U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marx: American Alter Ego

Steve Fraser describes our political era as the “Age of Acquiescence.” The late-nineteenth-century working class resisted organized wealth and power with a fury born of its knowledge that another world was possible. The Gilded Age industrial order was too new to have erased the collective memory of people born in an earlier agrarian order—too new to have convinced people that there were no alternatives. Yet now, in what many describe as a new Gilded Age, resistance to organized wealth and power is comparatively tepid, at least in the United States. For Fraser, such acquiescence is partly a product of the fact that we seem incapable of imagining another world. All we have known for generations is our ostensibly resilient capitalist order. There is no alternative.

And yet there are signs that resistance is slowly returning: Occupy Wall Street, the radicalization of the Chicago Teachers Union, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, to name but a few of the more publicized manifestations of an awakening radicalism in American political culture. Owing to the surprising success of Sanders, who openly campaigns as a democratic socialist, “socialism” was the most searched word on the internet in 2015, and a recent poll shows that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats describe themselves as “socialists.”

obama marxPerhaps the mainstreaming of Marx is next? Perhaps the sensation created by the publication of the French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty First Century, which draws from big data to show that capitalist economies tend towards greater and greater inequality, was a harbinger of a return to the original Capital, or rather Kapital? I am wagering that Marx is on the verge of once again returning to fashion in the United States by committing the next several years of my life to researching and writing the story of “Marx in America,” the tentative title of my next book.

As many of you know all too well, the infant stage of a major research project is exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Where to begin? I had this problem with my last book, also a big topic with no obvious starting point. The way I got over the hump last time was to blog about it here. And so we begin again. Plan on seeing dozens of posts from me related to the broad topic of Marx in America over the next few years. Today is the first (ok, not quite the first… here… and here…)

I decided the best way to get rolling was to pull a book that I’ve been staring at for four years down off my shelf: Robin Blackburn’s An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (Verso, 2011), a collection of many of Marx’s and a few of Lincoln’s writings on the American Civil War, prefaced by Blackburn’s excellent 100-page introduction.

At first glance Blackburn’s choice to put Marx and Lincoln in conversation with one another is curious, and he admits as much when he writes that “they were almost diametrically opposed in their attitudes toward what was called at the time the social question” —that is, the relationship between labor and capital. Whereas Lincoln championed the capitalistic free labor system under development in the north and northwest United States, Marx was the world’s most famous critic of capitalism and equated wage labor with “wage slavery” because workers had no choice but to sell their labor in order to survive. And yet, both men had an intense hatred for chattel slavery, and during the Civil War Marx became one of the smartest and, outside the United States, most influential supporters of Lincoln’s cause.

More to the point, Blackburn argues that the Civil War and Reconstruction helped shape Marx’s thought, and vice versa, that Marx’s thought had an impact in the nineteenth century United States.

Even before the Civil War, Marx had a longstanding interest in the United States. When he was young he seriously considered moving to Texas. (Some aspiring author should write a novel based on this fascinating counterfactual: “Karl Marx: Texas Ranger!”) Marx was fascinated by the events in the United States, and stayed well informed as a result of ongoing correspondence with comrades who had emigrated there after the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, Marx was the London correspondent of one of the leading American newspapers, the New York Daily Tribune, mostly covering Europe and especially England, the focus of his research at that time. But when the war began and American money for his journalism dried up, he took a job writing for Die Press, a Viennese paper, where he turned his analysis to the US Civil War.

Whereas at the outset of the Civil War many European radicals were hesitant to critique the rebel southern states on the grounds that they believed in national self-determination and because they were confused about the reasons for secession, Marx convinced most of them that the Civil War was about slavery, and that defeating the Confederacy would be an important step towards working class emancipation. Support for the North thus became a cornerstone of Marx’s efforts to build the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA).

Marx argued that sectional antagonism was structural: that the southern slaveholders had long enjoyed political power disproportionate to their numbers but that such privilege was threatened by the dynamism of the northern economic system, particularly as it expanded west. In his October 20, 1861 article, “The North American Civil War,” Marx wrote: “In order to maintain its influence in the Senate, and through the Senate its hegemony over the United States, the South therefore requires a continual formation of new slave states.” In Marx’s eyes, the question that led to the war was “whether twenty million free men of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of three thousand slaveholders.” Moreover, Marx correctly predicted that the North, no matter how moderate its aims at the outset of the Civil War, would eventually be compelled to revolutionary ends due to the fact that the two incompatible social systems could not exist alongside each other on the North American continent.

