In this week’s issue of The Nation, Timothy Shenk discusses the revival of Marxism since the financial collapse of 2008. For many who achieved political consciousness and intellectual maturity only after the heralded “end of history” in 1989, Marxism is often seen as offering an important analysis of the causes and consequences of the unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth and power, in this country and throughout the world, which began several decades ago and, despite the crash, continues apace today. Unburdened by the intellectual psychodramas of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, disappointed by President Obama, and galvanized by Occupy Wall Street’s scathing moral critique of inequality, millennials, Shenk writes, comprise “an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.”

Shenk’s essay is a review of the socialist quarterly Jacobin, Thomas Piketty’s magisterial bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century and new books by editors of n+1, but it begins with a sweeping history of capitalism and socialism since the early days of what eventually became known as the Industrial Revolution. Another way to map the rises and falls in the popularity and promise of revolutionary socialism is to take a tour of The Nation’s writings on Marx and Marxism, the substance and tone of which tended to shift with the larger political, cultural and economic tides.

Our first reference to Karl Marx was in a series of special dispatches published in August 1878. Friedrich Kapp, a German jurist and journalist who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was a frequent contributor to The Nation on German politics beginning in 1865, the year of our founding. In his three-part 1878 series, “Socialism in Germany,” Kapp expressed admiration for Marx’s intellectual gravitas: “Remarkable by his indefatigable industry and the thoroughness of his studies as well as by the wide range of his researches and the philosophical and critical turn of his mind, he ranks among the first scholars of the time.”

For Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Kapp had more ambiguous praise.

His work distinguished itself as well by the fullness of its details and the boldness of its reasoning as by its bitter attacks on the manufacturing classes, and made a deep impression in Germany. The brilliant qualities of this man, however, are overshadowed by a reckless, domineering spirit, an insatiable ambition, and an intolerant character which blackens, vilifies, and, if possible, destroys everything and everybody in its way.

With many conservative commentators then and since, Kapp believed he saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the bud of the communist ideal.

He who does not believe implicitly in Marx, or who dares to have an opinion of his own, is doomed, driven out of the church, and denounced to the Philistines as a “bourgeois,” as a spy, as an “agent-provocateur”…Like all founders of new creeds, Marx knows only obedient tools and blind admirers, and has but few friends.

Kapp then summarizes for Nation readers “the gist of the first volume of Marx’s work”:

The enormous power of accumulated capital cannot be done away with, the world cannot return to a patriarchal state of things; but, nevertheless, the misery of the working-classes can no longer continue. Marx proposes as a remedy that all means and tools of production, ground and soil as well as raw materials, should be handed over to society at large, that all trades and professions should be carried on by it for the benefit of all—or, in others words, that private property be abolished.

Kapp, for the record, disagreed: “In my opinion, he is wrong in calling all labor the sole source of the value of a thing, while in fact it is only that labor which satisfies the human wants, and I will add that in order to perform such useful labor capital in some shape or other is required.” Without the profit motive all industry ceases: then as now, a common enough refrain.

The Nation more or less lost sight of Marxism—if not socialism more generally—for several decades, under the influence of conservative editors like the literary critic Paul Elmer More. “Those who have kept in touch with the Socialistic literature of the past ten or fifteen years,” wrote the once and future Wall Street Journal editor T.F. Woodlock in October 1913, “are familiar with the extent of the destruction wrought in the Marxian structure by the irresistible logic of hostile facts.” The book under review, Woodlock suggested, “almost gives one the impression of slaying the dead: fairer, perhaps would it be to say that it, decently and in order, inters the corpse.”

The Russian Revolution, of course, was less than four years away.

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By the 1920s, The Nation was under the editorship of Oswald Garrison Villard, who, though not a socialist, was the embodiment of principled left-liberalism in his day and welcomed contributions from socialists and communists in the magazine. (Norman Thomas, later the six-time Socialist candidate for president, was briefly its associate editor early in the decade.) In May 1929, the labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg reviewed Otto Ruhle’s biography of Karl Marx, just months before the stock market crash that would breathe new life into American Marxism. Stolberg wrote that socialism had already had a much deeper impact in the United States than it was generally credited with. “Without the Marxian base the social metabolism even of American labor would be unthinkable,” he wrote. “Think away social democratic doctrine and only a fabulist could write the story of American labor or even the tale of the simplest strike.” Of Marx himself, Stolberg wrote that “in the minds of even intelligent Americans Marx is a sort of economic Dr. Caligari, a fantastic German savant.” His influence was as undeniable as it was misunderstood: “The shadow of Marx on the American scene is phantastically transmogrified, but to deny its darkness is insensitive.”

