Below is an essay by Jesse Lemisch, elaborating on some remarks he made at the USIH Facebook page. (If you do not have a Facebook account, you can read his excerpted remarks in this blog post.) I should note here — because I promised him I would — that I take exception to Prof. Lemisch’s characterization of the professional practice of intellectual historians in general, present company included. Nevertheless, I am glad for the opportunity to share his perspective with our readers. –LDB
Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians?
Here’s a fuller account than I gave previously of my experience with John Higham’s rage against left scholarship in 1969. Thinking about this reminds me of some events involving Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter, adding up to a suggestion that some historians who are generally thought of as liberals had very bad reactions to the Sixties, and that the liberal expression for which these historians are known should be seen as at odds with who they were and what they did when confronted with real challenges to their worldview in the real world. This further suggests that we might be skeptical about a frequent albeit not universal practice in intellectual history: swallowing ideas whole without scrutinizing what they actually translated into in concrete reality.
Some of us who were on our way to becoming what would later be identified as New Left Historians took pleasure in John Higham’s April 1962 American Historical Review article, “Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic.” On re-examination of the article now, I see that we read him more optimistically than we should have, but we had grown tired of the uncritical romance of liberal intellectuals with America after World War II, and we saw conflict — instead of consensus — and an unrevealed underside in both present and past America. In the present, there were beginning awakenings after the Eisenhower years of understanding that there was poverty (Harrington, Kolko, both 1962) and that we were not in fact all middle class. (The latter utterly false terminology has come back with Obama, who constantly uses the term “middle class” because he can’t acknowledge that much of America is poor.) This is a twisting of language. And as we began our re-examination of the American past, we saw conflicts that the dominant school of historians had glossed over, or explained in psychiatric terms (e.g. Quakers and Abolitionists were seen as engaged in a “Quest for Martyrdom”– Daniel Boorstin and, to some extent, Stanley Elkins — for who but a nut would dissent from the American consensus? Americans had always been middle class (Robert E. Brown) and a “people of plenty” (David M. Potter). People acting politically in the streets were seen as mindless, manipulated mobs (e.g. Ed Morgan). It was in part to remedy this that I embarked on a “history from the bottom up.”
What happened in the writing of US history after World War II is an enormous topic, deserving a book, or several books, to join my On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession. In 1969, I proposed to Bill Ward, who was chairing the program committee for the December American Historical Association meeting, a paper which was to be called “Present-Mindedness Revisited,” in response to the claim that the emerging more critical re-interpretation of American history was driven and distorted by present-day left political concerns. The paper and the session as a whole would scrutinize politics and ideology in the dominant school of American historians. Not having kept up with John Higham’s responses to that decade, I remembered “Beyond Consensus,” and urged Ward to ask him to chair the session, which he did. Although chairs are generally merely decorative, I genuinely wondered what Higham’s response would be to a piece that I naively assumed was up his alley. I sent it to him, expecting that his comments would he helpful.
What I got back from Higham was a furious letter, saying pretty much what R.K. Webb would shortly say in rejecting my paper for the American Historical Review: you have maligned some of my best friends; I don’t have anything to say about your paper that you would find useful. (This a paraphrase in lieu of the actual letter, which I hope will turn up in Higham’s papers, although it may have been handwritten.) With Marty Duberman’s failure to show up at the AHA as the “friendly” commentator (Marty finds it difficult to leave Manhattan), I was on my own in a hostile environment. I toted around the AHA two full attaché cases, one with documentation to respond to attacks from Higham and his friends, and the other to respond to the mad Marxist Eugene Genovese, whose then friends foolishly thought they had successfully placed him on leash. (Many Marxists, like Genovese, were hostile to the New Left.) At my session, I had not counted on the arrival of a huge audience that reacted joyfully and loudly to my paper, as if the shackles of consensus around them had been broken.
