The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Marxism in the United States

  • MARXISM IN THE UNITED STATES: REMAPPING THE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN LEFT, by Paul Buhle. London: Verso (Haymarket Series), 1987, paperback, 299 pages, $12.95, ISBN 0-86091-848-3.

Reviewed by Samuel Edward Konkin III

The most enjoyable treasure is that which is found in the most unlikely place. Who would have thought of looking in a history of American Marxism, written by a New Left activist, published by a British New Left press, for a neglected, if not suppressed, account of the political history of early German-American immigrants? Or how the conversion of the U.S. (Marxist) Left from its interventionist globalism in the 1940s to an anti-interventionist New Left version in the 1960s happened because, at least in part, of its birth on a Wisconsin campus, in a population center of isolationist German-American Progressives?

Paul Buhle tells us his own history in the penultimate chapter of Marxism in the U.S. He was the founding editor of Radical America, which he describes as the “unofficial journal of SDS” (the Students for a Democratic Society), as “there was no official journal.” He was one of Cold-War Revisionist William Appleman Williams' students at the University of Wisconsin and active in SDS from its takeover from the Old-Left League for Industrial Democracy to its spectacular demise in 1970.

This reviewer came across Radical America in 1970 while at UW; it contained a remarkable notice (remarkable to your reviewer, who like many of you, evolved from the right) which verified something Murray Rothbard has been telling us early Libertarians (this reviewer founded the first Libertarian Alliance at UW in February 1970). Rothbard and fellow Libertarian Revisionist Léonard Liggio had been doing missionary work amongst the SDS and New Left historians, converting them to Isolationism. Many of us could not believe our old campus opponents were open to such reason, but there it was in Radical America: a special “Old Right” issue concerning the heroic Isolationists who had kept the faith during the New Deal, Second World War and even the Cold War, until the New Left came along. [1] It had a profound effect on our thinking and led us out of the Left-Right statist trap cramping our reason.

Buhle has continued his historical work largely Revisionist in both the historical sense and in the sense that Marxists use it, since those days; today he is the editor of The Encylopaedia of the Left for Garland Publishing. [2] Marxism in the U.S. is one of the first in the Haymarket Series published by the still-New-Left Verso Press in England; American Revisionists and anti-imperialists should keep their eyes out for new books in this series.

The history of the Left, in particular the American Left, is fairly simple in outline, and generally agreed upon; however, once one seeks any details, the versions diverge dramatically according to which faction is telling the tale. Buhle has his heroes and villains and many would not match ours. Furthermore, he neglects the proto-Libertarian individualist anarchists, who considered themselves of the Left, in the nineteenth century. [3] On the other hand, he covers many of the common ancestors often neglected: Jacksonian Democrats, Abolitionists, Populists, Spiritualists, Bellamy Nationalists and native Utopians. Herein lies the interest to todays Revisionist readers.

Immigrants brought Socialism to the United States, and remarkably early at that. In 1848 the U.S. was mopping up the Mexican War and native radicals has risen up against the blatantly imperialist policy. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto that year,on the eve of a European-wide insurrection centered in the German states. Many of the insurgents fled to German communities in the United States, bringing with them the ideas that had led them to the barricades. Although Marx has his followers in the first wave, Ferdinand Lassalle was an even more popular German Socialist leader ("statuettes of whose countenance graced the Socialist locals and often served as raffle prizes"). [4] The '48ers supported the Radical Abolitionist cause; Adolf Douai edited a Texas Abolitionist paper and died still editing a German-language Socialist daily in 1888. Not surprisingly, German-Americans disproportionately joined the Union in the Civil War/War between the States.

The '48ers were the alte Genossen to the post-war wave of German immigrants. Editor and playwright August'tto Walster, son of a leathersmith, immigrated to America to start the German-language national weekly newspaper, Arbeiter Stimme. The large German- language press was disproportionately Socialist, and quite cosmopolitan. Douai worked on the New Yorker Volkszeitung side by side with Russian nobleman Serge Schevitsch (who brought Lassalle’s mistress to the U.S., where she became an actress after Lassalle had died in a duel over her) and with German Jew Alexander Jonas, who commuted every few years between Germany and the United States, working freely in the press milieu and later, importantly, attracting Jewish immigrants to Socialism.

