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Chapter 28: Economic Determinism, Ideology, and the American Revolution

It is part of the inescapable condition of the historian that he must make estimates and judgments about human motivation even though he cannot ground his judgments in absolute and apodictic certainty. If, for example, we find that Nelson Rockefeller made a secret gift of $650,000 to Dr. William J. Ronan, we can choose to interpret Rockefeller’s motivation in one of at least two ways: we can conclude, as did that eminent student of contemporary politics Malcolm Wilson, that Nelson made this and similar gifts purely as “an act of love”; or we can conclude that some sort of political quid pro quo was involved in the transaction. In my view, the good historian (1) cannot escape making a judgment of motivation, and (2) will opt for the latter political judgment. Those historians who have made the realistic and what I hold to be the correct judgment have often been condemned as “materialists,” “economic determinists,” or even “Marxists,” but I contend that what they have simply done was to use their common sense, their correct apprehension of reality.

In some matters, where the causal chain of economic interest to action is simple and direct, almost no one denies the overriding motive of economic interest. Thus, when the steel industry lobbies for a tariff or an import quota, and despite the fact that their stated motivations will include every bit of blather about the “public interest” or the “national security” that they can think of (even “an act of love” if they thought they could get away with it). It would be a rash historian indeed who did not conclude that the prime motivation of the steel industry was to gain higher profits and restrict foreign competition. Similarly with Nelson’s “loving” largesse. There will be few charges of “Marxism” hurled in these situations. The problem comes when the actions involve longer and more complex causal chains: when, for example, we contemplate the reasons for the adoption of the American Constitution, or the Marshall Plan, or entry into World War I. It is in these matters that the focus on economic motives becomes somehow unpatriotic and disreputable.

And yet, the methodology in both sets of cases is the same. In each case, the actor himself tries his best to hide his economic motive and to trumpet his more abstract and ideological concerns. And, in each case, it is precisely because of the attempted cover-up (which, of course, is more successful in the longer causal chains) that the responsibility of the historian is to unearth the hidden motivations. There is no problem, for example, for the historian of the Marshall Plan to discover such ideological motivations as aid to the starving people of Europe or defense against Communism; these were trumpeted everywhere. But the goal of subsidizing American export industries was kept under wraps, and therefore requires more work by the historian in digging it up and spreading it on the record.

Neither is the Mises point that men are guided not by their economic interests but by ideas very helpful in discussing this problem: for the real question is what ideas are guiding them—ideas about their economic interests or ideas about religion, morality, or whatever? Ideas need not be a highly abstract level; it did not take profound familiarity with philosophy, for example, for the export manufacturers to realize that foreign aid would provide them a fat subsidy out of the pockets of the American taxpayer.

No “economic determinist” worth his salt, however, has ever held that economic motives are the sole or even always the dominant wellsprings of human action. Thus, no one who has ever studied the early Calvinists could ever deny that fiery devotion to their new religious creed was the overriding motivation for their conversion and even for their secular activities. Although even in the case of the Reformation, we cannot overlook the economic motivation, for example, for the German princes in siding with Luther or for Henry VIII’s confiscation of the wealth of the Roman Catholic monasteries. The point is in each case to give the economic motivation its due.

Can we, however, provide ourselves with a criterion, with a guide with which we can equip ourselves in at least our preliminary hypotheses about the weights of motivation? In short, can we formulate a theoretical guide which will indicate in advance whether or not an historical action will be predominantly for economic, or for ideological, motives? I think we can, although as far as I know we will be breaking new and untried ground.

Some years ago, an article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, in an attempt to score some points against the great “economic determinist” historian Charles A. Beard, charged that for Beard it was only his historical “bad guys” who were economically determined, whereas his “good guys” were governed largely by ideology. To the author, Beard’s supposed “inconsistency” in this matter was enough to demolish the Beardian method. But my contention here is that in a sense, Beard wasn’t so far wrong; and that, in fact, from the libertarian if not from the Beardian perspective, it is indeed true in a profound sense that the “bad guys” in history are largely economically motivated, and the “good guys” ideologically motivated. Note that the operative term here, of course, is “largely” rather than “exclusively.”

