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Marxism, the United States, and the Twentieth-Century

Paul Buhle is currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University and author or editor of forty books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he edited The Beats: A Graphic History (Hill and Wang, 2009).

The previous century now seems to be drawing away from us at an increasing speed, especially in the global society’s existing superabundance of communications. Readers of Monthly Review know that the basics have remained the same in the all too physical world of capitalism and neocolonialism, as much as they might have changed in terms of resistance and apparent alternatives. Still, as the graying of the 1960s generation continues, and the New Deal era draws ever further into a kind of archeology, a summing up of some points is useful and may even be fun.

My effort here runs parallel with nearly four decades of Monthly Review. The focus is personal as well: Marxist thought, the interpretation and guidance that Marxists provided and (at the local level) lived by, was my interest from the spring of 1964 when my first subscription began and when, by no coincidence, the antiwar movement began to reach my Midwest campus. (I could brag in 1966 that I read every Monthly Review Press book—there weren’t all that many yet.) My sensibility grew as I published the magazine Radical America for Students for a Democratic Society, and deepened with the collapse of the New Left, as I plunged into oral histories of the left-wing octogenarians, and continued on with my interviews and studies of the Hollywood Reds who seemed to have shaped some important zones of popular culture. It reflected, as well, my own engagements with local left movements, labor support and education, third world support blending into solidarity with the new immigrant waves, and so on through the passage of time.

What may surprise today’s younger readers of Monthly Review is that the dialogue about Marxism was so vital in the seemingly fallow years of the left in the early 1960s, with politics barely recovering from both the widespread repression and the despair at the revelations about the Soviet Union. Screenwriter Walter Bernstein remarked to me decades later that he and his friends, the “disorganized left,” high-powered intellectuals scripting television and films that touched my generation, had stayed within the wider boundaries of the Popular Front even while leaving the Communist Party. What they saw now was not Russia but rather, a community of peoples struggling against colonialism and neocolonialism. (Judy Ruben, the wife of one of his close friends, Al Ruben, actually worked in the Monthly Review office.) Marxism supplied the intellectual energy and also a sort of collective personal glue. People from afar were “comrades” on contact and even without direct contact. Culturally as well as politically, it seemed a new world was opening.

The same sensibility applied, without any particular theory of organizational apparatus, across generations. Shortly after I began to read Monthly Review, the campus scholar who brought the very first antiwar activities into existence had been, fifteen years earlier, a young Communist intellectual “industrializing” a factory near Chicago. Now she was probably fearful that the shadow of the past might catch up with her as a young academic, but she was nevertheless determined to make a statement and to make things possible for us youngsters. I gave her the first Christmas gift subscription that I had given anyone in my life—to Monthly Review, naturally. We had reached out to each other. Multiply this hundreds or thousands of times, vary the details, and you can envision all sorts of rapprochements and discoveries, often with subtle hints from the older generation before some past connection with the “subversive” left was to be revealed.

There was also much going on from a more rarefied intellectual standpoint. For instance, the debate of “Marxism versus Existentialism” was enormously fruitful. Only dogmatists would claim absolutes for either side; the two schools despised the social relations of modern capitalism for somewhat disparate reasons, but with no less intensity. This particular philosophical discussion was to fade beneath the vast popularity of Herbert Marcuse (and to a lesser degree, the more difficult members of the Frankfurt School like Theodore Adorno, no radical but lucid in his analysis of social norms), and the revival of Phenomenology. The translation and readings of the “Young Marx” seemed to bring it all to the surface, even when (or because) the interpretations of the significance were starkly different and sometimes bitterly opposed to each other. None of it was far from Marxism, as Marxism was steadily being reinterpreted.

And Marxism was definitely being reinterpreted. To my young eyes, Monthly Review was not only a venerable institution (I had only been five-years-old when it began!), but also a strikingly innovative youngster in a new way of Marxists seeing the world. Rosa Luxemburg apart, hardly anyone, not even Lenin, had seen imperialism as the salvation of capitalism, however temporary that might be. Paul Baran’s Political Economy of Growth was one of the books of revelation that knocked me on the head at a young age: it was hard and took many readings but the points were finally clear. Capitalism was a truly global system, as Marx had begun to elucidate, and no liberal or conservative theory of third world “backwardness,” whether based upon supposed particular histories or national psychologies, could explain why the West took the natural resources for its own purposes and left starvelings behind, to be ruled over and widely abused by the CIA’s favorites.

It might well be asked why this conclusion seemed so novel as late as the 1960s. Part of the answer is that the old Marxism remained fairly fixed, a doctrine that sooner or later, as capitalism failed or perhaps under some other circumstance, the American industrial working class would make a revolution, and the thing to do was to join them, organize them, and pull them leftward. Not that Communists and their left-wing critics or competitors disbelieved in U.S. imperialism—that view was left to Reinhold Niebuhr and the other liberals of the day, many of them former socialists who had made a career choice—but it was always a side issue, inflected further by the argument of the proper revolutionary party in the particular country involved.

