From Trotsky to Midcult: In Search of Dwight Macdonald

Although he was born and bred in New York and had lived there all his life, “I have never much

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.

But Macdonald wasn’t really cut out for far-left sectarian politics, partly because he had too much sense of the ridiculous. One of my favorite passages describes the Trotskyist split over the so-called Winter War of 1939-40, when Stalin invaded Finland. One faction, led by Max Shachtman and passionately endorsed by Macdonald, opposed the invasion, invoking the ideological point that Russia was now “state capitalist” and altogether no good for anything; the other, led by James P. Cannon (and Trotsky himself), supported it, because Russia was a “decayed workers’ state” bringing socialism—albeit decayed—to the Finns, whether they wanted it or not. The dispute was entirely abstract and without any practical meaning whatever, Macdonald later pointed out. His own faction did not go off to Finland to fight for Baron Mannerheim, and “the Cannonites didn’t volunteer for the Red Army (which would have shot them).”

In more than one way, Macdonald was an odd man out among the New York intellectuals. That venerable phrase contained an invisible adjective—“Jewish”—and Macdonald’s position as token gentile was often uneasy. As a young man, he had been capable of the odious anti-Semitism of his age and class, and throughout his life he was at the least what could be called Jew-conscious—literally so in the sense that he could detect the numbers of Jews in an audience of fellow radicals, or describe a demonstration in London to Mary McCarthy as including “a contingent of Jewish youth, their faces vivid with race.” He was also out of step as one of the first to say that the Palestinians had suffered an injustice with the creation of Israel, and he defended his friend Hannah Arendt in the controversy about her book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. (Here I think he was mistaken: The trouble with Arendt, in that book and elsewhere, is that she’s clever and erudite, but her heart’s in the wrong place.)

So it wasn’t surprising that Macdonald’s opposition to World War II separated him from the PR crowd, for whom Hitler’s reign of murderous persecution had an obvious personal resonance. In early 1944, he began his own magazine called, simply, Politics. It lasted until 1949, and it was wonderful. To this day, it enjoys a subterranean reputation among those of us too young to have read it at the time: Two years ago, when Hendrik Hertzberg published an anthology of his own work, he called it Politics in homage. Macdonald himself never wrote a full-length book, but in 1957 he published a collection of his work, mostly from Politics, called Memoirs of a Revolutionist (a title he regretted), and anyone who has never read it should borrow or steal a copy.

The writer he best compares with is George Orwell, and there’s a touching story: The two never met, but Macdonald published Orwell in Politics and they became good pen-friends. Plenty of others appeared in Politics—Bruno Bettelheim, Victor Serge, Simone Weil—but it was ultimately an expression of one man’s personality, at an extraordinary and terrible moment in history, with the war, Stalin’s tyranny, the death camps, the atomic bomb. No one else wrote about these things and “the responsibility of peoples” as well as Macdonald, and no one grasped better the way that those events had destroyed the basic optimism on which progressive politics had rested since the Enlightenment, the belief that all that was needed was material progress and human mastery of the environment: “The environment was controlled at Maidanek. It was the human beings who ran amok.”

Even at that grim time, Macdonald was a very funny writer. Read him on “My favorite general” (that is, George S. Patton, unlike one or two other generals who had “developed a sly ability to simulate human beings”), or the Soviet ruler’s way of saying everything three times: “On the evidence of Stalin’s barbarous oratorical style alone, one could deduce the bureaucratic inhumanity and the primitiveness of modern Soviet society.” And he could direct his wit on either side politically, at the “comrades” of the Communist Party and his sometime Trotskyist companions or, a little later, at the youthful career of William F. Buckley Jr.

