Reading Park MacDougald’s recent essay ‘Twilight of the American Left’, I was struck by one sentence in particular. ‘The post-Leftists’ he writes — referring to the new wave of anti-capitalists whose patience with Left-liberal “identitarianism” has finally driven them into the arms of the populist Right — ‘are defined mostly by their aggressive hostility to both the Democratic Party and the radical Left — including the Democratic Socialists of America and the academic-literary Left of magazines such as Jacobin, n+1 and Dissent’.
I draw your attention here to the last entry on the post-Left’s proscribed reading list, namely the venerable old democratic socialist magazine Dissent, which now apparently stands accused of the very tendencies it was set up to resist back in 1954. The changes that have taken place at this magazine offer a telling picture of the broader evolution in Left-wing thought in America because, as Macdougald touches on, it shows just how far the ‘Overton window’ has really shifted in America. Only this week, journalist Jim Sleeper, a serving member of Dissent’s editorial board for almost forty years, has announced that he will no longer write for the magazine due to the drift away from its original mission.
Nearly 70 years ago, Dissent was founded on the Left-wing of the so-called New York Intellectual movement by a group of predominantly Jewish writers. The magazine fused social democracy with an explicit anti-totalitarianism and kept a keen eye on the unhappy political arrangements across much of Eastern Europe. Given that much of Dissent’s editorial team in the early days were of comparatively recent emigre stock, this made perfect sense. Back then, Dissent’s dogmatic ‘other’ was not the identity politics or multiculturalism but the orthodox Marxism of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party USA.
Led by the indefatigable Irving Howe, Dissent’s modus vivendi rested then, on its stated aversion to dogmatism and sectarianism of all stripes. Throughout the 1960s the magazine frequently spoke out in opposition to the perceived excesses of the radical student Left; during the ‘70s, despite being supportive of the new waves of feminist, black and gay liberation politics, it held the line against the increasing dilution of the social democratic message; and in the 1980s it worked to funnel what it considered the overly abstract theorising of the academic left into material opposition to the day- to-day gains of the Reaganite right.
By the beginning of the ‘90s the terrain of Left politics in the United States had shifted sufficiently that the magazine once established to moderate the class-based fundamentalism of various homespun radical factions found itself increasingly desperate just to keep class on the table. Then as now, writers at Dissent were accused in some quarters of being apologists for an emerging neoliberal ruling class, but this critique came from the opposite end of the left political spectrum. To opponents within the self-appointed radical Left, the anti-identity politics critiques of a Todd Gitlin or a Richard Rorty were proof that the sixties generation had grown old and was now intent upon blunting the revolutionary edge of its younger, more diverse successor.
Fast forward to today and it is true that the magazine has moved markedly away from the contrarian opinions it promoted a quarter of a century ago. In the course of my own research I have spoken at length with many of its former stalwarts including both Michael Walzer and Mitchell Cohen, Dissent’s co-editors throughout the ‘90s. Their sense of frustration is palpable.
Of course, the transformation of Dissent reflects the broader transformation of the Left itself. But more than this, precisely by dint of the magazine’s own rather unique history, it demonstrates just how much ground there really is to be made up by any future ‘class-first’ insurgency determined to overturn the current cultural nostrums of the liberal Left. Not only is the very outline of a viable social democratic alternative to today’s hyper-identitarian liberalism receding into history, but so too is the memory of those who not so very long ago warned against precisely such scenarios.