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From Radical to Right-Wing: The Legacy of Eugene Genovese

Eugene D. Genovese, who died on September 26 at the age of 82, arrived at the University of Rochester in 1969 amid a swirl of controversy. Several years earlier, while on the faculty of Rutgers University, he had ignited a political firestorm when he publicly welcomed a Vietcong victory in the Vietnam War. Some New Jersey officials, including a Republican candidate for governor, called for his dismissal and even Richard Nixon denounced him. Ironically, after a brief stint at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Genovese was hired by Rochester’s Republican president to chair a history department with an assortment of left-wing faculty and graduate students. As a political activist myself and an undergraduate at Rochester, I was attentive to the buzz and, a few years later, as a junior, enrolled in Genovese’s course on “The Rise of Modern Capitalism,” despite hearing that he was extremely tough.

Tough Genovese was, especially on left-wing students who figured they might have the favor of a fellow radical. He routinely handed out Ds and Fs to nearly half the class, and leftists who didn’t cut it would not be spared. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer power and inspiration of his teaching. With a few note cards in hand, Genovese delivered brilliant, wide-ranging lectures on early modern Europe (not his specialty), the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the crisis of the 17th century while pacing back and forth in front of the room. He exuded confidence, erudition, and intense political commitment, and he sent a powerful message to those, like myself, who were desperately searching for socially and politically meaningful things to do: that intellectual work was immensely valuable to any movement for change; that the only politically useful scholarship was scholarship of the highest order; and that if we studied hard enough, read broadly enough, and thought deeply enough we would write the sort of history that made a difference. For me, nothing would be the same again.

Eugene Genovese’s scholarship made an enormous difference despite the challenges that he faced. As a self-proclaimed Marxist, he had to make his way through an unreceptive professional discipline – history – in a country still feeling the effects of McCarthyism, and he took on one of the central areas of historical interpretation, the coming and significance of the Civil War. What got him a hearing and then the notice of distinguished historians like C. Vann Woodward and David Potter was the breadth of his research, the clarity of his arguments, and the respect he paid to intellectual adversaries (sometimes more than they deserved). At a time when most scholars thought the debates over the Civil War had largely been resolved and a “consensus” interpretation reigned supreme, Genovese wrote of a fundamental, and revolutionary, battle between two different and increasingly antagonistic societies: a bourgeois North and a pre-capitalist South. In a series of immensely influential books – especially The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) – he insisted that slavery established the foundation of a radically different order in the southern states, limited the course of southern economic development, and gave rise to a pre-bourgeois ruling class that fashioned a distinctively reactionary world view. These were perspectives and concepts that had little familiarity among American historians, who tended to be cautious and hostile to social theory, but within relatively short order they were framing a new and energetic discussion about slavery, the South, and the Western Hemisphere. To this day, the fields of southern and United States history show the effects.

Yet no book of Genovese’s has had the impact of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974). A long, complex, almost Hegelian treatment of the master-slave relation – and of the dynamics of power that were embedded within it – Roll, Jordan, Roll is a study of intense struggle, unfolding over decades, that enabled slaveholders to establish political and cultural hegemony but also enabled slaves to claim basic rights for themselves and room for their communities. At the book’s center is slave religion, at once a concession to the cultural authority of the masters and a celebration of the slaves’ solidarity, spirituality, and destiny--a measure of the contradictory character of the slave regime. Replete with comparative and international references, political allusions, and literary flourishes, Roll, Jordan, Roll may well be the finest work on slavery ever produced.

But it, along with the rest of Genovese’s early work, had serious critics, especially on the left. While acknowledging his analytical skills, many felt that Genovese was too admiring of the slaveholders’ power and too dismissive of the slaves’ rebelliousness; too interested in class and not sufficiently interested in race; too focused on the pre-capitalist features of southern society and the paternalist ethos of the masters; and too blind to the capitalist impulses of an intensely commodified world.

As it turned out, this was only an aspect of a deepening rift between Genovese and much of the academic left in the United States. Genovese could express impatience if not contempt for the efforts of leftist historians to excavate radical traditions or identify working-class resistance or demand political accountability on the part of universities, and he did not hesitate to criticize them in public while heaping praise on conservatives. The growing impasse was cultural as well as political and, without doubt, profoundly psychological. And it undermined some of the most promising intellectual projects in which Genovese engaged, including the journal Marxist Perspectives, which he helped to found and soon thereafter effectively detonated.

Certainly by the 1980s, Genovese – together with his wife, the historian Elizabeth Fox Genovese – were publicly moving to the right. They came to denounce feminism, socialism, abortion rights, political correctness, and lax standards in the universities. They embraced conservative Catholicism and remarried in the Catholic Church. They supported or spoke favorably of a variety of right-wing causes, and advanced something of a corporatist critique of free-market capitalism. Genovese even appeared in the pages of neo-Confederate publications – the Southern Partisan for one – that on occasion defended slavery.

Some have argued that the rightward shift was more apparent than real, that Genovese’s loyalties to the left were always suspect (despite his time in the Communist party as a teenager), that his conservative leanings were ever present, that his Stalinist tendencies in professional and intellectual life could at any point be peeled back to reveal the hulk of conservative authoritarianism. Perhaps. But the picture is a confusing one. Although much of Genovese’s scholarship over the last three decades has been given over to the “conservative tradition” in the South, especially in its religious and theological dimensions, one of his most recent works, The Mind of the Master Class (2005) – coauthored with Fox-Genovese – could surely have been written by the Genovese of the mid-1970s: attentive to class and political economy, to the dialectics and contradictions of intellectual expression, to the slaveholders’ complex struggle with modernity.

What seems clearer is Genovese’s tragic self-marginalization. Although he probably had a larger international reputation than any of his contemporaries in the historical profession, he had relatively few graduate students over the years and never held a post at a major university. By the mid-1990s he all but evaporated, save for an occasional appearance before a conservative audience or organization. Why? The truth is, for all his brilliance he was also personally demanding, self-referential, and self-destructive. As an awe-struck undergraduate I nonetheless had a sense that it might dangerous to fall into his personal orbit. And when, for personal reasons I briefly did, I learned the hard way that my young sense was correct.

Yet, for all of that – perhaps in part because of that – Genovese was one of the towering historians of the past half century. His work electrified historians and intellectuals on the left, introducing many of them to Marx and Dobb and Gramsci, and it shook the landscape of what had been a mostly complacent profession, staunchly resistant to the very sort of things he was trying to do. His contributions, especially during the decade and a half between 1965 and 1980, will be lasting ones. I shall always teach his books and grapple with the ways he analyzed power and change in the explosive history of slavery and emancipation. But as much as anything else, when I prepare to walk into class and think about how to present the past and make a difference for my students, I’ll invariably think about the difference he made for me.