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Wild in the Stacks

Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History

edited by Barton J. Bernstein
Pantheon, 364 pp., $6.95

Unlike poets and mathematicians, historians rarely break into print before their thirties. The generation of American historians now publishing their first books includes representatives from all sectors of the political spectrum. Some of the more promising exhibit no opinions that distinguish them markedly from their elders, but the few who have so far developed any sense of identity as a new generation profess some degree of leftward orientation and answer to the vague description “New Left.” Even among these, however, the median range of opinion is really not very far left. They have no common ideology. If they have any ideas in common it is a conviction that the previous generation of American historians was wrong.

The erring generation they are talking about, which began to publish during or just after the Second World War, includes Daniel J. Boorstin, Oscar Handlin, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. For those who date back a bit before that, especially for Charles Beard and his followers, the “new” historians generally show more tolerance. In fact, they tend to conform to a pattern familiar in intellectual history, that of rejecting the previous generation to make friends with an earlier one. When they speak of the “establishment” or “consensus” school, labels of strictly pejorative usage, they are referring to their immediate predecessors. And while they are keen on discovering ideological distinctions, the significant gap appears to be generational. Even that can be exaggerated, for there is continuity as well as a gap between generations. Many older historians would bridle at being branded “establishment” or “consensus,” and there is probably as great a range of viewpoint among them as among the new generation.

For all that, real and felt differences exist between the experience of the older and the formative years of the younger historians, disparities of a sort that help to account for the differences in their respective points of view. The foreign war that historians of the older generation fought was felt to be morally justified and more or less unavoidable. The peace was regarded as honorable, the punishments inflicted as just. Whatever complacency over foreign policy they felt was matched on the domestic side by identification with the New Deal, which many perceived as a vindication of traditional institutions or proof of their flexibility in the handling of grave economic and social crises. Such in general is Schlesinger’s description in The Age of Roosevelt. For many the Truman and Kennedy administrations were proof of the continued vitality of the same tradition. The Cold War strained or snapped old sympathies with the Left, and made anti-communism intellectually respectable, while the rise of a Radical Right with substantial support of the common man exposed retrograde and anti-intellectual traits of another traditional ally, and inspired a reassessment of historic mass movements of lowerclass and populist origins.

The perception of immediate experience, in fact, inspired a generation’s perception of the American past itself. Thus the unquestioned agreements that had united Americans all along appeared more important than the ephemeral quarrels that had divided them from time to time. Charles Beard and his school, it would appear, had obscured the underlying harmony by their emphasis on conflicts and polarities in our history. They had over-simplified it as a drama of social strife between privilege and privation, capital and labor, the “interests” and the “grass roots,” industrialists and agrarians; and they had overdone the contrasts between East and West as well as those between North and South. In so doing they had also exaggerated the degree of social change in America, minimized the continuities, overlooked ambiguities that cut across “rational” divisions, and sentimentalized the image of the underdog.

TO CORRECT THESE DISTORTIONS, the postwar historians stressed what they felt was unique in the American experience—the genius for compromise, the instinct for accommodation and the pragmatic solution, the “givenness,” the Lockean consensus, the relative unimportance of ideology. This tendency reflects the influence of Hartz and Boorstin. Concern for American distinctiveness or uniqueness inspired ingenious studies in national character such as David Potter’s People of Plenty. Other studies, for example, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, subsumed conflict under the category of myth and paradox. There were still a few historians around who protested the neglect of regional identity, class conflict, and racial discord, cherished the populist heritage, and muttered doubts about the proto-American assent and the uniqueness of the national experience. But the prevailing voices of the profession proclaimed the themes of continuity, compromise, and consensus.

Under the post-Beardian canon, the classic antitheses of the American story tended to lose their sharpness and become amiable syntheses. The colonial experience became less a head-on clash between oligarchy and commonalty and more a “middle-class democracy.” The Revolution took on the look of a conservative movement to preserve American interests and values against imperial subversion. The Constitution, instead of being seen as a victory for personal property of the farmers, was a triumph of the statesmanship of compromise. As for the old Jefferson-Hamilton antithesis, the best answer was Jefferson’s own: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Analyses of the lives of Jacksonian and Whig leaders blurred all significant distinction between the two camps and distinguished their followers chiefly in the way they pursued the main chance. The West was merely an extension of the East instead of a standing challenge. The South was an essential component of the capitalist North instead of its agrarian opposite.

