Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, by Eric Foner (Hill and Wang, 256 pp., $24)
ric Foner of Columbia University is one of our nation's most acclaimed historians. A past president of both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, he is best known as the author of pioneering revisionist studies of Reconstruction and of Republican ideology before the Civil War, as well as other books on ideology and politics in the Civil War era. He is also one of the foremost exponents of what has become known as "radical history": the euphemism of choice for Marxist and neo-Marxist historians who seek to overturn the old mainstream political history. Indeed, so devoted is Foner to this aim that he even criticizes his first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970) a solid work of scholarship and history that justly gave him a major reputation as "a curiously old-fashioned book" because it lacked the orientation of the so-called "new histories." These new works focus not on political narrative and ideology, but on the intersecting links of "gender," "class," and "race": the codewords of the new politically correct postmodern, Marxist, and feminist historians.
Now, in this collection of new and old essays, Foner seeks to use his expertise and position to enter the fray as a public historian, one who seeks to use what he has learned about our past to influence the present political and cultural debates. His goal, as he puts it in his preface, is to help show that "it is no longer possible to treat American history as an unalloyed saga of national progress toward liberty and equality." He is deeply concerned that a history of "celebration is widespread," one that emphasizes America's glory and ignores its actual divisions and conflicts. On the other hand, he is heartened by some recent developments: All the attention to the Civil War has led many to see the central role of slavery in that conflict; displays of the Confederate flag in the South have led to boycotts, state referendums, and demonstrations; and "the movement for reparations for slavery [has] gained increasing support among politicians and intellectuals." (That this last item has also sparked serious opposition to cite, as one example, John McWhorter's lengthy and brilliant analysis of its fallacies in The New Republic Foner neglects to mention.)
Foner seeks in this collection to deal with the relationship of the historian to the world in which he lives, and he acknowledges that "the context within which a historian lives and writes affects [his] choice of subject and approach to the past." He therefore begins the collection with a new essay he titles "My Life as a Historian," in which he seeks to put his own work in the context of his political and personal life. The essay is, indeed, revealing, but perhaps not in the way Foner hoped. He begins with a little anecdote he obviously thinks is cute, but which fully exposes the mindset from which he approaches his intellectual task. He writes that a friend "who grew up in Communist Hungary" once remarked to him: "I was raised in a country where we understood that most of what the government says is untrue." And Foner replied: "That's funny . . . I grew up in the same country." We know, therefore, that in Foner's eyes, the United States is as unfree and oppressive as the totalitarian regimes foisted upon Eastern Europe by Stalin at the end of World War II.
Foner, as he reveals,
was a bona fide red-diaper baby. His father, he relates, lost his job
teaching history at City College of New York after a state legislative
committee held hearings about the influence of Communists in higher education.
(He does not mention that the hearings coincided with the time of the
Nazi-Soviet Pact, when Foner's father was touting the party line that
FDR and Britain not Hitler and the Nazis were the real enemy.)
Ironically, the historian hired to replace him was none other than the
young Richard Hofstadter, who, years later, became Foner's mentor at Columbia
University's graduate school, and whose position at Columbia Foner now
In Foner's eyes, to be opposed to Communism is in fact to be an apologist for an American Empire. Thus, his chapter entitled "The Russians Write a New History" exhibits his love for the USSR of Mikhail Gorbachev, and his sadness about its demise. As a guest professor under the Gorbachev regime, Foner was thrilled by a society in which Russians embarked "on the task of reconceptualizing their nation's past" shedding the Stalinist past while remaining true to the ideal of Communism, rehabilitating Bukharin and a supposedly humanist early form of Marxism-Leninism. And yet, Foner is upset that the new Soviet scholars dropped concepts such as "class," never seemed to mention "imperialism," and even got rid of the distinction between bourgeois and socialist ideologies and replaced them with a "search for 'universal human values'" that Foner sees as "oddly ahistorical." This even led to a "love affair with America," in which some of his Soviet students came to believe that "America has become the land of liberty and prosperity of our own imagination." Foner warned them that this view was as "one-dimensional" as the old negative one it was supplanting, and reminded them that American history "has its own complement of mistakes and crimes." One might find good cheer although Foner obviously does not that his arguments were not "greeted with enthusiasm." Indeed, he tells us that his students supported Lithuania's departure from the USSR, while he compared Gorbachev to Lincoln and praised him for trying to hold the union together.
Foner has had more luck with his students and colleagues in the U.S., where he finds a greater willingness to confront "unpleasant truths." In his January 2001 presidential address to the American Historical Association about the nature of American freedom in the age of globalism Foner argued that the very concept of freedom has been "appropriated by libertarians and conservatives . . . from advocates of unimpeded market economics to armed militia groups." One must take note of this very careful and obviously intended juxtaposition that links advocates of the free market to extreme and dangerous armed right-wing militias. His key point to which he always returns is that the genuine concept of freedom comes from the struggles of the dispossessed, the poor, the working class, women, blacks, and gays for their rights. It is, as the historian Pauline Maier wrote in a largely favorable review of Foner's 1998 book The Story of American Freedom, "less an example of 'new ways' to study the past than a familiar left-wing approach to American history."
So it is. Thus he admonishes his colleagues to extend "[Frantz] Fanon's insight" about violence as the road to liberation in the Third World, and about how wealth produces inequalities of power and rights "to the United States." He argues that freedom, instead of being a core value of the nation itself that must be realized through effort, comes from waging "social and political struggles" on behalf of "those outside the social mainstream." Moreover, he is clearly disturbed that so many believe that the U.S. is an "embodiment of freedom in a world overrun by tyranny"; as he sees it, American freedom was tied to the "debasement of millions of people into slavery and the dispossession of millions of native inhabitants of the Americas."
And although he has no objection to the view during World War II when the U.S. was aligned with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany that we had a "global responsibility" to end tyranny, with the onset of the Cold War he finds objectionable the rhetoric that posited "the division of the planet into a 'free world' and an unfree world." What was good when it was used by "leftists and liberals" during WWII was falsely continued "in the worldwide struggle against Communism," which Foner implies led to the "excesses of McCarthyism," the repudiation by liberal intellectuals "of ideological mass politics," and a new "managerial liberalism" meant to defeat the "popular will." (What the "popular will" really is, of course, is something only a neo-Marxist historian such as Foner is qualified to assess.) Foner argues that what was once a worthy view of a free world united against Nazism now became a rallying cry for those who saw America "as the leader of a global crusade for freedom against a demonic, ideologically driven antagonist." His very use of words suggests that, to him, Stalin's Soviet Union was not "demonic," and that the Cold War was just a misunderstanding spurred on by American imperialists. It is not surprising that he bemoans the consequences of "global integration . . . under American leadership," which resulted in the Reagan era with its "negative liberty, free enterprise, and anti-Communism."
In Foner's writing, the probing analysis of a scholar like Hofstadter gives way to the ranting of a left-wing polemicist. Thus Foner gives us evidence that how he sees history is, indeed, greatly colored by the political world he inhabits, and by his own family history in the Old Left. His title Who Owns History? undoubtedly means to imply that the Right, with its American triumphalism, does not own history; that history belongs, rather, to the ranks of the oppressed. What he has revealed, however, is that while those who share his approach may indeed own the highest ranks of the historical profession, the impact of their writing and analysis is going to be continually ignored by those whom they seek to influence: the people themselves.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, and co-editor with Mary R. Habeck of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War.