The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Culture War
By Eugene D. Genovese
University of Missouri Press, 320 pages, $29.95
The South has conquered Washington, Michael Lind fumed last summer in a New Republic article titled “The Southern Coup.” Whether Lind is correct or merely paranoid, there’s no denying that southern political philosophy is gaining persuasive power, thanks in no small part to the work of historian Eugene Genovese. This Brooklyn—born Yankee of Sicilian origins—a Marxist who supported the Soviet Union “until there was nothing left to support”—surprised himself by becoming an admirer of southern culture. In The Southern Front, a collection of essays and reviews, Genovese reveals how his study of the Old South, especially its religion, challenged and changed his own Marxist convictions.
Genovese took up southern history reluctantly, after a professor challenged him to test his Marxism by taking the slaveholders as a laboratory case in “how a ruling class really rules.” His initial forays, Genovese writes, were marked by “the biases of an atheist and a historical materialist”—to whit, that religion was “no more than a corrosive ideology at the service of ruling classes.” If at the beginning, Genovese says ruefully, “someone had told me that religion would emerge as a positive force in my book—indeed, as the centerpiece—I would have laughed and referred him to a psychiatrist. In the end, the evidence proved overwhelming, and I had to eat my biases.”
What was the evidence, and which biases was Genovese forced to choke down? Fundamentally, he discovered that Marxism gravely underestimates the power of religion. Among both black and white southerners, Genovese writes, “the overpowering evidence of religious faith aroused in me a skepticism about the reigning tendency in Academia to, as it were, sociologize faith out of religion—to deny the reality of spirituality.” Among the slaves, Christian faith “carried an extraordinarily powerful message of liberation in this world as well as the next.” It empowered them to create a vibrant culture under extreme adversity—a dynamic not explainable in Marxist or any other sociological terms. As Genovese writes, “No such theory or combination of theories could suffice to explain the power of the folk religion, as manifested, for example, in the spirituals.” Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the slaves’ religion, having given a masterful description in his 1972 book Roll, Jordan, Roll. There he argued that Christianity saved the slaves from dehumanization by instilling a sense of spiritual freedom and equality.
The religion of white southerners does, however, receive considerable attention here. Historians typically assume that the slaveholders used religion cynically as a method of social control. But Genovese breaks ranks. Evidence reveals that both slaveholders and freeholders “genuinely qualified as believers.” Indeed, their common faith created a powerful bond across the boundaries of social class, something “neither Marxism nor any other historical or sociological theory can fully account for.” Consequently, Marxists “are compelled to reconsider their very notion of social class”—to acknowledge “the centrality of the Christian message” in addition to economic forces in the formation of social relations.
Yet the very fact that many southerners were sincere Christians raises a troubling question—one Genovese returns to repeatedly: How was it possible for decent, intelligent, God—fearing people to participate in “the greatest enormity of the age,” the injustice of slavery? His answer is that many southerners did recoil from the practice. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, southerners typically viewed slavery as an evil or, at best, a misfortune. Even proslavery apologists, such as theologian James Henley Thornwell, ruthlessly criticized its evils and demanded laws to punish cruel masters and permit slaves to read. The “militantly proslavery” Frederick Ross considered it a temporary form of labor, destined to die out. In short, Genovese writes, many southerners demanded that slavery “be made to conform to biblical standards,” while preaching “a doctrine of ultimate deliverance under Christian tutelage.”
In the decades before the Civil War, however, as slavery came under harsher attack, southerners retrenched. They began to cast slavery as a positive alternative to the problem of labor created by the industrial revolution. Like Marx, southern intellectuals decried the immiseration of the proletariat. They pointed to the northern cities, infected with crime and poverty, and predicted class war and revolution. The crux of the problem, as they saw it, was that under industrialism the elites took no social responsibility for the working classes. By contrast, slavery was an organic, personal, face-to-face relation; it was an extension of the “household” (which, in preindustrial societies, included dependent laborers). In journals and letters southerners spoke of “my family, white and black.” Southern intellectuals thus interpreted slavery as the material base of a superior social order in which the privileged classes took personal responsibility for workers.
Nor did it end there. In rejecting industrialism, southerners rejected a raft of modernist ideas following in its wake: atomistic individualism, radical egalitarianism, theological liberalism, political centralization, and a marketplace mentality that reduces everything to commodities. On all counts, Genovese’s sympathies lie decidedly with the South: He praises the slaveholders’ “unshakable insight that bourgeois social relations irresistibly generated a self-revolutionizing social and economic system that dissolved family and community and made the marketplace the arbiter of moral and social life.” As an alternative, southern intellectuals cast the plantation community as heir to the organic communities of premodern Europe; their defense of slavery was one strain “in a much broader defense of Christendom” against the disintegrating tendencies of modernity.
