Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 7: The Marxist Variety of Religious Experience

Here’s what I think is the last batch of remembrance and rumination occasioned by the death of Eugene Genovese.  I don’t know where all these words came from, but I suppose that is the point.  If I were in better mood about it all, I’d cite Hebrews 11.  But then I insisted on a reading of this Bible passage at my father’s funeral, and it went badly, as did everything about that moment in my life.




Over the years I’ve been using Marx and his interpreters to understand this world, I’ve often asked my fellow Marxists whether they ever had a “conversion experience” like mine, when the scales fell from their eyes and everything suddenly looked different—everything from their own parents to the possibility of a ruling class, from the beginning to the end of historical time.

And I’ve often been asked what it’s like to be a Marxist, by colleagues concerned, in view of atrocities perpetrated by communist regimes, for my soul.  Either way, listening or explaining, my feelings have been analogous to those of a fallen church member who needs, on critical occasions, to clarify the difference between the doctrine and its embodiment in ritual, program, and everyday institutional life.  I’ve always wanted to defend the idea, but I’ve never wanted to attend the services, mumble the liturgy, and sing the hymns.  I’d just as soon believe in my own way.

In other words, my experience as a Marxist has been a variety of religious experience.  I was never an evangelical, hawking the Word as the truth, nor a cleric, devoting myself to the interpretation of holy writ.  I’m too lazy, and too distracted by other intellectual possibilities, for either vocation.  Besides, recruiting others to my cause has always struck me as unseemly (except of course as a writerly project, call it propaganda).  But I always understood that Marxism gave new meaning to the random sequence of human events, and thus imparted transcendent political purpose to its bearers, including—oh for God’s sake don’t be ridiculous—especially me.

So the reduction of Marxism to messianic belief by anti-communist apostates, among others, has never bothered me very much.  A God that failed?  Probably, but failed to do what?  Answer your prayers?  Still, Edward Said’s retort—“Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway?”—never made sense to me.  Why didn’t you believe, Edward?  How could you not have faith in the certainty of things unseen?

I suppose I ask these questions because my approach to Marxism was guarded by Freud, and thus Hegel: I came to the doctrine assuming that Norman O. Brown and Karl Lowith were right about its eschatological sources and implications.  This early, undergraduate approach was an accident, mind you—my fearless guide into the thicket of Marxism was the first man outside my own family I could say I loved, but he was a pan-sexual maniac whose agonized recovery from a prior devotion to psychoanalysis was at least as seductive as his new-found faith in The Dialectic.  His name was Marvin Rosen.  He liked to say that Marx saved his life, probably until the day he killed himself.  I like to say that Marvin saved mine.  But that’s another story.

I bought a used copy of Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (for $1.25) in the same bookstore I bought a used copy of Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (for $2.00) because I wanted to understand Marvin’s conflicted relation to psychoanalysis.  In everything he said about Marx, typically with great enthusiasm, there was a barely audible trace of regret, a faint murmur of apology to Freud; so I wanted to know what bound him, and what would, then, bind me to these three men.

Here’s what I found.  Or rather, here’s what remains.


Life Against Death insists that psychoanalysis must become a theory of culture rather than a therapeutic device that explains character structure by reference to changes in toilet training or child-rearing.  The trans-historical infantile experiences of omnipotence, of “instinctual defusion,” and of polymorphous perversity—sexuality at its most extreme—are the raw clinical materials of Brown’s historical analysis, not the specific trauma of this or that childhood.

Throughout Brown treats psychoanalysis as itself a symptom of the return of the repressed—that is, as an insight into (1) the origin of culture in the displacement of bodily experience, and (2) the evolution of culture required by the sub/consequent translation of bodily experience into intelligible signs.  Freud’s insight wasn’t new, in short, because all of religion and every work of art had already come up with it.  He knew that—he knew he was translating an archaic, inchoate, non-verbal language, bringing it to consciousness, making it differently useful.  And Brown knew what his rival Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization [1955]) did, that psychoanalysis was poised to exploit, not merely explain, what bewildered the Marxists—the passage beyond necessary labor etched in every utopian gesture since Genesis, but now impending, as an eminently plausible future, in the actual history of automation.

