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The "New Left" and American History: Some Recent Trends in United States Historiography

Author(s): Irwin Unger


Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Jul., 1967), pp. 1237-1263
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
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The "New Left"and American


History:
SomeRecentTrendsin UnitedStates
Historiography
IRWIN UNGER*

IT is impossiblenot to noticethat thereis a new politicalLeft in America. The strugglefor civil rights,while endorsedby liberalsand "modThe student
erates" is largelyled by youngpeople of radicalcommitment.
protestson universitycampuses derive their fire from young men and
peace
womenwho rejectmuch of Americanlifein the I960's.Rent strikers,
marchers,and Vietnam protestors-allare deeply skepticalof the affluent
society.Almost everywherethroughoutthe country,but especiallywhere
masses of young people are throwntogether-mostnotably,of course,at
the universities-neworganizations,new journals, new movementsare
emerging,dedicatedto restoringa radical voice to the contentionof ideas
in theUnitedStates.'
The average newspaperreader knows the New Left for its activism.
But it is not surprisingthat a movementthatenlistsso many college students, and particularlyg,raduatestudentsin the humanitiesand social
side. While consistently
pragmaticin
sciences,should also have a reflective
theirday-to-day
activities,
the variousNew Left groupshave begun to feel
the need fortheoryand analysis.Their experiencehas alreadygiven birth
to a New Left sociology,economics,and politicalscience.2They are now
The authorof The GreenbackEra: A Social and PoliticalHistoryof AmericanFinance,
(Princeton,N. J.,I964), Mr. Unger is a professorat WashingtonSquare College,
His primaryinterestis United Statespoliticaland economichistoryin
New York University.
century.
thenineteenth
1 By now descriptions
of the New Left have become so numerousthat it would be a
formidabletask to supplya reasonablycompletelist. The following,however,are among the
Evening Post,
"The ExplosiveRevival of the Far Left," Satturday
best: RichardArmstrong,
May 8, I965, 27-39; various authors,Partisan Review, XXXII (Spring, Summer, Fall
Dissent,IX (Spring I962), I29 f.; Irving Howe, "New
526-42;
34I-72,
I965), I83-205,
Stylesin 'Leftism,'"ibid., XII (Suminer I965), 295-323; StaughtonLynd, "The New RadDemocracy,'" ibid., 324-33. The recentbook by Philip A. Luce, as
icals and 'Participatory
the authoradmits,is not a discussionof the broad spectrumNew Left but ratherof its
and Communistextremeas representedby such groups as the ProgressiveLabor
Trotskyite
partyand the DuBois Clubs. (See Luce, The NewvLeft [New York, I966].) A recentanthologyof New Left writings,Paul Jacobsand Saul Landau, The New Radicals: A Report
by the editors.
withDocuments(New York, I966), beginswitha long and usefulintroduction
Minority(New York,i966).
Finally,see JackNewfield,A Prophetic
2 The outstanding
New Leftsociologistis, of course,C. WrightMills. RobertTheobald and
a New Leftmood in economics.For a sign of a New
Ben Seligmanmay be said to represent
Left politicalsciencehighlycriticalof the predominant"abstractedempiricists"or "behavioralists"of the discipline,see the review by Walter Batya of FrederickBarghoorn'sThe
*

I865-I879

I 237

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IrwinUnger
a new,radical
tocreate
a new,radical
Amerhistory,
particularly
beginning
I238

ican history.

To understand
thisdevelopment,
one mustrecallwhathas happened
in American
historical
writing
in thelasttwodecades.
As described
by

JohnHighamin his important


"The Cult of the'AmericanConarticle,
sensus," whichappeared
in I959,% certain
clear.Sincethe
trends
werealready

1940's something
striking
andsignificant
hadhappened
to theintellectual
climate
thatsurrounded
thehistorians
of America.
Theyhad abandoned

thenotonof struggle
as thecentralthemeof our past.Untilthepostwar

yearshistorians
had acknowledged
andindeedhad emphasized
theexistence
ofsocialillsandsocialstrife
intheUnited
States.
TheAmerican
past,
likethepastof othernations,
seemeda seriesof confrontations
between
antagonistic
andcompeting
economic
andclassinterest
groups.
American
colonial
history
disclosed
a sharpbattleofyeoman
andprovincial
nabob.
The Revolution
was botha struggle
over"homerule"and over"who
shouldruleat home."The Constitution
was a classdocument.
Battlesbe-

tweenHamiltonians
andJeffersonians,
WhigsandJacksonians,
werestrugglesbetween
theprivileged
orders
andthecommonalty.
TheCivilWarwas
a collision
ofan industrial
Northandan agrarian
South.Andso it went:
through
theage oftherobber
barons,
thewarwithSpain,Progressivism,
theGreatDepression,
theNew Deal. The binding
themeof ourhistory
wasclassconflict,
oratleastan American
version
ofit.4TheUnited
States,
then,
wasnot"exceptional."
Thefinedetails
ofourhistory
weredifferent,
butat hearttheAmerican
perhaps,
pastwassimilar
totheEuropean
past.
Theoneplausible
totheclassconflict
alternative
viewofAmerican
history
-Frederick
Jackson
Turner's
frontier
the1930's hadbeenthorthesis-by
oughlydemolished,
it seemed,
by thecombined
attackof Marxists
and
CCprogressives."5

Soviet CulturalOgensivein Studieson the Left,II (i96i), 90 f.- and the articleby James
Peters,"Ideologyand United StatesPoliticalScientists""
Science and Society,XXIX (Spring
I965),

I92-2I6.

3John Higham, "The Cult of the 'AmericanConsensus,"' Commentary,


XXVII (Feb.
I959), 93-100.
4For the best briefdescription
of the "progressive"school of Americanhistoricalwriting
thatflourished
fromabout I9IO to shortly
afterWorldWar II, see JohnHighamet a., History
(EnglewoodCliffs,
N. J.,I965), Pt. III, Chap. iII.
5 For the attackof the Marxists,
who preferred
a class struggleinterpretation
of the American past,see Louis Hacker,"Sectionsor Classes,"Nation,CXXXVII (July26, I933). For a
parallelassaultby old-lineprogressives
who, like the Marxists,found a class conflictview of
our historycongenial,see Fred A. Shannon,"The HomesteadAct and the Labor Surplus,"
AmericanHistoricalReview' XLI (July1936), 637-5I; CharlesA. Beard, "The Frontierin
AmericanHistory,"New Republic,XCVII (Feb. I939), 359-62; CarterGoodrichand Sol
Davidson, "The Wage-Earnerand the WestwardMovement,"PoliticalScience Quarterly,L
(June I935), I6i-85, LI (Mar. I936), 6I-ii6. For a good briefreview of the changing
fortunesof the Turner thesis,see Gene M. Gressley,"The Turner Thesis: A Problemn
in
Historiography,"
AgriculturalHistory,XXXII (OCt. 1I958), 227-49. For the attack of the
I930'S, see esp. 232 if.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

I239

As described
by Higham,the new historyof Louis Hartz,Richard
SamuelHays,David Potter,and Daniel Boorstinseemedto
Hofstadter,
thattherehad beenno struggle
in ourpastor thatthestruggle
asserteither
had been generated
not by some real but by some imaginedinjustice.
American
Ratherthancataclysmic
change,abrupt,angry,cacophonous,
had disagreed
withone another,
history
had beenalmostsedate.Americans
and
or overthebasicissuesof property
of course,butnot irreconcilably
The experience
oftransplanted
Europeans
witha "new
political
democracy.
resources
had beenfusedwithLockean
country"
of abundant,
unexploited
moderation
in all buta few
engendering
a moodof pragmatic
liberalism,
had conof Americanhistorians
American
souls.The postwargeneration
charand
"'consensus"
cluded,Highamwrote,thatcontinuity,
contentment,
acterized
thehistory
of the nation;all else was eithertheillusionof the
orthatofhisprotagonists.P
historian
considerahistorians
has lengthened
SinceI95.9thelistof "consensus"
bly.ForthecolonialeraonemightciteClarenceVerSteeg'sTheFormative
we not onlyhave RobertE.
Years.For theperiodof the Confederation
and theRevolution
and
in Massachusetts
Democracy
Brown'sMiddle-Class
butalso ForrestMacDonald'sWe the
CharlesBeardand theConstitution
Peopleand E PluribusUnum.For theearlynationalperiodthereare the
For theJackson
era we
booksof Paul Goodmanand Noble Cunningham.
havehad,sinceI959, theworkofLee Benson,BrayHammond,WalterE.
Hugins.For theCivilWar periodthereareDavid Donald,EricMcKitrick,
and earlytwenStanleyElkins,and StanleyCoben.For thelatenineteenth
and Reform,and,
we have RobertWiebe'sBusinessmen
tiethcenturies
Politics
andPower.t
DavidJ.Rothman's
mostrecently,
8 Higham, "Cult of the 'AmericanConsensus,"' passim. See aIlso Robin Brooks,"Class
in Dutchess
Distinction,Then and Now," a review of StaughtonLynd's Anti-Federalism
County,New York,in Studieson the Left,IV (WinterI964), 74-75. Higham does not menboththroughhis own
influential,
tionOscarHandlinwho,it is now clear,has been immensely
work and his students',in developingthe post-Beardiancanon. For a matureexpressionof
Handlin's views,see his volumeThe Americans:A New Historyof the People of the United
States (Boston,I963).
7The full citationsfor these works are as follows: ClarenceVer Steeg, The Formative
Years, I607-1763 (New York, I964); RobertE. Brown, Middle-ClassDemocacy and the
and CharlesBeard and the
Revolutionin Massachusetts,
16g61-1780 (Ithaca, N. Y., i955),
A CriticalAnalysisof "An EconomicInterpretation
Constitution:
of the Constitution"
(Princeton,N. J., 1956); ForrestMacDonald,We the People: The EconomicOriginsof the Constitution (Chicago, 1958), and E PluribusUnum: The Formationof the AmericanRepublic,s776I790
(Boston, I965); Paul Goodman,The Democratic-Republicans
of Massachusetts:
Politics
in a Young Republic (Cambridge,Mass., i964); Noble Cunningham,The leijersonianRepublicans:The Formationof PartyOrganization,1789-180i (Chapel Hill, N. C., I957); Lee
Benson,The Conceptof JaksonianDemocracy:New York as a Test Case (Princeton,N. J.,
I96I); BrayHammond,Banks and Politicsin Americafromthe Revolutionto the Civil War
(Princeton,N. J., 1957); WalterE. Hugins, JacksonianDemocray and the WorkingClass:
A Study of the New York Workingmen's
Movement,1829-I837 (Stanford,Calif., 1960);
David Donald, CharlesSumnerand the Comingof the Civil War (New York, 1960); Eric
McKitrick,Andrew Johnsonand Reconstruction
(Chicago, I960); StanleyElkins,Slavery:A

