Getting Right with the Cold War: A Debate with Joanne Barkan

Getting Right with the Cold War: A Debate with Joanne Barkan

An argument over Cold War liberalism

It would seem that Dissenters and others on the left have a hard time getting over the cold war. Pieces about the cold war not only filled the Summer 2006 issue but have appeared before in the magazine’s pages—including my own reconsideration of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center (Winter 2005) and Jeffrey Isaac’s brilliant defense of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Summer 2002). There was also George Packer’s fine collected set of essays (it included pieces by Dissent editors Paul Berman and Todd Gitlin) that evoked the memory of 1930s fascism and 1940s communism and made explicit linkages between cold war liberalism and the sort of liberalism that Packer hoped to recover.

Dissent is not alone, of course. Recently the Chronicle Review ran a nice piece by Carlin Romano suggesting that cold war propaganda initiatives, such as those of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, should be rehabilitated for the war against Islamic fascism. And, of course, there was Peter Beinart’s 2004 cover article in the New Republic and now a book—The Good Fight: Why Liberals—And Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again—that prompted a great deal of discussion in various publications, including the summer issue of Dissent. Joanne Barkan discusses that book in her piece, “Cold War Liberals and the Birth of Dissent,” pointing out, rightfully, that Dissenters need to rethink cold war history, if only because that was the period of the magazine’s gestation.

Barkan is intent on driving a wedge between cold war liberals and the original editors of Dissent—looking back, especially, to the political criticism of Irving Howe. She embraces Howe’s idealism against the compromises made by cold war liberals. “The liberals maintained that they, unlike their left critics, had serious responsibilities in the real world.” Invoking this critique—of hard-boiled realism, as Schlesinger sometimes called it—Barkan not only reminds readers of Howe’s differences with his fellow New York Intellectuals, who seemed to be drifting toward liberalism during the 1950s, but also of the New Left critique of liberalism found early on in the mid-1960s work of Christopher Lasch (a young intellectual whom Howe tried to recruit for Dissent). Lasch, like Howe, hated hard-boiled realism.

Like most of our editors, I’ve always admired Howe. I heard him speak only once, but his talk stuck with me. At the time, I was confused about my own politics, having gravitated out of the radical politics of my youth (in the 1980s peace movement) toward political ambiguity during my college days at the New School for Social Research (where I was suffering through the col...