On Revisionism: A Case Study

My college campus had what might be called a “token conservative” newspaper. Its general tone seemed, in hindsight, to be that of running prank, as if they knew they were expressing a minority opinion that was unlikely to gather a friendly audience, so they figured they might as well go all out and generate as much outrage as possible. At times, it seemed like they were being contrary for its own sake; for example, their issue before Columbus Day. The university did not count this as a holiday, and did not cancel classes for it. Stating their intent to boycott class that day, they defended Columbus’s legacy as an accomplished explorer who deserved to be celebrated, and the idea that he was a slave driver or bloody conqueror they brushed off as mere revisionism.

At the time, I was pretty well aware of the facts supporting the darker side of Columbus’s expeditions. There is primary source attestation to conquest, enslavement, and other atrocities. So this was a strange objection to me: what is wrong with revising an outdated account to bring it in line with the evidence?

Now, this seems even stranger since I’m aware that revision is something  academic historians do all the time. There are “revisionist” schools of thought on historical events, meaning only that they challenge a long-established orthodoxy. In this sense, the subject of my last book review could be seen as a positive example of revisionism: in 1491, Charles Mann refutes various long-held myths about the history of the Americas before European contact and summarizes new lines of research. But on the other hand, there is a kind of revisionism that does deserve to be used as a slur, and which it seems is much better known. Revisionism here is not really a process of revision at all, but distortion for an agenda. I recently wrote about an example of this playing out in the media.

It might be worth looking at a slightly more sophisticated example of the form than a hasty retroactive defense of a political celebrity. It’s not just the desperate and the inane who abuse history to suit their own ends. Sometimes, very smart and knowledgeable people apply their intellect to the purpose of historical propaganda. My subject today is An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (Amazon link) by John Steele Gordon, a sanguine look at American economic history which studiously avoids letting the eye stray to some very ugly places.

Cover image of "An Empire of Wealth"In some ways, An Empire of Wealth is a praiseworthy book. Gordon has an engaging and readable style, his authorial voice is “charmingly antiquated” and gives the impression of a friendly old professor’s best lecture. He reveals a number of interesting anecdotes about American economic history and his narrative is full of colorful historical characters engaged in dramatic exploits. This focus, while hedging close to an obsolete “Great Man” historiography, managed to make accounts of Wall Street deals and railroad construction fun to read, an impressive feat by any measure. It’s also one of the book’s sources of danger: like any good story, one can get so wrapped up in the plot and characters that the message slips in unnoticed and unevaluated. Gordon definitely has a message, one which takes precedence over historical honesty.

As an example of this, consider his treatment of the jolly piratical figure of Cornelius Vanderbilt. This enterprising buccaneer had a unique business model for his steamboat ferrying operation: he’d move into a waterway, charge such low prices that the existing competition could not keep up, and either force them into charging lower fares, out of business, or to pay tribute for Vanderbilt to depart. Gordon describes how in his time, Vanderbilt was compared with the “robber barons” of the Middle Ages who extracted arbitrary tolls from travelers, one of the first capitalists to be slandered with the label. Slandered inaccurately, Gordon says, because actual robber barons only extracted and transferred wealth, and did not create any. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, rendered the boon of lower fare prices by engaging in economic warfare until his opponents paid him off. Where, exactly, wealth is created here is a mystery to me, since this looks exactly like an extraction and transfer of wealth. Sure, consumers keep more money in their pockets, but where do the efficiencies for these lower fares come from? Gordon didn’t explore this interesting basis for wealth creation by tribute, but it seems to me these savings passed to the consumers were likely passed from the employees of the steamboat lines, by the owners of the steamboat lines, lest their profit margins suffer. One cannot even consider whether this is an acceptable outcome without looking beyond the superficial apologia Gordon offers.

But an epic history of great men cannot sustain itself only with dashing heroes, it needs its dastardly villains as well. Early on, Gordon establishes something of an antagonist in Karl Marx. The title of the book’s second part, “A Country That Could Make Itself As It Pleased,” is a reference to one of Marx’s statements on history from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” which he quotes on the section’s title page:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

