The root is man

Dwight Macdonald

Granted that individual actions can never overthrow the status quo, and also that even spontaneous mass rebellion will be fruitless unless certain elementary steps of coordination and organization are taken. But today we confront this situation: the masses just do not act towards what most of the readers of this magazine would recognize as some fundamental betterment of society. The only way, at present, of so acting (as against just “making the record” for the muse of Marxian history by resolutions and manifestos “against imperialist war,” “for the international proletarian revolution,” etc.) seems to be through symbolic individual actions, based on one person’s insistence on his own values, and through the creation of small fraternal groups which will support such actions, keep alive a sense of our ultimate goals, and both act as a leavening in the dough of mass society and attract more and more of the alienated and frustrated members of that society.

The first step towards a new concept of political action (and political morality) is for each person to decide what he thinks is right, what satisfies him, what he wants. And then to examine with scientific method the environment to figure out how to get it – or, if he can’t get it, to see how much he can get without compromising his personal values. Self-ishness must be restored to respectability in our scheme of political values. Not that the individual exists apart from his fellow men, in Max Stirner’s sense. I agree with Marx and Proudhon that the individual must define himself partly in his social relations. But the point is to make these real human relations and not abstract concepts of class or history. It has often been observed that nations – and, I might add, classes, even the proletariat – have a lower standard of ethical behavior than individuals do. Even if all legal constraints were removed, I take it we can assume that few people would devote themselves exclusively to murder or would constantly lie to their friends and families; yet the most respected leaders of present societies, the military men and the political chieftains, in their public capacities become specialists in lying and murder. Always, of course, with the largest aims, “for the good of humanity.”

A friend put it well in a letter I received several months ago: “So long as morality is all in public places – politics, Utopia, revolutions (nonviolent included), progress – our private mores continue to be a queasy mixture of chivalry and cynicism: all in terms of angles, either for or against. We’re all against political sin, we all love humanity, but individuals are sort of tough to love, even tougher to hate. Goldenhaired dreams, humanitarian dreams – what’s the difference so long as they smell good? Meanwhile, patronize any whore, fight any war, but don’t marry the girl and don’t fight the boss – too dangerous.. No. Damn, our only chance is to try to get as small, private, honest, selfish as we can. Don’t you agree that one can’t have a moral attitude toward Humanity? Too big.” Or to put it more generally. Technological progress, the organization from the top of human life (what Max Weber calls “rationalization”), the overconfidence of the past two centuries in scientific method – these have led us, literally, into a dead end. Their trend is now clear: atomic warfare, bureaucratic collectivism, “the crystallization of social activity into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations..”

To try to fight this trend, as the Progressives of all shade do, with the same forces that have brought it about appears absurd to me. We must emphasize the emotions, the imagination, the moral feelings, the primacy of the individual human being , must restore the balance that has been broken by the hypertrophy of science in the last two centuries. The root is man, here and not there, now and not then.

Ο Dwight Macdonald (Μάρτιος 1906 – Δεκέμβριος 1982) ήταν από τους σπουδαιότερους αμερικανούς δοκιμιογράφους του περασμένου αιώνα.