What Does "Revisionist" Mean? Discussion July 1996

Query From Adele Fletcher
a.fletcher@phil.canterbury.ac.nz 02 July 1996

Hi There,

I am an interdisciplinary scholar so I hope I am not burdening an historical list with a question that is too basic.

In my desperate efforts to keep up with what's happening among historians at the more general theoretical level-I've run into the word "revisionist" fairly often now. It appears to be used by some writers as an implicitly pejorative term-as in "making up stories" e.g., some of really appalling works which deny that the Holocaust ever happened etc.

Yet I think I've seen it used as an implicitly positive term to refer to historical works which focus on gender and/or women. On the other hand, I've heard an historian refer scathingly to women's history as "revisionist"-meaning it pejoratively.

So is there any consensus among historians about what revisionism is-is the term generally used negatively or positively? Or both? Is it possible to use the term neutrally, to simple mean e.g., "rethinking conceptual categories and re-evaluating the evidence?" Or is it best to avoid the term altogether?

Is there a good article out there on this that I should know about? Thank you.

Responses:

>From Katherine Burger Johnson
kbjohn01@ulkyvum.Louisville.edu 03 July 1996

I have had the same problem with this word. It's like the word feminist, it seems to mean whatever the speaker intends and may change as the listener absorbs. I see it in a positive light, but I know there are many who view "revisionism" as trying to change history in a negative way. I see it as correcting mis-information. What do the rest of you think?

>From Rob Kruszynski rgk@nhm.ac.uk 03 July 1996

Here's my tuppence just to get the ball rolling (perhaps)...

My understanding of the word "revisionism" is that it was first used as a word of abuse by orthodox Marxists from about 1885 or so to describe the writings of Marxist writer Edward Bernstein (1850 to about 1920 or so) who had extensively used the writings of Marx and Engels to argue for change through evolution rather than revolution.

Bernstein's writings were seen as *misinterpretation* of the sacred Marxist canon by many Marxists and the word revisionism was used (pejoratively) to describe what Bernstein had done.

My *suspicion* is that unless you are using the word in a positive way your average reader will see it as a pejorative term. (But I might be wrong about that!) I would *like* it to be a neutral word (so to speak) with it incumbent on the reader to figure for themselves if it is used positively or negatively. This is not likely to happen because the term is used in a negative (pejorative) way in relation to certain writers whose writings (whether they intend it or not) deny the reality of the Holocaust in whole or in part.

>From Laura Sinclair Odelius odelius@nwu.edu 31 July 1996

I was hoping more people would pick up the ball on this query. I think it's an excellent question, but I'm a little nervous about tackling it myself. Perhaps you should repeat the query in a month or so when people in the northern hemisphere begin to return to their offices and computers. I'm sure there are more opinions out there.

"Revisionist" history, as I understand it, varies widely in content and approach depending on the field of study. Even the use of the word is not consistent. I have a friend who accuses her 5 year-old daughter of practicing historical revisionism: at a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's (a VERY stimulating, child-oriented pizza restaurant hosted by a giant mouse) the girl cowered under the table the whole time, even asking permission to eat her pizza down there; yet as soon as they left the restaurant she began to talk excitedly about the whole event, finally concluding that "Chuck E. Cheese is a nice man"--and she can't wait to go back. This is revisionism in the pejorative sense--choosing an interpretation of history that conflicts with "actual" events (presumably as confirmed by witnesses or authorities). However, "revisionism" is also applied--and frequently self-applied--to historical work that deliberately challenges accepted "authoritative" interpretations, claiming that these interpretations are wrong/incomplete because the authorities/traditions on which they are based are corrupt/biased. Nearly all women's history and gender history that I have read fits this description of revisionism. Certainly many statements about the basic goals of women's and gender history use precisely these terms (e.g., Joan Kelly, Joan Wallach Scott, Karen Offen). Revisionism in this sense is a positive force to those who practice it. Of course, to the people they challenge, it may appear threatening, unfairly picky, over politicized, or deliberately wrong-headed. Revisionism is also, in this sense, an abstract force--all historical work has the potential to be revisionist if it challenges accepted views. Where this gets sticky is with the passage of time--if certain groups/persons claim the title "Revisionist", what do we call the generation of writing that follows? Are those who revise the revisionists anti-revisionist? post-revisionist? or still--in the abstract sense--revisionist?

As I said, the actual content and approach of "revisionism" varies according to the field. For example, works that challenge the revolutionary nature of the French revolution or the Industrial Revolution may be considered revisionist. Revisionism is frequently associated with social history in general and Marxism and economistic analytical methods in particular. (Rob Kruszynski's comment that "Revisionism" was originally a term of abuse for those who deviated from the Marxist standard is interesting in this regard.) This is especially true of studies of colonialism and imperialism, and in "non-Western" fields. I've found the introductory essays in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman's Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (Columbia UP, 1994) helpful in explaining the basic direction of revision and reaction in colonial studies. But not all revisionism is Marxist or economistic. In British history, J.C. D. Clark's English Society 1688-1832 (Cambridge UP, 1985), is decidedly anti-Marxist (in fact, he deplores Marxist influences in historical writing); nevertheless his portrayal of the English "Ancient Regime" has sparked an ongoing reappraisal of 18th-century British politics and historiographers seem content to label him a revisionist.

Perhaps revisionism is more easily identified where one historical interpretation has very high political/moral stakes attached to it. We all know what "Revisionism" means in relation to the history of World War II and the Holocaust. In Irish history, revisionism began by challenging the "Irish-Ireland" tradition of history, which claimed the Irish people are a unified Celtic nation oppressed throughout their history by English/British imperialism. Revisionists questioned, among other things, the mythological scope of Irish suffering, and employed statistical methods to analyze the 1845-51 famine. They were deeply criticized by historians and politicians for this, accused of sucking the blood and heart out of Irish history and stealing the Irish story from Ireland's children. More recently, though, historians have begun using revisionist methods to verify that, in fact, Irish suffering during the famine was just about as extreme as traditionally held. The April 1996 issue of The Journal of British Studies contains several articles on trends in British and Irish revisionism.

I don't know of just one article which effectively sums up revisionism in general. Perhaps someone else does. Perhaps, too, someone else can flesh out my rather raw description of revisionism and provide some concrete references. I hope this had been helpful, nonetheless.


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