Historian Eugene Genovese was a teller of truth, even when the truth to be told was ugly, embarrassing, humiliating.
Eugene Dominick Genovese, the eminent historian of slavery and the American South who died recently at his home in Atlanta, was legendary not only for the brilliance of his scholarship but for his intellectual integrity and his utter loathing of hypocrisy and cant.
Although I am not an historian and I never sat in his classroom, I cannot help but think of Gene as an esteemed teacher and of myself as one of his students. Gene and his late wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an equally distinguished historian and his co-author on many important works, were my dear friends. I learned much from them not only about the historical subjects to which they devoted themselves so fruitfully, but also, and more importantly, about what it means—and what it takes—to be a scholar.
Gene’s place in the pantheon of American historians was fixed by his pathbreaking study of slavery in antebellum America titled Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. While hardly an apologia for slavery—indeed, Gene was still a devout Marxist revolutionary when he wrote the book and would remain one for many years—it stressed how slaves retained their humanity, in part with the de factocooperation of owners and their families, with whom slaves were in unmistakably human (albeit unequal and profoundly unjust) relationships. And it showed that the slaves were able, despite the injustice and horrors of slavery, to “make a world” for themselves. They were actors, not merely inert creatures being acted upon by others (or by “forces” of history or society).
In Roll, Jordan, Roll and other works, Gene demonstrated the value for the social historian of sympathetically adopting the perspectives of those whose lives are studied. Thus he was able to convey a sense of how things really were in the days of American slavery by reproducing the points of view of slaves, their masters in the planter class, non-slaveholding white Southerners, and others.
Gene’s skills as a researcher and writer, his brilliance, his acumen, were obvious. They jumped off the pages of any book or article he wrote. One perceives further virtues, however, when one looks at the corpus of his work as a whole. On cannot but be impressed by the analytical rigor of his scholarship, his impeccable intellectual honesty, his willingness to assess evidence and draw fair conclusions, however ideologically uncongenial. By example and not merely by precept, Gene taught all of us who read his writings, students or otherwise, to follow the evidence and the arguments wherever they lead, whatever our prior commitments.
The practice of these virtues could not have been easy for Gene Genovese, for he was a man of strong passions. On this point, his friends and admirers and his foes and detractors will be in perfect agreement. The dispassion of his historical scholarship was remarkable for a man whose moral and political passions were so formidable.
In looking back over Gene’s long life as a scholar and controversialist, two passions stand out above the others: his passion for justice and his passion for truth.
A passion for justice is, to be sure, a good thing, but it can sometimes lead people badly astray. That happened in Gene’s case. It was his passion for justice that led him as a boy of fifteen into Marxism and the Communist party. Although by age twenty he had managed to get himself expelled from the party—he “zigged,” as he would later explain, when the party line was to “zag”—he remained an avowed and faithful communist for many decades after that.
The question could be asked of Gene, as of so many other brilliant people: “How could someone so intellectually gifted—and honest—have fallen hook, line, and sinker for a view (let’s face it) as absurd as Marxism, and stuck with it for all those years?”
Here is how. Born in 1930, Gene grew up during the Great Depression in a working-class household in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. His father was a wood caulker. Because of his circumstances, he witnessed not only poverty and despair, but also disgusting episodes of exploitation and abuse. When in the late 1930s Gene’s father lost his job, Gene got a personal taste of suffering. He learned what it was like for parents, as he put it, to “stint on food, so that their own children could eat,” as others exploited them.
After his communist faith finally collapsed, Gene reflected on it in an interview which is worth quoting at length:
I . . . spent my first eight or nine years in the worst depression in American history. My father knew nothing of left-wing ideology, and like so many other workers, was a New Deal Democrat. Roosevelt was his god. Those were rough years, especially 1938, when my father was out of work for six months and too proud to go on relief, as welfare was then called. It is not enjoyable to watch your parents stint themselves on food so that you and your brother can get a proper meal. Take my word for it, it’s bad for the digestion.
In any case, I grew up in a class-conscious home. Class-conscious, but by no means ideologically driven. I hated the bourgeoisie with the terrible passion that perhaps only a child can muster. When I came across the communists at age 15, and read The Communist Manifesto, and some other pamphlets, I suddenly had a precise focus for my hatred. I would have happily sent the bastards to firing squads in large numbers, and their wives and children along with them.
Yet something always bothered me about my father. No one could’ve hated the bosses more intensely than he, but unlike the son [i.e., Gene himself], he was selective in his hatred. He admired old Mr. Cadell, who had begun as a worker and built the small shipyard in which Dad worked. He regarded Mr. Cadell as a decent man, who had worked hard for what he had earned, and tried to treat his workers decently. It was Cadell, Junior, who took over the business, who incurred Dad’s wrath and whom he would have shot. I cannot imagine my father, who was a hard man, ever agreeing to shoot anyone’s wife and children.
