Millions of Americans across the twentieth century, especially those among an up and coming conservative movement, imagined Marxism a sinister ideology, the work of an evil genius.
Marx was the great American taboo.
The negative reception of Marx gained momentum after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and even more after World War II, when the United States assigned itself the task of crushing the growing number of communist revolutions the world over.
J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and one of the most vehement anticommunists in American history, argued in Masters of Deceit, his bestselling 1953 book about communism, that Marx’s “distorted” view of history, ruthlessly articulated in characteristic “invective,” “anger,” and “abuse,” was so dangerous because it was treated as the gospel truth by his legions of followers. For Hoover and many more Americans, Marx was ultimately to blame for the threats to freedom posed by communists at home and abroad.
Hoover is one of many possible such examples that illustrate how Americans have used Marx as an emblem to define themselves against. Marx has served as a necessary enemy, a powerful integrative force. This has been true for conservatives, but also for liberal intellectuals.
American Studies as an academic discipline originated in the early Cold War as an explicit attempt by liberal intellectuals to define American culture as distinct from Marxism yet still vital, even revolutionary. Consensus scholars like Daniel Boorstin articulated an America that took the seeming bedrock principles of Western Civilization and extended them to the democratic masses. In this way, Boorstin’s multi-volume The Americans—the quintessential American Studies project during the early Cold War—was a scholarly tribute to Henry Luce’s “American Century.”
Even those early American Studies scholars who positioned themselves to the left of American exceptionalists like Boorstin, such as F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Burke, those who elaborated a methodology premised on cultural criticism, and who evinced a Weltanschauung Irving Howe called “Emersonianism”—even they sought to project American Studies as an alternative to Marxism.
Pluralist social scientists and counter-progressive historians like Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter had little use for class struggle as a normative framework for explaining American history and society. And yet Marx cast a shadow over such early Cold War social thought. This was even and especially true of those intellectuals who worked overtime to distance themselves from the bearded, nineteenth-century German philosopher. Take the liberal economic historian Walt Whitman Rostow.
Rostow wrote a hugely influential book in 1960 that he explicitly pitched as the antithesis to Marx. Indeed, the purpose of The Stages of Economic Growth was made abundantly clear by its subtitle (which was more than mere sub-text): A Non-Communist Manifesto. And yet Rostow’s ideas about economic development could not have emerged in a world without Marx. Rostow believed, not unlike Marx, that historical patterns revealed iron laws. Where Marx and Rostow differed was in the utopian conclusions to their teleological dreams: communism for Marx, liberal capitalism for Rostow.
David Milne’s excellent first book, America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, illustrates the degree to which Rostow, who as Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor was extremely hawkish with regards to the Vietnam War, saw himself as the anti-Marx. Milne writes: “Rostow was an ideologue and his unerring self-confidence was evident from an early age. As a sophomore at Yale University in the 1930s, he determined that his life’s calling was to ‘answer’ Karl Marx and provide an alternative explanation of the course of world history.”
Rostow’s background was similar to that of the equally famous New York intellectuals who eventually arrived at anti-Marxism by way of Marxism or some variant of it, often Trotskyism. Rostow spent his early years in Brooklyn, raised by socialist, Jewish immigrant parents—like many of the New York intellectual milieu. But Rostow’s father was an upwardly mobile chemist, and as such Rostow left Brooklyn early in life and eventually wound up in New Haven, where he graduated from high school at the age of 15 and won a scholarship to attend Yale University.
While a Yale undergraduate, Rostow discovered Keynes, a discovery which he described as life-changing. He also discovered Marx, equally life-changing but in a different way. After reading Marx, Rostow declared at the age of 17 that he would spend his life working “on two problems. One was economic history and the other was Karl Marx. Marx raised some interesting questions but gave some bloody bad answers. I would do an answer one day to Marx’s theory of history.” Milne pithily describes such ambitions as “impressive and narcissistic in equal measure.”
In 1958, Rostow, by then a professor of economic history at MIT, won a “Reflective Year” grant funded by the Carnegie Corporation, which he spent at Cambridge University researching and giving lectures on what would become The Stages of Economic Growth. He wrote that he was spending his sabbatical year working to “uproot the bad works of that angry, old man Karl Marx.” Milne quotes a great passage from a letter that Rostow wrote to Adlai Stevenson during that year: “as an eighteen-year-old Yale undergraduate, much disliking the pretentious nineteenth century Germans, I promised to produce an alternative to Marxism as a theory of modern history; and I have used my sabbatical to make my bid. It’s been fun.”
Just as Marx had predicted historical stages that passed from feudalism through capitalism and concluded with communism, Rostow had a teleological theory of five historical stages that began with a traditional society (the equivalent of Marx’s feudalism) and ended with American-style liberal capitalism, or what he termed “the age of high mass-consumption.” In short, whereas communism was the human ideal for Marx, Americanism was normative for Rostow. Gilbert Rist called Rostow’s theory “Marxism without Marx.” Or as Adlai Stevenson wrote Rostow after reading Stages: “Is the future Rostowism vs. Marxism? If so, I am ready to vote now.”
Rostow had given liberal Americans a Marx with a happy (American) ending! This was Rostow’s stated intention, and Milne does an excellent job explaining the structural similarities between Marx’s theory of history (as elaborated in The Communist Manifesto) and Rostow’s theory of history (as articulated in Stages). Such recognition, in other words, is hardly new on my part.
I do wonder, however, if historians have placed Rostow—“America’s Rasputin”—in the context of postwar American social thought more generally, whether in the social sciences or in American studies? Rostow’s work seems to have been part of a much larger project to make Americanism into a normative conception of the good life. And in this project, I would suggest, Marx was a ghost in the American machine.