|From the archives of The Memory Hole|
The following is an interview with James J. Martin as published in the January 1976 issue of Reason magazine.
an interview with
JAMES J. MARTIN
Next month's REASON will be a special issue on the subject of historical revisionism. The critical revision of "official" versions of the doings of states is an important adjunct to the overall battle for liberty. As a preview of next month's issue, and to introduce the subject to our readers, we are pleased to present an exclusive interview with one of America's leading revisionist historians, Dr. James J. Martin.
Dr. Martin received his A.B. and M.A. during World War II at the University of New Hampshire, and his Ph.D. in 1949 at the University of Michigan. He has taught history at various academic levels in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois, Colorado, and California, including six years at Deep Springs, a California college described by Newsweek as "what may well be the most isolated, obscure, and selective college in the entire U.S."
Martin's major published works include his now-classic history of individualist anarchism, Men Against the State (1953), American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931-1941 (2 volumes, 1964), and Revisionist Viewpoints (1971). He has edited, for modern republication, Lysander Spooner's No Treason (1966) and Letter to Thomas F. Bayard (1973), and Max Stirner's The Ego and His Own (1963). In addition to reviving these classics, Martin serves as general editor of the Libertarian Broadsides Series, which has thus far brought out modern editions of Stirner's The False Principle of Our Education, John Badcock's Slaves to Duty, James L. Walker's The Philosophy of Egoism, Benjamin Tucker's State Socialism and Anarchism, and Etienne de la Boetie's The Will to Bondage. Currently Martin is at work on a study of U.S.-Soviet relations during World War II, to be titled Hands Across the Volga: American Mass Communication and the Wartime Affair with Soviet Russia, 1941-47.
Last spring Dr. Martin conducted a two-day seminar on World War II revisionism at the University of Southern California, under the auspices of the James Madison Foundation. At the conclusion of the seminar, he was interviewed for REASON by Steven Springer, Michael P. Hardesty, Peter Kuetzing, and John McCarthy. What follows are the highlights of several hours of fascinating discussion.
REASON: Dr. Martin, what is the relevance of revisionism (or revisionist history)?
MARTIN: Revisionism could be of relevance to almost anybody who's interested in the record, who's interested in some kind of faithful reproduction of events. In other words, my interest in this is not necessarily activated by ideological considerations. It's more of a technical interest in getting the record straight. My concern in getting involved in historical matters of this sort is rather complex and is not motivated necessarily by doing good or bringing about a set of better social conditions or an improvement in the race or any long-range programs of that sort. My friend Harry Elmer Barnes was very much so motivated. But I was nowhere nearly as involved in his objectives as I was in his work. We often worked for totally different reasons at the same thing. I have no compulsions to save the world or save the human race, to guarantee the safety of the galaxy or any other enterprise of that sort.
REASON: What are the main conclusions of World War II revisionism in respect to war guilt and the responsibility for the Second World War?
MARTIN: Well, they're much like those of previous war and every other war that's ever been examined by revisionists. There's a tendency to disparage the notion of unique evil responsibility, in favor of the notion of divided guilt, so to speak, the involvement of all the participants, a parceling out of various factors which suggest that the thing is too complex to be interpreted in terms of a single easily defined cause. That is one of the basic things in any revisionist investigation--to unseat this notion that there is a simple, single-hypothesis operation involved. Revisionists invariably upset the established line with complications of various sorts, with all sorts of jagged facts which don't fit simple explanations. Invariably you make the Establishment, which profits from a single goal in terms of historical orthodoxy, very, very unhappy.
REASON: Why has most historical revisionism, at least as far as American foreign policy is concerned, occurred years after the conflict in question has ended?
MARTIN: It has to, in most cases, because it takes that long for access to the information to be productive. Invariably in cases of a conflict such as a war, the winners obviously write the first account. It sometimes takes a long while before the orthodoxy which the outcome of a war establishes can be broken down either by new facts appearing on the record or the tendency of subsequent generations to look at things from a different point of view and think about things in a different way. The largest part of revisionism can be traced simply to the passage of time. A new generation doesn't see the past in the eyes of the actual participants. They look at it from their own particular angle--and their needs and values and many other related factors are different. So they are not caught in the trap of the contemporaries and frequently can come up with a better explanation of why things were the way they were than can the contemporaries because of their blinders caused by the nature of the involvement to begin with. In some instances it may take centuries before there's a disturbance of the official position. The instance of the Italian humanist, Lorenzo Valla and the disclosure of the forgery of the Donation of Constantine is in many ways a revisionist classic. It was almost twelve centuries before this achievement took place.
