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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Jacob Jensen on Repurposing Mises: Murray Rothbard and the Birth of Anarchocapitalism



Jacob Jensen is an historian of modern America with special interests in the intellectual history of the public sector. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute of the University of Copenhagen. His fellowship is part of the “Key Actors – Peopling the Neoliberal Economy” project, which examines how imaginary characters like the consumer, the entrepreneur, the investor, and the debtor have been articulated as role models of social behavior to legitimize the neoliberal economy.

He spoke to Elsa Costa a contributing editor about his essay, “Repurposing Mises: Murray Rothbard and the Birth of Anarchocapitalism,” which appeared in the JHI (83.2).


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Elsa Costa: The “myth of the American frontier” occupies an ever greater position in Rothbard’s imagination over the course of his career. I was reminded, while reading your account, of recent journalism and scholarship on the connections between Rose Wilder Lane, who co-wrote the Little House on the Prairiebook series with her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the libertarian right. Wilder Lane has even been called one of the “founding mothers” of libertarianism along with Ayn Rand, with whom she corresponded for about a decade. The association between the pioneer era and radical libertarianism is, in other words, larger than just Rothbard, and appears to have been circulating as early as the 1930s, when Wilder Lane wrote her Credo, and certainly by the 1950s. Yet Rothbard does not appear to have settled on homesteading as the central image of his philosophy until much later. Instead, your piece speaks of a sustained engagement with the highly cosmopolitan Mises and, in the era of Left and Right, a tendency to focus on urban issues. Did Rothbard’s interest in homesteading predate the manifesto of 1973? And how do you think he came to see it as reconcilable with Mises?

Jacob Jensen: This is a terrific question. As you point out, the myth of the frontier serves an important ideological purpose within libertarian thought. Rose Wilder Lane is an important early example. The current libertarian fascination with seasteading is a more recent one. Libertarianism is a very American body of thought in the sense that it relies so heavily on an idealized image of rugged individualist settlers. This also points to an important difference between neoliberalism and libertarianism. Neoliberals emphasize entrepreneurship and universalized conceptions of entrepreneurship, meaning that everyone has the potential for innovation. Their concern is with market processes and their extension to all spheres of life. Libertarians rely on a more heroic vision of homesteaders claiming their land. Their concern is not really with markets. They are concerned with property rights – to individuals’ right to possession of land and material goods, on the one hand, and to individuals’ right to their own body, on the other. Property rights were also a cornerstone in Mises’s work, but for a very different purpose. Mises responded to interwar Viennese debates about the collective ownership of the means of production. Though they overlapped in their concern with property rights, Mises’s intention was to prove the superiority of free enterprise compared to public production. By contrast, Rothbard came to homesteading in the early 1970s in response to the egalitarian thrust of the New Left. Whereas he was enthusiastic about Black Nationalism, the anti-war movement, and aspects of the counter-culture (especially the call for free drugs), he despised the egalitarianism of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. These movements sought a leveling of social hierarchies that went against Rothbard’s biological individualism. He believed that nature determined inequality. This emphasis on nature, I think, ultimately led him to homesteading as the core expression of individual property rights. It allowed him to isolate the individual in an unregulated frontier setting where only the strongest would survive.

EC: Following up on my first question, you clearly show the degree to which Rothbard’s commitments stayed substantially unmoved following his conversion to libertarian anarchism around 1950. However, there seems to be some internal tension in Rothbard’s belief system, as well as those of his successors, between the individual or family unit and the community unit, as well as some ambiguity in how the latter is circumscribed. The racially-defined community shows up early in Rothbard’s thought, in his approbation for both the Black Panthers and for the white power movements which opposed them. Rothbard appeared to believe that both movements were hardly political movements at all, but were rather accessing a simple truth about the human tendency to assort into self-governing ethnic communities. However, at other times, Rothbard seems to have imagined the community in terms of neighborhood governance rather than racial movements, which is a different heuristic, however much the two may have seemed compatible during Norman Mailer’s 1969 bid for Mayor of New York. Both conceptions of community, the racial and the hyperlocal, also appear to clash with the family unit in the ‘homesteading’ model, which has very little patience for community. How did Rothbard, and how do his intellectual heirs, deal with that tension?

JJ: I think this reflects a general, and very productive, tension within liberal thought. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous refrain about society: “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Similarly, Melinda Cooper’s groundbreaking work shows the affinities between neoliberalism and the new social conservatism in their concern with family values. Rothbard and his heirs did not really deal with this tension. I think it speaks more to the different contexts in which his thought developed. In the 1960s, his hopes were high for neighborhood governance, which would allow ethnic communities to regulate their own affairs free from government interference. But as the 1960s came to a close, he became ever more concerned with the civil rights, women’s, and gay movements’ calls for egalitarianism. Whereas he saw in Black Nationalism a call for segregation similar to his own, the call for leveling social hierarchies was a direct challenge to his conception of individualism. That is why, I think, he went from emphasizing the isolation of the individual in ethnically defined nations, or communities, to emphasizing the isolation of the individual within the parameters of the household. Against the women’s rights movement, the man reigned supreme in this oikos.

EC: If I read it correctly, The article concludes that Rothbard was in large part responsible for the tendency of modern radical libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and members of the alt-right to substitute the “covenant” among members of a small, ethnically linked community for the traditional institutions of society: law, government, and even perhaps for the market itself. “Covenant” is here a secularized religious term and also recalls the Mayflower Compact, as well as the charters of the joint-stock companies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company, which first colonized New England. Arguably, these early modern corporations were in turn economized versions of medieval corporate forms such as the confraternity or religious order. Rothbard’s persistent interest in communities and the ties which bind them, over and against the state, is often reminiscent of a neo-medieval corporatism, with race or ethnicity substituted for religious affiliation (for example, a confraternity’s devotion to a particular saint). This would explain his fascination with the Black Panthers. Yet this conflation of community ties with racial ties is far from natural or intuitive, and it is unclear how Rothbard would circumscribe ethnic identification (going by the simple black-white divide, the ensuing communities would be impossibly large). Nor does race seem to have any intuitive link with individualism, despite Rothbard’s insistence on deriving the latter from biological inequality. Can you speak a little on how Rothbard’s beliefs came to be so heavily racially inflected?

JJ: The point about the similarities between the libertarian covenant and neo-medieval corporatism is brilliant. As you point out, the intellectual origins of the covenant spring from the myth of the American frontier. In the absence of a state, the covenant becomes a crucial element in the maintenance of order. This seems like an odd position for a thinker who barely left New York because of an anxiety disorder. But I think it was a reflection of the very racially divided neighborhoods of that city, and the urban riots of the 1960s led him to the conclusion that the best thing would be for communities to divide along racial lines and govern their own affairs. Rather than having the central, or city, government intervene, he saw segregation as the way forward. His emphasis on biological inequality reinforced this position. The resort to biology is quite common among economic liberals, and it reflects the paradox of competition. On the one hand, for competition to work, competitors need to start from the same position. On the other hand, competition needs to result in an unequal outcome. Some liberals recognize that government intervention is necessary to level the playing field to make competition meaningful. Others, like Rothbard, simply point to spurious theories of biology to avoid opening the Pandora’s Box of government action. In that sense, they do not really care about competition. That is why he ends up emphasizing the frontier where land, in his idiosyncratic version of history, was plentiful and unused (sidestepping, or perhaps even celebrating, the violent appropriation of native land). In this vision, homesteaders banded together in contractually binding communities to protect their property. It is a vision that only makes sense against the background of the myth of the American frontier.


