Reading Eugene Genovese in the age of Occupy

STUART SCHRADER is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in American Studies at N.Y.U. whose dissertation analyzes links between 1960s Cold War counterinsurgency and domestic policing in the United States. His article on punk rock, "A Rotten Legacy?," appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of the Rail.

Eugene D. Genovese—leading historian of slavery, son of Bensonhurst, graduate of Brooklyn College—died in September at age 82. Although many remembrances of Genovese have focused on his political transition from card-carrying Communist to Catholic cultural conservative, a close look at a concept underlying his work reveals more continuity than change. He clung to a dichotomous understanding of capitalism versus non-capitalism, with slavery the distinct foundation of a non-capitalist social world. That static binary holds clues to his later political transformation, which, in short, was less transformative than it appears. He remained a committed anti-capitalist, more or less, until the end, certain that capitalism’s most baneful symptoms continued to be its sundering of tradition and atomization of collectivities. But after the collapse of Really Existing Socialism, Genovese, the great historian of slavery, found the exemplary alternative to capitalism in the plantocracy and the peculiar world of Southern slaveholders. His celebration of that world’s protection of traditional values found a ready audience among political conservatives.

Genovese joined together theories of social life derived from Marxism with a sharp reading of the archives of American slavery. He thereby overturned many of the inherited scholarly understandings of the South and the Civil War developed in the century after emancipation. But it was Genovese’s defense of what he viewed as slaveholders’ paternalism that inspired many subsequent historians to take aim at his work....

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