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The Dean of "Dissent"

Michael Walzer on drones, democracy, and his retirement

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Last Thursday, a few young writers who help edit and contribute to Dissent tweeted pictures from a strike in Harlem, part of a citywide effort to get fast-food franchises to pay employees $15 an hour. The next day, Michael Walzer, the co-editor of the leftist journal, waxed nostalgic in his Chelsea apartment about similar actions he participated in. “In February of 1960, I was starting on my dissertation, and Irving”—Irving Howe, Dissent’s irascible founder—“asked me to go South and write about the sit-ins. Then, essentially, I took six months off for the Northern support movement. ... We were picketing 40 Woolworth’s in and around Boston. And I was paying no attention to graduate school.”

Walzer, now 78, didn’t cover the Harlem protest. (Though he did visit Zuccotti Park a couple times in the autumn of 2011. “I found it exhilarating,” he said.) However, he saw his younger colleagues’ activism as a continuation of the politics the magazine has championed for sixty years. Social democracy or democratic socialism (“those terms once had different meanings, not anymore,” Walzer said) began as decidedly anti-Communist socialism; today, they’re probably best defined as a collection of economic positions a click to the left of liberal Democrats. Dissent sees economic equality as essential to “freedom”—not in the civil-libertarian sense of the word, but in the sense of Franklin Roosevelt when he described “Freedom from want.”

In the latest Dissent, Walzer uses a term, apparently not a new one, that I had never heard before: “Dissentnik.” I wanted to know if Walzer deployed the phrase in earnest. How can a Dissentnik—the term smelling nostalgically and ironically of 1930s leftist factions—still exist as anything other than, tautologically and not very usefully, somebody affiliated with Dissent?

The question seems more important today than on other days, because the quintessential Dissentnik is stepping down. Walzer—who attended the journal’s first-issue party in 1954, joined its editorial board roughly 50 years ago, and has been a co-editor since the mid-1980s—is retiring. With characteristic self-effacement, Walzer mentions it only obliquely in a back-page essay; there is also a three-part symposium in the latest Dissent, introduced by co-editor Michael Kazin, on Walzer and Dissent, with one piece by Martha C. Nussbaum called “The Mensch.”

The Dissent left’s greatest triumphs likely came in the 1960s, when a writer like Michael Harrington wielded substantial influence over how administrations thought about combating poverty; and its moment of greatest opportunity seemed to have been in the early ‘90s, when the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe appeared to create an opening for real socialism there and the strengthening of socialist parties in Western Europe and even, perhaps, stateside. But socialism never really came. 

“Opposition to Communism is obviously less important after ’89, although I think we should be critical of some of the neo-communist stuff that’s coming out of France and Slovenia,” Walzer said. (By Slovenia, of course, he really just meant Slavoj Žižek.) But to hear him tell it, Dissent’s work remains vital in the face of a barely liberal Democratic president (“I always thought of Obama as a centrist,” he said, which is why he voted for Hillary) and a society that “is increasingly plutocratic.”

“There is no socialism or social democracy without a movement for economic equality,” Walzer writes in the new Dissent while criticizing President Obama’s second inaugural address. “From our standpoint, a startling omission: where was Flint, Michigan, on the list or any other place marking the struggles of the labor movement?... Not a word.” Which, of course, is how you get back to a fast-food strike in Harlem.

Walzer, the author of a seminal book on just war theory, has also been a valuable critic of the administration’s drone policy. “The criteria [for targeted assassination by drone] should be publicly debated in a democracy,” he said. “There has to be somebody looking over the shoulder of whoever is making the decisions. And right now we have a small group of people making the decisions, and the president is looking over their shoulder. And nobody is looking over his shoulder. And he’s choosing the people over whose shoulder he’s looking.”

He seemed annoyed that a Tea Party Republican is currently the most prominent face of the opposition here. “Certainly Rand Paul doesn’t give a damn about who we kill in Afghanistan,” Walzer argued. “But yes, if surveillance by drones becomes a feature of American policing, the strongest opposition is going to come from libertarians. I hope many leftists will join them, but they do have a patent on that kind of opposition.”