Elsa Costa is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her Ph.D in 2021. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy. She begins as Assistant Professor in Atlantic history at Fulbright University Vietnam in 2022.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Murray Rothbard. GNU Free Documentation License

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Niklas Olsen and Quinn Slobodian on Locating Ludwig von Mises

Niklas Olsen is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the SAXO-Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Among his publications are The Sovereign Consumer: A New Intellectual History of Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (Berghahn, 2012). He has edited volumes about themes such as the memory of ‘68’ in Denmark, twentieth century German intellectuals, the challenge posed to Danish Universities by National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s, critical theories of crisis in Europe and Scandinavian knowledge societies.

Quinn Slobodian is the Marion Butler MacLean Associate Professor of the History of Ideas at Wellesley College. His most recent book is Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018). He is also the author of Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Duke University Press, 2012), and has edited and co-edited volumes on race in East Germany, the intellectual and moral breadth of neoliberalism, and neoliberalism’s proselytizers in Eastern Europe and the Global South. His new book, on capitalist exit fantasies, will appear in 2023.

Olsen and Slobodian spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about their introductory essay “Locating Ludwig von Mises: Introduction,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.2).

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Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction to this fascinating and generative cluster of essays on “Locating Ludwig von Mises,” you explain the inherent contradiction about Mises and his liberalism— as a historical figure, a historiographical conundrum, and his contemporary status in politics today. What collaborative process led to this decision to explore Mises, and what is at stake here? You note that Mises is virtually absent from the substantial historiography on liberalism (footnote 12) and I was curious about who and how this “cult of personality” was constructed and through what means of legitimacy?

Quinn Slobodian and Niklas Olsen: Ludwig von Mises (born in Lviv, Austria-Hungary in 1881 and deceased in New York City in 1973) is a curious character because so far he has really only been taken seriously by people who see themselves as self-consciously working inside of his intellectual tradition. From the outside, Mises is often rendered in caricature as simply staked out at the most extreme end of libertarianism. A commonly repeated anecdote is how when Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, George Stigler and others gathered in Switzerland to form the Mont Pelerin Society, the flagship organization of the neoliberal intellectual movement, Mises supposedly left the room angry at some point shouting “you’re all a bunch of socialists!”

Anecdotes like this have been used to dismiss Mises as a relic of a superseded 19th century version of laissez-faire liberalism not worthy of closer attention. His failure to secure a regular position in U.S. academia as an émigré is implicitly taken to confirm his irrelevance. At the same time, within the world of the so-called Austrian School of Economics, especially in the United States, Mises has an almost godlike status. His big book, Human Action, published in 1949, is treated with reverence and granted the annotations and exegeses worthy of a masterpiece. The creation of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama in 1982 as a self-consciously more radical think tank than the Beltway counterparts like the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and the subsequent establishment of copycat Mises Institutes worldwide since 2008 has served as the institutional basis for the lionized version of Mises.


Our collection was trying to follow the recent comprehensive work of the historian Janek Wasserman to find a middle space between these two extremes. We think that Mises is underrated as a thinker on his own terms and offers a crucial bridge between the so-called Socialist Calculation Debate of the 1920s and the broader conversations within the neoliberal movement that picked up steam at mid-century. We are also fascinated by the diverse appropriations of Mises, from the engagement with his writing in China during the time of reform and opening described in this issue by Isabella Weber, his influence on postwar development debates in Mexico explored in the unfortunately still untranslated book by María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, and the influence of his writings in the recent right-wing libertarianism of Brazil outlined by scholars like Camila Rocha. As scholars working to historicize the diversity and the depth of the neoliberal movement, we find it worthwhile to expand the canon, as it were, and take seriously thinkers who may have had traction for reasons not yet understood.

NC: This cluster of essays offer three methodological starting points to form a novel foundation from which future analytical studies in the field could commence from. Where do you think the field is going, or needs to go?

QS & NO: So, to paint with a broad brush, there has been a tendency in the field to write separate histories of different strands of liberalism – of social liberalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, libertarianism etc. – and to ascribe to each a unique canon of key thinkers, ideational features, and events and contexts. These histories are all somewhat exclusionary in terms of neglecting protagonists that do not fit easily into the respective canons.

Mises, who rejects easy categorization, is a case in point. His liberal thought and the reception of it has never been explored in depth in any of the mentioned literatures. We think there is a need to bring discussions, contexts, and protagonists from the various strands of scholarship into conversation with each other not only to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding Mises, but of liberalism more generally. What our cluster of essays shows is that liberalism ought to be regarded as a complex set of dynamic discourses that constantly change in time and place, as the historical actors, who articulate them, encounter new political challenges, institutional contexts, and social networks. It also shows that we should be open to the idea that thinkers, or movements for that matter, can straddle and move between different liberal languages. So, our plea is for a truly historical approach that resists easy classifications of a complex past, analyses the formation of ideas within multiple contexts, and acknowledges that ideas are continuously being reworked and recalibrated to address new problems. Having said that, we do think the field is currently moving towards more historical approaches to liberalism – and hopefully our essays can be read as a small contribution to this change. One of the stories that is yet to be written by scholars in the field is a synthesis of twentieth liberalism conceptualized along these lines. Here lies one of several challenges, or opportunities, for further research.

NC: Reading the introduction and the essays left me curious about the category of gender across multiple registers with the (1) authors of the cluster, (2) historical actors under analysis, and (3) historiographical sources being predominantly male. Does this inadvertently signal the need to explore gendering principles across all of these registers? Additionally, appropriating Mises seems to mobilize masculinity as technology, in what ways does the canon create exclusions or on the other hand impede inclusions? Does this highlight the challenges of analyzing the relationship between neoliberalism, femininity, masculinity, and the capitalist economy?

QS & NO: This is a great question. It offers a chance to mention one of the particularities of the Austrian school of economics that Mises is closely associated with. Austrian economics is focused on the question of the individual. For the most part, one has to read in questions of gender and the family through their absence. A recent book by a leading Austrian scholar began by noting that in all of the thousands of pages from work in his own field, one would be hard-pressed to find more than a few mentions of gender in the family. This stands in contrast to other schools of thought within the neoliberal tradition. In the Chicago school for example, Gary Becker, Richard Epstein and others have explicitly sought to use an economic lens to understand choices people make in marriages and as children and parents. We can thank the work of the Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper above all for laying out in detail the intellectual movements and the political projects of social conservatism at free-market neoliberalism are reconciled precisely in the space of the heteronormative nuclear family onto which state financial obligations can be offloaded onto intergenerational debt and unpaid labor.


It is worth mentioning in this context that one of the misconceptions about Austrian economic thought and indeed libertarianism in general is that it seeks to universalize the commodity relation by putting a price tag on everything on earth. This is not quite right—at least looked at from within the ideology itself. It is more correct to say that Austrian libertarians seek to universalize the contract relation—and make all human relations freely chosen by supposedly autonomous free-thinking agents. This follows through to the framing of marriage which is advocated as a contractual arrangement. Obviously this construct reaches its limits with matters of childbirth and childrearing. For his part, Mises affirmed the idea that mothering and childrearing remained an essential and inextricable biological obligation of women. This passage from Socialism (1922) is telling:


“Just as the pseudo-democratic movement endeavours by decrees to efface natural and socially conditioned inequalities, just as it wants to make the strong equal to the weak, the talented to the untalented, and the healthy to the sick, so the radical wing of the women’s movement seeks to make women the equal of men… But the difference between sexual character and sexual destiny can no more be decreed away than other inequalities of mankind. It is not marriage which keeps woman inwardly unfree, but the fact that her sexual character demands surrender to a man and that her love for husband and children consumes her best energies.”


