Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution
Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism
The publication, almost simultaneously, of both these books by Staughton Lynd provides an opportunity to assess his position both as a historian and as an ideologue of the New Left. Normally, it would be bad manners to confuse the two roles, but Lynd has argued forcefully that they ought not to be separated, and both books, especially Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, are plainly meant to serve political ends. As a contribution to American radical historiography, Lynd’s work must be evaluated as part of the present effort of recent scholars, most of them under forty, to establish an ideological foundation for their political movement. These men and women have been in revolt against a vulgar-Marxist tradition based on economic determinism, a glorification of the lower classes, and the self-defeating tendency to read the past according to the political demands of the moment. Historians like W. A. Williams, Aileen Kraditor, and Christopher Lasch, starting from such different ideologies as Christian socialism, orthodox Marxism, pragmatism, and existentialism, have recently converged in an attack on the economic determinism and romanticism of the earlier tradition and, especially, the assumption that myth-making and falsifying in historical writing can be of political use. It is ironic that even historians who do not consider themselves Marxists are steadily building a genuine American version of Marxism by the very act of destroying the caricature to which they fell heir. Lynd speaks as part of this current, but, as these books reveal, he might more properly be placed in the tradition being overthrown.
Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, by far the better of the two books, contains excellent empirical work on a number of important questions, but also reveals much methodological and philosophical confusion. Its value lies in its painstaking analyses of local responses to the political and social crises of the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras. By making careful studies of selected areas in New York State, Lynd tests the familiar theses of Beard and Becker, with their strong suggestion of a counter-revolution by large property-owners. In particular he writes well about the position of the artisans and lower middle-class radicals who played an important part in the Revolution and the constitutional crisis. When, for example, he demonstrates, with impressive skill, how foreign policy considerations played a major role in the radical thinking of the lower classes, he begins to discuss class positions as a complex mixture of material interests, ideologies, and psychological attitudes, and implicitly comes close to replacing economic determinism with a sophisticated class analysis of historical change. These four essays in Part One, together with Lynd’s other published work on the Revolutionary period, justify his reputation as a thoughtful scholar of early American history.
IN “BEYOND BEARD,” the introductory essay, however, Lynd seems unable to pull the threads of his empirical work together into a coherent theory that would in fact go “beyond Beard.” The narrow economic analysis characteristic of so much of Beard’s work is based upon an investigation of the role of interest groups, the most important of which he defined as holders of real and personal property. Today, the best radical scholars agree that such forms of vulgar Marxism should be replaced with serious research on the nature and role of social classes, considered not only as representative of specific material interests but as complexes of goals, cultural assumptions, and social and psychological relationships. In this way, these scholars are moving from a concern with mechanistic details to the mainsprings of social and political behavior. Lynd has no trouble in destroying Beard’s crude class analysis—in any case, the criticism of Forrest McDonald and others has prepared the way—but in this introductory essay he never breaks with economic determinism itself. Thus we are left with a view only slightly different from that of the older, admittedly sterile one; the broader implications of Lynd’s diligent empirical work are forced into a theoretical frame too narrow to encompass them.
In Parts Two and Three Lynd turns to the slavery question, which he sees as of decisive importance for an understanding of the Revolution and the Constitution; and it is here that his agreement breaks down. He attempts to demonstrate that the antagonism between the slave-holders and the Northern middle classes helped to shape the early national period, but he fails to place the significant conflicts of interest. That the interests of the two emerging classes diverged in some important respects is beyond doubt, but for the most part that divergence arose from different expectations of the future and from different ways of thinking. Lynd fails to analyze the slaveholders as a class and seems to gag on the notion that they could have been developing their own system of morality, reflecting their particular social system. Thus he cannot explain the nature of the antagonism between them and the Northern middle class, and consequently he overestimates the immediate political and economic conflict. His argument is finally no more than an indictment of the Founding Fathers for having failed to take a moral stand against slavery. He refuses 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 insists on holding up to it moral standards abstracted from any time and place.
In short, Lynd moves from the economic-determinist view of the first part of his book to a subjective and ahistorical one in the second. Unable to justify his moralistic condemnation of slavery according to his materialist theory, he asserts a moral absolutism that contradicts the theory itself.
