U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Americans Reading Capital

CapitalIn my larger interest in understanding Marx as an American alter ego, I’m interested in how Americans have translated, read, interpreted, and sold Capital, Marx’s magnum opus, from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. Two case studies of this phenomenon in particular have caught my attention: 1) the first English translation of Capital by Ernest Untermann, published in 1906 by the Chicago-based socialist Charles H. Kerr & Company (which conveniently for me has records at the Newberry Library in Chicago); and 2) geographer David Harvey’s annual seminar on Capital, which began in 1969 and is still running. Both of these case studies are prime historical examples of ongoing efforts to Americanize Marx, a process kick-started by the man himself. Marx’s fascination with American politics implicitly informed Capital, particularly his labor theory of value which arguably stands as Capital’s most lasting theoretical contribution to political economy.

The Kerr publishing house was intentional in its efforts to make Capital usable for an American audience. This was made evident when it published Untermann’s 1908 companion to Capital, Marxian Economics, which included favorable comparisons of Marx to Teddy Roosevelt and Henry George, and a class analysis of the African-American experience. The American context also underwrites Harvey’s reading of Capital. In an introduction to his lessons, now available for online viewing, Harvey recalls that he started his Capital reading group upon his arrival in Baltimore during the summer of 1969—when the Brit took a position at Johns Hopkins—because he was in search of a framework from which to understand the radical and reactionary politics of that year. In other words, Harvey has been reading Capital through an American lens from the get-go, which remains evident in his recent analysis of the 2008 global financial meltdown and its focus, in part, on the role of American housing in the crisis.

Where these two distinct readings of Capital differ speak to the changed historical context. Untermann sought to relate what he thought was a universal Marx to the concerns of a more parochial American audience–specific to the growing socialist movement in and around Chicago. In contrast, by reading Marx in an era of American-led globalization, Harvey presupposed that his version of Marx, though particular to his American experience, was a universal Marx. The irony here is that this is how Marx viewed America in the mid-nineteenth century–as a universal harbinger of a capitalist future–a view that not only informed Capital but also helped Marx anticipate the globalization of capitalism.

I’m interested in reader responses to short analysis above, but also in reader suggestions for other examples of Americans reading Marx in general and Capital in particular.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m interested in reader responses to short analysis above, but also in reader suggestions for other examples of Americans reading Marx in general and Capital in particular.

    Robert Paul Wolff’s book on ‘Capital’, Moneybags Must be So Lucky, from the 1980s, might be worth a look. (Haven’t read it, but he’s mentioned it on his blog several times; haven’t visited his blog in a long time.) It was intended to be part of a trilogy (the first vol. of which was his Understanding Marx), but he never published the third vol. I don’t know to what extent you’d get a specifically ‘American’ angle on Marx out of his work, however.

    I also don’t know whether Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, if I’m remembering the title correctly (haven’t read it), is single-mindedly Marx-focused enough to meet your criteria.

    There are one or two other things that occur to me, but I’ll leave it at that.

  2. So glad we’re getting to see this project as it’s taking shape–thank you for continuing to share with us!

    I’m sure you’ve already thought about this, but I was wondering if you’re planning on looking into Americans reading Marx in German and Yiddish (or possibly other languages). The Yiddish translation (or, perhaps, one of the Yiddish translations?) of Capital is by an American, Jacob Abraham Maryson. I don’t know much about him, but I think he also translated Thoreau, so there may be some Americanization of Marx going on there!

  3. Also, just remembered: Jack Conroy always felt defeated by his inability to make it through Capital. I think there is some discussion of that in the intro to Wixson’s book on Conroy.

    Also very worth looking at (following on Andy’s suggestion): William Gropper’s limited edition of 100 lithographs published as a companion to Capital in the early 1930s. The images I have been able to see from that volume are incredibly interesting, and very keyed to American realities.

  4. Thanks everyone, for the encouragement and suggestions, I greatly appreciate it. One mistake was pointed out to me by a reader: the first English translation of Capital was by Samuel Moore (1887). The Untermann translation (1906) was the first English translation for an American audience.

  5. Re the first English translation of Capital: I had thought it was by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, not Moore alone. (But I cd be wrong.) Aveling was, among other things, Eleanor Marx’s ‘partner’ (to use Wiki’s word).

  6. Sidney Hook’s Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation (1933) is a fascinating synthesis of Deweyan (American) pragmatism and Marx, though Hook presents it as pure explication of Marx. Hook of course was a student of Dewey’s.

  7. I have a very different story. In about 1985, I was part of one of the NEH summer seminars for high school teachers. The teacher was George Friedman, then of Dickinson College, now in the private sector. He was a conservative who thought more Americans should understand the ideas behind the evil empire. We read lots of Marx that summer, and as far as I know he made no political converts. I regularly try to distill the essence of Marx for my high school students.

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