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Freedom and Its Discontents

Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and formerly Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford, is one of our most distinguished historians. He is a past president of the Organization of American Historians and is president-elect of the American Historical Association. Foner’s books have been mainly devoted to the nineteenth century of the United States, of which the best known is his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, which won many prizes, including the Bancroft Prize.

His latest book takes him into new ground. In form, it is a survey of American history from the country’s origins to the present, whose central concern is with the development of freedom. Fluent and engaging, it seems written both for the general public and for students. It is, however, not a substitute for traditional American historical surveys; it passes over too much and seems to be driven too much by the author’s predilections. It barely mentions the three foreign wars of the nineteenth century—the second war against Great Britain in 1812- 1815, the war with Mexico in 1846, and the war with Spain in 1898. The “Great Triumvirate” of the early nineteenth century, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, get one passing mention apiece; Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, merits eleven, and W.E.B. Du Bois gets five.

Foner treats his subject as a historian, not as a philosopher or political scientist. Americans, he notes, have not produced many abstract discussions of the concept of freedom, and he does not venture any. He seeks to tell of the “debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.” He sees freedom as both an idea and a practice, and he prefers to emphasize the latter.

The problem of freedom in American history is paradoxical. Much depends on whether the story is told from the top down or from the bottom up. In the first half-century after independence, African-American slaves suffered at the bottom, and to this day their emancipation has been only partially realized. Women were relegated to the household, deprived of the right to vote, and employed, if at all, in menial, low-paying tasks.

If the story of American freedom is told largely from the perspective of blacks and women, especially the former, it is not going to be a pretty tale. Yet most Americans thought of themselves not only as free but as the freest people in the world. Frances Trollope and other foreign visitors were struck by the American tendency to boast of their “liberality and the love of freedom.” At the end of the nineteenth century, Lord Bryce, a much friendlier observer, noted that “Americans cherish the notion that they are the only people who enjoy true political liberty.”

Why did so many ordinary Americans think they were peculiarly blessed with freedom, while so many others lacked many of its attributes? This question never arises in Foner’s book because he largely ignores ordinary Americans—manual workers, clerks, teachers, farmers, owners of small businesses among them—and concerns himself primarily with the extremely oppressed, the underdogs, the dissatisfied. Until he gets virtually to the present, the story is largely one of disillusionment with efforts to ameliorate the condition of African-Americans and women.

At the outset, Foner suggests what his own attitude is. “The title of this book, as is perhaps obvious,” he writes, “is meant to be ambiguous or ironic (one might even call it post-modern).” The ambiguity of the title does not seem obvious to me, and I am not sure what “postmodern” means in this context. But it seems clear that Foner wants to warn the reader that he is a highly critical observer of the American past.

His critical position rests on his almost unvarying emphasis on black slavery and female subordination. For him “race and sex were crucial constitutive elements in how freedom was understood and experienced.” In that case, freedom was not understood and experienced by Americans in an acceptable present-day manner. This concentration on race and sex gives his book an up-to-date tone of correctness, as if the present generation were inexorably passing judgment on the limitations of past generations.

That there were past limitations and extreme deprivations there is no doubt. But the story of American freedom can also be told as a struggle, sometimes even a heroic one, to overcome those limitations. For most of Foner’s book, however, the story is largely depressing, a tale of hopeful efforts that failed and of dissident voices that cried in the wilderness. On most questions, he generally cites the views of radical critics, many of them fairly obscure, who make up most of his references.

Feminists in the past, for example, sometimes made an analogy between marriage and slavery. Foner himself believes that “there were indeed real and disturbing parallels between chattel slavery and marriage.” He then refers to the views of the early socialist Robert Owen, Henry C. Wright, an abolitionist, and the feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone. But, as if he realizes that he—or they—may have gone too far, he cautions that “the description of free women as living in ‘legalized slavery’ simultaneously illuminated and obscured social realities.” Many feminists, he adds, understood that the extreme ideas of some of them were “far removed from family life as actually experienced by most women.” Here, and elsewhere, he tends to adjudicate between radical views, without independently investigating what American women in a variety of different situations thought about their lives and whether they considered them to have any relation to chattel slavery.

