Right Church, Wrong Pew:
Eugene Genovese & Southern Conservatism

Alex Lichtenstein

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Alex Lichtenstein teaches American history at Florida Internaitonal University in Miami and is the author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (Verso, 1996). Most recently he has written a new introduction to a reprint edition of Howard Kester's Revolt Among the Sharecroppers (University of Tenessee Press, 1997).

IN HIS STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS OF 1993, Governor Zell Miller reminded Georgians that the Confederate battle flag had first adored the state flag in 1956 expressly to "identify Georgia with the dark side of the Confederacy," the defense of slavery at the expense of the nation. The flag's resurrection after its bloody demise nearly a century before had coincided with Georgia's desire to defy the national state again and preserve segregation. Miller's impassioned plea to expunge this official iconography went unheeded, and indeed provoked a bitter response from "Southerners who admire and cherish our traditional Southern culture," as one writer to an Athens newspaper proclaimed. Defenders of the flag claimed to stand up to efforts of "neo-abolitionist historians, egalitarian utopians, and militants of many stripes" to defame the Southern heritage and to associate it unfairly with racial hatred.

As far as I know, although residing in Atlanta at the time, former Marxist historian Eugene D. Genovese did not take a public position in this debate. But if he had, it is not hard to divine the side on which he would have intervened. Much of Genovese's work in the 1990s has sought explicitly to specify and defend an ideal of "traditional southern culture" against its detractors, to cleanse this ideal of the stigma of slavery and white supremacy, and to offer it up as something that speaks to the modern condition in general and the perceived crisis of the left in particular.

For the Brooklyn-born Genovese, one of the foremost historians of the slave South, this is not as peculiar a project as it might sound. Born in 1930, raised in an immigrant community, and nurtured politically in the comradely climate of Brooklyn College in the late 1940s, Genovese was hardly a typical student of the region below the Mason-Dixon line. As a self-consciously proletarian member of the Communist Party, and then an independent Marxist, Genovese's decision to devote himself to the study of the plantocracy of the Old South at first seemed an anomaly. But, as he remembers today in an essay published in his recent collection The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (1995), this offered him an unparalleled opportunity to "study how a ruling class really rules."

He did so throughout the 1960s and 1970s in a series of brilliant, linked works which explored the thought, political economy, and "paternalistic" ethos of the slaveholding class in the 19th-century South, including The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), In Red and Black (1971), and Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Genovese's Marxism, informed by his astute reading of Gramsci (long before this was fashionable), helped him delineate how the slavocracy developed a hegemonic world view in defense of a social order based on human bondage. Most provocatively, Genovese insisted that his readers take the southern defense of slavery seriously as an authentic expression of class rule, rather than as a hypocritical pretense designed to paper over naked human exploitation and greed. Further, in the pro-slavery ideology he detected a marked hostility to the emergent market-based bourgeois society of the antebellum North: in short, a constellation of values that developed in self-conscious opposition to the world-view associated with the expansion of modern capitalist social relations.

WHEN I FIRST ENCOUNTERED GENOVESE'S BOOKS AND ESSAYS as a left-wing graduate student in the 1980s, they left me stunned. Coming to terms with his account of slavery and the Old South required one to think historically, rather than to impose contemporary values on human beings who lived in the past, as the academic left is sometimes wont to do. Moreover, in recognizing the slaveholders as authentic bearers of an ideology, Genovese's work forced one to reckon with the South as a qualitatively different kind of American civilization. Especially in The World the Slaveholders Made, Genovese took issue with the condescending view of neo-abolitionist historians like Kenneth Stampp that the pro-slavery argument constituted nothing more than "sterile rhetoric and special pleading" designed to "justify the institution upon which they lived." His willingness to take slaveholders seriously, to recognize in their "special pleadings" a coherent ideology that illuminated 19th-century class relations on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, proved tremendously refreshing to anyone dissatisfied with the application of knee-jerk leftist politics to historical circumstances.

Most importantly, as a vindication of Marxist scholarship, Genovese's work demonstrated that slaveholder ideology rested solidly on a peculiar material foundation. For many scholars, including myself, in addition to confirming the profound link between ideology and relations of production this had the felicitous effect of moving slavery to the center of the American historical narrative, where it properly belonged, particularly as the primary cause of the sectional conflict. After all, as Genovese repeatedly asserted, the southern ruling class would hardly have staked their lives and honor to defend an institution in which they did not thoroughly believe.

