U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Curse of Communitarianism?

Below is Adolph Reed Jr.’s assessment of Obama shortly after the latter won his first Illinois state senate race—written in Reed’s now (in)famous article, “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996 (reprinted in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene):

In Chicago… we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.

In Reading Obama, James Kloppenberg links Obama’s political thought to three American intellectual traditions (traditions that Kloppenberg claims are interrelated): pragmatism, civic republicanism, and communitarianism. In his review of Reading Obama, John Summers takes Kloppenberg to task for, among other things, too rosy a view of the relationship between philosophical pragmatism and democratic politics—a debate that goes at least as far back as Randolph Bourne’s classic 1917 “Twilight of Idols,” where Bourne lashed out at John Dewey for supporting Woodrow Wilson’s entry into the Great War (albeit, on the grounds that Dewey had betrayed the pragmatism of William James, not out of a rejection of pragmatism per se).

As opposed to pragmatism, I’d like to focus on community, the subject of Reed’s irate 1996 article, and communitarianism, one of the philosophical traditions Kloppenberg thinks has influenced Obama. Kloppenberg rather obviously comes to different conclusions about community than Reed. Whereas Reed sees community as a cover for repressive neoliberal policies, Kloppenberg thinks communitarianism can serve the ends of justice—when he (tepidly) criticizes Obama, he does so for not living up to the ideals of communitarianism (and pragmatism and civic republicanism). Although Kloppenberg is careful to note that communitarianism can operate as a means to diverse ends, including ends that Kloppenberg—a self-described progressive—does not support, on the whole he seems rather favorable to communitarianism as a political philosophy. He writes that “the work of radical reformers has been informed by, and has been driven forward through the work of, communities—frequently religious communities… (78)

In a compelling bit of recent intellectual history, Kloppenberg examines the trajectory of John Rawls’s thought in light of communitarianism. At first, Rawls was predisposed to favor community as a political principle, made evident in his 1942 undergraduate thesis—“A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith” (which I blogged about here)—in which Rawls related the search for justice to religious traditions. But later, in A Theory of Justice, his 1971 tome that proved his most influential work, Rawls grounded justice in a more individualistic social contract theory. Behind a veil of ignorance, so Rawls theorized, people would opt for a reasonably just society on the grounds that they would not want to be on the lowest social rung if such a position were intolerable. Extending this line of thought, Rawls supposed that a just society would operate along the lines of the difference principle: degrees of inequality would be tolerated so long as inequality brought greater freedom and justice to all members of society, including those on the proverbial bottom rung. But then the late Rawls—he of Political Liberalism, his 1996 book that was, in effect, a response to his communitarian and feminist critics—partially came around to his earlier views about community. This he made clear in his elaboration on what he called “overlapping consensus,” where people enmeshed in communities could find political common ground with people enmeshed in other communities so long as the focus was indeed on common interests.

Kloppenberg maintains that the most “widely read version” of the communitarian critique of A Theory of Justice was written by one of Charles Taylor’s students, Michael Sandel, namely, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). Kloppenberg writes: “From [Sandel’s communitarian] perspective, Rawls not only ignored, he ruled out of bounds, the most precious of all human commitments, the basic commitments that make us who we are” (99) Other communitarians influential to late-twentieth century American social thought include Robert Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart, and Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone. Putnam organized the communitarian Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, dedicated to “civic engagement in America,” which Obama attended in the late 1990s. This is one kernel of evidence that Kloppenberg applies to his thesis that Obama’s worldview is saturated with the lessons learned from the recent intellectual history of communitarianism. Another is that Obama learned from his community organizing days on the Chicago south side that people were more inclined to political activism if such activism was within the constraints of communities, usually religious. None of this convinces me that Obama is particularly familiar with the debates over Rawls that dominated one variant of social thought, but insofar as Obama does adhere to the principles of communitarianism, which both Reed and Kloppenberg maintain, from very different positions, how is this of consequence? Is communitarianism a viable political philosophy towards the ends of justice?

