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High Noon

In response to:

Self-Evident Truths? from the December 19, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I hope I may be given an opportunity to add a few words in these pages to what must seem to many readers an all-too-familiar quarrel between two radicals [NYR, December 19, 1968].

Beneath all the sound and fury there are some substantive issues of general significance. Before moving to these, let me first say this: No matter how grievous the faults of anything I may have written, I do not think the reasonable society in which Eugene Genovese says he believes will be brought closer by his manner of conducting an argument.

If I have slandered him, as he says, I did it inadvertently and I am sorry. But what is bizarre is that he apparently does not ask himself whether he might not, repeatedly and in the most abusive possible fashion, have slandered me. For instance, he holds me responsible for the conduct of unnamed “young followers” of mind whose violence, according to Genovese, is (whatever I may think) the product of my nonviolence.

In referring to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in my response to Genovese’s review, my intention, at least, was to ask him whether he really meant something which he had said in the review. I had in mind the passage which asked what would happen to a small revolutionary country which adopted my position on civil disobedience, and answered: “It would not last a day, and neither, we suspect, would anyone advocating this doctrine in such a country.” I wondered whether Genovese believed that in such a country someone like myself should not be permitted to speak, or even to exist.

After writing my response, I realized that Genovese had consciously or unconsciously paraphrased a quotation in one of my books which he reviewed. In my essay on “Beard, Jefferson and the Tree of Liberty,” I quoted a remark by Congressman Jackson of Georgia in 1790:

The gentleman says, if he was a Federal judge, he does not know to what lengths he would go in emancipating these people; but I believe his judgment would be of short duration in Georgia, perhaps even the existence of such a Judge might be in danger.

I ask Professor Genovese and the reader whether it would not have been rational for an abolitionist to understand Jackson’s words as a physical threat. Then I ask them to look again at Genovese’s words about dissenters in small revolutionary countries. Perhaps Genovese will say that he was merely making an empirical statement about what would be likely to happen to a person like myself in such a country as he describes. If so, I would consider this an instance of his tendency to confine himself to descriptive “historical” statements at moments when normative “political” judgments are appropriate.

Consider in this connection our central differences concerning Marxism and slavery. Genovese says I quote selectively from the young Marx, reject the mature Marx, and in general caricature Marxism. But what about the views of the mature Marx on the Civil War? Both in his correspondence with Engels and in his newspaper articles of the time, Marx expressed contempt for the Southern cause and strong emotional identification with Northern abolitionism. For this reason Genovese, in his essay in Towards A New Past, dismisses Marx’s approach to the Civil War as a “liberal” deviation from true Marxism. He may be right; but he should recognize that he too is picking and choosing, that he too rejects an aspect of the mature Marx. I believe that there are many aspects of Marxism, young and old, and for myself prefer the Marx who identified with “bourgeois democratic” abolitionists and gloried in the Paris Commune although it was led by his Proudhonist opponents.

Again, Genovese thinks it is “ersatz theology” for me to ask whether the United States might have abolished slavery before the Civil War. Marx himself, however, wrote to Engels on July 1, 1861 that the North had “abased itself for the past fifty years by one concession after another” to the South, hardly the language one uses to characterize inevitable happenings.

Overall the exchange between myself and Eugene Genovese may have generated more heat than light. But I believe it to have been worthwhile for the following sentence alone:

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.

I accept this as a fair summary of our respective positions. I plead guilty to thinking slavery and servitude evil and immoral for every time and place. If this be demagogy and obscurantism, make the most of it.

Staughton Lynd


Eugene D Genovese replies:

If Professor Lynd wants an extended public debate on our differences, he can—as I have repeatedly made clear—have one at an appropriate time and place of his choosing. Here, he merely repeats, with new illustrations, the arguments of his previous letter, to which I have already replied. He has added only a misunderstanding of my critique of Marx and of the distinction between political and historical judgment, but anyone interested in these matters may consult the essay in Towards a New Past, to which I have nothing to add.

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