A critical American: the politics of Dwight Macdonald.
The convergence of Luce's and Wallace's views of an American century represented everything that Dwight and Nancy Macdonald's Politics sought to discredit. Where the two Henrys blurred the distinction between political power and sentimental humanitarianism, Dwight Macdonald insisted that a renewal of ethical absolutes must remain the first step in political change. While the two Henrys used the vague pieties of the progressive tradition to justify American war aims, Macdonald drew on Randolph Bourne's antiwar essays of 1917 to show that the engineers of total war engaged in total destruction for its own sake, and liberal intellectuals were left the job of making slaughter palatable to the public. And, most important, while Luce and Wallace indulged in pseudopopulist fantasies of a postwar global democracy, Macdonald recognized that theirs was a democracy of victims, not of citizens. "Not for many centuries have individuals been at once so powerless to influence what is done by the national collectivities to which they belong," he wrote, "and at the same time so generally held responsible for what is done by those collectivities."
Stephen J. Whitfield's A Critical American reminds us of the central place of Politics in American radical thought and of Macdonald's unmatched gifts as a polemicist. Whitfield correctly identifies Macdonald as the intellectual who bridged the gap between the radicalism of the 1940s and that of the 1960s. The magazine that Macdonald originally planned to call New Left (until C. Wright Mills gave him the title Politics) welcomed Mills, Paul Goodman, Simone Weil, Albert Camus and other writers who would come to inspire the early New Left. Macdonald's most important essay, "The Root Is Man," opposed a post-Marxist radical humanism to the liberal's faith in organization and technology, insisting on a decentralized, morally grounded politcs of nonviolent resistance which would later be echoed in the "Port Huron Statement," the civil rights movement and organized opposition to the Vietnam War. The very style and format of Politics--perhaps the most personal endeavor on the American left since the hundreds of tiny populist and socialist newspapers published at the turn of the century--prefigured the freewheeling iconoclasm of the 1960s counterculture. Macdonald's essays combined a powerful indictment of a dehumanized age with a savagely funny style which held up the ironic intellect as a means of liberation. Even today, Macdonald's best workd reads as if it had just been written. His Politics essays constitute an American Dialectic of Enlightenment, as translated by H.L. Mencken.
Whitfield's book, really an extended essay, is probably only the first of numerous studies of Macdonald and his circle which are bound to appear in the near future. Many members of the generation of New York intellectuals who made the long journey from fellow-traveling liberalism to anti-Stalinist Marxism and, finally, to the cold war consensus celebrated in Partisan Review's "Our County and Our Culture" sympsioum of 1952 have already had their say. William Barrett, William Phillips, Irving Howe and Lionel Abel have all published memoirs in the past few years, in each case provoking reviewers to refight the battles of New York's literary left during the grim years between the Moscow trials and Hiroshima. In these works, Macdonald is customarily depicted as a lively but somehow insubstantial figure, a political lightweight with a sharp tongue. For neoconservatives like Barrett and historian William L. O'Neill, Macdonald was a useful ally in the campaign against the cultural Popular Front. His radicalism, however, tends to be ignored or trivialized, as if his wit precluded the possibility of serious thought.
The dilemma of Politics in the late 1940s, namely that of maintaining an independent radical position in a world divided by superpowers armed with deadly weapons and deadly cliches, reappears in these memoirs and histories. For those whose world view has been entirely shaped by the cold war, Macdonald is an impossible figure to understand. The neocons love his description of Henry Wallaceland ("a region of perpetual fogs, caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier") but view his radical critique of advanced industrialism with impatient bemusement. Macdonald's political ideas were "exotic," inconsistent, intellectual dandyism--in other words, they didn't fit the prescribed categories of cold war politics. The closing of options in the late 1940s has been matched by the closing of minds in the early 1980s, leaving no space for a thinker as original and resilient as Macdonald.
To some extent, Macdonald was himself responsible for his reputation. His public actions branded hims as an intellectual Wobbly devoted to sabotage at the point of cultural production. As he explained in his autobiographical introduction to Memoirs of a Revolutionist, the 1957 anthology of his Politics essays (now, sadly, out of print), his career as a literary radical began while he was a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he founded "an exclusive club--there were only two other members--called The Hedonists." Firm believers in the time-honored tradition of "school spirit sucks,c Macdonald's Hedonists sported monocles, purple batik ties and canes; published a newspaper with the motto "Pour Epater les Bourgeois"; and dedicated themselves to the principles of "Cynicism, Estheticism, Criticism, Pessimism." Forty years later, the renowned cultural critic was a guest at Lyndon Johnson's White House Festival of the Arts, where, with his shirttails hanging out, he circulated a petition condemning the President's war in Vietnam. The high point of the event was Macdonald's "eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation" with Charlton Heston, who told him "in the nicest possible way" that intellectuals should keep their noses out of foreign policy.