At the same time, despite his unbridled admiration for the slaveholders' ability to recognize, express, and act on their own class interests, Genovese never lost sight of the fact that these achievements rested on the enslavement of another people. In his brilliant account of the paternalism that inextricably bound master and slave together, an idea most fully developed in his account of "the world the slaves made" in Roll, Jordan, Roll, Genovese recognized that slavery, even at its most patriarchal, always rested on physical compulsion. In its complexity, historicity, and sheer dialectical power Genovese's account of how a ruling class did in fact rule in a markedly unjust system proved compelling. Nevertheless, even among his admirers, there was always a nagging doubt that he was somehow letting the slavocracy off the hook just a little too much. Even then he claimed that slaveholders "stood for a world different from our own that is worthy of our sympathetic attention" and that "the values they held still have something to offer."1

Much of this early work now can be reread in light of Genovese's recent repudiation of Marxism, his turn to the right, and his excoriation of his comrades on the left. I suspect he might actually deny the first two charges, while gladly pleading guilty to the third. Genovese's recent political notoriety rests primarily on his spirited (but qualified) defense of conservative tomes like Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education and Murray and Hernnstein's The Bell Curve, and his related attacks on the multiculturalism, feminism, and "radical egalitarianism" of the campus left; his unabashed admiration for modern southern conservative thinkers like Richard Weaver and M.E. Bradford; and his post-Stalinist mea culpa in the pages of Dissent in which he condemned, in sweeping terms, the entire project of human liberation upon which socialist thought has rested. Those familiar with his work will recognize in these engagements Genovese's love of polemical provocation and the glee he takes in épater les gauchistes; others who were around in the late 1960s may see recapitulated an old battle between Genovese and liberationists in the New Left, in his view the precursors to today's multicultural horde. As Genovese sees it, the personal liberation championed by sectors of the New Left and the tradition this has bequeathed to today's social movements, is nothing but the other side of the false coin of radical individualism embedded in the market-oriented capitalist society radicals claim to abjure.

RATHER THAN ENGAGE IN A PARTISAN POLITICAL ATTACK THAT SMEARS GENOVESE for having suspect allies, perpetuating a quarrel with the New Left, or failing to toe the current line of identity politics (with which many principled leftists disagree), I want here to critically evaluate his recent scholarly work on what he calls, without irony, "the southern tradition." The book of this title, based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1993, is an excellent indicator of the relationship between Genovese's recent political thought and his historical evaluation of the southern mind, the very project he began as a graduate student almost four decades ago. Above all, The Southern Tradition: The Achievements and Limitations of an American Conservatism (1994) reveals that without a firm basis in historical materialism, Genovese's account of southern conservative thought has become rudderless, and as a result drifts perilously close to apologia.

What Genovese does in this book, and in the related essays collected in The Southern Front, is extend in time his sophisticated exposition of the critique of industrial capitalism that emerged in the Old South. Though brief, the intellectual scope of the three essays/lectures in The Southern Tradition is remarkable. In them, Genovese attempts to do three things. First, he wants to suggest a timeless continuity in southern conservative thought, to reconstruct a lineage running from John Calhoun in the antebellum period, to the Nashville Agrarians in the interwar years, to the post-World War Two conservative thinkers Richard Weaver and M.E. Bradford. (Oddly, he has no representative figures from the years immediately after the end of the Civil War). Second, he hopes to discover in this intellectual tradition a set of values to offer as an alternative to the bourgeois individualism of market society, the radical egalitarianism of the left, and the bureaucratic collectivism that he sees as the necessary corollary of both. Finally, since he continues to insist that he speaks to the left from within the circle, he struggles to disassociate the southern conservative tradition, which he claims has been "wrongly equated with racism and white supremacy," from a set of racialist principles he would be the first to disavow. And this is just the problem: he can't. Genovese appears to have squandered the original boldness of his thinking by abandoning its initial Marxian impulse, and thus detaching the anti-bourgeois, anti-market virtues of the southern hostility to modernity from their source in the defense of a slave society.

And what do the pro-slavery theorists, the Southern Agrarians, and the post-1945 Southern conservatives all have to offer, and to offer the left in particular? While always swimming against the main currents of their time, these thinkers have called attention to the corrosiveness of the cash nexus and the substitution of material acquisition for spiritual satisfaction, abetted by a market society; to the destruction of widespread, small property-holding by large accumulations, finance capital, and the corporation; to the personal alienation that attends the absorption of human beings into bureaucratic and centralized forms of collective association, found especially in the modern state; to the exploitation inherent in wage labor; and to the threat modernity poses to the organic social relations of family, church, community, and town square.

