Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Toward an Overlapping Dissensus: The Search for Inclusivity in the Political Thought of Dissent Magazine

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Toward an Overlapping Dissensus: The Search for Inclusivity in the Political Thought of Dissent Magazine

Article excerpt


This article explores the connection between political theory and political commentary in the editorial stance of Dissent magazine's staff, especially Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, and Michael Walzer. It argues that central to the political thought of the Dissent circle was a rejection of ideological Puritanism on the American left. Dissent's theoretical contribution was to develop a space for a policy-oriented social democratic platform that draws on both liberalism and communism while transforming them. Thus, Howe sought a socialism that drew on valuable liberal insights, while Walzer looked for a permanent uneasy coexistence between social democracy, liberalism, and communitarianism.


Dissent, Howe, Walzer, social democracy, Coser

Ever since its establishment in 1954, Dissent magazine has defined itself as advocating a type of democratic socialist thought that emerges out of mainstream Ameri- can political traditions. Following the negative reviews of fellow New York Intellectuals1 Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Bell in the 1950s, critics of the magazine have held that, in trying to transcend both liberalism and Marx- ist socialism, Dissent succeeded in transcending neither and could not be taken to uphold a form of socialism (Bell [1960] 2000, 311; Glazer 1954; Podhoretz 1958, 579; for discussion, see Bloom 1986, 285-90; Jumonville 1991, 83-86). Dissent, in this view, would be more accu- rately titled Consent.

In this article, I take seriously Dissent's claim to espouse a form of democratic socialism, and detail the development of that position over the life of the maga- zine. For two reasons, Dissent's position could equally accurately be called liberal socialism. First, it develops out of values common to liberalism and socialism alike, such as tolerance, pluralism, decentralization, auton- omy, and participation. Second, it seeks to incorporate liberal elements into the radical movement, alongside socialists and all radical groups other than Stalinists and fellow travelers (Howe 1954). Dissent was from its foundation a product of the post-Stalinist left, and most of its work has been an attempt to develop a socialism that avoids what it took to be the calamity of the Soviet experiment. This socialism would incorporate liberal insights, including pluralism and faith in the market, and socialize them with communitarian elements.

Dissent's advocacy of liberal values is, in my interpreta- tion, the result of a belief that the American left's tendency toward sectarianism and factionalism has foiled any pos- sibility of success, but for principled, not merely strategic, reasons. The ideological Puritanism that the Dissent circle ascribes to such rivals as the American Communist Party, the New Left, and, in particular, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) ensured that American radicalism failed to pay sufficient attention to the admirable features of main- stream American political traditions. Such commentators as Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Michael Harrington, Ben Seligman, and Michael Walzer spent their careers arguing that, to be successful, an American radicalism must draw on the real insights of American liberalism even as it refuses to consent to the inequalities generated by American capitalism. The radical movement must not seek to tear up American society and start from scratch but must base itself in the traditions that we live by, while attempting to transform them, or risk failing to recognize what is impor- tant to the lives of American citizens.

I take it, then, that the work of Dissent is an exemplar of what Walzer has called "social criticism," in that its purpose is to hold up a mirror to Americans to demon- strate the difference between the values that they claim to uphold and the practices that they actually live by (Walzer 1987, 1988b). Dissent's goal was not to transcend Marxism or liberalism, but to draw on both traditions while challenging them to live up to their core ideals. …

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