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Marx and the American Economy

The Great Evasion

by William Appleman Williams
Quadrangle Books, 189 pp., $4.50

According to his publishers, William Appleman Williams “is thought by many to be one of the most influential historians writing in America today.” I would be curious to know how many people will be influenced by his latest book, The Great Evasion, a Marxian examination of American society, or as its subtitle explains, An essay on the contemporary relevance of Karl Marx and on the wisdom of admitting the heretic into the dialogue about America’s future. I must confess that I found the book itself vulgar, self-serving, imprecise, and shallow, but I found myself moved to reflection by the question the subtitle raises. Let me substantiate my unpleasant critical words as quickly as I can, and then pass on to the issue at point.

Vulgar (p. 62-3): “In Cuba, investments increased $344 million between 1950 and 1958, but American firms returned $378 million to the United States during the same period. Such sums of money are apt to be so far beyond the grasp of even we [sic] affluent Americans that it may help to translate a unit of $1 million into more familiar commodities. That sum in the United States would feed two adults and five children (including milk) for five thousand months. That is 417 years. Or, to be a bit frivolous, it would buy 143,000 fifths of Old Jack Daniels Black Label sippin’ whiskey. Even that figure is somewhat staggering; but if a man sipped a fifth a day, the supply would last him just shy of 400 years.”

Self-serving (p. 118): “Viewed as a social phenomenon, deliquency thus appears as an early, crude, and unconceptualized consciousness of the increasing proletarization of American society. The youth are in some respects rebelling against the acquiescence of the adults, as well as against their general loss of leverage within the structure of the system…One delinquent made the point this way:

Sure, man. Lotsa what we do is drag. We know it better’n you. Why ya think we end up rumblin’ so much. But, man!—what you squares do! That’s an even bigger drag. Mosta ya sit ‘round watchin’ things. Or bitchin’ at things without doing nothin. We’re at least movin’.”

The cut,” writes Williams in admiration, “goes to the bone.” Does it? Phony accent aside, what relation have these words with the charge of “increasing proletarianization”? Does not the complaint of this delinquent apply as cogently to a group of intellectuals gazing at Channel 13 as to the lower-middle class home at which it is presumably aimed? If the cut goes to any bone, it must be the wishbone.

Imprecise (pp. 169-70): “The crisis created by cybernated production is THE crisis of capitalism as defined by Marx…But capitalist leadership literally does not know what to do at this magnificent turning point in human history that was accurately foreseen by Karl Marx. (his italics)

But Marx did not foresee a crisis of “cybernated” production; he foresaw technological unemployment acting as a constant threat to expanded reproduction, which is a very different thing. It is certainly true that technological unemployment is a serious problem in America today. It is by no means certain, however, that this is mainly due to the increasingly “automative” aspects of machinery in those areas, like manufacturing, where technology continues to shrink the need for labor. I am inclined to trace a great deal of the displacement of labor to the entry of many kinds of machines, some as complex as computers and others as simple as vending devices, into those areas and occupations that have heretofore been by-passed in the general wave, of technical advance. This is further complicated by the entry onto the labor market of a wave of young jobseekers—the 1946 baby boom come of working age. No one in his right mind should underestimate these problems. But neither should anyone ascribe them in a vague way to the working out of Marx’s laws of capitalist motion.

While I am on the subject of imprecision, let me mention also this quote: (p. 83): “American capitalism has never since 1861 functioned effectively enough to decrease economic misery over any significant period of time, save as it has been stimulated by war or cold war” (his italics). I do not believe that any economic historian will corroborate this statement. It is generally believed that real wages between 1860 and the Spanish-American War (a one-year fillip) rose from 20 to 50 per cent, that hourly earnings between 1890 and 1914 rose by about 40 per cent, and that between 1920 and 1929 real earnings rose by about 25 per cent.* If Williams is correct in his assertions he might at least tell me where he gets his facts.

Shallow (pp. 12-176: “America’s great evasion,” we read in the initial paragraph of the book, “lies in its manipulation of Nature to avoid a confrontation with the human condition and with the challenge of building a true community.” But what is “the human condition,” or “a true community”? We do not have any clue from this book. The words appear from time to time as magic talismans, powerful incantations, but never as categories for serious social analysis. They are a means of damning the present by comparing it with an undefined state of social grace, comparable to the crude use of the religious terms sin and heaven to induce contrition and a sense of unworthiness. Indeed, what is lacking in this indictment is exactly what is lacking in the more doctrinaire religious excoriations of society—a sense of compassion. What are the possibilities for the “human condition” in an industrial setting? To what extent does the community determine the qualities of the individual lives lived within it? How rapidly can inherited ideas, folkways, mores be changed? On these important matters Mr. Williams has nothing to say.

