U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marx, America, Biography

marxIn the course of my Marx and America research I have had the pleasure of reading a number of excellent biographies. To name but a few: Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life; Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist; David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963; and Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (note: I’m excited to be on a panel at next week’s S-USIH conference with Leilah that also includes our very own Robert Greene II and Nelson Lichtenstein as commenter).

Now, I am not writing a biography of Marx, but I have come to the conclusion that the best way to tell the story of Marx in America is to examine the topic through the lens of a number of biographical snapshots that will include an eclectic and diverse mix of intellectuals and political actors.

I will begin my multi-biographical exploration with Marx himself and the first chapter will also include the stories of Marx’s German émigré collaborators such as Joseph Wedemeyer. From there, in ten or so chapters that move chronologically but that will also be structured thematically, I plan to include intellectual biographical snapshots that will include the following people:

John Reed, the globetrotting journalist famous for his vivid first-hand account of the electrifying story of Lenin and the Bolsheviks seizing power—Ten Days that Shook the World, now hailed as an American classic—whose worldview was dramatically transformed by his reckoning with Marx and the epic Gilded Age struggles between capital and labor.

W.E.B. Du Bois, easily the most important African-American intellectual of the twentieth century who is less known as one of the most innovative readers of Marx in American history, made evident in his groundbreaking Black Reconstruction in American Life (1935).

J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and arguably the most vehement anticommunist in American history, who conceptualized Marx as the progenitor of modern evil.

Walt Whitman Rostow, the liberal economist who wrote a hugely influential book in 1962, The Stages of Economic Growth, that has since been viewed as an antithesis to Marx, made abundantly clear by its subtitle: A Non-Communist Manifesto.

David Harvey, the geographer who has been teaching a seminar on Capital since 1969—a seminar that is now wildly popular as a free online video—and who has arguably Marx’s most influential interpreter over the last 30 years.

These are just a few of the biographies I have in mind for the book. Instead of list out more, I would love to hear suggestions. Although I do indeed have women on the list—Emma Goldman, Claudia Jones, Ayn Rand, and Angela Davis, to name a few—I could use direction there. And although I have plenty of black Americans on the list beyond Du Bois, my current list is short on other ethnic minorities whose biographies might help us understand Marx in America. Thanks S-USIH hive mind!

29 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You might look at Louis Boudin’s The Theoretical System of Karl Marx (1907), and those associated with Kerr Publishing and the International Socialist Review. Ernst Untermann wrote many pieces on Marx – and Untermann, himself, was a fascinating figure – ending up painting dinosaurs in their original habitat in Utah (or something like that).

    • Thanks, George! I indeed have already done some digging on Kerr Publishing (papers are at the Newberry, which is convenient for me). Untermann is indeed fascinating, though I did not know about his retirement from Marxism with the Dinos in Utah! Untermann translated the first English edition of Capital for an American audience (the previous English translations were not published in the US).

      • I recall that he may have been Director of Zoos in Milwaukee, during the years of socialist electoral dominance. I vaguely recall seeing a long ms. on Marx by him that was never published. In an archive. Now where? Hmmm, this was SO many years ago. Aha, found my dissertation. EU’s book was MARXISMUS UND LOGIK (1910). Untermann papers are at the Wisconsin Historical Society. It’s going to be a great project, Andrew. See you in P.A.

    • Looking at ISR and Kerr would also leave room to get into the IWW. (I believe William Haywood was on the editorial board of ISR even after his break/expulsion from the Socialist Party.) The marxism in early IWW publications seems to me really understudied. Oh and other related figure that may be of interest – Daniel DeLeon.

      I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who was both not an academic and who was from the activist left after 1970. Surely there must have been people (other than professors) in the New Communist Movement reading Marx, but I can’t think of any.

  2. What about Louis Fraina? Also, in terms of biographies, it’s been a long time but I remember enjoying Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx.

    • Paul Buhle’s A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost––on Fraina/Corey––is awesome.

      I am a communist, Andrew, and thus I believe strongly in sharing. Thus––I will share with you my recent obsession, with the intellectual I believe to be the most interesting American cultural Marxist of the Popular Front Era, Joseph Freeman.

      He edited the first volume of Soviet literary theory published in the US (Voices of October), wrote what I believe was the finest Left memoir of the 1930s (An American Testament) and wound up as an employee of Bernays’s public relations empire. And he was a real Marxist.

      Lloyd L Brown is another very interesting character, well worth including in your study.

      Finally, the key Marxist influences on the New Lefts of Berkeley (Hal Draper) and Ann Arbor/Detroit (Martin Glaberman) are woefully understudied by intellectual historians. Both would be excellent subjects.

    • Thanks for this Joe. I’ve read Reed’s work when he was in Mexico during the revolution. Fascinating. But have never seen this, and will check it out.

  3. Dorothy Day would be pretty valuable for her critical appropriation of Marxist thought for American catholic radicalism, as well as her influence on actual marxists like Michael Harrington ( another possibility) who have Day’s Catholic Worker as part of their intellectual/ radical genealogy. Also, I know you’ve written about this before but I think William Appleman Williams and his student Martin Sklar’s idiosyncratic readings of Marx are an important contribution to the post WWII growth of the historiography of American Empire. this is going to be a great project, can’t wait to to read it. Best of luck.

    • Oh, great suggestions re: Day and Harrington. WA Williams will definitely be in the book.

