Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Eugene Genovese (1930-2012)

From The New Republic

 It’s been a bad week for Marxist historians. Last Thursday, southern historian Eugene Genovese died; over the weekend, the British scholar Eric Hobsbawm passed away. The two men had strikingly different career arcs: Genovese famously moved from left to right, embracing conservative politics in his late years. Hobsbawm remained on the left. There was at least one point of convergence: In 1995, Genovese reviewed Hobsbawm’s sprawling history of the 20th century in TNR.

As Genovese noted at the end of his review of Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes,

Eric Hobsbawm is one of the few genuinely great historians of our century. He is also the one genuinely great historian to come out of the Anglo-American Marxist left. I admit to my prejudice. He has been the strongest influence on my own work as a historian, and in 1979 1 dedicated a book on black slave revolts to “Eric Hobsbawm: Our Main Man.” I have made a great many mistakes in my life,, but reading and rereading Hobsbawm’s powerful new book I am relieved to see that I got at least that much right.

Yet as Steven Hahn notes, with works like Roll, Jordan, Roll Genovese also takes his place in Marxist historiography, despite his later shift to the right. Hahn notes

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.

If we are remembering Genovese at his best, the last words might go to
Colin Barker who reviewed Genovese's collection of essays In Red and Black in 1973 for International Socialism:

This collection of essays by Professor Genovese is generally very fine. Genovese, author of The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), gives us here a set of writings characterised by its sensitive and undogmatic approach to Marxist analysis. Several essays take issue – sharply, and yet exactly from the vantage of fundamental solidarity – with some theoretical approaches of Black Power intellectuals. Genovese offers a spirited defence of the white Southern novelist William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which deals with an historical slave uprising, insisting that the Negro people cannot be free without an accurate understanding of their real past history, not some essentially mythical history in which every struggling Negro was automatically either an Uncle Tom or a saint of the revolution.   

Above all, every revolutionary movement needs the truth, not a romantic and sentimental account. Thus the exceptional essay, American Slaves and their History, explains at one and the same time – through a marvellously close and imaginative recreation of the social world of the plantation – why slave revolts were not widespread in the South and yet how in practice the Negro slaves did struggle, individually and collectively, against the slave-owners’ oppression and shaped the very world of the Southern gentry.  The book is also impressive in its principled assertion of the vital necessity of revolutionary socialist politics in America.

Edited to add: Read Scott McLemee
and Louis Proyect and Christopher Phelps

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