Little political magazines try to traffic in big, often unorthodox ideas-the sort of ideas that don’t always enjoy mainstream circulation. Dissent has been making this effort since 1954. Its founders came out of the left, and they considered the mood back then to be both smug and wanting. “Ikeism,” wrote editor Irving Howe in Dissent‘s third issue, referring to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s nickname, was really the longing for an “era BC-Before Complexity,” a time when all questions were simple and answers easy. Dissent‘s initiators, which included sociologist Lewis Coser, a refugee from Hitler’s Europe, and Meyer Schapiro, the eminent art critic, didn’t imagine that their journal would change the world. (“When intellectuals cannot do anything else,” Howe would quip, “they start a magazine.”) But they did hope to make intellectual life just a bit more complicated for both the right and the left in an era A.D.-after Dissent‘s birth-by provoking debates about political ideas and about American and global issues. They believed in the value of disagreement, especially in a society that celebrated consensus. The same hope and belief animate its editors and writers today.
Wending through articles from the past fifty years, you will encounter arguments about the nature of capitalism, socialism, and democracy and on the impact of the cold war, McCarthyism, and mass culture. You will find appraisals of liberal and conservative politics along with anger at the malevolence of American racism and dismay over the disaster of Vietnam. You will come upon descriptions of political movements and political moments, together with reflections on culture and counter-cultures, feminism, pluralism, and the meaning(s) of social inequality. You will find authors thinking about the end of communism, the growth of globalization, and the vicissitudes of America’s superpower status. Fifty years cover a lot of politics, a lot of contention, a lot of ideas.
Some readers may find it odd that Dissent still calls itself a journal of “left” ideas and “left” opinion. The word “left” is hardly in vogue these days. It is even less popular than “liberal,” and it wasn’t fashionable when Dissent first appeared. American conservatives have sought for decades to stigmatize everything “liberal” or “left,” and have had considerable public success in doing so. Their effort has been made easier by the historical fact that the United States-in contrast to much of Western Europe-never had a mass socialist party that distinguished itself sharply from both undemocratic communists and anti-egalitarian conservatives. When you say the word “left,” American conservatives conjure up images of mass-murdering Stalinists with totalitarian aspirations, of implod...
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