Commentary Magazine


American Radicalism

To the Editor:

In his review of The Reconstruction of American History [Sept. ’62], Staughton Lynd develops the important point that much postwar American “consensus” revisionist historiography is far from being a denial of the economic interpretation of history. Actually it is an extension of it. . . . According to Lynd the revisionists have scorned sentimentality but not economic and social forces. Lynd’s analysis is fine up to a point but it must be extended if we are to understand the antipathy to the “consensus” historians among many radical historians. Why the desire on the part of the latter to retain “sentimental” visions of Jackson, Bryan, and Wilson as true radicals? . . . “Consensus revisionism,” by placing all protest movements within the context of American liberal-capitalist ideology, tends to deny the modern radical roots within the American political past. It forces [the radical historian] to find his real antecedents in the American socialist movement. In the midst of cold war pressures, radical historians are forced by “consensus” historians to choose between an all-pervasive liberal oneness or a more explicit avowal of some form of Marxism. . . .

For it must be seen that much “consensus” history by such men as Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Max Lerner is really a form of “reverse Marxism.” These historians place movements like Populism within the liberal-capitalist framework, but this is only to claim what any Marxist historian, such as William A. Williams, would gladly second. The difference is that for the latter such an insight leads to a call for a stronger radicalism, whereas for the “consensus” historian the insight itself is sufficient in that it demonstrates the undeniable truth, which is the liberal-capitalist domination of American politics.

But what of the historian who does not wish either to join in the great celebration of the vital center or to move to a more avowedly Marxist position? In this situation he may choose the middle road of assaulting the “consensus revisionists” for robbing him of his visions of Bryan, Jackson, and Wilson. He strives mightily to prove they were “true” radicals. But the real bitterness, it would seem, arises from an inner conflict in the radical historian himself. . . . In attacking revisionism and seeking to resurrect liberal heroes of the past he fights his own Marxist conscience, which in the reverse form of “consensus” revisionism reminds him of what he would rather forget. It reminds him that the lot of the real left in American has always been lonely.

N. Gordon Levin, Jr
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Mr. Lynd writes:

Mr. Levin’s comment seems to me perceptive and sound. It raises the question, Who were the real radicals in American history?

I suggest that the search for an American radical tradition should begin with the Abolitionists. Only the Abolitionists punctured, with the contempt it deserves, the white liberal hyprocrisy that America is and has always been a democratic country, without a feudal past (we only had slavery) and with supremely wise and humane founding fathers (who were also slave-holders).

The Abolitionists have been denigrated by all schools of recent historians: by Beard;, who said they provided an ideological cloak for Northern capitalism; by the revisionists, who regard them as unrealistic fanatics; and by William Appleman Williams, who considers them individualistic egoists. Yet they defended free speech. They opposed imperialism. They continued the tradition of the Declaration of Independence by conceiving universal human rights to be more basic than any written law, and, stressing the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths compromise, presented a critique of the United States Constitution far more devastating than Beard’s.

Moreover, the Abolitionists (viewed as a group) practiced what they preached. Their representative theorist—my candidate for our most seminal radical thinker—was Henry Thoreau, a man whose critique of slavery extended to a critique of capitalism, whose opposition to domestic oppression broadened into opposition to imperialist war, and who (like Marx) always regarded courageous practical action as more important that any theory.

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