Dwight Macdonald
Dwight Macdonald; drawing by David Levine

When I was asked to write a brief introduction to the reprint edition of Politics I was tempted to yield to the rather pleasant melancholy of “once upon a time” and to indulge in the nostalgic contemplation that seems to be the appropriate mood for all recollection. Now that I have carefully reread the forty-two issues which appeared from 1944 to 1949—more carefully, I am sure, than I read them more than twenty years ago—this mood has vanished for the simple reason that so many of its articles, comments, and factual reports read as though they were written today or yesterday or yesteryear, except that the concerns and perplexities of a little magazine with a peak circulation of not much more than 5,000 have become the daily bread of newspapers and periodicals with mass circulation. For the issues, far from being outdated, let alone resolved, by the enormous changes in our everyday world, have only increased in urgency.

This is true for draft card burning, black power (then called “Negroism”), and mass culture; for the military and political futility of “massacre by bombing”; for the military-industrial complex (a “permanent War Economy” was proposed in January, 1944 by Charles E. Wilson, then head of the War Production Board, and the atomic bomb was hailed by Harry Truman as “the greatest achievement of the combined efforts of science, industry, labor and the military in all history”); for the breakdown of democratic processes in the democracies (England and the United States); and it is, of course, true for the cold war, which, however, in its beginning “reflected a genuine horror at Russia’s record in Europe” (George Woodcock) and was not merely the result of big-power politics. It is especially true for issues that lay dormant for long years, such as the question of responsibility for the horror of Nazi death camps, which came to the fore only much later, in the late Fifties, with the new series of war crime trials that culminated in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem; or for the restoration of the status quo in Europe after the liberation from Nazi occupation. The series of articles on Greece, beginning in January, 1945, and running through the whole year, is still an excellent introduction to what happened in that country in 1967. For it seems that only now are we beginning to pay the full price for the annihilation of all European underground movements against fascism and Nazism, an annihilation which succeeded because it was one of the very few items on which the Allied powers wholeheartedly agreed.

The magazine followed with close and moving attention the half-forgotten tragedy of Warsaw, when for two months Polish resistance fighters rose up against the German Wehrmacht only to be betrayed by the Red Army and finally massacred by the Nazis. This episode was a condition for Soviet rule in East Europe, in much the same way as, in the West, the defeats of the French, Italian, and Greek underground movements served to turn the clock back to political regimes whose bankruptcy had been among the most effective causes, not, perhaps, of the rise of Hitler, but certainly of his conquest of Europe. As Nicolo Tucci said in November, 1944: the victors’ “job is that of transforming…a place of terror and hope into a place without terror and without hope.”

I HAVE PICKED my examples of the magazine’s astounding relevance for contemporary political matters almost at random; in fact, there are only two issues of major importance today of which I can find no trace in its back numbers—the rapid disintegration of the big cities and the alarming rise of “invisible government.” It has been said of the old Masses (1911-1917)—the only magazine I know which bears a certain resemblance to Politics and fulfilled a similar function thirty years earlier—that it “seems to have been written in anticipation of a cosmic event which never occurred and in blessed unawareness of the one that did.” But whether or not it was “History which destroyed [the Masses editors’] frame of reference and made the objects of their concern seem fanciful and unreal,” the point of the matter is that the exact opposite is true of Politics.

History aside, which of course may well have had its hand in the matter, praise is due exclusively to the editor of this one-man magazine, to his extraordinary flair for significant fact and significant thought, from which followed his flair in the choice of contributors. It is one thing to announce that one wants “to print work by younger relatively unknown American intellectuals” and by even less well-known “leftist refugees,” and another to find those who twenty years later will be very well known indeed. Dwight Macdonald’s discovery of Simone Weil is the most striking instance; but who then knew the names of Victor Serge, C. Wright Mills, Nicolo Tucci, Nicola Chiaramonte, Albert Camus, or Bruno Bettelheim? For if this was a one-man magazine, it never was the magazine of one man’s opinion, not only because of the great generosity and hospitality which made it possible for many voices and viewpoints to have their say but, more importantly, because the editor himself never was a one-opinion man or, perhaps, had ceased to be opinionated when he felt the need to have a magazine of his own.


That Macdonald “is continually changing his mind” (James Farrell) is well known, but what is perhaps less recognized is that this is among his virtues. No one, of course, who is willing to listen to reason and to reality can help changing his mind, but most of us do this imperceptibly, hardly being aware of our changes, whereas Macdonald in a veritable furor of intellectual integrity and moral honesty sets out to hunt down his “mistakes,” without ever changing the record in the slightest, his technique being to annotate his earlier articles with refutations of himself. God knows, this is something much more noble than “flexibility.”

