What is Radical History?

by Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was a great people's historian, playwright, and social activist. His work has inspired millions and much of this website. This essay is taken from his excellent book The Politics of History (1970).

Historical writing always has some effect on us. It may reinforce passivity; it may activate us. In any case, the historian cannot choose to be neutral; he writes on a moving train.

Sometimes, what he tells may change a person's life. In May 1968 I heard a Catholic priest, on trial in Milwaukee for burning the records of a draft board, tell (I am paraphrasing) how he came to that act:

I was trained in Rome. I was quite conservative, never broke a rule in seminary. Then I read a book by Gordon Zahn called German Catholics and Hitler's War.  It told how the Catholic Church carried on its normal activities while Hitler carried on his. It told how SS men went to mass, then went out to round up Jews. That book changed my life. I decided the church must never behave again as it did in the past; and that I must not.

This is unusually clear. In most cases, where people turn in new directions, the causes are so complex, so subtle, that they are impossible to trace. Nevertheless, we all are aware of how in one degree or another, things we read or heard changed our view of the world or how we must behave. We know there have been many people who themselves did not experience evil, but who became persuaded that it existed, and that they must oppose it. What makes us human is our capacity to reach with our mind beyond our immediate sensory capacities, to feel in some degree what others feel totally, and then perhaps to act on such feelings.

I start therefore, from the idea of writing history in such a way as to extend human sensibilities, not out of this book into other books, but into the going conflict over how people shall live and whether they shall live.

I am urging value-laden historiography. For those who still rebel at this—despite my argument that this does not determine answers, only questions; despite my plea that aesthetic work, done for pleasure, should always have its place; despite my insistence that our work is value-laden whether we choose or not—let me point to one area of American education where my idea has been accepted. I am speaking of "Black Studies," which, starting about 1969, began to be adopted with great speed in the nation's universities.

These multiplying Black Studies programs do not pretend to just introduce another subject for academic inquiry. They have the specific intention of so affecting the consciousness of black and white people in this country as to diminish for both groups the pervasive American belief in black inferiority.

This deliberate attempt to foster racial equality should be joined, I am suggesting, by similar efforts for national and class equality. This will probably come, as the Black Studies programs not by a gradual acceptance of the appropriate arguments, but by a crisis so dangerous as to demand quick changes in attitude. Scholarly exhortation is, therefore, not likely to initiate a new emphasis in historical writing, but perhaps it can support and ease it.

What kind of awareness moves people in humanistic directions, and how can historical writing create such awareness such movement? I can think of five ways in which history can be useful. That is only a rough beginning. I don't want to lay down formulas. There will be useful histories written that do not fit into preconceived categories. I want only to sharpen the focus for myself and others who would rather have their writing guided by human aspiration than by professional habit.

1. We can intensify, expand, sharpen our perception of how bad things are, for the victims of the world. This becomes less and less a philanthropic act as all of us, regardless of race, geography or class, become potential victims of a burned, irradiated planet.  But even our own victimization is separated from us by time and the fragility of our imagination, as that of others is separated from us because most of us are white, prosperous, and within the walls of a country so over-armed it is much more likely to be an aggressor than a victim.

History can try to overcome both kinds of separation. The fascinating progression of a past historical event can have greater effect on us than some cool, logical discourse on the dangerous possibilities of present trends—if only for one reason, because we learn the end of that story. True, there is a chill in the contemplation of nuclear war, but it is still a contemplation whose most horrible possibilities we cannot bring ourselves to accept. It is a portent that for full effect needs buttressing by another story whose conclusion is known. Surely, in this nuclear age our concern over the proliferation of H-bombs is powerfully magnified as we read Barbara Tuchman's account of the coming of the First World War. 1

War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it on. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour's head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country's fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.
There it is, us. In another time, of course. But unmistakably us.  

    Other kinds of separation, from the deprived and harried people of the world, the black, the poor, the prisoners—are sometimes easier to overcome across time than across space: hence the value of historical recollection. Both the Autobiography of Malcolm X and the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass are history, one more recent than the other. Both assault our complacency. So do the photos on television of blacks burning buildings in the ghetto today, but the autobiographies do something special: they let us look closely, carefully, personally behind the impersonality of those blacks on the screen. They invade our homes, as the blacks in the ghetto have not yet done; and our minds, which we tend to harden against the demands of now. They tell us, in some small degree, what it is like to be black, in a way that all the liberal cliches about the downtrodden Negro could never match. And thus they insist that we act; they explain why blacks are acting. They prepare us, if not to initiate, to respond.

