The Southern Tradition

By Eugene Genovese, 1994

How is it that Marxist historian Eugene Genovese has written a fairly positive book on the agrarian conservatives of the American south?  One big reason is the author’s disenchantment with communism, which was growing while he was writing this book.  In fact, the state of being a “recovering” Marxist gives Genovese a unique and valuable perspective on his subject.  Both Marxists and southern agrarians have pointed out the atomizing and alienating effects of industrial capitalism, but both have lived to see it triumph over their preferred forms of social organization.  (Finding oneself on the wrong side of history tends to deepen a man’s sympathies and strengthen his character, in my experience.)  Furthermore, the southern and communist causes are not only defeated but discredited—no one wants to bring back either slavery or the Soviet Union now, no matter how bad capitalism gets.  However, this doesn’t mean that the critiques of Marxists or southern conservatives were without value, and in fact Genovese has painfully to realize that it was the conservative arguments that were the better of the two.  The southerners appreciated the limits of our fallen nature, and they appreciated the value of local community, local self-government, religion, and tradition.  In other words, they saw the folly of both capitalism and socialism.  The author’s Marxist training also leads him to appreciate the fact that the southern conservatives realized that a traditionalist/organic society can only exist under suitable (non-capitalist) economic and social arrangements.  This he compares favorably to the standard conservatives of his own day, who (he claims) think they can defend traditional values without attacking a tradition-destroying consumerist free-enterprise economy.  Unfortunately, the alternate economic base recommended by antebellum southern critics was slavery.  The real difference, they thought, between northern wage labor and southern slavery was that southern slaveholders had paternal responsibilities toward their slaves, while northern employers could exploit their workers as far as the market would allow.  Interestingly enough, Genovese shows that it was this reason, and not any idea of racial superiority, that was used to justify slavery.  He even mentions that some southern intellectuals recommended that slavery be extended to whites.  Now, if slavery is the only alternative to capitalism, maybe we’d better make our peace with capitalism.  However, there is another element in the agrarian conservative tradition that fit uneasily with the defense of slavery.  This was the Jeffersonian ideal of a republic of independent small farm owners.  A much more attractive vision of country life than the slave model, no doubt, but it too has proven unable to withstand the pressures of large-scale commercial agriculture.  Finally, there are the ideals of state’s rights and local government.  Genovese sees great value in these and thinks it a mere historical accident that they have been associated with slavery and segregation.

I am, of course, sympathetic to some of the ideas Genovese describes, and I’m glad that he used this book (and the series of lectures on which it is based) to bring them to the attention of the academic world, which tends to be a leftist bubble.  On the other hand, the book is not particularly well organized; it seems to drift from one topic to another and then back again.  I would have appreciated a more systematic approach.  Still, if you’re one who thinks that the only two poles of the American mind are Puritanism and liberalism, and you think “southern” is a synonym for “stupid”, this book will make you realize how one-sided your education was.

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