The king of Prussia, Frederick II (“the Great”), confessed that he had seized the province of Silesia from the Empress Maria Theresa in 1740 because, as a newcomer to the throne, he had to make a name for himself. This initiated a war with Austria that developed into a worldwide war (in North America, the French and Indian War), and went on to 1763. Of course, many tens of thousands died in that series of wars.
Frederick’s admission is probably unique in the annals of leaders of states. In general, rulers have been much more circumspect about revealing the true reasons for their wars, as well as the methods by which they conduct them. Pretexts and evasions have proliferated. In today’s democratic societies, these are endorsed — often invented — by compliant professors and other intellectuals.
For generations, the unmasking of such excuses for war and war making has been the essence of historical revisionism, or simply revisionism. Revisionism and classical liberalism, today called libertarianism, have always been closely linked.
The greatest classical-liberal thinker on international affairs was Richard Cobden, whose crusade for repeal of the Corn Laws triumphed in 1846, bringing free trade and prosperity to England. Cobden’s two-volume Political Writings are all revisionist accounts of British foreign policy.
Cobden maintained that
The middle and industrious classes of England can have no interest apart from the preservation of peace. The honours, the fame, the emoluments of war belong not to them; the battle-plain is the harvest-field of the aristocracy, watered by the blood of the people.
He looked forward to a time when the slogan “no foreign politics” would become the watchword of all who aspired to be representatives of a free people. Cobden went so far as to trace the calamitous English wars against revolutionary France — which went on for a generation and ended only at Waterloo — to the hostility of the British upper classes to the antiaristocratic policies of the French.
Castigating the aristocracy for its alleged war lust was standard for liberal writers of earlier generations. But Cobden’s views began to change when he observed the intense popular enthusiasm for the Crimean War against Russia and on behalf of the Ottoman Turks. His outspoken opposition to that war, seconded by his friend and coleader of the Manchester School, John Bright, cost both of them their seats in the Commons at the next election.
Bright outlived his colleague by 20 years, witnessing the growing passion for empire in his country. In 1884, the acclaimed Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, ordered the Royal Navy to bombard Alexandria to recover the debts owed by the Egyptians to British investors. Bright scornfully dismissed it as “a jobbers’ war,” war on behalf of a privileged class of capitalists, and resigned from the Gladstone cabinet. But he never forgot what had started him on the road to anti-imperialism. When Bright passed with his young grandson in front of the statue in London, labeled “Crimea,” the boy asked the meaning of the memorial. Bright replied, simply, “a crime.”
Herbert Spencer, the most widely read philosopher of his time, was squarely in the classical-liberal tradition. His hostility to statism is exemplified by his assertion that, “Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression and by aggression.”
While noting the state’s inborn tendency toward “militancy” — as opposed to the peaceful intercourse of civil society — Spencer denounced the various apologias for his country’s wars in his lifetime, in China, South Africa, and elsewhere.
In the United States, anarchist author Lysander Spooner was a renowned abolitionist, even conspiring with John Brown to promote a servile insurrection in the South. Yet he vociferously opposed the Civil War, arguing that it violated the right of the southern states to secede from a Union that no longer represented them. E.L. Godkin, influential editor of The Nation magazine, opposed US imperialism to the end of his life, condemning the war against Spain. Like Godkin, William Graham Sumner was a forthright proponent of free trade and the gold standard and a foe of socialism. He held the first professorship in sociology (at Yale) and authored a great many books. But his most enduring work is his essay “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” reprinted many times and today available online. In this ironically titled work, Sumner portrayed the savage US war against the Philippines, which cost some 200,000 Filipino lives, as an American version of the imperialism and lust for colonies that had brought Spain the sorry state of his own time.
Unsurprisingly, the most thoroughgoing of the liberal revisionists was the arch-radical Gustave de Molinari, originator of what has come to be known as anarchocapitalism. In his work on the Great Revolution of 1789, Molinari eviscerated the founding myth of the French Republic. France had been proceeding gradually and organically towards liberal reform in the later 18th century; the revolution put an end to that process, substituting an unprecedented expansion of state power and a generation of war. The self-proclaimed liberal parties of the 19th century were, in fact, machines for the exploitation of society by the now victorious predatory middle classes, who profited from tariffs, government contracts, state subsidies for railroads and other industries, state-sponsored banking, and the legion of jobs available in the ever-expanding bureaucracy.
In his last work, published a year before his death in 1912, Molinari never relented. The American Civil War had not been simply a humanitarian crusade to free the slaves. The war “ruined the conquered provinces,” but the Northern plutocrats pulling the strings achieved their aim: the imposition of a vicious protectionism that led ultimately “to the regime of trusts and produced the billionaires.”
Libertarian revisionism continued into the 20th century. The First World War furnished rich pickings, among them Albert Jay Nock’s The Myth of a Guilty Nation and H.L. Mencken’s continuing, and of course witty, exposés of the lies of America’s wars and war makers. In the next generation, Frank Chodorov, the last of the Old Right greats, wrote that “Isolationism is not a political policy, it is a natural attitude of a people.” Left to their own devices, the people “do not feel any call to impose their own customs and values on strangers.” Declining to dodge the scare word, Chodorov urged a “return to that isolationism which for over a hundred years prospered the nation and gained for us the respect and admiration of the world.” Chodorov — founder of ISI, which he named the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, later tamed down to “the Intercollegiate Studies Institute” — broke with the “New Right,” the neocons of the that era, over his opposition to the Korean War.
Murray Rothbard was the heir to this whole legacy, totally familiar with it and bringing it up to date. Aside from his many other, really amazing contributions, Murray and his colleague Leonard Liggio introduced historical revisionism to the burgeoning American libertarian movement (including me). This is a work now carried on with great gusto by Lew Rockwell, of the Mises Institute, and his associated accomplished scholars, particularly the indefatigable Tom Woods.
The essays and reviews I have published and now collected and mostly expanded in this volume are in the tradition of libertarian revisionism, animated by the spirit of Murray Rothbard. They expose the consecrated lies and crimes of some of our most iniquitous, and beloved, recent rulers. My hope is, in a small way, to lay bare historically the nature of the state.
Tangentially, I’ve also taken into account the strange phenomenon, now nearly forgotten, of the deep affection of multitudes of honored Western intellectuals in the 1930s and ’40s for the great experiment in socialism taking place in Soviet Russia under Josef Stalin. Their propaganda had an impact on a number of Western leaders and on Western policy towards the Soviet Union. To my mind, this is worthy of a certain revisionism even today.
This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.