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Dwight Macdonald

Reading from Left To Right

(March 1939)

From New International, Vol. V No. 3, March 1939, pp. 92–94.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NO COMMENT DEPARTMENT: “EDGEWATER, N.J., Feb. 16. – A sit-in protest was held in the plant of the Aluminum Company of America here today by several hundred employees in the rolling mill ... Later in the day, L.H. Goldsmith, secretary of the CIO in New Jersey, said the CIO was ‘taking the strike over.’ Mr. Goldsmith said the men were being advised to leave the building ...” NY Times, Feb. 17, 1939.

* * *

Footnote on Imperialism: It is harder to be a good imperialist than the Nation perhaps suspects. I refer not to that monstrous “betrayal”, the Munich Pact, but to the private war the British Army has been fighting on the Northwest frontier of India. “Strange as it may sound,” reports the Indian correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, “one is forced to the conclusion on the frontier that the present disturbed conditions suit the tribes much better than peace.” It appears that the British have been paying monthly allowances to the Mahsuds, a “friendly” tribe, to guard the roads against certain “hostile” tribes. These allowances come to $2,000,000 a year – a sum large enough to affect the economy of the whole region. Furthermore, the British Army must pay the Mahsuds for transport and provisions, bringing total annual expenses for the war up to some $15,000,000. The tribesmen seem to have admirably grasped the economic possibilities of their situation. A Mahsud can drive a truck loaded with supplies for some British outpost over the most “dangerous” roads in perfect safety, since the “hostile” tribesmen are just as anxious as are the Mahsuds to keep the British Army around. The abandonment of such an outpost would be a blow to native industry comparable to the closing down of a textile mill in Lowell, Mass. The Guardian hints that the “hostile” and the “friendly” tribes are in cahoots to keep such profitable customers on the frontier. Its correspondent reports that since the Army arrived, the land has tended to go out of cultivation. The Fakir of Ipi (whom the Guardian describes with British restraint as “a remarkable man in his own way”) and the other border chieftains rule over a land barren of coal, oil, and iron. And so they exploit to the hilt their one great natural resource: the British regiments.

* * *

According to Living Age, which picks the story up from Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Soviet author recently submitted a translation of Corneille’s Horace to the publishing house, Isskustvo. Hearing nothing, the translator finally got an interview with the Director of Isskustvo’s dramatic department. “May I inquire about your report on Horace?” he asked timidly. “So you’re this Corneille, are you?” said the Director contemptuously, and, before the dazed translator could say a word, he read him the following report:

“Too little action. The whole play is built on long monologues dealing with duty, customs, etc. All action seems to take place offstage. The characters are not living persons but types. Very low level of artistic quality. Therefore, since the play is not suitable for production, I cannot approve its publication by the Isskustvo.”

* * *

In my series last summer in The New International on the columnists, I never got around to a rather minor but for all that quite interesting specimen: J. Otis Swift, founder and führer of the Yosian Brotherhood, who contributes a daily nature piece to the Scripps-Howard press. J. Otis Swift is what an earlier generation would have called a “nature faker”. Every Sunday of the year his Yosians – in a dozen groups – roam the hills and dales around New York City, looking for pitcher plants, tanagers, nuthatches and other natural phenomena. Mr. Swift in person leads one of these expeditions, expatiating to his flock on the beauties of nature. He is said to have walked backward farther – in order to face his listeners – more miles than any other human being in history. In his daily column, News Outside the Door, Mr. Swift also does a good deal of walking backward. His column expresses – on a rather primitive level, to be sure, but all the more plainly for that reason – the reactionary nature of modern Back-To-Nature philosophizing. In a lush style, reminiscent of the old Chatauqua tradition, ornamented with references to classical lore, Mr. Swift plays variations on two simple themes: “The City Must Go” and “The Old Ways Are Best.” Unlike Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, who could see in the primrose by the river’s brim merely a primrose, Mr. Swift is an adept in the language of flowers. “The knot-grass, Polygonum Aviculare,” he writes, “lingers around what was the yard where children played, long after the family has scattered, the old folks sleep in God’s Acre, the children have learned, out in the world, there is no place like home.” The Virginia Creeper, or Woodbine, leads him to the most unlikely conclusions. This he includes in an essay on “historical weeds” because it “teaches that most great isms which started out to reform the world and bring about Utopia are ‘gone where the woodbine twineth,’ that is, forgotten cemeteries.” Although the woodbine would seem to be pretty thick on Mr. Swift’s own philosophy, he seems to conceive of himself as a deep thinker: “the cosmic dreamer, sitting on a log in Fernlundgrot.” “Oh yes,” he concludes one column, “there is a lot of serious thinking to be done along the lovely Swampside Trail.” A few days later he writes:

“It is paradise at sunrise along the Swampside Trail ... Over the steps beyond the Eastern arm of the water course, where little green herons often fish, are tall yellow locusts from which policemen’s clubs are made. Nature philosophers, loving peace, law and order, are glad there are so many locusts left in America.”