Yet while southern intellectuals hoped to fashion a Christian social order based on slavery, Genovese writes, Christianity also provided resources to end slavery. Here is a remarkable tension often misunderstood. In the academy today it is fashionable to charge Western religion with complicity in a host of social evils: slavery, racism, sexism, imperialism. But Genovese will have none of that. All civilizations have been disfigured by various evils, he argues. What sets the Christian West apart is that it alone raised “a profound theoretical opposition to those enormities, challenging their moral foundations and raising mass movements against them.”
No matter how kind or decent individual slaveholders may have been, the institution of slavery was itself inherently unjust, since it reduced human beings to economic property to be bought and sold. (This was also the fatal flaw in southerners’ claim that slavery was organic—i.e., outside the marketplace.) Against slavery and other injustices, Christianity alone “contributed a body of teaching that has made possible a line of resistance and counterattack,” providing “the moral ground on which the exponents of freedom could stand.” Specifically, the Christian teaching that we are created in the image of God “denies the right of any individual or state to treat human beings as objects of social engineering rather than as discrete personalities sacred in the sight of God.” Until nonbelievers can match that performance, Genovese comments dryly, “they would do well to temper their criticism and to look to their own moral responsibilities.”
Minding his own counsel, Genovese moves from the Old South to modern Marxism, with poignant reflections on the moral responsibilities of the political movement he calls his own. Bluntly stated, “We ended a seventy-year experiment with socialism with little more to our credit than tens of millions of corpses.” These horrors did not arise from perversions of Marxism, Genovese notes, “but from the ideology itself”—from a “deep flaw in our very understanding of human nature” and from “our inability to replace the moral and ethical baseline long provided by the religion we have dismissed with indifference, not to say contempt.” Needless to say, today Genovese harbors no trace of contempt toward Christianity. He urges his Marxist colleagues to reconsider “the Christian idea of justice and equality before God,” and to weigh it against “our own blood-drenched romance with the utopia of a man-made heaven here on earth.”
Other contemporary issues Genovese discusses include the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr., the credibility of black studies, and the validity of black cultural autonomy in contrast to black separatism, which he castigates for its nihilistic repudiation of Western traditions: “Does anyone in his right mind advocate a separate black path of development unillumined by the Christian tradition of spiritual freedom?” The book also brings readers up to date on the southern intellectual tradition, with pieces on Clyde Wilson, John Shelton Reed, and the late M. E. Bradford, heirs of the southern agrarians. That tradition contains much that “remains defensible,” Genovese writes, and he would agree with Russell Kirk who considered it “an important mode” of conservative thought. While Michael Lind’s fulminations about a southern coup are wildly overstated, Genovese’s more restrained imagery presents southern political philosophy as one front in today’s culture war.
He does quarrel with southern conservatives, however, over the impact of slavery on the tradition they revere. Apologists for the South typically stress the independent freeholders as shapers of the region’s ethos, while tracing its origin ultimately to the older Christian civilization of Europe. “This will not do,” Genovese admonishes. Europeans spread Christian culture throughout America, yet only the South doggedly opposed the forces of modernity. Why? Because its premodern economy provided a material alternative to industrialism. While other critics of modernity, such as the Romantics, were retreating into the realm of personal feeling, southerners rooted their opposition in a geographical region with an alternative social system and real political power.
This is a bracing antidote to idealist interpretations of history. Yet Genovese’s own writing often veers toward the opposite error, with overtones of economic determinism. He describes slaveholding as “the essence” of Southern society; he writes that the “moral imperatives” of a slave economy “demanded” a communitarian ethos—that antebellum southerners “could not” accept autonomous individualism. In such passages, Genovese comes close to saying that a society’s material base is determinative of its character and culture. He appears to forget his own findings of the power of religious faith to transcend economic relations. He appears to forget his own conclusion that Marxism failed not for economic reasons but because of a sub-Christian view of human nature.
In short, Genovese seems to waver between his ongoing commitment to a chastened Marxism and his profound encounter with the power of Christianity to generate culture—and to regenerate individuals. His wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, has apparently had a similar encounter, for she recently entered the Catholic Church. Those of us who admire Genovese as a scholar and historian might pray that he, too, will eventually cross the threshold of faith. To borrow the concluding line from one of the essays in this book: “May the Holy Spirit be with him.”
Nancy R. Pearcey is Fellow and Policy Director of the Wilberforce Forum, and coauthor with Charles Thaxton of The Soul of Science (Crossway).