On the nineteenth of May 1930, Eugene Genovese was born to Dominick and Lena Genovese. He was to become one of the most influential radical historian of the slave south, and arguably the most interesting case study of an historian living out his own beliefs. Historical research and writing, Genovese believed, was by its very nature a political act. He believed in the transforming power of history on its own terms, and by keeping an open mind in his own academic life he found a respect for religion and a recognition of its power throughout history. Later, his own life was changed by conversion to Christianity. Genovese advocated religion to himself by merely studying the past as it actually was.
Genovese was born into a working class family in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were part of the Marxist party and he became active in the Communist Youth movement at a young age. Later he became the first Marxist President of the Organization of American Historians in 1978. His historiography was shaped by his Marxist leanings as well as his own sense of right and wrong imparted to him from childhood. He believed whole heartedly in what the party stood for and stood against, but he was still conscious of the necessity to learn from others who may not share the same view. In an interview with The American Enterprise Online, Genovese says, “From the 1960s, when I was positioned on the far left, I was very active in insisting on a dialogue with conservatives. I always insisted that there were good and bad people in all political camps and that most people were opportunists anyway.”
Despite his strong Marxism, Eugene Genovese found that he could not in good conscience and in a sense of good scholarship, write history pandering to the party lines or whatever cause the party was putting forward at the time. In 1965 his first major work The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and the Society of the Slave South was published. The thrust of this book was to understand the political and economic forces which led to the Civil War and to analyze whether or not the conflict was inevitable.
The 1960s, when this book first appeared, was witnessing the rise in the militantly active, often young students and historians known as the New Left and the legitimizing of the communist party in America. They were the new wave of Marxist historians, and the future hope of the Communist Party-U.S.A. But Genovese in now way fits the ideology put forward by this radical group. The New Lefts were more interested in tearing down old institutions rather than setting up an alternative form of government, whereas Genovese was interested merely in the transforming power of history on a society and on the individual.
The Political Economy of Slavery was not the typical party propaganda being pushed in the 1960s. In the introduction he states firmly, “The notion that the values of the South’s ruling class, which became the values of the South as a whole, may be dismissed as immoral is both dubious and unenlightening.” He argues throughout the book that it is important to the study of southern society to not merely focus on slavery and the oppression, but rather on the unique society created by the class structure of the slaveholders.
As a Marxist however there was a basic conceptual framework he imposed on his writings and The Political Economy of Slavery was no exception. This bias is found throughout most of his later works, even after he converted to Catholicism. Genovese allowed for bias. He knew that as a Marxist he saw things differently from his conservative colleagues, but he wanted to be able to work with historians and glean knowledge from their scholarship that he could not have access to with his own biases. “The study of the religious life of both slaves and slaveholders,” Genovese said, “thus encourages an atheist to hope that he can contribute something to a subject generally slighted by his ideology and can even position him to challenge Christians to clarify their theology. By extension, it encourages a Marxist to reexamine fundamental tents of his own interpretation of history.
Even as a self proclaimed supporter of the advance of the Viet Cong in Vietnam he could not whole heartedly accept everything the party stood for. Even in his youth and most intense years of his Marxist belief Genovese continued to believe in letting history speak for itself. He stood, even as a young man, against the history that blindly tore down the oppressors without considering that the oppressing class might have something to add to the conversation. Genovese believed that to ignore the oppressors or worse, to dismiss them, was a tragedy to good scholarship.
His argument differed from the prevalent ways of approaching slavery at this time. Some historians of the southern slaveholders would claim that they knew exactly what they were doing and they were competing in this capitalistic world, having faith (albeit misguided) that slavery would further them economically. Other historians wrote as though there really was no difference between the North and the South in the antebellum years, and those that did exist were not that remarkable, thus the South should be condemned as purposefully backward because they knew better. Both these historians were united on one thing and that was that racism formed the backbone for this institution of southern slavery. Genovese took the approach that this was a region entirely distinct in their values, ways of life, and their economy. He conceived of the institution of slavery as primarily class oriented and secondarily race oriented.
He also saw the slave south as a non capitalist society, in fact he saw them as rejecting the very notion of capitalism. “The planter typically recoiled at the notions that profit should be the goal of life; that the approach to production and exchange should be internal rational and uncomplicated by social values.” This was a strange thought for a Marxist to have because it did not fit the recipe for oppression laid out by Karl Marx over a hundred years ago. Yet Genovese was convinced that this was true at least in the way that he defined capitalism. He would not go so far as to deny that wealth was one of the major contributors to the class difference, but he maintained that, “Whereas in the North people followed the lure of business and money for their own sake, in the South specific forms of property carried the badges of honor, prestige, and power.” For the slaveholders, Genovese posited, ownership of property was esteemed far above amassing large amounts of money for the sheer purpose of consuming.