Slavery is over, but its degradation now takes other forms, at the bottom of which is the unspoken belief that the black person is not quite a human being. The recollection of what slavery is like, what slaves are like, helps to attack that belief. Take the letter Frederick Douglass wrote his former master in 1848, on the tenth anniversary of his flight to freedom: 2

I have selected this day to address you because it is the anniversary of my emancipation . . . Just ten years ago this beautiful September morning yon bright sun beheld me a slave—a poor, degraded chattel—trembling at the sound of your voice, lamenting that I was a man ...
When yet but a child about six years old I imbibed the determination to run away. The very first mental effort that I now remember on my part, was an attempt to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave.  When I saw a slave driver whip a slave woman ... and heard her piteous cries, I went away into the corner of the fence, wept and pondered over the mystery ... I resolved that I would someday run away.
The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons. What you are, I am. I am not by nature bound to you nor you to me. ... In leaving you I took nothing but what belonged to me ...

Why do we need to reach into the past, into the days of slavery?  Isn't the experience of Malcolm X, in our own time enough?   I see two values in going back. One is that dealing with the past, our guard is down, because we start off thinking it is over and we have nothing to fear by taking it all in. We turn out to be wrong, because its immediacy strikes us, affects us before we know it; when we have recognized this, it is too late—we have been moved.  Another reason is that time adds depth and intensity to a problem which otherwise might seem a passing one, susceptible to being brushed away. To know that long continuity, across the centuries, of the degradation that stalked both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X (between whose lives stretched that of W.E.B. DuBois recorded in The Souls of Black Folk and Dusk of Dawn is to reveal how infuriatingly long has been this black ordeal in white America. If nothing else, it would make us understand in that black mood of today what we might otherwise see as impatience, and what history tells us is overlong endurance.

Can history also sharpen our perception of that poverty hidden from sight by the foliage of the suburbs? The poor, like the black, become invisible in a society blinded by the glitter of its own luxury True we can be forcefully reminded that they exist, as we were m the United States in the 1960's when our sensibilities had been sharpened by the civil rights revolt, and our tolerance of government frayed by the Vietnamese war. At such a time, books like Michael Harrington's The Other America jabbed at us, without going back into the past, just supplying a periscope so that we could see around the corner, and demanding that we look.

Where history can help is by showing us how other people similarly situated, in other times, were blind to how their neighbors were living, in the same city. Suppose that, amidst the "prosperity" of the 1950's, we had read about the 1920's, another era of affluence.   Looking hard, we might find the report of Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana, investigating conditions in Pennsylvania during the coal strike of 1928. 3

All day long I have listened to heartrending stories of women evicted from their homes by the coal companies. I heard pitiful pleas of little children crying for bread. I stood aghast as I heard most amazing stories from men brutally beaten by private policemen. It has been a shocking and nerve-racking experience.

  Would this not suggest to us that perhaps in our time too a veil is drawn over the lives of many Americans, that the sounds of prosperity drown out all else, and the voices of the well-off dominate history?

In our time, as in the past, we construct "history on the basis of accounts left by the most articulate, the most privileged members of society. The result is a distorted picture of how people live, an underestimation of poverty, a failure to portray vividly the situations of those in distress. If, in the past, we can manage to find the voice of the underdog, this may lead us to look for the lost pleas of our own era. True, we could accomplish this directly for the present without going back. But sometimes the disclosure of what is hidden in the past prompts us, particularly when there is no immediate  prod, to look more penetratingly into contemporary society. (In my own experience, reading in the papers of Fiorello LaGuardia the letters from the East Harlem poor in the twenties, made me take a second look at the presumed good times of the fifties.)

Is the picture of society given by its victims a true one?  There is no one true picture of any historical situation, no one objective description.  This search for a nonexistent objectivity has led us, ironically, into a particularly retrogressive subjectivity, that of the bystander. Society has varying and conflicting interests; what is called objectivity is the disguise of one of these interests—that of neutrality. But neutrality is a fiction in an unneutral world.  There are victims, there are executioners, and there are bystanders. In the dynamism of our time, when heads roll into the basket every hour, what is "true" varies according to what happens to your own head—and the "objectivity" of the bystander calls for inaction while other heads fall. In Camus' The Plague, Dr. Rieux says:  "All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences, and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences." Not to act is to join forces with the spreading plague.