Another feature of a Dissentnik, Walzer noted: “We are also committed opponents of every sort of authoritarianism, including those that pretend to be leftist.” This commitment caused a serious rift among left-liberals, including at Dissent, a decade ago in the debates preceding the invasions of Afghanistan (which Walzer supported) and Iraq (which Walzer opposed). Opposition to the Afghanistan invasion prompted Walzer to declare, "The left needs to begin again."1 

In part because of Iraq, the question of whether to act militarily against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is a less contentious issue among left-liberals, who now tend to be much more skeptical of foreign interventions. Indeed, here Walzer appeared more supportive of the administration’s cautious approach. “I think I would favor an intervention,” he told me, if he believed the United States could pick the subsequent winners in Syria and protect the subsequent losers, as well as secure the regime’s weapons arsenal. “I’m just, after Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m just radically uncertain that we could do any of those things,” he sighed. Still, that he would even in principle support a humanitarian intervention as a man of the left probably distinguishes him from the younger generations.

There is no drama surrounding Walzer’s retirement. He was not purged or anything like that (remember, Dissent is anti-Stalinist!). “I just can’t keep up anymore,” he said. Walzer’s co-editor, Michael Kazin, will run the magazine, which in addition to its print iteration has an increasingly robust online presence. Walzer, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (and a New Republic contributing editor), will continue to contribute to Dissent as well as write a book on national liberation movements, a subject on which he is currently lecturing at Yale. Plus, volumes three and four of The Jewish Political Tradition aren’t just going to co-edit themselves.

Walzer is not only Dissent’s final old-timer. He was also, way back in the day, its first newcomer. While he was an undergraduate at Brandeis, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, Dissent’s co-founders, hired him as a research assistant for their history of the American Communist Party, a gig that involved reading 20 years’ worth of Daily Workers. (“It helped strengthen the anti-Communism they were teaching me,” Walzer laughed.) He was the youngest member of the editorial board in the 1960s, and among its first and most fervent opponents of the Vietnam War—several older Dissentniks had been on first-name bases with the Vietnamese Trotskyists whom the Vietcong murdered early on, and were therefore less reluctant to support the U.S. war.

For a long time, Dissent was not a young man’s magazine (though it was, for quite some time, decidedly a man’s magazine; Walzer’s feminism, he said, was a prime difference he had with his elders, and the masthead is now much more balanced). And it’s because of this history, and the sudden infusion of young blood in the magazine in the wake of the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, that Walzer’s departure feels more like a baton-passing. “We have the best young people that we’ve had in quite some time,” he told me. “We’ve had some very good young people as interns and assistant editors at the magazine over the years. But the current group is more politically engaged, and has a real network, which in former years didn’t exist.”

The cover of the latest Dissent features a package on China, but the headline tells a different story: “China’s 99%,” it reads. Dissent has become part of a growing cluster of magazines and groups pushing a revived leftism in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. “The young people in our office, all of them, were very, very involved in Occupy,” Walzer told me. On his coffee table, among several neat piles of magazines and books, one could espy copies of n+1’s Occupy! Gazette, which Dissent associate editor Sarah Leonard helped edit. “We both welcomed Occupy and published some critical things about it,” he added.

Walzer was skeptical that Occupy had made inequality a lasting national political issue, though he was encouraged by smaller-scale actions surrounding issues like foreclosures and student debt that borrowed Occupy’s rhetoric and momentum. And he articulated the typical grumpiness about the movement’s dogmatic anti-dogmatism, its refusal to “coerce” its adherents into signing on to concrete stands without the imprimatur of complete unanimity.

Above all, though, I sensed no unease from Walzer about the direction of the left, or about his decision to retire. Dissent, as of 2009 published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, is now in the black, according to Walzer. “They stopped the bleeding,” he said. “Despite the fact that something like 400 libraries have cancelled their subscriptions, they’re all buying the archive. So we’re living on our past. And it’s an illustrious past, so it’s not entirely bad. I don’t know how long you can do that, though.”

  1. Longtime Dissentnik Paul Berman—now a New Republic senior editor—dramatized the disagreement over Iraq in a whimsical essay in Dissent. These days, Walzer wonders whether the younger generation of Dissentniks might be more forgiving of populist Third World regimes than he would be.