Archive for ‘History’

November 7, 2012

Tom Woods in Chicago

by Eric T. Phillips

Talking about the future of the libertarian movement, the virtues of revisionist history, and the courage of Mises, Rothbard, and Ron Paul:

November 2, 2012

Tom Woods: How Murray Rothbard Changed my Mind on War

by Eric T. Phillips

From 2012 Mises Institute Supporters Summit on October 26:

October 20, 2012

Life in the Pre-Industrial World

by Eric T. Phillips

According to historian Eugen Weber, peasants in 19th century rural France

began work at dawn, ended late at night, often went to work their own plot by moonlight after having worked another’s land by day. ‘No more rest and no more ease!” lamented a landowner near Nantes in 1856. ‘Everyone scrimps,…works without care for rest or food,…to buy a plot of land from some neighbor ruined by usury.’

The more ambitious you were, the harder you worked. Benoît Malon’s father, employed on a Forez farm, was free to work his potato patch and his kitchen garden on Sunday after church. He died at thirty-three of pleurisy, which he contracted as he hurried to get to his freshly planted potatoes. As late as 1908 in the marshlands of the Vendée a man farming four hectares with only a spade (thus able to work no more than four ares a day) left home at five in the morning, returned at seven in the evening, and never saw his children. Hard labor without chains–to which one remained bound by necessity and from which only death could bring release.

That the release was often yearned for is attested by the Alpine adage: “heyrouss com’un crébat”–happy as a carcass. Malon’s grandmother entreated the little boy to accompany her in death; his mother envied him because she believed he would die young. There is a Berry song in which a woman dreams of escape, but every hope proves false: perhaps when she is married she will work in the fields no more; but marriage comes and she still works; pregnancy is no better, children are no help, so she yearns for death, and death at last sets her free.

Only the industrial revolution–and the spread of industrialization to the countryside–has freed large segments of humanity from this miserable fate, a fate that the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived have been condemned to.

October 14, 2012

The Chimera of ‘Social Darwinism’

by Eric T. Phillips

It’s not surprising that Foner devotes so much space in his new book to attacking “Social Darwinism”–he’s been at it for a long time. This excerpt from an article by Jeff Riggenbach on William Graham Sumner is particularly relevant:

Today neither [Albert Jay] Nock nor [William Graham] Sumner is particularly well known, and those who do know of Sumner (those who don’t confuse him with Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts) probably know him as a “social Darwinist.” And this is ironic, for he was not so known during his lifetime or for many years thereafter. Robert C. Bannister, the Swarthmore historian, edited a valuable collection of Sumner’s essays nearly two decades ago for Liberty Fund. This is how he describes the situation in his foreword to that volume: “Sumner’s ‘social Darwinism,'” he writes, “although rooted in controversies during his lifetime, received its most influential expression in Richard Hofstadter['s] Social Darwinism in American Thought,” which was first published in 1944.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that the entire concept of “social Darwinism” as we know it today was virtually invented by Richard Hofstadter. Eric Foner, in an introduction to a then-new edition of Hofstadter’s book published in the early 1990s, declines to go quite that far. “Hofstadter did not invent the term Social Darwinism,” Foner writes, “which originated in Europe in the 1860s and crossed the Atlantic in the early twentieth century. But before he wrote, it was used only on rare occasions; he made it a standard shorthand for a complex of late-nineteenth-century ideas, a familiar part of the lexicon of social thought.” In the process, he not only portrayed William Graham Sumner as a “social Darwinist”; he also portrayed Herbert Spencer that way. In fact Richard Hofstadter seems to be the principal source of the widespread modern belief that both these men were “social Darwinists.”

But were they? What precisely is this “complex of late-nineteenth-century ideas,” as Eric Foner puts it, that the phrase “social Darwinism” is supposed to stand for? Perhaps the most frustrating thing about doing a little general reading in this field is discovering how difficult it is to find any sort of definition of that phrase — “social Darwinism” — especially if one is hoping to find a succinct and quotable definition of it. Entire books are written on the subject without ever carefully and clearly delimiting exactly what that subject is. In essence, however, “social Darwinism” seems to be the notion that success in the market proves an individual’s fitness to survive in the struggle for existence, so that both legislation and private charity meant to assist those who fail in the market are inadvisable, since our species will grow stronger if these “unfit” individuals are allowed to die off.

