U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Hubris of the Intellectual Turncoat

The following is a gust post by Jeremy C. Young, assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

In early 2005, the fundamentalist minister Douglas Wilson announced that he was publishing a revised version of his notoriously pro-slavery book, Southern Slavery as It Was – now under a new name, Black and Tan.  The original book (co-authored with League of the South founder Steve Wilkins) was famous both for being partially plagiarized from Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross and for repackaging the most outrageous lies about slavery – that it was easy for slaves, that many slaves enjoyed it, that masters were kind and generous – in an easily-readable narrative intended for high school students.  Wilson’s decision to reissue the work surprised no one; after all, Wilson is a shock jock who has defended marital rape and described marriage equality as far worse than slavery.  What shocked the historical community was the endorsement on the back cover of the book.

“The Reverend Douglas Wilson,” it read, “may not be a professional historian, as his detractors say, but he has a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine. Indeed, sad to say, his grasp is a great deal stronger than that of most professors of American history, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace our college classrooms. And the Reverend Mr. Wilson is a fighter, especially effective in defense of Christianity against those who try to turn Jesus’ way of salvation into pseudo-moralistic drivel.”  This belligerent defense of a book filled with pernicious right-wing falsehoods about slavery came from none other than the foremost living American historian of slavery: Eugene Genovese, a former Marxist whose book Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) had redefined the study of slave resistance and had inspired a generation of historians of antebellum life.

I was reminded of Genovese’s infamous about-face when I read Andrew Hartman’s thought-provoking post on left-to-right Marxist turncoats in the early- and mid-twentieth century.  Using the career of turncoat James Burnham as a jumping-off point, Hartman asks: how do we make sense of the strangely permeable boundary between the extreme left and the extreme right?  Why have so many prominent Marxist intellectuals ended up as conservatives?  It’s a great question, and one I’ve been pondering since that horrifying Genovese blurb twelve years ago.  The conclusion I’ve reached is that the problem of left-right turncoats is not a problem of Marxism at all.  Rather, it is a problem of iconoclasm and, ultimately, of hubris.

What’s striking to me about figures such as Burnham and Genovese and Martin Sklar is how much in common their journeys have with intellectuals who were not Marxists at all.  Consider the case of Mark Bauerlein, who transformed from a left-libertarian critic of political correctness into a supporter of Donald Trump.  Bauerlein had not become a conservative; rather, he explained, he was still a liberal and was voting for Trump because of his liberalism.  “Our society has sunk so far into sensitivity and guilt,” he insisted, “that it has relinquished the liberalism that both liberals and conservatives espouse.”  Another example is Thaddeus Russell, a “red diaper baby” who rejected socialism in early adulthood in favor of a sort of left-libertarianism that celebrated scandalous behavior as central to individual freedom.  Russell was drummed out of the academy in the aftermath of his controversial A Renegade History of the United States; “It was simply not okay,” he complained, “for me to describe the “oppressed” in the terms used by their oppressors—“shiftless,” “sexually unrestrained,” “primitive,” “uncivilized”—even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.”  Today, while still claiming to be a left-libertarian – unlike Bauerlein, he does not appear to have voted for Trump – Russell can be found defending the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos on Twitter.

I am not suggesting that Bauerlein and Russell possess the same subtlety as towering intellects such as Sklar and Genovese – far from it – but their examples are instructive nevertheless.  What unites the brilliant Marxist turncoats with the less-brilliant non-Marxist ones is not the content of their beliefs but their contrarian, iconoclastic natures.  It takes a certain kind of hubris to create ideas that upend decades of scholarly tradition – and the same hubris that made Burnham and Genovese and Sklar intellectual giants made them uniquely susceptible to becoming intellectual turncoats.

