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Comparatively Speaking

Comrades in Business: Post-Liberation Politics in South Africa

by Heribert Adam, by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, by Kogila Moodley
Cape Town: Tafelberg, 239 pp.


She, and comparisons are odious.

—John Donne, Elegies

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

—Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Unlike musicologists, psychologists, and many other scholars, historians usually concentrate on a specific period and place, and feel that they can never learn enough about them. Those who spend much of their lives comparing the histories of different societies are relatively rare and, of them, George Fredrickson is certainly one of the most distinguished. He tells us that he was attracted to the study of race relations by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and to comparative history by Louis Hartz, one of his Harvard professors, who was then writing his study The Founding of New Societies.1 The Comparative Imagination, a collection of essays on the theory and practice of comparative history, and Black Liberation, a comparison of the ideologies of black opponents of white supremacy in the United States and South Africa, are among the most recent examples of his work and give us a good opportunity for assessing how comparative history can contribute to modern knowledge.

In The Comparative Imagination, Fredrickson welcomes the increasing tendency of historians of the United States to write from “a comparative perspective,” by using foreign examples to explain what is distinctive about American society. In his own work, he has treated race, like class or gender, as a way of looking at human diversity. Race, he insists, is not a matter of biology, as proposed by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.2 Nor does he accept the “cultural determinism” of such authors as Dinesh d’Souza, who “attributes African American ‘failure’ to a ‘dysfunctional’ group culture,” and then irresponsibly “uses this judgment to support a contention that racism is not the source of black underachievement.”

Fredrickson also denies that race is a subcategory of class, as Marxists would have it. He uses examples from Brazil and South Africa as well as the United States to argue that racism is a historical phenomenon which varies with changes in the distribution of both economic power and political power. He perceptively comments on Democracy in America, pointing out that Tocqueville, a “godfather” of comparative history, was unable to see a solution for the racial problem in America because he believed both that slavery was an indefensible violation of human rights and that whites would never give up their privileges. According to Tocqueville, if democracy were to survive, it had to remain an exclusively white affair, excluding Indians and blacks from the body politic. Here, Fredrickson remarks, Tocqueville came close to being a cultural determinist.

In Black Liberation and in White Supremacy,3 his 1981 study of the history of white racial ideologies in America and South Africa, Fredrickson went beyond “a comparative perspective”—i.e., the occasional use of comparative examples—and attempted a more rigorous method, “cross-national comparative history,” which he sees as originating with Tocqueville’s comparisons of America and France. Such an approach tries to give equal weight to the histories of both countries that are being compared and places them in a common international setting. This involves acquiring a mastery of two different bodies of historical scholarship and two different cultures. It is a vast commitment for a scholar to take the time and professional risk to master a second national historiography and culture, including, in many cases, additional languages. Is rigorous comparative history, as practiced by Fredrickson, worth the effort?

Fredrickson argues that such historical work is needed as an antidote to the parochialism that pervades much historical writing. He rejects, for example, the highly influential frontier hypothesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, who originally propounded the idea that the frontier experience shaped both the American character and American institutions, a view that led easily to the nationalist dogma that America is a unique and incomparable nation. “Using the American nation as a unit of comparison,” he writes, “does not require endorsing American exceptionalism.”

Cross-national comparative history can undermine two contrary but equally damaging presuppositions—the illusion of total regularity and that of absolute uniqueness. Cross-national history, by acquainting one with what goes on elsewhere, may inspire a critical awareness of what is taken for granted in one’s own country, but it also promotes a recognition that similar functions may be performed by differing means.

He believes, moreover, that the comparative method enriches both our knowledge of each country under comparison and our understanding of the dynamics of world history. For example, “The most important political and social ideologies of the modern world—liberalism, socialism, and fascism—can be studied as international movements of thought that took on special characteristics in particular national settings”; and he suggests that “a comparative perspective might… spur historians to investigate the causes and consequences of differing relations between government and civil society in the United States and in comparable industrializing nations.” Fredrickson at first drew a line between the approach to comparative work by historians and that of sociologists and political scientists, but he subsequently came to the conclusion that there was a middle ground—a type of comparative history that includes structural social analysis and even general laws.

In 1980, when Fredrickson published his first essay on the subject—it is reprinted in The Comparative Imagination—he found few examples of cross-national comparative history, apart from an extensive and sophisticated literature comparing slave systems in the United States with those in the Caribbean and Latin America, which some historians had already begun to extend to indigenous slave systems in Africa. Since 1980, comparative history has made modest gains. The number of historians publishing cross-national comparative studies is slowly increasing, thanks not least to Fredrickson’s example as a writer and as a teacher at Stanford University. In a 1994 essay reproduced in The Comparative Imagination, he praised Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor, which compared American slavery with Russian serfdom, and Davis Bowman’s Masters and Lords, a comparison of nineteenth-century United States planters with Prussian Junkers.4 Still, while professors occasionally offer graduate courses that are specifically comparative, comparative history remains on the fringe of American scholarship, and seems likely to remain so. There is no journal devoted exclusively to comparative history, and virtually every article in the interdisciplinary Comparative Studies in Society and History concentrates on a single nation. Many historians are still reluctant to undertake writing in the Fredricksonian manner.

