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50 Years of Dissent

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
08.24.2004 | BOOKS

50 Years of Dissent Edited by Nicolaus Mills and Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 365 pages, $25

A few years before the internet's Big Bang, a young journal came galloping out of Chicago called The Baffler. In form and style, critics were quick to draw parallels between it and the "little magazines" published out of New York in the 1940s and 50s. In some ways it was an apt comparison. Like Dissent, Partisan Review and Dwight MacDonald's short-lived Politics, the Baffler had big-league smarts, a colorful set of regulars and a small but cultish readership. It too was born decrying the complacency of its time, with glib Clintonism and New Economy hysteria standing in for McCarthyism and the Cold War. Those who stumbled upon an early issue of The Baffler have an inkling, I think, of what it felt like to be part of the tiny but heated conversation that centered around Dissent half a century ago.

But while The Baffler popped out of DIY zine culture more than the 1930s radicalism that it somewhat bizarrely claimed as its mantle--there was no umbilical cord tethering Baffler editor Tom Frank to the CIO's John L. Lewis--Dissent began as an organic development in the saga of the American left. Specifically, it grew out of the intellectual and political crises that the anti-Stalinist left confronted in the early 50s. At their core was the very question of what it meant to be dark pink in the basement of Eisenhower's America, a time when the postwar boom seemed to call into question the whole edifice of Marxist economics. Capitalism wasn't in crisis--socialist eggheads were. And yet History was clearly not at an end, at least not an acceptable one. Irving Howe and his dissenting comrades rejected the "End of Ideology" thesis that held sway over that era's wide center, preferring instead to ask some hard and basic questions: Was not the world teetering on the brink of thermonuclear annihilation? Were not developments in Eastern Europe casting doubt on the immutability of the People's Republics? Was not mass culture acting like Novocaine on the nation's collective mind? Did not poverty and racism define reality for millions of Americans? Was the Third World not exploding in revolutionary fervor, crying out for a response more nuanced than that provided by CIA black ops and the U.S. Marines?

Dissent's founders cranked up the presses in 1954 because these questions were not being seriously addressed anywhere else. They felt the socialist flame, however weak, must not be allowed to go out; radical ideas had to be kept alive and passed on to the future.

The publication that had previously carried the independent leftist torch, Partisan Review, had by the mid-40s joined the "celebrationist" camp. It was soon joined by Commentary magazine in singing highbrow praises of the status quo. (Norman Podhoretz would briefly jerk Commentary left at the beginning of the 60s, then back even further to the right, where it remained.) Shortly before the first issue of Dissent appeared, Irving Howe addressed this critical void in a Partisan Review essay called "This Age of Conformity." In it, Howe accused his erstwhile comrades, many newly ensconced in the middle class, of growing soft and complacent. Intellectuals, he wrote, "far from thinking of themselves as a desperate 'opposition,' have been enjoying a return to the bosom of the nation."

Though no longer dogmatic Marxists or even active revolutionaries, Howe and company were not ready to suckle at any bosom. They were still, in the lingo of the time, "alienated." What's more, they thought it was healthy to be so--at least a little bit.

The volume leads off with an essay by C. Wright Mills, the largely forgotten motorcycle-riding Texan whose brilliant career was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1962. The 1954 essay reprinted here is a characteristically caustic meditation on America's "conservative mood." Mills dispatches crisply with the notion that a Conservative tradition in the European sense has ever existed, or could ever exist, in the United States. Despite the pining of Russell Kirk--whose 1953 The Conservative Mind was much discussed at the time--Mills explains why the history and political economy of this country make any neo-Burkean yearnings, at best, a pipe dream, at worst, a cover for establishing some "sanctified elite" modeled on Bismarckian Prussia.

As with so much of Mills' sadly forgotten work--including his classic 1956 study The Power Elite, arguably the greatest radical work of the decade--"The Conservative Mood" reads fresh today, and remains a useful starting point for anyone curious about why a movement calling itself "conservative" propagates policies that in fact conserve nothing. He concludes that "the conservative mood" of the 50s was just that--a mood. Not a movement or a workable philosophy for governing a modern technological society, but an incoherent and romantic yearning that popped up in reaction to the dull consensus politics that had hardened around the welfare state at home and containment abroad. Contemporary readers will nod their heads along to Mills' observation that, "More interesting than the ideas of these would-be conservative writers is the very high ratio of publicity to ideas."

Mills' essay is followed by another piece representative of Dissent's concerns in its inaugural year: Irving Howe's "The Problem of U.S. Power." Here the magazine's editor wrestles with the paradox of the Cold War policy of "massive retaliation," under which America flaunted its (militarily useless) ability to destroy all life on the planet, but lacked the imagination to understand and engage the anger of the Third World, just then starting to assert itself in the form of national liberation movements. America under Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, wrote Howe, was a "lonely power colossus, alternating between gestures of humiliating generosity and crude intimidation, sincerely convinced that only by the imposition of its will can the world be saved." Howe couples his call for a more creative foreign policy with reflections on how the domestic scene allowed such a dead-end worldview to prosper in the first place, and goes so far as to compare Eisenhower's tolerance of McCarthy to Hindenburg's refusal to stand up to Hitler. Hyperbole or not, Dissent at the time was one of the few places where such a thought could be expressed.

