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The New International, April 1942

The Editor


The Partisan Review Controversy

In Reply


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 3, April 1942, pp. 91–93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The foregoing letter from Dwight Macdonald is not an official reply from the editors of Partisan Review; it is the expression of an individual point of view held by the writer. Naturally, it would have been preferable to reply to an official statement by the editors of PR. But we are ready to believe the explanation that Macdonald’s opponents agree with most of what we have said about them. The fact that it is Macdonald and not the anti-socialist, pro-war editors, who has stood up to defend what we regard, from revolutionary socialist conceptions, as an indefensible position, is symptomatic. It is he who is in a quandary, not they.

Macdonald’s reply to Howe’s article, The Dilemma of Partisan Review, pursues a course of deliberate special pleading in order to avoid the essential charges contained therein. He vociferously argues about secondary questions having no basic importance or relation to the issue itself. For example, the question of whether or not Rahv is a scoundrel, concerns us not at all. No personal characterization of Rahv or any other editor of PR was made in the NI, because we are interested, above all, in political programs, not individual psychology.

While Macdonald pays special respect to the “tone” of Howe’s critique, we find it impossible to say the same for his letter. The concrete reasons for this are outlined in this reply.

1. Macdonald evades the main point of Howe’s article: the present position of PR on the war (the lack of a position, Macdonald, is one of the most obvious expressions of a certain position, nevertheless) is in direct contradiction to the original statement of principle adopted by the magazine and its editors, namely, that the struggle for cultural freedom is inseparable from the struggle for socialism and against imperialist war!

Why, then, does Macdonald avoid this question in his letter? Why does he misrepresent the former position of PR by saying that the present editorial statement on the war is “quite in line with the original editorial statement”? Did he not write the opposite in his polemic against Van Wyck Brooks? Obviously, he did!

Macdonald knows that the position of Partisan Review was not that of neutrality on the question of the class struggle and imperialist war. The origin of PR as a left-wing cultural magazine stems from the struggle it waged against “neutrality.” Even more, the editors chose the name “Partisan” Review to make the fact more forcefully known that, not only was it not neutral in the class struggle, but it was a partisan. It stood on the side of the proletariat; it was determined to fight for the interests of that class as the most progressive class in bourgeois society; it was ready to fight against the devastating effects of unemployment, against fascism and imperialist war, and above all, it was ready to fight for socialism!

2. Either Macdonald does not understand the essential meaning of the editorial statement of PR, or he himself has traveled the long road away from it. Observe again the “logic” of the following statement:

Now there unquestionably are issues, in my opinion, on which a magazine like PR could not remain neutral and still fulfill its functions, either politically or culturally. Fascism is one, Stalinism another. Personally, I should be unwilling, in fact unable, to take part in editing a magazine with colleagues of fascist or Stalinist views, because those doctrines are so vicious and so all-embracing as to corrupt all human and cultural values. But is this true of a pro-war position? I don’t think so. People support the war in a hundred different ways, from a dozen different political positions.

What twaddle! People not only support the war for different political reasons and in different ways, they similarly support fascism and Stalinism. If fascism and Stalinism are corrupters of all human and cultural values, what shall one say of imperialist war? Are not all three social phenomena of world capitalism? Are not war and fascism two sides of the same coin? Macdonald knows as well as anyone that imperialist war is the most brutal, destructive and anti-social outgrowth of bourgeois society. It brings untold international suffering to the proletariat, the peasants, the colonial peoples and the lower middle classes. It corrodes the whole social structure; it makes a farce of culture! It hastens and strengthens totalitarian and fascist processes! Yet our friend, who presumably has full knowledge of what is said here, writes as though the whole subject had now come to his attention for the first time. But we believe that this is not mere error in judgment. Macdonald can express such elementary confusion only because of his personal contradictory position.

In former months Partisan Review did give the impression of being opposed to imperialist war. But it publishes the London letters of George Orwell, whose pro-war writings appear without editorial comment. This can mean and does mean that PR as a magazine either agrees with him or has no position at all on the subject. What does PR have to say, for example, about Orwell’s observation that anyone in England who is opposed to the imperialist war is therefore pro-Hitler? If Macdonald justifies this silence, we must again point out that the editorial statement specifically precluded such ambiguity. Not a very honorable or principled position for a magazine which professed that one of its main aims was the struggle against imperialist war!

Moreover, the class struggle becomes accentuated as the burdens of the war are placed on the backs of the masses. The aim of the bourgeois state is to blunt this struggle, to force the war burdens upon the peoples, to make them pay for the war in a hundred different ways, all of them having the effect of reducing their level of social, economic and cultural existence. What do Macdonald and PR propose to do about this?

Herein lies the crux of the whole question and it is precisely this which Macdonald does not understand. Attacking Brooks and MacLeish is fine sport on Sundays and holidays but not overly important, because they are in reality the minor figures of the class struggle. A struggle against their “cultural barbarism” means nothing if the struggle in defense of the working class, against imperialist war as a social phenomenon, and for world socialism, is not made the paramount occupation of a magazine which, formally at least, accepted the latter as the all-important issue of this epoch.

3. When Macdonald fights for the right of PR to be anything but what its early principles dictated, on the ground that it is a cultural magazine, he is reiterating the point, made so clear by practice, that its principles never really meant anything. The fact that PR has had no editorial position on the war for many, many months, does not improve Macdonald’s position. It was obvious a long time ago that PR was moving rapidly away from its revolutionary statement of principle. It was brought home in another way, in the hesitation and refusal to publish James T. Farrell’s criticisms.

