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.