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Arguing the World

movie review by Mark Leeper

The American socialist movement is traced following the trajectories
of four Jewish intellectuals who were friends at CCNY in 1937. Each went
in a different direction after leaving school, but each continued the tradition
of argument. This is not so much a contrasting of opinions as four different
biographies showing how different events let them to different political
conclusions. The biographies are mixed with archive films covering half a
century. The film is good at what it does, but it really should have given us
a better idea of what constituted each man's philosophy and why he believed
what he did. Arguing the World barely gets beyond the superficial.
The film is strong on its explanation of history but weak on philosophy.
Rating: 6 (0 to 10), 1 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 5 positive, 0 negative, 2 mixed


Arguing the World is a chronicle of political thought in the United States from the late 1930s though the 1980s. More precisely it is a study of four 20th Century political philosophers--Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and Irving Kristol--who began their careers in political philosophy as friends at CCNY, the City College of New York, in 1937. They all came from similar backgrounds. They lived in New York City where the sidewalks were often decorated with political street speakers, and even before college each was immersed in political thought. One tells how his sister would take him to see Clifford Odets plays, another how in front of his home were two buildings, the synagogue and the Young People's Socialist League. Born into poverty, all four turned to Marxism as the hope for the poor of the world. This was a time when the revolution in Russia was fresh and new. Many Americans, from a distance of thousands of miles, thought that Communism was in the process of saving the Soviet Union. Take four young radical thinkers, already drunk with politics, and send them to CCNY and what develops is just what one would expect. CCNY was then one of the radical campuses of the day. It was boiling over with excited political debate. As writer/director Joseph Dorman seems to imply, the teachers were mediocre, but the best education was to be had in the cafeteria where there were constant agitated debates. The room had a series of alcoves and different groups chose specific alcoves as their turf. Alcove One was where the pro-Trotsky students congregated. Alcove Two was where the pro-Stalin students gathered. (One wonders what became of them.) Another alcove would be the ROTC candidates. These four Jewish intellectuals were Alcove One regulars.

Arguing the World traces the four through the war years with two going into the military. With the conquest of Nazism it seemed that the world was ready for the Socialist ideal. However, their view of Stalin and of Communism changed with the Moscow trials and the purges and executions of military leaders. They started founding and/or writing for magazines like "The Partisan Review" and "Commentary." Irving Kristol started having a significantly different view from the others during the McCarthy anti-Communist Movement. While he did not think much of Joseph McCarthy as a person, he defended McCarthyism.

What has been a minor irritation with the film to this point becomes more obvious and at the same time more serious. One would not write a biography of Charles Darwin without a detailed explanation of evolution. Dorman does not seem prepared to actually present the beliefs of his four subjects in any great detail. While the four substantially agreed, it would have been useful to be told the substance of their beliefs, but it was not important to understanding their history. But at this point, when they start to diverge in opinion it becomes frustrating just to be told that Kristol agreed with McCarthy's goals and Howe did not. These are deep and complex men with complex ways of thinking, and to reduce their thought to so superficial a level is a disappointment for the viewer. Dorman wants to tell us about the four men but not bother to tell us really who they are. We want to know Kristol's reasoning that led to his agreement with McCarthy. We want to know the reasoning the others had for their different viewpoints.

There is a further dividing of the ways in the 60s protest movements and particularly in the relationship with the Students for a Democratic Society. The SDS was the self-styled successor of the previous generation's intellectual movement. But the four saw the SDS as naive and utopian. Instead of endorsing the SDS, each found himself disagreeing with the SDS and Tom Hayden, the leader of the SDS, attributed this to stodginess and de facto conservatism.

There was further divergence of opinion based on experience of the late 60s student protest movements. Nathan Glazer by this point was a professor at Berkeley where the students were able very much to disrupt the academic environment with impunity. Glazer was called upon to negotiate and in the process lost most of his respect for the protesters. His views became more conservative as a result, though not so far to the right as Kristol's. Daniel Bell was at Columbia where the protests were put down with more force by the police and came out of the experience more left-wing than before.

Dorman recreates the period with archival footage showing New York and California at the time of the events, but what is on the screen frequently is just a scene without much obvious relevance to what is being said. There are also interviews with various political figures who interacted with the four political thinkers. The film is entertaining and enlightening, but it leaves one wanting to be in on a discussion among the men to find out what the real differences in their opinions and reasoning styles were. Without that there is something dramatically missing from the film.

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