Departmental Theme: Marxism in the U.S. and the Insecurity of “Progress”

Today, we are happy to feature some thoughts on the departmental theme, Security/insecurity, from one of our American Studies instructors, Sean Cashbaugh, who is currently teaching a course on Marxism in American Culture.

sean

In the first section of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously explore the historical emergence of capitalism via the rise of the bourgeoisie, the class that wrestled the western European world away from feudalism and built it anew in capitalist terms. Upon reading it, one gets the sense that Marx and Engels were in awe of the bourgeoisie, impressed with their historical accomplishments, but also utterly terrified, as they were roundly critical of the incredible costs of their incessant drive for profits, and their drive for new means of generating them. In a famous passage, they write:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.  All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

I’ve always read this passage as a description of what life under capitalism feels like. It’s a commentary on the profound sense of insecurity economic “development” and “progress” generate, on the sense of disorientation and uncertainty felt by those subjected to and exploited by the whirlwind of capitalism’s expansion. Though Marx and Engels wrote of the tumultuous world of 1840s Europe, it’s not hard to think of life in twenty-first century America in these terms: when information travels at light speed, when economic forecasts seem dismal, and when there’s no foreseeable end to U.S. led military conflicts, it’s difficult to imagine anything “solid” at all. I suspect it’s a feeling that resonates with the youth of today, especially when secure images of the future seem difficult to sustain in light of the aforementioned pressures.

Since its emergence, Marxism has grappled with these processes, and Marxists have attempted to understand and change such conditions. Marxism has a long history in the United States – it is difficult to imagine the twentieth century looking as it did without it – but it’s a history that many have ignored, suppressed, or dismissed as irrelevant or downright dangerous, a threat to national security. In Marxism and American Culture, we engage with this history in America, exploring the writings of Marx, as well as their reception, circulation, and transformation in the United States. Ideologies of race, gender, and nationality shape this history. To explore it in all its complexity, students in my class read diverse works of Marxist theory from throughout the American twentieth century, such as the writings of C. L. R. James and Subcommandante Marcos.  We read novels that draw upon, expand, and critique Marxist themes like Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio: From the Thirties. I also push them to think through Marxism: they examine popular cultural texts like Jaws and we consider what Marxists have argued about such texts. In the end, it is a course that seeks to explore and complicate the relationship between two things: this “thing” called “Marxism” and this “thing” called “American Culture.” As my students have said, those “things” resist any certain definition, and the relationship between them is less stable, less secure than you would expect.

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