In this sense, psychoanalysis was a philosophy of history that could neither dismiss religion as false consciousness nor ignore art as mere ornament on the tree of life.  To put it more plainly, psychoanalysis was a theory of culture, and thus a philosophy of history, precisely because it was a way of acknowledging—and incorporating—the perversely unnecessary truths of religion (and/or art) rather than dismissing or ignoring them as evasions or distortions of the truth afforded by reason and science.

But why is Art in parentheses?  None of you would dismiss Art of any kind or quality as a mere evasion or distortion of the truth afforded by reason and science—as Edward Said and so many others have done when confronted with the evidence of religious belief.   Now put Art in the lowly, embarrassing place you have put religion in the scheme of things human, and ask yourself what would follow.  OK, I’ll spell it out for you: you’d be a Philistine.  But without psychoanalysis as Brown reinterpreted it, you have no way of grasping religious belief as the cunning of reason: you’re stuck with false consciousness, which of course applies to the subject—that would be you—as well as the object of the accusation.


In psychoanalytical terms, religion is, then, the analogue of Art—it isn’t an intellectual distraction from a unitary reality, it’s a detailed designation of a plural reality.  In more prosaic historical terms, until the 17th century, Art is an annex of religion, a way of worshipping or appeasing the gods.   Here’s how Brown put it:

“A reinterpretation of human history is not an appendage to psychoanalysis but an integral part of it.  The empirical fact which compelled Freud to comprehend the whole of human history in the [mode] of psychoanalysis is the appearance in dreams and in neurotic symptoms of themes substantially identical with major themes—both ritualistic and mythical—in the religious history of mankind.  The link between the theory of neurosis and the theory of history is the theory of religion.”

Every symptom is an attempted cure.  “Psychoanalysis is vulgarly interpreted as dismissing religion as an erroneous system of wishful thinking.  In The Future of an Illusion, Freud does speak of religion as a ‘substitute-gratification’—the Freudian analogue of to the Marxian formula, ‘opiate of the people.’  But according to the whole doctrine of repression, ‘substitute gratifications’—a term which applies not only to poetry and religion but also to dreams and neurotic symptoms—contain truth; they are expressions, distorted by repression, of the immortal desires of the human heart. . . . Psychoanalysis is in a position to define the error in religion only after it has recognized [this] truth.”

Life Against Death is designed, then, as an exit strategy from the constraints of Marxism, which located the “compulsion to work” in a prior, external circumstance—primitive accumulation, class hierarchy, the superior power of the bourgeoisie, and so forth, and which defined the urge to transcend this life in the worship of Gods as compensation for and evasion of reality.  The book’s strategy works by demonstrating that this compulsion and this urge are internally generated: they’re the central symptoms of the “general neurosis of mankind,” which might be characterized as the irrepressible urge toward freedom, the urge to reinstate the experience of infantile omnipotence, to reunite the desire and the capacity to make the world move in accordance with our words.

Science, in these terms, is a rationalized version of the magical thinking that derives from our infantile glimpse of freedom.  Art has the same source, and its ways of knowing the world are no less comprehensive; but they have very different purposes.  In the same terms, the “compulsion to work” and the urge to transcend this life in the worship of the Gods are equally irrational, trans-historical components of human nature, or rather essential elements in the development of this human nature (which of course takes different historical forms in the course of human civilization).

Not incidentally, Marx said as much in Volume 1 of Capital.  Still, Brown has a point, and a purpose, because the worship of the ineffable and the depiction of the unknowable is no less formative and constitutive of human nature than necessary labor: neurosis and history intersect here, in the incessant urge to work toward where we know we don’t belong and know we’ll never quite arrive—the home of the gods, where hope is unnecessary because anything is possible.  Religion and Art are related forms of worship at the same shrine, because they’re the political unconscious of every attempt to make a difference.

