U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marx and Marxism in America: Taboo or Totem?

marx-engels-lenin-stalin-obama-logoI’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.

28 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew–
    Is it useful to make a distinction between Marx and Marxism here? Once a body of thought takes on a life of its own and departs so far from the original theoretical structure of its originators, it seems like we’re talking about different things. The question of Locke in America, for instance, despite Louis Hartz, is really different from the question of liberalism in America, and it may be fair to say that Marxism is to Marx as liberalism is to Locke. In addition, the fact that Marxism became so heavily associated with the Soviet Union (both by those who looked to the Soviet Union as the official guide to Marx, and those anti-Stalinists who sought to redeem Marx from his corrupted uses) makes it hard to see Marxism except through its instantiation as a political form in the twentieth century. Add to this the distinction between “Marxian” and “Marxist” forms of analysis, the former more committed to descriptive understanding, the latter to normative ends, and the story seems more complicated. All that said, isn’t the entire intellectual history of the American Left in the twentieth century a kind of argument about the meaning of Marx?

    • Dan: Good points, as always. Although I haven’t done any serious research yet, I think I’m interested in how Marx thought about America, and how Americans thought about Marx, and then how these cross-currents helped shape (or not) the reception of Marxism, which I agree is a different thing. Even Marx said he wasn’t a Marxist. So I’m interested in how these distinctions were made, if they can be made. But it’s all preliminary and thus speculative.

  2. Alex Gourevitch wrote this on my Facebook page and said I could save it here:

    “Andrew, very glad you are starting work on this. I look forward to what comes of it. I think Mark A. Lause’s ‘Young America’ is excellent for the context of the earliest receptions of Marx’s ideas, and how they mixed up with all kinds of other already existing radical, communitarian, socialist and agrarian tendencies. Some of the biographies/sketches/essays that Robert Weir did of leading figures in the Knights of Labor, like Joseph Buchanan or Theodore Cuno, reminds us that many of them were members of the IWA and close to Marx. For instance, Cuno was an exile close to Marx and was the chief statistician for the Knights for a time. This is all stuff desperately waiting for good treatment. The only extensive one I know of is Messers-Kruse’s book. (I have noticed that recent biographies of Marx say little of his US connection besides the economic importance of the income from writing for New York Daily Tribune and noting the fact that he almost moved to the US, along with the IWA itself. All of which is too bad because they have done some of the best work on establishing Marx’s connection and relationships with those who eventually emigrated to the US). Harris’ old book, ‘American Forerunners of Marx’ or something like that, is quite good actually on some of the intellectual background. I imagine tracking down the role of August Willich and Joseph Weydeymer would also be good. Although Willich was estranged from Marx for a while, by the Civil War, he was organizing Red factions of the soldiers and leading them to victory against the South. This, of course, is all about Marx’s influence during his life, which is probably the period of least influence!”

  3. I know we’ve discussed this before but I’ll mention it again here: Tony Michels, “A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York,” is a superb book that (among other things) deals specifically with the spread of Marxism from German non-Jewish radicals to Russian Jewish radicals in NYC, and then back to Russia.

  4. This is certainly a pet interest of mine, so reading about this gave me a thrill! Last year, when I prepared a lecture on Sidney Hook and the Americanization of Marx, several books proved to be particularly useful… Daniel Bell’s book holds up pretty well even after six decades; it’s a goldmine of information about the labor movement, the various parties on the Left, and the oftentimes confusing relationship between the two. Even so, his general conclusions are fairly dull (“socialism failed because socialists were utopians who couldn’t separate morality and politics,” i.e. “I read Politics As A Vocation”). Even better, I think, are Christopher Lasch’s essays on the populists and socialists in The Agony of the American Left. Of course, I’m sure that you’re well aware of both of these books already! I only point to them because you wrote, “As the American socialist and communist movements mushroomed into the twentieth century, Marxism arguably became the most influential worldview of American radicalism.” An inescapable – and perhaps not all that surprising – conclusion that one has to draw after reading these two books is that, in fact, Marx and Marxism were extremely marginal. To the extent that people were reading Marx, they assimilated his ideas into preexisting currents of radicalism (Christian socialism and populism, especially). I’m doubtful that before the 1930s many people on the Left considered themselves “Marxists,” per se (with some pretty stark exceptions, like Daniel de Leon or Louis Fraina). Ever since then, as you mentioned, it’s been common for intellectuals to gravitate towards Marx – the difference being that, unlike the earlier reception, the academic Left is more content to accept Marxism as a specifically European import. We can speculate about why that might be, but I don’t think anyone needs reminding that with the rise of the cultural mandarins, a different kind of marginality enters the picture… This is, of course, not to say that Marx & America isn’t a worthy topic! On the contrary, it’s the peculiar and “hybrid” forms in which an American Marxism originally appeared that, in my opinion, make the story so fascinating.

