Mises Daily Articles
The Case for Revisionism (and Against A Priori History)
[The task of the libertarian intellectual is not limited to political and economic theory, as this neglected essay by Murray Rothbard argues. It extends also to understanding history, not from the point of view of the state and the ruling class, or from a priori theorizing, but from looking at the raw facts of the case. Doing so yields results different from prevailing opinion, and has hence been called revisionism by both its detractors and supporters. This essay defining revisionism and supporting its method is from the February, 1976, issue of The Libertarian Forum, page 3–6, published as "Revisionism and Libertarianism."]
What has revisionism to do with libertarianism? Many libertarians see no connection. Steeped in the theory of the non-aggression axiom, and that the State has always been the major aggressor, these libertarians see no need to concern themselves with the grubby details of the misdeeds and interrelations between Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States, and other particular states. If all States are evil, why worry about the details?
The first answer is that theory is not enough in dealing with the concrete world of reality. If all States are evil, some are more evil than others, some particular States have engaged in enormously more aggression, both internally against their subjects, and externally against the citizens of other States. The State of Monaco has committed far less aggression than the State of Great Britain.
If we libertarians are to understand the real world, and to try to bring about the victory of liberty in that world, we must understand the actual history of concrete, existent States. History provides the indispensable data by which we can understand and deal with our world, and by which we can assess the relative guilt, the relative degrees of aggression committed by the various states. Monaco, for example, is not one of our major problems in this world, but we can only learn this from knowledge of history, and not from a priori axioms. But of course to learn about concrete reality takes work, not only a substantial amount of reading, but also reading with the basic elements of revisionism in mind. Work that investigates the complexities of history, and that is not easily reducible to catch phrases and sloganeering.
Revisionism is an historical discipline made necessary by the fact that all States are governed by a ruling class that is a minority of the population, and which subsists as a parasitic and exploitative burden upon the rest of society. Since its rule is exploitative and parasitic, the State must purchase the alliance of a group of "Court Intellectuals," whose task is to bamboozle the public into accepting and celebrating the rule of its particular State. The Court Intellectuals have their work cut out for them. In exchange for their continuing work of apologetics and bamboozlement, the Court Intellectuals win their place as junior partners in the power, prestige, and loot extracted by the State apparatus from the deluded public.
The noble task of Revisionism is to de-bamboozle: to penetrate the fog of lies and deception of the State and its Court Intellectuals, and to present to the public the true history of the motivation, the nature, and the consequences of State activity. By working past the fog of State deception to penetrate to the truth, to the reality behind the false appearances, the Revisionist works to delegitimate, to desanctify, the State in the eyes of the previously deceived public. By doing so, the Revisionist, even if he is not a libertarian personally, performs a vitally important libertarian service.
Hence, the Revisionist historian performs crucial libertarian tasks regardless of his own personal ideology. Since the State cannot function, cannot command majority support vital to its existence without imposing a network of deception, Revisionist history becomes a crucial part of the tasks of the libertarian movement. Crucial especially because Revisionism goes beyond pure theory to expose and reveal the specific lies and crimes of the State as it exists in concrete reality.
Revisionism can be "domestic"; thus, revisionist historians in recent years have shown that the growth of the American State in the twentieth century has come about, not in a "democratic" attempt to curb Big Business "monopoly", but in the course of a conscious desire by certain elements of Big Business to use the State to fasten a cartelized and monopolized economy upon American society.
Revisionist historians have further shown that the "welfare" State injures, rather than benefits, the very groups that such a State allegedly helps and succors. In short, that the Welfare State is designed to aid the ruling coalition of certain Big Business groups and technocratic, statist intellectuals, at the expense of the remainder of society. If the knowledge of such historical truth became widespread, it would be difficult indeed for modern Big Government to sustain itself in operation.
While historical Revisionism has performed important services on the domestic front, its major thrust has dealt with war and foreign policy. For over a century, war has been the major method by which the State has fastened its rule upon a deluded public. There has been much discussion over the years among libertarians and classical liberals on why classical liberalism, so dominant in the early and mid-nineteenth century in Western Europe and America, failed ignominiously by the time of the advent of the twentieth century. The major reason is now clear: the ability of the State to wield patriotism as a weapon, to mobilize the masses of the public behind the interventionist and war policies of the various powerful States.
War and foreign intervention are crucial methods by which a State expands its power and exploitation, and also provide elements of danger for one State at the hands of another. Yet the State—every State—has been particularly successful in deluding its citizens that it fights wars and intervenes in other countries for their protection and benefit; when the reality is that war provides a golden opportunity for the State to bamboozle its citizens into gathering together to defend it and to advance its interests and its power. Since war and foreign policy provide the State with its easiest means of delusion and deception, Revisionist exposure on the foreign affairs front is the most important avenue of desanctification and delegitimation of the State apparatus and of State aggression.
In the Revisionist exposure of the truths about foreign affairs, one particular myth, strongly held by most Americans and even by most libertarians, has been of supreme importance: 'namely, the myth propagated by the arch-statist and interventionist Woodrow Wilson that "domestic dictatorships are always hellbent on foreign war and aggression; while domestic democracies invariably conduct a peaceful and non-aggressive foreign policy. While this correlation between domestic dictatorship and foreign aggression has a superficial plausibility, it is simply not true on the factual, historical record.
