As everyone knows who has followed this website, I have been trying to separate the early progressives from the post-New Left progressives, all the while noting shifts in the Leninist line. I have used changes in the teaching of the humanities as my guide to larger cultural shifts.
During the last week, I have been slogging through Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (Vol1 Yale UP, 1972, Doubleday, 1975, second ed. Yale UP: 2004). It is the most boring possible book, more of antiquarian interest than historical interest, because Ahlstrom, a Yale professor of note, followed Max Weber’s lead, and stigmatized “economic determinism” as reductionist. So the reader is subjected to such notions as “the American character”, “the American mind” and “Puritanism” (especially the English variety) as the primary source of evil in the settling of the American continent. Indeed, Ahlstrom, seemingly attached to the medieval order, trashes the Radical Reformation and the English Civil War, failing to note that puritanism changed its concrete content depending on what social movement it was attached to.
In my series on the Anne Hutchinson historiography (https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/08/05/evil-puritans/), I quoted from an unpublished paper by UCLA professor Robert Brenner in part four on the subject of historicizing puritanism:
“…if it…makes sense, in the first instance, to see a certain unity in Puritan ideology in order to understand its broad connection to an emerging social order, and its incompatibility with an older one, it is necessary also to comprehend that this unity was, only to a limited degree, ever realized in practice. This was because supporters of the Puritan cause were themselves drawn from different, conflicting classes within the emerging bourgeois society; in consequence, they tended to shape their religious conception in correspondingly different ways, in accord with their disparate experiences and conflicting needs. Thus, there arose quite divergent, indeed ultimately incompatible, ideologically and organizationally distinct, tendencies within a broader, loosely-defined Puritan movement. Puritan religious groupings were obliged, in fact, to develop their movements and ideas on two “fronts”: on the one hand, against the adherents of the old religious regime in order to replace it; on the other, against one another to impose their particular notions of both the contents of the Reformation and the structure of the new social order. Thus, there arose quite distinctive Puritan trends, with conceptions corresponding to the different social strata from which different Puritan groupings recruited their membership: from the new aristocracy, from the small producers and tradesmen of town and country; from the ministers themselves. Indeed, these conceptions changed and developed…with the changing activity of these religious groupings…in other words, in accord with the changing nature of the movements themselves. It was only when Puritan-type ideas became associated not only with groupings from potentially revolutionary social layers, but with actual revolutionary political movements that they took on a revolutionary character. This did not take place, as we shall see, until after 1640.”
This interaction of economic interest and culture is what I have attempted to trace throughout the website, distinguishing between “moderate” Enlighteners (i.e., social democrats) and the more materialist figures, whether these be on the Left or Right. By contrast, Ahlstrom’s book positions itself in the timeless Center. He welcomes the Enlightenment and science, but splits the difference, praising John Locke for his book The Reasonableness of Christianity. What Ahlstrom detests is of course Indian killing, slavery, and uncouth religious revivalism on the frontiers, along with their uncertified lay preachers and circuit riders. Since these are labeled extremists and weirdos (along with women-led movements such as temperance), one can assume that we are in the territory of the moderate men, especially since Yale professor David Brion Davis is singled out for outstanding scholarship. Along with Ahlstrom, Davis had written an article condemning the anti-Catholicism of the mid 19th Century, when German and Irish immigrants poured into the still expanding continent. Indeed, “ethnicity” is Ahlstrom’s major analytic category.
Opinion on the Jacksonians drastically changed in the US field since the days of Claude Bowers (a racist Democratic politician: see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.) Such luminaries as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and numerous other historians looked to the Jacksonians as defenders of the Common Man, the stalwart enemy to bankers and other exploitative elites.
But all that changed with the ripening of the New Left, aroused by the civil rights movements and opposition to the war in Viet Nam. My late friend and Forest Hills High School classmate Michael Rogin made a huge splash and engendered much controversy when he published his “Marxist “ “psychohistory” Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (Knopf, 1975). Rogin’s argument apparently lined up with critics of US imperialism such as William Appleman Williams, but the latter attacked Rogin’s thesis. (See Rogin’s response to Williams here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1975/oct/16/daddy/.)
Rogin pulled together all the 1960s major themes: the monomaniac Jackson (another Captain Ahab) committed genocide against the native Americans, providing a model for future adventures in white domination, militarism, and violence. About this time, we renewed our friendship, and Rogin supported my work at Pacifica and at the Yankee Doodle Society. I know how shocked he was at the reception of his book, and also that he was in a friendly correspondence with David Brion Davis of Yale, who had taught American intellectual history at Cornell while I was still there, decades earlier. What I did not see at the time was that the turn toward ethnicity (as opposed to class) was a calculated response to the red specter, made worse by the Soviet upheavals in 1905 and 1917. (For an example, see quotes from Horace Kallen here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/18/assimilation-and-citizenship-in-a-democratic-republic/.)
Rogin also recommended that I read Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Wesleyan U. Press, 1973). It was the same attack on popular Protestant religion in the 19th century that had earlier been mounted by D. B. Davis and Sydney Ahlstrom.
It was Lenin, not Marx, who criticized the imperialists, for him these were generically the international Jewish conspiracy of finance capital, as publicized by J. A. Hobson. (By contrast, Marx hoped that the workers and their allies in the advanced industrial democracies made possible by the progressive bourgeoisie, would lead the way to socialist revolution. He was not anti-American, but rather praised the Northern victory in the Civil War as a great achievement.)
Why is this relevant today? The Leninist Left and the Social Democratic Left seem to have merged sometime after the 1960s upheavals, but they drew upon longstanding efforts by “progressives” to fend off the red specter, with the Left upholding Popular Front antifascist politics. Today, white males are seen as the enemy by the reigning academics in the humanities: like Ahlstrom’s frontiersmen they are individualistic, self-reliant, overly emotional, antinomian, ecocidal, racists, sadistic killers (Cormac McCarthy’s targets in Blood Meridian? or see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_of_the_Hunter_(film)), and probably given to (communitarian) country music, even some rock and roll. And white males (especially those in the wild South and West) are the chief villains of US history, and of course comprise the unregenerate population of the Republican Party and the even more unspeakably “anti-Christian” conservative movement. For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/11/30/railroading-captain-ahab/.