I’m just a few weeks from having a complete manuscript to send to press. Exhale! As such, I’m dreaming about what to research next. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing some sort of history of Marx and Marxism in the United States. In fact, I organized a panel proposal for the 2015 OAH conference in St. Louis on this very topic. Below, I share the session abstract that I wrote as a way to tentatively think about this research project. (I won’t “out” my co-panelists since there’s always the chance the program committee will reject our proposal, and if they do, I alone should suffer public disgrace!) I’m in the midst of teaching a graduate seminar on the American left, so I am beginning to (re)familiarize myself with the historiography. But I’m interested in your thoughts on the historiography–of Marx and Marxism in the US, of the American left more broadly, and of anti-Marxism–and I hope readers will list suggestions in the comments section.*
Session Abstract: Marx and Marxism in America: Taboo or Totem?
In a recent review essay of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx, Geoff Eley writes that most intellectual historians accept that “Marx’s thought became basic to the intellectual architecture of the modern world, whether as inspiration or anathema.” This panel proposes to take up Eley’s presupposition, with the United States of America as the background—with the United States as representative of the modern world.
How have the ideas of arguably the world’s most important modern thinker, Karl Marx, been received in the country seemingly most hostile to them—the United States? Ever since some of the failed 1848 revolutionaries—the ‘48ers—settled in the American Midwest after emigrating from Germany, Marx’s ideas have taken root in American soil. Marx himself did plenty to ensure his American reception: during the U.S. Civil War, he wrote dozens of articles supporting the Union, many for The New York Tribune, and even exchanged letters with President Lincoln, with whom he shared “free labor” notions. As the American socialist and communist movements mushroomed into the twentieth century, Marxism arguably became the most influential worldview of American radicalism. Yet, simultaneously, a growing number of Americans, especially those among the rising conservative movement, imagined Marxism a sinister ideology, the work of an evil genius. Marxism was the great American taboo.
The negative reception of Marx gained momentum after World War II, when the United States assigned itself the task of crushing the growing number of communist revolutions the world over. During the Cold War, Marx’s ideas were the unlikeliest of any modern European thinker to find a home in America. And yet find a home they did. This was particularly true in academia, where Marxism, as a powerful organizing tool, rivaled in influence most other cultural and political theories. Even those academics who consciously sought to distance themselves from Marx had to reckon with Marxist implications. Perhaps Marx was as much totem as taboo.
In 2002, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Economist counter-intuitively declared that “Marx was right” about a great many things. After the global financial systemic crisis of 2008, this claim no longer seemed so counter-intuitive, as more Americans than ever have become familiar with Marx and Marxist interpretations. Now is a good time for American historians to pick up the question: why Marx?
* Note: friend of this blog, Patrick O’Donnell, irrepressible bibliography creator, has already created an impressive bibliography of Marxism. But I’m interested in the books about Marxism in American history that you, dear reader, would emphasize.