Did anyone ever espouse this doctrine? Herbert Spencer certainly didn’t. Spencer, who was born 191 years ago on April 27, 1820, was an enthusiastic exponent of evolution, true enough. In fact, he wrote about evolution before Darwin did. In fact, it was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” But Spencer was no sort of Darwinian at all. Even after Darwin began publishing, Spencer remained a Lamarckian, a disciple of an earlier advocate of evolution who believed organisms could pass on acquired characteristics to their offspring. In the case of humans, Spencer’s view was that culture and education made this process possible. Also, Spencer was a proponent of private charity.

Was William Graham Sumner an advocate of “social Darwinism”? As I have indicated, he has been so described, most notably by Richard Hofstadter and various others over the past 60-odd years. Robert Bannister calls this description “more caricature than accurate characterization” of Sumner, however, and says further that it “seriously misrepresents him.” He notes that Sumner’s short book, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, which was first published in 1884, when the author was in his early 40s, “would … earn him a reputation as the Gilded Age’s leading ‘social Darwinist,'” though it “invoked neither the names nor the rhetoric of Spencer or Darwin.”

In his book, Sumner elucidates the class theory of classical liberalism, which divides the population between those who earn a living by production and voluntary trade and those who sustain themselves by the expropriation of others’ property. Human history has been, Sumner writes, “only a tiresome repetition of one story. Persons and classes have sought to win possession of the power of the State in order to live luxuriously out of the earnings of others.”

For Sumner, those who fancy themselves ‘friends of humanity’ are merely another group seeking control of the state for their own purposes. (It is surely this argument that has earned him the ‘Social Darwinist’ label). But, as Riggenbach points out, Sumner believed that people owed each other compassion and assistance. “We may philosophize as coolly and correctly as we choose about our duties and about the laws of right living,” Sumner wrote,

[but not] one of us lives up to what he knows. The man struck by the falling tree has, perhaps, been careless. We are all careless. Environed as we are by risks and perils, which befall us as misfortunes, no man of us is in a position to say, “I know all the laws, and am sure to obey them all; therefore I shall never need aid and sympathy.” At the very best, one of us fails in one way and another in another, if we do not fail altogether. Therefore the man under the tree is the one of us who for the moment is smitten. It may be you tomorrow, and I next day. It is the common frailty in the midst of a common peril which gives us a kind of solidarity of interest to rescue the one for whom the chances of life have turned out badly just now. Probably the victim is to blame. He almost always is so. A lecture to that effect in the crisis of his peril would be out of place, because it would not fit the need of the moment; but it would be very much in place at another time, when the need was to avert the repetition of such an accident to somebody else. Men, therefore, owe to men, in the chances and perils of this life, aid and sympathy, on account of the common participation in human frailty and folly.

Modern-day academics like to talk about how the control of language and usage is both a reflection of and a tool of a hegemonic group’s power. This much is true: it is only the left’s control of the history profession that has made it possible for a man who called for “aid and sympathy” to others to be branded a “Social Darwinist.”

October 14, 2012

A Typical Chapter in American History

by Dan Stanford

Surprise, Surprise. In his introductory textbook on U.S. history, Give Me Liberty!, famed American historian Eric Foner takes serious issue with “liberty” being conceived in terms of property and contract.

Foner begins his chapter on the Gilded Age (1870-1890) by attributing the incredible wealth production of late nineteenth century America to a coincidence of geographic and economic circumstances. But also because “the federal government actively promoted industrial and agricultural development.” According to Foner, the federal government created the economic boom of the late nineteenth century because it “enacted high tariffs that protected American industry from foreign competition, granted land to railroad companies to encourage construction, and used the army to remove Indians from western lands.”

