What We’re Reading: Oct. 17-21


This week’s must-read, for college teachers especially: Eli Saslow, The white flight of Derek Black (Washington Post)

An amazing documentary about women in Saudi Arabia, with fascinating echoes of nineteenth-century Britain: Mona El-Naggar, ‘Ladies First’: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates (NYT)

Peter Frankopan, A city of ashes (The Times)

Debbie Cameron, a linguistic and sociological perspective On Banter, Bonding and Donald Trump (language: a feminist guide)

Jacob Silverman, Hotdogs in Zion, on Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park (Baffler)

Sewell Chan, Britain Will Posthumously Pardon Thousands of Gay and Bisexual Men (but maybe this isn’t such a good idea) (NYT)

Mary Beard, Antigone in 1939 (A Don’s Life)


Ian Johnson, “China: The Virtues of the Awful Convulsion” (NYRB)

Christy Wampole, “My Syllabus Myself” (“The Stone” New York Times)

Frank Lidz, “Newly Discovered Letters Bring New Insight Into the Life of a Civil War Soldier” (Smithsonian)

Lorrie Moore, “The Case of O.J. Simpson” (NYRB)


Matthew Karp, “The New World Order” (Boston Review)

Michael C. Behrent, “Bobos in Paradise: The Rise and Fall of a Multicultural Fantasy” (LARB)

John Baskin, “The Perspective of Terrence Mallick” (The Point)

Nicola Schulman, “The Genius of the Place” (New Criterion)

Whitney Martinko, “A Natural Representation of Market-Street, in Philadelphia”: An Attribution, a Story, and Some Thoughts on Future Study” (Common Place)


Eurasian Enigma: Conflict and Ideology in Cold War Afghanistan with Timothy Nunan (Harvard Davis Center)

Benjamin Brice, « Le temps des idées » (La vie des idées)

Dorothea Dieckmann, »Das wahre Leben ist die Literatur« (Deutschlandfunk)

Colin McCabe, “How John Berger Taught Us To See” (Prospect Magazine)

Frank Furedi, “Bookish fools” (Aeon)

Éric Méchoulan (trans. Lucy Garnier), “The Weight of Memory” (Books and Ideas)

Stefan Müller-Doohm, »Eine schillernde Eichendorff-Gestalt« (NZZ)

Marshall Poe interviews Nile Green on his new book Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam (Oxford UP, 2015; New Books in History)

Marshall Poe interviews Arie L. Molendijk on his new book Friedrich Max Muller and the Sacred Books of the East (Oxford UP, 2016; New Books in History)

Sam Tanenhaus, “Rise of the Reactionary” (The New Yorker)

And finally, « À propos de la bibliothèque idéale » (1988; via INA)


Ursula K. Le Guin, “I Wish We Could All Live in a Big House with Unlocked Doors” (Guardian)

Sarah Leonard and Ann Snitow, “The Kids Are Alright: A Legendary Feminist on Feminism’s Future” (The Nation)

Allison Meier, “Edward Weston Took Photographs for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass” (Hyperallergic)

Claudia Rankine, “Why I’m Spending $625,000 To Study Whiteness” (Guardian)

Histories We Repeat

by guest contributor Timothy Scott Johnson

 You know, I’ve always been suspicious of analogies. But now I find myself at a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies, and I’m beginning to wonder if by any chance there isn’t a reason.

            Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (William Weaver, trans.)

Analogies abound in historical writing. Despite their near-ubiquity, however, I find historical analogies drastically under-examined in modern historical analysis. When examined, they usually emerge under the rubric of explaining why one historian’s analogical reasoning proves defective. But examining historical analogies used by our historical subjects can prompt us to ask larger, important questions.

The work done by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White on historical tropes and metaphor, Reinhart Koselleck on concepts, and Hans Blumenberg on myth and metaphor all importantly contributed to the study of historical representation. None directly address analogies as such, however. At best, they treat analogy as a subset of metaphor, one in which the connecting logics are perhaps more clearly (or crudely) asserted than in mythic or metaphoric representation. Whereas myth and metaphor tend to be impressionistic with underlying logics pushed to the background, process and structure are foregrounded in historical analogy. Processes, narratives, and historicities embed themselves in historical analogies.

Analogies themselves are one of the key ways of thinking difference and similarity. Accordingly, we should not be all that surprised that the likes of Kant, Humboldt, and Droysen foreground the analogy’s role in rational judgment. And insights on analogy litter the first and concluding chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Even thinkers further afield like Fourier and Swedenborg were captivated by analogical reasoning. Without planting flags in any particular philosophical camp, it is not, I think, too controversial to recognize the importance of analogical thought in epistemology and aesthetics in general. To push even further, we could speculate with the linguist George Lakoff that analogies are a universal anthropological fact to be dealt with and not simply an anti-rational demon to be exorcized.

If analogies prove part of our human understanding, what then of historical understanding? For historians, analogies provide something akin to the efforts at modeling the so-called hard sciences developed after the Renaissance, making past reflections a sort of historical laboratory for contemporary and future reflection. Luciano Canfora’s brief study Analogia e storia offers some provisional insights into how historians have thought analogically. Dating as far back as Thucydides’ introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War analogical thinking has been at the historian’s disposal for discerning shared processes and dynamics among different events. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are perhaps an even clearer exemplar. Canfora’s colleague Carlo Ginzburg has also made the case that Aristotle’s discussion of paradigms in the Rhetoric is essential for understanding his view of history. Yet, at the same time, Canfora observes that large-scale similarities brought about by analogy also tend to obfuscate small-scale differences and represent history as tautological and self-referential. Thus, for instance, by definition every revolution risks being interpreted according to the French or Russian Revolutions. The political as well as historical pitfalls of such heuristics are many. Often, Canfora claims, these analogical oversimplifications can be productive in their own right; they can also be political expedients with little concern for historical understanding.

