Intellectual history

History Film: Another Form of Doing History: An Interview with Robert Rosenstone

By Tamara Maatouk

Robert Rosenstone is Professor Emeritus of History at the California Institute of Technology. His previous publications include Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (1969), Romantic Revolutionary (1975), Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Japan (1988), Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (1995), History on Film/Film on History (2006, 2012, and 2018). He is the editor of Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (1995), Experiments in Rethinking History (2004), and A Companion to the Historical Film (2012). Rosenstone is the founding editor of Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice.

Tamara Maatouuk is a contributing editor at the JHIBlog.


Tamara Maatouk: Your essay “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film,” along with the responses it garnered from four established historians (David Herlihy, Hayden White, John E. O’Connor, and Robert Brent Toplin)—all published in the American Historical Review in 1988—placed the topic of history on film at the edge of the mainstream. However, on multiple occasions since then and in your book History on Film/Film on History, you have stated that for many professional historians, “film is suspect, something of a rival, an enemy,” and “to write extensively on film is to dare being marginalized within the profession” (xvii). Has this field made it into the mainstream or not? Does the history film still trouble and disturb historians, and more importantly, why?

Robert Rosenstone: Thank you for saying that my first comprehensive essay on the topic has put history film on the edge of the discourse. I think it has edged even a little farther into the field in the 35 years since then. However, most historians remain skeptical of both film as history and, at the same time, of the historical theorists of the last century. The insights of the latter point to the constructed and problematic nature of our written histories. Just a couple of months ago, I met a historian who, when I mentioned Hayden White, said, “Oh, you mean the guy who says you can make up anything you want about the past?” And yet, White’s body of work, as well as that of other theorists, has forcefully called into question the “truths” of traditional historical writing and has helped to open a theoretical way of taking history films seriously.

When I said, “to write extensively on film is to dare being marginalized within the profession,” I was talking directly to people like you, younger scholars who may not yet be fully acculturated into the dogmas and practices of the profession. The topic of film may still be on the margins, but now a bit less so. The rock band Buffalo Springfield has a wonderful line in one of their songs: “you step out of line, the man come and take you away.” Here the man means the police, and our field has its own cops. You are not considered a serious historian when you write about film as history. My evidence for this is largely anecdotal, based upon the remarks of younger scholars who can see the limitations of the written word in writing history. My question is, why? As White and other theorists have pointed out, the history we write is based on certain writing conventions that both enable and limit what we can say about the past. I wrote three more or less traditional narrative histories, and by the third one, I was saying to myself, “this is not precisely what happened. This is what I, after years of research, have decided what happened and why.” In the book Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan, which embraces some of the literary techniques of the contemporary novel, I, to some extent, play with narrative to escape the confines of some traditions in academic history, which can be rigid, unforgiving, and dull for most potential readers, even historians. I think the rigidity of academic fields, which do not change very quickly, continues to make it difficult for the topic of film as history to enter the mainstream.

For many historians, film remains suspect because, and this is what we would have said in the sixties, that is where the action is—that is where people learn history for the most part—and thus, it is a genre over which historians have no control. Ignoring film, however, is just putting on blinders. Historians are in danger—perhaps we are already there?—of becoming a priestly caste. We talk to and write for each other and make rules about the world for each other, but we do not see whether we have an audience. I am not saying that everything should be popularized, or that traditional books should not be read. Of course, they are the heart of our historical knowledge. But I believe film to be another powerful medium, and it is folly not to come to grips with it.

TM: One of the responses that your 1988 essay triggered is Hayden White’s “Historiography and Historiophoty,” the latter is a term he coined and defined as “the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse.” Part of your work since then, particularly your book History on Film/Film on History, is devoted to the exploration of “historiophoty,” or what historian Marc Ferro once suggested, “a filmic writing of the past.” As such, your approach to the topic of film as history has differed from other scholars who, as you put it, “write as if history films are not really about the past, but about the present” (xv). Can you tell us more about your approach, and how is that also different from similar approaches such as those of professors Pierre Sorlin and Nathalie Zemon Davis?

RR: I like the term “historiophoty,” and find it useful. I think, in a way, in History on Film/Film on History, I am responding to that term. In fact, Hayden and I became friends after his response to my AHR essay in which he coined the term. My work has changed enormously from my initial essays; it took me about 25 years to say, “why are we holding up all these barriers to a medium that is so important?” Ferro’s work, particularly the phrase “a filmic writing of the past,” was influential in this respect. I agree that is where I think my approach to history and film has differed from other scholars. These days, it seems that far more scholars in film studies than in history are working in the field of history and film, most prominent of whom is Robert Burgoyne. I roughly estimate that they seem to publish at least 75 percent of the articles, if not more, and their large questions are different from my own. They raise such questions as: Why was this film made? What does a film say about the time in which it was made? What socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural influences made it this way? In short, most film studies scholars try to understand history films as products of a particular present, as documents that tell us about the society in which they were produced and viewed. Their work is essential and their studies are often excellent, but they rarely deal with the historical contents portrayed in those films, or what they (may) add to our knowledge of the event, character, or era on which they focus. My approach has tried to shift the focus to how we, historians or non-historians, can think about these history films as contributions to our historical understanding and knowledge of the past as well as an alternative or simply a different way of retelling and reconstructing the past.

Nathalie Zemon Davis, who is also a good friend, has a somewhat similar approach to mine, but she draws back to the edge and is not quite willing to say that history film is a legitimate way of doing history. I do not know why she has pulled back, and I wonder if she still feels that way. Pierre Sorlin takes pretty much the same approach as those in Film Studies. Along the way, he makes the excellent point that “films must be judged not against our knowledge or interpretations of a topic but with regard to historical understanding at the time they were made” (21). My approach has been different, for I argue that the history film provides another discourse, a visual and oral discourse about the past, and that we historians (traditional gatekeepers of the past) have to learn how to read these visual works on their own terms and not naively by observing things like how the clothing or furniture is wrong for that period. The image, you know, cannot generalize the way a word can. You cannot show an invasion of one country by another or a revolution on the screen except by showing, for example, a small group of, say, soldiers who are doing the invading or are revolting. I am not trying to exclude the immense contributions of traditional history, but now we need to develop a clear set of guidelines that everybody can use to evaluate these visual histories. My work is an attempt to move towards such guidelines.

TM: One of the things that stood out to me in your earlier work is the way you address invention. Invention, as you argue, has been the most controversial issue when dealing with history film, for “the camera’s need to fill out the specifics of a particular historical scene, or to create a coherent (and moving) visual sequence, will always ensure large doses of invention.” You treat invention differently than how other historians would treat it; they use it more in terms of how accurate a scene is or how faithful it is to written accounts. However, you distinguish between two different kinds of invention: false invention and true invention. In other words, for you, invention is not simply about a fabricated character, event, or detail such as clothing or furniture, but about knowing the discourse of history on a particular event and ignoring it or not incorporating it in a film. Could you clarify this to our readers?

RR: I have pretty much given up the idea of true and false invention. That was an early idea, and my ideas have changed several times as I did more research over the years. I now think that the way to judge films is by how they interact with the discourse of history, with all the available knowledge on a topic and what has been published on it over the years, decades, or centuries. This is, after all, what we do with every new history book as well. You have hit the most challenging point when dealing with history on film, but I think invention is necessary for history films. They cannot do what written words do, so they do something else. “You may see the contribution of such works in terms not of the specific details they present but, rather, in the overall sense of the past they convey, the rich images and visual metaphors they provide to us for thinking historically. You may also see the history film as part of a separate realm of representation and discourse, one not meant to provide literal truths about the past (as if our written history can [ACTUALLY] provide literal truths) but metaphoric truths which work, to a large degree, as a kind of commentary on, and challenge to, traditional historical discourse” (7). In a history film, you must judge the totality of a work, and, in some ways, the details are less significant than the overall meaning. A film is essentially a dramatic work, which means it must invent some details; it is a time-limited medium, as books are not. Thus, we need different ideas of what works and what does not in this medium.

