Richard Hofstadter and Me

In the last semester of my senior year, I took a course in American history for the first time since high school because my comrades gently insisted on it—they figured it would lighten me up a little, make me less earnest about becoming a Bolshevik through fanatic study of Russian history and literature. I’d been accepted into the graduate programs at Columbia and Michigan; I was then leaning toward Columbia because I was already yearning to live in New York, although I’d never even seen the place.

The instructor in that 400-level course, Industrial America, 1877-1901, was Martin J. Sklar, a legendary figure on the Left and a formidable presence in the classroom. The syllabus listed about a dozen required books, as I remember, among them W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935) and Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955).

At this time, at the age of 22—I had spent some time out of school, working and fucking around—I didn’t know what “Reconstruction” was, or why it mattered. I knew nothing about American history except that the civil rights movement had tried and failed to redeem the promise of . . . something. I didn’t want to know anything about this ugly past. I was already in intellectual exile from the culture I knew best, just from living it all my life. I was bound for Bolshevism, on my to the Soviet Union by way of New York.

The old guy who sat next to me, our backs against the wall, was Guy Sand. We were fellow seniors, in both senses, and heavy smokers to boot. We’d make fun of the morons in the class, giggle indiscreetly when one of them asked a stupid question, or nod wisely when we heard something vaguely intelligent.

I asked him one day before class why he had gone back to school (he was about 35). He looked mystified. “For this,” he said, gesturing at Sklar, who was assembling his notes at the lectern. “I want to know how this thing works.”

“What thing?” I asked. Guy said, “The whole thing,” and now he gestured out the door. “Capitalism.”

He was in the right place. Sklar made us read everything. Economic history: Fred Shannon, The Farmer’s Last Frontier (1944); Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age (1956). Political history: John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (1931); Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General Welfare State (1956, this also qualifies as intellectual history); C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (1951). Labor history: Gerald Grob, Workers and Utopia (1962), plus some obscure articles by a young man named Herbert Gutman. Intellectual history: August Meier, Negro Thought in America (1964); Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence (1959). Also William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). Oh, and The Communist Manifesto (1848). Notice the publication dates—he was teaching the same literature, or rather the same historiographical canon, that had shaped Hofstadter. These were the books that determined their intellectual origins, but not their political destinations.

Taking this course convinced me that doing American history could be as interesting and important as deciphering the Bolshevik Revolution. Now I finally realized that I could be an expert in Russian history, but that neither the Soviet nor the American people would recognize me as the revolutionary I wanted to be. On the other hand, if I knew the history of my people, as Lenin clearly knew his (I was then reading his best book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia [1899]), why . . . . By the end of Sklar’s course, I saw that I’d write a Masters Thesis in Russian history, then switch to US history for the PhD. I stayed at Northern Illinois University because I could do both, and Sklar would be still around. “Career-wise,” a bad decision. Otherwise the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

I remember all those books Sklar made us read—we didn’t write papers or take tests, we kept journals—but Du Bois and Hofstadter stuck with me because they seemed so aberrant, so athwart their discipline, so calmly truculent. They were contentious writers—their arguments with their colleagues and the world were right up front—and yet somehow they didn’t sound polemical. Just authoritative.

I had read enough Marx to doubt Du Bois’s conflation of slaves and proletarians, and I was ignorant enough to be both astonished and unconvinced by Chapter 4, “The General Strike.” I had heard enough from the comrades about Hofstadter—he was one of those bad old “consensus” historians—to discount his anti-Populist position as a warning against the benighted masses who brought us fascism (I didn’t know then that Hofstadter was steeped in Frankfurt School sensibilities).

I turned to Guy one day before class—according to the syllabus we were supposed to be reading Woodward and Hofstadter alongside each other, or rather contrapuntally—and said, “What do you make of Hofstadter? He gives me a pain in the ass.”

Again he looked mystified. “It’s great stuff,” he said. “He can write.”

“What about the politics of the thing, though?” I said, “I mean, the Populists are anti-semites, might as well be Nazis, c’mon, that’s bullshit.”

Guy said, “Well, it’s not consensus, is it?”

Between them, Martin Sklar and Guy Sand launched me on a career of counter-progressive historical writing about the United States, a career in which Richard Hofstadter became something like an intellectual companion—someone I’d call on from time to time, asking what he’d said about such and such, wondering how he’d said it. I never thought he was a great writer, but the how, the prose, was as interesting as the what.

The form of his arguments was always attuned to the audience us Bolsheviks in the making wanted—that general reader, the common folk, the everyday bloke. It wasn’t conversational, exactly, it was just thoughtful, even though its author made plenty of ex cathedra pronouncements. The content determined by this form of argument was, as William Appleman Williams pointed out—with prejudice—the findings of other historians and social scientists. Hofstadter did research after the book on Social Darwinism, but he was mostly a synthesizer, a scholar who used the findings of others in new ways, making them newly useful. To my mind, that is productive work, more productive than almost all archivally-driven monographs, although now that I mention them, what else is there to synthesize?

