Guilt trip: Eric Foner writes history to suit the politically correct Left--and the neocons.
Foner's vision of American history comports with the political correctness favored by the Left today--indeed at times he seems less interested in Reconstruction than in reconstructing latter-day American society. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, this project has won him influential admirers among the Republican Party. But even as Foner invokes the legacy of slavery and other racial iniquities as pretexts for government-mandated "social justice" and sensitivity today, he has never had to say he was sorry that he and his family whitewashed the crimes of Stalin's USSR.
Foner has earned high praise from George W. Bush's gray eminence, Karl Rove. A 2003 New Yorker profile by Nicholas Lemann noted that one of Rove's favorite books was Foner's study of the early Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. According to Lemann, Rove read the book "less as a dispassionate analysis of the early Republicans' strengths and weaknesses than as a guidebook on how to broaden the appeal of the Party." Foner was delighted to learn of this: "Karl Rove is my man," he told his class at Columbia, even as he continued to hold Rove's employer in disregard. In 2006, Foner published a Washington Post op-ed saying of President Bush, "He's the Worst Ever." "I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history," Foner wrote, comparing him unfavorably even to the alleged "fervent white supremacist" Andrew Johnson.
Despite the professor's Bush-bashing, Rove clearly respects Foner, and so it is perhaps not remarkable that certain phrases from Foner's ideas about "the unfinished revolution" popped up in Republican campaign literature during the 2006 midterm elections. Party strategists evidently decided that linking the Union side in the Civil War with the later civil-rights agenda would provide a useful metaphor for the war to build democracy in Iraq. The plan only partly succeeded. Although Rove's party picked up votes from the descendants of those who bled and died on the Confederate side, it did far less well among black voters.
Foner's appeal to the Left and to vote-seeking Republicans such as Rove is as much moral as historical. But on both accounts, there are reasons to have deep reservations about the Columbia professor. As the late liberal historian John Patrick Diggins noted, for Foner "Liberal America, it seems, must remain forever corrupted by slavery while Bolshevik Russia remains, even in the historical past tense, forever free of tyranny. Foner ... is both an unabashed apologist for the Soviet system and an unforgiving historian of America."
Foner's father and two of his uncles had been associated with the American Communist Party, something the professor has never deplored. In fact, in a 1994 exchange in Dissent with historian Eugene Genovese, Foner brushed off the accusation that he and other Communist sympathizers had failed to "ask the big question"--namely, why the Left defended one of the most murderous regimes in history. In his opening statement, Genovese said that he "expected Foner ... to do everything in his power to obfuscate the issues, for he ranks among the leaders of the thinly disguised [Stalinist] totalitarianism in which the American Left wallows." Genovese was a Marxist historian himself and a former Communist supporter.
Foner responded that although Genovese "refers to himself as part of the left, his current outlook has far more in common with a long tradition of elitist antiliberalism, including Tory romanticism ... and with various expressions of right-wing ideology." Foner and his family had supported the Communist Party to the extent that it represented antiracism and such other commendable positions as "anti-Fascism, promotion of colonial independence and opposition to the war in Vietnam." What Genovese called their "silence in the face of unspeakable crimes" had come from an awareness of "the Communists' contributions to some of the country's most important struggles for social betterment." Foner and his family had been too busy fighting for equality to worry about the problem of making common cause with the Communists.
According to Foner, what divided him and Genovese was not so much their relation to the Soviet past as where they stood on present-day issues. Genovese had never made the transition to the New Left's agenda of "social change." Entrenched in the views that "human nature is immutable, hierarchy inevitable, equality impossible, the desire for personal autonomy pernicious," Genovese had hidden for years behind outmoded Marxist theories in order to resist pressing issues. It was Foner, not Genovese, who stood for where the Left was now going.
That much, at least, was true. Foner represents the politically correct Left, which should not be confused with theoretical Marxism or, for that matter, with any other Left. In fact, the revisionist turn in Reconstruction studies, of which Foner's work has been so great a part, is clearly non-Marxist, as another left-wing revisionist, Kenneth Stampp, observed in 1966. W.A. Dunning, an early 20th-century authority on Reconstruction who is now routinely condemned as an apologist for slave-owners, had provided what was essentially the Marxist account of Reconstruction. According to Stampp, Marxists took Dunning's work on Reconstruction as a given and then tried to refine his account of the exploitation of the defeated South. This effort yielded results very different from Foner's.
