What Genovese Knew, And When

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Christopher Phelps

IN HIS MOST recent effort to distance himself from the left while preserving an ever more tenuous connection to it, the renowned historian of American slavery Eugene D. Genovese takes to the summer issue of Dissent to pose the following question to his erstwhile comrades about their responsibility for the crimes of Communism: “What did you know and when did you know it?”

Curiously, none of the responses that Dissent solicited from left-wing historians put Genovese’s query to the test by applying it to himself. Had they done so, they would have exposed it as a diversion that fails to get at the real reasons why a substantial portion of American radicals turned a blind eye toward the mass butchery carried out by Communist regimes.(1)

What did he know and when did he know it? As even Genovese admits, “We knew everything essential and knew it from the beginning.” When Genovese belonged to the Communist Party in the late 1940s, for example, any number of Stalin’s crimes — show trials, purges, mass internments, single-party dictatorship, forced collectivization, the Nazi-Soviet pact — were a matter of public record.

Supporters of Communist regimes did not lack for information. Their failing was in their political worldview: inconsistency in applying socialist values, misconstruals of revolutionary requirements, fissures of democratic will, prejudices against rival political groups on the left who were telling the truth.

The issue is not so much what Genovese knew and when. It is why, given that he knew full well and openly acknowledged the undemocratic nature and barbaric atrocities of the Communist states, didn’t he condemn their crimes unequivocally in his writings?

Stalinism in Principle

The introductory essay to In Red and Black (1971), Genovese’s compilation of his essays from the sixties, featured this revealing sentence:

“The grim experiences of Russia, China, and other undemocratic socialist countries — whose revolutions and social systems we support in principle — ought to be enough to convince us that one of our major responsibilities is to guarantee that our own movement embody those great and living traditions of free and critical thought which are the glory of Western civilization and without which we have nothing to offer the American people or our comrades in the socialist countries who are today fighting with genuine heroism to humanize their own societies.”(2)

That, in a nutshell, was Genovese’s standpoint for four decades. On occasion he was critical of Stalin’s Comintern for its dogma and poor practice. He judged Stalinism strategically unfit for the advanced capitalist West, with its traditions of individual rights, freedom and democracy.

But he considered any attempt to apply those same standards to the Communist states counter-revolutionary, admitted to no principled distinction between Bolshevism and Stalinism, considered Stalin’s course justified in light of the Soviet experience, and aligned himself with the world “movement,” by which he meant such states as China as Russia — whose undemocratic social systems he supported in principle.

Genovese went well beyond support for a Cold War camp, whose socialist character he never doubted, to brazenly hail Stalin himself. In a 1968 letter to the American Historical Review, Genovese wrote:

“In irreconcilable confrontations, as Comrade Stalin, who remains dear to some of us for the genuine accomplishments that accompanied his crimes, clearly understood it is precisely the most admirable, manly, principled, and, by their own lights, moral opponents who have to be killed; the others can be frightened or bought.”(3)

In The Fruits of Merchant Capital (1983), co-authored with his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, he referred to “the official admission that the Father of the Peoples also qualified, to a disquieting extent, as their undertaker,” but argued elsewhere that Stalin had “successfully demonstrated that cruelty and mass murder can be put to revolutionary as well as conservative uses.”(4)

Genovese once referred, in an unusual sentence, to the “degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinism.”(5) But he never accepted at any time in his life the Marxist criticism of Stalin as the leader of a bureaucratic counter-revolution whose creation of vast disparities of power and privilege derailed socialism in the Soviet Union. It is no accident that for Genovese, Marxism died when the USSR collapsed.

Stalin’s methods were, in Genovese’s mind, ferocious but consistent with socialism, for Genovese believed that social revolutions necessarily require indiscriminate terror.

“It serves no purpose,” he wrote in 1979, “to pretend that `innocent’ — personally inoffensive and politically neutral — people should be spared. The oppressor needs nothing so much as political neutrality to do business as usual: It is his sina qua non.”(6)

Fools and Damned Fools

Unsurprisingly enough in light of this history, Genovese reserves special scorn for the anti-Stalinist left in his Dissent polemic. Never mind that anti-Stalinists decades ago made every point he now castigates American radicals for not making.

Especially amusing, writes Genovese, “has been the spectacle of those who pronounced themselves anti-Stalinists and denounced the socialist countries at every turn and yet even today applaud each new revolution, although any damned fool has to know that most of them will end in the same damn place.”

Here is new wine in an old bottle: Ten years ago, the “fools” were any advocates of democracy who would “expect its triumph, even now, to come without blood and terror.” And doesn’t the tendency to “applaud each new revolution” sound a lot like the Genovese of 1965? “I do not fear or reject the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam,” he then declared. “I welcome it.”(7)

No one who spent a lifetime defending the ruthless pursuit of “proletarian social justice” — the ethic of the Communist camp, as he framed it on the last page of The Fruits of Merchant Capital — is in much of a position to call the anti-Stalinist left a spectacle. But Genovese is now smitten by the perverse theory that democratic radicalism was the source of bureaucratic consolidation, that “social movements that have espoused radical egalitarianism and participatory democracy have begun with mass murder and ended in despotism.”

This preposterously vague (though unoriginal) formulation permits Genovese to deduce that radical egalitarianism and participatory democracy cause mass murder and must end in despotism. Stalin’s flaws, we may presume, were his overheated enthusiasm for popular democracy and his principled pursuit of social equality!

Although he believes socialism dead and gone, Genovese still claims to oppose capitalism. At the very end of his Dissent article, he announces his new politics: “social corporatism.” The phrase is ambiguous, and Genovese claims his corporatism will be democratic; but even so ill-defined an aspiration to replace capitalism and communism with organicism bears the unmistakable scent of extreme reaction, particularly when combined with his longstanding admiration for Old South conservatism.

Genovese is perilously close to confirming every one of the left’s worst cliches about its renegades. If he follows the journal Telos in rehabilitating certain discredited Italian movements and theorists from the early decades of the century, he may someday have to answer a new question: What did you know about the crimes of fascism, and when?


  1. Eugene D. Genovese, “The Question,” Dissent (Summer 1994): 371-376. Replies by Mitchell Cohen, Eric Foner, Robin D. G. Kelley, Alice Kessler-Harris, Christine Stansell and Sean Wilentz, with riposte by Genovese, 377-388. The debate has won Genovese applause from conservative editors in National Review and the New York Post, as well as an interview on National Public Radio and a profile in Time magazine.
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  2. Eugene D. Genovese, In Red and Black (New York: Pantheon, 1971): 17.
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  3. Communication from Eugene D. Genovese, American Historical Review 63 (Feb. 1968): 995.
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  4. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital (New York: Oxford, 1983): 182, 411.
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  5. In Red and Black, 14.
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  6. Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisville State, 1979): 11.
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  7. Fruits of Merchant Capital, 412; Arnold Beichman, “Study in Academic Freedom,” New York Times (19 Dec. 1965): 14.
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ATC 53, November-December 1994