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In my larger interest in understanding Marx as an American alter ego, I’m interested in how Americans have translated, read, interpreted, and sold Capital, Marx’s magnum opus, from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. Two case studies of this phenomenon in particular have caught my attention: 1) the first English translation of Capital by Ernest Untermann, published in 1906 by the Chicago-based socialist Charles H. Kerr & Company (which conveniently for me has records at the Newberry Library in Chicago); and 2) geographer David Harvey’s annual seminar on Capital, which began in 1969 and is still running. Both of these case studies are prime historical examples of ongoing efforts to Americanize Marx, a process kick-started by the man himself. Marx’s fascination with American politics implicitly informed Capital, particularly his labor theory of value which arguably stands as Capital’s most lasting theoretical contribution to political economy.
The Kerr publishing house was intentional in its efforts to make Capital usable for an American audience. This was made evident when it published Untermann’s 1908 companion to Capital, Marxian Economics, which included favorable comparisons of Marx to Teddy Roosevelt and Henry George, and a class analysis of the African-American experience. The American context also underwrites Harvey’s reading of Capital. In an introduction to his lessons, now available for online viewing, Harvey recalls that he started his Capital reading group upon his arrival in Baltimore during the summer of 1969—when the Brit took a position at Johns Hopkins—because he was in search of a framework from which to understand the radical and reactionary politics of that year. In other words, Harvey has been reading Capital through an American lens from the get-go, which remains evident in his recent analysis of the 2008 global financial meltdown and its focus, in part, on the role of American housing in the crisis.
Where these two distinct readings of Capital differ speak to the changed historical context. Untermann sought to relate what he thought was a universal Marx to the concerns of a more parochial American audience–specific to the growing socialist movement in and around Chicago. In contrast, by reading Marx in an era of American-led globalization, Harvey presupposed that his version of Marx, though particular to his American experience, was a universal Marx. The irony here is that this is how Marx viewed America in the mid-nineteenth century–as a universal harbinger of a capitalist future–a view that not only informed Capital but also helped Marx anticipate the globalization of capitalism.
I’m interested in reader responses to short analysis above, but also in reader suggestions for other examples of Americans reading Marx in general and Capital in particular.