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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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Yet, a few years later, Genovese confounded his allies on the left by fiercely opposing their effort to get the American Historical Association to pass a resolution condemning the war. Those of us who backed the resolution were shocked to hear Genovese argue that its effect would be to dangerously politicize the profession, forcing opponents of the resolution to resign from the AHA. The assembled New Left graduate -students and professors met his argument with a cascade of boos. Genovese responded that we were a bunch of “totalitarians,” and he called on the association to “put [the antiwar activist historians] down hard, once and for all.” The majority of historians cheered, leaving the radicals horrified and speechless.

How could Genovese—who wrote such careful and nuanced history, and was so keen to protect the integrity of his profession—adhere for so long to an ideology that justified mass terror as necessary for the attainment of a good society? He realized that he had to address that question directly, and he did so in a brave essay in Dissent in 1994, “The Question.” That question turned out to be: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” Genovese did not blame others, but included himself among those who had to take responsibility. “In a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression,” he wrote, “we broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century.” He called for “a sober reassessment of the ideological foundations of our political course.”

For most, that reassessment never came, despite the failure of the socialist societies. Genovese concluded that “deep flaws in our very understanding of human nature” made the “moral and ethical baseline” of religion a more worthy guide to the moral life than human ideology, and he returned to the Catholic faith of his youth.

As already noted, there were early hints of the direction Genovese’s thought would ultimately take. As far back as the 1970s, he wrote for National Review, whose editor, William F. Buckley Jr., he admired and whose audience he judged to include open-minded readers. In 1978 Genovese told me, “There are many things that come out of conservative criticism, not only of the left but of liberalism, which are very important,” and he took seriously the arguments of social conservatives. He always insisted that there are “outstanding right-wing people.” That is something few on the left would say, then or now.

His “frank assessment” that all forms of socialism had been proved wrong and that false assumptions “underlay the whole left” was one that few on the left could countenance. In rejecting the path he had followed for so many years, Eugene D. Genovese displayed the rare courage that defined him as a human being, a scholar, and a man of integrity.

Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media. 

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