Becoming a Dissentnik

Becoming a Dissentnik

Now that I am about to become an ordinary Dissentnik, I want to describe how that happened once before—in 1954, when I held the first issue of the magazine in my hands.

I grew up in the Popular Front, reading Max Lerner and Izzy (I.F.) Stone in the daily newspaper PM. When I was eleven, I wrote a childish “History of World War Two,” which ended “Russia fights not for the lust of conquest, but to end conquest.” (I had long forgotten where I got that line until a friend told me: it came from Franklin Roosevelt’s address to the nation on D-Day, 1944—but FDR wasn’t talking about the Russians.) Paul Robeson’s “Ballad for Americans” was my idea of high culture. At thirteen, I was editing and writing a little newsletter for my friends and relatives, called Between the Lines. My politics was “progressive.” But, in 1948, with a bit of teenage drama, I “broke” with Henry Wallace over the Berlin airlift—which he opposed and I supported. And that was that: when Dissent was founded six years later, I was ready.

Still, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser at Brandeis University (where the sixties began in the fifties) were a revelation. There was nobody like either of them in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. We had our local “Red,” protected or, better, hidden by the town’s Jews. In public, all my parent’s friends were simply Democrats; I met a few Republicans at school. In 1950 or 1951, I listened to Joe McCarthy speak at a local fairground and found him frightening; I knew that the people he was attacking had to be defended, whatever disagreements I had with their politics. What Howe and Coser taught me, outside the classroom more than in it, was very simple: there was a political space between liberal Democrats and Communists—and that was a space worth living in. Politics in that space had two guiding principles: an uncompromising rejection of every form of authoritarian rule and a radical commitment to political, social, and economic equality.

It wasn’t only the politics, it was also the intellectual beauty of the democratic Left as it was in those years that captured my head and heart. I learned, perhaps too quickly, that the culture of the Popular Front was kitsch; I had to read novels better than those of Howard Fast. Howe’s Politics and the Novel would be my guide. Like Irving, I was drawn to the anticommunist intellectuals of the European Left: writers like Orwell, Camus, and Silone. Theirs was an exhilarating world, politically, morally, and intellectually serious in a way that I found irresistible. And it was fun to know that I now had enemies on both the Right and Left.

Dissent’s first issue was a joy. I wasn’t exactly a critical reader; I didn’t disagree with a single word. I soon figured out that that wasn’t the right approach; Dissentniks were supposed to disagree with one another, even ferociously...

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