The last sentence, of course, is the punch line. Gene is there distinguishing himself as a communist from his father, who was a New Deal Democrat. Then he goes on:
In particular, my father was enraged by the sight of Junior’s flunkies throwing his dogs steaks, while his unemployed workers were begging for a day’s work. I know that Dad did not make up that story, or the story of the foreman who was even worse than his employer, and wound up with his head crushed by a caulker’s mallet. The workers, including my father, told the police that they had seen nothing and knew nothing. They did know that they were not about to pass judgment on him.
Gene grew up in an Italian Catholic family. Of course, Christianity had a criticism of exploitation and injustice. It had a story—one rooted deeply in the Bible and especially the prophets—about the need to oppose injustice. But it didn’t have something that communism offered the youthful and passion-filled Eugene Genovese, namely, a program. So young Gene, enthralled by the program, abandoned Christianity and joined the communists.
But Gene’s passion for truth, throughout this entire life, even at the most intense moments of his communist period, was powerful. And it would, in the end, win out. It was at the foundation of that extraordinary intellectual and personal integrity that was his hallmark.
Nowhere was Gene’s integrity, rooted in his passion for truth, more evident than in his stand against the politicization or instrumentalization of scholarship. No end, however much he personally cherished it, could justify that in his eyes. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Cold War, when Gene was teaching at Rutgers University, he publicly called for the victory of Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese over the Americans. The Vietnam War had not yet become widely unpopular, so Gene’s comments were regarded as outrageous, even treasonous. Politicians, including future president Richard Nixon, called for Rutgers to fire him. It became a very public issue.
What received far less publicity was this: Not too long after that episode, Gene fought a lonely battle in the American Historical Association against a resolution, similar to ones passed by other academic and professional associations, to condemn American involvement in the war in Vietnam. Why would a Marxist historian who favored a North Vietnamese victory do that? The answer is simple: A deep commitment to the integrity of scholarship, and an equally deep aversion to its politicization. As colleagues clamored for passage of the resolution, Gene warned them that going down that road would lead to the corruption of intellectual life. He noted that what bound them together as members of a professional academic association was not a common set of political beliefs; it was rather a shared commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and the attainment of truth. Political “party lines” had no place in the association, even when the line in question was one to which he personally hewed.
You see, Eugene Genovese, even as a Marxist, knew that a passion for justice could pose a grave danger to the cause of truth. And he was keenly aware that he was personally far from immune to the danger. Here are his own words: “My biggest problem as an historian has always been, I suppose, the conscious effort to rein in my hatred”—that is, his hatred of exploitation, his hatred of injustice—”and not let it distort my reading of the historical record. I’m sure that it’s taken a toll, but I hope I have kept that toll to a minimum.”
Readers who knew Gene personally will recognize the word that was, by his own lights, the worst thing he could call a person—especially if that person were a fellow academic. He could hiss this word: “Faker.” By a “faker,” Gene meant someone who pretends to be something he is not; someone, in particular, who merely pretends to intellectual integrity and honest scholarship. Gene despised intellectual conformism and loathed “political correctness.” He had a special contempt for those who tolerated or went along with these vices for careerist reasons, or to get attention, or (for that matter—and there is more of this in the academy than non-academics know) to get girls. They were “fakers.”
But there’s another word that Gene favored; and it was the best thing he could call someone. That word is “brave.” Gene knew that it takes bravery—in any age, not just ours—to have integrity, to exemplify it in one’s work, especially in one’s work as a scholar. To say what one believes to be true, even when it’s unpopular or goes against the grain, takes bravery. And often it takes a certain kind of bravery to contradict what one has previously thought and published, and say, “I was wrong about that.”
Gene (like his wife Betsey) exemplified magnificently the bravery he valued so highly and praised in others. If, as I believe, it was the passionate love of truth that was the anchor of Gene’s extraordinary integrity, it was courage that enabled him to be so faithful to that object of his passion.
As I’ve noted, Gene was a Marxist, indeed a self-identified Stalinist. But some of his critics, including his Marxist critics, had a point when they claimed that he was a rather unorthodox Marxist, even at periods when he would have prided himself on his Marxist orthodoxy. Here was the core of his unorthodoxy: Gene never accepted Marxism’s utopian view of human nature. He was always, even at the height of his communist atheism, a firm believer in original sin. One might say he represented the Calvinist school of Marxism. He believed in the total depravity of man.
Something else Gene never accepted about orthodox Marxism was its strict economic determinism. He knew that the economic explanation of human conduct and the practices and institutions partially constituted by that conduct could only get one so far. It could only be part of the story. He thought it was usually an important part, but he simply couldn’t buy the determinism. On this, he was not a Calvinist. He believed people could act, and sometimes did act, freely. That made him a pretty bad Marxist; but it fitted him out well for his eventual embrace of Catholicism.
And there is a third element of Marxist orthodoxy that Gene rejected, namely, its Hegelian teleology. Now if someone claiming to be a Marxist rejects that element of the story, it’s not quite clear how he is a Marxist. To me, it’s like saying, as Jefferson did, that he would be a Christian, but without the miracles, when one of those miracles is the Incarnation. By the same token, I don’t know how one can really qualify as a Marxist without Hegelian teleology.
