Mark Twain – The Reports Of His Sensibly Anti-Imperialist And Pro-Revolutionary Sympathies Are Greatly Exaggerated – 3 March 2013

I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately about Mark Twain – my interest in him being kindled again after watching an old episode of “Voyagers!” with my kids that features as a character an eleven-year-old kid version of Samuel L. Clemens. One of the articles I stumbled across on the internet is this lovely bit of disinformation from the Marxist Archives. (Actually, the Marxist Archives is usually a good place to find information rather than disinformation – it’s usually an archive that provides access to primary sources – that is, the original works of famous Marxists, and, indeed, the original works of many non-Marxists or Marxists-critical-of-Marxism as well. But this time it’s providing a nonsense article. Just so I’m clear about that.)

The point of this article is to claim a venerated American author as a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary and anti-imperialist. That he was, but this article represents him as if he were an unalloyed partisan of the good and the noble in his later years, after having been somewhat sullied by connections to slavery and the Confederacy in his early years. That’s the disinformation part. Twain’s revolutionary and anti-imperialist views were evidence of later-life dopeyness, not wisdom. Twain was capable of being wise on many matters, but these particular attachments of his were neither good nor noble.

The historical record on Twain’s political opinions had already been selectively culled for this article to provide only evidence that Twain agrees with the article’s author and was somehow a “forthright critics of American ruling-class ideology”. The real Samuel L. Clemens was a supporter of conservative Whigs and the nativist American Party (also known as the “Know-Nothings”) in the 1850s, the conservative-Whig-based Constitutional Union Party in the 1860 election (Twain said lovely things about Lincoln later, but Sam Clemens hadn’t voted for him), and was at home amongst the more Whiggish-nativist elements of the Republican Party after the war. In the late 1850s, Twain wrote approvingly of a group of Cincinnati residents who had applied a “hoss whip” to a Jewish person. In 1861, Clemens briefly joined a Confederate guerrilla group, but left quickly after the unit actually killed someone and fled to the western state of Nevada to work with his brother Orion.

Twain was later one of the “Mugwumps” who left the Republicans in 1884 to vote for the Democrats’ Grover Cleveland. (Twain voted for Cleveland all three times he ran for president, in fact.) On this basis, numerous of today’s libertarians claim him as one of _their_ own, since Cleveland’s “19th Century” or “Manchester” liberalism was essentially equivalent ideologically to what today’s libertarians think. The Mugwumps in general are also taken by today’s libertarians to be their forebears. (See David Tucker’s book _Mugwumps: Public Moralists of the Gilded Age_ for this interpretation. For that matter, see this article written by David Frum, a conservative, about how he would like to bring back the Mugwumps and claim them as a conservative/reformist movement: )

Here’s Twain himself making it clear he was a lot closer to a libertarian than a quasi-Marxist revolutionary, writing in 1867: “[T]he mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble…and there is great danger that our people will lose that independence of thought and action which is the cause of much of our greatness, and sink into the helplessness of the Frenchman or German who expects his government to feed him when hungry, clothe him when naked…and, in fine, to regulate every act of humanity from the cradle to the tomb, including the manner in which he may seek future admission to paradise.” Yes, that sounds like the views of someone who under normal circumstances would be entitled to positive press on a Marxist website…not.

Granted, the libertarians aren’t entirely right to claim Twain either, as Twain was assertively pro-labour union, something most libertarians are not. If a case is going to be made for Twain as authentically politically progressive, his very public support for the Knights of Labor should be considered. (This article does bring the subject up, but quickly glosses over the fact that the Knights of Labor was hardly a revolutionary organisation – it was, in fact, the textbook example of a reformist labour union.)

Anyway, never mind the anomalies and inconsistencies of portraying Twain as having constant or easily reconciled political opinions, this writer is determined to show us the Twain that, later in life, firmly spoke of his admiration for revolutions and proudly stood against imperialism. Okay, let’s have a look at the article’s examples.

I love this bit from the article: “Twain explained in 1900 how he went from praising to condemning the ‘American Eagle’: ‘(I used to be) a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific …Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? … I said to myself, Here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.'”

