the story of American revisionism

About today’s Mises Daily, Michael A. Clem comments,

Nice. Combines an understanding of historical revisionism with some history of libertarian thought.

Parson Weems' Fable

a new introduction to revisionism

The word “revisionism” is much like the word “hacker.” It started as an insider term with a very specific meaning, but the media got a hold of it, didn’t understand it, and popularized an unpleasant connotation as if it were the definition of the term. Now you have people saying “hacker” without ever remotely wondering if it might mean something that isn’t criminal, just as you have otherwise intelligent, educated people talking about revisionism as if we all understood it to mean something somewhere between a denial of the facts of history and a denial of the Holocaust.

I’ve dealt with this problem on the blog, here and here. But now we can finally point to something much more comprehensive, thorough, and enjoyable to read: Jeff Riggenbach’s American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism. Let’s spread the word and try to get this one read and well known.

Today’s Mises Daily is Riggenbach’s introduction, and LRC ran chapter 1 as their headliner.

Persian revisionism

As soon as I type the title of this post, I imagine a mainstream reader, happening across this blog by chance, imagining that I’m about to insult a Persian historian for distorting the record. I am, of course, about to praise a Persian historian for taking the standard distortion and untwisting it.

If you find that at all confusing, see this post on revisionism.

Part of the confusion comes from a different-but-related use of the R-word that I myself employed in a recent post on Robin Hood: “I have no problem with folklore revisionism; updating the story to fit current concerns is an ancient and well-established part of folklore itself.”

What’s legitimate in the evolution of folklore is rightly suspect in the study of history.

“Revision,” then, is a neutral term, something that can distort for the sake of propaganda, correct for the sake of scholarship, or alter for the sake of art, depending on the intentions of the reviser and on the subject matter being revised.

How does this apply to a movie like 300? Are the changes made to the history of Sparta, Persia, and the Battle of Thermopylae more like recasting Robin Hood (now Norman, now Saxon, now aristocratic tax rebel, now egalitarian hero, etc.) or more like blaming the Jews for the Holocaust (or denying that there ever was such a thing)?

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Revisionism for Our Time

We are still, writes Murray Rothbard, suffering from the delusion of Woodrow Wilson: that “democracies” ipso facto will never embark on war, and that “dictatorships” are always prone to engage in war. Much as we may and do abhor the domestic programs of most dictators (and certainly of the Nazis and Communists), this has no necessary relation to their foreign policies: indeed, many dictatorships have been passive and static in history, and, contrariwise, many democracies have led in promoting and waging war. Revisionism may, once and for all, be able to destroy this Wilsonian myth.

FULL ARTICLE

See also the discussion taking place in the blog comments.

revisionism

“Until lions have storytellers, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”

African Proverb

Libertarian Revisionist History [pamphlet cover]There have been many mental and emotional hurdles on my Rothbardian path, usually having to do with the difficulty in (a) letting go of old connotations, and then (b) remembering that not everyone I’ll try to talk to has even begun to get over them.

Capitalism, Industrial Revolution, bourgeoisie … these don’t sound like dirty words anymore. Democracy and egalitarian now do sound like bad words, as does equality in most contexts.

One term that always gets in the way of ideological outreach is “historical revisionism”.

I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. the neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers have attached themselves to the label;
  2. most people think “history” is the past, rather than a description of the past. It’s a map/territory conflation. Revising the record makes sense to practically everyone, but revising history sounds like an attempt to change or deny what happened.

Everyone knows that “History is written by the victors,” but only revisionists themselves seem to know where the term comes from and what it refers to — and why it’s so important!

This is why I’m especially grateful to Wally Conger for putting out the 5th in his series of MLL pamphlets, which I have taken the liberty of reproducing here:

Libertarian Revisionist History

Basics

History is an account of past events by a necessarily subjective recorder. Interpretation is inextricably bound up with the recording and presentation of events if only by the selection of which finite few moments to exalt by recording them and which infinite many others to neglect.

The worldview of the historian further affects the history presented to the student or interested reader. Where one perceives meaning in human relations is where one will look for events worthy of historical note. Objective History is a myth, long recognized as such and now mainly discarded.