  5. I’m really looking forward to this project. I suppose it won’t be much of a surprise to know that I’m really intrigued about the relationship between Marxist thought and communities of color in the United States. I always think back to the stories of Communist organizing in Chicago in the 1930s, when African Americans who were about to be evicted would call out, “Go get the Reds” for some extra backing in a time of crisis.

    Also, I think looking at that aspect of Marxist ideology in America would help straddle the line between what academics and activists thought of Marx. Some African Americans (and, indeed, quite a few Marxists, Communists, Socialists, etc.) were both in the academy and agitating outside of it. Marxism and Socialism both have a long tradition within the African American intellectual tradition, both (as you stated) as a way to organize and think about modern problems, and as a taboo. So many different ways to go with this project!

  6. It would be productive to begin with 1848 as a key date, thinking of the revolutions in Europe as well as the Manifesto. I just read an interesting piece about the existence of red-baiting directed at abolitionists in the antebellum era: http://mattstoller.tumblr.com/post/75618961543/antebellum-red-baiting-when-slaveholders-accused

    And then you have the appropriation of Marx by pro-slavery ideologues who critiqued industrial capitalism’s oppression of free laborers. I am thinking of George Fitzhugh; Hofstadter also wrote about Calhoun as “the Marx of the Master Class”: http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/hpolscrv/jccalhoun.html.

    I’ve also wondered about the connections of Marxism with the labor movements after the Civil War. You always hear anarchism as a driving force among recent European immigrant workers, but not so much about the ideas of Marx.

    • Great point about the post-Civil War labor movements. The immediate responses to the Great Strike of 1877, especially from the railroad executives, might be helpful. But, then, think of the Molly Maguires in Northeast PA coal towns–no hint of Marx that I’m aware of.

      • I need to learn to do my research before I speak:

        Alan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives (1878)–incidentally, also my new air-Bon-Jovi-cover-band name.

  7. Congratulations on completing your manuscript! This next project sounds equally important and fascinating.
    Although dense, Allan Megill’s, “Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market,” might be useful in capturing the nuances of his philosophy that held appeal, and repelled, in the world of praxis.

  8. Andrew,
    The possibilities for this project are, as you and the commenters are making clear, thrillingly open-ended, and, in addition to a book at the end, I am really looking forward to reading your explorations of this topic.

    I was particularly intrigued by your allusion to the ’48ers settling in the Midwest: are you thinking of this study as primarily national in scope, or with a regional center of gravity?

  9. I like Andrew S.’s idea of a regional spin on the project. I can’t locate my copy of American Dreamers now (my bookshelves are a scandal at present), but IIRC Kazin spends a fair amount of ink on the midwest — and I think Oklahoma and Kansas specifically — as the heartland of socialism, or at least the Socialist party, in American politics at the turn of the 20th century. (And if I don’t recall correctly, I trust someone will be quick to point that out!) To frame Marx’s ideas/influence as taking root not only or not even primarily in New York but also (or even initially?) in the midwest would be an interesting way of telling the story.

  10. If you’re looking at periods, the 1848 emigre moment as well as Marx’s letter exchange with Lincoln during the Civil War (see Robin Blackburn’s Unfinished Revolution on that) are good spots, as are the break-up of the IWA and its removal to the US. But another, perhaps less well-known moment, is Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling’s 1886 speaking tour of America. It’s really the first major moment of influence post-Marx’s death and it coincides with the Haymarket affair. Chicago ruling class threatened the pair with violence if they passed through Chicago, but they came anyway. I believe John Swinton, who met the two in England around 1881, reprinted the speeches in John Swinton’s Paper, though it might have been printed in the ‘Knights of Labor’ – the Chicago local paper of the Knights of Labor.

  11. Andrew: what a wonderful project! Can’t wait to hear about it as it evolves.

    It might be useful to think of Marx in the US in a Latour-ian sense–or, more precisely, to think of Marx’s emergence as the leading intellectual of international socialism in somewhat the same way Latour situates, say, Louis Pasteur.

    That might allow a useful disambiguation of what is properly Marxian or Marxist from what was simply in the water from what others were working on at the same time….

    We know that, in the US, the labor theory of value and the critique of the wage relation was definitely in circulation, Marx or no Marx. We know what many varieties of anti-capitalist sentiment, conservative and anarchist, had considerable purchase on the American imagination. And we know that as far as technical fixes go, Americans never had any shortage: utopian communes, Henry George, Bellamy, Progressivism writ large, etc. So the question really is: for what was Marx, specifically, needed?