If there is a thread throughout Foner’s book, it is its emphasis on the inferior situation of blacks. He finds that “the polity and economy were more thoroughly racialized at the dawn of the twentieth century than at any other point in American history,” though how they could be more racialized than during the period of legalized slavery, it is hard to imagine. Roosevelt’s New Deal failed to achieve broad changes in the nation’s race system. The New Deal was “an entitlement of white Americans.” Thus, well into the present century, Foner finds many reasons for disappointment.

After citing critical views of American life held in the late 1940s and 1950s by several historians and social thinkers, Foner concludes: “Together, these portraits of American society came perilously close to reproducing the definition of totalitarianism, in which individuals were controlled in the name of freedom.” But the writers Foner mentions—Hans J. Morgenthau, C. Wright Mills, Eric Fromm, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and David Riesman among them—would undoubtedly have been surprised to find that they had described the United States as coming “perilously close” to embodying a totalitarian system. None of them, in fact, suggested or implied that totalitarianism was dangerously close in the United States. They were entirely capable of making Foner’s point if they had wanted to do so. These critics were expressing themselves in a traditional American vein of social criticism, complaining of conformity and elitism. Foner has arbitrarily assembled quotations from these writers, citing views of varying quality and even relevance, to make them imply that the United States was flirting—if nothing more—with totalitarianism.1

Yet about this same period, Foner has some good news. “By the end of the 1950s,” he writes, “the idea that the love of freedom was the defining characteristic of American society had become fully incorporated into the popular consciousness.” This was a time, he writes, when “virtually all Americans reaped the rewards of an era of unprecedented economic expansion and rising living standards.” Yet, he continues, “in a consumer culture, the measure of freedom was the ability to gratify market desires, not, as in the nineteenth century, the social relations of labor.” Still, because of the civil rights movement and other campaigns of the 1960s, he finds, “the United States became a more open, more tolerant—in a word, a freer country.” But black Americans still did not fully share in the greater tolerance and freedom: “To many black Americans, the boundary between the free and unfree worlds seemed to run along the color line, not the iron curtain.”

The great dividing point came in the early 1970s, partly owing to the decisions of the Warren Court: “The ‘rights revolution’ completed the transformation of American freedom from a finite body of entitlements enjoyed mainly by white men into an open-ended claim to equality, recognition, and self-determination.” But progress was again short-circuited by the election of Richard Nixon and a conservative resurgence, which was followed by what Foner calls “the Reagan Revolution.” Here he objects to Reagan’s use of the word “freedom” to promote his conservative program, including tax cuts favoring the well-to-do.

Republicans, wrote the journalist Daniel Schorr, had “laid siege to ‘free.”’ Many of Reagan’s specific policies, from tax cuts and reduced government regulation to large increases in military spending, had been pioneered by Carter. It was Reagan, however, who championed them in the language of freedom. “Freedom,” indeed, became the watchword of the Reagan Revolution, and in his public appearances and state papers, Reagan used the word more often than any president before or since. Reagan’s years in office completed the process by which freedom, having been progressively abandoned by liberals and the left, became fully identified with conservative goals and values.

When Foner says that liberals and leftists “progressively abandoned” freedom during those years, he neither makes it clear just whom he is referring to nor shows what they actually abandoned.

Of all of Professor Foner’s predilections his treatment of American communism is the most bizarre. He first pays tribute to the Communists for enlarging the scope of American freedom: “The CIO and the Communist Party became focal points of a broad social and intellectual impulse, a ‘cultural front’ that helped to redraw the boundaries of American freedom.” This coupling of the CIO and the Communist Party implies that they had active cultural and intellectual relations. In fact, the Communists had intellectual and cultural appendages, but the CIO during this period did not. The CIO was a trade union organization, not a cultural or intellectual organization. The Communists did not wholeheartedly support the CIO until 1937; their ties became frayed as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, and were completely severed with the cold war in 1949.

