U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Hofstadter’s Influence: Livingston Replies to Lacy

Editor's Note

To see what generated this response, read here (#1), here, here, and here (#4). – TL

Hofstadter, circa 1970 (via Wikipedia)

I am grateful to Tim Lacy for this four-part provocation.  He makes us think about the content of liberalism, Marxism, and education as such.  He makes us rethink Richard Hofstadter and, to a lesser extent, the meaning of “consensus history.”  He makes us think harder than we’re used to doing, mainly, I sense, because there’s so much at stake for him in these matters.  I like that about him.

I liked that about Hofstadter, too.  Sure, the prose is elegant, even lofty, always conveying a kind of ironic distance from the material at hand, but he knew, and said, that the stakes couldn’t be higher.  He thought he was fighting for the life of liberalism, which he understood to be the ugly but last, best alternative to the man-made cruelties of communism and fascism—and populism.

Now Tim wants us to focus on Anti-Intellectualism as the key text, and to gauge Hofstadter’s “elitism” accordingly.  I am on record—in the boundary 2 essay he quotes—as saying that it’s his worst book, even though it won him a second Pulitzer.  Also that it’s 300 pages too long.  So I have to wonder why Tim wants to make this book the point of contention between us. 

Because I agree, of course, that Hofstadter wasn’t a revolutionary, a historical materialist, or a socialist.  Yes, he “wanted reforms of the capitalist system rather than its overturning.”  So what?  That makes him an elitist, and/or not a Marxist?  Look, I’ve spent my entire adult life studying Marx and Marxism and Marxists, and I’m neither a revolutionary nor a historical materialist, and probably not even a socialist, not by the standards Tim has set.  Overturn the capitalist system?  Since when?  I haven’t been that pretentious for a long time.  Hofstadter never was, not even when he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in 1939.

I won’t repeat the argument of my boundary 2 essay here.  I think Tim misconstrues it altogether (both its meaning and significance), but you can decide for yourself.  I must say, however, that I did not claim that Hofstadter was a Marxist (or a revolutionary, etc.).  Instead, I compared him to William Appleman Williams, by all measures another “consensus” historian, who was, in fact, an avowed Marxist—but remember, Eugene D. Genovese denied him such credentials—and I noted that Hofstadter understood “consensus” history as a function of Marxism.  I would add, parenthetically, that Genovese and Martin J. Sklar were also “consensus” historians who happened to be Marxists, and vice versa, because they wanted to know how societies divided by race and class hadn’t regularly devolved into civil strife and civil war.

Indeed I quoted Hofstadter to this effect, from The Progressive Historians, his great, poignant book of 1968.  I wasn’t making anything up, imposing a Marxist brand on someone who doesn’t deserve the designation.  I was documenting what I think is a claim worth remaking—that the American intellectual tradition, “consensus history” included, is deeply informed by Marxism, from Turner and Beard (see Lee Benson) on toward Limerick, Cronon, Sklar, and Butler.

I don’t see much difference between Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch in reading their contemporaneous complaints about Dewey and progressive education.  Would Tim label Lasch an “elitist” because these two sound so similar?  A rhetorical question, I admit.  No, of course not, because Lasch is on “our” side, somehow.  I never thought he was on my side, though, and this little dustup lets me say why.

Lasch, like his forbears among the Young Intellectuals of the 1920s—his favorite was Randolph Bourne, who never quite made it into that fabled decade—detested modern American civilization, and, ever a boat against the current, he kept beating his way back to the supposed moment of self-possession, when artisans were armed against the proletarian indignities imposed by corporate-industrial capitalism.  The True and Only Heaven, the huge book of 1991 was, in this sense, his last will and political testament.

Hofstadter knew better than to be nostalgic about the 19th century.  Like Williams, he understood the corporation as an organic moment in American history, not an alien growth on the body politic.  They both argued that this was a country, or a culture, created by corporations like the Virginia Co. and the Massachusetts Bay Co.  Regardless of the thing’s institutional origins, Hofstadter knew there was no “going back” to a pre-corporate stage of development, not after the Great Depression.  (On this see The Age of Reform.)  Unlike Lasch, he was willing to live forward, along with his fellow citizens.

Of course he worried about the future of liberal, democratic capitalism.  Who didn’t in view of the events of the first half of the 20th century?  Was the rational, self-mastering individual of Enlightenment fame a relic, a museum piece?  Was he now the hapless pawn of demagogues, part of a phantom public?  If so, how could modern politics be conducted?  That was the source of his worries about higher education, as it went through what Clark Kerr called its “great transformation.”

Mine, too.  As some of you may know, I have nothing against post-structuralism or post-modernism, which revoked the ontological priority of the modern, autonomous individual, that excellent figure of Enlightenment, the one who comes before any tradition or community or set of social relations—the omni-competent citizen, you remember him, the pillar of electoral politics.   Still, in his absence, I have to wonder, along with Hofstadter, where majorities end and tyrannies begin.