Let us see why this should be so. The essence of the State through history is that a minority of the population, who constitute a “ruling class,” govern, live off of, and exploit the majority, or the “ruled.” Since a majority cannot live parasitically off a minority without the economy and the system breaking down very quickly, and since the majority can never act permanently by itself but must always be governed by an oligarchy, every State will persist by plundering the majority on behalf of a ruling minority. A further or corollary reason for the inevitability of minority rule is the pervasive fact of the division of labor; the majority of the public must spend most of its time about the business of making a daily living. Hence the actual rule of the State must be left to full-time professionals who are necessarily a minority of the society.

Throughout history, then, the State has consisted of a minority plundering and tyrannizing over a majority. This brings us to the great question, the great mystery if you will, of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience. From Etienne de La Boétie to David Hume to Ludwig von Mises, political philosophers have shown that no State—no minority—can continue long in power unless supported, even if passively, by the majority. Why then do the majority continue to accept or support the State when they are clearly acquiescing in their own exploitation and subjection? Why do the majority continue to obey the minority?

Here we arrive at the age-old role of the intellectuals, the opinion-moulding groups in society. The ruling class—be they warlords, nobles, feudal landlords, or monopoly merchants, or a coalition of several of these groups—must employ intellectuals to convince the majority of the public that their rule is beneficent, inevitable, necessary, and even divine. The dominant role of the intellectual through history is that of the Court Intellectual, who in return for a share, a junior partnership, in the power and pelf offered by the rest of the ruling class, spins the apologias for State rule with which to convince a deluded public. This is the age-old alliance of Church and State, of Throne and Altar, with the Church in modern times being largely replaced by “scientific” technocrats.

When the “bad guys” act, then, when they form a State or a centralizing Constitution, when they go to war or create a Marshall Plan or use and increase State power in any way, their primary motivation is economic: to increase their plunder at the expense of the subject and taxpayer. The ideology that they profess and that is formulated and spread through society by the Court Intellectuals is merely an elaborate rationalization for their venal economic interests. The ideology is the smokescreen for their loot, the fictitious clothes spun by the intellectuals to hide the naked plunder of the Emperor. The task of the historian, then, is to penetrate to the essence of the transaction, to strip the ideological garb from the Emperor State and to reveal the economic motive at the heart of the issue.

What then of the actions of the “good guys,” i.e., those unfortunately infrequent but vital situations in history when the subjects rise up to diminish, or whittle away, or abolish State power? What, in short, of such historical events as the American Revolution or the classical liberal movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? It goes without saying, of course, that the economic motive for diminishing or throwing off State power is a “good” one from the libertarian point of view, in contrast to the “bad” economic motives of the statists. Thus, a move by the ruling class on behalf of higher taxation is a bad economic motive, a motive to increase their confiscation of the property of the producers, whereas the economic motive against taxation is the good one of defending private property against such unjust depredations. That is true, but that is not the major point I am trying to make here. My contention is that, in the nature of the case, the major motive of the opposition, or the revolutionaries, will be ideological rather than economic.

The basic reason is that the ruling class, being small and largely specialized, is motivated to think about its economic interests twenty-four hours a day. The steel manufacturers seeking a tariff, the bankers seeking taxes to repay their government bonds, the rulers seeking a strong state from which to obtain subsidies, the bureaucrats wishing to expand their empire, are all professionals in statism. They are constantly at work trying to preserve and expand their privileges. Hence the primacy of the economic motive in their pernicious actions. But the majority has allowed itself to be deluded largely because its immediate interests are diffuse and hard to observe, and because they are not professional “anti-statists” but people going about their business of daily living. What can the average person know of the arcane processes of subsidy or taxation or bond issue? Generally he is too wrapped up in his daily life, too habituated to his lot after centuries of State-guided propaganda, to give any thought to his unfortunate fate. Hence, an opposition or revolutionary movement, or indeed any mass movement from below, cannot be primarily guided by ordinary economic motives. For such a mass movement to form, the masses must be fired up, must be aroused to a rare and uncommon pitch of fervor against the existing system. But the only way for that to happen is for the masses to be fired up by ideology. It is only ideology, guided either by a new religious conversion, or by a passion for justice, that can arouse the interest of the masses (in the current jargon to “raise their consciousness”) and lead them out of their morass of daily habit into an uncommon and militant activity in opposition to the State. This is not to say that an economic motive, a defense for example of their property, does not play an important role. But to form a mass movement in opposition means that they must shake off the habits, the daily mundane concerns of several lifetimes, and become politically aroused and determined as never before in their lives. Only a common and passionately believed in ideology can perform that role. Hence our strong hypothesis that such a mass movement as the American Revolution (or even in its sphere the Calvinist movement) must have been centrally motivated by a newly adopted and commonly shared ideology.

