U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Critical, Conflicted, and Elitist Liberalism of Richard Hofstadter—And Why It Matters (Part 1)

Editor's Note

This the first in a four-part series covering the political and educational philosophy of Richard Hofstadter. The series is also a disputation with Jim Livingston. Today’s post sets the scene, explaining how our disagreement was instigated by a provocation from me. The next installment, which will appear on 12/14, and covers my analysis of a 2007 article by Livingston in boundary2, wherein he argues for Hofstadter as a neo-Marxist/Critical Theory-inspired thinker. The third entry (set for 12/21) covers my sense of Hostadter’s educational elitism. The last installment (12/28) outlines Hofstadter’s reactionary liberalism, in education, and summarizes my differences with Livingston. Enjoy! – TL

Hofstadter, circa 1970 (via Wikipedia)

Several months ago I spent some time—worthwhile, I believe—arguing with Jim Livingston on my Facebook page. Our topic? The political orientation of Richard Hofstadter. You can check out the debate at the link. There it will be clear that I started the disagreement with a none-too-subtle provocation:

“Tentative thesis: When it came to his philosophy of education, Hofstadter was not just a snobby elitist, but also a nefarious, backwards authoritarian—as undemocratic as you can get.”

My jab was deliberate. I expected some opposition: no historian can make such a judgment from the present without raising the hackles of colleagues. Presentism is (thankfully) still unfashionable among my friends. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the intense reply that followed.

The Argument

Livingston wrote: “With all due respect, Tim, that’s bullshit. Hofstadter was no elitist, and he feared authoritarianism–yes, something he (rightly) detected in Populism.”

I was caught off-guard by the first part of Jim’s reply because I thought I had limited my statement properly—to just Hofstadter’s philosophy of education. I wasn’t, generally speaking, trying to turn Hofstadter into a straw man I could knock down. He’s a complex person, and I’m not inclined to wasting time on simplistic straw men. But the proof, on the education front and in relation to Hofstadter’s own context, still seems pretty damning to me. My proposition was constructed from a reading of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Livingston, however, read my thesis as an overall indictment of Hofstadter as “elitist.” And he read, properly, that I was also using that term somewhat synonymously with “liberal.” This conflation was easy to see for two reasons. First, education was such a large part of Hofstadter’s life. It would be hard to limit my attribution to just that area. Second, Livingston read it as a larger flaw because he had argued elsewhere, with some force, that Hofstadter was, at bottom, a Marxist. If that was true generally, Hofstadter most certainly couldn’t be an elitist in education. Right?

For the record, the essay to which Livingston referred me was published in boundary 2 in the Fall of 2007, and titled “On Richard Hofstadter and the Politics of ‘Consensus History’” (pp. 33-46). More on that later.

The Facebook conversation proceeded organically as follows (reproduced with permission):


Lacy: “As for RH being a Marxist, well, that was true in the 1930s and early 1940s. But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was more of a “critical liberal” at best—just another sour Cold War liberal. He certainly criticized aspects of capitalism, but he didn’t have it in him anymore to be a full Marxist. I’d be a helluva lot happier with AIAL if he had actually maintained some of his former radicalism.”

“Given what you say [in the essay] in one para on AIAL, I’m surprised you’re defending [the book and RH on education] here. There may be other expressions of RH’s philosophy of education that are better, but I haven’t yet seen them. …Maybe Mark Naison can help me here.”

Naison: “I worked under Richard Hofstadter for several years. He was convinced that the greatest danger to civic freedoms, higher education, and a viable democratic order came from the Right. He was sympathetic to the left, but feared if the Left undermined civil liberties and created social instability, it would be the Right that would prevail.”

Naison: “To some degree, the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency are what Hofstadter feared would happen if populist insurgencies were out of control.”

Lacy to Naison: “Are you aware of any other statements from Hofstadter on his philo of education after 1963? Any essays or pieces tucked away? . ..I confess, though RH hedges and gives caveats, my overall impression after several close readings of *Anti-Intellectualism* is that he favored an authoritarian, undemocratic classroom. His mocking, for instance, of janitors in that book is, well, unsavory at best and asshole-ish at worst.”

James Livingston [clarified with the following]: “Tim Lacy, no, Hofstadter was a Marxist well after his brief stint in the CP–again, see The Progressive Historians (1968), then compare The Age of Reform to The Contours of American History. Also, read for the ending of my essay on RH, where he’s writing in 1968 about the Vietnam War. Nowhere near a Cold Warrior.”

Lacy: “I’ll try to write up a reply, even though almost none of it applies to my thoughts above about RH’s philosophy of education as evident in *Anti-Intellectualism in American Life*.”


So here I am. I owe Livingston a full explanation of precisely what bothered me in AIAL regarding Hofstadter’s views on education (i.e. why I posted a provocation). I also owe Livingston a thoughtful reading of his 2007 essay. Over the next three Thursdays I’ll pay my debt. – TL

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