There is a passage in Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age—it comes in the essay on “The Late Mr. Horne Tooke”—that defines not only its eponymous subject but an entire class of failed writers. “He generally ranged himself on the losing side,” wrote Hazlitt, “and had rather an ill-natured delight in contradiction, and in perplexing the understandings of others, without leaving them any clue to guide them out of the labyrinth into which he had led them. He understood, in its perfection, the great art of throwing the onus probandi on his adversaries, and so could maintain almost any opinion, however absurd or fantastical, with fearless impunity.”

Writers of this class are remembered for their follies, rather than their wisdom, for their follies have a representative character. What they illuminate is not the distilled intelligence of their time but its shibboleths and chimeras. These they have the talent to make so entertaining that their writings seem for a while audacious and even original. It is only later, in the sober light of retrospection, that we come to understand that the “ill-natured delight in contradiction” in such writers had only succeeded in trivializing every important subject they touched upon. In the end this ability to “maintain almost any opinion, however absurd or fantastical,” turns out to have been an act, a performance, a role that never required the writers themselves to live by any of the ideas they so easily espoused. There was always a new role to play, or an old one to be revived, or a holiday to be taken when no suitable parts presented themselves.

It has long seemed to me that the American writer Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982) was a figure of this kind. “All he wanted was negative success,” Hazlitt said of Horne Tooke, and then added: “to this no one was better qualified to aspire. Cross purposes, moot-points, pleas, demurrers, flaws in the indictment, double meanings, cases, inconsequentialities, these were the playthings, the darlings of Mr. Tooke’s mind.” The same could be said of Macdonald’s. In that coterie of New York intellectuals that first made its presence felt in the pages of Partisan Review in the late 1930s and early 1940s—the circle in which Macdonald achieved his initial reputation as a writer—delight in contradiction was elevated to a vocation, and Macdonald was its most amusing practitioner. Yet in politics he always remained something of a fantasist and a light-weight, an amateur passionately in love with extreme positions and unworldly strategems. “For him,” wrote William Barrett in The Truants, “every venture into politics was a leap toward the Absolute.” Hence his addiction to “almost any opinion, however absurd or fantastical,” so long as it remained safely distant from any possibility of compromise or realization.

That he commanded a gift for intellectual entertainment is undeniable, and it was all the more appreciated because it was a gift rarely found in the leaden world of radical debate. His high-spirited prose was often fun to read. If not for his radicalism, he might have become the Mencken of his generation. Yet in Macdonald’s case, the amusement his writings offered tended to be in inverse proportion to the seriousness of his subjects. About figures easily ridiculed, whether in politics, literature, journalism, or popular culture, he could be devastating as well as hilarious. This is an example from his little book Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (Vanguard Press, 1948), published the year that Wallace, who had been Vice President in the the third Roosevelt administration, broke with the Democratic Party to run for the presidency as the candidate of the Progressive Party, a Stalinist creation:

Wallaceland is the mental habitat of Henry Wallace plus a few hundred thousand regular readers of The New Republic, The Nation, and PM. It is a region of perpetual fogs, caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier. Its natives speak “Wallese,” a debased provincial dialect.

When he traded his jester’s cap and bells for the costume of a thinker, however, he always ran the risk of turning himself into a target of satire. This was particularly true when he took to rehearsing some untenable political posture. At such times, real issues and momentous events were recast as episodes in a private drama of choices so absolute that they no longer bore much relation to the realities which had prompted them. In the realm of politics, Macdonald’s position was often that of a writer in a kind of free fall where the gravity of history was suspended in favor of sheer weightlessness.

Here, by way of examples, is a sampling of Macdonald’s characteristic political utterences between 1941, when he was quarreling with his colleagues at Partisan Review over America’s role in the Second World War, and 1953, when he finally conceded that he had lost interest in the whole radical enterprise:

July-August 1941: In the war or out of it, the United States faces only one future under capitalism: fascism. July 1944: No, whatever leadership towards social progress may exist in the world, it is not to be found in this country. March 1946: It may be there is no exit from the blind alley, but surely the first condition for finding one is to give up the superficial lesser-evil approach, with the support it implies for a future war against Russia, in favor of a more radical and basic approach, be it pacifist or social-revolutionary or perhaps some new combination of both. Spring 1948: Let us admit at once—let us, indeed, insist on the point—that all the criticisms made of U.S.S.R. could also be made of U.S.A. Winter 1952: During the last war, I did not choose, at first because I was a revolutionary socialist of Trotskyist coloration, later because I was becoming, especially after the atom bomb, a pacifist. Neither of these positions now appear valid to me. 1953: Perhaps there is no solution to these agonizing problems… . This is one reason I am less interested in politics than I used to be.