“[The] historical process is sustained by man’s desire to become other than what he is.  [But] man’s desire to become something different is essentially an unconscious desire.  The actual changes in history neither result from nor correspond to the conscious desires of the human agents who bring them about.  Every historian knows this, and the philosopher of history, Hegel, in his doctrine of the ‘cunning or reason,’ made it a fundamental point in his structural analysis of history.”



I read Karl Lowith, the student of Heidegger forced into exile in 1934—first to Italy, then to Japan, finally to the US—because Marty Sklar mentioned him in passing one day, in the first course on American history I ever took, during my last semester as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University.  By that time, the spring of 1972, I was headed for graduate school in Russian history at Columbia, and, oh, about to get married for the first time; I was in the course because Marvin Rosen had insisted I get a strong curricular dose of this brilliant guy before I left DeKalb (Marty and I had already met through NAM-related activities).

Marvin’s prescription worked, but not in the way he had hoped: it cured me of my Leninist fantasies, and convinced me that the study of American history could be more fascinating, and more consequential, than the intellectual conspiracy with Bolsheviks I had started.  I decided to stay in DeKalb, where I could get an M.A. in Russian history and then switch to American history for the Ph.D., which is exactly how it turned out, ca. 1972-1980.

The master’s thesis of 1975 was “Russia and Western Trade, 1550-1790: Studies in the Origins of Economic Backwardness.”  Contra Jerome Blum, Richard Hellie, and every other historian of the second serfdom in Eastern Europe—including Marian Malowist, Perry Anderson, Immanuel Wallerstein, and the Soviet Marxists—I argued that serfdom in Russia was the rational response of the nobility to expanding demand for agricultural raw materials from Western Europe, particularly but not only England (you could say that the Russia Company, chartered in London in 1550, was the first modern corporation).  Here I was using the logic of Maurice Dobb as against Paul Sweezy, and thus agreeing, more or less, with the position Eugene Genovese had staked out in The Political Economy of Slavery (1965, later elaborated in Fruits of Merchant Capital, 1983).  In such historical perspective, the Bolshevik Revolution looked like a war of national liberation that freed Russia from its quasi-colonial standing in a world market dominated by Western European imperialism—it looked very much like its contemporaries, the Mexican and the Chinese revolutions, which had more obvious nationalist connotations, long before “Socialism in One Country” became its slogan.  It also resembled the War for Southern Independence, with all that implied for the political ambiguities of revolution as such.

Reading Lowith’s Meaning in History was a revelation—Christ, what wasn’t back then?—because it got me used to the idea that historians weren’t just reporters on the Past.  I guess I knew that already, but the historical record seemed so enormous by comparison to the literary remains I had been sifting as an English major that any simple act of interpretation felt like an imposition on the Past as such.  Long before Hayden White, Lowith demonstrated that the narrative structure of what we call History is not an intrinsic dimension of the sequence of human events, and that the larger structure we take for granted in telling the stories we call History—especially in telling them as Marxists—is an eschatological framework derived, ultimately, from the Christian rendering of God’s providence in time.

Lowith began with Marx, Hegel, and Burkhardt, and worked backward to the Bible.  Along the way, he visited Kierkegaard and Vico, among others.  The book was an argument with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis in the sense that Lowith found hypotaxis in every linguistic disfiguration of reality—in every attempt to confer meaning on what was, in itself, not even a maelstrom of competing interpretations, but merely a void.  Auerbach was acutely aware, however, that the messy parataxis of realism inaugurated in the New Testament presupposed a supra-textual moral standard whose proximate cause was the historical reckoning to come at the end of days decreed by God.  There was more agreement than not between these two giants.  Still, like White, Lowith was more interested than Auerbach in the non-fictional and yet literary results of the Reformation.

So, in becoming a Marxist, and remaining an atheist, I knew I was embarked on a kind of religious quest for redemption—of humanity, of History, not least of myself.  If you had told me then that I embodied the future of an illusion, my reply would have been, Fuck you, what else is new?  These days, having become a pragmatist as well as a Marxist, I just quote William James: “The absence of faith is a mental nullity.”


