Revisionisms

Peter Wood

The word “revisionism” in the academic world most often refers to cold war revisionism, the idea that the West was mainly or exclusively to blame for the cold war because of its refusal to deal fairly with the Soviet Union after World War II. The object of this revisionism was to overturn the earlier scholarly consensus that the cold war arose as a result of the Western nations bracing themselves against a tide of communist aggression.

If scholarly debates were decided by popular vote in the academy, cold war revisionism would have to be rated a success. Large numbers of faculty members in a variety of disciplines adopted what Jeane Kirkpatrick famously called in her keynote speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention “the blame America first” doctrine. It didn’t seem to matter a great deal to the proponents of cold war revisionism that it was almost entirely unsupported by historical facts. What mattered is that it offered a storyline that exculpated Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Castro, Mao, and their Western apologists, and held Western leaders up for ridicule.

This, of course, is far from the only revisionism. The term “revisionism” was originally popularized in the nineteenth century as a way of characterizing radical theorists who deviated from orthodox Marxism. Although the original radical revisionist, the social democratic theorist Eduard Bernstein, embraced the label, “revisionist” was generally a term of abuse that loyal Communists attached to those they thought deviated from the party line. Somewhere along the way, Western intellectuals flipped the accusatory meaning of the term. By the 1960s, a revisionist was someone sufficiently brave and independent to defy tired old ways of thinking.

Today it often seems we have more revisionisms than we have established doctrines to apply them to. Revisionisms, having torn through the humanities and social sciences, have turned on each other. We now encounter locutions such as “new revisionism,” “post-revisionism,” “counter revisionist,” “revisionist return,” “revised revisionism,” and even “re-revisionism.” These are signs of a trope approaching senescence.

As I write this, news comes from archaeologists in South Africa that at least 72,000 years ago early modern humans had learned to make superior stone tools by baking a conglomerate stone called silcrete to 300 degrees C before knapping it.1 Presumably the inventors of bake-and-flake technology had to revise an older orthodoxy that favored using uncooked silcrete as the raw material for stone axes and blades. In the sense of overcoming opinions rooted in established practice, “revisionism” might be taken as coeval with human inventiveness. Does the term bear a more specific meaning? The literary critic Harold Bloom built a whole theory of how important writers struggle to overcome the influence of their predecessors. Bloom titled one his books Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford University Press, 1983). Our creative work, in his account, always bears testimony of our struggle with those who have gone before. Bloom’s use of the term revisionism, however, is pretty close to the literal reality. Revising is something we do with the written word. Revision requires that we start with a draft. Revisionism goes after the draft that has ossified, like silcrete, into a stony conglomerate. It demands that we cook the stuff on high heat and start chipping away.

This issue of Academic Questions explores several kinds of academic revisionism, both revisionisms the contributors regard as errors and revisionisms they would like to initiate. Our lead article, “George Lakoff’s New Happiness,” by John Parrott, examines the recent work of the University of California Berkley linguist who in recent years soared into prominence with progressive intellectuals and the Democratic Party. Lakoff holds that political debates are generally decided by imagery, not by the quality of argument or evidence. Our capacity to reason, in Lakoff’s view, is overwhelmed by the power of metaphor, and therefore a shrewd political movement ought to focus on finding the magic phrases and images that sway the populace. As Parrott points out, Lakoff’s theory is a radical departure from thousands of years of Western political theory, with its emphasis on reason and persuasion. Lakoff is by no means the first to observe that politicians can seek advantage by beguiling people. Machiavelli gave eloquent voice to that insight long ago. But Lakoff, drawing on neuroscience, has also built his own theory of why abstract reasoning should take a backseat to emotions. Our minds are “embodied,” and as he sees it, the rich world of concrete emotions, tapped by metaphor, is more basic than reason.

Parrott, who focuses mainly on Lakoff’s book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (Viking, 2008), critiques Lakoff’s views as fundamentally anti-intellectual. Lakoff’s own goal seems to be to shake off the legacy of the Enlightenment in favor of more visceral politics. Parrott sees in Lakoff’s revisionist project a valorization of anti-intellectualism and the rise of political practices damaging to a free society. Parrott also seems to be among the first to offer a careful critical assessment of Lakoff’s political theory and we are pleased to break this new ground in Academic Questions.

In Remapping Geography, two professors of geography, Jonathan Smith and Jim Norwine, take the measure of a revisionism that has swept through their discipline and established itself as the new orthodoxy. Geography, as they nicely put it, has joined other fields in “the bawdy saloon of progressive politics, cultural nihilism, and subjective epistemology.” The lightning of good metaphor strikes so often in this essay that even readers who think geography is about remembering which is the longer Siberian river, the Ob, the Yenisei, or the Lena, will delight in their account.2 Smith and Norwine hope that a certain kind of outreach to scholars in other fields will create an alternative to the stultifying political correctness of today’s “cultural geography.”

In Stimulating Economics, King Banaian (a professor of economics, not a crowned head of state) takes up the thorny question of whether the field of market economics is due for a revisionist movement, given the hapless performance of economic models in the recession that roared to life in 2008. Banaian largely absolves macroeconomics itself but he does see problems with the usual forms of college instruction in economics. Most students learn just enough of the field’s simplifying heuristics to be truly dangerous if they find themselves in a position to act on those theories. And the people in the world of finance who do possess a grasp of mathematics adequate to apply more sophisticated economic models tend to have faint grasp of their predictive limitations. Banaian believes economic education needs to have a greater focus on “economic intuition.” But he allows that an excess of “optimism” among professional economists might have had some role in the great meltdown. Economists are now “sifting the rubble” to find out if a little revisionism might be good after all.