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I240

Irwin Unger

Such an assemblage
of authorsimmediately
suggests
theinadequacyof
Higham'sdescription.
With a largersamplebeforeus, we can now see
thatwvhile
thenew postwarhistorians
includeconsensusites
pureand simthey
also
include
those,
who
in
rejecting
the
dualisms
of theirpredple,
ecessors,
preferto replacethemwitha pluralistic
view of the American
past.Insteadof a simpledialoguethe historical
stagepresents
a complex
and tumultuous
crowdscene.It is also clearernow thatsocialpsycholog,y
and theothersocialsciences
haveprofoundly
influenced
thiscomplexview
of thepast.Highambelievedin I959 thatthebehavioral
approachenabled
the new generation
of historians
to obscureconflict
in Americaby "psychologizing"
it. Men thoughttheywere exploitedand victimized
when
theyreallywerejust emotionally
disturbed.
While it is true,as Higham
noted,thatthepostwarhistorians
are impressed
by thestability
of Americansociety
and byourbroadagreement
overfundamentals,
we nowknow
thatmanyof themtakesocialconflict
quiteseriously.
But theydefineconflictmorebroadlythandid the "progressive"
historians
of the previous
Besidesthe traditional
havesversushave-nots
in theirmany
generation.
separateguises,we now have CatholicversusProtestant,
dryversuswet,
ruralversusurban,whiteversusblack,old versusyoung,ins versusouts.
Thesearerealconflicts,
and
buttheyarepsychologically
or sociallydefined
open to theimputation
thattheyare merelysickphantoms
in themind.
We takeseriously
themanwho findshimself
in an economic
vise;we tend
to despiseor pitythe man who suffers
fromstatusanxieties.
Somelhow
Angstseemslessrealthanhunger.
It is easyto see whythisshiftin the analysisof conflict
reducesthe
emotional
chargeof past historical
movements.
Not onlydoes it suggest
thatall the discontented
to
are meremalingerers,
but it is also difficult
identify
heroesand villains.If nothing
else,boththeguiltyand theinjured
in a pluralistic
societyoftenturnout to be but a small partof some
can no longerbe condemned
largergroup.Businessmen
as a whole.They
disagreeamongthemselves
be held responsible
and can scarcely
foranythingcollectively.
Farmersare no longerjust farmers.
They are northeasterntruckgardeners,
or Wisconsindairyfarmers,
or Kansas wheatand theydo notall suffer
or southern
cottonplanters,
growers,
thesame
fateatthesametime.
and IntellectualLife (Chicago, i959);
Stanley Coben,
in AmericanInstittutional
Problemn
A Re-examination,"MississippiValley
"NortheasternBusiness and Radical Reconstruction:
HistoricalReview,XLVI (June I959); RobertH. Wiebe, Businessmenand Reform:A Study
of the ProgressiveMovement(Cambridge,Mass., I962); and David J. Rothman,Politicsand
Power: The UnitedStatesSenate,1869-1901 (Cambridge,Mass., I966). Needless to say, this
listis not complete.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

I24I

Theseambiguities
inevitably
encourage
a kindof neutrality
and detachmentthatare congenialto the use of new statistical
techniquesborrowed fromthe sistersocial sciences.No longerintenton provinga case

for"thepeople,"historians
can subjectall theold conclusions
to thedis-

passionatetestof social statistics.


There is no inherentreasonwhy radicals

cannotemploythesametools,butso far,withan occasionalexception,


the
ofthepostwar,
fascination
withnumbers
hasbeentheprovince
"middlegeneration."
Perhapstheyoungmenof theLeftfearthatthefigures
willnot
bearthemout.Certainly
in American
economic
thework,
history
ofthenew
"cliometricians"
has givencomfort
to "conservative"
of such
interpretations
diverseissuesas theoriginsof theAmerican
Revolution,
theplightof the
latenineteenth-century
farmer,
andtheculpability
oftherobber
barons.8
It wouldbe a seriousmistaketo insistthatthereis absoluteunanimity
in eitherapproachor conclusions
amongthe postwargeneration
of historians.To somedegreetheyare all "post-Beardians"
sincetheyare all
trying
to escapetheBeardianmatrixwhichimprisoned
Americanhistory
in thefirstfourdecadesof thiscentury.
But theygo beyondBeardin a
number
ofdistinct
usefulas a
ways,and thelabelis at bestonlymoderately
descriptive
term.Nevertheless,
despitethedifficulties
of definition,
Higham
in I959 clearlydetectedthe beginnings
of an important
and substantial
changein thewriting
ofAmerican
history,
and it is thischangethatis now

beginning,
togeneratea reactionamongtheyoungmenoftheLeft.

that
It maynow seemclearerwhatthereis aboutthepostwarhistory
are
radicals.
not
the
new
offended
antagonizes
They
primarily
by the rethekeystone
of traditional
jectionof "historical
Marxisthismaterialism,"
like HerbertAptheker,
A fewMarxian"Old Leftists"
toriography.
Philip
But theNew Left
Foner,and HarveyO'Connorare stillwriting
history.
We must"Ameriare not thecaptivesof an official
historians
ideology.9
nativeradicalism
canizetheradicalprogram
bybringing
historically
up to
date,"writesHaroldCrusein Studieson theLeft,a majorforumof the
NewLefthistory.
80n the Revolution,see RobertP. Thomas, "A QuantitativeApproachto the Study of
the Effectsof BritishImperialPolicy upon Colonial Welfare: Some PreliminaryFindings,"
journal of EconomicHistory,XXV (Dec. i965), 6I5-38; on the post-CivilWar farmer,see
Allan Bogue, Money at Interest:The Farm Mortgageon the Middle Border (Ithaca, N. Y.,
Leslie E. Decker,RailroadLands and Politics:ThzeTaxationof RailroadLand Grants,
I955);
(Providence,R. I., i964); oanat least one group of robberbarons,see RobertW.
1865-I897
Fogel, The Union PacificRailroad: A Case Study in PrematureEnterprise(Baltimore,Md.,
see Douglass North,Growthand
literature,
I960); for an overviewof the whole "cliometric"
Welfarein the AmericanPast: A New EconomicHistory(Englewood Cliffs,N. J.,I966).
like
9Indeed, they are sometimesembarrassedby the excessesof doctrinaireparty-liners
Aptheker.See, e.g., JosephA. Ernst,"Historiansand the Colonial Era," Studieson the Left,
I (Winter1960), 79-84.

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1242

Irwin Unger

We do thisby acceptingwhatwe need fromthe "Marxistmethod"insofaras


themethodappliesto Americansocialhistory.... Whilewe allowthathistorical
laws are universally
applicable,theselaws operateaccordingto the dictatesof
different
socialingredients
in different
places.We acceptthefactthattheMarxian revolution
could have happened at a certaintimegiventheproperleadership
and impetus.10
When, as in the case of William Appleman Williams,the New Left historiansmake much of Marx, it is more oftenthe early"soft"Marx, who
speaks of "alienation,"than the "hard" Marx of Das Kapital, with its class
struggleand progressive"immiserization
of the proletariat.""
Beard is a different
case. The New Left has joined an older group of
historiansto perpetuatethe Beardianvision.'2In directproportionas he has
become a false prophetof the new postwarhistory,Beard has become the
Moses of theNew Left.'3Williams,a man who actuallyowes littleto Beard
-except, perhaps,on recentAmericanforeignpolicy-feelscompelledto announce in his bellicosestyle,"it . . . seems appropriate,in view of all the
bigotedand careerbuildingattacks,acts of purification
in the formof misand even smart-aleccriticismby supposedaristocrats,
representation,
to acknowledgeformallymy respectfor and debt to Charles Austin Beard."'4
Yet muchof thehomageis ceremonial.At theirbest,theNew Lefthistorians
feelfreeto divergefrombothmasters.When theydo, the resultsare often
interesting.
It is not, then,uncriticalloyaltyto a particularmasterthat makes the
New Left bridleat the postwarhistory.It is ratherwhat theyperceiveas
the tone, commitment,and power of the post-Beardianhistoriansthat
annoysand angersthe youngradicals.The mostobviousof thesecharacteristicsis, of course,the imputedpoliticalcon-servatism
of theirelders.The
new historyis, so it seemsto the youngLeftists,historyat the serviceof an
of society,and the "AmericanCelebration."
definition
elitistand aristocratic
Until recently,notes Arnold Rogow, the Americanintellectual's"view of
Now the commonman is
the commonmaniwas essentiallyJeffersonian."
being "muckraked,"and the older liberaltraditionis being repudiatedas
To Norman Pollack the
the intellectualsacdoptthleNew Conservatism.15
Harold Cruse, "Americanizingthe Radical Program,"ibid., III (Winter I963), 69.
11 Cf. Eugene Genovese,"William ApplemanWilliams on Marx and America,"ibid., VI
(Jan.-Feb.I966), 76.
and JacksonT. Main.
12As, e.g., C. Vann Wooodward,
MatthewJosephson,
10

13 Othergurus of the New Left include Paul


Goodman,the social thinkerand novelist,
HerbertMarcuse,and Barrington
Moore,Jr.All thesemen have helped formthe New Left's
vision of rccentAmerica,but none exceptperhapsMoore-seem as yet to have had much
effecton the way thc NeVi Lc-ftwriteshistory.
14 William
Appleman
Williams,The Contoursof AmericanHistory(Cleveland,
490.
I96I),
15 Arnold A. Rogow, "The Revolt againstSocial Equality,"Dissent,IV (Autumn 1957),
369-70. For' a complaintfroman older Populisticliberaland Beardian,see C. Vann Woodward, "The PopulistHeritageand the Intellectuals,"
American Scholar, XXIX (Winter I959

