January 19, 2009


What Was Liberal History?: RICHARD HOFSTADTER'S LEGACY : a review of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography By David S. Brown (Sean Wilentz, 07.12.06, New Republic)

In March 1965, a delegation of historians joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. Weeks earlier, Alabama state troopers had brutally broken up a voting rights march in Selma with nightsticks and tear gas, and King aimed to finish what the protesters had started. The historians, who included the renowned Richard Hofstadter, went south to take a stand. That the normally circumspect Hofstadter struck his tasks at Columbia University and made the trip suggested just how deep the outrage at Jim Crow repression had become.

Hofstadter, in character, acted more the dry wit than the rabble-rouser. At one point, the bus carrying the scholars to the march swerved badly, leaving the professors momentarily shaken and frightened. Hofstadter broke the tension. "If your driving leads to an accident that kills us all," he pleaded with the bus driver, "you will set back the liberal interpretation of American history for a century!"

What made the writings of these historians liberal? This liberalism originated in a twofold desire. First, in the most precise sense of liberal as large, generous, capacious, these historians wanted to be more inclusive, examining aspects of American political and social life that previous historians had slighted, from race and ethnicity to the power of irrational symbolic appeals. Second, they wanted to re-interpret a liberal tradition that they believed had dominated American history more critically, freed from the self-ratifying pieties of much liberal historiography as well as from the deceptive, often manipulative populism that characterized the 1930s and 1940s Popular Front left.

Looking back, they appear, in keeping with the political trends of their formative and middle years, to have badly overestimated liberalism's dominance of the American political tradition. Much of their writing through the 1970s did little to prepare readers for the conservative era that was to come. [...]

Nothing can be understood about Hofstadter's intelligence without understanding his visceral urban proclivities, inflected by his aversion to the smug absolutism that too often afflicted big-city intellectuals. Much of the so-called "counter-Progressive" historiography of the 1940s and 1950s rebelled against the Midwestern biases of the previous generation, which beheld the nation's cities as sinks of political and economic corruption. [...]

At Buffalo, Hofstadter joined the radical left. An active member and eventually Buffalo chapter president of the National Student League, the dominant campus left-wing organization of the time, he participated in a nationwide student antiwar strike of classes in April 1935. He fell in love with and married Felice Swados, a fellow left-wing student and committed activist (and the sister of Harvey Swados, later known as a fine fiction writer and essayist). Over the objection of family members, he decided against becoming a lawyer, began taking courses in Columbia's history department in 1937, and wrote an M.A. thesis that berated, from a leftist perspective, the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Act. In 1942, he completed the dissertation that would become his first book, a scathing survey of capitalist apologia, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. He also attended, with Felice, meetings of the Young Communist League, and in October 1938 he dutifully enlisted in the Columbia graduate unit of the Communist Party. "I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it," he wrote.

Appalled by the communists' authoritarianism and, Brown suggests, by reports on the Moscow trials, Hofstadter abruptly quit the party after only four months, but for years thereafter he appears to have considered himself a man of the radical left. His Marxist phase was common for the disaffected students of his generation, and it made a lasting impression. Above all, it gave him ways to think about American politics outside the mainstream categories of liberal and conservative. From this radicalized perspective, American politics appeared to be not an abiding battle between equality and privilege but rather a contest between political parties whose similarities overwhelmed their differences. The Marxism of the 1930s lay just below Hofstadter's oft-quoted later observation that America's egalitarianism "has been a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity"--a left-wing formulation that, paradoxically, also seemed to declare the futility of left-wing politics in the United States.

Isn't that the irony of his career, rather than a paradox? He and his comrades tried to write a history of left-wing politics into a past that had none to speak of. They were studying a country that they recognized despised them

[originally posted: 7/13/06]

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 19, 2009 12:00 AM
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