Dr. David Sowell, Associate Professor of History at Juniata College, presented the essays in this inaugural issue of Juniata Voices as a series of five lively and well-attended evening lectures during the fall semester of 1992. The lectures were hosted by Sigma Iota Rho (the international relations honor society) and the Department of History to commemorate the 500th anniversary of contact between peoples of the "old" and "new" worlds. As Dr. Sowell makes clear, the lectures also commemorate the initiation of Europe’s conquest of the Americas and, indeed, of the world.
In these essays, Dr. Sowell presents a picture of the European conquest that is very different from the one most readers of traditional American history have come to expect. Writing what is known as "revisionist history," Dr. Sowell critiques the actions of European conquerors rather than glorifying their exploits, he questions their justifications for conquest rather than seeing conquest as "progress" or the inevitable outcome of European destiny, and he attempts to understand the meanings and effects of conquest through the eyes of the Amerindians.
Dr. Sowell’s lucid revisionist essays confront us with an interesting question. Why, in 1993, is Juniata College publishing a set of essays that run counter to hundreds of years of traditional historical interpretation? What has changed to make contemporary historians view American history through a revisionist lens? The answer, I think, is rooted in the turmoil that engulfed the European intellectual community at the end of the First World War.
The First World War devastated Europe. Eastern France was a wasteland, Germany was defeated and humiliated, and all of Europe was traumatized by four years of stalemated war and ten million deaths. The questions of how and why a generation of young men was led to destruction consumed the European intellectual community. How could such ruthless power perpetuate itself? One answer came out of a group of scholars at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. They argued that history and art are manipulated by the politically powerful to support and legitimate their authority. History that gives legitimacy to alternative political structures or actors is discredited and suppressed. Art that provides alternative visions of reality and the natural world is labeled decadent and also suppressed. By suppressing alternative histories and visions of the world, those in power use history and art to make their authority seem the end product of history and part of the natural order of things.
These scholars of what has come to be known as the Frankfurt School of critical theory also argued that intellectual activity itself supported those in power. They argued that intellectuals were, in part, culpable for political disasters such as the First World War unless they actively resisted the ambitions of those in power, who used their intellectual activity to legitimate existing power structures. These critical theorists called upon artists to create art that challenged the natural order, for authors and composers to create literature and music with alternative forms, alternative messages, alternative meanings from classical or traditional ones. Out of theses calls for change (as well as the general cultural rancor that itself sparked critical theory) emerged the Surrealist movement of the 1920s. Critical theorists called perhaps most strongly for historians to write alternative histories, histories that challenge the authority of those in power, histories of those who have no power, histories of "the people without history."
Many critical theorists saw the rise of German Nazism in 1930s as a validation of their ideas. By the late 1930s much of their work had been officially discredited and was actively suppressed by the Nazis. Most of the critical theorists fled Europe, many moving to the United States (a group of them founded the New School for Social Research in New York), spreading their ideas to a generation of American scholars. By the 1960s, alternative art, music, literature, and, to some extent, history of the kind espoused by critical theorists had made broad inroads into Western intellectual life. But it became clear by the late 1960s that Western democratic governments would attempt to discredit and suppress these alternatives, as had the Nazis before them. The French government’s closing of the University of Paris’s Nanterre campus against a group of student demonstrators in May of 1968 became a symbol of this suppression. The ensuing riots, as much intellectual as physical, engulfed all of France, initiated the collapse of the Gaullist republic, and launched some of the most important intellectual movements of the late twentieth century (particularly post-structuralism). What had become obvious to the rioters in France, to students on campuses across the United States (who were also rioting), and indeed to intellectuals around the Western world, was that all political leaders, even those of supposedly "free" Western democracies, manipulated history and art to their own purposes, actively suppressing alternatives. Revisionist history of the kind presented by Dr. Sowell is a product of this realization.
This is admittedly a one-sided view of twentieth-century intellectual history. Indeed, Dr. Sowell suggested to me that he finds the intellectual roots of his brand of history in Latin America, not Europe. He explained that the Mexican revolution and the indigenous Latin American intellectual movements of the 1920s, which sought to reshape Latin American society, were more influential to revisionist history as he practices it than the First World War or Western intellectual movements that sought to reshape Western society. My seemingly one-sided, Western view of the origins of revisionist history, however, demonstrates the point I want to make. We should not accept my Western perspective as the only correct or true one, just as Dr. Sowell suggests we should not accept the traditional (and, again, Western) history of European conquest as the only valid or true one. As the critical theorists argued, we should be seeking alternative histories, we should be embracing the different understandings that various perspectives can offer. This, indeed, is the "revisionist" approach.
A comment made during the discussions that followed Dr. Sowell’s public presentation of the fifth essay contained in this volume expands my point. A member of the audience suggested that Juniata’s Biblical motto, "truth sets free," if seen from the perspective of the Amerindians against whom the Bible was used as a weapon to justify conquest and destruction, might be more accurately read as "truth enslaves." Critical theorists and revisionist historians would certainly agree. If we seek to use history as a means of gaining the ultimate truth about the past, if we seek the ideal of telling history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, we are doomed to failure, and our failure will enslave us to the history we have created. Our failure will not, however, enslave us into repeating history (as has so often been suggested), but rather enslave us into creating a future in the likeness of the histories we write, because our histories support, legitimate, and perpetuate the very structures of power that mold and shape our future.
What this means for contemporary history, for the history written by scholars like Dr. Sowell, is that if we do not want to glorify conquest in our future, then we cannot write histories that do. If we do not want to destroy other cultures in our future, then we cannot write histories that justify cultural destruction. Most important, however, it means that although it is impossible to truly know the past (and, indeed, potentially dangerous to believe we truly know the past), we can seek to understand how we understand the past, how we use the past. History, as written here, does not tell us the way it truly was, but more the way it truly is. I began this introduction with the question why the history of the European conquest is being revised in the 1990s by scholars like Dr. Sowell. The answer is that history changes, that history is socially created, and that history tells us as much about ourselves and our future as about our past.
Peter N. Peregrine