Saturday, February 16, 2013


Harry Targ
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,,  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.


Friday, February 8, 2013


Harry Targ

The first modern organized opposition to U.S. global expansion began with the war on the Philippines in 1898. The Anti-Imperialist League, with such distinguished spokespersons as Mark Twain, decried United States expansion to Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean. Later, critics of U.S. foreign policy, such as Eugene V. Debs, opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I in 1917. In the 1930s journalists and activists raised concern about the United States role in world affairs, particularly its seeming indifference to the rise of fascism in Italy, Spain, and Germany.
After World War II, skeptics about a U.S. policy that was leading to Cold War with the Soviet Union arose, coalescing around the third party presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace. After President Truman won election in 1948, opposition to the direction the United States was taking in the world was steadily silenced.  A virulent anti-communist repressive environment in academia, the media, and electoral politics ensued. By the 1950s analyses of United States foreign policy that focused on the U.S. as an imperial power virtually disappeared.
The Wallace candidacy which was soundly defeated was followed by the 1949 purge of eleven unions from the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) for their leftwing politics and during the 1950s anti-communist purges in radio, television, the movies and educational institutions. Labor organizers, cultural performers, educators, government employees and others tarnished with the charge of being “communists” lost jobs, livelihoods, and access to broad publics.
Academic fields were transformed to provide training grounds and ideological support for America’s mission in the world. In history and social science new scholarly works emphasized consensus versus class struggle, pluralist democracy rather than political elitism, and groups and political activity rather than class and class interests. Few remaining critical analysts of United States foreign policy highlighted economic interest, the pursuit of empire, or over-reaction to a Soviet threat.
However, some academic programs, such as the Department of History, University of Wisconsin, began to educate young scholars to examine the economic taproots of United States foreign policy. William Appleman Williams’ classic text, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, broke new ground in the early 1960s as opponents of the Cold War and the escalating Vietnam War policy began to challenge reigning orthodoxy. Williams, for many budding anti-war activists, provided information about an American empire that had grown ever since the end of the civil war. He and his students connected U.S. empire building with the conquest of the North American continent, the slaughter of millions of Native people, the taking of large amounts of the land mass from Mexico, and global expansion from the Philippines to the Caribbean and Central America.
In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The Contours of American History, and The Roots of the Modern American Empire, Williams elaborated on the rise of agricultural production and the need for the American economy to find markets overseas. In addition, domestic outlets for U.S. productivity had been capped with the end of the “frontier.” Drawing upon Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” U.S. leaders, he wrote, believed that a new global American empire was needed to sell products, secure natural resources, and find investment opportunities.
Williams claimed that the so-called “open door” policy toward China proclaimed in the 1890s signified what the U.S. imperial vision was to be. This policy resulted from the disintegration of and civil war in China which was used as an opportunity by European powers and Japan to establish their own spheres of influence on the Asian mainland. In response to the nations that were carving up Chinese territory, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Hay, issued a warning to Europe demanding the right to have open access to markets in China. By implication the closing of such markets to U.S. goods might lead to confrontation.
For revisionists, such as Williams, the Open Door Notes illustrated the emerging U.S. global imperial vision. The demands that the world respect the U.S. right to penetrate economies everywhere would become the standard for the U.S. role in the world ever since. Again, the driving force behind the image of the Open Door was economics. Some of Williams’ writings seemed to emphasize material reality, the needs of capitalism. Other of his writings implied that United States behavior was motivated by elite beliefs that markets were a necessity.
In the 1960s several newer scholars began publishing their research emphasizing the connections between the necessities of U.S. capitalism and expansion or the belief foreign policy elites had that such expansion was necessary for economic survival. Gabriel Kolko who authored The Politics of War, and co-authored with Joyce Kolko, The Limits of Power: United States Foreign Policy From 1945 to 1954 presented in compelling, graphic, and precise terms the material underpinnings of United States Cold War policy. The Kolkos emphasized the threat to the West that international communism, particularly the example of the Soviet Union and popular Communist parties in Europe, represented to the reconstruction of a global capitalist empire after World War II.
According to the Kolkos and other revisionists, the expansion of socialism constituted a threat to capital accumulation. After World War II, wartime demand for U.S. products might decline, leaving in its wake economic stagnation and a return to the economic depression of the 1930s. The Marshall Plan, applauded as a humanitarian economic assistance program for the reconstruction of war-torn Europe, was really a program to increase demand for U.S. products. With an engineered international communist threat, military spending, another source of demand, would help maintain customers, including the government itself, for U.S. products. The idea of empire, stressed in Williams’ work, was underscored by the materiality of capitalist dynamics.
            The Kolkos described the motivations of the Soviet Union and the United States. The former was not driven by a demonic ideology to dominate the world, they said. In addition,   United States foreign policy was not driven by principle. As to the former: “The Soviets played an essentially opportunistic, non-ideological role in Eastern Europe’s initial postwar development. They cared little about the previous policies or the ideology of the men in power in the coalition governments so long as they were not anti-Soviet in the post war period.”
            And the United States made "a sincere effort to secure the area for its framework of multilateral trade and an open door for American investment.” When this failed the Kolkos said, the United States “chose instead a policy of harassment and employed the image of an iron curtain to blur, for strictly political purposes, the variations in an area whose political experiences at the time ranged from pluralist Czechoslovakia to Bolshevik Yugoslavia.”  To expand the reach of post-war U.S. capitalism and oppose any resistance to it, the East-West conflict “became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Celebrate the Historical Revisionists: Part 2” will discuss the enduring significance of their findings for understanding the United States role in the world today.