Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 5

Genovese liked my 2004 essay about him, although he disapproved of the venue, Radical History Review.  But then so did I.  What makes history “radical,” anyway?  And who wants to be merely radical?  We renewed our old-fashioned correspondence as a result of the essay, arguing politely about religion, politics, and such to the point where he asked me to read the first installment of The Mind of the Master Class in manuscript.  The exchange that followed led me to invite him to Rutgers for a public lecture and an appearance in one of my undergraduate classes.  This was back when I was teaching a huge 100-level survey class at 8:00 in the morning (“Development of the US to 1865”).

I had once been a full-time, in-house copy editor of textbooks—my first project was “Principles of Insurance” by a moron from the University of Nebraska who, like Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard and NYRB fame, believed that every point in every paragraph required a number, and who objected to my stylistic variations on this rhetorical theme as a violation of his authorial integrity.  All along, my third wife had been a senior editor, tirelessly acquiring classroom blockbusters in several fields, including History, so I knew textbooks up close.

They’re all worthless, unless your task is to expose undergraduates to the worst writing available and thus to convince them that your discipline is the most boring destination on the curricular map.  Nobody reads them except the A students.  Apart from these deadly pedagogical effects, textbooks are unaffordable, and have been for 20 years.  Nobody buys them except the students whose parents are paying their way.  The market has failed here, too.

So instead of textbooks, I was using three canonical works and one relatively new book, all of which I wanted the kids to buy, to read carefully, and to keep: Richard Hofstadter, America at 1750 (1970); David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (2000), Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965); and James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican (2005).  Jim Oakes had already agreed to come out from CUNY and discuss his book with the class, at the very end of the semester.  I invited Gene to visit the same class, the morning after a big public lecture, a kind of homecoming as I planned it.

To my surprise, he accepted the invitation.  And then he cancelled at the last minute, with an anguished phone call two days before he was to fly from Atlanta, pleading anemia and doctor’s orders.  I couldn’t help but think of the afternoon almost 30 years before, when he had called me to tell me that my little piece on “Romeo & Juliet” would be published in Marxist Perspectives, and by doing so had profoundly changed my life.  And yes, goddamn my soul to eternity, I was thinking aha, now that the roles are reversed, old man, you don’t know what to say to me, do you?

I didn’t know that Betsey was dying.

So I said, Gene, is there something going on here I’m not getting?  Everything is set here, everybody’s pretty excited about you coming.

“No, nothing is ‘going on.’  I’m sick, I’m tired, doctor’s orders.  Thank you for inviting me.  I have fond memories of Rutgers.”

Ah Gene, what am I going to tell everybody, my students are all worked up, they read the book, I mean—

“You tell them I can’t make it.  That’s all.”

Gene, honest to God, c’mon, you ‘can’t make it’?

“I am very sorry, Jim, but I cannot.  Please convey my apologies to your students.  And colleagues.”

Well I’m sorry too, Gene.  Good luck with that am—anemia.

That was the last time we spoke.  Like I said, I didn’t know Betsey was dying.  That is no excuse for my impatience and anger.  Someone is dying in the life of everyone you’ll ever talk to, and often enough it’s an old self that they’re mourning, not a third party you could both celebrate with a toast.  So you have to pay attention.  Maybe you’re the one who’s dying.

I wasn’t paying attention that day.  Gene deserved better from me.  When I see him in Hell, I’ll ask for his forgiveness.  He’ll smile and say, as he said to an enemy he embraced at Betsey’s funeral, “What the fuck are you doing here?”


I’m using those same four books this semester in the survey class.  This time around, though, I’ve been able to assign some 17th and 18th century pamphlets that they can easily find online: John White, “A Planter’s Plea” (1630), Cotton Mather, “Concio ad Populum” (1719), and Gilbert Tennent, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” (1742).   These supplement Hofstadter’s wonderful chapter on the Great Awakening and set up the class discussions of religion as an intellectual idiom and a political lexicon.  I’m not trying to demonstrate that belief in God is always about something other than God—although it’s hard not to do so because all thinking is metaphorical and because, as metaphors go, God is at least as good as Money, the universal equivalent according to the best philosophers of the 19th century.