In 1932, the same year his Depression travelogue The American Jitters was published, the literary critic Edmund Wilson contributed an essay to The Nation’s ongoing series, “What I Believe.” (Other contributors to the series included Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb and Conrad Aiken.) “So far as I can see,” Wilson’s essay vividly began, “Karl Marx’s predictions are in process of coming true.”

The great advantage, the great superiority, of Marx over other economists was due not to his being more learned or more expert and managing statistics, but to his psychological insight. People talk about economics as if it were a science of the behavior of money, and as if dollars and cents were entities which had an independent existence and obeyed laws of their own, like electrons. The truth is that economics is merely the study of how people behave about money, and Marx, though he possessed the true scholar’s temperament and had all the statistics at his fingertips, never lost sight of this fact. His great strength lay in his imaginative grasp of human history; and the real “laws of capitalist production” of which he writes are merely the instinctive workings of human acquisitiveness, selfishness, and self-deception—the all but universal instinct to sweat, bleed, and keep down other people whom we happen to have at our mercy, and either to rationalize our predatory acts as policies adopted for the public good or to manage not to know about them at all. This is the kind of idea that one comes by, not by mathematical calculations, but by looking steadily and deeply into one’s heart; and this is something that few are able to do and remain to tell the tale. But Marx, like the other great Jewish prophets, was one of those who were able to do it, and it is to this that he owes his great authority. And the place to study the present crisis and its causes and probable consequences is not in the charts of the compilers of statistics but in oneself and in the people one sees.

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It is a testament to the openness of The Nation’s pages as well as to the turmoil of the times that in the magazine’s archives one can find odes to Marxism and attacks on Marxism written by the same author only a few years apart. Thus in 1933, the philosopher Sidney Hook proclaims in “Marxism—Dogma or Method?” that it is “the first truly international movement in culture and politics.” But Hook, even before his subsequent turn to strident anti-communism, was an internally dissident Marxist. He wrote in the 1933 essay:

Unfortunately some American intellectuals going leftward have fallen over each other in their efforts to be “orthodox” Marxists. They have swallowed the jumble of mysticism and mechanism which is called “objective science” without stopping to settle the intellectual difficulties which they themselves raised only yesterday. This is unworthy both of Marxists and intellectuals. To be a Marxist demands a long and critical discipline; and to be an intellectual means to judge a conclusion by the quality of the arguments advanced in its behalf. The subject matter of Marxism is not the whole universe, and its method is not the method of authority. Nor does it profess to have the final truth about what it does concern itself with—the theory and practice of social revolution. It is neither dogma, myth, nor objective science, but a realistic method of class action.

The following year, one of those intellectuals Hook was referring to, Max Eastman, reviewing a book by the libertarian socialist G.D.H. Cole called What Marx Really Meant, quipped that he had thought Sidney Hook “went as far as a sense of humor would permit in pouring new wine into the old Marxian bottles.” Cole, Eastman thought, had managed to go even further. But by 1940, in a review of Hook’s book Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy, the great theologian and Nation contributing editor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that Hook “extends previous criticisms [of Marxism] so far beyond their earliest proportions that the progress of his thought may be described as moving from heresy to apostasy.” Interestingly, by the 1950s Eastman, Hook, and Niehbuhr were all members of the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy organization.

One of the most dramatic specimens of the type was Lewis Fraina, who helped found the American Communist Party in 1919 before falling out with its leaders. He re-emerged in the 1920s as Lewis Corey, a non-communist socialist writer, but in the Depression, like so many other left-wing intellectuals, grew closer again to the Party. In a three-part series in The Nation in 1935, “The Crisis of the Middle Class,” Corey devoted an essay each to capitalism, fascism and socialism. In the final installment, Corey wrote, regarding fascism, that “the answer to the new barbarism must be a new Enlightenment, whose elements are provided by Marxism: the perceiver a new world and its creator.”

But in the late 1930s, and especially after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, Corey—again, like many leftists—undertook a painful re-evaluation of his former deeply held beliefs. In another three-part series, “Marxism Reconsidered,” Corey attempted to reconcile his recent disillusionment with his prior ideals: “History has played one of her stupefying tricks: for it is now clear that democracy is on the defensive as much against the totalitarianism of Russian communism as against that of fascism. And since socialism without democracy is a monstrosity, socialism too is on the defensive.”

