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Michael Harrington

Magazine Chronicle

Confusion by Admission

(Summer 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 3, Summer 1957, pp. 197–199.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dwight MacDonald’s reminiscences of his days in the socialist movement were published some time ago (In the March and April 1957 issues of Encounter), yet there is a certain fitness in taking them up in these pages, even if belatedly. For part of MacDonald’s experience was as a writer for the New International.

In his own way, MacDonald stands for a generation. He moved toward socialism while a writer for Henry Luce’s Fortune, flirted briefly with the Stalinists, and then gravitated toward the Trotskyist movement in the late thirties. During the war, he founded Politics, a magazine which began as more or less Marxist and developed rapidly toward anarchism and pacifism. By the time of the Berlin air-lift, Macdonald found himself in a dilemma. Typically, he shared it with his readers in a burst of candor. Pacifism, he felt, offered no hope for actually dealing with Stalinist totalitarianism, but neither did militarism. The conclusion? In a revised reprint of his Root Is Man, Macdonald decided to tend his own garden. No political theory appealed to him; all were somehow repugnant. Since then, he has periodically announced that he hankers after some form of conservatism, but he has never taken that particular plunge.

Now Macdonald looks back on his radical past. He finds it simultaneously fascinating and other-worldly, intellectual but insanely abstract, and in the doing he proves that he has not lost his own deft sense of irony. Yet Macdonald’s Politics Past is more than a memoir. For it also purports to be an account of why American radicalism failed.

The older, more mature Macdonald finds that radicalism in the United States had its hey-day during the Debsian period, and never again became a serious force.

“The radical tradition never came back,” he writes, “except among the intelligentsia. Not even at the lowest point of the depression, in 1932–3, were the Communists or the Socialists a serious political force. The CIO in a few years subsided from youthful rebellion into bureaucratic conservatism, a devolution that had taken generations in the German and British labour movements.”

By a curious inversion, such a retrospective view of the past is based on the very ultimatistic kind of reasoning which today’s chastened Macdonald now rejects. There was no revolutionary transformation of American society in the thirties, he seems to be saying, and therefore nothing much really happened. The CIO? That was a summer storm. And the real criterion is that the people did not buy the finished program; that is what proves that the thirties were untouched by radical politics. And yet, if one goes back to that period, the amazing point remains how much of a leap forward the American working class took, and how much of a role the American radicals were able to play.

UP UNTIL THE THIRTIES, ONLY a thin stratum of skilled workers in America were organized. The immense thrust of the CIO achieved an incredible and decisive accomplishment: it laid the basis for the organization of the most important sections of the American working class. True enough, this movement did not organize a mass political party of the working class. But the reasons for that are not mysterious, they are not a function of some law of a radical wave inevitably spending itself. The new social conditions of World War II intervened to forestall more significant changes.

But what of the radicals? Did they influence these events? The answer is both yes and no. The long tradition of working class militancy and agitation for industrial unionism was an essential element in the creation of the CIO and the surge of the American working class. In union after union—the Auto workers, the Coal Miners, the NMU, to name but a few—socialists played a significant role. The Communist Party, which in the thirties established its hegemony over American radicalism, was able to attract members precisely because it was involved in the very real work of organizing the American working class.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that all was well with the radicals. The left socialist and Trotskyist movements did not understand fully the enormous importance of the unionization of the working class. Their perspective was more grounded in the idea that the world in general, and the United States in particular, was in a pre-revolutionary situation. Paradoxically, it was through their betrayal of socialist principles that the Communists were able to make such great headway. By the end of World War II, fully a third of the CIO was under the heavy influence or control of those who acted in the name of Marxism, radicalism and socialism. In this sense, there is no doubt that the anti-Stalinist revolutionary movement failed to make full use of the tremendous opportunities of the period. Yet this is no basis for Macdonald’s conception that radicalism was impotent. His exaggeration is as false as the ultra-left hopes of many of his generation.

Still, Macdonald stands for a generation. And that raises an extremely important point. With a few exceptions like James Burnham, the bulk of the intellectuals and workers who were attracted to the socialist movement in the thirties and who have left it in the period of reaction, have not moved over to some far-right position. The initial impulse which led them to socialism is still operative, even if in a confused and distorted way. Many of them have found jobs in the labor movement or in the various civil liberties and civil rights organizations. And there, they usually represent the best, the most advanced section of the bureaucracy. Their position is not, to be sure, one of socialist principle; but then neither can it be dismissed as that of the "renegade.” These, and many like them, are capable of being attracted once more to the socialist movement.

And reading Macdonald’s articles, the striking thought is not how far he and others like him have moved from their earlier radicalism. It is the other way around. They have become, not so much hardened anti-socialists, as confused by their own admission. Their plight is part of the price our society pays for its current period of social peace, yet it is not an irrevocable thing. If a socialist must have sharp criticisms of Macdonald’s remembrance of radicalism past, if one must differ with his retrospective sociology, that is not to engage in a foolish and useless vilification. Macdonald lost his way, and rather spectacularly from a socialist point of view. So did many like him.

And many of them will return.

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