• Email
  • Print

Southern Comfort

The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism

by Eugene D. Genovese
Harvard University Press, 138 pp., $22.50

The easiest way to approach Eugene D. Genovese’s fascinating recent work on Southern conservatism is to compare the two lost causes that he has long admired. For in his view the slaveholders’ ideology, theology, and political theory, which culminated in the Southern Confederacy of 1861–1865, and the Marxist-Leninist ideology, which culminated in the Soviet Union and Maoist China, represented the only serious challenges in modern history to the domination of bourgeois values and finance capitalism. “The fall of the Confederacy,” Genovese points out, “drowned the hopes of southern conservatives for the construction of a viable noncapitalist social order, much as the disintegration of the Soviet Union—all pretenses and wishful thinking aside—has drowned the hopes of socialists.”

Genovese has been drawn to this analogy since the late 1940s, when he was a teen-age Stalinist at Brooklyn College. His tolerant anti-Communist professors encouraged him to develop his unusual interest in Southern slaveholders, who must have seemed rather remote to an Italian-American young man of the working class. An older generation of Marxist historians, led by Herbert Aptheker (to whom Genovese now pays appropriate tribute), served as bold pioneers in the re-assessment of Southern slavery and slave resistance at a time when an earlier form of “political correctness” prohibited major deviations from the official view of Happy Darkies, as they were portrayed, for example, in Gone With the Wind. But Aptheker and the other innovators, who were blacklisted and seldom read, saw no parallels between communism and the anti-capitalism of the Southern slavocracy. In fact, in the eyes of some orthodox Marxists, as one reviewer put it in the late 1960s, “Genovese’s work is to Marxism as masturbation is to sexual love.”

However one wishes to classify a self-professed Marxist who rejected economic determinism and who reserved the highest respect for religion and even theology, there is much truth to Genovese’s claim that the depth and strength of his work emerged from his Marxism, not in spite of it. Indeed, Genovese’s Marxist sensitivity to the nuances of class interactions among both slaves and masters enabled him to convey the appalling oppression and horror of slavery without sounding like a latter-day abolitionist. This was one of his major achievements.

Beginning in 1965 with The Political Economy of Slavery and in 1969 with The World the Slaveholders Made, Genovese brilliantly explored the social, psychological, and cultural consequences of a ruling class’s ownership of other human beings. More than any previous historian he seemed to recapture the mentality of a master faced with the need to command, exhort, care for, and win some respect from slaves, as distinct from a merchant capitalist who could buy and sell slaves as a commodity. Five years later, in his masterpiece of 1974, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Genovese created what is still the most vivid, imaginative, and comprehensive picture we have of slave life in the South. But it is a picture that rests, significantly, on a complex and often misunderstood theory of paternalism and on a sympathetic understanding of the figures, such as the Negro driver, the preacher, and the “Mammy,” who served as intermediaries between the ruling class and their own people.

While some historians and economists still picture the antebellum South as a specimen of unadulterated capitalism, and while Genovese long ago abandoned the Marxian notion of a precapitalist “slave mode of production,” he and his historian wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have presented a convincing case that the “social relations” engendered by slavery in the South supported a moral and intellectual world increasingly at odds with the capitalism that spawned the Atlantic slave system and then consumed its products. Anyone who doubts that Genovese and Fox-Genovese have long been the most influential and imaginative historians of the antebellum South needs only to examine the central themes of the work of such excellent younger scholars as Peter Kolchin, Drew Gilpin Faust, Robert L. Paquette, and even James Oakes, who began his career with an unqualified attack on Eugene Genovese’s basic premises.1

The parallels between socialism and a Southern conservatism originally rooted in slaveholding do not end with their common hostility to rampant, irresponsible individualism and the dominance of marketplace values. Those responsible for both forms of dissent from the capitalist system have been portrayed as the Great American Enemy. The Southern conservatives were seen as making up a cohesive clique of immensely rich slaveholders, “the Slave Power” as it was known, who dominated the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court through the 1840s and 1850s. They supposedly presided over a cultural and intellectual wasteland governed by the need to defend the oppression of black slaves and poor whites; and they also allegedly conspired to provoke the Mexican War, to cripple and enclose the free Northern economy, and to open up a vast empire for slavery from the Caribbean to California.

