American Marxism: Theory without Tradition

BY JOHN B. JUDIS

John B. Judis is the Washington editor of In These Times and has recently completed a biography of William F. Buckley.


An intellectual tradition presupposes not only continuity between past and present, but the development of present thought through reflection on a defined body of past thought. In Europe, and in most European countries, a tradition of Marxist theory began with Marx and Engels and continued-to a name a few prominent thinkers-through Karl Kautsky, Lenin, George Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, members of the Frankfurt School, Jean Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and down to today's Eastern European Marxists, particularly Rudolf Bahro, Alex Nove, and Branko Horvat.

In the United States, there have been Marxist philosophers and political theorists since the turn of the century, but they have never formed part of a sustained tradition in which past efforts have informed present ones. Instead, American Marxists have tender either to look abroad toward European Marxists- many of whose concrete assumptions were irrelevant to American history-or to non-Marxists like Dewey or Keynes or Freud. In a certain sense, there is no such thing as American Marxism.

It is not hard to figure out why American intellectuals have not had a Marxist tradition. Traditions of political theory-whether liberal, conservative, or Marxist-are grounded in a perception of political possibility. This is axiomatic with Marxism, which is a philosophy of political action whose verification rests upon the possibility of capitalism being superseded by socialism.

In the United States, socialist movements have had a fitful and largely dismal experience. The American Socialist Party, founded in 1901 and led by Eugene V. Debs, reached its peak in 1912, when Debs received almost a million votes for president and socialists held hundreds of municipal offices. It declined precipitously, however, after World War I as a result of a bitter split fomented by socialists who wanted to tie the party to Bolshevik Russia. The American Communist Party, which resulted from the split, never achieved popular political success. It has its greatest success in the late 1930s when it subordinated its socialist politics to the urgency of liberal reforms. It ceased to be a significant force in American politics after World War II, except in the fevered imagination of former communists and of the far Right. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several new socialist organizations arose out of the new Left, but their formation was more a reflection of the popularity of Marxism among the new middle-class intelligentsia than of newfound revolutionary solidarity among American workers. This checkered history of American socialism does not necessarily invalidate socialism -Marxism, for instance, always saw the United States as a particularly inhospitable terrain for socialism-but it has prevented a Marxist intellectual tradition from developing.

American Marxist Literature

But what, then, of the theoretical contribution of American Marxists? As might be expected, the major socialist organizations-the prewar socialists and the communists of the 1930s- made a nebulous -and, in the case of American communists, a negative- contribution to American political thought. The socialists could take credit for brilliant pamphleteers and journalists like Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Lincoln Steffens, but not a single major Marxist philosopher or historian. American communists, whose politics rested on a fantasy of a Soviet America, nullified the talent of academicians and journalists who came into contact with them. Commitment to the party was tantamount to brain death for a theorist. In the late 1960s, several promising Marxist theorist- most notably Martin Nicalous-became transformed into sloganeers and political hacks once they joined "revolutionary" organizations whose political premises were surrealistic. There is a kind of moral here: Insofar as most American socialist organizations have been rooted in fantasy rather than in the real predilections of the working class, commitment to these organizations has been inimical to any theoretical advance for Marxism.

It is not surprising, therefore, that American Marxists who have made original theoretical contributions have come from outside of official, organized socialism. Most often, they have been dissenters from both prevailing American socialist trends and from prevailing trends within the academy. A short list of these thinkers would include philosopher Sidney Hook (of Toward an Understanding of Karl Marx and From Hegel to Marx, both written in the 1930s), sociologist C. Wright Mills (who probably never thought of himself as a Marxist), political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, historians William Appleman Williams and Eugene Genovese, and economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. With the exception of Hook, who was close to the Trotskyists, these thinkers formed their ideas in the 1950s and early 1960s-a period of socialist quiescence in the United States. Indeed, one could say that their contribution to American thought was predicated upon the decline of the American communist and socialist movement.

Most of these intellectuals also came to Marx unconventionally and made unconventional use of his theories. Hook came to Marx by ways of Dewey; Sweezy by way of Keynes; Mills by way of Weber; Williams by way of historian Charles Beard and German Hegelians; Burnham by way of political scientists E.E. Schattschneider and Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. And their work achieved its significance not through its effect on Marxist discussion but rather through its impact on prevailing liberal assumptions.

