Next year, the socialist magazine Dissent will celebrate its 50th anniversary, a remarkable feat considering its founder, the noted literary critic Irving Howe, never thought it would make it past the first couple of issues.
Any intellectual enterprise is a touch and go affair, as editors left, right and center will attest. That the editors of Dissent managed to cobble together so many issues for so many years, with no office and meager resources, while sustaining a certain amount of style and substance, is almost enough to make us forget the leftist agenda that motivates the undertaking. Almost, I say, for in the spirit of Irving Howe, who was always fearless in critique, there are issues of principle that must be addressed even in the company of the intelligent left, which surely includes the crew at Dissent.
Founded in 1954 by Howe, Dissent sought 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 these 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 a knee-jerk anti-Americanism that is now all but endemic in leftist circles. Though he did eventually oppose the Vietnam war, he showed early support for US efforts to find a “third way” and never romanticized Ho Chi Ming and the Vietnamese communists the way many on the left did. He rejected leftist infatuation with the likes of Castro and Che Guevara and had little patience for leftist-inspired street violence. In several public debates, Howe challenged the new radicals to explain their silence when confronted with Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe, a bit of drama that once drove Tom Hayden off a stage fuming. Howe openly disputed Noam Chomsky, whose hate-America stance he rejected.
In short, while not surrendering its socialist agenda, the magazine tried to preserve some kind of 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 the publication 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 Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who supported military action, to Marshall Berman, who opposed it with all the leftist clichés he could muster. Walzer found a middle ground, in which he tried to balance the criticism aimed at Bush without embracing the war per se. In the essay, “So, is this a just war?” Walzer suggests that Saddam might have been contained and destroyed without full scale military action. But Walzer 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 anti-Americanism of the Nation, the Progressive and others on the left. Joann Barkan, in the Winter 2003 issue, probes the thinking of the “hate America first” left. In the aftermath of 9/11, she writes, “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 goes on to accuse the hate America left of being “obsessive and undiscriminating in their anti-Americanism.” Barkan suggests that 9/11 did represent a threat to our way of life, whether one agreed or disagreed with the decision to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Even so, Dissent remained committed to the idea of a centralized, socialized economy. If you are persuaded at all by Friedrich Hayek, you must conclude that this agenda remains, even today, a recipe for political and economic disaster. As Hayek argued in his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, it is the act of centralizing and controlling an economy that leads, inevitably, to the demise of individual rights and freedom. The writers at Dissent sense this, hint at it, but struggle to accept it.
Even so, there are times, when reading their own selected “best” essays, that their uncertainties about their own position are barely masked. And not surprisingly, there are differences of opinion and tone even among the faithful. The evidence of this is found in the competing views found in two published collections, 25 Years of Dissent: An American Tradition and Legacy of Dissent: 40 years of writing from Dissent magazine. It is clear that dogmatism is not king, at least not all the time.
Let us start with an essay that cuts to the core of socialist thought – the relevance of Marx within the context of modern social and economic development. Harold Rosenberg writes in his essay, “Marxism: Criticism and/or Action,” that Marx was not “interested in the political choices of individuals but only in the accuracy with which their views and their acts mirrored the hidden movements of social process….”
In short, Marx, who claimed capitalism reduced labor to an abstraction, did not hesitate to reduce workers to, well, collective abstractions. Though Rosenberg basically acknowledges this, he cannot quite bring himself to jettison Marx or the idea of a proletariat-led revolution. Instead, he joins Howe in trying to explain the failure of socialism in America (Howe wrote on the subject repeatedly). In doing so, both men refused to accept the most obvious answer: that many workers are convinced that a free economic system offers the best hope to realize their dreams of empowerment and freedom. But if socialists concede this ground – that we might well be better off under a free enterprise system not shackled by central planning – they have basically undercut their raison d’ etra.
So we find Michael Walzer, on the one hand, addressing the problems inherent in socialist bureaucracy and, on the other, we have Michael Harrington (and others) clinging tenaciously to the idea of centralized economic planning. Erazim Kohak rejects utopianism as an idea that hinders authentic political action, but Howe, in what must have been one of his last, pens the essay: “Two Cheers for Utopia.” However metaphorically he meant the phrase to be construed, it suggests a working tension within the magazine.
