in Marxism and America


In the very last scene of Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx, Fred, Jenny, and Karl are at a candlelit table hurriedly editing the Communist Manifesto. Karl writes, “A bogeyman is haunting Europe.” Jenny injects, “No, no, wrong word.” Karl replaces it with spectre. Then a paragraph is gone missing, papers are hurriedly shuffled, and they insert the fugitive lines.

That sense of collaborative creation, of the human impress that shaped a world-historic doctrine, is central to the study of the Marxist idea as it flows through history and onto the variegated national landscapes upon which it has flourished and floundered. This liquidity and engagement are found in abundance among these eleven essays edited by Christopher Phelps and Robin Vandome. This is not to say that Marxism, in America or elsewhere, can mean anything. Rather, as E. P. Thompson famously put it, the working-class struggle “arises at the intersection of determination and self-activity,” thereby opening our understanding of both consciousness and conflict to a high degree of contingency.

For a collection of essays on Marxism in America, it is refreshing to find that the stale controversy over the extent to which capitalism and the working-class movement in the United States are “exceptional” is for the most part missing from these pages. That is partly because both scholarship and economic reality have converged to make the case that American capitalism is no longer a “variety” whose trajectory is all that different from the political economies of Europe and East Asia, the other two great loci of economic power.

More importantly, perhaps, the old argument that the American working class has been exceptionally fractured and ideologically complicit in its own impotency no longer holds much explanatory power. It is not simply that a global neoliberalism has degraded social democracy and dampened working-class struggle where it once seemed so well entrenched. Rather, contributors to this essay collection demonstrate that Marxist categories of analysis are properly subject to much reconfiguration. This includes such seemingly bedrock concepts as class, production, exploitation, and the struggles that arise from labor’s conflict with capital. In the United States that fight goes on, but these scholars show how it manifests itself in a remarkably effervescent fashion, with several essays putting issues of race, sexuality, and identity at the center of Marxist discourse. Rather than marginalizing class consciousness, however, this cultural turn demonstrates that in the United States, perhaps even more than other countries, class struggle proceeds through a lens that foregrounds racial, religious, and gender inequalities and the movements that seek to rectify them.

In the nineteenth century, European Marxists thought American capitalism immature. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Marxists the world over saw American capitalism as in the vanguard. In more recent decades, however, a stagnation of living standards and the difficulties that the nation has faced in coming to terms with both the financial crisis of 2007–2008 as well as the coronavirus disaster twelve years later have made it clear that a dysfunctional American state, and the misshapen political economy that sustains it, has actually undergone a process of underdevelopment.

A century ago, Rosa Luxemburg put the issue before us in the starkest terms: “Either transition to socialism or regression to barbarism.” Written in the most expansive Marxist tradition, these essays help illuminate that choice.

Nelson Lichtenstein

Marxism and America

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