By the end of the first chapter of this part, we learn that Marx’s “tautology” is perhaps of questionable insight, as he never visited the United States, and as such he could not experience how “because of circumstances, [it] did make its history as it pleased…” This is an odd sort of rejoinder, since Marx attributes one’s scope of action to make history to one’s “circumstances” as well. In the same passage we learn that it is not just America which Marx never experienced, but factory conditions as well, as he only knew about “the proletariat he claimed to champion” from reading about them in second-hand accounts by other intellectuals. In a later chapter, we learn that Marx and his fellow intellectuals often claimed to champion the common good, but really (perhaps unwittingly) represented only their own interests. It’s interesting to consider how a writer who never led any revolution served his own interests by calling for an uprising by proletarians he only read about in books, but this is all in all a very strange preoccupation, this running series of awkward jabs against a man whose work never had any direct impact on the American economy. Gordon admits this in every mention of socialist economics, where he points out that they never really took hold among American workers. So what is the point of these little rhetorical skirmishes with the champion of an economic system which is more or less irrelevant to the nation whose history Gordon is chronicling?

The method to his madness becomes clear in the chapters dealing with post-World War 2 America. On the foreign scene, Marx’s disciples in the Soviet Union had become the very real, rather than theoretical, antagonists to American interests. The USSR arose from World War 2 as horrible a tyranny as Nazi Germany, Gordan informs us, and aggressive, a real threat that the US needed to answer. But in the end, it collapsed because (adopting a de Gaullic analysis) its ideology was just a mask for the old imperial system, based on military power and coercion. This model had become obsolete due to the rise of a new kind of empire, that of wealth, typified by the United States.

This is Gordon’s central thesis, which he lays out clearly in his prologue: the United States’ empire is predicated on peaceful accumulation of wealth by trade and innovation, rather than warlike accumulation of territory and armies. Marx was necessary in the early chapters of the book to serve as a kind of demented prophet heralding the rise of the Soviet beast the United States was destined to slay. It’s a very compelling story, as are most fairy tales and epic myths.

In any other economic history of the United States, the author could be forgiven for glossing over military subjects, or only exploring them as they related to the economy, as Gordon does. Most other economic histories would probably not hinge on a question of military policy. Gordon opens the door to this line of criticism when he outlines the postwar American strategy for dealing with the USSR: to fight with money, not bullets, and to aid the cause of freedom through primarily economic means rather than with its quickly dwindling military. It is for this reason that unlike any other economic history, it is inexcusable for Gordon to make only vague and indirect references to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for him to only mention the wars in Vietnam and Korea in passing, as factors affecting economic growth or minor venues for competition with the USSR, and to not examine the various tin-pot dictators the United States propped up in its efforts to defend against the external aggression of the Soviet Union.

Gordon’s intellectual agility in avoiding these kinds of issues is spectacular: when discussing post-war demilitarization, he notes that while the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, they did not have many of them. It’s equally impressive to see him describe, without a trace of irony, how America’s peaceful economic war effort against Russia played out in the competition to produce more and better weapons. The end result of all this peaceful competition, a United States whose military budget accounts for half the world’s total and is larger than the next ten top spenders combined, that maintains a 24-vessel fleet of aircraft carriers and their support flotillas which accounts for two-thirds of the world’s ships of this kind, as well as hundreds of military bases in dozens of foreign nations, and which has a grand strategic system dividing the entire world into zones of command monitored each by their own generals, is not something Gordon explores in any depth in his development of the peaceful wealth empire thesis. His closing words merely hint at this aegis of martial power by stating that only America’s wealth could pay for it.

But after all, things change throughout history. The 20th century saw the US forced out of isolation and onto the world stage, and the USSR was a huge and threatening military power. Perhaps this was the most peaceful course the US could have taken under the circumstances. Surely the rest of American economic history counts for something? Might the US have been a peaceful trader before World War 2, after which it was forced down a martial path? Unfortunately, it’s not at the end of the book where Gordon’s thesis becomes untenable. It’s in the first chapter.

As it turns out, An Empire of Wealth has an inauspicious first page, which describes the course of European colonialism as a “great expansion of Western culture.” From the very outset, then, the book has an inherently rehabilitationist outlook on history: the global subjugation of lands and peoples under the yoke of European imperialism becomes a cultural expansion. (Where were those bloody conquering empires of old which the United States supposedly eclipsed, anyway?) Rehabilitation, like revisionism, is not an inherently good or bad historical technique, but like legitimate revision, it requires that the historian deal with the orthodox interpretation it seeks to overthrow, and facts seemingly in contradiction with its premises. To rehabilitate colonialism, for instance, one must take into account the brutality of its conquest and exploitation, even if one argues a justification by moral counter-balance or a contextual mitigation. In emphasizing the good, one must account for the bad; one cannot sweep it under the rug.