Count me a skeptic. I’ve always thought communitarianism a vacuous political philosophy. No, I don’t think it always operates as a cover for repression, though it often does, sometimes unwittingly. But I do think it works better in the descriptive than in the prescriptive. Of course critics were right to point out to Rawls that people are motivated by things other than individually-defined interests, as ever, and that such motivations should not be deemed irrational. But what does this mean going forward as a political philosophy?

Historical example is the best way I know how to demonstrate the problems of community as a political philosophy. In the late 1960s, blacks in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, with political support from liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay and with Ford Foundation largesse, undertook a controversial experiment in community control of their schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists, influenced by Black Nationalist thinkers such as Malcolm X and Harold Cruse, believed that their schools were failing largely because of racism built into the city’s educational institutions. Community control activists sought to hire black teachers to replace predominantly white teachers, on the grounds that black teachers would not only better relate to black students, but also because, unlike their white counterparts, black teachers would not be beholden to “culture of poverty” presumptions that lowered expectations.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in community control had powerful opponents, especially the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the teacher’s union that represented the vast majority of New York City teachers, led by the outspoken Albert Shanker. Thanks to a flourishing public sector unionism in the 1960s, the UFT was powerful enough to help the centralized New York City Board of Education govern the largest school system in the nation. And as part of its collectively bargained contract, teachers were hired and promoted in accordance with a set of standardized tests that they took at several points along their career. This system, which the UFT described as objective and, thus, meritocratic, served whites well—especially Jews, who comprised a majority of the union—but left black teachers behind. Thus, as part of its community control prerogatives, Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists violated the terms of the UFT contract and fired several of the white teachers in their neighborhood, replacing them with black teachers or non-unionized whites more committed to the principles of community control, but less qualified by UFT standards. This, predictably, brought the wrath of the powerful and savvy Shanker. In a battle that included three citywide teacher’s strikes in the fall of 1968, the UFT decisively defeated Ocean Hill-Brownsville community controllers.

Although raw power defeated the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in community control, power was not the only principle guiding it. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville communitarians believed that their values were more consistent with justice than the values of the white teachers. They contrasted their belief in mutuality with the individualistic materialism of the white middle-class world inhabited by the teachers. They theorized that they were better equipped to make education relevant to black children.

The problem, as explained by Gerald Podair in his excellent book, The Strike that Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis, is that community meant different things to different people. Whereas Ocean Hill-Brownsville blacks could plausibly claim that their communitarianism served the ends of justice, if only because it was a response to institutionalized racism, community looked very different when whites in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn organized to bar blacks from being bussed into their schools. Jonathan Rieder, author of Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, calls the protest the result of “deferred white vengeance for the New York school crisis of 1968.” As one Canarsie resident addressed the media: “You and the God-damned liberals, you screamed along with the blacks in 1968 for community control… now whites want what the blacks have, and you say we can’t have it.”

So to return to Rawls: how could blacks and whites in Brooklyn have found an overlapping consensus? Didn’t “community” prevent such a consensus from prevailing? As both Podair and Rieder argue, a new consensus was formed, that between formerly antagonistic outer-borough Jews and the city’s mostly Catholic Italians. Blacks were left in the lurch, especially when the city responded to its fiscal crisis of the 1970s by cutting social services that blacks were most dependent upon. Blacks were powerless to stop these cuts because they no longer had many white allies in the city. The Jews whom blacks previously relied upon as a sort of cosmopolitan buffer between themselves and the rest of the white population could no longer be counted on as such, in part because of the anti-Semitic-baiting that accompanied the 1968 controversy.

To conclude: to me, the history of Ocean Hill-Brownsville serves as a warning against community as a political principle. Am I missing something?

17 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Great post, Andrew (and glad to see my grad school classmate Jerry Podair getting deserved accolades).

    There’s also a longer intellectual history here…and it’s one that raises further questions about the pedigree of communitarianism. I’m thinking of Ferdinand Tönnies’s late 19C distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), which helped underwrite a rich vein of far-right political thought over the next half century in Germany that celebrated the Volksgemeinschaft…though it should be noted that Tönnies himself became a critic of Nazism and, as a result, lost his position at the University of Kiel in the 1930s.

  2. Ben: Thanks for calling attention to the longer and European intellectual history of communitarianism. I’m sure I left out quite a bit more, too, in this post.

