Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 13, 2005

Gordon S. Wood on Sean Wilentz

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 13, 2005

There’s an interesting review of Sean Wilentz’s “The Rise of American Democracy” by Gordon S. Wood in today’s NY Times Book review section (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/13/books/review/13wood.html). Wood, a historian himself, correctly identifies Wilentz as having the reinvigoration of the Democratic Party as one of his chief aims in this book, particularly through his elevation of Andrew Jackson, a figure who no longer is flattered the way he was in Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “Age of Jackson,” a book that didn’t even mention the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokees.

Unlike Schlesinger, Wilentz does acknowledge the Democratic Party’s pro-slavery and anti-Indian policies, but forgives them in the same way that Communists used to apologize for Stalin. In Great Projects like building American Democracy or Socialism, it is sometimes necessary to subordinate lesser peoples for the Greater Good.

Wood makes the case that Wilentz has no use for pesky minorities when it comes to advancing the cause of the Democratic Party today:

“Like Schlesinger in 1945, he wants in 2005 to speak to the liberalism of the modern Democratic Party. By suggesting that the race, gender and cultural issues that drive much of the modern left are not central to the age of Jackson, Wilentz seems to imply that they should not be central to the future of the present-day Democratic Party.”

Of course, this is somewhat old news. People like Richard Rorty and Sean Wilentz deeply resent the New Left’s impact on American politics. By forcing the issues of Black, gay and women’s inequality on the world’s oldest bourgeois party, they allow the Republicans to demagogically exploit the fears of the sort described in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas.”

As everybody probably knows, there is no such thing as “impartial” historiography. Every historian imparts his own ideological agenda into yesterday’s events, no matter the pains they take to conceal it under a veneer of scholarly dispassion. What about Gordon S. Wood himself?

As the author of “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” one might expect Wood to be Howard Zinn’s second cousin. However, the radicalism he writes about is that of Thomas Jefferson than that of Crispus Attucks.

For Wood, as well as Wilentz, it is necessary to learn to appreciate the Greater Mission of American capitalism, even when they are getting short shrift:

“I do think that there were — there are lots of historians who feel that we didn’t do enough for these oppressed or — oppressed people, particularly black slaves and — and women. I mean, I — my answer to that is, of course, that the Revolution did really substantially change the climate in which slavery had existed.

“For thousands of years, slavery had existed in the Western world without substantial criticism. And the Revolution marked a major turning point. It suddenly put slavery on the defensive. And I think that’s the point that needs to be emphasized, not that Jefferson didn’t free his slaves, but that as a man raised as a slave holder, in a world that was dominated by slavery, he criticized it. That’s what’s new. That’s the point that I think needs to be made. Where did that come from? Why — why did this generation suddenly become critics of slavery and put it on the defensive? That I think is an important point.”

Full: http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1672

John Chuckman, a frequent contributor to Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair’s “Counterpunch” has an interesting review of Wood’s book on amazon.com that starts as follows:

“Mr. Wood’s book tries to put some intellectual and moral sizzle back into an American Revolution that has long come to be regarded by world scholars as something less than an earth-shaking event.

“Despite much-labored efforts, Mr. Wood fails, and he is pretty dull along the way in presenting his case. It really could not be otherwise, for his basic thesis is faulty. The Revolution has been summed up, quite accurately I believe, as a group of home-grown aristocrats taking power from a group of foreign-born aristocrats.

“America’s central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.”

For obvious reasons what repels a genuine radical like Chuckman also attracts Newt Gingrich, who hyped Wood’s book when it came out and that is found on the ‘recommended books’ section of Gingrich’s website, along with “Gone With the Wind” and Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”

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