The writings of 1960s historians who became known as the “revisionists,” challenged traditional interpretations of the interests, goals, and ideology underpinning United States foreign policy. Historians such as William Appleman Williams, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperowitz, Lloyd Gardner, Thomas Paterson and others who were discussed in a prior essay, http://theragblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/harry-targ-celebrate-historical.html offered a compelling explanation for sixties activists and those that followed them about why United States foreign policy was as it was.
First, the revisionists saw fundamental connections between economics and politics. Whether the theoretical starting point was Adam Smith or Karl Marx, these historians looked to the underlying dynamics, needs, and goals of the economic system as sources of policy. And, these writers began with the assumption that economic interest infused political systems and international relations. Revisionists argued that while security, ideologies, personalities of elites, and even human nature had some role to play in shaping policy, all of these forces were influenced in the end by economics. And economic interest shaped how political power was used.
Second, the behavior of dominant nation-states, from the seventeenth through the twentieth century, was propelled by trade, investment, financial speculation, the pursuit of slave or cheap labor, and access to vital natural resources. Economic gain, in the end, drove the system of international relations. Sometimes economic gain required cooperation; other times it necessitated war.
Third, since the use of the word “capitalism,” in the depth of the Cold War, signified that the user was some kind of Marxist, the reality that capitalism had been the dominant economic system from the fifteenth century on was ignored by most scholars. As more and more historians and social scientists employed the political economy point of view developed by the revisionists, it became apparent that as the economic system of capitalism changed over time international relations also changed. Capitalist enterprises and their supporting states accumulated more and more wealth, expanded at breakneck speed, consolidated both economic and political power, and from time to time built armies to facilitate further colonization and control on a global basis.
Analysts, borrowing from Marx, wrote about the evolution of capitalism using analyzes about the accumulation of capital and newer forms of the organization of labor. Some theorists wrote about the rise of capitalism out of feudalism highlighting how primitive accumulation was based on the enslavement of peoples, the conquest of territories, and the primacy of the use of brute force.
The slave system led to increased production and the rise of a global economy based on trade. Capitalists traversed the globe to sell the products produced by slave and wage labor. This era of commercial capitalism was followed by the emergence of industrial capitalism. New production techniques, particularly a factory system that brought workers together under one roof for mass production, increased pressure to promote the sale of products in domestic and global markets.
By the 1870s, in a number of capitalist countries the accumulation of capital, in products and profit created enormous surpluses. These required new outlets for sale, additional ways to put money capital to work, and ever expanding concentrations of capital in manufacturing and financial institutions.
Late-twentieth century theorists wrote about a new era of monopoly capitalism. Inspired by Lenin’s famous essay on imperialism, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, argued that a global economic system had developed in which most economic activities were controlled by small numbers of actors, multinational corporations and banks. Subsequently some theorists made a compelling case for the view that the new capitalism of the twenty-first century had become truly global, leading to the declining salience of the nation-state system from which it was launched.
It was the research contributions of the historical revisionists of the 1960s which overcame the historical amnesia about the connections between economic interests and international relations. In addition to analyses of economic and political trends they uncovered concrete cases of links between economics and politics. These included the influence of huge U.S. and British oil companies on the U.S. managed overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and the coup in Guatemala in 1954 after President Arbenz threatened to nationalize lands owned by the U.S. based United Fruit Company. The revisionists found long term patterns of economic domination and foreign policy. They also uncovered the aforementioned specific cases where particular economic elites influenced foreign policy such as to Iran and Guatemala. And revisionists saw that the globalization of capitalism was threatened by the spread of nationalism and forms of socialism as a world force.
Fourth, the political economy approach regarded class structure as central to the understanding of the foreign policy of any nation. Since every society has class divisions, some classes dominate the political system at the expense of others. In capitalist societies, those who own or control the means of production dominate the political life of the country. Therefore, while conventional analysts prioritize states as the most important actors in world affairs, political economists saw states and classes as inextricably connected. Most international relations scholars saw states as important to world affairs but it was political economists/historical revisionists who demonstrated the connection between states and classes.
Finally, revisionist historians who wrote from the lens of classes controlling the foreign policy process tended to take a “hegemonic” view of that control. Their analysis of the concentration of economic and political power was a critical contribution to theory and practice. However, they often did not factor resistance into their theoretical frame. The end result was a perspective implied by many that the United States was omniscient, all powerful, unbeatable, and unchangeable in its conduct. After the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War some analysts began to write particularly about the challenges that the hegemonic power the United States faced in the world, even from the Global South. But, in the main the historical revisionists developed a way of understanding international relations that was top down.
Many theorists and activists, therefore, remained intellectually ill-equipped to identify forces that resisted and constrained the drive for economic, political, and military hegemony throughout modern history. Lacking the more nuanced view of the drives for dominance and the resistance to it, activism sometimes shifted from radical enthusiasm to despair.
But in the end, contemporary analysts and activists owe a special debt of gratitude to those “historical revisionists” who offered a political economy explanation of why the United States role in the world (and before it other imperial powers) has been the way it was. Those of us who analyze the United States and the international system should add to the important theoretical contribution of the revisionists recognition of patterns of resistance as they occur on a global basis and constitute an integral component of the way international relations works.