It does not help Macdonald any to excuse PR on the ground that it is a cultural magazine. That argument means that the goal which Macdonald sought for PR was merely a subterfuge, never seriously adhered to. If PR is nothing but a cultural magazine, pure and simple, wherein lies its superiority over other magazines of a similar type. The only reason why PR was regarded as something extraordinary in the field of cultural journals was precisely because it professed socialist aims!

4. Everything else in Macdonald’s reply is secondary or of complete unimportance. For example, if Macdonald cannot accept our judgment of his role as a socialist anti-war editor of a magazine whose other editors are cynical anti-socialists and war-mongers, what difference can it make to him what we suggest for him to do? Why should he be interested in doing anything about a situation in which he allegedly sees nothing wrong? Before Macdonald can do anything, he must first understand what is wrong with his position. If he sees nothing wrong with his position, he cannot even desire to do anything about it. If he is satisfied with his political course, he must be satisfied with what he is doing. But his constant harping: What shall I do? What do you suggest I do about it? only indicates that back in his mind, he is troubled. He suspects that there is something wrong in collaborating with anti-socialists and pro-imperialists, no matter what the reasons may be for their positions. If Macdonald is ready to acknowledge our criticisms we can tell him what to do about it. Failing that, he cannot but reject any suggestions we might make, such as conducting himself in the way of a Randolph Bourne or a John Reed!

5. Macdonald’s comments about “moral” judgments being the basis of our criticisms are beside the point and totally uninteresting. Especially so, when one remembers Macdonald’s criticism of Bolshevism as “immoral” and his remarks about the “amorality” of the Trotskyist movement. It is similarly unimportant to us whether his colleagues on PR are “nice fellows.” They may be, but what of it? How can that have anything to do with the issues in dispute?

The same holds true for Macdonald’s remarks about the invitations he extended to the editors of the NI to write for Partisan Review. We are ready to agree that their failure to write may have weakened the political level and content of PR, but this has nothing to do with Macdonald’s position as an editor of PR, nor with the discussion between us.

6. We are ready to forgive Macdonald his failure to understand Marxism, economics, history or politics. But we cannot forgive his impudence. In addressing us as “Dear Ex-Comrades” he again reveals his bad taste. Certainly we do not belong to the same organization, but it is as obvious as day and night that Macdonald does not understand anything about “a general labor movement” and the use of the term, comrade; or he understands it so well that perhaps we were too optimistic in the very beginning in having used that salutation to him.

This “slip” is made no better by his polemic to the effect that we “conceive (our) function to be that of critical bystanders purely, commentators on the struggle looking down from the lofty heights of Marxistical illumination.” Macdonald should never have said that. Everyone know that Macdonald spent all his time in the revolutionary organization quibbling about theory and organizational principles, none of which he was fully acquainted with then nor understands any better since his departure.

It is known that the Workers Party is a small organization. But that organization endeavors, within its means and resources, to do as much as possible in the day-to-day struggle to realize socialism as the only hope for humanity, for freedom, for culture! Why did Macdonald leave that organization? Everyone knows! The Workers Party rejected his ideas, his ill-digested theories on politics and organization and because they didn’t accept his ideas, he quit. He felt stifled; there was no “freedom” for him in that party. He wasn’t greatly interested in the practical work that party was doing because in his opinion it was a waste of time and effort, since it didn’t conform to his “theories.” That party spent many months discussing his “ideas.” It gave far more time to him as an individual than was warranted by the “materials” offered in those disputes. The NI also carried Macdonald’s contributions in its columns on many occasions, as did Labor Action. And his objections to that party then was not that it wasn’t doing anything, but that it was doing too much practical work at the expense of listening to his ill-digested theories endlessly! Revolutionary kibitzer, indeed!

But Macdonald doesn’t know where to stop. Having made this charge he goes further and refers to the Workers Party and such literary organs as The New International and Labor Action as epigones of Trotsky, quite blandly coupling this characterization with the following statement: Trotsky spoke of the epigones of Lenin.

Here again, if Macdonald knew what he was talking about, he would have omitted this statement. When Trotsky spoke of the Stalinists as the epigones of Lenin, he meant that they were counter-revolutionaries, revisers of the principles of the October and betrayers of the socialist goal – all of this in the name of the greatest leader of international socialism in the twentieth century. With the death of Lenin, Trotsky became his theoretical and political heir. When Macdonald calls us epigones of Trotsky, exactly what does he imply? If he did not mean to insinuate that we are the equivalent of Stalinists he should avoid employment of dubious opprobriums.

Macdonald pursues a bad habit. He writes and talks about things that are foreign to him. Pontificating doesn’t help him in the slightest.

In summary, it is necessary to make the following observations. Macdonald resigned from a revolutionary organization because he had various differences with it, though he declares that these differences did not touch on fundamental questions of Marxism and revolutionary theory and strategy. He ceased collaboration with a magazine and paper because the respective editorial boards would not permit the expression of views in regular articles, contrary to their accepted editorial policies and because these boards insisted that such views be expressed in special discussion articles. While Macdonald found life there intolerable, he does, with the greatest equanimity, collaborate with cynical anti-socialists, pro-imperialists, and worse. These colleagues do not defend PR against our criticisms. They apparently agree. It is Macdonald who is in a mire! And it is he who pens a questionable defense.

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