    I tend to return, perhaps unimaginatively, to two conceptual innovations that I think properly belong to Marx: the notion of class struggle as fundamental, eternal, and constitutive of everyday social relations (not only, and not primarily, the periodic dramatic battles between the poor and wealthy), and a certain conceptualization of the idea of crisis (an idea that Victorian Americans badly needed, as we can recall by reviewing the slumps, panics, and depressions of the 19th century, so much easier to memorize than the sequence of presidents).

    I think it is Marx as theorist of crisis that really matters, as far as US intellectual history goes, especially after the arrival of the corporate form of capitalism. The corporation could promise the conquest of almost every problem of earlier capitalism, except the compulsion to work (which labor unions tacitly accepted as they entered the realm of the contract, and which was thus effectively removed from politics) and crisis–about which nothing could be done. The costs of capitalism, after the turn of the century, were simply going to have to include periodic, traumatic crises that wreaked havoc on the lives of the poorest.

    That is a reality for which capitalism has never found an effective apologist; while, at the same time, the Left’s intellectual lodestar anatomized crisis with unmatched lucidity and passion.

    My 2 cents, at least. Keep us updated, Andrew!

    • Lots of great sources, events, and people covered above. Astounding. My comment, however, dovetails somewhat with Kurt Newman’s. I’m thinking about your project theoretically.

      Perhaps what you want, Andrew, is an “idea of Marx in America” kind of approach. This would cover Dan Wickberg’s original distinction between Marx and Marxism in America. And the idea of Marx means, per Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s study of Nietzsche, that you can absolve yourself of whether those thinking about and using either Marx or Marxism in America were actually correct in their applications or usage. You don’t have to worry about whether Debs, Gompers, fill-in-the-blank Leftist, or randoms academic/scholar “gets Marx (or Marxism) right.” You can deal with Marx or Marxism as that person received or constructed her/his own “idea of Marx.”

  12. Excited to see where this new research leads you, Andrew. Paul Buhle in Madison probably knows as much about Marxism in America as anyone else, and is a pretty generous correspondent if you get in touch. Brian Lloyd’s Left Out and Christopher Phelps’s Young Sidney Hook have really different politics but together give you a good picture of Marxist intellectual life in US in the first half of the 20th century. I wrote a senior thesis on the journal Studies on the Left and its editors’ attempts to revive/renovate American Marxism in the New Left period. You should definitely have a look through some issues of Studies (not, unfortunately, available online, though there is a pretty good paperback anthology.)

  13. I second the commenter above who says Buhle is the place to start. I learned a lot from Marxism in America. One other interesting moment in the reception of Marx during the 19th century: Gompers v Debs. Samuel Gompers claimed to be the ‘real Marxist’ because, not only had he read some Marx early in his career and had continental roots, but because he focused on ‘economic-class’ rather than ‘political’ issues. He took this to be Marx’s teachings. Debs, on the other hand, only read Marx when in jail in 1894 after the Pullman riots, during his conversion to socialism. But, as Salvatore showed in his excellent biography of Debs, the reading and absorption of Marx was as much effect as cause of the conversion. Debs’ move to class consciousness and socialism was a product of empirical experience and using the labor republican traditions that he had grown up with – abolishing wage-labor in the name of real, independent citizenship (a thought Marx did not reject). So in terms of how Marx enters active working class traditions in the US, not just through ’48ers or local immigrant movements, but through the major organizing traditions, another important moment would be the comparison of Gompers and Debs.

    • Alex Gourevitch’s comment about Debs reading Marx in jail during the ARU strike reminded me of another fascinating connection. Florence Kelley, eventually famous as a Progressive social reformer, was one of the first important American Marxists, having met many of the SPD leaders while studying Europe, corresponded with Engels during his lifetime, and translated Engels’s Condition of the Working Class into English. It’s been suggested that she may have been the one who gave Debs Capital to read.

      • I’ve never seen evidence in Debs’s speeches that he read Marx. Most of what would seem “Marxian” in Debs would more plausibly come from other sources (including Marxists in Appeal to Reason, etc.). A lot of it was just in the American grain.

        One should keep in mind, though, that NS in 2007 is a different author than the NS who wrote the Debs biography decades earlier. There may be a bit of reflexive anti-Marxism at work in the C-SPAN clip which says more about NS’s trajectory than anything else.

  14. 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.

    Imagined Marxism a sinister ideology?” Stacking the deck just a bit perhaps with that, Andrew? 😉

    Great post, though. To the received intellectual history on Marxism, I’m most astounded that Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” actually appeared [and was apparently read by the American proletariat] in Readers’ Digest on April 1945. An account is here.


    I can think of few similar mass moments, political philosophy for the masses.

