U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Teaser on the Left

James Livingston has seized upon the occasion of Eugene Genovese’s passing to write a series of extended meditations on Genovese, on intellectual history, and on Livingston’s own development as an intellectual historian.  His latest entry in this series, published at his blog Politics and Letters, includes some provocative reflections on academics’ ideas of the Left — reflections which are informed by and in some ways formed against Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers.  Livingston will engage Kazin’s text (and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind) more fully — and more forcefully, no doubt — during our Friday afternoon roundtable discussion at the S-USIH conference.  (See the full conference program here.)

In the meantime, I thought our readers might be interested in this excerpt from Livingston’s post, in which he discusses “the Left’s laggard intellectual condition.”

My “dissertation book” on the origins of the Federal Reserve came out in April 1986, while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History, a great gig because no one knew what we, the fellows, were supposed to be doing all day.  Me, I mainly roamed around the Library of Congress, having talked my way into a stack pass and finding too many wonderful books that had nothing to do with my appointed task, which was to write something called “Accumulating America: How Centuries End, Where Politics Begin.”  That roaming was the origin of a schizophrenic book called Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940, which was published in November 1994 as an entry in Alan Trachtenberg’s series at UNC Press.  It was my formal debut as an intellectual historian and my angry farewell to economic history.  The only reader the press could find was, of course, Martin J. Sklar.

While at the Museum, I marveled at the attitudes of the other fellows—they all seemed to derive, by some route, from Harvard, Yale, or Cornell, although the southern front (Chapel Hill, mainly) was graciously reinforced by Pete Daniel—because they all took the gig for granted, as if a year off to do exactly what you want was just a common card in the academic hand every graduate student was dealt.  As far as they were concerned, this was normal, this was what you were supposed to expect as you created a career in academe.  So I felt like a freak.  For the first time since my conversion experience to Marxism and its attendant political extremities—not to mention its intellectual idiocies—I wondered about my affiliations.  These incredibly smart, uniformly decent people were all on the Left, but this space as they understood it was, to me, another planet.  We shared no assumptions, no premises.  Most of our conversations were prolonged attempts to articulate these.

I was making my way as a junior professor just like they were, but they seemed to know what they were doing.  And I had an inkling back then that their sense of academic entitlement had something to do with their definition of the Left as the site of withdrawal and release from the work-a-day world—the place where exemption and abstention from its demands became the same thing, rather than the frictional, contentious point of intersection between theory and practice, or between social classes and political visions.

So conceived, the Left had become a cloister where beautiful souls gathered, just as the university had become a safe haven for intellectuals in flight from a world newly convulsed by supply-side, neo-liberal programs of economic rebirth.  It was where you went if you could afford to favor “social equality” and “altruistic justice” over “individual liberty,” as Michael Kazin has recently framed the choice the American Left has always had to make.

Does that sound like resentment?  Very well, then.  I’ve never believed that you could be in but not of this world.  I’ve always been Protestant enough to know that the condition of grace is sin, which is the deep, undeniable, disgusting corruption of your soul, the kind that comes with the territory of the world as it exists, not as you would like it to be, or as you can afford to rise above it or buy your way beyond it.   I’ve never believed, as Kazin and most of our comrades on the Left do—here they have a lot in common with Eugene Genovese—that individual liberty and social equality are the terms of an either/or choice.  OK, call it resentment.

So even back then, I was worried about the intellectual—or is it the epistemological?—orientation of the Left.  I wondered why my comrades didn’t think of themselves as the mainstream, the lifeblood, of American political discourse.  Why did they think that Marxism and socialism were still scandalous?  I wondered why they needed to believe that they were marginal figures in the academy and out.  How was that belief realistic in view of Genovese’s professional success, not to mention the careers of David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and William Appleman Williams?

I wondered why they hadn’t considered the possibility that the originality of American politics (and with it the American Dream) resides in two cognate discoveries specific to the revolutionary experience of the late-18th century.  First, the discovery that sovereignty is the inviolable property of the people “out of doors,” not the state, the party, the cabinet, the government, or the nation.  The patriotism that has always inspired the Left to return to the first principles of the founding—original intent, as it were—derives from this protean notion of sovereignty, because it lets us distinguish between the will of the people and the expressions of power that enact and embody the nation as a state.  Second, the discovery that equality is the necessary condition of liberty, not its negation.  The founders understood that republican liberty could not outlast the moment when equality became its opposite, when, as James Madison put it, the rights of persons were  overruled by the rights of property—when “the poor were sacrificed to the rich.”  The Left seems never to have caught up with this insight, preferring to think of liberty and equality as mutually exclusive moral imperatives rather than eminently compatible commitments.

I’ve been wondering about the Left’s laggard intellectual condition ever since that privileged year in D.C., living six blocks east of the LC, about a mile down the Mall from the NMAH.  And now I begin to think that precisely because I have been lost in these thoughts all these years, I was never surprised by Gene Genovese’s political twists and turns.  Like our comrades on the Left, he was always looking for an Archimedean point outside the object of his critique—capitalism—which would then serve as the place where exemption and abstention from the world as it exists could become the same attitude toward the world as it exists.  He wanted to be in but not of this world.  So, like a true believer, he always needed a sturdy faith in a world elsewhere.

You can read Livingston’s entire post here.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Aside from his petulant tone, I cannot stomach the clunky writing of Livingston. Sometimes there are jewels hidden within his muddled performances, but mostly they are just empty spectacles.

  2. I would be glad to write half so well.

    What I find problematic about Livingston is the way that hope can shade into hubris — as I have said elsewhere, I think he is not sufficiently Malthusian. Or perhaps what I mean is that he is not sufficiently Marxian? That would be an odd complaint coming from me, but there it is.

  3. L.D., I have been following you for some time here and believe me, you write more clearly than him most of the time. I agree with your observation, he calls himself a Marxist but his analyses do not bear that out, I have a hard time even thinking him as a heterodox Marxist. Coming from literary studies and having engaged for some time with the high theory he tends to incorporate, it is my impression that the postmodern eclecticism of his theoretical framework has a lot to do with this. It is fascinating to say the least to see historians continue to engage in not the most critical fashion with poststructuralists, without taking into account the critiques that have been done within high theory circles, from both Marxist and non-Marxist angles. In the end, Livingston’s work is more about broad, provocative brushstrokes than rigorous analysis. But I do appreciate that he is a provocateur, it definitely helps having a contrarian like him so we can articulate our arguments better.

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