Revisionism and Realism: Perry Anderson and the Wisconsin School
As the closing post in this roundtable on US foreign policy and the Left, I would like to look more closely at the terms of Perry Anderson’s intellectual debt to what we have all, I think, agreed was his major intellectual resource while writing the New Left Review essays “Imperium” and “Consilium”—the so-called Wisconsin School, the multi-generational network of dissenting scholarship on US foreign policy whose central figure was William Appleman Williams. And, in doing so, I would like to hazard a couple of speculative points about the value that the Wisconsin School might offer to a renascent Left critique of US foreign policy.
One rather crude way to approach these questions is by trying on for size a term that has often been given to those historians in the Wisconsin School: revisionism. Can we say Anderson’s account of the bases, conduct, and theory of US foreign policy is revisionist? And, depending on the answer to that question, should revisionism play a part in a future Left critique of US foreign policy?
Already in this roundtable, Nick Witham has made a very strong case for “realism” as a major thread in Anderson’s intellectual makeup. I think it is appropriate to see realism and revisionism as opposite dispositions within the field of Left critiques of US foreign policy, and so if Anderson is properly called a realist, it is doubtful that he is also, properly speaking, a revisionist. And consequently—unless we reject Anderson’s mode of critique as a model—we might regard revisionism as a dubious contribution to the project of rearticulating a distinctly Leftist foreign policy critique.
Putting my cards on the table now rather than at the end of this post, I do agree with Nick that “realism” best describes Anderson’s intellectual posture, and thus I would argue that we had better answer “no” both to “is Anderson a revisionist?” and to “should revisionism play a part in future Left foreign policy critiques?” Furthermore, I think (or hope) that it is unlikely that the “young Left” will have much to do with most of the distinctive aspects of revisionism that made the Wisconsin School—through organs like Studies on the Left and concepts like “corporate liberalism”—such a powerful intellectual resource for the New Left.
Although in many respects I found Anderson’s essays were convincing without being galvanizing—the most forceful call to action it inspired in me was to read Nicholas Spykman, not exactly a recommendation for the essays as agitprop—I imagine we will see much more scholarship like this work (or like Gindin and Panitch’s The Making of Global Capitalism, which is a sort of cognate project) before we see another Tragedy of American Diplomacy or, in a different but no less revisionist vein, another Hardt & Negri’s Empire. For better or worse, the realism of Perry Anderson is likely to be the dominant tone in Left foreign policy critiques for some time.
But I have rather put the cart before the horse here. Let me briefly define what I mean by these two keywords by describing what I see as separating them. Both “revisionism” and “realism” are politically amorphous: without a fair bit of context it is impossible to know what position on a political spectrum they are being deployed to describe. Anderson’s own definition of “genuine realism”—“an ability to look at realities without self-deception, and describe them without euphemism”—is, as Nick showed, one that encompasses for him not just political comrades but worthwhile interlocutors—the brief list of recent representatives of “the tradition of foreign policy dissent in the US” spans from Andrew Bacevich to Noam Chomsky, David Calleo to Gabriel Kolko.
“Dissent” also figures prominently in the working definition of “revisionism,” but again, the political content or orientation of that dissent is basically unpredictable. “Revisionism” as a historiographical tendency has been applied to schools that belong on totally different worlds: for instance it’s been used to describe Holocaust denial (for which it serves as a rhetorical fig leaf—it’s not denial, just “revisionism”) and the wave of scholarship surrounding Eric Foner which overhauled our understanding of the Reconstruction period.
If anything unifies “revisionism” as a term it is, instead, style, much as the style of realism can be said to be a sort of ostentatious candor, a flaunting of “hard” truths. (“Emollience is not among his failings,” Anderson compliments Brzezinski.) The style of revisionism is almost always grounded, however, by a preliminary assumption of a historiographic consensus that is settled and unbroken although—and this is crucial—not the least passive or taken for granted in spite of its complete domination. Rather, the pillars who support (and in some cases initiated) this consensus actively undermine heterodox challenges whenever they appear.
This preliminary assumption makes it very difficult for revisionist historians not to sound at least a little conspiratorial as they try to indicate the intellectual and political pressure being exerted by the consensus they are trying to break. And especially in the historiography of US foreign policy and military action, there is a checkered record when it comes to revisionism.
Yesterday, journalist Mark Ames posted an essay containing his findings regarding a 1976 special issue of the libertarian journal Reason which published a “who’s who” of Holocaust deniers active at that time; the general theme, however, of the issue was WWII revisionism, focused on shifting the responsibility for the outbreak of war and the issue of war crimes from the Axis to the Allies. But Ames makes a strong argument that WWII revisionism—which encompassed things like Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories—was necessarily connected to Holocaust denial on the one hand and opposition to the New Deal and FDR on the other. Ames wrote:
There is a politics to all of this, a politics that’s barely budged since the days of the American Liberty League: The goal is to discredit the New Deal and FDR, which can’t be done effectively without discrediting FDR’s most popular cause, the victory over fascist Germany and Japan… For them, FDR was a tyrant and a criminal, an American Hitler, only no one else could see things their way, because the real Hitler was widely believed to be one of the worst figures in history. Therefore, libertarian “historical revisionism” had to convince these Americans that Hitler wasn’t nearly as awful as they believed, which meant that the Holocaust couldn’t have happened — if the goal was to discredit FDR and the New Deal.