Of course, this is a jeremiad hardly alien to the left, as a quick glance at the program of SDS, circa 1962, will confirm. Genovese's goal, however, is to retrieve this critique from the right and use it to batter both right-wing free marketeers, who preach the virtues of tradition while embracing the economic forces that do most to dissolve it, and left-wing personal liberationists whose radical egalitarianism is incompatible with the necessity for social discipline. The antidote to these heresies he finds in the southern tradition is best expressed by Richard Weaver's term "social bond individualism," which Genovese claims lies at the heart of southern conservative thought. Social bond individualism posits an individualism based on religious faith, rather than bourgeois acquisitiveness, affirms the inviolability of human personality against the state, and is rooted in a "community to which one owes allegiance and accepts duties and responsibilities."2 Skeptical of science, technology, and material progress, Weaver, Bradford, and their acolytes adamantly reject visions of personal liberation of both left and right, of social egalitarianism and the market.

WEAVER, A SOUTHERNER WHO WROTE DURING THE 1940S AND 1950S from his perch at the University of Chicago, not only developed his own critique of modern society, but rooted it in values he traced back to the Old South, rediscovered half-buried in postbellum southern culture, and sought to revive. In his classic work, The Southern Tradition at Bay (written as his dissertation in 1943, but published posthumously in 1968), Weaver argued that the slave South constituted "a rooted culture which viewed with dismay the anonymity and social indifference of urban man." As "the last non-materialist civilization in the Western world" the Old South contained values which could be reclaimed in opposition to modernity. With the defeat of the Confederacy, Weaver claimed, "the last barrier to the secular spirit of science, materialism, and democracy was vanquished." As for Reconstruction and its overthrow, Weaver denied outright that "a feeling of vindictiveness conditioned the general attitude toward the Negro." Instead, "the chief obstacle to Negro-white rapprochement was the outbreak of crimes against women."3For Weaver, then, "the study of southern history was...a road to the right."4

Much the same might now be said of Genovese, even though he would certainly refuse to endorse Weaver's racial politics. He claims to still be speaking the language of the left, but what once could be defended as an honest account of pro-slavery thought as a genuinely held anti-bourgeois world-view commanding the attention, if not the admiration, of the left, has devolved into special pleading. For Genovese appears now to believe that southern conservatism can be cut loose from its moorings in the defense of slavery and racial inequality. Back in 1968, when he was unambiguously a Marxist, Genovese had no doubts about the "essential thrust of southern development." Then he claimed it was "the rising self-consciousness of the planters and their growing knowledge that southern community values rested wholly on the plantation-slave nature of their regime."5 When southern conservative M.E. Bradford, whose thought Genovese much admires, respectfully reviewed The World the Slaveholders Made in 1970 for National Review, he understood Genovese's point precisely, even while he recognized the potential affinities between his own thought and that of someone on the other side of the barricades. "He imagines," Bradford wrote of Genovese, "that the precapitalist ingredients in Fitzhugh and southern apologists of the same 'descent'[like Calhoun] proceed from the slavocracy of their allegiance, not the culture from the intellectual antecedents." Genovese's recent work, in choking off southern conservative thought from its material base in the defense of racial inequality and the exploitation of black labor, betrays no such imagination. "If this is a Marxist," crowed the reviewer of The Southern Front in The American Spectator, "then we really must have more of them."

Now Genovese, like the rest of us, is entitled to change his mind or modify his views over a period of three decades. And of course, an abandonment of Marxism would entail a repudiation of the idea that a world-view is necessarily shaped, if not determined, by its material basis in ruling-class power. But Genovese was right the first time. He continues to applaud certain values of southern conservatism that he -- correctly, I think -- regards as anticapitalist, but now regards slavery and a defense of racial inequality as incidental to these values as they sprang from southern soil. In The Southern Tradition he dutifully repeats his earlier assertions that "slavery made possible the defense and preservation of a system of values that was unraveling in a North based on bourgeois social relations," but his effort to extend that system of values into the 20th century makes the claim ring hollow. Despite Genovese's best efforts to suggest otherwise, without its social basis in slavery, southern conservatives have had to struggle to recreate their tradition out of thin air or else have wedded their cause to demagogic uses of that tradition in defense of white supremacy. Although Genovese does not quite say so, this is the obvious reason for the inability of this strain of thought to free itself from nostalgia and mythmaking about slavery, about Reconstruction, and about the race relations of the pre-civil rights South.

