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Self-Evident Truths?

In response to:

Abolitionist from the September 26, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

Eugene Genovese’s review essay on my two recent books [NYR, September 26] does not adequately describe the argument of either book. Before turning to those issues of methodology and philosophy with which Professor Genovese principally concerns himself, I should like briefly to remedy this deficiency.

Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution examines the coalition of classes which made the American Revolution and promoted the United States Constitution. The analytical model of these events proposed by Charles A. Beard is shown to have been more nearly accurate than Beard’s critics of the 1950s suggested. But Beard’s model requires revision: in particular, Beard neglected the issue of slavery and failed to appreciate the independent role played by Southern slave holders in the movement for the Constitution. The relationship of my argument on this point to the scholarship of pro- and anti-Beardians resembles the relationship of Professor Genovese’s interpretation of the Civil War to the preceding “traditionalist” and “revisionist” analyses. Both Genovese and myself, I think, argue for a sophisticated economic approach which follows Marx rather than Beard in (1) stressing class power rather than narrow pecuniary interest, and (2) insisting on the importance of ideas, world view, “ideology.”

Where Genovese and I differ is in our treatment of ideas. Roughly the second half of Class Conflict deals with the question: Why did the American Revolution fail to abolish slavery? For Genovese this is not a problem. He writes that I refuse to see “the ideology of nascent American capitalism as a process that had not yet matured to the point of regarding slavery as morally and materially incompatible with its own assumptions and insist[s] on holding up to it moral standards abstracted from any time and place.” This is nonsense. Almost without exception the Founding Fathers morally condemned slavery. Furthermore, slavery in Great Britain was abolished before the American Revolution, slavery in the French empire was abolished shortly after it, and when Spanish colonies in the New World became independent nations in the 1820s they abolished slavery, too. It is not in the least anachronistic to ask why the United States failed to do likewise. I believe that part of the answer has to do with the Founding Father’s ideas: their inability to imagine a society in which free blacks and free whites would live as equal fellowcitizens; their fear that if one kind of private property were attacked, others might be as well; and their economic determinism, that is, their conception that since chattel slavery in the United States was a deeply rooted economic reality, it was politically chimerical to seek to abolish it by an act of will. I think slavery could have been abolished at the time of the American Revolution, that the Founding Fathers decided not to try, and that this decision was not inevitable.

Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism makes the assumption that in our own historical situation we have a similar freedom, within limits, to choose, and that as in the case of the Founding Fathers, our ideas will have some bearing on the choices we make. The book begins by demonstrating that from 1776 to the present, American radicals, black and white, Marxist and non-Marxist, have employed the vocabulary of the Declaration of Independence. (For instance, Genovese asks rhetorically: “imagine Daniel DeLeon peddling such stuff!,” but I quote the Socialist Labor Party of De Leon affirming in its 1889 program “the inalienable right of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”) I go on to argue that in the mid-twentieth century concepts of inalienable liberty, “crimes against humanity” which violate “the opinion of mankind,” and the like, have taken on new substance; hence that it is appropriate for us to continue to use the Revolutionary vocabulary. At the same time we should recognize that because the class coalition which made the American Revolution was extremely heterogeneous, its ideological manifesto was necessarily extremely abstract. Accordingly, different classes gave quite different meanings to the abstractions of the Declaration, and the bulk of Intellectual Origins seeks to explicate the unfolding dialectic of ideas which reflected the increasing class differentiation of American society.

So far as I can see, Professor Genovese and I have two principal differences about the argument of Intellectual Origins. First, concepts such as “inalienable rights, a natural higher law, and the rights of revolution” do not interest him. Bourgeois revolutionaries were “encumbered” by these ideas. Socialist revolutionaries can do without them. (Nevertheless, according to Genovese, it is I not he who denigrates ideas, condemns intellectuals, etc.) What I think Genovese fails to appreciate is that the enormities of Fascism, Stalinism, and modern warfare have driven a wide variety of persons reared in the Marxist tradition to a new concern with the ideas of the eighteenth century. I refer to such persons as neo-Marxists. Genovese thinks I mean hippies. No, I had in mind figures on the other side of the Iron Curtain such as Kolakowski and Bloch, as well as Westerners like Herbert Marcuse. In a volume of essays entitled Negations, published after my own book was in print, Marcuse develops an ideological rebuttal to German Fascism which emphasizes, for example, that “Kant was convinced that there are ‘inalienable’ human rights, which ‘man cannot surrender even if he so wills,”’ and in general affirms that “reason, mind, morality, knowledge, and happiness are not only categories of bourgeois philosophy, but concerns of mankind.”

