Rebel with a Cause

March 24 marks the centenary of the birth of Dwight Macdonald. From 1940 to 1975, Macdonald was one of America’s best-known literary and cultural critics. He first came to prominence in the late 1920s and early ’30s as a staff writer for Fortune. But his politics turned toward Trotskyism in 1936 (he considered Trotsky the preeminent modern example of an intellectual in politics and remained a Trotskyist until 1943). In May 1937, after tearing Partisan Review away from its origins as a Communist Party organ, he helped reestablish PR as a nonsectarian, independent radical quarterly.

An undogmatic iconoclast, Macdonald could not abide party discipline and grew impatient with the role of doctrinaire follower. As Against the American Grain, the title of his 1962 essay collection, indicated, he was by temperament and conviction both an outsider and a loner. Yet he was also a radical whose notions about politics were “advanced under the banner of morality,” as his comrades at PR wrote in an editorial disagreement. Although they intended this judgment as a reproach, it was true, as Macdonald readily admitted. Historian John Lukacs, in a 1958 America article (“Dwight Macdonald: Another Orwell?”), described Macdonald as “eminently a moralist.” It was this moral sense that gave Macdonald’s writing its power and passion and fueled his endless search for justice and decency. It also accounts for his admiration for two other...

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About the Author

John Rossi