Historian Eugene Genovese has been categorized by pundits as following the familiar trajectory of ex-Stalinists who, having repudiated past allegiance, lurch violently to the Right. Pundits point to his speeches at the Conservative Political Action Committee, and his 1994 confessional, explaining how he and his generation defended Stalin’s murderous policies as evidence of the movement’s nature.
But even in the heyday of his Stalinist sympathies, Genovese revealed strains that would eventually overwhelm his radicalism while at the same time keeping him with one foot still in the communist camp.
Genovese joined the Communist Party at 15, and was a Party youth organizer in the late 40s and early 50s. A time that turned out to be the Party’s lowest ebb until 1989. But even at this early age, he was a maverick; he was kicked out of the Party for refusing to submit to Party discipline.
By the time he became a full professor, he was hardly the type of Stalinist who, once acquiring tenure, only hired like-minded colleagues. During the campus protests of the 1960s, with radicals demanding that faculties be overwhelmingly Marxist in composition — and which in many cases became just that a generation later — Genovese envisioned Rutgers University where he taught as part of a faculty of all political persuasions.
Controversially wishing for the Vietcong to defeat the Americans, Genovese nevertheless would frustrate comrades with his admission of Stalin’s crimes, albeit juxtaposing them alongside the dictator’s accomplishments:
“In irreconcilable confrontations, as Comrade Stalin, who remains dear to some of us for the genuine accomplishments that accompanied his crimes, clearly understood it is precisely the most admirable, manly, principled, and, by their own lights, moral opponents who have to be killed; the others can be frightened or bought.”
This is hardly the stuff of denial, the modus operandi of the good Stalinist, and reveals Genovese to be sturdily in the camp of those who took the long view of communism, arguing that the broken eggs can and are resulting in omelets.
But Genovese was positively Lovestonite, a movement named after Jay Lovestone, a Party member who would be expelled by Genovese’s idol Stalin for arguing that Marxism should be applied to American conditions, in an era when the Left was supporting Marcuse-like civil liberties, but only for their side:
“The grim experiences of Russia, China, and other undemocratic socialist countries — whose revolutions and social systems we support in principle — ought to be enough to convince us that one of our major responsibilities is to guarantee that our own movement embody those great and living traditions of free and critical thought which are the glory of Western civilization and without which we have nothing to offer the American people or our comrades in the socialist countries who are today fighting with genuine heroism to humanize their own societies.”
From this would be a tip-off of Genovese’s later disgust with political correctness, a disgust that would drive him into joining a historical group made up of conservatives like Getrude Himmelfarb and anti-Stalinists like John Patrick Diggins.
With the collapse of communism in 1989, Genovese could no longer take the long view of history. With no tangible results, Genovese had only his earlier admission left that the Soviet Union was totalitarian. Once writing that Stalin had “successfully demonstrated that cruelty and mass murder can be put to revolutionary as well as conservative uses,” he now saw no progressive ends from the murderous means. He now took the anticommunist view “that each new revolution” will “end in the same damn place.”
Unlike some ex-Stalinists, Genovese didn’t retreat into any navel-watching. Although he now embraced social conservatism, bemoaning the collapse of the family, he didn’t avoid taking responsibility for himself and his generation for defending Stalin. In a 1994 article, he stated that “we knew everything essential and knew it from the beginning” about Stalinism. But as his career-long comments showed, he never doubted what was happening in the Soviet Union; he merely saw progressive ends resulting from repression.
But Genovese wouldn’t completely leave Stalinist characteristics behind. His main enemy was still anti-Stalinists. He found it “amusing” that Stalin’s critics on the left, while denouncing “socialist countries” at every turn applaud each new revolution, not realizing that it will end up in the same repressive place. He railed against “unbridled individualism” and the right for people to express themselves, proclaiming himself in “favor of discipline, repression and order.”
The title of Genovese’s attack on himself and his generation was duped “When Did They Know?” The answer is: Genovese knew it all along.