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.