George M. Fredrickson
George M. Fredrickson; drawing by David Levine


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.

Black Liberation starts with a discussion of how both groups of leaders initially concentrated on trying to persuade the white authorities to put into effect the promise inherent in Victorian political liberalism: in particular, the right to have the franchise extended to their own class—men who could be said to live by “civilized standards.” Fredrickson goes on to consider the parallels between the black nationalism that emerged in both countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the similar reactions of black resisters to the rise of elaborate systems of legalized segregation, including the Pan-Africanist and populist movements of the 1920s, and the acceptance by some black activists in both countries of Marxist ideology and Communist Party support.

After 1948, the situations of black Americans and black South Africans changed radically, and comparisons become less valid. Most black Americans derived at least some benefits from a slow, tortuous process of reform. Black South Africans, for their part, experienced the most systematic form of legal oppression that a racial minority has ever imposed on a majority of the inhabitants of a modern state. Nevertheless, Fredrickson finds that there were still considerable resemblances between the strategies of the principal leaders in the two struggles. In both countries, they were inspired by Gandhi’s example and worked out nonviolent ways of confronting those in power. Rival leaders organized a Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, which bore some resemblance to a Black Power movement in America. Today, black people in the two countries have much less in common. Black Americans live in a country they can never expect to control, while black South Africans now govern their country. Even so, Fredrickson finds some contemporary congruence. Although the law is officially colorblind in both countries, many black Americans and South Africans are still struggling to translate legal equality into substantial economic and social equality.

Fredrickson writes with great clarity about both countries, enlivening his account with fascinating vignettes of writer-activists, not only Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Albert Lutuli, and Nelson Mandela, but also largely forgotten writers who made an impact in their time. His knowledge of the relevant South African literature is not far short of his mastery of the American. A typical chapter includes several substantial passages on each country—passages which flow easily into pages where he pulls the threads together in the comparisons between the two.

At its best, Black Liberation is superb. Here is Fredrickson’s comparison of the early years of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the African National Congress (initially called the South African Native National Congress), which were founded in 1909 and 1912 respectively:

Besides being similar in the social-psychological profiles of their leadership, the NAACP and the National Congress were remarkably alike for at least three decades in the reformist assumptions that they held and in the means that they employed for the advancement of blacks. For the most part, they sought liberation from prejudice and discrimination through nonconfrontational means: the publicizing of black grievances, the lobbying or petitioning of public authorities and legislative bodies, and the support of legal challenges to discriminatory laws and policies. They assumed that the whites in power could be influenced by black opinion because of shared liberal-democratic values that whites were knowingly violating when they discriminated against blacks. Protest based on the expectation of significant reform could therefore take place within the existing constitutional framework. Violent or revolutionary action was ruled out from the beginning….

But he also points out differences.

The NAACP’s legalistic reformism had a justification that the congress’s lacked: it had the letter of the United States Constitution as a basis for its egalitarian claims. There was no way the South African constitution could be construed as a charter of rights for Africans. For a time, the hope persisted that the British parliament, which had the right to disapprove of South African legislation until 1930, could be persuaded to disallow the most flagrantly discriminatory laws on the grounds that they violated the rights of British subjects. But by the 1920s it was clear that this was a vain hope.

Here Fredrickson skillfully brings together the early histories of two complex institutions.

Black Liberation makes it clear that in the many contacts between black leaders in the two countries, the lines of influence ran predominantly in one direction—from America to South Africa, because, until recently, the black American middle class was always much larger and more successful than the South African. During the late nineteenth century, colleges such as Tuskegee, Lincoln, and Wilberforce began to attract a few black South Africans; a century later the trickle had become a flood of black South Africans to all sorts of American universities. The South Africans were dazzled by the achievements of black Americans, while American churches, notably the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded missions and schools in South Africa to teach the doctrine of black self-improvement.

Contacts became closer in the early twentieth century. The Garvey movement founded branches in South Africa, which became linked with the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, and organized protests in rural areas in the late 1920s. South Africans also absorbed fantasies about America as their liberator. In 1927, a Zulu imposter who called himself Dr. Wellington and had joined the Garvey movement, attracted a following of disaffected mission-educated Xhosas, and persuaded some of them to paint their houses black, kill their white pigs, and destroy their white possessions. Americans, he said, would arrive with ships, troops, and bombing planes, and introduce a new millennium of African power. (In describing this episode, Fredrickson fails to point out that the Xhosa had already suffered from a catastrophic millenarian movement in the 1850s.) Before the second half of the twentieth century, Fredrickson writes, South Africa was not of much concern to black Americans. Eventually, however, the anti-apartheid movement became a rallying point for black American organizations and it was largely responsible for persuading Congress to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over Ronald Reagan’s presidential veto.

The Comparative Imagination ends by commenting that among post-apartheid black people in South Africa, many of whom are frustrated by the failure of their new government to improve their living conditions, we may expect a resurgence of racism and ethnocentrism. Fredrickson may be right. In December 1997, President Nelson Mandela, the architect of reconciliation, made a surprisingly bitter attack on white South Africans in his final speech as head of the African National Congress.


