“Too much liberty leads both men and nations to slavery.”

In a recent and provocative essay, Paul Gottfried described Eugene D. Genovese as a “hero of paleoconservative intellectuals.” No doubt this declaration qualified as news in some circles, for the distinguished historian of the American South has always worked within the Marxist tradition. Or perhaps one should say the Gramscian tradition, for Genovese has an intellectual and ethnic affinity for the unorthodox Italian theorist. Such pedantic precision would change little, however, for Gramsci’s writings, sophisticated though they surely are, flowed from the pen of a self-proclaimed Leninist and member of the Italian Communist Party.

Nevertheless, Gottfried was right; Genovese is the traditional conservative’s favorite leftist. To begin to understand why, it helps to know that Genovese has never wavered in his opposition to the politicization of the academy. I well recall, for example, how, in the late 1960’s, he helped prevent the election of Staughton Lynd, then a prominent radical, to the presidency of the American Historical Association. Having in the meantime lost none of his combative edge, he recently called for the use of “counterterror” against faculty and administrators who themselves employ totalitarian methods to enforce political correctness.

Even more important than his efforts to clean higher education’s Augean stables, however, has been Genovese’s judicious approach to the South and its history. Scrupulous honesty has here gone hand in hand with an exemplary dedication to the historian’s craft. “The duty of the socialist historian,” he wrote many years ago, “is, first and foremost, to develop himself into as good a historian as his talent and circumstances permit.” Genovese’s own talent and circumstances have made it possible for him to develop into a very good historian indeed. That is why, I venture to suggest, his writings have become all but indistinguishable from those of friends and colleagues on the traditional right.

Genovese emphasizes the modifying adjective “traditional” because he is impatient with “bourgeois conservatives” and neoconservatives who get misty-eyed whenever they hear the words “democratic capitalism.” What he has gleaned from his study of Southern history has reinforced his original Marxist hostility to capitalism and to what he calls “bourgeois social relations.” He seems to possess an instinctive—one is tempted to say an Italian—loyalty to family and community that he judges to be incompatible with the impersonal human relations that the market typically produces. Not surprisingly, then, it is precisely on the proslavery critique of the “free-labor” system that he has focused his attention in this, his latest book.

The Slaveholders’ Dilemma is based upon a series of lectures that Genovese delivered at Georgia Southern University in 1990. He intends it to serve as an introduction to his and his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s work-in-progress, The Mind of the Master Class: The Life and Thought of the Southern Slaveholders. But although this slim volume remains sketchy, it leaves no doubt as to Genovese’s profound respect and sympathy for Southern conservative thought. Quite understandably, then, he dedicated the book to M.E. Bradford, John Shelton Reed, and Clyde N. Wilson.

Indeed, if anything, Genovese may here have gone too far in his praise for those; Southern conservatives who argued for the proslavery position. True, he states categorically that “slavery has properly been condemned as an enormity,” but he also insists that the proslavery argument was “the pillar of a world view buttressed by close considerations of the great social, political, religious, economic, and philosophical issues of the day.” The question that one must ask, therefore, is whether a conservative world view can or should rest upon such a pillar.

Genovese has organized his discussion around the interrelationship he discerns between the Southern conservatives’ commitment to progress, freedom, and slavery. Unfortunately, the first two terms require more precise definition than Genovese has here been able to provide. He promises to make better work of it in the larger volume to follow, but until then we are left to understand “freedom” as individual liberty, and “progress” as the spread of Christian morality within a context of economic modernization.

Although Southerners displayed a decidedly ambivalent attitude toward the ideology of progress, they did ultimately embrace it. But, so the argument went, progress was possible only where freedom existed, and freedom depended upon a stable social order of the kind that only slavery could ensure. It is a contention that Allen Tate repeated in his biography of Stonewall Jackson (1928). “The institution of slavery,” Tate wrote, “was a positive good only in the sense that Calhoun had argued that it was: it had become a necessary element in a stable society.”

