Paul Mattick 1944

The Growth of American Thought (Review)

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, August 1944;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, August 2005.

The Growth of American Thought. By Merle Curti. Harper & Brothers, New York, 1943. (848pp., $5.00)

Well written, interestingly constructed and partly original in its researches, Curti’s book is nevertheless a dull affair. This is not the writer’s fault, but results from the fact that American thought has not grown in depth but has been a mere accumulation of detailed knowledge incapable of changing the general climate of opinion. Save in technology, the whole intellectual development from colonial times to the present war has not been very impressive. However unwillingly, Curti’s book demonstrates the intellectual poverty which accompanied the development of capitalism, directed, as it is, towards profit-making. It becomes clear that American thought was never anything but capitalistic thought. More than that, as far as thought is concerned, this nation proved itself to be the capitalistic nation per se. This resulted largely from the opportunity it had to rid itself quickly of feudalistic ideologies. Having in this sense no past, and having as yet no future, America presents itself as the first and the last word in human development.

Curti himself is not free from this attitude although he strives to be objective. Objectivity and publication are irreconcilables at the present time, and it is unfortunate for Curti that his critique of American society refers largely to the past. Although the present and the immediate future appear darker than ever, the book ends with an optimistic note in which the newer forms of human enslavement are mistaken for instruments of human emancipation.

Curti wanted to write a “social history” of American thought, but he succeeded only in writing a “social history” in so far as it enters the consciousness of the academic, liberal-capitalist mind. Although he deals with ideas and their development in the social milieu, the real relationship between this kind of thought, its growth, and the society in which it prevails remains hidden. The question of what is behind the social milieu is not even raised. The exploitative character of the social relations, the fetishism created by the capitalist production system, the discrepancies between thought and reality which make “progressive” forces “reactionary” and “reactionary” forces “progressive,” all these things go unnoticed. Curti merely acknowledges old and new ideas as so many new and different specimens of thought in a continuously enlarging and improving society which takes its class relations for granted.

For various reasons the book is worth-while reading nevertheless. It stresses, for instance, the frequently underestimated influence of non-English speaking peoples in the intellectual life of America, It deals interestingly with the clash between the Indian concept of collectivism and the capitalist mentality of the early settlers. The relations between Negroes and whites are treated with particular care. Inter-racial policies, it is demonstrated, are determined by the general tendency of the socio-economic development.

Following Curti’s outline, we learn again that American intellectual life prior to the revolution followed in the Christian tradition. The developing capitalist ideology found strong support in Franklin’s utilitarian conception of science. The Enlightenment did not touch religion, necessary as it is to keep the “rabble” orderly. All that was accomplished in this sphere was the acceleration of the separation of church from state. In reality, of course, this separation was only a kind of “division of labor,” for church, property, and state remained inseparable. The Natural Rights philosophy of the Enlightenment was put to work mainly to justify the revolt against England and to sanction the displacing of old property interests by new ones.

Curti sees the whole American development as a struggle between aristocratic and democratic values. He investigates the different historical periods from both these points of view. We learn that the conservative reaction to the Enlightenment favored a strong government in order to control men’s passions. In its opinion democracy was only the first step to anarchy. But decades elapsed before it was realized that John Adams’ attempt to establish titles for the President such as “His Elective Majesty” indicated not a mere title but a reality. The opinions of the conservative reaction on democracy, too, eventually had their way. In 1928 the United States Army Training Manual still defined democracy as “a government of the masses ... Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences, results in demagogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.” Likewise, in spite of their values, the democratic elements from the land-holding and slave-owning Jefferson down to the New Dealers of today have never failed to act aristocratically if necessary or when possible. After all, the struggle between these forces merely expressed antagonistic property interests and never touched the real social issue of capitalist exploitation. And thus modern democracy stems from both the “progressive” and the “reactionary” elements in capitalist society.

For the scholars, of course, the internal frictions and struggles of capitalism are just so many literary or academic trends. For this reason the “plain people” have taken, at various times, a more active role in intellectual life. At other times it has been the “business man,” and at all times of imperialist advance the military man has held the center of interest. To be sure, there have also been groups and individuals standing outside the main current of thought and opposing capitalism in all its aspects, yet these remained too insignificant to be representative of American thought. At any rate, these outsiders were soon brought back into the fold.

The internal and external expansion of capital found ideological sanction in evolutionary Darwinism and in its subtle American form, pragmatism. With capital accumulation and the need for industrial labor came the professionalization and popularization of learning. Reformism followed in its wake, with its by-product, the socialist critique. But all these were soon overshadowed by new triumphs of big business and the cult of success in the general competitive struggle. America appeared now as the “God-chosen to lead in the regeneration of the world.” Power politics became identified with moral righteousness. With few exceptions the intellectuals were in the forefront of an accelerated chauvinism that insisted upon America’s complete superiority to the rest of the world. Socialism practically disappeared from the scene; business was the only real democracy and the only brotherhood of man.

The great depression interrupted this process of self-inflation, or rather forced it into new channels. It appeared as a “new democracy,” as a “new interest in the lot of the common man.” This interest, fostered from above, does not, however, express a real opposition to the status quo. It indicates no more than a growing control of the rulers over the ruled. The New Deal did not, as Curti believes, “materially narrow the gulf between the more and the less privileged.” The gulf was widened still further.

The answer to the problems created by international capitalism and its expansion needs has been given by the present war. It is the climactic result of all previous capitalist history and of its growth of thought. Yet, despite all the proof that American thought reflects and has reflected the nation’s growth as a capitalist-imperialist power, Curti ends his book with the unfounded assertion that in “the traditional American love of individual freedom, opposition to regimentation, devotion to fair play, and the doctrine of live and let live, and, above all, loyalty to the ideal of moral law,” lie the reason for America’s participation in the present struggle “against fascism.”