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The New International, January 1945


Martin Harvey

Charles and Mary Beard

A Review of Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, A Basic History of the United States,
New Home Library ed., New York, 1944


From New International, Vol. XI No. 1, January 1945, pp. 30–31.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Beards’ Basic History of the United States has been much heralded as the final work of these outstanding American historians. As the culmination of their lifelong research and writing in the field of American history it demands attention. The stature of the book is, of course, increased by the stature it the authors. The Beards’ reputation in their field is entirely warranted since they so obviously stand head and shoulders over any other American historian. Errors and defects in the Basic History are, therefore, not merely a criticism of the Beards but of all bourgeois historical writing, of which they are the best example.

The Development of the Beards

The development of the Beards from their early economic determinism has been considerable – and not unnatural. Their economic determinism, unlike historical materialism with which it is often confused, did not provide a sure guide to the understanding of history. As was most clearly exemplified in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, their economic determinism consisted in demonstrating the immediate and personal economic interests of individuals, listing, for example, the stocks and securities held by the members of the constitutional convention. They had no concept whatever of class in the operation of society, unless a vague realization that there were rich and poor constitutes such a concept. But the Basic History is a long way from even this primitive economic determinism – and in the wrong direction. The guiding factors in American history are now idealistic mumblings about the American Dream and the American Spirit.

The difficulties entailed in writing history from an idealistic point of view and the confusion and misconceptions which it generates become clear when we consider specific examples. For the purposes of this review only a few will be used. There are more – in sufficient numbers to annoy the most phlegmatic person.

Of particular interest and importance is the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction. From the very start we detect some backsliding. No longer is the chapter on Civil War entitled The Second American Revolution as it was in the Rise of American Civilization. It is now National Unity Sealed in Armed Contest. And the change in titles is a reflection of the change in contents. The tremendous expansion of Northern industry during the war, the shift in weight from commercial to industrial capital, the Homestead Act which distributed huge sections of the Western lands to small settlers and the establishment of the hegemony of industrial capitalism over the federal government all receive secondary treatment. What is significant to the Beards is the political maneuvering of Republican and Democratic statesmen. The war was simply a political affair, a matter of preserving unity in the government and the nation.

Their failure to understand the basic class causes of the war is, of course, reflected in their failure to understand Reconstruction. To them there were two sides to the controversy. Those who favored the so-called presidential plan supported by Lincoln and Johnson were those who wanted merely national unity and, having achieved that, were satisfied with mild treatment to the Southern rebels. Opposed to this mild plan was the Congressional plan, pressed for by the radical Republicans in Congress. The basis for the “firm” plan was the desire to make the Civil War a war for liberty, for Negro freedom. “Utopians,” say the Beards, referring to the radical Republicans, “who had wanted to make the whole war a war for liberty yearned to hold the Southern states down, utterly destroy the great landlord class by the confiscation of its estates, divide the land among the Negroes and poor white fanners who had been loyal to the Union, give the suffrage and full civil rights to the hitherto dispossessed, and force upon the defeated Confederacy the principles of liberty that Thomas Jefferson had celebrated as the perfect good.” (Page 289) In a deprecating manner, the Beards refer to the plan of the radicals as “almost if not entirely, arbitrary in nature.” (Page 291)

The Classes in the Civil War

These misconceptions can be cleared away if you examine the relation of the different classes to the war. Why did the federal government wage war against the Confederacy? To preserve national unity? True. But why did they wish to preserve this unity? And on what basis? They could have let the South secede and let it go at that. Or they could have accepted the conditions of the Southern planters and slaveowners and maintained the Union on the basis of their program. They didn’t do either of these things – and not because they were great believers in the American Spirit.

Basic to the Civil War and to Reconstruction was the fundamental conflict between the industrial bourgeoisie and the slavocracy. The earlier commercial capitalism could live at peace with the slave system. It was concerned essentially with buying and selling, not with producing. The commodities bought and sold were overwhelmingly agricultural – produced by the free farmers of the North and the slaves of the South. With the rise of industrial capital, however, freedom to buy and sell was not sufficient. Industrial capitalism, to protect its market, needed tariff walls and could not go along with Southern free trade policies as commercial capitalism had done. It needed room to expand and came into conflict with the slavocracy in the West into which the Southern planters were also moving. The South needed slavery in the West to replenish worn-out lands and to keep and extend its political power over the nation. Industrial capital could compromise with the South – and then only temporarily – only on the basis of a free West and a protective tariff. But that meant the economic and political death of the slave system.

In Reconstruction, the program of industrial capitalism was the presidential plan, supported by both Lincoln and Johnson. This program was not concerned with freedom or liberty. (It was not until after two years of war that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the Negroes in Confederate territory.) The economic power of the planting class had been ruined during the war. The possibility that the planters could regain control of the federal government was gone for all time. Why should they bother their heads about the freed Negroes, their civil liberties or economic rights? The Negroes were free in the only sense which mattered to the big bourgeoisie: They were free to work for wages. The big bourgeoisie traditionally fears the extension of democratic rights. Who knows where such things lead? They were having enough trouble with the free farmers and mechanics in the North and West.