POLITICS always prided itself on being radical, which—following a remark of the young Marx—means “to grasp the matter by the root.” In line with this aim, stated in the first issue, the editor began to free himself of all formulas—“my ‘formula’ being to have none,” as he put it later—more specifically, of the Marxist formula with its faith in History and Progress. When this process of liberation was completed, after the bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred at the end of the magazine’s second year of existence, he set out for the discovery of new roots in the realm of theory on the one hand, new “Ancestors” such as William Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Tolstoi, etc., and “New Roads in Politics” on the other. The new post-Marxian mood—all contributors were former Marxists—was strongly anarchist and pacifist, and its most important contribution was Macdonald’s own series of articles, later published as a book, The Root is Man. The new creed, if such it was, consisted of a radical humanism for which man was not merely the root, the origin of all political issues, but the ultimate goal of all politics and the only valid standard of judgment to be applied to all political matters.

I personally think that these attempts at arriving at a new political theory have worn less well than comments and reports, but who could not be struck by the fact that the mood of a few lost writers on the Left of twenty years ago has today become the dominant mood of a whole generation firmly convinced in word and deed that “all the genuine problems are moral in nature”—as David Bazelon critically remarked about the socialism of the New Roads writers. Radical humanism obviously does not follow from being radical, from grasping the matter by the root; like every “ism” it could even stand in the way of being radical, that is, it could prevent one from looking for the root in every matter as it presents itself. After a few years’ experience, Macdonald reformulated his first program and now wished to do no more than “to seek out the long-range trends in the welter of daily phenomena.” In this context, the word radical assumes a different meaning. It points to the fearless, unbiased search for those facts in everyday affairs that contain the roots of future developments. In this respect, Politics’ radical record is admirable; it was indeed so close to the future that the whole enterprise often looks like a premature dress rehearsal.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, especially by Marxists or former Marxists who equate political intelligence with prophetic powers, I hasten to admit that Macdonald’s batting average for shorttime predictions was not too good—a failing he shared with Karl Marx who, around 1858, was afraid that Das Kapital might not be finished before the outbreak of the revolution. Most of these “mistakes” were irrelevant—for instance, his belief in 1944 that the liquidation of the British Empire was “remote.” Some were more serious, especially his failure to understand the complex nature of the Second World War, which to him, as to the entire American Left, was simply an “imperialist” war. But this estimate belongs still to his pre-radical, ideological leftist period, and the chief reason why he did not revise it after his break with Marxism was his new turn to pacifism, as well as his conviction that “the Soviet System was an even greater threat to what I believe in than Nazism was”—a very debatable statement because it identified the Soviet System with Bolshevism (Lenin’s one-party dictatorship) and Bolshevism with Stalinism. Macdonald was clearly wrong when he wrote, three months before Hiroshima, “To say that civilization cannot survive another such war is a truism; the question is whether it can survive this one.”


The German “economic miracle,” the rapid recovery of Japan, the rebuilding of Russia after Stalin’s death have all demonstrated that up to a point the modern means of production function nowhere better than where the modern means of destruction have first created a kind of tabula rasa—provided that the population of the country is sufficiently “modern” and that the production process is not obstructed by the perverse power considerations of a totalitarian dictatorship. (Today it is England, hardly touched by destruction in the war in comparison with Germany, but profoundly unwilling to change her old ways of life, whose fate is in the balance.)

Subsequent events proved Macdonald equally wrong when, under the direct impact of Hiroshima, he thought, “We Americans are coming to be hated with an intensity formerly reserved for the Germans.” It is, I think, fair to say that, although he once mentioned “the German atrocities in this war [as] a phenomenon unique at least in modern history,” he underestimated throughout the horror as well as the outrage inspired by the Nazi extermination factories.

WHAT IN RETROSPECT is so remarkable about all this is not the mistakes but, on the contrary, in spite of them and sometimes even because of them, the fact that he could be so uncannily right in detecting the “long-range trends.” It may have been a mistake to be against World War II (except on religious grounds, which are always valid because they are non-political); but did not the end of the war, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, give justification to his misgivings? With the development of nuclear weapons, has not modern warfare indeed begun to threaten with extinction not only civilizations but mankind? And though it was clearly premature in 1945 to fear that Americans would be hated like Germans, it was as though somebody cried “Wolf” when the animal was still so many miles away that no one even believed in its existence. But when twenty-two years later the animal has arrived and Macdonald can write with entire justification, and in words befitting the genuine patriot he is and always has been, “In the last two years, for the first time in my life, I’m ashamed to be an American,” then one can only admire the political instinct of this citizen of the Republic who, albeit without being fully aware of it, sensed in Mr. Truman’s outrageous jubilation about the Bomb a decisive departure from that “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” which is, as it were, built into the very foundations of this republic.