II

In the years between 1955, with the publication of The Age of Reform, and 1976, with the publication of Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise, so-called consensus history flourished on American premises. The assumption animating this designation was that the consensus historians—Louis Hartz, Irwin Unger, Daniel Boorstin, Lee Benson, among others—denied the formative role of class conflict in the American past, emphasizing instead an ideological consensus on liberalism, or capitalism, whatever, or emphasizing ethno-cultural differences rather than the gradients of social class. These historians were supposedly justifying or creating the illusion of cultural-intellectual solidarity in the face of the Soviet threat.

That assumption and its corollary were, and are, a palliative, a lullaby, for academics and intellectuals who long(ed) for the good old days of the Popular Front, when the CP made the working class, and class conflict, the regulative principles of theory and practice. For the two most important of the so-called consensus historians, Hofstadter and Williams, were steeped in Marxism and Continental social theory—they knew their way around the CP (Hofstadter was a card-carrying member who quit before the 1939 debacle of the Nazi-Soviet Pact), and they admired its purposes if not its methods. They never avoided analysis of social conflict; instead they conducted that analysis as if the people and the polity they studied were, except in extraordinary, revolutionary times, contained by ideological limits on the meanings of liberty and equality. The civil rights movement, for example, certainly called forth conflict, but its leaders told both constituents and contestants that the goal was to live up to what everyone agreed on as founding principles.

The better way to think about so-called consensus history is to rename and rethink it according to Gene Wise’s specifications. He called it counter-progressive history, as in up against the Progressive tradition Hofstadter himself summarized in what I think is his best book.

By my measurements, Progressive historiography was built on three premises. First, class supersedes race as the central category of the narratives that offer to explain the national experience. Think of Turner and Beard as against Bancroft.   Second, “big business” (a.k.a. industry) becomes the predator of the small holder, and therefore of equality, or democracy, as such. Monopoly capital, not capitalism writ large or small, becomes the intellectual and the political problem. Again, think of Turner and Beard, then fast forward to the anti-corporate bias that now serves as a left-wing credential in every relevant venue: Thomas Frank, Matt Taibbi, Elizabeth Sanders. Third, corporations appear as belated, artificial entities—just like John Marshall said in 1819—rather than original, organic components of American history, of the country created by corporations like the Massachusetts Bay Co. and the Virginia Co.

Hofstadter and Williams refused, or modified, all three premises. Hofstadter led the way. The American Political Tradition (1948) was preface to The Age of Reform, in this sense, because it made us think of the reformers, the revolutionaries, and the reactionaries as characters on a continuum of mistaken identity, not difficult patients with irreconcilable etiologies. A kind of consensus.

So conceived, the key passages in The Age of Reform come at the edges of those places where Hofstadter acknowledges that he’s writing about his own time, not some distant past. They’re awkward moments, when the voice changes and the remaining grace of the prose breaks down. He trips himself; he sounds apologetic.

“If we look at the second of the two great foes of Progressivism, big business and monopoly, we find that by the time of the New Deal public sentiment had changed materially. . . . By 1933 the American public had lived with the great corporation for so long that it was felt to be domesticated.”

A few pages later: “The generation for which Wilson and Brandeis spoke looked to economic life as a field for the expression of character; modern liberals seem to think of it quite exclusively as a field in which certain results are to be expected. It is this change in the moral stance that seems most worthy of remark.”

This is a man who has found his way into the present, but he doesn’t know how to say it, not just yet. But that tremor in both passages, where the voice moves from active to passive, that’s where the divide between Progressive and counter-progressive historiography ought to be marked, because it’s where Hofstadter says that the corporation is not a parasite on the body politic and that individuality (character) can no longer be conceived as routinely enacted in economic life, through work and its correlate, self-ownership.

To find your way into the present, as Hofstadter did in The Age of Reform, is to realize that the Populists played a losing hand by thinking that they could restore equality, such as it was, and reinstate genuine selfhood, such as it was, by abolishing corporations, monopolies, big banks, whatever you want to call the “artificial persons” who oppressed them and us. He finally knew how and why and where Turner and Beard and Robinson and Parrington were wrong, but still useful.

“Consensus” doesn’t begin to describe what Hofstadter offered us as historians and citizens. Counter-progressive will do for now.   But let’s think further on up the road. The Age of Reform makes anybody who reads it think about the filial—OK, Oedipal—relation between the Progressive Era and the New Deal, Old Testament and New. It makes us think about the reach and the limits of Populism, third parties, renegade politicians. It makes us think about the conflicts of our own time, when “unnatural persons,” whether corporations or real estate agents, roam freely across the political landscape.

Can you say that about any other book you pick off your shelf?

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One response to “Richard Hofstadter and Me

  1. Pingback: James Livingston on Life and The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter | s-usih.org

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