The bitter admission must be made that all variants of Marxism, “revolutionary” and “reformist,” meeting the pragmatic test of history, have revealed fatal shortcomings. Diehard sectarians will argue that Marxism never had a chance because it was always distorted or betrayed, just as diehard liberals argue that capitalism never had a chance; but the sectarian argument is self-answering since it means that all Marxists are distorters or betrayers except the newest crop of simon pures, and that is exegetical madness. Yes, all variants of Marxism are a failure….

We must accept and reject, unlearn, relearn, and learn anew regardless of vested interests in old activity and ideas. A new language and a new approach are necessary: the abandonment of ideas, phrases, procedures which are now meaningless or have come to mean the opposite of what we thought they meant. All this means a cooperative job of charting new departures and directions in the struggle for a desirable social order.

“We must make an approach to Marx that freely accepts or rejects his ideas, regardless of the systematic strait-jacket, fit the accepted ideas into today’s climate of opinion and needs, and go beyond Marx to new explorations and syntheses,” Corey concluded. It is a strikingly similar point to that which Shenk makes in his review essay this week:

Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with same grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.

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The Nation’s interest in Marx and Marxism again ebbed for several decades after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Cold War–era debates rendered theoretical discussion somewhat beside the point. By the early 1970s, however, the impact of the New Left and a growing academic interest in Marxism brought discussion of the man and his theory back to The Nation’s pages. It is undoubtedly significant that two separate book reviews—one from 1971, by Michael Harrington, and one from 1975, by Bernard Johnpoll—were published with exactly the same headline: “I Am Not a Marxist, I Am Marx.” (The 1975 review has a dash instead of a comma.) The phrase, adapted from a letter Marx wrote to two French socialists he accused of “revolutionary phrase-mongering,” obviously struck a chord in the United States of the 1970s. As Johnpoll wrote:

Because Marxism has become significant in our time, Marx—the man and his ideas—has become obscure. As Marxism has become more operative, Marx has become less understood. He was at bottom a philosopher who dabbled in economics and politics; his primary interest was analytical, not prescriptive. Marxism, on the contrary, has been from the start purely economic and political. It purports to be rooted in Marx’s analysis and methodology, but by the nature of its interests it is virtually precluded from having an integral relationship with the ideas of its patron saint: politics and economics are institutionally pragmatic; philosophy necessarily directs itself to broader considerations. Thus all that is left of the philosophy of Marx, in this era of Marxism, is myth.

Among the most astute interpreters of Marx in recent decades was the late Marshall Berman, professor of political theory and urban studies at the City University of New York, who began contributing to The Nation in the late 1970s. In a book review from January 27, 1979, “Marx: The Dancer and the Dance,” Berman wrote of “an apparition [that] floated by me on Upper Broadway not long ago: a girl in a red T-shirt that displayed, on and around her breasts, a group of Karl Marxes, about four or five of them, in a semicircle, arms linked, smiling broadly, kicking their legs high in a rousing dance.” Intrigued, Berman concluded that “today’s Marxes have kept in touch with their youthful romantic visions of politics as dancing.”

We should be able to see, now, how absurd it would have been for Marx to finish his great work: how can Capital end while capital lives on? To stop simply and abruptly, rather than create an ending, preserves far more of the truth that Capital has to tell: circling, spiraling, plunging one way and another, turning in upon himself, seeking endlessly for new axes to turn on, Marx kept his thought and his work as open-ended, and hence as resilient and long-lived, as the capitalist system itself. This is why we are still only beginning to explore the depths of Marx’s thought: why he speaks to us in a voice fresher than ever today; why he will be dancing up Broadway when we are all dead…. Once we can feel the depths of Marx’s solitude and his need for connections with people and life, we will appreciate his achievement in creating real bonds between man and man. In the depths of Marx’s spirit, we can nourish our own.

Almost twenty years later, in a review of Verso’s republication of The Communist Manifesto on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, Berman assessed the state of Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union:

What happened to Marx after 1917 was a disaster: A thinker needs beatification like a hole in the head. So we should welcome his descent from the pedestal as a fortunate fall. Maybe we can learn what Marx has to teach if we confront him at ground level, the level on which we ourselves are trying to stand….

The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the “post-modern” age: We weren’t supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread—just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.

Those, indeed, are prophetic words.

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Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.