Paul Baran And Paul Sweezy

Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy had both been close to the American communists in the late 1930s, but broke from the party by the early 1950s and founded an independent theoretical journal, Monthly Review. Baran was a professor of economic at Stanford, and Sweezy had been a professor at Harvard. Monthly Review was critical of the American role in the Cold War without being supportive of Soviet socialism. In the early 1960s, Baran and Sweezy and several other economists around Monthly Review championed and worded closely with the Cuban revolution. Baran and Sweezy's major work, Monopoly Capital, published in 1966, was dedicated to Che Guevara. But their principal contribution was not to political but economic theory.

Sweezy's first book, The Theory of Capitalist Development, which appeared in 1942, had been a fairly conventional exposition of Marxist economic theory. Baran's first and major book, the Political Economy of Growth, published in 1957, anticipated many of the leading ideas of their joint work. What marked Baran and Sweezy's late work was the attempt to combine Marx with Keynes in order to develop a political economy appropriate to the conditions of post-World War II American capitalism. Monopoly Capital was an attempt to come to terms with a capitalism dominated by large firms that no longer competed by price and that financed much of their expansion internally from their own profits. It was also an attempt to come to terms with capitalism in which state economic activity- particularly that devoted to the military- played an increasingly important role.

Baran and Sweezy argued that the monopoly structure of American industry, which eliminated price competition but not competition in advertising and other spheres, created a tendency for a rising surplus of capital measured in the difference between total wages and profits- that could not be absorbed through the normal channels of investment and consumption. To prevent recession, American capitalism had to find ways to absorb this surplus. The principal ways, Baran and Sweezy argued, were through the expansion of the sales effort- the devotion of capital to finance an marketing- and through the state appropriating surplus capital (by means of the tax systems) and reinvesting it in the public sector an in the military.

In their emphasis on the role of state investment outlets, Baran and Sweezy echoed the arguments of mainstream Keynesians. But in their pessimistic assessment of modern capitalism's ability to absorb this growing surplus over the long run, they were adapting Marx's theory of capitalist crisis to the modern economy. Baran's and Sweezy's critique of capitalism had a moral dimension that made it highly relevant to the new Left of the 1960s: They were arguing, in effect, that American prosperity depended on waste and destruction. Baran and Sweezy provided the economic underpinning for Herbert Marcuse's attacks on modern American capitalist culture, particularly in One-Dimensional Man.

William Appleman Williams

Historian William Appleman Williams was even more detached from other official left than Baran and Sweezy. Williams graduated from the U.S.Naval Academy and after serving in World War II, received his doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin, where he later joined the faculty. According to his students, he once belonged to the NAACP-in any case; he had no connection to the communist or socialist parties of the 1940s and 1950s. But Williams' two major works, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, published in 1959, and Contours of American History, published in 1962, represented a distinct break with the historical scholarship of his day and a creative adaptation of Marxism to American history.

Williams' Contours represents a philosophy of American history at variance with both the consensus history of Louis Hartz, which stressed the continuity of liberal historians like Arthur Schlesinger, who attributed entirely to democratic upsurge the political innovations of the Jacksonian and New Deal eras. Williams, influenced by Hegelian strands of Marxism, depicted American history as a succession of epochs, each defined by a differing economic structure an over all Weltanschauung. Williams argued that colonial and revolutionary America had a mercantilist and communitarian mentality that was at odds with what would become in the nineteenth century a laissez-faire and individualistic view of America and its economy. And he contended that at the beginning of the twentieth century, as giants corporations were displacing small businesses and farms as the locus of the American economy, a new corporate mentality which Williams sometimes called "feudal socialism' or "corporate syndicalism"- displaced the Jacksonian laissez-faire worldview.

Williams credited the democratic movements with contributing to epochal transformation, but he contended that corporate leaders and their academic allies, acting through such organizations as the National Civic Federation and the Committee for Economic Development, played a critical role in defining the new Weltanschauung. What liberals might call democratic liberalism, Williams saw as corporate liberalism. While liberal historians extolled Franklin Roosevelt, Williams provided a revisionist understanding of Herbert Hoover, crediting him with understanding the threat to freedom embodied in state and corporate capitalism.

