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.
In his focus on the split in the IWA between native (“Yankee”) radicals like Wendell Phillips and immigrant Marxists like Friedrich Sorge, Messer-Kruse validates the idealistic liberalism of the former while condemning the doctrinaire anti-liberalism of the latter. Messer-Kruse’s Yankee radicals, mostly former abolitionists, joined the International out of their growing concern for the Labor Question. But they were not solely focused on labor activism, which they connected to a host of other humanitarian reform issues, including feminism. Marx’s epigones, in contrast, were seemingly blind to all causes that did not advance the proletariat as the vanguard of global communist revolution. The Yankees were sensitive to American democratic traditions; the Marxists were alien to such homegrown ways.
The fact that Marx and his followers won this battle for the IWA and purged the Yankees from the organization doomed any chance of it shaping an American political future, according to Messer-Kruse. Worst yet of all, the victory of the aliens sent the left down the wrong path.
Despite what I think is a good faith effort to read The Yankee International with an open mind, I ultimately find its arguments historiographically flat-footed and politically heavy-handed. First of all, the idea that Messer-Kruse’s Yankee radicalism was native to American culture and that Marxism was entirely alien is at best overstated. At worst it’s rooted in American exceptionalism. Of note to readers here, Messer-Kruse’s book is out of tune with works published prior to it such as Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory and Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings, books that convinced the next generation of intellectual historians that political ideas are rarely tightly bound by national boundaries.
Messer-Kruse is certainly right that Marxism in some form (even as an alien ideology) helped shape the American left to various degrees since the International. The very political terminology of “left” and “right” did not come into common usage in the United States until the 1930s, when a spectrum was developed in relation to where one stood on the New Deal and, more generally, capitalism. Reading this more recent spectrum back into the nineteenth century reveals that a class-focused American left indeed emerged somewhat victorious over its less economistic rival movements and ideologies.
The “Labor Question” preoccupied the radical imagination in the period between the Civil War and World War II. In the nation where the industrial revolution revved hottest, American radicals grappled with the fact that a growing number of people worked in miserable and often dangerous conditions for exploitative wages. Many turned to anarchism, since anti-statist impulses seemed to make sense in an era of close collusion between the state and capital—best signified when President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the Pullman Strike of 1894.
Many more radicals turned to Marxism. The mass politics of socialism were better suited to the task of achieving labor power than was the anarchist fetishization of estrangement that, taken to its extreme, turned violent. As Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps write in an introductory chapter to their new book, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War:
By the dawn of the twentieth century, most American radicals had concluded this debate [between anarchists and Marxists] in favor of Marx’s resolution of the problem of margin and mainstream. As the development of capitalism expanded the ranks of wage earners, workers would be pressed to take collective action against their employers and develop a commitment to shared ownership.
In the 1930s, the American left was relevant in large part because it aligned with an increasingly militant labor movement. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined the mass labor unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in response to the Great Depression. Even the Communist Party, always suspect in American political life, enjoyed a surge in its American ranks during the 1930s. This was due to the relatively common view that the Great Depression sounded the death knell of capitalism, and because Communist leaders wisely attached the party to the labor movement.
So Messer-Kruse can be credited with pointing to the victory of the Marxists in the American International as the thing that set the American left on its labor-centric course. But Messer-Kruse sees this as a bad development. He wishes the less programmatic, more liberal radicals of the IWA had won out.
In a way, a more eclectic, idealistic left has indeed won the hearts and minds of the American left since the recent fall of a labor-centered left. But is this really worth celebrating? Or does it signal defeat?
In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s right-wing counterrevolution and Bill Clinton’s corporate centrism, the left retreated into an exile of sorts. The left only remained a viable force in American life by appealing to the marginalized everywhere. In this radicals took their cues from the ironically titled Subcomandante Marcos, the masked voice of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico. “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, Asian in Europe, Chicano in San Isidro, Anarchist in Spain, Palestinian in Israel.”
The Subcomandante Marcos approach is what goes for solidarity in the age of identity politics. Brick and Phelps aptly call it “a left episodic.” I would call it a “whack-a-mole left.” Protest a lumber company here, a trade organization there, police brutality here, Israeli settlements there. Meanwhile capitalism does what it does—mostly unabated—and inequality becomes the scourge of our times.
Perhaps the most interesting methodological takeaway from Messer-Kruse’s book is how differently he and I read the same exact source based on our divergent readings of the larger historical and political meaning of that source. Marx’s famous 1864 letter that he wrote to Lincoln on behalf of the IWA, congratulating him for winning reelection, is a case in point. Marx wrote:
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.
For me this letter, along with Marx’s other Civil War writings, indicated that his larger purpose in supporting the Union was grounded in his belief that Union victory would help the working class everywhere—white and black.
But Messer-Kruse writes: “While this… sentence condemned slavery, it can also be read as an implicit endorsement of white immigration over black migration.”
A similar discrepancy of interpretation arises from a line from Capital: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in white skin where in the black it is branded.”
For Messer-Kruse, this Marx passage from Capital represents another insidious example of Marx only caring about the white working class. To me, it combines anti-slavery with a pro-working class position, linking race and class in ways similar to W.E.B. DuBois’s masterful Black Reconstruction, published 60 or so years after Capital.
With that, let me leave you with a Rush Limbaugh quote: “History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened. It’s no more.”