Along the way, between the purple batik ties and the showdown with Ben Hur, Macdonald had thrown a number of other wrenches into the works of cultural establishments. A writer at Luce's Fortune, he brought his relationship with that magazine to an end by beginning an expose of U.S. Steel in 1936 with a quote from Lenin's Imperialism. A brief period of fellow-traveling ended with a letter to The New Republic denouncing Malcolm Cowley's feeble defense of the Moscow trials. A member of the Socialist Workers Party, and then the workers Party, from 1939 to 1941, Macdonald dared to take on the great man himself, challenging Trotsky on the notion that the Soviet Union was a "workers' state" when workers had little say in its government. After six years with Partisan Review, he quit to start Politics, charging that P.R.'s pro-war stance meant that it had given up partisanship for book reviewing. Politics itself moved quickly from the Deweyite Marxism popular among New York intellectuals to anarcho-pacifism, until weariness and financial difficulties forced Macdonald to shut down operations in 1949. But the 1950s, he was convinced that pacifism represented a de facto capitulation to the Soviet Union and so, however reluctantly, "chose the West" in a speech of Mount Holyoke.
Unlike the majority of former leftists who made the same choice with enthusiastic fanfare for their country and their culture, Macdonald's anticommunism remained somewhat "against the American grain" and reflected the collapse of a third way between the superpowers. "Perhaps there is no solution any longer," he wrote despairingly in 1953. "Certainly the actual workings of history today yield an increasing number of situations in which all the real alternatives (as against the theoretically possible ones) seem hopeless." By the mid-1960s his interest in politics revived, as did his spirits, and it is not surprising that Macdonald spoke out openly in favor of the Columbia radicals of 1968. Though the regretted that the New Leftists lacked the "intellectual and moral style ... my own generation had," Macdonald undoubtedly recognized something of his own past as a young "revolutionist" in the protesters who occupied the university president's office and smoked his cigars.
Macdonald was fond of quoting Lord Melbourne's dictum, "Nobody ever did anything very foolish except from some strong principle," and it is to Whitfield's credit that he has salvaged Macdonald's principles from the wreckage of cold war verbiage that still taints all discussions of liberalism and the left in the postwar era. Between 1938 and his death in December 1982, Macdonald was--in Whitfield's view--"a democrat and a libertarian (but not a liberal) in politics, an elitist and a classicist (but not a formalist) in the arts, an empiricist and a fox (rather than a hedgehog) by temperament." A Critical American reveals the predicament of a keen intellect obsessed with moral standards and precision in public language when confronted with official propaganda, bureaucratic elitism and indiscriminate warfare. In 1944, Macdonald believed that our best hope for a better, or even a humanly tolerable world after this war is for the common people to take things in their own hands in a series of popular revolutions which will be socialist as to economics and democratic as to politcs. The chances of anything like that happening in this country in the foreseeable future would seem to be as close to nil as at any time in our history.
That problem has haunted the democratic left ever since, as has the possibility of nuclear war, which Macdonald saw as "the natural product of the kind of society we have created." In recounting the story of "one man's search for a principled radicalism," Whitfield restores Macdonald to his position of honor in a dishonorable age.
That said, one hopes that this will not be the last word on Macdonald. The book really only scratches the surface of his career, omitting any discussion of his cultural criticism and, most surprisingly, refraining from any realeal treatment of Macdonald as a person. Too often, Whitfield relies on Macdonald's self-deprecating introduction to Memoirs, when letters or interviews would present a richer portrait of this cantankerous fellow. Nor does Whitffield always do justice to the flavor and power of Macdonald's writing. "The Root Is Man" loses its force in Whitfield's account, since he considers it a dry period piece. This will come as a surprise to those who remember Macdonald's important distinction between "progressive" and "radical" politics:
The Progressive makes History the center of his ideology. The Radical puts Man there. The Progressive's attitude is optimistic both about human nature ... and about the possibility of understanding history trhough scientific method. The Radical is, if not exactly pessimistic, at least more sensitive to the dual nature of man; he sees evil as well as good at the base of human nature; he is skeptical about the ability of science to explain things beyond a certain point; he is aware of the tragic element in man's fate not only today but in any conceivable kind of society.
