Southern Comfort

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

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

Eugene Genovese
Eugene Genovese; drawing by David Levine

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.…

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