Politics, then, which counted so many non-Americans among its contributors, was radical in the sense of going back and reviving much that belongs to the very roots of the American tradition as well as much that belongs to the roots of the radical tradition everywhere—the tradition of nay-saying and independence, of cheerful “negativism” when confronted with the temptation of Real-politik, and of self-confidence: pride and trust in one’s own judgment. These qualities distinguish the radical, who always remains true to reality in his search for the root of the matter, from the extremist, who single-mindedly follows the logic of whatever “cause” he may espouse at the moment.

In Politics, this closeness to reality proved itself, simply and spectacularly, when the magazine decided to embark upon a project of sending packages of food and clothing to the liberated countries at the close of the war. Here, the editor wrote, was “something which those who have criticized the magazine’s ‘negativism’ must admit is positive and constructive.” I suspect he wrote this sentence with tongue in cheek, unaware of how literally right he was. Who in Europe at this time would have believed that there existed such a thing as “international fraternity,” to which Macdonald appealed, after the fierce political infighting on the Left? (In order to be helped at all you had to belong to some party or, at least, to some splinter group.) But here was a small, independent journal; and its appeal to its readers was such a success that “sometimes it seems that Politics is a house organ for the package project rather than a magazine of its own.” It was just solidarity with those who had suffered, and nothing else.

IT IS THIS RADICAL MENTALITY as such that has remained alive in these pages rather than theories or prophecies, which, right or wrong, are lamentably irrelevant in the long run because no prediction can ever really anticipate, and no theory really fit, what will be once it has happened. This attitude can be tested on almost every page of Politics, and especially where those phenomena are presented and analyzed which have no place in the leftist frame of reference. Thus, Macdonald understands that “just as war releases the productive energy of industry from the bonds of property and profit, so it also allows expression to some very fine traits of human nature which have little outlet in peacetime society.” And while, after having left the Trotskyites, he still believed in “the yardstick of basic values” with which “to measure month-to-month developments”—all he had left after parting with Marxism—he soon was fearless enough to admit that this yardstick was no less suspect than the verities of the Left, “that our ethical code is no longer experienced, but is simply assumed, so that it becomes a collection of mere platitudes.”

It was against this sensitivity to the long-range, that is, to the crucial issues “in the welter of daily phenomena,” which enabled him to raise the “moral” question in our present political predicaments so early—the question of “How may we tell Good from Evil?” The crucial, always hidden in the complex welter of appearances, is simple and, once discovered, painfully obvious. Nothing is rarer and more precious than the ability to hit upon it. Politics’ marksmanship in such matters was very high, not merely among its writers, the editor, and his contributors, but also among its readers. It was a sergeant, stationed in Germany in 1945, who said, “In modern wars there are crimes not criminals. In modern society there is evil but there is no devil.” And what could go more directly to the heart of the matter than Mary McCarthy’s remark, after the assassination of Gandhi, about political murder in our time: “It is Gandhi who can be killed or Trotski or Tresca, men integri vitae scelerisque puri, while Stalin remains invulnerable to the assassin’s bullet”; or Dwight Macdonald’s words at the same occasion, perhaps the most fitting epitaph of the man and certainly to be inscribed into the hearts of all true lovers of equality: “He seems to have regarded the capitalist as well as the garbage-man as his social equal.”

POLITICS lasted six years, three as a monthly, one as a bi-monthly, and two as a quarterly. It died in 1949 of “the gray dawn of peace,” of a time “without terror and without hope.” What now came was the political apathy of the Fifties, the arrival of “the silent generation,” whose imminence Macdonald must have felt already early in 1948 when he began “feeling stale, tired, disheartened and, if you like demoralized.” This end is not without tragic overtones. The man who had chosen “politics,” this “most unpopular term,” to name his magazine, with the intention of restoring to it its ancient dignity, gave up in despair of politics rather than Politics. The silent generation, in due time, gave way to the Civil Rights movement, but the period of a deceptive calm took its definite end only with the assassination of Kennedy. Nearly five years later, Politics has found no successor—except, perhaps, Ramparts.

While it existed, it was less a one-man magazine than a one-man institution, providing a focal point for many who would no longer fit into any party or group. The feeling of companionship among its readers had something almost embarrassingly personal about it, and it was precisely this personal note that inspired confidence, not in the rightness of any opinions so much as in the reliability of those who wrote for it. Something of this atmosphere is still alive in the extensive letters-to-the-editor columns, many of them attacking and all of them carefully answered, sometimes at considerable length. Among the things that made this magazine an institution—and I think a unique one—was that Macdonald regarded his readers, if he cared to print them at all, as his intellectual equals.

© 1968 Greenwood Reprint Corporation.

This Issue

August 1, 1968