After nearly a dozen years as co-editor of Dissent, Michael Kazin is retiring and joining the ranks of the magazine’s editors emeriti. As the following recollections—by the Dissent staff and editors, Michael Walzer, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Clayborne Carson, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Matthew Sitman—attest, he made a tremendous impact in these pages and beyond. You can read his work here.
In his first Editor’s Page for Dissent in 2009, Michael Kazin commented on the disappointment many felt after the election of Barack Obama. “His 2008 campaign, remarkable as it was, did not revive the grassroots Left,” he wrote. “Unions do what they can, but most still struggle to survive. And the fragmented nature of the progressive blogs and the nongovernmental organizations cannot generate the visibility or influence of a growing insurgency.”
What a difference eleven years makes! The political terrain has transformed, and the grassroots left has been reborn. Although we still face disappointments and defeats, amid horrors old and new, Dissent (and dissent) has grown.
Michael has guided us through it all. He has been a model of conviction without dogmatism, boldness without adventurism, listening without passivity, dissent without venom (at least, not for the undeserving). We are sad to see him go, and look forward to many more years of contributions to Dissent.
Good luck, comrade. We’ll see you at the next editorial board meeting.
—Mark Levinson, Natasha Lewis, Flynn Murray, Nick Serpe, Timothy Shenk, and Lyra Walsh Fuchs
Magazines have histories. Michael Kazin’s retirement probably marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. I was Irving Howe’s and Lew Coser’s student at Brandeis, and Michael was my student at Harvard—though he was much fiercer than I was in those days. Irving’s and Lew’s politics were shaped by the radicalism of the 1930s; Michael’s and mine by the radicalism of the 1960s. The battles with the right were very different in those two decades, but the battles within the left were remarkably similar: between social democratic reformers and those who wanted a more revolutionary politics (if not quite The Revolution) and between committed democrats and those who supported one or another version of left authoritarianism. Michael spent time on both sides of those battles; he ended up on the right side (so I believe), but still he understood the protagonists and their matched obsessions better than other Dissentniks. He was well placed to bring onto the magazine young men and women who weren’t engaged in those old battles—and mostly didn’t want to be.
Michael faced three main tasks when he became, to my great relief, Dissent’s co-editor, tasks that Mitchell Cohen and I had not gotten very far with. First, to find that next generation of leftist writers and activists, which he did. Second, to raise the money necessary to pay them. For decades, Dissent had been parasitic on the American academy; most of our writers were professors with decent salaries; their articles were contributions in both senses of that word. Now more and more of our writers are members of the new academic proletariat or entirely independent of the university world. They have to be paid, and Michael has managed to do that, too.
The third task was to make the magazine livelier than it was, more politically engaged, ready to join in the (unexpected) revival of socialism here in the United States. I always imagined Dissent as a magazine for people who worry. Michael is certainly able to worry, but he is perhaps not so trapped in that mental and emotional mode. In any case, the young people he has edited and encouraged seem wonderfully unworried—enthusiastically prepared for battles they can actually imagine winning. Michael isn’t quite one of them. He calls himself Mr. In-Between, but they are his legacy.
Michael started signing his emails to me that way about the time we both turned fifty. I was thrilled. It had been a long friendship, with some perilous shoals, but it had survived. And it seemed it would stretch forward for many more decades. It has.
In the mid-1970s Michael abandoned his budding career as a blues radio host in Portland, Oregon, for history graduate school at Stanford. A few years later, I headed for Stanford too, leaving behind a lucrative but highly toxic career as a ship scaler and lead-paint sprayer on the San Francisco waterfront. In the 1980s, our new degrees landed us teaching jobs on the East Coast: Michael at Georgetown and me at Rutgers. Our parallel lives in nearby cities proceeded in tandem, punctured by memorable visits in Washington and New Jersey, long car rides to Lake Tahoe, and other serendipitous escapes from the intellectual haze of over-long history conferences, as well as fellowship years at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the Institute for Advanced Study that brought us (almost) walking distance from each other.
