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50 Years of Dissent

50 Years of Dissent

by Nicolaus Mills

Dissent was founded in 1954 by intellectuals angered by the rightward drift of the country but uneasy with the dogmatism they saw on the American left, and it has provoked debates about political ideas and about American and global issues ever since.
This provocative book—a collection of articles published in Dissent over the past fifty years&


Dissent was founded in 1954 by intellectuals angered by the rightward drift of the country but uneasy with the dogmatism they saw on the American left, and it has provoked debates about political ideas and about American and global issues ever since.
This provocative book—a collection of articles published in Dissent over the past fifty years—presents essays from each decade of Dissent’s life that reveal how the magazine viewed that era, along with a new foreword to each section written by a contemporary Dissenter that provides perspective on the period.

Articles include:

* Norman Mailer on “Surplus Values and Mass Media”

* Irving Howe on “New Styles in Leftism”

* Theodore Draper on “Ghosts of Vietnam”

* Sean Wilentz on “Bankruptcy and Zeal”

* Michael Kazin on “A Patriotic Left”

* Dwight MacDonald on “America, America”

* and much more

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Founded in 1954, the periodical Dissent has sparked debates about political ideas and about American and global issues ever since. This provocative collection of articles published in Dissent over the past fifty years shows why. Contributors from Norman Mailer to Theodore Draper to Michael Kazin offer enlightening perspectives on each fascinating decade.

"I find this volume of essays impressive not only in their quality but also in their surprising relevance to political life today."—Robert Dahl, author of How Democratic Is the American Constitution?

Library Journal
Founded in 1954 by Irving Howe and other New York intellectuals who sought a forum for a "social liberal" alternative to the political conservatism (and rampant McCarthyism) of the day, Dissent has been an influential part of political discourse ever since. This anthology celebrates the magazine's 50th anniversary with 27 articles by a powerhouse of writers, including Norman Mailer, Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, C. Wright Mills, Dwight MacDonald, Todd Gitlin, Jervis Anderson, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Sean Wilentz. Editors Mills (American studies, Sarah Lawrence Coll.) and Walzer (social science, Inst. for Advanced Study, Princeton) organize the volume by decade. Dozen of issues, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, the women's movement, poverty, education reform, and patriotism, receive their due. Happily, there is little overlap with earlier anthologies of writings from Dissent. One would like this book to be even longer, but that's why libraries keep back files of the magazine. Unfortunately, the articles are not cited, so the reader does not know in which issues they originally appeared. Nevertheless, this preserves some of the most important postwar leftist thinking in the United States and is highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

50 years of DISSENT

yale university press

Copyright © 2004 Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10369-4

Chapter One


"God," said Tolstoy, "is the name of my desire." This remarkable sentence could haunt one a lifetime, it reverberates in so many directions. Tolstoy may have intended partial assent to the idea that, life being insupportable without some straining toward "transcendence," a belief in God is a psychological necessity, ... Without sanctioning the facile identification that is frequently made between religion and socialist politics, we should like to twist Tolstoy's remark to our own ends: socialism is the name of our desire. And not merely in the sense that it is a vision which, for many people throughout the world, provides moral sustenance, but also in the sense that it is a vision which objectifies and gives urgency to their criticism of the human condition in our time. Lewis Coser and Irving Howe, "Images of Socialism," 1954


The founding of Dissent in 1954 was an act of intellectual insurrection in what Irving Howe called, that same year, "this age of conformity." Throughout the magazine's first decade, its style was polemical and fierce; its editors, independent socialists and radicals,aimed to stir things up, to get into fights, to make something happen. They had a vision of America that was, I think, only partly right, but the parts they got right were central to the whole story. They saw a country ruled, as C. Wright Mills wrote, by "conservatives without ideas"-and defended by complacent or fearful cold war liberals. They saw an escapist mass culture, where criticism and opposition were treated as amusements and where art and literature, in Dwight Macdonald's telling description, were turned into "middle-brow" entertainment. They saw a necessary anti-Communism appropriated by right-wing demagogues and made into an ideology of repression. They saw the growing power of the American state wielded in cruel opposition to liberation movements that might have been drawn toward democratic engagement-so Howe, who was never naïve about third-world politics, argued in a memorable piece that has not, in fact, been well remembered. In the face of all this, every issue of Dissent was conceived and written in anger.

In those early years, the magazine was wonderfully exciting for young readers-and I must have been one of the youngest. Above all, it was exciting because of its critical engagement with what was happening here at home. Dissent's first "dissent" was against the America not only of Joe McCarthy but of Dwight Eisenhower too. The bland was as much an enemy as the ugly, perhaps more so, because it served to conceal a world of inequality, fear, and domination. But the magazine was also exciting because its second "dissent" was against the Soviet regime-at a time when Russia was still a substitute homeland for many American leftists and when the defense of Marxist dogma and Stalinist tyranny was widely thought to be a necessary feature of left politics. What a liberation it was to be freed from all that and still able to sustain a critique of American society! This was what Dissent meant to me at age eighteen: I was set loose from the grip of the cold war; I could oppose communism without joining the American celebration. A Brandeis undergraduate from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a kid, I was invited into what seemed to me high society: a free association of freewheeling critics, who could turn East or West, this way or that. No one on either side paid our bills or called our tune.

