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A Historian Taught by History

Eugene D. Genovese, 1930-2012.

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By RONALD RADOSH
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 Eugene D. Genovese, 1973

Eugene D. Genovese, 1973

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The death late last month of Eugene D. Genovese was a loss not only to the world of professional historians, but to American intellectual life as a whole and especially to the conservative intellectual movement. Best known for his prize-winning 1974 book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Genovese transformed the way in which scholars came to understand the slave South. Arguing that a conflict existed between a bourgeois North and a pre-capitalist South, he wrote about the effects of the policies of the Southern slave-owning class. He used the concept of “hegemony” derived from the work of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci to argue that the slave-owners created a social structure in which slaves, despite their subordinate role, were able to build their own communal space and assert their humanity.

Even when Genovese wrote as a Marxist, he always stressed that history was made by human beings, not by historical forces over which they had no control, and certainly not any preordained economic process. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the greatest Marxist scholar of his generation ended his life as a traditionalist Catholic who believed in the importance of faith for creating a humane society. A clue to the direction in which he was evolving can be found in an essay Genovese wrote in the 1990s, in which, still a Marxist, he complained, “For the political Left, there is an especially dark side to the question of ideological bias and its attendant contempt for religion.” The Christian message, Genovese the historian found, was central to both the slaveholding class and the black yeomanry and “created between them” an “unbreakable bond,” one that became a route out of slavery. For Genovese, the same leftists who scolded believers and criticized Christianity for barbaric policies pursued in its name had themselves supported the “seventy-year experiment with socialism” that brought “little more to our credit than tens of millions of corpses.” It was time, he admonished his readers, to undertake a “reconsideration of the Christian idea of justice and equality before God and of our own blood-drenched romance with the utopia of a man-made heaven here on earth.”

I was fortunate to have known Genovese for over half a century. When we met, I was a young graduate student, and he was teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University). He had what -Princeton’s Robert P. George calls a “passion for justice” and a complementary “passion for truth.”

At age 15, he had joined the Communist party, but his membership was brief. Outspoken and beholden to no one, Genovese was expelled for the crime of “white chauvinism.” As he explained, “I zigged when I should have zagged.” He continued, nevertheless, to write and speak as a supporter of the Communist cause and a defender of the Soviet Union. That shortsighted act of expulsion by the party’s leaders freed him to pursue his search for truth in directions the official Communist party historians never would have tolerated in a party member. But it also led Genovese to further political misjudgments. 

When we met in the early 1960s, he had moved on to a short-lived fixation with Maoism and membership in the first Maoist political group in the United States, the Progressive Labor party, which stood with the Chinese in the Soviet-Chinese split. He became editor in chief of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, writing editorials and commissioning articles arguing that Mao’s path would lead to the long-awaited world socialist revolution.

But Genovese was also digging into a long career of serious intellectual work, beginning his magisterial books on slavery. The last of these include The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (2005) and Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (2011), both co-authored with his historian wife, the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Historian David Brion Davis called him “one of the greatest historians of American slavery.” 

This is not to say that, once immersed in the academic life, Genovese forgot about politics. An ardent opponent of the Vietnam war, he spoke at a 1966 teach-in while working at Rutgers University and scandalized liberals by saying, “Unlike most of my distinguished colleagues .  .  . I do not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.”

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