What is the "truth" about the situation of the black man in the United States in 1968? Statistics can be put together which show that his position has improved. Statistics can be put together which show that his situation is as bad as it always was.   Both sets of statistics are "true." *

* See Vivian Henderson, The Economic Status of Negroes, Southern Regional Council, 1963. One sentence in the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam, 1968, p. 13,  reveals the complexity: 'Although there have been gains in Negro income nationally, and a decline in the number of Negroes below the 'poverty level,' the condition of Negroes in the central city remains in a state of crisis.'
  But the first leads to a satisfaction with the present rate of change; the second leads to a desire for quickening the rate of change. The closest we can come to that elusive "objectivity" is to report accurately all of the subjectivities in a situation. But we emphasize one. or another of those subjective views in any case. I suggest we depart from our customary position as privileged observers. Unless we wrench free from being what we like to call—objective," we are closer psychologically, whether we like to admit it or not, to the executioner than to the victim.

There is no need to hide the data which show that some Negroes are climbing the traditional American ladder faster than before, that the ladder is more crowded than before. But there is a need—coming from the determination to represent those still wanting the necessities of existence (food, shelter, dignity, freedom)—to emphasize the lives of those who cannot even get near the ladder. The latest report of the Census Bureau is as "true," in some abstract sense, as the reports of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver on their lives. But the radical historian will, without hiding the former (there are already many interests at work to tell us that, anyway) emphasize those facts we are most likely to ignore and these are the facts as seen by the victims.

Thus, a history of slavery drawn from the narratives of fugitive slaves is especially important. It cannot monopolize the historiography in any case, because the histories we already have are those from the standpoint of the slaveholder (Ulrich Phillip's account, based on plantation diaries, for instance), or from the standpoint of the cool observer (the liberal historian, chastising slavery but without the passion appropriate to a call for action). A slave-oriented history simply fills out the picture in such a way as to pull us out of lethargy.  

The same is true in telling the story of the American Revolution from the standpoint of the sailor rather than the merchant. 4 and for telling the story of the Mexican War from the standpoint of the Mexicans. The point is not to omit the viewpoint of the privileged (that dominates the field anyway), but to remind  us forcibly that there is always a tendency, now as then, to see history from the top. Perhaps a history of the Opium War seen through Chinese eyes would suggest to Americans that the Vietnamese war might also be seen through Vietnamese eyes.*

* See the letter of Commissioner Lin to Queen Victoria in Teng Ssu-yu, and Fairbank, John K.. Chinas Response to the West, Harvard University, 1954, p. 24.

2.  We can expose the pretensions of governments to either neutrality or beneficence. If the first requisite for activating people is to sharpen their awareness of what is wrong, the second is to disabuse them of the confidence that they can depend on governments to rectify what is wrong.

Again I start from the premise that there are terrible wrongs all about us, too many for us to rest content even if not everyone is being wronged. Governments of the world have not been disposed to change things very much. Indeed, they have often been the perpetrators of these wrongs. To drive this point at us strongly pushes us to act ourselves.

Does this mean I am not being "objective" about the role of governments? Let us take a look at the historical role of the United States on the race question. For instance, what did the various American governments do for the black person in America right after the Civil War? Let's be "objective," in the sense of telling all the facts that answer this question. Therefore we should take proper note of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendments, the Freedman's Bureau, the stationing of armed forces in the South the passage of civil rights laws in 1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875.   But we should also record the court decisions emasculating the Fourteenth Amendment, the betrayal of the Negro in the 1877 Hayes-Tilden agreement, the nonenforcement of the civil rights acts. Ultimately, even if we told all, our emphasis in the end would be subjective—it would depend on who we are and what we want. A present concern, that citizens need to act them selves, suggests we emphasize the unreliability of government in securing equal rights for black people.