According to Genovese, this idea of the South as an anti-capitalist society gave an explanation as to why slavery was so important to the antebellum South. Slaves were considered property, and those who had many slaves were usually plantation farmers whose land far exceeded the average Southerner who might own a slave or two. Slavery was a key factor in their hierarchy. Those who owned more slaves, owned more property and were therefore part of the elite.
In publishing The Political Economy of Slavery Genovese was not differing too far from his party’s norms. The two most controversial of the messages in this collection of essays are the thought that a serious historian should not cast aside the slaveholders altogether just because of their anti progress lifestyles; and the belief that slave society was not a capitalist one. Other than these statements, he stayed relatively within the party lines. He focused mainly on economics and the class system of the south.
Another important book published by Genovese at this time was called In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History. In it he tries to explain his own existential journey of discovering himself and what he stood for through his own study of history. The first chapter is an attempt to clarify his own position and his own thoughts on advocacy. “It may seem especially strange,” he begins, “to those who work in the historical profession or who follow leftwing factional debates and have been led to believe that socialist historians like myself stand for the separation of politics and history. In fact, what we stand for is the realization that all historical writing and teaching – all cultural work – is unavoidably political intervention.” This is really what Genovese has been arguing and will continue to argue for the rest of his academic career: that there is no need for historians to get involved in pushing their own personal politics or their favorite cause. History will speak for itself on its own terms.
A dominant theme in many of Genovese’s later monographs is that of religion. Eugene Genovese could not escape the pervasive morality and strong sense of Christianity that permeated the actions and the motives of the southern slaveholding society. In his most well known work Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made he found himself compelled again and again to account for the dominance of religion. As a confirmed atheist this was the last thing he was expecting. “If, at the beginning,” Genovese says, “someone had told me that religion would emerge as a positive force in my book – indeed as the centerpiece – I would have laughed and referred him to a psychiatrist. In the end, the evidence proved overwhelming, and I had to eat my biases, although not my Marxism.”
Genovese argued in Roll Jordan Roll that religion was the freedom the slaves found in their own bondage and one of the most important unifying factors of their society. “It fired them with a sense of their own worth before God and man,” Genovese said, “…The spiritual emancipation of the individual therefore constituted the decisive task of religion and the necessary foundation for black collectivity…The slaves desperately needed that doctrine to confront their masters.” It gave them the ability, he argued, to not just coexist relatively peacefully with their white masters, but gave them a sense of place and belonging, “Their Christianity strengthened their ties to their “white folks” but also strengthened their love for each other and their pride in being black people.” Genovese believed so much in the transforming ability and power of advocacy contained in the open minded study of history that he found he could not separate the slaves of the South from their Christianity. He was willing to accept the fact that there might be more to the story than the part that was politically correct to tell.
Roll Jordan Roll was the most well known and most often used by other scholars of all of Genovese’s books. It was also arguably the most influential book in his own life. It gave him, perhaps forced upon him, a respect for religion and its influence in history. With that respect came a questioning of the ideology he had been adhering to his entire life. Could a true and serious scholar stay with a party that discouraged true and serious scholarship? Could an historian remain in a party that would not accept religion as an important factor of history despite overwhelming evidence that it was? Could Genovese himself avoid Christianity which loomed over history and had such an impact on his own area of study.
He believed historians should be open to change. After all, didn’t Roll Jordan Roll written at the height of his Marxist belief bring a new and unexpected focus into his scholarship? Advocacy had its place, but Genovese felt historians did not need to force the events to conform to whatever it was they were trying to advocate or defend, ““It is one thing to lay bare the political implications of our analysis; it is quite another to whore in some ostensibly worthy cause.” He felt that if the historians reported the facts of history in an accurate manner there would be no need to stress a particular emphasis on anything. If there was an oppressed class it would be apparent who the oppressed and who the oppressors were. If there was a worthy and noble cause to support, history alone should be sufficient to support it.
In 1996 Genovese converted to Christianity quickly following the conversion of his wife. Considering the fair hearing he gave to Christianity even in the height of his Marxist atheism this could be viewed as an inevitable change, but for one so entrenched in his atheistic beliefs it was quite a surprise to Genovese if to no one else.
Two years after conversion Genovese and his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese founded the Historical Society at Boston University as an alternative for historians from the politically correct American Historical Association. Their goal was to have a place where all viewpoints were heard and where historians could learn from one another and express their biases whether or not they reflected the views of their party.
