Cold War Liberals and the Birth of Dissent

Cold War Liberals and the Birth of Dissent

The author reads Dissent from the 1950s to determine the failures and successes of cold war liberalism

No serious American magazine of the early 1950s championed the blend of politics that the future founders of Dissent espoused: unwavering opposition to both Stalinism and McCarthyism along with a commitment to the socialist ideal. Not having a comfortable home might make any group of like-minded intellectuals dream of its own magazine, but actually founding one—taking on the work, the responsibility, the headaches—usually requires more motivation. The future Dissenters had their motivation. Midway through the century that produced communism and fascism, they wanted to salvage a democratic socialist vision. And in the decade that produced the great American celebration of prosperity and freedom along with McCarthyism, they needed to take on the liberals.

As the Dissenters saw it, the liberals were simply not doing their job. They were straining so hard to prove themselves the staunchest of anticommunists, realistic, and responsible that they regularly betrayed their own principles. They did not defend civil liberties vigorously during a time of witch hunts and manipulated mass fear; they equivocated on civil rights just when southern blacks were building a movement; they celebrated the glories of American capitalism while millions of citizens lived in poverty; they accepted a reactionary foreign policy that had the United States supporting dictators around the world while peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America struggled for liberation.

So Dissent was born in the winter of 1954. Irving Howe (one of six editorial board members) wrote in the inaugural issue, “American radicals can do at least this much: . . . try to raise the traditional banner of personal freedom that is now slipping from the hands of so many accredited spokesmen of liberalism.” In the Spring 1955 issue, he stressed, “One thing should be clear. I am not engaged in the game of berating the liberals for not being socialists.” He illustrated his point with a Hasidic tale:

Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ” In its demands upon the liberals, we may assume, heaven will be similarly modest. But it is a modesty that is also profoundly exacting.

Of course, Dissent covered much more during the 1950s than the inadequacies of the liberals. But if you read through one issue after another, you get an ongoing account of the moral blunders and failures of nerve of intellectuals, politicians, and union leaders. Dissent’s editors didn’t find their role as “radical gadfly to the labor-liberal movement” an intellectual thrill, but, as Howe wrote in Spring 1955, “the sad truth is that with...

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