U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Early Marx Reception in the United States


Christmas is for godless communists, too.

The divergent responses to Marx’s death in 1883 anticipated the diversity of Marx reception even before the Russian Revolution, which kickstarted a vibrant and heated debate about Marx and his legacy that continues to this day. Most American newspapers ignored the death of “the best hated and most calumniated man of his time,” as Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels described him in his memorial. Those American newspapers that did take note of Marx’s death sounded triumphalist anti-socialist notes. The Daily Alta California informed its readers that Marx’s “life was not a success, and at the time of his death he had witnessed the failure of every extensive project on which his hopes had been set and for which he labored with such ability.” The 1871 Paris Commune, which Marx supported from afar and which was crushed by the French army, and the “dreaded” International (the International Workingmen’s Association), which Marx helped build but which was disbanded in 1876, were cited as proof of Marx’s failures. The Daily Alta concluded of Marx that “no one was better aware of his own utter failure than himself.” [1]

In stark contrast to this conventional response—what Marx would have seen as a reaction typical of the bourgeois press—the newspapers representing the vibrant American labor movement, especially the German immigrant based labor community, memorialized Marx as a figure of world-shaking consequence. Marx, the New York Volkszeitung declared, “is a man who belonged to no nation, no country, no era. His name will live eternally in the human Pantheon—in the purest, noblest temple of fame whose gates will remain closed to the ‘great’ exploiters of mankind.” [2] 

On March 20, 1883, thousands streamed into the Cooper Union in New York City to memorialize Marx—a meeting remarkable not only for its size but also for its ideological diversity, as socialists, anarchists, Knights of Labor, single taxers, and other radicals filled the hall. John Swinton, former managing editor of the New York Times and founder of the fiercely pro-labor John Swinton’s Paper, gave one of the more memorable speeches at the Cooper Union memorial service, comparing Marx to John Brown. Both men made humanity better by combining intellectual genius with “supreme moral qualities,” Swinton preached, but both men were also treated shabbily during their lives. John Brown’s cause was venerated shortly after his death. Swinton hoped the same for Marx’s. [3]

Although the American press barely noticed Marx’s death a few outlets sent reporters to London to interview the socialist thinker while he was still alive. These published interviews are telling artifacts. One of the reporters who called on Marx at his humble flat was impressed and even intimidated by Marx’s learnedness. The reporter introduced the interview by describing Marx’s bookshelves: “A man can generally be judged by the books he reads, and you can form your own conclusions when I tell you a casual glance revealed Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Moliere, Racine, Montaigne, Bacon, Goethe, Voltaire, Paine…” But despite this favorable impression the reporter spent most of the interview inquiring about a number of conspiracies that involved Marx, including the widely circulated rumor that he masterminded the Paris Commune. [4]

Another American reporter set an even more dramatic scene for his interview with Marx: “Yes, I am tête-à-tête with the revolution incarnate, with the real founder and guiding spirit of the International Society, with the author of the address in which capital was told that if it warred on labor it must expect to have its house burned down about its ears—in a word, with the apologist for the Commune of Paris.” By the 1870s, the liberal American mind had already imagined communism as something sinister, even conspiratorial. Marx was the lead conspirator in such fevered dreams. And yet the American left welcomed Marx. In fact, as I am discovering in my research, the American left only became an American left in the twentieth century, and only after embracing Marx and Marxism in some fashion. More on that controversial claim in later posts–or, as they say, wait for the book. [5]

[1] Philip S. Foner, ed., Karl Marx Remembered: Comments at the Time of His Death iSan Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1983), 11, 79.

[2] Foner, Karl Marx Remembered, 69-70.

[3] Foner, Karl Marx Remembered, 86.

[4] Foner, Karl Marx Remembered, 250-257.

[5] Foner, Karl Marx Remembered, 242.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “A figure of world-shaking consequence.” …Subtitle for the book?

    I’d be *most* interested in letters to the editor for those papers (mainstream and labor) after the publication of obituaries and news of Marx’s death.

    That said, I wonder if Twain/Clemens ever wrote about Marx’s death? Or Henry Adams? – TL

  2. Tim: Although I like your suggestion, I might go without a subtitle for the book. Just plain old: “Marx and America.” Of course, my eventual publisher will make this decision.

    Not sure about Twain or Adams. Will search for answers. if anyone else knows, please share!

    • In his essay collection, The United States as a developing Nation, Martin Sklar has a piece on Adams and socialism which if I can recall correctly touches on Adam’s views on Marx and the socialism of his era.

  3. Hi Andrew, Delighted to see this project developing further. A few thoughts in reply…
    1. Henry Adams and younger brother Brooks were fascinated by Marx’s conceptualization of history and progress. They likely read the 1850s weekly newsletters of Marx’s ideas, published in the U.S. by Horace Greeley and Charles A. Dana. On 26 March 1863, Henry got a taste of theory in action, when he observed the London trade unions’ rally organized by Marx. For his intellectual influence, you may want to see Arthur Beringause’s “Brooks Adams” bio, as well as Henry’s treatment of Marx in his eponymous “Education.” BUT also…
    2. In a cursory search of HA’s letters, I found no immediate mention of KM’s death, but several allusions to his legacy. Here’s Henry, 15 June 1894, to Charles Milnes Gaskell: “Did you ever read Karl Marx? I think I never struck a book which taught me so much, and with which I disagreed so radically in conclusion. Anyway, these studies of morbid society are not so amusing as Petronius and Plutarch.”
    3. We hold HA’s library here (offsite, but open for research) and we evidently have his 2 vol. (1887) copy in translation, with annotations–and Henry was not generally an annotator–so do let us know if you’d like to see it.
    4. For more mentions of Marx/Capital in HA’s correspondence, see vols, 4, 5, 6 of J.C. Levenson et al.’s excellent documentary edition. Onward!

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