No responsible historian denied the existence of social conflict in the American past, and few would subscribe to all these homogenizations. But the predominant tendency was to challenge stark contrasts and dramatic polarities and to subject them to clinical analysis that revealed ambiguities, contradictions, and obscure, irrational motivations on opposing sides. Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform is an example of this trend. The business community lost its formidable unity and split into quarreling factions, and so did the embattled farmers. Populists appeared in the role of frustrated capitalists, industrialists as nostalgic agrarians. The cadres of Progressive leadership blended harmoniously with Conservative leadership when their careers were analyzed. The very integrity of familiar historic referent groups, foe and friend alike, seemed to disintegrate under one’s feet and threaten ideological security.

THE SCHOLARS who were responsible for these interpretations did not usually think of themselves as conservatives. True, they no longer presented themselves as spokesmen of the “people” against the “interests,” as did many of the Beardian school. But most of them would probably identify themselves as liberal or left of center. Whatever their intentions, their line of thinking often lent itself to conservative uses. Ten years ago. Professor John Higham remarked that “a certain tameness and amiability have crept into our view of things,” and one result was “the bland history.” Actually, many of the monographs of that time and later were, at least in experimental method and originality, anything but bland. One thinks, for example, of Forrest McDonald on the framing and adoption of the Constitution, of Lee Benson on the Jacksonian Party, and Oscar Handlin on the immigrants.

In the very process of applying social science methods to historical phenomena, however, the historian assumed an aloofness and neutrality that was reflected in the history he wrote. The reader found it more difficult to identify with heroes of protest, reform, or revolution who were shown to suffer from emotional disorders, neurotic compulsions, and status problems. The glory of collective action in crusades, strikes, and party loyalty was dimmed by statistical correlations of voting behavior with ethnic and religious variables that mocked the slogans of Justice and Equality. When these techniques did not obscure conflict entirely, they robbed it of its emotional impact.

To many historians who turned thirty in the 1960s, the history taught them by their mentors did not answer the need for that “usable past” they had in mind. Their view of history, like that of their teachers, was shaped by their experience, but theirs was a different experience, They were unable to conceive of the foreign war of their time as morally impeccable, or any conceivable peace to be won thereby as honorable or just. Alienation from foreign policy was matched by revulsion toward an administration that appeared to flounder helplessly in coping with the domestic problems of poverty, race, and cities. Traditional institutions and coalitions no longer seemed to work. Talk of the proto-American assent sounded hollow when things were coming apart at the seams, A past that was conceived as consensus did not look very “usable” in a present that was defined by conflict.

In conceiving a new past the young historians tended to view old wars in the light of present wars and historic politics in the light of their own politics. The revolt of the younger generation also obtruded into their reading of history. Parental complacencies and loyalties—whether about the morality and inevitability of the war that generation fought or about New Deal liberalism or Old Left Marxism—got stern reassessment and short shrift from the younger generation. So did the pieties and rigidities of the Cold Warriors. Whatever period of history was explored, the new scrutiny turned up conflict instead of consensus, alienation in place of concurrence. The new historians write with involvement instead of detachment, and the clinical spirit of quantification and psychoanalysis definitely turns them off.

THE SAMPLING of the new history provided by the essays that Barton J. Bernstein has collected in Towards a New Past illustrates all these tendencies and opens insights into the future of the past. It falls short, however, of full representation of all schools. The editor can hardly be faulted for failing to include a Negro contributor, since black historians between the ages of twenty and fifty are a dropout generation. He includes only one of the neo-abolitionists, James M. McPherson, but no neo-populists (such as Norman Pollock). It is a pity that some of the most talented new historians, such as Gabriel Kolko, a student of progressionism, and Walter La Feber, the historian of imperialism, are not represented. Several of the livelier neo-Marxians are present, however, and the eleven authors contributing to the book offer a wide variety of opinion, although no unified view.