Most people, finding themselves in sudden agreement with their lifelong political opponents, would heed the warnings of their friends and subject their own analyses to more careful scrutiny.  For iconoclasts and contrarians, on the other hand, the virulent opposition of their comrades is simply what they have come to expect whenever they have a groundbreaking idea.  Shocking the sensibilities of their friends is precisely how they made their mark on intellectual life; doing it again is a surefire sign that they are onto something significant.  Armed with the knowledge of their past successes, they myopically follow their own ideas down the rabbit hole and into the other political camp.  Genovese wrote a brilliant book arguing that slaves resisted their masters in a multitude of subtle ways; emboldened by his own brilliance, he then carried this idea to its absurdist extreme – that since slaves were constantly demonstrating their power over masters through resistance, slavery wasn’t really so bad – and became a horrifying racial conservative, an ally of the Doug Wilsons of the world.  Bauerlein’s journey was similar: he went from throwing bombs at academic culture to voting for Donald Trump in order to spite the academy.  These are not political evolutions that arise from a reasoned reconsideration of one’s philosophy – quite the opposite.  They reflect an absolute fealty to the infallibility of one’s original ideas, even when those ideas contradict the rest of one’s political philosophy and betray the political alliances one has formed.

I say this not to condemn contrarians; indeed, I often identify with them.  For this reason, I look on the stories of Burnham and Genovese and Bauerlein as sobering cautionary tales.  To remain a conscientious contrarian requires a sort of discipline that stands in ironic contrast to the bomb-throwing reputation of contrarianism.  We need enough hubris to believe we are right even when our intellectual community is certain we are wrong, but enough humility to recognize that our ideas, on the whole, are as likely to be wrong as are anyone else’s.  As contrarians, we will inevitably shock and dismay our friends, but there is a difference between their discomfort at our upsetting sacred cows and their genuine concern that we are doing real damage to things we care about.  When we lose the ability to distinguish between the two, we have lost our utility as intellectuals.

Despite our shared fascination with Marxist intellectual turncoats, I ultimately think Hartman is asking the wrong question about them.  The question is not what it is about Marxism that is similar to conservatism, but what it is about Marxism that attracts iconoclasts and contrarians who are already at increased risk of losing their political bearings in search of intellectual novelty.  Put another way, it is not a question of the content of Marxist ideas, but of how those ideas are perceived by people living in the cultural context of a capitalist society.

The answer to that question, I think, is fairly obvious.  In a capitalist world, Marxism is a philosophy designed for iconoclasts; it argues at a very basic level that the world we see around us is not real, and that reality – a class war between the proletariat and the bourgeois – can be glimpsed only by those who are able to see through the false consciousness of everyday life.  There are many roads to Marxism, and it is perfectly possible to accept a Marxist analysis of social class without being attracted to it as a source of secret truths about the world.  But for some iconoclastic seekers, Marxism is a form of esoteric knowledge whose possession sets them apart from the unthinking rabble.  For those who value Marxism above all as a way of distinguishing themselves from ordinary people, the road to conservatism is a short one indeed.

31 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Very interesting thoughts, Jeremy! Have you ever looked at the Genovese-initiated forum on the legacy of Communism that Dissent published in its Summer 1994 issue (most of it is available unpaywalled here on the journal’s website)? In a piece called simply “The Question,” Genovese demands of the entire left an answer to the question “what did you know and when did you know it?” about Communism. Replies are offered by Mitchell Cohen, Eric Foner, Robin D.G. Kelley, Alice Kessler-Harris, Fred Block, and Sean Wilentz, most of whom, like Dissent itself, never had much positive to say about Soviet-style Communism. Genovese then responds. IIRC, these two pieces by Genovese are the only things he ever published in Dissent.

    At any rate, the forum suggests some of what you argue here. As Mitchell Cohen (editor of Dissent) puts it in his piece, Genovese “seems to be en route from one belief system to another when a little agnosticism might be in order.”

    I’d add one other thought, that by no means applies to all the left-right travelers, but I think applies to Genovese: some people’s attachment to the left is driven by illiberalism. And when, for one reason or another, such people leave the left, they often go immediately to the illiberal right.

