Discriminations, by Dwight Macdonald
Discriminations: Essays and Afterthoughts—1938-1974.
by Dwight Macdonald.
Grossman. 480 pp. $15.00.
Discriminations is a ragtag collection of Dwight Macdonald’s past feuilletons, essays, book reviews, and polemical writings dating from 1938—fugitive pieces that have eluded previous and better collections. Some effort has been made, as the subtitle indicates, to update judgments that time has destroyed, but not, alas, to amend them. What the collection chiefly demonstrates once again is that Macdonald, when he is not writing about politics, can be a keen and occasionally brilliant observer of the cultural scene. Unfortunately, however, he has chosen over the years to write mainly about politics, a subject on which he has by now simply forfeited any claims to credibility.
For proof of how consistently Macdonald has erred in his political judgments, one need only note how often those judgments have changed. Over the years Macdonald has been successively a Communist, a Trotskyist, a free-wheeling radical, a pacifist, and a liberal of sorts, all of which positions he has ardently championed, and as ardently disavowed. By his own admission, he has also misjudged every single President and every single candidate for the Presidency he ever supported. To be sure, Macdonald has not been alone in his wanderings along the tortuous road of left-wing politics; but others (including the present writer) who have made the same journey have at least learned from the experience to be somewhat less asseverating in our present political views.
Not so Macdonald, who whatever his inner doubts, asserts his present position with the same undiminished cockiness he has brought to all his earlier ones, though what precisely that position is, is open to conjecture. As near as one may gather, he seems to be a kind of vestigial Marxist who has no faith in the working class, an upholder of democracy who deplores the masses and does not believe in the ballot (he quotes with approval Proudhon’s tirade against voting), and an anarchist who supports the capitalist free market (as if such an animal ever existed) on grounds that it is anarchistic. He thinks the American Constitution is one of the noblest works of man (subject to a few amendments of his own) but would exchange it for the British Parliamentary system, which in turn he would supplant with his own brand of anarchism.
This last is a curious hybrid of his own devising, one part Bakunin, three parts pure Macdonald. His Free Society would be achieved by voluntary groups acting independently in pursuit of particular aims and without central government. Such groups as the PTA and, yes, garden clubs have shown the way; trade unions get no mention. To do him justice, Macdonald does give large credit to CORE whose sit-ins achieved integration in his view, but there is not a word in all of this about the role of the black vote, which even Southern politicians woo, and he seems to deplore federal enforcement (indeed, he considers the use of troops in Little Rock a national disaster). Nor does he tell us what is to be done if and when the interests of his special groups happen to clash.
So much for his political views, about which the best that can be said is that he has wielded a vigorous pen on behalf of his opinions of the moment. Like the warhorse in the Book of Job, “he smelleth battle from afar”; he has been known, that is to say, to arrive on the scene when the tide of battle has receded, and to cry “ha, ha!” to the sound of trumpets that no one else can hear.
Where he may be taken seriously is as a critic of literature and related intellectual matters, though even here he sometimes shows a tendency to cut deeper than the operation warrants. Thus, his dissection of James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed (which was originally published in COMMENTARY) was justly praised in its time for deflating a vastly overinflated literary reputation. It is one thing, however, to point out that the king’s fine clothes are a sham, quite another not to allow the exposed monarch his own decent suit of underwear. And nearly twenty years later, Macdonald is still referring to the piece in an “Afterthought,” which sounds uncomfortably like gloating over a corpse. Similarly, his celebrated defense of Hannah Arendt against the “Jewish establishment” in the Eichmann trial controversy seemed animated less by the need to defend Hannah Arendt than by the desire to go her one better in attacking the Jewish leadership. On the other hand, Macdonald’s piece on Henry Luce in the present collection is genuinely brilliant, as is the beautiful job he does on what he calls the “para-journalism” of Tom Wolfe and numerous imitators. Reading such pieces, one is confirmed in the view that Macdonald would do well to avoid politics and stick to what he does best.