U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A List of Marxist Historians?

Guest post by Kurt Newman.

I am grateful to Andrew Hartman for extending me an invitation to run a query by the readers of the US Intellectual History blog. My name is Kurt Newman. I’m a graduate student in US history at the University of California Santa Barbara.


The query is this. If we were to assemble a list of Marxist historians of the United States, with the provision that we limit such a list to people who are both alive and active, what would the result look like? If we were willing to risk the scorn that might be legitimately inspired by asking an additional stupid question—what would happen if we were to narrow our search to people who could be described as American historians of the United States—would we learn anything interesting about the domestic historical profession?

Under ordinary circumstances, one might have to argue for the relevance of such an inquiry. A list of Marxist historians? From one perspective (let’s say, that of David Horowitz or Lynne Cheney): aren’t all academics in the humanities Marxists? From another (the dominant strain of thinking among the contemporary intelligentsia): didn’t Marxism more or less fade away with the fall of the Soviet Union? (At the margins, there are certainly some Cold War-haunted souls who might feel that discussing such things in public could only serve to invite several varieties of danger. They might even be right!)


The recent passing of Eric Hobsbawm and Eugene Genovese, however, forced many writers otherwise dismissive of the project of historical materialism, to recall that Marxism was for many years an extraordinarily generative force within historiography. Whatever the objections to the interpretive tendencies or personal choices of Hobsbawm and Genovese, no one could deny their authorial skill and influence, nor question their capacity to ask interesting questions. Could the same be said for historians under the influence of any other putatively discredited philosophy?  

As a graduate student who both studies the history of the United States and identifies as a Marxist,  I wonder (although without much angst or anxiety) whether Marxism is currently a tendency with much influence within the contemporary historical profession, particularly in regard to the study of the history of the United States. In light of the manifold failures of neoclassical economics and the crisis in liberal political science, in addition to the escalating popular rejection of balanced-budget conservatism, austerity, and the assault on unions, I think that a Marxist renaissance in US history is both possible and urgently needed. Whether such a revival is likely leads us back to the old Gramsci line about optimism and pessimism and intellects and wills, however that goes. Without a more coherent historicizing of the Marxist legacy in US history, though, it is hard to imagine how such a revival might be initiated.

Without wishing to unduly influence the results, I nevertheless cannot resist the temptation to append a final note. Stemming from my continuing fascination with the work of James Livingston­­—whose engagementwith Marxism strikes me as unusually rigorous, incorporating, for example, Marx’s “two-sector reproduction scheme” from Capital, Volume II in his reading of the paired emergence of corporate capitalism and pragmatic philosophy– I have been trying to keep track of the specific articulation of Marxist theory in the work of various historians. While I think that any comprehensive list of working Marxist US historians should include all scholars who acknowledge a debt to Marx, including those for whom Marx and the Western Marxist tradition form part, but not all, of their theoretical frameworks (to be honest, it is hard to imagine that anyone who would bother to identify as a Marxist in 2012 would not be open to the influence of a wide variety of perspectives within social and political theory), and those for whom Marxism serves as a general ethical inspiration or source of foundations that propel archival work, rather than a Talmudic enterprise, I am also interested in thinking comparatively about the ways in which historians of the US make use of Marx. In other words, what does it mean, methodologically or polemically, to be a Marxist historian of the US?

I look forward to whatever answers readers and contributors might feel compelled to post. Even in the event of silence and indifference—both perfectly legitimate responses, of course!—I will be able to move forward with my research on this topic with a surer sense of the state of the field. So, thanks in advance for your help.

27 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Marxism is alive and well in American historical archaeology. Mark Leone, Chris Matthews, Charles Orser, Randall McGuire, Luann Wurst, and Matthew Johnson, for example, are all heavily concerned with the growth of modern Western capitalism, inequality, and class formation in clearly Marx-influenced ways. Their theoretical frameworks in 2012 of course take into account other theorists critical toward or expanding on Marxism, though, so I’m not sure how many of them would identify with the label since it can seem limiting.

  2. If one were to look beyond history in a narrow sense, the number of American scholars influenced by Marx, through such later figures as Bakhtin, expands hugely, but most of this larger group would not consider themselves Marxists or have spent much time reading Marx. The study of various intellectual and religious revivals may offer food for thought as one contemplates a Marxian revival. There is much new, not just restorative, in the most successful revivals.

  3. Great questions, Kurt! Would you include those who identify as “neo-Marxists” in your list? While not exclusively about the United States, Peter Linebaugh’s and Marcus Rediker’s THE MANY-HEADED HYDRA crosses Marxist and Neo-Marxist scholarship.