A century later, the international Communist movement was charged with recruiting an army of secret agents who blindly obeyed the dictates of Soviet authorities and tried to exploit the Great Depression and especially the brief wartime alliance with “Uncle Joe” Stalin. Their alleged aim was to subvert democracy by infiltrating the government, labor unions, the universities, Hollywood, and the press and broadcasting.

Genovese of course knew that the Southern cause was irretrievably lost during the decades when he still looked to the Soviet Union as the potential redeemer of all mankind.2 Nothing inhibited him from exposing in vivid detail the dark realities of American bondage that Southern pro-slavery ideology sought to conceal. Only recently, however, has he confronted the unprecedented human costs of the movement to create a socialist utopia. While in the past Genovese could warn against the “totalitarian tendencies inherent in our own program,” he could also proclaim, as late as July 1983, that “the great Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, among others, have transformed the world and ushered in, however painfully, the social system of the near future.”3

Now, however, in The Southern Front, he astringently confesses that

Having substituted what may fairly be called a gnostic vision for Christianity and scoffed at the moral baseline of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, we [i.e., Genovese and his fellow Communists] ended a seventy-year experiment with socialism with little more to our credit than tens of millions of corpses.

Even the atrocities of all the European and American slave-traders and slaveholders, Genovese concludes, might not match those “of our own blood-drenched romance with the utopia of a man-made heaven here on earth.”

Throughout his professional life Genovese has sought to combine the roles of social critic and objective historian. In his remarkable early essay, “On Being a Socialist and a Historian,”4 he denounced all ideologically motivated history as bad history, which could only serve the oppressive purposes of new elites and deny people knowledge of their own heritage. Acknowledging that all writing and teaching are unavoidably political, Genovese exhorted socialists “to struggle for maximum objectivity” and affirmed that “all good (true, valid, competent) history serves our interest.” He also dismissed the faddish calls for “relevance,” defended the “rational and critical tradition” of Western civilization, and underscored the responsibility of intellectuals to “present some chapter of the infinite grandeur of the human spirit—a grandeur no less for the inescapable frailty and evil that must forever go into the making of everything human.”

These were precisely the standards of the most distinguished postwar historians—among them Richard Hofstadter, David Potter, Perry Miller, and Vann Woodward—and they are standards that have long been under attack in the so-called culture wars. A cleavage thus emerged between the Genovese honored for his academic work and the combative militant who could praise Stalin’s tough leadership, who boasted of his own “Sicilian temper,” and who sometimes wrote as if the world were divided between “comrades” and decadent “bourgeois” foes. Ironically, the bourgeois academy tended to dismiss Genovese’s Marxist rhetoric as a harmless eccentricity, particularly in a scholar who could have been expected to be embittered by Richard Nixon’s personal campaign in the 1960s to get him fired from Rutgers University.

For the three decades since the mid-1960s Genovese’s most vehement and outraged critics have been identified with the left, especially the new left. In the eyes of some academic radicals and liberals he has followed the classic route of the apostate: to the far right. Others, noting Genovese’s constant and open-minded willingness to listen to conservatives, conclude that he was never an authentic radical and has only recently shown his true colors. Since he is still centrally concerned with the ravages and injustices of unbridled capitalism, Genovese has tried to speak for the left and has repeatedly maintained that what remains of it must reexamine its basic principles, in light of the economic collapse and moral bankruptcy of socialism, and consider new alliances with groups of different tendencies if it hopes to confront the appalling social problems that the nation now faces. Since he has also come to question the “series of gigantic illusions” on which “our whole project of ‘human liberation’ has rested,” and has bitterly concluded that “only the radical Left practices character assassination and mendacity as a matter of course,” he has increasingly found an audience among more traditional conservatives.

