One of the first books I picked up after I turned the diss in was William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, which I think it’s safe to say is already making quite a stir. (You can read the whole introduction here [pdf].) Not only did Andrew Hartman assign it to his History of Capitalism course, but David Harvey reviewed the book for Jacobin, and he expressed some fairly strong reservations regarding Roberts’s understanding of what kind of book Marx’s Capital is. Roberts has defended his method and arguments in three blog posts (1, 2, 3), which also serve nicely to highlight some of the more contentious and original aspects of Marx’s Inferno. Continue reading
Two of the greatest history books ever written emerged three years apart: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935) and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). Both were about race, class, slavery, and revolution, and both were forged with comparable purposes. Du Bois and James sought that their historical insights about revolutions past would speak to revolutions future.
Du Bois, the most important African American intellectual of the twentieth century, wished for his trailblazing analysis of the Civil War and Reconstruction to endow the wisdom of past struggles upon the coming movement for black rights in the United States. James, a Trinidadian living in London at the time of writing and one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth-century black diaspora, hoped that his remarkable inquiry into the Haitian Revolution would speak to the emerging anticolonial movements for independence in Africa. Continue reading
In The Nation Benjamin Kunkel, who is becoming one of my favorite writers—his book Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis is must reading for anyone interested in contemporary Marxists like Fredric Jameson or David Harvey—has an excellent review of the new Karl Marx biography by Gareth Stedman-Jones. The whole review is well worth reading, but the opening paragraph is simply the best:
The many biographies of Karl Marx bring out a basic paradox in Marxism. Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism, or “the materialist conception of history,” as the young Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels called it, warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes. In particular, they argued that abstract ideas grew out of material circumstances instead of the other way around—and yet what secular ideology or political tradition emphasizes the special contribution of a lone thinker more than Marxism?
In the early years of radio, the BBC aired a series about famous exiles who lived in London. One episode included an interview with an elderly man long retired from his job in the British Museum’s reading room. The man was asked if he remembered a regular patron by the name of Karl Marx, who for many years toiled at the museum on what would become his masterpiece: Das Kapital. At first the retiree drew a blank, but after he was given several clues—Marx sat in the same seat every day, wore a thick greying beard, endured painful carbuncles, and endlessly requested materials about political economy—his memory came alive. “Oh Mr. Marx, yes, to be sure. Gave us a lot of work ’e did, with all ’is calls for books and papers. And then one day ’e just stopped coming. And you know what’s a funny fing, sir? Nobody’s ever ’eard of ’im since!”  Continue reading
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.” 
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.”  Continue reading
This is not, properly speaking, a post on US intellectual history, and it is perhaps not even a post so much as a collision.
Today I read James Livingston’s brand new No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, a book to which I really cannot do justice without a great deal more thought but which I encourage you to check out. Livingston’s against-the-grain scholarship is likely familiar to readers of this blog both from his own published work and from his great generosity in contributing numerous pieces here over the years, most recently an essay on Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, a four-part series titled “What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?” (beginning here), and a eulogy of Martin Sklar.
Sklar’s ideas—particularly in the forms they have taken in Livingston’s work and the work of other Sklarists like Rosanne Currarino and Richard Schneirov—have been immensely important in my own work, so I was very eagerly awaiting Livingston’s new book, but it is not the book itself that I want to discuss. Instead, I was struck by a Marx quotation that Livingston uses; it is one I somehow had not come across before, and it struck me as ringing with an echo of—of all people—Edmund Burke. Maybe I am hearing things, but here it is: Continue reading
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. Continue reading
[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Timothy Messer-Kruse, who is a Professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is responding to Andrew Hartman’s recent post on his book The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998) — Ben Alpers]
Imagine my surprise this last week upon finding a review of a book I wrote five monographs and eighteen years ago! I’ve often told my graduate students that the mill of academic publishing grinds at a glacial pace, but this must set some record. While I’m flattered and pleased that The Yankee International is still relevant enough to incite critical attention, I’m dismayed that its substance is so unfairly twisted in Andrew Hartman’s review, “Marx and the Alien Left” (Society for U.S. Intellectual History, Aug. 24, 2016)
For a historian supposedly concerned with ideas, publishing a review under the imprimatur of a society dedicated to intellectual history, Hartman flattens and simplifies my discussion of how race fit into Marx’s materialist teleology. He characterizes my lengthy chapter, “Marx and the Republican Tradition of the First International,” that analyzes Marx’s understanding of the world-historic role of the American working class, as concluding crudely that Marx only cared about the white working class. To do so he must obscure the fact that my analysis was rooted in Marx’s philosophy of history that recognized a hierarchy of actual or potential social power among American working classes. (Hartman also overlooks Marx’s fine grained taxonomy of workers that distinguished between wage workers, rural laborers, yeoman farmers, slaves, etc. – thus Marx’s use of the plural term working classes.) My point was not that Marx had some personal racial bias that inflected his writings on America (though being an educated European man of his era he undoubtedly did) but that historical materialism dictated that organizational and tactical priority be given to white wage workers who were ultimately the agents of revolutionary change. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
I’m working on an essay that will, I hope, provide a genealogy of the left and leftist thought in the United States. Several colleagues recently read and gave me comments on a draft and raised a number of crucial questions that I need to attempt to answer as I make what are amounting to sweeping revisions of the essay. I will pose these questions below for us to think about in public. This is me spit-balling.
- What is a workable definition of “the left”?
Political categories are notoriously difficult to pin down. They are ceaselessly malleable and highly specific to time and place. Hard-and-fast distinctions between one category (the left) and another (liberalism, for example) are sure to fall apart when examined across divergent contexts. And yet we need such words to make sense of history, even if we also need to contextualize these words to make sense of history. The trick is to provide specific enough context for a word without parsing it into meaninglessness.
In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin defines the left as “that social movement or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” I like this, but I also think it is too broad. So I am looking for a more specific definition. Continue reading