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Eugene Genovese, a Communist turned Catholic

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 10, 2015

Eugene Genovese (1930-2012) was a historian of the American South, known especially for his landmark book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. He was also a Marxist and, in his own words, "a supporter of the international movement and of the Soviet Union until there was nothing left to support."

I had never heard of this man until I stumbled on an old episode of Tom Woods's podcast which focuses on an essay Genovese wrote in 1994 for the well-known left-wing publication Dissent. The title of the essay is "The Question," and the Question which he asks his fellow leftists regarding the crimes and mass slaughter perpetrated by international Communism is this: "What did you know, and when did you know it?"

The essay is a devatasting, bitterly hilarious, stunning indictment not only of Communist ideology but of the moral bankruptcy of those leftist journalists and academics who steadfastly supported every Communist regime and revolution, knowing full well the atrocities that were being and would be committed. It is only six pages long and well worth reading.

In the mid-1990s, Genovese made a remarkable intellectual and spiritual turn for a man in his 60s: he renounced Communism and, in 1995, returned to the Catholic faith in which he had been raised. A year earlier, his wife, the feminist historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, had herself converted. Eugene and Betsey's accounts of their conversion, collected on the Women for Faith and Family website, are fascinating, moving—and very funny.

It appears that even in the 1970s, the two were not typical Marxists. Eugene recounts how they were invited by the Catholic chaplains of the University of Rochester to participate in a public discussion with some Catholic Marxists (American proponents of liberation theology). The Genoveses, two Marxists who did not believe in God, found themselves "driven to defend Catholic theology against 'dissident Catholics' who had no time for the fundamentals of Catholic theology, Church doctrine, and the teachings of the Vatican":

So there we were, nonbelievers and committed Marxists, fervently defending the doctrines of original sin and human depravity against professed Catholics who replaced the ostensibly dated teachings of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Saint Thomas Aquinas with those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Karl Marx of the Utopian Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts — the jejune “early Marx” whom neither Betsey nor I ever took seriously.

In these memoirs, one is struck throughout not only by the Genoveses' passion for truth, but by their warm-hearted willingness to recognize sincerity and good will wherever they found it, even in those with whom they strongly disagreed. I'm very much looking forward to reading more of their work.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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