This issue continues with three pieces that treat aspects of cold war revisionism itself. Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, co-authors of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009), The Soviet World of American Communism (Yale University Press, 1998), Verona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Yale University Press, 1999), In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage (Encounter, 2003), and Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2006), bring their formidable erudition to bear on one of the loci classici of American revisionism. In “Revising Revisionism,” they examine the effort of left-wing scholars to recast the history of the American Communist Party as the story of well-intentioned idealists who were simply struggling to improve their nation. This is one form of revisionism that truly cannot stand the test of historical fact. As Klehr and Haynes point out, an accurate understanding of the subversive, Soviet-controlled Communist movement in America was established decades ago in volumes such as those edited by Theodore Draper (1957 and 1960). But in the 1970s, New Left revisionists set themselves to the task of minimizing the Soviet link and creating a fable of artistically-minded, good-hearted, responsible American Communists. The revisionists had little evidence for this concoction but they had their own strength in numbers and by the 1990s swamped more accurate historical accounts and became “dominant.”

The revisionists, however, never foresaw the opening of the Soviet archives and flood of new information about Soviet control of the American Communist movement. Will the facts alone wash away an established revisionism? Human nature being what it is, the answer is probably no. Klehr and Haynes point to the instructive case of Maurice Isserman, a leftist historian and author of Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), who now concedes the Soviet involvement but insists that he was “always” interested in “the conflict” between the democratic beliefs of American Communists, and the “undemocratic purposes and conduct imposed on the party from abroad.” Klehr and Haynes conclude that “[t]he revisionist domination, achieved in the 1970s and 1980s, has been shaken, but not shattered.”

“Solzhenitsyn’s Second Exile” by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., tells a tangent story of how the great novelist and chronicler of Soviet domestic oppression was first feted in America and then cast into outer darkness by liberal opinion-makers. Solzhenitsyn first displeased some Americans by emerging at a Harvard graduation speech in 1978 as a critic of American consumerism and secularism. Then he tore his respectability to shreds in 1980 by publishing in Foreign Affairs a rebuttal to the revisionists who blamed “contemporary Russia’s travails on alleged defects in the primordial Russian character rather than on Marxism.” Ericson provides a useful catalog of the intellectuals who sneered Solzhenitsyn out of the polite American discussion in the 1980s. He points out, however, that Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in Europe survived. The impending publication for the first time in English of complete versions of some of his novels may begin to right the historical balance.

“Opening the Gates” presents Carol Iannone’s own revelatory first encounter with The Gulag Archipelago, unexpectedly brought to her attention by her Finnish-born Aunt Taina. This belongs in our issue as a testimony to the sheer power of Solzhenitsyn’s re-vision of communist tyranny.

Maureen Mullarkey’s “No More Nice Girls” tours the often bizarre world of feminist art, which is pretty much nothing but the spirit of revisionism in unhinged hostility to anything that can be counted as “male definition of culture.” Mullarkey traces the ideology, vulgarity, vapidity, and inanity that don’t add up to an aesthetic movement, but do show what revisionism at its extremes might look like. It looks, in Mullarkey’s felicitous phrase, like demolition imitating itself.

Mike Adams’s “A Delinquent Discipline” offers a big-picture review of the history of criminology, a sub-discipline that has experienced several epochal revisions since its Enlightenment beginnings. Adams’ main point is that is that the revision that won out early in the twentieth century and has stuck since is “marred by a deep systematic error.” The basic question asked by criminology is “Why do people commit crime?” The modern orthodoxy combines “blocked opportunities, delinquent peers, and delinquent labels.” It plays down older explanations such as the criminal as rational opportunist and the criminal as born predator. The modern orthodoxy minimizes both the choices individuals make and their inbuilt tendencies. Society, in this view, is the real actor.

This sociological orthodoxy is so familiar that it takes some hard effort to catch its weakness. Criminologists in pursuit of evidence to support the theory have long relied on statistical evidence, typically based on self-report questionnaires. Adams observes that the questionnaires used by researchers in criminology tend to ask for contemporary information about attitudes and associations but, since respondents are unlikely to admit to current crimes, only collect avowals of past delinquencies. This leads to the prevalent but fallacious practice of inferring that past behavior was caused by current attitudes and associations. The evidence that the society-made-me-do-it school really needs is genuine before and after data, and that turns out—surprisingly to those of us who are not criminologists—to be quite scarce.

Adams argues that criminology might be better served by finding the road that “leads back to the beginning—to an individual choice to commit crime.” He is, in other words, in favor of a truly radical revisionism.

In “What the West Doesn’t Owe Islam,” Toby Huff dispatches one revisionism and proposes another. Huff argues that the contemporary effort to minimize the differences between the Islamic world and the West is a multiculturalist illusion. Europe’s rapid economic development, scientific revolution, and Enlightenment have no meaningful counterpart in Islam. Huff thinks he knows why. He allows that early on, Muslim scientists and scholars achieved breakthroughs, but Europe went on to develop a vibrant public sphere with legally autonomous universities and corporate entities that could chart their own destinies within the rule of law. In Huff’s view this is the crucial difference. Islam never developed these institutions and without them, innovation, scholarship, and economic development languished.

Our special issue on revisionism is rounded out with some splendid poems by Middlebury poet Gary Margolis, a review essay by Russell Nieli, who takes on the latest “river” metaphored defense of racial preferences in higher education, and a review by Larry Purdy of Raymond Wolter’s Race and Higher Education 1954–2007.

We have left myriad revisionisms untouched and still others to be wished for, but our aim as always is to broach topics that we think need more attention. We hope readers will venture their own critiques of revisionisms past or seed revisionisms future. The NAS website provides an ample space for just that.

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