We turn now to the insight of such disparate political theorists as Marx and Mises, how do the masses of subjects acquire this guiding and determining ideology? By the very nature of the masses, it is impossible for them to arrive at such a revolutionary or opposition ideology on their own. Habituated as they are to their narrow and daily rounds, uninterested in ideology as they normally are, concerned with daily living, it is impossible for the masses to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps to hammer out an ideological movement in opposition to the existing State. Here we arrive at the vital role of the intellectuals. It is only intellectuals, the full-time professionals in ideas, who can have either the time, the ability, or the inclination to formulate the opposition ideology and then to spread the word to the mass of the subjects. In contrast to the statist Court Intellectual, whose role is a junior partner in rationalizing the economic interests of the ruling class, the radical or opposition intellectual’s role is the centrally guiding one of formulating the opposition or revolutionary ideology and then to spread the ideology to the masses, thereby welding them into a revolutionary movement.

An important corollary point: in weighing the motivations of the intellectuals themselves or even of the masses, it is generally true that setting oneself up in opposition to an existing State is a lonely, thorny, and often dangerous road. It would usually be to the direct economic interests of the radical intellectuals to allow themselves to “sell out,” to be coopted by the ruling State apparatus. Those intellectuals who choose the radical opposition path, then, can scarcely be dominated by economic motives; on the contrary, only a fiercely held ideology, centering on a passion for justice, can keep the intellectual to the rigorous path of truth. Hence, again, the inevitability of a dominant role for ideology in an opposition movement.

Thus, though perhaps not for Beardian reasons, it turns out to be true that the “bad guys,” the statists, are governed by economic motivation with ideology serving as a smokescreen for such motives, whereas the “good guys,” the libertarians or anti-statists, are ruled principally and centrally by ideology, with economic defense playing a subordinate role. Through this dichotomy we can at last resolve the age-old historiographical dispute over whether ideology or economic interests play the dominant role in historical motivation.

If it is the shame of the intellectuals that the Court Intellectual has been their dominant role over the course of world history, it is also the glory of the intellectuals that they played the central role in forming and guiding the mass movements of the modern world in opposition to the State: from the Calvinist upsurge of the Reformation to the classical liberal and radical movements of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.


Let us now apply our framework to an analysis of the historiography of the American Revolution. In the long-standing controversy over the Beard-Becker economic determinist school of American history dominant in the 1920s and 30s, it has generally been assumed that one must either accept or reject this basic outlook wholesale, for each and every period of American history. Yet our framework explains why the Beard-Becker approach, so fruitful and penetrating when applied to the statist drive for power which brought about the US Constitution, fails signally when applied to the great anti-statist events of the American Revolution.

The Beard-Becker approach sought to apply an economic determinist framework to the American Revolution, and specifically a framework of inherent conflict between various major economic classes. The vital flaws in the Beard-Becker model were twofold. First, they did not understand the primary role of ideas in guiding any revolutionary or opposition movement. Second, and this is an issue we have not had time to deal with, they did not understand that there are no inherent economic conflicts on the free market; without government intrusion, there is no reason for merchants, farmers, landlords, et al. to be at loggerheads. Conflict is only created between those classes which rule the State as against those which are exploited by the State. Not understanding this crucial point, the Beard-Becker historians framed their analysis in terms of the allegedly conflicting class interests of, in particular, merchants and farmers. Since the merchants clearly led the way in revolutionary agitation, the Beard-Becker approach was bound to conclude that the merchants, in agitating for revolution, were aggressively pushing their class interests at the expense of the deluded farmers.