Mises saw the attempt to collectivize childrearing as one of the missteps of socialism and a damaging application of egalitarianism. Some later thinkers working self-consciously in Mises’s intellectual tradition, namely Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, have clung to Mises’s idea of the biological basis of inequality also to embrace a race science of group differences in aptitude, especially intelligence. As described by Jacob Jensen in his contribution to this special issue, the so-called paleolibertarianism of the Mises Institute was expressly designed to reconcile conservative social values, including anti-feminism, with anarcho-capitalism. In that sense, the resistance to (and silence around) claims of gender equality in Austrian School discussions is a feature — not a bug, and may help account for the limited representation of female scholars within the orbit of Mises-derived scholarship.


Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Edited by: Tom Furse

Featured Image: Ludwig von Mises in his later years. Creative Commons.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Stefania Tutino on Credulity, Credibility, and Belief in the Shadow of Mt. Vesuvius’s Eruption of 1660

Stefania Tutino is a professor in the Department of History at UCLA. Her work focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of post-Reformation Catholicism. Her most recent book was A Fake Saint and the True Church: The Story of a Forgery in Seventeenth-Century Naples (Oxford University Press, 2021). Her next book is The Many Faces of “Credulitas,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

She spoke to contributing editor Glauco Schettini about her essay, “The Mystery of Mount Vesuvius’s Crosses: Belief, Credulity, and Credibility in Post-Reformation Catholicism,” in JHI (83.2).

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Glauco Schettini: Your article takes us to mid-seventeenth-century Naples and makes us witness a seemingly inexplicable event. In the aftermath of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, black and red crosses began to appear on people’s linens, clothes, and bodies. As rumors about the divine origin of such apparitions spread uncontrolled, Catholic ecclesiastical authorities decided to launch an investigation into their nature. Would you like to summarize the unfolding and the outcomes of this investigation for our readers, as well as its broader meaning?

Stefania Tutino: My investigation uncovered a range of responses at all levels of society, from the most ominous interpretations of the crosses as a sign of God’s wrath foreboding ever more tragic catastrophes, to explanations based entirely on volcanic science and chemical processes. What I found especially interesting is that we do not see theologians or religious figures necessarily reaching for divine interpretations, on the one hand, and secular leaders or natural philosophers leaning toward more secular, “scientific” explanations on the other. Within the Catholic hierarchy, different people held widely divergent interpretations, and by the same token, some political leaders were at least as preoccupied by God’s wrath as their ecclesiastical counterparts. Another interesting aspect of this investigation is the sophistication of information-management systems, so to speak, or the propaganda machine set in motion by both the Roman Curia and the Neapolitan government. Yet another interesting layer in this story is the ways in which potentially supernatural events could become “politicized,” and—the other side of the coin—the fact that religion as an intellectual and cultural category encompassed a much broader set of questions than we might be accustomed to think.

As for the outcome, well, I am tempted not to reveal it and to invite the readers to find out for themselves! Suffice it to say that how the prodigy ended was just as mysterious as how it began. Yet even if at the end of the article readers might not be able to solve the mystery of the crosses, I hope they will feel they have acquired a more nuanced view of the world of post-Reformation Catholic culture.

GS: The story you tell was, as you write, a small but hardly insignificant episode in the history of early modern Europe. With a technique that is characteristic of microhistory, you employ this episode, with all its quirky details, to shed light on the religious culture of seventeenth-century Italy. More than ten years ago, Francesca Trivellato asked if there was a future for microhistory in the age of global history—a question she answered affirmatively. What do you think the future of microhistory looks like? And what can intellectual historians gain from adding a microhistorical approach to their toolkit?

ST: I personally think the future of microhistory looks great, even (and maybe especially) as our horizons get enlarged to a global scale. In this respect, not only do I agree with Francesca Trivellato, but I also think that her considerations on the future of microhistory are already proving true.

One of the features of microhistory that I find particularly important is its ability not to focus on the small for the sake of the small, but to focus on the small to the extent the small can tell us something deeper about the big. I am not a global historian, but the kind of global history I like to read is the kind that merges breadth with depth; that looks at connections and networks, and links, rather than juxtapose, different contexts in a kind of revival of old-school “comparative” history; the kind that poses specific problems in a new light rather than simply extending categories further into space; the kind that plays with scales and examines how specific issues change when we change the scope rather than the kind that simply takes the same unit of analysis and makes it wider by stretching it to cover more ground. For doing all these things, microhistory is a good aid, because few other approaches can teach us about how to make connections as well as microhistory does.

Another aspect of microhistory that makes it exceedingly useful is its intimate relationship with primary sources—nothing will make you more attuned to the need to squeeze sources to the last drop of meaning than the need to investigate a very small phenomenon! Microhistory has a privileged relationship with narrative, not in the sense that microhistorical accounts are narratives (all kinds of history-writing are narratives, not just microhistories!), but in the sense that adopting a microhistorical approach always requires that the historian reflect on the heuristic value of narrative. This is not just an important aspect of our profession, but also an exciting feature of being human and thus being able to use language in that way. Also, microhistory does not like generalizations, and in fact it is a good antidote to the impulse to try to make things neat and simple and one-size-fits-all, which I believe is always a good attitude when studying history. By its very nature, microhistory is inclusive and not methodologically imperialistic: it can live comfortably within a number of different paradigms and historiographical contexts. It offers no grand narrative of its own, but rather seeks to find what does not fit in any given trend or overarching trajectory. In this respect, I think that all historians, even those whose approach is completely different from that of microhistorians, could use a measure of the irreverence toward generalizations, curiosity for the quirk, attention to the discordant that is typical of microhistory.

GS: The story of the crosses reveals the complexity and the internal diversity of what you call “post-Reformation Catholicism.” Throughout the article, you avoid both the term “Counterreformation” and the phrase “Catholic Reform,” which historians have most frequently used to define the multifaceted world of early modern Catholicism. As John O’Malley has reminded us in a book that is now a classic, these terms were forged in the heat of disputes that were academic and confessional at once; they were not just neutral descriptors of historical processes, but also implied a value judgment. Your decision not to use them looks like a way to set aside old debates in order to break new ground. How can thinking in terms of “post-Reformation Catholicism” transform our understanding of the early modern Catholic world?

ST: First of all, I believe that John O’Malley’s discussion of these issues is a classic for a reason: it provides what is in many ways a definitive explanation of both the nature of those terms and their implications. I also wholeheartedly agree with him about the terms “Counterreformation” and “Catholic Reform.” I personally never liked them not simply for all the reasons O’Malley lays down, which you briefly outlined, but also because they never meant much to me. I became a historian of post-Reformation Catholicism at a moment in which the sort of ideological, theological, and even confessional contexts out of which those terms originated were not just criticized, but in fact had started to become insignificant. What I mean to say is that the kind of history of Catholicism which I studied and was academically raised on, so to speak, had already moved away from the history of theology on the one hand, and traditional “ecclesiastical history” on the other, and had advanced toward the much more capacious realm of “religious” history. Thus, for somebody like me, born in 1977, using terms such as “Counterreformation” and “Catholic Reform” seems not just reductive, but also in a sense meaningless. For all these personal and historical reasons, I do think that O’Malley’s definition of “early modern Catholicism” is infinitely more effective at capturing the richness of this kind of history than the traditional alternatives.

You are right, though, that I tend to use “post-Reformation Catholicism” more than “early modern Catholicism,” and this is intentional. I have been starting to notice that in this (otherwise welcome and correct) move to progressively enlarge the range of the phenomena we associate with “early modern Catholicism,” sometimes we are going too far. As I said, I think it is good that we no longer reduce the history of early modern Catholicism to theology, but sometimes we tend to forget that theology mattered quite a bit. The Reformation was an important moment in the history of early modern Europe, and this theological conflict did change the history of the Catholic Church profoundly. The nature and implications of this change went well beyond the realm of theology, but without understanding the theological terms of the conflict, we risk not understanding anything else properly. I like to use the term “post-Reformation Catholicism” as a sign of respect, if you will, for the historical importance of theology, and as a reminder to myself never to lose sight of the vivacity and richness of early modern theology (in conversation with, not in lieu of, early modern religion).