The Comparative Imagination concentrates on cross-national studies as though they represented the only appropriate way of doing rigorous comparative history, but that is an unfortunate limitation. Historians may also fruitfully compare cities or continents, or, when dealing with large multi-national regions, they make a variety of comparisons among the different nations of a region, as in Piotr Wandycz’s history of East Central Europe.5 The search for answers to contemporary problems may also lead to comparisons. This reviewer and a colleague, seeking to account for the failure of many tropical Africans to adapt their institutions to those of the more developed nations, have decided to compare African history with that of Southeast Asia. The two regions were at approximately the same economic level when they ceased being colonies but they have followed very different trajectories since. We are coming to the conclusion that the explanation lies largely in environmental factors and in regional history going back far more than a thousand years.

Fredrickson limits the scope of his discussion by confining his examples to works that use the United States as one of the countries under comparison, ignoring such publications as Susan Pederson’s study of the origins of the French and British welfare systems.6 And he concentrates largely on American historians, disregarding the many foreigners who also write comparative history. Europeans have published comparisons of French and British history, and have compared the nineteenth- and twentieth-century histories of Germany and Western Europe in a vigorous debate over whether the Nazi era was to be explained as the result of German nationalism.7 Leaving out such work may give the impression that American historians are uniquely gifted. It is ironic that in his book in defense of comparative history, Fredrickson does not take a comparative perspective when it comes to foreign historians.

In White Supremacy and Black Liberation, working within his chosen limits, Fredrickson practices what he preaches, and does it very well. White Supremacy is a comparative history of the ideologies white Americans and South Africans used to support their racial prejudices and policies. Fredrickson starts by comparing the indigenous inhabitants of America with the indigenous Khoisan hunting and herding peoples who occupied the southwestern corner of southern Africa when white settlers began to arrive there in the seventeenth century. Each of the two peoples was overwhelmed by white aggression and affected by diseases from abroad. Fredrickson’s comparison of the similarities between them is telling. In the second half of White Supremacy Fredrickson compares the situation of black Americans and black South Africans—that is to say, Bantu-speaking farming peoples. Black Liberation takes up the story by comparing the ideological responses of black Americans and black South Africans to the theories and practices of white supremacy.8

In view of their fundamental demographic and cultural-historical differences, it may seem strange that Fredrickson should have written a book and a half comparing the histories of those two people. Black Americans are a minority, only 13 percent of the population of the United States; black South Africans are a majority, amounting to 76 percent of the South African population. Most black Americans are descendants of slaves who were imported into the United States to work for whites; ancestors of black South Africans began to occupy South Africa by migration from the north more than a millennium before white settlers began to arrive there. Moreover, the struggles for liberation from white supremacy have had radically different outcomes.

Fredrickson acknowledges these differences (though at times he writes as if they did not exist), but he also finds striking similarities between the two struggles after about 1880, when white Americans had regained control of the South following Reconstruction and white South Africans had only recently completed their conquest of the African kingdoms and chiefdoms. The black “liberationists” who led the struggles in both countries were educated, middle-class men who had absorbed many elements of Western culture. They were responding to the similar arguments about black inferiority used by the white supremacists in both countries; they shared as well a sense of subjection and deprivation, and they were conscious of being part of a larger international struggle for black liberation from slavery, colonialism, segregation, and subordination. Moreover, as they adapted to the changing local and international conditions, they formulated similar ideologies and pursued similar methods. Fredrickson does not comment on the fact that nearly all the black leaders in both countries were men. Male control is a conspicuous characteristic of black South African society; it was not until 1956 that the first black woman, Lilian Ngoyi, was elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress.

  1. 1

    Louis Hartz, The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia (Harcourt Brace, 1964).

  2. 2

    Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994); Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society (Free Press, 1995). See also George M. Fredrickson, The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism and Social Inequality (Wesleyan University Press, 1988).

  3. 3

    George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1981).

  4. 4

    Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1987); and Shearer Davis Bowman, Masters and Lords: Mid-Nineteenth Century US Planters and Prussian Junkers (Oxford University Press, 1993).

  5. 5

    Piotr S. Wandycz, The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present (Routledge, 1992).

  6. 6

    Susan Pederson, Family Dependence and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  7. 7

    See, for example, Douglas Johnson, François Crouzet, and François Bedarida, editors, Britain and France: Ten Centuries (Folkestone, England: Dawson, 1980); and Jurgen Kocka, “German History before Hitler: The debate about the German Sonderweg,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 23 (1988), pp. 3-16.

  8. 8

    The United States and South Africa have had different usages concerning the scope and the names of the two populations in question. In the United States, the name has changed over time from Negroes to Coloreds to Blacks to African-Americans, and its scope has included all Americans with an African ancestor. In South Africa, law and custom have distinguished Africans, Indians (Asians), and Coloureds (people of mixed racial descent); Africans have been known to whites as Kaffirs or Natives in the past, and the word Black has usually referred exclusively to Africans until recently. Now, its meaning is often extended to include Indians and Coloureds. In this article, to avoid cumbersome prose and unnecessary pedantry, I refer to these populations as black Americans and black South Africans (with apologies to people who prefer to call themselves African-Americans).

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