Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bureaucratic Documents as Sources for the History of Ideas: An Interview with Shoufu Yin

By Alexander Collin

Shoufu Yin is an assistant professor in history at the University of British Columbia. His research centers on Chinese and Inner Asian political cultures and thoughts in global historical contexts.

Yin spoke with Alexander Collin about his recent JHI article, “Redefining Reciprocity: Appointment Edicts and Political Thought in Medieval China,” which appears in volume 83, issue 4.


Alexander Collin: Let’s start with some general background. Your research is very broad; you’ve written on periods from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, not only covering China itself, but also its global connections with Koreans and with Europeans and even the history of animals. Could you start by setting your recent JHI article in a little bit of context? How did you come to write about Tang Dynasty edicts and how do they fit into your work more broadly?

Shoufu Yin: Yeah, this article addresses an even earlier period, right? It is about Tang China, and especially about ninth-century transformations. The article is a sort of nexus of different things I have been doing. It is about rethinking or even rewriting intellectual histories by focusing on the functional, bureaucratic documents, such as the edicts received from the emperor or the petitions that would have been sent out. We might think that these documents are tedious, repetitive, formulaic, and rote; however, I really think they are as rich in political thought as the treatises, chronicles, and other genres familiar to intellectual historians. In order to read these formulaic documents as sources for the history of ideas, it is imperative to understand their tradition as genres, as objects, and as a part of the institutional processing. The Tang laid out a model, which is important for East Asia in later centuries. This is why I take a longue durée approach to history.

Interestingly, the use of these official, functional documents often happens in transcultural, trans-polity contexts. It is not only diplomatic documents that matter. It is also about people going to other realms and courts, submitting a document while following local rules. For example, I am originally from Shanghai, but when I came to Canada, I needed to write visa applications and grant proposals that aligned with Canadian standards. The process of filling in blanks in these bureaucratic forms is itself a transcultural and translingual practice. Likewise, when the Jesuits or the Koreans arrived in China, they needed to draft petitions: “Hi, we lack this or that; we are starving. Please give us something.” How do you do that? You need to learn to write these official documents, to express your concerns and make a petition in this unfamiliar and idiosyncratic context. This is another dimension that links my projects together. They are about how individuals—in many cases non-elite individuals—utilized these documentary technologies and forms in different contexts to advance their concerns.

AC: I’d like to follow up with another contextual question, this time a little more specific to the article. You introduce two concepts in the piece: the commoner-centered approach to appointments and the official-centered approach to appointments. I would like to ask you about your influences there, either other historians or philosophically. What’s the background to these terms you introduce here, and what led you to that insight?

SY: Maybe I should provide a bit more background here. There’s a kind of clichéd or stereotypical vision that the history of political thought of imperial China is about benevolence and meritocracy. Accordingly, the emperor was responsible for taking care of the subjects, and for this reason, they employed worthy officials to promote the common good. Something like that. Even in recent debates, some scholars have imagined that this kind of benevolent meritocracy provides an alternative to liberal democracy. To be very frank, I’m so sick of that kind of argumentation. At a philosophical level it doesn’t make sense, at least not to me. Critically, from a historical perspective, I think it misrepresents a lot of documents, and it is based on a very selective reading of the sources from the Chinese and East Asian traditions. So, big picture number one is that, if we go beyond a specific and very confined scope of sources, and pay real attention to the kinds of documents with which political actors do things, we will discover that this benevolent rule—what I call a commoner-centered approach, or selecting good officials for the well-being of the commoners—is only one of the multiple models of governance. There are other models that matter.

This leads to another deep concern, or big picture number two. Comparison is an important dimension. The paper has really accompanied me for nine years. During this process, I took courses from European medievalists and also Byzantinists, especially Geoffrey Koziol, Maureen Miller, and Maria Mavroudi at Berkeley. One thing that struck me was that the making of the narrative of the European history of political culture and thought has paid a lot of attention to diplomas and charters, not only the Magna Carta kind of canonical documents but also everyday documents, especially Koziol’s study. If we really want to compare China with elsewhere, we cannot start the comparison from a very limited view of Chinese materials and compare them to a research result drawn from different materials, right?

This paper, of course, is not a comparative project per se, but the first step is to broaden the source base and then to compare the right genre with the right genre, official documents with official documents, and top-down documents with top-down documents. At that point, we may realize that certain stereotypical visions of the East versus West, or China versus Western Europe, kind of boil down and we need to rethink these questions.