One would imagine that a historian who made so much of the alleged CIO-Communist “cultural front” would have said something about when and how it came apart. In any case, the idea that the CIO and the Communists made up a “cultural front” is a pipe dream; they worked out a short-term alliance between the trade unions they respectively dominated that lasted as long as the Communists subordinated themselves to the CIO leadership. Once the CIO disowned them the Communists were helpless, and their unions soon disintegrated.

The references in Foner’s book to this fictitious CIO-Communist “cultural front” have only one purpose that I can see—to associate the American Communists with non-Communists who had a broad following. Foner creates the same misleading impression when he alleges that “at the height of its influence, the Communist Party’s militant antifascism attracted the support of numerous New Deal liberals.” One might think from this that numerous New Deal liberals were antifascist because of the Communist Party’s militant antifascism, not because they were antifascist in principle. In fact, the Communists in this period made themselves into a wing of the New Deal, which temporarily influenced the Communist Party far more than the Communist Party influenced the New Deal.

Arguing that Communists should not have been the object of later anti-Communist measures, Foner declares: “The tiny Communist Party hardly posed a threat to American security and many of the victims of the Red Scare had little or nothing to do with communism.” To what degree the Party’s size was relevant to the question of “American security,” Foner does not explain; but unfortunately he had previously assured the reader that the Communist Party was not tiny and had been a major force in American life:

In the mid-1930s, for the first time in American history, the left [CIO and Communist Party] enjoyed a shaping influence on the nation’s politics and culture…. An obscure, faction-ridden organization when the Depression began, the party experienced remarkable growth during the 1930s. Its membership never exceeded one hundred thousand, but several times that number passed through its ranks….

But it was not so much the party’s ideology as its vitality and activism—its involvement in a mind-boggling array of activities, including demonstrations of the unemployed, epochal struggles for industrial unionism from Kentucky’s Harlan County to the auto factories of Detroit, and the renewed movement for black civil rights—that for a time made it the center of gravity for a broad democratic upsurge.

Foner shows no such enthusiasm for any other organization in all of American history. His evident resolve to rehabilitate American communism derives from a peculiarly truncated version of the Party’s history. Because Foner gives it so much importance, an innocent reader might think that the period of the Popular Front was the most important and characteristic phase of the Party’s history. In the pages that Foner devotes to the Communist Party, he refers to nothing but the Popular Front and its influence.

The Popular Front lasted for about four years, between 1935 and 1939. The Front was not an American inspiration; it was an American version of an international policy imposed by the Communist International in 1935 after the victory of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement in Germany. The American Communist Party had a very different policy—one of extreme sectarianism, according to which social democrats were denounced as “social fascists”—before the Popular Front was formed. Yet Foner completely ignores decades of Communist history and deals with nothing but the four years of the Popular Front, as if he wished to wipe out the rest of American Communist history.

In only one brief sentence does Foner allude to spying for the Soviet Union. He writes: “There undoubtedly were Soviet spies in the United States.” In fact, the spies were American Communists who were managed by resident Soviet agents who were not themselves spies. This confusion between Soviet spies and American Communist spies seems all the stranger in view of the publicity that Communist spying in the United States has received, then and lately.

Anti-Communists come in for something “perilously close” to defamation. Here is an example concerning Sidney Hook.

Hook was a key figure in the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, which sought to mobilize American intellectuals as foot soldiers in the Cold War even as it denounced the Soviets for subordinating culture and intellectual life to politics. The committee’s leadership soon made its peace with McCarthyism.