So perhaps Gene wasn’t really a Marxist after all, though he certainly believed he was one. There was always in his scholarship and thinking about politics and other human activities a sense of the contingency and openness of things. Indeed, it was a sense of human freedom that enabled him so brilliantly to enter into the minds and lives of the people about whom he wrote, to understand them “from the inside”—that is, as they understood themselves. When one reads Eugene Genovese’s accounts of the past, it’s not as if one is looking in from the outside. He brings one into the world that he is writing about—for example, the world that the slaves and planters and other Southerners made.
I suppose it’s not really surprising that Gene was, at best, an unorthodox Marxist. He was always suspicious, if not downright hostile, to intellectual or political dogmas of any type. And that is because he knew that groupthink is toxic to the love of truth.
It is important to note that even after he formally abandoned communism as a philosophical idea and a political movement, Gene was willing to acknowledge certain virtues in it as an approach to the explanation of social reality. “The Marxist focus on social struggles,” he said, “primarily but not entirely class-based, has proven salutary to historians of the right, as well as the left, at least when shorn of its implicit Hegelian teleology.”
So Gene was not the kind of ex-Marxist who insists that everything about it was wrong. I think it’s probably fair to say, or at least not too unfair to say, that we could finally classify Gene as a cultural conservative, a pedagogical liberal (especially in his openness to debate and hostility to intellectual orthodoxies), and something of an analytical Marxist.
Yet, as a lover of truth and, above all, a teller of truth, Gene publicly and fully acknowledged that Marxism was, in political practice, an unfathomable catastrophe. Here’s what Gene said in an article he wrote for the left-wing journal Dissent in 1994: “In a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression, we broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century.” That was Gene’s confession. Notice that he said “we,” not “they.” We did it. We Marxists. He did not exclude or excuse himself or other Western intellectuals who embraced or condoned communism, or regarded anti-communism as a greater threat to liberty. Gene always believed in personal responsibility, and he was honest and brave enough, not only to acknowledge his own responsibility for supporting Stalinism and post-Stalinist Soviet ideology and Soviet policy, but also to confront the entire Left—Marxists, democratic socialists, and left liberals—with their culpability.
In that article in Dissent, Gene put to himself and his longtime allies a pair of questions that he feared many were simply too polite to ask him, for he loved truth too much to avoid them: Given the “piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century,” he asked, “what did we know, and when did we know it?”
And he answered the questions:
What did we know? “Everything.” It wasn’t hidden. It wasn’t some surprise. We knew. Or, if we didn’t know, we didn’t know because we didn’t want to know. We knew about the gulag; about the disappearances; about the murders; about the massacres. We knew everything.
When did we know it? “We knew it all along.” But drunk on our ideology and our hatred of exploitation and economic injustice, we thought it was justified. That was our error. We reasoned that “to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.” To defeat exploitation and oppression, we had to murder some innocent people—”some,” as in eighty million.
Gene said, “We spent three-quarters of a century in building socialisms that cost tens of millions of lives, created hideous political regimes, and could not even deliver a decent standard of living. The essential ingredient in a proper evaluation would have to be a frank assessment of the extent to which the assumptions that underlay the whole left, social democratic and liberal groups, as well as the Stalinist left, have proven untenable, not to invoke a harsher word.”
Gene Genovese was indeed a teller of truth, even when the truth to be told was ugly, embarrassing, humiliating. He told the truth, even when it meant confessing complicity in world-historical crimes. And even at the height of his passionate attachment to communism, he was equally passionate about telling the truth and avoiding any politicization or corruption of scholarship.
Betsey was her husband’s peer in devotion to the truth, and no less brave about truth-telling. This shared commitment to truth and truth-telling, and the courage that Gene and Betsey reinforced in each other, help to explain the extraordinary bond between two people who were, in so many other ways, unlike each other. And extraordinary it was. Their marriage was, as I said in a tribute to Betsey after her death, one of the great love stories of our time. And as in all truly great love stories, their devotion to each other created a kind of force field into which others were drawn. I was blessed to be among them.
Gene and Betsey were united in love for each other and for the many friends who loved them; they were united in the love of truth, and in the willingness to speak the truth whatever the cost; and, in the end, they were united in faith. Drawn by the moral witness of the Catholic Church to the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage and the family, Betsey in mid-life abandoned the secularism in which she had been reared and began a journey of thought and prayer that led her into Catholicism. Under her influence, Gene, having lost faith in dialectical materialism, returned to the sacraments. Twenty-six years after their secular wedding, they were sacramentally married as faithful Catholics in good standing.
Eugene Dominick Genovese will be laid to rest next to his beloved Betsey after a funeral in Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta. I don’t know what the grave marker will say, but if it were left to me it would bear this simple legend: Here lie Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: Truth-tellers.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. This article is reproduced with the permission of Public Discourse.
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