The Old South Exemplar
THE SOUTHERN FRONT: HISTORY AND POLITICS IN THE CULTURAL WAR
Eugene D. Genovese
University of Missouri Press, 1995, x + 320 pp.
Eugene Genovese is a Marxist historian, but he is a
Marxist of a most unusual kind. In this excellent collection
of essays, he continually advocates conservative views,
often expressed more trenchantly than is customary among
rightists themselves. A specialist in the history of the
American South, he is especially sympathetic to the
conservative thinkers of that region.
In "The Slaveholders' Contribution to the American
Constitution," he offers a brilliant defense of the Southern
strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution.
Contrary to liberal legal theorists like Ronald Dworkin and
alleged conservatives like Harry Jaffa, the Constitution
does not enshrine a commitment to equality. "Among the
shameless pretensions that now inundate us, my personal
favorite is the so-called deferred commitment to equality. A
product of the imagination of ideologues, it rests on the
extraordinary claim that the Declaration of Independence
should be considered part of the Constitution a claim made
popular by the abolitionists, sanctified by Abraham Lincoln,
and now happily promoted by the media. If the Founders had
intended any such thing, they would have said so" (p.
And the Declaration of Independence itself does not
promulgate equality as this is understood by contemporary
leftists. "The rights of the individual, to the extent
considered, were defined within particular corporate
structures, to which submission was required. The rights
asserted were, first and foremost, the rights of
historically evolved communities to which all individuals
owed loyalty and obedience" (p. 121).
In the Southern view, preservation of inherited liberties
depended on a strictly limited central government. Thus,
Genovese maintains, the Bill of Rights limits Congress, not
the states. The "much-touted" First Amendment, for example,
does not bar the states from supporting religious
institutions. "The recent Supreme Court decisions that have
tried to legislate a wholly secular society have no
foundation . . . in the Constitution that was written,
ratified, and accepted by public opinion for more than a
century" (p. 122).
One may readily imagine how leftists would respond to
Genovese. Was not the Southern defense of states' rights
merely transparent apologetics for slavery? Genovese does
not support slavery; indeed, he thinks it is a fundamental
failing of the Southern thinkers he admires that they failed
adequately to confront its evils. But he never makes the
mistake of reducing ideas to the class interests they
represent. In his review of Larry Tise's Proslavery,
he criticizes the "idealist method" and tells us that
arguments must be analyzed in their social context (p. 84).
This does not prevent him from taking the ideas of
antebellum Southerners with complete seriousness.
Among Genovese's essays on Southern intellectuals, I
found especially compelling his account of James Henry
Thornwell, a Presbyterian theologian from South Carolina.
Thornwell met head on the assaults by abolitionists on
slavery. He argued (successfully in Genovese's opinion) that
the Bible permits slavery. One may condemn ill-treatment of
slaves, or call for reform, as Thornwell did; but how can a
Christian hold immoral an institution that the Bible allows?
To do so is to open the way for unchecked private conscience
to replace Biblical authority. If God and the Bible are
neglected, Thornwell held, the foundation is laid "for the
worst of all possible forms of government a democratic
absolutism" (p. 39). Once more, Genovese obviously does not
agree with Thornwell's position: he is not a Calvinist and
defender of slavery but an atheist and Marxist. But he
treats Thornwell with the utmost respect.
On the strength of Genovese's recommendation, I read a
volume of Thornwell's Collected Writings. Genovese
seems to me entirely right in his high estimate of
Thornwell, who pursues an argument with relentless logic. I
suspect that Genovese, himself an ardent polemicist, finds
this "hyper-hyper-hyper high Presbyterian," as Charles Hodge
called him, a kindred spirit. (In passing, Genovese suggests
that Thornwell's "Relation of the State to Christ"
influenced T.S. Eliot's "The Idea of a Christian Society"
Genovese's strong interest in religion emerges in the
volume many times. He especially finds wisdom in the
Christian doctrine of original sin. He scorns liberal
theology: "Liberal, not to mention liberationist, theology,
whether in white or black, should warm every atheist's
heart. . . . If God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love,
we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies"
Genovese's comments on Christianity reflect a wide
knowledge of theology. In his long essay "The Theology of
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Political Implications," he
criticizes King's professors for failing to note the changes
in Karl Barth's theology after the appearance of the second
edition of his Epistle to the Romans (p. 177).
Elsewhere, he rightly praises Nancey Murphy's excellent
Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (p. 9),
as well as John Crowe Ransom's God Without Thunder
(pp. 168 169).
Although an admirer of King, Genovese faces the issue of
King's plagiarism with characteristic forthrightness. "The
scandal of King's well-documented plagiarism reveals only
part of an even greater scandal of an academic career that
will not bear scrutiny. Theodore Pappas has chronicled that
scandal and the even worse scandal of the reaction of the
media and Academia in The Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Plagiarism Story, which deserves more attention than it
has been getting" (p. 172).
On a few points, I venture to disagree with Genovese's
theological interpretations. He seems to me to accept
uncritically Hans von Balthasar's thesis of a movement from
dialectics to analogy in Barth's theology (p. 177). Murphy's
book does indeed claim that theology uses probable
reasoning, but it tests theology through Lakatos's
Methodology of Scientific Research Programs, not probability
theory (p. 9). The "Given" in the system of Edgar Brightman
is not prior to God, but part of Him (p. 168). But these are
Genovese respects not only the Old South, but present-day
Southern conservatives as well. I found especially moving
his tribute to the late M.E. Bradford: "Notwithstanding deep
philosophical and political differences, I counted Bradford
a dear friend and as fine a human being as it has ever been
my privilege to know" (p. 258). He finds in Bradford "an
almost unerring instinct for the essentials. He posed and
faced the hard questions and rarely if ever wrote a page
that did not contain valuable insights" (p. 258). His keen
evocation of Mel Bradford's personality will delight anyone
who knew Bradford and instruct those who did not.
Our author shows full awareness of the problems of
Marxism. In the book's most controversial essay, "The
Question," Genovese indicts his fellow Marxists for
condoning Communist atrocities and pleads guilty to the
failing himself: "What did we know, and when did we know it?
We knew everything essential and knew it from the beginning"
(p. 296). And mass murder was no aberration, but stemmed
from deep flaws internal to Marxism. "Our whole project of
'human liberation' has rested on a series of gigantic
illusions" (p. 298). In another essay, he finds "too much
truth for comfort" in Eric Voegelin's identification of the
leftist worldview as a variety of gnosticism (p. 13).
After reading the volume, readers may well be puzzled why
Genovese remains a Marxist. That he remains one admits of no
doubt. He selects as the book's epigraph exactly the passage
from Dante of which Marx said in Capital: "The maxim
of the great Florentine is mine." In a laudatory essay on
Herbert Aptheker, he refers to the "family quarrel that I
have with Aptheker and other Marxists" (p. 215).
I suspect that, in part, Genovese's continued Marxism
stems from his finding plausible Marx's analysis of
capitalism. In an essay on Sam Francis, he refers to
"capitalism's inherent tendency toward the concentration of
capital in which the most dynamic entrepreneurs are
generally the most socially destructive" (p. 268). I hope
that Genovese will reexamine Marx's economics in the same
critical spirit that he elsewhere so admirably displays. If
he does so, I think he will find Marx's arguments "utterly
Genovese's firm and muscular style conveys his enormous
intellectual energy and his impatience with nonsense, from
whatever source derived.1 I wish there were more Marxists