The American Committee for Cultural Freedom was formally launched in January 1951, but was active earlier, to counteract pro-Communist propaganda, such as that of the Waldorf Peace Conference of 1949. Although it is sometimes confused with the CIA-supported Congress for Cultural Freedom, it was, as Hook wrote, “formed and was functioning before the congress was organized,” and, according to Hook, its later relations with the Congress, to which it became affiliated, were often contentious. The group that incorporated it in 1951 included Hook, Elliott Cohen, the editor of Commentary, the novelist Grace Zaring Stone, Richard Rovere, and Sol Levitas, the editor of The New Leader. The Committee’s first president was Hook himself, and the executive committee members over the years included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ralph Ellison, James T. Farrell, Daniel Bell, Norman Thomas, and Reinhold Niebuhr. To say that these people “sought to mobilize American intellectuals as foot soldiers in the Cold War” is to make a mockery of their intentions. They were brought together by their opposition to pro-Communist influence and propaganda. At this early date, anti-Communists were not of one mind, and the Committee took in a broad spectrum of anti-Communist opinion. Some members were more aggressively anti-McCarthyite than others; the organization itself sponsored a book attacking him by James Rorty and Moshe Decter.2

The Committee’s leadership thus did not “make peace” with McCarthyism as Foner writes. Since Foner mentions only Hook among the leadership, he implies that Hook made such a “peace.” On May 8, 1953, Hook published a long letter in the The New York Times calling for a national movement to retire McCarthy from public life. Hook took a controversial position on the ousting of Communist teachers, a view which is generally oversimplified in accounts of the period; this is not the same as making peace with McCarthyism. In any case, Foner indicts the entire leadership of the Committee, without giving any evidence apart from naming Hook. Of the several hundred members of the Committee, only a few, including Max Eastman and James Burnham, defended McCarthy, and they soon resigned from the Committee. Though Foner mentions Hook prominently, his notes have no room for Hook’s own explanation of his views in his autobiography, Out of Step (1987).3

The section on American communism shows Foner at his most tendentious. The problem is not that he favors the American Communists but that he does so unhistorically. From his account, it would be hard to understand why so many millions of immigrants should have come to the United States for more freedom and why more than a few of them saw their children or grandchildren rise to such jobs as university professors with guarantees of academic freedom. In much of The Story of American Freedom, Foner is so zealous a partisan of radical sects and opinions that he touches only a portion of American life. It is true that he devotes pages to the Supreme Court decisions granting enlarged freedom of expression as well as protecting the right to privacy and women’s freedom to have an abortion; but these seem little more than approving summaries of familiar cases without any analytical treatment of their argument. Most of his book might better be described as the story of American unfreedom. This theme certainly has a place in American history, but there is no use in pretending it is an adequate story of American freedom.

  1. 1

    Foner cites Morgenthau’s opinion that free enterprise had “engendered new accumulations of power, as dangerous to the freedom of the individual as the power of the government had ever been.” Mills “challenged the self-satisfied vision of democratic pluralism that dominated mainstream social science in the 1950s.” He put forward the theory of a “power elite” that dominated government and society. In 1949, Schlesinger thought that “Western Man…is tense, uncertain, adrift…causing mankind to crave stability and authority.” In 1941, Fromm accounted for the rise of Nazism as coming from “alienation” which had “led men willingly to sacrifice their own freedom.” In 1950, David Riesman thought that Americans were “other-directed” conformists “who lacked the inner resources to lead truly autonomous lives.” These individual views hardly “came perilously close to reproducing the definition of totalitarianism.”

  2. 2

    McCarthy and the Communists (Beacon, 1954).

  3. 3

    Hook said he defended the right of teachers to hold Communist views; that he always opposed federal or state investigations of teachers; that he did not believe the “mere fact of membership” in the Party should result in dismissal. He summarized his view as follows. “Faculty committees on professional ethics should not undertake any investigations except in the face of evidence of Communist Party cell activities, such as anonymous publications of the cell, flyers, and other forms of activity for which the Communist Party took responsibility, that had an adverse bearing on the freedom to teach or learn. Someone identified as a member of the Communist Party should be confronted with the evidence of Communist activity, including the instructions referred to above, and given an opportunity to repudiate them or convince the faculty committee that his research and teaching did not conform to Communist Party directives” (Hook, Out of Step, Carroll and Graf, 1987, p. 504).

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