Last time out, I offered the beginning of a response to Dorothy Ross’s two-part article in Modern Intellectual History, “Whatever Happened to the Social in American Social Thought?” (Part 1, Part 2 of the article)
As a quick recap, Ross’s article takes aim at what she identifies as a standard periodization—articulated most elaborately by Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture—of the “thinning of the social,” arguing that this intellectual process is described accurately in its effects (the weakening of intellectuals’ and left-of-center politicians’ commitments to defending social democracy against individualistic incursions) but gets its timing and focus wrong.
Rodgers and a lot of other historians situate the 1970s as the “pivotal decade” in which the path back to a revitalized social democracy closed like the gates of Eden (picture a wingéd John Dewey standing in front with a fiery sword). Ross, on the other hand, believes that Rodgers et al. see it as such only because they put too much weight on material conditions of work—economic indicia like falling union density or the loss of manufacturing jobs—and have failed to give the realm of ideas its due. If they had done so, they would have seen that intellectuals and leftish politicians didn’t abruptly abandon social democratic ideals and their underlying intellectual premises because of stagflation or electoral defeats; they had been edging their way toward a new paradigm where individual freedom trumped collective purpose at least since World War II, or since what she calls “the long 1950s.” The key intellectual variable, for Ross, was fear of totalitarianism.
There is much to agree with in this argument; the evidence for Rodgers’s “fracture” aligning with the decline of Fordism is almost impressionistic in its generality, and his periodization instead depends on a wholly different set of cultural causes—the rise of more militant forms of identity politics and the assimilation of countercultural values into everyday life. Although I think she overstates the case that totalitarianism has been virtually absent as an intellectual factor in the historiography of the postwar era, she is correct that some major intellectual histories proleptically prioritize a purely domestic struggle between wavering social democrats and fervid proto-neoliberals as the real battle of ideas for the second half of the twentieth century.
But I had many disagreements with Ross’s piece, and I’ll interweave some of what I previously said with new material for the rest of this post (or newsletter—whatever you call it).
While Ross critiques Rodgers’s story of fracture for its timing and its casual assumption that material changes were determinative in pushing or pulling intellectuals away from a robust conception of “the social,” Ross spends little time reflecting on how intellectuals and politicians at the time understood their ideological evolution. Ross treats them collectively and abstractly, with only thumbnail case studies, and consistently reads their shifting opinions and research practices as evidence for a failure of nerve—as if they simply didn’t have the willpower to remain good social democrats.
My objection to putting so much causal weight on the resolve or moods of intellectual or political elites is more than methodological, however. Ross is a bit evasive about the reality of the threat of totalitarianism. She mostly couches her discussion of totalitarianism as an analysis of the political effects of intellectuals’ anxieties rather than as a consideration of why they were anxious or fearful in the first place. At times Ross implies that intellectuals simply spooked themselves with gory tales of totalitarianism and mindless conformity; by thinking so much about totalitarianism, they convinced themselves that the masses—the common clay of the nation—posed a threat to minorities (especially intellectuals) rather than a resource for overcoming entrenched power. Their abandonment of social democracy was, she seems to say, a tragic act of autosuggestion. Totalitarianism was, to borrow a phrase, a phantom menace—all those who cried aloud about the “crisis of man” or bewailed the formation of mass society or warned that Americans had to guard their civil liberties against authoritarianism were crying wolf, whether they knew it or not. Ross never considers whether the anti-totalitarians were justified in their terror of a future in which they saw grave and imminent danger, to themselves and to the United States.
A shorter way of saying all that is that, even as Ross glancingly notes the huge influence of Jews (recent refugees and second- or third- generation immigrants) on the discourse of totalitarianism, she completely discounts the Holocaust as a reason why many intellectuals were terrified of demagogues and highly consolidated state power.
I want to be clear that I don’t think this marginalization of the Holocaust is in any way deliberate—I shouldn’t need to say that, but it’s probably best, given current anxieties about cancel culture, to be explicit. I think there is a more general tendency among US historians to assume that the Shoah is someone else’s academic terrain—either specialists in Jewish-American history or historians of mid-twentieth century Europe. Ironically, chariness about the Holocaust is probably reinforced by the historiographical problem Ross identifies—the relatively shallow engagement of intellectual historians with the history of totalitarianism. US intellectual historians can be pretty provincial, even as we make louder noises about being more transnational.
But let’s look at a few passages from Ross’s article to see what I mean. Ross is probably most direct in her dismissal of antitotalitarians’ fears in the following passage:
While liberal social thinkers could hardly escape the postwar presence of totalitarianism, not all were equally swayed by its ideological force, nor did they all give equal credence to the downward trajectory of mass-society theory. (Part 2, p. 3)
A page later she approvingly quotes Charles Frankel: “Frankel,” she writes, “recognized some truth behind mass-society fears but argued that they foolishly turned ‘the imagination of disaster’ from a ‘historical circumstance into a metaphysical necessity’” (Part 2, p. 4). Yet even those who demurred from obsessively imagining disaster didn’t necessarily do so for the right reasons. Their relative optimism was not rooted in a commitment to “an ethic of mutual social responsibility” or a belief in the “common man” or the “populist demos.” Instead, Ross argues, “one major source of confidence and liberal commitment was the capitalist economy” (Part 2, p. 28; Part 1, p. 10; Part 2, p. 3).
