The Rise of Dissent

Irving Howe
Courtesy Brandeis Archives and Special Collections
Irving Howe

"When an intellectual can do nothing else, he begins a magazine,” wrote onetime Brandeis English professor Irving Howe.

In 1954, Howe did just that. Mired in the McCarthy years, the sharp-tongued social critic founded Dissent, a democratic socialist magazine. Howe, a brooding pessimist, was convinced the magazine wouldn’t survive beyond its first four meagerly funded issues. And yet this year Dissent celebrates 60 years of a remarkably pugnacious, hand-to-mouth existence, outliving Howe himself by two decades.

Dissent has always been tied to the New York Intellectuals, the mid-20th-century group of writers Mary McCarthy, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Rahv (also a former Brandeis professor) and others, famous for creating little magazines that chewed on big ideas.

Their prolific output prompted Woody Allen to crack in “Annie Hall” that “Commentary [a rival magazine] and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery.” Along with The New York Review of Books, these magazines are all that’s left of a once-vibrant world that did much to shape midcentury intellectual life in America.

Dissent was also the child of the remarkable intellectual milieu percolating at Brandeis in its early years. The idea for the magazine, in fact, was born in the university’s faculty lounge as Howe chatted with friend and colleague Lewis Coser, a sociologist. Coser suggested the magazine’s name, to signal its rejection of America’s Cold War status quo — what Howe called “this age of conformity” in a memorable essay.

Thanks in part to the currents of history, Brandeis’ early faculty made the university a beacon of postwar American intellectual life. As a Jewish institution, Brandeis provided a haven for prominent European Jewish refugee scholars like Coser; Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher and future icon of the New Left; and Jewish scholar Nahum Glatzer, among many others.

But the university’s first president, Abram Sachar, wasn’t interested in simply providing refuge. He was after scholarly talent and had a remarkable eye for it — “an uncanny sense of intellectual quality,” recalls Martin Peretz ’59, former editor-in-chief of The New Republic. “He couldn’t quite sing himself, but he knew good singing when he heard it.”

Despite having virtually no endowment to work with, Sachar was able to compete for talent with larger and richer universities because he was willing “to bend the normal academic rules,” says American studies professor and Brandeis historian Stephen Whitfield, PhD’72. Sachar eagerly recruited brilliant minds like Howe and Rahv, even when they had no graduate degrees. (Rahv, a Russian immigrant, had not even attended college.)

Dissent was politically at home at Brandeis. Its name seemed to sum up the atmosphere on campus, where, according to eminent philosopher Michael Walzer ’56, “the ’60s began in the ’50s.” According to Whitfield, “the younger faculty were products of the European and American left” formed in the radical 1930s, while “its student body were often the children of equally radical homes.” The campus was so far to the left in those days, jokes Jules Bernstein ’57, its “right wing consisted of liberals and Democrats.”

Now a distinguished labor lawyer who has financially supported Dissent for decades, Bernstein became an instant acolyte of Howe and the magazine in his freshman year as he hustled 200 subscriptions to a student body of only 800. He wasn’t the only convert. The first issue sold out so quickly, The Justice reported, “several privately owned copies have been placed on two-hour reserve in the library,” to make it available to those unable to procure a copy for themselves.

Walzer was also smitten. He held Howe and other Brandeis faculty in such awe that when he returned home to Johnstown, Penn., he informed his puzzled parents he no longer wanted to be a lawyer — he wanted “to be an intellectual.” (His parents’ response: “You can make a living from this?”)

“I didn’t disagree with a single word” of that first issue, Walzer wrote. But “I soon figured out that that wasn’t the right approach; Dissentniks were supposed to disagree with one another, even ferociously — that was what it meant to be serious.” He learned his lesson and went on to spend the next five decades disagreeing as both a writer at and eventually the co-editor of the magazine. Now 78, he retired from the magazine’s masthead only last year.

Over its six decades, Dissent has published a remarkable body of essays. Fittingly, through the early ’60s, many of its contributors were Brandeis faculty and students, including C. Wright Mills, Marcuse and Bernard Rosenberg. It also published Norman Mailer’s provocative 1957 essay on the hipster, “The White Negro,” as well as an excerpt from Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd,” which, in book form, became a bible of the ’60s generation. There were contributions from important European authors, including Ignazio Silone, George Konrád and Günter Grass, and critiques of American capitalism from the likes of economists Robert Reich and Robert Heilbroner.

Dissent continued to faithfully dissent throughout the Nixon era, the age of Reagan and the George W. Bush years, just as it held Democratic presidents from Carter to Obama accountable to a higher vision of equality. Even if its socialist politics are now a bit more vague than they once were, the magazine remains committed to the cause of labor and the critique of free-market excesses. Its impact on American culture has been much larger than its 5,000 subscribers would suggest.

Journals like Dissent can survive only by continually cultivating new generations of writers. The magazine’s latest crop is more Web savvy than its elders, attempting to broaden the magazine through new technology while viewing politics through a new lens.

One recent article looked at how the women of Denmark’s social welfare state were able to successfully band together to defeat an international pickup artist. By early December, it had sparked 170,000 Web hits — a major coup for the magazine.

The piece is really about the impact of socialism, featuring players Howe and Coser never envisioned when they dreamed up Dissent one day in the faculty lounge. Yet the story somehow remains true to the spirit of the magazine — and the campus that spawned it six decades ago.

Joseph Dorman is an award-winning filmmaker and writer in New York City.

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