Why Revisionist History Is Important
In the early 1990s, historian Eric Foner and Lynne Cheney were interviewed on the talk show Firing Line about the National History Standards, which was enjoying some national attention at the time regarding what account of history was being included in public school textbooks. During the interview, Cheney accused Foner of being an historical revisionist.
The next day, a reporter from Newsweek called Foner up to ask him about the accusation. “Professor Foner, when did all this revisionism begin?”
Foner answered (according to his account of the phone call): “Probably with Herodotus.” Herodotus, for those who may not be aware, is the ancient Greek historian generally considered to be the father of the discipline of history.
The Newsweek reporter responded, “Do you have his phone number?”
I don’t know if the story is true, since we only have Foner’s account of his personal wit, but I certainly hope it’s true. Whether or not Foner is coloring the story to make it more comical, it does provide a good opportunity for instruction on what it means to be a “revisionist” historian.
In another interview Foner gave, he put the matter more bluntly:
It’s hard for people not versed in history to get the point on why historical interpretation changes. In the general culture “revisionist historian” is a term of abuse. But that is what we do. Revising history is our job. So every historian is a revisionist historian in some sense.
Revisionist history is a label that the Mises Institute does not shy away from, nor should it. Mises scholar and historian Jeff Riggenbach has an entire book devoted to the subject of American revisionist history. Murray Rothbard himself wrote an essay on the importance of revisionist history. But of course, the label of “revisionist” will probably always be levied against Mises scholars as a pejorative, just as Lynne Cheney used it against Eric Foner.
So why is revisionism so important to the discipline? As Mises explains in Theory and History, our knowledge of historical events is not and can never be perfect. Documentary evidence is always necessarily incomplete, and no historian is capable of acquiring all of the potentially relevant evidence that does exist. The best that historians can do is to try to uncover new evidence and reexamine old evidence informed by sound theory so new interpretations can be offered.
And if an historian is doing his or her job, then the natural result will be a revision to history. To contribute to the scholarship on the subject, historians cannot simply restate the narrative that already exists; they must expand, refute, or revise the existing narrative according to new evidence and new analyses. This is exactly what the profession of history entails.
A bad work of history is rarely the product of incorrect or fabricated evidence (though the recent hack job by Nancy McClean demonstrates that such histories can still receive wide praise as long as they support the approved ideological bias). More often, though, as Jeff Riggenbach reminds us, a bad history is one that omits relevant evidence or lacks sound theory with which to properly interpret the evidence and accurately weight its relevance. A good history is that which improves on these human errors through sound revision.
So why does the Mises Institute tout revisionism so much?
Mises offered the historian an additional tool for our scholarly toolbox that few professional historians have taken advantage of: praxeology. History, as Mises tells us and Rothbard reminds us in the previously linked writings, is not an a priori science. But when analyzing the empirical evidence of history – the primary tool of the historian is documentary evidence – the Misesian historian can apply the a priori knowledge gained from praxeology to the analysis. Armed with proper theory, then, a Misesian historian is able to offer a new interpretation of history that fits both the empirical evidence and the sound theory of human action.
Equipped with the theoretical insights offered by Mises, Murray Rothbard was able to offer a revision to the history of the Great Depression that was compelling enough that acclaimed historian Paul Johnson wrote the forward to the later edition. Rothbard revised the history in a way that made an important contribution to our understanding of these events.
America’s Great Depression is only one of Rothbard’s great historical revisions, of course. Another great Misesian scholar, Robert Higgs, applied similar insights to revise our understanding of the relationship between the Great Depression and World War II. The examples could continue almost ad infinitum, but I list these two because they served as among of the most important revisions to my own personal understanding of the way Misesian insights can improve our understanding of history.
The label of “revisionist history,” then, should be neither a pejorative nor a compliment; it should be a redundancy. History that offers no revision is not history at all – it is merely regurgitation of another person’s contributions (for pedagogical purposes, this can have its own value, if somebody is able to take complex ideas and make them available to a wider audience, of course). But to call somebody a revisionist historian, if the claim is true, is to merely call them an “historian” at all.
It is important to keep in mind that revisionism is no more a compliment than it is an insult because it takes more than “revision” to make a good historian. Tom Woods makes this clear in his introduction to 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. He tells the famous story of H.L. Mencken’s bathtub hoax, in which Mencken intentionally published a fake history of the bathtub in 1917. Mencken was – as always – being funny, but he was surprised to find that his story was enthusiastically received, and he was even letters by people offering corroborating “evidence” to his fake history!
For many years, Mencken’s fake history of the bathtub “revised” the history of the bathtub – a consequence that Mencken himself did not anticipate. When this historical narrative was corrected, the correction was also a revision – a revision of the history that Mencken fabricated as a joke. For history to be good history, it has to be more than merely “revisionist;” it must also be honest and accurate.
The Mises Institute proudly embraces the revisionist history of its scholars, but it does this because the scholars recognize that there is more that can be done to improve our understanding of accurate history by applying the lamentably neglected insights of Ludwig von Mises to the field of history. As long as mainstream history neglects sound economic theory – or more specifically, Austrian economic theory – there will be history in need of corrective revision.