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.”
The quintessential late-twentieth-century American leftist Howard Zinn put his own particular spin on Marx. Zinn’s specialty was to pass off leftist ideas as common sense Americanism. This was how he read Marx, particularly when Zinn sought to defend the socialist tradition from anticommunists who pointed to the Soviet Union as prima facie evidence of its authoritarianism.
In Zinn’s effort to domesticate Marx for a humanist American audience, it was no surprise that he found Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, which he wrote in 1844 at the age of 25 while living in exile in Paris, “the most profound of Marx’s writings.” “As I read” the Manuscripts, Zinn wrote, “I was struck by his essential humanism.” This was in sharp contrast to how Zinn thought about the Soviet Union. Zinn the American humanist said that he was against all political forms of “bullying,” whether by the American state or any other. When Zinn read about the Soviet Union acting as a bully, for example when it smashed the Hungarian uprising, he knew that it had betrayed Marx’s socialist ideals–including respect for individual dignity.
Zinn was in fact more of an anarchist in his avowed and very American rejection of anything that hinted at orthodoxy. He was fond of citing Emma Goldman’s apocryphal quote: “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.” Zinn was also fond of the equally apocryphal Marx quote about Marx not being a Marxist. Zinn in fact dramatized this story in his 1999 one-man play, Marx in Soho. This clip of Brian Jones performing the play is indicative:
In short, in Zinn’s hands, Marx was less a communist prophet and more a rebel against orthodoxy. How very American.