The 50s chapter also contains a playfully patrician essay by Dwight MacDonald ("America! America!") and a barely readable piece by a young Norman Mailer ("From Surplus Value to the Mass Media"). While useful in showing the sort of fare that could be found in any given issue--but where the hell is Paul Goodman?--they aren't crucial to the Dissent story. In pairing the two essays by Howe and Mills, the anthology sets up, but does not tell, the story of the split that would occur at the end of Dissent's first decade. It was a split that presaged Dissent's conflicted role during the 1960s.

In the mid and late 50s, there was a quickening on the left. Civil rights at home and revolutionary rumblings abroad (especially in Cuba) spawned a new generation of activists. But few leftists from the previous generation were ready for this burst of young, arrogant and highly stylized radical energy. C. Wright Mills was one of the few to throw his weight fully behind the new liberation movements and their young supporters on campuses from Ann Arbor to Berkeley. Most of the Dissent crowd was more cautious. They were left cold by the anti-Americanism that infused so much New Left rhetoric, even in its early stages. In 1959, Mills broke with his old friend Irving over what he saw as the magazine's condescending attitude toward, and small-tent vision for, the New Left. In a public exchange with Howe in the pages of Dissent, Mills taunted, "To dissent is fine, Irving. But tell me, dissent from what?" Just as Dissent was born out of impatience with the complacency of its peers, New Left journals began printing at the end of the 50s in response to the relative "conservatism" of Old Left circles like the crusty old farts that ran Dissent. A few of these journals--notably New Politics and the British New Left Review--survive today.

This generation gap is addressed in the anthology by the inclusion of Howe's 1962 essay "New Styles in Leftism." Here Howe explains his problems with the new generation--or at least those segments of it that he describes as practicing "kamikaze radicalism, white Malcomism [and] black Maoism." As a greater proportion of the New Left began to exhibit these tendencies, Howe's relationship with the New Left deteriorated. By the late 60s, it seemed to some as if the Old Left's leading magazine held more ire for doped-up protestors than for the bombs falling on Vietnam. Even in 1962, Howe had identified tendencies in the New Left that he worried would one day lead to the kind of dead-endism represented by the Weathermen. (Note to History: He was right.) These included a knee-jerk hostility to liberalism; a general impatience with and suspicion of older radicals; a theoretic indulgence in violence; a tolerance for authoritarianism in the Third World; and anti-Americanism bleeding into a more general hatred of an abstraction called "the West."

Dissent was not completely cut off from the youth-driven politics of the 60s. Michael Harrington, older than most student activists but younger than those tainted by the 1930s, had enough youth cred with the New Left to act as a sort of courier between generations. Harrington's 1968 essay, "Vietnam: Strategies for Opposition," illustrates Dissent's position vis--vis the antiwar movement, one that was supportive, but reluctant to go too far down the road of illegality. "I...oppose the notion that one can easily violate the law in a democratic society," wrote Harrington, at a time when much of the anti-war movement was becoming impatient with "the System" and growing increasingly militant. "Democracy is an excruciatingly imperfect method of political organization--but the very best there is."

Dissent survived the anti-democratic fashions and factions of the late New Left to see the 70s. As the magazine tried to sort through the previous decade's detritus and accomplishments, it couldn't help but reflect the disappointment of the time. The 70s chapter includes essays by Harrington on the nation's "collective sadness," Jervis Anderson on the "agonies" of black militancy and Theodore Draper on the depressing resurgence of the Vietnam War's architects in Jimmy Carter's White House. There were victories, too, here and there. In an essay dated 1975, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein touts the successes of the women's movement--something Dissent was late in coming to--and finds cause for pride in the "general acceptance of the idea of equality" that will "make it difficult...to undo the work of these past ten years."

It's doubtful that anybody on the Dissent editorial staff imagined in the 70s how much of the "work of these past ten years" would soon come under attack. The title of Irving Howe's essay on the election of Ronald Reagan says it all: "How It Feels to Be Hit by a Truck." The selections from the 80s show the magazine grappling with the materialism and greed of that decade, as well as the diminishing of radical expectations that accompanied it. ("Good Schools Are Still Possible" is the title of a 1987 essay by Deborah Meier). Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Dissent in the 80s is that it managed to avoid the plague of French theory and remain readable as it trudged through the Reagan-Bush years.

In the 90s, Dissent found joy in the liberation of Eastern Europe, and confronted the "End of History" thesis just as it had the "End of Ideology" four decades prior--by disagreeing, mostly. Like everyone else, Dissent was still struggling to make sense of globalization when--

The last chapter of the collection finds Dissent in a post-9/11 world. Readers are treated to the spectacle of longtime Dissenter Michael Walzer asking, "Can There Be a Decent Left?" The Princeton moralist pooh-poohs America's responsibility for anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and defends the Afghanistan War with reference to the bombing of Serbia. Perhaps because they are ashamed of it, the editors chose not to include Paul Berman's pro-war essay of Spring 2003, in which he suggests trusting George W. Bush and dropping lots of bombs as the best way to help the sanctions-battered people of Iraq.

Berman's position on the war didn't put him on the fringe of Dissent's spectrum of opinion so much as at its center. A project that began 50 years ago with radical aspirations has become a talking shop for liberal hawks. Sad, perhaps, but not that surprising. After all, C. Wright Mills called bullshit on Dissent 45 long years ago.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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