I provide many examples of how somewhat fictionalized history films can make strong historical arguments in my books. Let me mention three examples:  Oliver Stone’s wholly fictional film, Born on the Fourth of July (1989), manages to convey the social upheaval of the Vietnam war era so vividly that, at certain points, I felt I was reliving my own experience of that sixties. Most of the characters in Glory (1989), focused on the 54th Massachusetts regiment in the Civil War, are fictional, as are many incidents, yet the film gives a visceral portrait of Black soldiers, the racism they suffered in the Union army, and their contributions to the Northern victory during the Civil War. The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) is a French film based on a famous and possibly true traditional tale of a man who left his village for years and either he or an imposter returns years later to his wife and children, though it is never clear if this is the same man or not. Even Natalie Davis, who wrote a book on the topic, cannot decide on this. Yet the film provides a fascinating portrait of power in a 16th-century French village.

TM: You employ the phrase “history film,” which you coined in History on Film/Film on History in opposition to the “historical film.” Can you explicate this term for our readers?

RR: For me and for the dictionary, the distinction is this: “historical” refers to anything from the past, while “history” refers to the study of the past. By using “historical film,” we are denigrating what I think is the contribution of the history film, “a film which evokes and makes meaningful the world of the past” (xii) and “engages the kind of questions which professional historians pose” (xviii), to our understanding of history. I have seen very few scholars using the phrase “history film,” for “historical film” is deeply implanted in our consciousness and has been used in the academy and by the public for a century, almost as soon as such films began to be made. That is why I have gotten to almost nowhere with my attempt to shift the reference. But I still believe that “history film” may grant the topic of film as history some academic seriousness that “historical film” has so far failed to do.

TM: Why is it important for historians to take history film seriously?

RR: Even though some historians take films seriously, they are a tiny minority of the profession, mostly, I believe, younger scholars like you. History films can offer interpretations of the past, which are certainly as interesting, and sometimes more so, than history on the page. To give an example: Hidden Figures (2016), a film about the crucial contributions of Black female mathematicians to the space program, keeps the focus on just three characters, making it much more interesting and pointed in its argument about discrimination than the book on which it is based. The latter introduces so many historical characters, whose stories dilute rather than enhance the meaning, making the narrative diffuse, confusing, and ultimately redundant.

Think of it this way: Why should the world of the past be brought to you solely by words when we have this splendid new medium for telling the past? Of course, the past on the screen and with sound is and must be enormously different from the past created in words by scholars, but it is time for historians to explore what such films add to our understanding of the past and to what extent they engage in a dialogue with written history, as some of them do. The time is surely past due for historians to take dramatic and documentary films seriously, in part, because that is where most people learn about the past, but even more because the visual media has become a giant that overwhelms us daily. Today, it is clearly the chief conveyor of public history in our culture. Who reads the overwhelming majority of history books other than historians? A sale of a few thousand copies of a work of history is considered a raging success, and the average work may never reach a thousand. This is a sad commentary in a population of more than 330 million people. Yet an audience of many millions is common for a history film.

TM: One of the main contributions of your book is that it experiments with a methodology to read history films, which you refer to as “the history film’s rules of engagement with the past.” Such a methodology cannot be but interdisciplinary, as you borrow from history and film studies and invite us to significantly change the way we think of history. What are some of these rules of engagement and the assumptions about history behind them?

In 1988, AHR editor David Ransel asked me to create a once-a-year history film review section for the journal. I edited it for six years, then turned the job over to Tom Prasch, who was doing a splendid job until the subsequent editor of the AHR canceled it on the grounds that historians did not know how to review films. This was not true of our actual reviewers, who tended to know quite a bit about film. But what we must ask is, why such a judgment? Might it not be crucial for historians to learn how to analyze the history films that shape many viewers’ sense of the past?

The first basic rule of engagement is that you have to take film on its own terms, to study it according to new standards. You cannot judge it by the same terms we judge oral history, written history, or social science history. Other people might come along and find other rules of engagement, but one must respect the medium and know its boundaries, limitations, and capabilities. Film can specify things in a way that a book cannot do and vice versa—it adds color, sound, movement, and dialogue to the past it constructs; it stretches, squeezes, slows down, and fast forwards time—and so it must be judged differently. The person who has done the most detailed study of this is Eleftheria Thanouli, the author of History on Film: A Tale of Two Disciplines.

And, of course, any such study must be interdisciplinary. I had to do a lot of reading in film theory and the theory of history, which brings us to the second basic rule of engagement: we must change how we think about history. What we know now from the great theorists of the last half century is that written history is not the same practice I was taught in graduate school in the sixties. Many historians I know and read seem to feel the same way, but this recognition has hardly changed how people write or do history. They do not teach you how to write in graduate schools. When you enter graduate school, there is an assumption that you know how to write, and then you have seminars where people only criticize the content of your work, as if the writing itself was a neutral medium. But we know that writing is not neutral; we know that there is an infinite amount of data on almost every topic, from which you pull out the bits and pieces that make sense to the thrust and aim of your work, which starts with the very choosing of a topic; and we know that your values, beliefs, and experiences underlie the choice of a topic, how you conduct research, formulate explanations, and construct your narrative or analysis. However, we still do not recognize enough that our academic historical writing is not the sole truth about our topic but only an attempt to make sense of some aspects of the vanished world of the past.

Tamara Maatouk is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She holds a B.A. in Cinema and Television from USEK and an M.A. in History from the American University of Beirut. Her research explores the lived experiences and expectations of Egyptians during the 1960s through the lens of cinema. She is the author of Understanding the Public Sector in Egyptian Cinema: A State Venture, Cairo Papers in Social Science 35:3 (Cairo; New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2019).

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Warren Beauty as Jack Reed in Reds (1981). © Paramount Pictures


JHI Issue 83.4 Now Available

Intellectual history

Interview with Sarah Shortall: Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Part Two)

By Jacob Saliba

PART II – Opening Remarks: In the first part of this interview, Sarah and I discussed some of the factors that originally motivated her book project, how she envisioned particular facets of its argument, and lastly, how certain events played important roles in the early stages of nouvelle théologie’s formation in the first half of the twentieth century. The second part of this interview will focus on some core activities of nouvelle théologie during World War II, then shift into its evolution during the post-war era, and finally close with the movement’s ultimate fate at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At the very end of this interview and in light of our conversation, Sarah will provide some closing reflections on how historians can effectively reimagine the relationship between theology and politics in the modern world.


JS: Moving ahead to World War II, you discuss the various tools and venues that Jesuits and Dominicans used to combat the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe. One example involved building an underground journal such as Témoignage chrétien, which distributed essays that condemned Nazism and Antisemitism and the Church’s clericalism and complicity in far-right ideology. Likewise, some priests like Yves de Montcheuil joined Resistance groups operating in France (Montchueuil served as a chaplain to the maquis fighters), while Chaillet helped to spearhead the humanitarian resistance efforts of Amitié chrêtienne. Indeed, Montcheuil himself was arrested and executed by the Gestapo in 1944. As you argue, what unites the various branches of Catholic action is their commitment to a “Spiritual Resistance” (106). In what sense was this resistance ‘spiritual’ rather than say ‘material,’ and how did these priests find this form of political action compatible with their understanding of the Church and its values?

SS: One of the things that really surprised me initially was how adamant the Jesuits who created Témoignage chrétien were that their resistance activities should not be construed as a form of political engagement, but rather as a purely spiritual project. It seemed to me that of course such work was political (which was certainly how their superiors and the Gestapo viewed it as well)! Though I don’t think it would be quite fair to say that their claim not to be “doing politics” was simply an exercise in bad faith, I also don’t think we should accept this claim at face value, since Témoignage chrétien and the various forms of spiritual resistance clearly did have political effects. Instead, I argue that their claim to remain above politics was itself politically powerful, especially in the context of the war and occupation. First, I show how encoding their resistance message in the ostensibly apolitical language of theology allowed these priests to circumvent Vichy censorship.

