Faculty Spotlight Interview: Jeff Riggenbach
Jeff Riggenbach was born in 1947 to parents Frank and Dorothy Riggenbach. He received his undergraduate degree at Regents College and achieved his M.A. at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Mr. Riggenbach is also a jack of trades considering his extensive careers as a disc jockey, newsman, producer, anchor, cultural affairs reporter, teacher, book and music reviewer, and journalist and writer in such publications as New Libertarian, Reason, Inquiry, Books for Libertarians and Libertarian Review. Mr. Riggenbach has written three books which are In Praise of Decadence which reinterprets the cultural and political significance of the 1960’s, Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individual which is a biographical work concerning the libertarian journalist Joan Kennedy Taylor with a brief history of American individualism. The third work is Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism which explains the nature of revisionism and how it can be applied to American history. Mr. Riggenbach has also narrated 125 audiobooks including Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action, Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty, Ethics of Liberty and “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” and Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable. Mr. Riggenbach’s current project is “The Libertarian Tradition” which is a weekly podcast that portrays libertarian figures throughout history. Perhaps you have heard his voice, now it is time to meet the man.
What drew you to the Austrian school and the Ludwig von Mises institute?
I began reading works by the Austrian masters – first Rothbard, then Hayek, then Mises – back in the 1970s, because my close friend Roy A. Childs, Jr. was relentlessly talking them up and recommending them. Once I got started, I required no further persuading. They made sense of things in a way few other writers had done. They understood the big picture – how economics interconnected with the rest of human knowledge, including especially philosophy and history. Reading them, and especially reading Mises’s Human Action, was a revelation, a series of revelations, an education in itself.
I had never paid much attention to the activities of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, because I associated it with Rothbard’s strategic effort late in life to make common cause with conservatives, especially so-called “paleo-conservatives,” an effort which I believed then and believe now was a disastrous error. After 9-11, however, while most of the rest of the population of the United States, including much of the libertarian movement, became crazed by war fever, the Mises Institute stood resolute and unyielding in its devotion to the Rothbardian view of war, peace, and the State. Lew Rockwell’s online articles in particular were a welcome breath of sanity and sound analysis in a media environment that seemed at times like a madhouse. I began visiting the Mises.org website on a regular basis and soon learned how oversimplified my earlier impressions had been. I learned that the Ludwig von Mises Institute is one of the most important institutions of the modern libertarian movement, especially in its devotion to the task of keeping libertarians conversant with and dedicated to what Rothbard (and Benjamin Tucker before him) called the “plumb line” – the basic, underlying principles of libertarianism.
What thinker has been your biggest inspiration?
As an intellectual, which Friedrich Hayek defined as “a professional secondhand dealer in ideas,” I mostly confine my reading and writing to the fields I know best: the humanities and the social sciences. To my mind the two greatest geniuses of the 20th Century in these areas were the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and the Austrian economist and social theorist Ludwig von Mises. My short list of thinkers who have played a major role in my personal intellectual development also includes Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, Susanne K. Langer, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Thomas Szasz, and Jane Jacobs.
If you weren’t a scholar, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t a journalist and a professional secondhand dealer in ideas? I’d probably be some sort of musician – a pianist, maybe, or a drummer and backup singer in a rock band, or maybe a singer in a chorus.
What are your hobbies?
Listening to music – a little of everything, but mostly classical, jazz, classic rock, and the American pop music of the classic rock period and before. Reading fiction and poetry. Watching films. Playing bridge. Posting snarky comments on the Internet.
Can you tell our readers a little about your work, Why American History is Not What They Say?
The book began its life some years ago as my master’s thesis at California State University. My friend Roy Childs had strongly recommended back in the 1970s that I read certain revisionist historians. He particularly promoted Harry Elmer Barnes, James J. Martin, and Gabriel Kolko. I took his advice and read some of the works of these writers, but I was never able to see the big picture and to see how these revisionist historians fit into it. What I was missing – and needing – was some sort of general introduction to these revisionists: who they were, where they came from, what they had written, what motives they had for disbelieving the conventional accounts of the events and periods they were examining. I needed some guidance as to exactly what books to read and in what order. I also needed a basic general understanding of the nature of historical research and historical writing. What sorts of problems confront the researcher attempting to establish the truth about past events and periods? You don’t find the answers to questions like these, much less the general information about revisionist historians I sought, in conventional history textbooks or conventional history classes. But you ought to be able to find them there. Or so it seemed to me.
So I took my master’s thesis on the extent to which Gore Vidal had made use of the writings of revisionists like Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams, and Gar Alperovitz in writing his “American Chronicle” series of historical novels, and I expanded it. I added some general observations about how historical research and writing are undertaken and why, some general observations about whether novels may properly be considered sources of historical knowledge, and a brief history of the various attempts by various groups to determine which textbooks are used in the teaching of American history at the high school and college levels in this country – all in an effort to determine what most Americans believe about American history. Then I went back through my manuscript, beefing up a section here, adding a section there, making sure to include, in an easily accessible way, all the basic information you might want in a true introduction to the subject of historical revisionism: who the important writers were, what they wrote, what texts should be considered the most important, defining revisionist texts. I made sure it was an effective overview of the subject, a book that helped the reader see the big picture.
How important do you think revisionist history is in terms of progressing libertarian theory?
Murray Rothbard addressed this question back in 1976, in the pages of his monthly movement newsletter, the Libertarian Forum. “What has revisionism to do with libertarianism?” he asked rhetorically. “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 problem with this view, as Rothbard saw it, was 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.”
“Revisionism,” Rothbard wrote, “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.” And “[i] n 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.”
Enter the revisionist historian. In Rothbard’s view, “[t]he 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.”
Indeed, “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.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.