Proclaiming that “sympathy for the powerless brings us closer to objectivity,” Jesse Lemisch proposes a view of the Revolution “From the Bottom Up.” He opens with a hammer-and-tongs attack on the colonial historian establishment who “allowed the opinions of the elite to stand for those of the majority” and demands that history be written “more from the point of view of the inarticulate than of the articulate.” From that special point of view he decribes the Stamp Act riots, the Boston massacre, and the Tea Party. While admiring “the bold simplicity of the Beard thesis,” Staughton Lynd attempts to go “beyond Beard” in his analysis of the forces molding the Constitution and the Federalist period. His solution is to put a great deal more emphasis on the slavery issue than Beard or any other historian has given it and to characterize Jeffersonian doctrine as an “ideology which rationalized slavery as ‘agrarianism.”’ Another contributor, Michael A. Lebowitz, hacks away at the web of paradox that post-Beardians have woven around the Jacksonian man—a Janus-faced little capitalist looking backward and plunging forward—with the thesis that victims of economic change filled the party ranks. Original and provocative, these essays are somewhat simplistic and rash in their interpretations.

EASILY THE MOST ORIGINAL and astute contribution is Eugene D. Genovese’s devastating critical assessment of “Marxian Interpretations of the Slave South.” His contention is that he is the only Marxian in step on the subject, including Marx and Engels themselves, and he proves his case hands down. It is another generational confrontation—“we might trace our embarrassment to our fathers,” he says—directed in this instance at the sloppy Marxism of the Old Left. His exposure of the bourgeois leanings that account for “the doctrinaire inability of many Marxists to appreciate the positive qualities of the best elements of the slaveholding class” breaks old barriers to a new understanding of the Old South. His strictures on “vulgar determinism,” economic interpretation, moral absolutism, and “the insipid glorification of the lower class” are aimed mainly at the Old Left, but will find many targets among the New Left as well, with some of whom Genovese finds himself in uncongenial company in this volume.

For the New Left the Civil War presents problems which they are unable to resolve. For one thing Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., favorite symbol of the “establishment,” had already preempted the interpretation of the war as a moral crusade, as justified and inevitable as the war against Nazi racists. The moral crusade idea has strong natural appeal for the New Left, but if, they ask, the Union saved was no better than other moral monsters and worse than some, if the war really was a bourgeois revolution, and if the freedom won was a sham, then how could the war be proclaimed a moral crusade sanctioned by nationalism and liberalism? In this volume the problem is avoided by the conspicuous omission of Civil War and Reconstruction altogether. The nearest approach is James M. McPherson’s scholarly and temperate defense of the white abolitionists and their descendants from the charge that they abandoned the Negro in his time of need, between 1870 and 1910. He finds that the charge is “partly correct” but not wholly justified.

The only contributor to employ the statistical techniques and clinical methods of social science is Stephen Thernstrom in his study of working class mobility. His findings seem sound but rather characteristic of his method, for they are cold comfort to radicals. He concludes that “few Americans have stayed in one place…long enough to discover a sense of common identity and common grievance,” and thus to form what Marx envisaged as a permanent proletariat. Those who did stay put usually “made it.” Thernstrom, like Genovese and McPherson, each for his own reasons, is rather out of place in this company. More characteristic of the New Left historians, who are usually methodological conservatives, is Christopher Lasch’s opinion that the scientific spirit makes the social sciences “ideal instruments of bureaucratic control,” and “more useful to the prevailing social order than the practical knowledge” they displace. This is another difference between the Old Left, which looked to science for salvation, and the New.