In addition, framing their resistance message as a spiritual one and Nazism as a religious rather than a political threat allowed them to weigh in on political matters that might otherwise appear to be beyond their purview of priests. And it also allowed them to present Christianity—rather than, say, liberal democracy—as the best weapon against fascism. So, I argue that the political power of the spiritual resistance came precisely from its claim to be something other than a political project. And this is why it constitutes a form of what I call “counter-politics,” by which I mean that it allowed these priests to engage in politics without appearing to do so and while engaging in a critique of secular political categories. This approach emerged fairly organically from the theological vision that they had begun to articulate before the war—especially their vision of the Church as a totalizing, universal, and eschatological entity. Conceived in this way, the Church could not be yoked to an earthly political project, but it also had a robust role to play in public life and couldn’t simply be confined to the private sphere. In many ways, Témoignage chrétien and the “spiritual resistance” was the practical working-out of this ecclesiology.

JS: In chapter 6, you write: “the notion that the teaching of the Church Fathers possessed uncanny affinities with modern thought, and indeed seemed somehow more contemporary than the scholastic theology that succeeded it, was a key premise of the French Jesuits’ commitment to ressourcement” (219). Can you define the meaning and original context of ressourcement? Furthermore, could you tease out this particular paradox as it relates to the retrieval of ideas from the early Church in the hopes of ‘modernizing’ the Church in the present? To put it in more illustrative terms, these priests by going backward were actually moving forward. You even mention the affinity between thinkers like De Lubac and Fessard with the philosopher Walter Benjamin and his historical reflections. What exactly is their connection?

SS: Ressourcement was in many ways the defining principle of the nouvelle théologie. It was an effort to return to the sources of the Catholic tradition—especially the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers. By way of context, it’s important to know that when these theologians came of age in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the dominant intellectual model in the Catholic Church at the time was something called neo-scholasticism, which was based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas but filtered through his early modern commentators. Clerical formation at the time relied on a set of manuals rooted in this tradition. Theologians like de Lubac, Daniélou, Congar, and Chenu wanted to return to the tradition’s original sources, prior to these later accretions and manuals, which they felt had distorted the teachings of Aquinas and the Church Fathers.

The Jesuits I focus on were particularly drawn to the Church Fathers, and they made the somewhat paradoxical claim that it was actually by returning to the patristic sources that Catholic theology could better engage with modern thought. Daniélou in fact argued that the teachings of the Church Fathers seemed more relevant than medieval or early-modern scholasticism because they shared with contemporary philosophies such as existentialism, Hegelianism, and Marxism an emphasis on history, the social, and subjectivity that was absent from scholastic philosophy. These Jesuits also discerned an analogy between the political situation of the persecuted early Church, before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the contemporary Church, which was beset on all sides by the forces of secularization. They wanted the Church to reclaim its original in this pre-Constantinian era as a force for critique vis-à-vis the powers of this world. For these theologians, then, it was actually by turning back to the Church Fathers that the Church could engage most effectively with the intellectual and political challenges of the modern world. This same logic, I argue, was foundational to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The watchword of the council was aggiornamento—an effort to “update” the Church and bring it into the modern world—but this concern to modernize the Church was bound up with the project of ressourcement in the conciliar documents. And indeed, many of the most important innovations of the council—on religious freedom, Catholic teaching on Judaism, or episcopal collegiality—were justified by an appeal to the early sources of the tradition.

What underwrote arguments like Daniélou’s for the contemporary resonance of the patristic sources was a particular vision of time that strikes me as similar to Walter Benjamin’s concept of “now-time” and his critique of “empty, homogeneous time.” Like Benjamin, these Jesuits rejected a linear, progressive model of time in favor of an eschatological temporality that was non-linear and alive to the way certain moments from the past can suddenly become recognizable and contemporaneous to the present, unleashing critical and transformative possibilities that had previously been foreclosed. Though their politics were very different from Benjamin’s, I think they shared with him a profound appreciation for the politics of time, and I try to show how their vision of eschatological time informed their critique of a range of political ideologies.

JS:  Your book concludes with the ultimate fate of nouvelle théologie by bringing into focus its profound successes at the Second Vatican Council as well as the internal fissures that quickly surfaced soon after. On the one hand, these Dominicans and Jesuits collectively harnessed the power of ressourcement and repurposed it for a much-needed aggiornamento (‘a bringing up to date’) of the Church. On the other hand, the post-Vatican II era erupted with serious disagreements over the role and purpose of the Church. What were the nature of these disagreements? And, why were the members of nouvelle théologie able for so long to band together in the face of great adversity, but when emerging victorious their sense of unity began to dissipate? What contextual factors had changed from the inter-war and post-war eras (i.e., 1930s-1950s) to the Vatican and post-Vatican eras (1960s and onward)?

SS: On the one hand, Vatican II was the great moment of vindication and rehabilitation for the nouveaux théologiens after their condemnation in the 1950s. But on the other hand, as you indicate, it also revealed fairly significant fissures within this group of theologians, between those who are usually viewed as the more “progressive” theologians, such as Chenu, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, and Hans Küng, and a more “conservative” group that included de Lubac, Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) and Karol Wojtyła (the future John Paul II). These fractures emerged most clearly during the debates over Gaudium et Spes, the document that dealt with the Church’s relationship to the modern world. Theologians like Chenu and Schillebeeckx were determined to open the Church up to the modern world, while de Lubac, Ratzinger, and others worried that this enthusiasm for modernity risked diluting the document’s emphasis on salvation and opening the Church up to the corrosive effects of secularization. They therefore took a much more critical view of modernity and tried to insert more Christocentric language into the document.

This disagreement in many ways set the terms for the fierce post-conciliar debates over the legacy of Vatican II between those who thought the council had gone too far and those who felt it hadn’t gone far enough in the direction of modernizing the Church—a dispute embodied by the rival theological journals Communio and Concilium. You’re right to point to the significance of the 1960s context, which was indeed very different from the context in which the nouvelle théologie was first developed in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time of the council, a new generation of theologians had come of age, many of whom were deeply influenced by the nouvelle théologie (including people like Schillebeeckx and Ratzinger) and had expanded its reach beyond the borders of France. This generational shift was, I think, crucial to the rehabilitation of the nouvelle théologie and its success at Vatican II, but it also introduced a wider range of voices into the discussion, and some of these younger theologians were considerably more radical than the older generation.

At the same time, one of the things I stress in the book is that we can already see the roots of these Vatican II-era disputes in the 1940s, when the differences between the Dominican and Jesuit branches of the nouvelle théologie became increasingly apparent. The two groups diverged in part over political questions, with Dominicans like Chenu, Congar, and Féret helping to nurture the postwar Catholic left and the worker-priest movement, while the Jesuits were much more forthrightly anti-communist. And these political differences had everything to do, I argue, with their theological differences. The Dominicans remained deeply committed to the centrality of Thomism and developed what I call a theology of incarnation, which stressed the value and integrity of worldly affairs. The Jesuits, for their part, drawing on their reading of the Church Fathers, placed the accent firmly on eschatology—on the need to critique secular institutions and ideologies from the perspective of the coming Kingdom. It is this distinction between incarnation and eschatology that we see play out in the disagreements at Vatican II over the Church’s relationship to the modern world. And it still informs debates within the Church about how to strike the appropriate balance between adapting to the modern world and refusing those aspects of modernity that violate Catholic teaching; between being in the world and rising above it.

JS: My final question concerns an interesting point you make in the Epilogue of your book. The Jesuits and Dominicans involved in nouvelle théologie, as you write, “anticipated, foreshadowed, or directly influenced recent debates about the role of religion in public life, both within and beyond the Church” (248). On the one hand, they influenced, shall we say, left-wing interventions into modern religion such as Liberation Theology in Central and South America (e.g., Gustavo Gutiérrez) as well as pre-dated various post-structuralist sentiments within the Foucauldian tradition (e.g., Talal Asad and Wendy Brown). On the other hand, they provided tools for Radical Orthodox thinkers (e.g., John Millbank and William Cavanaugh) who look to nouvelle théologie for ways to construct a postliberal theology grounded in the notion that the Church represents the highest form of political life and therefore ought to set the pre-conditions for modern culture—in all its political, cultural, and economic affairs. How do we make sense of these surprising parallels? Furthermore, given the historical evidence for the compatibility and even anticipation that these French Catholics provide for contemporary scholarship, what would be some implications for wider questions of democracy, pluralism, and the modern public sphere? In other words, how might your narrative elevate or respond to fundamental concerns of political theology, modern social theory, and the relationship between the two? 

