The most recent issue of Dissent Magazine celebrates its 60th anniversary. The magazine has served as a prophetic voice of the old left featuring the writing of Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Michael Walzer, Mitchell Cohen, Michael Kazin, Hannah Arendt, Katha Pollit and Martha Nussbaum among many others. From the beginning, Dissent embraced democratic socialism and a pragmatic form of radicalism steering a path between Stalinism and liberalism. It has been and continues to be a wonderful forum for analysis and debate among an important part of the radical left. Irving Howe who for many years was the guiding spirit of the magazine (and one of my very favorite political and social analysts and advocates on most issues) is quoted in the current issue as having once said, “I can debate economic or social policy with a Reaganite, but how do you argue with social meanness.”
How indeed? We have moved from a time when Lyndon Johnson could declare a politically popular War on poverty through times in which the poor have been demonized by members of one political party while the other party let their rhetoric go unanswered. Bill Clinton stabbed the poor in the back by “ending welfare as we know it” by throwing people off welfare to get jobs, whether or not jobs were available.
We can indulge some hope in the fact that the Democratic Party now finds it popular to attack the Republicans for their positions on food stamps, unemployment benefits, and the like. But a meanness of spirit toward the poor and the vulnerable is entertained by many millions in this country, a meanness that is more substantial than the days of Irving Howe. To some extent, meanness cannot be met merely by appeals to empathy. Combating meanness requires a countervailing power and that often requires the politics of the streets.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I would say that one of the weaknesses of Dissent over the years was a failure to appreciate the importance of confrontation politics. Howe once wrote a famous essay arguing against the New Left that confrontation politics was a dangerous game, and he was right. But he failed to recognize the need for confrontation politics in an age of popular and elite meanness. As a result Dissent missed the opportunity to contribute more to a debate on the ethics, creative possibilities, and possible effectiveness in various situations of a resort to confrontation politics.
The Dissent of today carries on the tradition of smart and well written essays of interest to the political left. But it now sports writers who have participated in the Occupy Movement. And it places new emphasis on identity politics, a politics that came somewhat late to the magazine. The magazine has been a great contributor to political dialogue for 60 years and it is situated well for another 60 – at least from an editorial perspective. But it has always struggled financially. For many years, I let my subscription lapse. It was a big mistake. For those interested in the politics of the left, it is a mistake not to subscribe.