It is important to note that though Genovese aligned himself with the other Neo-conservatives especially in the founding of the Historical Society, he would never accept himself classified as a conservative. Even after his conversion to Christianity, he still adhered to a Marxist interpretation of history and had no qualms about making that clear. But that was his purpose in founding the Historical Society. It was not only a place for Marxists who could not embrace everything endorsed by the party, but it was also a sanctuary for Christians with leftist leanings, which is where Genovese has been since conversion.
The founding of the historical society was in no way indicative of a change in Genovese’s scholarship, rather it was indicative of the delayed effects of post-modernist relativism eroding the rational element of history, which allowed scholars of history to ignore learning about those they did not approve of or find relevant to their cause. Genovese and his wife rejected this type of relativism and stressed that as much as we may not like it, these historical villains and oppressors are an integral part of our heritage.
Yet even with this distinction Genovese and his wife found themselves under criticism from many leftist or radical historians after the founding of the Historical Society. Most historians thought of the Historical Society as something implemented by conservatives to re-enforce the conventional model of history according to “dead white males.” They viewed it as merely catering to the conservatives who in their opinion harbored history’s oppressors. But Genovese argues, “Our charter members include people whose politics range from the Marxist left to the traditionalist right…All we ask of our members is that they lay down plausible premises; reason logically; appeal to evidence; and respect the integrity of all those who do the same.” The Historical Society’s board members included men, women, African Americans, Caucasians, Homosexuals, and Heterosexuals. Their political views spanned from the far left to the far right. Theirs was not a pursuit of an agenda. Theirs was a pursuit of truth. Truth that embraced bias and subjectivity, but only insofar that it was recognized and was left open to change.
Two years after Genovese’s conversion he wrote another monograph entitled A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. This book was a plea to his readers to try to place themselves in the context and culture of the antebellum South and the South at war. He attempted to give his readers a sense of how the slaveholders felt going to war with the sincere belief that God was on their side and they were losing. Most slaveholders Genovese argued “accepted slavery as ubiquitous in history, as sanctioned by Scripture, and as a fact of life.”
This view of slavery was reinforced by not only their culture but by their religious leaders as well. So, when the Southerners marched against North they were affirmed in what they were fighting for by the outlandish but nevertheless sincere proclamations of their preachers and ministers. “As in every country and in every war,” Genovese said, “some Southern ministers, although fewer than often alleged, plunged into a chauvinism that verged on blasphemy, and a few actually preached that a just God could not possibly deny victory to the Confederacy.” Clearly, the southerners believed that theirs was a just cause and God was behind it. Genovese attempts to impart to his readers the crushing blow it was to Southerners to lose the war, not just in monetary terms or amount of bloodshed, but their very faith, the permeating influence in their society, was threatened. Genovese, the former sympathetic onlooker of the Christianity of the South is now connected with Christianity on a more intimate level.
Genovese’s most recent book was The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview. He began with the impact of Christian faith in the South instead of being surprised by it. Something peculiar to note is that both The Mind of the Master Class and A Consuming Fire both have titles that at least touch on faith or Christianity. Until this point Genovese had been using the term “Conservative South,” but now there is recognition of the faith he shared with the southern slaveholders.
He states in the prologue that he wants to avoid the two pitfalls of the typical scholar of Southern slave society. One is to regard the slaveholders as racists who care about nothing other than owning slaves for the sheer purpose of imposing their superiority above other races. The other is to regard the slaveholder as really not that important and slavery not as influential in society as it has been made out to be. The first pitfall Genovese has been avoiding since he began his academic life among other leftist historians, but the second is new for him. Now that he has aligned himself with conservative historians, he runs across the other pitfall that tries to downplay the effects of slavery and suggest that it was not as big or pervasive as history seems to suggest. Eugene Genovese, always the first to create controversy, will not commit fully to that idea either.
Eugene Genovese had a peculiar view on this question of objectivity. Genovese was a Marxist from birth and an atheist for the major part of his academic life, and he interpreted history accordingly. He was in no way defending the slaveholders in enslaving fellow human beings. He was in no way mitigating the oppression slaves in the South went through in the antebellum years. He just felt that to boil down the whole system of Southern slaveholding society to racism was simplistic at its best and an insult to serious scholarship at its worst.
Throughout his life Genovese believed that the only way to truly study history is to be open to what other scholars have to say even if they are completely on the other side of the political spectrum; to not limit yourself by adhering to the beliefs of a certain party or worrying about your scholarship being politically correct; and to be prepared for major fundamental change not just of your mind but of your entire belief system and life.