Today the Zeitgeist presses down upon us with a greater insistence than at any other moment of the century.
—Irving Howe, “This Age of Conformity” (1954)

Anyone who doubts that there is such a thing as life after death should take a moment to consider the career of Dissent magazine. It is enough to give posthumous existence a bad name. When Dissent first appeared, in 1954, left-wing anti-Stalinism was still the burning hope of partially disabused socialists: a means of seeming to reject Communist tyranny without compromising one’s leftist credentials. A bit earlier, Partisan Review had demonstrated that one could cleave to the rhetoric of Trotskyist radicalism and still champion the high-modernist aesthetic of such writers as T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. It was a neat trick. But it was not easily repeated. Dissent was meant to be a more patently activist version of Partisan Review—that is to say, it was meant to maintain a more visible pose of anti-bourgeois animus. In the event, Dissent has been a lot duller and more given to sermonizing. Officially founded by a half-dozen writers, including the sociologist Lewis Coser and the art historian Meyer Schapiro, Dissent’s guiding spirit was always the literary critic Irving Howe, who served as the quarterly’s chief editor from 1954 until his death in 1993 at the age of seventy-three. It must be acknowledged that Howe was a gifted and undoctrinaire critic. In the course of his long career, he wrote with sympathy and insight about figures as diverse as Céline and T. E. Lawrence, Faulkner, Edith Wharton, and Robert Frost.

But Irving Howe was also a crank. Criticism, his true métier, was insufficiently engagé to satisfy his taste for political drama. He required an existential state of emergency to be content; and if no real state of emergency existed, it was the work of a moment for him to invent one. Dissent was his philosopher’s stone, his unfailing accomplice in the production of political bewitchment. In this sense, the magazine, now in its forty-first year, is one of the longest-running chronicles of imaginary disasters on record. It is also an extraordinary homage to the plasticity of the word “socialist.”

Dissent has always specialized in a certain form of moralistic handwringing, combining thundering self-righteousness with a liberal deployment of straw men. In the “Word to Our Readers” that introduces the first issue of the magazine, the editors, noting that “the accent of Dissent will be radical,” write that

the purpose of this new magazine is suggested by its name: to dissent from the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervades the political and intellectual life of the United States; to dissent from the support of the status quo now so noticeable on the part of many former radicals and socialists; to dissent from the terrible assumption that a new war is necessary or inevitable, and that the only way to defeat Stalinism is through atomic world suicide.

But, but … was the political and intellectual atmosphere of the United States really so bleak and conformist in the Fifties? (If so, how extraordinary that Irving Howe and his band of stalwarts managed to rise above it all.) Supposing that “many former radicals and socialists” did support the status quo: would that have been such a bad thing? Perhaps the status quo in the mid-fifties had a lot to be said for it. In fact, conjuring “former radicals and socialists” (a.k.a. the guiding spirits of Partisan Review) was chiefly a device for (1) identifying ideological enemies and (2) declaring one’s own anti-Americanism. And then there is the brave decision to dissent from “the terrible assumption that a new war is necessary or inevitable” and—quite a separate matter—that “the only way to defeat Stalinism is through atomic world suicide.” The first part of this “terrible assumption” is disingenuous verbiage, the second part is apocalyptic fantasy. What really is terrible is not the assumption that war might be necessary—sometimes, alas, war is necessary, as Adolf Hitler demonstrated beyond cavil in 1939—but the pretense that one occupies a moral empyrean immune from the ordinary political choices and tribulations that worry lesser mortals. What is not only terrible but intellectually dishonest is the evocation of “atomic suicide” as “the only way to defeat Stalinism.” This febrile imagining belongs to the realm of Dr. Strangelove, not serious political commentary.

That prefatory note was a specimen piece of Dissent rhetoric, boastful, mildly contradictory, full of specious categories and false dichotomies. A bit further along in the editorial statement, we read that

Dissent will not have any editorial position or statements. Each writer will speak for himself. Our magazine will be open to a wide arc of opinion, excluding only Stalinists and totalitarian fellow-travelers on the one hand, and those former radicals who have signed their peace with society as it is, on the other. We shall welcome any expression of lively and competent thought … even if these [sic] dissent from Dissent.

