Dissent: A Quarterly of Socialist Opinion.
New York City. Volume I, Winter 1954. $0.60.
When, about a year ago, one heard that a group of writers dissatisfied with the prevailing trends in American politics—Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Travers Clement, Meyer Schapiro, Harold Orlans, and others were among them—were going to start a new magazine, it seemed a fine idea. The more magazines seriously concerned with politics, the better. And writers should not be deterred—as these felt they were—from saying just what they have to say because of the lack of sympathy with their views shown by the editors of the few serious journals around.
That was in the abstract. Now the first issue of Dissent is here; its editorial board consists of the five writers named above, plus Stanley Plastrik. The whole thing is an unmitigated disaster as far as what is left of socialist thought in this country is concerned. If this is socialism1 no further explanations are required for its failure to catch on in America. All we need do is point to the editorial statement with which the latest serious socialist journal begins its first issue:
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.
If the reader now looks forward, despite this unpromising beginning, to some documentation of how “the bleak atmosphere of conformism” is spreading in the United States, he will find precious little offered him in the remaining 111 pages of Dissent. A few pages on, he will learn from editor Irving Howe that “the Nation provides more necessary information about violations of civil liberties than any comparable American journal.” Now Howe asserts that the Nation uses this information “to further the disastrous position of quasi-appeasement of Stalinism,” as he puts it. But it has quite escaped Howe—as it has not escaped many actively concerned with civil liberties problems—that the Nation’s “information” on civil liberties violations will often turn out, on close examination, to be misinformation. In one case, as I happen to know, the “victim” was not a “liberal” but a party-liner, and he nevertheless lost his job not because of his political views but for administrative reasons; such misreporting is not infrequent in the Nation. Responsible standards of fact and authenticity, which are generally quite beyond the Nation, seem matters of equal indifference to the editors of Dissent.
We might look forward, too, to a discussion of those who believe a new war is “necessary or inevitable”; unfortunately, the editors did not consider the subject newsworthy this first issue. We might also look forward, if we are interested in morbid details, to the analysis of those—one must suppose them inmates of in sane asylums—who favor “world atomic suicide” as the way to defeat Stalinism; but having tossed off this teaser, the editors felt it unnecessary to say more.
Dissent takes the well-known, historic position of socialism on war: it does not ask whether war is ever necessary or unnecessary, avoidable or unavoidable—it’s simply against it, and assumes that the fact of war is decisive proof of the immorality of “capitalism.”
Since Dissent is so uncommunicative on the question of American foreign policy—aside from being against it—I hope I will be forgiven if I quote from a personal conversation with one of the editors to fill out its position. This conversation took place about a year after the beginning of the Korean war. There was, of course, no debate over its origins: the editors of Dissent are anti-Communists of long standing. However, my friend was “against” the war. I asked: what would you have done? Don’t ask me, he said, do I run the government? I persisted: but suppose you did run the government? I would never have got into that situation in the first place, he answered, so I am not responsible for proposing any policy today—it is enough for me to denounce it.
If we had conducted our conversation a few years earlier, he would presumably have also rejected the need to do anything about Hitler, because he wasn’t responsible for that situation either. Perhaps, had he been allowed to run the United States from, say, 1929 on, he would have been happy to suggest a policy for Korea in 1950.
One is reminded of George Orwell’s remark that if the radical intellectuals in England had had their way in the 20’s and 30’s, the Gestapo would have been walking the streets of London in 1940. Certainly, if the American “independent radicals” editing Dissent had had their way in the last ten years, the NKVD would be comfortably established today in Rome, Paris, and London—at least. Indeed, from one of the few specific references to current foreign policy—in which editor Lewis Coser attacks American policy in Indo-China as “imperialism”—it would seem that one of the “immediate demands” of Dissent is that we hasten to permit the NKVD to set up its quarters in Saigon and Hanoi.
It is no wonder that the editors of Dissent feel that one of their first obligations is to clarify. Editor Coser’s contribution to an elucidation of the term “imperialism” is doubtless considered an important step in this direction. Coser points out that Hilferding and Lenin said that an imperialist power exports capital; ergo, if America gives money to its allies to strengthen them against the common enemy, that is imperialism. And so (if we were to continue editor Coser’s clarification a bit further), if England gave subsidies to its Continental allies in the war against Napoleon, that, too, was imperialism. Coser’s next contribution should be to explain, in view of the rather widespread character of this phenomenon as he understands it, why we had to wait until 1900 before anyone bothered to write about it.