Another question: to what extent can we rely on our government to equitably distribute the wealth of the country? We could take proper account of the laws passed in this century which seemed directed at economic justice: the railroad regulation acts of the Progressive era, the creation of the graduated income tax in the Wilson administration, the suits against trusts initiated in the Theodore Roosevelt and Taft administrations. But a present recognition of the fact that the allocation of wealth to the upper and lower fifths of the population has not fundamentally changed in this century would suggest that all that legislation has only man aged to maintain the status quo. To change this, we would need to emphasize, what has not so far been emphasized, the persistent failure of government to alter the continuing inequities of the American economic system.

Historians' assessments of the New Deal illustrate this problem. We, can all be "objective" by including in any description of the New Deal both its wealth of reform legislation and its inadequacies in eradicating poverty and unemployment in America. But there is always an emphasis, subtle or gross, which we bring to bear on this picture. One kind of emphasis adds to a feeling of satisfaction in how America has been able to deal with economic crisis.   Another stimulates us to do more ourselves, in the light of the past failure at dealing with the fundamental irrationality by which our nation's resources are distributed. The needs of the present suggest that the second kind of historical presentation is preferable.*

* This should not be confused with 'the search for culpability.' as Jerald S. Auerbach puts it, criticizing the New Left critics of the New Deal.  The point is not to denounce the New Deal of FDR, nor to praise it; that kind of historical evaluation is useless, as I suggest in my discussion of responsibility in Chapter 17 of this book. Auerbach, in 'New Deal, Old Deal or Raw Deal: Some Thoughts on New Left Historiography,' Journal of Southern History. February 1969, mistakes the intention of those who (like myself in New Deal Thought, Bobbs-Merrill, 1966, or like Paul Conkin, in The New Deal, Thomas Crowell, 1967) stress the inadequacies of the Roosevelt reforms. Our aim is not castigation of past politics, but stimulation of present citizens.

Thus, it is worth putting in their proper little place the vaunted liberal reforms of the Wilson administration. For instance, in a situation like the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, Wilson called out the federal troops not when the striking miners of Colorado were being machine-gunned by the Baldwin-Felts detectives or their homes burned by the National Guard, but when they began to arm and retaliate on a large scale. To take another case, it is useful to know that social security measures were proposed in 1935 beyond those supported by FDR, but that he pushed more moderate proposals. In the light of our belated recognition that social security payments are now and have always been pitifully inadequate, how we view FDR's social security program may or may not reinforce our determination to change things.

A radical history, then, would expose the limitations of governmental reform, the connections of government to wealth and privilege, the tendencies of governments toward war and xenophobia, the play of money and power behind the presumed neutrality of law. It would illustrate the role of government in maintaining things as they are, whether by force, or deception, or by a skillful combination of both—whether by deliberate plan or by the concatenation of thousands of individuals playing roles according to the expectations around them.

Such motivating facts are available in the wealth of data about present governments. What historical material can do is to add the depth that time imparts to an idea. What one sees in the present may be attributable to a passing phenomenon; if the same situation appears at various points in history, it becomes not a transitory event, but a long-range condition, not an aberration, but a structural deformity requiring serious attention.

For instance, we would see more clearly the limitations of government investigating committees set up to deal with deep-rooted social problems if we knew the history of such committees. Take Kenneth dark's blunt testimony to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which was set up after the urban outbreaks of 1967. Pointing to a similar investigation set up after the 1919 riot in Chicago, he said: 5

I read that report ... of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture, reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.

3.  We can expose the ideology thai pervades our culture  —using ideologv" in Mannheim's sense: rationale for the going order.  There is the open sanctification of racism, of war, of economic inequality There is also the more subtle supportive tissue of halftruths.  ("We are not like the imperialist powers of the nineteenth century"); noble myths ("We were born free"); pretenses (Education is the disinterested pursuit of knowledge"); the mystification of rhetoric ("freedom and justice for all"); the confusion of ideals and reality (The Declaration of Independence and its call for revolution, in our verbal tradition; the Smith Act and its prohibition of calls for revolution, on our lawbooks); the use of symbols to obscure reality ("Remember the Maine, vis-a-vis rotten beef for the troops); the innocence of the double standard deploring the violence of John Brown; hailing the violence of Ulysses S. Grant); the concealment of ironies (using the Fourteenth Amendment to help corporations instead of Negroes).