SS: The fact that the nouvelle théologie has influenced both leftwing theologians such as Gutiérrez and more conservative figures such as Benedict XVI is really telling. At one level, it’s an indication of how foundational these ideas have become within the Catholic Church since the 1960s. But more importantly, it is yet another example of the ways in which theology tends to defy the logic of the right/left political spectrum. This is one of the central claims of the book more broadly. In some cases, the theologians I follow self-consciously identified as “neither right nor left”; in other cases, the same theological model was mobilized to serve a range of competing political projects. As for the specific example of the contemporary heirs to the nouvelle théologie, what they all have in common is a profound suspicion of liberalism, rather in the same way that the ideas of Carl Schmitt have been taken up by both rightwing and leftwing critics of liberalism.

It’s precisely because of the way theology seems to fit awkwardly into conventional political categories that I think the story of the nouvelle théologie has something useful to contribute to contemporary theoretical debates about the role of religion in public life. In the first place, it should make us more attuned to the political power of ideas that are usually dismissed as politically inconsequential—something that applies not just to theology but to a host of other ideas as well. As I try to show in the case of these priests, the claim to remain above or outside politics can itself be politically powerful in certain instances. Rather than taking the distinction between religion and politics as a given, then, I try to draw attention to the way this distinction is constantly drawn and redrawn, and the ideological work performed by the act of drawing it. Doing so reveals that the distinction between religion and politics is not just a tool in the service of secularism; it can also be used by religious actors to advance their own ends.

In this way, I think the story of the nouvelle théologie invites us to rethink what constitutes a political act and where the boundaries of the political lie. It suggests the need for an expansive view of the political—one that focuses not just on the conventional sites of political action, such as the state, the law, and the economy, but also integrates the sorts of anthropological, temporal, and metaphysical questions that are central to theology. After all, politics presupposes a much wider set of ideas about the relationship between the individual and the community, the source of authority, human nature, and the structure of time. And these are precisely the sorts of questions that theology seeks to answer as well, which is why it continues to impinge on political life in even such a robustly secular society as France since 1905.

Beyond these more abstract theoretical insights, the theologians I examine grappled with a number of questions that remain deeply relevant for our own world: what role should religion and religious institutions play in a secular, pluralist democracy? How can they play an active role in public life without violating the separation of church and state and without yoking the Church to a particular party or ideology? As a historian, I certainly don’t want to suggest that we simply embrace or adopt the answers that the nouveaux théologiens provided to these questions. But I do think there is one respect in which Christians today might learn from their work, especially given the current resurgence around the world of authoritarian and nationalist ideologies that draw strength from Christianity. Whether it was the Action Française, the Vichy regime, or the Communist Party, theologians like Henri de Lubac saw clearly how dangerous it was to bind Catholicism to a particular political party or ideology. Doing so not only undermined the independence of the state, he believed; it also degraded the Church by reducing it to the level of the powers of this world. And so, even as he insisted that the Church had a robust role to play in public life, he also recognized that an irreducible tension would always remain between the demands of the faith and those of politics. This seems to me a lesson worth remembering today.

Jacob Saliba is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Boston College. He studies modern European intellectual history with a special emphasis on modern French and German thought. His dissertation research focuses on the cross-cultural exchanges between religious and secular intellectuals during the French interwar period.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Kazimir Malevich, “Supremus no. 58,” (1916) Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Richard Hofstader’s Paranoid Style: An Interview with Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

By Grant Wong

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow affiliated with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies research team at Australian Catholic University (ACU) and based at the university’s Rome campus. His research focuses upon themes of conspiracy, secrecy, and anonymity as they were instantiated in early modern history and subsequently conceptualized in modern history under the influence of social science. Some of the results of this research recently appeared in the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories, in which he served as a co-editor and contributor.

McKenzie-McHarg spoke with Grant Wong about his recent JHI article, “From Status Politics to the Paranoid Style: Richard Hofstadter and the Pitfalls of Psychologizing History.”


Grant Wong: In your article, you trace American historian Richard Hofstadter’s intellectual development of the “paranoid style.” Hofstadter defined his psychological concept as a mode of individualistic and collective political thought characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Your study stresses that the idea did not emerge fully formed in 1963, but instead was an ongoing project refined by Hofstadter in response to the political events of his day, namely McCarthyism and the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater. How does your approach encourage us to think differently about the paranoid style?

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg: What made me realize that there was a story to tell here was the discovery of Hofstadter’s first presentation of the paranoid style. Some years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Manchester. After I presented a paper that simply elaborated upon the known facts, namely that Hofstadter had first outlined his understanding of the paranoid style at a lecture in Oxford University in 1963, I received a tip-off from another attendee that Hofstadter had in fact lectured on the paranoid style four years earlier in 1959. With the help of the archivists at the BBC Written Archives Centre, I located a transcript of this lecture, which has since been published in the Library of America volume of Hofstadter’s writings edited by Sean Wilentz.

Hofstadter is well-known for being somewhat dismissive of historians who bury themselves in archives—“archive rats,” he called them—and so on one level, I approached my article with a slightly ironic goal: what better way to vindicate the value of archival research than with a study devoted to Hofstadter himself? Admittedly, the discovery of the BBC lecture does not completely upturn our understanding of the paranoid style, but it definitely enriches our understanding of how Hofstadter formulated this concept and then presented it to the general public in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964.

It also provides us with a revealing example of how Hofstadter engaged with the past. One of the most striking aspects of the BBC lecture is how it limited itself to the American Far Right in its McCarthyist and post-McCarthyist incarnations—in other words, to the recent past and the present, as seen from the vantage point of 1959. When Hofstadter returned to England four years later for the Oxford lecture, he did so with a lecture manuscript brimming with examples of this phenomenon drawn from far more distant episodes of American history. Clearly, this practice of discovering in the past earlier iterations of something originally observed in the present entails risks for the historian. As much as Hofstadter might have been aware of these risks, his interpretations were by no means fully immune to them. This also applies to his characterization of the paranoid style. Yet staging this conversation between past and present can also be very fruitful, and its potential is the source of much of the freshness and liveliness that Hofstadter’s work still retains—even if his present and the liberalism that dominated it have receded into the past faster than many might have expected. And even if the validity of historians taking their cue from the present remains contentious.

As for Goldwater, by the time the Republican Party nominated the senator from Arizona as their candidate for the 1964 presidential election, the essential elements of the paranoid style were already locked in place. The significance of Goldwater to the story seems to me that his candidacy helped Hofstadter overcome his reservations about exposing an American audience to the diagnosis of a paranoid style recurring throughout their history. We must remember that the first two occasions on which he presented the paranoid style were in lectures (for the BBC and Oxford, respectively) addressed to British audiences.

If I might indulge here in some counterfactual speculation, if the Goldwater movement had not taken liberals such as Hofstadter by surprise in 1964 by seizing control of the Republican party and elevating their leader to the party’s candidate in the contest for the presidency, it is not out of the question that the paranoid style might have remained an intriguing but largely forgotten conceptual experiment. The only evidence of the concept would survive in a lecture manuscript in the BBC Written Archives Center and another in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. From other documents, we can infer an initial reluctance on Hofstadter’s part to deploy the concept of the paranoid style, as he correctly foresaw the controversy it invited. The prospect of a Goldwater presidency spurred him into action. It is only necessary to read some of Hofstadter’s characterizations of Goldwater and the Goldwater movement, now easily accessed in Wilentz’s edited volume, to acquaint oneself with a less familiar Hofstadter, namely Hofstadter the deeply committed—and extremely panicked—intellectuel engagé.

GW: You note that historians and journalists who employ the paranoid style “tend to name Hofstadter as its source, perhaps out of a respect for ‘intellectual property’ or a desire to distance themselves from the concept’s implications.” I was struck by this fact, especially because the concept is still alive and well today, adapted by scholars to “numerous revisions and qualifications.” Could you speak more to this? Why is the paranoid style, a concept now older than half a century, still affiliated so closely with Hofstadter?

