Friday, January 4, 2013

Unresolved duality in Richard Hofstadter's historical method

Written April 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm 

Here's a telling clue:
Since Julius W. Pratt published his Expansionists of 1898 in 1936, it has been obvious that any interpretation of America's entry upon the paths of imperialism in the nineties in terms of rational economic motives would not fit the facts, and that a historian who approached the event with preconceptions no more supple than those, say, of Lenin's Imperialism would be helpless. This is not to say that markets and investments have no bearing; they do, but there are features of the situation that they do not explain at all. Insofar as the economic factor was important, it can be better studied by looking at the relation between the depression, the public mood, and the political system.

SOURCE: Hofstadter, Richard. “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny,” in: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays; foreword by Sean Wilentz (New York: Vintage Books, 2008; 1st ed.: New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 183.

Lenin understood imperialism much better than Hofstadter, who, in the second paragraph, on the causes of the Spanish-American War, states: "The most striking thing about that war was that it originated not in imperialist ambition but in popular humanitarianism." (p. 145)  This follows upon an even more naive first paragraph, to the effect of: how could Americans do such a thing as engage in foreign conquest? This is quite revealing of an inherent flaw in American liberal and progressive historiography. As Hofstadter rebelled against the economism of Charles Beard and co. that prevailed in his youth, he was left with a curious dualism (or should I say, pluralism?) of material and ideal causes. Obviously, he learned nothing from the Marxism of the 1930s, but thanks to the economism of the dominant Soviet Marxism, it too suffered from a comparable flaw of suppressing theoretical comprehension of the ideological and even irrational subjective dimension of experience which itself is rooted in the objectivity of social relations. So, akin to the banality in John Dewey's view of society, Hofstadter leaves us with a multiplicity of factors rather than an integrated conception of structure. It's a shame, because the empirical depth in which Hofstadter engages in American political history is quite instructive concerning the configuration of America's entire pathological history.

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