GS: By reconsidering the relationship between credibility and credulity, your article exhorts us to problematize our understanding of belief. In line with the work of historians such as Ethan Shagan, who are trying to show how the very nature of belief changed through history, you suggest that we take early modern belief on its own terms, setting aside contemporary ideas about the proper relationship between belief and rational knowledge. What role do these issues play in your forthcoming book, The Many Faces of Credulitas? And what do they teach us about contemporary notions of belief?

ST: These issues are indeed at the core of my forthcoming book, which is an examination of some aspects of the category of belief in post-Reformation Catholicism. In that book, I make the argument that judgment and credibility became progressively central in the Catholic theological and religious discourse after the Reformation, and I explore the consequences of that centrality for the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Catholicism.

More generally, reflecting on the question of belief in both the early modern and modern contexts, I think that the prevalent view remains one that sees the Enlightenment as a crucial moment of fracture separating the early modern notion of belief (which is confessional, dogmatic, and, save for a few exceptions, intolerant) from the modern one (which is based on the modern secular individual’s freedom to exercise her reason and thus to retain the right to believe in anything she chooses). I see things a bit differently. To begin with, when I look around in the world, I don’t see that pure reason has exactly triumphed. To the contrary, rather large pockets of credulity and unreasonable beliefs continue to exist even in the Western world, the venue in which the modern secular individual is supposed to thrive. And while of course some of those beliefs are dangerous to our society (and quite literally to the health of our communities!) and require serious reflection, others are simply the manifestation of being human as opposed to perfectly functioning computers. But aside from the state of belief today, I am a scholar of early modern Europe, and from my vantage point I see that the Enlightenment view of the progressive triumph of free secular reason is not a correct standard on which to judge early modernity. In fact, as a historian I believe that the Enlightenment itself needs to be taken as a precise historical moment rather than a kind of Hegelian description of how history inevitably unfolds, and that its complexities need to be explored, not denied. In the book, then, I look at early modern belief not from the point of view of the present, trying to establish how much or how little early modern notions of judgment and credibility measure up to modern ideas. Instead, I examine these phenomena from behind, as it were, as distinctive historical developments of a specific theological, intellectual, and historical tradition, in which, I argue, the tension between faith and judgment, authority and autonomy, belief and knowledge had always been at the center of the debate. In both my forthcoming book and this article, I recover a bit of the vibrancy and richness of pre-modern debates over these questions.


Glauco Schettini is a PhD candidate in history at Fordham University, New York. His research centers on religion and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Atlantic world. His dissertation, titled “The Invention of Catholicism: A Global Intellectual History of the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1780s-1840s,” investigates how European and Latin American counterrevolutionary thinkers reinvented Catholicism during the Age of Revolutions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Domenico Gargiulo, L’eruzione del Vesuvio del 1631 (1656-1660)

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview Intellectual history

Tomás Valle on Eilhard Lubin, Academic Unorthodoxy and post-Reformation Theology


Tomás Valle is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently on a two-year research stay at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, funded by the German-American Fulbright Commission, the DAAD, and the HAB’s Rolf und Ursula Schneider-Stiftung. He specializes in the intellectual cultures of Lutheran universities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and his dissertation studies post-Reformation humanism through the life and scholarship of Johannes Caselius (1533–1613).

He spoke with contributing editor Jacob Saliba about his essay “Eilhard Lubin, Academic Unorthodoxy, and the Dynamics of Confessional Intellectual Cultures,” in JHI (83.2).

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Jacob Saliba: Your article discusses the emergence of a certain kind of post-Reformation theology espoused by the Lutheran professor Eilhard Lubin in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Germany.  Your narrative begins in 1596 when Lubin published Phosphorus, a theological treatise about the origin of evil (i.e., sin), the causative power of God, and the relationship between the two. In it, Lubin does not so much suggest that the source of evil in humanity may in part be due to God, but rather that this formulation requires reevaluation in order to offset assumptions that God is responsible for evil. In simple terms, what was his thesis about God and the origin of evil?

Tomás Valle: A primary goal of Phosphorus is to attack the idea that God might be responsible for sin. The problem is that Lubin does such a spectacularly poor job! His argument makes evil in some sense metaphysically (or physically—the line is blurry) necessary in created things: everything is created out of nothing or non-being, which is equated with evil, but that evil/nothingness (also equated with prime matter!) remains in created things, which gives them an inherent inclination back towards evil/non-being. Lubin also sometimes uses semi-active language for God’s role, such as saying that God “leaves” this inclination in created things. So, there are all kinds of problems in Lubin’s account of theodicy (and creatio ex nihilo, which is the other point he sets out to defend).

JS: Lubin’s Phosphorus was condemned in 1604 (by Albert Grawer), and even so, his home-institution in Rostock supported him as he prevailed against the accusations, further solidifying a positive reputation within Lutheran culture. As you show, this eight-year period of acceptance followed by a successfully performed counter-argument demonstrates a unique phenomenon in the post-Reformation era: theologians could make non-traditional—borderline heretical—arguments without repercussions and while resourcefully self-presenting an orthodox commitment to tradition.  You call this type of thinking unorthodox, rather than heterodox, for its capacity to rework inherited traditions while still accepting the perennial character of tradition itself. Could you discuss these two categories of “unorthodox” and “heterodox” in more detail, and why they matter in this regard?

TV: In suggesting “unorthodoxy” as a heuristic, I want to help historians appreciate the diversity and flexibility of confessional intellectual cultures in early modernity. Calling early modern figures “heterodox” in relation to the surrounding society is often the historian’s retrospective, normative judgment about their private beliefs, which doesn’t reveal much to us about the culture they inhabited, and in fact reinforces the (self-)image of orthodoxy as unified and universal. This has all sorts of problematic consequences for how we narrate early modernity, making it a story of “the orthodox” vs. “the heterodox,” in which the latter look more and more like secular moderns. Figures who don’t fit this narrative get either assimilated to one of the sides or swept under the rug. Of course, lots of other scholars have critiqued and are critiquing this way of approaching early modernity, but I think a terminological shift would be useful.

I like the term “unorthodox” because it can range on an evaluative spectrum from “problematic” to simply “weird” or “unusual.” In this way, it can convey a wide variety of contemporary attitudes, and part of my point is to bring our analysis of past thinkers into closer conversation with the audiences for whom they wrote and spoke. (While not an actor’s category, then, I think “unorthodoxy” can reveal more about a thinker’s relationship to the surrounding culture than “heterodoxy.”) “Unorthodoxy” also has something undefinable about it: it’s not obviously “other” (“hetero-”). Thus it resists both the early modern polemical urge to label one’s opponents and the modern historian’s desire to create clear through lines to the present, both of which end up misrepresenting past actors. Instead, “unorthodox” highlights the ambiguities and divergent views that existed within “orthodox” confessional cultures and the internal tensions that these caused. I think that the more we understand those multipolar tensions—rather than an imagined binary—the better we’ll be able to comprehend the dynamics of cultural and intellectual change in early modernity.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting adding “unorthodox” to a taxonomy of early modern opinions, such that some people would be “orthodox,” others “unorthodox,” and others “heterodox.” My goal is not to classify thinkers but to reveal the flexibility of orthodoxy itself in a culture where there are diverging opinions as to what constitutes “orthodoxy”—which is essentially any culture. In Lubin’s case, I argue, he himself and his local community at Rostock University considered his writings “orthodox,” while his antagonist Grawer tried to paint him as “heterodox” (in this case, “Calvinist”), and Lubin defended himself to a wider audience of theologians by claiming his writings were “unorthodox”—problematic, yes, but not deserving the charge of heterodoxy—and hence preserving his reputation as “orthodox.” So, I want us to reflect on how these terms can work together and apply to the same person, which forces us to sideline our own evaluative perspective to some degree and focus on the cultural situatedness of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination in early modernity. In this way “unorthodoxy” is both a pars destruens for binary thinking about intellectual difference and a pars construens for a more culturally embedded intellectual history.