Despite this transformation, one can see a continuity in Genovese’s choice of enemies, a continuity that helps to illuminate his historical contributions and the cogent as well as dubious arguments he makes about political issues and the future of American society. Reared as a Roman Catholic, he then proclaimed his atheism so defiantly he did not always sound entirely convincing. He has always expressed contempt (mixed with some pity) for the liberal sects of Protestantism. He is equally contemptuous of the Pelagian heretics who denied original sin; of the Socinian heretics (and their Unitarian descendants) who denied the Holy Trinity; of Emersonian Yankees and Transcendentalists; of self-righteous abolitionists; and of the contemporary cultural and intellectual progeny of all these groups.

In particular, he has attacked bourgeois hippies and the drug-taking new left and anti-elitist academic elites, some of whom celebrated individual self-expression without paying much attention to the obligation to take responsibility for one’s acts. He has been particularly critical of radical deconstructionists who have tried anachronistically to discredit the main works of Western culture as racist or sexist or imperialist. He has charged that there is a closer relation than might appear to be the case between, on the one hand, campus radicals and, on the other, professedly liberal capitalists, bureaucrats who embrace egalitarian principles and affirmative action but who turn a blind eye to the commercialization of all aspects of human life and to the creation of an ever-growing pool of unemployable citizens who can neither compete nor consume.

For Genovese the unexpected triumph of capitalism has simply underscored Marx’s accurate description of capitalism as

permanently revolutionary, tearing down all obstacles that impede the development of productive forces, the expansion of needs, the diversity of production and the exploitation and exchange of natural and intellectual forces.5

Genovese writes that he now recognizes the inherent economic superiority of the free-market system, which has proved to be a prerequisite for raising the living standard of the world’s working classes. But he insists that we must recognize the market and “cash-nexus” as “a revolutionary solvent of social relations,” a ubiquitous acid that has eaten away the bonds of family, church, community, and nation. As market values have intruded into all spheres of life and have come to govern even moral and political decisions, Americans have become captivated by dreams of autonomy, equality, and infinite self-liberation, as if they could all become Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” The result is that the Judeo-Christian respect for “the irreducible element of divinity” in all human beings—a belief whose value has been heightened, according to Genovese, by “the terrible human cost of the socialist experiments”—has been gradually perverted. It has become, he writes, “an ignoble dream of personal liberation,” and whether it is “in its radical-democratic, communist, or free-market form, has proven the most dangerous illusion of our time.”

These convictions and prejudices are clearly open to objections, not least for their broad use of such phrases as “personal liberation.” But they have also helped Genovese surmount the ideological barriers that have long denied scholars an appreciative understanding of the intellectual history of the antebellum South. Even today an American historian influenced by texts reflecting Northern views, by the neo-abolitionist exposés of the racist South, and by the travel descriptions of Frederick Law Olmsted in The Cotton Kingdom is likely to ask, “What intellectual history?”6 It has been known for many years, however, that both Genovese and his wife have been working on what promises to be a detailed, multivolume history of the mind of the planter class.

The three books under review, one consisting of twenty-three miscellaneous essays and the others presenting two sets of three lectures each, delivered at Harvard and Georgia Southern University, give tantalizing foretastes of the major project. These preliminary works combine some fresh and much-needed intellectual history with more cloudy pleas for a new American coalition that can build on the insights of antebellum and twentieth-century Southern conservatives while shedding their noxious racism. It is the latter theme that has attracted the mostly hostile attention of reviewers. One hopes that Genovese and Fox-Genovese will limit their magnum opus to the nonideological scholarship that both have defended.

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, Genovese claims, Southern slaveholders were a remarkably well-educated class by the standards of their time. The sons of planters commonly attended college—if not Princeton or Yale, then one of the proliferating Southern state universities and private colleges. Many entered the ministry or other professions, and some of them quickly “matched and sometimes overmatched Northerners in one discipline after another”:

St. George Tucker, T.R.R. Cobb, Thomas Ruffin in legal theory and jurisprudence; George Tucker and Jacob N. Cardozo in political economy; James Henley Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney in theology and ecclesiology; Thomas Roderick Dew and William H. Trescot in historical studies; John C. Calhoun and Albert Taylor Bledsoe in political theory—the list could be extended—deserve to rank among America’s ablest thinkers…. But most of these southerners defended slavery, and even St. George Tucker and George Tucker, who did not, staunchly defended “southern rights” and the political principles and policies of the slaveholders’ regime. The slaveholders lost the war; slavery has properly been condemned as an enormity; and, not surprisingly, the southern intellectuals have virtually been expunged from memory.

