In the last days of summer, I am roaming through the brown and golden streets of London, while the following words reverberate in my head:
You can love a city, you can recognize its houses and its streets in your remotest or dearest memories; but only in the hour of revolt is the city really felt as your own city—your own because it belongs to the I but at the same time to the ‘others’. […] One appropriates a city by fleeing or advancing, charging and being charged, much more than by playing as a child in its streets or strolling through it with a girl. In the hour of revolt, one is no longer alone in the city.
Written against the backdrop of the Parisian revolt in May 1968, Italian philosopher Furio Jesi’s Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt is a captivating homage both to the Spartacist revolt of 1919 and to Jesi’s favorite German writers, from Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin to Thomas Mann. One of the most fascinating works of contemporary Italian philosophy, Spartakus speaks about power and time, subversion and memory—and remains today a ‘timeless’ analysis of how revolutionary uprisings get trapped in myth.
Slowly reading and re-reading Jesi’s text, time suspends again and again. London’s familiar sights merge with imagined and remembered streets in Turin, Berlin, Moscow and Paris. Contributing to Jesi’s broader project of ‘demythologization’, Spartakus was unpublished until 1980; in Alberto Toscano’s wonderful English translation, Jesi’s unique spirit is reborn. Or, in the words of British punk writer Richard Cabut: “Revolt has to be constantly reinvented just like the life it affirms.”
For this month’s reading recommendations, I have stepped far away from my normal comfort zone of left-wing intellectual subjects. Instead, for the last few weeks, I have been reading the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s two-part biography Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris. This change in subject for me is akin to Kershaw’s own transition. Indeed, it was only after starting his career as a medieval social historian that he later became preeminent in the field of Hitler studies—a story that is instructively retold at the beginning of this book.
Beyond being a useful guide to historians about how research focuses can shift over time, this book is also a fantastic example of excellent prose. This provides a level of accessibility which is particularly useful for readers unfamiliar with the subject. Furthermore, it allows the book’s exceptional length (845 pages) and high degree of detail to still remain a pleasure to read.
At its core, Hubris is a well-written social history. Its focus is not on the personality of Hitler, but is directed towards “the character of his power—the power of the Führer.” As Kershaw explains, part of this power is derived from Hitler himself. However, a much greater portion was provided by the social conditions in the form of the expectations and motivations embodied in Hitler and his followers. As such, this account provides an excellent example of social history writing done to the best of its ability.
Over the last month, I have been reading Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland. His thesis is straightforward: Christianity still provides all our moral, cultural and social norms today. Its emergence from the ancient world, he says, is the “single most transformative development in Western history.” He might be right. His argument is difficult to falsify or disapprove. In part that aids his argument, Christianity is so hegemonic in morality, politics, science and culture that can be quite invisible. The book isn’t so much a narrative of 1st Century AD to 21st Century AD, it deals instead principally with ideas. Fortunately the prose is never dense, it has vivid stories about the Hussites of Tabor 1420 and Martin Luther’s book burning in Wittenberg.
The range is huge from the meanings of and in the apocalypse, science and revolution, and most fittingly at the moment the culture wars and ‘woke’ politics. He doesn’t use the term ‘woke’ as a pejorative, his point is that progressive and conservative talking points can be seen as essentially a Christian construct. Liberal cosmopolitans in London or New York might have little to do with Christianity in practice, but the idea of a single humanity united in universal (catholic) morality, not a single territorial homeland is as Christian as fire and brimstone preachers. The implication then is that if we lived with the moral norms from ancient paganism—with its indifference to cruelty and heroic gods, say, we wouldn’t be thinking or divided in the way we currently are.
Rather than offering a specific title or study, my recommendations stem from revisiting a few political articles and academic reviews from the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps resemble more a methodology than a suggestion of books.
Over the last three weeks, I have been preparing a review essay. It involved a deep level of engagement with a trio of Cambridge doctoral graduates in the late-1970s and early 1980s: Mark Goldie, Linda Colley, and Jonathan Clark. Their focus was the study of politics, ideas, and parties over the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As I read Colley’s and Clark’s interpretations of the Tory Party, and Goldie’s arguments on “anglican royalism” and the “roots of true whiggism,” my attention turned to the larger political context of post-1960s Britain and America. I purchased several bound volumes of printed publications from this era (including National Review and New Republic—both American, I realize) and immersed myself in the political world, at least as represented in print media, of the 1970s and 1980s.
It is hard not to see the party realignments in the 1970s and the accompanying rise of conservatism having a profound impact on this scholarship, and the zeitgeist of the period was a response to concerns of the identity of the Democratic and Labour parties and the rise of conservative dominance in the Reagan administration and Thatcher ministry. Yet, this perspective is layered, with me, an historian living in the 21st century, looking backwards for parallels both historiographically, via debates in the 1970s and 1980s, and historically, via the early origins of parties in British politics.
This leads me to my final recommendation, Max Skjönsberg’s excellent investigation of early concepts of political parties in this very Blog. As we now seem to be living through another period of party realignment, the drama of history has not yet drawn its curtain.
Who needs The Chair?
A strange detour during my dissertation research led me take a look at Sir Francis Bacon’s 1626 Sylva Sylvarum. In seeking some context for his writing, I was lucky to run across Theology and Science in the Thought of Francis Bacon by Steven Matthews. Matthews’s book convincingly illustrates that Bacon’s project of educational reform and dedication to scientific knowledge was tied to a specific reading of the fall in the Garden of Eden.
Matthews argues that for Bacon, “The fall was not occasioned by knowledge per se, and certainly not by the knowledge of nature…the problem is not knowledge at all, but the sin lies in the selfishness and arrogance of the human motivation for the knowledge…” (p. 66). By shifting the blame away from knowledge itself to the many motivations that could drive humans to seek it out, Bacon disavowed the claim that gathering scientific knowledge was a dangerous practice that led only to amorality, atheism, and corruption. In doing so, he was able to build a stronger justification for his Instauration program, which aimed to develop scientific knowledge through the study of natural philosophy. To Bacon, alongside faith, the expansion of scientific knowledge actually offered humankind its greatest hope: “For man by the fall fell at the same time from his innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired, the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences” (p. 73).
Featured Image: August Macke, “At the Garden Table,” 1914. Courtesy of WikiArt.