JS: You say that understanding this type of thought as unorthodox requires an attention to “boundary-work” as a framework. How would you define “boundary-work” and in what ways did it prove crucial to your article’s approach?

TV: The concept of boundary-work was developed in the sociology of science and has been applied to early modern science, but I think it deserves much wider use among intellectual historians. As I explain in the article, theology largely defined the character and role of the other disciplines in the early modern university (and in early modern intellectual culture in general). But the character and role of theology itself wasn’t unanimously agreed on, either between or within confessions; its disciplinary boundaries were a subject for debate and active demarcation—which is to say, for boundary-work, for deciding what is and what isn’t “theological.”

When I started thinking about boundaries as flexible and in need of demarcation, it gave me a useful lens on a longstanding interest of mine and major theme in early modern intellectual history: the relationship between theology and philosophy. (I should mention, though, that the concept of boundary-work is also relevant for the other boundaries of theology, for example with medicine or law.) It’s very tempting to treat these two somehow as Platonic ideals, as if there were a hard conceptual line dividing them—similarly to how scholars long viewed (and in some cases still view) the division between religion and science. Even studies that look at the influence of philosophy on theology or vice-versa can end up reifying the difference between the two. If we instead see that disciplinary boundary in any particular historical context as having to be constructed, it helps to decompartmentalize our own perspective and puts the dynamic entanglement of early modern intellectual activity into relief.

In addition to taking unorthodoxy and boundary-work individually, I think we can see a correlation between them. Briefly put, theological boundary-work shapes the possibilities for unorthodoxy, and unorthodoxy requires a certain demarcation of the disciplinary boundaries around theology. We see this very clearly in Lubin’s case. Defending his philosophical writings as “unorthodox” requires him to re-demarcate the boundary between theology and philosophy. This correlation puts a seemingly very abstract conceptual problem—the character of theology—in conversation with the concrete, practical realities of reading, writing, and thinking in the early modern period. In doing so, as I suggest at the very end of the article, it puts a different light on the relationship between key cultural and intellectual dynamics of the post-Reformation period.

JS: As you began to think about this article and, consequently, in writing it, what was the importance of situating it within an historiography of the Germanophone world? To put it more precisely, are there elements from Germanophone scholarship that find themselves left out in American scholarship, thereby, requiring renewed attention? Where and how did you put these two types of scholarship into conversation with one another?

TV: Along with putting forward my own heuristic of “unorthodoxy” and arguing that “boundary-work” should be applied more broadly to early modern intellectual history, my article tries to bridge what I see as a divide between Anglophone and Germanophone scholarship on the subject of confessionalization, especially within Lutheranism. The theory goes back in some form to Ernst Walter Zeeden, but it was further developed and made popular by Heinz Schilling and Wolfgang Reinhard in the 1970s, and it started having a significant influence on Anglophone scholarship by the end of the 1980s. By the 1990s and early 2000s, though, several important works critiquing the confessionalization thesis vis-à-vis early modern Lutheranism had been written by Inge Mager, Thomas Kaufmann, and Kenneth G. Appold—all in German. (There’s been, I think, more widespread criticism of confessionalization vis-à-vis Catholicism because of the longstanding terminological/conceptual debate over “Counter-Reformation” and other characterizations of early modern Catholicism.) Since then, Kaufmann has been the most prominent critic of the thesis, putting forward “confessional culture” (Konfessionskultur) as a better conceptual category and one that allows for more flexibility and diversity. There remains a lively debate about how best to characterize Lutheranism in this period, and a younger generation of German scholars in turn has begun creatively building on the work of Kaufmann and others. While my article aims to make a new contribution to this debate, I hope that it can also communicate an updated sense of the status quaestionis to Anglophone scholars—non-specialists in particular—who often describe a version of Lutheran confessionalization that doesn’t account for more recent German scholarship.

JS: I want to place specific emphasis on your point in section II where you describe in exciting detail the status of the theologian in this context. You say that Lubin, by appealing to his established professorship at Rostock and the wider Lutheran community, was able to provide an effective rejoinder against Grawer with relative ease. Is this success particular to one spatial context, namely, a post-Reformation Lutheran Germany? Or, could it occur in other contexts outside of Germany, or even temporally closer to the Reformation? 

TV: I argue that Lubin’s success depended not only on his institutional position (though that was an important factor) but also on the malleable character both of orthodoxy, allowing for what I call “unorthodoxy,” and of the disciplinary boundaries around theology, allowing for boundary-work. These two correlated factors are clear, I think, for Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire c. 1600. As I explain in the article, German Lutheranism’s territorial character made it highly diverse and divided, and the boundary between theology and philosophy was hotly disputed, creating plenty of room for “academic unorthodoxy.” I wanted to make this case specifically for Lutheran intellectual culture, because I think its vibrance has been underappreciated, thanks to the narrative of confessionalization as well as a longstanding bias against “Lutheran Orthodoxy” (the period’s longstanding moniker) as too intellectually “conservative.”

But, I also think that “unorthodoxy”—and specifically the academic variety I deal with in my paper—can be applied to other early modern intellectual cultures as well. After all, as I note at the very end of the article, the Reformation raised the stakes both for “orthodoxy” and for the character and boundaries of theology as an authoritative discipline that determined orthodoxy—i.e., for both ingredients of “academic unorthodoxy,” as I characterize it. Even in Catholicism—which had an important degree of transnational institutional unity, in contrast to Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism—there were plenty of jurisdictional divisions, which could lead to the same sorts of tensions that I argue both allowed for and spurred creative intellectual work at the boundary of theology and philosophy. I would like eventually to look at academic unorthodoxy in a more cross-confessional, explicitly comparative way, but I also hope that scholars working on other contexts can take up the conceptual tool and find it useful (as well as further refine it!).

Moving temporally closer to the Reformation, my argument would have to be somewhat recast. By 1600, confessional lines have been pretty well drawn. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a great deal of intellectual flexibility: that’s my whole point. But, it does mean that being “orthodox” and having an “orthodox” conception of theology meant something different at that time, or was inflected differently, than if we turn back the dial to, say, 1550, when things are much less clearly defined, especially within Protestantism. So, “academic unorthodoxy” would have to look a little different as well. But I think there’s at least more appreciation for the variety of options on the table c. 1550 than c. 1600, which is why I wanted to focus on the later period, when the confessions have taken clearer institutional shape. In both periods, though, I think what those intellectual options actually were still needs a good deal of mapping, which I hope my work can contribute to.

JS: In your final section, you identify a significant historiographic problem, namely, that frameworks which try to force binaries in the intellectual culture of religious institutions lack an appreciative nuance for “flux” and its relationship to the formation of ideas. This flux, in turn, also seems to suggest an important insight on the relationship between “context” and “text,” between history and norms. As a way of understanding concretely this relationship that operates at the core of intellectual history, what would be some mis-readings versus correct readings of Lubin and his wider religious culture? How does the language and implications of “belief” (i.e., faith-commitment) factor into historical interpretation?

