Comparatively Speaking

Comrades in Business: Post-Liberation Politics in South Africa

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

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