This is not, properly speaking, a post on US intellectual history, and it is perhaps not even a post so much as a collision.
Today I read James Livingston’s brand new No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, a book to which I really cannot do justice without a great deal more thought but which I encourage you to check out. Livingston’s against-the-grain scholarship is likely familiar to readers of this blog both from his own published work and from his great generosity in contributing numerous pieces here over the years, most recently an essay on Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, a four-part series titled “What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?” (beginning here), and a eulogy of Martin Sklar.
Sklar’s ideas—particularly in the forms they have taken in Livingston’s work and the work of other Sklarists like Rosanne Currarino and Richard Schneirov—have been immensely important in my own work, so I was very eagerly awaiting Livingston’s new book, but it is not the book itself that I want to discuss. Instead, I was struck by a Marx quotation that Livingston uses; it is one I somehow had not come across before, and it struck me as ringing with an echo of—of all people—Edmund Burke. Maybe I am hearing things, but here it is:
It is superfluous to add that men are not free to choose their productive forces—which are the basis of all their history—for every productive force is an acquired force, the product of former activity. The productive forces are therefore the result of practical human energy; but this energy is itself conditioned by the circumstances in which men find themselves, by the productive forces already won, by the social form which exists before they do, which they do not create, which is the product of the former generation. Because of this simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces won by the previous generation, which serve it as the raw material for new production, an inter-connection arises in human history, there is a history of humanity which has become all the more a history of humanity since the productive forces of man and therefore his social relations have been extended. (Marx to Annenkov, December 28, 1846, printed as an appendix to The Poverty of Philosophy, ed. Dutt and Chattopadhyaya (New York: International Publishers, 1936), 152-153, emphases added; alternative translation here).
The echo I hear is to the famous passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:
Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. (Burke, Reflections, passage available here)
Now, the divergences between the two passages are as striking, certainly, as the congruences. But what is remarkable to me is, first, the immense intellectual fertility of this brief passage. In just these few lines from Marx’s 1846 letter, he appears to try out a preliminary formulation of the famous dictum “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please” from 1851’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and he gives a more cluttered but also therefore looser description of the base-superstructure relation, which he’d define more rigidly in 1859’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx is here foreshadowing major, even fundamental concepts which would only become fully mature either five or thirteen years later. Perhaps this is common knowledge among true Marxologists; I, at least, found it striking.
But the second remarkable aspect of this passage is what it does share with the passage from Burke. Perhaps it is banal or tedious to see a connection simply because both are “about” historical continuity. But there is something else there, I think, that lies under the surface of both—a kind of tension of the way that the past holds onto the present, encasing or constraining it. In Burke’s version, this is euphemized as a contract or a partnership and I believe that most conservatives read this passage triumphantly as an affirmation of this very thick form of historical continuity. I am not so sure there isn’t a gravity to this passage which borders on graveness—“reverence” is always such a complicated word because it spreads its fingers across many emotions, from love to fear.
Marx’s tone is also a bit unstable, and more than a bit ambivalent. But it is not really a consonance of tone that I find so fascinating but rather that both find human history to be most easily compassable, thinkable as a kind of deathless economic endeavor, as, in essence, a corporation. Marx is most explicit here, and the translation above is bad in the most significant sentence so I’ll give the French (source here) and point out the crucial moments:
Par ce simple fait que toute génération postérieure trouve des forces productives acquises par la génération antérieure, qui lui servent comme matière première pour de nouvelles productions, il se forme une connexité dans l’histoire des hommes, il se forme une histoire de l’humanité, qui est d’autant plus l’histoire de l’humanité que les forces productives des hommes et, en conséquence, leurs rapports sociaux, ont grandi.
It is tricky to translate Marx’s move from “l’histoire des hommes” to “une histoire de l’humanité” to “l’histoire de l’humanité” to (finally) “les forces productives des hommes,” if for no other reason than that we can get caught very easily in the problematic use of “man” to mean “human” or “human being.” And the overall motion of the passage is complex, but what Marx describes is the realization that human history—“l’histoire des hommes” is, by virtue of this continuous process of inheriting the accumulated labor of the anterior generation, not only a possible way to think about human history as a more unified project—a history of humanity, “une histoire de l’humanité”—but in fact the fundamental (perhaps the only) way to see all humankind, all of humanity as a single ongoing story. History as such—the history of humanity (“l’histoire de l’humanité”)—is thinkable only as a history of individual humans reaching out to one another with the tools—“les forces productives”—which they have accepted from the hands of the generation prior; it is only through these tools, only through this inheritance that social relations—“leurs rapports sociaux”—can be formed. Society as a set of lateral links among the living is only possible because of the accumulated labor and knowledge of the dead.
Is that not what Burke is saying as well? To be sure, Burke is thinking less of productive forces than laws and institutions, and he adds an emphasis on the generations to come which Marx leaves only implicit. But what is crucial in both these passages is a sense that human society works because it is a “going concern,” a corporation chartered in time immemorial; the crucial thing is that society is not, is never, a “start-up.”
This is, it scarcely needs to be said, not a revolutionary Marx, and how this passage can be squared with the rest of Marx I cannot really say. But unless I am completely misreading this letter, the connection—as Marx has it in the passage, “la connexité”—with Burke is surprisingly strong: certainly not a deliberate or conscious link, but the product of a similar metaphorical imagination and a similar train of thought. How astonishing.
 For what it’s worth, Marx added a post-script to the letter a disclaimer that “je vous écris en mauvais français, au lieu de vous écrire en bon allemand.”
 “Connexité” as I understand it differs from “connexion” in as much as the latter links any two objects, while there is meant to be a kind of similarity or identity among the objects linked by “une connexité.” “Connexité” is therefore a stronger or more specialized kind of link.