TV: I point out three potential misreadings at the end of my paper. First, it would be easy to interpret Lubin’s construction of philosophy as a “safe” category for his writings, outside the sphere of theological judgment, as part of an early modern emancipation of philosophy from the control of theology. This interpretation, though, misses both the theological judgments that go into Lubin’s construction of philosophy as well as the fact that this is a construction—that is, an example of boundary-work in action. This is where the idea of “flux,” specifically disciplinary flux, is most relevant. Early modernity was a period of tremendous, structural transformations in European intellectual life, and it therefore doesn’t help us to treat any discipline, let alone such central ones as philosophy and theology, as transhistorical constants.

Second, I want to distinguish the methodology I’m suggesting from others that may seem similar. Some scholars have argued that giving “orthodox” doctrine a special status distorts our historical analysis by adopting the discourse of the dominant religious authorities at the time. “Unorthodoxy” might seem similar, and I’m in fact trying to counter a similar problem; but I think that not acknowledging the religious ideals and doctrinal standards of a particular culture hinders rather than promotes our understanding of that culture. I don’t think you can understand Lubin’s writings without thinking about how he and his contemporaries coded particular positions as acceptable or unacceptable, and how different contemporary circles coded things differently.

Third (and this gets closest to your question about belief), I don’t want readers to take away that Lubin was simply dissimulating his strange ideas in order to “seem” an orthodox Lutheran. Now, during his self-defense, he did misrepresent his views on the relationship between philosophy and theology, and he used some linguistic slide-of-hand to shrug off Grawer’s attacks. To claim that his statements make him secretly heterodox, though—that’s a retrospective, normative judgment by the historian, as I said above, and in this case (as in most) not one I think is merited. It’s much more revealing, in my view, to accept Lubin’s and his community’s opinion of his orthodoxy, and thereby to challenge and pluralize our understanding of what intellectual options were on the table in early modern Lutheranism.


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: Eilhard Lubin, Creative Commons

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Isaac Nakhimovsky on Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik


Isaac Nakhimovsky is an historian of political thought with interests in Europe since the 17th century, and the historiography of international law and political economy. He is the author of The Closed Commercial State: Perpetual Peace and Commercial Society from Rousseau to Fichte (Princeton, 2011). He also has contributed to an edition of Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (Hackett, 2013), and in two volumes of essays on eighteenth-century political thought and its post-revolutionary legacies: Commerce and Peace in the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2017), and Markets, Morals, Politics: Jealousy of Trade and the History of Political Thought (Harvard, 2018). His forthcoming book is The Most Liberal of All Ideas: The Political Thought of the Holy Alliance.

He spoke with primary editor Tom Furse about his essay “Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik, 1918–19: An Essay on Ethical Action, Historical Judgment, and the History of Political Thought,” which appeared in the JHI (83.1).

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Tom Furse: The First World War hangs over, in one way or another, Georg Lukács, Max Weber (“Politics as a Vocation”), Ernst Bloch (Spirit of Utopia), and Friedrich Meinecke, (The Idea of Reason of State in Modern History). At one point you argue that Lukács perceived the war in apocalyptic terms in his book, The Theory of the Novel (1916). Did you find that Lukács’s experience of the latter years of the war in the Central Powers led him to connect war and revolution?

Isaac Nakhimovsky: Georg Lukács ended The Theory of the Novel by drawing a parallel to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s description, a century earlier, of the Napoleonic wars as an “age of absolute sinfulness”: the question was whether a new age of renewal would follow or whether that would remain an empty utopian hope. That historical frame of reference, and the question it raised, were particularly interesting to me, as someone who had, perhaps oddly, come to Lukács via Fichte rather than the other way around. They also seemed particularly evocative in the winter of 2016-17, which is when I suddenly found myself rereading Lukács’s essays “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” with some urgency. These essays, which were published only a couple of months apart in the winter of 1918-19, come to opposite conclusions: the first rejects Bolshevism, the second endorses it.

The question that is usually asked of them—including, retrospectively, by Lukács himself—is, how was it that Lukács became a Marxist? How did he “convert” from his self-styled “romantic anti-capitalism” to Bolshevism? In fact, it was a different question that had originally prompted those essays, namely the question articulated by the editor who published “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” (who happened to be Karl Polanyi): was the war a revolution, or not? Was it just another power struggle, with one form of domination and oppression succeeding another, or an opening for transformative change leading to democracy and peace? From this perspective, what made Lukács’s pair of essays so interesting was that despite their opposing conclusions, they shared a conceptual framework for how to approach such questions.

In both essays, Lukács insisted that there were unavoidable ethical consequences for any individual’s answer to the question of how to conceptualize a particular historical moment: for instance, whether it was a war or a revolution, just another transition of power or a point of no return. This approach to ethical action, which Lukács and his contemporaries associated with Fichte, was distinct both from Kantian reductivism (which risked obviating the need for any historical understanding as a guide for political action) and Hegelian historicism (which risked devolving into an exercise in rationalization or self-legitimation). In this view, Fichte was not a romantic idealist but a theorist of historical contingency, who insisted that ethical action always entailed not only a judgment of ethical principle but also a historical judgment of “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions.”

TF: Like many intellectuals in Europe who joined far-left or far-right parties after the war, Lukács eventually joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Many grappled with the ethics of revolution at this world-historical moment. Gustave Hervé transitioned from revolutionary syndicalism to nationalist chauvinism but maintained revolutionary violence as the ethical choice in face of bourgeois materialism. Hervé and Lukacs were both romantics of a sort, yet Lukács in his essay, “Tactics and Ethics” argues that the individual revolutionary had responsibility for action and inaction in those years 1918-1919. Hervé finds the ideal state at the end justified the means. Did Lukács find the Hungarian Communists’ revolutionary tactics ethically equivalent to Hervé’s thought of violence to achieve revolutionary change in society, or did Hervé’s politics render his revolutionary thought entirely unethical?

IN: Lukács’s conclusion in “Tactics and Ethics” was that one may not murder, but sometimes must (and he did go on to engage in revolutionary violence during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic). The key context for Lukács’s thinking about means and ends in “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” is supplied by Max Weber, whose 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation” has become a canonical discussion of “political realism.”

Although the relationship between Lukács and Weber is well known, what surprisingly seems to have been overlooked are the close parallels between Lukács’s two essays and Weber’s contemporaneous lecture (delivered in January 1919, between the publication of Lukács’s essays, though not published until later). As I show in the article, both Weber and Lukács connected the problem of means and ends to the nineteenth-century idea of Realpolitik: though there’s no reason to assume that Lukács had encountered “Politics as a Vocation” before writing “Tactics and Ethics,” he was most likely familiar with an earlier essay that Weber had published in 1917, which defined “Realpolitik in the narrower sense” as “the adaptation of the means for attaining a given ultimate goal in a particular situation” (note the echo of Fichte). In that essay, Weber invoked both the revolutionary syndicalist and the patriotic soldier fighting to the death as illustrations of why the relationship between means and ends would always remain a matter of individual judgment and ethical responsibility.

From this perspective, Weber’s lecture and Lukács’s essays were parallel applications of this shared ethical framework in a moment of intense crisis. Weber had explicitly referred to Fichte in defining his “ethic of responsibility” as opposed to the “ethic of absolute ends” (responsibility for the consequences of using political power, as opposed to the application of pure moral conviction). Where the dramatic conclusion of Weber’s lecture restricted ethically responsible action to the institutional structure of the state, Lukács’s essays extended it to revolutionary politics outside (and against) the state. In other words, Lukács retained Weber’s earlier view that the revolutionary syndicalist was not necessarily acting irresponsibly out of moral conviction: instead, they could be making the judgment that, in Weber’s words, achieving “the art of the possible” required “striving to attain the possible that lies beyond it.”

