This Quarter, Dwight Macdonald…end

images-7 Macdonald turns now to the failure of the New Deal to solve the problems of American Capitalism – unemployment, not enough social welfare, etc.—resulting in Roosevelt’s Administration turning to the European conflict:

“It is true, says the President with his famous smile, ten million of you are unemployed and we have had to cut relief payments, but just think what social progress we’ll make once we have rid ourselves of those monsters in black or brown shirts three thousand miles across the Atlantic!”

“Whatever side wins will impose it’s Versailles on the loser, and the Third World War will begin to grow before the ink is dry on the treaty. Imperialist aims are still of major importance but modern warfare must also be regarded as the chief instrument whereby the obsolete bourgeoisie maintain their death-grip on the social order.”

“ ‘The real error of nearly all studies of war,’ writes Simone Weill in a remarkable article published in International Review last year, ‘ an error into which all socialists have fallen, has been to consider war as an episode in foreign politics, when it is really an act of interior politics, and the most atrocious act of all.’ Her development of this idea seems to me to open novel perspectives on the war question. ‘Marx has shown forcefully’, she writes, ‘that the modern method of production consists essentially of the subordination of the workers to the instruments of labor, which are disposed of by those who do not work. He has shown competition, knowing no other weapon than the exploitation of the workers, is transformed into a struggle of each employer against his own workmen and, in the last analysis, of the entire class of employers against their employees’.”

“‘In the same way, war in our days is distinguished by the subordination of the combatants to the instruments of combat, and the armaments, the true heroes of modern warfare, as well as the men dedicated to their service, are directed by those who do not fight. And since this directing influence has no other way of fighting the enemy than by sending their own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death—the war of one state against another state resolves itself into a war of the state and the military apparatus against its own army.’

‘War, in the last analysis, appears as a struggle led by all the state apparatuses and their general staffs, against all men old enough and able to bear arms.’”

SImone Weil

At the end of Macdonald’s presentation of Weill’s Marxist analysis of  how wars  serve the ‘interior state,’ he turns back to the issue of why contemporary  intellectuals have backed away from Marxism:  “Why should a Marxist analysis [like Weill’s] be so alien to the way of thinking of our intellectuals?”

“Their moral indignation is turned against a scapegoat fascism across the ocean, to defeat which they are making common cause with the class and the economic system which in this country right under their very noses is preparing the next world slaughter. The explanation is to be found in the peculiar relationship of the intelligentsia to the class struggle. They conceive of their own thinking as being disinterested, free from class loyalties, taking as its referent ‘society in general.’ In a sense this is true. They have not the direct economic interest in one side or the other of class war which the proletariat and the big bourgeoisie have. But in a deeper sense they deceive themselves.  Like the petty bourgeoisie which produces most of them, the intellectuals shift back and forth between the two polar antagonists, attaching themselves to which ever at the moment seems to be the stronger. But since the bourgeoisie is usually very much in the ascendant, the intellectuals generally think in its terms. So today, they follow along after the bourgeoisie towards war.”

Macdonald’s pessimistic warning to the intellectuals concludes his essay: “The American intellectuals are off again on another moral spree. They will come to their senses in the cold grey dawn of a war-torn world, and they will experience again what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1916:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands, not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics, but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilence devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”


Next Week: Wallace Stevens, “The Woman who had more babies than that”


“This Quarter,” cont’d. Dwight Macdonald

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Frankline Delano Roosevelt
    Part II: Words, Words, Words. 

After Macdonald discusses more fully the  steps leading to entry of America into the Europe of WWI, including  the floating of “vast loans in the country, for the Allies, and that our industrial boom was based on the huge Allied purchases of goods and munitions,”  he returns to the present approach of another war in 1939:

“Today, as in 1917, the intellectuals have one set of war aims, and the Administration they support, another. The intellectuals would rescue Western Civilisation from Fascism and restore it to the ways of progress and democracy.  Their government however as a serious capitalist enterprise, of necessity takes a less romantic view of the affair. Its aims are the destruction of a threatening competitor in world markets and the defence of a status quo, both international and domestic, which is greatly to the advantage of the ruling bourgeoisie. The intellectuals in a word, want to crush fascism, the State Department thinks rather of Germany.

“The intellectuals are very articulate about their war aims, which are idealistic and inspiring. When the State Department, for that very reason, publicly echoes these aims,  the intellectuals conclude that they are leading the world  towards the light… For if the intellectuals provide their government with fine sentiments, the process also works the other way around. One might think that a group whose chief occupation is writing would offer resistance to the wiles of language.  It has not been so. As the savage hopefully calls the dreaded volcano, ‘the blessed source of all good things,’ so the intellectual bathes in the power of the verbal formulae to sweeten the ghastliest realities. … Now once more, we have in the White House a statesman who knows well how to use the rhetoric of heart-warming abstractions and moral earnestness which attracts the intellectuals. The President speaks their language.

