Eugene D. Genovese, one of the foremost left-wing scholars of his time, has died. Most famous for his historical studies of ideology and culture in the slave South, Genovese was also a passionate student of contemporary politics. A teenage member of the Communist Party kicked out for “having zigged when I was supposed to zag,” he gained national notoriety in 1965 for welcoming “the impending Viet Cong victory” at a Rutgers teach-in. Positions like these put him at odds with the editors of Dissent, some of whom were supporters of the war and none of whom welcomed a Viet Cong victory (they knew too well what had happened to their Vietnamese Trotskyist comrades to think well of Ho Chi Minh.)
But Genovese, for all his personal extremism, was also dedicated to building ecumenical left institutions. This activity brought him into contact with Dissent editors like Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, who spoke at the Socialist Scholars Conference he initiated in the late 1960s. Looking admiringly at the moderation of the postwar Italian Communist Party, Genovese imagined forming a broad front with those to his right. In an essay on the Weather Underground, he made sure to exclude “the honorable exception of a few men like Irving Howe” from his general strictures against social democrats—evidence, perhaps, of an overture never carried to fruition. Howe, for his part, quoted Genovese and his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese approvingly in 1970:
If the anti-war movement can be contained on the campuses, it can be killed on the campuses. If it can be turned into acts of violent frustration of a kind likely to be feared, resented and certainly misunderstood by the working class and middle class, then Nixon will surely weather the storm…. No amount of seized buildings could match the effect of thousands of students and professors going door to door to talk to workers and middle class Americans.
If there was a moment in the 1960s when convergence seemed possible, any hope of this was gone by the time of Genovese’s lone contribution to Dissent in 1994. Entitled “The Question,” Genovese’s essay was a rabid polemic against the entire American Left for tacitly or explicitly countenancing the crimes of socialist regimes around the world. It was followed by responses from an array of leading left-wing scholars: Eric Foner, Alice Kessler-Harris, Christine Stansell, Sean Wilentz, Robin D.G. Kelley, and former Dissent co-editor Mitchell Cohen, along with a riposte by Genovese. Given that this lineup boasted extensive anti-Stalinist credentials, and that none of them had ever been as close to the global Communist movement as Genovese had once been, the exchange was a strange one, marked no doubt by some amount of guilty projection on the author’s part. Nevertheless, “The Question” makes for interesting reading, if only as a sterling example of the energy and nastiness Genovese could bring to his writing when he felt it necessary.
In the exchange, Mitchell Cohen observed that Genovese “seems to be en route from one belief system to another when a little agnosticism might be in order.” As Lingua Franca noted shortly thereafter, this was a prescient observation: Genovese quickly associated himself with right-wing traditionalism. He returned to his study of the antebellum South, this time as a dedicated partisan of its vanished way of life. In reviewing Genovese’s The Southern Tradition for Dissent, George M. Fredrickson wrote, “Genovese has therefore issued an important and valuable challenge to thoughtful people on the left. It is regrettable, however, that he has chosen to find the substance for this challenge in an intellectual tradition that could not distinguish between conservative conceptions of social order and the domination of one race by another and was woefully inconsistent or ineffectual in its opposition to market capitalism.”
The alliance that could never be carried off in life, however, may yet find posthumous realization of a sort. In partnership with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Dissent will soon make the archives of Marxist Perspectives, a short-lived journal edited by Genovese, freely available. Text-searchable scans of the magazine’s ten issues, plus a historical introduction I have prepared, should be up on our redesigned website by the end of 2012. The wide range of well-known authors who wrote for Marxist Perspectives includes Jon Elster, James Livingston, Eric Foner, Etienne Balibar, and Dissent co-editor Michael Walzer. Though plans were in place before we learned of Genovese’s unforeseen death, we are glad that our efforts can stand as a memorial to an important, if deeply flawed, man of letters.