In the same passage as his enthusiastic description of Western culture’s “expansion,” Gordon notes that America, like all the European settler colonies, had “no ancient history” before the arrival of colonists from Europe. In the beginning, “there was only the land.” The land is significant because any economic history of the United States must take into account one of the principal sources of its wealth: abundant natural resources. From there, it is necessary to account for how the American nation acquired those resources. So it is surprising to learn that the land was empty of human cultures with a long history, since most accounts of America’s early colonial history mention at least something about native peoples. Gordon’s first reference to this phenomenon of prior habitation comes a page later when, after noting the abundance of game, he mentions that this history-free land was a “wilderness, upon which the hand of its human inhabitants had lain very lightly indeed,” with the exception, as he notes in the next paragraph, of “the slash and burn fields of the Indians.” This is a questionable description, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is the our first introduction to the native peoples of America is an indirect reference to their small ecological footprint, tucked into a travelogue of America’s natural beauty. A naive reader could be forgiven for assuming that these “Indians” were just a precocious form of wildlife.

Eventually Gordon is unable to avoid the elephant on the continent, explicitly noting that it was “not uninhabited.” While these not-uninhabitants had no history to speak of, they did have the handicap of a less technologically advanced economy, which doomed them to dependency on trade with the settlers. Once their “economic sovereignty” was lost, “their political sovereignty and the rest of their culture soon followed.” Such was the conquest of the Americas: the natives were out-competed by European settlers and, like an unprofitable firm, relegated to the dustbin of history along with other peoples who “lost their political sovereignty,” such as the Gauls after meeting the Romans. It does not seem that Gordon has any ideological blinders to the cruelties of American history in general. In this same first chapter he notes the barbarity of slavery, an important institution in America’s colonial economy, and laments that “economic self-interest is always a severe impediment to clear thinking on the moral and political aspects of an issue.” So if he is able to recognize and account for other crimes committed in the name of profit in American economic history, what could explain his euphemistic whitewashing of the fate of the Indians?

A look at the chapter on the Civil War is instructive. In the last paragraph, Gordon writes that after the war, “the country’s military shrank quickly to insignificance.” Of course, if you were a settler in the country’s western territories or a member of an Indian tribe in the same general area as those settlers, the American military was probably very significant. Whether or not it “shrank,” it certainly moved: out west, to consolidate the frontier against its erstwhile not-uninhabitants. Just as his highlighting America’s demilitarization after World War 2 was a trick of omission, Gordon’s treatment of the US Army after the Civil War begs for completion with an examination of Manifest Destiny which, like NATO, does not even have an index entry.  That army, whatever its size, was economically relevant at least as long as there was a west for the frontier to move into. Gordon must overlook this, must studiously look away from the exact means by which the west was won, in order to maintain his guiding pretense: that America is an essentially peaceful country, reluctant to fight, building its power by innovation and trade rather than conquest. In short, an empire of wealth, not arms. To this rhetorical end, he must omit, euphemize, and distort the fact that arms were the means by which America obtained access to the material resources for its wealth. This is why, according to Gordon, the Europeans found so many wildernesses without history in their cultural expansions. The serious student of history will have to consult with more serious authorities to learn about what they really found.

As a casual narration of American economic history, An Empire of Wealth has many things to recommend it. Its account of global trade is very interesting. The stories Gordon tells about the moguls of Wall Street in its more unruly formative days are as entertaining as any mobster movie. He does not work towards some extreme political agenda; he depicts capitalism favorably but not as a free market partisan, his exposition on labor unions is fair, and he has a sensible opinion on the role of government in regulating the economy. As a work of history, however, the book falls far short: of its stated aims and of the more general aim of history to promote a better understanding of the past. Worse, it is a popular history, designed for mass consumption and education rather than scholarly review. Would a casual reader, perhaps without a strong backing in history (a likely prospect, given the state of history education in America), be able to notice this intellectual slight of hand? Or would they be carried along by the thrilling narration and upbeat theme to a false understanding of American economic history? It’s easy enough to spot politicians and college rags making blatant historical blunders and telling lies. These are not dangerous. It’s the sophisticated hacks one has to look out for.

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5 thoughts on “On Revisionism: A Case Study

  1. “Interesting, I had not heard of the Cold War or Manifest Destiny, but it fits with my understanding.” -John Gordon

  2. Pingback: Review of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” « A Register of Follies

  3. Pingback: On Agency in History « A Register of Follies

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