But now the economic determinists were confronted with a basic problem: if indeed the revolution was against the class interests of the mass of the farmers, how come that the latter supported the revolutionary movement? To this key question, the determinists had two answers. One was the common view—based on a misreading of a letter by John Adams—that the Revolution was indeed supported by only a minority of the population; in the famous formulation, one-third of the populace was supposed to have supported the revolution, one-third opposed, and one-third were neutral. This view flies in the face of our analysis of opposition movements; for, it should be clear that any revolution, battling as it does the professional vested interest of the State, and needing to lift the mass of the people out of their accustomed inertia, must have the active support of a large majority of the population in order to succeed. As confirmation, it was one of the positive contributions of the later “consensus” school of American history of such scholars as John Alden and Edmund Morgan, to demonstrate conclusively that the Revolution had the active support of a large majority of the American public.

The Beard-Becker school had another answer to the puzzle of majority support of the Revolution: namely that the farmers were deluded into such support by the “propaganda” beamed at them by the upper classes. In effect, these historians transferred the analysis of the role of ideology as a rationalization of class interests from its proper use to explain State action to a fallacious use in trying to understand mass movements. In this approach, they relied on the jejune theory of “propaganda” common in the 1920s and 1930s under the inspiration of Harold Lasswell: namely, that no one sincerely holds any ideas or ideology, and that therefore no ideological statements whatever can be taken at face value, but must be considered only as insincere rhetoric for the purposes of “propaganda.” Again, the Beard-Becker school was trapped by its failure to give any primary role to ideas in history.

The economic determinists were succeeded by the “consensus” school of American history, as part of the general “American celebration” among intellectuals after World War II. At its best, the consensus historians, notably Edmund Morgan and Bernhard Knollenberg, were able to show that the American Revolution was a genuine multi-class movement supported by the great majority of the American public. Furthermore, the economic determinists, in their eagerness to show the upper merchant class as duping the farmers into supporting the Revolution, emerged—in a curious kind of left-right alliance with the pro-British “Imperial” historians—as hostile to the American Revolution. The consensus historians restored the older view that the colonists were rebelling against genuine invasions of their liberties and property by the British Empire: that their grievances were real and compelling, and not simply a figment of upper class propaganda.

At its worst, however, and under the aegis of such major consensus theoreticians as the “neo-conservatives” Daniel Boorstin and Clinton Rossiter, the consensus school was moved to the truly absurd conclusion that the American Revolution, in contrast to all other revolutions in history, was not really a revolution at all, but a purely measured and conservative reflex against the restrictive measures of the Crown. Under the spell of the American celebration and of a Cold-War generated hostility to all modern revolutions, the consensus historians were constrained to deny any and all conflicts in American history, whether economic or ideological, and to absolve the American republic from the original sin of having been born via a revolution. Thus, the consensus historians were fully as hostile to ideology as a prime motive force in history as their enemies, the economic determinists. The difference is that where the determinists saw class conflict, the consensus school maintained that the genius of Americans has always been to be unfettered by abstract ideology, and that instead they have met every issue as ad hoc problem-solving pragmatists.

Thus, the consensus school, in its eagerness to deny the revolutionary nature of the American Revolution, failed to see that all revolutions against State power are necessarily radical and hence “revolutionary” acts, and further that they must be genuine mass movements guided by an informed and radical ideology. Furthermore, as Robert A. Nisbet has recently pointed out in his scintillating pamphlet, The Social Impact of the Revolution, the consensus view overlooks the truly revolutionary and libertarian consequences of the American Revolution in diminishing the role of government, in dismantling church establishments and winning religious freedom, in bringing about bills of rights for the individual’s liberty and property, and in dismantling feudal land tenure in the colonies.

