The Root Is Man
It took Macdonald two years to write “The Root Is Man.” The scope of the essay intimidated him. He also had other demands on his time such as writing, editing, proofreading and publishing politics.
Politics never had more than 5,000 subscribers. They were the first to read one of the most remarkable American intellectual journals of the twentieth century. Although this is not the place for a full evaluation of politics, one can get a sense of its uniqueness by listing some of its writers: Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Victor Serge, Georges Bataille, Jean-Paul Satre, Karl Jaspers, George Woodcock, Mary McCarthy, John Berryman, Robert Duncan, Paul Mattick, Bruno Bettleheim, George Padmore, Meyer Shapiro, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Goodman, James Agee, Marshall McLuhan, Richard Hofstadter, Irving Howe, Nicola Chiaromonte, Lionel Abel, Andrea Caffi and C. Wright Mills.
There were four remarkable women in the politics circle. Most important was Nancy Macdonald who managed the journal’s business affairs while at the same time running various relief efforts to aid veterans of the Spanish Civil War and victims of Nazism. (The breakup of the Macdonalds’ marriage in 1949 would be a major factor in the decision to stop publishing politics.) Another organizer of politics, Mary McCarthy, was one of Macdonald’s closest allies in the libertarian left. (It was McCarthy who translated Simone Weil’s famous essay on Homer’s Iliad.) Hannah Arendt (while not writing for politics) became one of Macdonald’s most important co-conspirators. In the late 1960’s, Arendt would write the introduction to a reprint edition of the complete set of politics.
Yet the most powerful intellectual influence on the journal was Simone Weil, whose critique of violence and essay on Homer had been brought to Macdonald’s attention by Nicola Chiaromonte, a Spanish civil war vet, anti-Fascist exile, and one of Macdonald’s closest friends. Through Chiaromonte, the thought of Simone Weil was first introduces to America in the pages of politics.
Politics also covered such issues as the suppression of the Greek insurrection, the anti-French insurgency in Indochina, America’s refusal to aid the starving people of Europe, the question of the Soviet Union, the American civil rights struggle, the need for equal treatment of homosexuals, the ideas of Wilhelm Reich, attacks on mass culture as studies on Max Weber, de Tocqueville, Utopian Socialists like Charles Fourier and anarchists such as Proudhon and Godwin.
One could order from politics Anton Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma (which has a major impact on Macdonald), Alexander Berkman’s The ABC of Anarchism, Camillo Berneri’s Peter Kropotkin’s Federal Ideas, Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya, Land of Conflicts, Leo Tolstoy’s The Slavery of our Times, George Woodcock’s New Life to the Land, Raymond Michelet’s African Empires and Civilizations, Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters from Prison.
Politics spoke to radicals who rejected both Stalin and Trotsky but who were equally intransigent in opposing capitalism. Politics was part of a larger anti-totalitarian anarchist, pacifist and independent Marxist milieu that existed in the late 1940’s before the pressures of the Cold War rigidified political discourse for years to come. Other anarchist journals like Resistance and Retort in America and George Woodcock’s Now in England echoed many of politics’ themes, as did two classic books of that time: Animal Farm and 1984, by politics fellow traveller George Orwell. Forums in New York around ideas politics discussed drew significant audiences. many of politics’ most active supporters were leftwing conscientious objectors influenced by Ghandi’s massive civil disobedience movement in India. It was out of this ferment that “The Root Is Man” emerged, the most famous essay in a series of critical pieces which appeared under the banner “New Roads in Politics.” This essay caused an immediate storm. One lengthy rebuttal by Irving Howe (then a Workers Party member who worked for Macdonald in the politics office) called “The Thirteenth Disciple” asked:
Where is one to begin in a reply to Macdonald? His forty page article is a grab-bag of modern confusionism; a pinch of Proudhon; a whiff of pacifism; a nod to existentialism; a bow to Wilhelm Reich, founder of the “psychology of the orgasm”; a few scrappings from the anarchists; a touch of philosophical idealism and a large debt to that illustrious thinker, Paul Goodman.