As one commentator observed about this passage, “perhaps no more remarkable spectrum has been conceived since Mein Kampf. One wonders what the editors plan to do about the Royalists, aristocrats, anti-Semites, and other non-signers of peace with society who decided to take advantage of this implicit invitation.” Of course, this editorial jumble might be partly the result of sloppy writing; but as is often the case, the sloppy writing here is the carapace of sloppy thinking. What the statement really means is the editors of Dissent welcome contributions from those who share Dissent’s idea of dissent.

Today, Dissent will strike many readers as something of a museum piece. It stands as a dusty monument to the anxious, slightly embarrassed Marxism of the anti-Stalinist Left—a Marxism, that is to say, which is full of excuses, even, at times, for Marx himself. It’s an odd redoubt that Dissent occupies. The Marxist worldview is largely presupposed, but then tinkered with, toned down, dressed up. The result is often more Marx-ish than Marxist (Howe once spoke in this context of adopting “a flexible Marxism.”) Partisans of this species of Marxist patter—academics, mostly—love to talk about “the workers” and public ownership of “the means of production”; the word “socialist” sets their pulses racing; the only thing they like better than proclaiming their own altruism, independence, and high-mindedness is abusing others for their lack of those virtues. Intellectually, it is a shabby business. But it is impossible to understand the triumph of cultural radicalism in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s without understanding the appeal that institutions like Dissent exercised. In a word, Dissent offered anti-bourgeois radicalism for the disgruntled bourgeois. It provided the illusion of solidarity; it described an acceptably “socialist” menu of political issues and a vocabulary for dealing with them; above all it provided rationalizations: rationalizations for the manifold disappointments of Communism, for the elusive promises of socialism, for the irritatingly persistent success of “bourgeois capitalism.”

The unremitting moralism of Dissent makes it difficult for any but true believers to digest much of it in a single sitting. Stylistically, the magazine has tended to exhibit approximately the same charm as a temperance tract or manifesto on the spiritual and political advantages of vegetarianism. Here, for example, is Irving Howe in a wistful mood, writing in the introduction to Twenty-five Years of “Dissent” (1979): “Let your mind go back in time. At a meeting of workers in Berlin in the 1870s, a social democrat named August Bebel speaks. He advances a new vision of human possibility … ” And they’re off. Or here is the late Michael Harrington, author of The Other America (1962) and one of Howe’s most trusted collaborators at Dissent, in a 1989 essay called “Markets and Plans”: “The point is … to free the socialism of tomorrow from the assumption that a market in a social order of increasing equality and popular democratic control is somehow as reprehensible as a market that functions to provide shacks for the poor and mansions for the rich.”

“Shacks for the poor” vs. “mansions for the rich”: a classic Dissent dichotomy. But Irving Howe remained the real master of this sort of thing. Here he is musing about the origins of American socialism: “What prompted thousands of ordinary Americans to become socialists was an impulse to moral generosity, a readiness to stake their hopes on some goal other than personal success. It was an impulse that drew its strength from an uncomplicated belief in freedom and fraternity; or to use an obsolete word, goodness.” Such hopes and “moral generosity,” you understand, that he, Irving Howe, exemplifies to an almost inconceivable degree.

But the editors of Dissent are not without mercy. Over the years, the two or three anthologies of writings from Dissent that they have put together have spared the curious but unfanatical student the burden of plodding through each and every issue. The latest chrestomathy, Legacy of Dissent: Forty Years of Writing from “Dissent” Magazine, was edited by Nicolaus Mills, a member of Dissent’s editorial board and Professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence. Dedicated to Irving Howe and with introductory essays by Dissent’s co-editors, Mitchell Cohen and Michael Walzer, Legacy of Dissent not only provides a representative sampling of work that has appeared in Dissent from 1954 down to the present, but it also epitomizes the curious, hybrid radicalism that Dissent came to embody.

The book contains thirty essays and is divided into seven sections: “Social Visions,” “Political Arguments,” “Culture and Society,” “Race,” “Feminism,” “Labor under Siege,” and “The Cold War and After.” In addition to two essays by Howe (one of which, “Images of Socialism” [1954], he co-authored with Lewis Coser), the volume features contributions by such well-known writers as Ignazio Silone, Robert Heilbroner, Michael Harrington, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, Richard Wright, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert Reich, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Günter Grass. Some preliminary sense of the book’s tenor can be gleaned by considering the titles of some of the essays: “The Choice of Comrades,” “Roots of the Socialist Dilemma,” “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” “White Man—Listen!,” “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement,” “Diary from the Grape Strike.” If this list of topics stirs your blood, then you are a natural-born Dissent reader and you ought to consider taking the magazine up on its invitation to remember it in your will.

