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The Skeptical Politics of Herbert Butterfield

Mises Daily: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by


[Herbert Butterfield: History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics • By Kenneth B. McIntyre • Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011 • Xv + 238 pages]

Kenneth McIntyre has given us a deeply thoughtful and erudite account of one of the greatest 20th-century historians, Hebert Butterfield. I should like to concentrate on an aspect of Butterfield's thought likely to be of considerable interest to libertarians, especially libertarians who follow Murray Rothbard. Butterfield, though not himself a libertarian, viewed with alarm the power of the state. He would have agreed with Burckhardt that "power is evil." Power, he thought, often disguises itself in self-righteousness: a powerful state will endeavor to portray itself as the champion of the good, locked in battle with the forces of evil.

Such ideological distortions were especially characteristic of the 20th century, and Butterfield developed in response a resolutely revisionist account of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. To understand this account, we need to sketch the background of the pre-20th-century European state system.

This system developed in reaction to the immensely destructive Wars of Religion. Following the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the European states deliberately endeavored to limit war and to avoid ideological conflicts. The arrangements they arrived at were far from ideal; but in this vale of tears, utopian schemes that seek to impose perpetual peace, blind to the reality of original sin, invite disaster. (Butterfield, it is essential to realize, writes as an Augustinian Christian for whom original sin is of prime significance.)

As Butterfield noted,

in the background of eighteenth-century thought there was the repeated remembrance of a past, still fairly recent, but darker than anything else — the cruel Wars of Religion … against the notion of a uniform Empire with a uniform culture, they [the creators and defenders of the Westphalian system] promoted the idea of a civilization fundamentally one but broken into panes of many-colored glass — achieving greater richness through the variety of its local manifestations. (p. 148, quoting Butterfield)

The Westphalian system was sharply interrupted but not permanently frustrated by the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress of Vienna reverted to the older tradition; and whatever the defects of the monarchical European states in the 19th century, global war was avoided for a century.

World War I replaced this nonideological system with a different view, and Butterfield did not see this as a change for the better.

Butterfield points to World War I as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century because it shattered the old order, replacing it with a series of wishful but vacuous platitudes and creating the conditions in which the rise of totalitarian ideologies became possible. He writes that "in 1919 men had no feeling that an international order had been destroyed through a war that had broken all rules for the maintenance of such a system. They felt on the contrary that, in a 'war for righteousness,' the last seat of evil had been eliminated and now, for the first time in history, an international order had been installed." (pp. 150–51, quoting Butterfield).

It is evident that Butterfield was no Wilsonian.[1]

One objection to Butterfield's account is the claim that Germany sought in 1914 to overturn the European state system through a ruthless grasp for world power. Owing to German aggression, a limited response in the old style was no longer possible. McIntyre unfortunately does not discuss this point, but it is clear that Butterfield firmly rejected the thesis of Fritz Fischer and his acolytes of sole German culpability for the outbreak of war. Rather he was inclined to stress that Germany in the years before 1914 had a justified fear of the growth of Russian power. Butterfield

brooded on the dangers of a generation so obsessed by the Hitler years that they forgot the [revisionist] scholarship of the 1920s … and saw nothing but poison in the German past. Inevitably these feelings brought from him a fierce response to Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961) and the later complementary volume by Immanuel Geiss.[2]

Butterfield's praise for limited diplomacy must confront another challenge. Even if the harsh settlement of Versailles led to the rise of Hitler, is it not true that once that monstrously evil figure had come to power, a war of annihilation against his regime was necessary? Butterfield is well aware of the evils of Nazism, bur he doubts the Manichean terms in which World War II is often framed:

The great failure in both world wars, according to Butterfield, was the Western allies' decision to ignore the realities of the balance of power and, instead, to insist that they were fighting wars of righteousness. Butterfield writes that "we may wonder sometimes whether Russia was so much more virtuous than Germany as to make it worth the lives of tens of millions of people in two wars to ensure that she … should gain such an unchallenged and exclusive hold over that line of Central European States as Germany never held in all her history." The problem in Central and Eastern Europe was the balance of power between Russia and Germany, and the destruction of either state was foolhardy precisely because it inevitably created the conditions in which one power could dominate the whole region. (pp. 152–53, quoting Butterfield)

Butterfield's less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward the wars against Germany earned for him the disdain of the neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, and McIntyre has an appropriately severe comment:

In what is easily the worst essay ever written on Butterfield, Gertrude Himmelfarb attacks Butterfield for not displaying sufficient hatred of the Germans during the first half of the twentieth century and for repeating this wickedness by insufficiently hating the Russians in the second half of the same century. For Himmelfarb, Butterfield's primary problem is that he is not self-righteous enough. (p. 223, note 126)

