U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bad Week for Brilliant Historians

When I heard about the death of Eric Hobsbawm, I was going to title today’s post “Bad Week for Marxist Historians,” in reference to him and Eugene Genovese. But shortly thereafter I heard the bad news about Henry May, who was no Marxist but was probably the most important figure of the three to U.S. intellectual history. So “Brilliant Historians” will have to do. I would like this post to serve as an open forum to discuss these three great scholars. We will be featuring more reflections on Genovese, Hobsbawm, and May in the coming days. In particular, Leo Ribuffo is contributing an essay on Genovese, who was his undergraduate teacher, that you will not want to miss.
Hobsbawm was the most formative of the three to my intellectual life, if only because I came to the history discipline via my interest in understanding leftist politics in general and Marxism specifically. The first Hobsbawm book I read was Nations and Nationalism since 1780, where he succinctly argued that “Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not true.” In the first graduate seminar I ever taught–on historiography–I assigned his autobiography, Interesting Times, which might be my favorite autobiography. I thought it would be a great exercise for my students, mostly new to the world of historical scholarship, to see how a historian thinks about even his own life in grand historical terms.  Not all of the students liked it. One said it was “too clinical” for an autobiography. I thought, “perfect.” This must be why I like it so much. They were not used to someone describing their own life in ways that lacked the psychoanalytical reductionism and romanticism we’ve grown so accustomed to in autobiography.
Yesterday, The New Republic posted an old review from their archives: Genovese’s review of Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes. This is a must read. I am struck by how generous Genovese was even though he had already made his rightward u-turn. I love this passage in particular:
But the American left, at least its radical part, has learned little or nothing from Hobsbawm, despite the ceremonial bows and the polite applause. The fault is partly his own, and it stems from his most attractive qualities. He has never had a taste for sectarian polemics and factional brawls. He prefers to articulate his positions by speaking calmly and scrupulously, giving no offense, and appealing to reason and deliberation. And so the radical left has been able to pretend not to notice what he is saying. Or worse, it may not be pretending. It may not have noticed. I cannot recall a single serious, concentrated discussion in American radical circles of the many historical and political insights that Hobsbawm has advanced in his books. He is the greatest of Marxist historians, but his influence on American Marxist historians has been marginal. Maybe nice guys do finish last.
My favorite Hobsbawm obituary thus far comes from Mark Mulholland at Jacobin. One passage in particular is striking:
[Hobsbawm] was never, however, simply a “radical historian,” seeking parallels in the past for his own convictions. Often, he worked against the grain. A Marxist, he was peerless as an anatomist of the nineteenth century bourgeois social order. A loyal foot-soldier of Communist “democratic centralism,” he wrote perceptively of the anarchical “social bandit.”  A refined intellectual, he dug deep into the study of workers’ lives and proletarian autodidacts. A historian of society and impersonal economic “long waves”, he composed a classic of autobiography. An aficionado of traditions of labor, jazz, and Marxism, he helped create a virtual sub-field in the modernist construction of “invented traditions.” Even as a holiday-home owner in Wales, mystified by local resentment of interlopers, he produced a masterpiece on the phenomenon of nationalism.
My favorite memoirs of Genovese have come from James Livingston-Part I (here) and Part II (here). Apparently, Livingston first realized he was an intellectual historian while in conversation with Genovese in the late 1970s:
Genovese: “I’m talking about American intellectual history, the life of the mind in this country.  Who does that anymore?  Perry Miller used to.  Alan Heimert?  Warren used to, now what is he doing, he’s doing culture, not the history of ideas.  Who else?”
I was stumped.  It was a good question that Gene himself would answer, much later and to no one’s satisfaction, in The Mind of the Master Class.  Remember, the 1970s marked the beginning of the export of several fields from departments of History, in a variation on the theme of corporate outsourcing or downsizing.  Where once political, economic, and intellectual history were the core of the discipline’s curriculum and research, by the 1990s the cutting edges in political, economic, and intellectual history were, respectively, in Political Science, Economics, and English departments.  What happened?  I’m not complaining, by the way.
I don’t know, I said, I’m an economic historian.
“Like hell you are,” Gene said (I believe this was the beginning of my career as an intellectual historian).

For another good take on Genovese, see Tim Barker’s reflections at Dissent. At the end of this essay includes mention that Dissent is in the process of putting up a digital archive of Marxist Perspectives, the amazing yet short-lived journal that Genovese edited in the late 1970s. As Barker writes:

In partnership with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Dissentwill soon make the archives of Marxist Perspectives, a short-lived journal edited by Genovese, freely available. Text-searchable scans of the magazine’s ten issues, plus a historical introduction I have prepared, should be up on our redesigned website by the end of 2012. The wide range of well-known authors who wrote forMarxist Perspectives includes Jon Elster, James Livingston, Eric Foner, Etienne Balibar, and Dissent co-editor Michael Walzer. Though plans were in place before we learned of Genovese’s unforeseen death, we are glad that our efforts can stand as a memorial to an important, if deeply flawed, man of letters. 

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s not quite accurate to say that Henry May was “no Marxist.” He was (at least) a Popular Front activist in his youth (and later donated his collection of leftist publications to the Bancroft Library); and his first book (Protestant Churches and Industrial America)utilizes a clearly Marxist (or marxian?) framework.

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