So much for one of the most influential historians of our time. But this dubious and careless book raises a larger issue than that of its own merits. What of the question posed by the subtitle—the contemporary relevance of Karl Marx and the wisdom of admitting the heretic into the dialogue about America’s future? Is the failure of this book due to the personal failings of its author, or does it reflect a flaw inherent in the philosophy behind it?

In raising the question we can set aside arguments as to whether particular Marxian concepts, such as surplus value or alienation are useful guides for present-day thought. Rather, it would be more useful to inquire into the relevance of “Marxism” as loosely defined as possible—as an angle of social vision, a general animus for social criticism—rather than a specific body of principles.

Such a “Marxist” approach, however slavishly it follows or cavalierly ignores the traditional rubrics and vocabulary, invariably highlights certain aspects of social and economic reality. As in Williams’s book, it illuminates the relationship between the economic structures of nation-states, calling attention in this instance to the predatory role of the American corporation in the underdeveloped world. Again, as in Williams’s book, a general “Marxian” approach fastens on various aspects of economic dysfunction, calling attention, for instance, to the relatively rigid division of income shares in America, to the extent of poverty, to the privileges of the upper class. On the social front, the “Marxian” view emphasizes the crudity of values in a capital society, the deformation of human relationships before the relentless pressures of commercialism, the evidences of disaffectation that can be traced to the indifference or malfunctioning of the market system. Finally, not the least value of such a scrutiny is that it pins an ultimate responsibility for the existing social order, including its malfunctions, on those who most benefit from its existing arrangements.

Thus it should be clear that matters of the greatest importance spring to light from a Marxian examination of America, all the more so because they are so often slighted under a less radical scrutiny. But the trouble is, such a view of America is not the whole view. America’s relationship with the underdeveloped world is no worse (and it is perhaps better) than that of other dominant powers with weak nations—I am thinking of pre-capitalist Rome or Greece, nineteenth-century England, or of contemporary Russia or China. Nor can the corporation be thought of only as a predatory influence; after all, on net balance, American corporations have been adding to plant and equipment in the underdeveloped world, albeit much too slowly for the good of those lands.

At home it is of course true that there exists a broad stratum of anomalous poverty, but it is less and less functionally related to production (the poor today are not much of a reserve army pressing on the price of labor). And to counter-balance the poor, we have the affluent: one quarter of all city-dwelling families have today attained an income level of at least $10,000 a year. In like fashion, it is true that income shares have been static for twenty years, but it is also true that income levels have been steadily rising, for poor as well as for rich. Again, there can be no doubt that delinquency is some kind of social “disease,” and that the values of a consumption-oriented society are frequently sickening, but it is also true that the disease of delinquency seems to affect all nations today, capitalist and non-capitalist, and that consumption is a relatively mild and benign form of social activity, compared with a number of others I can think of. And as for the rich and powerful, whatever emphasis we give to their responsibility for the social order, must we not also accord some role to the wishes and appetities of the public who shares in the support of that order? Is not the public as eager to be corrupted as those in power to corrupt it?

Thus to me at least, America presents two aspects, much as those puzzles where a design, on being stared at, suddenly reverses itelf. Or if I may change metaphors in mid-paragraph, it is like the old riddle of whether the glass is half full or half empty. To approach American society a priori, that it is half full, is by insensible degrees to lose sight of the emptiness of the social condition, whereupon social criticism degenerates to the level of a company suggestion box. Per contra, however, to approach society with the conviction that emptiness is the ruling category risks losing sight of the fact that society is also half full. Social criticism then becomes distorted into social caricature.

It is, of course, the mingling of good and bad, remediable and irremediable, hopeful and hopeless, that gives to social inquiry its peculiar difficulties. Admittedly, to examine every enthusiasm and to ponder every indictment is to risk grounding social inquiry on the shoals of petty qualification. Perhaps it is here that a “Marxian” orientation can make its contribution by providing the passion to counterbalance the chill of thought.

Can such an appraisal of American society be made, at once indignant and measured, bold and yet juste? In his historical essays Marx showed what could be done, but his feat has yet to be duplicated here in our time.

  1. *

    The sources for these figures are Long, Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890; Rees, Real Wages in Manufacturing, 1890-1914; and Lebergott, Manpower in Economic Growth.

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