African Studies Quarterly

The Comparative Imagination. On The History Of Racism, Nationalism, And Social Movements. 1997. George M. Fredrickson. Berkeley: University Of California Press. 259 Pp. $27.50 cloth.©

George Fredrickson of Stanford University, this year's President of the Organization of American Historians, has devoted much of his distinguished career to the study of the history of race, racism and anti-racism in America, and, at the same time, established himself as one of America's leading comparative historians. The bulk of his comparative work has been devoted to the histories of South Africa and the United States. His first major study was the pioneering White Supremacy (1981), which compared white ideologies and practices in the two countries over three centuries. Then, in Black Liberation (1995), he focused on "the subaltern side of the color line" (p. 135), exploring black ideologies opposed to white supremacy in the two countries, from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s. In 1988 he published a first collection of essays on slavery and race, entitled The Arrogance of Race. This new collection comprises, after a largely autobiographical Introduction, eleven essays, previously published for the most part in rather obscure places. All of the essays either reflect upon comparative history or are attempts to write such history. I will confine my comments chiefly to what he says about the comparative method in general and to what may be of particular interest to those in African studies.

Fredrickson is a "splitter", who adopts what he calls a "historicist" approach, which means that he is concerned with the particular, highlights difference as much as similarity, and seeks multiple causation instead of focusing on a limited number of variables. Comparison works best, of course, when the cases being considered show considerable similarities as well as differences. Fredrickson's usual approach is to discuss the one case, then the other, and then to try to explain how they are similar, and how they are different. Some will say that he does not sufficiently overcome in his own work the danger, which he mentions (p. 13), of writing parallel histories rather than genuinely comparative ones. Such work requires, of course, a good grounding in each case. which is why he advises against treating more than two, or at the most three cases (pp.10-11). Some South African historians criticised White Supremacy because they did not agree with what Frederickson said about aspects of South African history. Black Liberation, more narrowly focused and better grounded in primary research, was less open to this kind of criticism.
South African historians should be grateful that so eminent a scholar has devoted so much attention to their history. Fredrickson writes lucidly and his ideas are always stimulating. His willingness to address contemporary issues is admirable, as are his humane, anti-racist concerns. He is not shy of seeking to derive lessons for the present from the past. He argues that the history of race relations shows, for example, those relations to be "a dynamic process that can be made to change course as a result of political action and initiative" (p.131).

This "heterosexual white male of Swedish-American ancestry" (p.18) is surely right that comparative work is both a good antidote to parochialism and important to an understanding of the forces that have shaped world history as a whole. While some comparative work by United States historians has strengthened notions of American exceptionalism, Fredrickson has sought to "transcend the exceptionalist paradigm" , by seeing each case as "distinctive, but none truly exceptional" (pp.57-58), although he does argue that the consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction gave a particular character to American race relations.
The essays here which contrast South Africa and America range from comparisons of the frontier (Ch.2) to the very recent past. They mostly pick up and develop ideas to be found in Fredrickson's own two comparative studies. Chapter Eight, entitled "Reform and Revolution in American and South African Freedom Struggles", makes clearer and more explicit some of the key arguments in Black Liberation. Chapter Ten provides a detailed comparison between the American civil rights movement and the South African defiance campaigns, ending with an unusually imprecise comparison between the success of the anti-apartheid movement and Birmingham and Selma. In the last chapter, in which he compares black power and black consciousness, Fredrickson is, as usual, sensitive to the very different contexts in which the two operated. American blacks usually wished to be included, on their own terms, within the society in which they found themselves. The "freedom struggle" in South Africa, by contrast, reflected "the ambition of a majority to rule in its native land" (p.211).

Like other historians, Fredrickson did not anticipate the "negotiated revolution" that took place in South Africa from 1989, but with hindsight he finds the ANC's reformism "not surprising" (p.146). Although he suggests that reform was "forced from below by militant confrontational tactics rather than imposed from above in an effort to head off trouble that had not yet reached crisis proportions" (p.147), it was surely both, and how does one weigh the relative significance of each? While little in The Comparative Imagination will be entirely new to those familiar with Fredrickson's major comparative books, no one will be able to read these essays without gaining much food for thought.

Christopher Saunders
Department of History
University of Cape Town