As the Left Says No to War, a Journal’s Editor Dissents

By Daniel Treiman

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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Mitchell Cohen is not the first commentator to make the case that the United States should use force to remove Saddam Hussein’s “fascist-like” regime from power — sooner rather than later — warning that “his menace, especially nuclear, will only swell” with time.

What makes Cohen’s arguments noteworthy, if not original, is that they were made in a venerable left-wing journal — a journal of which he is co-editor, no less — at a time when the major organs of the left-wing press are almost uniformly opposed to a war on Iraq.

“I am antifascist before I am antiwar. I am antifascist before I am anti-imperialist. And I am antifascist before I am anti-Bush,” Cohen concluded in his article, which appeared in the newest issue of Dissent, a half-century-old New York-based leftist quarterly with a tiny circulation and a long history of arguing with the rest of the left.

Cohen acknowledged that his is a minority perspective among his Dissent colleagues — of the eight contributors to the symposium, only one other, the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, came out forthrightly in favor of a war to dislodge Saddam. The symposium nevertheless stands out given the paucity of pro-war voices within the left-wing press.

Longtime Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens was arguably the left-wing press’s most prominent supporter of a war to remove Saddam, until he quit the weekly magazine in September calling it, in a parting shot, “the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

Nor is Dissent’s willingess to entertain real debates about a possible American invasion of Iraq the only thing that distinguishes the journal from its counterparts on the left. Since the September 11 attacks, Dissent contributors — particularly the journal’s editors — have leveled sharp attacks on left-wing shortcomings in responding to the changed international situation. These have been the subject of sharp contention among contributors to the magazine, which flaunts its internal debates, featuring a regular section titled “Arguments.”

Despite the diversity of views at Dissent — whose contributors variously identify as “democratic socialists,” “social democrats” and “left liberals” — certain tendencies are striking. Whereas many on the left cringed at the surge in displays of patriotism in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — with Nation columnist Katha Pollitt memorably tsk-tsking that the American flag “stands for jingoism and vengeance and war” — Dissent contributors have called for the left to embrace patriotism. And Dissent’s editors, while opposing Israel’s settlement policies, have been notably more sympathetic to Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians than have many other writers for left-wing publications.

“I hope [these stances] add up to a coherent picture of a magazine whose editors are committed to fostering a left that isn’t so radically alienated from American society that it cannot speak to our fellow citizens,” said Dissent’s co-editor, Michael Walzer. Walzer, a pioneer of “just war” theory, has written that he would oppose a war for regime change in Iraq, but would support one if it was necessary to enforce the United Nations weapons inspections.

Walzer was the author of a much-discussed article in Dissent’s Spring 2002 titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” In the article, Walzer writes that the left’s reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks manifested a “barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved,” and he scores those who opposed an American war against the Taliban “without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks.” Citing the American left’s “honorable history,” he urged it to abandon its current “rag-tag Marxism” and stop “blaming America first.”

“The left needs to begin again,” he concluded.

Gerald Sorin, author of a recent book about Dissent’s late founder, titled “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” (New York University), said that Dissent’s role since the September 11 attacks is consistent with its history. Indeed, the socialist literary critic Howe founded the journal in 1954 in order to provide a home for radicals who were deeply anti-Stalinist.

During the 1960s, members of the Dissent circle clashed with some activists on the New Left whom, according to Sorin, they regarded as “romantic revolutionaries, in a non-revolutionary context” and “illiberal.” More recently, many at Dissent supported the 1991 Gulf War and American intervention in the Balkans, although Sorin said these were subjects of debate in the journal.

“There’s a left that assumes that everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of the United States, and Dissent simply never took that position,” he said.

Dissent has also historically been a publication whose contributors and editorial board are heavily Jewish. Howe himself had a particular interest in Yiddish literature, while Cohen, a Baruch College professor of political theory, is the author of a book about Zionism, and Walzer, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is a co-editor for a series of books on the Jewish political tradition.

Cohen and Walzer, however, downplayed the significance of the heavy Jewish presence at Dissent.

“If you look down the list of the editorial board you’ll see a lot of Jewish names, but none of them came to Dissent with a Jewish agenda,” Cohen said.

The fact that many Dissent writers are staunch supporters of Israel, however, has not escaped the notice of the journal’s critics. “Though rarely cited explicitly, Israel shapes and even defines the foreign policy views of a small but influential group of American liberals,” Adam Shatz wrote in the November 23 issue of The Nation, which he said is “one reason” members of Dissent’s editorial board might support a war with Iraq. Shatz’s article appeared well before Dissent’s Iraq symposium.

Cohen called Shatz’s assertion “a type of insinuation that reeks of the worst of the left.”

And for many Dissent contributors, ridding the left of its “worst” is a key goal. But while Walzer’s essay, “Can There Be a Decent Left?”, was greeted with widespread praise by conservative pundits, it had a more mixed reception on the left.

“The response that I’ve gotten has been pretty much 50-50 furious attacks and people who express gratitude,” Walzer said.

One prominent left-wing editor, however, would not touch the substance of Walzer’s critique with a 10-foot pole. Asked about her opinion of Walzer’s essay, The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, responded, “My view is that the problem at hand is Paul Wolfowitz, is Donald Rumsfeld, is Dick Cheney. My view is that the sectarian struggles are not where the struggle should be.”

Others were openly hostile.

Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, which opposed an American war in Afghanistan, called the tone of Walzer’s essay “a little bit obnoxious.”

“It was as if you didn’t agree with Michael Walzer’s position, then you weren’t part of the moral American left,” he said. “And certainly here at The Progressive we take a more anti-interventionist position or pacifistic position than he does, and yet we certainly feel that we’re taking a very moral position.”

Both The Nation, a weekly with a circulation of 140,000, and The Progressive, a monthly with a circulation of 50,000, dwarf Dissent’s circulation of 8,500.

Nevertheless, Dissent contributors say that they believe the journal is playing a valuable role on the left. Walzer, however, said the current state of the left does not make him optimistic.

“The most I would say is that [the left is] up for grabs and that we have a chance to create what I called a ‘decent left’ but also a bigger left,” Walzer said. “I think there are opportunities, but I’m not buoyant about the future of the left.”

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