The Dance of Pragmatism and Marxism

Michael Denning

Young Sidney Hook: Pragmatist and Marxist. by Christopher Phelps. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. 257 pp. $35.

Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922. by Brian Lloyd. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 472 pp. $45.

FOR A CENTURY, radicals have quarreled over the relation between pragmatism and Marxism in American social thought. Are the writings and thought of John Dewey and William James the foundation for a democratic radicalism that can guide progressive politics?

Is the work of Marx and Engels too embroiled in European social and intellectual traditions to be useful to American radicals? Or is American pragmatism merely the philosophy of corporate liberalism, unable to understand the international realities of class and imperialism with which the Marxist tradition has wrestled?

The well-publicized new book by the neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, 159 pages, $18.95), is the latest entry in this quarrel.

Rorty takes the side of pragmatism against Marxism, elevating Dewey over Marx (even suggesting “that it would be a good thing if the next generation of American leftists found as little resonance in the names of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as in those of Herbert Spencer and Benito Mussolini”) and “the Deweyan, pragmatic, participatory Left” over the “spectatorial” and “cultural” left that he claims has taken its place.

Beyond this polemic, the book is meager fare, packaging a hackneyed critique of the post-modern cultural left in a sketchy and nostalgic evocation of a lost “reformist left.” As an analysis of “leftist thought,” it never gets beyond a quarrel with Christopher Lasch’s writings of the 1960s.

Rorty’s book is interesting, however, not for its political or intellectual substance but as a symptom of a recurring tendency in U.S. thought.

Two Major Studies

Unfortunately Rorty’s vacuous little polemic may lead many on the left to dismiss the pragmatism/Marxism debate entirely, and toÔ···h)········0*0*0*°°··Ô overlook two excellent recent histories of that debate, both of which outshine Rorty in intellectual coherence, political acumen and knowledge of leftist thought in twentieth-century America.

Brian Lloyd’s Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922 looks at the first generation of radicals who tried to unite Marxism and pragmatism, and provides the best intellectual history yet written of the Debsian socialists of the 1900s and 1910s.

Christopher Phelps’ Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist takes up the leading figure of the second generation of the debate, Sidney Hook, and gives an outstanding account of this student of John Dewey who became the most accomplished Marxist philosopher of the 1930s.

Though Lloyd and Phelps hold different views on the relation between pragmatism and Marxism, their work is indispensible for coming to grips with the continuing contradictions of American leftist thought.

Brian Lloyd’s Left Out is perhaps the finest intellectual history of any aspect of U.S. socialism or marxism (and its brilliant opening pages on Marxism in our day ought to be published as an independent essay).

Dense but clearly written, it analyzes the works of most of the leading socialist intellectuals of Debsian era: figures like Ernest Untermann, a translator of Marx’s Capital and the model for the socialist hero of Jack London’s The Iron Heel; Austin Lewis, a California labor lawyer who became the key theorist of revolutionary industrial unionism; Louis Boudin, the leading U.S. interpreter of Marx’s thought; William English Walling, the architect of the first synthesis of socialism and Dewey’s pragmatism; Louis Fraina, the Italian immigrant socialist whose calls for “mass action” and a “revolutionary culture” dominated the left-wing New Review; as well as better known figures like John Reed, Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann and Randolph Bourne.

The book has a powerful narrative framework. The first part sketches out the conflicting elements of turn of the century radical thought–the pragmatisms of Dewey and William James, the “revolutionary Darwinism” that appropriated Herbert Spencer for the left, the “revisionist” controversy among Second International European Social Democrats, and the enthusiasm for Thorstein Veblen’s “machine-process metaphysics.”

The middle part focuses on the unstable synthesis created during 1912-1914, marked by the founding of the magazines of the new socialism and liberalism: the New Review, the Masses, the New Republic. The final part examines the radical intellectuals’ response to the world war and the Bolshevik revolution.

There are two great strengths to Lloyd’s history. First, he takes his subjects seriously as social and political theorists. Unlike many intellectual historians who simply chronicle the polemics, posturings and controversies that fill up the intellectual weeklies, Lloyd analyzes the concepts, language and logic of the major theoretical works of these writers.

“American socialism during these years was not antitheoretical,” he argues, and his textual analyses reveal a fascinating body of work. Second, Lloyd’s diagnosis of the basic faultline in Debsian socialist thought is persuasive: He delineates a continuing tension between the inherited tradition of small-producer radicalism, with its fierce antimonopoly sentiment, and the emerging vision that a new “collective capitalism” characterized by “trusts,” a “new” middle class and “industrial unions” held the seeds of a socialist collectivism.