AM: One of the pre-publication readers of the essay objected to this point on the grounds that it is impossible to prove a negative—the negative being the statement that there are no occasions on which the paranoid style is invoked without also acknowledging Hofstadter as its originator. As valid as the objection might be, and as much as I am asking the reader to take this statement on trust, I have genuinely yet to find an appeal to the paranoid style that does not explicitly acknowledge Hofstadter as the concept’s originator. Since this article emerged from a larger inquiry into the language of conspiracy theory, it seems apposite to make the comparison to this somewhat synonymous or at least overlapping concept. “Conspiracy theory” is not a concept whose use imposes upon the user any obligation to reference the concept’s originator for the simple reason that no one person can lay claim to that honor. Instead, “conspiracy theory” entered our conceptual vocabulary in a process stretching approximately from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. There was no singular moment of creation. As for the paranoid style, the situation appears—at least at first glance—markedly different.

Part of why Hofstadter is always cited as the “inventor” of the concept of the paranoid style has to do, I suspect, with its polemical edge. It is certainly not a neutral concept, and Hofstadter was, in fact, quite candid about its pejorative connotations. Even if a subsequent commentator endorses the concept, pointing to Hofstadter as its originator provides a cover from some of the controversy that arises when one psychologizes and pathologizes participants in the sphere of democratic debate. As a fêted historian occupying a chair at a top Ivy-League university, his name obviously retains a cache of credibility which commentators gratefully avail themselves of when deploying his concept.  

A final observation is in order. If above I contrasted the “paranoid style” with “conspiracy theory” on the grounds that the former is firmly linked to its creator, I must qualify this comparison by pointing out that Hofstadter was, in fact, not entirely alone in alighting upon the “paranoid style” as a useful term. In 2017, cultural historian Alexander Dunst, in his highly stimulating book Madness in Cold War America, drew attention to the fact that Adorno had used the same combination of words in The Authoritarian Personality. To my mind, this does not justify a claim that Adorno, and not Hofstadter, was the originator of the concept, though it would be interesting to locate Hofstadter’s own copy of this seminal work; did he underline the term?

Yet just as significant was my discovery that in 1965, the same year that the Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays appeared as a book, the psychologist David Shapiro published Neurotic Styles, a work drawing upon his clinical work at the famous Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts. In addition to the “obsessive-compulsive style,” the “hysterical style,” and the “impulsive style,” Shapiro devoted a chapter of his study to delineating the “paranoid style.” Upon noticing this convergence, I took advantage of one of the affordances of modern history not available to students of early modern history (where much of my research is otherwise focused), namely that it is on occasions possible to reach out to still living witnesses of events and participants of debates. I spoke with David Shapiro, and he admitted to me that he had often pondered the convergence, not least because he had originally felt a certain proprietary pride in having coined the term “paranoid style.” But the discovery reminded me that what we consider to be instances of individual originality are often predicated upon diffuse cultural currents and semantic trends. In other words, society invented the phrase as much as any individual did.

GW: American politics are in a particularly contentious state today, given the Democratic Party’s tenuous majorities in Congress, the aftereffects of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think that the paranoid style remains an effective means to analyze American politics? Just as scholars have amended it over the years to fit the conditions of their times, how do you think they might continue to adapt it for future use?

AM: On the eve of the last presidential election, I grappled in a JHI blog post with the efforts of commentators to characterize Trump’s form of populist politics in terms of the “paranoid style.” Of course, one reason for skepticism might lie in the impression that Trump tends more to narcissism than paranoia. But the whole point of the paranoid style as a concept was that whoever might deploy it as a mode of political communication did not need to be personally paranoid. Hofstadter’s motivation for recruiting the notion of a style was to posit an analogy linking a neurosis familiar to us from psychology with cultural and communicative rhetorical patterns.

Another impression drawn from my research reinforced a point that other scholars had already emphasized in identifying the political agenda that informed Hofstadter’s writings. Although the description of Hofstadter as a “consensus historian” might sit uneasily because he was averse to celebrating this consensus, he showed himself to be one of its most stalwart defenders whenever he encountered political forces that seemed to threaten it. In this regard, his hope was that his denunciation of the paranoid style would help ward off incursions into the political center undertaken by those not committed to democratic civility and liberal rationality. But in 2022, is there still a consensus or political center to defend? In a period of entrenched division, in which the commitment of one of America’s two political parties to the democratic process is open to question and a large portion of the American population have no problems imagining a new civil war, one might be forgiven for entertaining doubts on this score. In light of this situation, when commentators reach for the notion of the “paranoid style” in today’s climate, it’s like using a prophylactic when what the body politic requires is a cure, or at least a very different treatment. Of course, what exact “treatment” the United States needs to overcome its hyperpartisanship and mend its political divisions is another matter entirely.

Perhaps I can conclude with two points directed more at the academic debate about conspiracy theories and the paranoid style: I am more than willing to agree with some of the criticisms recently formulated by Michael Butter and directed at the shortcomings of Hofstadter’s essay; undoubtedly, Hofstadter got a few things wrong, particularly his characterization of the paranoid style as a marginal phenomenon that was the “preferred style only of minority movements.” In this respect, his presentism genuinely proved misleading. But Butter also revisits the misgivings about Hofstadter’s appeal to paranoia that many others have expressed since Hofstadter published his essay. This raises the question of how appropriate this psychiatric concept is for the study of conspiracy theories. Does the concept of paranoia have the potential to be useful or helpful in this regard, or should we abandon it because it only creates confusion? I’ve come around to believing that it does have value. This is because subjects diagnosed with paranoia do indeed often manifest grandiose suspicions of conspiracy and manipulation. It is only necessary to read Shapiro’s description of the “paranoid style” in a clinical context to appreciate the parallel to Hofstadter’s rhetorical and cultural paranoid style.

One can bemoan the defects in Hofstadter’s account and link them to the blind spots of the cold-war liberalism that he so archetypally embodied. Nevertheless, it remains necessary to honor his achievement of recognizing the existence of a recurring pattern of political action and expression. Undoubtedly, Hofstadter’s investment in post-war social science instilled in him a confidence in making such generalizations. Even if today we often pay lip service to the interdisciplinarity that came to Hofstadter so naturally, there aren’t many contemporary historians willing to posit the kinds of general historical patterns that Hofstadter felt equipped to tease out from the historical record. Whatever issues one might have with the nomenclature, we—and “we” might even include the occasional “archive rat”—can recognize the discovery of such a pattern as an achievement in its own right.

Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.

Featured image: Campaign Buttons, Sam Teigen, Flickr,

Intellectual history

Interview with Sarah Shortall: Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Part One)

By Jacob Saliba

Sarah Shortall is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. She is an intellectual historian of modern Europe with a particular interest in twentieth-century France, Catholic thought, and the relationship between religion and politics. In addition to Soldiers of God in a Secular World, she has co-edited (with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins) a volume of essays titled Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Modern Intellectual History, Past & Present, Boston Review, and Commonweal.

Jacob Saliba is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Boston College. His dissertation research focuses on the cross-cultural exchanges between religious and secular intellectuals during the French interwar period.

Preface to the Two-Part Interview: This interview discusses Sarah Shortall’s latest book, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, 2021). Her text covers enormous ground of significant benefit to the historian, theologian, and political theorist all at once. It has generated widespread attention in a range of academic fields, having won four book awards, including, for example, the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies and the Giuseppe Alberigo Award from the European Academy of Religion. The following interview has two parts to the exciting topography of Sarah’s book in more detail. The first half addresses her original interest in and approach to the book. We will also bring attention to a few important themes in the early portion of her narrative’s timeline that help to sharpen the focus on developments in French Catholicism that begin to unfold just before World War II and have fascinating impacts on later decades. The second part of the interview will begin with the eruption of World War II and how nouvelle théologie operated during this time period. The conversation will cover the movement’s evolution in the post-war era and conclude with its ultimate fate at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At the close of this two-part interview, Sarah will make some final remarks on how to move beyond the conventional separation between theology and the political, thus providing an improved perspective on analyzing the relationship between religion and politics in the modern world. 


Jacob Saliba (JS):  In Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics, you examine the internal character and dynamics of modern Catholic theology, analyze the Church’s external encounter with the transformation of modern European politics, and ultimately challenge the presumed boundaries that scholars tend to use to separate these two domains. Instead, you argue that the evolution of French theological discourses parallel and, in many cases, positively inform changes in French politics over the last century. To demonstrate this, your narrative traces thought-provoking developments and crucial shifts in modern Catholicism by following the genesis, maturation, and culmination of a pluralist and secular-engaged twentieth-century movement of French Jesuits and Dominicans known as nouvelle théologie (“New Theology”).

