Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 6

I ended Part 5 with an “Ugh.”  I’m a great believer in the American political tradition—you could say I love this country—because it’s animated by two crucial ideas: sovereignty is the property of the people, not the party, the government, or the state; and equality is the necessary condition of individual liberty, not its obvious negation.  Of course an abiding fear of state power and command—a deep suspicion of armed institutional authority or “big government”—is built into this tradition by two centuries of political practice.  But that fear has no predictable political valence.  One symptom of this political emotion is the Left’s romance with radical “movements” that are able to speak truth to power because they’re never corrupted by power.  Another is the Right’s attachment to the Tea Party, which, as the doctor in the house, I would treat as a malignant symptom, a return of the repressed, an attempted cure of racism.

“Ugh,” I said, because, in The Southern Tradition, which was published within a year of “The Question,” Gene Genovese fell into the trap of his old friends and new enemies on the Left by reducing democracy to majority rule.  He was right to ridicule the comrades for their commitment to “radical democracy,” the mid-1990s substitute for “actually existing socialism.”  They were wishfully thinking, having followed the high Victorian example of William Morris and shifted their utopian sights from somewhere to nowhere: the news was bound to change.

Still, Gene always assumed what the comrades did—capitalism reduces every calculus of right and wrong to a quantitative cost-benefit analysis, so moral catastrophe is always already upon us.  He took the slaveholders seriously because he knew they were serious critics of capitalism.  In this sense, he never left the Left behind.  He couldn’t.

Like most of the comrades, including the pathetic Howard Zinn, Genovese’s study and experience of American history were so selective as to be debilitating.  He couldn’t believe that there was a constitutional tradition, for example, which might serve current intellectual purposes, because, exactly like the putative objects of vulgar Marxist critique—particularly the deconstructionary Nietzscheans among them—he believed instead that every interpretation of the Constitution was over-determined by (what else?) power.

That judgement sounds extreme, I’m sure, as extreme as anything the Don himself ever said.  But look at what he argued in The Southern Tradition.  On the one hand, he insisted that there’s nothing to protect us against what Jefferson called an “elective despotism” except piety (and its cognate, respect for natural law).  In the political universe Genovese mapped, “democratization” meant tyranny unless constrained by the “moral and ethical baseline” of religious belief.  On the other hand, he declared that “the Yankee interpretation of the Constitution prevailed not because it was intellectually superior but because the North won a test of physical [sic] strength.”

Now this last declaration is both insightful and preposterous, because the southern interpretation of the Constitution—enunciated in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857—prevailed until the Republican candidate won the presidency by constitutional means in 1860: at that point, the South turned to military means of enacting its interpretation by becoming another country and abrogating its consent to the national compact.  Notice, however, what Genovese’s declaration suggests: either the constitutional tradition that begins with the original intent of James Madison has no intellectual integrity because it’s a matter of military power and majority rule; or the Dred Scott decision is as intellectually compelling as, say, Abraham Lincoln’s painstaking reply in the Cooper Institute address of February 27, 1860.

In this address, Lincoln claimed a conservative mantle by granting the premise claimed by Stephen A. Douglas and Roger B. Taney (the chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision)—that the founders “knew better” than any of their successors when it came to slavery, in the territories and in the moral universe created by the Constitution.  So his question was, What was their “original intent”?

But how to answer that question?  The originalists among us, most egregiously the scabrous Antonin Scalia, would say, why, the text itself, plus a dictionary!  Lincoln did that, noting that the only clause of the Constitution which made reference to slavery apportioned congressional representation by counting 3/5 of all “other persons”—nothing about slaves, Negroes, race, or Africans, as in Taney’s Dred Scott decision.  Persons instead, and so the assertion from the Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, was validated by the Constitution as well as the Declaration: “But if the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one making a slave of another.”

Lincoln could have rested his case there, but he went beyond the textual argument by demonstrating that the best evidence of “original intent” was action on the issue of slavery.  What the founders said was of course crucial, undeniable, indispensable.  The more important question was, What did they do with their memorable words?  And who were they, anyway?

By Lincoln’s pragmatic, historical account, there were 39 men who signed the document we call the Constitution, including Madison and George Washington.  Of them, 21 acted on the question of slavery, from the Northwest Ordinance to the Missouri Compromise, ca. 1789-1821—from the very first act of the original Congress, which excluded slavery from most of the territory acquired by military victory in 1783, to the admission of a trans-Mississippi slave state.  These 21, a majority of the founders, acted as if Congress had the constitutional right, and the moral obligation, to exclude slavery from the federal territories, and thus to mandate its extinction.  Taney had no grounds to claim that Congress overreached when it restricted the right of property in slaves.

Thus “original intent,” as expressed in both the composition and the enactment of the Constitution, was anti-slavery, and it was legislatively embodied at the national level, by the US Congress, for the first thirty years of the new republic.  In this sense, the ethical principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) wasn’t erased by the historical circumstance of slavery the Constitution acknowledged.  That principle was consistent with, indeed incorporated in, the later founding document.  Like the Declaration, the Constitution was a prophecy—a promise made in view of the original compromise with slavery.

The conservative Lincoln who explained how the Constitution worked as an anti-slavery manifesto had been a radical since October 16th, 1854.  That day at the Cooper Institute, February 27th, 1860, he became a revolutionary.  He did so by explaining how and why the southern interpretation of the Constitution failed in its own terms, by ignoring “original intent.”

Genovese’s dismissal of this intellectual achievement leads directly to the mere radicalism of the anti-monopoly tradition, which of course animated so much of 19th and 20th century political dissent.  At any rate it led him to embrace a “southern conservatism” that sounds very much like the New Left’s critique of finance capital and corporate liberalism: “Southern conservatism has always traced the evils of the modern world to the ascendancy of the profit motive and material acquisitiveness; to the conversion of small property based on individual labor into accumulated capital manifested as financial assets; to centralization and bureaucratization of management; to the extreme specialization of labor and the rise of consumerism; to an idolatrous cult of economic growth and technological progress; and to the destructive exploitation of nature.”

Southern Populism, from Tom Watson to George Wallace, always traced the evils of the 20th century to the very same corporate sources.  But since the 1960s, so has the larger American Left.

The magnificent ironies of this convergence are probably self-evident.  I’m going to spell them out, anyway, because they may help us think about the future of the Left.  First, the anti-monopoly tradition as articulated in populist programs would accomplish precisely what its advocates, including Gene Genovese, apparently abhor—statist command of civil society (“political centralization,” as he puts it), not the autonomy of organic  communities and non-profit institutions.  Second, the American Left’s stance toward post-industrial, corporate-bureaucratic capitalism is quite similar, generally speaking, to what Genovese endorses here in The Southern Tradition, because both parties assume that abstention from and excoriation of corporations is the social-intellectual condition of political progress.  So this Left cannot hereafter deny him as one of its own.  By the same token, Gene might now want to admit that the Left he repudiated seems to share his desire to reinstate the moral universe specific to 19th-century bourgeois society.

But if I’m correct to claim that each party has more in common with the other than either has acknowledged since 1994, the familiar distinction between “radical” and “conservative” needs rethinking.  So, too, does the placement of the Left on the political spectrum defined by these extremes.


Next: Summary Judgement


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One response to “Eugene D. Genovese, RIP, Part 6

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

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