The Limitations of the Marxist Approach to Writing History: David R. Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness

by | Dec 23, 2005 | POLITICS

Ever since Karl Marx wrote about communism as “the end of history,”[1] there have been historians fascinated by his suggestions on how they should be working towards that end. Many have studied and taken up his methods of looking at the past, implicitly accepting (perhaps unwittingly or even unwillingly) the underlying point that, as Keith […]

Ever since Karl Marx wrote about communism as “the end of history,”[1] there have been historians fascinated by his suggestions on how they should be working towards that end. Many have studied and taken up his methods of looking at the past, implicitly accepting (perhaps unwittingly or even unwillingly) the underlying point that, as Keith Windschuttle has put it, “Under Marxism, history would end with the achievement of a universal, communist society that would finally abolish the class distinctions that had themselves driven the historical process.”[2]

An interesting progression in the Marxist historical approach has been forwarded by historian David R. Roediger in his book, The Wages of Whiteness, in which he applies Marxist methods to the study of the concept of “whiteness” among the working classes of American cities in the nineteenth century. Despite an interesting thesis, the weaknesses of his Marxist method ultimately and fatally cripple his argument in a number of ways. The most obvious flaw, which Roediger does not even attempt to hide, is that he explicitly states his motivation for writing the book as being drawn from contemporary political events and a desire to effect some sort of contemporary political change. This is hardly the kind of inspiration one should want to see for an attempt at serious historical scholarship. Another problem with his argument is his recurring attempt to castigate the historical actors he is examining for not living up to Marxist ideals, much the same way Marxists had castigated workers in World War I for being blinded by nationalism, but in Roediger’s case the phantom menace is race. Lastly, the fundamental flaw of Roediger’s efforts is the logical flaws within Marxist historical theory itself, making the entire endeavor an exercise in futility.

Roediger starts The Wages of Whiteness innocuously enough, alluding to his animating impetus as an historian as an effort “to combine commitment, principle, and scholarship.”[3] The full meaning of this phrase becomes clearer when one reads the book, but one need not rely on inference to get at why Roediger wrote it or why he takes the positions he does, because he is quite upfront and honest about it. He says in his afterword to the revised edition that, “Almost all of the much-heralded recent outpouring of historical writing on whiteness in the US has come from activist scholars deeply indebted to Marxism and committed to seeing workers as central to progressive political change. This is true of Saxton, Allen, Ignatiev, Lott, Karen Brodkin, George Lipsitz and myself.”[4] Even more enlightening and, perhaps, more shocking is his subsequent affirmation that he had, “Written in reaction to the appalling extent to which white male workers voted for Reaganism in the 1980s.”[5] Regardless of what one thinks of “Reaganism,” it is highly problematic that an historian would write a book partly out of his negative reaction to how he thinks people should have acted towards contemporary political figures. This is no surprise by the end of the book however, for his argument is interspersed with the exact same negative reactions to how workers in the nineteenth century actually acted. The reason for this disappointment has two probable causes, the first being the most obvious, that workers in the nineteenth century acted in a shameful manner in issues concerning race. The second cause for his negative reaction is his disenchantment with the inability of the workers, white and black, to unite in a common front against the “dictatorial powers”[6] of capitalists.

The theme, which is common throughout the work, that conceptions of race, particularly “whiteness,” prevented labor unity is itself common to Marxists, though often in regard to a wider gamut of dividing lines among workers like nationality, religion, etc. This disappointment in his subjects, the white workers of nineteenth century America, leads Roediger to conclude rather anti-climactically that the whole concept of “whiteness” is “a bad idea.”[7] This familiar frustration of Marxists harkens back famously to World War I, when workers of different nations did not unite as Marx and Engels suggested they do in The Communist Manifesto, but instead went to war with each other under the banners of their respective homelands. Roediger brings up an earlier American Marxist, W.E.B. Du Bois, in order to illustrate this point further,

“Du Bois argued that white supremacy undermined not just working class unity but the very vision of many white workers. He connected racism among whites with a disdain for hard work itself, a seeking of satisfaction off the job and a desire to evade rather than confront exploitation. Du Bois held that this would have been a better and more class-conscious nation and world had the heritage of slavery and racism not led the working class to prize whiteness.”[8]

Roediger then finishes up the point by stating that he plans to present this failure of the working class in a way “more tragic than angry.”[9] [Italics mine] The question arises; why is this dichotomy presented? Why should the failure of workers to do something together against any perceived wrongs be viewed first and foremost by the historian as a tragedy or something to be upset about (as if the historian can correct any perceived historical wrongs at all, let alone by writing “angry” history)? The answer is quite simple in Roediger’s case; his Marxism requires disappointment and lamentation over this missed opportunity for proletarian unity. Examples of this dismay crop up throughout, for instance he concludes one chapter by saying, “Only with Black emancipation could a more straightforward critique of wage slavery, and a fierce battle over the meaning of free labor; develop. By that time, the importance of a sense of whiteness to the white US worker was a long-established fact, not only politically but culturally as well.”[10] This conclusion assumes many things that Roediger never establishes, such as the existence, not to mention a coherent definition, of “wage slavery.” The fact that workers in the nineteenth century and in the 1980s did not react to events and figures the way Roediger thinks they should have acted according to his own appraisal of their interests is irrelevant to anything he is writing about as an historian. The fact that he keeps bringing it up only serves to demonstrate the weakness of the Marxist approach in its fixation on how things should have happened as opposed to how they did happen.

Finally, there are the underlying assumptions of Marxist historical theory and their logical incongruence which makes Roediger’s efforts nearly fated for failure. David Hackett Fischer, in his book Historians’ Fallacies, captures something of the essence of where Roediger goes wrong when he writes,

“The pragmatic fallacy selects useful facts–immediately and directly useful facts–in the service of a social cause. Most historians hope their work is, or will be, useful to somebody, somewhere, someday.

Alexander Marriott is currently a graduate student of the early republic at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He earned his B.A. in history in 2004 from the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, where he was an Op-Ed columnist for the UNLV Rebel Yell. Marriott grew up in Chicago and lived in Saudi Arabia for four and a half years and has resided in Las Vegas since 1996.

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