Making space for political debate

"Dissent" journal cover

Liberalism has seen better days. Even those who support what have historically been considered liberal ideals—such as civil rights, environmental and pro-labor policy, Medicare and the eight-hour workday—are reluctant to use the “L” word. And “socialism” has become a fighting word. The Obama administration’s domestic policies have been accused by some as being “socialist,” including its vision for heathcare reform.

But at Dissent magazine, published by Penn Press, liberalism and socialism are still synonyms for equality and morality, as they have been for more than half a century.
“There’s a misnomer that liberalism means big government,” says Michael Kazin, co-editor of Dissent. “Liberalism really means a set of values about how society should work. We believe in a role for government in providing a decent floor for housing, education and healthcare for people.”

Dissent magazine was founded in 1954 by a group of self-described “independent radicals” united in the belief of socialism.

“We share a belief in the dignity of the individual,” the inaugural issue declared. “We share a refusal to countenance one man’s gain at the expense of his brother, and we share an intellectual conviction that man can substantially control his condition if he understands it and wills to.”

Co-editor Michael Walzer, who has been with the magazine since the late 1950s, says he was attracted to the political and moral commitments of the founding editors, especially to democracy and equality.

Dissent’s founders had hoped to establish a modern socialist political party similar to those in Europe and other parts of the world. Maxine Phillips, the magazine’s executive editor, says it was created during the McCarthy era, but as a left-wing rebellion against the McCarthy version of anticommunism.

The world has changed a lot since 1954. The Civil Rights and Women’s movements have come and gone, the Cold War is over and America has a black president. While the United States was veering left politically in the late 1950s and 60s, Walzer believes it has made a sharp turn to the right. Today, the magazine is focused on strengthening the left wing of the Democratic Party.

“In some ways it’s a politics that lies in between extreme free-market conservatism on the right and obviously totalitarian socialism or communism on the left,” Kazin says.

The magazine is published quarterly by Penn Press, but the editors have complete autonomy. Dissent is primarily a volunteer organization, with only two paid employees: Executive Editor Phillips and Online Editor David Marcus. Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and Walzer is professor emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Eric Halpern, director of Penn Press, says Dissent benefits the Press in numerous ways. “Dissent is, of course, an enormously distinguished political journal,” he explains. “We are trying to grow our journals program and are looking for journals that make a significant contribution to the editorial [aspect] of the Press. Dissent does that in great measure.”

Over the years, contributors to the magazine have included Cornel West, Christopher Hitchens, E. J. Dionne, Jr., Erich Fromm, Norman Mailer, Manning Marable and Penn President Amy Gutmann. In 2000, she wrote an article titled “What Does ‘School Choice’ Mean?”

The journal is available in print and at www.dissentmagazine.org. With the rise of the web, times are trying for print magazines, but Phillips says they do plan on keeping the print version alive. “That’s why we went with Penn Press, because we saw this as a way of ensuring our future as a print magazine.”

Phillips admits it can be difficult to promote liberal and socialist ideas when the terms have such negative connotations. “It used to be socialist and communist were the worst things they could call you, now liberal is the worst thing,” she says.

“We’re not a movement journal but we do provide information to people and we provide a space for debate about policies,” she says. “Things that you might have pushed for in the ‘60s and ‘70s have to be rethought. Now things have changed.”

Originally published on March 25, 2010