Fate and Freedom in History

September 1, 2002 Topic: Society Tags: AcademiaNew Left

Fate and Freedom in History

Mini Teaser: The historical revisionists of the Sixties have been the last to adapt to the end of the Cold War: case in point, Eric Foner.

by Author(s): John Patrick Diggins

"Ideals, conventions, even truth itself, are continually changing things so that the milk of one generation may be the poison of the next. . . . When a generation succeeds . . . in handing down all of its discoveries and none of its delusions, its children shall inherit the earth."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1924

"Give a professor a false thesis in early life, and he will teach it till he dies. He has no way of correcting it." -- John Jay Chapman, 1900

Can the "milk" of one generation become the "poison" of the next? Only if it goes stale and asks to be drunk as fresh. The generation of the Sixties started out with its "discoveries" about the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the deficiencies of America in general. From that dramatic moment, when ideals clashed hard against reality, the generation proceeded to its analysis of the causes of things, and as the Sixties New Left evolved into the Academic Left, it began to hand down to a subsequent generation its delusions about the meaning of America and the nature of history, delusions for which there seems to be no means of correction.

We can divide post-World War II American historical scholarship into two categories: pre-Sixties and post-Sixties. An essentially liberal anti-communist outlook that characterized the field for two decades from the late 1940s through the late 1960s was superseded by a post-Sixties revisionism that subjected America to scrutiny while turning to a stance of anti-anti-communism. The Vietnam fiasco gave us that, and it is not hard to see why the older view came under stress and strain. What is hard to understand is why the post-Sixties anti-anti-communist outlook in the academy has itself not been affected by the end of the Cold War, and particularly by the way it ended. The post-Sixties school remains dominant now in its fourth decade, and there are scant signs of a subsequent school of thought arising to replace its take on things political and cultural. No doubt a future generation will impose its own delusions onto history, but for now, the staying power of the post-Sixties school defies both Charles Darwin and Andy Warhol: Its thinking seems helpless to adapt to change, and it refuses to relinquish its 15 minutes of fame.

A common impression, however, would have us believe the opposite: that the conservative 1950s complacently rested its case on a consensus that resisted change, while the radical 1960s uncovered the deeper reality of conflict and demanded profound changes everywhere in American life. But if the 1950s stood for the status quo, why did that generation prove incapable of sustaining it in the academy? Conversely, if the 1960s generation stood for change, why does our present academic Left resist all change in its own views and hold to interpretations of history that history itself has left behind?

There is an embarrassing disparity between the political character of America and the activist historians who interpret it. On the one hand, every opinion poll indicates that Americans hold values that are conservative on economic issues and somewhat liberal on cultural matters, and that poor people believe in the American dream far more than the intellectuals who deride it. On the other hand, many historians, especially labor and social historians, remain convinced that the poor have a higher consciousness by virtue of their sufferings, and that history "from the bottom up" will challenge capitalism and deliver us to one or another form of progressive socialism. Such thinking, as Oscar Wilde once noted, confuses Marx with Jesus: "There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor."

The persistence of the post-Sixties school of historiography in misinterpreting America is unique in the annals of American intellectual history. When previous generations of radicals--the Lyrical Left of New York's Greenwich Village in the pre-World War I years, the Old Left of the depression years--saw that history had failed to fulfill their expectations, most members reconsidered their misplaced hopes for a better world and sought new interpretations of America's consensual social order. In the postwar era, that effort started as early as 1950 with Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination. Trilling advised scholars to reconsider the mantra of social realism. It concluded in 1960 with Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology, which demonstrated why Marxism must make room for Weber and Tocqueville. But the post-Sixties academic perspective identifies truth with tenacity and mistakes reiteration for reflection. When history failed to conform to its dreams, many of its members went on to graduate school and became, among other things, professors of history. Within a decade the generation of Sixties radicals progressed from political error to professorial tenure.