That Macdonald was ever taken seriously as a political thinker is less a reflection of any sagacity he commanded on the subject of politics than a measure of the intellectual desperation that afflicted the non-Stalinist radical Left once the myth of a socialist millennium had collapsed and radicals had to make do with purely rhetorical substitutes— a commodity that Macdonald was certainly well equipped to supply.

This view of Macdonald is, of course, very much at odds with his reputation as a radical, a Marxist, a Trotskyist, an anarchist, a pacifist, a champion of revolution, a partisan of the Sixties New Left, and the rest of the folderol about his career as a “revolutionist.” With Macdonald, I believe, we must distinguish between the roles he assumed—there were quite a few of them, after all—and the fundamental loyalties that governed his life, his style, and his moral temper. In my view, anyway, he was always at heart a bourgeois literary aesthete—a bit of a snob, too, as aesthetes tend to be, a patrician rebel, and a cultural elitist—who was able to sustain an interest in politics, any politics, only when its choices presented themselves to his mind as high drama for the happy few. His spiritual affinities, if we may call them that, were closer to those of the literary culture of the 1890s and the 1920s than to the political culture of the 1930s and 1940s, though it was the latter, of course, that provided him with the roles that won him his reputation as a radical. Macdonald was thus an example of a cultural phenomenon too rarely studied: the aesthete who carries into politics a disdain for compromise and even common sense that is more appropriate to the rarified air of Parnassus than to the contingent conflicts of the social arena.

It is worth remembering in this connection that the aesthete’s mind is also one that is enamored of absolutes, and in the absence of absolutes—the most dreaded of all conditions for the aesthete and the radical alike —the ordinary vicissitudes of art or politics or life itself lose their savor. Boredom looms as the only alternative, and some variety of intellectual ennui is the punishment that follows in its wake. This was the condition that overtook Macdonald in that long furlough from radical polemics that separated the first phase of his political engagement in the Thirties and Forties from his second and final plunge into the politics of revolution in the Sixties and Seventies. It was a furlough spent mostly at The New Yorker, which he had once denounced in Partisan Review as the “accurate expression of a decaying social order,” but where his own bourgeois snobberies were now easily accommodated, and where, ironically enough, the politics of revolution acquired a kind of chic at the very moment when the aging Macdonald was abandoning the magazine to ascend the rhetorical barricades for the last time.

Macdonald himself has left us a poignant clue to his sensibility in a dispirited memoir called “Politics Past,” which he published in Encounter in 1957 during his long furlough from the radical ranks. This was intended to be his swan song to politics, and would have been if he had not been lured out of political retirement by the events of the Sixties. Looking back on the 1930s from the perspective of the Cold War of the 1950s, he wrote in defense of his own failed efforts as a political writer that “an interest in avant-garde politics was expected of every proper intellectual. Those few who were ‘unpolitical’ were déclassé, accused of Escapism, Living in an Ivory Tower, etc. Even so unpolitical a type as Edmund Wilson signed Culture and the Crisis, a celebrated pamphlet-manifesto, in support of the Communist candidates in the presidential election.”

The most telling word in this passage is, I think, “avant-garde,” which in this context nicely conflates the impulses of radical politics with those of modernist art and literature. But the whole passage mixes up the language of the literary avant-garde with that of the radical movement in a way that suggests a closer acquaintance with Axel’s Castle than with Das Kapital. (The notion that Edmund Wilson was somehow “unpolitical” before 1932 isn’t accurate, either.) And the entire memoir acquires added resonance when we learn from Michael Wreszin’s new biography of Macdonald about his student days as an aesthete at Exeter in the 1920s. Mr. Wreszin writes:

Dwight became part of a circle of bookish young men who saw themselves as set apart from the majority of the students… . Within that group, Dwight, Justin O’Brien, and Dinsmore Wheeler founded their own inner circle, the Hedonists. Mencken, Baudelaire, George Jean Nathan, and Oscar Wilde were their patron saints. Their motto: “Pour épater les bourgeois.” Their notepaper bore the slogan “Cynicism, Estheticism, Criticism, Pessimism.” They sported monocles and batik ties and carried canes on their walks in the surrounding countryside. They were, Dwight later admitted, “frightful snobs.”