As with any such miscellany, Legacy of Dissent is very much a mixed bag. There are the usual leftist curlicues: attacks on “the Reaganite carnival of selfishness,” criticism of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago for being “too one-sided” and equating “socialism with Stalinism,” paeans to radical feminism. One of the less agreeable aspects of Howe’s rhetoric that quickly became a standard feature of Dissent and that is very much on view in this anthology is the constant bleating about the dangers of “conformism” and making one’s peace with American society. This was the raison d’être of his famous essay “This Age of Conformity,” which he published in Partisan Review in 1954 just before the first issue of Dissent appeared. Howe warns about “the temptations of an improved standard of living,” criticizes intellectuals who have become “responsible and moderate,” and deplores those who have “sold out” to the establishment. This was, as we have seen, a major theme of the editorial statement that prefaced the inaugural issue of Dissent. And it remained a leitmotif of his work and of other writers for Dissent. Typical is Mitchell Cohen’s criticism, in his introduction to Legacy of Dissent, of those left-wing intellectuals in the 1950s who were “fleeing their past, anxiously making peace with American prosperity,” and—sin of sins—“becoming comfortable.” In 1979, reviewing the depredations of the 1950s, Howe singled out two especially woeful features of that much-maligned decade: McCarthyism and what he called the “systematic reconciliation between American intellectuals and commercial society.”

This sort of talk is unpleasant but understandable in an underemployed intellectual of, say, twenty-three. But it looks poorly on the Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York who was, moreover, the recipient of the National Book Award, the Christian Gauss Seminar Chair at Princeton, the Bollingen Foundation Fellowship, among many, many other trophies of “the establishment,” including the coveted MacArthur Fellowship. In fact, writing for Dissent seems greatly to enhance one’s chances of receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. In addition to Howe, at least four other contributors to Legacy of Dissent are recipients of the lucrative award. Add Richard Rorty, a contributor to the Winter 1995 issue of Dissent, and the number of MacArthurites totals six. Rather plush for such an “oppositional” journal.

Dissent’s chief talisman, however, has always been the word “socialism,” which is defined in different ways by different writers but which provides an ideological idol to which most of the contributors pay obeisance. In fact, vagueness is part of the appeal of words like “socialism,” which really function more as containers for ambition and animus than as conceptual tools. In his preface, Michael Walzer, a former student of Irving Howe’s who is now on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, characterizes the socialism championed by Dissent by invoking the even vaguer term “democracy.” Among other things, Walzer writes, socialism means “the extension of democracy throughout all dimensions of life, economic and social as well as political.” Translated into English, this means that socialism is tantamount to egalitarianism—another favorite word among writers for Dissent—that is to say, socialism involves a process of leveling not only in political life but “throughout all dimensions of life,” e.g., in education, the arts, and social relations.

Although Howe once proclaimed that socialism “cannot be a surrogate for religious yearnings,” the truth is that socialism has always been a metaphysical lodestar for the Dissent coterie. Howe and Lewis Coser began “Images of Socialism”—a definitive Dissent essay—by quoting Tolstoy: “God is the name of my desire.” “We should like,” they noted, “to twist Tolstoy’s remark to our own ends: socialism is the name of our desire.” When we ask about the content of that desire, things get fuzzy. It involves the triumph of egalitarianism; it involves “planning,” though not the nasty Stalinist sort; and it involves the attenuation if not the abolition of private property, though Howe and Coser act as if this is nothing to get excited about. “To be sure, socialism still presupposes the abolition of private property in the basic industries, but there is hardly a branch of the socialist movement … which places any high valuation on nationalization of industry per se.” No doubt that comes as an immense relief to those who happen to own businesses: we are going to expropriate your property, but we aren’t going to make much of a fuss about it.

“Utopia” is another word that one has to keep in mind when perusing Dissent. By mid-century, utopia had come under a shadow. If Hitler and Stalin were utopians, what then? Writers for Dissent dance around the term “utopia” the same way that they dance around “Marxism.” They know that the word means “nowhere,” that it has licensed some of the worst barbarism in history. But they can’t do without it, because then they wouldn’t be—socialists. Such a muddle. Howe’s handling of the problem is characteristic. In “Images of Socialism,” he and Coser criticize “pre-Marxist” utopias for being “a-historical”; they criticize Marx for being insufficiently detailed in his description of utopia; in the end, however, after the qualifications have been erected and the hedges trimmed, they emerge as utopians. Mostly, they put it in the most anodyne terms possible: “a life without some glimmer of a redeeming future [is] a life cut off from the distinctively human.”