If the particular analogy of a given event to the French Revolution seems familiar—even well-worn, thanks perhaps to the legacy of Theda Skocpol’s comparative revolutions approach—the French Revolution has had other, more surprising, analogical applications. Often, these applications occurred by historical subjects themselves as a way of grounding their own historical situation. Even before French historian Albert Mathiez claimed the Bolsheviks were neo-Jacobins, for instance, Lenin adopted the mantle for himself. When grasped from the subject’s perspective, examining the historical analogies subjects use to describe and understand their own historical moments, the analogy actually has the power of getting beyond the pitfalls of the historian’s macrohistorical determinations. Rather than foreclosing analysis, they can point to analytic surprises.


Following De Gaulle’s return to government in May 1958, on the cover of the French magazine L’Express a Marianne, symbolic of the French Republic, is ready to guillotine herself.

Take, for instance, the French Revolution’s role in deciphering the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) and the fall of the fourth French Republic. Beyond an occasion to examine the important tensions between colonial difference, identity, and hybridity in postwar France and Algeria, the French Revolution analogy can also act as a diagnostic index uniting assumptions about French politics and history with assumptions about Algerian politics and history. That individuals on all sides of the war would refer to the French Revolution to mediate their own experience is both obvious—nationalism 101, so to speak—and illuminating. It highlights the various expectations actors had of the limits and possibilities of their moment. The historical analogy thus serves as a way into the microhistorical world. Taking subjects’ own large-scale assumptions about the unfolding of history as a starting point allows the historian to reconstruct their moment from within.

Let’s look at three specific instances of this analogy during the war. First is testimony from Jean-Claude Paupert, a veteran of the war in Algeria and subsequent member of pro-Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) support networks. Despite declaring years later that he was no “revolutionary hothead,” Paupert was tried and found guilty of providing material aid and support to the FLN in 1960. In his closing trial declaration, Paupert explained his actions were meant to defend French civilization and French values, particularly those tied to the Revolution:

I have not chosen to help the Algerians because of their mistreatment, but because the struggle of the Algerian people is a just struggle, and I have not chosen to aid Algerian militants in spite of their terrorism, but because terrorism is their destiny.… Being French is not a virtue stored in a refrigerator, it is a fidelity one invents. To be French today is to be Algerian … We know well, for both princes and for valets, that fraternity is a terrorist act.

The Revolution’s Jacobin ideals of terror and fraternity were applicable in 1960 since Algeria was going through its own revolutionary moment that obeyed the same dynamics as the French Revolution. In this way, examining statements like this one and the many others like it from the war, we can build an understanding of what a nascent metropolitan third worldist engagement meant.

Next is a completely different sentiment, a message from General Jacques Massu, a rightwing supporter of French Algeria. By the end of the war he would help direct the Secrete Army Organization (OAS), a rightwing terrorist group bent on keeping settler control over Algeria. In May of 1958, however, he proved instrumental in bringing down the Fourth Republic and returning Charles de Gaulle to power. In a letter addressed to “Mon Cher Camarade,” dated 13 May 1958, the day of the Algiers generals’ putsch that would bring down the Republic, Massu wrote, “I must ask the best of yourself in order to combat the enemy and make the great ideas of generous France triumph in Algeria, these ideas that, since 1789, have shaken the world” (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Fonds Daniel Guérin). Pro-colonial military action and the perpetuation of the civilizing mission were behind this instance of analogy to the French Revolution.

Lastly, analogy to the French Revolution emerged as popular among FLN supporters educated either in France or in state-run francophone North African schools. The poet, radio host, and FLN spokesman Jean El-Mouhoub Amrouche, criticized the ethnologist Germaine Tillion for failing to see Algerian nationalists as properly modern political subjects:

It is true that one can hardly recognize these hungry souls demanding the destiny of free men and being inhabited by spiritual needs. ‘Liberty or death’: it was good and true for the great ancestors of 1793 and the barefoot of Year II. Who could imagine the fellagha [rebels] of the Aurès, Oranie, Soummam, or the clandestine actors from the towns or villages of Algeria, have discovered in their desperation the only path towards the light by proclaiming themselves free and sovereign over the land of their forefathers?

Amrouche saw the legitimacy of the Algerian nationalist cause through the prism of the universal French ideals the civilizing mission encouraged him to embrace. Recognizing the FLN’s political legitimacy meant recognizing their affinities with Revolutionary actors.


Jean-Claude Paupert, center, was part of support networks that sheltered Algerians and laundered money for the FLN. (Image from Mediapart)

Simply observing these three different analogies to the French Revolution does not automatically reveal any obvious conclusions, except perhaps about the sheer elasticity of what the French Revolution could mean to different hereditary claimants. And the variety of events within the Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1799 allowed for a large degree of adaptation, highlighting on the one hand citizen military defense or on the other radical Jacobin universalism. But the analogy also works like an index of the type described by Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory, pointing in various directions to further research questions. Why, for instance, would Paupert and Amrouche think that Algerian history was at a moment similar to the end of old regime France? North African history had been denied by historians throughout the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps something had changed in perceptions of North African history (and indeed, much had changed). After all, the analogy is not present in earlier moments of anticolonial violence in North Africa. Further, why would a rightwing military officer feel the need to call upon the principles of 1789 when planning a government coup? What conditions would drive Massu to connect French Republicanism with a rather Bonapartist move (another historical analogy ever present in 1958 France)? Insofar as analogies reveal a subject’s assessments of the logics at work in a given moment, they grant a uniquely valuable point of entry for intellectual historians.


Timothy Scott Johnson recently defended his dissertation on the use of the French Revolution in the French-Algerian War at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the intellectual history of postwar France.  

“Good men are God in the flesh” : Frederick Douglass, Virtue Philosopher

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In his most famous speech, “Self-Made Men,” written in 1854, and performed for the rest of his life, Frederick Douglass contends that: “from the various dregs of society, there come men who may well be regarded as the pride and as the watch towers of the [human] race.” Social class does not determine one’s virtue or worth. For the last thirty years of his life, between the legal demise of chattel slavery in 1865 and his death in 1895, Douglass gave hundreds, if not thousands, of speeches, published countless articles, and two books, offering an alternate vision for how humans could conceive of difference between one another. In an 1865 speech, Douglass asserts that good “poets, prophets and reformers,” must act as “picture-makers,” painting for their audiences visions of the future of the human race. They must keep, “ever present” in their “mind some high, comprehensive, soul-enlarging and soul-illuminating idea, earnestly held and warmly cherished, looking to the elevation and advancement of the whole [human] race.” Douglass’s vision, in the last thirty years of his life, is of a world built on virtue.


