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"American Violence and the Haunting Diagnosis of Richard Hofstadter," an essay by Harvey Neptune

11 January 2021

Historian Richard Hofstadter haunts US history. And for good reason. An academic and public intellectual who passed away over half a century ago, Hofstadter authored works, in a relatively short but astonishingly prolific lifetime, that diagnosed the nation with ailments that seem chronic today.  In books like The American Political Tradition (1948), The Age of Reform (1955) The Paranoid Style of American Politics (1965), Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) and American Violence (1970), he depicted capitalism, racism, cultivated ignorance and violence as endemic to hegemonic US political culture.

Yet even as the national intelligentsia increasingly has acknowledged Hofstadter’s profound relevance, especially since the emergence of Trumpism, they have not quite appreciated the radical depths and subtlety of his sophisticated skeptical mind.  Above all, they have repressed that at the core of his scholarship was a post-nationalist warning, an historically informed counsel that the premise and promise of American greatness imperiled the Republic and the world.  Commentators, it seems, have been wilfully blind to the urgency of Hofstadter’s criticism.  It is almost as if they have been afraid to admit what he actually said about the US.

Hofstadter’s corpus is too rich for easy summary, but it is not difficult to realize that he wrote to upset a certain complacency about the dominant nationalist tradition. Drawn to the dark side of American life, he refused to indulge the patriotic liberal romance of ineluctable progressive change.  Rather, Hofstadter made it his intellectual duty to disenchant, to illuminate the national experience from what he called the “nether end.” Regarding his native civilization in the middle of the century, Hofstadter offered these words: “I do not like to be unduly pessimistic, but it seems to me that in the race between education and catastrophe, catastrophe thus far is ahead by several lengths.”  

Notoriously schooled as a nationalistic cheerleader, Hofstadter was anything but.  His first public facing book, The American Political Tradition explicitly warned against “hero-worship and national self-congratulation.” This 1948 work also came out swinging against capitalist greed. US democracy, observed the introduction, was a “democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.”  During the next decade, Hofstadter persisted with his critically diagnostic ways, emphasizing what he dubbed the “paranoid style of politics” in the US.  Detractors today often dismiss his line of argument by mistakenly assuming that he saw the irrationality as an attribute exclusively of the radical right. To the contrary, however, Hofstadter plainly stated that although his book focused on “pseudo-conservatives,” the paranoid mentality that believed itself to be “in the grip of a vast conspiracy’ was “not a style of mind confined to the right wing.” 

One of the most underappreciated aspects of Hofstadter’s writing about the nation’s dysfunctional cultural politics was the centrality of white supremacy (anti-Semitism, it is often forgotten, was at the center of the controversy set off by The Age of Reform).  “Ethnic animosities,” he explained in The Paranoid Style, “at times almost a substitute for the class struggle and in any case have always affected its character.”  Moreover, Hofstadter, whose father was Jewish, had betrayed a concern with racism from incipience; his very first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), climaxed with a chapter on “racism and imperialism.” In that same year, Hofstadter jointed others at the Journal of Negro History in the attack on the racist scholarship of Ulrich B Philips.  In this move, he was likely influenced by the work of his then wife Felice Swados, who also published historical scholarship about plantation slavery.  A few years later, Hofstadter would take a sardonic swipe at Jefferson’s slave-owning privilege, noting in the American Political Tradition that the “leisure that made possible his great writings on human liberty was supported by the labors of three generations of slaves.” 

Furthermore, while it would be too much to present Hofstadter as some kind of apostle of intersectionality, his work consistently connected anti-Semitism and Negrophobia to other social power struggles and prejudices.  Anti-intellectualism was part of a primitivism inseparable from militant sexism, he insisted.  Far more sensitive to issues of gender than might be expected of a stereotypical male historian in the middle of the century, Hofstadter not only published work concerned with representations of masculinity and femininity but also did so in an American Quarterly article co-authored with his second wife, Beatrice Hofstadter (fascinating footnote: his first wife, Felice, penned the classic prison novel, House of Fury, a work that entangled race, class, gender and sexuality with such an authentically militant spirit of protest that the author was mistaken for a “Negro.”)

Finally, while professional folklore has linked Hofstadter to “American exceptionalism,” his approach to the US in a global context was almost unthinkable for its radically humbling implications.  After all, which native political observer can we imagine at the height of the Cold War conceiving of a scenario in which the war turned hot, the superpowers wound up inferior to Africa and Asia and Latin America and the resultant new “diffusion of power through the globe” produced a “healthier situation”? Yet this is exactly what Hofstadter wrote in American Perspectives in 1950.  This subversive anti-imperial vision never disappeared.  One of Hofstadter’s last public comments offered the national diagnosis that “part of our trouble is that our sense of ourselves hasn’t diminished as much as it ought.”

In the end, if Hofstadter saw anything exceptional about the United States it was the society’s self-deceptive attitude toward its wasteful unjustifiable and largely conservative violence -- a violence that, in his view, left the Republic resembling countries in AFrica Asia and Latin Americas (countries now infamous for their “shitholery”).   One of Hofstadter’s final publications, “Reflections on Violence in the United States,“ put the matter this way: “What is most exceptional about the Americans is not the voluminous record of their violence but their extraordinary ability in the face of that record to persuade themselves that they are among the best behaved and best regulated of peoples.”

Those of us concerned with comprehending the US past and the possibilities for present rehabilitation ignore the work of Richard Hofstadter at our peril.  Until we wrestle with his sobering historical diagnosis of the Republic as one that “seems to slouch onward into its uncertain future like some huge inarticulate beast, too much attainted by wounds and ailments to be robust, but too strong and resourceful to succumb,” Hofstadter will continue to haunt us.  


Author Bio

Harvey R. Neptune is an Associate Professor of History at Temple University. Neptune is the author of several published articles (appearing in journals including The American Historical ReviewSmall Axe and Radical History Review) and a book, Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the US Occupation (UNC Press, 2007).   Interested generally in the cultural politics of imperial and nation-building, Neptune is currently working on a book titled The Big Lie in US History: the making of the “Consensus school," which reconsiders the politics of US historiography in the postwar decades.