Response: Eric Foner

Response: Eric Foner

I agree with Eugene D. Genovese that the left needs to rethink some of its premises. His polemic is not, however, a useful contribution to this reappraisal.

The first article by Genovese I can recall reading was “Dr. Herbert Aptheker’s Retreat from Marxism,” a bitter attack on Aptheker’s “flight from an unambiguous class viewpoint” via his “pitiable” belief in what was then called peaceful coexistence. Why did this long- forgotten piece, which appeared in Science and Society in 1963, come to mind while I read Genovese’s latest manifesto? The politics could not be more different, but in their tone and mode of argument, their Manichaean view of a world divided into two “sides” with no middle ground, their penchant for personal abuse and intellectual fundamentalism, the two pieces are remarkably similar. The cast of characters has changed, but the cast of mind remains the same.

As one who has known Genovese, off and on, for nearly thirty years, I have often been struck by the contrast between his historical scholarship, which at its best is informed by a nuanced appreciation of historical complexity, and his political pronouncements, which consistently lack a sense of balance and often, as in the present instance, border on the incoherent. In the current manifesto, he offers broad accusations and sweeping generalizations without a shred of supporting evidence. How many scholars or members of the American left actually supported the Soviet Union “to the bitter end”? Who are the “opportunists and careerists” currently dominating the historical associations, who “went with the McCarthyite flow” in the 1950s and now pay lip service to political correctness? The last three presidents of the American Historical Association have been Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr., Louise Tilly, and Thomas Holt; of the Organization of American Historians, Joyce Appleby, Lawrence Levine, and myself. None of these, so far as I am aware, can be described as either aformer McCarthyite or an unprincipled panderer to fashionable political views. Then, there are the leaps of logic that dissolve under close scrutiny. Genovese generates a great deal of passion, but never gets around to explaining precisely why anyone on the American left who supported even part of the USSR’s “political line” (which at various times included anti-Fascism, promotion of colonial independence, and opposition to the war in Vietnam) bears moral responsibility for the crimes of Stalin.

A balanced reassessment of the history of American communism is certainly in order. When it appears, it will have to account not simply for silence in the face of unspeakable crimes, but communists’ contribution to some of this country’s most important struggles for social betterment. In the course of Genovese’s piece, however, it becomes clear that his target is not really the ex-Soviet Union or Western Communist parties, but a far broader grouping including liberals, veterans of the New Left, feminists, and believers in “personal liberation” and “radical democracy” —indeed, the very idea of social change. The political stance with which Genovese proposes to replace socialism is not presented in anything resembling a coherent manner, but it can be inferred from his random remarks. Human nature is immutable, hierarchy inevitable, equality impossible, the desire for personal autonomy pernicious, socialism equivalent to tyranny, religion the foundation of morality and politics (somehow, religious believers are not held culpable for the Inquisition or the millions killed in wars of religious intolerance). Although Genovese, for reasons difficult to understand from his article, refers to himself as part of the left, his current outlook has far more in common with a long tradition of elitist antiliberalism, including Tory romanticism and Old South criticism of capitalism in the nineteenth century, and with various expressions of right-wing ideology in the twentieth. The principles he enumerates offer no guidance whatever to those desiring to rethink the history of socialism while retaining a commitment to social change. Had they prevailed throughout American history, there would have been no antislavery movement, no feminism, labor movement, or civil rights struggle.

As one who grew up in an Old Left family, I can disabuse Genovese of at least one misapprehension. The Question—what did you know and when did you know it—was often discussed in my family, beginning not with the collapse of the USSR, but (at least in my personal memory) with Khrushchev’s speech of 1956. If Genovese has never been asked The Question, perhaps it is because people who knew him also knew what form his answer was likely to take.