The phrase “American exceptionalism” has been much in the news ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times taking issue with President Obama’s statement that America’s foreign policy “makes us exceptional.” “I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism,” Putin countered. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
Putin’s comments revived an old discussion about the origins of the phrase. On Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall addressed an article by Terrence McCoy—”How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism’”—that appeared last year on the Atlantic’s website. And on Real Clear Politics, Robert Samuelson wrote that “the most interesting fact to surface in the ensuing debate over “American exceptionalism” is that the phrase was first coined by Putin’s long-ago predecessor, Joseph Stalin.” But should Stalin really get the credit?
First off, it’s important to note that “American exceptionalism” has moved through a few different historical waves (as linguist Mark Liberman observed last year in his piece, “The third life of American Exceptionalism“). The first wave was in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when American socialists argued over whether the United States was immune to what Marx thought was an inevitable move of capitalist societies toward communism by means of violent struggle. The second wave (the focus of Josh Marshall’s TPM post) came after World War II, when historians like Richard Hofstadter reframed the question of “American exceptionalism” in a more positive manner, as a way to explain how the U.S. had avoided the bloody conflicts experienced by Europe in the 20th century.
Most recently, as when “exceptionalism” became a buzzword among Republican presidential candidates in the last election, the term takes on highly patriotic overtones, resonating with Ronald Reagan’s image of the U.S. as “a shining city on a hill.” Republicans have faulted Obama for lacking faith in American exceptionalism, which may have encouraged his “exceptional” rhetoric in his address to the nation on Syria. That might play well for a domestic audience, but to Putin it sounded jingoistic.
But back to Putin’s predecessor, Stalin. McCoy’s piece for the Atlantic seeks to dispel the idea that Alexis de Tocqueville had something to do with creating the expression. (He did call the U.S. “exceptional” in Democracy in America, but not to imply that the country was somehow extraordinary, as Mark Liberman also noted.) In the place of the de Tocqueville myth, however, McCoy introduces another:
In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” And just like that, this expression was born. What Lovestone meant, and how Stalin understood it, however, isn’t how Gingrich and Romney (or even Obama) frame it. Neither Lovestone nor Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations—actually, the opposite. Stalin “ridiculed” America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of “exceptionalism,” Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview.
Stalin, to say the least, wasn’t happy with Lovestone’s news. “Who do you think you are?” he shouted, according to Ted Morgan’s biography of Lovestone. “(Leon) Trotsky defied me. Where is he? (Grigory) Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? (Nikolai) Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you! Who are you? Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives.”
While the heated exchange between Lovestone and Stalin is well-attested (it led to Lovestone’s expulsion from the Communist Party), it’s rather easy to debunk the notion that Stalin introduced the phrase “American exceptionalism” at this meeting. The biography cited by McCoy states that Lovestone and his delegation set sail from New York on March 23, 1929, and the delegation arrived in Moscow on April 27. Lovestone’s confrontation with Stalin had to have been after that date. But the earliest example given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from a few months earlier, in the Jan. 29 issue of the Daily Worker:
1929 Brouder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) 29 Jan. 3/2 This American ‘exceptionalism’ applies to the whole tactical line of the C.I. as applied to America. (This theory pervades all the writings and speeches of the Lovestone–Pepper group up until the present.)
And Lovestone may have been using the term earlier than that, as the OED also includes a bracketed citation from the Nov. 1928 issue of the Communist in which he lays out the “exceptionalism” thesis: “We are now in the period of decisive clashes between socialist reformism and communism for the leadership of the majority of the working class. This is in all countries of high capitalist development with the exception of the United States where we have specific conditions.”
If Stalin did indeed tell Lovestone (presumably through an interpreter) to end the “heresy of American exceptionalism” when they met in the spring of 1929, Stalin would have been throwing the phrase back at him rather than coining it anew, since Lovestone’s position on the matter had already been reported in the Communist press. Of course, that doesn’t make for as good a story. Then again, as long as Americans are feeling so patriotic in this latest wave of “exceptionalism,” why shouldn’t Americans get credit for coining the expression, rather than a French writer like de Tocqueville or a Soviet leader like Stalin?
Update: Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, notes on the American Dialect Society mailing list that “exceptionalism” was used to refer to the United States and its self-image during the Civil War:
“The Civil War in America,” Times (London), Aug. 20, 1861, p. 7
It is unfortunate for the United States that it has by turns affronted nearly every Government in Europe, and left to itself only the natural sympathies of the peoples for those who appear before them as the friends of liberty. There is one thing to be said about civil wars — they do not last long. It is probable that the “exceptionalism,” if one may use the word, on which the Americans rather pride themselves, will not prevail in the case of the struggle between North and South.
A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.