What Are They Reading?
MEMOIRS OF A REVOLUTIONIST:
Essays in Political Criticism.
By Dwight Macdonald.
Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. 376 pp.
Out of Print. Reissued as Politics Past.
Though there have been scattered signs of renewed interest in Dwight Macdonald--a biography in 1994, a collection of letters in 2002--all but a fraction of his own writing molders unattended in America's used bookstores. Like the New York Intellectuals with whom he was associated (Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Lionel and Diana Trilling and all the other Ex-Friends of Norman Podhoretz), he is referenced more often than read, a sad fate for a critic who wrote so much, so well and with such wit and insight.
Memoirs of a Revolutionist is a collection of trenchant political criticism, most of it about World War II--which, in what he later called "a creative mistake," Macdonald strenuously opposed. He is an apt model for these bleak times because of the integrity he demonstrated as a critic, choosing sides but refusing to take them. Macdonald was relentless in his attacks on fascism and Stalinism (even when the Soviets were our valued allies), but never softened his criticism of Allied saturation bombing in Germany, American hypocrisy at the start of the cold war and the dehumanizing monstrosities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima alike. As the war is steadily emptied of its political ideals, he confronts it in essay after essay, with caustic humor and a deepening despair for the fate of mankind. In "My Favorite General," he sings an ode to the "brutal and hysterical, coarse and affected, violent and empty" manner of George Patton, which expresses, to Macdonald, the "real nature of World War II.... the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning." "To say," he writes in May 1945, three prescient months before The Bomb, "that civilization cannot survive another such war is a truism; the question is whether it can survive this one."
Since critics tend not, as painters or novelists, to leave monuments of artistic achievement, and since we Americans love to keep score, it is in vogue these days to rate our intellectuals past by their accuracy. We line up a scorecard of issues, on which, with appropriately Whiggish rectitude, we deign to grade them. Macdonald, famous for his reversals, must have gotten more than a few things wrong by such standards: He was, in the span of roughly fifteen years, a liberal, Communist, Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist and Cold Warrior, anarchist and pacifist. Often accused of unserious dilettantism (C. Wright Mills called him the "Peter Pan of the Left"), Macdonald never shied from admitting what he felt were his mistakes; this makes them seem all the more commendable, and him all the more serious.
As we are again called on to choose sides, when many of our intellectuals justify means with ends in their calls for war, it is bracing to return to Macdonald's insight and clarity, his focus on moral and human consequences. As he wrote in response to readers who protested his attack on Patton: "I'd say that far from the justness of the war excusing Patton's barbarism, Patton's barbarism calls into question the justness of the war. There is something suspect about an end which calls for such means." And there still is.