Dwight MacDonald: His Own Man

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In his lifetime, journalist Dwight MacDonald was regarded by his fellow New York intellectual crowd as an ambulance-chasing ideologue. From Macy’s employee to Trotskyite to liberal anti-communist to anarchist to born-again New Leftist, MacDonald gave the appearance of being intellectually promiscuous.

The reality, though, is that MacDonald was the best kind of journalist: intellectually rigorous, unwilling to embrace dogmatism in any form, unworried about whether he was providing ammunition to the “enemy,” be they left or right.

A graduate of Yale (which, by itself, separated himself from his group, The New York Intellectuals, who were composed primarily of Jews who graduated from City College in New York), MacDonald briefly worked for Henry Luce at Fortune Magazine. With the Great Depression raging, MacDonald broke with the pro-business Luce over wanting to move the magazine further left. MacDonald found a better fit for his developing anti-Stalinist leftism with Partisan Review, the flagship of anti-Soviet Marxists. MacDonald fell under the spell, as did some of the New York Intellectuals for a time, of exiled Bolshevik and hated foe of Josef Stalin, Leon Trotsky. Unlike many anti-Soviet Marxists, many of whom would eventually morph into what is known today as the neoconservative school of thought, MacDonald broke early with Trotsky because of the dogmatism in the Bolshevik leader’s thought–like George Orwell, MacDonald believed that the Soviet system of government would have developed into the same tyranny under Stalin even with Lenin or Trotsky at the helm.

But, as to be expected, MacDonald fell out with Partisan Review. The reason was the magazine’s support of the US during World War II. MacDonald, vigorously opposed to World War II, left Partisan Review to crank out his own magazine, simply entitled Politics, which denounced the US participation in World War II as turning America into a tyranny as bad as Hitler’s.

What he called “pacifistic anarchism” would soon be abandoned, however, after the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps. Another contributing factor was how his bête noir, the Soviet Union, was instituting at the same time a police state in Eastern Europe. MacDonald, who during World War II had equated Western democracy with the Nazis, now found something worthwhile in it that warranted defending the West from Soviet aggression. Hence, MacDonald now favored US foreign policy in the form of President Harry S. Truman’s containment policies toward the Soviet Union.

MacDonald, by now a New Yorker writer in the 1950s, even found value in conservatism. He argued that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson, was correct more than anyone else in that private property was the best defense against big government tyranny. But he rejected the William F. Buckley version of conservatism. MacDonald attacked Buckley for formulating a doctrine that was merely anti-liberal rather than what MacDonald considered the truer form of conservatism–that of preserving liberal gains rather than attempting to turn back history.

With the arrival of the New Left in the 1960s, MacDonald joining them (even participating with them when the New Left briefly took over Columbia in protest of the Vietnam War) would appear to be either an old man trying to be hip or a nostalgic return to his barricade days. But MacDonald remained a true individual even when he appeared to be one of the leftist herd protesting the Vietnam War.

Unlike New Leftists, many of whom weren’t really anti-war but instead wanted “progressive” North Vietnam to defeat “fascist” America, MacDonald never ceased reminding them that the Vietcong were murderous totalitarians (how the North behaved after taking over South Vietnam, in which Ho Chi Minh massacred millions of Vietnamese citizens, validated MacDonald). Nor was he so afflicted with liberal white guilt that he ignored the thuggish nature of the Black Panthers.

Whatever his foolhardy notions–pacifistic anarchy would hardly have stopped an invading Hitler–MacDonald never stopped being his own man. And in our era of a mainstream media all writing with one leftist voice, he is a reminder of what a true journalist should be.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.