Well, sure. Everyone agrees with that. But they mean, or seem to mean, something considerably more. The last essay in Legacy of Dissent is Howe’s 1993 note “Two Cheers for Utopia.” Here, too, he is cautious. We live, he says there, in a time of “diminished expectations.” But it is necessary to salvage some sense of utopia because “it is a claim for the value of desire, the practicality of yearning.” Why desire or yearning requires utopia is not explained—in fact, they seem to function just fine without it—but the subject of utopia does give Howe the opportunity to expatiate on his favorite subject: the virtue of socialists as compared with … with … well, with everyone else. Unlike “liberals and conservatives,” he explains, socialists are not “at ease with the existing social and political order.” They are, however, “devoted to decency and democracy”—unlike you-know-who. In “Images of Socialism,” he and Coser look forward to a society where “the motives for private accumulation and the values sanctioning it have significantly diminished.” Again, the specifics are left vague. Nor are their attempts at elaboration especially helpful: The “goal” of socialism, we read, is “to create the kind of man who, to a measurable degree, ceases to be a manipulated object and becomes a motivated subject.” I know, I know: you thought you had been a motivated subject all along, but not, apparently, in the world according to Dissent.

The closest that Howe comes to specifying the nature of socialist utopia is to say that technological progress has made it possible to abolish material scarcity. “Now, after the Industrial Revolution, the machine might do for all humanity what the slaves had done for the Greek patriciate.” Elsewhere, he writes that “the liberal-radical claim is merely that the development of technology has now made possible … a solution of those material problems that have burdened mankind for centuries.” (Note the “merely.”) This of course is a classic Marxist theme. Once Communism has been installed, Marx famously wrote in The German Ideology, man will be emancipated from the burdens of capitalist drudgery and will be free to be a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a literary critic at night. Rather a cramped view of paradise, you might think, but there it is. Other Marxist writers—Herbert Marcuse, for example—have provided considerably more florid evocations of utopia. But in every case what stands between socialism (or Communism) and utopia is human nature. Thus it is that Howe and Coser must look forward to “a new kind of man” in order to imagine their socialist Eden. Humanity as it is now just isn’t good enough. Howe and his circle know that there is such a thing as naïve socialism. Indeed, they make a great show of criticizing it. But their own political vision remains equally naïve because it completely ignores the indelible human resistance to socialist manipulation. Howe likes to speak about a time when society will be “organized for use and not profit.” But such a society, if it ever comes about, will be a horrific distopia populated by a damaged humanity. The failure to recognize this is one reason that Dissent’s politics generally seem so adolescent.

Given Howe’s utopianism, his relation to the “New Left” of the 1960s and 1970s is instructive. On the one hand, he admired its “energy” and what he took to be its “idealism”; on the other hand, he deplored both its excesses and the unaccountable failure of its leaders to consult with Irving Howe about their activities. Writing in 1979, Howe criticized “the pathological terrorism of the Weathermen, the brutal factionalism with the SDS between the Maoists and other sects, the waste (once more, once more!) of all that splendid hope and energy. Unheeded, we could do little but warn and criticize.”

And yet, in the beginning at least, Dissent did as much as any publication to nurture the New Left. Reprinted in Legacy of Dissent are Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd” (1960)—one of several preludes to his immensely influential best-selling book of that title—and Norman Mailer’s notorious ex- ercise in radical chic, “The White Negro” (1957). Goodman’s essay is a whiny complaint that life in America makes it “desperately hard” for “boys and young men” (girls and young women do not come into Paul Goodman’s purview) to grow up normally. It is full of observations such as this: “In our society, bright lively children … are transformed into useless and cynical bipeds.” Goodman’s essay also contains my single favorite sentence from Legacy of Dissent. Discussing the most efficient way of dealing with juvenile delinquency, he suggests that public subsidies may be the best solution: “To reestablish in general what he calls the social balance, J. K. Galbraith proposes such a high longterm subsidy for all unemployed. He assures us that this would not be inflationary, and as the director of price controls for the OPA, he should know.” What a touching faith in bureaucratic expertise!