  4. I had a professor as an undergraduate at Purdue who seems to fit the bill. I don’t know how active he is and while I took a political science class from him the Purdue website lists him under the American Studies program (I’m not sure if that is close enough for your list), and I have no idea if he would consider himself a Marxist (but a list of his publications would likely get him classified as one from the Cheney team), Harry Targ. He taught one of my favorite classes of all time and opened my eyes to the way the world really is, not just the way a Midwestern kid growing up in Reagan’s America thought it was.
    -Rhett

    • Rhett,

      I had a class with Harry, too, he’s definitely a Marxist–absolutely refused to accept Liz Cohen’s idea that industrial workers in the 1930s embraced a “moral capitalism.” Targ is also on Horowitz’s list of the 100 most dangerous professors in America, so watch your back!

      🙂

  5. Kurt, I was begging for a definition, otherwise the questions seems to me meaningless. If we define Marxism as subscribing to the belief in (inevitable) progressive immiseration of the (unitary) working class culminating (inevitably) in a revolution and post-revolutionary egalitarian society, then the answer is probably close to zero. On the other hand, as you suggest, there are many vaguer or more abstract forms of Marxism, and the more rarified the relationship to the Master, the larger the number of people who can reasonably be described as Marxists. (We’re all “post-Marxists” in some fashion, after all – even Lynne and David!)

    An altogether different approach would involve asking, simply, how may people would CALL themselves Marxists – and then asking them what they mean by the term.

    • You’re right, no one in the academy still abides by that kind of vulgar orthodox Marxism–nor has anyone identified themselves that way in probably 70 years. The kind of Marxism you describe owes far more to Kautsky and Bernstein than Marx himself. Though some some Marxism is teleological and deterministic, by no means does this variety represent the thinking of contemporary Marxist analysis or even accurately describe the basis of Marx’s own thought (especially after the discovery of Marx’s unpublished notebooks like the Grundrisse or 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

  6. Following the eclipse of Marx’s reputation as a political thinker and an economist, we’re left with Marx the sociologist and cultural critic. His most broadly influential work today, I’d say, is his critique of consumerism – although in specialties such as labor history he still looms large as well. My example of a prominent living American Americanist heavily influenced by Marxist thought is Lizabeth Cohen.

  7. “. . . in addition to the escalating popular rejection of balanced-budget conservatism, austerity, and the assault on unions . . .”

    John Nichols, is that you?

  8. Kurt’s question gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing contributions of Marxist historians and the acute today need for rigorous Marxist analysis in intellectual as much as in social or economic history. The thrust of Marx’s best known work examines the “laws of motion” of capitalist economy, and so too does it offer great insight and scathing critique of the fundamental ideas shaping capitalism (and he’s really funny when taking down bourgeois political economists).

  9. (1/2) Thanks so much for these helpful and generative comments! I hope I do not jinx the process by popping my head in.

    Anonymous: I am grateful for these references, as a total ignoramous on matters archaeological. I will check out the work of these scholars, post haste!

    David Moltke-Hansen: I hadn’t thought of framing this inquiry in terms of the broader dynamics of intellectual revivals. This is a really fascinating notion. In the US–home to a national culture that might well be descirbed as “revivalist” in spirit–Marxist movements have always grappled with the question of whether there is an American Marxism to be recovered from the past. Thus the Wisconsites, like Paul Buhle, who have done so much wonderful work recovering the writings of figures like Daniel De Leon or Austin Lewis, or Mehta’s beloved John Nichols, who has recently asserted that the Republican Party, in its original incarnation, was essentially the domestic arm of the First International, an intellectual endeavor also vigorously promoted by Jacobin magazine and its resident Civil War scholar James Oakes. (There are, of course, a million variations on this search for origins).

    On the other hand, many Marxist intellectual movements have been driven by a sense of ancestral poverty, and comparative inferiority vis-a-vis European Leftism (the New Left’s sense that the CP had poisoned the Marxist well falls into this narrative frame, too). Much of what has been most exciting in US Marxism–from young Sidney Hook and W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright to Robert Brenner, Harry Braverman, and, more recently, figures like Michael Hardt and Jodi Dean–stems from the creativity and flexibility that spiritual orphanhood and geographical distance from the continental tradition, the striking absence of anxiety of influence, seems to engender.

  10. (2/2) Mark T. Edwards: yes, Linebaugh and Rediker are, to my mind, the most important scholars working in the Marxist social historical tradition today, although both work transnationally (their work points to what is so stupid about my desire to restrict my inquiry to “American Marxist historians of the US”: are we not in an era of post-national or transnational history?). Nevertheless, The Many Headed Hydra probably stands now as E.P. Thompson or Christopher Hill’s work stood a generation ago–an original work of history that many activists read as a rite of passage. And Rediker’s The Slave Ship, and in a different way, Linebaugh’s wonderful Magna Carta Manifesto, can both be seen as works of “US history.”

