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A Historian Taught by History

Ronald Radosh

The death late last month of Eugene D. Genovese was a loss not only to the world of professional historians, but to American intellectual life as a whole and especially to the conservative intellectual movement. Best known for his prize-winning 1974 book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Genovese transformed the way in which scholars came to understand the slave South. Arguing that a conflict existed between a bourgeois North and a pre-capitalist South, he wrote about the effects of the policies of the Southern slave-owning class. He used the concept of “hegemony” derived from the work of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci to argue that the slave-owners created a social structure in which slaves, despite their subordinate role, were able to build their own communal space and assert their humanity.

Even when Genovese wrote as a Marxist, he always stressed that history was made by human beings, not by historical forces over which they had no control, and certainly not any preordained economic process. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the greatest Marxist scholar of his generation ended his life as a traditionalist Catholic who believed in the importance of faith for creating a humane society. A clue to the direction in which he was evolving can be found in an essay Genovese wrote in the 1990s, in which, still a Marxist, he complained, “For the political Left, there is an especially dark side to the question of ideological bias and its attendant contempt for religion.” The Christian message, Genovese the historian found, was central to both the slaveholding class and the black yeomanry and “created between them” an “unbreakable bond,” one that became a route out of slavery. For Genovese, the same leftists who scolded believers and criticized Christianity for barbaric policies pursued in its name had themselves supported the “seventy-year experiment with socialism” that brought “little more to our credit than tens of millions of corpses.” It was time, he admonished his readers, to undertake a “reconsideration of the Christian idea of justice and equality before God and of our own blood-drenched romance with the utopia of a man-made heaven here on earth.”

I was fortunate to have known Genovese for over half a century. When we met, I was a young graduate student, and he was teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University). He had what -Princeton’s Robert P. George calls a “passion for justice” and a complementary “passion for truth.”

At age 15, he had joined the Communist party, but his membership was brief. Outspoken and beholden to no one, Genovese was expelled for the crime of “white chauvinism.” As he explained, “I zigged when I should have zagged.” He continued, nevertheless, to write and speak as a supporter of the Communist cause and a defender of the Soviet Union. That shortsighted act of expulsion by the party’s leaders freed him to pursue his search for truth in directions the official Communist party historians never would have tolerated in a party member. But it also led Genovese to further political misjudgments.

When we met in the early 1960s, he had moved on to a short-lived fixation with Maoism and membership in the first Maoist political group in the United States, the Progressive Labor party, which stood with the Chinese in the Soviet-Chinese split. He became editor in chief of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, writing editorials and commissioning articles arguing that Mao’s path would lead to the long-awaited world socialist revolution.

But Genovese was also digging into a long career of serious intellectual work, beginning his magisterial books on slavery. The last of these include The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (2005) and Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (2011), both co-authored with his historian wife, the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Historian David Brion Davis called him “one of the greatest historians of American slavery.”

This is not to say that, once immersed in the academic life, Genovese forgot about politics. An ardent opponent of the Vietnam war, he spoke at a 1966 teach-in while working at Rutgers University and scandalized liberals by saying, “Unlike most of my distinguished colleagues . . . I do not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.”

Yet, a few years later, Genovese confounded his allies on the left by fiercely opposing their effort to get the American Historical Association to pass a resolution condemning the war. Those of us who backed the resolution were shocked to hear Genovese argue that its effect would be to dangerously politicize the profession, forcing opponents of the resolution to resign from the AHA. The assembled New Left graduate students and professors met his argument with a cascade of boos. Genovese responded that we were a bunch of “totalitarians,” and he called on the association to “put [the antiwar activist historians] down hard, once and for all.” The majority of historians cheered, leaving the radicals horrified and speechless.

How could Genovese—who wrote such careful and nuanced history, and was so keen to protect the integrity of his profession—adhere for so long to an ideology that justified mass terror as necessary for the attainment of a good society? He realized that he had to address that question directly, and he did so in a brave essay in Dissent in 1994, “The Question.” That question turned out to be: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” Genovese did not blame others, but included himself among those who had to take responsibility. “In a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression,” he wrote, “we broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century.” He called for “a sober reassessment of the ideological foundations of our political course.”

For most, that reassessment never came, despite the failure of the socialist societies. Genovese concluded that “deep flaws in our very understanding of human nature” made the “moral and ethical baseline” of religion a more worthy guide to the moral life than human ideology, and he returned to the Catholic faith of his youth.

As already noted, there were early hints of the direction Genovese’s thought would ultimately take. As far back as the 1970s, he wrote for National Review, whose editor, William F. Buckley Jr., he admired and whose audience he judged to include open-minded readers. In 1978 Genovese told me, “There are many things that come out of conservative criticism, not only of the left but of liberalism, which are very important,” and he took seriously the arguments of social conservatives. He always insisted that there are “outstanding right-wing people.” That is something few on the left would say, then or now.

His “frank assessment” that all forms of socialism had been proved wrong and that false assumptions “underlay the whole left” was one that few on the left could countenance. In rejecting the path he had followed for so many years, Eugene D. Genovese displayed the rare courage that defined him as a human being, a scholar, and a man of integrity.

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