The most impassioned defense of post-Sixties historical scholarship is Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History, published in 1997. Past president of the Organization of American Historians and winner of a MacArthur Prize, Levine responds to growing criticism of multiculturalism in higher education by listing the ways in which campuses are now more receptive to their increasingly complex ethnic and minority population. An obvious retort to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Levine argues that all of American historiography is a study in generational revisionism, and that historians should not imagine that there was ever some mythical age in which the problem of change did not exist. Fair enough. But the irony is that Levine does not apply this insight to the post-Sixties school he seeks to defend. We have been waiting now for close to a half century for the post-Sixties professoriate to express the "opening of the American mind" by opening itself to new interpretations, and to revise its own heralded revisions. We wait in vain.

One thinks (yet again) of Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog and fox. As we know, the "hedgehog" is the monist who sees only one big thing and relates everything else to it, whereas the "fox" is the pluralist who pursues different ends and entertains a variety of thoughts without concern for philosophical foundations. The hedgehog presumes to understand both the movement and the meaning of history, but is often untutored in or unconcerned about practical matters. The fox confesses perplexity in the face of history's inscrutable ways, but accepts the responsibility of coping with events. In American terms, hedgehogs tend to be ideologues, foxes pragmatists. At the height of the Cold War, European intellectuals were presumed to be ideological and American intellectuals pragmatic. Today it often seems the other way around, at least in certain sections of historiography. Consider in that light the careers of François Furet and Eric Foner.

French Fox, American Hedgehog

Furet had been a member of the French Communist Party from 1948 to 1956, when he broke away in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In his career as a historian, he came to realize that his attraction to communism flowed from his personal need for protective illusions. "A great deal of intelligence", he quotes Saul Bellow's epigram, "can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusions is deep." No one had to tell Furet that the personal is the political: "The question I am trying to understand today is therefore inseparable from my own existence."

Furet became a leading authority on the French Revolution and, hard into its details like a fox, could not help but illuminate its practical lessons for contemporary scholars and intellectuals. In Penser la Revolution française and elsewhere, he observed French radicals operating under the perilous illusion that they spoke for and represented the will of the people--the very thing John Adams keyed upon in his critique of Rousseau's idea of the "general will." When the Revolution turned toward terror in the 1790s, the competition for control of committees became vital, and those who could manipulate discourse and dominate language, like Robespierre, rose to the top. The Jacobin faction succeeded temporarily not because it was democratic but because it was linguistically adept, and hence sought "to radicalize the Revolution by making it consistent with its discourse."

Furet's description of France almost succumbing to the most persuasive and devious writers and orators bodes ill for countries willing to trust their future to frustrated intellectuals, particularly those with a will to political correctness. In France the Jacobins fell; in Russia, however, they triumphed, and Furet's The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, offers a comprehensive study of the course of the Bolshevik Revolution in different epochs, and of the illusions held by intellectuals in various countries in each of those epochs.

Few Europeans, Furet notes, had any real idea of what was going on in Russia; there was no equivalent, for example, of New York's Partisan Review. After World War II, French communists could barely stand the thought that their country had been liberated by America, Furet notes, as he describes how the French Left depicted the hopelessly "bourgeois" United States carrying the seeds of "fascism" and "totalitarianism." All along, the Bolsheviks disdained everything the United States stood for, although such views had to be played down during the period of the Popular Front and the U.S.-Soviet alliance of World War II. Later, however, after he broke with communism, Furet came to see the United States as a "role model", a country whose religion nourished capitalism and liberal individualism. He became an admirer of Tocqueville, the first Frenchman to see America's promise and the vision of the future it could offer. In his last few years (he died in 1997), Furet had become something of a cultural hero on French television. Adults of his generation, as well as young students and academics, were shocked to find that they had been misled by their elders about Russia, particularly by writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, who denied the terrors of Stalinism and the existence of slave labor camps. Furet helped them see that what they had been taught about Russia was worse than an illusion; it was a lie.

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