U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Critical, Conflicted, and Elitist Liberalism of Richard Hofstadter—And Why It Matters (Part 1)

Editor's Note

This the first in a four-part series covering the political and educational philosophy of Richard Hofstadter. The series is also a disputation with Jim Livingston. Today’s post sets the scene, explaining how our disagreement was instigated by a provocation from me. The next installment, which will appear on 12/14, and covers my analysis of a 2007 article by Livingston in boundary2, wherein he argues for Hofstadter as a neo-Marxist/Critical Theory-inspired thinker. The third entry (set for 12/21) covers my sense of Hostadter’s educational elitism. The last installment (12/28) outlines Hofstadter’s reactionary liberalism, in education, and summarizes my differences with Livingston. Enjoy! – TL

Hofstadter, circa 1970 (via Wikipedia)

Several months ago I spent some time—worthwhile, I believe—arguing with Jim Livingston on my Facebook page. Our topic? The political orientation of Richard Hofstadter. You can check out the debate at the link. There it will be clear that I started the disagreement with a none-too-subtle provocation:

“Tentative thesis: When it came to his philosophy of education, Hofstadter was not just a snobby elitist, but also a nefarious, backwards authoritarian—as undemocratic as you can get.”

My jab was deliberate. I expected some opposition: no historian can make such a judgment from the present without raising the hackles of colleagues. Presentism is (thankfully) still unfashionable among my friends. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the intense reply that followed.

The Argument

Livingston wrote: “With all due respect, Tim, that’s bullshit. Hofstadter was no elitist, and he feared authoritarianism–yes, something he (rightly) detected in Populism.”

I was caught off-guard by the first part of Jim’s reply because I thought I had limited my statement properly—to just Hofstadter’s philosophy of education. I wasn’t, generally speaking, trying to turn Hofstadter into a straw man I could knock down. He’s a complex person, and I’m not inclined to wasting time on simplistic straw men. But the proof, on the education front and in relation to Hofstadter’s own context, still seems pretty damning to me. My proposition was constructed from a reading of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Livingston, however, read my thesis as an overall indictment of Hofstadter as “elitist.” And he read, properly, that I was also using that term somewhat synonymously with “liberal.” This conflation was easy to see for two reasons. First, education was such a large part of Hofstadter’s life. It would be hard to limit my attribution to just that area. Second, Livingston read it as a larger flaw because he had argued elsewhere, with some force, that Hofstadter was, at bottom, a Marxist. If that was true generally, Hofstadter most certainly couldn’t be an elitist in education. Right?

For the record, the essay to which Livingston referred me was published in boundary 2 in the Fall of 2007, and titled “On Richard Hofstadter and the Politics of ‘Consensus History’” (pp. 33-46). More on that later.

The Facebook conversation proceeded organically as follows (reproduced with permission):


Lacy: “As for RH being a Marxist, well, that was true in the 1930s and early 1940s. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was more of a “critical liberal” at best—just another sour Cold War liberal. He certainly criticized aspects of capitalism, but he didn’t have it in him anymore to be a full Marxist. I’d be a helluva lot happier with AIAL if he had actually maintained some of his former radicalism.”

“Given what you say [in the essay] in one para on AIAL, I’m surprised you’re defending [the book and RH on education] here. There may be other expressions of RH’s philosophy of education that are better, but I haven’t yet seen them. …Maybe Mark Naison can help me here.”

Naison: “I worked under Richard Hofstadter for several years. He was convinced that the greatest danger to civic freedoms, higher education, and a viable democratic order came from the Right. He was sympathetic to the left, but feared if the Left undermined civil liberties and created social instability, it would be the Right that would prevail.”

Naison: “To some degree, the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency are what Hofstadter feared would happen if populist insurgencies were out of control.”

Lacy to Naison: “Are you aware of any other statements from Hofstadter on his philo of education after 1963? Any essays or pieces tucked away? . ..I confess, though RH hedges and gives caveats, my overall impression after several close readings of *Anti-Intellectualism* is that he favored an authoritarian, undemocratic classroom. His mocking, for instance, of janitors in that book is, well, unsavory at best and asshole-ish at worst.”

James Livingston [clarified with the following]: “Tim Lacy, no, Hofstadter was a Marxist well after his brief stint in the CP–again, see The Progressive Historians (1968), then compare The Age of Reform to The Contours of American History. Also, read for the ending of my essay on RH, where he’s writing in 1968 about the Vietnam War. Nowhere near a Cold Warrior.”