From the aestheticism of the 1920s, with its motto, “Pour épater les bourgeois,” which pretty much remained Macdonald’s intellectual banner during his undergraduate years at Yale, to the “avant-garde politics” of the Thirties was not, for a man in his privileged position, that big a leap. It was épater les bourgeois all the way, while for a good deal of the time there was no need to forgo bourgeois comforts or a steady income. The problem for a radical/aesthete like Macdonald, however, was to decide exactly which of the many varieties of “avant-garde politics” on offer in the Thirties—and later on, too, for that matter—was sufficiently pleasing to his taste to command his allegiance.

The new biography by Michael Wreszin, a historian who teaches at Queens College and the City University of New York, makes fascinating reading in this regard. For it happened that Macdonald, once he discovered the pleasures of the Left’s capacious ideological smorgasbord, managed to sam- ple just about every dish that was served up, defending each in turn with absolute conviction and tolerating no alternatives or modifications. Professor Wreszin gets the matter exactly right when he says of Macdonald that “expediency, pragmatic compromise irritated him. He was attracted not so much to abstract ideological frameworks as to commitment, enthusiasm, dedication to one’s beliefs.”

But what were Macdonald’s beliefs? He had so many in the course of his career, and they were so frequently subject to sudden shifts. In less than a decade he moved from a commitment to the Communist Party, which he discovered while researching an article for Fortune, where he was making a five-figure salary during the Depression, to the embrace of Trotskyist anti-Stalinism before settling for a vaguely defined mixture of anarchism and pacifism during the Second World War. It was wholly in character, moreover, that during his Communist phase he was fellow-traveler rather than a party member, that during his Trotskyist period he quarreled with Trotsky, and that during his anti-war anarchist-pacifist period he adamantly refused to acknowledge that there was something more at stake in the war than a defense of American capitalist imperialism.

For Macdonald, it was always enough to be against the government, opposed to American society, and scornful of capitalism. That was what made radical politics fun for him, and when it stopped being fun, he turned his talents to debunking American middlebrow culture, an endeavor that satisfied both his intellectual elitism and his distaste for his own class, the American bourgeoisie. As a critic, however, he was careful to steer clear of great writers. He seemed instinctively to understand that they were beyond his range. Popular culture, on the other hand, offered rich opportunities for sarcasm and condescension. Attacking it was almost as much fun as attacking Henry Wallace or Harry Truman.

It was not as if Macdonald had ever acquired any special affection for the toiling masses or their ill-bred champions in the labor movement even in his most radical period in the Thirties. He was still too much of a snob for that. Professor Wreszin tells an interesting story in this regard about the summer of 1934. Macdonald was then employed at Fortune, and would soon marry Nancy Rodman, a wealthy debutante turned radical who was already further to the Left than Macdonald himself. It was on her trust fund that they lived when he quit Fortune to devote full time to radical journalism.

On a hot Saturday in July, Dwight, the photographer Walker Evans, and Geoffrey Hellman, who was a staff writer for the New Yorker, drove up to Westchester County to visit Nitgedaiget “(Yiddish for ‘not to worry’),” a Communist Party training and recreation center. Dwight reported to Nancy, still vacationing in Dublin, New Hampshire, that visiting the camp almost “made a fascist” out of him. He had discovered in himself an aristocratic revulsion—“as to bathing in a slightly dirty pool with the other comrades and eating off slightly soiled plates with the other comrades and applauding mass-level violin solos with the other comrades”—that surprised him. He added by way of justification that he had a “fundamental dislike for living as one of the herd. The comrades were 99.44% pure Yiddish and they had that peculiar Yiddish love of living in each other’s laps that you can observe any day at Coney Island.” Dwight must have been slightly defensive about these class and ethnic slurs, for he quickly added that he felt “disgusted by humanity, whether Yiddish or Racquet Clubbish, when it presented itself as a squirming mass.” In any event, he and his cohorts could not stand the camp beyond Sunday noon, brunch time, so they beat a hasty retreat to the Westchester Embassy Club, where Geoffrey Hellman was a member, and they “bathed in a clean capitalist pool and drank a couple of Tom Collinses in capitalistic solitude.”

