The Persistence of Exceptionalism: Class Formation and the Comparative Method



A true historical perennial, American exceptionalism shows no signs of losing its emotive power. Despite the institutionalisation of social history and the growth of rigorously comparative fields of enquiry, exceptionalism continues to beguile, frustrate, and excite students of the American past. Declared dead at periodic intervals, this is a corpse that continually springs back to life, calling forth defenders and detractors from successive generations of historians.


Class Formation Labour Movement Comparative History White Supremacy Class Consciousness 
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  1. 1.
    See, for instance, Byron E. Shafer, ed., Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism (Oxford, 1991);Google Scholar
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  5. 2.
    The classic statement on the frontier is Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York, 1963); for the federal structure of US politics, see Theodore J. Lowi, ‘Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? A Federal Analysis’, International Political Science Review, 5 (1984); and for social mobility see Stephan Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City (Cambridge MA, 1964); see also his ‘Working Class Mobility in Industrial America’, in Melvin Harris, ed., Essays in History and Theory (Cambridge MA, 1970). For the liberalism formulation, the foundation text is Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (New York, 1955); but see also Daniel J. Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (Chicago, 1953). For immigration, the most provocative argument is found in Aileen S. Kraditor, The Radical Persuasion, 1890–1917: Aspects of the Intellectual History and the Historiography of Three American Radical Organizations (Baton Rouge, 1981); see also Gerald Rosenblum, Immigrant Workers: Their Impact on American Labor Radicalism (New York, 1973). The consequences of overwhelmingly Catholic immigration are taken up in Mike Davis, ‘Why the US Working Class is Different’, New Left Review, 123 (1980) reprinted in his Prisoners of the American Dream (London, 1989). A sweeping argument about race and American distinctiveness is Michael Goldfield, ‘The Color of Politics in the United States: White Supremacy as the Main Explanation for the Peculiarities of American Politics from Colonial Times to the Present’, in Dominick LaCapra, ed., The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance (Ithaca, 1991).Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (London, 1973), 884; this passage continues, rife with exceptionalist tropes: ‘where the state in contrast to all earlier national formations, was from the beginning subordinate to bourgeois sovereignty, to its production, and never could make the pretence of being an end-in-itself; where, finally, bourgeois society itself, linking up the productive forces of an old world with the enormous natural terrain of a new one, has developed to hitherto unheard-of dimensions and with unheard-of freedom of movement, has far outstripped all previous work in the forces of the conquest of nature, and where, finally, even the antitheses of bourgeois society appear only as vanishing moments’.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    This point is developed by Daniel T. Rodgers, ‘Exceptionalism’ (paper delivered at the Scuola Superiore di Studi Storici, Universita di San Marino, June 1995), 18–19. Rodgers writes: ‘Without a feudal past, the inner, dialectical engine of history had no purchase in America. No Robespierre, no de Maistre, no Marx, no Goebbels, no Stalin, only (in the shorthand Hartz affected) an eternal, changeless Locke. Other nations went through the throes of the twice-born, but the Americans, by the chance conditions of their founding, had slipped free of the underlying motor of historical change itself. Starting differently, they were fated to be eternally the same: eternally different from everyone else.’Google Scholar
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    Eric Foner, ‘Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?’, in Jean Heifer and Jeanine Rovet, eds, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (Paris, 1983), 55–65, quotation 56. Recent scholarship on the American socialism, let alone the larger radical tradition, is too voluminous to note here; three works exemplify this line of enquiry: James Green, Grass Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943 (Baton Rouge, 1978); Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920 (Urbana, 1981); and especially Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Urbana, 1982). See also Paul Buhle’s provocative but idiosyncratic study of the interaction between indigenous radicalism and European socialism, Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left (London, 1987).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    See, for instance, Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (New York, 1972); andGoogle Scholar
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  11. 8.