The other major event at the 1969 AHA was the presence of a radical caucus, which precipitated such fury from Higham’s friends, as well as Genovese’s diminishing number of friends, that the business meeting lasted two nights and brought out, I think, 2000 people to an event that normally could barely find a quorum (such was the woeful lack of democracy in that Old Boy’s Club, many of whom longed for a return to the conflict-free 1933 AHA meeting BW — Before Women — that Oscar Handlin sketched out elegiacally.) Escaping from the leash held by Herb Gutman and Christopher Lasch (yes, hard as it may be to believe in light of their later conflicts, there was a time when they were friends with Gene), Genovese cried out, to thunderous applause, “We must put them [the Radical Caucus] down, we must put them down hard, we must put them down once and for all!!!” And little did we know at that point that a liberal saint, Richard Hofstadter, had written privately to AHA’s managers a call to commit, literally, “counter revolution” against our band of radicals. What was our “revolution”? We were running a candidate for president – Staughton Lynd – against the genteel practice of having no election, simply an anointing. (The eminences so anointed, it was felt, should not be subjected to an election or, worse yet, loss of an election, with all the attendant pain.) At some point the idea came up of trying to get the organization to oppose the hideous war in Vietnam, which was splitting the country apart. Back in September, I had written to around five people a long radical caucus planning letter, whose mildness embarrasses me on re-reading, calling for reforms in the governance of the organization, changes in its constitution, easier access to publication for young scholars, spoke of the non-involvement of Lasch and Genovese (who had been writing attacks on the New Left and on Staughton Lynd in the New York Review of Books), etc. One of the recipients, Art Waskow, who had been arrested with me and some 200 clergymen in a civil rights protest a few years before, was in 1969 at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington (and is now a rabbi). He thus had access to a Xerox machine, and sent my letter out to the country in general — which had not been my intent. It was posted at historical societies, dropped from airplanes in bundles, and even came across Genovese’s desk. He responded to me with what appeared to be one of his faux-Brooklyn-tough death threats (but which I have to admit I took a little seriously): “It will be to the knife.”
Hofstadter’s attempt to organize a counter-revolution in 1969 was consistent with his behavior the year before at Columbia where students had protested over several issues, including: Columbia’s plan to build a gym in a public park which would allow limited access to residents of Harlem, mainly through a back door; and — particularly offensive at the time of the war in Vietnam in a university pretending to be politically neutral — Columbia’s affiliation with the Department of Defense’s weapons research Institute for Defense Analyses. In the face of mounting protest and building occupations, President Grayson Kirk’s ancien regime had called in the animals of the New York Police Department. (I eschew the then fashionable term, “pigs,” as too insulting.). Kirk and his friends were astonished –- I almost said “shocked, shocked” — when the police acted like police, shedding blood and arresting over 700 people. The New York Times front-paged Managing Editor Abe Rosenthal’s super-weepie which presented Kirk heroically as the victim of students who, in the occupation of the administration building, had dared to drink his wine and smoke his cigars! OMG, it’s the French Revolution all over again! The whole affair was to produce shame, embarrassment and a kind of a democratic revolution in faculty governance.
On June 4, honorable people at Columbia attended a counter-commencement. The sorry official commencement was held in the safety of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The sulking Kirk did not attend. Hofstadter delivered the Commencement Address (follow this link for a transcription and a sound recording of Hofstadter’s speech, which was also published in The American Scholar). It was one of these center-is-not- holding tearjerker/jeremiads, so frequent in those days, which attacked student protesters, who had caused this “disaster,” “this terrible wound,” producing the “hour of [Columbia’s] most terrible trial.” A university,” Hofstadter said, his voice echoing through the cathedral (you can hear it on the recording), “is firmly committed to certain basic values of freedom, rationality, inquiry, discussion, and its own internal order [emphasis added.]” By the time he was done, he had made it clear that the students’ offense against all this had been so dire that of course it made sense to call in external force to impose “internal order.” He voiced no objection to the bloody police attacks and the hundreds of arrests, as if the police had committed the “civilized human discourse” that he sought. It was the students who had acted “ruthlessly,” “assaulting” the university on behalf of “social revolution.” “Restraints,” he said, “must be self-imposed, not forced from outside,” forgetting that outside is where the cops came from. Never acknowledging that affiliation with the Department of Defense in the midst of war constituted a political position, he warned that “the university should be extraordinarily chary of relationships that even suggest …a political commitment.” Accepting the necessity of reform, he insisted that “It cannot be carried out under duress.” What was needed was “peace, mutual confidence…[ and] stability.” Stability, order and calls for peace and cops: this is what had become of mainstream liberalism by 1968.
