Starting Out in the Fifties

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...