AC: Great. Thank you. That connects nicely to what I was going to ask you next, which is about the sources themselves, about these edicts. In the article, you describe the process by which they are created: moving from an initial drafter, then going to the chancery to be checked, and then to be made in the correct materials and so on, and then eventually to the key final officials to be confirmed and signed off. Could you talk a little more about that process and how it links to the content of the sources? Who’s having what influence in that process? And how do these things come together?

SY: Thank you, first of all, for reading that so closely. The process is a complicated one. In a certain sense, it is a black box. There are many details that we do not know, and what we do know are exceptional cases. Such exceptional cases include the edict draft being presented and then someone saying, “No, you must fix this.” And then the edict drafter says, “Oh, you are not fine with me? You do not think I’m capable of doing this? I resign.” This is one kind of exceptional case, attesting to a broader culture in the sense that the edict drafter occupies a really prestigious post and they are expected to do it well first time around.

Another exceptional case that I discuss is that, when the recipient discerns something is not right, they write a memorial saying, “Hi, I received this edict and there’s something here. . . Hmmm. . .” While this did not happen very often, it does tell us something valuable. On the one hand, the edict is really important as a cherished, cult object, so it would be put in a certain place for ancestral worship. People carry out specific performative uses of these edicts down the generations, with descendants using them as material tokens to show that their ancestors were really great officials. On the other hand, due to specific reasons embedded in the political or military situations of certain periods, the space for negotiation was more open. This was especially the case when the court really wanted to gain the support of certain groups of prefects, power holders, or local magnates. These situations opened the textual representation for negotiation.

So, the simple answer is that it’s a black box that we try our best to understand. But, there are serious limitations. Transmission is also an important problem because ultimately the edicts come to us, most of them, from literary collections. We do not know whether certain modifications were made when they were anthologized. For instance, during the eleventh century, many of them were block printed. Then, the next question is how the print culture affected the content. So with regard to that, we do the best we can, but there are still serious limitations concerning what we know about the process.

AC: Now, I’d like to come back to this cliché of benevolent rule that you were discussing earlier. In one of the sources you quote in the article, they write that “without oversight, who can say that the area will recover?” I was very interested in what sort of oversight is expected, what are the officials supposed to do? As you say, there’s a lot of normative language about how they’re supposed to take care of the area they’re appointed to in some way, but relatively few concrete directives. So, I wondered if you had more insights into what they were doing on the ground to meet those expectations?

SY: A first important argument, and one that I would make very explicit, is that previous scholars tend to read them as a kind of merely formulaic language, piling up one formula after another. So, I’m trying to show that it’s not just a random kind of compilation of formulaic language. It’s not just clichés piled up. They actually follow the argumentative structure for specific reasons. On top of that, there’s a dimension that I have not really unpacked in the article, in part due to the word limit, but also because it’s complicated and requires more exploration. There is a specific science, a Wissenschaft, a system of knowledge already systemized in the third century, which concerns personnel management based on an ontology and epistemology of human talents.

By the seventh and eighth centuries, we are talking about a very well-established field of knowledge in imperial China. Basically, the idea is that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Today, we probably believe that if we really work hard, we might eventually overcome our weaknesses. The elites of Tang China believed, however, that one can hardly get rid of one’s weaknesses because strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. Or at least in the context of imperial personnel management, Tang elites believed that the emperor should place one in a position where one can make full use of one’s strength, and where one’s weakness might prove to be an advantage. For instance, if a region had recently suffered warfare, pillaging, and turmoil, then the ideal candidate for a governor would be one with a disposition capable of pacifying the region in the wake of chaos. Such a person might be ideal for such a region, but this does not mean that they would be ideal for every region. Let’s consider another example. Imagine a different region, where the previous governor proved ineffective and incapable of achieving anything. What would be useful would be a candidate with an iron heart, one who could really get things under control, right? So this is the idea—matching specific situations with specific talents—that underlies the seemingly formulaic language.

AC: Thank you, that’s really illuminating. To follow up, they have this system of knowledge for personnel management that they’re using to construct these edicts. This would seem to rely on the person doing the drafting knowing this system, but also the person who’s going to receive the edict. So, where do they get instructed in this system of knowledge? Is that something they’re formally taught? Is it just kind of abroad in the culture?

SY: During the seventh and eighth centuries, these appointees came from a very limited number of great clans. They were aristocrats; they were educated in certain ways; they read the classics; they shared a common language. But, from the seventh up to the ninth century, that changed because of the political-military situation. Appointments started to be made to people with different backgrounds. I don’t want to call them military men, that’s a misleading stereotype. But it is appropriate to say that they were leaders of their own troops. So they had followers, and they were not necessarily from the same pool of aristocratic clans. Some of them were from failing branches or lineages, while others were really grassroots; they were peasants who had fought bravely in certain battles, and who had retinues, followers. Gradually, they started to have small troops supporting them. For these people, they did not share this kind of language, this kind of knowledge.