6o,

55-72.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

1243

new history
representsl
the "treasonof the intellectuals."
Frightened
by
JosephMcCarthy's
witch-hunts,
theycravenly
retreated
fromthe exposed
Lefttoa safei
Right."'
Equallyirritating
to theNew Left,thoughlesswidelyadvertised,
are
the supposedinstitutional
powerand influence
of the,post-Beardians.
Intellectually
complacent,
oftensupercilious,
theyare, we are told,firmly
implanted
in theprestigious
easternprivateuniversities,
wheretheyform
an academicestablishment
capableof usingitsprofessional
powerto proscribedissent
andencourage
conformity.'7
Indeed,thereis amongtheyoung
radicalacademicians,
a senseofpersecution
that,sinceit is largelyanticipatory,seemsexcessive.
Convincedthattheyare struggling
againsta pernicious power elite,they see in theirprofessional
lives whattheyare
convinced
obtainsin theflowof Americanhistory
itself.The conspiracies
againstthepeopleby theinterests
finda parallelin theefforts
of thehistorical
establishment
tosuppress
theradicalvoice.
But perhapsthe worstoffense
of the postwarhistory
is its failureto
providetheNew Leftwitha "usablepast."The chargelike thetermis
ambiguous.
"Usablepast"impliesin,thefirst
forhistorical
placea concern
an interest
guidelines,
thattheNew Leftsurelyshareswithmuchof mankind.At thispointit wouldbiewelltorecallthattheNew Leftis programmaticand activist;
it is theproduct
notofa greatbookor a greiat
prophet
butof thesocialmaladjustments
of our day.Manyof theyoungscholars
whohavejoinedtherecentattackagainstthehistoriographic
trendsof the
pastdecadehavebeenmenlivingand working
verymuchin a radicaland
As,historians
and radicalsit is,naturalthattheyshould
dissenting
present.
seekwisdomin thepast.Staughton
Lynd,a talentedNew Lefthistorian,
has beenquiteexplicitabouttheneedfora usableradicalpastto provide
direction
forthenewradicalcommunity,
whichotherwise
appearsdoomed,
itspredecessors
hedeclares,
torehash
havealready
problems
settled.8
But theconcept
thathistory
of a usablepastalso suggests
mayserveas
themostobviouspartisan
a politicalweapon.To theyoungLeftists
use of
in America.In all fairness,
radicalism
is to domesticate
history
it mustbe
The Righthas alwaysinsisted
a counterattack.
said thatthisis largely
that
16 NormanPollack, "Fear of Man: Populism,Authoritarianism
and the Historian,"AgriculturalHistory,XXXIX (Apr. I965), 59-67.
17 See the remarksof RichardDrinnon in an interviewby Peter Loewenbergin Studies
on the Left,II (No. I, I96I), 79 f. For an attackon the academic"establishment"
which
transcendsthe disciplineof history,
see the prospectus,
"The Radicalismof Disdosure,"ibid.,
I (Fall I959), 2-4.
18 StaughtonLynd,"Socialism,the ForbiddenWord," ibid., III (Summer I963), I4 f. At
the same time,however,Lynd was agreeingwith N. GordonLevin, Jr.,that therewas little
if any nativeAmericanradicalism.See Lynd's replyto Levin's letterin Commentary,
XXXV
(Jan. I963), 74-75. For what Lynd does see as radical in the Americanpast, see below,

pp. i258-59.

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I244

Irwin Unger

radicalismis un-American,a foreignimportembracedonly by thosewho


have no rootsin thenativecultureor who have lostcontactwiththoseroots.
claim has not been academicallyreBut untilquite recentlythe conservative

forfromaboutI9I0 untilthelateI940's thegiantsoftheprofession


spectable,

devotedtheirscholarlyenergiesto exhibitingthe long and honorablerecord


on the farms,in the mining
of insurgencyand dissenton the frontier,
camps and factorytowns.Now, some of the leading scholarsof the nation
have apparentlygiven the old chargeintellectualsanctionof an impressive
order.There is no nativeAmericanradicalism,theysay-not one thatany
balanced man would wish to acknowledge.Radicalismhas always been an
exotic import,ill-suitedto American circumstances,
and hence deserving
The challengeis clearly
of the isolationand failureit has always suffered.
If therehas been no truedissentin America; if a generalconfundamental.
over
sensus
capitalism,race relations,and expansionismhas prevailedin
the United States;if such dissentas has existedhas been crankishand sour,
the productnot of a maladjustedsocietybut of maladjustedmen-then
Americanhistorymay well be monumentallyirrelevantfor contemporary
radicalism.As scholarsand social critics,simultaneously,
the young New
ofcoursefindthisconclusionimpossibleto accept.
Lefthistorians
what do the youngmen of
Having dismissedthe new postwarhistory,
the Left hope to put in its place? It is not possible to say in a simple,
categoricalway. The young radicals know what they reject,and in fact
definesthem."9They are
theirdislikesare oftenwhat most satisfactorily
not,however,as clear about what theyaccept.Dissensionswithinthe New
Left historyare as generaland intenseas disagreements
among the socialand Neo-Populistswho composethe
ists,anarchists,
pacifists,
existentialists,
New Left movement.It is a panoramaas complexas the pluralistichistory
theyoungradicalswould refute.
There is indeedan ambitiousattemptat a generalsynthesis
of America's
past by a New Left historianof good credentials,20The Contoursof American Historyby ProfessorWilliam A. Williams of the Universityof Wisthis interestingbook fails as a chartto the
consin, but unfortunately
19 This negativequalityof almostall the New Left intellectuals
has been notedby Michael
Walzer, a youngLeftisthistorianof EnglishPuritanism.(See Walzer, "The Young Radicals:
A Symposium,"
Dissent,IX [SpringI962z, i29 ff.)
20 What constitutes
"good credentials"for the New Left is exceedinglyhard to say. Membersof the New Left do not carrypartycards; nor do theyalways acknowledgetheiraffiliations.In selectingmy New LefthistoriansI have used a combinationof personalknowledge,
internalevidence,and a sortof historicaldead reckoning.The system,I am
self-identification,
certain,is fallible.Some of thoseI have includedamong the Leftwill,perhaps,objectto being
so labeled.On the otherhand others,surely,will be chagrinedat being leftout. Nevertheless
definitions
vitiatemyconclusions.
I do notbelievemyimperfect

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The "New Left" and Anerican History

I245

radicalhistory.
emerging
The majorthemeof The Contoursis the persistent
tensionin Americabetweenthetwoworldviewsof commonwealth
and individualism.
The first,identified
with"mercantilism,"
is the very
womboutof whichtheAmericannationemerged.
As used by Williams,
"mercantilism"
mustnotbe confused
withtheselfish,
economic
retrograde
doctrine
of thestandard
It meansa benevolent
textbook
discussions.
paternalismdisplayed
by an enlightened
classof gentlemen-the
"gentry"-who
placedtheinterest
of thewholecommunity
abovethatof anysinglegroup
including
themselves.
Whilenotwithoutits seriouslimitations,
mostnotato foreignexpansionto solvedomesticproblems,
bly its recourse
mercantilismrepresents
thebenignside of the Americantradition.
Opposingit,
and virtually
without
redeeming
is "laissez-nous
faire,"and,what
qualities,
is its essential
"individualism."
To Williamsthisworldviewis
synonym,
sociallycorrosive,
fostering
competition
ratherthan cooperation,
anomy
rather
thancommunity,
profits
rather
thanjustice.
This mayseemto be a predictable
Leftistdualismand maysuggestat
firstglancethebasisfora reconstructed
radicalhistory.
Actuallyit gives
aid and comfort
to theenemy.Williamsoffers
littleto theNew Left.It is
quite clearfromThe Contoursthatfew Americanseverauestionedthe
sacrosanct
natureof privateproperty
or evercouldsee muchbeyondmore
property
or moregeographic
expansionas the solutionforinternalproblems.Elementsof Americansociety
did indeeddiffer
in thedepthof their
socialinsightand the degreeof theirhumanesympathies,
but exceptfor
the smalland impotent
groupsof socialists
at the end of the nineteenth
century,
theyall suffered
fromthesamefatalweaknessof socialimagination.In a word,thoughWilliamscan scarcely
intendit, we are back at
!21
consensus
In factThe Contours
provesa constant
embarrassment
to theyounger
radicalscholars.
Williamsnotonlyacceptsthebroadthemeofan American
he alsoacceptsa surprising
consensus;
numberof thespecific
judgments
of
the post-Beardian
He agreeswith Brownand MacDonald that
history.
supportfortheRevolution
and the Constitution
transcended
classlines.22
He acceptsthe thesisof Hammondand Hofstadter
thatthe Jacksonians
were aggressive
capitalistenterprisers.23
He agreesthatthe abolitionists
21 This implicitacceptanceof consensusin Contourshas been noticedby Higham, among
others.See Higham's reviewof the book in Studies on the Left, II (No. 2, I96I), 73-76.
Michael Wreszin,anotheryoungradical historian,observesthe same phenomenonin Richar(i
Drinnon'sbiographyof Emma Goldman (Rebel in Paradise: A Biographyof Emma Goldman
Drinnon's saving grace, Wreszin notes, is that tunlikethe conservative
[Chicago, I96I]).
historians,
while notingthe consensus,he deploresit. (See Wreszin,"Heresy in Paradise: A
PartisanforEmma,"Studieson theLeft,IV [WinterI964], 8o.)
22Williams,
Contours,105 f., I38 ff.
23 Ibid., 222 f. Indeed, Jackson'svictoryin I828 is viewed as somethingof a national
disaster.

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I246

Irwin Unger

were oftendifficult
and unreasonablemen who failed to understandthe
complexities
of race adjustment.24
He acknowledgesthe dark side of Populism,althoughhe is criticalof what he considersthe supercilioustone of its
recentdetractors.25
To Williams,FranklinRooseveltis a man who cherished
power for its own sake; Hoover, a true progressivein the mercantilist
traditionY0
The book, moreover,is saturatedwithold-fashioned
philosophical idealism.Ideas, not interests,
are what count in historyfor mercantilism,at least,is no mere rationalizationof individualor class advantage.
Derived from Biblical moralism,it is tough and autonomouswith the
power to blunt and tame the acquisitiveinstincts.27
This is scarcelythe
stuffout of which to constructa new radical history,and with regret
sevreral
of theyoungLeftisthistorianshave concededas much.28
If we stoppedat thispoint,it would be difficult
to see in what way it is
possibleto considerWilliams a radical historianat all. His credentialsderive, I think,fromtwo major themesof The Contours.The firstis his
radicalindictment
of individualismand his extravagant
praiseof the protocollectivismof the "gentry."In the absence of a viable socialisttradition
the"mercantilism"
of thegentrymustsatisfyWilliams'yearningto discover
virtuein the Americanpast. The second is Williams' treatment
of American foreignpolicy.Here the young Leftistsfind strongsupportfor their
convictionof America'stotaldepravity.
From the veryoutset,accordingto
the
United
States
has
been
an
expansionistnation,preyingon
Williams,
its weakerneighbors,whetherthe precivilizedIndian tribesor the weaker
nationalstatesand decrepitempireson its borders.This expansionismis a
strangelypersuasivemirrorimage of Turner'sfrontierthesis.Ratherthan
a successionof new opportunities,
each Americanfrontierwas a new evasion It was not democracythatreneweditselfin each new "West"; it was
capitalism,and Americanforeignpolicywas merelythe instrument
of this
evasivewestwardthrust.29
nor expansionismprovidesa historicalframeBut neithermercantilism
workforthe New Left equal to class struggleforthe old. In the end The
Williams is an angrydissenter
Contoursis too personaland idiosyncratic.
24Ibid., 250-55. He even defendsthe Old South fromabolitionist
attack! (Ibid., 28I-82).
26Ibid., 333-38.
Ibid., 440, 445.
Ibid., 32 f.
See, e.g., StaughtonLynd'sreviewof Williams'Contoursin Scienceand Society,XXVII
(SpringI963), 227 if.
29 This point,impliedin Contours,
is made explicitlyin Williams'latestbook, The Great
Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary
Relevanceof Karl Marx and on the Wisdomof Admittingthe Heretic into the Dialogue about America's Future (Chicago, i964), esp. the
introduction.
26
27
28