But wait, am I talking about religion, or Genovese, or Marxism, or myself?  The short answer is Yes.  I can’t think of an intellectual who was more a product, or an advocate, of the Enlightenment than Gene, and yet he followed Betsey, herself a student of the Physiocrats, into the Church.  How did that happen?  Put it this way.  Genvese didn’t get religion, he always had it.  He was interpreting holy writ and citing scripture without irony in the mid-1960s, for good reason—he was already distancing himself from what he called the “beatnik” Left, which, lacking doctrine, had no soul.

Like most historians influenced by Marx and Weber, however, Gene thought of the Reformation as the cultural revolution that permitted the development of capitalism by enfranchising bourgeois individualism—it appeared therefore as a tragic deviation from the more communal and less commercial spirit of western Christendom, a ruthless demolition of the  “medieval synthesis” expressed by Dante, Aquinas, Chaucer, and, at another remove, Rabelais.  To this day, even as religious history improves its methods and expands its scope, American historians routinely follow the same lead, which was amplified by the Young Intellectuals of the 1920s ( particularly Lewis Mumford), in treating “Puritanism” as an ascetic denial of the world’s sensuous pleasures in favor of hard work—in favor of the Protestant Ethic—and thus as an all-purpose metaphor of what has always been repulsive, or “paradoxical,” about American culture.  The exceptions to the rule, if you want to get Talmudic about it, gather under the heading of Perry Miller and his students, particularly Alan Heimert.

You could then say, of modern historians of the American experience, including Genovese, that they have never come to terms with the Reformation, even though they acknowledge, or insist, that the origins of American culture reside here, in this “religious” event.  As a result, salvation and self-realization—heaven and earth—typically appear to them as the terms of an either/or choice, as it never appeared to the Englishmen who invaded North America in the 17th century.

From the Protestant standpoint of these invaders, life on this earth was not probation for an other-worldly heaven, as it typically appeared to Catholic theologians and parishioners alike.  Instead, the Kingdom of God was something to be created in the here and now, from the raw materials of sin, disgrace, subjection, and abjection, rather than something to be salvaged from this life in hope for the next.  In Protestant perspective, the soul’s freedom in salvation meant not the abolition of all particular, material circumstances—not release from the world ruled by the Devil, as if death were the condition of real life in communion with God—but the mastery and the transformation of these circumstances through work, as if men were Gods.  Salvation meant the self-realization that became possible when the difference between heaven and earth didn’t matter anymore, because now you could fight the Devil on his own ground, in his own terms.  Recall Gilbert Tennent’s admonition of 1743, to care for our souls as we would care for our Estates, as if both were alienable properties.

So the missing link in Genovese’s invocation of religion, as moral baseline and much else, is precisely what is missing from the cultural history of (religion in) North America—it’s the Continental intellectual tradition that gets left out of American history except as the “Machiavellian Moment,” or the reception of Nietzche, or the Gramscian imperative that determined Gene’s own itinerary.  It’s as if the venerable opposition between Anglo-American Empiricism and German Idealism has become an unstated disciplinary divide: hall passes for the exceptional Italians and the weird German come with the curriculum, but the post-Kantians who took Luther seriously remain forever in detention.


In other words, what has gone missing from the curriculum is Hegel, not Marx.  Now that’s a hard sell—am I really saying that you can’t understand American history without a large dose of The Phenomenology of Spirit and its antecedents in the philosophical excitement of Jena in the 1790s?  In a word, yes, because, as ironic or counter-intuitive as it sounds, the moral baseline of religion in these parts is predicated on the Protestants’ unintentional but methodical execution of God, so that, as Marx famously quipped about the effect of the so-called Puritan Revolution, Locke could replace Habakkuk.

Hegel wasn’t the only philosopher who understood that the death of God was the obvious result of the Reformation; you could say that German Idealism as such was animated by the same understanding.  But he was the first philosopher who made this “event” the premise and the purpose of an entire metaphysical system.  That is why Walt Whitmen could say, without irony, “Only Hegel is for America.”  That is why Alexandre Kojeve and Jean Hippolyte argued that when the master-slave dialectic is transposed into the key of “revealed religion,” mere mortals inherit the earth.  God’s mastery of the slaves to passion who are human beings—this Passion being the motor of History—dissolves in the self-consciousness they develop of their own subjection, and thus the possibility of their own freedom: it dissolves in the course of the Reformation.