This intertwined history of libertarian WWII revisionism and Holocaust denial is surprisingly germane to the Wisconsin School as well. The libertarian economist Murray Rothbard both contributed an article to Studies on the Left and Rothbard also co-edited a book, A New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State with one of William Appleman Williams’s students, Ronald Radosh. (Williams, Martin Sklar, David Eakins, and James Gilbert also contributed essays to that book; Williams’s was the opening essay.)
Radosh would later publish a book (which he dedicated to Williams) similarly hopping the political fence, taking up a quintet of “conservative critics of American globalism,” including the self-professed Fascist Lawrence Dennis. The blurbs on the back of my paperback copy give some indication of the wacky political wire-crossing going on at this moment: Anthony Lewis, the author of Gideon’s Trumpet; Karl Hess, a former speechwriter for Barry Goldwater who joined Murray Rothbard and Carl Oglesby of SDS in organizing left-right conferences in 1969-1970; David Horowitz—yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s that one; Richard J. Walton; and Noam Chomsky.
An alliance of the Old Right and New Left, in other words, was a project that was, during the mid-to-late 1960s, worked on from both sides and was clearly a matter of more than incidental interest to those involved. Rothbard, however, was most committed to such an alliance, writing a 1968 essay titled “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal” for Rampartsas well and also publishing his own journal, unambiguously titled Left & Right from 1965-1968.
That journal’s last issue featured a lengthy article of WWII revisionism by Harry Elmer Barnes, who is considered by Deborah Lipstadt and other historians of Holocaust denial to have been the key figure in the US movement. Rothbard almost assuredly was aware of those views by 1968, when he published Barnes’s piece; indeed, it is fairly certain that Rothbard either tolerated or privately endorsed those views, as one can see in this line from his obituary hosted at the website of the Institute for Historical Review, the US clearing house of Holocaust denial: “Rothbard embraced historical revisionism in all its facets, including taboo issues of the Second World War.” The obituary also recounts that at the end of his life, Rothbard avidly embraced the racist views propagated in Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve; elsewhere he was on record as a fan, more or less, of David Duke.
I do not bring up the Wisconsin School’s and the New Left’s interactions with Rothbard in order to try to stain the former’s legacy or to intimate that Williams or any of the other Wisconsin School historians had any truck with Rothbard’s views or his denialist associates. Their revisionism was not the revisionism of Harry Elmer Barnes or of the contributors to Reason’s 1976 special issue: that is clear.
Yet the willingness of those interactions does raise important questions for any prospective Left foreign policy critique that, because of the analytical power and archival depth of the research and scholarship that has come from the Wisconsin School, must inevitably rely on that base, as Anderson does.
From reading many of the writings born of this brief Old Right/New Left alliance, what is clear to me is that the spirit of revisionism in this case was the product of a collision between two affects, equally strong both for Rothbard and the Wisconsin School. On the one hand was a deep sense of betrayal, of being lied to, duped. On the other was a startled recognition of dispossession and exclusion, of the realization that the kind of people to whom one belonged were not the ones in power, were not even that close to power. Here is a passage from Rothbard’s essay “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal” which I feel is worth quoting at length (even as I recognize this is already a very long post):
Our analysis was greatly bolstered by our becoming familiar with the new and exciting group of historians who studied under University of Wisconsin historian William Appleman Williams. From them we discovered that all of us free marketeers had erred in believing that somehow, down deep, Big Businessmen were really in favor of laissez-faire, and that their deviations from it, obviously clear and notorious in recent years, were either “sellouts” of principle to expediency or the result of astute maneuverings by liberal intellectuals. […] it took the Williams-Kolko analysis to portray the true anatomy and physiology of the American scene.
As Kolko pointed out, all the various measures of federal regulation and welfare statism that left and right alike have always believed to be mass movements against Big Business are not only now backed to the hilt by Big Business, but were originated by it for the very purpose of shifting from a free market to a cartelized economy that would benefit it. Imperialistic foreign policy and the permanent garrison state originated in the Big Business drive for foreign investments and for war contracts at home.
The role of the liberal intellectuals is to serve as “corporate liberals,” weavers of sophisticated apologias to inform the masses that the heads of the American corporate state are ruling on behalf of the “common good” and the “general welfare”—like the priest in the Oriental despotism who convinced the masses that their emperor was all-wise and divine.
Since the early ’60s, as the National Review right has moved nearer to political power, it has jettisoned its old libertarian remnants and has drawn ever closer to the liberals of the Great American Consensus.
The first point to make is just to reiterate that, at least in the version Rothbard gave to Ramparts, Williams and Kolko really did have a profound intellectual influence over his thinking. But the rest of the passage gives us some insight into how that could happen, what affective wrapping made their message so attractive to someone who should have been a natural antagonist.