The more widespread is education in a society, the more mystification is required to conceal what is wrong; church, school, and the written word work together for that concealment. This is not the work of a conspiracy; the privileged of society are as much victims of the going mythology as the teachers, priests, and journalists who spread it. All simply do what comes naturally and what comes naturally is to say what has always been said, to believe what has always been believed.

History has a special ability to reveal the ludicrousness of those beliefs which glue us all to the social frame of our fathers. It also can reinforce that frame with great power, and has done so most of the time. Our problem is to turn the power of history—which can work both ways—to the job of demystification. I recall the words of the iconoclast sociologist E. Franklin Frazier to Negro college students one evening in Atlanta, Georgia:  "All your life white folks have bamboozled you, preachers have bamboozled you, teachers have bamboozled you; I am here to debamboozle you."

Recalling the rhetoric of the past, and measuring it against the actual past, may enable us to see through our current bamboozlement, where the reality is still unfolding, and the discrepancies still not apparent. To read Albert Beveridge's noble plea in the Senate January 9, 1900, urging acquisition of the Philippines with "thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world," and then to read of our butchery of the Filipino rebels who wanted independence, is to prepare us better for speeches about our "world responsibility" today. That recollection might make  us properly suspicious of Arthur Schlesinger's attempt to set a "historical framework" for Vietnam comprised of "two traditional and entirely honorable strands in American thinking " one of which "is the concept that the United States has a saving mission in the world." 6  In the light of the history of idea and fact in American expansionism, that strand is not quite honorable. The Vietnam disaster was not, as Schlesinger says, "a final and tragic misapplication" of those strands, a wandering from a rather benign historical tradition, but another twining of the deadly strands around a protesting foreign people.

To take another example where the history of ideas is suggestive for today: we might clarify for ourselves the puzzling question of how to account for American expansion into the Pacific in the post-World War II period when the actual material interests there do not seem to warrant such concern. Marilyn B. Young, in her study of the Open Door period, indicates how the mystique of being "a world power" carried the United States into strong action despite "the lack of commercial and financial interest." Thus "The Open Door passed into the small body of sacred American doctrine and an assumption of America's 'vital stake' in China was made and never relinquished."7 Her book documents the buildup of this notion of the "vital stake," in a way that might make us more loath to accept unquestioningly the claims of American leaders defending incursions into Asian countries today.

For Americans caught up in the contemporary glorification of efficiency and success, without thought of ends, it might be liberating to read simultaneously All Quiet on the Western Front (for the fetid reality of World War I) and Randolph Bourne's comment on the American intellectuals of 1917.8  

They have, in short, no clear philosophy of life except that of intelligent service, the admirable adaptation of means to ends. They are vague as to what kind of a society they want or what kind of society America needs, but they are equipped with all the administrative attitudes and talents necessary to attain it ... It is now becoming plain that unless you start with the vividest kind of poetic vision, your instrumentalism is likely to land you just where it has landed this younger intelligentsia which is so happily and busily engaged in the national enterprise of war.

4. We can recapture those few moments in the past which show the possibility of a better way of life than that which has dominated the earth thus far.  To move men to act it is not enough to enhance their sense of what is wrong, to show that the men in power are untrustworthy, to reveal that our very way of thinking is limited, distorted, corrupted. One must also show that something else is possible, that changes can take place. Otherwise, people retreat into privacy, cynicism, despair, or even collaboration with the mighty.

History cannot provide confirmation that something better is inevitable; but it can uncover evidence that it is conceivable. It can point to moments when human beings cooperated with one another (the organization of the underground railroad by black and white, the French Resistance to Hitler, the anarchist achievements in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War). It can find times when governments were capable of a bit of genuine concern (the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the free medical care in socialist countries, the equal-wages principle of the Paris Commune). It can disclose men and women acting as heroes rather than culprits or fools (the story of Thoreau or Wendell Phillips or Eugene Debs, or Martin Luther King or Rosa Luxemburg). It can remind us that apparently powerless groups have won against overwhelming odds (the abolitionists and the Thirteenth Amendment, the CIO and the sit-down strikes, the Vietminh and the Algerians against the French).

Historical evidence has special functions. It lends weight and depth to evidence which, if culled only from contemporary life, might seem frail. And, by portraying the movements of men over time, it shows the possibility of change. Even if the actual change has been so small as to leave us still desperate today, we need, to spur us on, the faith that change is possible. Thus, while taking proper note of how much remains to be done, it is important to compare the consciousness of white Americans about black people in the 1930's and in the 1960's to see how a period of creative conflict can change people's minds and behavior. Also, while noting how much remains to be done in China, it is important to see with what incredible speed the Chinese Communists have been able to mobilize seven hundred million people against famine and disease. We need to know, in the face of terrifying power behind the accusing shouts against us who rebel, that we are not mad; that men in the past, whom we know, in the perspective of time, to have been great, felt as we do. At moments when we are tempted to go along with the general condemnation of revolution we need to refresh ourselves with Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. At times when we are about to surrender to the glorification of law, Thoreau and Tolstoi can revive our conviction that justice supersedes law.

That is why, for instance, Staughton Lynd's book, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, is useful history. It recalls an eighteenth-century Anglo-American tradition declaring: 9

. . . that the proper foundation for government is a universal law of right and wrong self-evident to the intuitive common sense of every man; that freedom is a power of personal self-direction which no man can delegate to another: that the purpose of society is not the protection of property but fulfillment of the needs of living human beings; that good citizens have the right and duty, not only to overthrow incurable oppressive governments, but before that point is reached to break particular oppressive laws; and that we owe our ultimate allegiance, not to this or that nation, but to the whole family of man.

In a time when that tradition has been befogged by cries on all sides for "law and order" and "patriotism" (a word playing on the ambiguity between concern for one's government and concern for one's fellows) we need to remind ourselves of the depth of the humanistic, revolutionary impulse. The reach across the centuries conveys that depth.

By the criteria I have been discussing, a recollection of that tradition is radical history. It is therefore worth looking briefly at why Lynd's book has been criticized harshly by another radical, Eugene Genovese, who is a historian interested in American slavery. 10

Genovese is troubled that Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism is "plainly meant to serve political ends." If he only were criticizing "the assumption that myth-making and falsifying in historical writing can be of political use" (for instance, the history written by so-called Marxists in the Stalinist mode) then he would be right. But Genovese seems to mean something else, for Lynd is certainly telling us the straight truth about the ideas of those early Anglo-American thinkers. He says a historical work should not deal with the past in terms of "moral standards abstracted from any time and place."

Specifically, Genovese does not like the way Lynd uses the ideas of the Declaration of Independence as a kind of "moral absolutism" transcending time, connecting radicals of the eighteenth century with those of the twentieth, while failing to discuss "the role of class or the historical setting of the debates among radicals." He is critical of the fact that "Lynd never discusses the relation of these ideas to the social groups that hold them" and claims Lynd "denies the importance of the social context in which ideas occur," rather seeing the great moral truths as "self-evident and absolute." This means to Genovese that Lynd "thereby denies the usefulness of history except for purposes of moral exhortation." He says Lynd leaves out "the working class, the socialist movements" and the "counter-tendencies and opposing views of the Left," thus making the book "a travesty of history."

It is a powerful and important criticism. But I believe Genovese is wrong—not in his description of what Lynd does, but in his estimate of its worth. His plea not to discuss the past by moral standards "abstracted from time and place" is inviting because we (especially we professional historians) are attached to the anchor of historical particularity, and do not want some ethereal, Utopian standard of judgment. But to abstract from time and place is not to remove completely from time and place; it is rather to remove enough of the historical detail so that common ground can be found between two or more historical periods—or more specifically, between another period and our own. (It is, indeed, only carrying further what we must of necessity do even when we are discussing the moral standard of any one time and place, or the view of any one social movement—because all are unique on the most concrete level.) To study the past in the light of what Genovese calls "moral absolutism" is really to study the past relative to ideals which move us in the present but which are broad enough to have moved other people in other times in history.

The lure of "time and place" is the lure of the professional historian interested in "my period" or "my topic." These particularities of time and place can be enormously useful, depending on the question that is asked. But if the question being asked is (as for Lynd): What support can we find in the past for values that seem worthwhile today?—a good deal of circumstantial evidence is not especially relevant. Only if no present question is asked, does all the particular detail, the rich, complex, endless detail of a period become important, without discrimination. And that, I would argue, is a much more abstract kind of history, because it is abstracted from a specific present concern. That, I would claim, is a surrender to the absolute of professional historiography: Tell as much as you can.