Thus, there are schools of history. Many of the differences in these schools are relatively minor in terms of fundamental ideological questions, but some differences run deep, creating schools of historiography (the writing of history). One school, associated with Charles Beard, focused on economic reasons behind political decisions; another well-known school is based on the worldview of Karl Marx and interprets history as grand economic-determinist cycles of class warfare. Still another, now out of vogue, saw history as the rise and fall of empires in overlapping cycles and was most strongly associated with Oswald Spengler.

Revisionism

World War I had profound effects on many ideologies and the intellectuals who held them. Many libertarians revolted against the propaganda and censorship and challenged the official versions of the victorious states as to the causes and conduct of the war. The consensus was severely sundered, for this time it was not merely the losers trying to overturn the imposed academic-establishment line of the winners but a group of relatively respectable historians from the winners (as well as from the losing countries) who attempted to revise the historical record.

These were the Revisionists. Their opponents were the defenders of the Establishment view, derisively labeled (in return) Court Historians.

Inspired by the revelations of the revisionist historians concerning the origins and conduct of the First World War, an entire new methodology of digging into accounts and seeking and reinterpreting firsthand evidence of critical events ? that is, a Revisionist Historiography ? sprang up. Soon, official histories of all wars throughout history, and other events such as economic depressions, revolutions, colonial formation and administration, and even the prevalent view on the manners and customs of “lesser cultures” fell into Revision. World War II found fewer Revisionists as more historians were co-opted into the Establishment, but a few brave souls withstood wartime repressions and post-war academic, social, and economic pressures to challenge the Allied view of unrelieved Axis provocation and aggression with blameless Allies.

The Cold War brought Marxist historians (outside the Marxist states) back to the Revisionist camp, and others followed with the Korean War and the Vietnam War, at which time Western Revisionism reached new heights of popularity. Today, “instant Revisionists” challenge every move of the United States and its Empire in Central America and the Middle East and others everywhere.

Libertarian Revisionism

One historiographical school, begun by James J. Martin during World War II, remained consistently Revisionist. Martin was heavily influenced by Max Stirner philosophically and the World War I Revisionists historically, such as Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes. Others followed, especially the pivotal libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, and with the explosive growth of the libertarian movement in the 1970s, a libertarian school of history developed ? almost entirely Revisionist. Such names as Justus Doenecke, Arthur Ekirch, Leonard Liggio, Roy Childs, Ralph Raico, Wendy McElroy, George H. Smith, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Thomas DiLorenzo, and Thomas Woods have become well known, at least to libertarians.

Libertarian revisionists oppose the Court Historian view on nearly all issues. Where Marxists oppose “capitalist history” but may embrace the old Court of Moscow or the Court of Beijing, and liberal historians oppose conservative interpretations, and neo-fascists focus solely on rehabilitating the collapsed European Axis, libertarian revisionists challenge views by historians of all establishments and often embrace revisionist accounts by decidedly non-libertarian ? but revisionist ? historiographical outcasts.

One obvious reason for this is that libertarians have no establishment State for whom to become Court Historians. But there is another, deeper reason: pure libertarians who oppose all possible states ? that is, the (concept of the) State ? must necessarily be revisionist as long as there is a State which maintains an Establishment which controls scholarship and academic activities and hence creates an “official” Court history.

Considerably more can be said about this radical libertarian outlook applied to history and even more about the applications to historical events already made. Much work in Revisionist History is being made today by the Ludwig von Mises Institute (Mises.org), which publishes books and journals on economic and political history and offers seminars regularly on historical subjects. Likewise, many libertarian websites and blogs contain “instant revisionism” on the issues of the day.

On the next leaf of this brochure, you’ll find a list of books to get you started in your study of Revisionist History.

-This brochure was originally written and published for MLL by the late Samuel Edward Konkin III. This new edition has been minimally updated and edited by Wally Conger.

Recommended Reading in Revisionist History

America’s Roots

Murray N. Rothbard

- Conceived in Liberty (4 volumes)

Charles A. Beard

- Economic Interpretation of the Constitution

U.S. Civil War

Thomas J. DiLorenzo

- The Real Lincoln

World War I

Jim Powell

- Wilson’s War

World War II

Harry Elmer Barnes

- Blasting the Historical Blackout

James J. Martin

Revisionist Viewpoints

Charles Beard

President Roosevelt and the Coming of War

Economic History Revisionism

Murray N. Rothbard

- America’s Great Depression

History of Economic Thought (2 volumes)

Butler Shaffer

- In Restraint of Trade

Jim Powell

FDR’s Folly

Power Elite/Ruling Class/Conspiracy

C. Wright Mills

The Power Elite

G. William Domhoff

Who Rules America Now?