As you point out in your book, the key question that united the core of this particular movement of Catholic thought was: “how to maintain a public role for [the Church] once the institutions of public life had been secularized.” Furthermore, you argue that “the separation of Church and state had a productive rather than a destructive effect on Catholic theology, inspiring new approaches to the problem of political theology and opening up new avenues for Catholic engagement in public life” (2). My first question is a basic one, but I think it is important for shedding light on why a book like yours on religion matters today in a world where it is commonplace to think of religion as a private affair or an opposing force against so-called secular values. To be sure, recent scholars such as James Chappel, Stephen Schloesser, and Ed Baring (to name a few) have shown the dynamic role of religion in the development of twentieth century European culture and its ideas. That being said, could you provide any details about how you yourself first came to imagine this book project and, in particular, what elements or ideas chiefly motivated your interest in pursuing it?

Sarah Shortall (SS): I was initially drawn to this topic in graduate school while I was preparing for my comprehensive exams. In addition, to my primary training in modern European intellectual history, I also prepared an exam field in twentieth-century Catholic theology, which is how I first came into contact with the nouvelle théologie and the figures I write about in the book. But beyond the content of their work, what was most striking to me were the many parallels and intersections I observed between the Catholic theologians I was reading and contemporaneous developments in twentieth-century European thought. And yet, I was struck by how little attention theology received in intellectual histories of the period. Whereas medieval and early modern intellectual historians seemed relatively at home in the language of theology, the same could not be said of the historiography on twentieth-century Europe. Fortunately, that has begun to change since I started graduate school, and I see my work as part of that change. In fact, I came to this project at a moment when there was a great surge of academic interest in questions of religion, political theology, and secularization. Several important works, such as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, had just been published, and there was a great deal of interest in political theology and the work of Carl Schmitt in particular. It was a moment, perhaps fueled partly by the reaction to 9/11 and the so-called “war on terror,” when scholars from various disciplines were revisiting secularization theory and struggling to account for a perceived “resurgence of religion” around the world. My work was deeply informed by these discussions and this new wave of scholarly interest in the relationship between religion and politics.

JS: This book engages with a host of thinkers, camps, and schools of thought in the Catholic world. For instance, Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard were Jesuits, whereas thinkers such as Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar were Dominicans. Indeed, these differences among religious orders illuminate an understanding about each of their conceptual approaches to the life and tradition of the Church. Moreover, some, like de Lubac, dabbled in Thomism but preferred Augustinian theology. Others like Chenu followed Incarnation theology but tended to side-line frameworks of eschatology. On the one hand, these terms and religious vocabularies might sound like needless jargon or even antiquated words to contemporary ears. On the other hand, however, they provide a very important entry point into the conversations, debates, and dilemmas that so often colored the political and theological thought of twentieth century French Catholicism. Could you summarize the key groupings, thinkers, and concepts that provide decisive support to your narrative and help illustrate your book’s historical findings?

SS: At the narrowest level, this book is about what is known today as the “nouvelle théologie” (though it’s important to point out that this term was not employed by the actors usually associated with it). It was developed in the 1930s and 1940s by a group of Jesuit theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Yves de Montcheuil, Henri Bouillard, and Gaston Fessard, as well as Dominicans such as Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar. It would eventually become one of the leading theological forces behind the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Like most Catholic intellectuals in this period, the nouveaux théologiens grappled with the key problem facing the Church in the twentieth century—its relationship to the intellectual, social, and political formations of modern life. The broader goal of the book, then, is to map out the range of theological visions of what role the Church should play in public life in the aftermath of the separation of Church and state in France. I identify two broad approaches to this problem, one rooted in the Thomist tradition (based on the work of Thomas Aquinas) and one more indebted to the Church Fathers and St. Paul. These theological differences yielded very different visions of the Church’s role in public life.

Thomists, I argue, tended to be more willing to work within secular institutions and collaborate with non-believers to achieve a shared set of practical goals. This model was mobilized in the service of a range of different political projects, from the far-right Action Française, to democracy and human rights, to Catholic-communist dialogue. It was anchored in the Thomist distinction between the natural and supernatural ends of human life, which allowed for a relatively autonomous realm of temporal affairs. By contrast, theologians like the circle of Jesuits around Henri de Lubac rejected these sorts of distinctions and the notion that one could identify an autonomous sphere of human affairs directed to a purely natural end. They were therefore much more wary of secular institutions and ideologies, even as they also firmly rejected the liberal notion that religion should be confined to the private sphere. This set of theological convictions drove these Jesuits to play a leading role in the “spiritual resistance” to Nazism during the Second World War. Crucially, both the Thomist and the patristic models I’ve outlined here cut across ideological distinctions between right and left, and between modernism and anti-modernism. Of course, this distinction between Thomist and patristic models is by no means hard and fast. There was considerable diversity within each of these groups and some figures, especially Dominicans like Congar and Chenu, had affinities with both. But I think this typology nevertheless provides a useful framework for understanding the relationship between politics and theology in twentieth-century France and why it can be so difficult to make sense of Catholic politics by means of secular political categories like “right” and “left” or “liberal” and “conservative.”

JS: My next question concerns your argument that isolation (why chapter 1 is aptly entitled “Exile Catholicism”) produced an ironic stimulant for thinking about the spaces, limits, and potential updates of Church teaching in a twentieth-century climate. You find that the development of certain friendships, such as La Pensée circle of De Lubac, Fessard, and Montcheuil on the island of Jersey in the 1920s, provided special nourishment for thinking about ‘higher questions’ and sharpening their critical skills concerning religious doctrine. In what respects were isolation and friendship lubricants for undertaking intellectual questions? One could argue that the hermetic-like isolation of these priests would lead to empty theory disembodied from world affairs or even that actively consolidating a circle of friends would merely lead to confirmation-bias. Yet, as you show, this was not the case! Could you spell out the internal irony and deeper subtlety of this context?

SS: That’s a great point. One might indeed expect that the isolation these figures experienced as a result of their exile from France would alienate them even more from the modern world and the everyday concerns of their countrymen. There are good reasons why it didn’t, though. At the most practical level, as I explain in the book, the isolation imposed by exile helped to buffer these religious communities from the worst excesses of the anti-modernist campaign that consumed the Church in the first decades of the twentieth century, and it also released them from their various pastoral responsibilities so that they could focus full-time on their studies. But the more important reason, I think, is that this experience of isolation came on the heels of a profound experience of integration for these young Jesuits due to the First World War. They were among the first generation of priests and seminarians to be mobilized due to the lifting of clerical exemptions from military service, and the experience of the trenches was a formative one for them. It brought them into contact with a range of men from whom their class background and religious vocation had previously segregated them. The experience drove home for them just how deeply secularization had penetrated French society and the urgent need for new apologetic tools capable of bridging the gulf between the Church and the masses. So, when they arrived on the island of Jersey a couple of years after the war ended to complete their philosophical formation, they were painfully attuned to the inadequacies of the highly abstract and recondite neo-scholastic philosophy that they were taught there. And because they had a likeminded group of friends who had been through a similar experience, I argue that these friendships gave them the emotional and intellectual support they needed to defy their teachers and the neo-scholastic model that dominated Catholic thought at the time.

What accounts for their openness to theological innovation, in other words, was the unique combination of both isolation and integration. On the one hand, the integrative experience of the war and of their friendship group, and on the other hand, combined with the isolation they felt from their superiors as well as the Church’s isolation from the modern world more broadly (an isolation manifested quite literally in their physical exile from France). I think the tension between these two things explains how the anticlerical campaign in France, which had driven the religious orders into exile, ironically created the conditions for a major renaissance in Catholic theology.