    (I feel like adding parenthetically at this point that not all leftists are illiberal. And not all illiberal leftists embrace the illiberal left out of a primary commitment to illiberalism. But some, I think, do.)

    The other example of this phenomenon who leaps to my mind is Willmoore Kendall. But there are probably others, too. I don’t think Burnham quite fits into this box…though he ended up in a pretty illiberal place on the right.

  2. Well put. Not in Genovese’s camp, but this piece reminded me not so much of a turncoat but a gadfly for whom contrarianism is the game itself — Justin Raimondo.

  3. Is there any connection with your thesis and the “lure of heresy,” as Peter Gay subtitled his work on Modernism (Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, 2007)?

    • Excellent question! I think there is a connection, but it’s a diffuse one: both Marxism and modernism were contrarian responses to the dislocations of industrial society, and both grew out of an inability by some Westerners to come to terms with the jarring reorientation of everyday life. That’s my working theory, at least.

  4. You might be interested in my paper on Confederate Christian nationalism published by the Canadian Review of American Studies at the Univ. of Toronto. Eugene Genovese’s writings were reviewed including his writings in Southern Partisan magazine.

  5. This question has always fascinated my as well, especially with regard to Genovese. What I have come to suspect from rereading some of Genovese’s work was that he had some pent up reactionary sentiments from the get go. He for instance was always a fan of Ulrich B Phillips.

  6. Thank you for the homilies. “Keep your powder dry, and don’t get too big for your britches, all you contrarians!” You, Jeremy, don’t know what you’re talking about, whether it’s Genovese or Sklar or Marxism. To be a Marxist is not to know some secrets, some laws of motion, that are invisible to the uninitiated–give me a fucking break–it is instead to try to understand how capitalism works: to try. Genovese’s problem was that he knew bourgeois individualism and markets were the enemy of the people, in accordance with what he had learned as a youthful CP member. The hatred of such individualism has a longer reactionary pedigree than a modern conservative one. His Catholic affinities also drew him back. As for Sklar, I urge you to tread lightly. You don’t know anything about that case, and to bring him up in this context as if you do is to risk your credibility.

    • Just to clarify, this post doesn’t have anything to say about what it is “to be a Marxist.” I’m intentionally not engaging with the ideas of Marxism. As you surely acknowledge, Marxism is a philosophy that many people claim to espouse without really understanding. I’m talking here about one group of people who, in my view, were attracted to Marxism for reasons other than its ideological content and misinterpreted that ideological content in certain ways. Andrew Hartman’s comment that James Burnham’s Marxism was “a peculiar sort” is really what piqued my interest here; in my experience, it’s often those who take a contrarian approach to Marxism who are both the ablest interpreters of it (think Gramsci) and the most likely to switch sides (think Genovese).

  7. I’m not sure the mid-20th-cent. left-to-right journeys, in the Anglophone context anyway, were actually all that widespread a phenomenon. If this surmise is correct, then these recent posts and discussions may represent efforts at explanation for a ‘puzzle’ that does not exist on the scale they are assuming.

    Of course there are well-known cases of 30s and 40s intellectual leftists who ended up as conservatives or neocons or those for whom anti-Communism came to dominate all other considerations, but did these occur in large numbers? — I tend to doubt it, but I’m not aware of efforts at quantification here (maybe there have been some). Neoconservatism properly speaking was always a pretty small movement in terms of numbers (as opposed to intellectual clout, which it had a lof of), and even in its heyday you could have probably fit the neocons who had actually made a Kristol-like political journey (as opposed to those who had been somewhere on the Right all along) into a few offices of a think tank.

    There were also presumably some journeys from left to right among non-intellectuals — even harder to quantify, since these in general would not have left as much of a paper trail. (An example like Ronald Reagan, who was never farther left than a New Deal liberal and then moved to Goldwater conservatism, may not be at all typical — most people who were New Deal liberals prob. remained such for the rest of their lives.)

    Anyway, I’m not convinced these left-to-right journeys, at least in the Anglophone and esp. U.S. context, were that widespread in terms of numbers. (Of course, I stand open to correction and/or disagreement from those who have looked at the literature and know more about this.)