Michael was the first person I met at graduate school. In his ebullient, fast-talking, open way—traits I came to admire—he promptly told me my admission had been controversial. Nonetheless, he added with a smile, he had been on my side. Luckily for me, he has always been in my corner, professionally and personally. Weekly commute conversations and our mutual love of politics and labor history sealed our friendship at Stanford. We came from different class, religious, and regional cultures, and often, I think, we talked right past each other. But none of that mattered. Michael was, and still is, a big tent, big heart kind of guy, socially gregarious, warm, and inclusive. He made everyone feel at home and his house was where we all gathered.
Michael approached history like he approached friendship. Intellectually expansive and irrepressibly curious, he listened in odd corners and came back to tell tales of those misunderstood and all-too-often reduced and flattened beyond recognition. I loved his ecumenical ways with the past and the full-throated, complicated characters—Irish building tradesmen, evangelical radicals, populist dreamers—he restored to our times. He was open to the world and to those not like him. He set off fearlessly, jauntily, time and again, on new intellectual voyages and returned each time with fine gifts: fluid and energetic rewritings of vast stretches of American political history, amply filled with apt anecdote and insight.
When Michael told me he’d taken up the reins at Dissent, it didn’t surprise me. After all, who better to bridge the generations and help us piece back together a raucous, welcoming left? Who better to generate controversy without schism? Who better to have us all sit down together, make us feel we could express our real opinions, and keep us at the table long after the dessert was served?
Myles Horton once said we each have a piece of the puzzle and we can never recognize the whole or understand the way forward until most of those pieces are in place. Michael lived that philosophy and brought it to Dissent. He embodies a long radical populist tradition of the best sort: one that believes in the capacities of all and relishes camaraderie across difference. He has hosted our intellectual feasts for these last twelve years and, thank goodness, will continue to be a part of it. Lord knows we need more people in the world with his undaunted, steadfast spirit and his quirky, generous wisdoms. Dissent and all of us who have sailed with Michael owe him much.
—Dorothy Sue Cobble
Back when I was the teacher and Michael Kazin was my graduate student at Stanford, I was confident even then that our roles would soon be reversed. He already displayed an unusual amount of intellectual confidence, rooted in years of political activism and ideological combat. I realized that I was only four years older and probably less acquainted than Michael with the labor history readings I assigned. He was one of those gifted students who taught me that sometimes good teaching is simply clearing obstacles out of the way of students, like Michael, who know where they are going.
It’s been fun watching Michael’s rapid rise to national prominence as a historian and public intellectual. No other American historian of our generation has had such success in explaining how modern American politics came to be. As the editor of a documentary edition that has consumed most of my academic life, I have envied his ability to teach a generation of students, write a diversity of influential books, edit a venerable journal, and still have time to maintain a treasured friendship with his old professor at Stanford.
As Michael Kazin steps down from the editorship of Dissent, he leaves readers with a vibrant and stylish magazine encompassing a decidedly pluralist set of radical voices. A new generation of writers have come on board, reinvigorating Dissent’s sixty-five-year commitment to socialist values, vision, and activism.
Throughout a prolific career, Michael Kazin has been a historian of U.S. political culture. That’s a way of looking at how ideas, language, and inchoate values structure an understanding of politics and power. Such a cultural matrix may well legitimize an unjust societal hierarchy, but under the right circumstances it can also advance a radical social movement whose liberatory language paves the way for important legal and political victories. Richard Hofstadter, a historian Michael Kazin greatly admired, was the pioneer architect of this sort of historical discourse. That did not mean that Michael agreed with Hofstadter about nineteenth-century populism, or twentieth-century conservatism, or the virtues of Franklin Roosevelt, but he did take from Hofstadter a way of thinking about how intellectuals, organic or formal, construct a set of ideas and ideologies that become the “common sense” values of a particular time and milieu.
Two of Michael’s twenty-first-century interventions exemplify this approach to the relationship between ideas and political structures. Both are controversial. Nearly twenty years ago Michael wrote an excoriating review of Howard Zinn’s immensely popular A People’s History of the United States. Michael did not take issue with Zinn’s denunciation of a shifting American overclass that for centuries exploited and oppressed the vast majority of the populace. But, unlike Zinn, he did ask, “Why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?” That is the kind of question Gramsci also put forward, and it has long animated a magazine like Dissent, which, after all, was founded in a conservative era of social stasis and complacency. It’s a question that leads not to despair and resignation, but to inquiry, action, and a search for those moments, past and present, where a committed minority can pry wider the fissures that periodically appear in even the most hegemonic edifice in order to shift power from top to bottom, from established structures to more democratic ones. A strategic alliance with one element of the establishment has historically been how social movements make lasting changes in law and public policy. Thus, Michael thought Zinn’s portrait of American social and political conflict was entirely too defeatist, a product of the deflated hopes arising out of the post-sixties era in which it was written.
Michael’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, published in 2011, might well be taken as a rejoinder to Zinn, but of even more importance, it is a statement about how the left has fought and won over the long haul. On the terrain of politics, the American left—and here we can reach back to the abolitionists and the many other antebellum reformers—has been marginal to real political power. Third parties have lost, working-class revolts have been crushed, race- and gender-radicals have faced mainstream ridicule. But progressives should not despair, because in Michael’s reading, the left has made its impress felt in the cultural realm, where a committed and determined set of activists and intellectuals have radically transformed American attitudes about race, gender, and even class. Here the culture wars, past and present, have been fought on a terrain where the left has won significant victories. Michael argues that such struggles transform the political culture so as to create a new “moral consensus” that opens the door to actual political and social change. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a fundamental economic victory for a working class that was already becoming heavily female and multicultural. It could not have happened without a set of cultural battles that began in the 1930s and before.
For the American left, and certainly for the founders of Dissent, the Depression decade has always been a political and cultural touchstone. It was not just that the left seemed to flourish with the rise of a dynamic labor movement under the more or less benevolent penumbra offered by the Roosevelt presidency. It was also the decade in which the Communist Party achieved much influence, in the unions certainly, but perhaps even more so in a realm encompassing modernist culture, the mass media, and racial ideology. In a 2010 issue of Dissent, when Michael was assuming the co-editorship, I was struck by his advocacy there of a “New Popular Front,” shorn of its “Stalinist pedigree” of course, but still a cultural and political formation that an older generation of Dissent writers thought the exemplification of a debased mass culture, of leftist kitsch. Irving Howe once called the Communist-inflected Popular Front “a brilliant masquerade,” but Michael celebrates a later, more genuine, and “vigorously democratic and multiracial movement in the arts and daily life,” one that infused the national culture with an anti-authoritarian, pluralist spirit that soon became ubiquitous. Most historians have come to endorse this perspective.
Michael’s radicalism came out of the 1960s, but academically, and perhaps intellectually, he has been rooted in Progressive-era America. His first book was a study of building trades unionism in early-twentieth-century San Francisco. That was followed by his celebrated history of populism, which measured the variegated and contradictory character of that movement-cum-language as it evolved out of the late-nineteenth-century Populist Party. A biography of William Jennings Bryan, the “Cross of Gold” orator and three-time Democratic Party presidential candidate, soon followed. And then he wrote a history of antiwar voices during the First World War.
That grounding in the Progressive era—and not the hyper-ideological 1930s and ’40s—may well have proven highly useful to an editor and writer seeking to explain the travail and triumph of a post–Cold War American left. Our contemporary engagement with a financialized capitalism, with a renewal of the labor question, with immigration, and the complexities attendant to an understanding of race, ethnicity, and gender echo many of the issues which once confronted Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Florence Kelley. Thankfully, Michael Kazin will continue to write for Dissent. We await his interventions on topics contemporary and historical.
More than any professor I had in graduate school, Michael Kazin insisted on the importance of writing well. His syllabi included not just the typical lists of required texts, but a short book by Christopher Lasch, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. The primer took aim at the prevailing sins of academic prose that Lasch encountered in his students’ work, such as an overreliance on the passive voice. (“Precisely its anonymity endears it to bureaucrats, who wish to avoid responsibility for their decisions,” he notes in a representative flourish.) I suspect Michael chose it for reasons that went beyond its useful reminders about grammatical rules and advice about sentence construction. Like Lasch, he believes that expressing yourself clearly is a democratic imperative: those who rely on jargon or obfuscation are, in a sense, pulling rank. The way you made your arguments indicated the respect, or not, you had for your fellow citizens. Fifteen years later, I vividly remember getting back a paper from him with the word “problematize” circled in red ink—and instructions to never use that word again. I haven’t.
