U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Worlds in Waiting: The Promise of Little Magazines

One of the best attended panels at the most recent S-USIH Conference in Washington, DC was the opening night plenary on “Little Magazines.” The following is the contribution to the panel by David Marcus, who is co-editor of Dissent and a PhD candidate in US intellectual history at Columbia. David is writing a dissertation titled, “Philosophy for the Present: Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin, and the Revival of American Political Thought.” The following will also appear in Dissent.


I. The Living Room Movement

1. Dissent was founded in 1954 by Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, and a motley crew of socialists, European émigrés, failed novelists, academics, and untenured gadflies.

2. Like many little magazines, it was founded in a living room and over a coffee tray. There was no movement or political party to sponsor it. Socialism had not emerged out of the wreckage of North Atlantic capitalism, nor democracy from the tumult of the Russian Revolution. Radical politics appeared to be a problem as much as an ideal, an aspiration as much as a possibility.

3. Looking back at the magazine’s salad days, Howe observed in 1979, “To be a socialist in Europe means to belong to a movement commonly accepted as part of democratic political life. . . . To be a socialist in America means to exist precariously on the margin of our politics, as a critic . . . struggling constantly for a bit of space.” So what do intellectuals do to create this little bit of space? They start a magazine.

II. Names of our Desire

4. There is an almost certainly apocryphal story told about how Dissent got its name. As was often true of this small ingathering, Howe, Coser, and their editorial board could not agree on what to call their project. One editor suggested: Radical Times. Another: The Better Republic. A third: More Partisan Review. But all were shot down for affirming too much, for being too declarative. We’re trying to break from old ideologies, one editor reminded the group, not create new ones. Finally a voice cried out: I’ve got it. How about No? The room leaned forward with interest. A vote was held. This, too, was pronounced to be too affirmative.

5.  Dissent, in those early years, did not have much difficulty finding things to oppose: the bureaucratic nature of postwar society, the decline of radicalism in the West and on the Upper West Side, anything of recent vintage by Lionel Trilling. But the magazine did struggle to define its own strain of radicalism. “What Dissent should be,” Howe observed, “we were not quite sure. What it should not be we knew.”

6. In this way, Dissent was like many other “little magazines”—journals founded in a moment of uncertainty. Like Dwight Macdonald’s politics or the early New Left Review, Dissent knew more about the politics it opposed than about those it wanted to sponsor. Dissent was a kind of halfway house for the postwar radicals, more an aspirational community than an actual one with a determined goal.

7. Edmund Wilson once observed, I think in Triple Thinkers, that the best political novels—novels like Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and Conrad’s The Secret Agent—come in moments after failed liberalization. It was the disappointment with politics as they happen in the world that brought them into realm of political ideas. The same can be said of the Dissent founders and many of their peers. The intellectual and activist left comes into its own when more institutional sites for political action are in eclipse. We are almost always better at asking questions than answering them.

III. Images of Socialism

8. I think this provisional spirit has been our strength as well as weakness. Dissent has always carried the torch—the “images,” as Howe and Coser once put it—of socialism. But we’ve never been exactly sure which socialism and whose left.

9. This has happily led our criticism to produce some rather intriguing syntheses. Howe and Michael Harrington had one foot in the Old Left movements of the 1930s and another in the civil rights and civil libertarianism of the 1950s. Michael Walzer and Marshall Berman struggled to find ways to pair the egalitarianism of Howe’s generation with the more participatory, pluralistic politics of the 1960s and ‘70s.

10. And I think my own generation also finds itself caught between several different political tendencies. For example, several of our younger editors have combined a radical feminist perspective with more Marx-inspired critiques of precarious labor; others have drawn some of their inspiration from the radical democratic and horizontalist inclinations of Occupy and the late 1990s anti-globalization protests.

11. Like our predecessors, we recognize there is a gap. We all believe that there is an alternative, that there was no “end of history” moment in the early 1990s. Determining which alternative—or which alternatives—is our political challenge.

IV. War of Positions

12. There is also the question of influence—of the role a little magazine plays in the public sphere. Being a magazine of the intellectual left, we have never properly had a movement or a party or a trade union. Our power and strength have come in the realm of ideas: through arguments and persuasion and some light propaganda.

13, This has meant, at times, that we could have an outsized effect. Our journalism and criticism can influence public policy—Michael Harrington’s The Other America comes to mind, as do some of our more recent pieces about the intern economy. Our complaints and arguments can also provide a language of opposition for activists on the ground and—sometimes—liberals who are in power.

14. But our size has also meant that we could never change things of our own accord. We always have had to make do with the compromises and the disappointments that come from working through others’ institutions, organizations, and political parties. Our victories are most pronounced on the cultural front—as part of what Gramsci called the “war of positions.” Our hope is to push political culture to the left, to shift already-existing institutions, to build new constituencies, and to offer counsel and criticism for those activists on the ground.

15. Perhaps this is all one can do as a radical in America, in a country where the ideological spectrum is still so fundamentally anchored to the “liberal tradition.” Certainly it is all an intellectual magazine can do. Like Margaret Fuller’s The Dial in the 1840s, Du Bois’s Crisis in the 1910s, Partisan Review in the ‘40s, or New Left Review in the ‘60s, our hope has always been that our ideas and demands trickle up. When mass circulation magazines and mainstream liberal politicians begin to parrot or our ideas—when Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, and Hillary Clinton voice our complaints—in some small but significant way we are winning.

V. Survival Tactics

16. In the background to all of this is the question of money. The historian and In These Times founder James Weinstein once observed: “When I founded In These Times I thought I was going to be an editor, but I discovered that to keep it I had to become a beggar.”

17. Money has always been the great impediment for intellectual magazines, as it has for the left more generally. In decades past, Dissent has found ways to make our modest ends meet by having a kind of parasitic relationship with the university, in which our editors and writers have day jobs as professors and lecturers and moonlight their more political and public work for us. This was true with the first generation—people like Howe and Coser—and the second generation of editors—people like Michael Walzer, Mitchell Cohen, and Michael Kazin.

18. Today, things are a bit different. The academic market is saturated with PhDs, and the few jobs out there tend to be reserved for people doing pretty specialized work. I don’t think this is all bad. It has turned many young academics toward more public and political matters: graduate and adjunct organizing, protest movements, writing for more public venues. It has also given rise to the exciting new wave of little magazines. Dissent is no longer alone. We are just one member in a lively community: n+1, Jacobin, the New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica. But it has meant there is a pretty felt sense of precarity out there—for writers and for magazines. Dissent, n+1, Jacobin, all need to find other ways to make our modest ends meet. We no longer have the security of our predecessors.

VI. Worlds in Waiting

19. Here is what we do have: young talent, lots of ideas, a sense of political commitment, and a lot of well-written articles. We also have the clumsiness of larger magazines, which can often serve as fodder for our own purposes. But our real advantage comes from being on the margin, from being outside the market. By remaining outside the mainstream, we can offer opinions—criticisms, arguments, complaints—that are just left of the possible. We can make the case for those alternatives that many politicians and magazines believe implausible.

20. We may never create a new world through the work we do at our various magazines. We will always play a supplementary role in any larger-scale social change. But we can create smaller communities—worlds in waiting—until then.

21. Everyone always quotes Irving Howe’s line, “When intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine.” But they almost never seem to include what he said afterward: “starting a magazine is also doing something: at the very least it is thinking in common. And thinking in common can have unforeseen results.”