I heard the other day that someone I don’t know, who has either read or heard about my books and articles, informed someone I know that I’m a Marxist. What pleased me, of course, is that someone I don’t know has actually been induced to form an impression of my thought. What worried me is that I’m eager to talk about my books to big audiences, and to talk to those audiences, in part, about the complicated presence of socialism at the founding, so I wouldn’t want any word to get around that might turn off those audiences from the get-go. When I, for example, believe that somebody is an -ist before he or she starts talking, I do assume that much of what’s to be said is overdetermined and therefore, even if true, boring. That by no means always turns out to be the case, but it’s a natural prejudice.
I tell stories. Stories that lead to weird destinations, I hope, but nevertheless stories. Some academic historians can find that cheap, for good reason, but I don’t, not the kind of stories I like to tell, for reasons I think this post will begin to get at. I’ve had a good time, and I hope good sales, talking to Fox News Radio, for example, about Declaration — and blatantly about the overlooked social radicalism of the working-class Pennsylvania democrats of 1776 — and I do that by telling stories, not saying “here is the appropriate ‘ism’ to be derived from a certain set of facts.”
Of course, I’m hawking books like a guy selling fake Rolexes on Canal Street (“hucksterism”: one of Marx’s early term for capitalism, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, etc.). Unlike many of the trained historians, I’m at least as happy to get my stories, characters, and ideas in front of the people who listen to Fox News as to get them in front of history professionals, or for that matter in front of the effete, like me, who listen to NPR (although I’ve had a number of great public radio interviews, especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin — for those who want to hear me blab further about the nine weeks before July 4, 1776).
But enough about me. Let’s talk about my Marxism.
I can attest that people who are Marxists, and know my work, are pretty sure I’m nothing but a bourgeois liberal with a peculiar interest in left history — leftist analyses of history, that is, as well as the history of the left. Furthermore, I’ve had to point out, here and there, that just because I’m talking very assertively about the existence of surprisingly left-wing ideas in 18th C. American politics — and I have to be so assertive because so many liberal and conservative historians are at such pains to leave those ideas out — it does not necessarily follow that I am trying to promote those ideas as policy.
This is what I can never understand about how and why most history is written. Because Edmund Morgan, for example, wouldn’t want America run as a dictatorship of the proletariat, he expunges the significance of those in the founding era who did want that, so we don’t learn about or from them. Some lefty-liberal historians have made sure that the only person killed in the Boston Massacre that every schoolchild is supposed to know by name — the only one I know by name, off the top of my head — is Crispus Attucks, because he was the black guy. There is an important realism to be gained by reminding a readership weaned on a falsely homogeneous vision of the American colonies, and of the resistance to England, that one of the people felled by British troops was black, and that he had a name, a life, relationships. But turning the thing upside down, so that Crispus Attucks is the only Massacre victim we think of as, in that sense, real, only serves to make us feel good about ourselves while blurring fundamental and painful things about race, class, and the nature of the struggle against the crown in Boston — things on which left history, when it’s good, can be tough and illuminating.
In the stories I tell, things don’t have to come out any particular way. That’s a different kind of history, a different kind of writing. Morgan began by wanting all American colonial expressions of dissent against British trade laws to be intellectually consistent, because he was pissed that progressive and Tory historians alike had suggested they weren’t. So he told stories to show what he wanted to show, and he left out whatever might show something else. A lot of lefty-liberal historians want ordinary people to have been the real force behind the Revolution, so they tell stories that show that, and they leave out the other stuff. A certain kind of Marxist historian, similarly, might want to show how society develops via class struggle through certain Marx-defined economic stages, from feudalism to mercantilism to bourgeois capitalism to communism, etc., and will tell the stories that purport to illustrate that.
A classic example of that kind of thinking, which I thought had parodied itself to death years ago, came in an otherwise favorable review of The Whiskey Rebellion on the World Socialist Website, a Trotskyist publication of the (to me self-parodying) International Committee of the Fourth International. Here’s the review’s only complaint about me:
He does not hint that the development of industrial production would create the material conditions to make socialism possible, and indeed necessary. He will not name this “battle” as the inevitable class struggle resulting from the exploitation and social inequality of capitalism, which could only be resolved through socialist revolution.
That’s right, I won’t. So, no, I’m not, in that sense, a Marxist.
But maybe that’s not all there is to get out of the legacy of Marxism. The stories I tell are the ones that involve conflict. Morgan’s effort to resolve conflict in favor of perfect intellectual consistency on the part of colonial American resisters… or the “politically correct” tendency to resolve the Revolution as a “people’s Revolution,” with doses of previously under-recognized and pleasingly important contributions from the unenfranchised and unfree … those ideas are often promoted with intensity, and they do involve and acknowledge certain kinds of conflict. But the overwhelming historiographical impulse, on both sides, is to settle things that I think were not (and are not) settled for the people involved. And just as the right wing wants it settled that the founding fathers were simply great, and the Marxist reviewer of The Whiskey Rebellion would have been happy if the Rebellion could be said to illustrate what he thinks are the settled Marxist points about world history, the search for settlement leads to a fundamentally misguided way of looking at human life that I find, not coincidentally, boring as hell.
At least that’s what the stories I tell suggest to me that I think. Good Marxist history has been essential to my finding and understanding those stories. In another post I’ll do an annotated list of the Marxist and Marxist-influenced scholars to whose work I’ve turned for my understanding of the founding period, as well as some others who have different influences. The Marxists focus on economics and class struggle, and that’s one of the main places I seek the conflict that I need to make a story worth telling. The complaint about my approach would be that I trope toward such conflicts in an effort to amp up the storytelling and sell books, that I sacrifice history to drama. It’s true that I don’t use Marxist history in order to forward a vanguard; I use it, sometimes even blatantly piggyback on it, to help crack open the overdetermined settlements of the prevailing consensus, to see something new fall out.
But my experience is that if you’re willing to rely on intensely critical history (and nobody fits that bill more than certain Marxists), and are then willing, or actually eager, to let things remain far more unresolved than most Marxist or any other kind of historian is willing to let them be, and see where they take you, you can partake in a startlingly larger share of the imagined realities of a period, which are often unsettling but are always more exciting and thought-provoking. That’s what I think history really is. I always get an audible gasp when I tell a room full of people that some of the 1776 Pennsylvania radicals wanted to put in the Pennsylvania Constitution a clause limiting by law — constitutionally! — how much property any one person could own. That gasp is coming from a lot of different places at once, but it’s the gasp I love, not what any one person might be thinking. I also like reminding people that the socialist radicals of the 18th C. were often fervent Christian evangelicals. Sudden awarenesses of new, strange spaces feels revolutionary in itself.
There’s a part of me that considers my kind of hardnosed, freewheeling, realpolitik storytelling more actually Marxist, in the fresh shocks it produces and the stale air it clears, than old-school, doctrinaire left critiques or the “p.c.” stuff that’s nicer, and easier to handle, but doesn’t feel like life. Maybe I am a Marxist after all. Don’t let it get around.