Photographic portrait of Frederick Douglass by George Francis Schreiber, 1870. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass fought for an America beyond slavery. He believed that emancipation had not merely “emancipated the Negro, but liberated the whites” as well. In an Emancipation Day Address, titled “Emancipation Liberated the Master as Well as the Slave,” Douglass held that the institution of slavery enacted violence against all of its member. In another speech, “Strong to Suffer, yet Strong to Fight,” Douglass declared that since emancipation, people are no longer “required to defend with their lips what they must have condemned in their hearts.” Slavery was a system that forced people to deny the fundamental, to Douglass, truth, that all humans are created equal. By enslaving another person, slaveholders had to violently strip them of a central tenant of their humanity, and had to support their dehumanization with systematic, normalized violence. Slaveholders had to present a united front. They could not speak out against, or even question, the violence and domination that was central to the system.

However, the American promise of Emancipation dissipated. Lynch law dominated the whole nation, as it begun amassing overseas territories. In an 1895 speech, “The Color Line,” he declared that in this supposedly emancipated and advanced society, the “rich man would have the poor man, the white would have the black, the Irish would have the negro, and the negro must have a dog, if he can get nothing higher in the scale of intelligence to dominate.” Though slavery had ended, the mindset that underlay it had survived. People still placed themselves in relation to each other based on characteristics about which they had no power.

Throughout the last thirty years of his life, Douglass fought against all outgrowths of a philosophy built upon prejudice and discrimination. He fought against sharecropping. He supported the work of women’s rights, calling himself a “radical women’s suffrage man” and declaring that granting women the power to vote would be “the greatest revolution” that the world had ever seen. Douglass lent his voice to the struggle for reparations for the formerly enslaved, arguing across a number of speeches and in a widely circulated pamphlet that “American slaves were emancipated under extremely unfavorable conditions. (…) even despotic Russia gave a plot of land and farming implements to its emancipated serfs and (…) when the Jews left Egypt they were allowed to take their former masters’ jewelry.” On this basis, he called for reparations for the formerly enslaved in America. Douglass rhetorically supported the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish people in Europe, and stood behind oppressed Chinese laborers in California. The philosopher even supported the rights of animals to be treated well, admonishing farmers not to beat their work animals.

In the vision of the world that Douglass offered his listeners, the highest ideal of a person was one who was like God. In a speech of the same name, Douglass argues that “Good men are god in the flesh.” Across a number of eulogies and public speeches, he extolls as examples of this his fellow abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone. In Douglass’s phrasing, Garrison becomes “the man–the Moses, raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage.” Abraham Lincoln, he declares in a speech on “Great Men,” likewise, possesses “a more godlike nature than” any man he had ever met. Though he often uses wealthy and famous men as his examples, Douglass acknowledges “wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of men.” Still, “personal, family and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations.” If everyone worked towards the betterment of themselves and their communities, Douglass contends, “we should have no need of a millennium. The world would teem with abundance, and the temptation to evil in a thousand directions, would disappear.” Everyone could become godlike.


Frederick Douglass’ study and library in 1962. Note portraits of Toussaint L’Ouverture, himself. Out of frame are pictures of his other heroes: Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass’s philosophy of virtue was not wholly new. It fit into a tradition of radical humanist and liberal thought going at least far back as the reformation. In a 16th century poem, the Settennario, God appears to the author, only known as Scolio, and explains that he had given to each group of people on earth “Ten Commandments to each of them The same, but which they comment on separately.” He goes on to explain that each group of people could go to heaven if they just followed their own set of commandments, which were quintessentially the same.

Douglass took many ideas from the famous Scottish historian and enlightenment thinker, Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840). In the work, Carlyle argues that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men.” Each chapter is dedicated to a different form of innate greatness and a different person who exemplified such greatness in their society’s history. All but one of Carlyle’s great men are white and European. The only exception is the prophet Muhammad, whom Carlyle describes as “by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one.” While Carlyle evinces a theory of virtue as based on thought and action, he ends up supporting a tautology. Someone is great because they greatly impacted the world. Carlyle’s philosophy, then, implies that people who do not greatly impact the world must be morally inferior. Consequently, Carlyle held that the “African race” was incapable of producing Great Men. In 1849, nine years after publishing Heroes, Carlyle anonymously published an article titled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in which argued that African people were naturally inferior to whites and because of their inherent degradation, fit to be slaves. In the face of derision and public humiliation, Carlyle stuck to his beliefs, republishing the piece with an even more overtly racist message as a pamphlet in 1853.

As an abolitionist, woman’s suffrage man and radical, Douglass sought to open up greatness to all people. As a result, he needed to have a clear conception of what godliness did and did not look like. In an outline to a speech, written during his visit to Egypt in 1884, Douglass accuses Egyptian Coptic Christians of being “Mohamedan in custom” and points out disparagingly that “their women are veiled.” Only American missionaries could bring true Christianity and education to the Egyptians. “It is the redeeming of the land” from misrule and misbelief, Douglass wrote, and “the bringing to people our knowledge of the” gift of education “that is its great need.” They have been “establishing schools, distributing Bibles, showing the people how to be clean, how to live virtuously, which is to live healthfully + honestly.” American protestants needed to teach the “degraded” people true virtue. By opening up virtue to some, he had closed it off to others. Carlyle’s definition of virtue could be malleable, allowing even Muhammad to be great, because he had restricted virtue to the achievements of a single class and, essentially, geographic setting.

