The Last Page

The Last Page

I am an immigrant to Dissent-land from the shores of the New Left. Although I’ve had my naturalization papers since 1986, my nontraditional background got me this Last Page assignment. For the magazine’s forty-fifth anniversary, the editors asked me to describe how Dissent looked when I first stepped off the boat. And how does it look now to someone of my extraction?

My extraction: After generic antiwar and student protests, I spent the 1970s looking, mostly in Italy, for the Third Way—an alternative to both Leninism and social democracy that would be revolutionary, democratic, and socialist. Then I discovered the New American Movement (NAM), whose members were reading Gramsci and digging in for a long war of position. NAMers wouldn’t touch social democracy. Equally attractive, the organization embraced feminism and enforced a 50-percent-women rule for leadership and all committees. What more could anyone ask?

Dissent wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen until after NAM and Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee merged to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in 1982. I, like most NAMers, saw Dissent politically as the extension of DSA’s “right-wing social democratic” faction. Irving Howe—DSA vice chair and Dissent editor—was the concept made flesh.

NAMers suspected Dissent of the same failings as Harrington’s group: too wedded to the Democratic Party, too soft on U.S. imperialism, too obsessed with old battles against Stalinism, inadequately sensitive to the sufferings of Palestinians, indifferent to environmental issues, out to lunch on feminism, and “bad on Vietnam.” This didn’t inspire many of us to read Dissent. Yet one NAMer—an older ex-Communist—went through stacks of the magazine during the merger negotiations. I remember his reaction: “Their thing is democracy.” But wasn’t democracy our thing, too?

In 1983, I heard that some Dissenters wanted to run an article (presumably semipositive) on the Italian Communist Party, but anticommunist Howe still balked. This made no sense in my political language. I had been writing critically about the Italian Communists for years. Sure, I condemned their unwillingness to make a definitive break with the Soviet Union, but their muddled social democratic politics masquerading as the Third Way bothered me more.

By 1984, I had become deeply pessimistic about the democratic socialist project, given capital’s power to strike—so pessimistic that I found an unexpected political soul mate on the DSA speaking circuit—Irving Howe. Passion for the socialist ideal, determination to explore every difficulty openly, curiosity about the actual institutions despite the near hopelessness of the project—Howe’s politics looked very fine to me. The step from this appreciation to visiting a Dissent editorial board meeting in 1985 requ...