Of late, Mr. Buckley has been much celebrated, what with his 80th birthday and the 50th of the National Review. As an antidote, try Macdonald on the “very argumentative and very ambitious” Bill Buckley, whose book defending Joseph McCarthy was “written in an elegantly pedantic style, replete with nice discriminations and pedantic hair-splittings, giving the general effect of a brief by Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft on behalf of a pickpocket arrested in a subway men’s room.” (Mr. Buckley’s first critics, by the way, included Peter Viereck, McGeorge Bundy and August Heckscher, whom Macdonald called “three leading spokesmen for the neoconservative tendency that has arisen among the younger intellectuals.” Does any language maven know an earlier sighting of that potent word than 1952?)

Wonderful as it was, Politics was financially and personally exhausting, and lasted little more than five years. If the 1940’s had meant Partisan Review and Politics, the 1950’s meant two other magazines for Macdonald, The New Yorker and Encounter, neither a wholly happy episode. Macdonald spent a merry year in London editing Encounter, a political-literary magazine—and a very good one, on the whole—which had developed out of the conflict between Communists and liberal anti-Communists in the postwar decades.

A Congress for Cultural Freedom held its first meeting in Berlin in 1950, and was soon acting as a channel for funds to magazines like Preuves in France, the Monat in Germany and Encounter. By the time Macdonald went to London, rumors were already circulating about the ultimate source of the Congress’ money, which was of course not some obscure, disinterested angel but—for all that Melvin Lasky, the kingpin of the operation, repeatedly denied such a link—the C.I.A.

For years, Macdonald shut his ears to those rumors, except to write in 1955 to Stephen Spender, another editor on the magazine, that “I know very little of what the Congress has been up to,” but that its supposed hands-off policy “sounds positively idyllic,” as it no doubt did. By 1962, when rumor was louder still, Macdonald wrote again with a forlorn “Say it ain’t so, Stephen,” and not long after that the story finally broke into the open with irrefutable evidence of the connection, when Macdonald indignantly paraded himself as an “unwitty CIA agent” and an innocent victim.

Just why he comes out so badly in this story should be spelled out, since it isn’t the usual anti-anti-Communist contempt for any liberal opponents of Stalinism. The best verdict on the affair was given by the English philosopher A.J. Ayer, who was not himself a card-carrying member of the “Anti-Communist Left,” and who was hostile to the militant zeal of Arthur Koestler as well as initially antipathetic to Lasky. (I myself did like Mel, though recognizing that this was an acquired taste.) Ayer nevertheless attended that first meeting in Berlin, wrote for Encounter, and years later said that he had been in no way shocked by Lasky’s denial of a C.I.A. connection, “as I did not see how he could possibly expect anyone to take it seriously; I still do not understand how it could have deceived anyone who had anything to do with the Congress for Cultural Freedom.” In any case, Ayer added, there were surely “many worse uses to which the CIA might and indeed did apply its funds.” The words “I still do not understand” were an obvious rebuke to Macdonald, who had quite enough experience of the financial woes of little-magazine publishing and might have asked himself just where the fat salary and expense account were coming from.

Although his relationship with The New Yorker was a little less fraught, it wasn’t really satisfactory. Baiting The New Yorker had long been a favorite sport of the New York intelligentsia. In his famous 1939 essay for Partisan Review, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” Clement Greenberg called The New Yorker “fundamentally high-class kitsch for the luxury trade,” and Macdonald wrote his own attack. Then, in 1946, he said (apropos of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” essay) that “I don’t like the New Yorker’s suave, toned-down underplayed kind of naturalism”; in 1948, he compared Luce of Time and Harold Ross of The New Yorker, who each had an original journalistic idea “which they have slowly developed into big-circulation magazines of the appropriate mediocrity”; and in 1952, he joined The New Yorker as a staff writer. It’s half touching and half sad to see him writing from West 43rd Street to a friend, “Pretty impressive this letterhead, eh?”—without any evident irony. “Marvelous—so quiet and businesslike, fluorescent lights, free paper & pencils, phone …. ”

Over 10 years, he wrote some very good things for the magazine, as well as some quite ordinary things. Macdonald had now turned away from politics for literature, or culture-criticism (for want of another name), and his targets included what was not yet called dumbing-down, in the shape of banal new translations of the Bible, the latest edition of Webster’s Dictionary, or Dr. Mortimer J. Adler’s “Great Books,” as well as empty pretentiousness in the form of James Gould Cozzens’ ludicrously overblown novel By Love Possessed and Colin Wilson’s alleged philosophical treatise The Outsider, both published to a critical acclaim that now seems quite inexplicable.