Recall Hegel’s parting reference to the “unhappy consciousness,” the soul of despair, the man of reason, and the good Christian, in The Phenomenology:

“We see that this ‘unhappy consciousness’ constituted the counterpart and the complement of the perfectly happy consciousness, that of comedy.  . . . [It] is conversely the tragic fate that befalls certainty of self which aims at being absolute, by being self-sufficient.  It is consciousness of the loss of everything of significance in this certainty of itself, and of the loss even of this knowledge or certainty of self—the loss of substance as well as self; it is the bitter pain which finds expression in the cruel words, ‘God is dead.’”

Hegel here cites himself, of course, but at the very last, please note that the quoted phrase is from a hymn written by Martin Luther.

Keep that phrase in mind when you turn to the concluding Section III of The Philosophy of History, The Modern Time, Chapter 1, “The Reformation”:

“While, then, the individual knows that he is filled with the Divine Spirit, all the relations that sprung from that vitiating element of externality which we examined above, are ipso facto abrogated: there is no longer a distinction between priests and laymen; we no longer find one class in possession of the substance of the Truth, as of all the spiritual and temporal treasures of the Church; but the heart—the emotional part of Man’s Spiritual nature—is recognized as [what] can and ought to come into possession of the Truth; and this subjectivity is the common property of all mankind.  . . . This is the essence of the Reformation: Man in his very nature is destined to be free.”

So Charles Taylor (Hegel, 1975) is more accurate than plausible in suggesting that M.H. Abrams (Natural Super-Naturalism, 1971) was wrong to place Hegel in the Romantic movement that dethroned God.  “Here must thou be, o Man, no Helper hast thou here,” that’s how Wordsworth outlined its agenda.  The Phenomenology was a wildly comic Bildungsroman, maybe even a parody of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister or Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, according to Abrams, but it was also a sermon—an appropriation and a radical, extremely Protestant revision of the Christian story of redemption.  He was right, Hegel and Blake are the principal collaborators in the fabulous retelling of the New Testament that made the age of the bourgeois revolution.

But Hegel had the advantage of association with the philosopher/poet Friedrich Schlegel in Jena, in that last decade of the 18th century, when the French Revolution changed everything.  It was Schlegel who said: “The revolutionary desire to realize the kingdom of God on earth is the elastic point of progressive civilization and the beginning of modern history.”


Eugene Genovese never got this far in his reading of religion as a moral baseline, even though he invoked Hegel’s mordant realism as the intellectual antidote to the “young Marx.”  He was more Jesuit than Lutheran—more priest than layman, more cleric than heretic.  Like most historians of the American experience, and like most people of the avowed Left, he treated salvation and self-realization as the terms of an either/or choice.

“Outside the Church there is no salvation.”  That’s the epigraph, from St. Cyprian, of Genovese’s long, incoherent review of The Great Evasion, the only “theoretical” statement William Appleman Williams ever attempted (he wrote important methodological treatises, but apart from his “Confessions of an Intransigent Revisionist” in Socialist Revolution, these were brief asides, small windows in large textual edifices).  Marty Sklar resigned as an editor of Studies on the Left when Gene insisted on publishing the review, in 1966; six years later, when I asked Professor Sklar for a broad overview of American history to repair my undergraduate ignorance of the subject, he recommended that very book.

The question you have to ask in reading Genovese’s review is, What church?  The word itself doesn’t reappear until the penultimate paragraph of a 16-page essay, and there it stands in for “a party and a movement” that doesn’t yet exist: “These values [freedom and order], translated into political policies, need to be developed and protected within the only approximation of a socialist community we can build without the conquest of state power.  They constitute the rock on which we shall, sooner or later, have to build our own Church.”