In addition to questioning the validity of the ambient anxiety of this period, Ross also suggests that antitotalitarians reacted to more specific events in unproductive or even harmful ways. Here are two nearly parallel passages making this point: “the historical traumas of the mid-twentieth century shattered the liberal narrative of progress” (Part 2, p. 3), and “the Cold War is presented along with total war, the atom bomb, and the Holocaust as one of a series of separate traumas that combined at mid-century to darken postwar social thought. Indeed each brought to the postwar years its own history and horror, yet each grew from totalitarian soil and the contest it provoked” (Part 1, p. 17).
“Trauma” is a strange word to use here; it acknowledges that bad things happened but tilts the argumentative weight of the clause toward the way people responded to those bad things. It is their response (which may be proportionate or not) which is doing the actual shattering of “the liberal narrative of progress.” This interpretive posture tempts the reader to believe that, instead of retreating from a belief in progress, those who were traumatized by these bad things could instead have recommitted themselves to social democracy.
And here is a passage where the Holocaust is simply effaced:
The political upheavals of mid-century outside and inside the United States combined to heighten both insecurities and aspirations. The combined traumas of totalitarianism, World War II, the atom bomb, and the Cold War that closely followed cast the United States into a threatening world, yet one in which it had become the most powerful country in the world. (Part 2, p.13)
Once again, I am not making this critique as a j’accuse; the point is that the Holocaust cannot be disconnected from the postwar discourse of totalitarianism without rendering that concept incomprehensible and absurdly inflated. If Ross is correct and we should re-center our intellectual histories of twentieth century social thought around the break she imputes to totalitarianism, we cannot misunderstand what it was responding to, nor can we blithely judge those who took up an antitotalitarian position without fully reckoning with what specific terrors they had in mind.
Speaking of that, while Ross mentions Jim Crow a couple of times, it does not seem that she connects it to the discourse of totalitarianism. She gives little space to African-American intellectuals in general, and none at all to their thoughts about the relationship between colonialism and totalitarianism (an issue central to Arendt’s own understanding as well). To do so would have meant acknowledging that ideas about authoritarian power did not just flow one way. Yet in her treatment, the fear of totalitarianism is solely an imported anxiety, an intellectual infection from Europe.
There is a significant lack of understanding among many historians as to why many people in the 1930s and 1940s seriously believed that “it could happen here.” There is, even more disturbingly to me, a contrary tendency which is surprisingly exceptionalist in its belief that the fate of social democracy in the United States had little to do with the presence of reactionary or even genuinely fascist forces at work (in contrast to Europe, where fascism and social democracy dueled throughout the continent). According to this view, social democracy’s future would not be determined by the relative strength of the left and the right, but by the commitment of the center-left to cooperate with the left. Only in the United States, it is suggested, was the path to social democracy encumbered merely with the watery wills of liberals and the precarious commitments of sympathetic but easily frightened intellectuals.
Obscuring the importance of the Holocaust in postwar US intellectual history goes hand-in-hand with an overly rosy view of a supposedly robust native tradition of social democracy in the US. By treating the Holocaust as peripheral or exogenous to the currents of US intellectual life, the links that many antitotalitarians made between the US and fascist Europe (links that are fortunately being illuminated once again) appear to be overreactions, hyperinflations of a relatively minimal far right threat that had little influence on the future of social democracy.
I don’t need to draw the implications for you, but I do want to say that it has been most consistently Jews in the US who have insisted that “it can happen here,” and it has been African-Americans (who are nearly absent from Ross’s article) who have most consistently said that “it”—fascism, totalitarianism, mob law—has already happened here.
 Ross’s indulgence of this tendentious form of explanation is, however, unfortunately not unusual; it is far too common among intellectual historians to attribute a great deal of causal force to intellectuals’ moods (optimism or pessimism, cringing fear or vaulting ambition). It’s as if—to take the case at hand—Democrats and professors could have just tried a bit harder to save the New Deal and… ecce res publica redivivus! (Instead, I guess they’d say we got ecce po-mo.)
 Ross does allow, at one point, that “Liberals had good reasons to focus concern on the individual. Totalitarianism, the fears of mass society, and the reactionary domestic politics they generated all put the individual in danger and renewed the value of individual freedom. If liberalism were to survive, social thinkers believed, the no-longer autonomous individuals of mass society required support and the principles of liberal freedom required new emphasis.” So Ross suggests that there was something generically threatening which antitotalitarians were responding to. However, their response was not logical: “Support and emphasis did not require, however, a turn away from social democracy. Decentering the social in favor of individual liberty was not the choice mass-society theory itself suggested, for it was a basic paradox of the theory that the restoration of individual freedom required reconstruction of the social ties that formed and sustained the individual, reconstitution of freedom’s “foundation in community.” (Part 2, p. 21-22)
 This is, for the record, the only place in the body of the article that the word Holocaust appears.
 I have to object to how Ross explicitly amalgamates these connected but distinct phenomena (“the Cold War,… total war, the atom bomb, and the Holocaust”) into a generic “totalitarian soil.”
 An example of an excellent study which demonstrates the way that Americans continually adapted their understanding of dictatorships not just based on European events, but in response to conditions in the US is Benjamin Alpers, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s.