Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(6 June 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 39, 6 June 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Stalinist Literary Front Cracks

From the Third American Writers Congress comes news of the resignations of Babette Deutsch, and of Frances Winwar, who was a member of the executive committee of the League of American Writers, which sponsors the Congress. Both resignations are protests against the increasingly obvious corruption and reaction of the Third International and against the Communist Party’s behind-the-scenes domination of the Congress. From outside the Congress, not one but two opposition groups of writers and artists have appeared on the scene. One of these new groups is the Dewey-Hook Committee for Cultural Freedom, of which more later. The other is the League for Cultural Freedom & Socialism. Unlike the Hook Committee, the League has issued a militant and revolutionary manifesto.

It is too early to judge the response to the League’s manifesto, which is only now being published. But already it is clear that the Hook-Dewey manifesto has the Stalinists worried. Its roster of names is incomparably more distinguished than that of the signers of the call to the Third Writers Congress. The liberal N.Y. Post reprinted the manifesto in full and commented favorably on it editorially. And so it is not surprising to find both the Nation and the New Republic this week devoting major editorials to polemics against the Committee. Whatever one’s quarrels with the manifesto, and I have a good many, one can but welcome its aid in the struggle against Stalinist control of cultural activities. Once that heavy hand is lifted off our arts and letters, we can all breathe more freely.

The Committee for Cultural Freedom, Again

The editors of the Appeal have turned over to me the following postcard:

“Gentlemen: In one of your recent issues I am coupled with the Dies Committee. In another I am listed as a player on the Studs Lonigan team in a coming game with the Marxist Maulers. You are wrong about both items. I cannot prevent you or your Mr. MacDonald [correct spelling: Macdonald] from coupling the Committee for Cultural Freedom with the Dies Committee, since the Stalinists have already done so. But since I specifically refused to authorize the use of my name in connection with your coming game, I shall be obliged if you will stick to the facts. Yours, etc., Sidney Hook.”

I don’t know about the baseball game, although I might say that Professor Hook’s complaint is the precise opposite of mine. He was put on the team against his will, while I, in my innocence, volunteered to play again for the Studs Lonigan A.C., only to be informed, indirectly, that I have crossed the Rubicon and am now a Trotskyist and so not eligible for the Studs Lonigan team. I don’t at all object to being called a Trotskyist, but I suspect that Captain Farrell is taking this devious method to keep me off his team rather than come out with the real reason, which is my ineptness at the game. In any case, this seems to me a clear case of a writer’s being discriminated against on political grounds, or worse, and as such I bring it to the attention of Professor Hook’s committee. The whole business badly needs to be aired in public.

I am glad of the chance to explain more fully why I consider it legitimate to draw parallels, of course on a strictly limited basis between the Dies and the Dewey Committees. All men of good will, of whom I hope and believe I am one, must agree with the Dewey Committee that “totalitarianism” is an evil to be fought against. But I must still insist that the Dies Committee – one of whose hearings I attended last week – is just as explicit, no doubt for the worst sort of political reasons, in its denunciation of all forms of “dictatorship” as is the Dewey Committee. In questioning the fascistic Mr. Deatherage, Congressman Dies made it quite clear he conceives of himself as the great protector of the common man against all “extremists,” whether of left or right, and that liberty and democracy to him were dearer than pelf or his very heart’s blood. No, it all depends on the analysis one makes of the social roots and meaning of totalitarianism. And on this crucial point, the Hook-Dewey manifesto is inadequate to the point of scandal. Its basic idea is that “totalitarianism” is a foreign growth which is insinuating its tentacles into our fair American democracy: “Through subsidized propaganda, through energetic agents, through political pressure, the totalitarian states succeed in infecting other countries with their false doctrines ...” I can see less difference than I should like to between this sort of red-and-black totalitarian-baiting, and the all-black totalitarian baiting of the New Deal and its Stalinist allies. In each case, the broad Atlantic stretches between, the heroic defenders of democracy and the enemy.

The only specific reference to the internal forces that may bring about dictatorship is the single sentence: “Even in the United States, its [‘the totalitarian idea’] beginnings are all too evident in the emergence of local political dictators, the violation of civil rights, the alarming spread of phobias of hatred directed against racial, religious, and political minorities.” I think that Professor Hook and many of his co-signers would agree, in private, that this is inadequate, to say the least, and that their manifesto’s emphasis on the foreign-menace aspect of totalitarianism is distorting. I think they would agree that the great threat to freedom of any sort in this country comes not from sinister foreign plots but from the struggle of the American ruling class to maintain its rule in the face of a disintegrating economic system. Yet their manifesto is discreetly silent on this theme – the very heart of the whole business.

The only reference in the entire manifesto, and this is hardly believable when one reads some of the good left-wing names appended to it, to either the labor movement or the war issue, the single reference is this, smuggled in at the end of a paragraph: “Ominous shadows of war are gathering in our land. Behind them lurk dangers not only to a free labor movement but to a free culture.” The virtue of such a formulation, and practically its only virtue, is that James Rorty and Dorothy Thompson can agree on it. (The first sentence is particularly impregnable.) But in my opinion the price was much too high to pay, even for so valuable an autograph as that of the Sibyl of the Herald-Tribune.

Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 4 March 2016