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Day May 18, 2018

Studying Marx

The many thousands of American students and young people who not only engaged in various parts of “The Movement” from the middle 1960s–70s but also read books on Marxism, rarely found themselves in “study classes” conducted by Marxist organizations of any kind. It would be more accurate to say that they created their own self-studies, by themselves or with friends, or even that they found their closest study in college classes taught by self-defined radicals, often enough Marxists or those sympathetic to Marxist ideas.

This is not quite as remarkable and unprecedented as one may think. “Marxism” in any intellectual sense did not sink in deeply among the activist Left of, say, 1870 to 1960. Most of the actual proletarian Left, in the United States, consisted of first generation European immigrants, until at least the middle 1930s, and afterward to 1950 or so, of an uncertain mix, often second generation Reds. For immigrants, the socialist or communist (or Wobbly) newspaper was the source of knowledge, and didacticism did not go deep. “Marxism” as a generalized vision of working class destiny proved sufficient, with a few pamphlets naturally including The Communist Manifesto.

Study classes flourished among socialists before 1920, but theory was mostly abjured, for history, iconoclastic studies of business and such. Communists tried hard to inject a theoretical grasp, but succeeded only with working class autodidacts (these existed in each ethnic group and played an important role, but sophistication in Marxist theories was rarely a focus), and a similarly small portion of “American” working and (more often) lower middle class types. The same would be true of African Americans. Small movements, Trotskyist movements, could be fierce in their learning and discussion of fine points, but remained few in numbers. Their collective compulsion for study and argument indeed seemed to be a factor in their small size.

By 1965, we have a middle class radicalism for which personal working class destiny is a stretch, if also definitely part of the basics of what the young Marxist would wish to believe. By that time and more so a few years later, radical bookstores with abundant used volumes sprung up around many campuses, in student areas, also university bookstores with left-sympathetic clerks served the same purposes: offering a larger variety of Marxists texts than ever before available, at pretty low paperback prices.

Young people, more often male than female and more often Jewish than gentile, at least in demographic terms, dug in, often learning between campus or community demonstrations. The first substantial Rosa Luxemburg anthology appeared in 1970 (it was a “Radical America Book” under the mr imprint) and this may be a good indication.

The Kerr Company and International Publishers published copies of The Communist Manifesto by the tens of thousands, mostly on assignment of college instructors. Small Marxist groups offered inexpensive pamphlets, their own versions of classics mostly not of the “theoretical” variety but sometimes rooted in factional disputes, and so on. These could be described as the salad days of the printed Marxist word, better in variety and style than even in the 1930s–40s, when the Left, at least the cp-oriented Left, had widely read magazines and active bookstores of its own.

It is intriguing that a large handful of older sds members, including myself and Carl Davidson, came into a political world of the later 1950s or early 1960s without political resources and read the Weekly People of the Socialist Labor Party. It was literate (edited by a former cab driver and repeated candidate for president), and suitable for someone “interested” in socialist ideas, if not for someone who sought real political activity beyond leafleting. Perhaps, I sometimes think, the student syndicalism of sds had an origin or relation to the semi-syndicalist, pre-1920 Wobbly sentiment still buried in later De Leonism. The generation only a few years younger would know nothing of this, but would find Fanon, Du Bois, James’s Black Jacobins and other books readily available, along with the memoir of Malcolm X and much else at hand. A visiting lecturer, Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn among others, would inspire a reading of their newer or older books.

All this bears only, it seems, a distant relation with the Maoist and Trotskyist worlds. But perhaps I am wrong. The reality that I perceived (or thought that I perceived) even a half decade later was that interest in Marxism became far more cerebral, mainly around the campus, and the audience far more limited. It was great, for instance, to have scholarship on radical phenomenology (during the brief leftward swing of Telos magazine) but this was not for everyone, to say the least. And it was over by the later 1970s.

We should not forget important exceptions: Madison, Wisconsin, Berkeley, Burlington, and a dozen other places where avowed radicals and even Marxists remained prominent, sometimes as elected city officials, just as often leaders of unions or even local labor federations. It was a little surprising to learn, by the 1990s, that Santa Cruz (“the other Madison”) had a city manager who also taught the basic Marxism course at the university! In such spots, where aging Old Left old-timers sometimes also retired, Marxism found new life in global support movements but also in lively discussions. How far did these penetrate the mysteries of Marxist theory? Not as far as in Greater New York—that would be the safest generalization.