The aims of this huge middle class dovetailed in with those of the capitalist class at the outset of the war. Their primary concern – and in this they were supported and aided by the relatively small working class – was cheap land in a free West. They were driven by their opposition to slavery and to the competition of slave labor. They had their points of difference with the big bourgeoisie – opposition to a protective tariff, for example – but these considerations were secondary. It was from this militant democracy that the Abolitionist movement was formed. And it found at least partial expression in the government through the radical Republicans and the congressional plan of Reconstruction. But, despite their temporary ascendancy in Congress, the big bourgeoisie had its way. The failure to divide the land in the South among the Negroes and poor whites prevented the construction of an economic base for bourgeois democracy. Soon after federal troops were removed from the South the democratic state governments were overthrown and “white supremacy” reigned supreme. In the end the petty bourgeoisie not only lost in the South but was crushed to the earth throughout the nation as industrial capital, already beginning to unite with finance capital, established its uncontested rule over the entire economy and the national government itself

The Question of Imperialism

This inability of the Beards to relate historical events to the classes and conflict between the classes existent in society is further illustrated in their attitude toward imperialism and war. Imperialism becomes in their hands an evil policy foisted upon the nation by unscrupulous politicians who seek to divert the minds of the people from domestic problems. Say the Beards:

“If the politicians were to hold power or to get it if out of office, some new instrument was necessary and they found it in imperialist prophecy ... No less important in imperialist calculations was a realization among the shrewder politicians that a foreign war and a ‘strong’ foreign policy would in themselves divert the attention of the people from their domestic tribulations and program of reform.” (Page 541)

Their opposition to imperialism is based on the outworn arguments of pacifists that the cost to the nation of maintaining colonies is greater than the value returned in either markets or sources of raw materials. With an analysis such as that, their support of the present imperialist war occasions no surprise – it is impossible to detect its imperialist nature. Their criticism of imperialist war gets weaker as they approach the year 1944. The Spanish-American War was foisted on the country by imperialistic politicians. It was an evil war for conquest. World War I – certain of the results belied the slogan of “war for democracy,” but we were really forced into it. World War II – we were attacked. Not everything was done that was possible to keep us out of war; but we were attacked anyway, so it makes little difference.

The only way to stand this crazy structure on its feet again is to get to the basic question – imperialism. The policy of imperialism makes sense only when considered as a policy flowing from the economy of a class society, as the policy of a class. Colonies don’t benefit the “nation”? Naturally. The policy of imperialism is the policy of the capitalist class in a certain – the final – stage of its existence. It “benefits” that class. In fact (not in the world of the American Dream) imperialism is finance capitalism. The two are identical. You can as easily request the capitalists (and the politicians who represent them) to cease and desist in their imperialist-policy as you can ask them to vanish into thin air. Finance capitalism is driven by the falling rate of profit, by the process of capital accumulation, by the shrinking home market to turn its eyes abroad. It must export capital, seek foreign markets, secure sources of raw material and establish military bases. In doing this it comes into conflict with other imperialist powers attempting the identical thing, powers which must be eliminated, by “peaceful,” economic means if possible, by military means if necessary. And military means invariably become necessary.

A Fantastic Solution

Even this primitive sketch indicates how fantastic is the proposal, implicit in the position of the Beards, that capitalism should solve its problems at home instead of seeking solutions abroad. But then, can a solution to the problem of war appear without an understanding of the nature of imperialist war? The Beards seem to be opposed to war. In their own minds they undoubtedly are. But their program, the program of isolationism (in its pacifist form, not in its Hearst-McCormick-Hoffman form) is a pro-war program. It accepts the rule of finance capital and serves only to sow the illusion that it is possible to end war without ending the predatory system that breeds war. Invariably, when you get down to a specific, and especially the current, war, the Beards and the rest of their “humanity-loving” clan can be found on the same side as the recruiting sergeant.

As it is with the rise to full power of American capitalism, as it is with imperialist war, so is it with everything else. History becomes accidental, is based on the whims of politicians or the stupidity of the people. Tying all this together is a mystic idea. An idea which explains nothing, teaches nothing, in short, means nothing. All purpose in writing or reading history is lost. One then reads history for entertainment or to reminisce. To attempt to apply the lessons of the past to the present and the future is futile, for the past teaches no lessons, provides no rules, divulges no laws.

It is when compared to the best in bourgeois historical writing that the historical materialism of Marx and the followers of Marx reaches its full stature. To the revolutionary socialist, history has meaning and purpose. Its meaning: the laws of development of capitalist society. Its purpose: to destroy that society and build a world for free men.

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