REASON: How do you explain, then, the extensive revisionist history that has been written concerning the Vietnam War? It appears to have come out almost contemporaneously with that conflict.
MARTIN: This could be referred to as instant history. It's a product of a new journalistic approach to matters of this sort. It has been made operational because of the incredible revolution in the technology of communications. The invention of instantaneous electronic communications has made possible attention to detail and penetration of the scene to a degree that was never possible in the past. Even the attempt to promote official secrets and certain states of removing the public from access can't succeed indefinitely in blocking off the enormous number of electronic surveillance and snooping possibilities that exist in modern technology. I often wonder what Adolf Hitler would have done with television or even what Napoleon would have done with radio. It is worth considering sometimes!
In the case of Vietnam it hasn't been so much a change in people as a change in the way that the behavior has been recorded. A wide variety of such matters, had they been available in past times, would have resulted in a considerable change in how things took place. What might have been done by the central powers in the First World War with access to the contemporary radio transmitters is worth considering,
"I often wonder what Adolf Hitler would have done with television, or what Napoleon would have done with radio."
REASON: How do you view the historical treatment of the Jewish genocide question during World War II
MARTIN: Well, genocide as we know it is a word invented in 1943 that deals with a presumably planned extermination of whole populations and it means, as far as I can read it, that if you don't plan exterminations of a group of people it's not genocide. We've had similar circumstances in the past. I don't imagine there will ever be any revisionist history of the Philistines--the entire species seems to have been wiped out according to the Old Testament stories. The genocide idea occurs over and over and over in the Old Testament wars, where entire populations are put to the sword upon the end of hostilities. There isn't any evidence of that in modern times. It has become a political charge which may or may not have validity, but the idea in Raphael Lemkin's definition of the word in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in 1943 emphasizes the planned nature of the extermination. One can argue that if an extermination occurred which wasn't planned then it can't be called genocide. So it's an extremely complex matter and very touchy and very emotional for most people involved. It's an easy charge to make today for almost any political reason involving the behavior of a group which is being limited or constrained by anybody anywhere. There are some ridiculous charges involving this word to the point where it's almost lost its meaning.
REASON: Dr. Martin, do you believe (1) that the specific charge against the Nazis of having a mass extermination program of several million Jews is true and (2) that the Allied atrocities were as great or greater than those of the Germans, from your study of the question?
MARTIN: Well, I never made a head count of all who lost their lives in the War--we've seen a wide variety of statistical materials, some of which have been pulled out of thin air. As a consequence, it's hard to make any kind of estimate of this sort, whether ten more were killed on the one side or the other is not a particularly entrancing subject as far as I'm concerned. Whether allegations can be proven it remains to be seen. I don't believe that the evidence of a planned extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe is holding up. I have been influenced over the years by the works of Paul Rassinier, and he still has to be reckoned with. His works have been ignored for a long time, and sooner or later somebody's going to have to do a decent job of coping with what he has presented. I think Rassinier's general case is sound at the moment and I haven't seen any strong evidence to upset his allegations or his assertions that there was no planned program for the extermination of European Jews. His other main case is that there were no gas chamber extermination programs. The fact that a great many people lost their lives is incontrovertible--that the German concentration camps weren't health centers is well known--but they appear to have been far smaller and much less lethal than the Russian ones. There are many other distinctions that can be made in an evaluation of concentration camp literature and all the long related barrage of atrocity literature.