Especially now, in this new populist moment in American history, when the authoritarian personality seems to have inherited the White House and perhaps the rest of the earth, it’s imprudent at best to toss off denunciations of Richard Hofstadter.  His work was deeply informed by Marxism, by the Frankurt School—talk about elitists—and by social theory more generally.  He wasn’t anywhere near a conservative, let alone a reactionary.  To characterize him as such is to ignore the historical record, not revive our memories of it, just when we need them most.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Jim,

    My apologies for this delayed reply. I’ve been preoccupied with New Year’s fun, with family and friends, as well as a return to my day job yesterday. I meant to keep the conversation going in a more timely fashion.

    I’ve made *Anti-Intellectualism* the key text in my #USIH series because it’s seminal in the literature on that topic. So it’s not just about RH’s entire corpus, but how that singular work—however terrible you think it is—has influenced a chain that’s come after. And by chain I mean of journalists, historians, academics, and cultural commentators.

    That said, I think that *Anti-Intellectualism* still exhibits something important about Hofstadter himself—hence this series of posts. I think that “something” applies in particular on the topic of education (and philo thereof), but also his politics generally. I understand his entire corpus, of course, should color our views of his politics in general (i.e that the AI book could be an exception). So I’m willing to accept some “reading Hofstadter” complications in relation to his political philosophy as exhibited in his texts. So maybe I overstated my case (intentionally) with regard to what I perceive as RH’s “reactionary liberalism.”

    I took your strong affiliation between RH and Williams as an implicit claim that RH shared Williams’ Marxism, if less explicitly in the work of RH than the latter. I guess my main objection, and something I still need to work out (or not), is whether I accept/believe the claim about consensus historians being quiet Marxists—or “Marxist informed,” to use your phrasing.

    On Dewey, Lasch, and elitism, your rhetorical question is a good one. Given the real engagement and concerns of Dewey in relation to process, citizenship, and democracy, I suppose I would say I have real concerns about educators, past and present, who reject Dewey’s thought, practice, and ideals without offering viable alternatives. I wouldn’t call them all “elitist,” but I think that RH deserves the cavil—and deserves it on his own historical terms.

    I have to say that, in *Anti-Intellectualism*, RH sounds like a man who is nostalgic in relation to education. If he doesn’t want to go back completely to the 1890s, he seems willing to roll in that direction on about an 80 percent clip. I say this because he offers *no* alternative to his rejection of Progressive Educators and in relation to his complaints about Dewey’s thought. What’s RH’s philosophy of education, other than a reaction to Dewey?

    Perhaps part of my rejection of RH’s relevance has to do with the fact that, like Corey Robin, I do not see the current relevance of DT as an authoritarian. I’m more inclined to a mental illness/incompetent read on DT rather than authoritarianism. That said, I happen to agree that many CEO types exhibit authoritarian traits, even when they don’t have the full-on Adorno-related authoritarian personality disorder.

    – TL

  2. Hi Tim (and Jim). I’ve followed these posts with some interest. I’m wondering if perhaps part of the problem or difference of understanding is terminological. The term “elitism” signifies many things, not all of them bad nor “reactionary”. I would think that all philosophies of education, including Dewey’s, are elitist in the sense that they imagine education to be a good thing that will elevate its possessor, and regard ignorance as a bad thing. The point of view and thought of the educated minority, from this angle, is superior to that of the broad masses. An educated elite, in this sense, needn’t be (and often isn’t) a social or economic elite. I can’t see how intellectuals of any kind can avoid the notion that some forms of thought, rooted in extensive knowledge and/or critical self-reflection, are better than others. We can certainly suspend that belief when we try to empathize with the views of others, but as professional historians, for instance, we clearly believe that the expertise and critical commitments of colleagues trained as historians produce a better form of history than the popular journalist who doesn’t adhere to the standards we have set for ourselves. I think that means I’m probably an elitist about good history. If we are to see all thinkers who criticized the inadequacies of popular imagination as elitists, I guess that includes most of the intellectual left, center, and right–it’s not just a matter of liberalism and its disdain for ordinary people. Not so long ago, we had a discussion on this blog about the Marxist category of “false consciousness” and its implication that the power to see clearly and truly the objective conditions of society belonged only to an enlightened elite. And clearly, if one looks at Partisan Review intellectuals such as the Clement Greenberg of “Avant Garde and Kitsch” or the Dwight MacDonald of “Masscult and Midcult,” and a wide variety of other modernist thinkers, it seems that Socialist politics and intellectual/cultural elitism have frequently gone together, just as cultural populism and economic elitism have been synthesized on the post-Reagan right–there is no clearer example than our current president. So, maybe you can clarify in a way that I didn’t see in your four-part post, why Hofstadter’s intellectual elitism translates into a reactionary form of thought that seeks to recuperate an era when the hoi poloi deferred to their betters. I think I’m mostly in agreement with Jim in his take on Hofstadter here. Without going back to the Jesse Lemisch debacle in which failure to castigate Hofstadter for his political actions constituted what Lemisch referred to as “hagiography” of Hofstadter, and holding no particular brief for Hofstadter (except that I think he’s an extraordinary writer), I just am not quite getting why Hofstadter should be seen as a reactionary. Do you think there are different kinds of elitism, some more justifiable than others? I’ve definitely enjoyed the discussion!

