|Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.|
|Posted February 22, 2004|
|A Leftist Stalwart, Still Fighting the Fight|
|Irving Howe, a founder of Dissent, around 1943. In its first issue the editors wrote, "We are united in the affirmation of a positive belief - the belief in socialisism."|
By FELICIA R. LEE
"Radical journals are like love affairs," says the historian John Patrick Diggins, "easier to start than sustain."
Yet somehow Dissent, a pillar of leftist intellectual provocation, has survived Republican administrations, soundbite-size attention spans and internal feuds to celebrate its 50th anniversary next week.
Started by a group of New York socialists and intellectuals fed up with what they saw as rampant complacency in American thought, Dissent, a quarterly journal, was devoted to slaying orthodoxies on the right and on the left in an era dominated by Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin.
The charismatic literary critic Irving Howe, who was a founder and the first editor, published many of the leading thinkers of the last 50 years: Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Herbert Marcuse, Richard Rorty, Hannah Arendt and Richard Wright, among others. The journal's pages have featured literary Molotov cocktails like Mr. Mailer's "White Negro" in 1957, Paul Goodman's "Growing Up Absurd" in 1960 and Todd Gitlin's "Rise of `Identity Politics' " in 1993.
In an editor's note in the anniversary issue, Mitchell Cohen, a co-editor, reiterated Dissent's unbowed politics.
"If you want to know why Dissent is `left-wing,' look at what the most right-wing administration in recent memory calls its `compassionate conservatism,' " he wrote. "Tax cuts to the benefit of those who can most afford them; Medicare reformed and an energy bill designed to the advantage of corporations and Mr. Bush's political fortunes; disregard of civil liberties; determined chipping at the wall separating religion and state."
In 50 years, a roll-call of intellectual provocateurs have written for Dissent.
Yet even Dissent's editors admit that the primary challenge in recent years has been to attract young readers and to chart a political course in a time when the goals are far less clear than reacting to Stalin abroad, challenging McCarthy at home and desegregating lunch counters.
"The old left was very ideological, the founding editors were really skeptical about the shape of the world," said Michael Walzer, the other co-editor and a professor of social science at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "And the right was intellectually vacuous. Now the right is highly ideological, and the left is searching."
Given the current political climate, "Dissent is kind of an anomaly," said Mr. Diggins, the historian. "Much of the world has moved away from socialism, and they're still trying to champion the old cause. It's a magazine that's all heart and good hope, and how it manages to save itself from political despair is beyond me."
Partisan Review, the house organ for a generation of American intellectuals and writers, ceased publishing in April after 66 years, having drifted rightward from its anti-Stalinist origins. Like Dissent, it never had a circulation that topped 15,000. Commentary, founded in 1945, had also turned to neo-conservatism by the 1970's. Dissent has often been fiercer in its critique of the left than other leftist publications like The Nation, a weekly published since 1865.
As always, the magazine struggles financially. It has a circulation ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 and an annual budget of $250,000, which pays 60 to 65 percent of its operating costs. During its 50 years of publication, costs have always been covered by fund-raising and donations.
There was just as little money in 1954, but there was more clarity. The founders included the art critic Meyer Shapiro, the educator Simone Plastrik and her husband, Stanley Plastrik, a history professor. "We are united in the affirmation of a positive belief the belief in socialism," stated the journal's first "Word to Our Readers." It pledged to attack all forms of totalitarianism, whether Fascist or Stalinist, and stated that it was neither a political party nor a group.
That first issue, which sold for 60 cents, featured Howe (who died in 1993) on "Stevenson and the Intellectuals" and another founder, the sociologist Lewis Coser, writing about "Government by Secrecy."
Over the years Howe and other editorial board members increasingly saw socialism as a standard by which to measure progress, rather than a realistic blueprint for America, said Gerald Sorin, the director of Jewish Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz and the author of "Irving Howe: A life of Passionate Dissent" (New York University Press, 2002).
"Fifty years is a nice achievement. They were always running on a shoestring and never had an office, and were constantly badgering people for money," Mr. Sorin said. "The way I see it, it allows a nucleus of progressive, politically minded people to hang on, it gives them a life raft."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of Saturday, February 21, 2004.
|Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights|
|More from wehaitians.com|