We may perhaps account for the contradiction between the two parts of Class Conflict in its origin as a collection of separate essays written over a period of five years or more. In any case, that contradiction disappears in Intellectual Origins, which abandons all attempts at a materialist interpretation. The book is based on carefully selected statements from Lynd’s favorite English theorists, Revolutionary War heroes, and philosophical anarchists and middle-class radicals—from Cartwright and Paine through the Abolitionists to writers like Henry George—and is designed to establish certain of their ideas as the core of the radical tradition. The intellectual tradition of radicalism Lynd describes in this way:
The tradition I have attempted to describe made the following affirmations: that the proper foundation for government is a universal law of right and wrong self-evident to the intuitive common sense of every man; that freedom is a power of personal self-direction which no man can delegate to another; that the purpose of society is not the protection of property but fulfillment of the needs of living human beings; that good citizens have the right and duty, not only to overthrow incurably oppressive governments, but before that point is reached to break particular oppressive laws; and that we owe our ultimate allegiance, not to this or that nation, but to the whole family of man.
Lynd views the Declaration of Independence as the most relevant expression of these ideas, and makes large claims on its continuing fascination for some American radicals. He does not mention that many American radicals have disagreed—imagine Daniel De Leon peddling such stuff! Still less does he tell us anything about the role of class or the historical setting of the debates among radicals. For Lynd, this moralistic version of radical doctrine is all that matters; he seeks merely to trace its history and its relation to conservative thought—which is, by the way, more abused than presented or criticized.
The book is, therefore, not history at all—how could one write a history of “self-evident truths”—but a political testament with historical references added to establish a pedigree. Leaving aside possible disagreements with Lynd’s particular readings, we find little surprise or controversy in his account of how the English Dissenters developed Lockian doctrine in a democratic direction, or of the importance of the inner light in egalitarian movements during the seventeenth century, or of the link between radical Protestantism and Abolitionism. The historical record is familiar. The claims of the book rest on Lynd’s interpretation, or, rather, on his assumption, that moral absolutism is what the radical tradition has to offer radicals today.
THE USES to which Lynd puts moral absolutism reveals much about his attitude toward history itself. We are told that the “great truths” are intuitively accessible to the average man and that conscience, not constituted authority, must be the ultimate arbiter of political good and evil. Lynd has no trouble in showing that these and related “Inner-Light” doctrines served revolutionary ends in the European peasant wars or the English Revolution, but somehow he thinks that this demonstration, now standard fare, proves his case for their contemporary importance. Previous revolutionary movements were millenarian or bourgeois, and hence these doctrines could serve a revolutionary purpose, but Lynd seeks to graft them on to a socialist revolution, the content of which he never discusses. He merely asserts that they form the kernel of revolutionary socialist thought, although no socialist movement has ever won power with such an ideology; indeed the history of modern Western society suggests that the working class would laugh its exponents off the political stage.
Since Lynd never discusses the relation of these ideas to the social groups that hold them he is freed from a concern with unpleasant questions. Writing as a historian, he nevertheless denies the importance of the social context in which ideas occur—the “great truths” are to him self-evident and absolute—and he thereby denies the usefulness of history except for purposes of moral exhortation. He frankly asserts an antirationalist position:
Therefore, the neo-Lockians of the eighteenth century, like the neo-Marxists of the twentieth, were obliged to reintroduce the ethical dimension. They insisted on the reality of the good and on man’s ability to recognize it, defended the intuitions of the heart against the paralyzing analysis of the head.
It is difficult to know where to begin criticism, all the more so since Lynd’s hippie neo-Marxists go unnamed, and we are not told just whose (or which) heads become paralyzed by analysis. Lynd seeks to prove that the essence of radicalism is something akin to obscurantism. The counter-tendencies and opposing views of the Left are ignored; the book is therefore a travesty of history.
Lynd describes various strains of radical thought in English and early American history, and invokes the formidable authority of E. P. Thompson’s masterpiece, The Making of the English Working Class, which also seeks to find the roots of modern radical thought in pre-industrial and early industrial bourgeois and petty-bourgeois currents. Regrettably, Lynd omits a decisive step in his argument, and thereby inverts Thompson’s method. He establishes a pedigree for his favorite radical ideas, among which are the right of revolution, the right to disobey personally obnoxious laws, and the primacy of human over property rights, and seeks to relate the ideas of the New Left to the ideas of the American Revolution and Abolitionism.