No Consensus History

on the continued controversies of liberal, radical, & reactionary politics in the american historical profession.

The following comes from my comments on the recent conflagration at the US Intellectual History Blog over Jesse Lemisch’s revisiting of Cold War liberal “consensus” history and his confrontation with it as a Vietnam War-era radical at the 1968 and 1969 American Historical Association meetings (“Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians? (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch)”). Lots of vitriol, talking past each other, and attempts to at the very least try to identify a common language for the lack of consensus when it comes to the issue of whether contemporary US intellectual history is repeating the sins of the past (or the triumphs, or the irrelevancy of the past, depending on your point of view). My own particular (probably failed) effort in the comments that follow was to try to lift out the larger issues at stake in revisiting this ancient-history-yet-still-very-much-contested moment of the late 1960s in the historical profession. Many thanks to L.D. Burnett for providing the forum for this difficult yet worthy airing out of differences (no consensus certainly) and also hat tip to her for bringing to our attention this fabulous cover of C. Vann Woodward’s 1987 book. Below my comments I have included a Storify of the Twitter exchanges also generated by this debate. It is a bit messy and unorganized, but at least provides a record of this wide-ranging, somewhat exhausting, but also fascinating conversation among US historians.

March 15, 2014

This wonderful, sometimes contentious, debate has me thinking about Cold War liberalism and the stakes of contemporary radicalism (again!). One thing that was revealed in the moment of 1969–and in the behavior, at once intellectual (anti-intellectual actually) and deeply personal–was a kind of reactionary and quite uncivil dimension of Cold War liberalism in its ideological/personal dimensions as manifested in the writing and actions of these three historians as they saw their left flank becoming more combative and confrontational both within and beyond academia. Cold War liberalism proved to be quite intolerant and, well, illiberal. Peter Novick taught us that (objectively!). Phil Ochs, as I’ve noted on this blog before, pointed it out musically (“Love me I’m a liberal…”). I sense one thing Jesse Lemisch wants acknowledged is simply that the radicals weren’t the only ones getting “nastily” political (and nastily personal) in that moment. The larger issue he asks us to consider is not whether these consensus historians were jerks, but rather whether they betrayed their own liberalism in their tactics. Was this part of a deeper problem with the ideological underpinnings of modern liberalism?

A lot of younger historians sure felt like it in the late 60s moment. Liberalism seemed bankrupt intellectually. It seemed like it had led to things such as Vietnam and it seemed unable to deliver on the realization of full justice when it came to civil rights, poverty, equality, anti-imperialism, etc. In recent decades, with the rise of the right, there’s been ample revisiting of this liberalism: how it unraveled (Matusow), whether it actually has a still-relevant “fighting faith” (Mattson, Beinart), whether there were actually intriuging new mixes of liberalism and radicalism afoot (Mattson on Arnold Kaufman) or even radicalism and conservatism (Mattson and Casey Blake on Paul Goodman, or Christopher Lasch’s work), plus lots, lots more. Not to mention all the bashing of liberalism from the right. It’s almost enough to say “poor liberalism, maybe we should recover your falsely feel good consensus ethos…. Yes we can!”

Jesse Lemisch reminds us that we should fight this urge, that we should be quite hesitant to pine for this liberalism-when-liberalism-was-king, that we will need to continue to historicize its intellectual and ideological failings rigorously, just as we must do so with the radicalism that challenged it, and the modern conservatism that arose in its wake and was, just as often, buried within Cold War liberalism itself.

John F. Kennedy with Alfred Schlesinger, Jr.

I think the other question this post and conversation made me ponder is this: what does a productive kind of radical intellectual history look like today? I’m not saying all intellectual history must be radical (already see certain commentators on this blog rolling there eyes), but rather pondering what an awareness of the AHA battles of 69 can do to spark deeper thinking not only about that time, but about what it means to study and write history now.