I’m actually trying to get students to consider three possibilities.  First, religion and politics are so tightly interwoven in the age of the bourgeois revolution, ca. 1640-1870, that to speak of one is to speak of the other.  As in so many other things, the conduct of politics in the 20th century is a deviation from this norm, so we’re periodically astonished by the tenacity and the reach of religious vernaculars—by the return of the repressed.  Second, belief in God is perfectly rational; at any rate, it is no more irrational than belief in the Big Bang Theory, and no more destructive than blind faith in modern science.  God bless Christopher Hitchens, a true believer in his own complicated, anti-clerical way.  And fuck Richard Dawkins.  I’m an atheist, by the way.

Third, the farthest outpost of the Reformation is the Great Awakening in the American colonies, ca. 1735-1756, because it dispensed with any meaningful distinction between heaven and earth, between the sacred and the profane (it was not, as Hofstadter would have you believe, a “milder” version of Lutheran or Calvinist hell-raising).  To love God was to love your neighbor as your self in the here and now, in this life—no waiting around for redemption.  Literally.  Or, to put in Tennent’s terms, the care of your soul required the application of the standards you took for granted in the everyday grind of material life, where your body and your property were always at risk.  The proper measure of the sacred had become the profane:

“To trust the Care of our Souls to those who have little or no Care for their own, to those who are both unskillful and unfaithful, is contrary to the Common Practice of considerate Mankind, relating to the Affairs of their Bodies and Estates, and would signify, that we set light by our Souls, and did not care what became of them.”

Gene Genovese would, I think, follow and agree with my logic until we got to that third possibility.  Our correspondence after 2004 suggests as much.  Almost all his comrades on the Left and Right would bail before they reached the second, because they know either that religious belief of every kind is a distraction from intellectual attention to reality as such, or that faith can’t be justified on rational grounds.

And there’s the rub.  The wonderful irony of the Reformation is that, at its extremity in North America, it demoted God to a compatriot in the struggle against arbitrary or illegitimate authority on this earth.  The Great Awakening made the separation of church and state (thus the “secularization” of modern society) possible, to be sure.  But it did so by teaching propertyless men, women, Indians, slaves, Negroes, and children—“Persons of the meanest Rank,” as the New Light constituency was always designated by its critics—to believe that their consent was the key to the legitimacy of authority, whether sacred or civil, whether wielded by the minister or the magistrate.  The Great Awakening made Walt Whitman’s question inevitable: “Why should I love God better than this day?”

Hereafter any appeal to a world elsewhere becomes the contested premise of an argument, not its inevitable conclusion—hereafter every expression of religious belief could be heard as a detailed designation of reality, not a distraction from it.  That’s a useful insight into ideology we owe to religious fanatics, Protestants all.

Gene Genovese wasn’t a religious fanatic.  He came to Betsey’s Catholicism slowly, deliberately, without a conversion experience.  But he needed so desperately to be in and yet not of this world that religious faith or doctrine would always appear to him as it did to Marx and Freud, as a necessary illusion—in the defense of or in the resistance to slavery, for example, and even at the end of his own days.  The world elsewhere it mapped would finally became the only recognizable bulwark against the encroachments of a reality that was simply too much for him to bear: the end of the argument, not a beginning.

As he explained in “The Question,” there was no substitute for the “moral and ethical baseline” provided by religion, as against the secular, boundless, democratic demands of “radical ideology”; and so it finally became his bottom line, the last intellectual limit he could fall back on as he fought his rearguard action against the pitiless radicalism of his—and our—time.  Gene didn’t die believing in heaven, I’m sure of that.  But I like to think he knew he would soon meet his match on the other side.  Name of Eddie Ligon, Blackstone Ranger, skinny black guy from Chicago, died in Stateville Penitentiary.  Or had he been transferred to Marion by then?


