Response: Sean Wilentz

Response: Sean Wilentz

Eugene Genovese’s essay is an uneasy mixture of expiation and accusation, and so it elicits a mixed response. In challenging American leftists to face up to an overdue reckoning with history and morality, he says some things that badly need saying. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the intellectual fallout of the communist movement (and of its apologists and offshoots) lives on in large portions of the American left, including portions supported and led by professed anti-Stalinists and by people born after Stalin’s death. I remember an argument I had a few years back with a young leftist editor, who angrily took me to task for referring, in draft, to a well-known scholar and member of the Communist party as a Communist. “Old Leftist,” I learned, was the approved term; to call a Communist a Communist, even matter-of-factly, was to indulge in red-baiting. It was a minor episode (and as I recall I eventually got my way), but it was not and is not unusual. The editor’s anger was indicative of a larger syndrome of evasion, euphemism, and self-delusion— a sort of doughface mentality—that continues to afflict many American “progressives” on the subject of communism, past and present. Genovese, in his confession, tries to confront that mentality, and that is all to the good.

Agreeing with Genovese’s explanation for this syndrome, especially his blanket condemnation of radical egalitarianism, is another matter. Here he has dissolved his old intellectual ties less thoroughly than he suggests. According to the communist left, important currents of radical egalitarianism, particularly those that stress individualism and personal freedom from an overweening state, are best understood as objectively reactionary —deviationist, crypto-bourgeois, and otherwise lacking in sufficient revolutionary clarity, ardor, and discipline. Genovese has renounced his procommunism, yet he retains some of his old antipathies. The difference is that all of the radical egalitarians whom his old movement grouped among the betrayers of revolutionary leftism now get grouped among the tyrants of revolutionary leftism, or among the apologists for tyranny. Remarkably, he has switched sides but kept many of the same enemies.

Genovese blends these assertions with a highly questionable, schematic account of the past. Throughout history, he avers, radical egalitarianism and egalitarians have repeatedly (and, he implies, inevitably) wound up justifying mass murder and despotism. We all know the evidence in support of this view. But what, then, are we to make of the greatest radical egalitarian of the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine, who helped foment an American Revolution that brought no Reign of Terror, and who risked the guillotine in proclaiming his opposition to the regicidal French Jacobin tyranny? What are we to make of the feminist radical Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Does the shade of totalitarianism really lurk behind her attacks on organized Christianity or her celebrations of the solitude of self? Like all political leaders, Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas made their share of political mistakes. So far as I know, these did not include complicity in mass murder.

And as long as we are getting down to cases, what about this magazine? Like Genovese, the founding editors and writers of Dissent learned early on the essential truth about Bolshevism—but that knowledge led them to draw moral and political conclusions very different from his, and to act accordingly. Since then, Dissent has been steadfastly anticommunist (not merely “anti-Stalinist”), skeptical of third world revolutionism, and critical of the kind of doughface progressivism that Genovese now ridicules. For its troubles, Dissent and its friends have been treated to the continuing hostility of the tone-setting radical pundits and “theoreticians” of the Old Left, the New Left, and the Multicultural Left. Genovese—who in his former self was among the
hostile—says nothing about this, which is a shame. I can practically hear Irving Howe’s icy retort: “Exactly what do you mean by we, Professor Genovese?”

Still, to linger on a self-righteous note would be foolish. Genovese’s old movement may be dead (although not without some frightening exceptions, principally in China and North Korea). In contrast, the democratic socialist movement can claim, at best, to be moribund, as it has been for many years. Contrary to some wishful thinking early on, Soviet communism’s demise has not led the people of the world to rush headlong
toward the true light of social democracy. Quite the reverse: And waxing prideful about an honorable anticommunist record will not change the situation. Nor is it likely to end the confusion about fundamental ideas, including what socialism even means anymore. (Ask at random any three editors of Dissent what we mean by socialism, and you are likely to receive at least three different answers.)

From what he has written, however, I doubt that I would find Genovese’s ideal social order at all agreeable—for it strikes me that although he has at long last renounced Stalin, he may be moving rather too hastily from supporting one form of authoritarian organicism, communism, toward supporting another. What that other form is remains vague, but his essay contains some hints: his passing praise of Burkean traditionalism (with no mention of its monarchical and aristocratic foundations), his conflation of all forms of radical egalitarianism with perfectionist tyranny. Let us acknowledge that, in his pro-Soviet days, Genovese’s politics, with their chilling defects, helped him to elucidate brilliantly the southern conservative critiques of liberalism, individualism, and capitalism. Now I wonder if, in outraged reaction to the more baleful tendencies of contemporary leftism, he is becoming at heart largely a southern conservative (minus, of course, the traditional racism)—which, on reflection, may not mark so great a transformation as one might have thought.

Genovese has raised some of the most difficult and painful questions about morality, human frailty, and what it means to be an American leftist. Those questions deserve answers. May he stick around to argue about them.

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