Left to Right & Wrong Both Ways
The late Eugene Genovese was a great historian -- but his political example? Not so much, says Scott McLemee.
An ancient and corny joke of the American left tells of a comrade who was surprised to learn that the German radical theorist Kautsky’s first name was Karl and not, in fact, “Renegade.” He’d seen Lenin’s polemical booklet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky but only just gotten around to reading it.
Eavesdropping on some young Marxist academics via Facebook in the week following the historian Eugene Genovese’s death on September 26, I’ve come to suspect that there is a pamphlet out there somewhere about the Renegade Genovese. Lots of people have made the trek from the left to the right over the past couple of centuries, of course, but no major American intellectual of as much substance has, in recent memory, apart from Genovese. People may throw out a couple of names to challenge this statement, but the operative term here is “substance.” Genovese published landmark studies like Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) and – with the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, his wife -- Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism, not score-settling memoirs and suchlike.
As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South -- developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”
Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.
He is listed as “Genovese, Gene” in the index to the great British historian’s Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002). Actually, now I have to change that to “the late, great British historian” Hobsbawm, rather: he died on October 1.
The two of them belonged to an extremely small and now virtually extinct species: the cohort of left-wing intellectuals who pledged their allegiance to the Soviet Union and other so-called “socialist” countries, right up to that system’s very end. How they managed to exhibit such critical intelligence in their scholarship and so little in their politics is an enigma defying rational explanation. But they did: Hobsbawm remained a dues-paying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it closed up shop in 1991.
The case of Genovese is a little more complicated. He was expelled from the American CP in 1950, at the age of 20, but remained close to its politics long after that. In the mid-1960s, as a professor of history at Rutgers University, he declared his enthusiasm for a Vietcong victory. It angered Richard Nixon at the time, and I recall it being mentioned with horror by conservatives well into the 1980s. What really took the cake was that he’d become the president of the Organization of American Historians in 1978-79. Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover had to be spinning in their graves.
When such a sinner repents, the angels do a dance. With Eric Hobsbawm, they didn’t have much occasion to celebrate. Though he wrote off the Russian Revolution and all that followed in its wake as more or less regrettable when not utterly disastrous, he didn’t treat the movement he’d supported as a God that failed. He could accept the mixture of noble spirits and outright thugs, of democratic impulses and dictatorial consequences, that made up the history he'd played a small part in; he exhibited no need to make either excuses or accusations.
Genovese followed a different course, as shown in in the landmark statement of his change in political outlook, an article called “The Question” that appeared in the social-democratic journal Dissent in 1994. The title referred to the challenge of one disillusioned communist to another: “What did you know and when did you know it?" Genovese never got around to answering that question about himself, oddly enough. But he was anything but reluctant He was much less reluctant about accusing more or less everybody who’d ever identified as a leftist or a progressive of systematically avoiding criticism of the Soviets. He kept saying that “we” had condoned this or that atrocity, or were complicit with one bloodbath or another, but in his hands “we” was a very strange pronoun, for some reason meaning chiefly meaning “you.”
What made it all even odder was that Genovese mentioned, almost in passing, that he’d clung to his support for Communism “to the bitter end.” If decades of fellow-traveling showed a failure of political judgment, “The Question” was no sign of improvement. His ferocious condemnation seemed to indicate that everyone from really aggressive vegans to Pol Pot belonged to one big network of knowing and premeditated evil. You hear that on talk radio all the time, but never from a winner of the Bancroft Prize for American history. Or almost never.
Recognizing that Genovese’s “open letter to the left [was] intended to provoke,” Dissent’s editors “circulated it to people likely to be provoked” and published their responses, and Genovese’s reply, in later issues. The whole exchange is available in PDF here.
Unfortunately it did not occur to the editors to solicit a response from either Phyllis or Julius Jacobson, the founders of New Politics, a small journal of the anti-Stalinist left, which has somehow managed to stay afloat since their deaths in recent years. (Full disclosure: I’m on its editorial board.) They read “The Question” as soon as it came out. If my memory can be trusted, one or the other of them (possibly both: they finished each other’s sentences) called it “blockheaded.” Coming as it did from septuagenarian Trotskyists, “blockheaded” was a temperate remark.
But Julius, at least, had more to say. He’d served as campus organizer for the Young Socialist League at Brooklyn College in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, when Genovese was there. They crossed paths – how could they not? – and Julius remembered him as a worthy opponent. Genovese could defend the twists and turns in Stalin’s policies with far more skill than most CP members and supporters, whose grasp of their movement’s history and doctrine boiled down to the sentiment that the Soviet Union was, gosh, just swell.
Julius was not prone to losing debates, but it’s clear that these ideological boxing matches went into overtime. Picturing the young Genovese in battle, I find the expression “more Stalinist than Stalin” comes to mind. But that’s only part of it. He was also -- what’s much rarer, and virtually paradoxical -- an independent Stalinist. He brought intelligent cynicism, rather than muddled faith, to making his arguments. An article by the American historian Christopher Phelps demonstrates that Genovese “knew full well and openly acknowledged the undemocratic nature and barbaric atrocities of the Communist states” but refused to “condemn their crimes unequivocally in his writings” and denounced anyone who did. “It serves no purpose,” Genovese wrote, “to pretend that `innocent' -- personally inoffensive and politically neutral -- people should be spared” from revolutionary violence. (Phelps was a graduate student when he published the commentary in 1994. Today he teaches in the American and Canadian Studies program at the University of Nottingham.)
Genovese wasn’t a political hack; his opinions had the veneer of serious thought, thanks in no small part to the fact that he also became an extremely cogent analyst of the history of American slavery. When he no longer had a tyranny to support, he “discovered” how complicit others had been, and began warning the world about the incipient totalitarianism of multiculturalism. His studies of the intellectual life of the slaveholding class began to show ever more evident sympathy for them – a point discussed some years ago in “Right Church, Wrong Pew: Eugene Genovese & Southern Conservatism,” an article by Alex Lichtenstein, an associate professor of history at Indiana University, which I highly recommend. Genovese’s scholarship has been influential for generations, and it will survive, but anyone in search of political wisdom or a moral compass should probably look elsewhere.
- Eugene Genovese, 1930-2012
- Quick Takes: Elizabeth Fox-Genovese Dies, Censorship Charge at Art Institute of California, Virginia Plans New Med School, Antitrust Issues and Workers' Rights, Incentives for Retention, Building American U. of Iraq
- Like a Rock
- Ambiguous Legacy
- The Re-Assassination of Leon Trotsky
- Speak, Memory
- Bad Scholarship, Bad Politics or Bad Luck?
- Festivus Cerebration
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