I base my views mainly on examinations of atrocity stories from many past wars. The majority of them have not held up under successive decades of investigation. The ones of the First World War were exposed very quickly--most of those were quickly proven to have been inventions. But the political situation that followed the First World War encouraged that sort of thing. The political situation that followed the Second World War discouraged it. We essentially have a power situation today which hasn't changed much in 30 years and as a consequence it has been profitable to maintain a great many of the propaganda stories of the Second World War--they tend to support and hold up the whole structure of postwar politics. This again is an emotional issue of immense proportions and I don't figure it's very fruitful to engage in continued work on it, or wrangling, debate or what have you. To a large extent I'm attempting to attack it from the factual point of view. What can be verified--can go on the record. And the rest I dismiss as propaganda rhetoric.
REASON: For a number of years Rassinier's works haven't been available in English. Are a lot of people afraid to see them come to light?
MARTIN: I don't know who would suffer the most from exposure to Rassinier's objections to the standard line on the concentration camp literature; after all, he was in one or two of them for several months, long enough to get a good idea what it was like. Of course, there is a subordinate aspect of Rassinier's investigations: his charge that at least the German concentration camps were largely run from the inside by the German Communist Party, whose members were the first occupants of these camps and who managed to establish a cadre and control all the significant jobs in the crucial aspects of these camps. The work assignments, food, hospital care--almost every significant aspect in these areas were run by members of the KPD. And Rassinier was not the first person to point that out. One of our own official Army historians, Donald B. Robinson, revealed this as a long ago as 1946 with respect to at least two camps which the American Army took over at the end of the war. Who's likely to lose his job or his status for tackling this is another matter altogether. Probably it would be wise for members of the official, conventional, orthodox area to stay away from it. Barnes used to say that the ideal persons to tackle exposures of the excesses of the concentration camp literature producers would have to be either unemployed, retired, or terminally ill.
REASON: Many libertarians believe that centralized, socialistic regimes, or more statist regimes such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, invariably induce and cause aggressive wars and that it is the duty of so-called free governments to intervene in order to stop these aggressions, and that revisionism as such is nothing more than whitewashing of totalitarianism. What are your thoughts on this?
MARTIN: Well, the first thing is that I don't bother using the word aggression. I try to avoid it because I can't define it and if some wish to use this word the obligation is on them to tell us precisely what they mean by it. Committee of the League of Nations met for over 20 years trying to get to an agreement on the word aggression and never did and the committee of the United Nations has been doing the same thing for 30 years, and I don't believe they have come up with a satisfactory definition that will be acceptable to all the member states. So essentially you're left with a political dirty word which is applied to someone who is trying to change something. I'm not referring to a combat on a street where a hoodlum knocks you over the head and steals your purse. That's something far different from the language of statecraft, in which aggression almost always is charged against those who've found that the state of affairs that prevails is unsatisfactory, and lacking any other machinery for bringing about change, initiate some kind of action.
It's all very well to moan and wring one's hands in anguish over this situation. It's obviously to the advantage of someone who doesn't want any change to take place to ascribe some kind of sinister or criminal nature to the action of the individual or let us say the national community or its leaders who are trying to bring about change. John Foster Dulles dwelt on this in an entire book in the days before he became one of our proconsuls aiming at preventing change in the world, but unfortunately for many of the democratic states their history has been a downhill run in an attempt to preserve a status quo that has been changing whether they want it to or not, all throughout the 20th century. It's one of the unfortunate aspects of American policy to be caught almost all the time trying to prevent change from taking place and most of it we haven't prevented. It's a cheap shot to stand back and refer to those as aggressors who have changed things in ways we don't like and to call the changes aggression. The beneficiaries of the resulting changes don't look on it that way and you're left as a consequence with an unsolved problem--a collision of definitions of terms and strong possibility of mutual recrimination on the part of two sets of conflicting interests. The philosopher Spinoza used to say that wars were not conflicts between right and wrong, but between right and right.
REASON: What do you think of the current school of so-called Cold War revisionism? Such as William Appleman Williams, Kolko, Bernstein and so forth?
MARTIN: Well, I've never been completely carried away by it. There is a story there which probably has already been told in too great a degree on the basis of a small amount of evidence that can be located, mainly as a consequence of the stalemate that followed the conclusion of the last big war. What they are doing is trying to construct a story involving
"The German concentration camps weren't health centers, but they appear to have been far smaller and much less lethal than the Russian ones."