    “No less significant is the intellectual outlook of the rank and file in the communist and fascist movements in Germany before 1933. The relative ease with which a young communist could be converted into a Nazi or vice-versa was well known, best of all to the propagandists of the two parties. The communists and Nazis clashed more frequently with each other than with other parties simply because they competed for the same type of mind and reserved for each other the hatred of the heretic. Their practice showed how closely they are related. To both, the real enemy, the man with whom they had nothing in common, was the liberal of the old type. While Nazis, communists and socialists are potential recruits made of the right timber for each other, they all know that there can be no compromise between them and those who really believe in individual freedom.

    What is promised to us as the Road to Freedom is in fact the Highroad to Servitude. For it is not difficult to see what must be the consequences when democracy embarks upon a course of planning. The goal of the planning will be described by some such vague term as “the general welfare.” Without total agreement on the ends of planning, central planning will be rather like a journey where most travellers disagree over where they want to go. The result is they may all make a journey which most of them do not want at all.”

    So for Marxism/socialism/communitarianism in the real world, since the failure of the Soviet enterprise we have been lectured by the European-dominated OECD on the successes of its own version of what Hayek called “planning.” These utilitarian/utopian arguments were far more persuasive 20 years ago. OECDism was but a half-century old, hardly [dis]proven afterall, offered as social “science,” and things appeared to be working well.

    But as Mrs. Thatcher noted, eventually you run out of other people’s money and so here we are in 2014.

    As to Dan Wickberg’s very first [and best] point of order
    Is it useful to make a distinction between Marx and Marxism here?

    there’s that. And Hayek argues well that all attempts to translate Marx into Marxism must always have the same result:

    To those who have watched the transition from socialism to fascism at close quarters, the connection between the two systems is obvious. The realization of the socialist program means the destruction of freedom. Democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is simply not achievable.

    He goes on to explain his argument. To teach Marx without Hayek–either in theory or simply in the American social context–is to tell only half the truth, which is to say no truth atall.

  15. Kurt–
    Could you elaborate a little on your comment on Salvatore? I only know the Debs book, which was published in the early 80s, but your comment suggests that Salvatore has moved to the right. I don’t know anything about his more recent work, so I’m wondering in what sense he has changed.

    • I would be happy to be corrected, but it seems to me that Salvatore has moved to the Right (not an uncommon move in his generation).

      This piece with Cowie http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1603&context=articles
      strikes me as indicative of a change in position, as compared to the earlier work on Debs: speaking to a much more constricted sense of American radicalism.

      The later NS seems much more convinced of the natural conservatism and limited political potential of American “working-class politics” than the younger one. It’s not a 180 degree turn, as in the case of some of the Wisconsinites-turned-neocons… but it certainly strikes me as an ideological transition.

      • Just from reading this piece, I’m not sure I would characterize it as “conservative,” because it taps into a long tradition on the Left of asking “why no socialism in America?” The answer, in this case a classic, “Too much individualism”. But the frame of the question and the goal of its politics seems very Left–not a celebration of the triumph of individualism, but a question about the limitations imposed by the terms of what the authors see as “deep strains” within American culture, and a suggestion that American social movements have to come to terms with the obstacles presented by historical conditions, rather than romantically celebrate utopian potentials. This passage, for instance:

        “To reframe the New Deal order as a long exception, we would argue, is not a jaundiced view of American history but a more thorough understanding of our recent past that can provide a more stable intellectual foundation on which to build discussions of present and future politics. We recognize the contested nature of American politics and social life that have informed a wide variety of dissenting movements, but we also understand that the most powerful aspects of American political culture have proved resistant to these protests. Our aim is not to diminish the vision of those dissenters, but rather to resituate the New Deal era in the broader terrain of US history. In arguing that there is more continuity in American political culture between William Graham Sumner and Richard Nixon, we are clearly positing that, absent major national shocks, the capacity for fundamental political change is limited in the American context. ”

        Wasn’t Salvatore’s project in the Debs book to show the specifically American (republican) cultural values that gave his political life and movement saliency in the American context? And isn’t this article consistent with that project?

        Sorry to derail the thread, Andrew! I’m interested in what has happened to the New Labor History of the 1970s and 80s in recent years, and was surprised to hear that Salvatore has moved to the Right.

      • BTW, not to derail this excellent thread, but thanks so much for posting this article. It’s been on my reading list for a long time, and since all the roads down here are iced over, I have plenty of time right now to read it.

  16. Andrew,

    I recently wrote a brief historiography of the American Left focusing on American Dreamers – I’d be happy to send it your way. It certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but might be useful as an overview of the major trends in Left historiography from Bell to today.

  17. Dear readers: thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m just now returning to this thread after some travel, and some more work on finishing up the “old” manuscript. You all have given me tons of great suggestions, and a lot to think about. I am now more certain of two things: a lot of people will be interested in a Marx in America book (in part because everyone has their own Marx); this is the right book for me. Cheers.

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