The Higher Circles

Bohemian Grove

Carl Oglesby

- The Yankee & Cowboy War

War, Empire, the Imperial Presidency

Robert Higgs

- Crisis and Leviathan

John V. Denson (editor)

- The Costs of War

- Reassessing the Presidency

The History of Liberty

Ralph Raico

History: The Struggle for Liberty (lectures on CD)

the Pharaoh’s feet

Barbara Mertz continues to delight me. Here’s this morning’s contribution:

Thutmose III, everybody agrees, was the greatest warrior Egypt ever produced. He has been compared with Alexander and Napoleon, particularly the latter; for when Thutmose’s mummy was found and examined, the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith reported that he was a little fellow, slightly over five feet tall — pretty short, even for an ancient Egyptian. This led to the usual psychological cliches about little men and their need to prove their manhood. It wasn’t until fairly recently that someone actually took another look at the mummy and pointed out that the feet were missing. Remeasurements and recalculations resulted in quite a different figure. Thutmose was of average height for an Egyptian — approximately five feet seven inches.

This is a relatively minor point, I suppose, but I mention it because it is further proof of the advantages of revisionism. To claim that Thutmose’s accomplishments were “compensation” for a subconscious sense of inadequacy or frustration is a cheap explanation.

Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt

Barbara Mertz revises Barbara Mertz

Barbara Mertz first published Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt in 1964. She published a significantly revised and updated edition in 2007. As she writes in her foreword to the second edition,

Not only have (good heavens) forty years passed, but they have been years full of new discoveries and new interpretations, and even new characters in the story of ancient Egypt, some of whom were not known when I wrote this book.

It’s fun to try to figure out which passages are from 1964 and which are from 2007. For example, I’d have guessed that her comments about goofy scholars were from the 1960s, but the prime candidate for goofy scholarship would probably be Erich von Däniken
but Chariots of the Gods? wasn’t published until 1968.

How about this great passage on revisionism?

A prominent political figure once referred to “revisionist historians” in a manner that implied: (1) he had coined the phrase; (2) these people were doing something underhanded. Neither is true. Revisionism is an essential process in history (and of course other disciplines). Like most things it can be used improperly — shaking things up just for the hell of it, or to get newspaper headlines. We see a certain amount of that in Egyptology. But new discoveries and new interpretations require a reassessment of the evidence — revisionism, as I like to call it. That’s what history is about, and you’ll find plenty of it in this book. Without apologies.

I’m going to guess that Mertz added that section in 2007. After all, Bush Jr. blasted "revisionist historians" in 2003.

Riggenbach on Kindle

Update: Here are 4 links to 4 editions, 2 commercial and 2 free:

wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks

“People are going to get really angry at Baker for criticizing their favorite war,” writes Mark Kurlansky at the LA Times.

Human Smoke

could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war — and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare.

[link and emphasis added]

Anthony Gregory writes:

I find it very encouraging that World War II revisionism is becoming an open topic in our culture. I hope that in the next few decades, it loses its unique status as the one historical war we’re not supposed to scrutinize too closely. This review and book help me in that hope.

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marketing versus scholarship

I once said some kneejerk-leftist thing against marketing to a girlfriend in college. I’d forgotten that her mother worked for the marketing department of a book publisher. Smooth move, BK.

I am now pro-marketing in the abstract, but real-life marketing people sure do make it hard to champion their profession.

In my previous career, I met hundreds of marketing people. I liked maybe … oh, I don’t know. Some small number. Something single-digit. The least egregious were the pure number crunchers. Many of them had real minds and real lives. It was the “creative” people who typified all the marketing stereotypes, including shallowness and agnorance.

Professional authors in particular should be wary of knee-jerk sentiments against marketing. If nobody buys your books, you’d better learn to love your day job. But the marketers practically insist on insulting everyone‘s intelligence. Case in point: what’s wrong with the following book’s title?

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