The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

With the publication in 1913 of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) became one of the most famous, influential, and controversial historians in America.  His book initiated a trend that for two generations became dominant in the way American history was written and taught. The thirty-seven books that he wrote during his legendary career—some of them with his historian wife, Mary Ritter Beard—sold millions of copies. He was esteemed and reviled for arguing that from the country’s beginnings and at every turning point in its history, American politics had to be understood mainly through the motives and world view of economic elites.

The kinetic energy of the historical process in America did not suddenly stop with the Second World War, Beard contended. In the years immediately preceding that conflict, he took a leading role in what became known as the isolationist movement. Beard objected to this label, seeing nothing isolationist about following the advice given by George Washington in his Farewell Address, for the American people to mind their own business. Creating a society of republican virtue at home would be challenge enough for them, without assuming the burden of international responsibilities. Beard judged the Farewell Address to be the most profound statement ever issued about American foreign policy. The mislabeled isolationist movement sought to do no more than to honor the first president’s teaching about how the United States should relate to the rest of the world in a spirit of amity and comity, playing no favorites and resolutely thwarting all attempts to coopt American power and influence for partisan foreign ends.

When the fighting began in 1939, Beard opposed American intervention, claiming that at bottom the conflict had to do on both sides with the acquisition or retention of markets, territories, and resources, just as the First World War had done. The two wars were one war, in his view, with a twenty-year armistice in between. Both wars had imperialist motives. Even after Pearl Harbor, he continued to claim that the war fundamentally concerned not the evil of Hitler—as of December 1941 Stalin, our ally, was the greater criminal by far—but the greed of competing empires. In two classic works written after the war, he denounced the foreign policy of FDR as a masterpiece of deception about a fictitious war for the Four Freedoms, which served as a distraction from the real war for economic empire.

Beard never could accept the vulgate interpretation of the Second World War. In the triumphalist postwar years, he came under mounting attack as an unreliable historian and a man lacking in patriotism. His economic interpretation of history became increasingly marginalized, as consensus historians plighted to the cause of American exceptionalism dominated the field. Beard’s stock as a thinker continued its downward spiral during the Cold War, which he described at its outset as a straightforward imperialist contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Whichever side won, the world would be subjected to an imperialist order. In no way a Marxist, he conceded that the imperialism practiced by corporate capitalism stood on a higher plane of morality than did the Stalinist variety. Nonetheless, Americans deceived themselves when they imagined the cardinal policies in peace and in war of their leaders to be about anything but imperial control.

Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism offers a fresh interpretation of the origins and development of “Beardianism,” as a way of understanding the connection between economics and politics in American history. The book is especially timely today because of the manifest way in which America’s policies for the maintenance and augmentation of its empire have confirmed his predictions of what the country’s fate would be in the aftermath of the “good war.”

austin beard


About the author of this blog post: Richard Drake holds the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana where he teaches European and American history.

The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

How does an ideology win the hearts of people?

“Prof, can you talk about fascism at a students’ gathering?”

I was surprised to receive such an invitation from a student last month, which I happily accepted. I am not an expert of theories of Fascism, but I have many things to say about various fascist movements in the 1930s and early ’40s, especially those in East Asia. The student body was diverse in their origins, with many exchange students. They were politically and demographically very similar, however: liberal, cosmopolitan, well-educated, and young. I soon discovered that this gathering was organized not because of their academic interests in political ideologies per se, but their everyday fear of the rise of “fascism,” so to speak. One by one, students asked for practical strategies to fight fascism in contemporary society. The room was filled with anxiety.

I felt sympathetic. But at the same time, discussing what might constitute “fascism” appeared misdirected for the purpose of addressing their concern. More urgent is to examine why pseudo-fascism—xenophobia, racism, or exclusive nationalism—resonates so widely today. How could such a violent thought (with detrimental historical baggage) capture people’s hearts? This is also a chance for liberals to step back and question what we take for granted. What specific experiences made liberal ideas convincing and sacred in our own lives?

These questions, or in short, how and why people internalize an ideology, motivate my research on the Japanese empire. It is well-known that wartime Japan had a totalitarian character in many ways, with the wide swaths of people worshipping the emperor and willing to sacrifice their lives. It might be less known that it conducted similarly fervent totalitarian rule over its colonies, Taiwan and Korea. Youth mobilization appeared particularly successful—During World War II, hundreds of thousands of colonial youth applied to Japanese army recruitment each year. Scholars typically depicted this colonial “volunteer fever” as a product of relentless government coercion, persuasion, and brainwashing without much giving thought to the causal mechanism.

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My book, Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies, takes a different angle. Instead of assuming the state directly influenced individuals’ behavior, it focuses on thick layers of local social relationships that determined the value of state directives from the viewpoints of people. It offers a fine-grained analysis of twists and turns of social dynamics in four villages across the empire since the late nineteenth century up to the immediate postwar period—how the popularity of urban modernity and the emphasis on agrarianism shaped the mental worlds of young villagers, how the “cult of youth” affected family politics, what the shifts in landlord-tenant relationships meant to young people, how youth programs unexpectedly changed youth’s future prospects, and how these youth survived the postwar chaos, for example. Local battles generated strong emotions, and whatever they were, these emotions were often expressed as a firm belief in the imperial cause. Seen in this way, Japan’s ideological mobilization both in the metropole and colonies was a much more complicated process than previously assumed, but also had a distinct pattern.

Again, it is not the definition of an ideology (Japanese nationalism) that explains the widespread acceptance most persuasively. It is the social complexities that made people emotionally attached to that ideology.

This means that it would take deep investigative work to make an analogy between politics of the 1930s and that of today, far more than merely reviewing what the fascist ideology was. But I hope this would provide a pointer to students who are earnestly trying to account for and confront the rise of pseudo-fascism—go find out social dynamics and emotions at the local level!

NATION EMPIRE COVER

 


 

About the author of this blog post: Sayaka Chatani is  Assistant Professor of History at National University of Singapore, and the author of Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies.

How does an ideology win the hearts of people?