However, in an era marked by the rise of Lynch Law, across the U.S. American South, restrictions on voter rights, and a turn away from African American rights across the nation, Frederick Douglass travelled widely, and used his podium to argue that any person, notwithstanding physical attributes, class, or caste, could attain virtue. Douglass built his conception of virtue on a long tradition of a not-quite-universal universalism. Douglass was, and remains, far from alone in not being able to accept that other systems of virtue could be equally valid, nor that other gods could be equally divine.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live. 

Further Reading:

What We’re Reading: Oct. 10-13


Susan Pedersen reviews Robert Vitalis: Destined to Disappear: ‘Race Studies’ (LRB)

Tamson Pietsch, Great Gatsby Gap Year (Cap and Gown)

Heather Ellis, Grammar Schools: Taking the Long View (History Matters, University of Sheffield)

Stefan Collini, How to Be Ourselves:

Justin Bengry interviews Emma Vickers on Queen and Country: Same-Sex Desire in the British Armed Forces (Notches)

Sam Knight, The man who brought you Brexit (Guardian)

Jonathan Jones, More savage than Caravaggio: the woman who took revenge in oil (Guardian)

Ross Perlin, Nostalgia for World Culture: A New History of Esperanto (LARB)

John Fleming, Groping: A Brief Literary History (Gladly Lerne Gladly Teche)



Jack Hamilton, “How Rock and Roll Became White” (Slate)

Christopher de Hamel, “Who Owned this Canterbury Psalter?” (Guardian)

Rich Rennicks, “Lynd Ward and the Wordless Novel” (The New Antiquarian)

Joseph M. Adelman “A Resource I Want: The Bible in Early America” (The Junto)

At the New York Society Library, we’re proud to announce that a finding aid is now available for our institutional archive in our digital collections portal, City Readers.  There’s circulation records, librarians’ papers, membership lists, ephemera, and more waiting to find its way into your research.

Nicholas Smith, “New Display Opens – David Garrick: Book Collector” (V&A)

Jared Yates Sexton, “Donald Trump’s Toxic Masculinity” (NY Times)

I’ve also got new piece up on the NYSL blog – when Herman Melville was a Library member, our building was in the 6th Ward, home of the infamous Five Points.  Click here for the whole story.



Joyce Carol Oates, “Shirley Jackson in Love & Death” (NYRB)

Aimée Kiene & Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Beyoncé’s feminism isn’t my feminism” (de Volksrant)

Julie Philips, “The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin” (New Yorker)

Dennis Duncan, “Pulp non-fiction” (TLS)

Rowan Jacobsen, “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016)” (Outside Online)


Freeman Dyson, The Green Universe: A Vision (NYRB)

Adam Kuper, Philosopher Among Indians (TLS)

Bernard Porter, Send More Blondes (LRB)

Emily Witt, A Six Day Walk Through the Alps, Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir (New York Times Magazine)



Luc Sante, “My Lost City” (New York Review)

Alex Petland, “To Rescue Democracy, Go Outside” (Nautilus)

Serge Gruzinsky, “What is Global history” (Public Books)

Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch, “The Trouble with Anti-Anti Racism” (Jacobin)

Matthew Mason, “Morality, Politics, and Compromise: The Plight and Prospects of the Moderate, Then and Now” (Common-Place)

90 Years of Intellectual Cooperation: the Forgotten History of UNESCO’s Predecessor

by guest contributor Jan Stöckmann

img_7673On 16 January 1926, a group of statesmen, diplomats, and civil servants gathered in Paris to celebrate the inauguration of the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation at its grand premises in the Palais Royal. Wine was served, an orchestra played Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart. French education minister Edouard Daladier addressed the guests, outlining the idea behind the Institute: “Just like the League of Nations itself,” Daladier explained, “the Institute was inspired by collaboration for peace” (Program Leaflet, January 1926, A.I.6, IIIC Records, AG 1, UNESCO Archives, Paris). It was intended as a platform of exchange for academics, writers, teachers, and artists, to encourage common standards in science and librarianship, to spread major scholarly achievements, to protect intellectual property, and to facilitate student exchanges. Daladier’s address culminated in the proclamation that “the future of the League of Nations depended on the formation of a universal spirit.” In other words, building peace in the minds of people would guarantee peace at large—a variation of which remains UNESCO’s slogan to this day.

The Institute was the executive agency of the Geneva-based International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, founded in 1922 at the League of Nations. The Committee boasted a dozen public intellectuals, including Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, who met annually to demonstrate the trans-nationality of science and culture. Since, however, the League was unable to provide sufficient funding, the Committee was little more than an illustrious meeting of international intelligentsia at the Palais des Nations. When the Committee expressed its dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, the French government responded in 1924 with a generous offer—the only condition being that the new Institute be located in Paris: “The French government would be disposed to found in Paris an International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation…. All the costs would be covered by an annual subsidy” (Le Gouvernement français serait disposé à fonder à Paris un Institut international de coopération intellectuelle […] Tous les frais seraient couverts par une subvention annuelle. Communiqué, 12 September 1924, A.64.1924.XII, IIIC Records, AG 1, UNESCO Archives, Paris).

img_7593The League of Nations gratefully accepted. After approval by all authorities, the Institute opened the following year. Thanks to the French endowment, its home became the Palais Royal in central Paris. Situated conveniently close to the French Education Ministry, the Palais Royal provided the Institute with outstanding facilities for meetings, receptions, and research work. It spread over four floors, including a conference room, reception salons, a library, an archive, various offices, and a dining room. The Institute fully refurbished the premises and fitted them with a modern kitchen, an intercom system, fire extinguishers, and linoleum floors, spending a total of 184,877 francs. League Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond commented upon the luxurious setting of the Institute in his speech at the opening ceremony: “There is one thing that I envy, namely the magnificent building which today is formally placed at the Institute’s disposal by you, Monsieur le Président. In this respect, I fear that the Secrétariat must accept to remain for ever in a position of inferiority” (Address by Eric Drummond, 16 January 1926, A.I.6, AG 1, IIIC Records, UNESCO Archives, Paris).