There are today certain kinds of “consensus” (to use the term somewhat differerently) positions quite dominant in history, American studies, cultural studies, etc., much of it indebted to work in the Lemischian vein: bottom up agency, Zinnian march of the People, certain assumptions about the relationship between economics, politics, culture. Do these hold up or have they become rote incantations? Against these now dominant post-consensus professional historical positions we see new kinds of work arising: for instance, histories of capitalism that seem to quite purposely ignore production! workers! labor! Marx! The people! with a focus on circulation, finance, money; or the turn to conservative thinkers and intellectuals as figures worthy of serious scrutiny (Ayn Rand, Hayek, etc.). Are these shifts of the historic lens away from consensus history and Lemischian social history weirdly porting in a new kind of reactionary intellectual history? Is the consensus work irrelevant in new debates between radical and conservative modes? Does the consensus moment, and the historical thinking of its major figures, have anything at all to offer in this contemporary context?

Jesse Lemisch
Historian Jesse Lemisch.

March 17, 2014

Nice cultural history there, LD, with the photo! Ay! I always loved the Fonz, even to the bitter end, and in that spirit, I jumpeth back into the (jumped the) shark-infested waters with two thoughts:1- The focus of this debate has become, in this corner, Jesse Lemisch asking us to probe whether the deeper logics of postwar liberal consensus history still pervade the field of US intellectual history, which in many ways ruled the roost of US history during that period. Jesse does so, admittedly, with considerable animosity and vitriol in his writing, perhaps because he was a key participant in those events, even a victim of them.

The response, from the other corner, with many voices weighing in, has been a resounding “no, it doesn’t. We hardly even read those dead white guys anymore! Stop fighting those battles from the late ’60s and start reading our work over the last 50 years.” Which is a kind of answer, true enough, but one that hones in on what, to me, is the wrong target. It does so with a few square uppercuts and jabs, but also with some real sucker punches.

The bigger issue here, the bigger target, the bigger dilemma to grapple with is, again, the legacy of modern liberalism, not to get caught up in a historiography flame war. Is liberalism still with us or not both in the field and beyond it and in the relationship between the two? If so how, why? Not only at the level of surface historiographic rebuttal (which is fine and important true enough), but also at deeper levels of logic and sensibility of historical thinking? If so–or if not–how and why?

In a way, there is so much to say about this, both in the 60s moment and now (and between them, before them, and beyond them), that it’s difficult to focus our eyes on what to me is the larger and more significant question, the one that really matters here, the more important target at which we should be taking aim. Nevermind actually land a good intellectual interpretive punch or two on it.

For example, I think what Jesse raises about the late 60s moment asks us to probe the neo-pragmatist turn of recent decades, and ponder how this recovery of the liberal tradition by intellectual historians who were themselves very much shaped by, inspired, burned, disgusted with, or burned out by their youthful experiences in the 60s, perhaps smuggled the consensus history of postwar US intellectual history’s heyday right in through the social history gates (hey I’ve switched metaphors here from boxing ring to academic campus, or is it prison or is it Chingo Bling’s border fence?). Did this rethinking of liberalism rinse the nasty CIA-funded, illiberal side out? Or do those complicities still linger? I mean linger intellectually not personally.

And how do we make sense of both the successes and failures of a more radical notion of historical inquiry since the victory of the consensus liberal historians at AHA 69? There was an eruption of radical historical inquiry, of course, after the late 60s and to the present day, one that left those postwar historians in the dust. But there has also been a never ending crisis of the historical profession in terms of jobs, diversity, and a continual fretting about connections of the profession to the broader public. What are these seemingly contradictory tendencies of a radical expansion and intensified elitism (or its flip side, a superficial populism) about exactly? I wish I had definitive answers to these kind of questions. All I have is their haunting. I wish we could shine a light on these ghosts (damn moving to another metaphor again! Now I am really truly shadowboxing!).

2 – I very rarely think about counterfactual history, but I did find myself wondering this: what if the “Rads” had won the day at AHA 68/69? What would the AHA look like now? What would history as practiced in the US look like now? Would it look that different? Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

That’s all I’ve got for now. Back to the fights!


Storify: USIH Slugs It Out Over Consensus History

Tweets related to US Intellectual History Blog post “Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians? (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch),”

Tweets related to US Intellectual History Blog post “Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians? (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch),”

Tweets related to US Intellectual History Blog post “Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians? (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch),”

Tweets related to US Intellectual History Blog post “Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians? (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch),”

Tweets related to US Intellectual History Blog post “Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians? (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch),”

1 thought on “No Consensus History

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *