CANCELLED What Happened to the Academic Left? The Cultural Turn, Centrist Political History, and the Dominance of Liberalism in the Universities
In previous decades, large numbers of scholars, inspired by a vibrant anti-war movement, Civil Rights struggles, trade union campaigns, and agitation for women’s liberation, identified themselves as feminists, Marxists, and anti-militarists. They were unafraid to proclaim their opposition to imperialism, and sharply criticized US politicians from both political parties for their hawkishness. Our knowledge of the histories of slavery and indigenous groups, the origins and nature of racism and women’s oppression, class divisions, labor struggles, state repression, empire, and militarism owe a major debt to the many activist-inspired scholars who entered the profession in the aftermath of the struggles of the 1960s. Such scholarship has had a profound impact on the overall shape of the historiographical climate for many years.
What happened to these New Left-infused ideas? Given the popularity of gender, race, and, to a lesser extent, queer history, we can identify areas where the left continues to inspire. But we do not need to look far to notice another trend: an overall shift to the center. Indeed, few university-based scholars, including historians of race and gender, label themselves as Marxists, socialists, or socialist-feminists, and most historians of foreign relations do not even use the term “imperialism” in their work. Most see themselves as liberals, not leftists, and respect, rather than denounce, official political institutions. Some of these figures were once leftists, published in radical history journals, and generally promoted “history from below.” Considerable numbers of today’s academics, including a younger cohort mostly unexposed to, or uninterested in, radical social movements, have demonstrated an unwillingness to question the legitimacy of the state or class divisions. Today, many present themselves as cultural or political historians, and often dismiss “class” as a unit of analysis. Taken together, such figures have distanced themselves from “new left” and Marxist approaches to the past, arguing that such scholarship is “old fashioned.”
This provocative panel, consisting of historians from three countries, explores de-radicalizing changes in three separate areas of historiography. Brian Kelly of Queen’s University Belfast will discuss the reduced attention to social and economic inequality and the shift away from a critique of accommodation in studies of nineteenth-century African American life in recent years. Trent University’s Joan Sangster will explore the ways in which scholars of women’s history have largely abandoned a materialist analysis of production and reproduction in favor of approaches that privilege culture, language, and representation. Chad Pearson of Collin College will examine the growing popularity of the history of conservatism in the academy, insisting that historians of this popular subfield often ignore divisions between liberals and the left and overstate differences between the two main parties. The University of Pennsylvania’s Adolph Reed, a prolific scholar of race and class relations, will offer comments, and Northern Illinois University’s Rosemary Feurer, a leading historian of the working class and repression, will chair.