The Institute, directed from 1926 until 1930 by French education expert Julien Luchaire, started out with an ambitious program: a section for university relations, one section devoted to natural sciences and one to humanities, a legal service, and an information bureau which published leaflets, bulletins, and handbooks. The diverse range of projects included the revision of school textbooks, the spread of radio and cinema productions, an agreement on intellectual property rights (passed in 1938), collaborations between artists and museums (including the publication of the quarterly review Museion), and the organization of scientific conferences—such as the International Studies Conference, the world’s first association for the study of international relations. Most endeavors enjoyed only mild success, as the Institute lacked funds to do more than facilitating networks between existing institutions. During the 1930s, the Institute’s ideal for peaceful cooperation suffered from the withdrawal of the dictatorships from all League activities, and in 1940 the German authorities put its offices under seal. A brief attempt after the Second World War to revive the Institute failed, and instead Jean-Jacques Mayoux, the Institute’s last director, signed a contract with Julian Huxley which transferred all property to the newly established UNESCO—thus ending its short, twenty-year history.

img_7592Despite its shortcomings, the Institute provided an important site for intellectual debates and cultural exchange during the inter-war period. A particular gem is the series of conversations between leading intellectuals, including a correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud called Why War? (1932). The Institute’s underlying idea as well as its various projects anticipated in many ways the work of post-1945 international organizations. It is surprising, therefore, that intellectual cooperation under the League of Nations remains such an understudied field, with only a handful of articles (such as Daniel Laqua’s “Transnational intellectual cooperation, the League of Nations, and the problem of order” in the Journal of Global History) and only one recent monograph, Jean-Jacques Renoliet’s L’UNESCO oubliée: l’Organisation de Coopération Intellectuelle (1921-1946), published in 1999 but only available in French. Almost a century later, it is a good time to reflect upon the achievements of inter-war intellectual cooperation, and to make use of the Institute’s archives hosted with UNESCO in Paris. So this blog post is as much celebrating a birthday as it is urging not to forget the dead.

Jan Stöckmann is a doctoral candidate in History at New College, Oxford, and currently a visiting PhD student at Columbia University, New York. His dissertation explores networks of scholars, diplomats and politicians who promoted the study of International Relations as an academic discipline from about 1914 to 1939. Besides his research, he has spent two months at UNESCO as an intern.

Prophetic Medicine in the Indian Yūnānī Tradition

by guest contributor Deborah Schlein

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoral theory (the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinized to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoral theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterized by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā, and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilized in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localized changes of color in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

Deborah Schlein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is currently pursuing archival research in India with the support of a Fulbright-Nehru grant.

What We’re Reading: Oct. 3-7


Matthew Bevis, “Supping on Horrors” (Harper’s)

Lina Bolzani, “Torna il vero «Furioso»” (Il Sole 24 Ore)

Ian Buruma, “Le Carré’s Other Cold War” (The Nation)

Alexander Cammann, »Der Überlebenskünstler« (Die Zeit)

Christoph Charle, François Euvé and Gisèle Sapiro, « La liberté intellectuelle : une conquête inachevée ? » (France Culture)

Michaël Foessel and Louis Lourme, « Cosmopolitisme et démocratie » (La vie des idées)

Nancy Green, « Rendez-vous de l’histoire : que signifie « partir » ? » (Le Monde)

Václav Havel, “Kicking the Door” (Tamar Jacoby, trans.; New York Review of Books)

Anne Sophie Novel, « Tant de temps : Entretien avec François Hartog » (Le Monde)

David Vaughan, “Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz: of unknown origin in a strange wood without leaves” (Radio Praha)

And finally, Věra Chytilová’s great, madcap 1966 film “Daisies” (Sedmikrásky; YouTube with English subtitles)


I’m on vacation this week, exploring Ancestral Pueblo cites in Arizona (Canyon de Chelly), Colorado (Mesa Verde), and New Mexico (Chaco Canyon).  Here’s what I packed, and a few leads I’ve picked up along the way.

Carrie C. Heitman & Stephen Plog, Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (University of Arizona Press via JStor)

Brian Fagan, Chaco Canyon: Archaeologists Explore the Lives of An Ancient Society (Oxford University Press)

Stephen H. Lekson, The Architecture of Chaco Canyon (University of Utah Press)

Linda S. Cordell, Carla R. Van West, Jeffrey S. Dean and Deborah A. Muenchrath, “Mesa Verde Settlement History and Relocation: Climate Change, Social Networks, and Ancestral Pueblo Migration” (Kiva, via JStor)

Rose Houk, “Preserving Navajo History in Canyon de Chelly” (NPR)


BBC Radio 3 celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Third Programme this week. Related programs include People Power (Free Thinking), Who Cares If You Listen?, and Power of 3, a selection of significant moments in the Third Programme’s history.

Dan Snow, Archive on 4: The Lost World of the Suffragettes (Radio 4)

Pamela Druckerman, ‘If I Sleep for an Hour, 30 People Will Die’ (NY Times)

Chiara Beccalossi, Italian Sexualities Uncovered (Notches)

Derek Johns, Jan Morris at 90: she has shown us the world (Guardian)

Justin Torres, Dog-Walking for a Wealthy Narcissist (New Yorker)

Eric Foner, Enter Hamilton (LRB)

Sarah Maslin Nir, ‘We Are a Big Family’: Dealers Unite Against Thefts of Rare Books (NY Times)

Noel Malcolm, ‘I have the temperament of a harlot’: on the life of Steven Runciman (New Statesman)


Ben Lazarus, “Jewish Guitar God Mike Bloomfield’s Blues” (Tablet)

Maya Jasanoff, “The Great Trap for All Americans” (NYRB)

Nathaniel B. Davis, “If War Can Have Ethics, Wall Street Can, Too” (NY Times)

Louis Menand, “Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today” (New Yorker)


Rafia Zakaria, Introduction to Reading Other Women (Boston Review)

Alexandra Kleeman & Lincoln Mitchell (Interview, Bomb Magazine)

Katie O’Reilly, Beyond the Queer Victory Narrative: Inside the Gay Lit Invasion of North Carolina (LARB)


Amy Allen, “The End of Progress” (Notre Dame Philosophical Review)

Daniel Blonn, “A Tale of Blue Cities” (LARB)

Minute Physics, “Do Cause and Effect Really Exist? (Youtube)

Martin Filler, “A Higher Form of High Rise” (New York Review of Books)

Daniel Little “What is Conceptual History” (Understanding Society)

(Prison) Note(book)s Toward a History of Boredom

by guest contributor Spencer J. Weinreich

Act III, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) sees the imprisoned Antonio following his creditor, Shylock, through the streets, in hopes of mercy. Unmoved, Shylock expostulates, “I do wonder, / Thou naughty gaoler, that thou art so fond / To come abroad with him at his request” (III.iii.8–10).