THE FOUR WRITERS on foreign affairs since 1870 form a chorus of protest against the notion that the American empire is the product of absent-minded benevolence or misguided innocence, seeing it instead as the calculated result of economic cupidity, aggressive expansionism, and provocative foreign policy. These traits did not originate in an aberration of the 1900s or of the 1960s, but have been ours for more than a century. In an essay on Far Eastern policy, 1870-1900, Marilyn Blatt Young is more ambivalent than her colleagues about the difference between old-school and new-school interpretations, concluding that, “perhaps disappointingly, the truth lies in between.” No ambivalence, however, embarrasses Lloyd C. Gardner’s study of foreign policy, 1900-1921, nor his characterization of George Kennan’s “legalistic-moralistic” thesis as obscurantist and misleading, nor his description of American policy in the era of the First World War as greedy dollar diplomacy—black and white and no gray about it. Quite as unequivocally, Robert Freeman Smith dismisses the “consensus” view “that war with Japan and Germany was inevitable, realistic, and right,” that America was an “innocent bystander” bemused by isolationism, and “the myth of a unique nation; a nation which is unselfish, unambitious, and whose goals are good for all people.” These are the delusions of “scholars and officials who see the world through starspangled glasses.” The real Uncle Sam operated toward other nations with the predatory morals of Edmund Wilson’s sea slug—in the 1960s as in the 1860s.

Two essays by Barton J. Bernstein assault the generations that waged the New Deal, the war on Fascism, and the Cold War. Liberal consensus historians, “enamored of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” have pictured the New Deal as “a dramatic achievement of a beneficent liberalism” which broke with laissez faire, “rescued the government from the clutches of big business,” and responded to the needs of the under-privileged. Not so. The New Deal “conserved and protected American corporate capitalism…, failed to solve the problem of the depression,” and left “the marginal men trapped in hopelessness” and “seduced by rhetoric.” War cured the depression, and Truman carried on the pretenses of reform in intellectual bankruptcy, ignored poverty, compromised with McCarthyism, abetted the red scare, and pleased big business. No grays in this picture, either. In fact the stark simplicities and moral arraignments that sprinkle most of these essays are especially evident in the contributions of the Editor.

THE REAL TRIUMPH of épater le bourgeois is reserved for Christopher Lasch’s essay on “The Cultural Cold War.” It is a study of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its affiliate, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom—the intellectual Cold Warriors. With exquisite irony he catches distinguished American liberals dashing about the world from Berlin to Bombay proclaiming the communist menace to intellectual freedom and the glories of American “pluralism” and its “open society”—all the while, most of them unknowingly, in the pay of the CIA. “The whole show—the youth congresses, the cultural congresses, the trips abroad, the great glamorous display of American freedom…was all arranged behind the scenes by men who believed…that ‘the cold war was and is a war, fought with ideas instead of bombs.”’

The young historians have made it clear that they dissent from the present and from the present reading of the past, and some of them offer valid reasons for their dissent. It is less clear which way they are headed, and whether their movement concerns primarily the future or the past. The question is whether they have a meaningful program for the future, or whether they are essentially concerned with imposing values of the past—cherished values to be sure—on the present.

With certain exceptions, the contributors to this collection of New Left history justify some suspicion of counterrevolutionary tendencies, impulses to turn history back. Some of them manifest sympathy with the thought of Herbert Marcuse, who sees technological civilization, whether socialist or capitalist, as the main enemy. I have noted their distrust of the scientific spirit when applied to social problems, and their aversion to using social science techniques, especially in their writings on quantified history. The computer sometimes provokes Luddite impulses. The New Left exhibits surprisingly little interest in the working class and a good deal of disdain for its accommodation to the order they detest. They do not, as a rule, take to class analysis of history and lean to moral absolutism. Their heroes are middle-class intellectuals, especially nineteenth-century idealists and transcendentalists. Lynd singles out Henry David Thoreau as “the patron saint of the new radicals.” Their aversion to authority often takes anarchistic forms.

These tendencies will lead some critics to dismiss the New Left historians on the ground that they are “historically irrelevant” because they oppose the inevitable. That would be a mistake. They deserve a full hearing and a close reading. Whatever their relevance to the future, they have much to say that is relevant to the correction of a complacent and nationalistic reading of our past. As for their tendency to oppose the inevitable, they deserve some indulgence. Since it is almost always unpleasant, the inevitable needs all the opposition it can get.

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