Response: Alice Kessler-Harris

Response: Alice Kessler-Harris

For Eugene Genovese the time has come to confess, to acknowledge the silences of the 1950s, and, perhaps, to free ourselves to move forward. In a belated recognition of the evils of Stalinism, he condemns those on the left who failed to admit those evils earlier. And he dismisses as equally culpable those who spoke up if they did not also repudiate the social agenda of communism (with a small “c”). Any who continued to identify themselves as members of the left through the past forty years are complicit in the mass slaughters of Stalin and the persistence of mass slaughter everywhere.

Genovese’s plea for confession is likely to fall on deaf ears in large measure because the piece also has a subtext: in both style and argument, it represents precisely the moral rectitude that he seeks to condemn. In implicating an amorphous and unidentified left—a “we” that encompasses everything from the barely liberal to the supporters of totalitarianism—in crimes ranging from fanaticism to genocide, Genovese denies the possibilities of differences within the left and promotes the kinds of intolerance that lead to the Gulag. In the language of the factionalist Old Left, the language of innuendo, vituperation, and denunciation, he seeks resolution, even absolution, along with potential allies he despises.

Why? Why on the one hand attempt to make common cause by appealing for a collective acknowledgment of what went wrong, and on the other insist that the mistakes are rooted in “a deep flaw in our understanding of human nature”? Why deride the positive possibilities of a set of shared values and then hold “the ideology itself ” responsible for the coverup? This two-pronged attack gets Genovese neatly off the hook: locating both failure of human liberation and mass murder in the illusions we are all now called on to shed enables him to evade a fuller exploration of his own culpability.

Is it really the case that the “high ideals” of the left are the source of excess? Perhaps, but if so, one might say the same of every group wedded to ideological commitments, whether it is a group of “politically correct” students in universities or the religious fundamentalists now wreaking havoc everywhere. For just as replacing the secular values of a humane vision with the “moral and ethical baseline” of religion may compound our problems, not reduce them, so the search for human dignity inherent in the attempt to impose “politically correct” values is not itself wrong. In each case, the problem is not with the ideals but with the insistence on their moral indisputability. That’s a disease of extremists, left and right. And it opens the question of how idealism gets turned into murderous dogmatism.

Conflating the left into a single category has other consequences as well, particularly its ability to wipe out the significant accomplishments achieved on behalf of human dignity by a variety of political groups. Much that was good came from the pressures of liberals and social democrats in the United States and Europe. Most of us would support the market restrictions their agenda imposed. And while the demise of the Soviet Union fuels the reaction against social programs of all kinds, it also holds the possibility for a liberal agenda to emerge. For example, the labor movement in the United States has historically struggled to achieve a political and social voice in the face of accusations of “communist” infiltration. Without the threat of an existing totalitarian socialism, might it have fared better? Might it not still do so? Would the United States have been better able to construct a more compassionate welfare state without the image of the “evil empire” stalking every attempt to promote social well-being? Would we willingly give up even the minimal modifications these programs impose on the market for a confession of guilt? Such gains as we have made have been the result of far more subtle analyses of problems of equality, and far more sophisticated estimations of human goodness than the ideological givens to which Genovese ascribes the left’s self-destructive behavior. If, as Genovese concedes, there is much in the liberal and social democratic agendas that we do not want to eliminate, then let us acknowledge that it comes from a more complex rendering of notions of social justice and a less moralistic approach to ideology than that which Genovese wants us to claim as our legacy.

I agree with Genovese that historians bear a special responsibility for opening up exactly those questions that will help us shape the future. But I hope we never bog down in the kind of recrimination that is implicit in questions like “What did you know, and when did you know it?” Rather, our effort should be to turn our attention to the challenge posed by Eugene Genovese’s final paragraphs. We need to understand the historical circumstances that facilitate a corruption of belief and that so consistently turn seemingly positive belief systems into a politics of morality. For the willingness of some elements of the left to defend the distortions of the Stalinist era, and to refuse to repudiate human violence wherever it occurs, comes not from a naive belief in the goodness of human nature or the attainability of equality of condition, but from self -righteous moralism. To shape the future effectively, we need to continue to explore how it happened that “fundamentalist” ideological differences managed to divide people of good will whose shared views of human freedom and social justice could, as effectively, have charted paths to consensus.