So Hofstradter’s defense of the old regime at the 1969 AHA was totally consistent with the stand he had taken the year before at Columbia. As it turned out, the radicals had precipitated democratic revolutions in both institutions, presided over in the AHA by the author of The Age of The Democratic Revolution, Robert R. Palmer. At Columbia, Grayson Kirk was replaced in a faculty uprising. Kirk went off to the presidency of the Council on Foreign Relations, Columbia disaffiliated from the Institute of Defense Analyses, and I got to hang out on the College Walk sundial again.
C. Vann Woodward was outgoing president of the AHA in 1969, and at the business meeting he treated radicals contemptuously (not to mention liberal John K. Fairbank’s famous seizure of the microphone from Howard Zinn.) One manifestation of Woodward’s discomfort with the Sixties was his 1969 Organization of American Historians presidential address “Clio With Soul,” Journal of American History, June 1969, a warning about the dangers to the historical profession of the then surging Black History programs. At the beginning of his address, Woodward expressed his apprehensions, which in some ways echo the concerns voiced by Hofstadter:
Will it [Black history] warp as much as it will correct? Will it substitute a new racism for an old? Will historians be able to absorb and control the outraged moral passions released and bend to the social purposes dictated without losing balance and betraying principle? Or will the historian’s moral engagement compromise the integrity of his craft? Granting inevitable losses in detachment, will the gains in moral insight outbalance the losses?
After this hysterical preamble, it’s no surprise that Woodward found his apprehensions fully fulfilled, and concluded with a ringing condemnation:
These are certainly not the most propitious times for the cultivation of that taste [irony]. Not only is it an abomination to revolutionaries, but also equally abhorrent are mixed motives, ambivalence, paradox, and complexity in any department. In times like these the historian will be hard put to it to maintain his creed that the righteousness of a cause is not a license for arrogance, that the passion for justice is not a substitute for reason, that race and color are neither a qualification nor a disqualification for historians, that myths, however therapeutic, are not to be confused with history, and that it is possible to be perfectly serious without being oppressively solemn. To defend this position under the circumstances will require a certain amount of what some call “cool” and others, grace — grace under pressure, which was Hemingway’s definition of courage.
In the responses of some academic liberals to the Sixties, those who were displaying anything but grace under pressure were retailing that Hemingway quotation as often as they were telling us about Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs and foxes (generally to the advantage of the latter). Invocation of irony, complexity and paradox (here combined with an attack on “revolutionaries”) turned out to be simply defenses of things as they used to be.
At Yale, Woodward in many ways dissented from the attempts of President Kingman Brewster to come to terms with the Sixties. It was during Brewster’s presidency that Yale College began admitting women. It was Brewster who made the famous remark in 1970: “I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” He opened the campus to protesters who came to demonstrate around the trial of Black Panthers in New Haven. In 1974, Yale’s “Woodward Committee” condemned certain student protests. In 1975-76, to the embarrassment of some of this colleagues, Woodward led an unprecedented vendetta through to the highest reaches of Yale College against the student nomination (with Political Science Department sponsorship) of Herbert Aptheker to teach a one-semester course on W.E.B. DuBois. Woodward succeeded in subjecting what was normally a pro forma appointment (Howard Cosell taught a course in the same program) to the kind of treatment normally given to appointments with tenure. I led a campaign to have the Organization of American Historians investigate Yale’s misbehavior. Aptheker taught his semester and Yale fell back into its customary swamp.
I feel a duty to pass along the realities of such as Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward, in the face of the dominant ideas about them and the tendency of intellectual historians to think that these people’s earlier words reflected the beliefs for which they should be remembered. In light of the above, the evidence that these three should be called liberal historians seems dubious. But rather than denying their liberalism, I would think it wiser to affirm it and say that what I have presented tells us something about the low state of liberalism during the last great social upheaval in this country in the 1960s and 1970s.
Related works by Jesse Lemisch:
On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession (Toronto,1975)
“If Howard Cosell Can Teach at Yale, Why Can’t Herbert Aptheker?,” Newsletter of the Radical Historians Caucus, no. 22 (May 1976):1-9.
“Radicals, Marxists and Gentlemen: A Memoir of Twenty Years Ago,” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 59 (Nov. 1989).