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Dwight Macdonald

Reading from Left To Right

(August 1939)

From New International, Vol. V No. 8, August 1939, pp. 245–247.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Lost in the Dismal Swamp

AT FIRST GLANCE, Charles and Mary Beard’s America in Mid-Passage looks like the book bargain of the year: almost 1,000 pages – 977, to be exact – of history, forming the final volume (1925–1938) of the authors’ celebrated Rise of American Civilization. Trying to read this thick volume, however, is like being lost in the Dismal Swamp lands of Virginia. The style, none too firm and precise in the Beards’ best books, is by now definitely marshy. (The Beards begin their section on the CIO-AFL split with this lucid sentence: “Whether as a consequence of the new federal legislation or as another incident in a long stream of economic and intellectual tendencies, a terrific clash among labor leaders and within the ranks of industrial workers tore into the labor system and intensified the conflict of other interests in America.” I find it hard to visualize an incident in a stream, nor do I see how a clash can tear into a system. The scenery, furthermore, is extremely monotonous: the Beards evidently have a corps of none too imaginative research workers, who have piled up on the masters’ desks a huge heap of newspaper clippings, which are crammed into the book without very much predigestion.)

There is at once too much data in the book and not enough. There are too many longwinded quotations from public figures like Nicholas Murray Butler – the Beards, like most liberals, take all speeches, articles, and other verbal outpourings of public personages with the utmost seriousness – and too little solid statistical documentation. There is an interminable amount of vague speculation about the episodic shifts of the New Deal, and very little about unemployment, the labor movement, or left-wing groups. It is hardly believable, but the Beards on the one hand devote seven full pages to summarizing the plots of three obscure novels – Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited (two pages), Kay Boyle’s My Next Bride (three pages) and Hamilton Basso’s In Their Own Image (two pages), and on the other hand devote to the General Motors strike just one sentence (“In February, 1937, the Committee ‘breached the united front of the basic industries in winning a contract with the General Motors Corporation’, hitherto an adroit and indomitable foe.”). The entire CIO campaign in Big and Little Steel is disposed of in just one sentence:

“While the country was watching the outcome with anxiety, ‘Big Steel’ came to terms with industrial unionism in March 1937; but ‘Little Steel’, personified in its spokesman, Tom Girdler of the Republic Steel Company, refused to sign on the dotted line and presented a solid front of resistance.”

There is not a single word in all these thousand pages, so far as I have been able to find, about either the San Francisco maritime strike of 1934 or the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strikes.

Such disproportions are symptomatic of the terrible effects of the ever-sharpening crisis of American capitalism on the liberal consciousness. When a historian of the rank of Charles A. Beard shows such an obvious deterioration, it is small wonder that the liberal weeklies, edited by journalists of much lesser stature, have degenerated as they have done in the last two years.

But the passage which really makes one gasp at its ignorance, irresponsibility, and malice is the following description (p. 540) of the role of the “Trotskyites” – Beard apparently lumps all anti-CP tendencies on the left under this heading – in the CIO movement:

Despising the Stalinite wing of communism with the intensity of disillusionment following utter confidence in Utopia, Trotzkyites took delight in pointing out and exaggerating the communistic element in the industrial unions. A small fraction themselves, they would have wielded slight influence had it not been for the energy of the general opposition riding full tilt against the Committee. Riding with it, they obtained for their testimony and for their “revelations” a degree of publicity that could not have been won otherwise. In this state of affairs their writings and agitations gave the press an opportunity to whip up resentment against the only form of unionism that, in the nature of mass production, could offer any method of accomplishing the wholesale organization of labor in the United States.

When a reputable historian thus echoes the grossest and most easily refuted falsifications of the Stalinist press, one senses the advanced stage of decomposition reached by the bourgeois-liberal tradition in history-writing, as in history-making.

The Crisis in Education (Continued)

Month before last I devoted this department to a consideration of the crisis in popular education, as revealed in nation-wide slashing of school funds and worsening of educational standards. I think it worth devoting a little space now to the recent annual convention of the National Education Association. The seriousness of the current educational crisis manifested itself dramatically in the sessions, attended by no less than fifteen thousand teachers and educators from all over the country.

The National Education Association, which has 800,000 members, is a rather conservative and stuffy organization. Its past meetings have been staid, routine affairs. Not so the 1939 gathering. Speech after speech emphasized the terrible cuts that have already been made in school appropriations, and the even deeper cuts that will probably be made in the next few months. President Shaw gave the keynote speech, pointing out that 800,000 children between seven and thirteen did not go to school last year because there were no schools open for them to go to (he didn’t mention the much greater number who didn’t go to school because of insufficient food or clothing, or because their small earnings were needed at home), and that there were no high school facilities for 3,500,000 boys and girls of high school age. He spoke of the importance of education in preventing crime, in preserving democratic forms, etc. But when he came to suggest a Way Out, he could only say:

“The teaching profession must improve greatly its contact with the public to the end that those who produce funds for the support of the schools will have more clearly in mind the facts and their importance in connection with our particular form of government.”

In plain words: teachers must go out and sell the ruling class on the idea that cuts in school funds mean a weakening of “democracy”. Dr. Shaw suggested they start in working on Kiwanis, Rotary, and the American Legion. This would seem to be a rather tough selling assignment.

Hardly more hopeful as a solution was the “Trust in the New Deal” note struck by many other speakers. There is now before Congress, as it has been for many months, a bill to appropriate large sums of Federal money for the rescue of the beleaguered school system. The reporter for the NEA’s legislative commission, President Graham of the American Association for School Administration, spoke most hopefully of this.

It is my opinion [he said] that the opportunity for passing the Federal aid bill in 1940 is good. It can be passed in the Senate at the present time. A majority of the Senators are for it. If the Administration would give active support in the House, it could be passed for the House.