That the debate between these positions still continues should be clear to anyone familiar with the current state of the intellectual left. Whitfield misses this aspect of Macdonald's legacy altogether. Nor does he help matters by occasionally trying to mimic Macdonald's style, a formidable task best avoided by even the most gifted polemicist. To label "The Root Is Man" a lifeless, dated diatribe only to drop off a few leaden one-liners of one's own is to borrow trouble.
Future work on Macdonald will have to begin by examining the connection between his political and cultural criticism which Whitfield ignores. Not since Randolph Bourne had an American intellectual argued so convincingly that the two are inseparable and that political change requires a cultural revolution. Like his contemporaries Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling and Paul Goodman, Macdonald sought to re-establish political criticism on the basis of moral and psychological principles resistant to the changing fads of consumer culture and party platforms. "The Root Is Man" asserted the existence of a "ital core" of free will in human nature, an irreducible area that could never succumb completely to the iron laws of history or the iron cage of bureaucratic rationality. Macdonald's subsequent writings, even his most apparently apolitical essays, should be seen as attempts to safeguard that vital core of freedom.
Macdonald differed most from Neibuhr, Trilling and Goodman in his sense of where that vital core lay. While Neibuhr called on a Judeo-Christian notion of the self as both limited and transcendent, and while Trilling and Goodman--in very different ways--looked to psychoanalysis for a human vantage point "beyond culture," Macdonald's sense of shrinking opportunities for political change left him only the promise of elite culture as an alternative to the uniformity of modern life. His hero Bourne may have hoped to create a "Beloved Community," a popular culture that would serve to educate a democratic citizenry, but Macdonald increasingly saw in the postwar West only the ascendancy of the "mass man," whose every thought was the product of the "Masscult" industry. As he wrote in "Masscult and Midcult," his most famous defense of high culture, the "atoms" of mass society "cohere ... in a purely mechanical way, as iron filings of different shapes and sizes are pulled toward a magnet working on the one quality they have in common." Like the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Macdonald found less and less breathing space in the chambers of mass culture.
Where, then, did the possibility of human freedom lie for Macdonald? In the end, only in intellectual style, the gift he possessed in such enormous quantity. It was cosmopolitan style that attracted Macdonald to Trotsky in the 1930s--a style that was, to his mind, so obviously lacking in the United States. Returning to New York in 1957 after a year in London, Macdonald described Americans as "an unhappy people ... a people without style, without a sense of what is humanly satisfying." And Macdonald cultivated his own style, not just in his writing but in his very persona, adopting an attitude of perpetual crankiness as his protection against kitsch and conformism. The irony of this position, of course, was that a radicalism of style only mirroered the promises of self-fulfillment offered by mss culture. Macdonald himself recognized that the mass media created a false Gemeinschaft by "emphasizing the personality of the artist." This cult of charismatic "personality" provided "the simplest way" of answering individuals' "need to be related to other people" without providing a genuine democratic community. Macdonald's fascination with a style of rebellion, another of his legacies to the New Left, offered no real alternative to thi state of affairs, since (as subsequent years have shown) all dissident styles have become grist for the "masscult" mill. A hope for the survival of human agency based on the idiosyncracies of personal style is a thin hope indeed.
For all that, Macdonald's insistence on the interconnections between culture and politics, between personality and society and between human agency and radical change remain the starting point for all current discussions of where we should go next. With the revival of the cold war, the left needs more than ever to heed voices such as his, voices that ask uncomfortable questions and take up positions that often have no official defenders. The real test of the intellectual left in the coming years will be its ability to stand aside amid the reruns of the ideological cold war and to resist (perhaps more consistently than Macdonald did) the clamor to take sides once again. Last year's uproar over The Rosenberg File, with its assumption (on both the right and the left) that the contemporary left sinks or swims with the case for the Rosenbergs' innocence, is a disturbing sign of intellectual regression. A more productive approach to our own past would involve turning to "The Root Is Man," Memoirs of a Revolutionist and other documents in the proudly unorthodox tradition of American radical thought, and sorting out their legacy. If that seems like an irresponsible avoidance of concrete proposals and programs, well, there are worse things radical intellectuals could do in a period of isolation and powerlessness. At its best, a self-critical left might answer Macdonald's stirring call to arms at the conclusion of "The Root Is Man":
We must emphasize the emotions, the imagination, the moral feelings, the primacy of the individual human being once more, must restore the balance that has been broken by the hypertrophy of science in the last two centuries. The root is man, here and not there, now and not then.