The ideal oppositionist

Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Born into New York aristocracy, into an old WASP family that boasted two presidents of Yale, Dwight Macdonald attended Exeter and then, naturally, went on to Yale. But he still turned out OK.

One-time Trotskyist, lifelong anarcho-pacifist, enemy of big-government liberals and political conservatives alike, dedicated antiwar activist at the time of Vietnam, enemy of bad taste, bad art and bad writing, Macdonald (1906-1982) is often celebrated as the ideal oppositional writer. He is routinely invoked by mediocrities he would skewer if he were alive today, as if banal references to Macdonald could substitute for the kind of rigorous sallies against banality at which he excelled. These breezy fans should read Macdonald more closely. “Mere abuse isn’t enough. Logic, wit, coherence, a rational structure are also needed.” Those are just two memorable sentences among countless more in these marvelous letters (edited by Michael Wreszin, also the editor of “Interviews with Dwight Macdonald”) to, among others, Mary McCarthy, Stephen Spender, Kenneth Tynan, George Orwell, Irving Howe, Harold Rosenberg, T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Victor Serge, Hannah Arendt and Czeslaw Milosz.

Macdonald considered skepticism the mountain path to human happiness, a somewhat depressed attitude. (According to Wreszin’s first-rate 1994 biography, a friend remembered the middle-aged Macdonald always having a cold.) His skepticism, though, was based on an almost childlike hopefulness about life. It ripened into a world-weary optimism that became explicit during later years in articles he published as a staff writer for the New Yorker, especially his 1952 profile of the Catholic charity worker Dorothy Day and his long review in 1963 of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” which helped instigate Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.


At the age of 40, after having worked as a staff writer for Henry Luce’s Fortune and then as co-founder and co-editor of Partisan Review, Macdonald wrote an essay titled “The Root Is Man,” which appeared in Politics, a little magazine he published after leaving Partisan Review. The essay’s epigraph is from Marx: “To be radical is to grasp the matter by its root: Now the root for mankind is man himself.” Characteristically, however, Macdonald’s polemic was an all-out attack on Marxism, and its humanistic assault on Marxism’s dialectical certitudes outraged many of Politics’ small band of subscribers.

Macdonald also laid siege to communism, Trotsky, socialism, FDR and liberals of every stripe. He believed that the enlargement of human possibilities had nothing to do with a materialist faith in historical progress, in the rational application of science and technology to society. His anarchism turned him into an aesthete who cherished art’s subtle dialogue with solitude. Not for nothing did he choose “James Joyce” as his Trotskyist alias. Out of this spirit came his classic essay “Masscult and Midcult,” lambasting American democracy’s vulgarization of high culture.

Yet Macdonald believed that a meaningful life had even less to do with faith in markets, in the rational application of the laws of self-interest and supply-and-demand to society. His aesthetic anti-materialism offered a different door into political radicalism, into his opposition to a military-industrial capitalism gone mad in Vietnam. In 1963 he wrote, “I’ve never been a liberal (but either a revolutionary or a conservative or my present blend of both).” For Macdonald, the only values that mattered were “those non-historical Absolute Values (Truth, Love, Justice) which the Marxists made unfashionable among socialists.” What might seem like Macdonald’s inconsistencies are actually his steady allegiance to unchanging values inflected in different ways by multilayered circumstances. “I wouldn’t write for a Commie house and I won’t write for a McCarthyite one either,” he told the right-wing publisher Henry Regnery.

Despite his almost religious language, Macdonald didn’t believe in God. He judged everyone and everything by the light of his own intelligence and sensibility, which he never stopped examining. As these thrillingly intimate and articulate letters demonstrate, the root of Macdonald’s skepticism toward society was his faith in the human essence, and what kept that faith warm was his mastery of aspects of himself that ran contrary to his own essential humanity. Few people have made themselves over as successfully as Macdonald did. His intuition seemed to convey experience to his mind with the innocence of a country boy carrying a pail of fresh milk to the kitchen. Macdonald’s honest style matriculated in his character.

“And then too,” the 18-year-old recent Exeter grad wrote to a young woman whom he had just met and who had discombobulated him, “there was the fact that you are a Jewess, and are rather obviously one, to make me react unfavorably.” Twenty-three years later, he was still conscientiously anguishing over his attitudes toward Jews in a memo to himself. “But of course there may be unconscious anti-semitism. Will and Edna [the Jewish co-editor of Partisan Review, William Phillips, and his wife] both agreed I had made no overtly anti-semitic statements; they however felt the overtones were in this line.”

As the editor of Politics, Macdonald gave a start to more than a few New York Jewish intellectuals, Irving Howe and Paul Goodman among them. Yet like other privileged WASPs of that time, who hailed from stability and security, Macdonald’s sometimes extreme politics was partly a reaction to his Jewish peers, many of whom grew up in uncertainty and flux, and gravitated toward stability and security. About Lionel Trilling’s defensive Anglophilia he writes: “[W]hen an American tries to be urbane -- cultivated -- it’s different from an Englishman; something hollow, inauthentic ... denies himself spontaneity, peculiarity.” Macdonald’s anarcho-pacifist opposition to American entry into World War II was as much his own version of defiant, unruffled urbanity as a genuine horror of war, and it precipitated his final break with Partisan Review.

What is evident in these letters is that, for all his scrupulous self-consciousness about his flaws, Macdonald never lost his ethical poise. He strongly defended the state of Israel, criticized Israeli policies toward the Arabs, passionately analyzed anti-Semitism, tweaked Jewish parochialism and stayed loyal to his friend Hannah Arendt throughout the storm over her controversial portrait of Jewish cowardice during the Holocaust. As an adult, the casual teenage racist -- he was born with the whole kit and kaboodle of his class -- allied himself with A. Philip Randolph’s movement to protest the armed forces’ discrimination against blacks, loudly condemned the Black Panthers, was among the first supporters of the lunch-counter sit-ins in the South and, with thickheaded antigovernment consistency, opposed Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to protect black students during the integration of Little Rock’s schools in 1957.

Macdonald made his errors of judgment and of emphasis. At times, his hostility toward artists whom middlebrow culture had embraced, figures such as Jackson Pollock and Samuel Beckett, made him sound like their middlebrow deriders. Though he was a fine, even groundbreaking, film critic, he sometimes held Hollywood entertainment to the same standard of truth-to-reality that he applied to politicians. Quoting from “Spartacus,” he writes in his review of that film, “ ‘Varinia! I thought I’d never see you again.’ Long time no see, Lucius Pompilius. Doesn’t work. Script terrible bit of Popular Front sentimentality.” Actually, the script is a wonderful bit of oversized human sentiment. And it’s hard to imagine what else Lucius could have said in that movie’s world. (“Varinia! Remember, the root for mankind is man himself”?) But this critic almost never lost his balance. Balanchine might have choreographed Macdonald’s engaged pas de deux with history and culture. He maintained his posture not through dry intellect but through a deeper balance of thought and feeling. The feeling was important. Macdonald knew that “intellectuals,” if they’re any good, write for the innermost spaces of particular people, for a “brotherhood of readers, lookers, listeners, thinkers ... that feeds one enough for creative survival.” He wouldn’t have liked the term “public intellectual,” because he held sacred the private origins of public thinking. And so it was appropriate that Macdonald’s final flourish was to write an essay for the New York Review of Books on Buster Keaton. This indefatigable writer, thinker and speaker knew that the essence of words and ideas exists beyond words and beyond ideas; it lies in the simple force of a beautiful gesture. That was the gist of Macdonald’s anarchism.