This is not a laughable argument, but it does oblige its defenders to resort to Newspeak. According to Genovese, for example, the following was the “elegant formula” of Thomas Roderick Dew, the president of William and Mary: “progress through a widening freedom based upon slavery.” Of course Dew and others like him knew perfectly well that slavery made freedom possible only for freemen. When speaking of slaves, therefore, they redirected the discussion to security. Unlike the iniquitous system of free labor—which transformed human into commodity relations and condemned freemen, black and white, to immiserization—slavery reconstituted the organic social relations of the Middle Ages and allowed those ill-equipped to survive in a heartless world to enjoy paternalistic protection. Like Abraham’s slaves before them, these simple folk were properly regarded as members of an extended family.

As I have already indicated, Genovese is particularly attracted by the Southern conservatives’ critique of free labor and of the free market in general. No doubt that is why he betrays no sympathy for the abolitionist assault on the Southern way of life. Then too, he knows that it was the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe who drove Southerners to upgrade slavery from a necessary evil to a “positive good.” The impression he has formed of abolitionist self-righteousness and intimidation was heightened, I suspect, by the endless demands and moral poses of contemporary “civil rights activists.” In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that Genovese evinces sympathy with the counterrevolutionary case even when it was intertwined with a defense of slavery.

With respect to the abolitionists, Genovese could have cited Edmund Burke’s famous reference to “the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians.” And yet it does not follow that no political issue is ever moral in nature; one has only to think of abortion. If, as Genovese claims, “the entire moral, religious, and social defense of slavery rested firmly on the notion that the laboring classes deserved cradle-to-grave security,” the Southerners were dodging the real issue—that of human dignity. How many of us, after all, are prepared to defend Stalin’s regime because it produced full employment at a time when Western governments could not find their way out of the Depression?

The Southern conservatives who defended slavery were clearly reacting to abolitionists, but at the same time their ideas reflected their fear of a large, suddenly liberated, black population. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that the notion of liberty deprived slavery of “that kind of moral power which it derived from time and habit; it is reduced to a mere palpable abuse of force. The Northern states had nothing to fear from the contrast, because in them the blacks were few in number, and the white population was very considerable. But if this faint dawn of freedom were to show two millions of men their true position, the oppressors would have reason to tremble.” No wonder, then, that the latter stiffened their resistance to change.

Finding themselves with their backs to the wall. Southerners advanced even larger and more defiant claims. One of Genovese’s subjects, historian William H. Trescot, maintained, for example, that the slave system would guarantee the South’s rise to world power. But in the event, as Genovese points out, the region’s economic backwardness doomed its chances in war. That backwardness only increased as a consequence of the paternalism Southerners held up for emulation. Tocqueville was right again when he wrote that “the black can claim no remuneration for his toil, but the expense of his maintenance is perpetual.”

The conclusion is inescapable, and Genovese has not hesitated to draw it. In the aftermath of communism’s collapse, he conceded that capitalism had proven superior to all alternatives in generating economic growth. Yet like many of his friends on the traditional right, he continues to deplore the cultural and social consequences of a system that has been “the greatest revolutionary solvent of traditional values in world history.” This is Genovese’s own dilemma and, like the proslavery enemies of free labor, he does not seem to know how to resolve it.

He might, however, take heart from the fact that at least one worthy spokesman for the free market, Wilhelm Röpke, recognized its limitations. The market economy, Röpke insisted, “must find its place in a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition. It must be firmly contained within an all-embracing order of society in which the imperfections and harshness of economic freedom are corrected by law and in which man is not denied conditions of life appropriate to his nature.”

Röpke placed his ideas firmly in the tradition of Burke. And so did many proslavery Southerners, as Larry E. Tise pointed out in Proslavery, his valuable history of the defense of slavery in America. Unfortunately, however, those same Southerners ignored one of Burke’s most important insights: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” 


[The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860, by Eugene D. Genovese (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 136 pp., $19.95]