Liberal at Columbia

Richard Hofstadter, An Intellectual Biography, David S. Brown, 2006

Hofstadter Sketch Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter, born in Buffalo New York of a German Lutheran mother and a Polish Jewish father, was one of the most influential liberal intellectuals of the middle part of the Twentieth Century. This was a unique period where the liberal intellectuals had real power and influence and lived unusually privileged lives. Like all scholars of his generation, the great depression was the defining experience of Hofstadter’s youth. As with many others, the depression led him to a fascination with the communist party which he joined briefly. The realities of the Stalinist experience soon became clear ending his fascination. He was taking courses at Columbia in history by the later 1930s. He was to remain associated with Columbia until his death. This was a time when many immigrant and non WASP scholars were entering history and social science departments.

His doctoral dissertation Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944) was published immediately by Knopf and was enormously important to intellectuals in the era of the FDR New Deal. The new liberalism of Hofstadter traced its roots back to the pragmatic thought of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. who earlier attacked social Darwinism.

In Social Darwinism he (Hofstadter) argued that deeply internalized beliefs moved people, for ultimately whoever controlled the prevailing value system — defining God, morality, politics, and patriotism — won the right to apportion rewards…The plutocrats who exploited the nation’s uniquely egalitarian principles to make their fortunes…had shown their gratitude by building an industrial regime hostile to future social mobility…The industrial machine’s victory over the American garden may have resulted from a particularly ferocious mixture of expansion and crisis, but social Darwinism brought an ersatz order to this chaos and offered an airtight atonement for the sins of the business class.

Hofstadter’s next popular book was The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made it.

…Jefferson’s reflexive fear of centralized power worked against robust federal regulation and gave the game to the the industrialists by default. Commitment to a stifling vision of individualism and limited government…made the Master of Montecello’s ghost the perfect spokesman for the trusts.

Jacksonianism…was an agrarian movement premised on economic opportunity, laissez-faire, and the removal of government barriers to investment among small capitalists. The New Deal, by contrast, was an urban movement that assumed that the great era of capitalist ascendancy had passed and that government regulation was needed to revitalize American markets.

The great barons, in their quest to build economic empires, choke competition, and turn a socially mobile working class into a subdued proletariat, manipulated Lincoln’s legacy. In “victory”.. Lincoln lost everything.

Hoover’s disastrous embrace of the old conventions cast the last Progressive president as a political anachronism remarkably incapable of addressing the needs of a metropolitan nation.

American Political Tradition was an important work exposing the manipulation of history to present an agrarian frontier WASP land of opportunity self image to an urban immigrant multi ethnic proletariate population. Both early books formed an intellectual underpinning for the New Deal. On FDR’s legacy Hofstadter once commented:

The New Deal may have been a failure in the thirties but it sure is a success in the fifties…In cold terms, American capitalism had come of age, the great era of individualism, expansion, and opportunity was dead.

Columbia historians and social scientists were influenced by the Frankfurt School of Social Research, exiled to Columbia from Germany from 1934 til the late 1940s. What accounted for the rise of Fascism and its widespread mass support throughout Europe? What kind of civilization would post -Enlightenment Europe create? The affirmation of the irrational, Susan Buck-Morss has written, resulted in

a renewed interest in Kierkegaard, Jungian psychiatry, the novels of Herman Hess, the advocacy of ‘culture’ over civilization and ‘community’ over society, and even an intellectual vogue for horoscopes and magic.

American scholars would later apply Frankfurt School thoughts on the conditions leading to the rise of mass Fascist culture to try to understand the Joseph McCarthy era and the conservatism of Barry Goldwater. Hofstadter was among those seeking to apply sociological insights to understand historical political shifts.

Hofstadter believed that the two party political system in America would work only if both parties stayed close to their centrist positions. Once the left went too far with the civil rights movement and the anti Vietnam war protests, he feared the right would counter with extreme positions of their own. He viewed the assassinations of the Kennedys and King in this light. Hofstadter’s criticisms of the war protesters attacks on university administrations led many to see him as a conservative, but he remained a mid century liberal sharing many of the student’s criticisms of university relationships with government and the military.

Hofstadter joined the civil rights Montgomery march with a group of eminent historians. He was a guest lecturer and commencement speaker at UC Berkeley during the student protests period. He gave financial support to the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver defense fund and wrote to Clark Kerr, President of UC Berkeley and Chairman of the California Adult Authority in praise of Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. He engaged in a published debate with one of his own doctoral students about the issues at the center of the student protests. His criticism of the students’ actions was grounded largely in a fear of the reaction of the right. Historically he was correct and the sixties led to the rise of the reactionary conservatism of Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes with which we are still burdened. Of this new era Cheryl Mendelson in her novel Anything for Jane (Morningside Heights trilogy) wrote:

…political debate became futile once people started forming personal commitments to theories like libertarianism and neoconservatism and Rawlsian liberalism and socialism and all the others. Because from that point on, they’d no more interest in reality—only in being on the winning team, or among academics, in gaining professional status. Self-interest disguised as political virtue took over. It was very ugly back in the late seventies at it’s only got worse.

Hofstadter loved living in New York City despite the stresses of life there. He loved jazz and classical music and built a large record collection. He turned down many offers from other prestigious universities largely because he was unwilling to leave New York. Harlem, where Columbia is located became quite dangerous in the 60s and when Hofstadter’s wife was robbed at gunpoint in the elevator of their Columbia apartment building, Columbia University paid to subsidize a new apartment on Park Avenue for their honored professor.

Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970 at the age of 54. He had just entered into a publishing deal which would have produced a massive history of the United States over the next 18 years of his career. His early death leave his first two books as his most influential legacy. His contemporary at Harvard, Presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger who died this year probably gained greater fame through his numerous books and his role in the Kennedy Presidency as part of the Harvard brain trust but Hofstadter’s early books did more to influence liberal ideas and the way history is written and done.

Of interest in the era of Bush 43, Hofstadter wrote about the difference between English and American students :

…the English student values and shows pride in his own intellectual gifts and accomplishments but likes to imply that they have cost no great effort on his part, whereas the American philistine has a profound and entirely heartfelt suspicion of ideas.

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