  4. Hi Andrew. Could you elaborate on your decision to use biography as “the best way to tell the story of Marx in America.”? That is, why not look at, say, periodicals and other publications, or schools of thought, or coteries of intellectuals, or publication history, or the relationship between forms of Anglo-American radicalism and German philosophy, etc., rather than biographical snapshots? Biography as a form, of course, has its own interests, and the biographies you point to, such as Salvatore’s study of Debs or Levering Lewis on DuBois, do seem to use the biographical form as a way to integrate various historical events, cultural and ideological values, etc. into the life story–e.g. we come to see the ways in which Debs’s socialism grew out of late nineteenth-century producerist ideas and a form of labor republicanism that ran through the thought of the era. But if you’re studying Marx’s ideas in the U.S., and how they were received, interpreted, and reinterpreted, than biographical portrayals seem to point us in the opposite direction–away from the collective life of ideas as cultural entities and toward the ways in which individual (rather than collective) experience shaped their reception. Not to say that biography is necessarily a “bourgeois form”!! In any case, I would be very interested in hearing you elaborate on this choice of form and method as the best way to get at the object you are studying here.

    • Dan: Smart question. I think I’ll be more easily able to answer it once I get into the writing. At this stage any writing I’m doing is on the book proposal and a few conference papers.

      My central research questions: why has Marx, ultimate American taboo, been in fact a totem for so many Americans? And how has the use and interpretation of Marx changed across historical contexts? There are any number of ways to approach these questions that would prove fruitful, including the ways you suggest. In fact I will be doing much of what you recommend, i.e., look for communities of discourse and the ways in which ideas formed contexts for ideas. I have a great deal of respect for those approaches. But ultimately I am most interested in how and why individuals turned to Marx, used Marx, found inspiration in Marx, etc… How Marx helped people understand America. Ideas come alive in people. Perhaps that very notion is bourgeois. I tend to think it’s a humanist approach versus an antihumanist approach best understood in the work of Foucault.

  5. I really like this approach!

    How about C. L. R. James? Not only a theorist of the first order, but he also offers a reading of America that is among the most creative of mid-century.

    Also, you’ve discussed William Appleman Williams before–any chance he’s sticking around for the final cut?

  6. I have no suggestions, particularly, but I’m struck by the resemblance of this structure to a book I’ve assigned my South Asian history students this term, Richard Eaton’s “A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives”

    Not sure if this is pure coincidence or a new genre convention, like the ‘open the chapter with the lively anecdote’ that has metastasized across our textbooks.

    • I’ve read a few good books lately that introduce each chapter with biographical anecdotes or vignettes as well. Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America, for example. Not precisely what I’m doing, though. The larger themes will be the hook–“Where’s Marx in the New Left?”– and the individuals will allow me to elaborate on the theme.

  7. Another relevant biography – this is the first volume:

    Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

  8. Andrew–I’d like to echo Andy Seal’s suggestion re CLR James’ inclusion. Up to now, you have been wise up to now to avoid the in-fighting and sectarian struggles on the Marxist left in the US, but the role of Trotskyism in America, at the center of which stands James, is central to the story of the fragmentation of Marxism in America from the 1930s on. Put another way, the “problem” of Stalinism is central to your story. While you are at it, Dwight Macdonald’s essay on the sectarian struggles of the 1930s is one of the great comic pieces in the intellectual history of the American left. Some sort of treatment of his Politics would show that Marxism’s demise in America after the World War II was also the context in which what came to be called the New Left began to emerge. But again, James was central to the later chapters in the story of American Marxism and provided an alternative line of cultural analysis to the Frankfurt School’s.

  9. I am intrigued myself about the biographical approach. In such a necessary project, I do wonder about how much attention should be given to anti-Marxist mainstream figures over voices and organizations that have not received their due in U.S. history. I hope that decolonization will receive its due: not only James, but also Fanon, Guevarismo, and Maoism. I think of how radical ethnic groups intervened in the reshaping of Marxism in the sixties. From the Puerto Rican perspective, we have not only the Young Lords Party but also the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (which had strong branches in Chicago and NY). And in the Chicano / Mexican-American movement, organizations like the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) and Center for Autonomous Social Action (CASA). From my limited knowledge, there’s not much written about how these groups engaged with Marxism, so it would be great if this book project touched a bit on these marginalized voices.

    • I agree much more needs to be done on these groups, and I intend to do it Kahlil, so I appreciate your comment. Not sure where exactly to begin, in part because so little has been done (as you say), but I will start digging.

  10. I think Harry Haywood might make a good addition–to study the evolution of Marxism in an American context, tackling American problems. And he was involved in the Communist Party and in Marxism more broadly for a long period of time!

  11. I suppose Harry Bridges would be an interesting practicing Marxist. I know there is a fairly long oral history of Bridges and I think the University of Washington has a collection of papers on Bridges. The FBI and the State Department would have extensive files on Bridges. I know there is a stage play about him, but i don’t think there is a written biography. Would be a good dissertation topic, if it isn’t sitting unpublished somewhere.

  12. Any biographical approach to Marx must now widen out to “the Marx party” as traced so convincingly in Mary Gabriel’s “Love and Capital”, her family biography of Karl and Jenny and Engels and their extended family. Gabriel’s exploration of their letters and other material long locked up in USSR and GDR archives is brilliant and essential.

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