the truth -- and to the story told by Arguing the World, Joseph Dorman's meticulous documentary about four famous New York Jewish intellectuals and their long journey from youthful radicalism to tenured cautiousness.
The four men that Dorman has chosen to focus on are Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol. They all came from similar poverty-stricken backgrounds, which they remember fondly -- as Kristol says, "when poverty seems universal, you don't really notice it" -- and all became students at City College in the '30s. Known as "the Jewish Harvard," it was an urban alternative to the WASP sanctuaries of the Ivy League.
City College was a passage to a larger world for these young New York City provincials, and it was also a place where Depression-era radicalism flourished. Too bright for the bluntly utopian and egregiously manipulative American Communist Party, the four adapted well to the intensely argumentative milieu of the Trotskyites and anti-Stalinist socialists. By the late 1930s, when the terrible dimensions of Stalin's perfidy became widely known, the debate among those critical of the Russian experience began to center around whether Stalinism was a natural outgrowth of Marxism -- which meant that socialism would have to be re-thought, if not abandoned -- or whether it was just some horrible perversion.
Of the four men, Howe is the only one who managed to keep the faith until the end -- he died just before the documentary was completed -- believing that democratic socialism, while not exactly looming in this country's future, was still a worthy idea. Bell and Glazer grew increasingly conservative, but always in a thoughtfully nuanced manner, while Kristol evolved into a decidedly unsubtle neo-conservative, one of those people who seem, under the sway of some obscure religious epiphany, to have disconnected themselves from the tiresome problems of the "less fortunate."
The first half of Dorman's film makes impressively atmospheric use of archival material and, as he goes on to depict these four influential thinkers' varied reactions to McCarthyism and their sadly uncomprehending encounters with the '60s New Left, what could have been a Babel of voices remains lucid and compelling. One's reaction to the film will no doubt be colored by one's own political proclivities, if any. But that it tells its story well is unarguable.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].