In book form, Goodman’s animadversions on the depredations of American society became a founding text of the counterculture. A different sort of preview of things to come was provided by Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Mailer himself described the essay as “one of the best things I have ever done.” Be that as it may, the essay was certainly one of the most characteristic—not only of Mailer’s own work but also of the burgeoning spirit of revolt that began to shudder through American society in the late 1950s. In tone, the essay is a silly display of existentialist braggadocio; in content it is a manifesto on behalf of moral nihilism. Mailer speaks casually of “the totalitarian tissues of American society” and invokes “the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” The only authentic response to this situation, he says, is “to divorce oneself from society” and “to encourage the psychopath in oneself.” This is the strategy of “the hipster,” who has “absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and [who] for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.” (Stereotypes, anyone?)

The rest of the essay is a glorification of the hipster and his ethic of promiscuous sex, drug-taking, and addiction to violence. The hipster, Mailer explains, is part of “an elite with the potential ruthlessness of an elite, and a language most adolescents can understand instinctively, for the hipster’s intense view of existence matches their experience and their desire to rebel.” If this is not clear enough, Mailer conjures the image—it is what made the essay famous—of eighteen-year-old hoodlums who “beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper.” For Mailer such behavior is acceptable, even laudable, because the psychopath, by murdering, demonstrates his “courage” and “purge[s] his violence.” To the objection that it does not take much courage to kill someone older and weaker, Mailer replies that “one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life.”

There is more. “At bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love.” Oh? Mailer elaborates: “Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.” This is one reason that the hispter adores jazz: “jazz,” Mailer tells us, “is orgasm.” The hipster’s quest “for absolute sexual freedom” entails the necessity of “becoming a sexual outlaw.” But it is not only sexual morality that the hipster discards. “Hip abdicates from any conventional moral responsibility because it would argue that the result of our actions are unforeseeable, and so we cannot know if we do good or bad. … The only Hip morality … is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and … to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for onself, for oneself alone, because that is one’s need.” Charming, isn’t it?

Mailer’s extraordinary expostulation contains in ovo practically everything that went wrong with American culture under the assault of left-wing radicalism in the 1960s, from the addiction to violence, drugs, pop music, and sexual polymorphism, to the moral idiocy, jejune anti-Americanism, and mindless glorification of extreme states of experience. It says something that Dissent should have published this narcissistic yawp in the first place, but it is even more significant that its editors should choose to republish it now, thirty-five years later, without comment or apology.

The socialist fantasies of writers such as Irving Howe, Michael Walzer, and Michael Harrington represent one important side of Dissent; the importunate countercultural dithyrambs of writers like Goodman and Mailer represent another side. Taken together these essays constitute a recipe for what we would today call political correctness, and in this respect the current, Winter 1995, issue of Dissent does not disappoint. Here we have a piece on feminist “gains” at last September’s United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, a meditation on sexual harassment, an article on the Welfare State that calls for “a new Keynesian order,” and a celebration of the U.S. occupation of Haiti as “the first progressive military intervention since World War II.” There is also a piece by Michael Lind announcing the death of intellectual conservativism, in response to which one is tempted to quote Mark Twain: Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. (For another response, see James Bowman’s reflections on Mr. Lind below, pages 48–55.) Finally, there is an essay by the radical pragmatist Richard Rorty, who praises Dissent as “this country’s most useful political magazine” but then goes on to espouse a chummy version of nihilism that would have even Irving Howe turning in his grave. “The nature of modernity,” Rorty writes, is “as unprofitable a topic as the nature of man.” Since “there is no entity larger than ourselves,” we must give up on “the whole idea of maturation” as well as the habit of looking for “the significance of events.” Rorty’s pragmatist drivel reminds one of G. K. Chesterton’s observation that “pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.”

From the beginning, the guiding assumption of the circle of writers around Dissent was that the word “socialist,” if correctly inflected, somehow purchased a nimbus of idealism. This elevated socialist victories beyond the reach of criticism and endowed its defeats with an aura of martyrdom. Irving Howe was no friend of Communism, but it is telling that his severest criticism was that Communism had ruined “so many good people.” What made them good? Their attachment to socialist dogma. In the late 1860s, John Henry Newman published the Grammar of Assent, his magisterial inquiry into the logic of religious justification. Piecemeal, Dissent has provided us a kind of mirror image of Newman’s great work: less rigorous and more clumsily written, but delving into matters that are just as mysterious but not, alas, as humanly satisfying.

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  1. Legacy of Dissent: Forty Years of Writing from “Dissent” Magazine, edited by Nicolaus Mills; Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 463 pages, $16 paper. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 7, on page 8
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