Eric Foner: Profile

By Jacob Laksin
May 24, 2005


Eric Foner is a neo-Marxist professor of history at Columbia University and one of America’s most prominent tenured radicals. A prolific author and lecturer, he is a former president of several professional historical associations, including the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. He is also regarded as a leading expert on the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed it. A member of the editorial board of The Nation, and his extreme leftist politics have earned him the sobriquet “Eric the Red” among Columbia students.

In many ways, Foner’s radicalism is born of his background. Growing up in New York City in what he has described as a “Communist oriented” family, Foner has long cited his father, a Communist fellow-traveler, as an influence. In his books, Foner has striven to cast his father as a victim of anti-Communist hysteria. To this end, he has related the story of his father’s firing from the City College of New York, where he worked as a history professor, following a series of hearings by a state legislative committee into the clout of Communists in academia. For Foner, this story is illustrative of the unfair treatment suffered by Communist-sympathizers at the hands of “McCarthyite” censors. (Foner’s father understandably declined to testify before the hearings about his political preferences.) Missing from Foner’s account, however, is any mention of the fact that the hearings were coterminous with the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when Communist hangers-on such as Foner’s father pushed the line that the free West, symbolized by America and Britain, posed a far greater threat to world peace than Stalin and his then-allies in Nazi Germany. Foner’s father was hardly the only Communist of his bloodline. Foner’s uncle was the Communist Party labor historian Philip Foner.


Eric Foner has carried on the radical tradition. An outspoken champion of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s, he could not be swayed from his attachment by the USSR’s collapse. This was clearly demonstrated in the summer of 1994, when the leftwing magazine Dissent published an article by a lapsed Communist writer, Eugene Genovese. Titled “The Crimes of Communism: What Did You Know and When Did You Know It?” the article was critical of the Soviet Union’s supporters among the American left, charging them with a willful blindness to the crimes perpetrated by Communist regimes.


In an outraged rebuttal to Genovese’s article, which also appeared in Dissent, Foner attempted to justify the left’s “silence in the face of unspeakable crimes” commited by the Soviet Union. He praised the “communists’ contribution to some of the country’s most important struggles for social betterment.” For Foner, the noble ends justified the murderous means. He further asserted that Genovese’s “current outlook has far more in common with a long tradition of elitist antiliberalism, including Tory romanticism and Old South criticism of capitalism in the nineteenth century, and with various expressions of right-wing ideology in the twentieth.” But Genovese was guilty of a yet more baleful thought crime, according to Foner: He was no longer a reliable propogandist for the radical cause:


The principles he enumerates offer no guidance whatever to those desiring to rethink the history of socialism while retaining a commitment to social change. Had they prevailed throughout American history, there would have been no antislavery movement, no feminism, labor movement, or civil rights struggle.


Foner’s undying support for the Soviet Union found its most vivid expression in his 2002 book, a collection of previously published essays called Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. In one of these essays, called “The Russians Write a New History,” Foner trained his ire at a new generation of Russian historians. What galled Foner, who worked as a visiting professor in Russia during the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, was that these historians dissented from Foner’s hagiographic view of the Soviet past; no longer serving as mere stenographers for Soviet propaganda, they “painted the history of the Soviet era in the blackest hues,” and cared little for the interpretive lexicon of “class” and “imperialism.” Worse, in Foner’s book, they looked with admiration to the United States. So much so, in fact, that Foner was moved to deride his Soviet students’ "love affair with America," and sought to disabuse them of their belief that "America has become the land of liberty and prosperity of our own imagination." Such a belief was unpardonably “one-dimensional,” Foner insisted, reminding his students that the U.S. “has its own complement of mistakes and crimes,” and cautioning them to take note of “America’s ills: poverty, homelessness, racism, unemployment.” With discernible dejection, Foner reported that his condemnations of America were not “greeted with enthusiasm.”


As an avid practitioner of the historicist school of scholarship, Foner has long concentrated on rewriting history in accordance with his radical politics. Yet he is not forthcoming about his patently political revisionism. In innumerable articles and lectures, he has presented his approach as “a candid appraisal of our own society’s strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in self-celebration,” one that invites students of history to think “historically—not mythically” about the American past. But Foner presents only one side of the balance sheet. The history of the United States, he claims, is an unrelieved march of bigotry and oppression. Thus, he has claimed that slavery and racism “were embedded in the Constitution.” Likewise, the American ideals of “freedom” hold no allure to Foner. America, as he sees it, cannot be redeemed from its “debasement of millions of people into slavery and the dispossession of millions of native inhabitants of the Americas.” In Foner’s telling, modern America can scarcely be distinguished from its slave-owning past. In a 1995 editorial for The Nation, Foner impugned the “American residential apartheid” between blacks and whites, which he blamed on “the inequitable operation of a putatively free market.”


Foner’s contemptuous view of American history informs many of his classes—not least his course surveying the history of American radicalism, “The American Radical Tradition.”  Because of his bleak reading of America’s past, Foner felt little sympathy for his native country in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Writing in the London Review of Books, he stated: “I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the [Bush] White House.” (He also urged “[American] allies to impose some restraint on the White House.”) Moreover, Foner denounced America’s preemptive war against Iraq. Of the doctrine of preemption, Foner, in an interview  with the Columbia Spectator, insisted that it “takes us back to the notion of the rule of the jungle,” and claimed that it was “exactly the same argument” used by the Japanese to justify the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nor was Foner prone to any doubts about the root causes of anti-Americanism around the globe. In a September 2004 article for the History News Network, he explained, “It is based primarily on American policies -- toward Israel, the Palestinians, oil supplies, the region’s corrupt and authoritarian regimes, and, most recently, Iraq.”


Similarly, Foner explained that “longtime allies in Europe” believe that “the war on terrorism is motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly unequal world.” He did not altogether dismiss the notion that the U.S. might have a noble interest in championing democracy across the globe. “Nonetheless,” he wrote in an April 2003 op-ed for the New York Times, “other societies have their own historically developed definitions of freedom and ways of thinking about the social order, which may not exactly match ours. The unregulated free market, for example, can be profoundly destabilizing in societies organized on traditional lines of kinship, ethnicity or community.”