Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.44

W. V. Harris (ed.), Moses Finley and Politics. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition, 40.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. x, 155.  ISBN 9789004261679.  $119.00.  

Reviewed by Jonathan S. Perry, University of South Florida—Sarasota-Manatee (


2012 was the centenary of Moses Finley’s birth, but it also marked the passing of two other giants in historical scholarship, Eric J. Hobsbawm and Eugene D. Genovese. Dying within one week of each other, the two men had once been vigorous proponents of applying Marxist theory to history, and the former continued to advocate Marxism beyond the global financial crisis of 2008, publishing his final book on the topic at age 94. The latter had moved to the opposite end of the political spectrum by the 1990s and then delivered a series of thundering denunciations of his former allies. The ideological and career paths of Genovese and Finley also intersect in illuminating ways. Both came to the attention of state and national politicians while teaching at Rutgers University. In 1965, 13 years after Rutgers administrators had forced Finley out of his job, Genovese held a teach-in and openly “welcomed” an “impending Vietcong victory”. Although not formally fired, Genovese also sought refuge outside the US (George Williams University in Montreal) and also became a leading authority on the history of enslaved people, epitomized by his groundbreaking study Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974).1

Finley and Genovese also shared the ambiguities of having lived in “interesting times”, as Hobsbawm characterized them in his 2002 memoir. At the American Historical Association’s annual convention in 1969, Genovese opposed a resolution that would have put the AHA on record against the Vietnam War, arguing “that it would be a dangerous mistake for the AHA to stigmatize those with unpopular or minority views.”2 Finley was famously reticent about the impact of his traumatic departure from the US (he was, Ellen Schrecker notes, “one of the first, if not the first, academic to lose his job specifically for taking the Fifth Amendment before a congressional investigating committee” (61)) on his subsequent scholarship. Rather, as Harris shrewdly puts it, he “deliberately lowered the curtain on his past political and semi-political life” (3), which meant, in effect, that references to the American phase of his career (a period that is, naturally, of great interest for his intellectual formation) were rare, oblique, and open to broad construction.

Nevertheless, this is the task that Harris set for a group of scholars—both classicists and specialists in mid-twentieth-century American history—at a commemorative conference held at Columbia in September 2012. The resulting book takes as its theme “the understanding of [Finley’s] early political and semi-political activities, particularizing and contextualizing, as well as … the understanding of his writings about Greek and Roman politics” (2). The hope was, clearly, that echoes of Finley’s early career experiences, especially its abrupt end in 1952, could be found in his subsequent writing about ancient politics.

In order to “contextualize” Finley’s political scholarship optimally, the reader should begin with the three essays offered by the non-classicists, and especially with Schrecker’s “Moses Finley and the Academic Red Scare”. She provides a carefully reasoned explanation, stripped of legalese, of Finley’s decision to “plead the Fifth”, rather than his First, Amendment privileges when summoned by the McCarran Senatorial committee. Other witnesses hauled before congressional committees during the Red Scare pleaded the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of assembly, but Finley’s assertion of his right against “self-incrimination” backfired. Although a hastily-assembled faculty committee recommended no punitive action, the Rutgers Trustees and President Jones believed that the Rutgers faculty should set a higher standard, with a “minimum responsibility” to “state frankly where they stand on matters of such deep public concern, and of such relevance to academic integrity, as membership in the Communist party”. In essence, Jones insisted that a good academic citizen should check his/her constitutional rights at the chambers’ door and then provide an answer to “duly constituted governmental bodies acting within the limits of their authority” (72). Classicists will, of course, be reminded of the situation facing Socrates in 399 BCE, but Schrecker admits that, as an outsider to the field, she cannot comment on how Finley’s dismissal from Rutgers affected his scholarship. She does, nevertheless, mention the parallel instance of Genovese and makes the sobering observation, “A contemporary Moses Finley might not lose his job because of his politics, but in an age of austerity where vocationalism is undermining the humanities, he might never have found one in the first place” (78).

Two other essays, Alice Kessler-Harris’ “Dilemmas of Resistance” and Thai Jones’ “Un-Athenian Affairs: I. F. Stone, M. I. Finley, and the Trial of Socrates”, draw comparisons between Finley and certain contemporaries—though generally with journalists and artists, and not strictly with academics. Kessler-Harris compares the experiences of Lillian Hellman, but a better comparison presents itself in the figure of Natalie Zemon Davis, the renowned historian whose passport was revoked by the State Department, also in 1952. Zemon Davis has often spoken of this disaster, which altered the trajectory of her scholarship and made her “a historian of hope”.3 Forced to rely on the materials available in institutions like the New York Public Library and not the French archives, she centered her dissertation upon the products of publishing houses in sixteenth-century Lyon. The signal contribution of Jones’ essay is to draw attention to an article Finley published in 1960, for a broad popular audience, entitled “Was Socrates Guilty as Charged?” Writing in the midst of the Cold War, Finley referenced the traumas of the grinding Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, attributing “the great tragedy” of Socrates’ trial to “this chance combination of history and personal factors” (132).