As the German Social Democratic Party grew in success (it became the largest party in the new German empire, though not allowed to take power until the final days of World War I), its progress was followed in the German-American press. Socialism, or social democracy, was not achieving notable success in the United States, and Germans tended to drop it as they became progressively assimilated. As they were followed by other Eastern European immigrant waves, these new groups replaced them, particularly if they were familiar with German already (Poles, Bohemians, Jews, Croats and so on). Interestingly, Buhle singles out the German-Jews (later followed by Russian Jews, though still Yiddish-speaking) and hints that their slowness in assimilating may have led to their becoming the core of U.S. Socialism:

Taking nothing away from the German-American papers, they had not (except, perhaps, the weekly anarchist Arme Teufel from Detroit) become the site of an avowed search for identity; Socialism and their homeland traditions provided that easily, no doubt too easily. The editorials, the headlines, the formal understanding of the Jewish press do not seem so superficially different But to the close observer, Tsukunft and even more the Arbeiter Tseitung made that search the focus for Socialist politics. [5]

In the 1890s the immigrants reached out to an Anerica seething with a wave of strikes, a depression, and Populist uprisings in the rural areas — seemingly ready for class revolt A Portuguese from Trinidad, Daniel DeLeon, entered the Socialist Labor Party in the U.S. and began its first English-language weekly, The People, in 1891. Buhle credits DeLeon with being the first truly American Marxist; he brought theoretical rigor to the U.S. movement — and a pre-Leninist discipline and sectarianism which had the SLP in ruins by 1899. (The SLP still has a tiny organization alive today; it is perceived through the Left as DeLéon’s personal cult)

What American Socialism needed was a native American standard-bearer who could appeal both to the theoretically rigorous immigrants and the Utopians, Christian Socialists, Spiritualists and radicals in the native populace — a synthesizing Socialist in the James Stewart/Henry Fonda mold. It found this in Eugene V. Debs, and the new Socialist Party reached its high point under his leadership, particularly in becoming the focus of opposition to American entry into World War I. Unlike the European Social Democratic Parties, the American Socialists remained united against American participation, from the Left to the Right ends of their spectrum (though with defectors and opportunists from all parts as well). Had not the Bolshevik Revolution occurred, it would be fascinating to consider what might have happened in 1920, at the end of the Palmer raids, when the U.S. SP and the International Workers of the World, its sometime ally, though wounded from persecution, were at the height of popularity, as the rest of the U.S. populace soured on war and intervention following Versailles.

Unfortunately, the Russian Revolution completely changed the utopian expectations of the Left, not merely in the United States but throughout the world. And V.I. Lenin’s apparent success in bringing about a form of Socialist utopia granted him followers throughout every Socialist organization and, hence, instant factionalism. At its height, then, the U.S. Socialist Party split apart. In America the “Menshevik” faction really was the minority but excluded the majority delegates to hang onto control and maintain the SP as an increasingly anti-communist but ever smaller Left organization. The “Bolsheviks” split immediately into squabbling factions, arguing over which splinter was the real standard-bearer of Lenin in the U.S. [6]

All this is covered in the first three chapters of Marxism in the United States, roughly half the book. The next three chapters deal with the Leninist infection, its impact on culture (particularly literary) in the thirties, Eugene Lyons' Red Decade and the winning of intellectuals to the supposedly proletarian cause, then the Communist Party U.S.A.’s sudden acceptability during the World War II, followed by its anathema and persecution as the Empire-builders cranked up a “no-win,” “Cold,” “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

Near the end of the sixth chapter, Buhle delineates the roots of the New Left, and here is another section of interest to Isolationist-Revisionists:

Shortly after the New York Intellectuals evolved definitively toward accommodation with Pax Americana, a less prestigious but — from the retrospective viewpoint of the New left — more important group moved in the reverse direction for precisely opposite reasons. The University of Wisconsin had been a center of anti-monopolist, anti-imperialist thought since the days of Robert La Follette. It was shortly to regain its historic role, in New Left guise.