    I noticed that Podair thanked you in the acknowledgements and I assumed he, too, was a Rodgers student. His is a great book that really helps me think through some of the 1960s origins of the culture wars.

  3. “Count me a skeptic. I’ve always thought communitarianism a vacuous political philosophy.”

    Agreed, especially in the guise of civic republicanism, a philosophy which (if it actually existed) was banished from the heavens in this country at its founding and languished in exile thereafter, until in the 1960s it was suddenly (re)discovered.

    There’s surely a lot of no doubt really good intellectual history waiting to be written about why and when civic republicanism/humanism was recovered as a historical phenomenon, and its subsequent (simultaneous?) adoption by political theorists as a viable political philosophy. As a historical phenomenon, it’s a complete fraud; as a contemporary political doctrine, a chimera. Fidelity to a principle despite such fatal defects can be explained only in terms of profound ideological commitment.

    Which is the whole point. The modern version of republicanism by definition is ideological. It has its problems (insurmountable ones), but they stay in the realm of ideology. But from a historical standpoint, the “discovery” of civic republicanism is about as egregious an example of distorting history to serve a political agenda as will ever encounter. Historical malpractice, really. Bailyn, Wood, and (especially) Pocock have a lot to answer for.

  4. Andrew–
    Interesting post. I think the problem here is that you’re conflating communitarianism as a political theory with localism and the idea of local community control. Because the term “community” has come to be a signifier with very wide ranging and contradictory meanings (what is it we mean, for instance, when we talk about interest and identity groups as “communities,”: e.g. the disabled community, or the international community?) sometimes it’s hard to get a clear sense of what communitarianism as a political philosophy is. My own read is that American communitarianism arose in the last three decades of the twentieth century, but drew on long traditions of European romanticism and sociological thinking going back at least to Herder and Hegel. What Sandel, Taylor, Putnam, Etzioni, (and Christopher Lasch, too, I think) were reacting to was the model of selfhood in rights-based liberalism in the Rawls mode. Concerned less with localism–but still committed to the concrete particularity of historically-situated communities–these thinkers rejected Rawls’s abstract neo-Kantian model of individual autonomy (what Sandel called “the disencumbered self”). When we envision “the good,” according to these thinkers, it arises out of the particular traditions of a people, and is embodied in their political actions (as opposed to the Rawls position that goods are rooted in individual desires, and the state itself is strictly neutral with regard to what should count as good–it does its job when it allows individuals to fulfill their own visions of the good). I don’t think that the actual consequences of this position speak to the issue of local community control in the way you suggest. Rather, they are a sharp tool against a rights-based liberalism that makes matters of individual right a barrier to the fulfillment of larger political goals and aspirations, including justice. But if courts adhere to a kind of moral absolutism with regard to individual rights, contracts, etc., instead of seeing the idea of contract within the boundaries of other community traditions, and subordinate to them, there’s not a lot that can be done (except to point this out). The consequence of communitarianism is not so much for organizing community activism (bad or good), but for rethinking the relationships between citizens and the state, in ways that might push away from the individualistic bias of contemporary forms of liberalism and conservativism. Using the political failures of community activism to critique communitarian political philosophy seems to me misdirected. But perhaps my read of Sandel et al is wrong.

  5. there’s not a lot that can be done (except to point this out). The consequence of communitarianism is not so much for organizing community activism (bad or good), but for rethinking the relationships between citizens and the state, in ways that might push away from the individualistic bias of contemporary forms of liberalism and conservativism. Using the political failures of community activism to critique communitarian political philosophy seems to me misdirected. But perhaps my read of Sandel et al is wrong.

  6. Dan–

    What an excellent summary of the roots and uses of communitarianism! My practical problem with communitarianism has always involved this turn:

    Rather, they are a sharp tool against a rights-based liberalism that makes matters of individual right a barrier to the fulfillment of larger political goals and aspirations, including justice.

    Who defines those “larger political goals and aspirations”? Why, the community does! But who speaks for the community? Who gets to define and articulate its vision? I can’t say that I’ve ever systematically poured through communitarian literature, but in my admittedly brief encounters with the work of Sandel, Etzioni, Putnam, and so forth, I’ve never found very convincing answers to these questions.