There was only one essential Dissent commitment: that was to democracy. Not "people's democracy" but real democracy: an open political arena, free speech, the right of opposition, knowledgeable and active citizens. The many theoretical pieces that the magazine carried in its early years ranged widely but kept coming back to a single message: in the phrase "democratic socialism," the adjective did not merely qualify the noun, it defined it. No socialism without democracy! But also here at home: no "democracy" without democracy. The argument for decentralized structures and popular participation-the crucial feature of the next decade's "new left" politics-was first worked out in our pages. And since "participatory democracy" is the politics of the young, the only people who have the time for it, Dissent in the 1950s was truly young, even if its founders, in their thirties and forties, were political veterans of the "old left."

"Age of conformity" is an accusation, but by the end of the decade it wasn't entirely accurate as a description. Our small band was one sign of a critical refusal to conform. And, far beyond our pages, the critique of mass culture, of organization men and women, and of other-directed personalities was also a feature of American life, much discussed and sometimes underestimated by writers in Dissent. There were stirrings in the liberal churches, too, and the beginnings of radical speculation on American campuses: C. Wright Mills, Arnold Kaufman, and Herbert Marcuse published important books (and articles in Dissent) in the fifties, and unattached intellectuals like Paul Goodman began to find a student audience. But perhaps the key indication of what was to come was the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954, a critical forerunner of the civil rights movement of the sixties, greeted with enthusiasm by Dissent's editors, who found a comrade in Alabama to write about it.

And on the other side of the cold war, two years later, the Hungarian revolution came to contradict the magazine's determined pessimism-but perhaps also to confirm our deepest belief: that totalitarianism was not a "long dark night," that democracy was a permanent and undefeat-foreword able human aspiration. In those days, Dissent lived a significant part of its political life in Eastern Europe, and articles on the politics of Russia and its satellites filled our pages. Socialism had to be defended in the face of its cruelest and ugliest distortion. Only after the 1989 collapse did the East become an ordinary part of the world, appearing sometimes, but not very often, in the "Politics Abroad" section of the magazine.

There was also more liveliness (and dissent) in popular culture and even in commercial culture than writers in Dissent were ready to admit. Norman Mailer provides a strong example of our critique of the mass media and the corruption of leisure, but if his argument were wholly and unequivocally right, it would be hard to explain how the counter-cultural politics of the next decade developed. For in fact the counterculture was closely connected to the culture it countered (think, for example, of rock and roll). This was one place, I believe, where the magazine was importantly wrong in the 1950s-which was not a bad thing to be at a time when so many writers aimed, fearfully, for nothing more than to be unimportantly right.

the conservative mood C. WRIGHT MILLS

In the material prosperity of post-war America, as crackpot realism has triumphed in practical affairs, all sorts of writers, from a rather confused variety of viewpoints, have been groping for a conservative ideology.

They have not found it, and they have not managed to create it. What they have found is an absence of mind in politics, and what they have managed to create is a mood.

The psychological heart of this mood is a feeling of powerlessness-but with the old edge taken off, for it is a mood of acceptance and of a relaxation of the political will.

The intellectual core of the groping for conservatism is a giving up of the central goal of the secular impulse in the West: the control through reason of man's fate. It is this goal that has lent continuity to the humanist tradition, re-discovered in the Renaissance, and so strong in nineteenth century American experience. It is this goal that has been the major impulse of classic liberalism and of classic socialism.

The groping for conservative ideas, which signifies the weakening of this impulse, involves the search for tradition rather than reason as guide; the search for some natural aristocracy as an anchor point of tradition and a model of character. Sooner or later, those who would give up this impulse must take up the neo-Burkeian defense of irrationality, for that is, in fact, the only possible core of a genuinely conservative ideology. And it is not possible, I believe, to establish such an ideology in the United States.

Russell Kirk's "prolonged essay in definition" (The Conservative Mind) is the most explicit attempt to translate the conservative mood into conservative ideas. His work, however, does not succeed in the translation it attempts. When we examine it carefully we find that it is largely assertion, without arguable support, and that it seems rather irrelevant to modern realities, and not very useful as a guideline of political conduct and policy:

1: The conservative, we are told, believes that "divine intent rules society," man being incapable of grasping by his reason the great forces that prevail. Along with this, he believes that change must be slow and that "providence is the proper instrument for change," the test of a statesman being his "cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces."

2: The conservative has an affection for "the variety and mystery of traditional life" perhaps most of all because he believes that "tradition and sound prejudices" check man's presumptuous will and archaic impulse.

3: "Society," the conservative holds, "longs for leadership," and there are "natural distinctions" among men which form a natural order of classes and powers.