A second and more fundamental difference between Genovese and myself follows. I understand him to regard revolutions as natural events like floods or earthquakes in which classes confront one another with irreconcilable claims, take up arms, and win or die. Hence, in Genovese’s view, it is idle to choose sides on the basis of abstract moral criteria. Each class, each side will believe antagonistic truths to be intuitively self-evident; counter-revolution as well as revolution can consult its conscience. But then what are the criteria for choice? Genovese speaks of “necessity,” “duty,” “developing social consciousness,” “that sense of…responsibility to humanity which can only be defined in a specific time and place.” I submit that these words are no more transparent than the vocabulary which spoke of “rights,” “natural law,” and “conscience.” Genovese begs the question of how an individual, in a socialist society for instance, should make decisions if he disagrees with majority opinion. Genovese writes:

what, one wonders, would be the fate of a small revolutionary country, faced with the hostility of a super power, if it were simply to adopt Lynd’s position and grant the right to appeal to individual conscience against the law? It would not last a day, and neither, we suspect, would anyone advocating this doctrine in such a country.

Genovese should clarify what he means by this. Does he favor shooting conscientious objectors in socialist countries? What about intellectuals who demand an absolute right to freedom of expression? What do “duty,” “necessity,” and “developing social consciousness” prescribe in Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union today? I suspect that those struggling with these existential decisions find abstract moral criteria a good deal more relevant to socialist revolution than does Professor Genovese.

It seems that I am simultaneously a preacher of abstract morality and a “nihilist.” I would have supposed this a contradiction in terms. It is not a contradiction in terms if by nihilist one means a person who struggles against all existing social orders in the name of an abstract vision of a better world. Something like this is what is meant in Moscow when the rebellious students of Europe, East and West, are condemned as nihilists. Professor Genovese has also used the term in characterizing the action of those American slaves who individually stole food or broke tools as “nihilistic thrashing about.” All things considered, perhaps I am not sorry to be among those whom Genovese terms nihilists.

Staughton Lynd

Chicago, Illinois

Eugene D Genovese replies:

No author ever thinks that a reviewer has done full justice to his book, but most of us try to restrain the urge “to remedy this deficiency.” It is Professor Lynd’s privilege to plunge in, but that privilege carries with it the professional responsibility to reply to criticism and the risk that the reviewer may feel compelled to reiterate his position more sharply. Lynd treats my review as a philosophical quarrel with him, but, although I should much enjoy debating the philosophical questions with him at an appropriate time and place of his own choosing, on this occasion I had to criticize deficiencies in his books which prevented me from considering these questions at greater length. Among my points—about which his silence is eloquent—were (a) that he does violence to the historical record by arbitrarily selecting data to fit his prejudices; (b) that he inverts the method of E.P. Thompson while invoking his authority; (c) that he utterly misrepresents Marx and Marxism in order to serve his own factional ends; (d) that he caricatures conservative thought and shows no respect for ideas other than his own; (e) that he provides a politically irresponsible doctrine and then arrogantly asserts that it is both self-evident and the heart of all genuine radicalism; and (f) that Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism exposes him as a demagogue. When Lynd writes that he means to develop a Marxian analysis and seeks “to explicate the unfolding dialectic of ideas which reflected the increasing class differentiation of American society,” I can only say that, if such are his intentions, his result is a pathetic failure.

In Paragraph 3 he announces that I talk “nonsense” since the Founding Fathers morally condemned slavery. Since for him morality is an absolute, I can understand his response. But for me the morality of a class must be understood as a developing part of a wider historical process, and I therefore leave him to his indignation. Could slavery have been abolished in 1787? or 1800? or 1820? or 1830? Of what possible use is this question, except as a vehicle for criticizing people for not having been somewhat other than what they in fact were? The moral revulsion of northern leaders to slavery clearly was not so deep that they could not tolerate it. (Lynd’s attempt to separate their ideas from their morals is a beautiful illustration of his understanding of dialectics.) At a certain point Northerners could no longer tolerate slavery either morally or materially, and it is essential to note that the moral attitude did not harden until the material antagonism had matured. That process of moral and material development constitutes the historian’s problem; the rest is ersatz theology.

Paragraph 4: Daniel DeLeon did not peddle such stuff. Like Lynd, myself, and a few other people, he valued much of the Declaration of Independence and drew upon it. But I quoted twenty lines from Lynd, in which he argued for his own pet notions about the “right” of people to do as they please. Lynd did not merely seek to demonstrate that different people used the Declaration differently as he now claims—this demonstration is as trivial as it is easy—but, rather, defended a particularly silly (and dangerous) version.