But we must regard as a more central contribution to the process of clarification the carefully constructed sentences on socialism in the editorial statement: “We are united in the affirmation of a positive belief—the belief in socialism. . . . [By this we mean] the ethos and faith in humanity that for some 100 years have made men ‘socialists.’ We share a belief in the dignity of the individual, we share a refusal to countenance one man’s gain at the expense of his brother, and we share an intellectual conviction that man can substantially control his condition if he understands and wills to.”
Well, if we now try to find wherein this position of Dissent is distinguished from that of the late Senator Taft, Senator Humphrey, President Eisenhower, and Fulton J. Sheen, we come down to the refusal to “countenance one man’s gain at the expense of his brother.” Doctrinally, this poor cousin of the labor theory of value seems to be all that is left of socialism. But even this little snippet of doctrine remains unexplicated. Do the writers of Dissent, when they write for profit-making magazines or publishers — as some do — share in “gain at the expense of their brothers”? Do the academic members of the board of Dissent—of whom there are more than one—drawing their salaries from the gifts of businessmen and the dividends on investments share in “gain at the expense of their brothers”? All this is discreetly left for future issues.
But in one respect Dissent shares fully in the socialist heritage whose doctrine has disappeared from its pages: it carries on the unpleasant tradition of vituperative intemperance begun by Marx and continued by almost every Marxist worth his salt. Lenin was perhaps the only one to equal the old master, but even Rosa Luxemburg—as we see in a letter published in this issue—did not hang back when it came to defaming and besmirching the motives and characters of her political opponents. As every student of Marxism knows, the greatest violence is reserved for renegades and those politically closest to you. The editors of Dissent follow proudly in that tradition, in one place speaking of the writer of an article as “a young man on the make,” and throughout implying—purely as a matter of course—that the former radicals and socialists they regularly denounce have “sold out.” The editors share fully Marx’s prejudices, polemical habits, and obsession with a ritual scapegoat, if they do not follow his lead in furiously pursuing facts to support his ideas. Marx had his “nigger Jew Lassalle,” Lenin his “Kautskys and their ilk,” and the editors of Dissent have their “Sidney Hooks and other writers for COMMENTARY.”
The fury of their attack quite blinds them, and their logic is most defective when “former radicals” are in question. As we will recall, in the first paragraph quoted above the editors dissented “from the support of the status quo-now so noticeable on the part of many former radicals and socialists.” The rather more intense support of the status quo by the other 159,-900,000 Americans has completely missed their attention. On the same page, we may read further: “Our magazine will be open to a wide arc of opinion, excluding only Stalinists and totalitarian fellow-travellers on the one hand, and those former radicals who have signed their peace with society as it is, on the other.” Perhaps no more remarkable spectrum has been conceived of 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 decide to take advantage of this implicit invitation. What about those who have always been at peace with society, and therefore find it unnecessary to sign any peace pact? The statement seems ambiguous about them. One remembers also that Senator McCarthy likes neither the present farm policy nor the present security policy of this—or any other—government. Is he for the status quo? Then of course there are all those former radicals who have signed a genera) peace, but reserved their position in certain matters, such as the segregated schools of the South. Have the editors thought about them?
Of course, life is always variable, and there are selections in Dissent that escape the general blight: the two little pieces of Harold Orlans, the memoir of Orwell by George Woodcock, the note on atrocities by Helen Mears. If one adds C. Wright Mills’s essay on why there is no conservative ideology in America, one has paid one’s respects to all the thinking of any consequence in the magazine.
It is clear that the establishment of a journalistic center where all independent radicals might have their untrammelled say is going to add nothing to American intellectual life. Indeed, considering the object-lesson that is Dissent, it would appear that its writers have in the past profited by the discipline of publishing in magazines that disagree with what they have to say—such pushing against opposition forces you to moderate your claims, strengthen your arguments, and be as concrete as possible. Dissent represents what happens when all the oppressive wraps are off. Almost simultaneously with the appearance of this first issue, Irving Howe published a long article on “This Age of Conformity” in Partisan Review. All the left-philistine traits we have pointed to in Dissent are there—the reduction of socialism to a mere attitude, the disappearance of positive ideas, the complete failure to suggest any alternatives to the policies of which one disapproves, the perpetual vulgar ascription of material motives to explain intellectual positions. But how these faults are writ larger in Dissent!
In Dissent, as we have said, all the wraps are off. One could not have guessed beforehand how little was left underneath.
1 The editors actually represent the left wing of socialism, and many persons who consider themselves socialists could properly disassociate themselves from Dissent, and take very much the same attitude to it that I do.