Similarly, the demand for "the role of class" in treating the natural-right ideas of Locke, Paine, and others, would be very important if the question being asked was: how do class backgrounds and ideas interact on one another (to better understand the weaknesses of both ideological and Utopian thinking today).  But for Staughton Lynd's special purpose, another emphasis was required. When one focuses on history with certain questions, much is left out. But this is true even when there is a lack of focus.

Similar to the professional dogma requiring "time and place" is a dogma among Marxist intellectuals requiring "the role of class" as if this were the touchstone for radical history. Even if one replaced (as Genovese is anxious to do) the economic determinism of a crude Marxism with "a sophisticated class analysis of historical change," discussing class "as a complex mixture of material interests, ideologies, and psychological attitudes," this may or may not move people forward toward change today. That the total effect of history on the social setting today—is the criterion for a truly radical history, and not some abstract, absolute standard of methodology to which Marxists as well as others can get obsessively attached.

For instance, Genovese agrees that one of the great moral truths Lynd discusses—the use of conscience against authority as the ultimate test for political morality—was a revolutionary force in the past. But for Genovese this is a historical fact about a particular period, whereas: "Lynd seeks to graft them on to a socialist revolution, the content of which he never discusses. He merely asserts that they form the kernel of revolutionary socialist thought, although no socialist movement has ever won power with such an ideology. . . ." This is precisely the reason for asserting a moral value shared by certain eighteenth-century thinkers (and, on a certain level, by Marx and Engels): that socialist movements thus far have not paid sufficient attention to the right of conscience against all states. To be truly radical is to maintain a set of transcendental beliefs (yes, absolutes) by which to judge and thus to transform any particular social system.

In sum, while there is a value to specific analysis of particular historical situations, there is another kind of value to the unearthing of ideals which cross historical periods and give strength to beliefs needing reinforcement today. The trouble is, even Marxist historians have not paid sufficient attention to the Marxian admonition in his Theses on Feuerbach: "The dispute over the reality or nonreality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question." Any dispute over a "true" history cannot be resolved in theory; the real question is, which of the several possible "true" histories (on that elementary level of factual truth) is true, not to some dogmatic notion about what a radical interpretation should contain, but to the practical needs for social change in our day? If the "political ends" Genovese warns against and Lynd espouses are not the narrow interests of a nation or party or ideology, but those humanistic values we have not yet attained, it is desirable that history should serve political ends.

5. We can show how good social movements can go wrong, how leaders can betray their followers, how rebels can become bureaucrats, how ideals can become frozen and reified.  This is needed as a corrective to the blind faith that revolutionaries often develop in their movements, leaders, theories, so that future actors for social change can avoid the traps of the past. To use Karl Mannheim's distinction, while ideology is the tendency of those in power to falsify, utopianism is the tendency of those out of power to distort. History can show us the manifestations of the latter as well as the former.

History should put us on guard against the tendency of revolutionaries to devour their followers along with their professed principles. We need to remind ourselves of the failure of the American revolutionaries to eliminate slavery, despite the pretensions of the  Declaration of Independence, and the failure of the new republic to deal justly with the Whiskey Rebels in Pennsylvania despite the fact a revolution had been fought against unjust taxes. Similarly we need to recall the cry of protest against the French Revolution in its moment of triumph, by Jacques Roux and the poor of Gravillers, protesting against profiteering, or by Jean Varlet, declaring: "Despotism has passed from the palace of the kings to the circle of a committee." *   Revolutionaries, without dimming their enthusiasm for change, should read Khrushchev's speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, with its account of the paranoid cruelties of Stalin.

* For a marvelous historical document of this aspect of the French Revolution, see Scott, ed., The Defense of Gracches Babeuf  Before the High Court of Vendome, University of Massachusetts Press 1967

The point is not to turn us away from social movements but into critical participants in them, by showing us how easy it is for rebels to depart from their own claims. For instance, it might make us aware of our own tendencies—enlightened though we are—to be paternal to the aggrieved to read the speech of the lack abolitionist Theodore S. Wright, at the 1837 Utica convention of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Wright criticized "the spirit of the slaver" among white Abolitionists. Or we might read the reply of Henry Highland Garnet in 1843 to the white Abolitionist lady who rebuked him for his militancy: 11

