Thursday, January 27, 2005

Book Report: Legacy of Dissent

Legacy of Dissent ed. by Nicolaus Mills Dissent Magazine is my favorite contemporary political journal (admittedly, of like three that I ever read). It's avowedly left-wing, so it doesn't try to be all things to all people (like some). Yet unlike many left-wing magazines, it doesn't waste your time with choir-preaching conservative-bashing that serves merely to make you feel righteous, rather than advance a discussion (like a few magazines I can think of). Rather, it devotes its energy to liberal self-critique, challenging of orthodoxies, and honest insight into what in the liberal agenda is both moral and practicable. I was vaguely aware of Dissent's history as a noteworthy anti-Communist (but pro-democratic-socialism) voice in the post-WWII landscape, so I was excited to stumble onto this collection of essays spanning the history of the magazine. Well, my overwhelming impression is: Socialist thinking was by and large a bunch of dreck, man. For an anti-Communist magazine, they spent a lot of time quoting Marx, debating what Marx really would have wanted, and cooking up their vision of what a just society would look like. Peering from the far side of the millenium, this stuff reads like so much hooey. The cultural writing, on the other hand, retains immense social and historical interest, and there are some real gems here. Paul Goodman's "Growing Up Absurd", from 1960, charts the emergence of the Beats and a whole generation of "Independents", who are not outside of the economic system, yet do not properly belong to it:
...This is the vast herd of the old-fashioned, the eccentric, and criminal, the gifted, and serious, the men and women, the rentiers, the free-lances, the infants, and so forth. This motley collection has, of course, no style or culture, unlike the organization that has our familiar "functional" style and popular culture. Its fragmented members hover about the organizations in multifarious ways — running specialty-shops, trying to teach or give other professional services, robbing banks, landscape gardening, and so forth — but they find it hard to get along, for they do not know the approved techniques of promoting, getting foundation grants, protecting themselves by official unions, lefally embezzling, and not blurting out the truth or weeping or laugh out of turn.
Cute! Another wonderful piece is Richard Wright's 1957 "White Man — Listen!", derived from his book of the same name. He wrestles with the twin facts of his existence: Black, and thus "never allowed to blend with the culture and civilization of the West"; and yet, irreconcilably, Western in his beliefs and outlook:
I have not consciously elected to be a Westerner; I have been made into a Westerner... The content of my Westernness resides fundamentally, I feel, in my secular outlook upon life. I believe in a separation of Church and State. I believe that the state possesses a value in and for itself. I feel that man - just sheer brute man just as he is - has a meaning and value over and above all sanctions or mandates from mysetical pwoers, either on high or from below... When I look out upon those vast stretches of this earth inhabited by brown, black, and yellow men — sections of the earth in which religion dominates, to the exclusion of almost everything else, the emotional and mental landscape — my reactions and attitudes are those of the West.
Though Western, Wright is not of the West:
Yet, when I turn to face the environment that cradled and nurtured me, I experience a sense of dismaying shock, for that Western environment is soaked in and stained with the most blatant racism that the contemporary world knows... Rooted in my own disinheritdness, I know instinctively that this clinging to, and defense of, racism by Western whites are born of their psychological nakedness, of their having, through historical accident, partially thrown off the mystic cauls of Asia and Africa that once too blinded and dazed them...
And I'll just end with a long excerpt from Erazim V. Kohák's "Requiem for Utopia", written after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Kohák went into exile from Czechoslovakia in 1948, and continues to write and teach at Boston University and Charles University in Prague.
[Dubcek and his colleagues] were determined to be humane authoritarians, respecting the rights of their subjects. In their seven months in power they discovered that the idea of a humane authoritarianism, the standard illusion of welll-intentioned rhetorical revolutionists, is an illusion, a contradictio in adiecto. A humane authoritarianism would respect the freedom of its subjects, and so inevitably create the possibility of dissent and opposition. Faced with opposition, the human authoritarian faces the choice of ceasing to be authoritarian — or ceasing to be humane. Repression, whatever its overt aim, can be humane only in rhetoric — in practice it necessarily means breaking men. Czechs and Slovaks, including Dubcek, were too familiar with the logic of terror to opt for the latter alternative. After seven months, the program which started out as a program of humane communism became a program of social democracy. ... The ideals of human freedom and social justice remain valid. Democracy — democracy for blacks as well as whites, in economics as well as politics, at home as well as in remote reaches of Latin America or Eastern Europe — remains valid. Socialism, the ideal of social justice and social responsibility in industrial society, remains valid. Human and vicil rights, the right of every man to personal identity and oscial participation, all remain valid. But the utopian myths of self-proclaimed rhetorical radicals do not advance these ideals. The detour on which too many socialists embarked in 1917 is over, finished, discredited, revealed as an exhiliarating, aristocratic, and ultimately reactionary social sport, not the radical social progress it claimed to be. The task that remains is the work of social progress — not the aristocratic sport of revolution, but the solid work of redical, deep-rooted transformation of society. Men may still demand their daily dose of illusion, the exhilaration of revolution or "confrontation" rather than the down-to-earth facts and figures of a Freedom Budget; but those who cater to this demand can no longer do so in the name of social progress — or in the name of socialism. Utopia is dead. Czechoslovakia has been a graveyard of illusions.


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