In the summer of 1953, the New School for Social Research hung a yellow curtain over a mural by the Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco. Orozco’s transgression? He had included portraits of Lenin and Stalin in the work. In response to widespread criticism, the president of the institution, Hans Simons, insisted that the decision to hang the curtain was an internal matter–“a problem of the school,” which did not concern “the outside.” In the first essay of the first issue of Dissent, a new left-wing quarterly, Irving Howe, the driving force behind the journal, threw himself into the controversy.
“One is not shocked at this,” wrote Howe, “the language is familiar enough, go a step further and you have the American Legion or the DAR telling one to go back where you came from. But wait: The philistine reference to ‘the outside’ comes not from the American Legion but from the New School, the New School which began as a refuge for liberalism and freedom. Well, Dr. Simons, one is sorry to say this, but the mural is not merely ‘a problem of the school'; and one would be delighted to go back where one came from: New York.”
Howe’s salvo exemplified the spirit of the new journal, whose chief mission was to confront the poison of McCarthyism, to combat what the editors called “the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervades the political and intellectual life of the United States,” and to forge a new kind of anti-Stalinist leftism. Still, Howe’s rhetorical bravado masked a certain malaise, for Dissent was a self-proclaimed socialist journal. “We shall try,” Dissent‘s mission statement modestly noted, “to discuss freely and honestly what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified.” The editors–who included hardened veterans of the New York intellectual scuffles of the 1930s but also refugees from Hitler’s Germany–had no illusions about the task that faced them. “In America today,” they wrote, “there is no significant socialist movement and…in all likelihood, no such movement will appear in the immediate future.”
Despite that bleak forecast, Dissent, which turns fifty this year, shone brightly in its first decade with a steady stream of reportage, analysis and polemic: C. Wright Mills, Ignazio Silone, Meyer Schapiro, Czeslaw Milosz, Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, Gabriel Kolko and Dan Wakefield did superb work for Dissent in the 1950s. Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen! and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd were excerpted in Dissent, and Norman Mailer, who lent his name to the editorial board, gave Howe “The White Negro,” a berserk and brilliant essay that, in a sense, anticipated the 1960s counterculture and became one of the most celebrated and controversial pieces in the journal’s entire history.
If the analysis and polemic were frequently top-notch in the early years, so was the reporting: Dissent produced special issues on Africa, youth culture, New York City and the American workplace, and published fine dispatches about the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South. Another keen area of interest for the editors was the American labor movement: “In the 1950s,” Maurice Isserman wrote in his book If I Had a Hammer, “Dissent was the only intellectual quarterly to pay serious attention to the labor movement and to issues pertaining to the workplace.” (Some auto- and steelworker locals even ordered bulk subscriptions of Dissent for their members, a practice that continued until the early 1990s.)