    • Dan,

      Thanks for your long comment. My apologies for another slow reply. The same factors slowed this one.

      I’m entirely with you on elitism not always, and everywhere, being a bad thing. There are just some situations that, fundamentally, will always be susceptible to accusations of elitism. Education is one such field, or any that required specialized expertise—singular bits of knowledge, the flow of which is controlled by a few people. No matter that small cohort’s amenability, friendliness, income level (low or moderate), and accessibility, those on the outside will still fault them for some kind of establishment control. They will be labeled “elites” due to their maintaining some kind of floor of standards in their chosen fields. In sum, I’m sympathetic to the fact that “elitism” can’t be eliminated, or perceptions of it controlled.

      Before I continue with what follows, I want to acknowledge, loudly, that this series is a kind of past-present conversation about Richard Hofstadter and his virtues as an intellectual—i.e. what kind of intellectual he was, and whether his example is worth following.

      All that said, my beef with Jim–and his overly sympathetic view of Richard Hofstadter and desire to reinforce RH’s usefulness to historians today—is about RH’s elitist attitude about *education*. It’s about RH critiquing Dewey and castigating Progressive Educators while having no alternative vision. I respect the Critical Theorist’s right to reject available alternatives without having a viable practical alternative. I don’t think RH was a Critical Theorist or even a historian who *generally* operated with a Critical Theorist’s perspective. But, as an educator with an investment in fostering intellectualism—and fighting anti-intellectualism—RH does no present historian or educational theorist any good today.

      So when RH made his critiques and offered no alternative, and did these things, moreover, with ironist’s posture—mocking janitors and the less abled, and those sympathetic to them—then RH participated, then, in an undesirable form of elitism. He made a mockery of critique in his own time and democratic educational context (though, as you noted, he was in sync with other intellectual-socialist snobs of his age). Still, in terms of specialist about education, he betrayed his duty in a democratic society. This is why I don’t believe RH to be paragon of intellectualism or historical thinking for today’s left-leaning thinkers, whether liberal or socialist.

      Finally, for socialists and Critical Theory-inspired historians like myself, I think RH has little to offer—except by way of cautionary notes. He should be used as a paragon of “what-not-to-do,” or of “what-we-need-to-improve.” For students of anti-intellectualism (such as myself), Hofstadter’s thinking, approach, and historical selection need major revisions. This is, of course, the point of my forthcoming essay in the collection. I think all alternatives to RH on anti-intellectualism need to start with a deeper structural establishment which RH’s touches on but inadequately explores—capitalism. The conversation needs to be about capitalism and other aspects of modernity, in tandem, rather than as separate autonomous fields. Education, for instance, can’t be critiqued outside of a long look at capitalism’s influence and pressures on the education establishment (and all its actors). It’s less about Progressive educators and accommodations to democracy than capitalism. There’s no Critical Theory, at all anywhere, without a look at capitalism in concert with cultural factors. With RH we got the latter without the former.

      But let me know if I missed larger point in your comment. I’m happy to clarify further, and to be pushed.

      – TL

    • That’s what puzzles me, too–RH can’t be characterized as a reactionary, not in good faith, anyway. Jesse Lemisch has too many political axes to grind here. They get in the way of his ability to assess the history as against the historian.

  3. For now I’m going to use Tim’s excuse for abstaining from this colloquy. Just when you think you got everything cleaned up, you gotta start getting ready for the new semester. I’ll be replying to both Tim and Dan shortly, however, and expect us to have some fun.

    For the life of me, though, I don’t see how anyone can deny the profound influence of Critical Theory–the Frankfurt School–on Hofstadter and his generation of intellectuals. But look, Adorno and Horkheimer were far more elitist than RH could ever be, no matter what the topic, education or otherwise. Like I keep saying (since 2004), Marxism has no predictable political valence. After Kojeve, there’s no dishonor in calling yourself a right-wing Marxist. Unless you’re Steve Bannon.

  4. To be clear, I only labeled RH’s liberalism as “reactionary” within the context of education. That’s it. I used the term ‘reactionary’ in my prior posts twice, both in relation to education. Otherwise I see him as a critical liberal in the context of political economy. – TL

  5. I wrote this piece today on Hofstadter’s philosophy of education. I’m trying, still, to get at why I think his view of K-12 education, Dewey, and Progressive educators is reactionary, and well within the bounds of liberalism rather than any kind of Critical Theory perspective. I offer a speculation at the end of that piece on where the fault might lie.

    I think the only other source I could mine for further clarification on this subject (i.e. RH’s philo of edu) is whatever commentary he provided on documents included in the collection, edited with Wilson Smith, titled American Higher Education: A Documentary History (1961).- TL

  6. I am not well enough informed to have an opinion on the substance of these posts, but I do have a suggestion regarding the form. Would it be possible to add forward links at the bottom of each section? I.e. the first part links to the second part, the second part to the third and so on. That way readers in the future won’t have to search for the next bit once it has been pushed well off the front page.

    Theoretically one could use Google, but I’ve had search results that contained only (say) two of five parts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *