U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Walt Whitman Rostow: Marx with a Happy (American) Ending

Walt Whitman Rostow

Walt Whitman Rostow

Millions of Americans across the twentieth century, especially those among an up and coming conservative movement, imagined Marxism a sinister ideology, the work of an evil genius.

Marx was the great American taboo.

The negative reception of Marx gained momentum after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and even more after World War II, when the United States assigned itself the task of crushing the growing number of communist revolutions the world over.

J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and one of the most vehement anticommunists in American history, argued in Masters of Deceit, his bestselling 1953 book about communism, that Marx’s “distorted” view of history, ruthlessly articulated in characteristic “invective,” “anger,” and “abuse,” was so dangerous because it was treated as the gospel truth by his legions of followers. For Hoover and many more Americans, Marx was ultimately to blame for the threats to freedom posed by communists at home and abroad.

Hoover is one of many possible such examples that illustrate how Americans have used Marx as an emblem to define themselves against. Marx has served as a necessary enemy, a powerful integrative force. This has been true for conservatives, but also for liberal intellectuals.

American Studies as an academic discipline originated in the early Cold War as an explicit attempt by liberal intellectuals to define American culture as distinct from Marxism yet still vital, even revolutionary. Consensus scholars like Daniel Boorstin articulated an America that took the seeming bedrock principles of Western Civilization and extended them to the democratic masses. In this way, Boorstin’s multi-volume The Americans—the quintessential American Studies project during the early Cold War—was a scholarly tribute to Henry Luce’s “American Century.”

Even those early American Studies scholars who positioned themselves to the left of American exceptionalists like Boorstin, such as F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Burke, those who elaborated a methodology premised on cultural criticism, and who evinced a Weltanschauung Irving Howe called “Emersonianism”—even they sought to project American Studies as an alternative to Marxism.

Pluralist social scientists and counter-progressive historians like Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter had little use for class struggle as a normative framework for explaining American history and society. And yet Marx cast a shadow over such early Cold War social thought. This was even and especially true of those intellectuals who worked overtime to distance themselves from the bearded, nineteenth-century German philosopher. Take the liberal economic historian Walt Whitman Rostow.

Rostow wrote a hugely influential book in 1960 that he explicitly pitched as the antithesis to Marx. Indeed, the purpose of The Stages of Economic Growth was made abundantly clear by its subtitle (which was more than mere sub-text): A Non-Communist Manifesto. And yet Rostow’s ideas about economic development could not have emerged in a world without Marx. Rostow believed, not unlike Marx, that historical patterns revealed iron laws. Where Marx and Rostow differed was in the utopian conclusions to their teleological dreams: communism for Marx, liberal capitalism for Rostow.

David Milne’s excellent first book, America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, illustrates the degree to which Rostow, who as Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor was extremely hawkish with regards to the Vietnam War, saw himself as the anti-Marx. Milne writes: “Rostow was an ideologue and his unerring self-confidence was evident from an early age. As a sophomore at Yale University in the 1930s, he determined that his life’s calling was to ‘answer’ Karl Marx and provide an alternative explanation of the course of world history.”

Rostow’s background was similar to that of the equally famous New York intellectuals who eventually arrived at anti-Marxism by way of Marxism or some variant of it, often Trotskyism. Rostow spent his early years in Brooklyn, raised by socialist, Jewish immigrant parents—like many of the New York intellectual milieu. But Rostow’s father was an upwardly mobile chemist, and as such Rostow left Brooklyn early in life and eventually wound up in New Haven, where he graduated from high school at the age of 15 and won a scholarship to attend Yale University.

While a Yale undergraduate, Rostow discovered Keynes, a discovery which he described as life-changing. He also discovered Marx, equally life-changing but in a different way. After reading Marx, Rostow declared at the age of 17 that he would spend his life working “on two problems. One was economic history and the other was Karl Marx. Marx raised some interesting questions but gave some bloody bad answers. I would do an answer one day to Marx’s theory of history.” Milne pithily describes such ambitions as “impressive and narcissistic in equal measure.”