The specific example Twain chooses makes it clear that his earlier “red-hot imperialist” beliefs came from the earlier part of the McKinley administration, when the issue of whether the US should “spread its wings” over the Philippines was first raised. So, by Twain’s own admission, his anti-imperialist beliefs had been generated sometime within the four-year period between McKinley’s election in 1896 and 1900, when he wrote this. If this is true, then Twain’s anti-imperialism really only occupied the last ten years of a seventy-four-year life, as he died in 1910. Clearly this article is not filling us in on what he did with the other sixty-four years. However, Twain favoured the US’s participation in the Spanish-American War. He also favoured the US annexing the Hawaiian Islands, about as clear an example of geopolitically “imperialist” US territorial expansion as could be found.

Nevertheless, our article’s writer concludes from this sudden conversion and decade-long support of Twain’s for anti-imperialist causes, beginning in 1900, that “This is a voice that should be remembered and celebrated: anti-imperialist and revolutionary – this is the Twain of our tradition. If Twain were alive today, he would denounce the imperialists carving up Kosovo and killing Iraqis and Serbs in the name of freedom.” Sure, it’s obvious that we know that. Whatever. Like we can ever really know what Twain would have done in modern times, after his history of having changed his mind about numerous and sundry important issues of his day.

The article also makes a determined effort to claim Twain as a supporter of revolution – specifically in the sense of being an opponent of incremental reform. That’s absurd on its face, given his enthusiastic Mugwumpery and support for the Knights of Labor…no groups more committed to incremental reform could possibly have been imagined. But Twain talked big about revolution nonetheless: “My privilege to write these sanguinary sentences in soft security was bought for me by rivers of blood poured upon many fields, in many lands, but I possess not one single little paltry right or privilege that came to me as a result of persuasion, agitation for reform, or any kindred method of procedure.”

Here Twain is not only late to the game, as he was to “anti-imperialism”, but demonstrably foolish to have said such a thing. One of the topics Twain wrote on shortly before his death was the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia. Sensibly, Twain opposed the Czarist autocracy, but his faith in revolution as the answer seems, in the light of hindsight, ridiculous. Try reading this in light of your knowledge of the seventy-year Leninist autocracy that came to power after the subsequent revolution in Russia: “In response to Russian reformists who were afraid of revolution, Twain asked: ‘What is the Czar of Russia but a house afire in the midst of a city of eighty millions of inhabitants? Yet instead of extinguishing him, together with his nest and system, the liberation parties are all anxious to merely cool him down a little and keep him…When we consider that not even the most responsible English monarch ever yielded back a stolen public right until it was wrenched from them by bloody violence, is it rational to suppose that gender methods can win privileges in Russia?”

The prefacing of that particular Twain quote by the author of the article is especially chilling: “In response to Russian reformists who were afraid of revolution…” Everything we know about the successful revolution which took place in 1917 shows us that Russian reformists were utterly justified in being afraid of revolution! Not only is the author of this article discredited by such a horrifying utterance, but so too, if we are fair in the consideration of the matter, was Twain. He was completely and totally wrong about this, whatever the merits of his other opinions might have been.

Anyway, I felt I should share my ideas about this “Mark Twain they didn’t teach us about”…since it’s evident they still _aren’t_ doing much to teach us about him. It’s fine to take heart in many of the things he wrote so powerfully about, but he also had a lot of poorly-thought out ideas – and the record should be clear about those.

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2 Responses to Mark Twain – The Reports Of His Sensibly Anti-Imperialist And Pro-Revolutionary Sympathies Are Greatly Exaggerated – 3 March 2013

  1. You cannot say he was not, because he was, so instead you say he was old and stupid.

  2. I can’t “say he was not” – but he was an awful lot of things, this was just one thing he was. At other times in his life he was damn near the opposite.

    The point of my comments was that “anti-imperalist” lefties claim Twain for stuff he only actively believed the last ten years of his life, and after having believed umpteen different other things before that. You can claim him if you like. So can a lot of other people. What I’m disputing is that Twain was consistently in favour of the values of “anti-imperialism”. As you will note in my comments, I have a direct quote of Twain himself admitting to being, at one point, a “red-hot imperialist”. Seems like it’s an open-and-shut case, counselor. The guy changed his mind, a lot.

    Anyway, I wrote a balanced and fair commentary showing the evolution of Twain’s ideas over the course of his life, and I don’t have any reason to think what I said portrays him unduly in a negative fashion. What he wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn play in my mind a lot more than what he wrote in the sensationalist newspaper columns of his youth or the ill-advised Connecticut brahmin activism of his old age. There was much greatness in Mark Twain – I just don’t happen to think his ideas about imperialism or revolution are included in that.

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