On the whole, however, Fredrickson has little to say about how effectively the liberation ideologies he has described prepared the black South African elite for the exercise of the powers it has now acquired. That is the central theme of Comrades in Business, a taboo-breaking study of the new South Africa by three well-informed and widely published sociologists—Heribert Adam, a Canadian, his wife Kogila Moodley, who was born and raised in South Africa, and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, a former leader of the South African Progressive Party. Slabbert lives in South Africa; Adam and Moodley have been commuting between Vancouver and Cape Town for many years.

Despite the serious internal conflicts in South Africa, they emphasize the economic interdependence of all parts of the population, including both business and the labor unions, which have been growing in membership. This economic interdependence, they argue, provides the basis for “an overall optimistic prognosis regardless of the intentions of incumbents in office.” They also point out, however, that besides inheriting a horrendous legacy from its predecessor, including the widespread collapse of schools for blacks, the new government must work under new and extremely difficult constraints as well.

Since South Africa is part of the global economy and dependent on foreign investment and export-led growth, the government is obliged to pursue economic policies favored by white-dominated business, despite the socialist and Communist backgrounds of most cabinet ministers. Adam and his colleagues argue that the new regime is far closer to big business than its predecessor, which was impeded by ethnic division between Afrikaner and British communities. Mandela, they write, consults Harry Oppenheimer, the head of the largest mineral conglomerate, about cabinet appointments and reports to him after his foreign visits. The African National Congress, they say, is

engaged in a delicate balancing act. It must adhere to the broad dictates of the market unless it risks being heavily penalized. On the other hand, it cannot afford to be perceived as having abandoned its concern for the masses and the unions…. The ANC resolves its dilemma by pursuing neo-conservative economic policies but obfuscating it [sic] with an occasional dose of socialist lip service to redistribution and the desires of the masses.

During the 1994 election campaign, the ANC put forward a Reconstruction and Development Program in which government and private business were to cooperate in creating jobs, building houses, providing people with access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity, improving health, education and welfare services, and redistributing land to blacks. The state has been unable to deliver on most of these commitments. The government has closed down the office administering the program and introduced a new macro-economic policy which places economic growth above redistribution.

This brings Adam and his colleagues to their central theme.

Despite the justifiable anxieties about crime inside South Africa, the really destabilizing issue for the country in the long run lies in the underlying cause of crime: the moral decay and growing impoverishment of an unrepresented and marginalized underclass…. Comparative extreme inequality remains South Africa’s ticking time bomb. The wealthiest 10 percent of households receive fully 50 percent of national income, while the bottom 20 percent captures a mere 1.5 percent, according to the report by the Labour Market Commission.

This skewed distribution still corresponds largely with race. “Eighty-five percent of the poor are black [i.e., African] and 65 percent of the blacks are poor.”

A troubling new factor is the growing inequality among Africans. A new black elite—politicians, bureaucrats, and business people, many of whom had previously lived precariously—has succumbed to the temptation to exploit its opportunities for sudden wealth. Senior South African politicians earn more than their white predecessors and their American counterparts in salaries and perks; many of them are becoming corrupt, and they flaunt their wealth. The authors conclude that

The state is perceived as a source of enrichment rather than an institution to be served by citizens who care and receive their rewards symbolically…. The collective plundering of public money is not considered a moral failure or an affront to the poor…. The extraordinary gap between elite remuneration and bottom income erodes cohesion and solidarity in favor of everyone for himself and herself by all means available…. The new liberation millionaires earn huge salaries and options to purchase shares in the deals they fix on behalf of unions or black empowerment groups.

In short, the ANC has lost the moral high ground that it possessed when it was opposing apartheid. No wonder that the government is still unable to overcome the widespread boycott of payments for rents and services in black townships, a boycott which began as a protest against apartheid. With unemployment reportedly around 30 percent, and as high as 60 percent in some townships,9 it is no wonder, too, that violent crime in the cities and townships has risen to a level seemingly unequaled anywhere else in the world.

At present, there is no serious populist movement in South Africa, although the new elite is unwittingly preparing the ground for one to emerge in the future. So far, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the President’s former wife, has been almost the only politician who pays more than lip service to the needs of the underclass, but her personal behavior has lost her the respect of most South Africans, including the ANC leaders. Nelson Mandela, regrettably, has failed to check the rush to instant wealth.

Does this mean that South Africa is going the way of tropical Africa? Not necessarily. In most of the former colonial territories that acquired independence since the Second World War, the newly empowered elites have accumulated personal wealth. But there is a difference between countries like Indonesia, where there has been a significant increase in the standard of living of most of the people, and Nigeria, where the reverse has occurred, although both those states are riddled with corruption.

At present, South Africa is somewhere between Indonesia and Nigeria so far as improvement in the welfare of the people is concerned. The standard of living of many thousands of South Africans has undoubtedly improved, for example, in access to electricity and telephone services. Moreover, South Africa has vastly greater strengths than tropical African countries: a more mature capitalist infrastructure including transport and communications, an extensive network of nongovernmental organizations, and a press that is still relatively free (despite verbal attacks by politicians). But race will certainly continue to be a central problem in South Africa, as it is in many other countries including, not least, the United States.

This Issue

May 14, 1998