Lloyd elaborates this to illuminate the divide between James and Dewey, arguing that pragmatism is a dual tradition; and he deftly tracks the ways this ambivalence toward the emerging corporate capitalism shaped a variety of socialist writers.

Overly Harsh Assessments

The exasperating element of Lloyd’s book, however, is that, having succeeded in persuading the reader that the theoretical struggles of Walling, Boudin, Fraina and the others are worth retracing, he damns them with a harshness one ordinarily reserves for one’s contemporaries.

No one has spent as much time and care studying American Marxist theorists in order to prove “the poverty of American Marxism.” Lloyd even concludes that, because of this impoverishment, “the most enduring intellectual contribution of this generation of radicals was not a work of socialist theory but a piece of documentary reportage,” John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World.

Lloyd is scathingly critical of New Left scholars and contemporary “socialist Americanists” who have attempted to recover the riches of U.S. radicalism; he sides with the consensus historians who recognized that American radicals were really liberals who quoted Marx for ceremonial purposes.

“If readers decide,” Lloyd writes at the end, “that…I have contributed a philosophical companion to The Liberal Tradition in America, I would still consider this a worthier achievement than staging some Thompsonian or Gramscian celebration of labor republicanism or, even worse, working-class Americanism.” (417)

As the author of what one might plausibly call Thompsonian or Gramscian celebrations of labor republicanism (Mechanic Accents) and American Marxism (The Cultural Front), I winced at these lines. Nevertheless, Lloyd’s critique–standing on the accomplishments of Left Out–is worth considering.

Poverty of Theory?

For Lloyd, the pragmatism to which Rorty appeals is precisely the reason for the poverty of U.S. Marxists: They have chosen Dewey over Marx and have paid the price. His genealogy of the “modern–anticommunist and patriotic–social democratic tradition” (Lloyd, 95) echoes, albeit critically, Rorty’s “reformist left” in which “American patriotism, redistributionist economics, anticommunism, and Deweyan pragmatism went together easily and naturally.” (Rorty, 61)

After reading Lloyd, one realizes that Rorty is a latter-day William English Walling or John Spargo. Rorty’s rhetoric uncannily echoes their appeals to Dewey and Whitman, their rejection of Marx and Marxism, their insistence on Americanism as an ideal, and their suspicion of any social theory.

When I consider the poverty of Rorty’s contemporary leftism, I am half persuaded by Lloyd’s argument for the poverty of Walling or Spargo’s thought.

Moreover, Lloyd powerfully argues that World War I and the October Revolution were the test of “the scientific canons–psychological and historical–to which pragmatists and Second International socialists adhered…

“[R]adical intellectuals faced the challenge of understanding imperialism as positivists and pragmatists. Without a strategy for making concrete their abstract commitments to internationalism, they seized the ever-handy logic of nationalism. Theoretical poverty engendered…complicity in the foulest of practical deeds.” (284)

But is the “poverty” of thought a useful concept for Marxist intellectual history? When Marx attacked “the poverty of philosophy” and Thompson “the poverty of theory,” they were criticizing their contemporaries–Proudhon and Althusser, respectively.

I would have little objection to a Lloyd attack on the poverty of contemporary American Marxism or pragmatism, though I might disagree with his assessment. But what is the point of a posthumous ideological critique of all Debsian-era Marxists?

Though Lloyd is exceptionally deft in delineating the elements that went into the Debsian socialist intellectual brew–pragmatism, positivism, revolutionary Darwinism, Veblenism, Second International Marxism, revolutionary industrialism unionism–he condemns them all as contributors to “the intellectual poorhouse that is American Marxism,” as deviations from “the Marxism of Marx.”

The U.S. Marxists of the 1910s are all measured by the yardstick of Lenin and found wanting. But were the European war and the Russian Revolution the litmus tests of theoretical acumen?

Consider the case of one of the most important U.S. Marxists to emerge from this period, a figure Lloyd entirely misses: W.E.B. DuBois (born in 1868, two years before Lenin)–as contradictory as any figure that Lloyd treats, but surely part of this story.

DuBois in the 1910s had little direct knowledge of Marx’s own work; his socialism combined positivist sociology and Jamesian pragmatism with his student exposure to the German Social Democratic Party and his reading of American socialists like Walling and Spargo.

In and out of the Socialist Party in the 1910s, DuBois was close to Walling (a key figure in the NAACP) and Spargo. Like them, he “failed” the test of World War I, supporting Wilson’s entry into the war.

Yet DuBois’ socialist critiques of white supremacy (in the New Review as well as the Crisis) and his internationalist analysis of imperialism–his 1915 “The African Roots of the War” might be placed alongside Lenin’s 1917 Imperialism–suggest that Lloyd’s sense of the complete impoverishment of this union of pragmatism, positivism and Marxism is exaggerated.

