Timothy Messer-Kruse’s reply to my earlier post about his book The Yankee International confirmed two things for me. First, wading into unfamiliar historiographical debates is treacherous business. Second, Marx’s ideas still rile!
This twentieth-century historian has a great deal to learn about nineteenth century radicalism, so I am postponing a full response to Messer-Kruse until I am able to do more reading on the subject. For now, I will say that my reading of Marx and how his ideas played out in an American context is at odds with Messer-Kruse’s interpretation. Messer-Kruse portrays Marx and his followers as dogmatic on questions of race and slavery, among other issues. I think Marx’s thought on those issues and more was quite supple, and that such suppleness contributed to a full flowering of Marxist thought on American soil. But I have yet to prove this case, and I willingly admit that I may be wrong. In any case, I welcome the challenge, and for that I am glad Messer-Kruse responded as he did.
One thinker that Messer-Kruse failed to mention in his rebuttal is W.E.B. DuBois. I argued in my original post that Marx’s analysis of the Civil War exemplified his linking up race and class in ways similar to W.E.B. DuBois’s masterful Black Reconstruction in America (1935). After having recently re-read large chunks of Black Reconstruction, I can say with confidence that there is something to this connection. Also, I am not alone in thinking this.
In his fantastic introduction to the new edition of The Civil War in the United States, a collection of essays and letters by Marx and Engels, Andrew Zimmerman argues that Marx and Engels laid the groundwork for DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, which Zimmerman calls “one of the most, if not the most, important interpretations of the Civil War today.” Marx and Engels believed that the Civil War was a revolutionary opening. DuBois built on this interpretation by arguing that the Civil War was a proletariat revolution within a bourgeois republic.
In short, Black Reconstruction was the work of a Marxist. An eclectic and original Marxist thinker, but a Marxist thinker no less. As his biographer Daniel Levering Lewis notes, DuBois was reading Capital with his Atlanta University graduate students while he was writing Black Reconstruction, and he used a chunk of the ample grant money he was awarded to hire the Trotskyist journalist Benjamin Stolberg for advice about Marxist theory.
Lewis offers perhaps the best general description of Black Reconstruction with the following sentence: “Analytical yet intuitive, densely researched but impressionistic, judicious and sweeping, Black Reconstruction pushed the figurative beyond the bounds of the historically permissible in its determination to integrate black labor into a Marxian schematic of proletarian overcoming.”
DuBois’s Marxism was unorthodox in a 1930s context because he did not consider slavery just another permutation of labor but a uniquely oppressive and dehumanizing institution. In other words, he put the lie to Thomas Carlyle’s quip that the Civil War was about people “cutting each other’s throats because one half of them prefer hiring their servants for life, and the other half by the hour.” Unlike some later Marxists, Marx and Engels did not think slavery and wage labor were remotely similar. But they did use slavery as an analogy for the capital-labor relationship because, as Zimmerman writes, “slavery reveals an economic fact that wages conceal”—that is, that the employer exploits the labor of the employed. DuBois drew a much sharper distinction between slavery and wage labor, but relied upon Marxist terminology and analytics to do so.
Another DuBois point of analysis that Marxists considered un-Marxist at the time, but that later became known to Marxists and non-Marxists alike as one of Black Reconstruction’s keenest insights, was his idea that southern working class whites preferred poverty to racial equality. DuBois called the basis of this “a sort of public and psychological wage.” Over half a century later David Roediger called this the “Wages of Whiteness.”
Sometimes the Marxist rhetoric in Black Reconstruction vexed readers, for example, DuBois’s insistence on labeling black resistance during the Civil War a “general strike.” He wrote: “As soon… as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves, and that the masters with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery…” DuBois was ahead of the scholarly curve for crediting blacks with winning the war and emancipating themselves. But calling it a general strike? Such terminology meant that DuBois was equating slave resistance to, say, the West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934. He was putting slave resistance in a capital-labor framework.
DuBois was arguably the twentieth century’s best thinker on race. He wrote perhaps the best book on the Civil War and Reconstruction. And he did so through a Marxist lens. Is this fact incidental? Or is it formative?