Nisbet’s stress on the revolutionary and libertarian nature and consequences of the American Revolution brings us to the most recent and now dominant school of historiography on the Revolution: that of Professor Bernard Bailyn. Against the hostility of both of the older schools of historians, Bailyn has managed, in scarcely a decade, to win his way through to become the leading interpretation of the Revolution. Bailyn’s great contribution was to discover for the first time the truly dominant role of ideology among the revolutionaries, and to stress that not only was the Revolution a genuine revolutionary and multi-class mass movement among the colonists, but that it was guided and impelled above all by the ideology of radical libertarianism; hence what Bailyn happily calls “the transforming libertarian radicalism of the Revolution.” In a sense, Bailyn was harking back to an older generation of historians at the turn of the twentieth century, the so-called “Constitutionalists,” who had also stressed the dominant role of ideas in the revolutionary movement. But Bailyn correctly saw that the mistake of the Constitutionalists was in ascribing the central and guiding role to sober and measured legalistic arguments about the British Constitution, and, secondarily, to John Locke’s philosophy of natural rights and the right of revolution. Bailyn saw that the problem with this interpretation was to miss the major motive power of the Revolutionaries; Constitutional legalisms, as later critics pointed out, were dry-as-dust arguments that hardly stimulated the requisite revolutionary passions, and furthermore they neglected the important problem of economic depredations by Great Britain; while Locke’s philosophy, though ultimately important, was too abstract to generate the passions or to stimulate widespread reading by the bulk of the colonists. Something, Bailyn rightly felt, was missing: the intermediate-level ideology that could stimulate revolutionary passions.

Guided by the extensive research into English libertarian writers by Caroline Robbins, Bailyn found the missing and vital ingredient: in the transforming of Lockean natural rights theory into a radical and passionate, and explicitly political and libertarian framework. This task was accomplished by radical English journalists who, in contrast to Locke, were read very widely in the colonies: notably, the newspaper essays of Trenchard and Gordon written during the 1720s. Trenchard and Gordon clearly and passionately set forth the libertarian theory of natural rights, went on to point out that government in general, and the British government specifically, was the great violator of such rights, and warned also that Power—government—stood ever ready to conspire to violate the liberties of the individual. To stop this crippling and destructive invasion of Liberty by Power, the people must be ever wary, ever vigilant, ever alert to the conspiracies by the rulers to expand their power and aggress against their subjects. It was this spirit that the American colonists eagerly imbibed, and which accounted for their “conspiracy view” of the English government. And while Bailyn himself, by concentrating solely on the ideology of the colonists, is ambivalent about whether such English conspiracies against liberty actually existed, the work of such historians as Bernhard Knollenberg has shown conclusively that the conspiracy was all too real, and that what some historians have derided as the “paranoia” of the colonists turned out to be an insightful apprehension of reality, an insight that was of course fueled by the colonists’ understanding of the very nature and essence of State power itself.

While Bernard Bailyn has not continued his studies beyond the Revolution, his students Gordon Wood and Pauline Maier have done so, with unfortunate results. For how can one apply the concept of a “transforming libertarian radicalism,” of a mass ideological hatred of the State and of the executive, to the movement for a Constitution which was the very antithesis of the libertarian and radical ideal? By trying to do so, Wood and Maier lose the idea of radical libertarianism altogether, and wind up in yet another form of consensus view of the Constitution. Yet the battle over the adoption of the Constitution was a fierce ideological and economic conflict; and in understanding that movement and that conflict we must turn to the neo-Beardian approach of such historians as Jackson Turner Main, E. James Ferguson, and Alfred Young, which stresses the economic and class interests behind this aggrandizement of a powerful central government. Furthermore, the Anti-Federalist resistance to the Constitution was fueled, not only by resistance to these economic depredations, but also and above all by the very ideology of Liberty versus Power that had sparked and guided the American Revolution. A glance at the eloquent speeches against the Constitution by Patrick Henry is enough to highlight the libertarian leitmotif of the anti-statist Revolution as well as the anti-statist resistance to the Constitution. Hence, the original insight of the Beardians was correct: that the Constitution was a reaction against the Revolution rather than its fulfillment.

The idea of economic motivation as the prime mover of statist actions through history, as contrasted to ideology as the major guide of anti-statist movements, is thus confirmed by analyzing the historiography of the American Revolution. Perhaps adoption of this basic framework will prove fruitful in the analysis of other important events and movements in human history.

[A paper delivered at the Libertarian Scholars Conference, October 28, 1974, in New York City. Reprinted from Libertarian Forum 6, no. 11 (1974).]
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