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Dwight Macdonald


The Partisan Review Controversy

(March 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 3, April 1942, pp. 90–91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Ex-Comrades:

Irving Howe’s article on Partisan Review is pleasantly distinguished from previous Trotskyist articles of this kind by its sober and civilized tone. It’s true he can’t resist a phrase like “the garbage pails of The New Republic and The Nation” – an echo of that contribution to Marxist culture, Max Shachtman’s profound essay entitled Old Garbage in New Pails – but in general he writes like a reasonable human being. A most welcome break with party tradition! Unfortunately the content of Howe’s remarks represents no break at all. At considerable length he establishes what is by now hardly a secret: that the editors of PR are divided on the war and that the magazine therefore has no editorial line on the war. But where he should analyze, he moralizes. PR’s alleged “dilemma” is interesting from two points of view: (1) How does it happen that the editors, once united on the war, are now divided? Is it because Rahv is a scoundrel? Or for deeper (and more significant) reasons? What does this show us about the intellectual life of America today? (2) What should those editors of PR who still hold a socialist position do, exactly? And what would be the effects, good or bad, of this or that action on their part? Instead of illuminating these, the really important aspects of the development of PR, Howe preaches the usual sermon about how sinful Rahv is and how unprincipled Greenberg and Macdonald are and how extraordinarily wicked and/or stupid everyone in the world today is, in fact, except members of the Workers Party. In this letter I’d like to try to get down to more interesting and significant issues.

Howe spends almost two full pages – over half his article – in a laborious analysis of that great historical document, the half-page editorial statement in our January-February issue. He rests most of his case on this analysis, patiently examing every nuance of logic, every twist and turn of rotten compromise. Yet it seems to me this statement is quite in line with the original editorial statement with which PR’s career began four years ago (and which the Trotskyists then found equally unsatisfactory). Howe seems to think now that the Socialist Appeal’s attack on this original statement was rather sectarian, and he agrees with the late John Wheelwright, who defended PR at the time in a witty and eloquent letter to the Appeal. In fact, the first part of Howe’s article is a long lament for the vanished golden age of PR, when it fulfilled its purpose, from his point of view. But has the change really been so great? I don’t think so. Two things, for example, worry Howe about our recent statement on the war: its emphasis on cultural values, which he thinks is a cowardly retreat, and its statement that the editors disagree on the war. Yet our 1937 statement declared:

For our editorial accent falls chiefly on culture and its broader social determinants. Conformity to a given social ideology or to a prescribed altitude or technique will not be asked of our writers ... Marxism in culture, we think, is first of all an instrument of analysis and evaluation; and if, in the last instance, it prevails over other disciplines, it does so through the medium of democratic controversy. Such is the medium PR will want to provide in its pages.

“Accent ... chiefly on culture,” “democratic controversy” – are not these formulations also the heart of our recent statement?

PR as a Cultural Magazine

But I really don’t think these formal statements worth terribly much space, whether to attack or defend. Let’s come down to the practical issue. Howe insists that the enunciation of editorial neutrality in our last issue but one means that PR is finished as a political organ. Why? Because it will not continue to publish left-wing articles critical of war and capitalism? No, because the statement explicitly declares that all the editors agree that “in times like these it is a necessity, not a luxury, for Partisan Review to continue to give space to radical – in the literal sense of ‘going to the roots’ – analysis of social issues and the war.” Then because PR will no longer editorially comment on the war? But I wonder if Howe realizes that the last issue in which such an editorial appeared was the Fall 1939 issue? So that PR has expressed no formal war position for two and a half years.

What Howe doesn’t understand, and what few Trotskyists have ever been able to understand, is that (1) PR is primarily a cultural magazine, and (2) that PR’s editorial policy has always been based on the principle of “democratic controversy,” both as to contributors and as to the editors themselves. Because of (1), we have tried to accept political articles not on the basis of whether the editors agree with their political tendency or not, but according to whether they seem to make an original contribution to serious political discussion. (That the editors have prejudices, being human, is true; but at least the formal criterion has never been adherence to any given political line.) I must also add that it has always seemed to us the main function of a magazine like PR to be to analyze, to understand, to speculate rather than to propagandize. As for (2), I can understand, on the basis of my own experience in the Trotskyist movement, how hard it is for a Trotskyist to grasp the idea that editors may disagree sharply with each other on political issues and yet be able to live and let live – and even to find these disagreements a source of stimulation rather than of weakness and confusion. The monolithic organizational tradition of Trotskyism can see in controversy only the soil of “splits” and “factions.” I’ve never believed this was a sensible way to organize a political party which hopes to achieve democratic social ends. And I’m even more sure, as a professional journalist, that it’s not the way to produce a good magazine of ideas.

Neutrality on the War

So much for PR’s future. But what about the present? What does Howe propose that the “left wing” of PR should do? Should we attempt a coup d’état, which would either smash up the magazine completely or put us in sole control? Or since it is the case that we would not favor such methods and that they would not be successful anyway, should we submit our resignations forthwith as editors? In that case, either PR would continue on a new pro-war basis, or else it would go out of existence altogether. Is that the alternative Howe thinks preferable to continuance on the present basis? It seems to be the implication of his article, although he does not venture to pose it so baldly.

These tactical questions cannot be answered until a question of principle is cleared up, namely: can a magazine like PR continue to serve any useful purpose, from a socialist and left-wing point of view, if it remains editorially neutral on the war issue? Again, Howe seems to imply it cannot, but once more he fails to argue the question or even, indeed, to pose it clearly. (The trouble with the present-day Trotskyist approach is that it is primarily moralistic, that it assumes its basic positions instead of analyzing them and thus showing how they apply, in theory and in practice, to the problem in question.) Now there unquestionably are issues, in my opinion, on which a magazine like PR could not remain neutral and still fulfill its function, 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 political 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 way, from a dozen different political positions. The values of democratic capitalism, for all their defects, are certainly far superior in a human way to those of fascism or Stalinism. It is true that the tendencies toward some totalitarian solution will probably become more sharply accentuated as the war drags on, and the time may come when support of the present war may necessitate the same kind of dehumanization as support of Stalinism or fascism now involves. But that point is as yet a considerable distance away, and it is revolutionary ultimatism to behave now as though it were already reached. In fact, it seems to me one of the ways to prevent its being reached is precisely to keep open organs of “democratic controversy” on the war issue like PR.

Trotskyists as Political Purists

My dear ex-comrades, if you are really so concerned that PR should preserve its revolutionary virtue, if you think it so disgraceful that PR hasn’t printed more left-wing material, why haven’t any of you taken the trouble ever to write for the magazine? The only Trotskyist intellectual who ever wrote regularly for us was ... James Burnham. PR still opens its pages to radical and Marxist criticism of the war. Yet today, as in the past, the Trotskyists are satisfied to complain about its political impurity, without thinking of doing anything so practical as to write articles for PR’s audience (not a negligible one, either in quantity or quality) expressing their point of view. Why didn’t Shachtman take advantage of the opportunity we gave him to review Burnham’s book? Why didn’t the Ten Propositions controversy provoke any letters or articles from Trotskyists?

It seems that in this as in other fields, my dear ex-comrades, you conceive your function to be that of critical bystanders purely, commentators on the struggle looking down from the lofty heights of Marxistical illumination. Trotsky spoke of the epigones of Lenin. His own epigones have given us by their practice a new political type: the revolutionary kibitzer.

March 6, 1942

Dwight Macdonald

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