Magazine article Dissent

Wanted: Irving Howe FBI No. 727437B; "An Immature Outlook on Life"

Magazine article Dissent

Wanted: Irving Howe FBI No. 727437B; "An Immature Outlook on Life"

Article excerpt

THE FEDERAL Bureau of Investigation file on Irving Howe (ne Horenstein) discloses that the Bureau followed his activities closely for more than eight years. It searched his records extensively, interviewed numerous neighbors and colleagues to uncover information about his activities, and pursued him as a national security risk long after he had resigned from the Independent Socialist League (ISL), a tiny, New York-based, Trotskyist sect. 1 The file contains 148 pages--15 of them partially or wholly blacked out. It runs from February 27, 1951, to April 14, 1959, and covers reports from regional FBI bureaus in New York City, Albany, Newark, St. Louis, Miami, Boston, and Detroit. 2

1 The ISL split off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Max Shachtman and Leon Trotsky had a parting of the political ways when Trotsky advocated unconditional support of the Soviet Union and Shachtman advocated neutrality. Some members followed Shachtman and joined the ISL, which became known as the Shachtmanites and whose membership in 1943 was approximately five hundred.

2 Several FBI regional bureaus received copies of Howe's birth records, marriage records, army records from the Veterans Administration in Boston, fingerprinting and other army records, and even photographs from the City College of New York.

Most of these reports address Howe's activities in the ISL and his membership in Trotskyist organizations in the 1940s and 1950s. Much of the file also covers Howe's statements in public lectures on the Soviet Union and on the changing nature of Stalinism during the 1950s. A revealing (though perhaps unsurprising) feature of the file--which speaks volumes about the standard data-collection methods of secret intelligence agencies--is that no agent ever seems to have read any of Howe's work in order to ascertain his political positions, except for the joint resignation letter that he and Stanley Plastrik submitted to the ISL in 1952, a copy of which was obtained by an informant.

The highlight of the FBI file on Howe (a name that the Bureau persisted in treating as his "alias" although Howe had legally changed it in 1948) 3 is the hour-long interview that two agents sprung on him in August 1954. When they approached him as he entered his car on a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the agents were impressed by his "friendly and cordial manner," though they urged that a security index file be opened on him for long-term surveillance. Although Howe was never again confronted directly, the FBI kept watch on him for five more years. Reports continued to be placed in his file on his lectures to university audiences and to political clubs, and even on his "luggage lost in France" during a trip to Europe in 1958. 4

3 One FBI entry begins: "Irving Horenstein was the true name of one Irving Howe." The file repeatedly notes that "Horenstein is his true surname" and refers to the subject's "alias" as "Irving Howe." It observes that "the middle name Arthur is added as shown in the birth records of the subject's children."

4 The American embassy wrote on November 19, 1957, to the director of the FBI that the Paris police had discovered a suitcase containing male and female clothing, and that the owner of the suitcase was Howe. (Howe had lectured at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria that summer.) It is interesting that the American embassy chose to contact the FBI in order to get in touch with Howe.

Howe's FBI file also furnishes a valuable biographical background for his repeated castigation of McCarthyism in the 1950s: it shows that Howe himself was being "tailed." Such information both puts in context his radical critique of U.S. policies and undermines part of the ad hominem neoconservative attack on his writings during the McCarthy period. Many of Howe's critics have argued that his 1954 essay "This Age of Conformity" reflected his hypersensitivity regarding First Amendment freedoms. …

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