Many intellectuals in the old Middle Border had bowed uneasily to the inevitability of war mobilization, suspecting — with a handful of Trotskyists, unrecalcitrant pacifists, and Charles Beard — that militarization of American life would become permanent … A new generation of scholars, mostly refugees from Old Left families and from the Henry Wallace campaign, joined these odd ducks on the Madison campus and relearned radical history with native coloring. The same youngsters were also, and not coincidentally, the first generation of immigrants' children who could fit comfortably into a field now composed not of gentlemen scholars but of middling professionals. They took their models … from the quasi-isolationist, anti-military tradition of Progressive historians and from the new mass student culture. [7]

A few paragraphs later, Buhle pays homage to Cold-War Revisionist William Appleman Williams and the historical school he founded; earlier C. Wright Mills gets his due for bringing class theory (or, if you prefer, conspiracy theory) back into respectable academic discourse.

Readers of the reviewer’s (and Buhle's) age will find a Big Chill or horn in the seventh penultimate chapter, on the New Left. Buhle was there and tells it, honestly, first-hand, admirably dropping the detached-historian voice for that of the first person.

Buhle is weakest in his Conclusion, an eighth but unnumbered chapter. This is hardly surprising for a historian, for he is trying to assimilate the seventies and eighties even as he is still within them. The Black movement, the feminists, the literary deconstructionists and structuralists, and the liberation theologists all require analysis, which would redeem them perhaps from their status here, as undigested lumps disgorged by Buhle. But even in these chunks Buhle’s basic honesty and analytic mind is evident

A favorite sport of right-wing commentators from the late 1970s has been the attack upon the New Left greybeard, the mutton-chop sideburned college professor who forces his Marxist ideas upon hapless undergraduates. This attack cannot be denied its industrial-sized grain of truth. Radicals in the academy have found themselves trapped inside a massive contradiction, not between theory and reality (as the Right claims) but between theory and practice, between (in the theoretical version) materialism and idealisms. [8]

Paul Buhle provides us with not only the first modern comprehensive overview of the American Left, even if primarily of its Marxist strand, but begins the task of re-inclusion of those strands deliberately severed, buried and covered up during the Leninist fever. Besides the value this book has in returning integrity to the Left, it contains numerous gems for the pleasure of discovery by those who consider the label “Left,” let alone Socialist,” fit only to hang on enemies and future targets. Even they may consider swapping their scatterguns for more accurate rifles after conferring with Paul Buhle.


[1] For those interested in following up the New Left/Old Right connection, a search for the out-of-print magazine Left & Right, largely written by Rothbard, Liggio and their friends between 1965 and 1968; I inherited my copies from a prominent Libertarian. Somewhat more available is Carl Oglesby’s excellent Cold War isolationist book, Containment & Change, which describes the Libertarian “Old Right” as the best allies for the New Left’s coalition building against the U.S.-centered Empire. Best of the New Left, before he turned Establishment apologist, was Ronald Radosh, who wrote paeans to the heroes of most JHR readers: Oscar Garrison Villard, John T. Flynn, Robert A. Taft and even alleged “fascist” Lawrence Dennis, in his still available Prophets On The Right.
[2] Who are also preparing The Encyclopaedia of Libertarianism, edited by this reviewer.
[3] Benjamin Tucker called himself a “laissez-faire Socialist” and belonged, along with many other free-market anarchist advocates (mostly in New England), to the First Workingmen’s International (which Marx dissolved rather than let the Anarchists take it over).
[4] Marxism in the United States, p. 29.
[5] Marxism in the United States, p. 49.
[6] See the film Reds for a portrayal of this schism; John Reed (played by Warren Beatty) exemplified the conversions that occurred and the later feuding.
[7] Marxism in the United States, pp. 215-6.
[8] Marxism in the United States, p. 264.