For more than a century and a quarter Marxism has occupied an important position in American social criticism, but never a dominant one. For most socialists between the 1870s and World War One, Marx had set forth primarily an analysis of the laws of capitalist exploitation and accumulation, which predicted the downfall of a social system that most of the literature advertised in their journals condemned on moral grounds. The ascendency of Leninism produced parties looking to Marxism for theoretical guidance on physics and painting, as well as the road to power, and precipitated earnest quests for a correct position on each and every issue. None of those parties, however, captured a hegemonic role in the workers’ movement, let alone in the country’s intellectual life. The New Left arose on campuses that were devoid of any form of class analysis. Only in the civil rights movement were there significant continuities of personnel and styles of thought from Marxist movements of the thirties, and even they were carefully disguised. White student activists, scanning bookstores for critiques of a society that had alienated them, usually discovered Marxism either in little red books of exhortations to struggle or in fat, ponderous volumes of cultural criticism. Those two very different forms of presentation, however, proved to be as well suited to the needs of the revolutionaries of 1967 as Wage Labour and Capital had been to their predecessors in 1907 or Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1937. Once again Marxism had assumed an historically specific role in American radical discourse, without providing the dominant mode of thought.
Paul Buhle is well situated to analyse the long and complex interaction between Marxism and radical social movements in the United States.
A prominent activist in Students for a Democratic Society during the sixties, he was a founder of the monthly Radical America—which has promoted non-parliamentarian social struggles and investigated their historical roots—and was the guiding spirit behind the occasional issues
Buhle sets out on a path different from most existing histories of socialist thought because he dismisses Engels’s Anti-Dühring out of hand. Unlike Marxist chroniclers from F.A. Sorge and Morris Hillquit to the present, Buhle refuses to think in terms of a utopian phase that was subsequently repudiated, followed by a protracted struggle to create a true vanguard party. footnote3 On the contrary, he argues: ‘Immigrant Marxism and utopian radicalism . . . came to share a common ground neither could have anticipated’ (p. 14). Nineteenth-century American workers and middleclass reformers who ‘interpreted industrial degradation and centralized financial power as rents in the social fabric’ to be repaired by ‘still further democratization’ (p. 23), learned to think about class and socialism from their immigrant comrades. That does not mean that the former came to accept the view that the sole object of the movement was to organize workers to capture the machinery of state, so that it might expropriate the expropriators. The Americans’ efforts to instruct the largely-German bearers of Marxism in the decisive importance of the battle against racial oppression, of women’s struggles for citizenship, and of popular self-activity within civil society made a major contibution to the worldwide movement for socialism. Not only did they contribute significantly to the ambience of Debsian socialism; they also anticipated by as much as a century the ‘new social forces’ that have surfaced in European Marxist writings during the last two decades.
Although I am not persuaded of the distinctly American origins of this encounter, I do share Buhle’s evaluation. Even the German–American social revolutionaries of Chicago and elsewhere in the 1880s escaped the Kautskyian mould that was then being impressed on the Social Democrats in their homeland. Buhle’s narrow and negative assessment of the German influence prevents him from exploring this comparison, but it would seem to underscore, rather than challenge, his argument that there was no historic defeat of utopian by scientific socialism.
Buhle has no interest in Engels’s philosophy of nature. On the contrary, he celebrates the persistent influence of religious sensibility, spiritualism, temperance, Christology, and liberation theology, positing, as the goal of the popular struggle against capitalism, a universal ‘cultural experience rendered both holy and fun’ (p. 263). Buhle’s insistence keeps the reader’s mind focused on the motivations that have impelled individual men and women to rebel against social injustice. Few of us will die for the sake of a correct analysis of economic forces, much as we need it to keep us from a futile death. Nevertheless, Buhle’s dismissive attitude toward Marxist conceptions of science (and toward the intellectual impact of modern science itself) obscures the importance of the Enlightenment’s heritage, of personal battles against religious obscurantism, and even of Darwin in the process by which those who would change the world have changed themselves. Just think how many Italian anarchists named their sons Bruno, or consider the liberating effect of Robert Ingersoll’s agnosticism on late nineteenth-century radicals in the Middle West. All that is part of the ‘common ground’, whose configuration is traced in this book.