When you’re celebrating your sixtieth birthday, there is a natural impulse to gaze back fondly at what you did well. For a magazine that has always been described as “little,” Dissent has aspired to contain multitudes. In our pages (and, more recently, on our website), editors and contributors have argued with insight and authority about every major issue in American and world politics—from the Cold War and the rise of the black freedom movement to the invasion of Iraq and the battle over same-sex marriage. They have also analyzed the interweaving of culture and power in dozens of pieces about education in and out of school, the life of cities, novels, and films. We have published eloquent provocations about these and a myriad of other matters by some of the leading intellectuals of the era that began when the bloodiest war in history ended. Among them are Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Václav Havel, Günter Grass, William Julius Wilson, Hannah Arendt, Michael Harrington, Ellen Willis, Katha Pollitt, Marshall Berman, and Martha Nussbaum. We even inspired a famous filmmaker to make a bad joke about our imagined merger with Commentary. Woody, we forgive you.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe Dissent’s political commentary has more often proved right than wrong. In the first issue of the magazine, the editors, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, firmly established their distance both from Red hunters—whether conservative or liberal—and from anyone who espoused the Stalinist ideology that had helped turn “socialism” into a taste few Americans still wished to acquire. That same year, the magazine ran a piece by Mailer, who argued that the Soviet Union was doomed because it could not avoid exploiting the men and women who did its labor. The USSR, he wrote, faced “the irremediable dilemma of being forced to demand more and more of its workers in return for less and less goods and creature comforts.”
Long before their fellow citizens, regular readers of Dissent also learned how their country was about to change—for better and worse. They read why the civil rights movement would transform the racial order, why the United States could not and should not win in Vietnam, why unions remain essential to a prosperous and democratic society, why austerity is a recipe for economic decline, and why the majority of women gain little from the kind of feminism designed by and for corporate strivers. What encourages that modest prophetic voice is our commitment to a politics that marries moral decency to common sense. In Dissent’s first issue, the editors defined socialism as “a belief in the dignity of the individual” and “a refusal to countenance one man’s gain at the expense of his brother.” Shorn of those outdated male referents, that continues to be the philosophy that guides our work.
The founders of Dissent came out of the Old Left, where...
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