Dwight MacDonald, Conservative Anarchist

Leon Trotsky reportedly declared, “Every man has a right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” Paul Goodman cracked, “Dwight thinks with his typewriter.” Gore Vidal said to him, “You have nothing to say, only to add.”1 Join us on May 28, for a discussion of Dwight MacDonald, self-described “conservative anarchist.”2

Perhaps the most radical of the so-called New York intellectuals, Dwight MacDonald also outlived their casual transformation into disgruntled liberals and neo-conservative reactionaries. He is probably known by polite society for his cultural criticism—coining the terms “masscult” and “midcult” in a famous essay for Partisan Review—but his political writings are, in my view, far more interesting.3 MacDonald was a critic and essayist in the classic sense, a master stylist who deployed crisp prose with razor sharp wit and withering sarcasm. He is a pleasure to read, which makes his contemporary obscurity all the more perplexing.

MacDonald was editor of the Partisan Review before it became a reactionary Cold War rag, contributor to the New Yorker, and later editor of his own journal, the unabashedly critical Politics. In an introduction to an anthology of his writings for politics, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote:

Macdonald has turned his back on every kind of doctrine that implicitly would treat man as an object, even from a benevolent point of view. What he is concerned with is to create a humanism that can hold its own in the face of enormous bureaucracies and the atomic bomb. In so doing he has had to renounce many things which he had heretofore energetically championed. This is further evidence of what a really serious person he is.4

Far outside the mainstream of political commentary during the “good war,” MacDonald indicted Allied war crimes and lamented the double-standards of victor’s justice implemented at Nuremberg. His essay on the “Responsibility of Peoples” strongly influenced a young Noam Chomsky, who would later begin his own “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” with a brief discussion of MacDonald’s piece.5

It’s difficult to know where to begin for an introduction to his political thought. The Root of Man (1953) offers only a glimpse into MacDonald’s prodigious output; he was famous for changing his views often and with regularity. Indeed, his views had already changed considerably within months of the debate with Norman Mailer in which he expressed a willingness to “choose the West” in any final death-struggle between the USSR and the United States. So while the two essays printed in The Root is Man (1953) represent only a brief moment in his political thought, they strike at the heart of the intersection of Old and New Left. As Kevin Coogan argues in his introduction to the Autonomedia edition:

[R]eading ‘The Root Is Man’ today is no mere exercise in nostalgia. Macdonald raised issues that, almost 50 years later, have become even more critical. Macdonald’s assault on the scientific model of thinking echoed Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason. Macdonald, however, located Marxism itself in the general crisis of Enlightenment thought. … Other crucial issues raised by Macdonald included the question of active resistance to unfettered growth and the need for economic decentralization coupled with political democracy. He also took up the question of reification, citing George Lukács (not a household name is 1946) to argue that, in the concept of alienation, Marxism made its most powerful critique of the human condition under capital. The issue of reification and the damaging effect of mass culture that so concerned Macdonald would appear again in the mid-60’s Situationist polemic against the ‘society of the spectacle’ whose roots in dissident Western Marxism can be found in ‘The Root Is Man’ and politics in general. Above all, Macdonald was most concerned with the way we organize our daily political action. His insight into how mass socialist and communist parties reproduce the same deadening effect on the individual as other forms of bourgeois organization rings true today.6

Our primary source for the discussion will be the essays included in The Root is Man, but if you would like to read more, I would recommend perusing the essays in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist and perhaps also taking a look at his tremendously influential essay for the New Yorker, “Our Invisible Poor,” which prompted JFK to take action with the War on Poverty.

Readings:

Secondary Analysis:

Videos:

A short clip from MacDonald’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s show, Firing Line:

May 28, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

1. Dwight Garner, “Dwight MacDonald’s War on Mediocrity,” The New York Times, October 21, 2011.

2. Firing Line, May 1, 1967.

3. Dwight MacDonald, Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983) 3-75.

4. Hannah Arendt cited in Gregory Sumner, Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle: The Challenge of Cosmopolitan Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996) 6. 

5. Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” The New York Review of Books, February 23, 1967. 

6. Kevin Coogan, “‘The Root Is Man’ Then and Now,” in Dwight MacDonald, The Root is Man (New York: Autonomedia, 1994).

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