But sixteenth-century English audiences would not have been surprised at Antonio’s freedom, for early-modern prisons “were not hermetically sealed sites of discipline; they were instead physically and socially enmeshed with the surrounding city” (Freeman, “The Rise of Prison Literature,” 135–36). Friends, relatives, and servants could come and go with relative ease. Moreover, prisoners might purchase from their jailors whatever luxuries they could afford: the Catholic printer Stephen Vallenger’s cell contained, inter alia, “a feather bed, silver and pewter spoons, money, jewelry, and a library of 101 books” (141). Texts circulated within and through prison walls—even into printing presses.

Faced with such evidence, it is understandable that the abundant recent scholarship on early-modern prisons sees these institutions as defined by contact, both personal and textual. Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier regard the prison as “the venue for the most exciting and imaginative battles” between Catholics and Protestants, whether in interrogation, proselytization, or disputation (196). Molly Murray and Thomas S. Freeman have both gone so far as to call it “a site of culture, one that ought to be considered alongside the court and the university as a place of significant textual, and literary, production” (150).

If we regard the prison as characterized by contact, we are predisposed to regard prison writings as the products of contact, and as fundamentally discursive. That is to say, as communicating something to someone, some audience beyond the author’s cell. Thus, scholars have concentrated on letters, life-writing and other forms of self-presentation, and polemics or apologetics. Even ostensibly private or non-discursive forms of writing, such as personal poetry or graffiti, are interpreted along these lines, as directed (if obliquely) to jailers, future inmates, or God.

Yet to normalize the prison as a site of cultural production risks glossing over a critical feature of its intellectual landscape: constraint. Rivkah Zim identifies constraint as the commonality unifying “prison writings” as a category: “though the experience of different centuries and regimes varies greatly and there is no single category of space implied […] being a prisoner or captive in any period means being cut off and kept apart from the continuities of normal life” (2). Even the most lenient carceral regimes included controls on communication and the movement of texts and persons, circumstances absent at court or within the universities. But if we take seriously the isolation Zim places at the heart of the carceral experience and look for its presence in the early modern English prison, new approaches to literary history, and the history of ideas more generally, become possible.

My case study is Stephen Gardiner, Tudor bishop of Winchester. In the reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was twice imprisoned for resisting the radical Protestant agenda of the young king’s regents. In September 1547, he was confined to the Fleet, probably to prevent him attending the coming parliamentary session. Released in January 1548, Gardiner was not to enjoy his freedom for long: in June, after months of more or less open defiance, he was again arrested and sent to the Tower,

“a dankish and uncomfortable house,” as his servant Wingfield called it, for one ‘much given to rheums’—and lodged for the first month “in a place called the Garden Tower… fast locked in, without coming abroad in all that space.” Then […] he was removed to “a place in the same Tower called the King’s Lodging.” Here he was kept no less closely, not even being permitted to exercise in the gardens. For eleven months more he saw no one save the Lieutenant of the Tower, the jailors, a physician who came when he was sick of a fever, his chaplain, William Medowe, who was permitted to visit him once in his fever and again on Easter Day, and two servants of his household, who waited on him and who were not allowed to leave the Tower confines. (James Arthur Muller, Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction, 183)

As we have seen, this was severity entirely out of keeping with sixteenth-century English norms. In October 1549, Gardiner protested to the Privy Council,

[I] have continued heere in this miserable prison now one yeere, one quarter, and one moneth, this same day that I write these my letters, with want of aire to relieve my bodie, want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world, and finally, want of a just cause, why I should have come hither at all. (442)

Although eventually permitted occasional walks in the gardens, Gardiner’s systemic isolation continued. He was to be denied books, paper, and writing implements, but this stricture, at least, was not observed—as evidenced by the six treatises and numerous letters produced during his captivity. Gardiner also kept notebooks, two of which survive as Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 127, fols. 167–342. He filled page after page with quotations from Desiderius Erasmus’s Adages, Plautus, Martial, Juvenal, and Virgil, as well as his own Latin elegiac verses (mostly biblical paraphrases).

These notebooks are not easily read as the product of interpersonal contact and or as a medium of communication—they do not cohere into a message or reveal an intended audience. To take the pages of Plautus as an example, to all appearances Gardiner is simply copying out lines from the playwright’s collected works, as edited by the French humanist Robert Estienne and published in Paris in 1530 (identifiable by textual variants). The quotations are ordered according to their appearance in each play, the plays according to the arrangement of the edition. As a result, adjacent verses seem to bear little relation to one another. An excerpt from folio 177, drawn from Pseudolus (191 BCE), gives a sense of the organizational incoherence:

“Imbrem in cribrum gerere” (“pouring water into a sieve,” l. 102)
“supercilium salit (“my eyebrow is twitching,” l. 107)
“dictis facta suppetant” (“your deeds support the words you speak,” l. 108) (all translations by Wolfgang de Melo).

Some lines could be interpreted as responses to Gardiner’s situation (“Animus equus optimum est arumne condimentum” [“That’s why self-possession is the best seasoning for sorrow,” Rudens, l. 402]), but others seem irrelevant at best (“meas opplebit aures sua vaniloquentia” [“she’ll fill my ears with her idle chatter,” Rudens, l. 905]) (fols. 172, 185). Some quotations are abbreviated past the point of potential relevance: from the line “so that I’d be treated a little bit more neatly at last” (Pseudolus, l. 774), Gardiner has copied only the word “gnitiudscule” (“a little bit more neatly”) (fol. 179).