    • This may be true — these left-right conversions may be, like child abductions and serial killers, the sort of thing we hear about not because it’s common,t but because it’s rare. Nevertheless, there are enough to try to discern a pattern, I think, so it’s worth looking for similarities between the few cases we do have.

  8. In what ways is contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake (or for the sake of the social rewards it might bring?) gendered, both in how it’s performed and how that performance is received? Does iconoclasm aimed at the pieties of one’s (now former) fellow travelers work differently for men than for women?

    I’ve written (and am writing) elsewhere about the models of masculinity within the professoriate — those models are somewhat limited, because the masculinity of intellectuals (or those who study them) within the wider culture is a little suspect to begin with. And those models or modes of manliness seem to me to be rather highly stylized. (Ronnie Grinberg has written about the disputational style of the New York intellectuals as an expression of masculinity.)

    What happens when women take on or take up a similar iconoclasm and take-no-prisoners/burn-all-bridges combativeness? Is it similarly inflected / rewarded, or no? If the reputational effects skew in one aspect or another, where do those differences lie?

    I’m not asking because I know; I’m asking because I don’t know. But I guess I might be fixing to find out.

    • Great question! I tend to think that, while the behavior I describe here is not exclusive to men, it does reflect a sort of masculine sensibility of intellectual combat. I’m reminded of the concept of the “theory boy” — stereotypically, a young white man (often a graduate student) who does constant intellectual battle with his peers in order to win victories, rather than to understand concepts better. (Anyone who’s taken a graduate course in philosophy knows whereof I speak.) These are clearly nonexclusive correlations, though: there are female theory boys, theory boys who aren’t Marxist, Marxist theory boys who don’t become turncoats, etc. I also don’t think all of the figures mentioned above are necessarily theory boys — while the description fits for Bauerlein and Russell (in my view), it clearly doesn’t describe Genovese or Sklar, whose ideas had important content and were not just for show.

      As for women who take on these roles, I don’t have many examples at present, but my sense is that they often come in for more criticism (from men) than do men playing the same roles.

  9. I wonder how some of these people looked to contemporaries. I’ve become more likely, as I’ve gotten older, to be tempted to read people’s later beliefs into their earlier books: to wonder whether it’s possible that Genovese, say, was always properly read as believing the power slaves could exercise over masters needed to be kept in mind? Was it not that he changed, really, but that he hadn’t been paying attention to what his allies believed? Did people notice at the time that his focus put him close to crossing a line?

    Personally, I found it hard at the time to read Bauerlein (I assume The Dumbest Generation is meant?) as a liberal and only tried to do so because so many liberals seemed to count him among themselves.

    • I have to admit that I still really like Roll, Jordan, Roll. But I think a lot of the great scholarship that has grown out of it (Robin Kelley, etc.) has struck the appropriate balance between resistance and oppression, whereas Genovese clearly wasn’t capable of doing so, at least in later life.

  10. Very interesting discussions here. Just a general observation: It appears to me that more folks move from Marxism (or leftism more generally) to liberalism than from leftism to conservatism. Note Eric Lott’s The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual from about ten years ago.

  11. Great post, Jermey. I do think you are hitting on something very real here.

    As someone who enjoys being polemical now and then, the temptations and assumptions you’re describing here ring true to me. Fortunately at a young (intellectually speaking) age I learned the error of falling for the charismatic contrarian, and I’ve never forgotten it.

    And as a woman, I think that I have a bit of of insight in how it is experienced differently, although not always in predictable ways; but those are impressionistic examples to discuss casually, so next time we run into each other remind me to fill you in!