JS: 1926 is an important year for the Church in France. Action Française—a far-right, crypto-fascist group with an extensive social base among Catholics—was officially condemned by Pius XI. You argue that this condemnation effectively disbanded royalism and Catholicism in French political culture. In brief terms, could you discuss the prior legacy of royalism and Catholicism in France, what exactly changed in 1926, and how this split-up offers a paradigm for looking ahead to later decades in French Catholicism? Additionally, there is yet another fascinating aspect to this condemnation which is that Pius XI—in today’s terms—is considered a traditionalist pope. How does one reconcile this unexpected confrontation between a conservative pope and a right-wing political organization?

SS: The history of the entanglement between the Catholic Church and royalism in France is of course a long one and had everything to do with the close association between republicanism and anticlericalism, which fueled the anticlerical campaign that culminated in the separation of Church and state in 1905. This helps to explain why the Action Française exerted such a powerful appeal among French Catholics, especially priests and intellectuals. What made this alliance slightly awkward, though, was that the leader of the Action Française, Charles Maurras, was himself a non-believer. To justify their support for his movement, then, Catholic intellectuals frequently turned to the resources of neo-scholastic Thomism, arguing that it was possible to distinguish the admirable political goals of the AF from the philosophical and religious beliefs of its leader. Support for the Action Française thus became closely associated with neo-scholasticism in clerical circles by the 1920s.

The Vatican condemnation of the AF in 1926 was a watershed moment in the history of French Catholicism, I argue, because it effectively broke the power of this politico-theological alliance, opening the way for new forms of Catholic engagement in public life and new theological models to go along with them. These included the nouvelle théologie and the various strands of personalism that flourished in France in the 1930s. The philosophers and theologians who developed these ideas helped to reorient Catholic political thought away from the goal of reversing the separation of Church and state. But that doesn’t mean they embraced liberal democracy and the secularization of public life either. Instead, they sought to articulate a Catholic alternative to both liberalism and totalitarianism, both the confessional state and the privatization of religion. In other words, they were trying to imagine a way for the Church to be in but not of the secular public sphere.

The condemnation of the Action Française thus marked a new beginning in French Catholic political theology (though it certainly didn’t bring an end to Catholic royalism, especially since the condemnation was lifted in 1939), and it set the terms for subsequent debates about the Church’s relationship to political life in France. As I try to show, Catholics in the 1940s would redeploy exactly the same Thomist principles invoked by Catholic supporters of the AF in the 1920s, to justify some form of pragmatic cooperation with a variety of secular or even atheist political projects up to and including communism. And, so the same sorts of theological arguments about the relationship between the natural and supernatural orders, temporal and spiritual affairs, and reason and revelation were recycled again and again in the service of both the right and the left.

Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, which comes out on October 3rd.

Jacob Saliba is a PhD student at Boston College where he specializes in modern European intellectual history. His primary focus is twentieth century France, studying the political, philosophical, and religious movements that become profoundly intertwined during the interwar years. Some major themes include: existentialism, phenomenology, personalism, and New Theology. He also holds an MA in political philosophy at Boston College.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Kazimir Malevich, “Supremus no. 58,” (1916) Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history

The Labour Party in 1930s Bolton: Thinking ‘Historically’ about Labour’s Present

By Rebecca Goldsmith

Commentators on the left have long looked to the past to better understand politics in the present. In 1982, for example, Raphael Samuel and Gareth Stedman Jones called upon their contemporaries to ‘think[…] about the Labour Party in a historically informed way… beyond cliched generalities.’ Since 1982, this call has, to a considerable extent, been heeded. In recent years, this has manifested in the tendency to move beyond glorified milestones like 1945, shrouded in myths of Labour’s ‘golden age,’ and to revisit and reappraise alternative past political landscapes, like the 1930s. Jon Cruddas’ 2013 George Lansbury memorial lecture drew upon the ‘rediscovery’ of the interwar Labour leaders to advocate for ‘exiled’ Labour traditions, calling for the party to “return[…] to question of ethics and virtue… issues of principle and character.” Patrick Diamond compares Labour’s economic policy formation across the 1930s with Labour’s experience following the 2008 financial crisis to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader. While contributing to a deeper and more expansive chronological account of Labour’s past, such accounts continue to fall into the ‘internalist’ trope of Labour Party history, characterized by a concern with questions of parliamentary leadership and policies. I want to use the space here to suggest that alternative questions and, potentially, alternative lessons can be drawn from the 1930s.

Attempts to draw ‘lessons’ from the past must always involve a recognition of change over time. Given the dramatic transformations in political culture, identities, and structures that have taken place since the 1930s (the emergence of ‘national’ politics and the declining political salience of ‘class’ for example), considerations of this decade must proceed with particular caution. Despite these differences, there are intriguing similarities between the two periods. Crucially, in the 1930s, as today, Labour faced the question of how to win working-class support amidst rising prices and a cost-of-living crisis. Turning to the popular politics of the 1930s, analyzing the relationship between Labour candidates and the electors they sought to represent, can help to shed fresh light on the challenges Labour faces in the present.


My doctoral research centers on the Labour Party’s shifting relationship with the working class in the mid-twentieth century. Bolton, a Lancashire mill-town in the North-west of England, forms one of the case studies for my project. Using archived field notes from the experimental social-science research organization, Mass-Observation, I place Labour’s official platform in Bolton, its appeals to local workers, in dialogue with the testimony of the workers themselves. Doing so suggests that, amidst rising unemployment, increased taxes and prices, the local Labour Party ran up against the attitudes and impulses that arose from popular experiences of these conditions.

The Labour Party in Bolton responded to worsening socio-economic conditions by centering its platform on the widespread conditions of unemployment, poverty, and hunger facing local workers. At one Bolton Labour Party ‘Crusade’ meeting in November 1937, the local Party Chairman Tom McCall emphasized that Labour councilors had ‘done all that is humanly possible to improve the lot of the poor,’ referencing especially their work on the Public Assistance Committee.[1] At this meeting, the visiting speaker referenced local experiences collecting ‘your miserable money at the Employment Exchange, or at the PAC’ (WC 7/B/81). This strategy targeted inner-city wards, with higher levels of overcrowding and infant mortality rates, regarded as traditional Labour strongholds. Yet, Labour lost these strongholds in the late 1930s, largely to the Conservatives. Popular testimony suggests these losses may have stemmed from the local party’s failure to reckon with the considerable stigma surrounding unemployment and the subsequent limited appeal of being mobilized around the experience of it. Eric Letchford, an unemployed ex-iron miller, authored a report entitled “class distinctions in our street,” in which he confessed that he was “positively at the bottom of the social scale, very few people living around me have time for me and my children are often told to go away from other people’s houses” (WC 44/F/589). Letchford’s testimony relays the stigma surrounding reliance on unemployment relief, reinforced by his reference to one neighbour who “once had a long period of unemployment and attempted to gas himself” (WC 44/F/590). His report provides unique access to the similar feelings of shame hinted at in letter pages in the local press.

More generally, turning to the attitudes of local people suggests, on these terms, working-class support for Labour in Bolton came to be associated with a politics of charity and relief. Residents relayed their perception of the party as ‘always for the poor,’ reinforced by overheard jokes about voters switching in allegiance from Labour to Conservative upon buying a house (WC 11/E/476; 7/B/142). When placed alongside the heightened divides between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ in 1930s Bolton, such comments may help to contextualize the popular reluctance to be associated with the party. This reluctance was met by street canvassers, in their reports of those who “come[…] to the door – smiles – when I mention Lab: Oh! No not here,” and in the descriptions of local individuals who were ‘Labour’ but “do[n’t] shout about it” (WC 11/B/64; 11/I/609). This association of Labour with a politics of charity was exacerbated by the lingering influence of Christian non-conformism in Bolton Labour politics, manifested in Labour councilors’ emphasis on needing to “improve the lot of the poor,” calling for the provision of libraries and art galleries while condemning ‘selfishness’ (WC 7/B/64-66). This treatment of local workers as objects of charity could backfire. Where local Labour politicians referred to the ‘unfortunate unemployed’, this could provoke feelings of ‘resentment,’ as described in the autobiographical writings of Alice Foley, a Bolton-born Trade Unionist (WC 7/B/56, See Alice Foley Collection).

