Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hofstadter and Consensus History

Someone recently called my attention to Richard Hofstadter. His Magnum Opus in terms of a book-buying consensus is The American Political Tradition and the Men who made it. Hofstadter himself in a preface to the Hebrew edition of 1967 seems somewhat embarrassed by the popularity of this book. He would not in 1967 when he wrote this preface have counted it as his best or most important work: “This book, begun in 1943 when I was twenty-seven, was finished in 1947, and published in 1948. It is, I trust, visibly a young man’s book in any case, but what may not be so apparent is that though it appeared on the eve of the 1950’s it was to a very large extent an intellectual product of the experience of the 1930’s. It represents a kind of distillation of what I had learned about American history as an undergraduate and as a graduate student from 1933 to the early 1940’s.”

It is good to periodically go back and read the classics, historical as well as literary. Terms and ideas become transmogrified over time; so, as in a complicated and acrimonious discussion-group argument, it is good to go back and check on the original ideas and contentions. I have read some of the people Hofstadter felt a need to move beyond: e.g., the Beard’s, Parrington, and Turner. Hofstadter’s consensus history corrects the black-and-white antagonism they advocate. The Beard’s were a bit Marxist and saw our history as a series of struggles over economic issues. Parrington saw history as Jeffersonian and progressive. Turner saw American History in terms of an evolution always aimed at the Frontier. Hofstadter saw flaws in all these theses. There were not entirely invalid, but their structures were wrong. There was no over-arching guiding principle to account for American History. It was whatever the consensus struggled about at any given point in time. And, interestingly, when he wrote his 1967 preface he wasn’t sure he believed that any more, or at least not as much.

Parrington and Turner believed optimistically in an expanding American world. One can see the Neoconservative movement as an outgrowth of those early historians (or at least owing something to them), but Hofstadter wrote in that most pessimistic of periods, the period after World War Two. Surely the world was not progressing. Surely the theological position called Post-Millennialism which foresaw an improving progressing world was wrong. The world is hopeless and must continue to endure economic downturns and World Wars. Hofstadter seems closer to Samuel P. Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations than Fukuyama’s triumphalist End of History. There is no historical necessity like the one Hegel, Kojeve, and Fukuyama propounded. There is only a series of problems that people debate passionately about, and not the same problems, by the way; so there are no implacable enemies in America, only the current set of antagonists which will change from generation to generation.

I got down my copy of Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, 2002, to see if Mead used Hofstadter. Mead has no bibliography and I could find only one reference to Hofstadter in his notes, and it wasn’t to The American Political Tradition.

One notices that Leftists are giving new life to the term Progressive, but they aren’t meaning what V. L. Parrington and William Jackson Turner meant. They seem to mean progress toward more and more Socialism. And so in true Consensus-Theory fashion, we who do not hold with Socialism will oppose Progressivism even while agreeing more or less with the ideals of Parrington and Turner.

Disclaimer: This is a first impression. I have not Hofstadter’s book yet.

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