  7. As Peter Miller explains in Defining the Common Good, the notion of a “common good” pretty much collapsed (at least in the English-speaking world) in the 1770s. And it collapsed because the answers to the questions Ben poses could no longer command the assent of the community. Lots of king’s men of various ideological stripes have been trying to put that Humpty Dumpty back together ever since, to little avail. The people Dan Wickberg mentions, though, probably represent the most sustained effort, at least in this country. The fact that it remains almost purely an academic phenomenon (which surely explains both Kloppenberg’s infatuation with it and his adulation of Obama’s seeming embrace of it) says all one needs to know about its potential for actual political consequence.

    I’m no expert on it, but I would not be at all surprised if this goes hand in hand with the nonsensical attempts to revive virtue ethics as a viable branch of ethical theory. You may as well bring back geocentrism while you’re at it.

  8. Varad: Would you care to elaborate on the point about Wood and the other historians of civil republicanism having a lot to answer for? Your point is either too harsh or too cryptic. Point of interest: Kloppenberg insists Wood was right about the founders, and also that this vision of the founders has been influential to Obama.

    Dan: Thanks for the insight. It indeed occurred to me as I was writing up this post that I was blurring important distinctions between community as a means of local political organizing, and communitarianism. Implicit in my concluding question–“Am I missing something?”–was my hope that someone would better explain communitarianism as a political philosophy, and you’ve done that for us! I appreciate it.

    That said, I don’t think my attempt to connect the two is entirely misguided, because I think the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis nicely illustrates the problem Ben points to–namely, who speaks for the community? And furthermore, how, exactly, can one community co-exist with another, if the values of each are different, or don’t “overlap,” as the later Rawls would have it?

    Those who theorized community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and elsewhere in the late 60s obviously did not consult communitarian literature, since it was nonexistent–at least insofar as we’re talking about communitarianism in recent US social thought. That said, their guiding philosophy, as Podair makes clear, was about more than mere local control. They believed that white middle-class culture, as represented by the UFT and Shanker, was too focused on individual achievement, competition, social mobility, meritocracy, etc… They counterposed that with what they believed were the best values of the so-called “black community,” such as mutuality, social cooperation, etc.. So I would argue that their notion of community was not that far removed from the more sophisticated version advanced by Sandel and others a few decades later. Certainly it was a rooted in a similar critique of the self. Harold Cruse was one of the main intellectual influences on the experimenters in community control, and Lasch, whom I agree with you was a communitarian of sorts, gave Cruse high praise in the New York Review of Books (which, as an editorial position, generally supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville blacks and community control). So if we want to bring this full circle, we can, even if it’s a bit forced.

  9. Varad-

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that communitarianism is of only academic significance. Amitai Etzioni was a Senior Advisor in the Carter White House. Ben Barber’s account of intellectual life in the Clinton administration, The Truth of Power, suggests that communitarianism played an important role in that White House, too. Clinton’s own rhetoric often echoed communitarian themes (which, as Barber points out, were already an important part of the message of the Democratic Leadership Council, the then political dominant “New Democrat” institution). My favorite comment on communitarianism from Barber’s book (from a discription of a 1996 State of the Union session organized by White House intellectual Bill Galston, a Leo Strauss student, for whatever that’s worth):

    “Then it was Amitai Etzioni’s turn to regale us with the triumphs of the communitarian movement. These were not altogether distinguishable from the triumphs of Amitai Etzioni.” (p. 146)

  10. Andrew: I say they have a lot to answer for in the sense that they essentialy made stuff up and passed it off as historical scholarship. Wood at least saw the error of his ways and repudiated his earlier views, but Pocock like some dinosaur that doesn’t know it’s gone extinct still protests that the moon is made of green cheese. At least as far as the American Revolution is concerned, he can only be characterized as a fabulist; and his approach legitimately described as “vulgar republicanism.” Or as I put it in an early draft of my dissertaton, “He wanders perilously close to the borders of misrepresentation, perhaps as close as one can while still remaining within the confines of scholarly respectability.” Another step and he’s cozying up to David Barton. We’re talking “slavery wasn’t bad” territory here.