REASON: To play the devil's advocate, considering the fact that the Soviet Union has been invaded at least twice in history, and that Nazi Germany did use the East European satellites as supply bases against the Soviet Union, wouldn't the Soviet Union feel justified in taking over these areas as a security buffer?
MARTIN: You're dealing with an immediate set of situations which may or may not be valid depending on how you want to look at it. If you stand back far enough, of course, you'll observe that the Germans and Russians have been battling over who's going to control Central and Eastern Europe for centuries. Periodically they get together and divide what's between them and things go along quite well for quite a while. From the end of the 18th century to 1914 the Russians and Germans got along quite well. I don't know how that kind of situation is going to be solved. The Russians are there and the Germans are there and that's it. They've got to put up with each other and it's a long-range problem which will stretch out as long as either of the two remain ethnic entities so to speak.
In terms of the immediate temporary situation, I don't know what way to look at the situation without becoming a partisan on one or the other and as far as I'm concerned it's just another episode in a long, long story that stretches back for centuries in the same way that the French and German border struggles resulted in an interminable series of wars between those two states. The tendency, for instance, to abuse the Germans for the recent invasions of France overlooks a long string of invasions of the Germans by the French in the past. Napoleon used the whole country as a sort of a marching parade ground. There are earlier cases of repeated operations led by the French which produced incredible destruction and loss of life in the German area long before it was a national state. So it depends at what point along this continuum you wish to jump in with both feet and make your position.
The Russians in the creation of the Soviet Union have mobilized all kinds of non-Russian people and it appears to me that they're a minority in the Soviet Union--by the time you get through splitting off the various non-Russian ethnic groups that have been mobilized within the Soviet, you might say that the Soviet state itself is one vast experiment in imperialism. What they would do without the Ukrainians and the numerous other non-Russian peoples I don't know. It would be a far smaller community than it is. So again, it's an elaboration of what this word imperialism can be used for. Are they subject to the charge of having been imperialistic in compressing into their national state all these unwilling minorities? Each of them has a very vocal group over here reminding us of that. The so-called captive nations are endlessly propagandizing in America at specific occasions during the year reminding those who aren't from the Caucasus or Central or Eastern Europe about this fact of life. Whether they are doing anything practical or not is another matter. Again it's a case of not wishing to hold your breath to the point where the Soviet Union disintegrates into these constituent parts again.
REASON: What is your view of history as a field of study?
MARTIN: Well, essentially a history is a narrative--it's an attempt to get a grasp of the past and narrative is the fundamental of it. I don't believe that those who search for universal laws in history help you understand a great deal, although the attempt to blend in with it al whole bunch of scientific pretensions is still another aspect. To that extent I believe that most historians are going off in a totally different direction and probably are involved in some area of speculative philosophy more than they are with dealing with facts. I'm always sort of entranced with individuals who are searching for model patterns of behavior or laws of behavior or universals of some kind or another which presumably apply to the entire species. It's a kind of adventure that I've never had much taste for. It may in some ways reflect my rather proletarian attitude towards enterprise of that sort. There may be some validity to it. It may be simply a preoccupation of the academic community.
REASON: On another subject, Dr. Martin, among libertarians there's a lot of debate on the subject of natural rights. There are people who believe in them and there are people who say that a natural right is like a natural airplane. Since you've done some study on it when you did your work on Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner would you give us your comments on the idea of natural rights?
MARTIN:Well, of course, Spooner believed there were such things and Tucker didn't. What I did with these people was not necessarily to find some kind of synthesis which indicated that they're all one happy little group--in fact they're a bunch of jagged, diverse people who rarely saw eye to eye with each other on anything. And I didn't come to any immediate conclusions on the subject myself from studying these men except to notice that each of them had a totally different background and different tradition. Spooner was an 18th century man and Tucker was a 19th century man. And they argued from different positions because they were born at different times and listened to arguments which enhanced the position they took. Spooner, born in the aftermath of the American Revolution, and in the generation of the founding of the United States, of course was in an intellectual environment which was immersed with talk about natural rights. Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of the American Revolution can't escape that, which in turn indicates dependence on an even
"You might say that the Soviet state itself is one vast experiment in imperialism."
REASON: You have also talked about the Columbus complex of many libertarians. Would you care to elaborate on this?
