U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marx and the Alien Left

I recently read Timothy Messer-Kruse’s provocative and at times infuriating book The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 about the American branch of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), otherwise known as the (First) International. The topic of the book is inherently interesting to me, not to mention extremely relevant to my new research on Marx and America. But more than that, The Yankee International is intriguing because Messer-Kruse uses the history of the IWA to make a pointed historiographical and political intervention. I’m all about strong arguments, even when I disagree with them. Hell, especially when I disagree since they force me to fine tune my own arguments.

In his focus on the split in the IWA between native (“Yankee”) radicals like Wendell Phillips and immigrant Marxists like Friedrich Sorge, Messer-Kruse validates the idealistic liberalism of the former while condemning the doctrinaire anti-liberalism of the latter. Messer-Kruse’s Yankee radicals, mostly former abolitionists, joined the International out of their growing concern for the Labor Question. But they were not solely focused on labor activism, which they connected to a host of other humanitarian reform issues, including feminism. Marx’s epigones, in contrast, were seemingly blind to all causes that did not advance the proletariat as the vanguard of global communist revolution. The Yankees were sensitive to American democratic traditions; the Marxists were alien to such homegrown ways.

The fact that Marx and his followers won this battle for the IWA and purged the Yankees from the organization doomed any chance of it shaping an American political future, according to Messer-Kruse. Worst yet of all, the victory of the aliens sent the left down the wrong path.

Despite what I think is a good faith effort to read The Yankee International with an open mind, I ultimately find its arguments historiographically flat-footed and politically heavy-handed. First of all, the idea that Messer-Kruse’s Yankee radicalism was native to American culture and that Marxism was entirely alien is at best overstated. At worst it’s rooted in American exceptionalism. Of note to readers here, Messer-Kruse’s book is out of tune with works published prior to it such as Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory and Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings, books that convinced the next generation of intellectual historians that political ideas are rarely tightly bound by national boundaries.

Messer-Kruse is certainly right that Marxism in some form (even as an alien ideology) helped shape the American left to various degrees since the International. The very political terminology of “left” and “right” did not come into common usage in the United States until the 1930s, when a spectrum was developed in relation to where one stood on the New Deal and, more generally, capitalism. Reading this more recent spectrum back into the nineteenth century reveals that a class-focused American left indeed emerged somewhat victorious over its less economistic rival movements and ideologies.

The “Labor Question” preoccupied the radical imagination in the period between the Civil War and World War II. In the nation where the industrial revolution revved hottest, American radicals grappled with the fact that a growing number of people worked in miserable and often dangerous conditions for exploitative wages. Many turned to anarchism, since anti-statist impulses seemed to make sense in an era of close collusion between the state and capital—best signified when President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Many more radicals turned to Marxism. The mass politics of socialism were better suited to the task of achieving labor power than was the anarchist fetishization of estrangement that, taken to its extreme, turned violent. As Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps write in an introductory chapter to their new book, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War:

By the dawn of the twentieth century, most American radicals had concluded this debate [between anarchists and Marxists] in favor of Marx’s resolution of the problem of margin and mainstream. As the development of capitalism expanded the ranks of wage earners, workers would be pressed to take collective action against their employers and develop a commitment to shared ownership.

In the 1930s, the American left was relevant in large part because it aligned with an increasingly militant labor movement. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined the mass labor unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in response to the Great Depression. Even the Communist Party, always suspect in American political life, enjoyed a surge in its American ranks during the 1930s. This was due to the relatively common view that the Great Depression sounded the death knell of capitalism, and because Communist leaders wisely attached the party to the labor movement.

So Messer-Kruse can be credited with pointing to the victory of the Marxists in the American International as the thing that set the American left on its labor-centric course. But Messer-Kruse sees this as a bad development. He wishes the less programmatic, more liberal radicals of the IWA had won out.

In a way, a more eclectic, idealistic left has indeed won the hearts and minds of the American left since the recent fall of a labor-centered left. But is this really worth celebrating? Or does it signal defeat?

In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s right-wing counterrevolution and Bill Clinton’s corporate centrism, the left retreated into an exile of sorts. The left only remained a viable force in American life by appealing to the marginalized everywhere. In this radicals took their cues from the ironically titled Subcomandante Marcos, the masked voice of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico. “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, Asian in Europe, Chicano in San Isidro, Anarchist in Spain, Palestinian in Israel.”

The Subcomandante Marcos approach is what goes for solidarity in the age of identity politics. Brick and Phelps aptly call it “a left episodic.” I would call it a “whack-a-mole left.” Protest a lumber company here, a trade organization there, police brutality here, Israeli settlements there. Meanwhile capitalism does what it does—mostly unabated—and inequality becomes the scourge of our times.

Perhaps the most interesting methodological takeaway from Messer-Kruse’s book is how differently he and I read the same exact source based on our divergent readings of the larger historical and political meaning of that source. Marx’s famous 1864 letter that he wrote to Lincoln on behalf of the IWA, congratulating him for winning reelection, is a case in point. Marx wrote:

The workingmen of Europe… consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of the social world.

For me this letter, along with Marx’s other Civil War writings, indicated that his larger purpose in supporting the Union was grounded in his belief that Union victory would help the working class everywhere—white and black.

But Messer-Kruse writes: “While this… sentence condemned slavery, it can also be read as an implicit endorsement of white immigration over black migration.”

How so?

A similar discrepancy of interpretation arises from a line from Capital: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in white skin where in the black it is branded.”

For Messer-Kruse, this Marx passage from Capital represents another insidious example of Marx only caring about the white working class.  To me, it combines anti-slavery with a pro-working class position, linking race and class in ways similar to W.E.B. DuBois’s masterful Black Reconstruction, published 60 or so years after Capital.

