Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Dwight Macdonald

School for Dictators

(April 1939)

From New International, Vol. V No. 4, April 1939, pp. 126–127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The School for Dictators
by Ignazio Silone
Harpers. $2.50

In this book Silone has written his masterpiece – a political satire that can be mentioned in the same breath with Aristophanes, Swift, and Voltaire. Nothing, indeed, is too much to be said for the book, except what the jacket blurb does say: “A master of prose attacks with bare fists the most absorbing single problem of our day. ...” Silone uses almost every other weapon on fascism, from slapstick drollery to the most severely restrained irony, but his attack is effective precisely because it is not delivered with bare fists. His literary style is an admirable synthesis of the classic and conversational – dense but not heavy, closely wrought but always lucid. He is learned in political history and fertile of ideas, but he knows how to be easy and unpretentious about things, never parading his learning or insisting too much on his ideas. His book, in short, combines the virtues of good prose and good conversation.

Although the theme of The School for Dictators is modern politics, it will not do to seek from it any positive conclusions. Nor does his book tell us anything about politics we didn’t know already. In fact, it is often superficial and confused in its specifically political analysis. Its importance, like that of the earlier Bread and Wine, is that it applies a set of values – humane, honest, and intellectually sophisticated – to the political phenomena of today. To guard and cherish such a human norm, independent of political parties (though not of political tendencies), is a valuable function of the intellectual. I might add that the politicians of the left can gain from this book some excellent insights not only into the real nature of fascism but also into certain deficiencies of their own programs.

I have never been as much impressed by Silone’s novels as perhaps I should be. They have seemed to me to be episodic, even at times tainted with journalistic trickery – as in the abrupt “black-out” endings of certain chapters. The characters have often seemed one-dimensional and all too obviously designed to point the moral. In this book, however, these weaknesses become virtues. The stylization of the three principal persons in the dialogue is appropriate to the satirical intent, and the form is episodic as good conversation must be, one idea touching off another. I have been told, by the way, that Silone had planned to carry the dialogue much further, but was persuaded by his publishers to let this much appear now. If this is true, we may hope for another volume.

In another way, too, The School for Dictators seems to me an advance over the novels: in its subject matter. Fontamara had the qualities and the defects of a poster: it was an intellectual’s attempt to present, from above and outside, the most primitive sort of peasant life, simplifying its values towards a propagandist end. Bread and Wine opened up the focus, including the intellectual as well as the petty bourgeois and the peasant in its scope. Much the most interesting parts, to me, were the conversations between Don Benedetto and Don Paolo. These conversations have now expanded to become the body of the present book, a progression I find all for the best. Silone, after all, is an intellectual, a man of ideas, representing a high development of modern consciousness, and here he deals directly with the central themes of his intellectual experience. The easy play of his mind in this book is as natural as Fontamara, for all its effectiveness, was mannered. This raises the question why so few of the “creative” writers of today occupy themselves with politics as a theme. (Brecht’s novel, A Penny for the Poor, is another, though less successful, attempt to treat such subject matter.) There seems to be a blight on the novel and the short story today. I suggest this is partly because politics has come to occupy so much of our consciousness that what for so many generations has been called “creative” writing has come to seem tangential to the central issues. And I suggest that the political themes which preoccupied Dryden, Pope, Swift, Voltaire and the other great eighteenth century writers may once more regain their supremacy in this century, whose intellectual atmosphere is in many ways similar. The School for Dictators may prove to be a seminal work in this respect.

Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16 January 2016