Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Marx and America

. Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Henry Farrell passes along something that he seems to think is a historical curiosity: an 1864 letter of admiration from Karl Marx to an American Republican leader: Abraham Lincoln. Marx's letter was graciously answered in kind.

Farrell offers no context -- I would have thought he might -- but the story is actually significantly more interesting than just that. Marx had published his Communist Manifesto (with Engels) in 1848, nearly two decades before the congratulatory letter to Lincoln (and when Marx was only 30). Shortly thereafter the German moved to London where he found ends difficult to meet. As a result he sought work as a journalist, often as a foreign correspondent for newspapers. By 1852, and until 1863, these included Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. At the time the Tribune had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world. From that spot he wrote in favor of the American abolitionist movement -- and against British imperialism -- while constructing Capital and other more theoretical works in his spare time. Marx's journalism is mostly ignored by history, but there are some interesting moments.

For example, here is Marx reviewing a letter of Harriet Beecher Stowe's, in criticism of the British Tories who tended to take the South's side by arguing that the war was not about the emancipation of slaves, in 1861:

The question of the principle of the American Civil War is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy, declared in the Secession Congress that what essentially distinguished the Constitution hatched at Montgomery from the Constitution of the Washingtons and Jeffersons was that now for the first time slavery was recognised as an institutional good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice, whereas the revolutionary fathers, men steeped in the prejudices of the 18th century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time. Another matador of the South, Mr Spratt, cried out: 'For us, it is a question of founding a great slave republic.' If, therefore, it was indeed only in defence of the Union that the North drew the sword, had not the South already declared that the continuance of slavery was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union?
Pity him for having to do it, but Ta-Nahisi Coates has spent a good bit of his last few years making the same point, sometimes as well but always with hindsight.* Marx spent a good amount of his prime professional life, and spilt a great deal of ink, defending the American project against its detractors in Europe. He felt a kinship with the abolitionists, to be sure. He saw in these American revolutionaries, as he had seen in previous American revolutionaries, the same spirit that animated him. And he, like many of America's early leading lights, believed that this revolutionary spirit had global reach. From the letter Farrell linked:
From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.
There are strong indications from the repetition of his writings during the period that this was not a platitude; Marx truly thought in this way. He felt that the American Civil War was simply a continuation of the War of Independence from the British Empire, which he loathed, and represented a large step towards the emancipation of mankind.**

Why mention any of this? One of the great ironies of the 20th century -- and if any could appreciate an irony, Marx could -- is that Marx thought that America was the revolutionary force in the global political economy.*** Nor can we say that Marx's mind was changed over time: by 1861 Marx had already written not only his Manifesto, but also his analysis of the proto-fascist coup d’état by which Napoléan Bonaparte’s nephew seized control of the French state, a critique of classical political economy, and his Grundrisse. It was 1867 before the first volume of Capital was printed, but enough of Marx’s intellectual development had occurred before then for him to apply his materialist conception of history to the American project.

In brief: Marx believed in America and the American project as a revolutionary force for positive change in global affairs. I tend to think he was right. I frequently wonder if he would have kept that belief had he witnessed the 20th century as well as the 19th. My suspicion is that he would, and that the tenor and argument of his later works would have changed qualitatively with a longer run of history in his view. And no, I don't just mean the deplorable parts of the 20th century that were done in his name.

This history used to be better known, to the extent that John F. Kennedy, in a 1961 speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, remarked:
[I]f only Marx had remained a foreign correspondent, history might have been different.
Kennedy meant this as a moral lesson: Marx only ceased to be a foreign correspondent because his wages were so meager that he eventually gave them up to pursue his revolutionary agenda. Kennedy is, in other words, suggesting -- in no uncertain terms... read the context around the pulled quote -- to capitalists that they may buy off the revolutionaries if they are just a bit more generous with their salaries.

I'm not so sure about that in Marx's case. His intellectual project had begun well before Greeley came into the picture. And it continued with the full knowledge that at least one dictatorship of the proletariat -- the Taipings -- devolved into theocracy, militarization, and oppression almost immediately. So it's not clear that Marx would have seen through the Bolsheviks had he lived longer. Maybe he would have, but it's hard to think of Marx as a Menshevik given his disdain for the Gotha Program and democracy under capitalism. It's possible that Marx's Kronstadt moment would have happened well before Kronstadt. Or maybe he would have been slow on Lenin and his heirs just as he was slow on the Taipings.

It's an interesting thought.

*This does not demean Coates in any way. Orwell is famous for saying, or writing (I'm not sure which), that "We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men". Cheers to Coates for dredging that depth, and cheers to Marx for having it right at the moment. There's plenty of space for both, and many others too.

**Marx didn't get it all right. Around the same time as he was defending the cause of the Union in the New York Tribune he was also defending in the same pages the Taiping Rebellion, which abolished private property and promoted elements of gender equality. Marx later turned against the Taipings, but only after they had demonstrated a theocratic tendency which he had not recognized before. And only after some 20-30 million Chinese were killed as a result of their insurrection, which would later be applauded -- and perhaps mimicked -- by Mao Zedong. This was all finished by the time Marx wrote his letter to Lincoln in 1864. The fact that Marx, as well as later revolutionary Marxists, could have but did not take proper stock of this historical episode is another irony. The fact that China's traumas in the middle part of the 19th century were not understood in real time might be considered tragedy; the fact that they were repeated in the 20th century must be considered farce. Terry Eagleton, and his ilk, might wish to chew on that for awhile.

***Many Marxists push the corollary too far, and suggest that Marx thought that Russia was too reactionary to be a suitable place for the revolution to take hold. Terry Eagleton wrote as much in his recent (horrible) Why Marx Was Right, as many others have, but it's a misreading. In an 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich – co-founder with Lenin of the revolutionary newspaper Iskra and first translator of Marx into Russian -- Marx agrees that Russia's "rural commune" peasantry might bypass the capitalist stage of development altogether and move straight into socialism. He furthermore suggests that his theory of capitalism as a necessary stage of development was limited to Western Europe -- i.e. the places where industrialization had already occurred. Such places where this development had not yet taken place, such as Russia, Marx believed could bypass the "suicide" of capitalism altogether. Marx concluded his letter thus: "If revolution comes at the opportune moment, if it concentrates all its forces so as to allow the rural commune full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system." Zasulich was not discouraged by this, and continued to work towards a communist revolution in Russia. Eagleton might be correct in asserting that Marx would not have been a Bolshevik, but that is mere speculation; Marx's own words suggest he was strongly in favor of a Russian revolution.


LFC said...

Interesting post -- I can't comment substantively on it now, but I think we can do H. Farrell the courtesy of assuming he knows that Marx wrote for Greeley's paper (etc.).

I have a brief response to Phil Arena and you now up at my blog. Frankly I'm not sure how useful the whole conversation was. Oh well.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Oh I do assume that Farrell knows that Marx wrote for Greeley. I didn't mean to suggest that I thought he didn't, merely that -- given he probably does understand that context -- it was sort of surprising to me that he didn't mention it.

LFC said...

Yeah, agreed.

JR said...

Interesting stuff. I've heard more than a few soi-disant Marxists refer to the constitution as a "pro-slavery" document on account of the 3/5ths compromise being included.

Marx and America
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