The dramatic difference between Lukács’s two essays, then, is not explained by his conversion from romanticism to Bolshevism, or from a neo-Kantian to a Hegelian approach to political ethics. In the first essay, Lukács identified Bolshevism as an ethic of absolute ends; in the second essay, it was an ethic of responsibility. The difference is explained by a revised judgment about historical circumstances: a different answer to Fichte’s question “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions.” In the first essay, the question was how to judge between democratic and undemocratic means for achieving democracy. In the second, the historical circumstances presented a much starker choice between socialism or barbarism.

TF: Notions of transition and transformation are important themes in the article. The first is the so-called transition of Georg Lukács’s political thought between his two essays “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” and the second is the transformative action of revolutionary opportunity to change the world. At one point, in reference to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect, you argue that transformations are not necessarily short moments, but that ‘new’ traits might have seethed for a long time without any visual clue. Do you think that Lukács would have argued that Bolshevism had deeper roots in Hungarian society to it give a chance a transform Hungary into a social democratic society, or was Bolshevism entirely ‘new’ in the post-1918 world?

IN: The reference to Kafka came from an arresting piece by the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, called “Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump,” which I happened to come across in January 2017 while I was also starting to reread Lukács. It found its way into my thinking about Lukács, and ended up staying there, because reading Lukács had also became an occasion for reflecting more broadly on the history of political thought:  a mode of inquiry whose nature and purpose it seemed necessary to reevaluate when confronted with a historical moment of uncertainty and potential systemic change. Ultimately, the article comes to the conclusion that “conversion narratives,” or any historiographical framework that makes it difficult to appreciate the contingency of historical categories, are more likely to inhibit than enhance the historical understanding that informs political judgment: they tend to obscure the existence of other historical possibilities, which in turn makes it harder to invent new political possibilities.

In Lukács’s case, the putatively ‘new’ trait is the ‘absolute sinfulness’ or ‘barbarism’ of 1919, not the Bolshevism that might or might not present an alternative to it. In that fraught moment, both Lukács and Weber reduced the scope of ethical action to a heroic choice for or against the state: in this way, the ethic of responsibility risks becoming the very kind of blinding ethical imperative that “political realism” is supposedly equipped to resist. In this regard, I came to think that the more skeptical spirit of Fichte’s approach to political ethics was less in evidence in Lukács and Weber’s highly charged interventions of 1919 than it was, decades later, in the political thought of Judith Shklar (whose engagement with Weber, partly via her Harvard teacher and colleague Carl Friedrich, is I think underappreciated).

Shklar’s essay on the “liberalism of fear” has also become a canonical text for “political realism,” but unlike many of her admirers she did not define her realism in direct opposition to Kantian ethics. Instead, like Fichte (who illustrated this particular point with the venerable case of two shipwrecked sailors clinging to a plank that could only support one of them), Shklar denied that an ethic of responsibility could guide action under conditions of necessity and war: conditions which both Fichte and Shklar defined as devoid of any value, save the value of exiting that condition as quickly and effectively as possible.

TF: Did Lenin and Trotsky’s War Communism economic model, even in its early years of 1918-19, change how Lukács saw Bolshevism and think of it as a potentially tragic failure?  

IN: Another important influence on my reading of Lukács and Weber was “The Allure of Dark Times: Max Weber, Politics, and the Crisis of Historicism,” which my former colleagues Stefan Eich and Adam Tooze published in 2017. Weber’s revealing mischaracterization of Trotsky’s position at Brest Litovsk, they maintain, is one indication that his fixed commitment to the state in “Politics as a Vocation” is not a product of sober political realism but an overwrought expression of a tragic fatalism. They develop this claim through a fascinating set of comparisons between Weber, the historian Friedrich Meinecke, and the theologian Ernst Troeltsch—but I was particularly drawn to their discussion of Meinecke, who has long interested me (partly because I think his interpretations of Fichte are wrong in an interesting way). According to Eich and Tooze, Meinecke was able to envisage new political possibilities (such as a supranational Europe) where Weber did not, because Meinecke’s historical perspective on political judgment made him receptive to the social capacity to create new values, which Weber’s rigid neo-Kantianism ruled out.

A different picture emerged by adding Lukács to this comparison between Meinecke (whom Lukács criticized for perverting Hegel into a theorist of Realpolitik) and Weber (whom Meinecke criticized as the Fichte of his time). It suggested that tragic fatalism was in fact an essential characteristic of Meinecke’s approach to historicizing political judgments. More fundamentally, it suggested that a greater receptivity to new political possibilities comes from a greater sensitivity to historical contingency, not an appreciation for the social construction of new values. This last point was, I think, made quite powerfully by Hannah Arendt in her analysis of ethical action in the face of the criminalization of German public life in the 1930s, when one socially generated system of values gave way to another. Under such conditions, Arendt warned, appeals to ethical responsibility too often served to mask accommodations to power (Realpolitik in the pejorative sense); and it was not responsibility but the independent exercise of judgment—an honest answer to the question “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions”—that mattered, even in conditions where the answer was brutally reduced to the recognition of political impotence.


Tom Furse is a PhD student at City, University in London. His dissertation is on how ideas in the social sciences and political economy influenced US military strategy. His interests lie in revolutionary politics, international relations and war.

Featured Image: Portrait of a young Georg Lukács in 1917. Public domain.

Categories
Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dan Edelstein on the Evolution of “Revolution”

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, and Professor of Political Science and History (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He studied at the University of Geneva (BA) and the University of Pennsylvania (PhD). He is the author of The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2009), The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010), and On the Spirit of Rights (Chicago, 2018). He is the co-editor of seven volumes, most recently (with Stefanos Geroulanos and Natasha Wheatley) Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (Chicago, 2020). He is currently working on an intellectual history of revolution, tentatively entitled The Revolution Next Time (Princeton, forthcoming).

Edelstein spoke with contributing editor Glauco Schettini about his essay “A ‘Revolution’ in Political Thought: Translations of Polybius Book 6 and the Conceptual History of Revolution,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).

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Glauco Schettini: In your article, you trace the emergence over the early modern era of a Polybian vocabulary of politics, centered around the concept of revolution. This vocabulary spread alongside (and eventually replaced) a preexisting Aristotelian language—which described change in terms of mutation and sedition—and made “revolution” a recurring term of political analysis. You describe this shift as a revolution in its own right. How does your contribution enrich the existing scholarship on the “invention” of revolution as a political concept, to paraphrase Keith Baker?

Dan Edelstein: Keith Baker’s key contribution to the history of revolution was to recognize how revolution became, in his words, an “action frame” after 1789. The French, who were the first to think of themselves as “revolutionaries,” understood revolution as something that they were actively pursuing, as opposed to something that was happening to them. Or as Baker put it, revolution went from “a fact” to “an act.” My article really focuses on the earlier history of “revolution.” Historians generally view “revolution“ in the early-modern period as confused, rather than contested. Sometimes it was used (generally in the plural) to describe an assortment of political disturbances; elsewhere it referred to the cyclical movement of history; occasionally it designated a particularly fateful event. By bringing Polybius’s Histories (and more specifically translations of book 6) into this account, I argue that these different, apparently disconnected, meanings can all be found in his theory of anacyclōsis—an unusual Greek term, which translators typically rendered as “revolution.”

More broadly, I also emphasize how these different understandings of “revolution“ reflect a particular vision of history, or cosmology. It is a vision of a world governed by fortune, in which the future resembles nothing more than the past. The new meaning of revolution that Baker identified, and became widespread in 1789, depended on an “enlightened” or modern vision of history, according to which human societies are gradually moving towards reason and justice.