Such evidence suggests that language, the terms upon which workers were included in politics, mattered. Relatedly, where local Labour activists framed workers’ interests around their immediate, material needs, this encouraged a deterministic understanding of working-class political behaviour. The party chairman, for instance, complained following a poor municipal election showing that local workers “failed to register votes for the class to which they belonged” (WC 7/B/63). Moreover, one of Labour’s unsuccessful candidates for East Ward in Bolton attributed his defeat to “the fact the electors are ‘like a lot of rabbits’” detailing one man who refused to be rehoused along with his large family to a new housing estates, since he was “entirely satisfied with the paperless walls and bulging ceiling,” suggesting “its people’s environments make them vote the way they do” (WC 11/I/592), This comment reinforced the idea, expressed elsewhere in interwar Bolton, that working-class perspectives were defined by and limited to their immediate environment. The Mass-Observation Archive, however, reveals popular efforts to disprove this idea. Bill Rigby, a local, unemployed ex-miner, composed a report about life on his Bolton Corporation Housing Estate. Rigby argued that where working-class residents on the estate displayed a ‘pride in living + appearance,’ this stemmed from a pre-existent impulse which “in the previous house, flat or rooms, had no room for expression” (WC 44/A/12). Rigby thus sought to claim respectability as an authentic working-class trait rather than one produced by a new environment. Moreover, he sought to correct the “popular conception of certain sections of the public that working-class tenants of the estate do not avail themselves of their new amenities.”

Rigby’s account speaks to broader popular efforts to defend working-class respectability. This can be seen in the testimony collected by an unemployed recruit volunteering for Mass-Observation in Bolton, Peter Jackson, who asked local people why they made bets on the football pools. His responses reveal the aspirations and dreams held by local workers, which they hoped to realize through the pools, from wanting to start businesses in Blackpool to “‘breedin’ budgies on a big scale” (WC 4/F/433). But, most strikingly and recurringly, across their interview responses, individuals rooted the appeal of the pools in the chance it offered to achieve financial independence. Their dreams of leaving Bolton, whether by moving to ‘South Africa’ or relocating to ‘the Midlands’ reveal their frustrations with and desires to extend beyond their current horizons (WC 4/F/416, 432). The politics of relief pursued by Bolton’s Labour Party left little scope for recognizing workers in these terms as individuals with ambitions and aspirations. By contrast, Conservative candidates in Bolton mobilized a politics of experience, rooted in place, which enabled them to speak in more respectful, empathetic terms. Where Labour referred to the “unfortunate unemployed,” Conservative candidates discussed the “evil of unemployment,” refusing to define local workers by their current circumstances, instead addressing them as “men and women out of work” (WC 11/E/424, 419).

The Labour candidate in the 1938 Farnworth by-election, George Tomlinson, speaks during a Labour Party rally at the Empire Cinema. Labour party leader Clement Atlee (third from left)came to Bolton to support Tomlinson who went on to win the election.

Such analysis affords a better understanding of Labour’s struggles in 1930s Bolton and suggests the critical importance of the relationship between popular attitudes and ideas and the language deployed by local activists in their appeals. This is demonstrated further by an alternative instance where Labour successfully mobilized working-class support, against severe economic circumstances, in the neighboring constituency of Farnworth. Labour’s candidate in the 1938 Farnworth by-election was George Tomlinson, a previous union official, a Methodist preacher, and half-timer (children who split their time between work in the factory and school). Throughout his campaign, Tomlinson articulated a politics of experience, referencing the harsh realities facing local workers. Tomlinson “spoke to the audience in terms of their own lives,” feeding into his moving, sympathetic discussion of the ‘insecurity’ that “gnaws at the heart strings of the working classes,” mentioning his own father’s inability to take a holiday as he “couldn’t stay off work,” living a working life of “constant fear” since he could “never afford to be ill” (WC 7/B/144, 149, 160, 161). He described his mother’s anxiety at holiday time when the family’s lack of income meant “she ‘ad [sic] an impossible problem to solve” (WC 7/B/161).

In this way, Tomlinson was able to articulate the psychological burden (shared by men and women in Bolton, an area of high female employment) of workers’ struggles to ‘manage’ amidst the increased cost of living, evident in popular complaints that “no one can really enjoy their holiday and get the best out of it unless they have no worries’ and ‘lack of funds prevent this” (WC 46/B/7, 67). The ‘holidays with pay’ campaign formed a central part of Tomlinson’s platform, building on these feelings and affording workers a sense of dignity, seen in Tomlinson’s emphasis that this was a question of ‘entitlement,’ rather than charity (Bolton Evening News). In this way, Tomlinson affirmed workers’ frustrations with their current restricted horizons, seen in his suggestion that “I sometimes think we don’t ask for enough” (WC 12/H/433). Ultimately, this appeal to politics of experience was reinforced by the centrality of place in Tomlinson’s platform. By appealing to place, Tomlinson aligned himself more closely with the specificities of local classed experiences, emphasizing that his Tory rival, a London barrister, could not “represent you as well as I couldnot knowing your daily life” (WC 12/G/341-2). The effectiveness of this appeal is evident in overheard appraisals of Tomlinson, suggesting “he’s lived ‘ere so long and done lots of good work – people don’t forget that” (WC 7/B/174).  


Overall, this impression of Labour politics in the 1930s resonates with the current political problems facing the Labour Party. Amidst the ongoing cost of living crisis, Labour faces a similar challenge of how to reckon with the hardships facing local workers while avoiding any negative, stigmatized associations with a politics of charity or being seen on sectional terms as ‘the party of the poor.’ Today, too, Labour faces the question of how to speak to ordinary people’s struggles to ‘manage’ amidst rising prices and falling real wages while retaining recognition of their respectability and affording a sense of dignity. The critical differences in political culture between the 1930s and the present, elaborated above, encourage caution in drawing ‘lessons’ from the past for politics today. Yet, if we tread speculatively, historical analysis can speak to current circumstances. For example, the evidence considered here reflects the importance of the relationship between Labour’s platform, the terms upon which workers are included, and the impulses and attitudes arising out of popular experiences of everyday life. This is not so much about deploying a series of abstract nouns, like ‘family’ or ‘respect,’ but speaking to people ‘in terms of their own lives,’ recognizing and understanding the emotional and psychological impact of experiencing these conditions.

Recent media releases suggest that the Labour Party today is moving in this direction, seen, for instance, in its leader, Keir Starmer’s recent reference to ‘people from my background.’ Yet, the analysis above suggests the productive nature of place as a tool for tapping into popular ‘structures of feeling.’ The significance of ‘the local’ to popular experiences of politics has, admittedly, declined amidst the emergence of ‘national’ politics in the years since the 1930s, and the crisis we face has its roots in global, transnational forces. Yet its impacts are felt locally. Labour needs to be able to speak the effects of the current crisis, as well as its causes. The geographically uneven ways in which people experience inequality suggests the party needs to think more seriously (beyond the often-crude archetypes and quantitative data offered by polling) and more locally, about how it responds to the current cost-of-living crisis.

[1] Mass-Observation Online Archive [MOA], Worktown Collection [WC], Box 7: Party Politics, File B: Labour Party, 64.

Archival materials cited:

Mass-Observation Online Archive (MOA), Worktown Collection (WC), Boxes 4 [Sport], 7 [Party Politics], 11 [Municipal Elections], 12 [Voting; Parliamentary Elections], 44 [Social Condition and Housing], 46 [Holiday Competition Questionnaire].

‘Pain of Social Adjustments: Our Street’ (undated), p.1, in ZF0/32: Alice Foley Collection – Workers’ Educational Association, Bolton Archives and Local Studies, Bolton.

See ‘Labour Opens Campaign,’ Bolton Evening News (15 January 1938), p.2. Bolton Evening News, held at the British Library.

Rebecca Goldsmith is a PhD student studying the Labour Party and the politics of class in mid-twentieth-century Britain at the University of Cambridge. She completed her MPhil thesis on popular political culture at the 1945 general election. She tweets @rebeccagold123

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: 1: Image ref. 1993.83.01.22 Print ref. INV:15779 Updated: Jun 26, 2012 Page author: Bolton Museums [Horatio Street and Marsh Fold Lane]. 2: Image ref. 1993.83.15.20 Print ref. 1993.2.3 Updated: Jul 2, 2012 Page author: Bolton Museums [George Tomlinson]. Copyright granted.