The Comparative Imagination: On the History of Racism, Nationalism and Social Movements
Genuine cross-national comparative history is rarely practiced, and for good reason. One must master two or more historiographies, engage in extensive and expensive archival research, and avoid the temptation of writing parallel stories rather than a genuinely comparative analysis and narrative. Few scholars have done more to guide the comparative endeavor and to practice it splendidly than George Fredrickson, Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History at Stanford University. Fredrickson’s work over the past two decades, most notably White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) and Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), constitutes comparative history at its best. In his most recent work, Fredrickson reflects on the theory and practice of comparative history in a series of stimulating essays. For novices wishing to embark on the comparative enterprise, Fredrickson’s Comparative Imagination will serve as an excellent point of departure.
Fredrickson began his professional career as an intellectual historian of nineteenth-century America with a special interest in the study [End Page 476] of race and racism. His interest in comparative history, kindled by Louis Hartz’s seminar in comparative political thought at Harvard, began in earnest with a paper presented to the American Historical Association in 1972 comparing white supremacy in the United States and South Africa. Early on, Fredrickson came to regard comparative history as “not merely a method or procedure but also an antidote to the parochialism that may accompany a fixation on the history of one nation,” a “means of viewing history from a cosmopolitan or international perspective” (p. 7). In Comparative Imagination, Fredrickson’s essays explore the evolution of his own thinking about the nature and purpose of cross-national comparative history. For example, in his chapter “From Exceptionalism to Variability,” he defends the practice of cross-national comparisons against critics who claim that nations are too complex for fruitful comparison. Fredrickson contends that nations do have peculiarities that should not be forgotten—for example, the ideological and constitutional legacy of America’s Civil War —but that each nation also confronts similar structural problems during the process of modernization. By way of example, Fredrickson cites two recent works in the cross-national study of slavery and race that compare slave society in the Old South with aristocratic agrarian regimes in Europe: Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1987) and Shearer Davis Bowman’s Masters and Lords: Mid-Nineteenth Century U.S. Planters and Prussian Junkers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). These studies shift one’s focus from the plight of African Americans in the United States in comparison to other multiracial societies to the question of patterns of agrarian domination and resistance to modernization. As Fredrickson argues, “cross-national comparative history can undermine two contrary but equally damaging presuppositions—the illusion of total regularity and that of absolute uniqueness. Cross-national history, by acquainting one with what goes on elsewhere, may inspire a critical awareness of what is taken for granted in one’s own country, but it also promotes a recognition that similar functions may be performed by differing means” (p. 65).
Fredrickson discourages trilateral comparison, but a recent study by political scientist Anthony W. Marx offers an excellent example of a three-way cross-national study of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. In Making Race and Nation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Anthony Marx argues that race policy in the United States, South Africa, and Brazil did not derive inevitably from the past, which included in all three cases a strong legacy of racial discrimination. [End Page 477] Instead, in the case of South Africa and the United States, race policy crystallized in the wake of major conflict (the South African War and the Civil War, respectively) as a way of resolving intra-white ethnic, class, and regional tensions. Brazil’s “exceptionalism” does not follow from a more tolerant racial experience, but from the legacy of a strongly centralized state, established hierarchy, and absence of significant ethnic/regional antagonisms. Consequently, Brazil did not experience the black mobilization evident in South Africa and the United States in the twentieth century. Marx argues convincingly that racial domination gave rise to its antithesis in South Africa and the United States—namely, struggles for black liberation forged by the experience of official racism.
Marx’s research suggests that a remarkable comparability exists in the ideology and strategy of resistance challenging racial domination in the United States and South Africa. Fredrickson focuses on precisely this theme in the final four chapters of Comparative Imagination. According to Fredrickson, similar ideological debates and divisions have arisen in both countries on two significant issues: (1) should liberation result in equal citizenship in a multiracial polity or separate nationhood? and (2) should the struggle be carried out through reformist or revolutionary methods? The similarities are striking, especially given that in one case a minority sought inclusion in a society it could never dominate, while in the other, a majority aimed to rule in its native land. Fredrickson compares movements such as the NAACP and ANC and contrasts leaders as diverse as Malcolm X and Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In addition, he explores the practical effects of Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha on the American civil rights movement and the ANC’s Defiance Campaign, and considers Frantz Fanon’s influence on the Black Power and Black Consciousness movements. Among the liberation leaders Fredrickson admires most is Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress. According to Fredrickson, the South African Sobukwe, who died while under house arrest in 1978, offered a conception of integration that might serve as a model for those “Americans who still yearn for a unifying vision.” In Fredrickson’s words, “Sobukwe’s goal (which would be shared today by the dominant element in the ANC) was a society committed to the rights of the individual, in which race or ethnicity will in no way be a disadvantage. What must unite such a society is a commitment to the essentially liberal ideal of personal freedom and equality” (p. 171).