This community in exile from political power, this shadow Church of the Left, would meanwhile be constituted by its values and ideas, as any social movement must be.  But which ones?  Genovese praises Williams for breaking with “the quasi-beatnik anarchism distinguishing so many of our young radicals,” who, it seems, persistently indulged in “twaddle about ‘participatory democracy’” and—as early as 1966!—too earnestly discussed the “emancipation of women.”  But half of the review is devoted to explaining how Williams had deserted Marxism as Lenin understood it.  In effect, then, Genovese convicts Williams of revisionism, in language Lenin himself might have used: “Williams has taken unpardonable liberties and thereby drawn the revolutionary teeth from Marxism.  Williams’ Marx is the Marx of Right wing Social Democracy—an academic sociologist and a prophet of human fraternity. . . . Better to have gone to Bernstein or Kautsky.”

So the rock of the new Church is the old time religion.  The New Left’s “beatnik anarchism” was no adequate foundation; but then neither was Williams’s revisionist, “idealist stand” on Marx, which, according to Genovese, produced a critique of capitalism that was no better than those offered by Thomas Carlyle, George Fitzhugh, or the “honest fascist” Giovanni Gentile.  An alternative to these flaccid, romantic laments would be found only in a rigorous return to Marxism as Lenin had left it: “The decisive contribution of Lenin’s Imperialism lay precisely in its extension of Marx’s theory of social change into the late nineteenth and twentieth-century world.  Specifically, Lenin projected the doctrine of class struggle into the international arena.”

The concluding 5-page section of the review is subtitled “The Central Utility of William Appleman Williams.”  It follows immediately after the extended remarks on Lenin’s “decisive contribution,” and it is meant as a parody of William’s own words of praise for Marx.  “Williams properly rejects the sectarian idea that we must wait for socialism to establish a better moral life,” Genovese declares—notice, not a more democratic society—“and he rejects with equal force the adolescent idea that individual acts of abstinence or rebellion can effect profound social change.”  But since Williams has failed to address Lenin’s theories of social change and state power, he’s peddling mere liberal reformism, like Bernstein or Kautsky.  So the new Church Genovese wants to build is not, and cannot be, of this world; for salvation and self-realization—heaven and earth—have once again become the terms of an either/or choice.

The Great Evasion breathes a spirit of Puritanism,” Gene finally exclaims, but by this praise he doesn’t mean the exuberantly god-killing spirit of the Reformation as Hegel understood it—no, he means the dutiful, ascetic affect of the Protestant Ethic as Weber understood it: “discipline, civic responsibility, self-restraint and a respect for order.”  To build a new Church is, then, to imagine Lenin as the vicar of Christ, to cast him as a latter-day Saul of Tarsus explaining the Gospels and, meanwhile, to reinstate the bourgeois virtues residing in the Protestant Ethic without reviving the spirit of capitalism.

That is what Genovese offered in 1966 as a critique of anarchic, beatnik individualism, on the one hand, and mere social-democratic, liberal reformism on the other: first back to the Word itself, the New Testament of Marx as Lenin framed it, then forward to “our Church, an association of free men in a community.”  It’s neither here nor there because it’s not of this earth: it’s God’s good news from nowhere.  So, when he posed “The Question” almost thirty years later, insisting that the sins of the Left could be traced to its repudiation of the “moral baseline” drawn by religion, he wasn’t breaking with an anti-clerical or atheistic past determined by his once-radical affiliations.  He was repeating himself.

God had failed.  Faith had not.


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4 responses to “Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 7: The Marxist Variety of Religious Experience

  1. For god’s sake, Jim, you need to cast these seven chapters into a book. You need to narrate it as your own Bildungsroman.

    • Mike

      Yeah, I don’t know . . a coming of age story about Jim Livingston in graduate school? Ivan Denisovich and The Metamorphosis have already been done.

  2. Jim B.

    Most, if not all, of the historiographic monographs that I have read tend to be quite impersonal, abstracted from the lives of the historians themselves. If I gave it any more thought, I probably could find at least a half-dozen or more exceptions to this premise. Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians” just popped into mind, but then Hofstadter was remarkable. Nevertheless, I find Jim’s coming of age approach to Genovese, well, interesting ….

  3. Pingback: Adventures in Marxism: Eugene Genovese and James Livingston | myrivercityblues

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