The great objection to the program of the intellectuals is not so much that it will get us into a war — the bourgeoise will decide that question for themselves… but that it is diverting us from the main task: to work with the masses for socialism; which alone can save our civilization.  And so in all the current discussions nothing is ever said about the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, and its product, war. Social  revolution is no longer thought about. The Lady has Vanished. 

“It is hard to realise how our thinking has changed. How distant they seem, those early  years of the depression, when the bourgeoisie was demoralised and discredited, when the Soviet Union and socialism were in the forefront of every intellectual’s consciousness? There has been a change in the weather. The success of fascist foreign policy, the unsuspected depths of decay and corruption in the Soviet Union, the failure of the New Deal’s reformist program and its replacement with business ‘appeasement’ and armaments, and above all, the right-wing reaction that is still gaining ground throughout the nation — all this has struck dismay into the hearts of the intellectuals. In the hot blast of such world events, the tender shoots of socialism have withered. As those who suffer some great psychic shock sometimes develop amnesia, so the intellectuals, retreating to the solid base of bourgeois democracy, have forgotten the very idea of socialism.

Macdonald’s essay now asks what would the defense of the Soviet Union mean in the event of this  new World War?

“As a means of lining up the left intelligentsia, the Communist Party has manipulated the left with its usual skill. But are we to defend the present regime in the Soviet Union? Or the October Revolution, to the extent that it is still symbolised by the Soviet Union? It seems to me that the corrupt dictatorship that has arisen under Stalin is proof the correctness of Lenin and Trotsky that the holy spread of the October Revolution to more advanced countries could preserve its gains inside Russia….The problem of social revolution is an international one.

‘The major force that is pulling the intellectuals into the orbit of war, however, is not their sympathy for the Soviet Union, but their fear and hatred of fascism. For the next war, as for the last, Lenin’s: the only possible slogan for all who pretend to be o the side of the masses: “Turn the imperialist war into civil war!”  This war is a purely defensive action.  Far from being a crusade for a new world order, the coming war is at best an effort to turn the clock back and restore that fine old world order which the last war was fought to abolish.

Next Week: Final part of Dwight Macdonald’s discussion of the approach to a new war.




“This Quarter,” Dwight Macdonald on the past and current political situations: Partisan Review, Vol. 4, No.3, Spring, 1939

The third issue of Partisan Review for 1939 opens with Dwight Macdonald’s editorial survey of the role of intellectuals at the start of America’s entry into World War I, in 1917 and the current positions of the intellectual community on the  brink of World War II, in  the spring and summer of 1939. Its a depressing read, the mistakes of 1917 are being repeated in 1939, and the values of intellectual life, except for a very few circles of writers and political activists, have been shredded and compromised.

1: War and the Intellectuals: ACT TWO

Macdonald begins by recalling an article written by Randolph Bourne in 1917, a year before his death, and at the time of the Russian Revolution. Bourne, along with Waldo Frank, and James Opphenheim, founded an important American literary journal called The Seven Arts, which, under Opphenheim’s editorial lead, took an anti-war position to American entry into WW I. Waldo Frank was a political activist and though he had supported the Communist Party in its early days, broke with it in 1937 when he met with Leon Trotsky, who was at that time living in exile in Mexico.Bourne Randolph Bourne

Portrait_of_Waldo_Frank Waldo Frank.


Macdonald begins by showing how Bourne castigates American intellectuals for their support for, and pride over the US’s entry into WWI: “Twenty-two years ago, 1917, The Seven Arts printed Randolph Bourne’s article, “The War and the Intellectuals.” Bourne wrote: “A war made deliberately by intellectuals!… A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalise the world!… Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? …Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalisations float like bubbles? …Numbers of intelligent people who have never been stirred by the horrors of capitalistic peace at home were shaken out of their slumbers by the horrors of the war in Belgium… Never having felt responsibility for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe.”

Macdonald uses the Bourne quotation to match the present moment: “If ‘Belgium’ be changed to ‘Czechoslovakia’, these sentences apply as closely to American intellectuals in the spring of 1939 as they ever did in the spring of 1917.”   The American intellectuals are supporting the New Deal, the Communist Party (and its Popular Front organisations) offer space for ‘leftish’ intellectuals to promote a war.

“And Van Wyck Brooks [also an editor of The Seven Arts] proposes in a letter to Time that our reply to Hitler’s book burnings should be a series of public bonfires of things Made In Germany.”

