[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Timothy Messer-Kruse, who is a Professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is responding to Andrew Hartman’s recent post on his book The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998) — Ben Alpers]
Imagine my surprise this last week upon finding a review of a book I wrote five monographs and eighteen years ago! I’ve often told my graduate students that the mill of academic publishing grinds at a glacial pace, but this must set some record. While I’m flattered and pleased that The Yankee International is still relevant enough to incite critical attention, I’m dismayed that its substance is so unfairly twisted in Andrew Hartman’s review, “Marx and the Alien Left” (Society for U.S. Intellectual History, Aug. 24, 2016)
For a historian supposedly concerned with ideas, publishing a review under the imprimatur of a society dedicated to intellectual history, Hartman flattens and simplifies my discussion of how race fit into Marx’s materialist teleology. He characterizes my lengthy chapter, “Marx and the Republican Tradition of the First International,” that analyzes Marx’s understanding of the world-historic role of the American working class, as concluding crudely that Marx only cared about the white working class. To do so he must obscure the fact that my analysis was rooted in Marx’s philosophy of history that recognized a hierarchy of actual or potential social power among American working classes. (Hartman also overlooks Marx’s fine grained taxonomy of workers that distinguished between wage workers, rural laborers, yeoman farmers, slaves, etc. – thus Marx’s use of the plural term working classes.) My point was not that Marx had some personal racial bias that inflected his writings on America (though being an educated European man of his era he undoubtedly did) but that historical materialism dictated that organizational and tactical priority be given to white wage workers who were ultimately the agents of revolutionary change.
Hartman misrepresents the passages that are the lynchpin to his attempt to document my errors in my characterization of Marx’s position on African Americans. First he quotes a section of Marx’s 1864 letter to Lincoln:
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.
Hartman misquotes this passage, adding a comma after the word “come” and leaving out the word “the” before “matchless,” which don’t change the meaning but are just the usual fingerprints of sloppy scholarship. But in what may appear to be just another minor alteration, Hartman then quotes me with a suspicious elision: “But Messer-Kruse writes: ‘While this… sentence condemned slavery, it can also be read as an implicit endorsement of white immigration over black immigration.’” What lies beneath this ellipsis is the word “last”, a seemingly inconsequential word to excise but one Hartman needed to eliminate in order uphold the distortion that my quote was a commentary on this portion of Marx’s letter. In fact, that quoted sentence was a comment not on the passage Hartman provided, but on different portion of Marx’s letter where he wrote that the Civil War was to decide whether the “virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labour of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave-driver.” (55)
In the interest of fairness, allow me to quote what I actually wrote in commentary of the portion of Marx’s letter that Hartman quoted (or more accurately misquoted):
Once more, the reason that blacks should be “rescued” was that the institution of slavery constituted a great barricade on the highway of history being traveled by Northern (white) workers and their European counterparts. Marx made it clear in letters to Engels that he did not include the Southern white or the freed black in his definition of the “American working class.” “I think the mean whites [meaning the poor whites of the South] will gradually die out,” observed Marx, while “the niggers will probably turn into small squatters as in Jamaica.” Neither group, then, was a good candidate to turn the wheels of history in Marx’s book.
Hartman attempts to stuff me into the box of American exceptionalism, mischaracterizing my arguments as saying “Marxism was entirely alien” and scolding me like an elementary pupil saying insipidly “political ideas are rarely tightly bound by national boundaries.” Hartman ignores the fact that what is being traced in my book are not just ideas, but more specifically the institutional and social networks that sponsor and promote these ideas. These, any historian would agree, are often rooted in specific local, regional or national communities and their circuits can be traced geographically across borders. For me to point out that Marxism was metaphorically carried to America through the social networks of German and French Forty-Eighters or that the First International was literally carried in the suitcase of Cesare Orsini, is not to make some vulgar argument that Marxism is foreign and Woodhullism is American.
Hartman is not the first historian to distort the thesis in The Yankee International. Many of those who have approached the book with a doctrinaire commitment to Marxism and whose ideology demands that class and race be viewed simplistically as conflicting oppressions have attacked it because they see it siding with Sumner, Douglass, and Woodhull over Marx and Sorge. Many scholars have ignored the evidence I uncovered showing how the factional in-fighting in the American International pivoted on issues of race and gender, preferring to mystify this fact by referring instead, as Hartman does, to a vague “idealistic liberalism” being the point of contention. These scholars are unable to appreciate that what I’ve charted in The Yankee International is probably the first American social movement that conceived of the intersectionality of race, class, and gender. Those interested in further understanding the interrelationship of these constructions might wish to read it.