GS: Your essay looks specifically at translations as key moments not only in the transmission but also in the very creation of political ideas. Faced with the problem of how to render Polybius’ anacyclōsis into modern languages, translators unknowingly reinvented the language of modern politics. Intellectual historians have recently started to pay more attention to translations (see, for example, the 18th-Century Translators Dictionary project based at the European University Institute). We are learning to look at translations from a perspective that is not only philological, and to highlight the role of translators as cultural mediators. What do you think studies of translations have to offer to intellectual historians?

DE: My sense is that most intellectual historians are in the habit of consulting original sources whenever possible. It’s quite common for scholars working on, say, Grotius’s De jure belli ac pacis to flip between the Latin original, Barbeyrac’s translation and notes, and the English translation of Barbeyrac. Similarly, one of the first things we’re taught when we work with ancient languages is always to consult the original. Things get a bit more challenging where reception history is involved. From our contemporary vantage point, where the entire classical library is just a mouse click away, it can be hard to keep track of when specific ancient texts became available in translation. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that Cicero’s De re publica was only rediscovered in 1819 (though fragments of it were known long before).

So I think this temporal quirkiness of ancient texts can lead to their disappearing from intellectual histories. Intellectual history often tracks chronology: authors respond to events and other authors who preceded them, often closely in time. Locke refutes Filmer, Pufendorf rebuts Hobbes, Rousseau responds to Montesquieu, and so on. But reception history disrupts ordinary chronology. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the translation or publication of previously unavailable texts: François Quesnay, the founder of Physiocracy, was deeply marked by an early encounter with Aristotle. Theological texts can similarly exercise a powerful sway centuries after they were written: just think of Augustine’s influence on Calvin or Jansenius.

Of course, we’re familiar with the famous cases in classical reception, like Lucretius or Sextus Empiricus, which blow chronological intellectual history off course. Polybius falls in this category, but adds two further wrinkles: in addition to the “explosive” content, the circumstances of his reception are spread out over a long time (there’s a period of manuscript circulation, followed by multiple editions) and over an array of languages; and the fact that it’s a Greek text (i.e., not as easily accessible as a Latin one) means that the word choices of the translators are especially critical.

Finally, it’s also worth noting how translations themselves evolve over time. As I point out in the article, late eighteenth-century translations of Aristotle‘s Politics adopted the language of “revolution” to describe political regime changes. That’s still the term that most contemporary translations use. But anyone reading Aristotle before 1770 would have encountered a different set of terms, with a different set of meanings. So it’s really important to consult the translations that were available at the time.

GS: Our readers are probably familiar with your previous work on digital humanities and the use of digital tools for historical scholarship. How did these methods figure in the research for this article? What can they tell us about early modern intellectual history that we have not been able to see so far?

DE: Working on a big digital humanities project like “Mapping the Republic of Letters” was a lot of fun! We were basically making things up as we went along. It was also exciting to think about what we could do with data (and metadata more particularly), rather than just text. That said, working with data is extremely time-consuming and can get rather tedious. Designing visualization tools, similarly, is exciting, but also extraordinarily complex and quite expensive.

So I’ve become more interested of late in all the low hanging fruit that mass digitization has made available. Plug away search terms on Google Books for long enough and you’ll likely find treasures. More scholarly databases (such as EEBO, ECCO, Gallica, ARTFL-FRANTEXT, etc.) offer amazing search functionality “out of the box.” Even library catalogs are terrific resources. I discovered the first print translation of Polybius book 6 simply by searching in the online catalog of the Italian National Library. Because the reference to Polybius only appears at the end of a very long subtitle, earlier scholars, using card catalogs or book lists, had missed it. I was just lucky to be working in the digital era.

In this respect, I feel that we should all aspire to be more like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who happily discovered that he was already speaking in prose. We’re all digital humanists now, whether we realize it or not. But once you do realize it, you’ll recognize that there’s a host of simple steps you can take to take advantage of basic digital resources. You don’t have to know how to code, or secure a grant, to unlock 90% of what digitization affords scholarship. Obviously, this (entirely made up!) statistic only applies to fields where mass digitization has taken place. But those of us working on early-modern European intellectual history have an embarrassment of riches.

GS: Although your article is mainly focused on the period of time between the late fifteenth and the seventeenth century, in the concluding section you sketch a narrative that goes up to the Age of Revolutions, and suggest that the eighteenth century witnessed “another revolution in the history of ‘revolution’” as a political concept. The Polybian conception of revolution as a problem was supplanted by the new Enlightenment idea of revolution as a solution, a transformation that you fascinatingly term “the twilight of the Polybians.” What role did Polybius and translations of his Book 6 play in this eighteenth-century process, if any?

DE: This article is taken from a book I’m working on that sketches an intellectual history of revolution from Antiquity to the twentieth century. The American Revolution features as the concluding act of the two English revolutions that preceded it. What these “Three British Revolutions,” as Pocock dubbed them, have in common is an overriding concern with establishing a well-balanced constitution. The primary example of such a constitution came from the Roman Republic, and its primary theorist was none other than Polybius.

What’s striking to me is how the dominant political interpretations of the American Revolution mostly write out the importance of classical authors on American constitutional thought. Gordon Wood made an exception for John Adams (how could he not?), suggesting that Adams was the odd man out among the Founders. But even a cursory reading of the Records of the Federal Convention, the letters of the Founders, or The Federalist reveals that Adams was far from alone in his obsession with classical political thought. The debate over the organization of the senate even appears to have been settled by an authoritative reference to the structure of the Achaean league (which the delegate verbally footnoted!).

In a 1940 article that appeared in the very first issue of the JHI, Gilbert Chinard outlined the extent to which the Founders relied on Polybius in particular. He’s certainly the star of Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (1787). But to appreciate Polybius’s influence, you also have to consider his central place in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English constitutionalism. Put simply, Polybius is everywhere, and serves as a shorthand reference for the idea that the ideal constitution combines elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. While not all Americans were as forthcoming as Adams about seeking this arrangement in their own federal constitution, it doesn’t take much squinting to recognize its outline. As Eric Nelson has persuasively shown, the presidency is an explicitly “monarchic” office (some of whose powers can even be traced back to those of the Roman consuls, in Polybius’s analysis). Many of the delegates in Philadelphia described the senate as an aristocratic chamber; and the House was obviously democratic.

Equally important for my own story, though, is the purpose of this arrangement. Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and others do not hide their conviction that a well-balanced constitution of this sort is specifically designed to prevent another revolution (and Shays’s Rebellion gave them reason to fear one). What made Polybius so attractive is that his theory offered a guarantee against different types of revolution. It guarded against a populist takeover, but also from oligarchy or despotism. That’s the promise of the well-balanced constitution.

So rather than inaugurating an “age of revolutions,” I argue that the American Revolution really marked the close of a Polybian era, during which the revolutions in general were viewed as something dangerous, and were only applauded (and designated as “glorious”) if they brought about the desired Polybian outcome. By 1789, by contrast, the French had learned to stop worrying and love revolution. For them, revolution was a step toward a transfigured future. The modern doctrine of progress—which I distinguish from the Koselleckian idea of acceleration—made the classical phobia of revolution obsolete. Historical change was no longer something to be prevented, but to be embraced. That’s the general idea, at least for now!


Glauco Schettini is a PhD candidate in history at Fordham University, New York. His research centers on religion and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Atlantic world. His dissertation, titled “The Invention of Catholicism: A Global Intellectual History of the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1780s-1840s,” investigates how European and Latin American counterrevolutionary thinkers reinvented Catholicism during the Age of Revolutions. An alumnus of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, Italy, he is the author of more than a dozen articles and book chapters.

Featured Image: Bavarian State Library, Munich, Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana) Clm 4660; fol. 1r with the Wheel of Fortune. Via Wikimedia Commons.