The New Cult of Consensus

ImgresJames Oakes at nonsite:

The revival of interest in the conflicts and the violence that mark American history proved enormously fruitful. In 1969, in a beautiful book that was his final reckoning with The Progressive Historians, Hofstadter himself acknowledged the limitations of the consensus approach, singling out the Civil War as a historic convulsion that scarcely exemplified the pragmatic genius of American politics. In some ways this was not surprising. Hofstadter had been influenced by Marxism when he was young, and he was one of the first historians to blow the whistle on U. B. Phillips’ romanticized histories of slavery. Nor should it surprise us that in the 1960s Marxism became the most effective means by which historians recovered the fundamental issues at stake in the Civil War—although it was a Marxism that accepted the structural foundations of the conflict between the North and the South but went on to examine the political and ideological manifestations of that conflict.

I think of Judith Stein’s work as having emerged from that same intellectual ferment. Attentive to class divisions, but always sensitive to the unpredictable ways class conflict has played out in American politics. It’s that sensitivity to the particularities of time and place that has repeatedly sent Judith off the archives and makes her such an industrious researcher. She had a set of priorities but no predetermined answer. Who knew, for example, that it was the foreign policy apparatus that prevented the federal government from protecting American workers from unfair trade practices during the 1970s?

more here.