Michael Walzer Looks Back on His Decades at ‘Dissent’

Michael Walzer, political theorist and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., recently announced he would be retiring from his post as co-editor of Dissent. After 50 years with the quarterly (roughly 20 of them as co-editor), Walzer is stepping down to concentrate on other projects (including writing a book, editing two more volumes of The Jewish Political Tradition, and lecturing at Yale). “I just can’t keep up anymore,” he told The New Republic.

In Dissent’s spring issue Michael Kazin, Martha C. Nussbaum, Brian Morton, and Avishai Margalit offered reflections on Walzer’s tenure. For Kazin, Walzer is a “supremely rational man,” for Nussbaum, he is “The Mensch.” Walzer himself provided the last word: “At seventy-eight, I still want to be an intellectual, and I still want to write for Dissent.”

While Walzer’s intellectual career has been widely covered (including in The Chronicle), he agreed, in a recent phone interview, to chat about Dissent’s ever-evolving relationship with academe.

“We have always been largely written by professors,” he points out. Walzer explains that when the publication started, in 1954, several of its writers and editors made a living as public intellectuals. Then, as the academy expanded in the 1950s, they moved to academic posts. “We looked for people who knew something about the subjects we wanted to write about,” he says. “Increasingly, those people were academics.”

Yet as academe grew and absorbed those working in its periphery, something was lost. “The world of the freelance intellectual, the autodidact—that world has largely disappeared,” he says.

Still, the expansion of the academy during this period wasn’t all bad news for the left-leaning little magazine. Because Dissent only paid contributors who made a living by writing (as opposed to those who made a living by teaching), it was able to cut down on some of its expenses. “A magazine like Dissent is parasitic on the academic world,” Walzer suggests.

In more recent times, with both higher education and publishing in upheaval, things have continued to change.

Walzer has been paying close attention to what he calls “the creation of an academic proletariat of adjuncts and part-timers.” He emphasizes the need for sustained critique of this phenomenon, while acknowledging that the shift is re-creating a certain type of freelance intellectual: the smart young people who would ordinarily have attended graduate school and are increasingly seeking out alternative paths. Still, he emphasizes that this is a byproduct of a dismal reality: “What’s happening in the academic world is nothing to be happy about.”

And Walzer has seen other changes. Dissent is now published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which stepped in when the publication was facing financial difficulties. Penn Press put the Dissent archive online, which provided a new income stream and stabilized the financial situation. New opportunities have also arisen through Dissent’s online site, which tends to cover timelier events than those that appear in the print issue.

In spite of the numerous challenges facing both publishing and academe, Walzer remains optimistic. He especially admires the young people who are taking over much of the writing and editing of the publication. His hope for the future of Dissent? “What I expect is simply for it to sustain the tradition of democratic socialism—social democracy—to give it social life, and to engage a new generation.”

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