2.The Road to Hell:

Macdonald returns to the present:

“Let us grant the good intentions of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the laws of motion of monopoly capitalism work themselves out, with brutal disregard for intentions, much the same under a Roosevelt as under a Coolidge. How can an Administration act in important matters contrary to those class interests of the dominant bourgeoisie  which have shaped the American state, the American law and constitution?  Their enormous mass throws its inertia against following new paths, impelling the republic along the historical path destined for it. The good intentions of Roosevelt simply make him the more dangerous, since he is the unwitting prisoner, along with his intellectual following, of capitalist necessity.,

“The contradiction between the concept of a war for democracy and what is actually taking place under that slogan has already begun to appear. The closer the second great crusade for democracy draws near,  the feebler grows the forces of democracy inside the country; the more battleships, the lower the relief standards; the bolder the President’s utterances against Hitler, the more conciliatory his attitude towards our own business rulers. The intellectuals will open their eyes some day, but not until it is too late. ….  The liberal weeklies, which once devoted their main energies to exposing and protesting social injustice at home have become more interested in demonstrating how much inferior fascist capitalism is to democratic capitalism. Left intellectuals are rallying to the defense of the British Empire, on the grounds that India is better off under British than it would be under German rule. But why shouldn’t the Indians rule India? The intellectuals take such positions, it is true, with all sorts of mental reservations. Once the fascist menace is destroyed, then they will take up the old fight again.  In politics, however, the mask holds the face. You become what you do and say; you don’t become what your reservations are.

Next week: More of  Macdonald’s “This Quarter”



Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1939. Cover design: Theodore Roszak


1939 Spring cover

The front cover of Partisan Review, designed by Theodore Roszak ( 1907 –1981) was an invitation to the themes and style of the journal as a whole. Roszak, who I mentioned before {in this blog’s first post}, was a friend of my parents, and they collected quite a number of his paintings as well as a small sculpture that scared me, with its twisted shapes of not quite human ruins of reptilian contours, and sea creature bodies with varied lumps and declivities that made it very difficult to avoid finding in these masses and shards the very lineaments of ungratified desire.

What I mean is that I tried, but couldn’t avoid the way Ted Roszak’s drawings and sculptures of demon appearances made me feel frightened of what might come to be in my life.  48.6.vw1

As a little girl, I wasn’t as frightened of Theodore Roszak himself as I was of his sculpture,
While his work was openly disturbing and hostile, he was very kind to me as a small child, and later when I was going through some of the horrors of teenage self-doubt and embarrassment, he told me, that while I might be a mess at 15, I was certain to be ‘quite something’ when I reached my thirties — that kept me going for a couple of decades.

Roszak was born in Poland in 1907 and was brought to the USA by his parents a few years later. He was excited by and worked within the strategies of constructivism in his early works throughout the 1930s, including this “Self Portrait with Tower Construction’


Roszak worked in the sculptural arts of Modernism for two decades, beginning with his post-WWII metal constructions of severe and futuristic versions of buildings and birds, the kind of tortured shapes I found scary as a child.


Roszak’s textured surface for the MIT Bell Tower and Spire, whose architect was  Eero Saarinen, was one photo we had on the wall which intrigued me as a child, and which I just found again while looking for Roszak’s works online:

Bell   IMG_0296  img_0294.jpg

That MIT Bell Tower was done in 1955-1956; and again in 1960, architect Eero Saarinen commissioned Roszak to create an Eagle for the US Embassy building in London. Saarinen and Roszak were close friends and collaborated on many architecture-sculpture projects together. The Economist magazine defended the modernist style of the building in 2009, when the US Embassy announced it would move from Grosvenor Square  to a ‘more secure’ site,  south of the Thames: “Though [Roszak’s Eagle] sculpture was much derided at the time for its warlike or imperial connotations—Roszak depicts the bird poised on the edge of the building ready for flight, as if to hunt—it is an angular, jagged take on the national emblem.”


In 2018, Roszak’s Eagle  with its terrifying wing span and lowered beak seems a fitting emblem for America’s hallucinatory dream of world domination and control. The violence in many of Roszak’s pieces are distilled in the sculpture.

In the later 1960s and 1970s, Roszak’s softer and vaguer drawings and paintings remain both alluring and rebarbative. Ted gave my father a large drawing of a flaccid penis draped across a reclining woman’s belly, the erotic and mythic elements are very much part of his last shift in representation, moving out from the reality of the “Unknown Political Prisoner” of 1952 to a fantasised mythic nowhere.

The Unknown Political Prisoner (Defiant and Triumphant) 1952 by Theodore Roszak 1907-1981
“The Unknown Political Prisoner” 1952



So now you know something about the man who designed the style for Partisan Review.

Next week: Dwight Macdonald on “This Quarter.”