U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intersectionality is Not “Idealistic Liberalism”: Correcting Andrew Hartman’s “Marx and the Alien Left” (Guest Post)

[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.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Like everyone else, I’m sure, I’m looking forward to reading Andrew’s response to Professor Messer-Kruse’s aggressive defense of his book. But if I can, I’d like to tease out a particular question that I find myself wrestling over in my own work, which is basically the issue of how to balance a rigorous attention to real networks of intellectuals and their associated organizations and journals with a softer, more intuitive sense of the way that ideas tend to jump out of the channels those networks create and appear abruptly–maybe under another name–in a very different context, circulating within a different network.

    I ask this question because I’m perplexed by Professor Messer-Kruse’s sentences “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.”

    What perplexes me here is the work that the verb “trace” is doing. I myself use that verb without thinking much about it with some frequency, and I cannot tell if Messer-Kruse is also using it very deliberately or somewhat casually, so perhaps my reading will overburden what is really a sort of velleity of word choice. But it is a nice opportunity to think about what we are really doing to ideas if we are “tracing” them–does that indicate a kind of minimalist re-mapping of their paths, one that cuts out a lot of the topography in favor of a flattened perspective that emphasizes straight lines and the major thoroughfares? If we are mainly “tracing” ideas, then I would guess we have a built-in presumption that they tend to have a fairly focused path, that they are particles and not waves, and lack echoes or refractions.

    But Messer-Kruse also “trace[s]” “institutional and social networks” and “circuits,” “not just ideas.” This certainly makes sense as a metaphor, if we presume that networks and circuits are built in a kind of connect-the-dot manner in which what lies between nodes matters very little. Point-to-point contact is all we’d really care about if we’re trying to trace these circuits and networks: we’re presuming that there’s not much leakage of the signal, or people eavesdropping–or, I guess, in more up-to-date language, packet-sniffing. As we trace, we presume that these acts of interception or interdiction are not really that important, that the network is always going to be a fairly self-enclosed entity, and that if one circuit comes in contact with another circuit, it will either take a lot of re-wiring (I guess we’re toggling between analog and digital, or wired and wireless–sorry) or there’s going to be sparks and maybe a fire! Or perhaps we can simplify things and presume that the rewiring of two circuits is really a very disagreeable, impossible thing that would hardly make sense to the circuits anyway.

    Or maybe we can think beyond the linear nature of the tracing metaphor–that, at any rate, seems like a worthwhile challenge.

    • Your discussion here Andy reminds me of the debate over Corey Robin’s article on Nietzsche & Hayek. Everyone seemed so perplexed that he was arguing they could be picking up on similar frequencies (and then producing similar frequencies, as well) when of course, any direct lines are much harder to draw. I didn’t get that. If intellectual histories are indeed complete when we’re done tracing these network maps, then it wouldn’t be much work at all, would it? The fact that, as you said, ideas seem to pop up elsewhere in different contexts and forms complicates this; some might claim we can’t assume they have anything to do with each other then and move on, but I think that’s too easy. They do have something to do with each other. It’s just really hard to tease out what exactly. But I loved your metaphor of “eavesdropping” here — I think so much of intellectual and cultural history is actually exactly that, perhaps sometimes literately!, but it is indeed ever so hard to document or capture. I mean, in a way, even Gramsci’s fairly sophisticated strategies can be explained by saying that by and large, he’s hoping that people are eavesdropping and being influenced by what they overhear, no?

      All of that is just to reply to your comment. As for the above review, I just want to suggest that while I’m all for heated arguments, I’ve never understood why colleagues have to resort to accusing each other of “sloppy scholarship.” Especially if said mistakes (which we all make all the time, let’s be honest, and, this is a blog that a lot of people somehow find very-hard-to-find time for so, let’s calm down a bit about the occasional missed comma) don’t change the meaning of a quote, it seems unnecessary.

  2. Professor Messer-Kruse: I welcome this exchange because I am new to a lot of this material and it will be clarifying for me, and hopefully for our readers as well. I’m sorry if I misrepresented any of your arguments. My post was not a full review of your book, but only hinged on the one question of Marx and the working class in Marx’s Civil War writings. Your interpretation did not jibe with the things I had been reading and thinking about. But I will go back and re-read your book and other material on the topic, and will be happy to be proven wrong. So my full reply is going to have to wait for another post.

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