[Marxism] Dwight Macdonald

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 22 07:18:14 MST 2006

 From Trotsky to Midcult:
In Search of Dwight Macdonald

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Although he was born and bred in New York and had lived there all his life, 
“I have never much liked the place,” Dwight Macdonald told a friend in 
1960. It was a typical phrase from a man who was one of the great New York 
journalists of the 20th century, as well as one of the remarkable group we 
know as the New York intellectuals. Macdonald was born on March 24, 1906, 
and for all his curmudgeonly attitude toward the city, it would be sad if 
his unloved New York forgot him on his centenary.

A great journalist, Macdonald never wrote for daily newspapers and took a 
faintly sarcastic attitude toward The New York Times: For him and his 
comrades on the revolutionary left in the 1930’s and 40’s, The Times was 
“what Aristotle was to the mediaeval scholastics, a revered authority, even 
though Pagan.” Instead, Macdonald spent his life writing for magazines. He 
quite rightly thought that imposed brevity was the bane of papers and 
magazines (worse now than then). He was not a reporter but an essayist, who 
could develop an argument at length, and his life can be charted by the 
very disparate series of magazines he worked for, all but one in his hometown.

It was very much old New York that he came from, the son of a cultivated, 
well-to-do family, educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale. Macdonald 
remembered his school—his description of his time there has strong echoes 
of the account of their schooldays by English contemporaries like Cyril 
Connolly and Evelyn Waugh—but ancien régime Yale left him completely 
untouched. When he graduated in 1928, he unenthusiastically joined Macy’s 
at $30 a week, left after the briefest experience of retailing and was 
offered a job on Fortune.

That lugubriously glossy monthly was launched by Henry Luce of Time “to 
celebrate the ‘saga’ of American business,” and appeared shortly after the 
Wall Street collapse of 1929, when many people would have given up, 
Macdonald observed, “but Luce had the Stalingrad spirit and persisted.” So 
did Macdonald, staying with Fortune until 1936 and learning how to write. 
But his work made him increasingly skeptical about the American capitalist 
system he saw at close quarters, and like so many others he moved leftward, 
until his life was changed by the Moscow trials.

It was very much to the credit of the American left that the trials had a 
much greater impact in New York than in England and France. Macdonald may 
have been an extreme case, and even he was amazed by “the speed with which 
I evolved from a liberal into a radical and from a tepid Communist 
sympathizer into an ardent anti-Stalinist,” a speed which some saw as 
indicating an open mind, “others as evidence of levity.”

In the 1930’s, New York was the most interesting part of Soviet Russia, 
it’s been said, since it was the only place where the conflict between 
Stalinism and Trotskyism could be played out in the open without one side 
simply killing the other. Macdonald joined Philip Rahv and William Phillips 
in resuscitating Partisan Review, formerly a Communist organ, now to become 
one of the great little magazines of the century, publishing T.S. Eliot, 
George Orwell and André Gide as well as half the best American writers of 
the age. The PR crowd shaded into the revolutionary-socialist movement, and 
from 1938 Macdonald was an active supporter, then member, of the Socialist 
Workers Party, the tiny but influential Trotskyist party that was something 
like a New York sect or cult. He even had the temerity to take issue with 
the Old Man far away in Mexico and, in return, received a magisterial 
rebuke from Trotsky not long before Stalin’s hit man murdered him.




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