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.