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
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
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
This guest post by by Stephen J. Whitfield, the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University, is the second entry in our roundtable that asks, perhaps answers, perhaps refutes the premise of the question: Isn’t Marcuse Still Right? If you missed it be sure to go back and read the first entry by David Steigerwald: Marcuse in the Age of Choice. Essays to follow will be by me and Kurt Newman. Enjoy. Andrew
The question that this symposium poses is loaded, and therefore invites questions of its own. The presumption is that the analytical judgment of Herbert Marcuse had been correct in the past, as though a thinker whose work spans over five decades somehow had never managed to change his mind. Were that true, his status as a major thinker would be open to serious doubt. The way that this question is posed implies a continuity and consistency of thought that is, on its face, implausible; the writings of no one of any consequence could pass such a test. Continue reading
This guest post by David Steigerwald, Professor of History at the Ohio State University, is the first entry in our roundtable that asks and perhaps answers the question: Isn’t Marcuse Still Right? Essays to follow will be by Steve Whitfield, our very own Kurt Newman, and yours truly. Enjoy. Andrew
In our Age of Choice, comprehensive accounts of the human condition fare badly. Where individual latitude presents itself as the measure of liberation and people believe they are free to make and remake their subjective disposition toward the world—to remold their authentic identities—broad social theories collapse. By definition, social theory must take account of how the world sets parameters to individual choice; otherwise there is no “social” to them. Where choice reigns, social theory goes bust.
Totalizing philosophies of the sort that Herbert Marcuse supposedly advanced might be the foremost case in point. Continue reading
A few days ago my fellow USIH blogger Robert Greene posted something to my Facebook wall about Cedric J. Robinson’s classic book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. We proceeded to have a brief conversation about how important, indeed underrated Black Marxism is, and I declared I would re-read and blog about it in the near future. Alas, this is not that post, but I will say that in my first reading of Black Marxism while in grad school (while in the midst of a serious Marxist reading binge), I was struck by Robinson’s argument that classic Marxist theories about the emergence of capitalism ignored the role of race. Or as Robin D.G. Kelley puts it in a foreword he wrote to a later edition of Black Marxism: “Capitalism and racism… did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of ‘racial capitalism’ dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide.” Continue reading
Reading Marx through the lens of America, and America through the lens of Marx, was a preoccupation of left-wing intellectuals throughout the twentieth century.
During the 1930s, many turned to Marx to help them make sense of the Great Depression. The philosopher Sidney Hook’s groundbreaking 1933 book, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, which a reviewer called “the most significant contribution to Marxism which has as yet appeared in America,” melded pragmatism, the quintessentially American philosophy of his teacher John Dewey, to the radical internationalism of Karl Marx. Hook interpreted Marx through Dewey’s pragmatic notion that all ideas must be verifiable in experience: “Any problem which cannot be solved by some actual or possible practice may be dismissed as no genuine problem at all.” The underlying premise was that if the Great Depression signaled the death knell of capitalism, Americans should turn to Marx, the greatest critic of capitalism, in their efforts to create a better tomorrow—but, only insofar as Marx’s ideas worked in the context of the American experiment.
When the American left reentered the American political scene in the 1960s, Marx was among the symbols of its grassroots rebellion. Drawing upon Marx was perhaps counterintuitive at a time when, against the grain of Marx’s expectations about the immiseration of the proletariat, the American working class had never been wealthier. But this speaks to the power of Marx as a totem of American radicalism. The postwar period was vastly different from the Victorian era that informed Marx’s most important theories of capitalism, but nevertheless New Left thinkers believed their analyses had to begin with Marx. They thus often turned to the early Marx, the eloquent bard of alienation who would have found a kindred spirit in the 22-year old Tom Hayden. The 1962 Port Huron Statement that Hayden wrote was about how young people were “looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” Continue reading