DuBois did not retreat to patriotic, anticommunist liberalism, but continued to develop a radical, anti-imperialist, and idiosyncratic Marxism. Perhaps the one book by this generation of U.S. radicals that stands beside Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia is DuBois’ Black Reconstruction.

Marxisms and Their Times

Left Out is a very important book, not for its Leninist critique of the racist Darwinism of Untermann, the imperialism of Spargo or the economism of Fraina, but for its contribution to what GÀÀran Therborn once called “the Marxism of Marxism,” the historical materialist account of specific Marxisms.

The fundamental issue is to understand what Marxisms have been, not what they ought to have been, a point eloquently made in Robert Stuart’s fascinating account of the French Guesdists, Marxism at Work.

After proving to himself that the French Marxists’ Parti Ouvrier had misunderstood and misused Marx’s insights and deserved Marx’s famous retort that “if this is Marxism, then I’m no Marxist!,” Stuart then rewrote his work not as a “celebration” of French Guesdism but as a rich account of the social and ideological contradictions the Guesdists attempted to resolve.

Every historical Marxist theory–including the “Marxism of Marx”–has been an “impure” mixture of socialist, bourgeois, and working-class ideologies; each was an attempt to understand and name particular relations of force, and to resolve particular strategic contradictions.

Lloyd’s fine account of the genuine antinomies of First World social democracy–the conflict between party and unions with the seesaw between electoralism and syndicalism, the entanglement with nationalism, imperialism and racism, the challenge of serious liberal philosophical discourses–is undermined by his sense that Lenin’s “orthodox” Marxism was a hard currency, free of impurity or contradiction, which would have alleviated U.S. theoretical poverty.

All the U.S. Marxists of the Debs era shared, as Lloyd argues, an “ideological logic,” a “recurring pattern of ‘problems and solutions'” (14-15)–a legacy of small-producer radicalism, an ambivalence about the meaning of trusts and new middle class, an attraction to the powerful new ideologies of Veblen, Dewey and Darwin, a sympathy for syndicalism.

“Every variety of American Marxism during this period,” Lloyd writes, “was a species of economism,” conflating militant trade unionism with socialism.

Perhaps, however, this was due not to the bankruptcy, impoverishment and counterfeit nature of the tradition, but to the genuine social contradictions and intellectual antinomies that faced this generation of theorists.

A Marxist and Pragmatist

In this respect, Christopher Phelps’s Young Sidney Hook is a model for the Marxism of Marxism, albeit on the level of a single thinker. “Hook is best understood as a casualty in the tragedy of the American left, not a villain or hero in its melodrama.”

Unlike Rorty, who thinks pragmatism has no use for Marxism, and Lloyd, who wants a Marxism untainted by pragmatism, Phelps refuses to presume that pragmatism and Marxism are incompatible; his book takes both the general philosophical project and Hook’s “particular type of Marxism” seriously.

Reading Phelps’ lucid account of Hook’s life and work in the 1920s and 1930s together with Lloyd’s study of Debsian Marxism is a useful reminder of the continuities in American radicalism.

Hook grew up in the world of immigrant Socialism, a student radical in high school and at City College, drawn to philosophy by the revolutionary Darwinism of Jack London’s fiction, campaigning for the Socialist Morris Hillquit (one of Lloyd’s subjects), and inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution.

After graduate study with John Dewey at Columbia, Hook gained notoriety on the left for his hostile Modern Quarterly review of Max Eastman (another of Lloyd’s characters), a review that kicked a long-running debate between these two students of Dewey over Marxism and pragmatism.

In the 1930s, Hook emerged as one of the leading American Marxists, and Phelps deftly narrates the tale of Hook’s break with the Communist Party, his involvement in the short-lived American Workers Party, his role in the Trotsky Defense Committee, and his eventual turn to the anti-communist social democrats at the New Leader.

The Hook of 1931 had argued that Dewey needed Marx–he failed “to appreciate the instrumental value of class struggle rather than class collaboration in effecting the transition from Corporate America to Collective America.” (58) By 1938, Hook was arguing that Marx needed Dewey–it was Lenin and Trotsky who had underestimated “the importance of democratic processes.” (179)

For Brian Lloyd, Hook’s trajectory is one more proof of the poverty of the American marriage of pragmatism and Marxism, one more journey from internationalist revolutionary socialism to nationalist social democracy.

Phelps resists this reduction of politics to theory, persuasively arguing that it was not Hook’s pragmatism but the political crises on the eve of World War II that led to his break with revolutionary socialism, and then to “both a gradual abandonment of Marxism and a contraction of pragmatism as he had previously understood it.” (236)

The pragmatic Marxism that Hook fashioned thus needs to be understood not as the seeds of his future apostasy (theoretical impoverishment engendering “complicity in the foulest of practical deeds,” as Lloyd put it) but in terms of two vital tendencies in twentieth century Marxism.

