Wednesday, September 1, 2021

What Has Happened to Dissent Magazine?

In my view, nothing good. Christopher Serjeant, a UK researcher on American intellectual history, has an interesting commentary on the Unherd site which highlights some disturbing aspects of the magazine's recent evolution. It is food for thought and really does say something about the broader evolution of the US left away from a class orientation.
"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."

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