Marx’s larger purpose in supporting the Union (beyond his hatred of chattel slavery, which should not be underestimated) was grounded in his belief that Union victory would help the working class everywhere. “Defeating the slave power and freeing the slaves would not easily destroy capitalism,” Blackburn writes, describing Marx’s theory, “but it would create conditions far more favorable to organizing and elevating labor, whether white or black.” As Marx wrote in a letter to Lincoln on behalf of the IWA: “The workingmen of Europe… consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of the social world.”

Blackburn concurs with the best scholarship on Reconstruction that there was a surge of radicalism in North America following the Civil War, and goes further by adding that the IWA had something to do with that. Marx’s letter to Lincoln was a harbinger of such radicalism. Abolitionism and “free labor” “consecrated” wage labor’s role in the capitalist order, giving rise to popular movements that later came to challenge Gilded Age industrialism. Moreover, as Blackburn also argues, Marx’s analysis of working-class revolution, which was later on display in his writings about the Paris Commune, changed due to the Civil War and Lincoln. Marx returned to his pre-Communist Manifesto emphasis on emancipation.

The creative way in which Blackburn brings together Marx and Lincoln offers me a rough entry into the larger objective of my new book project: to demonstrate that Marx has long been the American alter ego. Here we go.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I have to say, I can’t wait to see what else you write on this subject. And I think you point to something that David Roediger touched upon in his latest work, “Seizing Freedom.” He examines the Reconstruction era in a unique way, tying together some of the radical movements in that era together and reminding readers of all the tumult–not just in the South, but Northern agitation over labor as an example–that rocked the nation between 1865 and 1877.

    Second, I think your post points to some of the promise radicals must have felt after the American Civil War. The destruction of the slave power and the *potential* for what could happen politically, economically, and socially with the newly freed people in the South was a moment that may not have a parallel in more recent history (at least not in an American context).

  2. Andrew, this is so exciting. I can’t wait to follow these posts as the project’s contours emerge.

    I can recommend Terrell Carver’s recent-ish Cambridge Companion to the Communist Manifesto, which has some great stuff on the idiosyncratic character of the early English translations of the Manifesto, published in the 1870s in Victoria Woodhull’s scandal sheet. I also think that there is an awful lot to be gleaned from the interaction of the American Marx and what might be called “the European Henry George”–an under-researched dialogue.

    And though this is an obvious point: Sklansky’s The Soul’s Economy really is a terrifically valuable resource on 19th century US economic thought that outlines so precisely the discursive field in which Marx’s thought initially arrived stateside, Vinel’s The Employee thickens and complicates that story. And Sklar’s short section: Marx, Conant, Keynes in The Corporate Reconstruction is worth its weight in gold (or silver at 16:1).

    This book is going to rock!!!

  3. I second Kurt’s recommendation of Jeff Sklansky’s book. I also recommend James L. Huston’s Securing the Fruits of Labor: The American Concept of Wealth Distribution, 1765-1900. I think you’ll find the middle sections applicable, and he has an excellent essay in his afterword.

  4. Just wanted to chime in with my excitement as well! This post alone was really enjoyable and I can’t wait to read a whole book discussing such counterintuitive connections.

  5. Echoing the other commenters re the project. Don’t have any hugely relevant sources to suggest, but Karl Marx on History and People, ed. and trans. Saul Padover, 1977 (part of a McGraw-Hill series ‘the Karl Marx Library’) brings together some of Marx’s observations on historical figures; another vol. in the series is Karl Marx on America and the Civil War, though this may well be superseded by the Blackburn book. J. Sperber’s 2013 bio of Marx, subtitled “a 19th-century life” (only managed to read some 80 or 90 pp of it so far), argues rather unconvincingly that Marx was in some ways a backward-looking figure; however, Sperber seems pretty good on the details of Marx’s life, esp. personal life, and on his intellectual/political milieu. (I did notice one minor factual error about something else, however.)

  6. Thanks everyone for the encouragement and reading suggestions. I do appreciate it. Next week I will publish my tentative chapter outline, and then I expect to get plenty more suggestions on resources. I think I am solid on a lot of the postwar stuff but could use guidance on earlier history.

  7. Two late 19th American readers of Marx who would be great to look at are T. Thomas Fortune and Florence Kelley (a correspondent and translator of Engels.)

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