REVISIONIST HISTORY: Positive or negative?
In recent years the term "revisionist history" has been applied to four different approaches, or historiographical methodologies related to history. They are:
1. REVISIONISM developed by Eduard Bernstein in 1899. He claimed that since the class struggle of Marxism was understood a violent revolution could be avoided. Marxist dialectic of history could be transformed into gradual, peaceful change. For a description of this Socialist Revisionism, see:
While the socialist form of revisionism properly relates to political and
economic theory, in the 1960s it did influence the growth of historical
approaches emphasizing social history and using the social sciences, understood
as "history from below." For a critique of Marxist applications to history see "Essay: Revisionism: A
New, Angry Look at the American Past," Time, February 2, 1970 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,878155-1,00.html>.
The change has also led to what some historians have called the "historical turn" (although the term is also used in studies of film, architecture, and feminism). For an academic article see Ronald Grigor Suny, Back and Beyond: Reversing the Cultural Turn?" American Historical Review vol 107 2003
2. REVISIONISM (sometimes called negativism) by
(usually amateur or regime-sponsored) historians
who try to say that well-established atrocities did not take place or the
perpetrators are to be excused. Holocaust denial, the argument that the Nazi
Final Solution or Holocaust or Shoah (the attempt to kill all the Jews) never
happened, is the most widespread. Other examples could be the denying the
Turkish "genocide" against Armenians during World War I, the Japanese atrocities
and war crimes against civilian populations and prisoners-of-war during World
War II, or mass-murder and widespread political persecution under the Soviet
For an examples of this Denial Revisionism, see:
3. REVISIONISM as attempts by amateur or professional historians to change the facts to fit political ideology. Below are several current examples of this Ideological Revisionism.
A few years ago, President George W. Bush and others in his
administration complained about revisionist historians who disagree with the war
in Iraq. For a news report, see:
<http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/06/16/bush.iraq/>, providing the quote "Now there are some who would like to rewrite history -- revisionist historians is what I like to call them."
An original statement was once here: "And I know there's a lot of revisionist history now going on...." <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030617-3.html>. [A note of complaint: President Bush's comments were once available on the whitehouse.gov site. They have since all been removed, I suppose, because of the change in administration. History sources have been erased. They may be available through The Wayback Machine or some other web search.]
For analysis of the controversy see Pat Morrison, "Revisioning Bush's 'revisionist history,'" National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2003 <http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/todaystake/tt063003.htm>; James McPherson, "Revisionist Historians" Perspectives, September 2003 <http://historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2003/0309/0309pre1.cfm>; Jonathan Rees, "What Did Bush Mean by 'Revisionist Historians'?" History News Network, June 30, 2003 <http://hnn.us/articles/1532.html>; Gary Leupp, "Rewriting Yesterday: Bush on 'Revisionist Historians,'" Counterpunch, June 20, 2003 <http://www.counterpunch.org/leupp06202003.html>.
Recently, President Obama worried about people revising away the origins of
the significant economic crisis he inherited from the Bush administration.
<http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-Financial-Rescue-and-Reform-at-Federal-Hall> ; <http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-dnc-fundraiser-hammerstein-ballroom-102009>.
Critics of Obama have many concerns about his alleged revising of history which they say as violating the historical record. These criticisms seem politically motivated themselves. Any search of "Obama" and "revisionism" will turn up many examples.
Another example might be the attempt by laissez-faire economists and conservatives to blame FDR for causing or making worse the Great Depression (see, as an example: <http://thinkprogress.org/2009/02/11/austria-fdr/>; a cartoon mocking the idea <http://politicalhumor.about.com/od/politicalcartoons/ig/Political-Cartoons/Revisionism.htm>; and an analysis by an expert, Alonzo Hamby, "Are the Revisionists Right About FDR?," History News Network February 16, 2004 <http://hnn.us/articles/3477.html>).
Yet another example might be the effort to promote the idea that American was founded as a Christian Nation. For more on that issue, click here.
4. REVISIONISM as the task of all historians to revise or improve upon our perceptions of the past as new information come to light. Old interpretations are discredited, new visions arise. History is not static. New perspectives need to be taken into account as our circumstances change and new theories and viewpoints offer useful ways to approach the past (see the "historical turn" above). For some nuanced views of such necessary and appropriate Revisionism, see:
For an opinion on the legacy of Ronald Reagan, see <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35987-2004Jun11.html>.
For an opinion about the proper role of historians (in the context of revising school texts and curricula) see <http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zimmerman7jun07,0,5940045.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions>.
Whether Socialist Revisionism, Denial Revisionism, Ideological Revisionism can be considered legitimate approaches or not is part of the larger historiographical issue of subjectivity vs. objectivity or relativism vs. historicism.
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