Perhaps the apparent absence of a message simply is the absence of a message; perhaps the content of these pages was of no more than incidental interest to Gardiner. Instead, I suggest the key to understanding these compilations lies in the prisoner’s own words: his continued “want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world.” Gardiner was a celebrated scholar of canon and civil law, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a distinguished diplomat, and, until his deposition in 1551, a prominent bishop. He was a man at the center of English intellectual and political life. And, locked away in the Tower, he was bored. Copying out quotations occupied his eyes, hands, and mind, at once ameliorating the tedium of endless hours alone and distracting him from the frustrations and anxieties of his isolation. In this instance—and in many others as yet unidentified—the act of writing was more important than what was written.

Apart from renewed attention to the isolation that did exist in early-modern English prisons, Gardiner’s notebooks beckon toward the possibilities of a history of boredom. Scholars are not unnaturally attracted to the firmly-held conviction, the engrossing passion, the fascinating and the fascinated. But these are often exceptional cases, and their more ordinary fellows are no less deserving of our attention. What of the listless student alongside the prodigy, the listless churchgoer alongside the zealot? Disinterest, tedium, and rote are the mirror images of intellectual history’s more usual fare, and offer a very different way of thinking about the production, dissemination, and uses of knowledge.

Spencer J. Weinreich is an M.Phil. student in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford, where he is an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation examines the prison writings of Stephen Gardiner in the context of early modern intellectual history. His work has appeared in Early Science and Medicine, Names, and The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

What We’re Reading: Sept. 26-30


Some great historical statistics about education in the UK (House of Commons Library)

Fintan O’Toole, The Easter Rising: Powerful and Useless (NYRB)

Akash Kapur, The Return of the Utopians (New Yorker)

Andy Seal,

Jamie Doward, From Jane Austen to Beatrice and Eugenie… the long reach of UK slave-owning families (Guardian)

And, not least, some Spotify listening: Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Songs of Two Rebellions: The Jacobite Wars of 1715 and 1745 in Scotland


Arnaldo Bendini, “Materia per la coscienza” (Il Sole 24 Ore)

Valentin Groebner, »Es ist alles herausgekommen« (Avenue)

Stephen E. Hanson, “Picking Up the Pieces” (LARB)

Anja Hirsch, »Zuflucht für die Verbotenen« (Deutschlandfunk)

Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “What We See When We Look at Travel Photography” (NY Times Magazine)

Gabriel Lombard, « La vie simple, mode d’emploi » (La vie des idées)

James McAuley, “The Artists and Their Alley, in Postwar France” (NY Times Style Magazine)

Claus Spenninger and Josephine Musil-Gutsch, “The ‘Two Cultures’ avant la lettre: How the Sciences and the Humanities grew apart” (H/Soz/Kult)

Marina Warner, “Those Brogues” (LRB)

Damon Young, “It is and it isn’t” (Aeon)

And finally, a celebration of the great filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni (Criterion)


Marjorie Ingall, What’s that Smell? Constitutionally Protected Free Speech (Tablet)

Chris Lebron, I’m Black. Does America Have a Plan for My Life? (NY Times)

Matt Ford, Lewis and Clarke Get Their Day in Court (Atlantic)

Peter Schjeldal, The Passions of Medieval Jerusalem (The New Yorker)


Gregory Jones-Katz, Deconstruction: An American Tale (Boston Review)

Maggie Doherty, After Irony (Dissent)

Daniel Little, New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Sciences (Understanding Society)

Anti-Imperialist Publications and Suspended Disbelief: Reading the Public Materials of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937

by guest contributor Disha Karnad Jani

“Why We Appear”: so begins the September-October 1931 issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the official journal of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI). This organization was founded in 1927 and brought nationalists, Communists, socialists, and sympathizers together under the direction of the Communist International (Comintern) to organize a complex solution to a complex problem. Based in Berlin, then London, but arguably led from Moscow, the organization would disintegrate by 1937, despite the fanfare that accompanied its arrival in the anti-imperial spaces of the interwar period. Their inaugural sessions at the Palais d’Egmont in 1927 had resulted in an organization tasked with bringing empire to its knees, through the cooperation of all those who considered themselves “anti-imperialists.” As the attitude of the Comintern towards non-Communists and national bourgeois leaders hardened, the LAI turned away from this avowedly inclusive agenda. The socialist origins of the organization, when combined with the nationally-circumscribed aims of many involved, meant that the League’s rhetoric and activities reflected the complexities of a negative association such as “anti-imperialist.” These were the years during which men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Hatta, Achmed Sukarno and J.T. Gumede met and forged links that contextualized and strengthened their decades-long struggles for freedom.

A historian seeking to understand this organization—and the tremendous significance of this moment for the long decades of nationalisms and decolonizations to come—will likely ask some basic questions. What did the League Against Imperialism look like? Who were the participants? How did this organization function? How did its members make decisions? What did it set out to do? To whom was it appealing?

Luckily, the answers to these questions lie in the LAI’s official publications, journals, and resolutions. Take the first piece in the Anti-Imperialist Review‘s September 1931 issue:

We are faced at the present moment with the need to draw up a concrete and detailed programme for the international anti-imperialist work in the spirit of the principles and organizational lines led down by the second World Congress and by the recent session of the Executive Committee [of the League Against Imperialism], a programme that will serve as a mighty weapon in the struggle for integrity of principle and against national reformism. This journal will systematically prepare for the working out of such a programme by free and open discussion. (Anti-Imperialist Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5, author’s emphasis).

This publication is very clear in its aims and its desired audience. No national reformists or members of the bourgeoisie need read this journal. Only those truly committed to the liberation of the “struggling masses in the colonies and the revolutionary workers in the imperialist centers” need read further. The Review—as well as news bulletins, resolutions, and policy briefs emanating from Friedrichstrasse 24, Berlin between 1927 and 1933—present themselves as fostering a genuinely robust community of revolutionaries from all oppressed nations in order to bring about an end to imperialism and capitalism.

