…the amateur is not necessarily inferior in skill to the professional; the difference between them is simply that the former does because he wants to what the latter does for pay.
In journalism, this means that the amateur is less vulnerable to the pressure of the market, and so to what I regard as the most corrupting influence on art and letters today, that of the cheap cultural goods sold in bulk to the mass public. The amateur may not know as much about any particular subject as the expert does, but what he does know (which may be rather impressive) he knows as part of his own life and of our culture in general, instead of in the narrow way the specialist knows it… The amateur, even the dilettante, would seem a necessary figure if our culture is not to dry up into academism. (from The Responsibility of Peoples)
Dwight Macdonald gets nearly all of the large issues right: critical of big government and big business; scathing of the conformity and illiberalism of the liberal intelligentsia; wary of the rise of the technician, and aggressively opposed to the “organic” state; to the idea that all a country’s citizens are responsible for the crimes of their leaders. He is a Trotskyist pacifist, but an unusual one: he thinks each issue out for himself. Here he is on the Khrushchev thaw:
As Barras and his fellow members of the Directoire… were scared for their own skins by the Jacobin proscriptions, as they were weary of bloodthirsty principles, monstrous idealisms, the boring repression in the name of revolutionary virtue of all human, lively instincts, and simply wanted a chance to enjoy their power safely, selfishly and corruptly, so with Khrushchev and his Directoire.[i]
Revolutions are odd things, he says, for it is where the mediocre man has to live above himself, like a hero. Inevitably the stress tells.
Reading these essays one realises how little has changed in seventy years. The details have for sure; but the same large questions thrown up by modern life are still with us: how to escape the bureaucratic machine; how to live responsibly in a mass society; and how to think for oneself, in a culture that is strongly conformist; and increasingly formed by market pressure. His article on journalism in England, from which the first quote comes, is almost prophetic:
[writing of the United States] What seems to me alarming is not the contrast between the circulations of the highbrow and the lowbrow periodicals, but rather the influence of the latter on the former, the gravitational pull that is exerted by a large body (of money, or readers) on a much smaller one.
With the corporate takeover of the press in the 1990s Britain has gone the way of the United States. How much further will we go…
[i] In a previous post I quoted Timothy Snyder’s view that the West couldn’t conceptualise the mass killing of the Nazi’s, and didn’t know much about Stalin’s crimes in Eastern Europe. This book refutes him all along the line. Of course Macdonald doesn’t have all the details – many of these essays were written either during or just after the war -, but he has understood their import; he knows the difference between the concentration and death camps; and is aware of the communist massacres in the East, and how they reflect on the regime. Thus his account of Moscow’s betrayal of the Warsaw uprising, where after initially encouraging it Stalin refused to give support; allowing the Wehrmacht to eradicate the Polish fighters. The reason, Macdonald believes, is that it saved KGB and the Red Army from doing the job for themselves. He knew what was going on, as did many others who took an interest in the world around them. Snyder’s book, if it follows the assumptions set out in the preface, may illustrate rather too well at least two of Macdonald’s key criticisms of the culture: how it is watered down to catch a mass audience; and the narcissism of the specialist, whose subject area is always the most important, and who is always misunderstood.