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 …

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