Review of "Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922"

Brian Lloyd’s book Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922 gives an intellectual history of the early socialist thought in America. He claims that too much of the historical writings on this period has taken for granted the Marxist nature of American Socialists by simply categorizing the two major tendencies into Reform and Revolutionary Socialism (ex: Ira Kipnis), and then begins with careful consideration of the thoughts developed within socialist journals such as the Masses, the New Republic as well as the “socialist” books published at the time.

From here the book begins with an exposition of pragmatism as conceived by William James and Dewey. Lloyd shows the differences between these two thinkers that have often been conflated into a singular “pragmatist school,” largely due to the work of the former to create a unique “American” philosophy, and how it is vastly different from the Marxist holism. These thinkers, defined as they are by empiricist epistemologies, focus on biological and cultural dispositions, functionalist psychologizing, positivism and, in the case of James, dualism. If this seems like a strange opening for a Marxist intellectual history of early American socialist parties, it is done so in order to show the heterodox and unstable nature of socialist ideology at the time.
These two liberal are shown to have greatly influence the intellectuals writing for the socialist press and Lloyd further demonstrates the authority upon which Spencerian notions of social/cultural development, Veblenian economic stages, Nietzschean and Bergsonian concepts of the Will/interest and Darwinian determinism affected the “scientific” theories emerged in Progressive and socialistic discourses. In addition to these divergences form Marxist thought, the various socialist parties would at times rely upon small-producer ideologies – as evidenced in the Granger movement and the farmers faction of the Socialist Party – in order to act as an organizing principle.

Several intellectuals prominent within the socialist discourses of the time are then brought under scrutiny to show how the intellectual framework they used was more inspired by pragmatist notions than Marxist ones. The explanatory concepts used by of Eastman, Fraina, Hillquist, Boudin, Seligman and others are shown to be amalgams of naturalistic science and bourgeiouse thought. Several of these supposed socialists actively seek to discredit Marx, either because he is “foreign” and thus unfamiliar with the U.S.’s unique conditions, or as he has been discredited by Bernsteinian notions of evolutionary socialism, or simply because he wrote in a time so far removed that his concepts no longer apply to the non-competitive capitalism of the time. There were even those that claimed that Marx was really a pragmatist and a positivist, and would cloak their language with the terminology of Marx in a ceremonial fashion but really then would combine empirical data and the highly subjectivist new psychology within a framework of economic determinism that has naught to do with Marx.
It is from this exegesis that Lloyd pulls out how it should have been no surprise how all of the aforementioned socialist intellectuals were pulled into the nationalistic and xenophobic discourses justifying repressive social measures under the auspices of liberal values and crypto-imperial aspirations at the beginning of World War I. By exhaustingly limning the conceptual limits of hayseed empiricism, practical idealism, inchoate liberalism, “great men” theories, economic monism, etc. that characterized American “Marxism” and the Second International, their policies of exceptionalism become more understandable. As can readily be understood from the above, not only is their understanding of the path towards socialism completely divergent from the epistemological-ontological philosophy of Marx and instead steeped in exceptionalism, but the ramifications of such a position are then shown after the October Revolution. Many of the above thinkers go from Socialists to Anti-Communists, some of who became employed within various levels of government as political advisors to Woodrow Wilson.

The last 50 pages of the book outlines in broad detail the Marxist-Leninst position on a Socialist movement and provides a philosophical counterfactual to the projects of the various socialist groups. Lloyd is careful to state that he does not claim that were these American “revolutionary” organizations to adopt a dialectical and historically materialist ideology they would have been successful. He does, however, describe a clear contrast to the various pseudo-Marxisms and their myriad blind-spots. While this is done throughout the book as well, here we see a systematic presentation of the poverty of American Marxist thought.