David Brody and Robert Heilbroner, in two separate essays, complain that workers do not have a stake in capitalism, but recent statistics show that tens of millions of individual Americans own 70 percent of publicly issued stock. Even as Dissent claims to speak on behalf of workers, those workers, as Brody himself admits, have shown increasing skepticism about collectivist solutions that have tied them to corrupt unions or led them to near economic disaster. Robert Reich lays out an idea for a federal workers training program, apparently not convinced that millions of individual citizens do not need the government to tell them to trek down to their local community college and retool themselves for the new economy that hits all of us sooner or later. He is equally unimpressed, it seems, with corporate programs that actually train workers to do productive work for that particular corporation. Not good enough, Reich argues.
I don’t mean to suggest that there are not legitimate concerns about the future of manufacturing and jobs in America, but the solutions proffered by the left are neither more inviting nor more creative than those suggested by mainstream liberals or conservatives, who are well aware that our balance of trade deficit and our exportation of manufacturing jobs pose a serious challenge to long-term economic growth and independence. Still, not even Harrington is all that convincing when he suggests that cumbersome bureaucracies and collectives will help set the ship on a better course. Central planning seems more an iceberg to be avoided than a lighthouse leading to safety.
What sets Dissent apart from, say, Partisan Review or Commentary is that even as the editors and writers dismantle their own socialist vision, essay by essay, they stubbornly refuse to surrender the idea of socialism, even temporarily, as Jeffrey Hart suggests PR did until it grew infatuated with the New Left in the 1960s. In any case, two essays included in the collections cited above underscore this commitment in the face of even harsh reality. Ray Medvedev, in reviewing part two of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag series, concedes the tyranny of the Soviet empire but cannot bring himself to reject the utopian model that led to the tyranny. Medvedev actually criticizes Solzhenitsyn because he shows inadequate sympathy for communists and socialists who collaborated with Stalin only to be destroyed by his killing machine. The way to avoid another Gulag, Medvedev concludes, is not to reject socialism, but rather to refine it. Can you imagine anyone accepting this kind of thinking from a Nazi, for example? Medvedev misses not only Hayek’s observation about the centralization of power, he seems willing, yet again, to walk down the path of experimentation in the name of a unachievable socialist ideal. (I am reminded of an old friend, leftist in perspective, who lamented that Stalin ruined socialism.)
Gunter Grass, the German writer and Nobel Laureate, further demonstrates the leftist love of the socialist ideal. While much of the world was exhilarated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the possibility of a unified Germany, Grass was defiant and somber. In a disjointed essay published by Dissent in the early 1990s, Grass races from issue to issue – the resurgence of right-wing terror, increasing hostility toward non-Germans, corruption seeded by profiteers, all of this somehow rooted in the unification effort. Has not a unified Germany led twice to world-wide cataclysm, he asks?
One could accept this comment as an understandable concern given the history of Germany, were it not for an equally evident resentment Grass cannot hide – the relative prosperity of Western Germany compared to the East. Grass blames this on an overbearing Soviet empire and even Western greed, not on the failure of socialism as an idea to fuel a modern economy or liberate a modern people. The failure of socialism can always be explained away as a failure of circumstances, not principles.
Those who made Dissent their intellectual home can be credited for blinking when faced with the horrors of communism as practiced in the real world, but what they cannot bring themselves to admit is the inherent flaws in the idea. They remain slaves to an abstraction called social justice, even though virtually every real-world effort by socialists to wield political power has ended in disaster or stagnation.
An observation found in Gerald Sorin’s biography of Howe is instructive. In it, Sorin discusses how Howe and other colleagues struggled with the idea of holding down responsible, well-paying jobs, fearful that it would rob them of their radicalism. The conservative notion that taking care of oneself and one’s family is the first responsibility of citizenship troubled many on the left, whose goal, after all, was not to live normal lives, but to change the world by destroying capitalism. This “radical” mindset would be almost comical for its infantile perspective, were it not so destructive.
Nicolaus Mills bears witness to the issue. He documents his participation in the grape strikes of the early 1970s, and after having brokered a deal after much effort, feels a sense of loss more than jubilation. As he sits in the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union offices, he looks up at a picture of Cesar Chavez and observes: “Somewhere along the way, our organizing has come to take on a life of its own. The satisfaction it provides lies in the effort itself. When it is over and we win, there is a feeling of relief, above all, of purpose, but the intensity is gone. Perhaps we are punch-drunk in way? I can imagine an outsider seeing us in that light. And then I stop thinking about it. A lettuce strike has begun in Salinas, and I have calls to make.”