The New Left emerging in the mid-1960s, which came to consciousness in and around the civil rights movement and/or the ban-the-bomb phase, fixed at once upon the African-American poor and the progressive, mostly white, middle-class students in the North. Consequently, it found little in common with the older views and left parties. Moreover, sclerotic and just plain conservative-bureaucratic leadership dragged the AFL-CIO ever downward, with no real interest in the growing, and largely female, clerical workforce and with the looming prospect of automation (no one yet talked of rust zones). No reform campaign seemed to make much of a dent, and a generation or two of industrial workers now looked increasingly toward retirement plans and health benefits. Indeed, the then-recent unionization of government workers was already the last successful major effort at spreading unionism, and it had the side effect of making the newly organized bodies rather scornful of the unemployed, and largely dependent upon political deals at every level. Notwithstanding the promising developments among hospital workers and the heartening efforts by and for agricultural workers, the only union representatives likely to be found at a campus rally far from New York were from the expelled unions, especially the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. George Meany and his speechwriters demanded military-industrial jobs and as many wars as possible.

The problems of the older Marxism were evident, but the synthesis of anything like a new Marxism remained elusive. Harry Magdoff shed light on this in one of his luminous essays, observing that in the first half of the century (the half without MR, one might say), the eclipse of capitalism had been looked upon as a certainty, not only from the left but from many political standpoints. In the second half of the century, however, social contradictions continued to mount (including the danger of thermonuclear devastation) but the certainty of capitalist decline and collapse disappeared from view. (Magdoff later quipped to me that if capitalists were willing to risk nuclear war to preserve their power and profits, they would be willing to go over the edge of ecological devastation: it was their nature to do so.) Marxists faced a new situation with a successfully contained working class at the center of the empire.

Radical America rested much of its collective work on the thesis that the world revolution would continue but that at home, the working class was being transformed and the results of that transformation were definitely in the making. The industrial base was becoming more demographically black (a trend only arrested by factory shut-downs) as the office was becoming more demographically female. The two trends coincided in various sectors, including the post office. A synthesis to come would clarify the delays and deformations of the past radical movements. Or so we thought. As the New Left collapsed, it seemingly combined multiracial “power” movements, feminist, and gay liberation movements, and even the counterculture into a rough perspective. In a way, we were only thirty years early, because the immigration law changes of 1965 would complete a transformation of the working class—but by that time, our human synthesis had been shattered and so much lost that the New Left vision of Marxism would need still more drastic revision. Only a neo-traditional Leninism, and the short-lived romantic urban guerilla phenomenon, offered other alternatives upholding a vision of a future socialism.

C. L. R. James, arguably the last of the great Pan-African figures, was a great convenience as an idol of Radical America in those years. He had written The Black Jacobins decades earlier, he was a Hegelian, not to mention sports historian and critic, his collapsed following had upheld visions of black power and women’s power, and of the significance of wildcat strikes and other moves against existing bureaucratic union leaderships. He was also, in advancing old age, still hugely attractive as a public speaker and a persuasive personality at close range. We tended to hope that everything would work out, because the neatness of the Marxism was not matched by anything like tactical certainty. Having the proper view, we would see the situations as they arose and figure out what to do.

The optimism ebbed away by the Reagan years if not before. Radical America continued to uphold (until its demise in the early 1990s) something like the New Left or even Students for a Democratic Society version of Marxist ideas. By this time, deconstructionist adaptations of Marxism ruled in most higher zones of the academy, if rivaled in some places by the scholars of black studies, women’s studies, development studies, and so on. The invention of new and esoteric languages seemed to coincide logically with the hopelessness of the political narrative in whatever version of Marxism dependent upon actual organizing and mobilization. The projects involving support for Sandinistas or for the rebel movements in El Salvador, not to mention the final decade of struggle against Apartheid South Africa, might as well have happened in a different galaxy from this campus crypto-Marxism where straightforward prose had become an enemy of progress.

Nonetheless, important scholarly work on empire, often produced by partisans of Monthly Review, continued to count. Great personalities—to mention only three, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Edward Said—drove home the points in public forums of all kinds—and were often more influential outside, rather than inside, the United States. With the later 1990s, a new kind of Marxist scholarship took form on the inner empire of media communications, and it was not by accident that Robert McChesney would title his later magnum opus The Political Economy of Media. The apple had truly not fallen far from the tree.

The newer waves of repression, the familiar but technologically improved horrors of war and occupation, likewise the crises of capitalism, were all ahead. None would be exactly unexpected and much all too familiar. But Marxism in the United States had not survived a deeply disappointing twentieth century for nothing.

By the dawn of the new century, to come back to the examples closest to myself, a considerable majority of the organizations and personalities of those explored in the Encyclopedia of the American Left were gone, and even the list of living authors had been thinned. The living memories of the 1930s and 40s, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the young CIO, the Popular Front, the fight against fascism, and the onset of the Cold War—all these were becoming more dim. Hardly anyone could remember that feeling of certainty that the days of capitalism were numbered.

And yet the ideas banned in the 1950s, amid resurgent consumer capitalism and FBI raids, had sprung up in new form to be popularized continually in a thousand ways, from music to comic books, in the face of a resurgent empire, a resurgent capital, and where vaunted tolerance always turns out to be limited. Of course, the ideas changed in the process. We are left with no certainties. The realities of a collapsing ecosystem are as fearful as the threats of nuclear war in the first decade of MR’s existence. Still, there are lots of prospects in front of us and around the corner. Marxism, always unfinished, is going to be a big help in figuring out what they are and what to do about them.