Without the constraint of religion, anything is possible—any radical extremity becomes plausible.  That’s what Gene Genovese ended up believing.  The religious Right of our time concurs.  Still, he’s in pretty good company.  John Winthrop and the Puritan fathers believed in a “Yoak of Government, both Sacred and Civil,” and treated the notion of “natural liberty” as if it were a “wild beast” that was antithetical to the public good.  But James Madison and those other, later fathers were able to test the Puritan proposition in the 1770s and 80s.  They discovered that religion was part of the problem they were trying to solve, so they looked elsewhere, to politics itself, for a solution.

Genovese never caught up with them.  In fact, in his most poignant political meditation, The Southern Tradition (1995), he amplified the concerns that had animated “The Question,” suggesting that the “democratization” of American society was an impending moral catastrophe.  From a man who, as late as 2000, criticized southern conservatism for its inability to incorporate Marx—not Stalin—in its genteel critique of capitalism, this fear would seem misplaced at best.  At any rate, as I said in Part 4, it made me wonder why he was so dubious about democracy, and why he defined religion as a self-evident limit on the political innovations afforded by majority rule.

Ask the question this way.  Does the “democratization” of American society mean merely majority rule—a circumstance in which all opinions are created equal, in which legitimate authority of any kind is therefore impossible, and in which the usurpation of individual rights or the annihilation of customary privileges cannot be opposed on rational grounds?  Genovese seemed to think so.  In his usage, the notion of “democratization” lost the ambiguous political connotations it carried in Max Weber’s studies of bureaucracy, and began to carry the rhetorical weight that “leveling” had in 18th-century North America.  Here’s an example from The Southern Tradition:

“Our [churches and universities] are the closest thing we have to the historically evolved communities so dear to the hearts of traditionalists.  They require governmental nurturing in a world increasingly dominated by corporate conglomerates that live easily with with the cultural radicalism which threatens to bring all institutions and communities under the rule of a nationally numerical but economically powerless majority.  The process of political centralization and democratization is strengthening—by no means weakening—an economic centralization that is indifferent to moral considerations.”

Here is another: “We may, if we wish, sneer at southern-conservative calls for piety and respect for natural law—that is, for recognition that there are many things no regime has a right to do to people, no matter how wide and democratically constructed the consensus behind it.  But it remains unclear that we have anything to put in its place.”

So “democracy” does signify mere majority rule, and this in turn must threaten the organic, non-profit institutions that have hitherto escaped or resisted the amoral grope of wealth that drives corporate conglomerates: “For if we define ‘the people’ as the majority of the country at large, with power over everything, then institutional and community autonomy cannot survive” (my italics throughout).

Genvese was right, of course.  A lawful, elective despotism is no less tyrannical than the rule of well-meaning oligarchs who have conspired to overthrow the king (ask any black inhabitant of the Jim Crow South).  But does his political syllogism make the sovereignty of the people—government of, by, and for the people—the problem?  To answer, we need to understand the meaning and significance of majority rule in popular government, and to revisit Genovese’s conclusion regarding the absence of alternatives to piety and natural law (and note that he reduces these alternatives to the pronominal singular).  So we need to ask two more specific questions.  Is democracy reducible to majority rule?  And is there nothing to put in the place of piety and natural law?  If our answer to either question is yes, we have no good reasons to reject—or even to criticize—Genovese’s late positions on politics and religion.


Neither question can be addressed without attention to the American constitutional tradition, which begins by asking both.  It was the inveterate radical Thomas Jefferson, after all, who worried about the effects of an “elective despotism”—his words—and who endorsed James Madison’s design of a political system that would blunt the force of majorities by making them more difficult to muster, by denying the legitimacy of a utilitarian calculus (“the greatest good of the greatest number”).  In the 1780s, many leaders and constituents of the American Revolution shared Jefferson’s worries, but no one went as far as Madison in confronting the challenge to popular government represented by an elective despotism; for no one had more faith in the people “out of doors,” and no one better understood the injustices imposed by majority rule.

In short: Madison believed that to make majority formation more difficult was not to thwart but to preserve the possibility of popular, democratic government—and he was right.

In “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” for example, a memorandum composed in April 1787, he cited the multiplicity, the mutability, and injustice of the laws passed by these various states under the Articles of Confederation, but he devoted most of his energies to analyzing the problem of injustice; for, as he put it, “if the multiplicity and mutability of laws proves a want of wisdom, their injustice betrays a defect still more alarming: more alarming not merely because it is a greater evil in itself, but because it brings more into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such Governments, are the safest guardians both of public Good and of private rights.”

Madison assumed that the defense of majority rule, and with it the possibility of a legitimate exercise of state power under popular forms of government, required a logic that wasn’t circular—a logic that didn’t justify the power of the state, as expressed in law, by reference to power as such, in this instance the power of numbers.

Like Genovese and many other close observers of the American scene, then as now, Madison knew that a majority could be as despotic as a tyrant.  What was to be done?  How to contain or combat this despotic potential and thus preserve the promise of popular government?  Neither a “prudent regard” for the common good nor “respect for character” was sufficient to the task, according to Madison.  The supply of prudence and character would always be too short, and so would respect for natural law.

But piety was no help, either, because, like other passions, it could easily inflame oppressive majorities: “The conduct of every popular assembly acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, proves that individuals join without remorse in acts against which their conscience would revolt if proposed to them under the like sanction, separately in their closets.  When indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other Passions, is increased by the sympathy of a multitude.”

What then?  Genovese cited the “moral and ethical baseline” of religion as the last bulwark against the barbarism of majorities.  Having lived through the Great Awakening, Madison knew better.  In place of prudence, character, and piety, he proposed to put the structural constraints of a constitution.  By this I don’t mean only that he proposed a “limited government” circumscribed by rights guaranteed to individuals or powers reserved to the states.  I mean, more significantly, that his constitutional design inscribed a difference, and a debate, between what he called “the two cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons and the rights of property.”

That design accomplished this ambiguity by adopting a “middle mode,” as he called it, through which the legislative branch was divided against itself, and each house became the effective (not the exclusive) voice of one of these “cardinal objects.”  Unlike every previous theorist of republican government, Madison proposed, in this sense, to enlist historical time in the cause of justice—he proposed to prolong the debate between “the Class with and the Class without Property” which had already reshaped political discourse in the late-18th century, but he placed careful procedural limits on the scope of the debate.

From this perspective, popular government (in our terms, democracy) was neither reducible to, nor defensible as, mere majority rule.  By the same token, religion was nowhere near a “moral and ethical baseline” that would constrain the potential despotism of majorities—instead, it was fuel on the fire of the passions that created political despotism.

But I must admit that this citation of “original intent” works as a retort to Genovese’s fear of “democratization” only insofar as the constitutional tradition Madison invented still informs contemporary political discourse, and more particularly, only insofar as that tradition still informs the theories and practices of the American Left.  In its absence, anything is possible because all we have is radicalism—all we have is the sovereignty of the people narrowly construed as a numerical preponderance, mere majority rule.


To be continued.




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3 responses to “Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 5

  1. Paul

    “Second, belief in God is perfectly rational; at any rate, it is no more irrational than belief in the Big Bang Theory, and no more destructive than blind faith in modern science. God bless Christopher Hitchens, a true believer in his own complicated, anti-clerical way. And fuck Richard Dawkins. I’m an atheist, by the way.”

    Belief in God is perfectly rational if you’re a 19th century prole who’s understanding of science is limited by what he reads in the newspaper. It’s less rational today given our vast increase in basic knowledge and its universal dissemination. Your comparison to the belief in the Big Bang Theory is astonishing to me given that it is a theory. Please tell me you haven’t forgotten the basic tenets of the scientific method? Theories are made to be challenged, modified, improved, or overthrown (see Thomas Kuhn). God is not a concept to be challenged, one believes or not at their own risk. Placebos don’t cure cancer. I’ve not read Hitchens, “God is not Great”, so I’ll reserve comment on your observation but I will say it sounds reminiscent of the bumper sticker that says “If Darwin were alive today even he wouldn’t believe in evolution” or something along those lines.

  2. Yeah, I’m with William James. Sure, God is an interesting theory/concept made to be challenged, modified, improved, etc. To believe in this theory/concept is no different than to believe in the Big Bang, by the following pragmatic test: you act on it because you assume it’s true. Then what?

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

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