Neil Faulkner: Revisionism and the New Imperialism

The ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme has highlighted the extent to which revisionist academics are rewriting the history of imperialism and war in the twentieth century. The BBC’s drama-documentary shown on 2nd July comprised 50 minutes of fairly conventional description of the slaughter followed by a final, rather bizarre 10-minute homily in which we were assured it was all worthwhile because the British Army learnt the tactics needed to beat the Germans two years later. This represents the popular cutting-edge of a formidable new right-wing consensus among military historians.

Partly in response to this challenge, Pete Glatter and I have begun a major research project: we are working towards a grand narrative account of the global crisis of 1914-1921. Though I am an archaeologist first and historian second, much of my fieldwork is now focused on the archaeology of the First World War. This kind of modern conflict archaeology involves an intimate engagement with historical sources. In any case, as an active socialist and anti-imperialist, my aim would always be to place such archaeological work in a wider historical context. Pete, on the other hand, is an historian first and foremost, and one with a record of first-class work in foreign language sources. His The Russian Revolution of 1905: change through struggle (Revolutionary History, Volume 9, No 1) is a superb collection of, and commentary on, participant testimonies.

We aim to draw on a wide range of sources to produce a comprehensively international history. We plan to weave together traditional political history, military history, and revolutionary history. And we hope to integrate history from above and from below in an effective synthesis. Along the way, we will be asking many colleagues and comrades for help, advice, and criticism. I am sure, moreover, that Pete would be pleased to hear from anyone who feels they may have special knowledge of, or access to, valuable primary material.

What is the nature of the revisionist challenge? There seem to be three main arguments – perhaps best represented in the work of Gary Sheffield (The Somme and, with John Bourne, Douglas Haig: war diaries and letters, 1914-1918)– summarized here in ascending order of importance. First, the First World War generals were not the ‘donkeys’ of popular stereotype, but competent commanders grappling with unprecedented and exceptionally difficult strategic and tactical problems. Second, the conflict was unavoidably a ‘war of attrition’, and that therefore a long struggle involving high casualties and a total-war economy was a matter of ‘necessary sacrifice’. Third, and most important, the war was in essence a struggle between democratic states (Britain and France) and a ‘rogue state’ (Germany) that was militaristic, aggressive and expansionist, such that the ‘balance of power’ and ‘world peace’ were threatened. The war was therefore justified.

The third strand in the argument links First World War revisionism with the right-wing paradigm popularized by Niall Ferguson. The essence of Ferguson’s position – represented in all three major TV series and books (Empire, Colossus, and The War of the World) – is that there are ‘good’ empires and ‘bad’ empires. Good empires are characterized by parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, liberal policies, and a desire to enlighten and improve; their rule is therefore progressive. Bad empires are autocracies that act in especially ruthless, repressive, even murderous ways, and have no mission to advance the interests of their subjects. Britain and America are especially good empires. Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Imperial Japan are all bad empires. Ferguson’s arguments, it goes without saying, represent a rewriting of imperial pasts to accommodate the New Imperialism of Blair and Bush. What is now clear is that right-wing revisionism has sunk deep shafts into the historiography of the bloody 20th century. Nothing is secure; no atrocity or insanity too awful not to be a potential candidate for rehabilitation. Suddenly, as living memory dies, battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele, symbols of the horror, waste and futility of imperialist war for almost a century, are being repackaged as democracy’s fields of glory....

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