Years later, in A Margin of Hope, Howe had eased up a bit;
The Root Is Man...(is) in many ways the most poignant and authentic expression of the plight of those few intellectuals — Nicola Chiaromonte, Paul Goodman, Macdonald — who wished to disassociate themselves from the post-war turn to Realpolitik but could not find ways of transforming sentiments of rectitude and visions of utopia into a workable politics.
Yet reading “The Root Is Man” today is no mere exercise in nostalgia. Macdonald raised issues that, almost 50 years later, have become even more critical.
Macdonald’s assault on the scientific model of thinking echoed Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason. Macdonald, however, located Marxism itself in the general crisis of Enlightenment thought. For that alone, “The Root Is Man” is extraordinary.
Other crucial issues raised by Macdonald included the question of active resistance to unfettered growth and the need for economic decentralization coupled with political democracy. He also took up the question of reification, citing George Lukács (not a household name is 1946) to argue that, in the concept of alienation, Marxism made its most powerful critique of the human condition under capital. The issue of reification and the damaging effect of mass culture that so concerned Macdonald would appear again in the mid-60’s Situationist polemic against the “society of the spectacle” whose roots in dissident Western Marxism can be found in “The Root Is Man” and politics in general.
Above all, Macdonald was most concerned with the way we organize our daily political action. His insight into how mass socialist and communist parties reproduce the same deadening effect on the individual as other forms of bourgeois organization rings true today:
What is not so generally understood is that the traditional progressive approach, taking history as the starting-point and thinking in terms of mass political parties, bases itself on this same alienation of man which it thinks it is combating. It puts the individual in the same powerless, alienated role vis-à-vis the party or trade union as the manipulators of the modern State do, except that the slogans are different.... The brutal fact is that the man in the street everywhere is quite simply bored with socialism, as expounded by the Socialist, Stalinist, and Trotskyist epigones of Marx... Above all, he feels that there is no interest in it for him, as an individual human being — that he is as powerless and manipulated vis-à-vis his socialist mass-organization as he is towards his capitalist employers and their social and legal institutions.
As soon as “The Root Is Man” was published it came under immediate fire for denying the viability of class struggle. the other major criticism of “The Root Is Man” was its stress on absolute values transcending history. In fact, only two years after publication of his essay, Macdonald abandoned one of the absolutes he had endorsed (radical pacifism) in the wake of what he saw as Stalin’s threat to the West during the Berlin Crisis.
Along with the 1948 Berlin Crisis and the assassination of Gandhi that same year, the general threat of a new world war deeply depressed Macdonald and contributed to his marital breakup. Attempts by the politics network to organize groups in Europe and communes here also failed. Politics finally ceased publication in 1949. Macdonald’s fierce anti-communist and sense of doom as the radical movement fell apart led him into the ranks of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a group supported by many leading anti-Stalinist left-intellectuals. Years later Macdonald would discover the CIA’s role in funding the CCF and its journals like Encounter.(See Appendix D for a further discussion of Macdonald and the CCF.)
While Macdonald throughout the 1950’s attacked McCarthyism, he focused more and more on the need to make a living both as a staff writer for The new Yorker and freelance journalist. Yet even during the dog days of the Eisenhower-Nixon era, Macdonald continued to give radical talks on campuses. One of his favorite themes was the relevance of anarchy. While Macdonald no longer considered the abolition of private property necessary, his take on anarchism (in Memoirs of a Revolutionist) is still striking:
It was odd that anarchism took no root in the thirties, considering (1) the American temperament, lawless and individualistic, (2) the American anarchist tradition, from Benjamin Tucker to the Wobblies, and (3) that anarchism gave a better answer to the real modern problem, the encroachment of the State, than did Marxism, which was revolutionary only about bourgeois private property (not a real issue anymore) and was thoroughly reactionary on the question of the State. But (3) also explains Marxism’s popularity (though it doesn’t justify it): while the centralized State is the chief danger now to freedom, it is also necessary to the operation of a mass society based on large-scale industry. Thus Marxism is “practical,” since it fits into the status quo — as in Soviet Russia — while anarchism is “impractical” because it threatens it. The revolutionary alternative to the status quo today is not collectivized property administered by a “workers’ state” whatever that means, but some kind of anarchist decentralization that will break up mass society into small communities where individuals can live together as variegated human beings instead of as impersonal units in the mass sum....Marxism glorifies “the masses” and endorses the State. Anarchism leads back to the individual and the community, which is “impractical” but necessary — that is to say, it is revolutionary.