Last June in New York the President, in his speech to the NEA, showed that he believed in Federal aid. Therefore, it is my conclusion that the opportunity to pass the bill in 1940 is excellent.

The good doctor’s logic is impeccable, but his premises are shaky. The President has an excellent command of heart-warming language, but he is an impulsive sort of fellow who often lets his heart run away with his head. And his head these days is concerned with two subjects only: the coming crusade to make the world safe for democracy, and the 1940 elections. The difficulties of the school system will be solved by the New Deal only in so far as the solution fits into these dominant patterns.

Far from urging Congress to appropriate new millions for education, the President has taken the lead in cutting WPA. This produced an ironical situation at the NEA convention, by the way. One of the speakers, L.R. Alderman, director of the educational division of the WPA, drew a gloomy picture of the nation’s educational progress:

“When we take a look at ourselves, we see that two-thirds of us adults have less than an elementary school education, that 85% of us have less than a secondary school education, and that there are twice as many of us who are illiterate as there are college graduates.”

One of the reasons for this deplorable state of affairs, he said, is the common belief that adults cannot be educated. Proudly he described the WPA program for adult education, which has reached through its classes no less than 7,000,000 men and women. But even as he was speaking, WPA officials in Washington were working on plans to liquidate this and similar programs, which had become impossible luxuries as a consequence of the drastic cut in WPA funds. And who first proposed this cut to Congress? Who but that same Franklin D. Roosevelt to whom the assembled teachers looked so hopefully for a solution of their fiscal difficulties!


From a recent issue of Les Hommes du Jour, a French periodical, I excerpt some rather amusing mots d’esprit by the well-known French left-wing politician, Charles Rappoport :

“Leon Blum is more successful in small things than in great. It’s not really his fault, but rather that of the times: you don’t replace window panes during an earthquake. And Blum is a glazier of the tottering capitalist regime.”

* * *

“Bolshevism is Blanquism, with Tartar sauce.”

* * *

“Stalin, instead of executing the constitution which promises every liberty, prefers to execute the revolutionists who inspired it.”

* * *

Some one once asked Rappoport why he detested the social democrats so much. “Because they have forced me to become a Bolshevik.”

During a tea-table discussion on Bolshevism, a countess once asked him: “Is it true that in Russia the commissars of the people have blanks with which they can requisition the pretty girls they pass in the street?” “Madame la Comtesse,” he answered, “you are getting your regimes mixed. Here, in the Champs Elysée, a hundred franc bill is a requisition order for most of the women, pretty and otherwise, one passes in the street.”

Civil War Among the Masses

When jobs are few, as they are today, the masses can react in one of two ways. They can fight against the ruling class which maintains the system that is starving them. Or they can fight a civil war among themselves for the scanty employment and governmental funds available. It is an ominous sign of the times that such internecine warfare between the various sections of the masses seems to have become more pronounced since the 1937 business decline.

Thus at the NEA convention described above, one of the main themes was the increasingly open conflict between the advocates of old age pensions and those who want to maintain educational appropriations.

“For the first time in the history of our civilization,” said President Frasier of Colorado State College of Education, “the oldsters are lining up against the youngsters.”

The group organized to discuss the crucial topic, Can America Afford to Educate Her Children? – it is significant that the theme was put in the form of a question – spent most of its time debating “whether states must choose between schools for the young and pensions for the aged”.

Octogenarians can vote, school children can’t. The political advantages, both short term and long term, would seem to lie with the old folks. Short-term: the weight of the Townsend and similar movements in last fall’s elections, and the fact that Congress has just liberalized old-age pension payments under the Social Security Act but shows no signs of acting on Federal aid for education. Long-term: the declining birth rate and increasing longevity of the average age of the American population: actuaries expect a steady rise in the average age of the population over the next few decades. Youth will have to fight, and fight hard, for every concession it gets in the future – under capitalism, at least.

Age-vs.-Youth is only one of many such struggles now breaking out in our dying economic system. A week after the NEA convention, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs met in Kansas City, and spent most of its time talking about “the most serious problem confronted in its twenty years of existence”. Recent Gallup polls have shown that 85% of those polled oppose married women holding jobs. In some twenty state legislatures bills have been introduced barring married women from state and city jobs and other forms of employment.

“We must remember,” warned one of the speakers at the convention, “that it was easier to get the vote than it may be to retain our jobs. This is possibly going to be a battle for livelihood, a kind of fight in which men are not apt to be gallant or even just. They give no quarter here.”

It is one of the paradoxes of capitalism that most people oppose jobs for married women on the grounds that they don’t “need” the money since they have a husband as breadwinner – whereas in actuality, as the 1937 Federal unemployment census showed, many if not most of the married women now working have been forced into employment because their husbands are jobless or on part-time wages too small to support their families. The number of women and children in jobs has been going up in late years, because only by selling the whole family labor power – remember Marx on capitalism as the guardian of the family hearth! – can many working-class families get along.

Youth against age! Married women against men! Thus are the masses atomizing themselves into warring groups waging merciless civil war upon one another. Many other similar antagonisms might be mentioned. The old Negro-vs.-white conflict has been sharpened by discrimination’s against the Negro in hard times – always “first to be fired, last to be hired”, as the relief records of any large city will show. There is also anti-Semitic feeling, another old and dangerous division which, according to many observers close to labor, has been spreading lately even in the ranks of the working class. Most fatal of all, there seems to be a growing antagonism between employed and unemployed workers, a split in the ranks of the proletariat which offers fine opportunities to fascist demagogues. Unless these internecine struggles are suspended in favor of a common struggle against the economic system which makes jobs scarce in the first place, it will be fascism and not socialism that puts an end to the present social chaos.


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