MARTIN: I don't believe it's a weakness of just libertarians--it's a weakness of people in general who tend to be overly conscious of their own time and themselves, which is a natural propensity. People like
"I'm for what I call the unassociated, anonymous individual going the way which he prefers by himself."
REASON: In some quarters the opinion is often expressed that only two viable alternatives exist to oppose the creeping centralization that we find today. One of those alternatives is to man the barricades and to conduct active revolutionary activity against the established order. The other is to join in this political process either through the Libertarian Party or through some other organized political activities. What is your view as to these two alternatives, and your view as to whether the alternatives should be limited to just two?
MARTIN: Well, there's never just two ways to do anything. There are as many ways as there are people and I would not necessarily become involved in either of the two you mention--I'm for what I call the unassociated, anonymous individual going the way which he prefers by himself. He doesn't have to join
"I've been an unorganizable, stubborn and isolated crank all my life, and discovering there is a literary tradition behind it is a great event."
REASON: Would you regard "active violation of the law" to be a viable alternative in opposing the state?
MARTIN: It can be. It depends on the price you pay for it. And how it's done. Obviously a great many laws are violated all the time by people who don't publicize their behavior. I wouldn't necessarily go out on the street corner and bare my breast to the muskets of any established order just to demonstrate that I'm willing to defy their edicts. I'm for minimum compliance with anything that's been established as the correct behavior and I'm willing to let it go that far. We see thousand of violations of traffic laws and other minor legislation. The people involved probably aren't conscious of it or think about it as a program they have worked out in advance, but that happens to be what is going on. As far as publicizing such behavior, there again I run into a barrier on grounds of unworkability. I don't believe in preparing a manual so that someone can pursue me--what I call gratuitous self-exposure. Most of these things involve such private matters that I don't believe there's any profit in investigating them, at least with people who are circumspect to recognize this and believe that their behavior is their own business.
REASON: What first sparked your interest in individualist anarchism? Was it a person or a book?
MARTIN: Well, it's hard to pinpoint any particular catastrophic event that started it. I probably recognized my sympathy with ideas of that sort because it's simply a part of me, the way I've always been. I suppose I've been an unorganizable, stubborn and isolated crank all my life, and discovering there's a literary tradition behind it is of course a great event. But I can't think of anything specific other than a long period of exposure to these people, one by one.
REASON: One more question. Your ideas on the libertarian temperament are somewhat unorthodox among libertarians. Would you care to state what they are?
MARTIN: Well, I don't think they're original with me. But my attitude that seems to disturb the majority of people is my insistence on the biological and genetic basis for the substance of philosophic and ethical views and that's not something I invented, it was something I was exposed to years ago in the writings of the woman radical named Voltairine de Cleyre. She wrote to this effect around the turn of the century--a very much neglected and overlooked lady revolutionist and thinker of great importance in this country. I'm amazed that nobody's discovered her recently. Voltairine de Cleyre advanced the notion that at bottom, if you kept going down to the bottom, in an attempt to search out the reason for the existence of this or that individual attitude toward ethical, philosophical, and related questions, you got back down to a biological basis--what she called temperament--which was not capable of being understood or measured by any kind of rational approach; and that it was a genetic factor.
I mulled over that for a long, long time and am still doing so and am applying it everywhere I can. I can't find any way to crack her case, and as a result I've adopted it. It explains my attitude of casual lack of interest in propaganda tactics, in the hopes of maximizing the existing number of libertarians. In this I've been influenced by additional forces, including the whole circle of Ernest Armand in France in the 1920s and 1930s who mulled over the problem themselves to a great extent, wondering why the ranks of libertarians increased so slowly, if at all. And it has dawned on me over the years that Voltairine de Cleyre explained why--that there's a problem of the inability of the genetic process to produce libertarians in any larger volume than exists.
In looking over the scenery a little more closely I didn't see any evidence that persuasion by way of literature, conversation, preaching, psychic intimidation, nor any other known device, had maximized the number of such people and that in most cases in which it was reported by individuals that they had gone through some magical transformation from whatever they were to some libertarian position, all they had done was to find out what they really were.
"I'm satisfied that the ranks of libertarians will always be small."
REASON: Thank you very much, Dr. Martin.
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