In the mid-1950’s the thaw in Russia after Stalin’s death and the Twentieth Party Congress slowly rejuvenated Macdonald. Although he always remained a strong anti-communist, Macdonald no longer saw the USSR as a more advanced version of Hitler’s Germany. In 1960, Macdonald became active as a civil libertarian in the cases of Morton Sobell (a supposed member of the supposed Rosenberg spy ring) and Junius Scales, another Communist sent to prison under the Smith Act. Macdonald also became an early member of the New Left and spoke at the closing session of the first national convention of SDS in 1960. Meanwhile “The Root Is Man” was rediscovered by a new generation of activists. Macdonald’s critical support of student radicals culminated in his speaking at the “Counter Commencement” held at Columbia during the 1968 strike. Macdonald’s activism also led him to participate in a picket line outside the Waldorf-Astoria to protest the war in Vietnam. The year was 1963, a time when most Americans could not find Vietnam on a map. Later, in 1967, Macdonald played an important role (with Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer) in the first big peace march on the Pentagon. Macdonald’s radicalism was in striking contrast not just to National Review editor James Burnham but to Workers Party leader Max Shachtman who by this time had become a major behind-the-scenes advisor to the AFL-CIO on both domestic and foreign policy. At various demos, Macdonald would sometimes bump into young SWP activists who delighted in reminding the old factionalist that his current views were not so dissimilar to theirs. “Even a broken watch occasionally tells the right time,” Macdonald would grumble in response. Dwight Macdonald died in 1982.
Nietzsche defined nihilism as a situation where “everything is permitted,” and today we might add “for the right price.” Our time has also spawned a series of Jihads against the New World Order. There is now a frantic search for absolutes, foundational principles, a search which inspires religious fundamentalists of the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Moslem variety as well as those who kill for an inscribed ethnic or national identity to build their racial Utopias. Contrasted to them are the efficient, orderly, passionless, non-smoking, technologically advanced killing machines of the West.
In just such a world it is long past time to rediscover individualist-centered radical thought from America’s rich tradition as well as thinkers as different as Fourier, Stirner, Kropotkin and Nietzsche. While the insights of Marxism must continue to inform our actions, we must also be aware of its glaring weaknesses. It is again time to take seriously the brilliant battle-cry that concludes Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “The new Individualism is the new Hellenism.”
Quoting Wilde is especially appropriate in concluding a discussion of “The Root Is Man” because Macdonald’s essay is also an attempt to reclaim the spirit of art itself, its values and legislative rights, and to explore the link between the aesthetic and moral sphere. Macdonald captures the necessity for a world that imagination, a renewed capacity to envision the world that makes the very idea of revolt meaningful. Although T.S. Elliot was a tremendous admirer of politics, Macdonald does not believe that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world: he does insist that if the oppressed are ever to rule themselves we must reignite the utopian spark that mass society relentlessly seeks to subvert, co-opt or destroy.
Of course the terminally hip will scorn any analysis that takes seriously such Philosophy 101 questions as “How Do We Live Today?” that so tortured Macdonald. But for me, “flighty Dwighty” Macdonald still speaks and no more brilliantly than in “The Root Is Man,” one of the great lost classics of American radicalism.