Dissent is a quarterly socialist magazine of politics and culture, co-edited by Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin and Columbia University PhD candidate David Marcus. The publication was founded in 1954 by the socialist literary critic Irving Howe, who served as its editor until his death in 1993. Howe’s objective was to salvage socialism from Stalin‘s horrific legacy and promote it as a viable system that was to be clearly distinguished from Stalinism. While many on the left continued to defend Stalin’s repression and mass murder even after Khrushchev’s revelations of those atrocities in February 1956, Howe and his cohorts categorically denounced them without repudiating the socialist cause.
Most of Dissent‘s founders had developed their political roots in the Trotskyist movement. Rejecting the Marxist notion that ideological purity should never be compromised by cultural considerations, they imbued their publication with a pragmatic dimension that would have been considered heresy on the Stalinist left. From its inception, Dissent‘s mission was to serve as a “radical” voice articulating “the tradition of democratic socialism” and “democratic utopianism,” and to “dissent from the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervades the political and intellectual life of the United States.” According to the Encyclopedia of the American Left, the founders of Dissent aimed “to reexamine the socialist tradition and to challenge the prevailing conservative tide in American political and intellectual life.” Contemptuous of McCarthyism and Stalinism alike, the journal’s early editors put it succinctly in 1954: “Socialism is the name of our desire.”
In the 1960s, Howe and Dissent grew very critical of the New Left and its social mores, and of young radicals who increasingly viewed the neo-Stalinists of Cuba, Vietnam, and China as worthy models for socialist revolutionaries in America.
On matters of race, the editors of Dissent have often showed 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 ’70s, 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 the journal’s all-time best pieces. 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.
Author George Shadroui notes that Dissent, for all its radicalism, has tended to steer clear of the reflexive anti-Americanism emblematic of other left-wing publications like The Nation and The Progressive. In the early 2000s, for instance, Dissent editor Michael Walzer allowed a variety of views to be expressed regarding the Iraq War—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 suggested that Saddam Hussein might have been contained and destroyed without full-scale military action, but also questioned the sincerity of the war’s opponents, who, he implied, would have postponed action indefinitely.
Similarly, a 2003 Dissent essay by Joann Barkan probed the thinking of “hate-America-first” leftists. In the aftermath of 9/11, Barkan wrote, “some of us saw the desire to fly American flags everywhere as a sign of solidarity and grief, [but] they saw only jingoism and vulgar sentimentality.” Barkan went on to accuse the left of being “obsessive and undiscriminating in their anti-Americanism,” and suggested that 9/11 did in fact represent a threat to the U.S., whether or not one agreed with the decision to take down Saddam’s regime.
Even while acknowledging various excesses and failures in the annals of Marxist/socialist history, Dissent‘s editors and writers have resolutely refused to surrender the ideal of socialism. In reviewing Part Two of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag series, for example, Ray Medvedev conceded the tyranny of the Soviet empire but would not reject the utopian model that had led to the tyranny. Indeed, Medvedev criticized Solzhenitsyn for showing inadequate sympathy for the communists and socialists who had collaborated with Stalin only to be destroyed by his killing machine. The way to avoid another Gulag, Medvedev concluded, was not to reject socialism, but rather to refine it.
In the area of economics, Dissent has never wavered from its steadfast commitment to the idea of a centralized, socialized economy.
The contents of Dissent‘s website today are divided into four major categories: Labor, Racial Justice, Climate Change, and Democratic Socialism. The website also features a podcast that posts new material every two weeks.
For additional information on Dissent magazine, click here.