In 1958, Rostow, by then a professor of economic history at MIT, won a “Reflective Year” grant funded by the Carnegie Corporation, which he spent at Cambridge University researching and giving lectures on what would become The Stages of Economic Growth. He wrote that he was spending his sabbatical year working to “uproot the bad works of that angry, old man Karl Marx.” Milne quotes a great passage from a letter that Rostow wrote to Adlai Stevenson during that year: “as an eighteen-year-old Yale undergraduate, much disliking the pretentious nineteenth century Germans, I promised to produce an alternative to Marxism as a theory of modern history; and I have used my sabbatical to make my bid. It’s been fun.”

Just as Marx had predicted historical stages that passed from feudalism through capitalism and concluded with communism, Rostow had a teleological theory of five historical stages that began with a traditional society (the equivalent of Marx’s feudalism) and ended with American-style liberal capitalism, or what he termed “the age of high mass-consumption.” In short, whereas communism was the human ideal for Marx, Americanism was normative for Rostow. Gilbert Rist called Rostow’s theory “Marxism without Marx.” Or as Adlai Stevenson wrote Rostow after reading Stages: “Is the future Rostowism vs. Marxism? If so, I am ready to vote now.”

Rostow had given liberal Americans a Marx with a happy (American) ending! This was Rostow’s stated intention, and Milne does an excellent job explaining the structural similarities between Marx’s theory of history (as elaborated in The Communist Manifesto) and Rostow’s theory of history (as articulated in Stages). Such recognition, in other words, is hardly new on my part.

I do wonder, however, if historians have placed Rostow—“America’s Rasputin”—in the context of postwar American social thought more generally, whether in the social sciences or in American studies? Rostow’s work seems to have been part of a much larger project to make Americanism into a normative conception of the good life. And in this project, I would suggest, Marx was a ghost in the American machine.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an excellent piece. While I understand your characterization of Bell and Hofstadter as uninterested in “class struggle,” I might push against it. I have always taken both thinkers (at least in the works published in the 1950s) as arguing from a class struggle+American exceptionalism framework, which might be a fair characterization of Matthiessen and Burke, too. Perhaps the distinction is between immanent critique and the transcendent variety (the latter of which was clearly the position from which Rostow approached Marx).

    • I get you, Kurt. I guess the class struggle in Hofstadter and Bell is paradoxical. At times they recognize its existence, but seem irritated by it, and thus seek to wave it away as the product of “status anxiety” or some atavistic attitude. Their notion of consensus or pluralism was often more prescriptive than descriptive, even if they sold it as the latter.

  2. A few thoughts, as I’m doing some work on the topic of Rostow, and by extension modernization theory, and what he would’ve called “the American dilemma” of anti-Black racism. One of my arguments is that he (and peers) were anxious about the way the history of racial antagonism in the US interfered with making, as you say, “Americanism into a normative conception of the good life.”

    1. Yes, the historical study of modernization places Rostow “in the context of postwar American social thought more generally.” Best example is Nils Gilman’s Mandarins of the Future. I think there is more work to be done. For example, there was far more synergy than is typically appreciated between Kennan and Rostow (and Hoover, though he didn’t write any of his own texts), on the topic of, as you put it, how Marx’s ideas were taken “as the gospel truth by his legions of followers.”

    2. More importantly and relatedly, I think it’s useful to disaggregate Marx from Marxism, particularly the orthodox or traditional Marxism to which Rostow was responding. He certainly inverted or emulated or parodied the stageist version of Marxism that was available at the time (particularly in English), but that was not really what Marx thought, or he at least radically reconsidered those ideas as he aged, as much recent scholarship has shown. It might be better to think of Rostow in terms of some Leninist ideas about vanguards and what would become technocracy.

    I think Kurt’s point about the immanent vs transcendent critique is apposite: after all, Rostow’s understanding of historical change really had little room for immanent transformation. Rather, sources of change were exogenous: either Communist subversives or enlightened US-trained technical advisors. That may be an oversimplification of his thinking (which was already very simplistic), but it was certainly the way things played out on the ground in terms of what US policymakers thought they should be doing overseas.

