The Education of Richard Hofstadter

By Foner, Eric | The Nation, May 4, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Education of Richard Hofstadter


Foner, Eric, The Nation


The relationship between politics and intellectual life, at the center of today's debate over political correctness," multiculturalism and other real and imagined sins of the academy, is hardly a new phenomenon. Throughout our history, contemporary political problems and commitments have shaped the questions Americans asked about their past and the answers they found. The career of Richard Hofstadter, the finest historian of his generation, offers a case in point. The reissue of his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, provides an opportunity to consider Hofstadter's own intellectual trajectory and some of the influences that molded American scholarship of the eras of the Great Depression and cold war.

Richard Hofstadter was born in 1916 in Buffalo, New York, the son of a Jewish father and a mother of German Lutheran descent. After graduating from high school in 1933, he entered the University of Buffalo, where he majored in philosophy and minored in history. As for so many others of his generation, his formative intellectual and political experience was the Great Depression. Buffalo, a major industrial center, was particularly hard hit by unemployment and social dislocation. The Depression, Hofstadter later recalled, "started me thinking about the world. . . . It was as clear as day that something had to change. You had to decide, in the first instance, whether you were a Marxist or an American liberal." At the university, Hofstadter gravitated toward a group of left-wing students, including the brilliant and "sometimes overpowering" (as Alfred Kazin later described her) Felice Swados, read Marx and Lenin and joined the Young Communist League.

In 1936, on the eve of his graduation, Hofstadter and Felice were married, and subsequently they moved to New York. Felice first worked for the National Maritime Union and International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and then took a job as a copy editor at Time, while Hofstadter enrolled in the graduate history program at Columbia University. Both became part of New York's broad radical political culture that centered on the Communist Party in the era of the Popular Front. Hofstadter would later describe himself (with some exaggeration) as "by temperament quite conservative and timid and acquiescent:' and it seems that the dynamic Felice, a committed political activist, animated their engagement with radicalism. Nonetheless, politics for Hofstadter was much more than a passing fancy; he identified himself as a Marxist, and in apartment discussions and in his correspondence with Felice's brother Harvey Swados, he took part in the doctrinal debates among Communists, Trotskyists and others that flourished in the world of New York's radical intelligentsia.

In 1938, Hofstadter joined the Communist Party's unit at Columbia. The decision, taken with some reluctance (he had already startled some of his friends by concluding that the Moscow purge trials were "phony"), reflected a craving for decisive action after "the hours I have spent jawing about the thing." As he explained to his brother-in-law: "I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation.... My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it. I am tired of talking.... The party is making a very profound contribution to the radicalization of the American people.... I prefer to go along with it now."

Hofstadter, however, did not prove to be a very committed party member. He found meetings "dull" and chafed at what he considered the party's intellectual regimentation. By February 1939 he had quietly eased myself out." His break became irreversible in September, after the announcement of the NaziSoviet pact. There followed a rapid and deep disillusionment-with the party (run by "glorified clerks"), with the Soviet Union ("essentially undemocratic") and eventually with Marxism itself. Yet for some years Hofstadter continued to regard himself as a radical. …

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