Question Period-- a letter to Dwight MacDonald

Dear Mr. Macdonald:

Granting Politics' patent superiority over the other political magazines now being published, certain aspects of its orientation leave me bewildered. Perhaps these questions reveal me as a political innocent, Anyway, here they are:

(1) How, given your opposition to what you call "bureaucratic collectivism", do you regard the present -- rather the perennial -- controversy of states' rights vs. federal centralization?

(2) Have you any precise conception of a "popular revolution which will be socialist as to economics and democratic as to politics"?

(3) Do you belive, as you seem to imply, that the New Deal must necessarily lead to fascism? Do you see any difference between federal control within the framework of a democratic, parliamentarian tradition, and federal control within the framework of an anti-democratic, anti-parliamentarian tradition? Or do you belive, as your last article in Partisan Review seemed to say, that socialism is the only kind of democratic collectivism, and that fascism, Stalinism, and the New Deal are all varieties of "bureaucratic collectivism"?

(4) Admitting the fact that this war has been to the strategic advantage of big business and reaction, what practical alternative , since you admit the impossibility of a socialist revolution in America in the foreseeable future, do you offer? Haven't you, with your "critical non-support" of the war, impaled yourself on the other horn -- opposite the liberals -- of the dilemma? Isn't there a choice, after all, between fighting off the certainty of the colossal reaction Nazi invasion would lead to, even if in so doing we strengthen domestic reaction -- between this and standing by passively since we cannot fight for a democratic socialist revolution as well?

(5) In the July "Comment" you write: "The chances of anything like that (a socialist revolution) happening in this country in the foreseeable future would seem to be close to nil as at any time in our history.... Politically, as one might expect, the temper of the American masses has rarely been more conservative." Yet you go on to say that, in view of the President's more conservative policies and the Republicans' more liberal gestures towards labor, "an ideal opportunity for a Third Party movement" exists. How do you reconcile this?

(6) What is your opinion of the CIO's Political Action Committee as a possible Third Party? In the probable event of a depression, isn't the PAC, with its broad workingclass base, the logical organization around which ta Third Party movement could be built?

You've elaborated the liberal dilemma well enough. Now let's see whether we haven't a POLITICAL dilemma. It can't be possible, as some statements of yours seem to imply, that you're content simply to "understand" and needle on the sidelines.

Morris Moskowitz
Astoria, L. I.



Dwight MacDonald's reply:

-- (1) States' rights are an obstacle to the further centralization of power in Washington, which is a precondition of the development of an American bureaucratic collectivism. So, formally, they play a progressive role. But only formally. The fact is that the division of the country into states corresponds neither to economic nor social nor cultural realities (as, for example, division by regions of industrial areas does). It is an archaic survival which is exploited by reactionaries to defend their interests. The Republicans are raising the states' rights issue now in order to prevent the exercise of Federal powers for higher relief standards. Likewise, the periodic Congressional revolts against the Presidential formally are attempts to weaken the power of the executive, but their political content is always reactionary. In both instances, we have the paradox of the forces which tend towards an ultimate fascism trying to break down the organizational instrument by which this fascism will control things.

(2) My conception is this: (1) no one to own more property of any kind than he can use or work himself; (2) all other property to be allocated by those who work on or with it; (3) political power to be allocated on a soviet, or works' council basis, with groups of people who perform the same council basis, with groups of people who perform the same kind of work in a certain area or plant the basis, instead of the location of their homes; (4) all those in authority -- politicians, judges, military officers, industrial and governmental executives -- to be elected, subjected to recall, limited to a maximum continuous term in office; (5) the only limitation on political activity and parties to be a veto on overt attempts to overthrow the government by force. (This is, of course, a sketch for the period immediately following a socialist revolution. The ultimate communist society would differ much more for present society, would have no government, no "authority", no politics, and, above all, no army.)

(3) Yes, the New Deal, I think, will lead to fascism, though probably not directly but in the same way the Weimar Republic did, by paralyzing the forces of the left. I do see a difference between parliamentary and democratic federalism and anti-parliamentary and anti-democratic federalism (the differences is indicated in the definitions themselves) but this difference is constantly narrowing. Yes, I think only socialism can give us democratic collectivism.

(4) I don't advocate standing by passively in this war. I am merely interested in different aims from those of the governments conducting this war, and I think these aims cannot be achieved by supporting this war. In England after Dunkirk, for example, I would have advocated a seizure of the government by the labor movement and the war effort. The result of such a revolution, I think, would have been either the collapse of Nazism from within or else the conversion of the war into a revolutionary war in which the masses of occupied Europe would have played a decisive role on Europe's side. In this country, there is and has been and "practical alternative" to supporting the war if by that you mean large-scale political action. But the smallest action against the war is more "practical" than the largest action for it if one believes that fighting this war will not advance, and will in fact hinder, the achievement of one's political aims.

(5) You miss the point, which was that the present conservative temper of the American people is indicated precisely by the fact that, although the Democrats have retreated from the New Deal so far as to become indistinguishable from the Republicans, no Third Party has materialized to fill this vacuum and put forward a progressive program. This is probably because there exists at the moment no mass demand for such a program. To deplore the failure of a Third Party to materialize is not to be unaware of the reasons it didn't. The 'ideal opportunity" is a formal, not a historical concept.

(6) See the August "Comment" for my opinion of the PAC (insofar as it can be sent through the mails). It is quite possible, given a postwar depression, that the PAC will develop into a Third Party movement. Its present leadership will do its best, however (1) to prevent this, and failing that, (2) to steer it in the most conservative possible direction.

Finally, let me add that to "understand and needle on the sidelines" does not seem to me a small thing. How can we act unless we first understand, at present, is the temptation to act at all costs. I think we are in a mess today partly because both the revolutionary and liberal left have continued to act on the basis of 19th century formulae which no longer fit the situation -- indeed which often produce the opposite result from what is intended by those who in all sincerity use them.

D. M.

Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) was an American writer, editor, social critic, philosopher, and political radical. From 1928 Macdonald was an associate editor at Henry Luce's ambitious Fortune magazine, an ironic position for Macdonald and his Marxist principles. Macdonald went on to edit Partisan Review from 1937 to 1943, and his own journal Politics from 1944 through 1949. As an editor he helped foster diverse voices such as Lionel Trilling, Bruno Bettelheim and C. Wright Mills.

From Question Time in the September 1944 issue of Politics magazine