[Marxism] 2 takes on Eugene Genovese

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 3 07:11:20 MDT 2012

Intellectual Affairs
Left to Right & Wrong Both Ways
October 3, 2012 - 3:00am
By 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.


(This is from the New Republic, a shitty rightwing DP magazine so be 


 From Radical to Right-Wing: The Legacy of Eugene Genovese

     Steven Hahn
     October 2, 2012 | 3:21 pm

Eugene D. Genovese, who died on September 26 at the age of 82, arrived 
at the University of Rochester in 1969 amid a swirl of controversy. 
Several years earlier, while on the faculty of Rutgers University, he 
had ignited a political firestorm when he publicly welcomed a Vietcong 
victory in the Vietnam War. Some New Jersey officials, including a 
Republican candidate for governor, called for his dismissal and even 
Richard Nixon denounced him. Ironically, after a brief stint at Sir 
George Williams University in Montreal, Genovese was hired by 
Rochester’s Republican president to chair a history department with an 
assortment of left-wing faculty and graduate students. As a political 
activist myself and an undergraduate at Rochester, I was attentive to 
the buzz and, a few years later, as a junior, enrolled in Genovese’s 
course on “The Rise of Modern Capitalism,” despite hearing that he was 
extremely tough.

Tough Genovese was, especially on left-wing students who figured they 
might have the favor of a fellow radical. He routinely handed out Ds and 
Fs to nearly half the class, and leftists who didn’t cut it would not be 
spared. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer power and inspiration 
of his teaching. With a few note cards in hand, Genovese delivered 
brilliant, wide-ranging lectures on early modern Europe (not his 
specialty), the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the crisis 
of the 17th century while pacing back and forth in front of the room. He 
exuded confidence, erudition, and intense political commitment, and he 
sent a powerful message to those, like myself, who were desperately 
searching for socially and politically meaningful things to do: that 
intellectual work was immensely valuable to any movement for change; 
that the only politically useful scholarship was scholarship of the 
highest order; and that if we studied hard enough, read broadly enough, 
and thought deeply enough we would write the sort of history that made a 
difference. For me, nothing would be the same again.

Eugene Genovese’s scholarship made an enormous difference despite the 
challenges that he faced. As a self-proclaimed Marxist, he had to make 
his way through an unreceptive professional discipline – history – in a 
country still feeling the effects of McCarthyism, and he took on one of 
the central areas of historical interpretation, the coming and 
significance of the Civil War. What got him a hearing and then the 
notice of distinguished historians like C. Vann Woodward and David 
Potter was the breadth of his research, the clarity of his arguments, 
and the respect he paid to intellectual adversaries (sometimes more than 
they deserved). At a time when most scholars thought the debates over 
the Civil War had largely been resolved and a “consensus” interpretation 
reigned supreme, Genovese wrote of a fundamental, and revolutionary, 
battle between two different and increasingly antagonistic societies: a 
bourgeois North and a pre-capitalist South. In a series of immensely 
influential books – especially The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), 
and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) – he insisted that slavery 
established the foundation of a radically different order in the 
southern states, limited the course of southern economic development, 
and gave rise to a pre-bourgeois ruling class that fashioned a 
distinctively reactionary world view. These were perspectives and 
concepts that had little familiarity among American historians, who 
tended to be cautious and hostile to social theory, but within 
relatively short order they were framing a new and energetic discussion 
about slavery, the South, and the Western Hemisphere. To this day, the 
fields of southern and United States history show the effects.

Yet no book of Genovese’s has had the impact of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The 
World the Slaves Made (1974). A long, complex, almost Hegelian treatment 
of the master-slave relation – and of the dynamics of power that were 
embedded within it – Roll, Jordan, Roll is a study of intense struggle, 
unfolding over decades, that enabled slaveholders to establish political 
and cultural hegemony but also enabled slaves to claim basic rights for 
themselves and room for their communities. At the book’s center is slave 
religion, at once a concession to the cultural authority of the masters 
and a celebration of the slaves’ solidarity, spirituality, and 
destiny--a measure of the contradictory character of the slave regime. 
Replete with comparative and international references, political 
allusions, and literary flourishes, Roll, Jordan, Roll may well be the 
finest work on slavery ever produced.