Genovese's account of intellectual continuity thus leaves much to be desired, for it ignores the historical rupture of the War Between the States. The affinities between postwar and prewar southern conservatism are there, to be sure. But the point of reference for all southern conservative thought after 1865 was failed nationhood, defeat in war, the moral reckoning of emancipation, and the "tragic error" of Radical Reconstruction, when African-Americans briefly achieved a degree of political power and federally protected citizenship. Since none of these elements were present prior to the war, postbellum thought took on both a decidedly more elegiac and defensive tone than its prewar predecessor. There is an enormous difference between defending a world that one thinks one has lost and defending one that exists as a genuine lived alternative to the regnant values, as any former partisan of "actually existing socialism" well knows.

GENOVESE'S EAGERNESS TO RESCUE THE SOUTHERN CONSERVATIVE TRADITION from the racial injustice carried out in its name stands in sharp contrast to his unwillingness to do the same for the socialist project. He repeatedly draws the parallel, equating the lost cause of the Confederacy with that of the USSR, the failed anti-bourgeois values of the Old South with the shipwrecked radical dreams of socialists. Ultimately, however, in attempting to chart a third way between the free market conservatism of today's ascendent right and a discredited collectivism of the left, Genovese finds inspiration now in a Southern tradition associated with slavery and racism, rather than the socialist tradition compromised by Stalinism. In the former instance, he argues that the tradition still can be a source of critical values if divested of its racialist components, seen as incidental to its past. In the latter, however, we must discard the baby with the bath water, since the socialist (and liberal, for that matter) delusional faith in human perfectibility will inevitably lead to a "totalitarian" outcome.

In a desperate effort to retain his Marxist analysis while repudiating socialism as an ideal, Genovese admits that "the recreation of tradition requires new forms of social relations appropriate to the complexities of the modern world." But, as a bid to preserve or restore a set of ideals, this puts the cart before the horse; it betrays Genovese's fantasy that the southern tradition he upholds can be reclaimed while abandoning its inheritance, repeatedly demonstrated, of racism. If new forms of social relations emerge to challenge the current triumphalism of bourgeois individualism, the free market, and global capitalism, presumably they will generate their own alternative world view which may or may not have affinities with that championed by Genovese. But anyone on the left would have to agree that explicit anti-racism will be a central component of that challenge. The Southern tradition promises just the opposite.

Despite Genovese's noble efforts to demonstrate otherwise, each of the key concepts associated with southern conservatism derives its initial rationale from the defense of an ideology compatible with and complicitous in slavery and racial subordination. The inegalitarianism Genovese sees as so necessary a bulwark against the imposition of a totalitarian leveling impulse (whether of the market, ideologies of personal liberation, or the state) always rested on racial hierarchy in the South. Indeed, it was the fundamental assumption of fixed racial inequality that guaranteed whatever social stability existed among whites in the rural South, and allowed agrarian values to flourish, both during slavery and after. The ethic of obligation that made (and perhaps still makes) southern social relations more personalistic and less anonymous than those in the urban industrial environment derived first from the paternalistic ethos of slaveholding, and then from the elaborate network of patron-client relations binding blacks and whites together in the system of white supremacy blanketing the South after the Civil War.

The ardent defense of states' rights against the encroaching power of the federal government and the social engineering of liberals never moved much beyond the realm of constitutional theory until white southerners faced coherent challenges to their racial order, whether in the form of abolitionism, Radical Reconstruction, New Deal liberalism, Brown v. Board of Education, or the "invasion" of Mississippi in 1964. The hostility to the tendency of modern industrial society to weaken traditional social bonds is hard to separate from the perpetual fear that the dissolution of agrarian social relations would undermine the props of white supremacy. And when convincing themselves of the impossibility of human perfectibility, most white southerners simply glanced at the poverty, misery, and what they saw as the ineradicable social pathology on the other side of the tracks.

AS AN INTELLECTUAL PROJECT THEN, GENOVESE'S REHABILITATION OF SOUTHERN CONSERVATISM proves unconvincing, for the defense of racial inequality has repeatedly been an inseparable part of that thought in nearly all of its incarnations. As an exercise in intellectual history, however, Genovese at least has reason to try to make a case, for the currents of southern thought have admittedly created eddies in other places. For example, it may only be a slight exaggeration, as he insists, that in strictly ideological and constitutional terms the defense of states' rights had "nothing to do with slavery." Early defenders of local autonomy against the centralized state could be found in the antebellum North; southern pro-slavery advocates of a strong national government had their say as well. As a doctrine of regional autonomy in opposition to the centralized power of the national state, the localism embodied in states' rights theory has its appeal, even to some sectors of the left. Yet states' rights, as Genovese cannot help but admit, has only become a serious political vehicle for the defense of slavery and white supremacy. It seems more than an unfortunate coincidence that this doctrine has taken on life only when animated by the southern desire to preserve racial inequality.