In their confused search for an alternate route to modern society, the Southerners had much in common with English and Continental conservatives, with whom they had more contact than one might think. For all their supposed medievalism, Southern intellectuals accepted science and the many benefits and conveniences of technology and economic growth. Even the South as a whole, Genovese points out, was far more tolerant of Catholics and especially Jews than was the Northeast, notwithstanding later stereotypes of Southern prejudice and bigotry. Genovese especially admires the Southern conservatives’ understanding of human depravity and historical limits; their rejection of radical individualism; their respect for family, community, and other “organic” social connections; and their advocacy of broad-based property ownership coupled with a recognition of the inevitability of social stratification.

But unlike conservatives elsewhere, such Southern spokesmen as George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun identified the system of free wage labor as the source of social disintegration and related moral evils in the North and Western Europe. While they argued that slavery could be the only safe, secure, and Christian foundation for freedom, they increasingly sought to achieve what now seems an absurd contradiction: the reform of human bondage. The theologians, in particular, sought to legalize slave marriages, prevent the breakup of slave families, and repeal laws against teaching slaves to read. James Henley Thornwell, a towering figure who charged that the abolitionist argument “fully and legitimately carried out, would condemn every arrangement of society, which did not secure to its members an absolute equality of position,” had even drafted a plan for gradual emancipation shortly before his native South Carolina seceded from the Union.

Although the Civil War destroyed the material foundation of Southern conservativism, Genovese sees a straight line—“a tradition that has resisted bourgeois society, its atomistic culture, and its marketplace morality”—running from figures like Thornwell to the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s and 1940s—including the writers Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks—and on to the conservative postwar writers Richard M. Weaver, M.E. Bradford, and John Shelton Reed. Genovese claims that the postwar conservatives, unlike the Agrarians, have been valiantly struggling to purge themselves of racism; that despite their bleak pronouncements about modern man becoming “a moral idiot,” they have not repudiated progress, science, or modernity, only “the cult of progress, scientism, and the moral and political decadence of a modernity run wild.” Genovese, who won the Weaver Award in 1993, was a close friend of Bradford, who, with such books as A Better Guide than Reason, had “assumed the mantle of Weaver” before his own recent death. And Genovese warns that the left will fail, even in some historically unprecedented coalition, “unless it comes to terms with the positive side of the Southern tradition,” exemplified not least in the ability of men like John Shelton Reed “to laugh at themselves.”

It is no doubt true that much remains to be said on the deeper meanings of socialism’s collapse. (In his now well-known essay “The Question,” which concludes The Southern Front, he never confronts this question: Would Genovese have denounced the appalling crimes and dangerous illusions of socialism if the economy of the Soviet Union had grown and prospered into the twenty-first century?) No doubt many liberals could profit from reading such Southern conservatives as James Henley Thornwell and John Crowe Ransom. And Genovese can be telling when he describes the contradictions between socially destructive individualism and the pretensions of multinational corporate culture. The recent, embarrassed attempt of Time Warner—an alliance of the moralizing Luce publications with the entertainment conglomerate—to defend its investment in some of the more vicious gangsta rap lyrics provides a case in point.

Genovese is at his best when he exposes the hypocrisy of liberals and radicals and when he analyzes the work of Southern theologians against a historical background of Christian doctrine, reminding us of the dangers of believing in human perfectibility and of the need for social restraints on our capacity for depravity. He seems to forget, however, that Reinhold Niebuhr taught a generation of American liberals that a sophisticated understanding of original sin could be combined with advancing social progress and “proximate” justice.7 Nor does he seem to have taken account of the moral complexity of the thought of such liberals as Isaiah Berlin, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, all of whom are skeptical about ideologies of human perfectibility.