  12. Genovese was not a “turncoat,” and there’s no way of generalizing from his history. The road from killer Stalinism to his end as a neo-Confederate is fairly continuous. Look, for instance, at his early approval of a nuclear war on grounds that millions of Chinese would survive. After he was thrown out of the Communist Party at Brookyn College, he spent the rest of his life twisting and turning on the CP and especially Aptheker. And see his 1975 or ’76 letter to Woodward, in which he responds to the national campaign to censure Yale for the History Department’s vendetta against Aptheker. He urges Vann to ignore “the Communist party’s pimps and whores who peddle their asses on streetcorners.” Or see Gene’s 1969 letter to me ending “it will be to the knife.” Or his 1968 concern, at the founding of what came to be called the James Weinstein Mass Socialtist Party: setting up a mechanism for purging dissenters was his main contribution to discussion. Take another look at his setting up Marxist Perspectives and then destroying the magazine.

    In short, he was always deeply authoritarian, with the mind of a killer. There is immense continuity in his life history. It dignifies his thought and behavior to see him as a “turncoat”: he ended up pretty much where he started.

    • I actually think, Jesse, that ALL the people I’m talking about might fit this description — going back to Andrew’s description of James Burnham’s Marxism as “a peculiar sort,” part of my argument is that these are Marxists who are attracted to Marxism not because of Marxism itself, but because of what it signifies to be a Marxist in the broader culture. So in that way, I think Genovese may fit well within that group.

      • “Not because of Marxism itself but . . . “? I hold no brief for any correspondence theory of truth, nor for a reductionist explanation of any figure here mentioned. But for God’s sake, Marxism isn’t a fucking wardrobe, “cultural baggage” as they used to say. I am only residually a Marxist, by the way. I’m not here to defend holy writ, I’m here to defend the application of routine intelligence to the subject at hand. You’re in over your head, Jeremy. Stop digging that hole.

      • I agree that Marxism isn’t its cultural baggage, but it can be for some people, no? We all know Marxists for whom Marxism is a lot more about being cool than about engaging with the ideas. That’s clearly not true of you (or anyone else who’s contributed on this thread), and it may or may not be true for Genovese, Burnham, etc., but it has to be reckoned with: not every self-described Marxist really understands anything about Marxism.

  13. Jeremy,
    Yeah, that’s my sense of the demographics here. At the same time, the salience of the “Theory Boy” as a type depends on the increasing participation of women in academic spaces. It’s not that the performative display of masculinity is new to academe, and the old forms/styles still persist. But the feminization of the professoriate (post Title VII) made the contestation of masculinity both more urgent and more complicated for some. At the same time, “the academic” has had to be reimagined by and for women, because until the 20th century that was pretty much an exclusively male identity. What’s not entirely clear to me at this point is the extent to which criticism leveled at women might or might not be dependent on some particular way they perform their academic identity (or their identity as writers, or their identity as intellectuals, or whatever). I’m working on such recent history that it’s hard to trace much of an arc, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there — and if it is there, it’s awful early yet to tell which way it is bending.

    • Your point that “the feminization of the professoriate (post Title VII) made the contestation of masculinity both more urgent and more complicated for some” is brilliant, and true. I guess for me the question is, is the masculine performance of knowledge in this way exclusively tied to men? Because I think we all know female “theory boys” too — as you say, do those women face unique challenges in a male-dominated intellectual world, and what are those challenges? I’m simply not sure. Analogizing with the political context, I’ve theorized that Elizabeth Warren might not face the same gendered challenges that Hillary Clinton faced in a presidential race, but I can’t put my finger on why. So if you do have insights on that front, I’d love to hear what you come up with.

  14. Jeremy–you write: “We all know Marxists for whom Marxism is a lot more about being cool than about engaging with the ideas.” And: “not every self-described Marxist really understands anything about Marxism.” This may or may not be true–I’d like some examples–but it is certainly false with regards to Burnham and Genovese and pretty much all of the 20th century Marxists-turned-conservatives. These people knew more about Marx and Marxism than just about anybody ever has and their Marxism was never a posture.