He was also elaborating his thesis of “Masscult and Midcult,” the one being industrialized popular culture for the masses, the other the genteel middlebrow kitsch that “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them,” in the manner of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

But there was a twist to that story too. The essay was originally commissioned in 1958 by Life as part of an attempt to strike some serious cultural attitudes, along with contributions from Randall Jarrell and Clement Greenberg. All went well, except that Macdonald, while pouring scorn not only on The Saturday Evening Post but The Atlantic Monthly as soggy products of Midcult, made an exception for The New Yorker, “a Midcult magazine but one with a difference.” It might be edited to a formula, “but the formula reflects the taste of the editors and not their fear of the readers.” He was most indignant when the editors at Life thought that he was pulling his punches, though that’s very much what it looks like. After an impasse was reached, the essay appeared in the dear old Partisan Review.

All his life Macdonald had difficulty writing, and eventually found that he couldn’t produce for The New Yorker any more. He was maybe manic-depressive and suffered from writer’s block, or perhaps he just needed a deadline: In the 1960’s, he wrote fluently enough about politics and movies for Esquire (scintillatingly as well as fluently in the case of his film criticism), and he later had a peripatetic life teaching conscientiously on one campus or another as his health declined. I met him just once, in 1981, when I sought him out to write about him for The Spectator. In the 1950’s, he’d moved to The New Yorker, moved from one marriage to another, and moved from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side, where I found him being looked after by Gloria, his second wife (his first wife, Nancy, who died not many years ago, was a lifelong left-wing activist and the unsung heroine of Politics). Dwight was genial but wheezy, and looked older than his 75 years. He died in December 1982.

Writing about his friend James Agee not long after Agee’s death at 45, Macdonald described him “talking passionately, brilliantly, but too much, drinking too much, smoking too much, reading aloud too much, making love too much, and in general cultivating just about the worst set of work habits in Greenwich Village.” Although he wasn’t quite as self-destructive as Agee (that would have been difficult), Macdonald was a heavy drinker and smoker all his life, who did not take good, or indeed any, care of himself.

Reading between the lines of Michael Wreszin’s biography, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition (1994), or Macdonald’s own published letters, it’s easy to see that he could be argumentative and cantankerous even when sober, quarrelsome and offensive when not (“Was horrified to learn from Gloria how badly I had behaved,” says one letter to a friend). But it wasn’t just bad habits: He was gnawed at by a sense of missed opportunity. Macdonald didn’t “sell out” when he moved to the big-market, big-bucks magazine world, and anyway, he had a living to earn and a family to support like the rest of us.

All the same, there’s nothing more poignant than when he said once, “I have the impression I’m better known for Politics than for my articles in The New Yorker, whose circulation is roughly seventy times greater.” This was curious but not necessarily surprising, he added, since a little magazine is much more intensively read and circulated than the big commercial magazines, as “a more individual expression and so appealing to other individuals.” And for just that reason, he still speaks to his devotees.

He isn’t strictly out of print (if Amazon is to be believed), but he cries out for proper reissue. An academic publisher should bring out all of Politics in facsimile. And as a belated centennial tribute, shouldn’t there be a Dwight Macdonald Reader?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English author and journalist whose books include The Controversy of Zion (Perseus) and, most recently, The Strange Death of Tory England (Gardners).

From Trotsky to Midcult:  In Search of Dwight Macdonald