Response: Mitchell Cohen

Response: Mitchell Cohen

Eugene D. Genovese writes powerfully against bad faith, against prevarication championed and recognized but not admitted. He is relentless: how can one confront impostors of liberation with timidity? Least of all when mendacity concerns mass murder and you admit your own complicity. If this were the entire substance of his polemic, one could readily, loudly, applaud. And one would acclaim his tenacity in posing “The Question” without the celebrated escape clause: “But look at what the imperialists did.” What the Soviet experiment—and its imitators— wrought should be faced in itself; otherwise it is not faced at all.

Yet accolades should be muted. Not because Genovese isn’t telling truths about Communist parties and fellow-travelers; he is. Nor because the problem vanished entirely with the Soviet bloc; it hasn’t. No, restraint is called for because it is unclear what conclusions he draws about values, behavior, and responsibility from the collapse of his commitments, save that those commitments were quite bad. Indeed, he seems to be en route from one belief system to another when a little agnosticism might be in order.

He asks, rightly: “What did you know and when did you know it?” But having denied any escape clause to others in responding, Genovese provides himself one, first by dressing virtually all “democratic socialists,” “radical democrats,” “liberals,” and communists in the same “collective dirty linen,” and then by conveniently granting that “there are liberals and liberals and a distinction would have to be made in a more leisurely presentation.” I’m sorry, this won’t do. There has been and is a principled democratic left that never wore his drawers. It did not soil its own. That left recognized and denounced mass murder; it refused to call socialist anything not truly democratic; it insisted that liberal values must be intrinsic to the socialist project; it hankered after no vanguard parties and lent no “critical support” to generalissimos adorned by red plumes.

Genovese might turn to leftists—for examples, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, beginning in the earliest issues of Dissent magazine — who, though profoundly dedicated to socialism, asserted that it was no longer a “young” or “innocent” idea and ought to be approached by its advocates as a problem, not as a panacea. They endured many invectives for demanding a self-critical left long before this necessity dawned on ex-proponents of the collapsed Soviet Union.

Perhaps it was because they were able to treat their deepest commitments critically that they never became neoconservatives. Certainly it was due to their critical sense that the communist “left” so derided them, and similar leftists. Recall the refrains: “They’re really weak-kneed social democrats,” or “They’re not radicals, they’re really bourgeois liberals,” or, at best, “Subjectively they may be well-intentioned, but objectively they are servants of capital.” Those whose left-wing credentials were, for decades, slandered by people with politics like Genovese’s, are now urgently part of the culpable left for him. (I don’t know the extent to which Genovese engaged in such diatribes, but he knows the phenomenon.) By maintaining that the communist “left,” before and after the collapse of the USSR, is the criterion of what is left, Genovese hands Stalinism a posthumous victory.

Surely, if he would attack “radical egalitarianism,” Genovese must begin by making distinctions.

And with a little circumspection; the truly difficult thing is to draw lines without being sectarian. For Genovese anything that went wrong flows out of the Idea, more precisely, a few ideas that merge. Was it really radical egalitarianism, participatory democracy, and secularization that produced the Gulag? Or is this another escape clause, a teleology that occludes the “sober reassessment” of ideas for which Genovese calls? Is not denouncing “radicalism” a little too easy? Civil rights workers throughout the South were branded “radicals.” So what? They wanted radical change, both political and social, and what was more appropriate than changing radically the
world of Jim Crow? Might not the “radicalism” of one’s egalitarianism, at least sometimes, be a function of the inequity one faces? Now, no particular response is justified by the fact of inequity alone. But instead of reproving “radical egalitarianism” as if it were the same thing in all times and places, might it not be more fruitful to elucidate, as Michael Walzer has for over two decades, complex rather than simple notions of equality?

What of participatory democracy? Yes, this idea engenders difficulties that are, too often, belittled on the left (difficulties best attenuated, in my view, by liberal constitutional principles, although the latter equally require participatory correctives). Still, is not blaming “participatory democracy” for the Gulag rather like excoriating the entire left for what Leninists and Stalinists did and said?—a camouflage of the specific political choices that Genovese and his confederates made? Lenin a participatory
democrat? Stalin a radical egalitarian? Perhaps—if you believed that the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe were democracies.

Finally, Genovese determines that secularism is the evil at the “root of all,” for we have been unable “to replace the moral and ethical baseline long provided by the religion we have dismissed with indifference.” Dear professor of history: secular humanist that I am, I will, keeping with a modern tradition, defend to the death your right to your religious beliefs. But I will also pose some Questions to you: Where are the Crusades in your scheme? The Inquisition? Expulsion of the Christ-killers from England in the thirteenth century? From France in the fourteenth and from Spain in the fifteenth? Slaughter of Catholics and Protestants by each other in the religious wars of the sixteenth century? Religion was “the moral and ethical baseline” of Western society until some two centuries ago, and secularism responded to the intolerance and despotism enacted in its name by believers whose feverish sectarianism resembles nothing so much as that of Stalinists.

Will you contend that such behavior corrupts religion’s high ideals, something you won’t grant to left-wing ideals? Well, I will grant it to both sets of ideals, though not always and
never in a blanket or uncritical way, and without allowing the corruptors a back door out, be it through denial or confession. Since Genovese inclines to religious language (for me the issue is existential): sin without the sinner, and vice versa, is morally meaningless. Separate what you do from what you are, and you always have an escape clause by which to shirk responsibility. If there is something to be learned from the willingness to see millions die tin the short run for utopia in the long run it is that the form and content of politics shape one another. Many ex-communists—especially those who become neoconservatives —try to expunge the content without questioning the form. Leninists with another doctrine, they imagine, conveniently, that ideology alone was the problem. As to their own judgment—if they questioned that, they might be constrained to quiet reflection for a while, perhaps a very long time.