At the level of diction, one thing that springs forward is the totalization accomplished by little words like “all,” “true,” “always,” and “to the hilt.” This is the language of a sort of Damascus moment, scales dropping from one’s eyes, as one does not just gain a little greater clarity but gains access to a wholly different level of vision. This is the way things really work; everything that I saw before was false. Then there comes directly a sense of betrayal—you mean Big Business is not the free marketeer’s friend? We’ve just been used, duped? And finally there is a sense of being disowned, excluded by those who have lied: not only have they duped you, but now they are also “jettisoning” you as the “Great American Consensus” that excludes you further consolidates. You thought you had their ear, but they have left you far behind, dispossessing you of the friendship—and the power that came with it—you thought you had.
These affects—dispossession and betrayal—were the immediate consequences of Rothbard’s encounter with the scholarship of Williams and Kolko and, to some extent, I think they were very common reactions for the time to reading revisionist scholarship, particularly regarding US foreign policy. One didn’t just see the history of the Open Door a little more clearly; one saw that one’s prior knowledge about it was a deception, and behind that deception was a different set of operations silently working. One didn’t just find oneself puzzled over the complex workings of US diplomacy and geopolitical strategy; one felt that a chasm had opened up before oneself, the men on the other side making all the plans without even the fig leaf of a ceremonial consultation with people like you.
It is in this realm of affect that I think we can appreciate how far removed Anderson’s realism is from the revisionism of the Wisconsin School and Rothbard. The Old Right/New Left believed that their exclusion from the actual power elite, the real decision-making process was a recent—or recently discovered—phenomenon. But that is not a notion that is tenable for US Leftists today, and it is extremely unlikely to re-emerge any time soon. That feeling of dispossession from a share in governance, especially over matters as weighty as when the US goes to war or institutes a draft, is essentially obsolete, and thus I do not think it likely that the revisionist spirit which, on the right and the left, fed off that sense of dispossession is likely to play a part in future Left foreign policy critiques. For many on the Left, the most intense language of condemnation is no longer nationalistic—Bush is a traitor—but transnational—Bush is a war criminal, Kissinger is a war criminal—a development that signals a total evaporation of that sense of indignant dispossession from the nation’s decision-making processes.
Anderson also takes a rather understated attitude toward the issue of official state deceptions of their populaces; containment, twice, is referred to as a “euphemism” where Williams or Kolko likely would have used stronger words. During the second Bush’s time in office, slogans like “No one died when Clinton lied,” or other expressions insisting upon Bush or Cheney’s lying the US into Iraq were, it is very true, rife, but there is a certain jadedness about official deception that I think comes out in Anderson, who in fact never uses the word “lie” (in the sense of an untruth) or any of its inflections throughout the entirety of either essay; the only two instances of “deception” or “deceive” appear as “self-deception.” For Anderson and, I think, for quite a bit of the Left today, the understanding of the function of falsehood is its utility as maintaining plausible deniability, not as creating effective illusion.
Of course, these affects of betrayal and dispossession are also what have driven numerous white supremacist and anti-Semitic forms of revisionism over the years as well, and it seems to me that we are well quit of them. I will take the coolness of Anderson’s realism; I don’t want a Left critique that, in the passion of revisionism, finds common cause with a Murray Rothbard.
 Mostly “revisionism” is a description of a historiographic tendency, although it is a descriptive term in IR (as we see in the Walter Russell Mead article that Andrew Hartman critiques here) as well, indicating those (generally powerful) nation-states who have fundamental disagreements with the terms of settlement reached after a shakeup of the geopolitical order.
 Rothbard later would make a very dramatic break with the Koch brothers, who have been involved with Reason for most of its existence, but as I’ll show below, the existence of a connection between Rothbard and Reason is not so important to establish as some of Rothbard’s other ties.
 Rothbard, “The Hoover Myth,” Studies on the Left VI.4 (Summer 1966). This essay was in fact one of those from the journal republished in James Weinstein and David W. Eakins, eds., For a New America: Essays in History and Politics from ‘Studies on the Left’ 1959-1967 (New York: Vintage, 1970).
 Ronald Radosh and Murray N. Rothbard, eds., A New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972). This book can be found at mises.org. Here is a direct link to the pdf.
 Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975). Later still, Radosh would turn precipitously to the Right as would, as James Livingston and John Judis have written, Martin Sklar.
 There is a very small chance (there is no identifying affiliation given after the names of the blurb providers on the book cover) that it is David A. Horowitz, a historian who also has written a book, Beyond Left & Right which similarly takes up the history of “insurgent” politicians and activists, many of whom were anti-interventionists. But David A. Horowitz received his Ph.D. in 1971, the year before Radosh’s book was published, making him an unlikely blurber.
 The entirety of this journal is hosted at mises.org. Here is a direct link to the pdf. For more on Rothbard’s efforts to forge an Old Right/New Left alliance, see John Payne, “Rothbard’s Time on the Left,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 19.1 (Winter 2005): 7-24 (available here) and Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2007): 336-345.