    Rhett: Thanks for this lead. Again, I confess my ignorance. I will follow up on Harry Targ.

    Nils: point taken! I had hoped that I was asking some variation of: “how may people would CALL themselves Marxists – and then asking them what they mean by the term.” As I obviously did not, let’s ask that question! But I’m sure you would agree that starting from the premise that there is a fixed definition of “Marxist history of the US” would be counterproductive. We need our MacGuffins, after all! As far as the teleological part of Marxism, K hits the nail on the head. There is simply too much diversity within the historiography to identify millenarianism as dominant.

    To be accurate, as Herbert Gutman pointed out, it was Werner Sombart, not Marx, who introduced the key teleological theme into Marxist labor history, and to the degree that telos haunts our literature, it is Sombart and his “shoals of roast beef” who is to blame. But this brings up another interesting point: even if, “back of consciouness,” Marxists HAVE believed in a predetermined course of history, so what? Doesn’t business history after Chandler also so believe in a certain human destiny? Isn’t the vast majority of liberal writing about race and citizenship also premised on a vision of predetermined paths and metaphors of healing and self-correction? Why does Jihad vs. McWorld or Lexus vs. Olive Tree not burn the eyes of intellectuals the way that Socialism vs. Barbarism does? Why are only Marxists dinged for teleology?

    Finally, I am very pleased that Lizabeth Cohen was mentioned as a prominent Marxist, though I am not sure I have ever discerned too much Marxism in her work. Other feminist scholars whose work touches on the politics of consumption and/or the ’30s–Eileen Boris, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Alice Kessler-Harris, Nan Enstad, Susan Porter Benson–strike me as far more in dialogue with historical materialism. But Cohen’s work on the politics of consumption strikes me as more or less diametrically opposed to that of James Livingston. That’s interesting: revealing that the major fault line in contemporary Marxist historical thought may well be the morality of shopping.

    Thanks to all for your wonderful responses. Please post more!

  11. Addendum: just thought I would mention that in the twitterverse (where I can be found as @sadbillionaire), helpful friends have suggested: Norman Markowitz, Charles Post, Christopher Phelps, and Richard Hofstadter (who is both a historian with a complicated, unresolved relationship with a certain Beardian strain of Marxism and, sadly, not alive). A “Godd Till” self-identified; his Randall “The Macho Man” Savage avatar either serves as immediate proof or disproof of his claim.

    Both Tim Barker and Corey Robin were helpful spreading the word about this query online; I think of both of them as falling within the tradition I am trying to map, although I would be curious if they would agree (I’m not sure if Robin, strictly speaking, considers himself a historian).

    • Thanks to Kurt for trying to put all this together. I’ve actually been working on the intellectual history of the New American Marxism–people like Martin Sklar, James Weinstein, Gene Genovese, James O’Connor, etc–so I’m interested in the story of American Marxist historians quite a bit. One place to look might be the (voluminous) masthead of Genovese’s Marxist Perspectives, soon to go up at the new dissentmagazine.org Many of the editors are still living/teaching. One that jumps out of my memory is Columbia’s Elizabeth Blackmar, though I don’t know if she still self-IDs as a Marxist. Another MP heavy was Eric Foner, same caveat. Another Columbia person would be diplomatic historian Anders Stephanson, who writes for NLR from what seems like a broadly Marxist perspective.

  12. One word: Tomlins. He won the Bancroft in 2011 for possibly the single most fascinating history book I have ever read. He is a legal historian by training but fuses social history, legal history, labor history, and some anthropology in the most innovative ways. He is interested in Marxism from the Frankfurt school angle, although his earlier book Law Labor and Ideology could be described as Althusserian.

    The book is dense, but take note that Tomlins’ approach is or should be revolutionizing his field.

  13. Tim–thanks a million. There is no question that many of us are eagerly awaiting the posting of the Marxist Perspectives scans at Dissent!

    Would love any links to your essays on the New American Marxism, as well, of course.

    To my mind, Blackmar and Foner and Stephanson all belong on a list of Marxist or Marx-inspired historians, without question. The case of Foner–who, it has always seemed to me, embodies a vision of doing rigorous historical research as a kind of postideological ideology-in-itself, in fact the dominant ideology of our profession– is likely instructive, however… A cursory glance at Columbia history faculty site suggests a number of other candidates, too: Katznelson, Esch, Kessler-Harris? Not trying to leave anyone out; those names just jumped out at me.

