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On The Rewriting of History

Originally published: Monthly Review on November 1982 by H. Bruce Franklin (more by Monthly Review)  | (Posted Jul 01, 2024)

Bruce Franklin’s November 1982 article in Monthly Review “On the Rewriting of History” is one of the classic works in the exposure of the workings of imperial ideology. It examined the changes made in 1979 to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s twenty-six-page article “Colonialism (c. 1450–c. 1970)” as compared to the 1974 edition. The first and shorter part of the original 1974 article, ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and was written by Charles E. Nowell, emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The second part, covering more than two hundred years up to 1970, including the Vietnam War, had been written by Harry Magdoff, coeditor of Monthly Review and author of The Age of Imperialism (1969). Franklin discovered that in the 1979 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Magdoff portion of the article had been lopped off beginning in 1919, and the later parts of his historical analysis were replaced by a piece by University of California Berkeley professor Richard Webster. Seeking to dispel any sense of U.S. imperialism, Webster, in what Encyclopedia Britannica said was meant to update Magdoff’s contribution, excluded the U.S. War in Vietnam altogether, ending the entry with the French Defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954! Franklin’s devastating analysis of these and other changes in the key article on colonialism/imperialism in what was then the premier English-language encyclopedia is reproduced in its entirety here. It is worth careful study for those concerned with similar manipulations occurring today.

—The Editors

Bruce Franklin teaches English literature at Rutgers University.

The current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (the fifteenth) appeared in 1974. Its form has been mildly controversial, being divided into a ten-volume “Micropedia” of short reference articles and a nineteen-volume “Macropedia” of in-depth discussions of important topics. Its content of course is not so obvious. However, the intellectual renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which had challenged the crippling anti­Communist dogmatism of the late 1940s and 1950s, did exert some influence on major articles in many fields of the 1974 edition.

One interesting example is the 26-page article in the Macropedia: “Colonialism (c. 1450–c. 1970).” The first section, written by Charles E. Nowell, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana, author of The Great Discoveries and the First Colonial Empires, leads up to the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ratified the global pre-eminence of the British Empire. The second and much longer section, chronicling and analyzing the subsequent rise and fall of colonialism through 1973, was authored by Harry Magdoff and is reproduced as the lead essay in his book Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (Monthly Review Press). The entire article achieves an admirable fusion of fact and analysis, providing an exceptionally useful tool for many purposes of reference and education.

In preparing my course “Literature of the Third World,” I found myself often consulting Magdoff’s section, which concisely and lucidly synthesizes the modern history of colonialism. One day about a year ago I was in a local library, doing some research for an article. To check my chronology I casually turned to the “Colonialism” article. Something seemed wrong. Was my memory playing tricks? Where was the discussion of neocolonialism? Of United States imperialism after the Second World War? Of the Vietnam war? And I hadn’t recalled Harry Magdoff writing an anti-Soviet diatribe in which the main effect of the Russian Revolution was portrayed as reestablishing the colonial empire of the tsars.

Looking more closely solved part of the mystery. The Encyclopedia Britannica in the library had been printed in 1979, and Magdoff’s section had been lopped off at 1914, with the period from the First World War to the present now being covered by Richard Webster, a Berkeley professor specializing in modern Italian history. This raised some new questions: What had led to the decision to scrap Magdoff’s discussion of events after 1914? When did this happen? What were the differences in content between Magdoff’s original piece and Webster’s substitute?

I raised the first two questions in a letter to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Here is their response, printed in full:

Dear Professor Franklin:

This is in reply to your letter of October 19. By the mid-1970s the article in question was somewhat out-of-date; the title itself, “Colonialism” (c. 1450-c. 1970), dated it. In late 1976, Professor Webster was asked to rewrite the final section of the article for publication in the 1978 printing of Britannica.

It is true, of course, that more was involved than simply datedness. The article had been criticized in the press for bias. One point raised was the total omission of information on Soviet colonialism.

The article was subsequently reviewed by our own advisers and judged to be not up to the standard of Britannica objectivity; it was thus recommissioned.

This letter speaks volumes.

I thought that a detailed comparison of the two articles should provide a laboratory test of this “standard of Britannica objectivity,” useful in comprehending the ideological content of this most respected Anglo-American reference work. What I discovered was a stunning display of the crucial differences between the two main competing methods of historical analysis in today’s world.

Click here to read this article in full at monthlyreview.org.