Starting Out in the Fifties

The purpose of this new magazine is suggested by its name. . . . The accent of Dissent will be radical. Its tradition will be the tradition of democratic socialism. We shall try to reassert the libertarian values of the socialist ideal, and at the same time, to discuss freely and honestly what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified.

Irving Howe, thirty-three years old, and Lewis Coser, 
forty years old, co-editors of Dissent, January 1954

Volume I, Number 1 of Dissent showed up in mailboxes of charter subscribers in early 1954, as inauspicious an occasion for the debut issue of a socialist magazine in the United States as can be imagined. Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress. Senator Joseph McCarthy and Vice President Richard Nixon were waging a no-holds-barred political war to stigmatize Democratic opponents as soft on communism—or worse. Demoralized and divided, Democrats feebly defended themselves against charges that their party had presided over “twenty years of treason,” while some panicked liberal leaders abandoned any commitment to basic civil liberties to burnish their anticommunist credentials.

Over the preceding half-decade, scores of Communist Party leaders had been sentenced to federal prison, not for espionage or similar crimes against national security (of which some were indeed guilty) but for violating the Smith Act, a law passed in 1940 that made it a crime to conspire to advocate the teaching of the desirability of the overthrow of the U.S. government. The evidence presented against the defendants in those trials consisted largely of lists of books by Marx and Lenin and other revolutionaries available for sale in party bookstores.

The anti-Stalinist left, including people who read some of the same books for which Communists were being jailed, was organizationally in shambles, with the once proud Socialist Party, founded by Eugene Debs and now led by Norman Thomas, reduced to less than a thousand members. Other anti-Stalinist grouplets, including the Independent Socialist League, led by Max Shachtman, counted even fewer adherents. Worse yet, many on the anti-Stalinist left were wedded to a sectarian outlook that sociologist and former socialist Daniel Bell accurately described in his 1952 essay “Marxian Socialism in the United States” as rooted in “the illusions of settling the fate of history, the mimetic combat on the plains of destiny, and the vicarious sense of power in demolishing opponents.”

While organized radicalism was at a twentieth-century nadir, independent radical thought found few outlets for expression. American intellectuals, many of whom had supported one or another radical group in younger days, now tended to keep their heads down politically, while a few, out of conviction (or opportunism), became open apologists for McCarthyism. Universitie...

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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.