alcove no. 1
Intellectual breakthroughs are almost always the product of group deliberation, discussion, and debate. And the greatest breakthroughs may be more likely to come from people on the margins of mainstream intellectual thought – from people who have a clear vantage point to observe the dominant perspectives but who are sufficiently external that they are free to argue against that perspective and think creatively about possible alternatives. It’s a good hypothesis anyway.
The documentary, Arguing the World, beautifully illustrates this point as it tells the story of four intellectual pioneers of the latter half of the Twentieth Century – Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol. The four men belonged to a group of radicals who would debate political philosophy while students at the City College of New York in the late 30s and early 40s. At the time, students at the college would gather during the lunch hour, and often during class as well, in different alcoves, where they could get to know other people who shared a similar identity and who had similar interests. Conveniently positioned next to Alcove No. 2, where the Communist Party members and sympathizers met, were the Trotskyists in Alcove No. 1. The communists were closer to the radical mainstream at the time (at least among CCNY students), while the Trotskyists consisted of students who believed in some aspects of socialism but who were also disillusioned with Stalinism. If the purpose of Alcove No. 2 was to convince and persuade other students of an ideological point of view, the point of Alcove No. 1 was to question every point of orthodoxy and to debate, debate, debate.
This little corner of the room produced a number of intellectual luminaries, including four of the most important sociologists of the last 50 years: Bell, Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip Selznick. (Selznick actually recruited Glazer to join the Columbia sociology department after they graduated from CCNY. Bell would spend one year in the graduate program as well.) It’s hard to imagine any other undergraduate clique that produced a more important group of intellectual thinkers than Alcove No. 1. Howe went on to become the leading theorist of the Old Left socialists. Kristol became “the godfather of the neoconservative movement.” Bell stands out as a writer of big idea books, perhaps one of the last great sociologists of this type. Glazer was equally bold, sometimes spearheading controversial research, always questioning the orthodoxy of liberal ideas. Lipset pioneered modernization theory in political sociology. Selznick, of course, was very influential in shaping the fields of organizational sociology and law and society and did much more public theorizing in the later stages of his career. None of the thinkers were ever conventional in their outlook, which is part of what made them so influential. Especially during their early years, they pushed and shaped the boundaries of social theory rather than working within them. (I think it’s fair to say that Kristol and Howe became more dogmatic as they moved into politics. The sociologists in the group, perhaps because of their commitment to intellectual progress over partisan loyalty, were continually moving on to new projects and ideas and were thus more able to maintain their peripheral positions throughout their careers.)
The movie is a must-see for any social theorist. In addition to telling the story of these four men, it also concisely depicts the intellectual struggles of the Old Left vs. the New Left and the repercussions of the activist Sixties on American universities. The one big fault of the movie, in my mind, was that it didn’t do enough to show how the activist Sixties were, in fact, an intellectual revolution of a very similar kind. While the movie mainly focuses on the stubborn resistance of Howe and Bell to the Tom Haydens of the New Left (who reminded them of the radical utopian thinkers they clamored against in the Thirties), real transformation in thought came, once again, from activists and intellectual leaders who were positioned on the margins, feminist theory being the outstanding example.