A note from a friend led me to an article by the late Eugene Genovese, published in Dissent in 1994 and famous in leftist circles (judging from some of the articles published after his death) if forgotten by nearly everyone else. Described by the editors as “an open letter to the left,” The Question offers his answer to “The Question” leftists have to answer but usually don’t, or didn’t then.
For many years I have lived in dread of having to answer The Question. Curiously, no one has asked it. . . .
The Question: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” For at the age of fifteen I became a Communist, and, although expelled from the party in 1950 at age twenty, I remained a supporter of the international movement and of the Soviet Union until there was nothing left to support. Now, as everyone knows, in a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression we broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century. When the Asian figures are properly calculated, the aggregate to our credit may reach the seemingly incredible numbers widely claimed. Those who are big on multiculturalism might note that the great majority of our victims were nonwhite.
“We have,” he says, “a disquieting number of corpses to account for.” He then explains his use of “we.”
[I]t has never occurred to me that the moral responsibility falls much less heavily on those of us on the American left than it fell on Comrade Stalin and those who replicated his feats in one country after another. And I am afraid that some of that moral responsibility falls on the “democratic socialists,” “radical democrats,” and other left wingers who endlessly denounced Stalinism but could usually be counted on to support – ‘critically,’ of course – the essentials of our political line on world and national affairs.
Especially amusing 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 place. For that matter, how could we have survived politically were it not for the countless liberals who, to one extent or another, supported us, apparently under the comforting delusion that we were social reformers in rather too much of a hurry — a delusion we ourselves never suffered from.
The responses I could find include Alice Kessler-Harris’s, Christine Stansell’s, Eric Foner’s, Robin D. G. Kelley’s, Mitchell Cohen’s, and Sean Wilentz’s, who are not buying it. Genovese didn’t seem to care. Here is his Riposte to the responses, in which he remarks, referring to Kesller-Harris and Foner, on “the thinly disguised totalitarianism in which the American left wallows.”
The “Riposte” includes several interesting things beyond his sharp responses to his critics. Here he challenges conservatives, as he had in “The Question”:
Robin Kelley soberly asks if I propose a hierarchy of body count and punishment. No. I share his concern that any such feint is likely to end with the whitewashing of the crimes and injustices suffered especially by black people today. Conservatives especially like to play that game, which permits them to bear with equanimity the misery of others, and I have long insisted that some such tendency seriously undermines the claims of Burkeanism.
And here he gives some hint of his future return to the Church, or at least of the open-mindedness that kept him open to the possibility that Christianity might be true:
Cohen charges me with being “en route from one belief system to another when a little agnosticism might be in order.” I wish he would identify that other belief system. I thought “a little agnosticism” was precisely what I was calling for when I suggested that we reexamine our own first principles and give a respectful hearing to those of others. When I write on religion I always carefully identify myself as an atheist. I have suggested that we atheists have a good deal to learn from Christian ethics and ought to engage Cornel West and others in a respectful debate.
Yes, I know the history of atrocities committed by Christians; but where outside the Christian West did concepts of personal freedom and of limits to state authority arise and flourish? These matters bear heavily on contemporary concerns. For secularists as well as Christians need to sort out carefully the relation between philosophical ideals and political performance in order to determine the extent to which the one has followed inexorably from the other.
And, finally, here he gives his thoughts on the future of the socialism to which he’d dedicated his life:
I supported the communist movement and the Soviet Union because I was convinced of the moral as well as material superiority of socialism over capitalism—convinced that the socialist countries could and would reform themselves and end their political brutality while preserving socialism itself. I was wrong.But I also argued that we must engage in practices that would prepare us for a socialist America that respected freedom and diversity. . . .
I do believe that socialism is finished but am no more enamored of capitalism than I ever was. The technological and economic revolution through which we are living is creating vast problems that will, in all probability, be settled through one or another form of social corporatism. Thus I can appreciate Sean Wilentz’s concern about the implications of my social corporatism, but I suspect that he and I would not be far apart about the kind of corporatism we want. For without a firm measure of democracy and personal freedom the corporatism we are likely to get would be a nightmare.