U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Critical, Conflicted, and Elitist Liberalism of Richard Hofstadter—And Why It Matters (Part 2)

Editor's Note

This is the second entry in a four-part series covering the political and educational philosophy of Richard Hofstadter. Today’s post analyzes a 2007 article by Jim Livingston that appeared in boundary2.  On the series, part one is at this link. The third part will speak to my sense of Hostadter’s educational elitism, and will be published on 12/21. The last installment outlines Hofstadter’s reactionary liberalism in education, and will be published on 12/28. That entry will also summarize my sense of RH’s political and educational philosophy–clearly delineating and reiterating my differences with Livingston. Enjoy! – TL

Hofstadter, circa 1970 (via Wikipedia)

The goal of the Livingston’s 2007 boundary 2 piece was twofold: (1) to review David Brown’s 2006 biography of Hofstadter, and (2) to show Hofstadter was, in my terms, an heir of Marxist Critical Theory. If Brown responded to the boundary 2 piece, I haven’t seen it.

In composing the piece, Livingston used writings and reflections from a number of Hofstadter’s students (now historians). They included Stanley Elkins, Eric McKitrick, Paula Fass, Eric Foner, and David Singal. Readers of the essay included Eugene Genovese, James Oakes, Bruce Robbins, Meg Havran, Patricia Rossi, and others. It appears, from a note at the beginning of the essay (p. 33), that Genovese disagreed with the thrust of the piece. In any case, Livingston focused on these sources—historians—because he felt they had a better sense of Hofstadter than any portrait that could be produced, by Brown or others, from mere primary sources.

What was the thrust of the essay? To show that Hofstadter was more than a mere “consensus historian”—more than mid-century liberal, in other words. Livingston felt that historians were just now gaining an appreciation for Hofstadter’s “lasting effects on American intellectual life.” We are, he said, “just now catching up” to Hofstadter (p. 34). And Brown’s book was, it seems, going to undercut that reappreciation.

In many ways I concur with Livingston on this. I have spent a lot of energy trying to catch up with Hofstadter, and those who have written in his legacy, on the topic of anti-intellectualism. And I think others have used Hofstadter without a full appreciation of the complexity of his work. This pertains particularly to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

On the topic of this inquiry, education, Livingston spends little time. Even so, it is worth relaying the intellectual portrait of a Marxist that he paints of Hofstadter.

A key Livingston assumption and point is that Hofstadter “wrote his own alienation from [an] imaginary mainstream [of conservative American thought] into a past that could be adjourned and thus ignored” (p.36). I take this statement from Livingston to mean that Hofstadter best expressed his radicalism indirectly, in relation to his mid-century times. His indirect radical critique could be ignored by present readers because it was safely about the past. Hofstadter developed into a historian that rethought “historiographical truisms” and attempted to “say something useful…about the [past and present] political culture of the United States” (p. 38). Livingston sees Hofstadter as writing, and thinking, more in “the ‘Progressive’, debunking style” of Frederick Jackson Turner (and the Beards) that “drew deeply on the Marxist tradition.” This style is evident in RH’s American Political Tradition (1948), which Livingston says is “consistent with the radicalism—the urge to repudiate the idiocies and atrocities of the American past—that permeates so much of social history” (p. 38). Hofstadter was a proxy Marxist.

Hofstadter’s radicalism continued, Livingston argued, more explicitly with Age of Reform (1955). During the production of that book RH had “immersed himself in social theory and literary criticism.” That neo-Marxist baptism included reading Lionel Trilling, Frankfurt School authors, and that School’s American interlocutors. This meant Hofstadter engaged Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, as well as works by David Riesman, C.Wright Mills, and Seymour Lipset (p. 39, 39n8). From those readings Livingston says that Hofstadter developed “serious questions about liberalism as a sustainable system in the 1950s and 1960s.” He also concerned himself with “current mass political behavior” and the “trajectory of mass movements” (p. 39). Finally, RH demonstrated skepticism about treating “reason and desire” as “antithetical modes of apprehending the world” (p. 40).

After all of this, Livingston concedes, ironically, that Hofstadter wrote consensus history, even while the former believes the latter thought as a Frankfurt School-informed historian. A fine distinction, to be sure. Livingston makes this distinction, in effect, when he agrees that both William Appleman Williams and RH (in the Age of Reform) wrote as consensus historians in “the post-Progressive disciplinary order” (p. 42) by their agreement that the ideological struggles of the past occurred within a context of “cross-class ideological agreement or [as]…a cultural system, which pacified social conflict by naturalizing possessive individualism and liberal capitalism.” Both also tackled the corporate nature of the United States and agreed that Populists were “petty bourgeois men on the make” (p. 42). As such Williams and RH, Livingston argues, created “competing brands of ‘consensus history’” because both “were deeply indebted,” if quietly, “to the insights and methods of the Frankfurt School” (p. 43).

So it’s consensus history and, by association, its midcentury liberalism—until it isn’t? This fine-grained distinction about a special strain of consensus historians may work for Williams’ historiographical output, but not for Hofstadter. It’s one thing to work from a strand of Frankfurt School thought (i.e. Adorno’s work) and another to be a historian working in the broad range of that School and Critical Theory (which evolved out of it). Unless Hofstadter engaged the work of Horkheimer more fully, I don’t see how one could, at this period, be what Livingston desires of Hofstadter.

I don’t know Williams’ corpus as well as I’d like, but his trenchant criticism of American imperialism lends itself more to an affinity with neo-Marxism and the Frankfurt School than Hofstadter’s laments about American hucksters, capitalist middlemen, religious kooks, Progressive educators, and self-help gurus. Liberals make those laments too—as do conservatives. A strong and long-running critique of American imperialism is, by association, a critique of capitalism. But Hofstadter’s laments, even gathered together, feel more like Menckenesque complaints than a deep critique of American capitalism. One can consistently gripe about the consequences of capitalism and democracy without ever suggesting that either be overturned. Whine all you want about our history, but there’s no revolt until some historical barricades are overturned. Put another way: to paraphrase Marx, liberal historians have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it—with deep, holistic spadework on its root problems.

Hofstadter was complex, subtle, smart, critical, and a superb writer. He was an important historian and critical liberal. But he wasn’t a Marxist, a revolutionary, historical materialist, or socialist. He wanted reforms of the capitalist system rather than its overturning.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the endpoint of the book waffles, and Hofstadter is implicated in his weak conclusion. He posits that intellectuals, young and old, take on alienation as an intellectual stance even while “they are troubled and divided…by their acceptance” by society (p. 393). Hofstadter then spends many pages explaining why this is the case rather than offering a third way. He then circles back to the “necessity” of an elite “intellectual class”—“in its manner of thinking and functioning”—in the context of “democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country” (p. 407). Because anti-intellectualism is founded on those two points, there must always exist elites in eternal combat with raucous, thoughtless freed people defying our thinkers.  These are not vanguards for the working class, or organic intellectuals. The intellectual elites are a separate class struggling, in Manichaean fashion, against the unorthodox thinkers from below. Even apart from good thinking, that elite class must also “resist the vulgarization of culture which that [democratic] society also produces” (p. 407). That’s a clear photonegative of Marxian class struggle.

The waffling, in this last section of the book, seems to come from history and Hofstadter himself. He moves between a language that implicates all twentieth-century intellectuals (which includes, I think, historians) and a narrative that moves to historical episodes (pp. 407-409). This slipperiness makes it difficult to diagnose both the sickness and the patient to which Hofstadter’s statements apply. Is Hofstadter himself the physician or the patient? – TL