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The New International, January 1941


John Melvin

Intellectual in Defeat


From New International, Vol.VII No.1, January 1941, pp. 10–13.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.


FOR MORE THAN fifteen years now Louis Hacker has been actively engaged in historical journalism, and for almost a decade he has been the mainstay of the Marxist school in American scholarship. It was hardly a matter of difficulty, then, to anticipate the substantial outlines of the book Hacker would write. It would be, as the body of his articles and reviews suggested, an attractive and formidable volume of rigorous economic analysis – in essence, to be sure, little more than a shrewd rewrite of familiar historical materials – yet nevertheless a very significant advance in American social science. Hacker’s whole career as a talented journalist and a facile Marxian theoretician had defined his future. And there were only a few real questions about the study of the development of American capitalist society that has been in preparation for some seven years. First, to what extent would Hacker (who has a glib new thesis for every occasion, and who on most problems in American history has over the years been dashing wildly in all directions) achieve a certain organic stability in historical interpretation by anchoring himself in original research? And second, to what extent would his Marxism hold up in a time of growing political reaction and in the face of depressing academic adversity? The Triumph of American Capitalism [1] which carries the story of the bourgeoisie through its banner nineteenth century, provides eloquent and instructive data for an answer to both questions.


It ought first to be said that Louis Hacker is not now, and never has been, in any real sense a scholar. He has yet to publish his first documented historical article; he has yet to show a sure command of anything beyond the general secondary and monographic materials. It would be a grave error to underrate the importance of this, to see in footnote documentation the mere meaningless insignia of the academician; for despite the abuses of myopic scholarship, it is in fact the measure of the competency and seriousness of the historian. In Hacker’s case the undocumented discursiveness explains the fundamental irresponsibility of all his writings. From his first article which appeared a great many years ago in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review (our first-ranking scientific journal of American history) to his latest. Hacker’s statements of both fact and theory have been shrouded in tentativeness and uncertainty. He has constantly to employ phrases like “... the chief preoccupation must have been ...” and “... we have every reason to assume ...” – and these are not stylistic elisions but simple signs of ignorance. His first thesis on The War of 1812 was a good guess. (Hacker’s work at its best consists of a body of shrewd, informed guesses.) There had been only the stale stereotype of “the impressment of American sailors” in the accounts of the causes of the War; but Hacker sensed that the dynamics of the international conflict were located, not at sea, but in the West, and consequently he contrived a story about “land hunger”. Subsequent scholarship substantiated the idea of a Western interpretation, but revealed that on all other matters he had been talking through his hat. Hacker had made his first mark in historical writing – and to the path of primary, scientific empirical investigation which he originally neglected he never returned.

Hacker’s real importance in American historical writing – and it is no little contribution –is his introduction with a certain sharpness and stylistic power of the basic theoretical concepts: merchant capitalism, industrial capitalism, bourgeois revolution, class power, and the like. And these he employed not as mere economic categories, but as the central pivots of social and political history. His general discussions of these problems could hardly be uninfluential as the new researches which Beardian history had stimulated got under way. But with the new terms and vocabulary of materialist interpretation Hacker himself has really done nothing more than toy and juggle a bit. Consider his variety of pieces on the American Civil War. Working essentially from Charles Beard’s remarkable chapters in The Rise of American Civilization, he has embraced and abandoned innumerable distinct and mutually incompatible theoretical positions. At one point (The Marxist Quarterly) the War turned on the overnight transformation of merchant capitalism into industrial form; at another, it became a war against Southern landlordism (a point which Hacker “illuminated” by a few handy references to the infinitely manipulable French Revolution); and at a third, the Civil War becomes the expression of the seizure of state power by an expanding industrial capitalism. This third, and present, position is surely the most accurate, but one can scarcely help feeling, after Hacker’s flights, that its relationship to the historical truth is almost purely coincidental. Again, on the matter of the Radical Republicans who pushed Lincoln forward and took over the reins in the Reconstruction days. Here were the militants of the American bourgeois revolution, men who freed the Negro chattels ... and enslaved the proletariat. The problem was: Were they heroes? At one point. Hacker insists that “the so-called ‘progressive tasks’ of the Radical Republicans were a sham and a deception”, and vigorously protests against the fixing of “revolutionary haloes over the heads of Stevens and his colleagues”; he finds that the presentation of the Radical Republicans as social revolutionaries in Mathew Josephson’s The Politicos makes “little or no sense”. At another point, he makes an important distinction between the Old Radicals (militant idealists like Stevens, Sumner, Schurz, Julian and Wade) and the New Radicals (corrupt bourgeois politicos like Roscoe Conkling, Sherman and Garfield). At the present point, he goes one step forward and sees the Old Radicals as heroic rebels and the New Radicals as renegades. Once again, this last revision corresponds more to historical accuracy; but once again, too, it seems more of a coincidental conversion to the truth than a conclusion based on a sure sense of the temperament, the mood, the values and ideals of the War protagonists.