When we hold these points close together, we can understand each of them more clearly: they seem to mean that tradition is sacred, that it is through tradition that the real social tendencies of Providence are displayed, and that therefore tradition must be our guide-line. For whatever is traditional not only represents the accumulated wisdom of the ages but exists by "divine intent."

Naturally we must ask how we are to know which traditions are instruments of Providence? Which prejudices are "sound"? Which of the events and changes all around us are by divine intent? But the third point is an attempted answer: If we do not destroy the natural order of classes and the hierarchy of powers, we shall have superiors and leaders to tell us. If we uphold these natural distinctions, and in fact resuscitate older ones, the leaders for whom we long will decide.

It is pertinent to ask Mr. Kirk at what moment the highly conscious contrivances of the founding fathers became traditional and thus sanctified? And does he believe that society in the U.S.-before the progressive movement and before the New Deal reforms-represented anything akin to what he would call orders and classes based on "natural distinctions"? If not, then what and where is the model he would have us cherish? And does he believe that the campaign conservatives-to use the phrase of John Crowe Ransom-who now man the political institutions of the U.S., do or do not represent the Providential intent which he seeks? How are we to know if they do or do not, or to what extent which of these do?

Insofar as the conservative consistently defends the irrationality of tradition against the powers of human reason, insofar as he denies the legitimacy of man's attempt collectively to build his own world and individually to control his own fate, then he cannot bring in reason again as a means of choosing among traditions, of deciding which changes are providential and which are evil forces. He cannot provide any rational guide in our choice of which leaders grasp Providence and act it out and which are reformers and levelers. In the end, the conservative is left with one single principle: the principle of gratefully accepting the leadership of some set of men whom he considers a received and sanctified elite. If such men were there for all to recognize, the conservative could at least be socially clear. But as it is, there is no guide-line within this view to help us decide which contenders for the natural distinction are genuine and which are not.

Conservatism, as Karl Mannheim makes clear, translates the unreflecting reactions of traditionalism into the sphere of conscious reflection. Conservatism is traditionalism become self-conscious and elaborated and forensic. A noble aristocracy, a peasantry, a petty-bourgeoisie with guild inheritance-that is what has been needed for a conservative ideology and that is what Prussia in the early nineteenth century had. It was to the spell of tradition among these surviving elements of a pre-industrial society that conservatism could appeal. The Prussian upper classes lacked the elasticity of the English, and their country lacked an important middle class. Accordingly, they could avoid the English gradualism and the blurring of clear-cut ideologies in parliamentary compromises. In addition, caught between military neighbors, their military set could become a key element in Prussian society. Burke was the stimulus, but it was the German elaboration of his response to the French Revolution that resulted in a fully developed conservatism, sharply polarized against liberalism.

If England already softened conservative thought with liberal elements, in America, liberalism-and the middle classes that bore it as a deep-seated style of thought-has been so paramount as to preclude any flowering of genuinely conservative ideology.

Here, from their beginnings the middle classes have been predominant-in class and in status and in power. There is one consequence of this simple fact that goes far to explain why there can be no genuinely conservative ideology in the United States:

There is simply no stratum or group in the population that is of any political consequence to whose traditions conservatism could appeal. All major sections and strata have taken on, in various degrees and ways, the coloration of a middle-class liberal ethos.

The greatest problem of those American writers who would think out a conservative ideology of any political relevance is simply the need to locate the set of people and to make clear the interests that their ideology would serve. There are those, of course, who deny that politics has to do with a struggle for power, but they are of no direct concern to politics as we know it or can imagine it. There are also those who deny that political philosophies are most readily understood as symbols of legitimation, that they have to do with the defense and the attack of powers-that-be or of would-be powers; but by this denial a writer makes himself rather irrelevant to the intellectual features of the public decisions and debates that confront us. The yearning for conservative tradition, when taken seriously, is bound to be a yearning for the authority of an aristocracy. For without such a more or less fixed and visible social anchor for tradition and for hierarchy, for models of conduct in private and in public life, that are tangible to the senses, there can be no conservatism worthy of the name. And it is just here-at the central demand of conservatism-that most American publicists of the conservative yen become embarrassed. This embarrassment is in part due to a fear of confronting and going against the all-pervading liberal rhetoric; but it is also due to three facts about the American upper class:

First, American writers have no pre-capitalist elite to draw upon, even in fond remembrance. Mr. Kirk, for example, cannot, as European writers have been able to do, contrast such hold-overs from feudalism, however modified, with the vulgarity of capitalist upper elements. The South, when it displayed an "aristocracy" was a region not a nation, and its "aristocrats," however rural, were as much a part of capitalist society as were the New England upper strata.


Excerpted from 50 years of DISSENT Copyright © 2004 by Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Michael Walzer is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  He is the author, editor, or coeditor of more than a dozen books, including On Toleration and The Jewish Political Tradition, Volumes I and II, all published by Yale University Press.

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