    • Oh in this post I only really use Marx as a signpost, to show how Rostow used Marx. And there are serious criticisms to be made of how Rostow used Marx that I don’t touch upon here because I didn’t think it would add much. Marx’s thinking with regards to historical change was far more supple than Rostow’s, but of course Marx did so much more writing and thinking and thus expanded well beyond the Communist Manifesto (which is the main Marxist theory of history that informs Rostow about Marx).

  3. I’ve read the post and comments only quickly (will come back tomorrow or next day for a more careful reading), but since I read Milne’s book on Rostow several years ago and reviewed it (and I don’t mean reviewed it on my blog), I thought I’d throw in something — namely, that I didn’t come away from Milne’s book mainly thinking of Rostow as the ‘anti-Marx’ (though that was doubtless part of Rostow’s self-conception, to be sure).

    Rostow was an intellectual prodigy whose career might be remembered rather differently had he not been in the JFK and LBJ admins during the Vietnam War. Some of Milne’s most illuminating pages concern the differences between Rostow and Kennan: Rostow cared about alleviating poverty in the Third World and not just for anti-Communist reasons; Kennan, by contrast, basically didn’t give a **** about the Third World in any respect. (This did mean that Kennan’s position on the Vietnam War was much more sensible.) But Kennan was basically in many ways a man “out of his time” in his instincts and sympathies — he hated consumerism, he hated the automobile, etc.; Rostow’s attitudes were much more those of a Cold War liberal. Despite certain commonalities, I see them as quite different figures.

    • Louis–I didn’t mean to give the impression that Milne’s reading of Rostow was primarily about him as the anti-Marx. I definitely went fishing for that, and found it in the early chapters about Rostow’s early years and education.

  4. Andrew–
    I’m going to have to quibble with your characterization of postwar American Studies here. Boorstin is in no way a representative figure of that movement, although he has become the standard whipping boy for critics of the anti-progressivist turn in historiography characterized by John Hingham as “consensus history.” And _The Americans_ was published in three volumes from 1958-1965, after such staples as Henry Nash Smith’s _Virgin Land_ (1950), so not exactly “early Cold War.” The American Studies movement of that era had roots in the cultural front of the 1930s, and its embrace of an American “folk culture.” One of the key figures in this early movement was Constance Rourke. The figures most clearly associated with it in the period you are looking at it, through the early to mid 1960s included Henry Nash Smith, John William Ward, R.W.B. Lewis, and Leo Marx. Yes, they were “exceptionalists,” if what is meant by that is that they believed that there was a distinctive set of American ideologies and cultural forms; no, they were not celebrators of an American way. They were, generally, thinkers of the left and critics of American “myth and symbol”. Even a neo-agrarian like David Potter (of _People of Plenty_ fame) was not sanguine about American consumer culture and capitalism in the way that Boorstin was. I think you are right to suggest that class conflict played a relatively small role, since they were concerned (as later thinkers who picked up on Gramsci were also) why American culture wasn’t riven by such conflicts and was more stable than orthodox Marxist theory might have suggested. But Marxism was a kind of backdrop to much of the thought of the era, even if not as a theory of class conflict. Boorstin’s _The Image_ (1962), for instance, contains a critique of media that is not that far from what the Frankfurt School thinkers were putting forward, and Boorstin was steeped in Marxist circles in the 1930s. Bell wrote about labor (and its discontents) for _Fortune_ magazine. Cultural marxism, and the turn to issues of alienation and disaffection, was pervasive in the so-called “consensus” thought of the era, even if sometimes buried. But my main point is that I think you are recapitulating a view of 1950s era American Studies that was created by New Left thinkers, who didn’t realize the extent to which their own thought had been shaped by the practice of American Studies as a critical movement from its inception.

    • I accept your quibble, Dan, and admit I have much research to do in this area. I was basing my characterization of 1950s American Studies on one made by Michael Denning in his essay–“‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies,” American Quarterly 38, 3 (1986), 356-380. Denning recognizes that American Studies was a left-wing project in its inception but he argues that it was also an attempt to formulate sweeping cultural theories distinct from Marxism. But as I said, I will take your word for this, at least until I have more time to review all the original sources! Thanks for chiming in.

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