Seth R. Schwartz (“Finkelstein the Orientalist”) and Richard P. Saller (“The Young Moses Finley and the Discipline of Economics”) draw on what one might label the “chance combination of history and personal factors” within Finley himself, in order to explain curious voids in his work. Schwartz performs a fascinating excavation of Finley’s ancestry, particularly through his mother’s Katzenellenbogen family in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, a much simpler explanation for why Finley largely passed over the history of the Near East, namely his lack of proficiency in the requisite languages, presents itself in the essay. Schwartz demonstrates that Finkelstein’s experiences in Hebrew school furnished a passing familiarity with the language, and he effectively demonstrates that “Finley’s academic life was largely devoted to the project of decoupling ancient history from the canon of classical literature” (41, 46). As will become increasingly clear below, this “decoupling” is crucial to understanding the key period of Finley’s development, from his name change (now, thanks to Daniel P. Tompkins’ untiring efforts and keen appreciation for details, confidently dated to October or December 1946) through his rocky relationship with William Linn Westermann in early 1947. Saller similarly attempts to find echoes of Finley’s early training in economics in his later, more famous work, and he is on firm ground, especially since Finley himself stressed the benefits of this training in a dissertation fellowship proposal in 1947 (51). Saller points out Finley’s later contention in The Ancient Economy that the title of a standard economics textbook “‘cannot be translated into Greek or Latin’” (50), but perhaps this also reflects an early conviction that proficiency in “the languages” was not critical.

The essays that come the closest to fulfilling the goals Harris established are Paul Cartledge’s “Finley’s Democracy / Democracy’s Finley” and Harris’ own “Politics in the Ancient World and Politics”. Each is a close study of one of Finley’s “quite frustrating books” (in Harris’ apt phrase (4)) on classical political institutions, and each attempts to connect these books—which, significantly, grew out of lectures—with Finley’s own political encounters and beliefs. Cartledge observes that the original edition of Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973) was dedicated “To My Friends and Students at Rutgers University, 1948-52,” and he suggests that the three chapters, and especially the final “Socrates and After”, allude to the events of 1952. The argumentation on this score is convincing (see especially 100-101), but the essay is marred by two interpretive errors. The Institut für Sozialforschung, or “so-called Frankfurt School” in Exile at Columbia, should not be characterized with the aside “(for ‘social’ research read ‘marxist’ research)” (94); Horkheimer and his associates were deliberately Weberian rather than Marxist. Moreover, the relationship between Finley and Westermann is misconstrued in a note concerning Finley’s “act of pietas” in respect to his former advisor (by republishing two Westermann articles in Slavery in Classical Antiquity (1960)). Cartledge wryly comments that “a letter by Westermann on Finley unearthed by Dan Tompkins might, had he known its contents, have given him pause” (94, n. 4).

If this is the letter Tompkins quotes in his own article, Westermann’s response to Finley’s inquiry about a possible return to Columbia dated April 1947, Finley must have seen the letter at that time. Moreover, I would argue that that letter is crucial to understanding Finley’s development and future trajectory, both because of its contents and because of the correspondents and their previous relationship, stretching back into the mid-1930s.4 In his superb contribution to this collection, entitled “Moses Finkelstein and the American Scene”, Tompkins quotes this letter, drawn from the Westermann papers at Columbia, and its dissuasive and dismissive tone is unmistakable. Westermann drew particular attention to Finley’s “[l]ack of sufficient ability in handling Greek and Latin,” “other hurdles” which are, rather cryptically, “known to us both,” and a thinly disguised insult in the advice that he should “go back into the work in which you have apparently found success” (28-29). Over Westermann’s objections—and with a strong letter of support in his file from Horkheimer in May 1947—Finley undertook a dissertation project that would ultimately find Westermann’s—grudging—approval.5 I would argue that we should set Finley’s subsequent efforts for the JACT—earning Cartledge’s respect for his insistence that ancient historians could, and should, read “in translation” (103-105)—in this light.

Accordingly, in several of the essays in this collection, Finley’s deliberate preference for cutting-edge social science over hidebound philology is clear—and it is also clear that this attitude was instilled in him at a very early point. Nevertheless, there was another interest in Finley’s work that was piqued at a very early stage and is not sufficiently addressed in the papers here, namely the critical aspect of institutionalized slavery within classical politics and society. Here, again, the negative example of Westermann may have served to steer his refractory pupil in the opposite direction. In 1936, Finley had reviewed Westermann’s Realencyclopädie article on “Sklaverei” for the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (a journal affiliated with the Frankfurt School). In this review, he claimed—at least in Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (1980)—to have been “treading on eggshells” and “desperately flashing signals. In vain.” It is interesting, and another testament to Tompkins’ creative reading of obscure sources (8-13), to contemplate that Finley had recently completed an M.A. thesis on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Harlan, a former slave-owner whose dissenting opinions helped lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education (1954). What would Finkelstein have made of Westermann’s blasé allusions to antebellum American slavery, such as his estimate of the numbers of enslaved African-Americans in the 1850 census? I think it is in this balance that we can begin to take measure of the profoundly American background of a man who was ultimately knighted by a British monarch.


1.   Obituary of Eugene D. Genovese, The New York Times, 30 September 2012, p. 36.
2.   For a surprisingly sympathetic overview of Genovese’s career, see Peter Kolchin, “Eugene D. Genovese: Historian of Slavery,” Radical History Review 88 (2004): 52-67.
3.   Most recently, see her comments after receiving a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in July 2013, recorded at The New York Review of Books Blog.
4.   I explore Finley’s 1930s connections, especially with the Frankfurt School’s Otto Kirchheimer, in “From Frankfurt to Westermann: Forced Labor and the Early Development of Finley’s Thought,” AJP 135 (2014): 221-241.
5.   According to Tompkins, Westermann, when asked for his opinion of Studies in Land and Credit by Rutgers University Press in 1951, responded that “its publication is not really imperative. It is a good doctoral dissertation” (24, n. 61).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010