A review of a Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, by Eric Foner
This collection of occasional essays by noted Marxist historian Eric Foner provides useful insight into the ever-changing, if reliably utopian, progressive mind. Foner covers a range of subjects, including blacks and the U.S. Constitution, revisionist history in Russia and South Africa, American freedom in a global age, and why there is no socialism in America. The unifying themes are "the politics and purposes of historical understanding" and the relationship between the historian and his own world.
Foner's world is impeccably and indelibly progressive. Raised in a "Communist-oriented" family, young Eric "did not have to wait until the upheavals of the 1960s to discover the yawning gap" that separated America's claim to be a land of liberty from its social and political reality. Influenced by the Communist Party's fight against racism, his family had a "preoccupation with the past and present condition of our black fellow countrymen." In this environment Foner learned how a commitment to social justice can infuse one's view of history. In effect, it gave him a headstart on the road to academic distinction—he is a former president of both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. Such honors make him the preeminent tenured radical of his generation.
Foner is an old-line, "New Left" thinker. Social constructivism and cultural studies are not for him. The question who owns history, the burning question raised in the 1990s by controversies such as the Enola Gay exhibit and the Columbus quincentennial, is a multiculturalist distraction for committed leftists like Foner. Anyone reading this book for instruction on the philosophical questions raised by postmodernist scholarship will be disappointed. Still, cultural radicalism has its uses, and Foner is sympathetic to it. This is expressed here in his defense of historical revisionism, on which radical cultural studies depend, against a suspicious public that wants a celebratory national history.
Foner says such an attitude misunderstands the nature of historical study. Historical revisionism began with the ancient Greeks, he argues. More recently, Progressive Era icons Charles Beard and Carl Becker "demolished the notion that historical truth is fixed and permanent and that fact and interpretation can be sealed off from each other." Indeed the search for new perspectives is the "lifeblood of historical understanding." So each generation rewrites history to meet the needs of the times—"new political, social, and cultural imperatives."
Of course like all historical relativists, Foner presents this assertion as a matter of fact rather than interpretation. Moreover, he reassures us that history is not myth and invention but rests on commonly accepted professional standards. He observes: "Historical truth does exits [sic], not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation of the past." Yet distrust of revisionism persists. The real problem is that people don't pay enough attention to academic historians. The "most difficult truth" for people outside the academy to accept, Foner laments, is that "there often exists more than one legitimate way of recounting past events." Who then owns history? "Everyone and no one—which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery."
Foner's trite and perfunctory discussion hardly does justice to the question. Perhaps he is being circumspect. In Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988) for which he won the Bancroft Prize, and other works on slavery and race, Foner gives a more substantive answer to the question who owns history. Simply stated, history belongs to—and in the deepest sense can be known by—those who make it. In U.S. history, according to Foner, this means African-Americans. As slaves, free persons of color, and emancipated citizens, their labor built the nation. From the standpoint of historical and racial justice, blacks claim a unique moral standing in American society. Thus his progressive interpretation of American history centers on black agency; and its most distinctive feature, oddly, is its essentially unchanging nature. For Foner, racial inequality, oppression, and injustice are the enduring values that define American politics and society.
Slavery and racism "were embedded in the Constitution." American citizenship, apparently based on universal principles, was exclusionary. When political conflict between whites led to the Civil War, slavery was abolished mainly because blacks demanded their freedom. The emancipated slaves were "the central actors in the drama of Reconstruction," a political movement that "produced not simply three amendments but a fundamentally new Constitution." Its essential features were citizenship based on racial equality and a powerful national government to guarantee "blacks equal standing in the polity and equal opportunity in a free labor economy."
National-minded progressives in the early 20th century saw the Civil War and Reconstruction as the Second American Revolution. Foner sees these events as the real American Revolution. Although temporarily successful in giving blacks civil and political rights, Reconstruction failed to redistribute property and establish economic democracy. It was therefore overthrown by Southern white racism and Northern indifference. A long night of racial segregation and discrimination set in, but the ideals of Reconstruction—America's unfinished revolution—set the political agenda for the future. Eventually, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the completion of the revolution seemed imminent. The "second Reconstruction," however, was in Foner's view overcome in the 1980s and '90s by the same forces of white racism, Social Darwinist ideology, states rights, and economic individualism that had destroyed the first one.
The inference to be drawn from this book is that it is harder to keep the progressive faith in the 21st century than it was before. "Americans still live in the shadow of the Reagan revolution," Foner complains. Libertarians, corporate executives, and armed militia groups appropriate the vocabulary of freedom. Most important, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. Foner describes the writing of a new Russian history that "painted the history of the Soviet era in the blackest hues." Sympathizing with old Communists made to feel that their lives had been wasted, Foner, with studied impartiality, judges the new Russian history to be "no less 'political' than the old."
In the face of events that do not conform to the progressive vision, Foner executes a rhetorical retreat. He admonishes: "Americans often 'forget' that our history in not a whiggish progress toward greater freedom and equality but a far more complex story in which gains are made and lost, rights are expanded and sometimes revoked, and ideas long since discredited rise like ghosts to haunt later generations." Though the civil rights movement may have written the color-blind ideals of the Reconstruction into American citizenship, "only time will tell," says Foner, whether this was a permanent change in American life or the product of specific circumstances that are already fading into history.
Considering the author's eminence, this book daringly raises the question whether socialism is finished as a historical force. Foner's answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Marxist ideology has been proved wrong by events and no longer serves the purposes of socialist politics. But ultimately No because American liberalism and egalitarianism—especially in the form of affirmative action—will do just fine as a rationale for "the equitable distribution of the products of capitalism." Progressive spirits ascend as Foner contemplates the future: "In a global age, the forever unfinished story of American freedom must become a conversation with the world, not a complacent monologue with ourselves."