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DISSENT MAGAZINE (DM) Printer Friendly Page

Manufacturing Dissent
By George Shadroui 
September 12, 2003


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  • Socialist magazine founded in 1954 by literary critic Irving Howe

Dissent is a quarterly socialist magazine of politics and culture edited by Mitchell Cohen, a professor of political theory at Baruch College and the City University of New York, and Michael Walzer, who writes on political theory and moral philosophy.

Dissent was founded in 1954 by the literary critic Irving Howe, whose objective was to salvage socialism from Stalin's legacy. While many on the left continued to defend Stalin's repression and murder, Howe and his cohorts denounced those atrocities without repudiating the socialist cause. In addition, they rejected the Marxist idea that culture should always be the servant of ideology. This introduced a pragmatic dimension to Dissent, considered heresy on the Stalinist left.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Howe was at war with the Stalinist vanguard. By the 1960s and early 1970s, he also found himself in conflict with the "New Left," which had embraced passionate anti-Americanism as its hallmark. Though he eventually did oppose America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Howe showed early support for U.S. efforts to find a "third way" and never romanticized Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists the way many on the left did. He rejected leftist infatuation with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and had little patience for leftist-inspired street violence. In several public debates, Howe challenged new radicals such as Tom Hayden to explain their silence regarding Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe, and he openly disputed the hate-America stance of Noam Chomsky.

In short, while not surrendering its socialist agenda, Dissent tried to preserve its intellectual integrity. Its writers sought to keep the focus on the working class, and not on the trendy cultural elitism of the 1960s left. Howe was no fan of the social mores pushed by the New Left, and could even be a tad conservative on issues of traditional family, education and literary criticism, as he sought to preserve the human element that Marxism, with its ideological baggage, often destroyed.

This independence of thought can be found in Dissent even now, under Michael Walzer's guiding hand. With respect to the war in Iraq, Walzer has allowed a variety of views to be expressed -- from those of Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who supported military action, to those of Marshall Berman, who opposed it. In the essay, "So, Is This a Just War?" Walzer found a middle ground in which he tried to balance the criticism aimed at President Bush without embracing the war per se. He suggested that Saddam Hussein might have been contained and destroyed without full-scale military action, but also questioned the sincerity of opponents of the war, including the French, who, he implied, would have postponed action indefinitely.

Another recent essay also sets Dissent apart from the reflexive anti-Americanism of The Nation, The Progressive, and others on the left: Joann Barkan, in the Winter 2003 issue of Dissent, probed the thinking of the "hate-America first" left. In the aftermath of 9/11, she wrote, "some of us saw the desire to fly American flags everywhere as a sign of solidarity and grief. … they saw only jingoism and vulgar sentimentality." Barkan went on to accuse leftists of being "obsessive and undiscriminating in their anti-Americanism," and suggested that 9/11 did represent a threat to the U.S., whether one agreed or disagreed with the decision to take down Saddam Hussein's regime.

In the area of economics, Dissent has remained steadfastly committed to the idea of a centralized, socialized economy.

On matters of race, the editors of Dissent have often showed glaring inconsistencies. Despite Howe's stated objections to street violence and ideological extremism of the sort embraced by the Black Panthers during the 1960s and early 1970s, his periodical published Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro," which endorsed violence as a natural expression of discontent and was rife with sexual stereotypes. Howe later admitted that running the article was a mistake, but Dissent's editors nonetheless included it as a featured essay in their 40th anniversary collection of Dissent's best. In another critical essay aimed at Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Howe impugned both writers for not accepting "the clenched militancy" of author Richard Wright, who was ferocious in his depiction of racial problems in the United States. Ellison responded that Howe was trying to lock black writers in a genre he called the "protest novel."

This profile is adapted from the article “Manufacturing Dissent,” written by George Shadroui and published by FrontPageMagazine on September 12, 2003.



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