But it, along with the rest of Genovese’s early work, had serious 
critics, especially on the left. While acknowledging his analytical 
skills, many felt that Genovese was too admiring of the slaveholders’ 
power and too dismissive of the slaves’ rebelliousness; too interested 
in class and not sufficiently interested in race; too focused on the 
pre-capitalist features of southern society and the paternalist ethos of 
the masters; and too blind to the capitalist impulses of an intensely 
commodified world.

As it turned out, this was only an aspect of a deepening rift between 
Genovese and much of the academic left in the United States. Genovese 
could express impatience if not contempt for the efforts of leftist 
historians to excavate radical traditions or identify working-class 
resistance or demand political accountability on the part of 
universities, and he did not hesitate to criticize them in public while 
heaping praise on conservatives. The growing impasse was cultural as 
well as political and, without doubt, profoundly psychological. And it 
undermined some of the most promising intellectual projects in which 
Genovese engaged, including the journal Marxist Perspectives, which he 
helped to found and soon thereafter effectively detonated.

Certainly by the 1980s, Genovese – together with his wife, the historian 
Elizabeth Fox Genovese – were publicly moving to the right. They came to 
denounce feminism, socialism, abortion rights, political correctness, 
and lax standards in the universities. They embraced conservative 
Catholicism and remarried in the Catholic Church. They supported or 
spoke favorably of a variety of right-wing causes, and advanced 
something of a corporatist critique of free-market capitalism. Genovese 
even appeared in the pages of neo-Confederate publications – the 
Southern Partisan for one – that on occasion defended slavery.

Some have argued that the rightward shift was more apparent than real, 
that Genovese’s loyalties to the left were always suspect (despite his 
time in the Communist party as a teenager), that his conservative 
leanings were ever present, that his Stalinist tendencies in 
professional and intellectual life could at any point be peeled back to 
reveal the hulk of conservative authoritarianism. Perhaps. But the 
picture is a confusing one. Although much of Genovese’s scholarship over 
the last three decades has been given over to the “conservative 
tradition” in the South, especially in its religious and theological 
dimensions, one of his most recent works, The Mind of the Master Class 
(2005) – coauthored with Fox-Genovese – could surely have been written 
by the Genovese of the mid-1970s: attentive to class and political 
economy, to the dialectics and contradictions of intellectual 
expression, to the slaveholders’ complex struggle with modernity.

What seems clearer is Genovese’s tragic self-marginalization. Although 
he probably had a larger international reputation than any of his 
contemporaries in the historical profession, he had relatively few 
graduate students over the years and never held a post at a major 
university. By the mid-1990s he all but evaporated, save for an 
occasional appearance before a conservative audience or organization. 
Why? The truth is, for all his brilliance he was also personally 
demanding, self-referential, and self-destructive. As an awe-struck 
undergraduate I nonetheless had a sense that it might dangerous to fall 
into his personal orbit. And when, for personal reasons I briefly did, I 
learned the hard way that my young sense was correct.

Yet, for all of that – perhaps in part because of that – Genovese was 
one of the towering historians of the past half century. His work 
electrified historians and intellectuals on the left, introducing many 
of them to Marx and Dobb and Gramsci, and it shook the landscape of what 
had been a mostly complacent profession, staunchly resistant to the very 
sort of things he was trying to do. His contributions, especially during 
the decade and a half between 1965 and 1980, will be lasting ones. I 
shall always teach his books and grapple with the ways he analyzed power 
and change in the explosive history of slavery and emancipation. But as 
much as anything else, when I prepare to walk into class and think about 
how to present the past and make a difference for my students, I’ll 
invariably think about the difference he made for me.

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