Dissent at 50

(The Nation, October 14, 2004)

In the summer of 1953, the New School for Social Research hung a yellow curtain over a mural by the Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco. Orozco's transgression? He had included portraits of Lenin and Stalin in the work. In response to widespread criticism, the president of the institution, Hans Simons, insisted that the decision to hang the curtain was an internal matter--"a problem of the school," which did not concern "the outside." In the first essay of the first issue of Dissent, a new left-wing quarterly, Irving Howe, the driving force behind the journal, threw himself into the controversy.

"One is not shocked at this," wrote Howe, "the language is familiar enough, go a step further and you have the American Legion or the DAR telling one to go back where you came from. But wait: The philistine reference to 'the outside' comes not from the American Legion but from the New School, the New School which began as a refuge for liberalism and freedom. Well, Dr. Simons, one is sorry to say this, but the mural is not merely 'a problem of the school'; and one would be delighted to go back where one came from: New York."

Howe's salvo exemplified the spirit of the new journal, whose chief mission was to confront the poison of McCarthyism, to combat what the editors called "the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervades the political and intellectual life of the United States," and to forge a new kind of anti-Stalinist leftism. Still, Howe's rhetorical bravado masked a certain malaise, for Dissent was a self-proclaimed socialist journal. "We shall try," Dissent's mission statement modestly noted, "to discuss freely and honestly what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified." The editors--who included hardened veterans of the New York intellectual scuffles of the 1930s but also refugees from Hitler's Germany--had no illusions about the task that faced them. "In America today," they wrote, "there is no significant socialist movement and...in all likelihood, no such movement will appear in the immediate future."

Despite that bleak forecast, Dissent, which turns fifty this year, shone brightly in its first decade with a steady stream of reportage, analysis and polemic: C. Wright Mills, Ignazio Silone, Meyer Schapiro, Czeslaw Milosz, Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, Gabriel Kolko and Dan Wakefield did superb work for Dissent in the 1950s. Richard Wright's White Man, Listen! and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd were excerpted in Dissent, and Norman Mailer, who lent his name to the editorial board, gave Howe "The White Negro," a berserk and brilliant essay that, in a sense, anticipated the 1960s counterculture and became one of the most celebrated and controversial pieces in the journal's entire history.

If the analysis and polemic were frequently top-notch in the early years, so was the reporting: Dissent produced special issues on Africa, youth culture, New York City and the American workplace, and published fine dispatches about the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South. Another keen area of interest for the editors was the American labor movement: "In the 1950s," Maurice Isserman wrote in his book If I Had a Hammer, "Dissent was the only intellectual quarterly to pay serious attention to the labor movement and to issues pertaining to the workplace." (Some auto- and steelworker locals even ordered bulk subscriptions of Dissent for their members, a practice that continued until the early 1990s.)

The birth of the New Left in the early 1960s should have been a tonic for Dissent, but Howe and his comrades clashed with the new radicals. A 1962 meeting between Dissent editors and leaders of Students for a Democratic Society was a failure: In Tom Hayden's "clenched style," Howe later recalled, "one could already see the beginnings of a commissar." There were brawls over Cuba, over "representative" versus "participatory" democracy, over the role of the working class. In 1965, Howe published "New Styles in 'Leftism,'" a corrosive and sarcastic assault on the young radicals, who went on to shun the journal. Deprived of the finest young talent--who correctly felt that Dissent was less than honest about the Vietnam War--Dissent became a different magazine in the 1960s: The fire and freshness of the first decade hardened into something more academic, chilly and reactive. When co-editor Lewis Coser addressed the crack-up of the New Left in a 1970 essay headlined, "Indeed, They Did Grow Up Absurd," there was no mistaking his sense of Schadenfreude.

The 1970s and early '80s was not a stellar period for Dissent, but the journal endured and the founding editors gradually passed the reins to a younger generation, some of whom had New Left connections. Writers like Robert Kuttner, Harold Meyerson, Deborah Meier, Jervis Anderson and Michael Harrington helped define Dissent in the years after Vietnam, as did international voices like George Konrád, Octavio Paz and Roy Medvedev, whose political and literary sensibilities dovetailed nicely with Howe & Co.

These days, Dissent, which is edited by Michael Walzer and Mitchell Cohen, and which has a circulation of 11,000, is not a galvanizing force in the world of writing and politics. The prose is often dry and professorial; the pages rarely catch fire in one's hands. It remains a magazine, as Walzer once put it, "for people who know how to worry." Still, in every issue one finds lively, jargon-free essays and reportage (not infrequently penned by up-and-coming writers) along with debates and exchanges on a wide range of topics: globalization, identity politics, Hillary Clinton and feminism, intervention in Kosovo, crime, bohemia, and the fate of social democracy. These debates and discussions, almost always vibrant, serve as a reminder that, in dim political times especially, Dissent assumes a function that goes beyond critical writing: At its best, the journal becomes something akin to a foghorn or a life raft--"an open political and cultural space," Marshall Berman has written, "where democratic socialists who really meant it and survivors of the New Left could talk and listen and think and learn from each other, and have arguments without walking out, and imagine a golden age."

At its worst Dissent becomes a finger-wagging grandfather. In spring 2002, Walzer, infuriated by demonstrations against the Afghan war, published "Can There Be a Decent Left?," a stinging and much-discussed indictment of an American left that is full of "festering resentment, ingrown anger and self-hate," a left that turns "world politics into a cheap melodrama." In its tightly coiled fury, and its readiness to paint in very broad strokes, Walzer's essay called to mind, uncomfortably, Howe's polemics against the New Left. One of the more successful essays Dissent published in the 1990s was Michael Lind's "Why Intellectual Conservatism Died." Lind knew who his real foes were and lashed them accordingly. When, in the age of Bush, Dissent's co-editor brings his full polemical energies to bear on the fragmented universe of American radicalism, one can't escape the sense that Dissent is trapped in its own history, doomed to an interminable string of family feuds.

The people who founded Dissent set a herculean task for themselves: to revive the socialist project in America. Did they in any way succeed? On that question, Irving Howe, who died in 1993, was less than ebullient. "At times," he wrote in his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, "we seemed to have almost nothing left but the animating ethic of socialism, and we knew that an ethic, no matter how admirable, could never replace a politics. But if you took that ethic seriously and persisted in struggling for modes of realization, you could have enough intellectual work for a lifetime." It was Dissent's fate, he confided in a different context, to "scratch away at what is." Sustaining a socialist quarterly is no easy task in these United States, but fifty years later, Dissent, happily, is still with us--scratching, thinking, nail-biting, arguing.