Macdonald died in 1982, mined by many years of hard drinking and prolonged periods of depression. Yet he lives on as Orlando Huggins in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift but in that book more for the nude parties he had on Cape Cod than for his skills of political analysis. Macdonald was an individualist and is the godfather of political-literary journals edited by one person or a very small team. As Daniel Bell, who wrote for Macdonald in the late 1940s, has said "Macdonald is what may be called ‘an inconstant dogmatist’. At any particular moment he is completely cocksure of his position and unmerciful to an opponent. (When he is doing a literary demolition job, of which he is a master, woe to the writer who uses clumsy metaphors or commits stylistic gaucheries.) But then, like Heisenberg’s particle he is off in the next historical moment on a new, erratic track, and often as dogmatic in the new stance as in the old."
Macdonald began his impact as an analyst of political and literary trends as part of a 4-person team of editors of The Partisan Review created in 1934 by the John Reed Club, a not very disguised front of the US Communist Party. Macdonald’s wife Nancy was the business manager who tried to make ends meet with their 6000 subscribers and a few gifts from supporters. The Macdonald’s 10th Street apartment served as production office. By 1937, The Partisan Review became independent from the John Reed Club as too many of the editors and writers had become Trotskyites, especially after the 1936 Moscow trials.
However, there was not just one school of Trotskyite, and factions were called after their leader. People were considered ‘Schachtmanites’ if they were working with Max Schachtman or ‘Cannonites’ if they followed James Cannon. Trotsky called Dwight Macdonald a ‘Macdonaldist’ when, by 1938, Macdonald began to see Trotsky as "sectarian and inflexible". By 1940, Macdonald was out of the movement completely.
Macdonald’s years in the New York City Trotskyite circles sharpened his polemical style, and he became a writer and talker of unequalled vehemence. As he said of himself "My greatest vice is my easily aroused indignation", but this was also his chief virtue. Also from his Trotskyite period, Macdonald kept a deep anti-Stalinism, a critical attitude toward the USSR and a fear of the Soviet bureaucrats who "feel that reason (historical materialism), justice and the people are on their side."
In 1942, Macdonald broke with The Partisan Review over the issue of the Second World War. Most of The Partisan Review editors and writers supported the war in which the Soviet Union and the USA were allies. Macdonald saw the war as a battle between rival imperialisms and hoped for a "Third Camp" made of colonial peoples who would come to the fore at the war’s end.
In 1943, Macdonald created Politics which serves as the model of the one-editor journal, although his wife Nancy came along as business manager and whose small trust fund helped fill the gaps. Politics had some 5000 subscribers, not far from The Partisan Review which had a wider range of supporters. Macdonald was able to attract young political and social writers who later went on to fame such as C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Hannah Arendt. Macdonald recognized the psychological insights of Bruno Bettelheim who wrote on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp, and later became a well-known child psychologist in Chicago.
Dwight Macdonald was always interested in European culture. At The Partisan Review, he had championed the poetry of T.S. Eliott whose political views were far from those of the editors but who had deep ideas expressed in a fine style. In Politics, Macdonald introduced to the USA the thinking of the French religious philosopher Simone Weil, then little known even in France. He published her important reflections on The Illiad, "A Poem of Force". Macdonald also introduced Albert Camus, already a recognized thinker in France but not yet in the USA. He also championed the political and literary critic Nicola Chiaromonte, a refugee from Italy whose views were close to his own.
As Daniel Bell wrote "The singular theme of Politics was the event of depersonalization: the denigration of the individual through the impersonality of killing, the role of terror and extreme situations; how things happen to people and people become ‘things’, the turning of society into a mechanism."
The last battle of Politics was Macdonald’s repeated and violent attacks against Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party campaign for President. Macdonald saw all the old Stalinists he so disliked coming around Wallace, and so he saw nothing else; "The progressive rhetoric is to accomplish in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." The Politics articles were collected into a book: Dwight Macdonald Henry Wallace:The Man and the Myth (New York, Vanguard, 1947). The book is unfair as political analysis but is a good example of Macdonald’s polemical style used on someone of national importance. With the defeat of Wallace, there seemed to be no more "dragons to fight". Politics stopped publication in 1949 – in part through ‘burn out’. It is not easy to edit and write a political journal which has no organized support. Macdonald’s drinking was becoming serious, and the strains of editing brought his marriage to an end.
He went on the write some non-fiction pieces for The New Yorker and later a movie review page for Esquire, somewhat in the spirit of his friend James Agee. He largely faded from the scene of political analysts except for a widely read 40 page book review in The New Yorker of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1962). Harrington had been part of Max Schachtman’s Trotskyite circle and Macdonald could appreciate a fellow polemical writer formed in the Trotskyite battles.
Macdonald was also an early opponent of the US war in Vietnam, where he again revived his World War II "Third Camp" analysis – neither the US nor North Vietnam. Unfortunately, those closest to a "Third Camp" position in Vietnam – some of the activist Buddhists – were not strong enough to influence the course of the war. Within the US, leadership of anti-Vietnam war efforts was taken by groups such as religious pacifists with whom Macdonald had no experience or standing.
Polemical writing does not lend itself to a long life, but Dwight Macdonald’s "spirit marches on" for all of us who write and edit in the hope of positive political impact in the wider world.
For an overly long but complete biography of Dwight Macdonald see: Michael Wreszin A Rebel in Defense of Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1994, 509pp.)
For a guide to the influences and splits of the Trotskyite milieu in the USA see
Peter Drucker Max Schachtman and His Left(Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994, 346pp.)
Also check out, Daniel Bell The End of Ideology (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1960, 416pp.)