Paragraph 5: I did not think that Lynd was talking about hippies: I was putting him on. I was also providing evidence that he caricatures Marxian thought. He now cites Kolakowski, Bloch, and Marcuse in his customarily irresponsible way. Where do any of them say what Lynd says they say? If he must raise the matter at all, why doesn’t he defend the specific assertion I attacked? Let me recall it for him: These neo-Marxists “defended the intuitions of the heart against the paralyzing analysis of the head.” Marcuse on Kant does not support, much less prove, Lynd’s drivel. All Marxists—all sane human beings—are concerned about morals.

Paragraph 6: I have never subscribed to the stupid mechanical theory Lynd attributes to me in these first few sentences. He knows very well that I have attacked this viewpoint in my book, The Political Economy of Slavery and in four recent articles, one of which appeared in a book to which he also contributed an essay. Lynd cannot grasp the difference between historical and political judgment. As historians, we are obliged to recognize that the Southern slaveholders had their own code of morals and adhered to it. That adherence stamped them as honorable men who defended principle and made them tough opponents. But their morality was no longer compatible with the development of civilized society, for it imposed constraints on the individual that were no longer necessary for social order. Thus it was, and is, necessary to pronounce a harsh judgment on them as a class. Lynd must necessarily declare slavery and servitude evil and immoral for every time and place; I would argue that at certain times throughout history they contributed to social development and that the moral case against modern slavery must rest on its being a historical anachronism.

Paul Baran closed his book, The Political Economy of Growth, with a demand for the triumph of reason over myth but noted that logic alone could not prove the need for such a triumph. He wrote, “Humanity’s claim to life, to development, to happiness requires no justification.” Being a Marxist and therefore a rationalist, he added, “This proposition, however, is its sole unprovable and irrefutable premise.” One does not need Lynd’s obscurantism to defend this humane vision; on the contrary, his obscurantism is itself a deadly enemy of the vision. The development of human society and of its individuals has had to be worked out painfully, with due respect for the claims of both the whole and its parts; in each historical epoch men have had to struggle to create a new equilibrium. Our goal must be to obtain as much individual freedom as possible but at each point the claims against, as well as for, the individual must be heard and weighed.

Finally, when I accused Lynd of descending to demagogy, I hardly dreamed that he would offer such new and clear evidence. He knows where I stand on political freedom in the USSR and on the defense of Czechoslovakia’s struggle for socialist freedom; I am on record on these matters, and my review itself provides a theoretical basis for my position. But does he think that his doctrine of the absolute rights of the individual could or should be applied in Cuba or North Vietnam, which are under the imperialist gun? If we were to judge Tito to have been right against Stalin in 1948, could we then judge him wrong for having smashed a potential Soviet Fifth Column when Yugoslavia’s fate was hanging in the balance? Dubcek, the Communist Party, and the Czechoslovakian intelligentsia do not defend their position in Lynd’s terms; they balance their claims for individual freedom against the legitimate claims of socialist society. To reply to Lynd specifically: If a man opposes his society, he must take his chances. One man may be right against all, but he can be so only if he speaks for the needs of the community. He may have to die for it, if that society, rightly or wrongly, judges him to be criminally in error. Lynd wants a nice solution to the problem no people have ever resolved, or probably will resolve, in the abstract. I have no solution for him and insist only that all we can do is to balance rival claims and place the burden of proof on those who would limit, rather than expand, individual freedom.

Lynd’s other question—“Does he favor shooting conscientious objectors in socialist countries?”—is contemptible. Slander is not less so for being phrased as a question. This whole section of Lynd’s letter is a thinly veiled effort to make it appear that I have criticized his work from a Stalinist perspective. His course compels me to say plainly what I had been willing to leave implicit in my review: I have a deep abhorrence for what Lynd stands for because his doctrine of absolute morality and absolute political truth has provided the ideological foundation for every form of totalitarianism that we have faced and are now facing; and notwithstanding his pious speeches on nonviolence, his philosophy is an incitement to totalitarian violence. That he might not care to see his irrationalism carried to its logical political conclusion does not interest me; his young followers are considerably more intelligent in their understanding of its implications, even if they are tragically inexperienced in weighing its consequences for the realization of their high ideals. But he is wrong to think that I contradict myself when I assert that he is both a self-righteous preacher of abstract morality and a nihilist. If these constitute a contradiction in terms, then the problem is his, not mine. He could only lay it at my doorstep were I also to accuse him of thinking logically; to the best of my recollection I never have, and certainly am not about to do so.

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