It is highly unfortunate that Hacker has never sunk himself in the original materials of the historical drama, the letters, the debates, the diaries. It is this failure, in a sense, to “participate” in the actual historical experience which is responsible not merely for the systematic inconsistency in his work, but also for a certain barren schematism. Hacker makes very good outlines. But one never gets the feeling that here is an historian who is exhibiting the evidence and submitting both his data and interpretive judgments to be authenticated. One always senses the want of impact and energy in his work. He offers us skeletons, and the trouble is not only that skeleton lacks flesh and blood but equally that the frame can’t be given by a Hacker any dimension or balanced proportion of its own. Hacker simply doesn’t know, for example, whether the impulses of “material causation” in any given problem are of a selfish, calculating variety, or a kind of generalized political or ideological drive. Consequently, he is driven to speak loosely of the universal necessities of abstract economic system, and to effect transcendental transformations of whole societies in a sort of metaphysical magic. This, I feel, is why Hacker in the end is such a dull historian. Certainly he has none of the range or sensitivity, or even technical control, of a Mathew Josephson, though in many ways he is far more gifted. Narrow in method, he remains narrow in perspective.

And there is a moral too in this Hacker story. For there is a corrupt, and unfortunately not uncommon, notion in Marxist circles that historical materialism is to consist of a body of theoretical commentaries on the empirical materials which are to be laboriously collated, apparently on assignment from the Marxian deity, by the unworthy slaves of bourgeois historiography. One doesn’t have to say how alien Marx himself was to this tradition, or to recall how consistently Engels used to admonish the socialist intellectuals to devote themselves to original and scientific social research. No one knew better than the “old men” what life and movement the writing of history might have. And the mere lack of excitement is the measure of the ultimate difference between the sort of thing a Hacker goes in tor, and history written by a Trotsky.


Yet it would perhaps be ignoring some of the most serious and vital aspects of Hacker’s influence and reputation to see him as a mere historical technician. Hacker has been far more than that, for in a real sense he has been the historical conscience of the radical political movement in America. “The history of the United States,” he used to write, “is the history of revolution,” and the strength of that revolutionary tradition in our past he counterposed against the 20th-Century Americanism and “petty-bourgeois sloganeering” of the Earl Browders. “The problem of the immediate future,” Hacker said, “is not how to sustain an edifice whose foundation is slipping and which displays vital flaws in most of the parts of the superstructure; not where to continue patching farther or even what to salvage, but what to substitute.” He was concerned about “the building of a revolutionary party” and the achievement of “a militant peace program that will not be pacifist on the one hand and that will still make realizable the conversion of the imperialist war into civil war”. In a world of the decline and degeneration of capitalist society he saw only war abroad and reaction at home. And the hope? The hope lay only in the workers’ use of “mass power to free themselves from a system of production – the profit system – which was every day proving that it had outlived its usefulness.” Hacker, clearly, was not merely one of that familiar breed of academic Marxists, but a social revolutionist. With the publication of his new book. The Triumph of American Capitalism, Hacker has disowned that whole political and intellectual structure, and almost completely cut himself off from his past.

The case is not a rare or isolated one. Surely one of the most remarkable phenomena of our time has been the tragic collapse of that formidable revolutionary culture which was represented to one extent or another by men like Sidney Hook, Lewis Corey, and others. It they bore up under the long list of defeats of the revolutionary movement in Europe, they simply disintegrated with the onset of the war tensions and reactionary political hysteria. To the last man they became “intellectuals in retreat”. The times had tried their souls – and, after all, intellectual integrity and common honesty are saved these days at such a high cost of personal comfort and professional opportunity. So much of their work now stands exposed as irresponsible and unprincipled anti-Stalinism. And for middle-class intellectuals, who never really managed to break with the old society, there is now a prohibitive price on the old revolutionary poses, the familiar proletarian attitudinizing and literary gallantry.

In the case of Louis Hacker the break was equally drastic but the process was slow and gradual. For some years he has been speaking in softer, more hushed tones of American imperialism, and in strange new accents on the matter of American capitalist society. Here, at long last. Hacker makes his peace with the status quo. Capitalism, he now discovers and joyously proclaims, is to have a “new beginning” – it is to be “our servant and not our sovereign” – and it is heralding an economy of “abundance”! His volume ends with Andrew Carnegie and the rise of finance-capital at the turn of the century, but Hacker goes out of his way, with a shameless obtrusiveness, to append a commentary on contemporary America, announcing in grand organ-tones the news of his reconciliation. Yet, as a matter of cold fact, his whole historical study had prepared the path back to the middle-class.