With that, let me leave you with a Rush Limbaugh quote: “History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened. It’s no more.”

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I was with you until the Limbaugh quote. 🙂

    But seriously, that line from Capital deserves a full contextual reading (in relation to the text itself). I assume Messer-Kruse avoided that?

    It appears that Messer-Kruse’s most egregious presentist error is to read our left-right multicultural understandings into his historical endeavor?

    What do Brick and Phelps make of Messer-Kruse’s text? – TL

    • Tim: Sorry for the delayed response, and thanks for the questions. Yes you are right that Messer-Kruse avoided contextual analysis of Marx’s writings, especially Capital, and for that matter he avoided much of a close textual analysis. He seems to have condensed a century of left/liberal anti-Marxism in order to make his larger polemical point about the good guys versus the bad guys of the American International. And yes it might seem that Messer-Kruse is reading present fights over identity politics back into the past. The book was published in 1998 so that is certainly possible, although at that point Marxism seemed dead and the critics of identity politics tended to be conservatives. Reading The Yankee International through the lens of the 2016 Democratic Primaries, now that’s the thing! But Messer-Kruse did not write the book in that context.

      Brick and Phelps don’t do anything with Messer-Kruse. Their new book is mostly about post-1945 American radicalism.

  2. I liked your piece on Marx and America, Andrew. But I don’t see why stressing the Americanness of a position represents a commitment to exceptionalism in the negative sense. Indeed, it is a weakness of contemporary usage of the term “exceptionalism” that it only has negative denotations and connotations. In this, it works something like the term “consensus” did for my generation of US historians in the making. Most people thought the term was used only by those who thought consensus was a good thing. But that wasn’t the case at all.
    Put another way, every national, ethnic, racial, gender and identity group insists on the need to find its own voice and work out from there. Why is America the exception, as it were? Why shouldn’t students of the United States or those seeking to find the most efficacious means for change begin close to home and work progressively outward rather than starting far afield for our answers? (Provocatively, why Marx but never, or rarely, Veblen?) I suspect American intellectuals and students of intellectual history are attracted more to dazzling Europeans than to more pedestrian American thinkers– and I include myself in that observation.

    • These are excellent points, Richard, and in response let me publicly regret calling Messer-Kruse’s analysis American exceptionalism. The point for me is that I don’t think Messer-Kruse’s argument is a good one because Marxism made as much sense as a philosophy and organizing tool in the post-Civil War US as did “Yankee Radicalism.” Perhaps more. Considering it merely a foreign import and imposition is reductionist.

  3. As I’m sure you know, there is a large body of socialist/Marxist historiography which distinguishes between the “home grown Marxism” and the Marxism grown abroad and imported by immigrants. During the Cold War, as I understand it, one’s scholarship praising socialists was much more palatable when those socialists under scrutiny were the “true blue democratic” types rather than the Soviet kind. David Shannon’s _The Socialist Party of America: A History_ and Ira Kipnis _The American Socialist Movement_ as well as Howard Quint’s _The Forging of American Socialism_ all make a firm argument that there is a distinction between home-grown and foreign-born socialists, and that the social democratic tradition in America was primarily rooted in the abolitionist/reformer/Christians rather than Marxism. I would love to hear what you think of this.

    I don’t think that Marxism is alien to American culture by the 1880s, but I do think that it was more heavily interpreted by–say–Robert Blatchford, Edward Bellamy, Henry George, William Stead, Charles Sheldon, Francis Willard—than Marx himself. How about you? I also think Owenite and Fourerist experimentalist colonies played a role as “interpreters” of European Marxism, because I find that so many socialist communities of the next generation build in the same areas of these failed communes. I’m persuaded by Ed O’Donnell’s new book which argues that Henry George was a main interpreter of Marx to America in the 1890s. Then again, I am also persuaded by Mari Jo Buhle that Frances Willard was an interpreter of socialism to thousands of rural and urban women. And, by Michael Kazin’s book on WJ Bryan as that interpreter, and Nick Salvatore’s book on Debs as that interpreter. To me (and I’m biased of course, as I’m finishing a manuscript on this) a whole lot of this socialist translation comes through this “working class Christianity” that is evident in the circuits, newspapers, and talks of Eugene Debs, William Jennings Bryan and the Knights of Labor. Actually, it’s hard to say who is not translating and retranslating Marx by the 1890s. But, every one of those people insist that they are doing something different than Marx himself because they are more friendly to Christianity than he was.

    I’m also very interested in the relationship between the “homegrown” left and the European radical left, especially as they start to really compete within the American Federation of Labor (the “boring from within” campaigns) and the Socialist Party—between 1911 and 1920 or so. I too have found the scholarship still preliminary on understanding these competitions (even though this is a real and persistent interest of Messer Kruse, James Barrett, and a few others). For the sake of my prelim exams in labor history, I had to argue that the big fights on the Left in these days were between the “Real” Left and the gradualist/accomodationist left. On one hand, the “revisionists” (in Germany) and the British Fabians and the social democratic party in the US, and on the other hand, the “real” radicals who wanted “real” change. When I was younger, I literally picked a fight with my prelim examiners because I found this distinction to oversimplified (especially as a scholar of religion). But, the scholarship hasn’t really gotten much farther than this, as far as I know.

    That said, I *really* liked Messer Kruse’s book on Haymarket, as he does a lot of terrific, transnational, social history of the role of German-born, German radicals in Chicago and their relationship with the Chicago labor community. It changed how I look at Haymarket. But, its generally hard to convince anyone in the field of labor history there are less than very strict lines between “the real radicals” and “the gradualist accomodationsts.” My own project tries hard to break down that binary, but one of the reasons it’s still not done is because I’m also having trouble defending Christian Socialists as “real” socialists despite being a few steps removed from Marx himself.

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