There have been many domestic dictatorships that have turned inward upon themselves and have therefore been pacific in foreign relations (e.g. Japan before its compulsory "opening up" in the mid-nineteenth century by the U.S.'s Commodore Perry); and all too many domestic "democracies" that have conducted a warlike and aggressive foreign policy (e.g., Britain and the United States.) The existence of democratic voting, far from being a barrier against foreign aggression, simply means that the State must conduct its propaganda more intensively and more cleverly, in order to bamboozle the voters. Unfortunately, the State and its Court Intellectuals have been all too equal to this task.
In the history of foreign affairs, then, a priori history simply does not work; there is nothing to be done but engage in a detailed and concrete historical inquiry into the detailed wars and aggressions of particular States, keeping in mind that the record of the foreign policy of "democracies" needs even more debamboozlement than the foreign conduct of dictatorships. There is no way to deduce relative degrees of guilt for war and imperialism from libertarian axioms or from the simple degree of internal dictatorship in any particular country. The degree of guilt for war or imperialism is a purely evidentiary question, and there is no escape from the task of looking hard at the evidence.
The result of such a cool-eyed empirical look at the evidence, at the history of particular States in the modern world, is bound to be a shock for Americans raised, on the foreign affairs mythology propounded by the Court Intellectuals of the media and of our educational system. Namely, that the major aggressor, the major imperialist and war-monger, in the nineteenth and down through the first half of the twentieth century, was Great Britain; and, further, that the United States signed on, during World War I, as a junior partner of the British Empire, only to replace it as the major imperial and war-mongering power after World War II.
The Wilsonian ideology is simply a pernicious myth, especially as applied to Britain and the United States in the twentieth century, and libertarians must simply gird themselves to unlearn that myth, and to bring themselves into tune with historical truth. Since libertarians have managed to unlearn many of the domestic myths promulgated by the American State, one hopes that they can find it in their hearts to unlearn the pervasive foreign policy myth as well. Only then will classical liberalism, let alone full libertarianism, be able to achieve a full Renaissance in the Western world, and especially within America.
The greatest deception of the American (and the British) State, then, is its allegedly defensive and pacifistic foreign policy. When Revisionists maintain, therefore, that the major guilt for war and imperialism in the twentieth century belongs to the United States and to Great Britain, they are not necessarily maintaining that the various enemies of the United States have been domestically and internally less dictatorial or aggressive than the United States government.
Certainly, libertarian revisionists do not maintain this thesis. No libertarian would claim that the internal polity of the Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany, or even Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was less despotic than that of Britain or the United States. Quite the contrary. But what libertarian, as well as other, Revisionists, do maintain is that the U.S. and Great Britain were, as a matter of empirical fact, the major aggressors and war-mongers in each of these particular wars and conflicts. Such truths may be unpalatable to a priori "historians", but they are facts of reality nevertheless.
Furthermore, as indicated above, it is precisely the use of war and war mythology that has led to the acceleration of domestic statism in the U. S. and in Great Britain in this century. In fact, every significant advance of American statism has come about in the course of one of its allegedly "defensive" wars. The Civil War crushed states' rights and brought about an inflationary and statist banking system, a regime of high tariffs and subsidies to railroads, and income and federal excise taxation; World War I ushered in the modern planning and "New Deal" Welfare-Warfare State in America; and World War II and the Cold War completed that task and led to the current Big Government Leviathan that we suffer under today.
It is highly relevant and vital to the understanding of the burgeoning American State that each of these consequences were not unfortunate accidents brought about by foreign "aggressors", but the result of a conscious and deliberate aggressive and war-mongering policy indulged in by the American State.
Revisionism therefore reveals to us in all its starkness that the State Enemy in the United States is purely at home and not abroad. Foreign States have served merely as scapegoats for the aggrandizement of American State power at home and abroad, over domestic citizens and foreign peoples. The Enemy is not a foreign bogey, but here in our midst. Only full understanding of this truth by libertarians and other Americans can enable us to identify the problems we face and to proceed to insure the victory of liberty. Before we can overcome our enemies, we must know who they are.
To defend its depredations, the American State has been able, with the help of its Court Intellectuals, to employ a powerful propaganda weapon to silence its opponents and to further delude its public. Namely, to label the critics of its imperialist and war policies conscious or unconscious agents or sympathizers with the domestic policies of its various State enemies.
And so, throughout this century, Revisionists, even libertarian Revisionists, have been continually accused of being tools or sympathizers of the Kaiser, of the Nazis, or of the Communists—sometimes all at once or seriatim. In this post-Wilsonian age, even a priori libertarians have been duped into tarring Revisionist libertarians with the same smear brush.
Even the imbecility of thinking for one moment that a libertarian can really be a Nazi or a Communist has not deterred the bamboozled libertarians from smearing and denigrating their more clear-sighted colleagues. What is needed above all is to cast off the post-Wilsonian mythology and a priori history of twentieth century American propaganda, and to realize that the (American) Emperor really has no clothes. The penetrating truths of Revisionism are needed to de-bamboozle libertarians along with other Americans.