Whether its intellectual champions like it or not, southern conservatism has been used politically to defend racism. Tradition is a living thing that only takes on meaning when deployed by human beings defending or challenging a particular social order, as the debate over the Confederate battle flag demonstrates. Because he wants to reject emphatically the legacy of southern racism, in the end Genovese must retreat to a rather essentialist account of southern thought, a view which suggests that its values emanate from a free-floating Southern "culture" disconnected from the region's politics or political economy. This is nothing more than a distorted mirror-image of Southern identity that Yankee liberals have consistently misprised as backward and benighted; both versions remain divorced from material reality. In his groundbreaking essay on George Fitzhugh 30 years ago, Genovese showed how this avatar of southern conservatism eschewed such essentialist thinking about what came to be called the "southern way of life." Upon visiting the North and finding its ruling class to be decent fellows after all, Fitzhugh realized that, in Genovese's words, "the great difference between the two sections and the two peoples lay not in any difference in human feeling and decency but in the fundamental difference in social structure and its attendant values."6

Without slavery as a social system southern conservatism could hardly have developed in the first place; without the violent overthrow of Radical Reconstruction in the 1870s, it cold not have been rescued from the ashes of the Civil War; without segregation, disfranchisement, and the plantation economy, it could not have been preserved; without a refusal to knuckle under to New Deal liberalism it could not have survived the 1930s; without massive resistance to the civil rights movement, it could not have been renewed. The "southern tradition" almost always transcends the confines of intellectual or cultural history as an overt or covert defense of white supremacy, not as laconic chats at the country store or pleasant afternoons at the church social. To wish this unpleasant fact away is to substitute the cultural for the political, a tendency which Genovese has elsewhere deplored. I think it was Richard Weaver who famously said "ideas have consequences."

Genovese is quite justified in seeking to nourish an alternative vision on which the left can draw. With the final, ignominious death of state socialism we will have to look elsewhere for alternatives to the market-driven society, as many on the left always have. The question is where. Genovese is hardly the only leftist historian to seek solace in anti-modernist prescriptions drawn from pockets of opposition to the modern state, the spread of market values, and the secular faith in progress. In many ways the direction of his current political thought follows the well-worn paths trod by William Appleman Williams (1921-1990) and Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), leftist historians of the same generation as Genovese. Williams, in his critique of empire and the modern American bureaucratic state that was its constant partner, looked to the small-town and organic communities of his midwestern upbringing as the source of alternative values. Lasch, especially later in his life, laid claim to a "populist" tradition of community, family values, the proprietary ideal, and human limits. These petty-bourgeois values, he averred, stood as a bulwark against the false prophets of liberalism and boundless progress, the soullessness of modern life, and the overwhelming power of the corporate state, liberal elites, and the marketplace to shape the American self.

Genovese yearns for the same set of lost values as Williams and Lasch did -- organic community, the traditional stability and local allegiances associated with family, religious belief, and civic obligation, and a social order predicated on personal interdependence rather than the abstract relationship of citizens to the centralized state or consumers to the unlimited market. That Genovese chooses to find these values in the culture and intellectual tradition of the Old South and the lost cause is what makes him unique. Of the three, it seems to me that Genovese's project of distilling anti-capitalist values the left might embrace from the less admirable features of the essentially conservative traditions they champion is the least plausible. The left can and should debate whether to seek the sources of its potential renewal in a parochial or cosmopolitan ethos. But if the former, it can find little of value in a tradition fatally compromised by a racial intolerance integral to its creation and perpetuation, not just unfairly imputed to it by opportunistic detractors, as Genovese claims.

BUT WHY LOOK TO SOUTHERN CONSERVATIVES FOR OPPOSITIONAL VALUES, when the region has had its fair share of dissenters, many of whom drew on a similar critique of modern capitalism and bourgeois individualism, many of whom confronted the modern world with religiously based values -- but who chose to repudiate racial inequality, rather than accept it as an unfortunate consequence of their world-view? Southern conservatives tend to lay the region's historic racial intolerance at the feet of the Bilbos, Rankins, and Wallaces, racial demagogues who allegedly horrified them even while parroting the language of states' rights, strict constitutionalism, and community values. But the southern radical tradition that constitutes the real alternative to the heritage championed by Genovese has challenged racial demagoguery while attempting to redeem southern values with interracialism.