    As the historian of political thought Paul Rahe put it, the civic humanism “which some purport to find in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and America is by and large a figment of the scholarly imagination.” It’s made up, a fantasy invented by modern historians and read back into the past. In a word, nonsense. So the fact that Kloppenberg believes it does not redound to his credit. And if he thinks Obama believes some balderdash that only academics and intellectuals subscribe to, well, no wonder he’s appointed himself president of the Obama fan club.

    I haven’t read the book, but based on what I’ve heard about it (from Kloppenberg and others), the more I’m convinced it says nothing about Obama, and everything about its author.

  11. Ben: I concede that communitarianism has gained a modest purchase on the real world; emphasis on modest, judging by the anecdote you relate. On the other hand, I stand by my judgment that republicanism is entirely a phenomenon of the ivory tower. It is one of those doctrines whose only purpose seems to be to confirm the validity of Orwell’s jibe that there are some things so stupid only intellectuals believe them.

    If some political theorists want to believe it, that’s fine. But it’s another thing entirely for the likes of Pocock to rewrite American history so that it can provide solace to their prejudices. If that’s unacceptable when someone like David Barton does it, it must be even more so when someone who claims to adhere to the canons of historical scholarship eviscerates them to exactly the same ends as Barton, who at least avoids hypocrisy by not recognizing them in the first place.

  12. At the risk of opening up another can of worms here, I don’t feel comfortable leaving Varad’s equation of J.G.A. Pocock and David Barton unremarked upon.

    Pocock’s arguments about republicanism have received a lot of criticism from many quarters over the last quarter century. Though these are issues well outside my period and area of expertise, and I would never claim to have kept up on the intricacies of these debates, my sense is that Pocock has been on the losing side of many of these arguments, especially as regards the American founding.

    Nevertheless, Pocock’s work was pathbreaking, serious, and incredibly intellectually productive. The scholarly debates that he framed have unquestionably moved our understanding of the past forward. The same cannot remotely be said about David Barton. That Pocock might, at the end of the day, be found to have been wrong about many things makes him no more similar to Barton, than Montesquieu is to Michele Bachmann.

    I haven’t plowed my way through Paul Rahe’s Republics Ancient and Modern, though I really should. Rahe, who is, like Pocock and unlike Barton, a serious scholar, has his own, Straussian axe to grind. From what I can tell from dabbling in his work, he shares many of the common virtues and vices of scholars of that persuasion. Among their vices tend to be a harshly dismissive attitude towards those who come to different conclusions about the past.

  13. Ben–
    You’re right, of course. The question of “who rules” is punted in some versions of communitarianism to some vague arena of common values, rather than to social groups within a set of hierarchical relationships. Those values are held to arise out of the collective way of being of a people. But I think the more sophisticated versions of this recognize that communitarianism is not the same as “consensus” and that political activity is possible because of the shared ground of values upon which it takes place. Invoking “community values” is not a substitute for politics but the ground of it. And any tradition and body of values can, of course, be mobilized to radically different ends, even as it sets the limits in which debate takes place. The key is that it cannot be reducible to a politics based on individual choice. But, I guess my bigger point was that political theory shouldn’t be asked to do the job of politics, or found wanting because it doesn’t, with some inexorable logic, produce a particular political outcome. I’m going to continue to recognize the analytical power of Marxism, for instance, without holding it responsible for its political uses in the twentieth century.

    If you want your position to be taken seriously, I would recommend that you address what Bailyn, Wood, Pocock et al. did accomplish, instead of saying that they essentially “made up” a version of the past that was a “complete fraud.” And, I assume, the entire historical profession (with the exception of brave souls like John Patrick Diggins and yourself) was suckered by them. While it’s reasonable to conclude that the versions of classical republicanism important in the 1970s and 80s involved overstatement, it’s also reasonable to see that the overwhelming focus on Lockean liberalism in the earlier paradigm was severely limited, and could not account for much of the language of conspiracy, virtue, etc. that one finds running through revolutionary era discourse. But snarky dismissal doesn’t seem like a way to persuade anyone. I’m willing to accept Kloppenberg’s version of multiple traditions, which is well argued, over your very serious charge (which I don’t think could find its way into peer-reviewed print in its current iteration) that Pocock is a fraud who made stuff up.