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

1247

who,despitehisannounced
faithin a cooperative
society,
is beholdento no
man forhis historical
vision,or,one is sometimes
to say,forhis
tempted
historical
facts.But stillthe radicalscholarslistento Williams.He may
supplylittletheycan use forunderstanding
America'sdomestic
but
affairs,
he mostemphatically
speaksto themon thehistory
of Americanforeign
policy.The Contours
and Williams'specific
worksin diplomatic
history30
have had a powerful
impacton a groupof youngdiplomatic
historians,
manyof whomhaveworkedwithhimor underhimat theUniversity
of
Wisconsin.
The mostsuccessful
oftheseyounger
scholars
isWalterLaFeber,31
whose
book,The New Empire,won the AlbertJ. BeveridgeAwardin i962.32
LaFeberis a sophisticated
and urbanehistorian.
Yet he is willingto make
his radicalphilosophical
standquite explicit.In a I962 book reviewhe
praisesthetradition
of Beardand ArthurB. Darlingin Americandiplo-

matichistory
andassailsthosehistorians
who"since1945

. . .

havebeen

preoccupied
withknifing
Beardwithone hand and usingtheotherhand
to pen caricatures
of a unique unblemished
Republicwhichbecamea
worldempirewithlittleconscioushumanintervention."33
The thesisof
The New Empireis thatAmerica'sventure
intoimperialism
in theI890's
was neither
a historical
accidentnora new departure.
It was theculminationof a processdatingat leastto thei 850'sor i 86o's,therootsof which
were primarily
economic.Post-CivilWar Americanimperialism
sprang
fromtheneedof manufacturers
forrawmaterials
and markets.
It was not
absent-mindedness
thatled to the war withSpain and theannexation
of
Hawaii,thePhilippines,
and PuertoRico; it was thedemandsof businessmen.
LaFeberdoes not approveof Americanexpansionism,
but he is not a
crudepolemicist.
His imperialist
businessmen
and policymakersare "responsible,
menwhoacceptedtheeconomicand socialrealities
conscientious
of theirday. . . and .. . wereunafraid
to strikeouton newand uncharted
pathsin orderto createwhattheysincerely
hopedwouldbe a better
nation
Relations,1781-1947
30E.g., William ApplemanWilliams,American-Russian

1952),

The Tragedyof AmericanDiplomacy(Cleveland,I959),

Castro(New York,i962).

(New York,
The UnitedStates,Cuba and

3aLaFeber was actuallya studentof ProfessorFred Harvey Harringtonat Wisconsin,althoughhe acknowledgesthathe is deeplyindebtedto Williams for instruction.
(See Walter
LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation
of AmericanExpansion,i86o-I898 [Ithaca,
N. Y., 1963], 42!8.)
32 That it shouldwin thisprestigious
award casts some doubteitheron the hostility
of the
establishment
towardtheNew Leftor on theiracademicinfluence.
33 Walter LaFeber, "The ConsciousCreationof a 'World Wide Empire,'" a review of
Richard Warner Van Alstyne'sThe Rising AmericanEmpire, in Studies on the Left, II
(No. 3, I962), I03 ff.

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I248

Irwin Unger

and a betterworld."34
Severalothermembers
of theWisconsinschoolof
thanLaFeber.
diplomatic
history
arebothlesstemperate
and lessconvincing
JohnWV.
Rollins,in an essayon theanti-imperialists
and American
foreign
thateven
policyin the twentieth
conclusion
century,
reachesthe tortured
mostof thosewhobalkedat overtAmericancolonialism
in theyearssince
theSpanish-American
War havebeenexpansionists
and imperialists.
They
maynot have endorsedAmericanoccupation
and control,
but theyhave
endorsed
American
economicpenetration,
and thisis thesamething.Free
trade,foreign
investment,
PointFour aid-all, presumably,
havebeentools
of Americanhegemony.35
Lloyd Gardnerexaminestheforeignpolicyof
the New Deal and concludesthatfollowingr
the disastrous
economicsetback of 1937-I938,"the New Deal forsookviabledomesticremediesand
readieditselfforthepursuitof . . . worldfrontiers
. . . as itssolutionto
thecrisisofthe1930's." In theendGardnercomesverycloseto attributing
Anlerica's
entrance
intoWorldWar II, oncecheeredbytheLeftas thedefenseof democracy
and freedom,
to thereluctance
of theAxisPowersto
acceptAmericandemandsfor"liberaltradeand theOpen Door."36New
Leftrevisionism
couldnotbe betterdesignedto antagonize
thegeneration
thatwagedthecrusadeagainstfascism!
Thereis, in theNew Leftdiplomtatic
history,
an interesting
rehabilitation,explicitor implied,of isolationism.
Williamshimself
seemsto be its
source.By denying
theseriouspractice
of isolation
bytheUnitedStateshe
makesthe fewsincereadvocatesof mindingour own businessintorare,
heroicsouls.37 Beard'sobscure1934 attackon Americanintervention
in
The Open Door at Home,has becomean objectof venEuropeanaffairs,
erationamongythe Wisconsinschool."8 They give isolationistProgressives
like William-Borah creditfor rare presciencein foretelling
the dangersof
the"garrisonstate,theweightof militarycosts,thepenetration
of American
economicpower into almost everysphereupon the globe, and the loss of
libertyat homeand abroad."39

LaFeber,New Empire,ix.
and TwentiethCenturyAmerican Foreign
John W. Rollins, "The Anti-Imperialists
Policy,"Studies on the Left,III (No. i, I962),
9 f. This paper was the subjectof a symposium and is followedby commentsby Harold Baron and Thomas J. McCormick,who
as a cheeringsectionratherthanas critics.
seemto function
36 It is obviousthatpartof the New Left attackon Roosevelt'sforeignpolicyderivesfrom
Rooseveltand the Coming of the War, 1941: A
Charles Beard's influential
work,Pr-esident
Strdy in Appearancesand Realities(New York, I948). Gardnerrefuses,however,to accept
the most extremeof Beard's charges,that RooseveltengineeredUnited States entranceinto
World War II for partypurposes.(See Lloyd Gardner,"From New Deal to New Frontier,
Studieson the Left,I [Fall I959], 29 if.). In Gardner's
recentbook,Economic
I937-I941,"
Aspectsof New Deal Diplomacy(Madison,Wis., I964), the polemicaltone is stillmoremuted.
37 Williams,Tragedyof Anmerican
Diplomacy,esp. Chap. iv.
38 See, e.g.,Gardner,"FromNew Deal to New Frontier,"
30.
39 Orde S. Pinckney,"William E. Borah: Criticof AmericanForeignPolicy,"Studies on
theLeft,I (No. 3, i960), 48 ff.,esp. 6i.
34
35

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The "New Left" antdAmericanHistory

1249

The messagein all thisis clear.America'srecentaggressive


and provocativeforeign
policyis nottheresponse
of themoment;our reaction
to
worldproblemsafterI945 was merelythe latesttermof an American
tradition
of aggrandizement
thatcommenced
withJohnSmith.Fromfirst
to last,cupidityhas been the governing
principleof our relationswith
strangers,
andwemustnotexpectmoreofouracquisitive,
capitalist
society.
In its strictures
on America'searlierforeignaffairsthe New Left is
obviously
projecting
ontohistory
itspresent
coldwarfearsand frustrations.
The pattern
ofpresent-mindedness
persists
in itsviewofAmerica's
domestic
past.Justas theywouldtransform
thecountry's
relations
to thenon-Western world,the youngradicalsare committed
to reorienting
American
society
itself,
and nothing
fascinates
themmorethantheirradicalpredecessorsandthemovements
theyinspired
andled.40
As we haveseen,theradicalattempt
to recover
America's"progressive"
past seemsto servea numberof purposessimultaneously.
It satisfies
a
naturalcuriosity
aboutradicalantecedents
and represents
an understandable quest fordirection.
the
But moreimportant,
and less disinterested,
New Left'sconcern
withthenation'sreformist
pastis an attempt
to establishitsownlegitimacy.
This searchfora historical
sanctionis the main concernof Pollack,
althoughat timesit mightappearthathis realpurposeis to dethrone
the
leadingrepresentatives
of the "establishment."
Leavingaside thisstrong
acerbicaspectof Pollack'swork,we findthathis mainpointis thatthere
has indeedbeena viableradicaltradition
nativeto America,a tradition
associated
withagrarianinsurgency,
whichreachedits apogeeduringthe
Populistrevolt.Far fromfleeingtheindustrial
realities
of theday,as has
been suggested
by Oscar Handlin,Hofstadter,
and others,the Populists
realistically
diagnosedthe problemsof emerging
industrialism
and realistically
prescribed
forthem.Neitherruralxenophobes
norignorant
paranoids
butperceptive
radicalhumanitarians,
theyproduceda critiqueof capitalist
stillvalidtoday.Indeedtheiranalysisof Americanindustrial
society
capitalismcloselyparalleledMarx's dissection
of earlyEuropeanindustrial
society,
whichsuggests
to Pollackthe"extremely
exciting
prospect"
thatthe
in historical
"Populistexperience
mightwell challengea basicproposition
ofAmerica."
writing-the
uniqueness
American
True,contemporary
Marx40 Only this intensepreoccupation
will explain the recentpublicationof Sidney Lens's
Radicalismin America(New York, I966). This book is an unimaginative
narrationof liberalradical activitiesin Americaby an editorof the New Left journal Liberation.It mighthave
been writtenby Vernon Parringtonin the I920's, though it is endorsedby Lynd and is
clearlyintendedto teachtheyoungLeftsomething
of theirpredecessors.