  14. a few off the top of my head… barbara j fields, paul e johnson, david barber, thomas andrews, perhaps seth rockman and jefferson cowie.

  15. Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream is a key Marxist contribution, although Davis is not an historian in the narrow disciplinary sense. Maurice Zeitlin and Judith Stepan Norris’ Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions might be considered another. Certainly sympathetic to a sort of Marxist influenced organizing tradition. Charlie Post?

  16. Just to echo Daniel, I recently read Tomlins’s _Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865_ and it is worth the slog. I say slog because the book is long, over 550 pages long. It is also full of intricate rereadings of colonial legal systems. But the rewards are many for someone looking for new Marxian approaches to U.S. history. The book could be read as exploring the ways in which bounded forms of labor (the most salient one being slavery) conditioned the emergence of the free labor practices of the 19th century. Tomlins’s twist is to say that the market conditions did not break down the artisan economy with its attending forms of labor in the 19th century; rather, the law (read broadly as discourses of the law) did this in the 17th and 18th centuries through practices of colonization. Well worth the read.

  17. Sorry to do the graduate student thing and evade your question by asking one of my own: How are new Marxist/Marxian historians trained? How do historiography courses (either general or era/area specific) use Marxist works (or even Marx’s works)?

    And as a small contribution, perhaps, could you include Robin Kelley in the list?

  18. Thanks for all these suggestions! What a wonderfully encouraging response.

    Tomlins’s work is amazing. So glad to see enthusiasm for it here.

    Roediger, Barrett, Kelley are names that would be at the top of my list. They came out, in different ways, of a variety of Marxist incubators; in the final analysis, all roads lead back to Madison, Wisconsin, on the one hand, and the traditions of African American leftism, on the other. Their histories also reflect the importance of De Kalb, Illinois, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Detroit, Michigan for the US Marxist tradition.

    Thinking about their work also reminds us that the history of Marxist historiography has been, to a considerable extent, the history of a series of heated battles over the meaning of race (including, but not limited to, the salience of race to class struggle analysis) and racism (especially the white working-class variety).

    This seems interesting to me, in light of the fact that a young Marxist might come to the study of history by reading, say, David Harvey, Ellen Wood, Brenner, Arrighi, etc., and not be at all prepared to think critically about race. This is a problem, to say the least. Is it as new a phenomenon as I think it is?

    I’m glad that Zeitlin and Stepan-Norris were mentioned: their work speaks to another set of long-running sectarian controversies, regarding the relative militancy of skilled vs. unskilled workers, and CP unions vs. non-CP unions. I wonder, too, if these are questions that Marxists are very interested in any more? Are they actually Marxist questions?

    Jason: your questions about pedagogy, graduate education, and the reproduction of the Marxist tradition is terrific. Besides a few places–maybe UC Santa Cruz (at least until recently), maybe Berkeley, maybe the CUNY Grad Center–does anyone actually offer any form of formal Marxist grad education in US history any more? I know there are increasing initiatives in the realm of “history of capitalism,” which might substantively offer something similar.

    (This is to say nothing of the apoplexy that would be induced in large swaths of the political class upon learning that any state-funded school was offering Marxist classes under the guise of US history, which might also say something about the stakes of doing Marxist research in 2012). In any event, the transmission of the Marxist tradition has almost always been based around the institution of the informal reading group, I think. So we might ask: how much of this kind of para-academic activity is going on these days, and how is it intersecting with developments inside the hallowed groves?

  19. You mention e.g. Brenner and Harvey, above, and yet fail to mention Immanuel Wallerstein. After all the criticisms, the first vol. of the Modern World-System still stands as a *very* impressive work, IMHO, even if one disagrees w it. (The 4th vol. of MW-S was published a year or two ago, I believe.)
    —-
    Also, re ‘Marxist Perspectives’: John Womack.

  20. Dear most recent Anonymous: no disprespect intended to Wallerstein or the Wallersteinian tradition (the Midnight Notes collective is a particularly important activist/scholarly example of the latter, in my opinion).

    I am not aware that Wallerstein is widely considered to be an active historian of the US, but maybe I am wrong. Brenner has written 2 historical studies of the US, Harvey has written about both US urban history and neoliberalism as a domestic phenomenon, and Arrighi wrote some important essays about Marxism and the US experience. Some purists would no doubt still question their placement upon a list of historians of the US. I am a committed teleogist:I think we should call anyone a historian who is considered a historian.

    Finally, I am grateful for your bringing up Wallerstein, because his work invites us to consider the place of Braudelian/long duree history in the US Marxist tradition. US Marxist history tends to be conjunctural and focused on pivotal moments and crises; Annales practices tend to look at the long fetch. That creates an interesting tension, I think.

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