It should come as no surprise that Butterfield viewed American conduct of the Cold War with grave misgiving, and the American "victory" in that conflict would not have pleased him either. (Butterfield died in 1979, long before the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

A multipolar world is inherently valuable because it allows states a great deal more flexibility and it preserves their independence. The bipolar Cold War and the unipolar American hegemony which followed have rendered states much more susceptible to manipulation by the primary powers or power. (p. 145)

Like Murray Rothbard, he did not take the revolutionary rhetoric of world communism as an insurmountable bar to peaceful accommodation:

Butterfield always believed that, given enough time, revolutionary and ideological states could eventually become partners in defending an international order in order to defend their own continued existence and because the exigencies of the international predicament would encourage such normalization of relations … the experience of Western liberal democracies with the People's Republic of China has supported Butterfield's general notions. (p. 140)

If Professor McIntyre were to read this review, he could with entire justice complain that I have given a misleading account of his book. Butterfield's views on foreign policy are only one of the topics he covers. It is in regard to one of these other topics that I should like to raise an objection to Butterfield's views. McIntyre devotes great attention to Butterfield's depiction of the "historical revolution." This refers to the development of history as a technical discipline, culminating in the work of Leopold von Ranke in the 19th century. Here the aim is to discover what actually happened in the past.

In contrast, the "practical conception of the past" understands history in relation to the religious beliefs or political aims of a particular community. Butterfield does not reject the practical conception, so long as it is not confused with technical history. His most famous work, The Whig Conception of History, criticized the anachronistic reading of the

English past in terms of a story of the progress of Protestantism, parliamentary power, and liberty, and … a general tendency or attitude toward the past which conceives of the past primarily or solely in terms of its contribution to a current state of affairs. (p. 8)

But this criticism did not prevent Butterfield in The Englishman and His History (1944) from himself undertaking a Whig interpretation of English history. In the latter book, his purpose was not to write technical history; rather, Butterfield "always thought" of the book "as his contribution to the British war effort." (p. 63). E.H. Carr was then wrong to tax Butterfield with contradiction for writing the sort of Whig history he had earlier condemned: technical and practical or prophetic histories have different purposes.

The problem I have in mind concerns the assertions made in practical history. Ordinarily, when we assert something, we are asserting it to be true. Does the practical historian intend us to take the statements he makes about the past as true? If he does not, what does he take himself to be doing when he makes such statements? If he does claim to be asserting true claims about the past, what are his grounds for doing so, given that he by hypothesis has not followed the canons of technical history but has rather viewed the past from the standpoint of present concerns? Of what use, e.g., are Butterfield's searching accounts of the Westphalian system and its overthrow in the 20th century unless what he says about these matters is true?

Butterfield appears to have enmeshed himself in an epistemological tangle. The confusion becomes even worse when one recalls that Butterfield, apparently influenced by his friend Michael Oakeshott's Experience and Its Modes, held that not even technical history offers fully true statements. Instead, technical history considers the world from a particular perspective: "For Butterfield, science, like history, is best understood as a conditional way of conceiving the world which is satisfactory in a provisional way but ultimately inadequate in explaining the meaning of human existence" (p. 87). I cannot argue the point here, but I venture to suggest that this position cannot stand. If you assert something, you assert it to be true, and you cannot at the same time say that it is "ultimately" untrue.

McIntyre displays great learning, but I note a few points of disagreement. It is surprising that in his references on the 18th-century Göttingen historians (p. 194, note 47), he does not cite the standard work of Peter Hanns Reill, The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism (University of California Press, 1975). When Imre Lakatos said that "the history of science should be written as it should have taken place" (p. 196, note 63), this did not commit him to a Whig conception of the history of science. I doubt that Oakeshott's target in his criticism of sociological explanations of human action was Peter Winch's Wittgenstinian The Idea of a Social Science(pp. 204–205, note 116). Winch was himself a strong critic of Durkheim and conventional sociology. Winch's book, by the way, criticizes Oakeshott's account of morality. The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's name is misspelled "Le Roy Ledurie" (p. 38, also p. 184, note 96).

But these are mere cavils, and I highly recommend McIntyre's masterful study. It is well known that McIntyre is no admirer of Leo Strauss and his school, and his mordant remarks on the eminent Straussian Harvey Mansfield's articles on Sir Lewis Namier should not be missed (p. 205, note 120).


[1] Butterfield's view of the Westphalian system is strikingly similar to that of Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (Telos Press 2003). See my review in The Mises Review (Summer 2003). [227] For an excellent discussion of the pre–World War I limits on war, see F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism (C.C. Nelson, 1953). For an informative account of Butterfield's views on diplomacy, not cited in McIntyre's bibliography, see Leonard P. Liggio, "Herbert Butterfield: Christian Historian as Creative Critic" in New Individualist Review November 1961).

[2] Michael Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield (Cambridge 2011), p. 289.