These statements of intent and organizational success do little for us, however, when we read them in concert with surveillance documents, correspondence, state archives, and the private papers of the people involved in decision making—such as the Executive Committee mentioned above. As Fredrik Petersson’s research has shown, the Communist International had a heavy hand in LAI proceedings, while the Eastern Secretariat in Moscow influenced the financial and ideological direction of the organization. The German Communist Willi Münzenberg had organized the initial meetings and later facilitated the LAI’s reorientation in policy towards a more hardline, anti-bourgeois stance in 1931. These goings-on highlight the often-chaotic shifts in larger forums that affected the way this purportedly international organization functioned.

But what was it like to be a part of an organization like this one, taking what its leaders said about free and open discussion and resistance led by the colonized at face value, without having access to the kinds of archives a historian can rely on to tell the behind-the-scenes story? If you learned about the LAI sometime in 1928, for example, at a meeting of one of its affiliated groups, how were you meant to remain connected to the larger struggle against imperial injustice? One way was through engaging with the language and rhetoric of the LAI’s circulated resolutions and its “official organ” the Anti-Imperialist Review. Once the conference in Brussels, Frankfurt, or Berlin was over and one went back home, participating in this grand project meant receiving things in the mail and reading them, and writing back.

Knowing this, is it possible to read the “official” publications coming from the central offices not as a façade to be torn away, but a material and intellectual facet of what it was like to see yourself as part of a transnational project of resistance?

As an exercise, I found it helpful to read at face value the materials put out by the League and disseminated through its national sections and sympathetic friends. At least some of the people reading the materials the LAI put out likely believed the image they provided of the state of world revolution (though the profusion of qualifiers here indicates, I hope, my discomfort with assuming the intentions of these people). What can be learned from reading this organization’s so-called “propaganda” as intellectual production, as a genuine desire to work through the problems of anti-imperial struggle? Whether or not the Comintern was coordinating its efforts, and whether or not its organizing capabilities and financial situation were up to the task it claimed, the LAI’s official public materials presented an upwardly-striving, robust, diverse, and yet united revolutionary entity. That means something, whether or not it was a strictly accurate depiction, since the language and affect associated to this day with the cosmopolitan and radical and transnational 1920s and 1930s were predicated on this sort of source material.

Allow me, for a moment, to consider the LAI’s policy or outlook in the year of its founding by reading sincerely the 1927 resolution of the LAI. This document was produced as a summary of the decisions made at the first meeting, and was widely circulated in the LAI’s affiliated circles. The involvement of so diverse a group of nationalists, pacifists, Communists, and socialists lends an institutional unity to the League’s proceedings, smoothing out divisions born of specific national and colonial differences. Since these resolutions were discussed and agreed upon in Brussels, once might consider these documents an amalgam of the least objectionable viewpoints of key actors, since the LAI operated at the beginning with a culture of consensus. There was little evidence at that moment of open, recorded controversy—everyone involved was at least an “anti-imperialist.”

In 1920, the relationship between communist elements in colonial countries and the national bourgeoisie and their revolutionary movement (for independence, justice, or dominion status) was still being worked out. A somewhat open and exploratory stance continued to evolve after Lenin’s death. By 1927, the LAI believed the time was right to proceed in a manner indicative of the planning stages of the prospective world revolution.

According to the LAI, it employed three main categories of person in 1927: the home proletariat, the oppressed people(s) and the toiling masses (“Statutes of the LAI, 1927,” League Against Imperialism Archives, International Institute of Social History, Int. 1405/4). The home proletariat was the class of workers in the imperialist country, who also suffered from imperialism. They suffered, the League argued, because the exploitation of cheap colonial labor through industrialization lowered the standards of living of the workers in the imperialist country. This was the main thrust of the League’s argument for the cooperation of this sector in the anti-imperialist struggle. This group was supposedly accessed and represented in the League by European trade unionists, left-leaning social democrats, and socialists more broadly.

This is the easiest category to “define,” because it is clearly delineated in terms of nationality and class. The categories of “oppressed people(s)” and “toiling masses” are a little more troublesome. They are indicative of the complicated relationship between socialism and nationalism in the context of the League’s aims. “The oppressed people” (singular) is usually used with a national qualifier, for example “the oppressed people of India.” “Oppressed peoples” indicates a plurality of national groups, and each national group is by definition taken as containing a single “people.” Toiling masses was a term used to distinguish the European proletariat from the colonial one, and the colonial national bourgeoisie from the colonial national proletariat. The “toiling masses” in the context of anti-imperialism in 1927 was likely a distinction reserved for the unorganized colonial worker, while the same stratum in the imperialist countries is referred to merely as “the workers” or “the proletariat.” This underscores the fact that Europe-oriented socialists (i.e. socialists from the imperialist countries) did not consider the “masses” of the colonial world to have realized their proletarian character.

The complexities and assumptions contained within these terms can explain the shifting and contextually circumscribed stakes of world revolution. Who were the actors in the kind of world revolution the LAI wanted? Its resolutions contain categories that overlap and describe courses of action that are at times complementary, and, at others, mutually exclusive. The messiness of this struggle, and the ways in which the men and women involved related to one another and to the groups they claimed to represent—the workers in imperial nations and the oppressed masses in their far-flung colonies—these most basic categories are potent ones. Is reconstructing a realistic narrative always the goal of the historian? In the end, perhaps. But during the long process of archival work and the necessary selection and omission of information, if only for a moment, it might be useful to believe our subjects when they make a claim we know is false, or at the very least, much more complicated. Widening the lens to include state surveillance, correspondence, private papers, and other organizations’ collections may provide a more accurate portrayal of what the LAI looked like and how it worked. But sometimes suspending disbelief at a claim as outlandish as one to “free and open discussion” in Communist circles in 1931 can yield a degree of clarity as to the lived experience of participating in such a project.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Ph.D student in History at Princeton University.