Remembering a Wobbly Surrealist
Rosemont was born into a working class family in Chicago, and at the age of seven he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, known colloquially as the 'Wobblies'. He would remain committed to the organisation for the rest of life, despite its steadily declining membership. Inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road, Rosemont left school at fifteen and hitched around America and Mexico, winding up in the Beat stronghold of San Francisco. During a subsequent journey to Europe he met the elderly Andre Breton, and became an instant convert to the Surrealist movement.
Upon returning to America Rosemont founded the Chicago Surrealist Group and began to produce poetry and visual art. Another key member of the group was Philip Lamantia, who had also graduated from the Beat movement to Breton's rather austere aesthetic.
I remember encountering the poems of Lamantia and other members of the Chicago Group during my undergraduate days, and being struck by how little they owed to the main tendency in American poetry in the '60s. While the Beats, feminist poets like Anne Sexton, New York School poets like Frank O'Hara and even doyens of the mainstream like Robert Lowell were trying to make their poetry casual and accessible, the American surrealists were churning out lines full of inscrutably strange images. Narrative and argument were rejected, because they were seen as impediments to the free expression of the subconscious mind. Although it was supposed to express the deepest impulses of its authors, the work of the American surrealists seemed to me oddly impersonal, and sometimes even cold. Perhaps Lamantia, Rosemont and co. were like the medieval mystics who tried to enquire so deeply into themselves that they would discover what was common to all humans. I must confess struggling to find much more than a tangle of incomprehensible lines and the occasional beautiful image in the work of Rosemont and his comrades. It was impossible not to admire the energy of the Surrealists, though, and the way that they tried to fuse their art with the radical politics which shook up the United States in the second half of the sixties.
Rosemont was a scholar as well as an artist and political activist, and from the seventies into the noughties he turned out a series of essays and books about the history of the labour movement in the United States and overseas. His biography of Wobbly martyr Joe Hill became popular amongst scholars as well as activists, and was eventually translated into French.
I am grateful to Rosemont for 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois', his long, stormy meditation on Marx's little-known Ethnological Notebooks.
The Notebooks, which were only published in 1974, were an aspect of the massive, unfinished researches into pre-capitalist societies that Marx began in earnest in the early 1870s and continued right up until his death in 1883. They document Marx's readings in the work of pioneers of anthropology like Lawrence Henry Morgan. Although Rosemont's subject might seem fusty, the opening sentences of his essay make it clear that he is offering something much more exciting than the average academic discourse:
There are works that come down to us with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for answers. Ralegh's so-called Cynthia cycle, Sade's 120 Days, Fourier's New Amorous World, Lautremont's Poesies, Lenin's notes on Hegel, Randolph Bourne's essay on The State Jacque Vaches War letters, Duchamp's Green Box, the Samuel Greenberg manuscripts: These are only a few of the extraordinary fragments that have, for many of us, exerted a fascination greater than that of all but a very few "finished" works.
Karl Marx's Ethnological Notebooks - notes for a major study he never lived to write - have something of the same fugitive ambiguity. These extensively annotated excerpts from works of Lewis Henry Morgan and others are a jigsaw puzzle for which we have to reinvent the missing pieces out of our own research and revery and above all, our own revolutionary activity.
Rosemont believes that the Notebooks represent Marx's move away from the Eurocentric perspective of the first edition of Capital, toward an appreciation of the importance of the struggles of the Iroquois and other indigenous peoples against the encroachment of capitalism on their world:
For Late Marx, the motto doubt everything was no joke. Or at least it was not only a joke.
This is especially noticeable in the last decade of Marx's life, and the Ethnological Notebooks are an especially revealing example of his readiness to revise previously held views in the light of new discoveries. At the very moment that his Russian "disciples" - those "admirers of capitalism," as he ironically tagged them-were loudly proclaiming that the laws of historical development set forth in the first volume of Capital were universally mandatory, Marx himself was diving headlong into the study of (for him) new experiences of resistance and revolt against oppression - by North American Indians, Australian aborigines. Egyptians and Russian peasants...
Late Marx emphasized as never before the subjective factor as the decisive force in revolution. His conclusion that revolutionary social transformation could proceed from different directions and in different (though not incompatible) ways was a logical extension of his multi-linear view of history into the present and future.
Rosemont urges the relevance of the Notebooks to fin-de-siecle struggles against globalisation and primitive accumulation in the Third World. In 'Late Marx and the Iroquois' Rosemont pays homage to EP Thompson, who had pointed to the importance of Marx's late work in his controversial 1978 polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'. Rosemont is less restrained than Thompson in his interpretation of Marx's fragmentary late texts, and his argument that the Ethnological Notebooks represent a complete repudiation of Capital is finally unconvincing. More careful scholars, like Haruki Wada and Raya Dunyaveskaya, have noted that Marx was reworking even the first, published volume of Capital right up until the end of his life, and incorporating his new insights into the book.
Rosemont also makes the mistake of equating Marx's views with Morgan's, when in fact the Notebooks contain criticisms of Morgan's tendency towards a stagist view of human development. Raya Dunyaveskaya has shown that Marx's criticisms were ignored by Engels when he used the Notebooks as a source for The Origin of the State, the Family and Private Property.
What 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois' lacks in scholarship, though, it makes up for in eloquence. In a memorable passage, Rosemont addresses some of Marx's latter-day academic disciples:
Despite their pompous claims, ninety-seven percent of the neo-Marxists are actually to the right of the crude and mechanical Marxists of the old sects, and the separation of their theory from their practice tends to be much larger.
Certainly the Wobbly hobo of yesteryear, whose Marxist library consisted of little more than the IWW Preamble and the Little Red Song Book, had a far surer grasp of social reality - and indeed - of what Marx and even Hegel were talking about-than today's professional phenomenologist-deconstructionist neo-Marxologist who, in addition to writing unreadable micro-analytical explications of Antonio Gramsci, insists on living in an all-white neighborhood, crosses the university clerical-workers' picket line, and votes the straight Democratic ticket.
I'm not sure if he would have approved, but I was proud to quote Rosemont's remarkable study of Marx's late work in my PhD thesis. Even if I couldn't appreciate the man's verse, I found a lot of poetry in his prose.