Nancy, however, was ready to place Dwight’s experience in a proper—which is to say, a politically correct—context. Professor Wreszin continues:

Nancy did not seem to take offense at this glib, Waspish mockery, responding that she could well understand how he “might have turned Fascist” by attending the camp. “My stomach is often turned at continual radical meetings and dirty radicals and self-interested radicals.” But she was quick to add, “Still I believe in communism as the only way out of the political disruption that is going on nowadays.” Nancy had just read Ella Winter’s Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the New Russia, which she thought very good. Winter’s Russia sounded pretty idyllic despite the hardships. “There at least everyone has some definite goal. An attempt is made to let everyone do work for which they are fitted and to adjust those that are not fitted. And stupid conventions are forgotten and everyone has a personal freedom that we never dreamed of.”

Mercifully, the Macdonalds were soon disabused of this version of red virtue, rescued by the predominantly Jewish intellectuals who were attempting to publish Partisan Review, which had been founded as an organ of the Communist Party, as an anti-Stalinist, pro-Trotsky, Marxist literary journal. “Dwight, with his enthusiasm for debate, was charmed by the aggressiveness of his new associates and impressed with their learning and serious literary interests,” Professor Wreszin writes. Macdonald even found a patron for the new magazine in George L. K. Morris, the painter who had been his classmate at Yale and with whom he had briefly published a literary journal called the Miscellany. Nancy Macdonald served as Partisan’s business manager. Yet, when the war erupted and real political choices had to be made, Macdonald found these “new associates” insufficiently radical, and so he broke with them to start his own journal, Politics. Macdonald was never one to allow political reality to hamper his style.

Appropriately, Professor Wreszin calls the hundred-page section of his biography that is devoted to Macdonald’s political furlough at The New Yorker “Criticism as a Substitute for Politics.” With the collapse of Politics, moreover, he broke up his marriage to Nancy Macdonald, grandly declaring that “the only responsibilities, duties, obligations I will accept are those that I want to, those I choose to, freely and spontaneously”—the last remaining vestige, perhaps, of the anarchist philosophy he had adopted during the war but which he now pretty much abandoned along with the wife who had supported his anarchist journal. Inevitably, this section of Professor Wreszin’s book has its longueurs. Macdonald’s most ambitious intellectual effort of this period was his essay called “Masscult and Midcult,” a study of popular culture in which all of the author’s snobberies are on full display and which contains little, if any, understanding of what the loss of middlebrow culture would mean when it was supplanted by the degraded simulacrum that has now taken its place.

Except for its account of the shenanigans surrounding Macdonald’s brief attachment to Encounter and his quarrels with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Professor Wreszin’s book doesn’t get going again until it is time to tell the story of Macdonald’s return to politics as a born-again radical in the Sixties. This story really is an example of history repeating itself as farce, and rather a grim farce at that.

1965: “Dwight was quick to give his support and name to an Artist Protest Committee, which published a large ad in the New York Times with over 630 signatures. The ad called on all Americans to end their silence and speak out against the war. Dwight’s name could be found among the likes of the screenwriter Alvah Bessie, the actor Howard Da Silva, Howard Fast, and Corliss Lamont, all of whom he had seen as contemptible apologists for Stalin a little over a decade earlier.”

1968: “The clincher was a phone call Dwight made to Fred Dupee to inquire about the situation [at Columbia University]. Dupee responded with enthusiasm: ‘You must come up right away, Dwight. It’s a revolution! You may never get another chance to see one.’ … Dwight loved it. It was as though a ‘Victorian father had been removed from his family’s bosom (or neck).’ Later when he saw [President] Grayson Kirk on television complaining of student anarchy and barbarism, he felt his image was on target.”

1970: “On Thursday April 30 he made the trip to New Haven to show solidarity with the liberal-left elements on [the Yale] campus… . He came away feeling good about the entire affair. Defending his activities and alliance with the New Left to the harshly critical Nicola Chiaromonte, Dwight stoutly defended his support of the Panthers …”

It was épater les bourgeois to the end. And in the end the only thing that survives is the literary anthology called Parodies (1960), in which the aesthete in Macdonald kept faith with the spirit of the Hedonists circle at Exeter in the Twenties. But then, of course, Macdonald’s career was itself a parody of the radical vocation in our time.


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  1. A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and “Politics” of Dwight Macdonald, by Michael Wreszin; Basic Books, 590 pages, $30. Go back to the text.