Lacy: “I’ll try to write up a reply, even though almost none of it applies to my thoughts above about RH’s philosophy of education as evident in *Anti-Intellectualism in American Life*.”


So here I am. I owe Livingston a full explanation of precisely what bothered me in AIAL regarding Hofstadter’s views on education (i.e. why I posted a provocation). I also owe Livingston a thoughtful reading of his 2007 essay. Over the next three Thursdays I’ll pay my debt. – TL

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim, I know you’ll probably address this in the 3rd installation, but when you say “liberal reactionary,” xould you instead mean TYPICALLY LIBERAL BUT SOMETIMES GIVEN TO REACTIONARY ACTIONS? If not, could you clarify? I find the phrase puzzling.

    • Bob: Thanks for reading, and for the question. I think that Hofstadter very often privileged reaction to specific tenets of 20th-century liberalism *over* either his past/latent Marxism or his Cold War liberalism. This is why I call him a “critical liberal.” I wanted the security of liberalism without all of its sympathy for equality, or extreme individuality, or the downsides of democracy (granted that liberalism lives within the confines of a certain kind of democracy). He both loved and hated liberalism,but most often continued to think within its paradigms. As I say in several posts, he’s a complicated guy. We have to invent terms to describe him properly. – TL

  2. Tim, just now getting around to this post.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “elitist,” especially as applied to Hofstadter. I am hoping you will define this term in a future post.

    Meanwhile, Lord only knows what Jim Livingston means by “Marxist” as applied to Hofstadter or anybody else. It seems sometimes that Jim wants to take writers/thinkers he admires and find the Marxism in them (or find them in the Marxism) in order to justify the admiration. But if everybody’s a Marxist, then nobody is.

    I think it’s time to commission a new album: “Free to Be a Vital Center Liberal.”

    • I defined ‘Marxism’ with some precision in “‘Marxism’ and the Politics of History: Reflections on the Work of Eugene D. Genovese,” Radical History Review #88 (2004): 30-48. I don’t see how anyone can read The American Political Tradition (1948), The Age of Reform (1955), and/or The Progressive Historians (1968) and not see the traces of Marx and, more important, of Marxists from the Frankfurt School. RH himself didn’t like the term “consensus history,” but he insisted, with good reason, that its predicate was Marxism. Now, you will laugh at what I’m going to say next, as my audience did at the convention where I delivered the Genovese paper. But Frederick Jackson Turner was by any reasonable definition a Marxist. The frontier thesis owed its cogency to Turner’s citation and use of Achille Loria, the famous Italian Marxist who, not incidentally, also had a salutary effect on a much younger comrade, Antonio Gramsci, another theorist of economic backwardness (“the South”). Lord knows that not everybody is or was a Marxist–but Marxism is a much broader current in American intellectual history than Paul Buhle or Andrew Hartman or Daniel Bell would admit. Oh, and by the way, Bell’s reading of Marx in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) is superb: he owed a lot to his early association with another close reader of Marx, Irving Kristol. There’s another punchline for you, go ahead and laugh. Francis Fukuyama, anyone?

      • I didn’t suggest that Marx’s influence/presence in American thought was particularly narrow or limited. But your default really seems to be “everybody’s a Marxist; they just don’t realize it.” Or, perhaps, “All historical writing since Marx is derivative of Marx.” Or, “All the best historical writing since Marx is good because of Marx.” This strikes me as an odd voraciousness of reputation.

      • Those books by RH that you cite, Jim, may indeed reveal some explicit or implicit Marxism in RH’s thought. But, as you know, what interests me is the *Anti-intellectualism* book—and how RH can be classified as a historical theorist in relation to two specific topics: education and anti-intellectualism (and all synonyms of the latter). Given my findings (which will come out in the next 3 posts) and yours, perhaps the final question will be this: How can one historian (i.e. RH) display such varying theoretical/approach tendencies in their thought? How can one me a Marxist in their political thinking, and such a reactionary or run-of-the-mill liberal in other areas? Of course the easy answer is Whitman’s (“I am large, I contain multitudes!”). But RH is no poet. And intellectuals like RH tend to want to convey some consistency across their work. – TL

  3. LD: My definition of elitist will be clear by the end of the series—through a number of underscored/highlighted passages from the *Anti-Intellectualism* text. But no, I don’t think I define it precisely, in a single para, in any of the four posts. What’s funny is that I normally do that in situations like these. My focus in this series is this: Hofstadter is not a neo-Marxist. 🙂 – TL

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