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Irwin Unger

I250

istsopposedthePopulists,
but onlybecausetheMarxistswereexcessively
sectarian
and poorlyattunedto theneedsof theAmericanenvironment.4'
Pollack'sdefenseof thePopulistsfromsomeof theirmoreintemperate
critics,
largelysociologists
and politicalscientists,
has beenuseful.He has,
I think,at leastmadeus realizethatPopulismhad a humaneand progressivesideas well as a retrogyrade,
nativist
one. He has not,however,
made
manyconverts
to his majorthesis-theviability
of thePopulisttraditioneven amongthe New Left.Despitehis impassioned
pleading,Populism
appearstoo petitbourgeoisand too intellectually
ambiguousto serveas
partof ourradicalpast.42
His chiefalliesappearto be menidentified
with
theold liberalLeftwho haveretainedtheirsympathy
forinsurgent
rural
America.43
Morecongenialas ancestors
fortheNew Leftists
thantheprovincialdissenters
of theI890's are thecertified
urbanradicals,
theSocialists
and anarchists.
Williams,after-inThe Contours-dismissing
theSocialists
of thiseraas impotent,
laterconverts
themintoseers"whomadebetween
I890 and 1917 themostrelevant
and matureadaptation
to theend of the
frontier."44
JamesWeinstein,
editorof Studieson theLeft,has madethat
journalvirtually
intoan instrument
forpullingSocialismintothemainstream
ofAmerican
history.
In thisendeavor
Weinstein
is battling,
theprevailing
viewthatSocialism
failedin theUnitedStatesbecauseof itsown innerinadequacies.
On the
he asserts,
contrary,
American
Socialismdid notfall;it was knockeddown.
Afterridinga greatpopularwave duringWorldWar I, Socialismwas
smashed
bythepatriotic
suppressions
perpetrated
bytheWilsonadministra41 Pollack's major statementof his positionwill be found in The Populist Responseto
IndustrialAmerica(Cambridge,Mass., I962), but see also the followingarticles:"Hofstadter
on Populism:A Critiqueof 'The Age of Reform,'"journal of SouthernHistory,XXVI (Nov.
AmericanHistoricalReview,LXVIII
I960),
478-500,
"The Mythof PopulistAnti-Semitism,"
A Critiqueof 'AmericanViews of theJew,'"
(Oct. 1962), 76-80, "Handlin on Anti-Semitism:
journal of AmericanHistory,LI (Dec. I964), 391-403, and "Fear of Man." The wordsquoted
are fromPopulistResponse,82-83.
42 Pollack has not been totallyrejectedby the New Left,but it seems to me that,if only
For an outrightattackon
by theirsilence,theysuggestthattheyfindhis work unconvincing.
Pollack by a memberof the Left,see Ann Lane's reviewof PopulistResponsein Scienceand
thatthe plausibleforerunners
of the
Society,XXVIII (SummerI964), 326 f. It is interesting
have been virtuallyignoredby the New Left,
Populists,the Jeffersonians
and Jacksonians,
Williams again excepted.The only suggestionof a new radical positionon eitherof these
movementsthatI have foundis containedin two reviewsof Benson'sConceptof Jacksonian
Democracy.In both cases the reviewersdisapprovedof Benson'sattemptto place Jacksonian
Democracywithinthebroadconsensusframework.
(See Lynd'sreviewin Commentary,
XXXIII
[Apr. i962), 366-68; MichaelLebowitz,"The Significance
of Claptrapin AmericanHistory,"
Studieson the Left,III [WinterI963], 79 ff.)
43 Writers
like WalterT. K. Nugent,RobertF. Durden,Paul Holbo, and C. Vann Woodward, who have recentlychampionedthe agrarianinsurgency
of the I890's, are in the last
analysisto be seen ratheras men of ruralbackgrounddefendinga ruralNeo-Populisttradition
againstan urban attackthan as membersof the New Left seekingto legitimateradicalismin
America. (See Irwin Unger, "Critique of Norman Pollack," AgriculturalHistory,XXXIX

[Apr.i965],

I7-22.)

44 In a symposium
on Socialismpublishedin New Politics,I (Spring i962),

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40.

The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

125I

tion.45Socialismis America's"hidden heritage,"which has been maligned


and abused as much by the historiansas by the AttorneyGeneral. The
historians"have providedlittlethatis usable to the newlyemergingAmerican left.""But not all generations,"
he concludes,in a manifesto,
"have an
equal stakein obscuringthepast.Hopefullythenew historians
of American
radicalismwill be more disposedto learnfromit, and less inclinedto bend
to theirmorenarrowand immediatepurpose."46
it, howeversubconsciously,
Weinstein'sconcernis with the mainstreamSocialismof Eugene Debs.
But part of the New Left prefersanarchismto Socialism and has sought
to recoveran antiauthoritarian
radical past for the United States.Richard
Drinnon, a self-declared
radical, has writtena sympatheticbiographyof
anarchistEmma Goldman that turns that eccentricbut trulyinteresting
woman not only into a "courageous,compassionate,intelligenthuman being" but into a prophetessof dangeroustotalitariantendencieswithinthe
Left.47Henry David Thoreau is anotherradical who appeals to the anarchistLeft. When Lynd recentlyquestioned Thoreau's pacifistand anarchistcredentials,the resultingfuroramply confirmedhis claim that the
author of Civil Disobediencehad "become the patron saint of the new
radicalsand of all unadjustedAmericans."18
The youngmen of the Left findit possibleto identifywiththe political
failuresand outcasts.Urban middle-classreform,on the otherhand, earns
theircontempt.GabrielKolko considersthe progressive
movementa fraud.
The mass of earlytwentieth-century
legislationostensibly
designedto regulate businessin the interestof the commongood was reallyengineeredby
businessmenthemselves,
anxious to preventdestructive
competition.49
The
combinationof glittering
in progressivism
promiseand emptyperformance
in the end headed off"the radical potentialof mass grievancesand aspirations of genuine progressivism,"
or, in other words,of true social recon45 See JamesWeinstein,
"Anti-WarSentimentand the SocialistParty,i9I7-I9I8,"
Political
ScienceQuarterly,
LXXIV (June1959), passim,and "Socialism'sHidden Heritage:Scholarship
Studies on the Left,III (Fall I963), passim; see also WeinReinforces
PoliticalMythology,"
stein'sexchangewithGeraldFriedberg,
ibid.,IV (SummerI964), 79-97.
46 Weinstein,"Socialism'sHidden Heritage," Io8. Weinsteinis not an unbalanceddoctrinaire.In defendingAmericanSocialismagainstFriedberg'schargeof innerfailurehe concedes that "a traditionof political democracy,relativesocial mobility,and a generallyincreasingstandardof livingmade possibleby the expansionof Americancapitalismfromthe
end of the Civil War to the middle 1920's" kept Socialism in Americafrombecoming"a
majoritypoliticalmovement."(See the exchangewith Friedberg[p. go], cited in note 45,
above.)
47 Drinnon,Rebel in Paradise,vii et passim.
48 StaughtonLynd,"HenryThoreau: The AdmirableRadical,"Liberation,
VII (Feb. 1963),
2I f.; forthe responseto Lynd's article,see ibid., VIII (Apr. I963), 22 ff.
49 In thisinsistence
natureof late nineteenthon thecompetitive
and earlytwentieth-century
Kolko is at seriousodds with the old Left and the traditionalMarxist
businessenterprise,
thesisof the growingmonopolizationof the Americaneconomy.He also disagrees,of course,
viewof economictrendsduringtheperiod.
withthePopulist-progressive

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I252

IrwinUnger

Martin J. Sklar tells us that Progressivism


struction.50
was a movement
led by and consisting
of largecorporate
interests
and politicaland intellectual
the large corporateindustrialcapitalsystem,and convinced
leadersaffirming
of thenecessity
ofinstitutionalizing
to accommodate
reforms,
legaland otherwise,
the nation'slaw and habitsand the people'sthinking,
to the new corporate
business
structure
anditsrequirements,
domestic
andforeign.51
While Sklar, unlike Kolko, concedesthat what emergedwas reformand
not mere sham, it is as difficult
to recognizein his Progressivism
as in
Kolko's anythingof the humanitarianism,
the self-criticism,
and the social
imaginationthat historianshave generallyfound in the liberal political
movements
of theearlytwentieth
century.
The New Left treatment
of the New Deal so far has been skimpy.But
it is fairlyclear,fromsome interesting
fragments,
what it will look like
when it fullyemerges.In a sharplycriticalreviewof ArthurSchlesinger,
Jr.'s,The Age of Roosevelt,
JacobCohen declaresthe "New Deal marks
the last act . . . by which Americanpoliticsaccommodateditselfto the
problemsof economicjusticeraisedby the systemof countervailing
powers."
He denies to Rooseveltand his associatesthe honorablelabel of "pragmatists."Pragmatismpossessesa vision of societyout of which true social
experimentalism
can emerge.The New Deal was goalless and aimless,
withouteithermoralor practicalpurposes.52"In the long run what did the
New Deal do?" asksMarc Schleifer.
Are thereother,moreflourishing
of thecorporate
and progressive
offspring
incometaxthanMadisonAvenueexpense-account
and thePentagon?With
culture,
theexception
ofJimmy
Hoffaand a fewremnant
leftist
unions,whatsignificance
and militant
honoris therenowin a "strong"tradeunionmovement?
Who can
betterremember
PearlHarborthanthehundreds
of thousands
of dead Chinese,
Koreans,Vietnamese,
Laotians,Filipinos,etc.,we have killedsincethe end of
theSecondWorldWar?53
The New Left's harsh judgmentof twentieth-century
reformis not, I
suggest,the inevitableconclusionimposedby the facts.It is dictated,in the
firstplace, by ideologicalpredispositions.
Young Left historianslike Kolko
cannotendorseany politicalmovementthat did not aim at a cooperative
50 GabrielKolko, The Triumphof Conservatism:
A Reinterpretation
of AmericanHistory,
(New York, I963), passim, esp. 285. The same themein a narrowercompassmay

i900-I9i6

be found in Kolko's volume on railroadlegislationduringthe progressiveperiod. (See id.,

Railroads and Regulation,1877-19i6


[Princeton,
N.J.,I965].)
51 MartinJ. Sklar, "WoodrowWilson and the PoliticalEconomyof ModernUnited States
Liberalism,"
Studieson theLeft,I (No. 3, I960), I7 f3.,esp. 40.
52 JacobCohen, "Schlesinger
and the New Deal," Dissent,VIII (Autumn I96I), 46i ff.

It is interesting
to comparethis long review of The Age of Rooseveltwith anotherby an
orthodoxMarxist.The latter,writtenunder the pseudonym"George Brand," is far more
sympathetic.
(See George Brand, "Toward a Historyof the New Deal," MonthlyReveiw,
XII [Mayi960], 28 ff.)
53 Marc Schleifer,
"A SocialistPlea forBlack Nationalism,"ibid.,XV (Sept. I963), 225 ff.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

I253

also getsbad marks,one suspects,


becauseit was so
society.
Progressivism
eminently
respectable.
Kolko characteristically
attacksthe muckrakers
as
men"(with
talentsand middleclassvalues."54
commonplace
The assaulton
theNew Deal, on theotherhand,is a morecomplexmatter.
For someof
theNew Leftists
it is an adolescent
blowforindependence.
The New Deal
was thepoliticalfaithof theirparents
in a quiteliteralway.In rejecting
it
theyare rejecting
theirfathersand theirfathers'faith.55
For others,as
Schleifer's
polemicsuggests,
theNew Deal is theimmediate
sourceof the
liberalwelfarestate,and theydespiseit as muchas theydo the flaccid,
self-satisfied
society
thattheyholdis itsdirectdescendant.
Each of thesereform
movements
posesa problemof identification
for
theNew Left.Whether
theypassmuster
is notself-evident.
To eachmust
first
be puta seriesof questions:Was it trulyradical?Was it proletarian?
Whatwereitsrelations
to theexisting
establishment?
Each of theyoung
menis askinghimself:
wouldI havesupported
it? For pastreform
movementsthereis, then,as yetno prescribed
New Left canonof historical
virtue,and the youngLeftistsare at thispointgropingforappropriate
attitudes
and responses.
Thereis one exception
to thisuncertainty.
Thereis
no doubthow theyoungradicalswouldhaveresponded
to themovement
forracialequalityin America,
and thereis no ambiguity
in theirattitudes
towardthehistorical
champions
of theNegro.
Withouta doubtthestruggle
forNegroequalityduringthelastcentury
moreattention
and a halfhas received
fromtheNew Leftthananyother
movement
of ourpast.Thereis no needto belaborthe
single"progressive"
It flowsfromtheintenseimmersion
of thisconcern.
present-mindedness
of
theLefttodayin theproblems
ofcivilrights.
Whatcouldbe moreobvious
student
ofhistory
to eventhemostsuperficial
thanthatthebattles
ofLittle
are thelinealdescendants
Rock,Selma,and Birmingham
of thosefoughtand laterbytheRadicalRepublicans?
bytheabolitionists
To theNew Left
formoderncivilrights
thelabel"New Abolitionists"
militants
is morethan
a metaphor.56

I6i.
54Kolko, Triumphof Conservatism,
55 What else can we make of the following:"The more I came to thinkof it the more
I came to hate my brainwashedchildhood'sbeloved memoryof FranklinDelano Roosevelt.
Everybody's
liberalJewishmiddle-class
parentswill crylike mine if theyeverread this. ('After
all, didn'the save the Jewsand take us out of the depression?')BecauseI am a Socialist,and
nota liberal,I knowtheanswer."(Schleifer,
"SocialistPlea," 225-26.)
56 Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists
(Boston, i964); see also Lynd's assertion
that "the searchfor an Americanradical traditionshould begin with the Abolitionists,"
since
only they"puncturedwith the contemptit deserves,the whiteliberalhypocrisy
that America
is and has always been a democraticcountrywithouta feudal past.
(Letterin ComXXXV [Jan.i963], 74.)
mentary,

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I254

Irwin Unger

writes
of abolitionism
In somesense,of course,theNew Lefthistory
itself.Thereis no questionaboutwhento cheerand whento hiss; the
heroesand
thehistoriographic,
notthehistorical,
problemis in identifying
have
villains.Up to thispoint,as we haveseen,theNew Lefthistorians
as rebuttal-rebuttal
of somepositionof their
been able to writehistory
of theAmerican
Negro,and thestrug.
professional
elders.Withthehistory
difficulties
arise.The trouble
is thattheacademic
gleoverhislotandfuture,
establishment
alreadyoccupiesthehighground.Even in thebad old days
oftheI940's and I95o's thehistoriography
of theracequestionin America
was becomingradicalized.Paradoxically,
at the verymomentAmerican
historians
wereallegedlyturning
to theRight,theyhad adoptedan egalimoresympawerebecoming
tarianviewoftheNegro,andtoa lesserextent
the
theticto his friends.
It was not Williamsor Lyndwho rehabilitated
abolitionists;
it was DwightDumondand GilbertHobbs Barnes.It was
the
notW. E. B. Du Bois or JamesAllenalonewho werere-evaluating
FrancisB. Simkins,Robert
accomplishments
of black Reconstruction;
Woody,and Vernon Whartonwere doing it equally well.57 As farback as
fortheNew Lefttheacademic
Jr.,whoepitomizes
Schlesinger,
i949 Arthur

as wellas thepolitical
was insisting
thattheCivilWar,howestablishment,
everdeplorable
and destructive,
slavery.58
didjustify
itselfbydestroying
The New Lefthascompensated
forthislackofa historiographic
enemy,
I believe,by singlingout one of the few prominent
middlegeneration
whoappearstobe critical
oftheabolitionists.
Theremaybe legitihistorians
mategroundson whichto quarrelwithDavid Donald's work,but the
to acceptthe abolitionists
at
Left,I believe,chiefly
dislikeshis reluctance
of the
theirown estimate.
socialportrait
When,in I956, in a composite
and laterin his CharlesSumnerand theComingoftheCivil
abolitionists,
men were not exemptfromthe ego
War,Donald suggestedthatantislavery

and thecapacity
thepersonalfailings,
for
theneurotic
drives,
compulsions,
othermen,he calleddownon his headthewrath
thatafflict
self-deception
Louis RuchameschargesDonald with"insensitivity
of theneoabolitionists.
57 The worksreferred
to are: Dwight L. Dumond, Antislavery
Originsof the Civil War
in the UnitedStates (Ann Arbor,Mich., I939); GilbertHobbs Barnes,The Anti-Slavery
Imin America,
pulse, x830-i844 (New York, I933); W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction
x86o-z88o (New York, 1935); JamesAllen, Reconstruction,
Battle for Democracy,x865I876 (New York, 1937); FrancisB. Simkinsand RobertWoody,South CarolinaduringReconstruction
(Chapel Hill, N.C., 1932); VernonWharton,The Negro in Mississippi,x86y5I8go (Chapel Hill, N.C., I947). It would of coursebe a mistaketo equate theseolder"liberals"
with the New Left radicals.Their sympathies
for the Negro and his friendsdid not run as
deep, nor weretheyas unequivocal,as thoseof the youngLeftistsof today.Still, the advent
of the Whartonsand the Dumonds in the 1930's and I940's represents
a distinctly
liberal
shiftin thehistoricaltreatnentof race in America.
58ArthurSchlesinger,
Jr.,"The Causes of the Civil War: A Note on HistoricalSentimentalism,"PartisanReview,XVI (Oct. I949), 969-8I.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

1255

to the evils of slavery."His biographyof Sumneris "the subversionof the


characterof a foundingfatherof American civil equality. . ."59 Fawn
Brodie accuses Donald of performing
a deft"surgicaloperation"on Sumner,not forthe purposeof analyzingthe man but to malign and discredit
the cause he foughtfor.60Aileen Kraditordetectsin Donald's essay,"Toward a Reconsideration
of Abolitionists,"
as well as in Hofstadter'sportrait
of Wendell Phillipsin The American
PoliticalTradition,
a "contemptfor
reformmovements
in general."6'
It is not enough,I submit,for the New Left to make sentimentalgestures.It is too bad that in theirdefenseof the abolitioniststheyhave not
tackledthe hard questionDonald raises: why did so few out of so many
Americansrespondto the evil of slaveryin such a way as to risk wealth,
and even personalsafety?A trulyradical answermightbe that
reputation,
Americawas so thoroughly
and universally
corruptin itsracialattitudesthat
only men who were virtuallyat war with theirenvironment
could really
appreciatethe evil of slaveryand take an activeand riskypartin its destruction. Indeed, at least in part,this seemsto be the implicationof one New
Left author,Leon Litwack, who notes that racistbigotryin ante bellum
America pervaded everysectorof society,includingabolitionismitself.62
Insteadof such a bold assaulton Americanvalues,however,the New Left
seldom does morethan reiteratethe evil of slavery-a factno one seriously
disputes-as sufficient
explanationfortheabolitionist
impulse.In theiranxiety
to protectthe civil rightsmovement,theyhave failed to face the obvious
historicalproblem.
The abolitionists
are a New Left "hero class."63 To Pollack,at least,the
59Louis Ruchames,"The Pulitzer Prize Treatmentof Charles Sumner," Massachusetts
Review,II (SummerI96I), 76I, 749.
60 Fawn Brodie, "Who Defends the Abolitionist?"in The Antislavery
Vanguard: New
Essays on the Abolitionists,
ed. MartinDuberman (Princeton,N.J., I965), 52-67. This essay
has been reprinted
in Dissent,XII (Summer1965), 348-59. The Dubermanvolumeis a mine
of New Leftopinionon theantislavery
movement.See particularly
the essaysby Lynd,Howard
Zinn, and Dubermanhimself,in additionto Brodie's article.The essay by Silvan Tomkins,
"The Psychologyof Commitrnent:
The Constructive
Role of Violence and Sufferingfor the
Individualand for His Society,"suggeststhat the New Left has not been entirelywillingto
abandonsocial psychology
to the older generation.The attemptto utilizepsychology
to reveal
new thingsabout the abolitionists,
whileat the same timeavoidingthe pitfallof behavioralism,
is not successful,
however.Tomkinsmerelyclothesin psychological
jargon the positionof the
Left that the evil of slaverywas enough by itselfto explain the abolitionistreactionto it.
61 See Aileen Kraditor'sreview
article,"The AbolitionistRehabilitated,"Studies on the
Left, V (Spring I965), I1I. Actuallythe most "conservative"of Donald's writingsis his
essay,"An Excessof Democracy,"reprintedin the paperbackversionof LincolnReconsidered:
Essays on the Civil War Era (2d ed., New York, 1956), 2o8-35. This piece has not yetbeen
noticedby the New Left,however.
62 Leon Litwack,North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, s1790-1860 (Chicago,
i96i).
a3The termis Rogow'sin "RevoltagainstSocial Equality,"370.

