From Democratiya to Dissent

The online journal Democratiya launched in 2005. Sixteen issues, one book, and a quarter-million readers later, Democratiya is being incorporated into Dissent.

Why? Well, when Dwight Macdonald closed Politics, his “one-man magazine,” in 1949, he cited the relentless demands of producing a little magazine: the lack of time it gave him for reflection; his growing sense of ignorance; and, of course, the bleak political climate that descended on every intelligent anticommunist and democratic socialist in the late 1940s. Not to mention the demands of fundraising for little magazines. As the late Dissent editor Irving Howe put it, “You have to smile when you want to sulk. …But [you] can never be self-supporting, [so] it’s stick in one hand, cup in the other, and off you go.”

In June 2008, with these gloomy thoughts in mind, I sat down in McSorley’s on East 7th Street, with Dissent board member Paul Berman. In the oldest continuously operating bar in Manhattan, we discussed this infant journal. And we hit on an idea: could Democratiya join forces with Dissent? Discussions continued with the Dissent editors and were concluded in the summer of 2009.

The attraction to the “one-man operation” was overwhelming. (Of course, no journal is ever really a “one-man” or “one-woman” business. Hell, Dwight Macdonald had Irving Howe as an assistant! I had many people to lean on, not least Jane Ashworth, Anthony Julius, Eve Garrard, and Brian Brivati.)

The political center of gravity of Democratiya was to be pro-democracy and antitotalitarian in foreign policy and social democratic in domestic policy. Not exactly a crowded political space, but one that Dissent had long occupied with distinction.

Democratiya had taken as its central intellectual problem the anguished question posed by Dissent co-editor Michael Walzer: “Can there be a decent Left?” We had tried to answer in the affirmative by exploring what it might mean to renew what Paul Berman calls the “third force” tradition of Léon Blum, George Orwell, and Irving Howe. (That’s what the Euston Manifesto of 2006, signed by many editors of the two journals, had been all about, for me at least.)

In launching Democratiya I had taken Howe’s creation of Dissent as a model. Actually, I had taken Howe as a model. By my lights he showed how one could move from the revolutionary Marxist Left to the social democratic Left to good purpose, and without “cancelling one’s experience,” as he put it. He had tried to remain “devoted to some large principle or value, modulated by experience and thought, but firm in purpose.” I had decided to try to follow him in that.

There was a mutual regard between the two journals from the start. It wasn’t just that we shared such writers as Norman Geras, Shalom Lappin, Andrei Markovits, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Todd Gitlin. I knew what I wanted to emulate. Our founding statement declared flatly, “Anyone seeking a model should look at Dissent.”

So, when Paul Berman welcomed Democratiya as “the liveliest and most stimulating new intellectual journal on political themes in the English-speaking world,” we didn’t quite believe him, but there was joy unconfined nonetheless.

Later, Michael Walzer wrote a preface to Global Politics Since 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews (Foreign Policy Centre, 2007). “Two commitments give shape to the Democratiya project,” he wrote. “The first is to defend and promote a left politics that is liberal, democratic, egalitarian, and internationalist. Those four adjectives should routinely characterize left politics, but we all know that they don’t. The second commitment is to defend and promote a form of political argument that is nuanced, probing, and concrete, principled but open to disagreement: no slogans, no jargon, no unexamined assumptions, no party line. This argumentative style . . . is also a moral style.”

In joining Dissent, Democratiya will leave part of its wider project behind. Convinced that today’s Left lacks enough good ideas to sustain us, the journal had always been concerned to bring a wider variety of experiences and traditions into fruitful conversation. In particular, we strove to showcase the best of the contradictory “Shachtmanite” legacy, from the clear-sighted internationalism of Susan Green to the civil rights activism of Tom Kahn and Rachelle Horowitz to Max Shachtman’s own fierce defense of democracy, captured in his 1958 speech to mark the merger of the Independent Socialist League and the Socialist Party, when he announced that democracy was his “guiding star” (see Democratiya 6).

The sixteen issues of Democratiya are now permanently archived at the Dissent Web site. We urge those writers, subscribers, and readers—who numbered more than a quarter of a million from more than forty countries—who feel a kinship with Dissent to read, contribute, subscribe, and donate. I look forward to contributing to the Dissent editorial board and, with the help of the Democratiya network, increasing the presence of Dissent in the United Kingdom and Europe.

Together we will take up the steady work of democratic radicalism.


Alan Johnson was the founder and editor of Democratiya. The Democratiya archives are at

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.