You say I have received "bad counsel." You are not the only person who has told your humble servant that his humble productions have been produced by the "counsel" of some Anglo-Saxon. I have expected no more from ignorant slaveholders and their apologists but I really looked for better things from Mrs. Maria W. Chapman anti-slavery poetess and editor pro tern of the Boston Liberator

The history of radical movements can make us watchful for narcissistic arrogance, the blind idolization of leaders the substitution of dogma for a careful look at the environment, the lure of compromise when leaders of a movement hobnob too frequently with those in power.  For anyone joyful over the election of socialists to office in a capitalist state, the recounting by Robert Michels of the history of the German Social Democratic Party is enlightening. Michels shows how parliamentary power can be corrupting because radicals elected to office become separated from the rank and file of their own movement, and are invested with a prestige which makes it more difficult to criticize their actions.12

During the discussions in the Reichstag concerning the miners-strike in the basin of the Ruhr (1905), the deputy Hue spoke of the maximum program of the party as "Utopian," and in the socialist press there was manifested no single symptom of revolt. On the first occasion on which the party departed from its principle of unconditional opposition to all military expenditure, contenting itself with simple abstention when the first credit of 1,500,000 marks was voted for the war against the Hereros, this remarkable innovation which in every other socialist party would have unquestionably evoked a storm from one section of the members . . . aroused among the German socialists no more than a few dispersed and timid protests.

Such searching histories of radical movements can deter the tendency to make absolutes of those instruments-party, leaders platforms—which should be constantly subject to examination.  That revolutionaries themselves are burdened by tradition and cannot completely break from thinking in old ways, was seen by Marx in the remarkable passage opening The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language . . .

How to use the past to change the world, and yet not be encumbered by it—both skills can be sharpened by a judicious culling of past experience. But the delicate balance between them cannot come from historical data alone—only from a clearly focused vision of the human ends which history should serve.

History is not inevitably useful. It can bind us or free us. It can destroy compassion by showing us the world through the eyes of the comfortable ("the slaves are happy, just listen to them"  leading to "the poor are content, just look at them"). It can oppress any resolve to act by mountains of trivia, by diverting us into intellectual games, by pretentious "interpretations" which spur contemplation rather than action, by limiting our vision to an endless story of disaster and thus promoting cynical withdrawal, by befogging us with the encyclopedic eclecticism of the standard textbook.  

But history can untie our minds, our bodies, our disposition to move—to engage life rather than contemplating it as an outsider.  It can do this by widening our view to include the silent voices of the past, so that we look behind the silence of the present. It can illustrate the foolishness of depending on others to solve the problems of the world—whether the state, the church, or other self-proclaimed benefactors. It can reveal how ideas are stuffed into us by the powers of our time, and so lead us to stretch our minds beyond what is given. It can inspire us by recalling those few moments in the past when men did behave like human beings, to prove it is possible. And it can sharpen our critical faculties so that even while we act, we think—about the dangers created by our own desperation.

These criteria I have discussed are not conclusive. They are a rough guide. I assume that history is not a well-ordered city (despite the neat staks of the library) but a jungle. I would be foolish to claim my guidance is infallible. The only thing I am really sure of is that we who plunge into the jungle need to think about what we are doing, because there is somewhere we want to go.

Clicking on the footnote number will return you to your place in the text.
1. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, Macmillan, 1962, p. 72.
2. Herbert Aptheker, A Documentary History of the Negro People, Citadel, 1951, p. 2.
3. New York Daily News, February 6, 1928.
4. Jesse Lemisch, "The American Revolution from the Bottom Up," Barton Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past, Pantheon, 1968.
5. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam, 1968, p. 483.
6. Richard Pfeffer, ed., No More Vietnams, Harper & Row, 1968, pp. 7, 8.
7. Marilyn Young, The Rhetoric of Empire, Harvard University, 1968, p. 231.
8. "Twilight of Idols," The Seven Arts, October 1917, reprinted in Randolph S. Bourne, War and the Intellectuals, Harper (Torchbook Edition), 1964, p. 60.
9. Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Pantheon, 1968, p. vi.
10. New York Review of Books, September 26, 1968.
11. Herbert Aptheker, A Documentary History of the Negro People, Citadel, 1951.
12. Robert Michels, Political Parties, Free Press (Collier Edition), 1962, p. 154.

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