Dissent Magazine Turns 60

In early 1953, a number of democratic socialist intellectuals gathered in literary critic Irving Howe’s living room to discuss the formation of a new political journal. McCarthyism was at its height in the United States, while Joseph Stalin still ruled over the Soviet Union. Howe and his guests knew what they wanted their new journal to be: A quarterly publication of ideas, criticism, and reporting from around the world—from de-colonialized New Delhi, from New York housing projects and Michigan auto plants—that illuminated and excoriated both the structural inequalities endemic to capitalism and the self-perpetuating tyranny baked into communism. The journal’s political perspective was clear: Capitalist economies and polities needed to be democratized and socialized so that human potential could flourish; communist totalitarian regimes needed to be democratized and socialized so that, well, human potential could flourish. At the same time, the magazine would eschew the turgid rhetoric that afflicted so much socialist writing. It would speak in plain, smart English, such as the sentence—“Socialism is the name of our desire”—with which Howe and Lewis Coser began the first issue’s ideological-definition essay.

All this the intellectuals could agree upon. What they couldn’t come up with was a name for their journal. For a while, they batted around, as a possible title, “No!”—a title, some argued, signaling their rejection of the dominant tendencies of both East and West. But “No!” was shot down by Bernie Rosenberg, a wry sociologist. “It’s too affirmative,” Rosenberg said. So Howe and his comrades settled instead on “Dissent.”

For the last couple centuries, little magazines (and little political magazines most especially) have come and gone from the American scene in stunning profusion and, usually, with great rapidity. Next week, however, Dissent celebrates its 60th anniversary—an astonishing achievement for a journal that espouses a political perspective that has always been marginal in the United States and that never, during its 60-year-run, had more than 10,000 subscribers. The magazine has survived chiefly on the quality and passion of its articles, ranging from reports from Eastern European socialist dissidents exposing the Iron Curtain’s cracks, to the great art critic Meyer Shapiro’s meditations on art and politics, to, somewhat notoriously, Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” in which Mailer propounded his hipster gospel, to Michael Harrington’s exposes of American poverty and his delineation of a new kind of American conservatism (“neo-conservatism,” he called it, and the name stuck), to the (recently, tragically) late Marshall Berman’s essays on the Marxian-modernist mish-mash of 21st-century cities.

For its first 40 years, Dissent was edited—tirelessly, relentlessly, brilliantly—by Howe, who somehow managed, while writing voluminously on literary modernism, current politics and Jewish quandaries, to shape 120 to 150 pages of stuff you couldn’t find anyplace else every three months. The magazine barely had enough money to stay afloat, but then, in those years, none of the editors or writers received any payment for their work—it was strictly a labor of love, or perhaps more precisely, of political passion. From its earliest issues, Dissent reported with great excitement on the rise of the civil rights movement. In the ‘60s, it opposed the Vietnam War, but Howe and most of the editorial board cast a very cold eye on the New Left for its romanticizing of third-world communist revolutionaries and its occasionally other-worldly left purity. When the New Left-Old Left wars of the ‘60s subsided, Howe realized that while Dissent had gotten the words right, it had completely blown the music—treating New Left activists and thinkers as if they’d been hardened Stalinists, rather than young left rebels searching for ways to mesh their idealism with reality. In time, such veterans of the New Left as Todd Gitlin and Michael Kazin became leading members of the Dissent stable of writers and editors.

Howe died, suddenly, in 1993—he’d called me (I was a new member of the editorial board), in apparent fine health, the day before his fatal stroke, to bug me about getting an article from a promising new contributor. Michael Walzer, the political philosopher of just and unjust wars, of revolutionary and reformist transformations, became the magazine’s chief editor for the next 20 years—but earlier this year, he stepped down, passing the mantle to Kazin, a pre-eminent historian of populism and the American left. The new new left—a generation cast adrift by the acute and chronic dysfunction of American capitalism over the past five years—has found a home in Dissent as well, particularly on its website, www.dissentmagazine.org. The current issue of the print magazine features, among much else, reports and analyses on the inabilities of social democratic parties in five western European nations to regain the political clarity and appeal they once had, and a lovely account of the frustrations that a blogging pick-up artist with an international readership experienced in Nordic feminist social democracies.

Next Thursday in New York, Dissent celebrates both its 60th anniversary and Walzer’s tenure as editor with a dinner featuring former Congressman Barney Frank (details on Dissent’s website).  Whether or not you can make it to the bash, go online and check out a journal that navigates against the current so brilliantly that against all odds it still splashes away.

Prospect editor at large Harold Meyerson first wrote for Dissent in 1978 and has been a member of its editorial board since 1993. 

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