    • I got a bit sidetracked in some of my more recent comments, but to return to my central argument: I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. Because ideas exist in a cultural context, people adopt philosophies both because of their ideological content and because of their cultural valence. This is true of every philosophy and every adherent. The question then becomes: what is the balance of ideological content and cultural valence that attracts a given person to a set of ideas? How does that balance change over time?

      Answering these questions is a complex project and we may not have all the tools with which to do it. But preliminarily, I don’t think that the depth of one’s knowledge of a particular philosophy necessarily correlates with a particular balance of ideology and culture. The fact that Genovese had a voluminous knowledge of Marxism, that he thought deeply about it and came up with original ideas about it that still influence us today, does not preclude it having been a posture. The more relevant question is, how important was the cultural valence to Genovese, how did he perceive it, and how much did it influence his ideological choices?

  15. You’re fucking kidding me. Posture, cultural valence? Gene Genovese? Get off it. Before you know it, Jesse Lemisch will come to your rescue, and you will know that he’s too late–you’re already brain dead.

      • I had been sort of ignoring this thread, but now that I’ve come back to it, ditto LD, Jim. This last comment is just ridiculous—totally unbecoming. You’ve gone too far. If you’re going to stay with this particular discussion, let’s try to stay focused on the topics at hand and keep the tone a bit more even, or professional, or whatever term you like best. …Aside: I’m not trying to be the Blog Editor (that’s Ben Alpers’ job). This is just me offering unsolicited advice as a friend. – TL

  16. My apologies to L.D. Burnett, and to the citizens of this site who make it a place where we can exchange ideas without rancor. I was, in fact, being rude to Jeremy Young because I was so frustrated and appalled by what I judge to be his superficial claims about “turncoat” intellectuals. I knew Gene Genovese for thirty years, and I was a student, colleague, friend, and, yes, enemy as well, of Martin Sklar over forty years. There’s a vested interest for you. Young’s characterization of them is so narrow, smug, complacent, and silly that it deserves the designation of ridiculous. I’m not pulling rank here, as a senior scholar or as someone who actually knew these people. I’m pleading for careful attention to their work and their lives. I guess I’m also pleading for humility in addressing those on the other side. Young seems to think he’s immune to political contamination, in the sense that he knows his righteous beliefs are fixed and impregnable. Genovese and Sklar never knew that blessed state. They were always changing their minds, wondering where the next book or archival discovery would lead them. That they ended where they did, in the outer darkness of academic exile, should not give anyone permission to trace their trajectories in terms of “hubris” or of a Marxism that goes unexplained.

    • Hi Jim — I think it’s fair to view my interpretations of Genovese and Sklar as superficial; this is a blog post, after all, designed to be some quick thoughts, not a footnoted piece of scholarship. I’d say in my defense, however, that my argument is also more nuanced than you’re portraying it here. I’m not criticizing them for changing their minds, per se; I’m criticizing them for how they went about it. Their political conversions don’t look like the sort of reasoned changes in orientation that occur when someone looks at the totality of their own beliefs and concludes that they’ve been wrong. Rather, they appear to have followed a single idea to its conclusion, to the exclusion of everything else they once believed. You yourself said once that Sklar was basically the same thinker when he was a Marxist and when he was a conservative. My point is that I don’t think that’s a GOOD thing. I’d feel much better about it if they had had some sort of conversion experience or something that caused them to conclude everything they had believed was wrong; there’d be a certain humility in that. Instead, they seem to have concluded that they were right and the political firmament was wrong — that, as you say above, they could follow “where the next book or archival discovery would lead them,” believing that something they found in the archives was more important to understanding contemporary politics than was the actual political world in which they lived, and its consequences for real human lives. I’m a historian because I value the truths gleaned by archival research, but if I thought something in the archives could convince me that Trump is right about, say, deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants, I’d best hang up my shingle right now; that’s the very definition of hubris. The point isn’t that we should never change our beliefs; it’s that we should judge our own ideas by the consequences they have for real people in the real world, and be humble enough to say, when something makes sense to us but runs counter to the real-world consequences we’d like to see, that we should keep thinking about it until we can resolve those two things.

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