So government is given credit for economic growth, but what about economic woe? Obviously not the fault of government. Foner will admit that some innovation occurred during this era, thanks to Thomas Edison, Nikola Telsa (and literally nobody else); but then we quickly move to businessmen that “engaged in ruthless competition.” Men like Carnegie and Rockefeller, whose “dictatorial attitudes, unscrupulous methods, repressive labor policies, and exercise of power without any democratic control led to fears that they were undermining political and democratic freedom.” (Hint: It’s confusing when we are told of the unfortunate problem of “the power of the new corporations, seemingly immune to democratic control” but we are never told exactly how this is so.  In what ways, Professor Foner, should business be under the thumb of democratic control?)

Next, we are provided an exposé of some great American socialists, who, thankfully expose the demonic effects of capitalism; writers such as Henry Demarest Lloyd, Thorstein Veblen, and Jacob Riis.

And now we turn to Gilded Age politics.  Corrupt yes, but only because of the lack of “reform legislation.”  Sure some Gilded Age politicians extorted millions of dollars, but compared to the damage done by big businesses, they come across as a minor problem.  Boss Tweed? He “plundered the city of tens of millions of dollars,” but he is quickly glossed over. President Grant and the Whiskey Ring incident? Yes, this “massive scheme…defrauded the federal government of millions of tax dollars” but that is about all we get, a quick mention, and then back to the real reason for all woe, the bourgeoisie.

One thing we do know, with certainty, is that big businesses in the late nineteenth century literally enslaved workers.  The “Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that virtually every worker it interviewed…complained of overwork, poor housing, and tyrannical employers.” In addition, “advanced economics” of this era “taught that wages were determined by the iron law of supply and demand and that wealth rightly flowed not to those who worked the hardest but to men with business skills and access to money.”

What of the classical liberals who try to come to the rescue of laissez-faire? These are the wicked Social Darwinists. Foner pummels on the ever reliable victim, the poor Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), and then takes issue with that horrible “negative” definition of freedom of “limited government and an unrestrained free market.” Foner lays it out point-blank for students.  We ought to reject a philosophic framework which protects the material basis for civilization (i.e. property rights and contracts), but at the same time we must not tolerate any widespread material inequalities that may exist.  Socialism is obviously the answer boys and girls!

He then introduces the heroic “labor reformers” who “put forward a wide array of programs” and who “launched a sustained assault on the understanding of freedom grounded in Social Darwinism and liberty of contract.”  The labor movement is the absolutely key, the saving grace, in American history (beginning all the way back into the 1880s?).  Then we get a continuous bombardment of “best seller”  socialist writers, who were apparently very important.  Ignatius Donnelly, Henry Gerorge, Laurence Gronlund, Edward Bellamy and other leader of the Social Gospel movement.  Finally, we have the ultimate proof of the self-sacrificial innocence of labor, in the Haymarket Affair. When the McCormick plant “installed new machinery that reduced its dependence on the iron molder’s traditional skills, it announced that henceforth the factory would operate on a non-union basis.  Unfortunately “Chicago’s city government sided with the company” and then we all know what happened.

The battle of good versus evil is thus “between upholders of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire, who saw freedom as the right of individuals to pursue their economic interests without outside restraint, and those who believed in collective efforts to create ‘industrial freedom’ for ordinary Americans.”  Foner has already illustrated which side is always the good side, and we can look optimistically to the “early twentieth century” where “reformers would turn to new ways of addressing the social conditions of freedom and new means of increasing ordinary Americans’ political and economic liberty.”

Ah, the left’s progression of history, it doesn’t get any better.

September 27, 2012

Eugene Genovese, RIP

by Eric T. Phillips

Eugene Genovese, historian of the antebellum South, has died at age 82. His book, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976) became a seminal work on slavery for its emphasis on “the world slaves built for themselves”–that is, for its portrayal of slaves not merely as passive victims, but as active agents in the construction of their own culture. He continued to develop this line of thought until late in his life, publishing his last book in 2011. HNN has posted this summary of his work:

Undergirding Genovese’s analysis of slavery in the United States was the concept of paternalism, which, for Genovese, centrally described a historically unique system of social relations, shaped by slaves as well as masters, in the slave society that was the Old South. From the masters’ point of view, paternalism was not about kindness, but control, the need of the slaveholding class to translate power into authority. Slaves accommodated themselves to planter paternalism, but turned it to meet their own needs, to assert their humanity, to hold masters accountable, and to make gains toward the ultimate goal of release from bondage. The theoretical inspiration of Genovese’s analysis came from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci articulated the view that the ruling class, if effective, maintains its position through cultural hegemony—that is, by getting those they rule to accept their values even when resisting their sway. That essential insight informed Genovese’s work throughout.