Although Genovese has sometimes posed as a tough, streetwise Sicilian-American fighter who has mastered the mysteries of power, he may well be as isolated from current realities as some of the academics he criticizes. From his recent books on Southern conservatism one would never suspect that the Republican Party and much of our national politics itself have been dominated by Southern conservatives and a Southern-led Christian Coalition. Genovese’s Agrarians and such quietly ironic writers as Richard Weaver seem to come from quite another world from that of Phil Gramm, Strom Thurmond, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms, and Ollie North. To be sure, Genovese on occasion draws a distinction between the conservatives who blindly embrace all aspects of freemarket corporate capitalism and those few who see the damage it can cause. But it is hardly reassuring to learn that M.E. Bradford “took dead aim at rightwingers for whom conservatism means little more than market economics and pro-business economic policies, describing them as ‘centralizers’ and as ‘egalitarians on every subject but money.”’ Genovese, in an essay written in 1990, warned that racists like David Duke might succeed in stealing the conservatives’ thunder and inheriting their power in US politics. But he says he agrees on some topics with William Bennett, Pat Robertson, “and a few other unmentionables.” Robertson’s belief in theories of a world conspiracy by Jewish bankers seems to have escaped him.

While the fall of socialism has given Genovese an admirable sense of his own fallibility, he does not seem to sense that his lifelong hostility to Emersonian liberalism and market values might drive him into a camp that uses the language of communalism and family values to justify the dismantling of the only agencies of power that can check corporate crime and corruption; regulate the excesses of the market; protect the environment; provide some physical assistance and decent treatment for the unemployed and unemployables; and sustain the kind of culture and scholarship that transcends the marketplace in highly diverse communities. In short, by joining the current highly deceptive campaign of big business to demonize the national government, Genovese renounces not only the abolitionist-liberal tradition but the equally hardwon tradition of the Progressives and New Dealers who knew that sinful private bigness can only be checked by sinful public bigness.

Letters

The Southern League November 16, 1995

  1. 1

    While James Oakes’s The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (Knopf, 1982) stressed the thoroughly capitalist behavior and orientation of Southern slaveholders, his second book, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (Knopf, 1990), builds on the work of Genovese and others and takes a far more subtle and convincing view of the divided and dialectical nature of slaveholding society.

  2. 2

    As an adopted Southerner, living in Atlanta, Genovese is no doubt aware that the secessionist movements in Canada, southern Brazil, Italy, and, of course, the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union have encouraged a new secessionist movement in the South, led by The Southern League. Founded in Alabama in 1994, the League endorses the same Southern conservative principles that Genovese now admires, and honors the same historical figures, such as John Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, and John C. Calhoun. The board of The Southern League includes a clergyman, a magazine editor, and such academics as Michael Hill, a professor of European history at the University of Alabama and president of the League; Grady McWhiney, a well-known professor of history at Texas Christian University; and Clyde Wilson, editor of the John C. Calhoun papers. In an interview Professor Hill claims that the League welcomes members of all races as long as they support “limited government, states’ rights, and the right to local self rule.” Not satisfied by the political triumph of Southern Republicans, who according to Hill will inevitably compromise with Yankees and “The New World Order,” League members talk openly of achieving their ancestors’ dream of “secession and Southern independence” (Southern Partisan, Fourth Quarter 1994, pp. 34-37).

  3. 3

    Genovese, “Introduction to the New Edition,” In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (University of Tennessee Press, 1984), pp.xx, xxii.

  4. 4

    Included in In Red and Black, pp. 3–22.

  5. 5

    Karl Marx, The Grundrisse, edited and translated by David McLellan (Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 94–95; Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, second edition (Norton, 1972), pp. 475–477.

  6. 6

    Several historians, however, in particular Michael O’Brien and Drew Gilpin Faust, have produced outstanding work that should modify this kind of reaction; significantly, both O’Brien and Faust have paid tribute to Genovese’s recent work.

  7. 7

    In The Nature and Destiny of Man (Scribner, 1948) and The Irony of American History (Scribner, 1952) Niebuhr also exposed all the illusions and dangers of Marxism that Genovese now discusses.

  • Email
  • Print