    The labour economists at the University of Wisconsin who pioneered the field of US labour history in the early twentieth century adopted an institutional approach that focused almost exclusively upon unions and collective bargaining. Downplaying social forces, and unconcerned with social and cultural history, they produced a history of the labour movement that championed its ‘job consciousness’ and resistance to radical ideologies. See John R. Commons et al., History of Labor in the United States, 4 vols (New York, 1926); the theoretical underpinnings of this approach were made explicit by Selig Perlman in A Theory of the Labor Movement (New York, 1928). See also Maurice Isserman, ‘“God Bless Our American Institutions”: The Labor History of John R. Commons’, Labor History, 17:3 (Summer 1976). For an assessment of the ‘new labor history’s’ revisionism, see David Brody, ‘The Old Labor History and the New: In Search of an American Working Class’, Labor History, 19 (1979).Google Scholar
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    For caustic, and exaggerated, treatment of this dynamic see Michael Kazin, ‘Struggling with Class Struggle: Marxism and the Search for a Synthesis of US Labor History’, Labor History, 28:4 (Fall 1987).Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge MA, 1976), 70–72 (quotation 70). See also Alan Dawley, ‘E.P. Thompson and the Peculiarities of the Americans’, Radical History Review, 19 (Winter 1978–79).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Sean Wilentz, ‘Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement’, International Labor and Working Class History, 26 (Fall 1984), and responses in the same issue, as well as Steve Sapolsky, ‘Response to Sean Wilentz’s “Against Exceptionalism”’, International Labor and Working Class History, 27 (Spring 1985). See also Sean Wilentz, ‘Artisan Origins of the American Working Class’, International Labor and Working Class History, 19 (Spring 1981), especially the concluding comments on page 20; and Wilentz, ‘Artisan Republican Festivals and the Rise of Class Conflict in New York City, 1788–1837’, in Michael H. Frisch and Daniel J. Walkowitz, eds, Working-Class America: Essays on Labor, Community, and American Society (Urbana, 1983).Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    For precisely this sort of comparison by a historian of France, and one in which Wilentz’s argument fares rather poorly, see B.H. Moss, ‘Republican Socialism and the Making of the Working Class in Britain, France, and the United States: A Critique of Thompsonian Culturalism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 35:2 (April 1993). See also the piece by the German historian Friedrich Lenger, ‘Beyond Exceptionalism: Notes on the Artisanal Phase of the Labour Movement in France, England, Germany and the United States’, International Review of Social History, 46 (1991).Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Aristide R. Zolberg, ‘How Many Exceptionalisms?’, in Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds, Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (Princeton, 1986), 397.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    For elaboration upon these considerations, see John Breuilly, Labour and Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Europe (Manchester, 1992), 1–5; andGoogle Scholar
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  19. 18.
    See, amongst many, Hans Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire, 1871–1914 (Leamington Spa, 1985); Fritz Fischer, From Kaiserreich to Third Reich: Elements of Continuity in German History (London, 1986); and Barrington Moore, Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Makine of the Modern World (Boston. 1966).Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    The essence of the crudely exceptionalist position is advanced in A.J.P. Taylor, The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1918 (London, 1945).Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Ralf Dahrendorf, Society and Democracy in Germany (London, 1979), 1– 16; see the more precise reformulation in David Blackbourn and Geoffrey Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth Century Germany (Oxford, 1984), 7.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    For the classic debate on English exceptionalism, see Perry Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 23 (January–February 1964);Google Scholar
  23. Tom Nairn, ‘The English Working Class’, New Left Review, 24 (March– April 1964);Google Scholar
  24. Nairn, ‘The Nature of the Labour Party’, New Left Review, 27/28 (September–October/November–December 1964);Google Scholar
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  26. 23.
    George M. Frederickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York, 1981);Google Scholar
  27. John W. Cell, The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South (Cambridge, 1982);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Stanley B. Greenberg, Race and State in Capitalist Development: South Africa in Comparative Perspective (Johannesburg, 1980); and most recentlyGoogle Scholar
  29. Fredrickson, Black Liberation: The Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (New York, 1995).Google Scholar

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© Rick Halpern and Jonathan Morris 1997

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