Jesse Walker has posted an interesting take on Genovese on Reason’s blog. Walker explains:

Genovese was also a cultural conservative, a sympathetic interpreter of southern traditionalists, and a fierce critic of the academic left. By the P.C. wars of the early ’90s, he was routinely categorized as a man of the right, even though he still considered himself a socialist; by the end of his life, he had contributed to National Review and spoken at the American Enterprise Institute.

Hence the confounded ideologues. Genovese was sometimes called a “Marxist conservative,” and while I’m neither a Marxist nor a conservative, I got a lot out of reading his work. I may have disagreed with many things that he wrote, but I always knew he was thinking for himself rather than following a party line.

Also see David Gordon’s positive review of a collection of Genovese’s essays from the 1990’s. Gordon’s take, in short: “Genovese’s firm and muscular style conveys his enormous intellectual energy and his impatience with nonsense, from whatever source derived. I wish there were more Marxists like him.”

September 19, 2012

Pol Pot Misunderstood?

by Eric T. Phillips

The left-wing newsletter CounterPunch regularly runs articles critical of the American empire. One of its former editors in particular, the late Alexander Cockburn, was a giant in the antiwar movement and greatly admired by many libertarian noninterventionists. There is an unfortunate tendency on the radical left, however, to over-sympathize with the United States’ enemies–at least the communist ones. This is why you see Che Guevara tee shirts on college campuses. And it’s also presumably why the current editors of CounterPunch decided to publish a defense (or a “revisitation”) of Pol Pot, mass murderer and communist dictator of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

According to the author of the article, Israel Shamir, Pol Pot

felt compassion for the ordinary village people who were ripped off on a daily basis by the city folk, the comprador parasites. He built an army to defend the countryside from these power-wielding robbers. Pol Pot,  a monkish man of simple needs, did not seek wealth, fame or power for himself. He had one great ambition: to terminate the failing colonial capitalism in Cambodia, return to village tradition, and from there, to build a new country from scratch.

Pol Pot’s decision to forcibly depopulate Cambodia’s cities, Shamir writes, “was a harsh, but a necessary step” to ensure the production of enough rice in the aftermath of American bombing raids. And while “Surely the victorious peasants shot marauders and spies,” there couldn’t have been a real genocide because uncited population statistics make that impossible.

There is no doubt that the American incursion into Cambodia in the early 1970’s helped create the conditions that lead to the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power. But that does not mean that Pol Pot can be excused for the approximately 1.7 million deaths that were the direct result of his actions. And historians do agree that Pol Pot is responsible for that many deaths, which amounts to 23% of the country’s population. According to scholars associated with Yale’s Genocide Studies Program, the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979

was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. As in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, in Nazi Germany, and more recently in East Timor, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot combined extremist ideology with ethnic animosity and a diabolical disregard for human life to produce repression, misery, and murder on a massive scale.

The forcible depopulation of Cambodia’s cities was hardly “necessary.” Only a true believer in central planning would prescribe such an action to increase the production of food. According to Jean-Louis Margolin (see his article in the indispensable The Black Book of Communism) Pol Pot’s actions forced about half of the country’s population on to the road. These refugees overwhelmed the rural economies they were forced into, and thousands starved on forced marches that lasted weeks. The Khmer Rouge set up a two-tier legal system which classified the former urban dwellers–the “New People”–as an inferior caste. Many of these unfortunate souls were deported to serve in “work brigades” or were forced into “reeducation camps.”

