The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind

In the 1960s and 1970s, Eugene Genovese revolutionized historical writing about the Old South. Using a supple form of Marxian analysis, he ended the reign of the “consensus” historians, who had viewed white southerners as guilt ridden liberals driven by their economic interests to defend an institution that contradicted the democratic values that they shared with other Americans. Seeking to rescue the slaveholders from the enormous condescension of liberal historians, he took them seriously and on their own terms, finding in the proslavery argument an authentic American variant of the reactionary anticapitalism or anti-modernism that had arisen in Europe among defenders of anciens regimes against the bourgeois utopianism of the French Revolution.

At the time that he published books like The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), and Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Genovese was in the forefront of a new leftist historiography that was affirming the existence of class conflict and ideological polarization in the same American past that earlier historians, convinced of “American exceptionalism,” had divested of such “Old World” characteristics. But there was a peculiarity in Genovese’s way of doing this. Whereas most New Left historians concentrated on finding social radicalism and proto-Marxism among the underprivileged, Genovese sought opposition to liberal capitalism on the far right. The conventional Marxist view of the slaveholding South, originated by Marx himself, was that it represented capitalism in an extremely savage form. Genovese not only denied this interpretation but wrote about the slaveholders’ resistance to bourgeois hegemony with respect and even with a qualified kind of admiration. (Whatever else they might have been, he seemed to be saying, at least they were not capitalists.)

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