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I256

Irwin Unger

are another.
Populists
thewageearnersof Americado notseem
Strangely,

to constitutea third.As a group,the "commonpeople" receivelittleatten-

tionfromtheyoungradicals.Kolko and MichaelHarrington,


bothyoung
menof theLeft,have"rediscovered"
poverty
in theUnitedStatesafterthe
liberalsdeclaredit extinct.64
But althoughthe continuedpresenceof the

poorin an ostensibly
richnationsuggestsstilllargercontrasts
of wealth
and condition
in thepast,neither
workis,properly
historical.
speaking,
Moresatisfactory
is StephanThernstrom's
and Progress,
a work
Poverty
thatsuggests
how trulyusefulit can be to examineAmericanmythology
withtheskeptical
eyeof theLeft.BasicallyThernstrom
seeksto discover
whether
nineteenth-century
Americawas reallya land of opportunity
for
thelaboring
man.Unlikemanyof thenew radicals,
who,withMills,confusecomputers
withconservatism,
he is notafraidto use statistics
or the
insights
of socialpsychology,
and theresulting
marriage
of radicalskepticismandpost-Beardian
technique
produces
a livelyoffspring.
In hisstudyofNewburyport
in themid-nineteenth
century,
Thernstrom
putsthenotionof Americaas a working-class
paradiseto thetest.Whatevermayhave beentrueof the contemporary
West,wagesforcommon
laborin theMassachusetts
townbetweenI850 and i88o werenothigh,he
says,and theubiquityof childand femalelabordemonstrates
theinability
ofworkingmen
to support
theirfamilies
unaided.The community
was not
classless.Industrialism
heightened
social antagonism
and arousedserious
fearsamongthemiddleclass,whichsoughtto smother
socialunrestunder
therhetoric
of"theself-made
man."The function,
or at leasttheresult,
of
thismythologizing
was to turnclassfrustration
intoclassguiltand reduce
thedangerof socialupheavalbydirecting
working-class
discontent
inward
against
thediscontented
themselves.65
Thus farit is easyto recognizetheNew Lefttone.But therestof the
studyis a first-rate
pieceof socialanalysisthattranscends
anyspecialideology.Was themythof theself-made
man valid,Thernstrom
asks.In part.
Ingeniously
squeezingconvincing
conclusions
outof themanuscript
census
returns,
Thernstrom
demonstrates
thatwhilefewunskilledwage earners,
nativeor immigrant,
lefttheblue-collar
class,theirsonsoftendid moveup
to semiskilled
status,and,moreinteresting,
it was possiblefora workingclass family,by exploiting
everyable-bodied
member,and by "ruthless
underconsumption"
to acquiresomeproperty,
usuallythefamilyhome.66
64 GabrielKolko, Wealthand Power in America:An Analysisof Social Class and Income
Distribution(New York, I962); Michael Harrington,The OtlherAmerica: Povertyin the
UnitedStates (New York, I964).
65 StephanThernstrotn,
Povertyand Progress:Social Mobilityin a NineteenthCenturyCity
(Cambridge,Mass., I964), Chaps. I-iII.
66 Ibid., 80-i37.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistorv

I257

In a word,mobility
did existin America,or at leastin Newburyport,
but
it was limitedand did not precludeclassantagonisms
and muchhuman
misery.

Thernstrom's
forwritinog
bookclearlyopensup impressive
possibilities
working-class
history.
Yet he has few followers
or imitators
amongthe
New Left.The factdemandsan explanation,
forin the I930's and 1940's,
radicalhistorians
wrotepassionate,
engagedstudiesof the labor movement.67
The answer,of course,is thatthe radicalintellectuals
no longer
regardthelaboringman in thesameapproving
way.To theold Leftthe
workingman
was an objectof bothsolicitude
and hope.Time has madea
mockery
of boththesesentiments.
Industrial
unionismhas triumphed,
but
it is clearto theLeftthatit has onlysucceededin creating
anotherselfcentered
privileged
class.As a socialbeingtheAmericanwage earnerhas
succumbed
to themindless
distractions
of consumerism;
as a political
being
he and his leadersare amongthechiefsupporters
of the"WarfareState."
The disillusion
is profound,
and, amongsomeof the New Leftists,
the
workingclasshas been replacedby the radicalstudents
and intellectuals
themselves
as theanticipated
agentsofprogressive
change.
If the New Left refusesto worshipthe wage earner,it moreunexpectedly
refuses
to cursethebusinessman.
Kolko,at leastobliquely,
attacks
the "revisionist"
businesshistorians
for theiruncritical
appraisalof the
robberbarons,68
and,in his studiesof theprogressive
era and of railroad
he picturesbusinessmen
regulation,
as operating
covertly
offstagein a
wayscarcely
designed
towinourapproval.69
AllenSolganickexplicitly
calls
hisrecentarticlein Scienceand Societya "rebuttal"
of theentrepreneurial
schoolofbusiness
history.70
Butthesetwoessaysdo notamountto muchof
an indictment,
and we mustplacealongside
suchmildstrictures
ofbusinessmenand theiracademicchampions
theratherfavorable
pressprovided
by
scholars
likeWilliams,
LaFeber,andLynd.
WhiletheNew Leftmaynotexaltworkers
at theexpenseof business-

men,surely,one assumes,theymustrejecta major premiseof thenew postwar history:the relativeclasslessnessof America and the absence here of
seriousclass conflict.No one reallyinsiststhat revolutionwas endemicin
the United States,but in at least two instances,surely,in the 1770's and

67E.g., Philip Foner,Historyof the Labor Movementin the UnitedStates (2 vols., New
York,I947-65); Leo Huberman,The LaborSpyRacket(New York,1937).
68 Gabriel Kolko, "The Premises of Business Revisionism,"Business History Review,
XXXIII (AutumnI959), 335 ff.
69 See esp. Kolko's Railroadsand Regulation,
passim.
70 Allen Solganick,"The RobberBaron Conceptand Its Revisionists,"
Scienceand Society,
XXIX (SummerI965), 257-69.

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I258

Irwin Unger

soilforreaagainin thei86o's,Americans
on American
killedone another
sons thatappearedto themfundamental.
mostAmerican
Until recently
historians-both
Marxistsand liberalprogressives-were
preparedto ag,ree
thaton thesetwooccasionssomething
likea classconflict
did occurin the
UnitedStates.Then came the challenge.To the post-World
War II historiansthe AmericanRevolutionwas not a social cataclysm;it was a
nationalist
struggle
forindependence.
Its sequel,theConstitution,
was not
a Thermidorian
reaction
but a populardocument
supported
by all classes.
The CivilWar was nota struggle
betweenindustrial
and agrarcapitalism
ianism.It wasgenerated
bythefailure
ofthepoliticalsystem,
or thegrowth
of rivalsectionalideologiesand mythologies,
or the weaknessof institutionalbondsin America,or the mistakesand misdeedsof leadersand
followers.
Thereis indeedconflict
in all this,but it is theconflict
of the
post-Beardian
history:
it is pluralistic
ratherthandualistic,
psychicrather
thanmaterial.
Now thechallengers
havethemselves
beenchallenged.
Staughton
Lynd
of Yale University,
chiefNew Lefthistorian
of the Revolutionand the
Confederation
period,acceptsa modified
versionof theclassconflict
motif.
In an interesting
briefstudyofFederalism
in DutchessCounty,
New York,
in the I780's, Lynd concludesthatthe Beardianpoliticaldichotomy
betweenFederalistmagnatesand Antifederalist
yeomenis generally
valid.
The struggle
overthe Constitution,
in the Hudson Valleyat least,does
havemanyof theelements
of a dualisticclassstruggle.
On theotherhand
he acknowledges
seriousflawsin the Beard-Becker
interpretation.
The
adoptionstruggle
was notonebetween
former
ToryFederalists
and former
patriotAntifederalists
but betweenlargemagnatesand landlordson one
sideand theyeomanry
led bythelessergentry
on theother.71
In an article
in theMarxist
journalScienceand Society,
Lyndgivesus a stillmoremuted
Beardianism.
If the New York experience
is any guide,he tellsus, the
Constitution
in its genesiswas neitheran antidemocratic
weaponof an
elite,nora timeless,
neutraldistillation
of politicalwisdom.Admittedly
the
Federalistleadersin New York weresocialconservatives.
Yet theywere
also "deeplypublic-spirited
in each otherto
men,criticalof any tendency
put privateconcerns
beforedevotionto country
and firmly
committed
to
republican
As forthepartyrankand file,theywereoftenthe
government."
cityartisanswho fearedthe foreignmanufactures
thatthe weak governmentunderthe Articlesof Confederation
could not exclude.Together
71 StaughtonLynd, Anti-Federalism
in Dutchess County,New York (Chicago, I962),
passim.A more emphaticassertionof the themeof class strugglemay be found in Lynd's
article,"Who Should Rule at Home? DutchessCounty,New York, in the AmericanRevolution,"Williamand MaryQuarterly,
XVIII (Julyi96i), esp. 330-32.

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

I259

thesegroups,theone fearful
of thelevelingspiritthathad arisenduring
thewar amongtheyeomanry
and theirleaders,theotheranxiousto protectits livelihood,
succeededin gettingadopteda documentthat"establishedthemostdemocratic
government
in anymajornationof theworld
at thatday."72
This maybe Beardian,butit is Beardin a highlysophisticatedversion
andwithout
theintrusive
polemical
tone.
Lynd'sworkon the Confederation
periodlike Thernstrom's
in social
history
revealssomeofthepossibilities
oftheNew Lefthistory.
Whenused
withimagination
and flexibility
it can tellus important
thingsaboutcomplex historical
events.In any case the questionsthe Left asks are still
apt to be the interesting
ones.Unfortunately
thatsecondgreatnational
crisis,theCivilWar,has notreceivedan equallyperceptive
treatment,
althoughtheworkof Beard,HowardK. Beale,WilliamB. Hesseltine,
Du
Bois,andothers
suggests
theplausibility
ofa classconflict
analysis.
The relative
of resultsarises,I think,froman intellectual
poverty
and
emotional
dilemmathatconfronts
theNew Lefthistorians
whentheycontemplate
theCivilWar. On theone handthewar was a heroicbattlefor
as thesuccessful
freedom,
abolition
of slavery
attests.
Was it also,as Beard
and theMarxists
wouldinsist,a sectionalized
of classeswiththe
struggle
Northrepresenting
middle-class
industrialism
and the South aristocratic
feudalism?
If thelatter,
theNew Left,withtheirjaundicedviewofmiddleclasscapitalist
America,
can at besthe ambivalent
aboutUnionvictory.
If
theformer,
whereis classstruggle?
If both,how doesone accountforthe
selfish
an act of suchcolossalgenerosity
rulingclassperforming
as emancipatingthe slaves?The old Lefthandledthe problemin eitherof two
ways.For Beardit scarcelyexisted;The Rise of AmericanCivilization
revealshimas relatively
insensitive
to theevilsof slavery
and harshly
critical oftheabolitionists.73
Thereis,then,no crusadeforfreedom
toembarrass
himin hisbeliefthatthewarwas at heartan actofaggression
bycapitalists
againstagrarians.74
A MarxistlikeJamesAllen,a man obviously
aliveto
the moralissueof slavery,
solvesthe problemby supposingthe Radical
to be also thepoliticalwingof a
theagentsof emancipation,
Republicans,
72 Id., "Capitalism,
The Case of New York,"
Democracyand theUnitedStatesConstitution:
Scienceand Society,XXVII (Fall i963), 385-4I3.
73 At least for the period beforethe rise of the CottonKingdom,Beard treatsslaveryas
a benevolentinstitution,
for the "depthsof theirabuse and
while he attacksthe abolitionists
scurrility."
As for the Radical Republicans,the particularpostwarfriendsof the Negro, they
are largelydrivenby a simplecravingforpower. (See Charlesand Mary Beard, The Rise of
AmericanCivilization[2 vols.,New York,I933], 1, 655, 698; II, ii6.)
74 Socialistslike IrvingHowe misreadBeard,I think,when theyclaim him for the North
in the Civil War. Unlike the Marxists,Beard never approvedof the victoryfor industrial
America,remainingsympathetic
to the end to the agrariansocietythat the war presumably
overthrew.