  14. I compared Barton and Pocock (and I should be clear that it is Pocock who is the object of my derision, not Wood and Bailyn) because I see them both using history to advance a partisan agenda; distorting history to do so, even. The difference is this, that that is the only mode in which Barton does history. That is what makes him not a historian at all. Pocock, on the other hand, when he isn’t burrowing in “tunnels” (to borrow his own description of his approach to the civic humanism stuff) can be an outstanding historian. His multi-volume study of Gibbon, Barbarism and Religion, is a marvelous, remarkable achievement. Any of us can only hope to be so productive at the peaks of our careers, let alone in what for many is their dotage. (Pocock is going strong in his 80s now, and “retired” some time ago!) My admiration for his recent work, though, does nothing to alter my estimation of his interpretation of the American Revolution as bollocks.

    That description might not pass muster with “peer-reviewed print,” either, but then dismissing his views as “imagination,” as Rahe does, is hardly more complimentary. It certainly wasn’t meant as praise. Nor am I alone in adhering to that view. Indeed, I would need to be a mutant of considerable proportions to have enough hands and feet to have enough fingers and toes to count all the people besides Diggins (and myself) who find/found the republican paradigm dubious. Hardly any bravery is required. I suppose one could attribute Pocock’s steadfast refusal to alter his views in the face of withering criticism to the courage of his convictions. Or one could say there’s no fool like an old fool. Pocock’s no fool, but he helped found a school whose curriculum offered a considerable amount of foolishness.

  15. Getting back to matters at hand, surely the true origin of communitarianism is Aristotle’s assertion in Politics that man is a zoon politikon, that is, a creature by nature destined to live in a community of other such creatures. (Or as Cicero puts it in De Officiis: “everyone is born, not for himself alone, but for all humankind.”) I would venture that that idea undergirds the early modern theory that man is naturally sociable and that this sociability is what impels the creation of political and social communities. It was this idea that contractarianism destroyed by positing that in nature humans are solitary, self-sufficient creatures who band together not by their natures but to remedy the defects of nature which they individually are incapable of rectifying.

    Contractarianism in this vein (the only vein?) was cause and effect of the natural law and natural rights revolutions which did much to define modern politics (say, since the mid-seventeenth century). So in attacking modern liberalism in the Rawlsian/Kantian mode, communitarians are in essence trying to repudiate, or at least neutralize, the theory which has more or less defined the last four centuries of Western political history. Their weapon of choice: a paradigm which is some fifteen millennia older than the one they reject.

  16. Varad–
    My concern here is not with defending Pocock, or in pretending that his views had won some kind of universal acclaim within the historical profession. The profession didn’t agree that Pocock was correct; it agreed that his work was valuable, important, and needed to be taken seriously. As you point out, many have criticized his claims, and there was a period of very heated debate about various versions of the “republican synthesis,” marked most notably by Daniel Rodgers’s essay “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept”. But the terms in which a Joyce Appleby, for instance, criticized the republican school are markedly different than yours–they recognized the analytical power of a focus on political languages (rather than, say, political theory); the notion that words, such as “liberty”, have a variety of historically incommensurable meanings that need to be historically situated, that framing American political thought in the context of a broad transatlantic system of meanings gave us new insights into revolutionary ideology, etc.. Historians, as you know, disagree all the time. You raise the stakes when you move from a claim of interpretive inadequacy, weakly founded assumptions, or oversight to a claim of fraud and wholesale invention. If you don’t want people to think that this is your position, as your walk-back would suggest, than I would recommend that you not use such loaded and dismissive language.

  17. I wanted to correct a misapprehension from way upthread. Jerry Podair was a grad school classmate of mine (we were in so many classes together that people referred to us collectively as “Ben and Jerry”), but he was not a Dan Rodgers student. I believe that Jim McPherson was his dissertation adviser, though I think Gary Gerstle, who left Princeton a couple years after we arrived and ultimately served as an outside reader on his dissertation, was at least as important as an intellectual mentor to him.

Comments are closed.