In this shared Marxist-Dunningite view, the Northern occupation of the South involved the extensive confiscation of property and money. It was carried out by grasping Northern capitalists, who used former black slaves as an interim government, while stripping of their rights as citizens Southerners who in any way assisted the Confederacy. Among Radical Republicans could also be found predatory state capitalists, who, as the historian Ludwell Johnson has shown, dragged off what they could of the resources of their defeated enemies. Among their acts of political corruption was to have Southern tax money transferred to the coffers of the national Republican Party. In the end, even strong opponents of slavery and admirers of Lincoln expressed indignation over these outrages. While for Foner and others of his school Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson was a reactionary racist who deserved to be impeached in 1868 by the Radical Republicans, in the older view to which the Marxists subscribed, Johnson was the victim of capitalist predators.
Today the emphasis of left-wing historiography is less on economic exploitation than the politics of guilt. Thus Johnson's willingness to grant pardons to Southern whites, in order to restore their voting rights, and his veto of a comprehensive civil-rights bill for black freemen in 1867 because of his opposition to federalized law enforcement, are now viewed as evidence of Johnson's stubborn racist character. Foner believes the attempt to remove Johnson from the presidency in 1868 was fully justified, and it is Johnson, not steel barons like Thaddeus Stevens and others who profited from the South's defeat, who is the true villain in this narrative.
More is at work here than the condemnation of the American past as racist or the call for a new, government-imposed direction in race relations. By the 1980s, the Left in general had changed in such a way that all references to Foner as a "Marxist" or "neo-Marxist" had become misleading. The Left had ceased to be interested in Communism, even if leftists continued to defend it as an unfairly vilified or mostly irrelevant phase in their own development. After the 1960s, what was most important was combating "fascism," "racism," "sexism," and "homophobia."
Foner's work was on the cutting edge of this trend. It was henceforth important to underscore how bigoted white Americans had been in the past and why it was essential to retrain the majority population so that they would acknowledge the social guilt of their forefathers. While the older Marxist history had emphasized social consciousness and class conflict, the new line, exemplified by the Reconstruction revisionists, would be the politics of indignation.
This is a narrative that is useful to others beyond the Left--not limited to Karl Rove. Whether out of a desire to curry favor with left-leaning media or to beat the politically correct revisionists at their own game of blaming all America's faults on the South, neoconservatives have accepted much of Foner's account. Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Brookhiser, and Max Boot have all presented the American Civil War as a necessary trauma in achieving a democratic transformation. In particular, Hanson has spared no venom in applauding the physical and political destruction of those who backed the Confederacy. Recently Ira Stoll, the former managing editor of the New York Sun, ferociously attacked Jimmy Carter in the New York Daily News for having dared to suggest that slavery might have been abolished peacefully, without the bloodbath of the Civil War. Stoll's response might have been taken from Foner or John Brown: "How much patience should Lincoln have had with the immoral institution? How many more lashes should have fallen on the backs of American blacks during Carter's hypothetical waiting period for slavery to terminate 'peacefully'?"
Neoconservatives, including Ronald Radosh writing in National Review, have criticized Foner's reluctance to come to terms with the evils of Communism. But they have not attacked, and indeed have tended to embrace, his work on Reconstruction and his politically correct condemnation of all things Southern. Foner's work has made strange ideological bedfellows--just as, conversely, today the traditionally critical account of Republican rapacity during Reconstruction is championed not by old leftists but by paleo-libertarian authors such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Kevin Gutzman.
Foner's revisionist history is not more accurate than the work of his Marxist and right-wing critics. But it is more useful to those who hold power: to the politically correct leftists who dictate the terms of discourse in academia and to the Republicans and neoconservatives who exercise a parallel hegemony over the Right. Just as the truth of Communism's crimes is discarded by a Left that sees evil only in America, Rove and his ideological enablers are happy to use long-dead Southerners as scapegoats to justify their own democratic crusades.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and the author of Encounters: My Life With Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers.
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|Publication:||The American Conservative|
|Date:||May 4, 2009|
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