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Irwin Unger

I 26o

progressive
industrial
capitalistclass.The war thatfreedthe slavesalso
established
thesocialpreconditions
Bothevents,
fortheeventual
revolution.
ina word,werehistorically
necessary
andhistorically
progressive.75
Neitherof thesesolutions
wouldseempossiblefortheNew Left.One
wayto solvethedifficulty
in huis by acknowledgingr
a sortof ambiguity
manaffairs,
to the
which,in thelastanalysis,
is fundamentally
uncongenial
New Leftstyle.IrvingHowe,whorepresents
theold and
a bridgebetween
theNew Left,notesthatthewar contained
"a doubletruth."
The conflict,
he writesin a reviewof EdmundWilson'sPatriotic
Gore,"did markthe
victory
of moderncapitalism
and did let loosethosetendencies
towarda
centralized
statewhichWilsondeplores,
butalso theCivilWar brought
to
an end thesystem
bywhichone mancouldownanother
and therefore
...
it represents
a major turningin the moraldevelopment
of the United
States."76
Similarly
HowardZinn,attempting
to absolvethe abolitionists
fromthegravechargeof starting
a bloodyconflict,
believesthat,whilethe
warwas foughtoverslavery,
it was nottheresultof theantislavery
agitation.Paralleling
the antipathy
betweenabolitionist
and slaveholder
was a
morepotentconflict
between"antitariff,
antibank,
anticapitalist
[and] antinationalist"
agrarianson the one side and the "naturalpolitical
soutlhern
leadersand controllers
of thenationaleconomy"
on theother.It was the
secondgroupof antagonists
who causedthe wvar,
foronlytheypossessed
sufficient
power.Butoncethewarhad started,
thesepowerless
abolitionists
transformed
it intoan irresistible
attackon slavery!77
The otherescapefromthedilemmais to ignore,likeBeard,thewhole
moralsideof thegreatconflict.
This is thecourseof EugeneGenoveseof
Sir GeorgeWilliamsUniversity,
one of thefewconfirmed
Marxists
among
theyoungradicalhistorians.
Genoveseredrawstheeconomiclinesbetween
Northand Southand restores
thestruggle
ofmaterial
interests
to thecenter
of thestage.Slavery,
at leastbyimplication,
causedthewar,notbecauseit
arousedthemoralindignation
oftheWestern
world,butbecauseit isolated
theSouthfromtheprogressive
economiccurrents
of theday.Weddedto
itsslavesystem
theSouthbecameincreasingly
feudaland backward.
Ultimately"the South'sslave civilization
could not . . . coexistwithan increasingly
hostile,
powerful
and aggressive
Northern
"78
Capitalism.
The New Leftcounterattack
on thehistoriographic
trendsof the last
twenty
yearsis stillin itsearlystages.We see at present
onlythetipof the
75 Allen,Reconstruction,I7-28.
76 IrvingHowe, "EdmuindWilson and the Sea Slugs," Dissent, X (Winter i963),
70 ff.
77 Howard Zinn, "The Tacticsof Agitation,"
in Antislavery Vangutard,ed. Duberman,445.
78 Eugene Genovese,"The Slave South: An Interpretation,"
Science anid Society, XXV (Dec.

I96I),

320

ff. I do not mean to say thatGenoveseis a crude economicdeterminist:


quite the

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The "New Left" and AmericanHistory

126I

iceberg.
Beneaththesurface
stillliesthemainmassofyoungradicalscholarsjustnow completing
theirtraining
at themajorcosmopolitan
graduate
schools.In the nextfew yearstheseyoungmen will be joiningin the
attempt
to reconstruct
a coherent
Leftistviewof theAmerican
past,79
and
in a periodwhentheAmerican
intelligentsia
has becomefascinated
by the
radicalstudentmovement,
theseyounghistorians
will receive,I predict,
an unusualamountofattention
and display.80
If forno otherreason,then,
thantheirimpacton theliterate
public,theywillhaveto be reckoned
with
by theirprofessional
elders.But theymust also be listenedto for the
healthof thehistorical
profession.
No discipline
shouldbe withouta dialogue,leastof all one thatrepresents
a difficult
and problematical
marriage
of the humanities
and the social sciences.Unanimity
is finein science;
unanimity
overthenatureof man'spastsuggests
eitheran official
lineor
a disturbing
poverty
ofimagination.
Neithercircumstance
canbe applauded
byan honest
scholar
nomatter
whathisideological
allegiance.
But prudential
deservethe
motivesaside,does the New Left history
attention
of theseniormen?I thinkit does.True,therehas yetbeenno
youngradicalscholarof arresting
styleor impressive
technique.But,of
course,greathistorians,
are made,not born.
unlikegreatmathematicians,
of menand womenin theirthirties,
For a groupcomposed
almostentirely
theyoungradicalshavedoneworkthatdeserves
respect.
Theycannotcompetein craftsmanship
withthementheyhavechosento oppose,butsurely
contrary.In arguing, as he does, that slavery was an economic blight on the South, he introduces, quite properly, I believe, considerations of social values, the South's self-image, and
other factors not usually encountered in a strict Marxist interpretation.For an extended treatment of his view on slavery,see his book, The Political Economy of Slavery (New York, I965).
Another example of a relatively "hard line" class conflictanalysis of the Civil War is the chapter, "The American Civil War: The Last Capitalist Revolution," in Barrington Moore, Jr.'s, recent book, Social Origirnsof Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the
Modern World (Boston, I966),
Moore's estimate of the war, "reached after much
III-55.
uncertainty," is that the struggle "was the last revolutionary offensive on the part of what
one may legitimately call urban or bourgeois capitalism." (See page II2.)
Moore is not, of
course, of the same generation as the New Leftists, but as noted above (note I3) the young
radicals turn to him for inspiration.
79 By now it is clear that this is becoming a conscious and organized goal of the Students
for a Democratic Society, the largest of the New Left groups. The SDS has established within
the last year the Radical Education Project, which has assumed as one of its tasks the writing
of "radical history," for the purpose, as one REP letter puts it, of equipping "outrage with
precision." The REP has already published its first Occasional Paper on American History,
"Towards a Democratic History," by Professor Jesse Lemisch of the University of Chicago.
This is both a brief review of what has been done and a call to furthereffort.For additional
details, see "American Radical History: A Progress Report," New Left Notes, Jan. I3, I967,
2. Mr. JohnRoberts of NYU called the REP and its plans to my attention.
80 This fascination has already been exhibited in the extraordinarv attention given Christopher Lasch's book, The New Radicalism in Amnerica,I889-i963:
The Intellectual as a Social
Type (New York, I965).
This work, a series of lively and perceptive vignettes of various
cultural radicals, is held together by an opaque and confusing thesis that actually defies all
categories of Left or Right. Despite the ambiguities, Lasch has been lionized by the intellectual
community, less I believe for his very real merits than for the fact that he writes in a literate
way about two subjects irresistibleto the intellectuals: the Left and themselves.

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I262

Irwin Unger

we ought to extendto them the same courtesyof judging them against


their.
peersthatwe extendto themoreconventional
youngerscholars.
Ultimately,of course,theirreceptionmust depend not on theircraft
but on theircontent.Do theyhave anythingto say thatis,worthlistening
to foritsown sake? At theirbestI believetheydo. As a historianpersonally
convincedthat Americansencountereda narrowerrange of culturaland
politicalexperiencethan did Europeans,I do not take seriouslythe reassertion of class,war of some of the more militantradical scholars.But the
work of Thernstrom,
LaFeber, and even Williams is a usefulantidoteto
the self-congratulatory
note that may be found among some of the postWorld War II historians.America may not exhibitas grim a recordof
exploitationand brutality
as RomanovRussia or BourbonSpain or Regency
England, but it had its agonies and its injustices.More important,
it had
its evasions and its "unfinishedrevolutions."American "exceptionalism"
did not include total exemptionfromthe ills that societiesare heir to; it
mostemphatically
did notexcludefailure.
But thereis also a debitside of the ledger.The New Lefthas frequently
confusedintellectualdisagreementwith the battleof generationsand has
oftenfailed to play the scholarlygame by the most elementaryrules of
fairplay. The young radicalsare oftenbad tempered.In theircivic concerns they are angry dissentersfrom the nation's currentforeignand
domesticpolicies,and theysometimesallow the tone and rhetoricof the
picket line and the handbill to invade theirprofessionalwork. The historical"establishment"
is not thepoliticalestablishment
in Washington,and
the youngmen of theLeftmustnot treatscholarship,
as an opportunity
for
a politicalharangue.
But beyondthesemattersof tastethereare weaknessesin the emerging
class conflicthistorythatthreatento stultify
the whole New Left historical
enterprise.The young radicals' rejectionof the historicalcurrentssimce
1945 has all too oftenimplieda denial not only of "consensus"conclusions
but also of the social sciencesand the new statistical
methodology.
Admittedlyboth of these new methodscan be abused, but by rejectingthese
analyticaltools the youngradical historiansare, in effect,
disarmingthemselvesand perhaps,ultimately,
are consigningtheirefforts
to sterility.
Their
responseis all the more surprisingwhen we recall the old Left's,respect
forscienceand for"scientific"
history.
But mostdisturbing
all
of is theNew Left'sexaggeratedpresent-mindedness. It suggestsa contemptfor pure history,historythathas not enlisted
in the good fight.The young radicals'effortsare generallygovernednot
by the naturaldialogueof the disciplinebut by the concernsof the outside

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The "New Left" and A4merican


History

I 263

cultural
andpolitical
world.Clio at theirbehesthas donneda uniform
and
doesbattleforsocialvirtue.
It is truethata numberof themiddlegenerationhavethemselves
beeninfluenced
by a conservative
politicalbias; more
commonamongthem,as we have seen,is a politicalneutrality
which,
is surely
however
inadequate
forcitizenshipl
useful
forscholarship.
It wouldbe a pityif theirsocialconsciousness
uncritically
committed
theemerging
to anyprescribed
generation
ofAmerican
scholars
readingof
theAmerican
past.It wouldmean the loss of muchyouthful
talentfor
It wouldalso be a loss fortheAmerican
history.
politicalLeft.If history
has anyprogrammatic
thatis allowedto
value,surelyit mustbe history
speakforitself.
Let theNew Leftask its own questionsof thepast,but
letthepastthensayitspiece.Americamaywellbe "exceptional."
Knowing
it maybe ultimately
moreusefulfortheLeftthandenying
it.And in the
endthereis no needto confuse
thetruths
of thepastwiththeneedsofthe
present
and future.
The complexities
and perplexities
of thenextfewdecadesmaywelljustify
thecooperative
commonwealth
withouttheneedto
onthedead.
playtricks

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