So this is the socialist at work. It is enough to appreciate the comment made by the landlord in the movie, The Graduate, who eyes Benjamin suspiciously and says (I paraphrase): You aren’t one of those outside agitators are you. I won’t stand for that.
The left, for all its talk of community and classless societies, has never been comfortable in those places where community is most evident and compelling: small towns, rural cultures, religious and civic organizations rooted precisely in those middle class values that so many on the left love to mock and undermine as bourgeois. (We will give Howe credit for having been a baseball fan, but the weight of evidence still runs against the left)
Some of us are weary, frankly, with professional agitators whose main goal is less about bringing social justice to the world than it is about escaping every-day responsibilities, such as raising children, holding down a job, or making a business run profitably. No doubt the nightmare that plays out in their minds is a world in which there are no more protest marches to attend, no more businesses to boycott, and no more rich people to hate (rich people who want to spend the money of the middle class are exempted from ridicule, of course). One need only observe Jesse Jackson to appreciate this point.
Which brings us to the racial issue. 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, he and the editors of Dissent often showed glaring inconsistencies. They published Norman Mailer’s notorious essay, “The White Negro” which seems to endorse violence as a natural expression of discontent and sexually stereotypes just about everybody compliments of Mailer’s macho reading of Freud.
Howe admitted later that running the article was a mistake, but that did not stop the editors of the 40th anniversary collection of Dissent’s best from including it as one of the featured essays. In another critical essay aimed at Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Howe accuses both writers of not accepting “the clenched militancy” of author Richard Wright, who was ferocious in his depiction of racial problems in the United States.
Ellison responded, rightly, that Howe was trying to lock black writers in a genre he called the “protest novel.” Howe almost seemed to be advocating a permanent state of black dependency that celebrated their status as victims. Ellison argued for the black as an individual, each with his or her own perspective and experience. That experience could not easily be divorced from the great civil rights issues of the 1950s and 1960s, but then the Invisible Man is hardly a whitewash of the problems confronting black Americans, Howe’s critique notwithstanding.
I doubt Howe was all that pleased when Baldwin, on the other hand, did embrace the ferocity Howe seemed to encourage. In his book, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin both studies and at times seems to celebrate the Black Muslim movement, which has only deepened cultural alienation by indoctrinating young blacks with the politics of division and hate.
All of this said, we return to what Dissent has done well. Howe and his successors have tried to rescue their cause from the extremes. To the extent that they denounced Stalinism and the excesses of the New Left, they contributed a valuable service. To the extent that they have tried to salvage literature for readers rather than surrender it to a Marxist/post-modernist dogmatism, we are grateful. But it seems fair to ask, at this point in American history, if an abstract commitment to “social justice” can be rooted in anything but a relentless and dehumanizing quest for change, just as relentless capitalism, untempered by other concerns, led to a dehumanizing industrialization.
Unable to embrace transcendental meaning, the left finds itself stranded on planet earth with no hope of reaching heaven, unless they create it on earth. That is their dream and our nightmare. How interesting that Howe ripped Whittaker Chambers rather emphatically because, as Howe believed, he traded one false faith, Stalinist communism, for another, Catholicism. With no other god to worship, the left turns back to the twisted dream.
The cold war has come and gone, but the left has not abandoned its cause. As the respected historian John Diggins has observed – the left has retreated from the political field, only to invade the classroom, where their ideological war continues at the expense of education and our young people. For all their decent efforts, the writers at Dissent remain on the margins even within their own camp. The radicals of the 1960s Howe openly confronted still drive the socialist movement, which might explain why Noam Chomsky is a leftist icon, but Howe is virtually forgotten outside the circles of thinking elites.
The left of today seems motivated not by a desire to help those in need but by an incessant need to fragment the American community any way it can, the better to assume power and keep it. Class, race, reckless charges of conspiracy or imperialism – any wedge will do. In the meantime, government continues to grow, even under a conservative like President Bush, and the welfare state is always there, willing to annex another piece of free ground. Moreover, the political correctness brought to us by government and academic edict has put the independent thinker, not to mention common sense, at risk.It must be a disappointing indeed for the writers at Dissent to survey what passes for a leftist thought these days. Unable to improve on a free enterprise system, flawed though it is, they have, in the meantime, lost ground to the ideological extremists within their own ranks. Consequently, for the vast majority of Americans, socialism remains a discredited dream that marches onto the playing fields of reality as a foreboding nightmare. Given the history of socialism, that is not all bad.