Principled Critic

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As a Fortune magazine writer turned Trotskyite, critic of World War II turned Cold War anti-communist, and fellow traveler with the New Left, Dwight Macdonald seemed to earn Diana Trilling’s characterization of political fad follower. A reading of his political resume at least gives the impression of inconsistency, of a man abandoning his principles whenever the political temperature changes. The publication of his letters, however, settles this matter once and for all. The man was not inconsistent: He was a life-long libertarian.

But not one of the free-market variety. Macdonald belonged to the left-libertarian camp of George Orwell, Victor Serge, and Edmund Wilson; that group of intellectuals who trained their crosshairs on all draconian entities with an appetite for power – including, and especially, corporations. Thus, Macdonald’s broadsides in these letters are directed at Henry Luce as well as Lillian Hellman.

Macdonald’s list of targets in these letters is long and bipartisan: Stalin, FOR, The Nation, The New Republic, National Review, Joseph McCarthy, Owen Lattimore, William F. Buckley, and the Black Panthers, to name a few. Only a chronic curmudgeon or a writer of fixed principles impervious to left-wing or right-wing appeals could compile such a list. Macdonald was both.

One of the reasons Macdonald’s writing from the Trotskyite period is readable while others’ – such as the apocalyptic-minded James Burnham – is not, is that Macdonald never turns off his critical apparatus even when writing on Trotsky himself, the darling of the Upper West Side. Macdonald saw undemocratic tendencies in Trotsky early on, criticizing him for Leninist views toward dissent.

Macdonald was truly against any grain. During the most popular war in U.S. history, he was an uncomfortable reminder of the war’s undemocratic tendencies (the alliance with Stalin, the homicidal ranting of Patton, the relocation of the Japanese-Americans). During the Cold War, when the Buckleys and Hellmans were demanding that people stand and be counted, he attacked Joe McCarthy and Owen Lattimore – the former a sacred cow of the anti-communists, the latter of the anti-anti-communists. Even during the Vietnam War, when contemporaries such as Mary McCarthy championed the Viet Cong, Macdonald never lost his bearings, criticizing LBJ, Nixon, and the Viet Cong itself.

It was this quality of applying the same standards to all that made Macdonald incapable of being an organization man. No one in the groups he joined – the Trotskyites, the staff of Partisan Review, the Committee for Cultural Freedom, the New Left – could control him or make him tow a party line. He was a loose cannon. When Partisan Review supported America’s entry into World War II, he was against it. Although he followed the basic thrust of the New Left, he criticized its heroes, Castro and Mao.

These groups and others saw him as unpredictable. But he was in fact the most predictable of writers. He was against anyone who threatened individual freedom. Again and again, his letters sound like the dying echo of the last individualist on earth warning that the torch of liberty is about to go out. Reading his letters, one could telegraph his blows: defenders of totalitarianism (read: enemies of individual freedom) were attacked (Hellman, Dashell Hammett, Howard Fast); bursts of individual action, no matter how controversial, were defended (Dean Acheson’s refusal to turn his back on Alger Hiss; the decision of the Bollinger Committee to give an award to Mussolini-sympathizer Ezra Pound).

But the letters show a man as contemptuous of his fellow citizens as H.L. Mencken. Culturally conservative, he saw American offerings as low- brow. Had he lived into our own era, he would have been horrified by the curriculum of history and American studies departments – courses in the history of chewing gum, toilets, and orgasms. He would have been a regular contributor to David Horowitz’s Crimes of the Politically Correct.

The letters also satisfy my own concerns about what appeared to be Macdonald’s selective anti-totalitarianism. Why did he oppose American entry into WorId War II and not the Cold War? In these letters, Macdonald offers a defensible, if not a completely convincing, argument. Hitler’s doctrines were automatically offensive, of appeal to no one save crackpots and racists. Stalin, on the other hand, cloaked his doctrines in progressive rhetoric and thus had a surface appeal that had to be exposed.

Macdonald had a very readable prose style and that rare literary ability to write well and logically at the same time. Correspondence is not usually the most studied effort of writers, but Macdonald’s are as penetrating and interesting as his celebrated essays. His life fit Christopher Hitchens’ description of Orwell the essayist: “He was not afraid to follow a question to its logical conclusion, even if it contradicted his views.” In an age when pundits still excuse away the crimes of the Clintons, when academics selectively employ free speech only for people of color, he stands as a corrective and a figure to be emulated.

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