ITEM 1: There is, first, throughout the whole volume a loose and sloppy employment of the concept of “capitalism”, and it almost appears as if Hacker were sedulously cultivating every possible ambiguity on the question. Precisely used, capitalism would refer to the particular modern form in which organized society has been developing, a ruling-class structure manipulating masses and economic potentials according to certain historical formulae of social exploitation. More broadly used, it refers to the whole society, the total cultural complex seen from a height which embraces in perspective all the existing class forces and struggles. The consistent confusion of the two has been the great historical error of liberal reformism. In every social crisis, the democrat pays his allegiance to the ruling class on the pretense of saving the progressive achievements of the “whole” society. So with Hacker, who now speaks in accents of thanks and appreciation for “our rich democratic heritage” which Capitalism Gave Us. If New York workers in the 1820’s and ’30’s militantly battle both Tammany and the Whigs at the polls and in the factories for a public school system, capitalism has given us free education. If the American proletariat gets its head smashed in bloody strikes and military riots in the struggle for trade-union organization and collective bargaining, capitalism has given us a free labor movement. No one for a moment denies that progress and reform have been by-products of the general development of capitalist society. But at every point they were fought for and earned in great historical mass movements. And it is that tradition of class struggle and plebian solidarity which Hacker disgraces and betrays in his anxiety to show deference to the status quo.

ITEM 2: Nor does Hacker confine his abandonment of a Marxian perspective to this erratic general outlook on social development. On the specific questions of war and fascism. Hacker is backfiring even more loudly. He just barely manages to catch himself on the first matter by noting in an offhand sort of way, “I cannot lose sight of the facts, obviously, that many of these democracies are really sated imperialisms and that at home the state mechanism has as its prime function the protection of the property relation.” A strange spectacle indeed: a Marxist graciously conceding truths to Marxism! The strong suggestion of pro-war defensism is reinforced by Hacker’s scrapping of the notion of the class character of the fascist state. What Italy and Germany are coming to is nothing less than “state socialism”. Obviously both the fascist demagogues and the Nazi theoreticians have been telling the truth about their ‘brave new world’ ...

ITEM 3: Precisely what Hacker accused Earl Browder of doing some four or five years ago is now suddenly legitimated. Browder starting out on a hunt for middle-class allies brought with him a knapsack full of new heroes, heroes of yesterday’s petty bourgeoisie, slogans of a bygone past. Now Hacker seems to be rushing back to the fold along the same road and with the same kit on his shoulder. The “American Tradition” embraces ... the Enlightenment ... Jeffersonianism ... Populism – a tradition and an idea, he writes with a rare optimism, “strong enough to withstand physical might ... and I firmly believe it will make us economically secure and keep us politically tree”. From an unexpected quarter indeed comes a new ally for the Stalinist and the bourgeois democrats.

ITEM 4: Apparently a little worried whether his little Popular Front could stand on its own legs. Hacker proceeds to throw a couple of capitalists into the front line. He manages to create an amazing moral contrast between the monopoly-finance capitalists (the Evil Ones, too, in the Nazi Primer) and “the expansive and progressive characteristics of free industrial enterprise”. As if the monopolists, from a capitalist point of view, did not mean greater efficiency, progress, expansion! And as if such a crudely-contrived fiction could gloss over the moral poverty of the pecuniary life, the disgusting money-grubbing of the Andrew Carnegies, who now become something of heroic pioneers. (Even Max Lerner was embarrassed by the apparent “apologetics”.) Once again Hacker is shamelessly abusing and exploiting a clear-cut Marxist idea. Marxists do recognize the progressive character of the expanding capitalist technology. But that certainly is a very shabby rationale for Hacker’s descent into the rhetoric of the Chamber of Commerce.

ITEM 5: To cap it all, Hacker appends a short chapter on some problems of contemporary capitalism, an essay which is typical of the character of the intellectuals’ retreat to the bourgeoisie. First, it is unnecessary – the confession is wholly gratuitous. Second, it is irresponsible – the repentance is hardly genuine when the sinner refuses to face his own past. Why trouble oneself with fifteen years’ work on the nature of modern social problems? Why bother with reconciling facts with theories and theories with conscience? Our’s is a social-service state. Our’s is a bright future. Capitalism is here to stay. Everything will work out all right ...

And apparently it is. The New York Daily News hailed the book gleefully, pointing to the author’s “brilliance”, “scholarship”, “reputation”, flaunting his thesis that American capitalism has wonderful things ahead. And then the jackpot: Allan Nevins, the stalwart of bourgeois orthodoxy who has been the whip against Charles Beard and all materialist tendencies in American historical writing, put his Columbia seal of approval on “a fresh and sound interpretation”. To the credit of Hacker’s “triumphant American capitalism” you can put down another little conquest – Louis Hacker himself.


1. The Triumph of American Capitalism, by Louis M. Hacker. Simon & Schuster, $3.00.

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