Williams was likewise important in providing an alternative interpretation of twentieth-century American foreign policy. According to the prevailing Cold War view, the United States, after a momentary fling with imperialism at the turn of the century, had yielded to the ant imperial view and had devoted itself to making the world safe for democracy, first against the Kaiser, then against Hitler, and finally against Stalin. Contemporary historians saw the Cold War itself as a defensive effort by the United States to thwart world domination by the Soviet Union.

But in his book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Williams argued that American corporate and financial leaders had been interested not in acquiring territory, but in creating access to foreign markets for American goods and capital. Williams argued that since the turn of the century the most sophisticated American leaders had believed that without American access to foreign markets, including those of Eastern Europe, the United States would suffer a recurrence of the periodic depressions that had plagued the country and almost destroyed it in the 1890s and 1930s. This attempt to create an open door provided the link between the progressive Era and the Cold War. If British and German imperialism had previously been seen as the principal threat to the open door, now it was Soviet socialism a system in which the state rather than individual industries organized foreign trade.

Williams considered the United States as much responsible for the Cold War as was the Soviet Union. Fearful of a loss of markets in Europe, American politicians, Williams argued, had exaggerated the threat to world domination from the Soviet Union, a country decimated by war. Williams' view of the Cold War's beginning was widely shared by both European and American Marxists, but his interpretation of American diplomatic history was novel. Williams inspired a generation of revisionist historians on the Cold War, including Lloyd Gardner and Walter LeFeber, and he provided the rationale for the new Left's rejection of American participation in the Vietnam War.

Williams himself tried to sum up his poetical views in a short book called The Great Evasion. At the turn of the century, Williams said, Americans faced the threat of recurrent depression and industrial strife; to avoid economic disaster, they had a choice between building prosperity at home though the creation of a "cooperative commonwealth" or creating it abroad through the expansion of American economic power. America's fateful choice was to seek salvation abroad rather than at home.

Walter Dean Burnham

Walter Dean Burnham, who has taught political science at Haverford and MIT, was even more detached from leftist politics than Williams. Burnham broke with the pluralist school f political science that like the consensus historians envisaged American political history as the simple democratic resolution of vectors emanating from competing interest groups.

In a path-breaking 1965 essay, "The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe," Burnham analyzed American political history as a history of epochal upheaval what he called critical realignments by which the party system was forced to adjust to subterranean changes in the American economy and social structure. Burnham's analysis of these realignments in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 complemented Williams' Hegelian-Marxist analysis of American history. But even more than Williams, Burnham highlighted the instability that he found present in the American political process. Burnham described a party realignment an America's "surrogate for revolution."

In Burnham's later essays, he advanced the notion that the process of realignment had effectively come to an end ad had been replaced by what he called the"dealignment" of the party system. Trough the destruction of the political machine, the rise of television, and the introduction of the primary system, parties had lots their relevance and their critical role in resolving fundamental conflicts. Burnham predicted that over the last decades of the twentieth century, the number of nonvoters and disillusioned voters would grow until American democracy had become a sham.

Burnham's analysis of realignment had little impact on the Left of the 1960s, which was generally averse to electoral politics. But it has had growing influence on both liberal and conservative theorists of the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, conservative Kevin Phillips has done more than any single writer to popularize Burnham's adaptation of Marxism to American political history.

These theorists represented the high-water mark for American Marxism. They began their work in a spirit of anger and skepticism at the prevailing intellectual and political trends of the 1950s. What they wrote received approval from the ascending Left of the 1960s and early 1970s, they spawned scores of disciples. But the theoretical movement that Baran and Sweezy, Williams, and Burnham led has now crested.

Quo Vadis?

In the mid-1970s, American Marxism suffered once more from the practical failure of the Left. As the new Left began to dissolve, the development of new theory came to a halt. The theories themselves also suffered from the passage of time. The work of Baran and Sweezy was particularly united to the postwar boom in which American industry was able to ignore the demands of external finance and competition from abroad. Williams' historical studies purported to explain the bipolar conflict between an all-powerful United States and Soviet Union rather than the more complex and morally ambiguous conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s.

Will there be a resurgence of American Marxism? Will it build upon the achievements of the 1950s and 1960s or begin anew, as those thinkers did? It is still too early to tell, yet it is possible to see in the present years, a situation very similar to the late Eisenhower years the years that inspired America's greatest contributions to Marxism.

http://www.worldandi.com/public/1987/june/mt6.cfm

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