I hope Michael doesn’t think he failed me, then, if I can’t avoid a cliché: The first time that I walked into a seminar he was teaching, I had no idea that it would alter the course of my life. I was a twenty-three-year-old conservative raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, and I’d just graduated from a small Christian college. That summer I’d interned at the Heritage Foundation. Implausibly, by my reckoning, I’d been accepted into Georgetown University’s doctoral program in political theory. Its course requirements allowed me to take classes related to my research interests in American politics outside the Government Department. When Michael offered a graduate seminar on the history of postwar U.S. conservatism, I had to take it. At the least, I wanted to know what a tenured radical thought of us, and of me.
Those were dark days for progressives, a fact I relished at the time. George W. Bush, who stole the 2000 election and then lied the country into a disastrous war, had won re-election that November. Michael introduced the course by saying that he was a card-carrying member of the left, and that he was teaching it, in part, to understand why they were losing. As we went around the table, the other students offered the usual first-day-of-class biographical details: where they were from, where they did their undergraduate work, what their specialization was. I did the same—and announced that I was a card-carrying member of the right.
The remembered past often is the past distorted, but in my memory, Michael gave a sly smile and said, “Good, you can let us know what we get wrong.” At least that was the impression I received. Far from the right-wing tales of indoctrination on which I’d been reared, I discovered a professor who thrived on debate and welcomed disagreement. Michael took my views seriously. More importantly, he took me seriously. He was the best teacher I’ve ever had.
I became a regular at Michael’s office hours that semester, and in the years that followed I took two more graduate seminars with him—one on twentieth-century social movements, the other a directed, one-on-one study of how historians have approached writing biographies (his own biography of William Jennings Bryan was about to be published). The latter’s sessions often began by getting lunch together, followed by further discussion in his office. Some of my questions must have struck him as amusingly naïve. I recall the day that I told Michael I’d started reading Richard Hofstadter. Could he tell me more about him? He leaned back with a laugh and said, “Buddy, I could tell you more than you would ever want to know.” It had never occurred to me that Hofstadter was a family friend. Another time, perhaps needling me a bit, Michael told me he’d been invited to give a talk on Bryan at the Christian college I’d attended. “How do you think it’d go over,” he asked, “if I began by saying that at your age, I wanted to overthrow the United States government?”
Though I was dazzled by Michael’s work on populism, along with many of his other books and articles, I can’t claim that being his student caused me to have a political epiphany. His influence on me was more subtle—the kind that comes from persistent encouragement and generosity. My slow but decisive move to the left in the decade after I wrote my last paper for him was, most of all, the result of personal experience and the catastrophic failures of the Bush presidency (and, in different ways, Obama’s). But we stayed in touch: I invited Michael to speak to my class when I was teaching on a fellowship at the University of Virginia, and when I moved to New York City we would meet for lunch. He never failed to tell me that I needed to write more—and ask how he could help me.
It wasn’t long before he noticed that I was a Bernie Sanders supporter. I wrote my first essay for Dissent, “Leaving Conservatism Behind,” because Michael asked me to explain what happened. But the truth is that all the articles I’ve contributed to Dissent have been at his prompting. My long review of Ken Burns’s documentary on country music exists only because he prodded me, over the course of a year and a half, to write something about country music and politics. (When I was typically late sending him a draft, Michael gently asked me to move it along with an email titled, “Hey Brown-Eyed Stranger. . .”). I’ve sent every first draft to him, and every time he’s patiently explained to me how to make it better. Most of all, he’s pushed me to write about my own life, something I’m constitutionally hesitant to do
It was bittersweet news, then, to be asked to join Dissent’s editorial board just as Michael is retiring as its co-editor—a sentence that would have baffled my twenty-three-year-old self. My relationship to him has been so bound up with finding the right words for what I want to say that, just this once, I’ll concede my inability to adequately describe how much he’s meant to me, and how much I owe him.
Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.
Dorothy Sue Cobble is a professor at Rutgers University and the author of multiple books.
Clayborne Carson is a professor of history at Stanford University and the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor at UC Santa Barbara. He is writing a book about U.S. economic policy in the 1990s.
Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal, a member of Dissent‘s editorial board, and the co-host of Know Your Enemy, a podcast about the right sponsored by Dissent.