First, Hook was part of the philosophical renovation of Marxism launched by young intellectuals of the 1920s sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, but critical of the positivism of both Second and Third International philosophy. Hook was perhaps the first U.S. Marxist to engage with these “western Marxists,” as they were later called.

One of the earliest U.S. readers of Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, Hook attended Karl Korsch’s lectures in Germany in 1928. Like them, Hook was interested in the Hegelian imprint on Marxism, and his 1929 research at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow led to his fine history of Marx’s relation to the Young Hegelians, From Hegel to Marx.

For this generation of Marxists, the recasting of Marxism as a method was fundamental. Like the Lukacs who claimed that orthodoxy in Marxism was simply a matter of method, and the Sartre who wrote Search for a Method, Hook was primarily interested in renewing Marx’s method.

“If Marx’s thought possesses unity,” Hook wrote, “it is to be found not in his specific conclusions but in his method of analysis directed by the revolutionary purposes and needs of the international working class.”

For Hook, pragmatism was useful for Marxists not because it was an “American” philosophy, but because it was a search for a method, a form of philosophical renewal.

Second, Hook’s pragmatic Marxism was part of the Marxist critique of the dictatorship of the party. (Phelps argues that Hook remained a Leninist and did not turn to the “ultra-left” council communists; however, the continuing influence of Korsch on Hook blurs this line.)

Phelps shows how Hook, by insisting on the slogan “workers’ democracy” as opposed to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” maintained that soviets or workers’ councils–“what De Leon called the industrial union” (116)–were the proper organs of working-class democracy. Here one sees Hook’s debt to the “revolutionary industrial unionism” of Lewis and Fraina that Lloyd rejects with the Leninist epithet “economism.”

Hook’s writings on workers’ democracy were a response to the non-party forms of workers’ self-organization in the unemployed leagues and general strikes of 1934; his involvement in the American Workers Party and in its merger with the Trotskyist Communist League of America was in part due to their role in theÔ···h)········0*0*0*°°··Ô general strikes in Toledo and Minneapolis.

Problems of “Pragmatic Marxism”

Neither of these aspects of Hook’s Marxism should be lost; on the other hand, neither make the case for a pragmatic marxism.

The renovation of Marxist method drew on a variety of philosophical vocabularies, including pragmatism; however, the work of the Western Marxists, including Hook, made the “question of method” less pressing. (Here I must dissent from Phelps’ valiant but unconvincing effort to place Hook in the “classical” line of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky rather than among the heterodox Marxist philosophers like Lukacs, Korsch, Lefebvre, Horkheimer, Sartre and Althusser.)

Perhaps Hook’s short-lived attempt to theorize workers’ democracy will contribute to the renewed debate over socialist democracy/democratic socialism. However, Lloyd’s Left Out and Phelps’s Young Sidney Hook–which together mark a new richness in the historiography of American Marxism–point also to further explorations of the dance between pragmatism and marxism.

Hook’s journey to right-wing social democracy is not the end of the tale. C. Wright Mills stands as an interesting counterpoint to Hook and Walling, as he tried to synthesize the pragmatism that was the subject of his earliest work–Sociology and Pragmatism–with the Marxism he was drawn to a the end of his life.

If Richard Rorty represents a recent “Americanist” face of pragmatism, Nancy Fraser’s powerful Justice Interruptus (1997)–and her earlier critique of Rorty–represents a more impressive attempt to reconstitute a critical theory by drawing on Marxism, feminism and pragmatism.

The relation between pragmatism and Marxism is likely to remain central to U.S. socialist thought because pragmatism is not simply a philosophical school, but an organic part of popular ideology.

Pragmatism developed together with the cultural institutions of modern American capitalism–the schools, universities and Progressive intellectual journals. As a result, it has always served both ideological and utopian ends in American culture, at once the philosophical expression of what Mills called “crackpot realism” and the source of a continuing tradition of democratic thought.

Pragmatism is an idiom, a vernacular, that inflects a wide range of American social, educational, aesthetic and political thought, not only, in Hook’s words, “the bluff ‘common sense’ of the American engineer,” but the Deweyan common sense of American teachers and the folklore of American liberalism and “progressivism.”

Thus the antinomies of pragmatism–whether expressed in the everyday distinction between the “pragmatic” and the “ideological,” or in the contradictions of Dewey’s democratic theory–are not simply ideological phantoms or errors; they are the sedimented accumulations of American culture and history.

Any Marxism that would seek to interpret, and to change, that history must be tempered in its pragmatism.

ATC 75, July-August 1998