Yes, indeed, there is a lot of serious thinking to be done along the Swampside Trail.

* * *

Harry Hopkins Comes to Munich: The “appeasement” policy of the New Deal towards Big Business proceeds at precisely the same rate as the New Deal’s arms drive, since the one is patently dependent on the other. Which is to say that it proceeds at a rather brisk pace. The most dramatic and blatant instance is the recent TVA-Commonwealth & Southern deal. On January 30, the Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, threw out of court die suit which fourteen private utility companies had brought against the TVA. The majority opinion told the companies that “neither their charters nor their local franchises involve the grant of a monopoly or render competition illegal.” The decision was so broad that it seems to open the door to the Federal Government’s competing in any field of “private” enterprise. From a juridical point of view, this may well be the most important legal victory in the entire history of the New Deal. But law means very little when bigger matters are at stake. The leader of the fourteen utility companies was Wendell Willkie, head of the great Commonwealth & Southern Utilities Co., dominant in the Southern utility field. On February 4, five days after this great legal victory, TVA announced it had come to an agreement with its defeated foe. TVA has agreed to pay to Commonwealth & Southern for its Tennessee properties $80,000,000.

“The deal,” commented the NY Times financial editor, “received yesterday the overwhelming endorsement of every financial and utility executive in Wall Street ... The outstanding preferred stock and bonds of the Tennessee Electric Power Co., the company to be sold, rose sharply yesterday in response to the settlement news.”

A business man’s information service sent out from Washington notes:

“Government is paying a fair price for power properties taken over by the TVA. The companies say so, publicly and privately.”

And the Saturday Evening Post exploits the latest hero of the business community, advertising in its current issue:

“WHEN A BUSINESS MAN OUT TALKS POLITICIANS – That’s News ... The New Dealers, when they concluded the TVA-Commonwealth & Southern deal, admitted they had met their master. Read the story of Wendell L. Willkie on page 10.”

Celebration – for the business fraternity – was indeed in order. Mr. Willkie’s original asking price was $86,300,000. TVA countered with an offer of $55,000,000. A “compromise” at $80,000,000 means a complete rout of the New Deal. TVA is now going to pay for such ghostly items as “Good Will” and “Value as a Going Concern.” According to the Nation, Mr. Willkie included under the former “the value of having the highest ratio of domestic household usage and the lowest domestic rates in the United States.” Since these assets were created only by his system’s forced competition with TVA, this means that TVA paid Mr. Willkie for assets which it had itself created.

But why this sudden and catastrophic rout of the forces of reformism in the very hour of their victory? The general cause, of course, is the necessity the Administration feels for placating business in order to enlist its support in manoeuvring the nation into the next world slaughter. But the specific precipitant in this instance was that great champion of the underprivileged, Harry Hopkins, who now is fighting the battles of the overprivileged with equal ardor in his new job of Secretary of Commerce. According to a recent NY Times dispatch:

“While the case was still pending before the Supreme Court, Mr. Hopkins suddenly entered the picture. Reports sprang out of Washington that the President had asked him to seek a settlement of the row ... Within a matter of hours, the TVA directors were soliciting an audience with Mr. Willkie.”

And Messers. Alsop and Kintner, whose syndicated NANA column is one of the best sources on the New Deal, recently made it quite clear what has happened:

“Mr. Hopkins,” they write, “has been living in an ecstasy of conferences with high business executives. He has impressed most of them very favorably, and he has liked them well enough, so that now he hopes to bring some of the most eminent among them to serve as his special assistants at the Department of Commerce. Meanwhile, he has heard from them (if he did not know already) what business wants. ...”

Six days after Harry Hopkins persuaded the TVA directors to be “reasonable,” on February 10, the Public Utilities Commission of the state of Tennessee found the Tennessee Electric Power Co. – the subsidiary which Commonwealth & Southern sold to the TVA for $80,000,000 – guilty on 917 counts charging it with bribing the Chattanooga Free Press, a daily paper. It seems Tennessee Electric Power had paid large sums to the Free Press – incomparable name! – to slant its news and editorial columns against the TVA. The minimum fine on each of these counts is $500, making a sum total of $458,500 which Tennessee Electric Power Co. is legally supposed to pay the state of Tennessee. But again, these paper juridical matters shrivel in the fierce fire of actual capitalist property interests. I predict that either Tennessee Electric Power will get out of paying anything, or else – and this is by no means excluded – this fine was foreseen and TVA assumed responsibility for it in advance. To quote the realistic formulation of Jo Conn Guild, Jr., president of Tennessee Electric Power: “This whole thing is a lot of bunk.”

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