In its best-known 20th-century incarnation, as Genovese suggests, southern conservatism emerged at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s and 1930s with the Agrarians' anti-modernist intellectual revolt. Yet at the same time and place a very different group of thinkers and activists recast southern social values in a socialist mold, even while defending many of the same "agrarian" traditions as their more reactionary brethren. For Vanderbilt was also the birthplace of what Anthony Dunbar calls, in his fine book, Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959 (1981), "the radical gospel." Under the influence of preachers of a renewed Social Gospel at Vanderbilt's divinity school, Howard Kester, Don West, Ward Rodgers, Claude Williams, Myles Horton, and James Dombrowski developed a far more radical critique of the ills of the modern South and embraced an ideal of dramatic social transformation. Like their conservative counterparts, these students sought a renewal of spiritual values, questioned the material benefits of capitalist and industrial society, and believed in the viability of rural life and local community, but they did so from a socialist perspective.

While Richard Weaver abandoned his youthful flirtation with the Socialist Party, other southerners of his generation reconciled their increasing commitment to social justice with their profound religious beliefs. The prophets of the southern radical gospel grew up in the small-town or rural South and witnessed the impact of modernization on a bucolic world; they found themselves drawn to religious training in mainline protestant churches; and with the coming of the Great Depression they dedicated their lives to helping the dispossessed sharecroppers, textile and mine workers, and unemployed of the South, who bore the brunt of the economic collapse. Unlike the Agrarians, they found segregation incompatible with Christianity, and tended to practice what they preached in racial matters. Though maintaining a healthy skepticism about the promise of New Deal liberalism, during the 1930s and 1940s these southerners helped organize the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, supported CIO organizing drives among black and white workers, sought to repeal the poll tax, founded the Highlander Folk School which trained a generation of southern social activists, and desired to rebuild southern communities across racial lines. They took these bold actions on the basis of what they too understood to be a regional agrarian tradition of personal obligation, mutual cooperation, and humility before limits. Much of the best recent work on the political history of the South in this period demonstrates conclusively that these men and women, native southerners, helped pave the way for the civil rights movement even while they failed to check the immediate upsurge of southern reaction.

THE SOUTH HAS ALWAYS CAPTURED THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION and been used as a screen on which to project ambivalences about the repeated triumph of the modern values that still regulate our lives. More often than not liberal intellectuals have constructed an image of the "benighted South" in order to congratulate themselves and the rest of the nation for the march of enlightened progress, despite all of its obvious ills. This is anathema to Genovese, and quite properly so, for it represents a gross distortion and leads to profound illusion (and disillusion) on the part of its advocates, as the black liberation movement of the late 1960s demonstrated in the urban North. The alternative image might be called the "redemptive South," and at least in the version offered by Genovese, this proves an equally imaginary projection. The redemptive South of southern conservatism can only claim the allegiance of the left, if not others, through a profound misreading of the past and a willingness to overlook the key element in that particular tradition's perpetuation: the power of whites to dominate blacks. Even Allen Tate, one of the original Agrarians of the 1930s, noticed during the civil rights era that the defense of southern tradition always seemed to crest whenever the tide of liberalism threatened to sweep away formal white supremacy. "If there isn't more to the southern way of life than this," he wrote somberly to an old comrade in 1962, "it is not worth fighting for."7

Mid-century Southern radicals, however, and their heirs in the grassroots southern civil rights movement, represent another aspect of the redemptive South to which leftists can proudly adhere. Equally committed to agrarian values, to localism, to community, even to Christianity, theirs was a tradition that truly sought to redeem the soul of America and to recreate a "beloved community." They did so by challenging southerners to live up to their better natures and to abandon racism, not by allowing them to overlook it or explain it away.


  1. The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation, 2nd ed., (Hanover, NH, 1988), p. 126. return

  2. The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (Columbia, MO, 1995), p. 124. return

  3. Richard Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought (New Rochelle, 1968), pp. 110, 169, 268, 391. return

  4. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York, 1976), p. 38. return

  5. "Marxian Interpretations of the Slave South," reprinted in Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History, 2nd ed. (Knoxville, 1984), p. 344. Emphasis added. return

  6. The World the Slaveholders Made, p. 186. return

  7. Paul Conkin, The Southern Agrarians (Knoxville, 1988), p. 161. return

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