Pol Pot’s paranoia rivaled Stalin’s. According to Margolin,

There were never any trials or clear charges brought [against such political prisoners], and everyone who was imprisoned was tortured in a barbaric fashion before being killed. Only the victims’ ‘confessions’ provide an idea of what ‘charges’ might have been brought against them…Undoubtedly the aim was to crush anyone who showed exceptional qualities or the slightest sign of a spirit of independence…Any quality that might threaten the preeminence of Pol Pot led to repression.

According to Shamir, the man who oversaw this brutality was “a monkish man of simple needs, [who] did not seek wealth, fame or power for himself.” It is amazing what delusions blind adherence to ideology can produce in the minds of men.

August 17, 2012

David Barton’s Thomas Jefferson

by Eric T. Phillips

David Barton is an evangelical Christian minister who styles himself a historian. Glenn Beck is a fan, once calling him “the Library of Congress in shoes.”

Barton’s latest (and best selling) book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jeffersonis an attempt to prove that Jefferson was more conventionally religious than historians portray. (He was kinda almost like a modern day evangelical, apparently.) The problem is, he wasn’t. He was a Unitarian who denied the divinity of Jesus and believed much of the Bible was “the fabric of very inferior minds.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814) He did very much admire the teachings of Jesus, and that’s why he literally cut and pasted his teachings into a much truncated personal Bible. Barton’s claim that Jefferson put together this little text to convert Indians is laughable; Jefferson included the Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of his selections side-by-side so he could read and compare the text in all four languages–are we to believe that Jefferson thought the Indians were too dull to comprehend an unabridged version of the Bible but then would require them to read the shortened version in French, Greek, and Latin?

Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, two conservative professors from Grove City College in Pennsylvania have published a 250-page book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President, which is entirely devoted to debunking Barton’s error-ridden and misleading work. Largely due to their laudable effort, Barton’s publisher has ceased the publication and distribution of the book. (A private publisher’s decision to cease supporting a work that they have determined does not meet their standards is not censorship, as this site claims.)

A good supplement to Throckmorton and Coulter’s corrective is Greg Forster’s blog post that critiques Barton’s writings on John Locke. You can also go to Barton’s own site, Wallbuilders, where he and his researchers explain their methodology for attributing quotes to the founders; there, Barton and his team concede that many of quotes he had reproduced in earlier works are “unconfirmed,” but they nonetheless insist that the quotes “are nevertheless completely consistent not only with the character of these men but also with the character of their era.” As interpreted by them, of course. What a standard.

Barton’s work should make a fine edition to the average Romney voter’s bookshelf, right alongside Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln and the piano performance major Joshua Charles’s “translation” of some of the Federalist Papers into “modern” English.

August 15, 2012

Birzer on Woods et al.

by Eric T. Phillips

Professor Bradley Birzer has a review of Back on the Road to Serfdom, a neglected collection of essays edited by Tom Woods, up on The American Conservative today. Birzer writes:

Woods has put together an impressive ensemble of writers, and the book grabs the reader’s attention from its beginning to its end. After a brief introduction by Woods, Brian Domitrovic and Carey Roberts provide historical background to the current economic crisis and to the rise of Leviathan…

In a fascinating chapter that seems somewhat out of place in the book, economist Per Bylund explores the successes and failures of the Swedish welfare state…

At once spooky and prophetic, economist Antony Mueller’s chapter details the factors that led to our current economic and debt crisis. It also predicts what is to come…

Economist Mark Brandly proves rather definitively that tariffs always hurt consumers and overall economic production…

Economist John Larrivee and philosopher Gerard Casey offer complimentary analyses in two of the final three chapters. Each argues that one of the greatest errors of the twentieth century was to overemphasize the economic and materialists aspects of man while allowing the political to crowd out civil, religious, and economic associations…

[In the final chapter], Shakespeare scholar Paul Cantor considers the role of television as a cultural and political force during the 1960s.


June 6, 2012

Rockwell and McMaken Discuss Conservativism and the Future of the Libertarian Movement

by Eric T. Phillips

Lew Rockwell talks about the decline of the conservative movement and how civil disobedience and the withdrawal of consent can lead to political change while Ryan McMaken gives an overview of the long conflict between Bill Buckley and Murray Rothbard in the latest edition of the Lew Rockwell Show.


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