Because the appointees came from different social backgrounds, with different mentalities, their knowledge and preparation of knowledge was different, precisely as you point out. It makes less sense to address them with the previous language. So, basically you have two options when the world changes that much. One possibility is to ignore the changes; employing the same language, you show your audience that the court is very persistent: everything has changed, but we are still here. That is one way of projecting imperial power: stability and continuity can mean something. Another approach, another possibility, is more pragmatic: things have been changing, and so it doesn’t make sense that we stick to old formulae, technology, ideology, or rhetoric. Wouldn’t it be more effective if we try to talk to these people with different backgrounds according to their own expectations? Those expectations were there for a long time, they weren’t new, but previously they were covered up with high-flown imperial rhetoric. So, does it make more sense if imperial edicts were altered a little bit to address concerns? And in that sense, does it make more sense to negotiate with them, to make a compact with them? That’s precisely what was happening in the early ninth century. There were certain edict drafters thinking through this idea and saying: “Well, why not? We should adjust to a new reality. The empire should adapt itself not only in terms of concrete political, administrative, and military measures, but at the ideological level as well.” This was a cultural form that people carried. Why not use that?

AC: You mention in the article that the An Lushan Rebellion is a sort of historical marker around which these changes started to appear in the edicts. Do you have further thoughts on the degree to which that was a causal thing, versus the degree to which these changes were independently happening at the same time but due to broader trends?

SY: Yeah, I would say the latter. So it was more of a continuity than a juncture or disjoint. Let me offer a little bit more background. The Empire of China was bizarre in the following sense: the emperor was hereditary, but bureaucrats were not. So, the emperor was a single person, ruling over a hereditary enterprise, and all his staff were appointed based on this system of personnel management I mentioned earlier. In terms of the beliefs that people held, a real question was: “Can I actually build a hereditary thing for myself? If I offer really important contributions to the emperor, can I receive a rank of nobility which is heritable?” Well, the short answer was yes, but the real challenge was whether something concrete could be passed to descendants. Not just a title or a rank of nobility, but territory. This idea was very important, especially for rising magnates who had their own retinues. This was something they really cared about.

They wanted to have terrain that they could pass on, and during the ninth century, they were trying to negotiate for prefectures. These were more valuable than counties, which were relatively small; a prefecture was relatively large. Long story short, some fiscal management was involved with prefectures, and one could have one’s own troops, thus making it more like a dynasty or regime. So, these magnates really cared about getting a prefecture. In the ninth-century edicts discussed in this paper, we don’t see the hereditary succession issue because the imperial documents do not address that. But what the officials really wanted was to earn a prefecture so that they had something that was theirs, something they could enjoy. The implication is that they wanted to pass it on to their offspring when they passed away, and the court was not really addressing that.

Allusions to those interests emerged in the late ninth century, and during the tenth century it became a big issue for empire builders. Regime builders need supporters, right? But their supporters really wanted to have something that was a hereditary enterprise. Going back to your question, what is interesting about that kind of highly formulaic, high-flown language is that it is embedded in specific periods. They are actually showing a certain mentality that can have longue durée significance; and that goes back to even broader questions concerning the merit of governmental documents for understanding not just cultural history, but also intellectual history.

AC: Thank you. We touched already on the two competing logics that you identify—the commoner-centered and the official-centered—and I would like to return to that. Is this distinction something you see contemporaries being aware of? Or is this distinction something that only becomes apparent after the fact, when we look at the edicts as historians and take a whole corpus? During this sixth- through ninth-century period, were people talking about the fact that edicts looked a little different, were making different arguments or were implying new things about leadership?

SY: Well, if there was language that explicit in the period, I would use that. But there was definitely some kind of contemporary awareness of that. The challenge is precisely that rewarding men with prefectures was considered not good from the perspective of mainstream statecraft. For that reason, in the received textual tradition, if you’re looking at treatises as historical narratives, people will say, well, it is a phenomenon but it’s wrong. They asked why does it happen? And their answer is that it is because these generals were greedy. Or that it happens because the emperors are either impotent or their decision-makers and counsellors did not know how to do things well. So this is a kind of contemporary discussion that is most direct in addressing that.

Moving up to the tenth century, we start to have more epitaphs. In this context, epitaphs mean a kind of funeral inscription. When a person died, a huge biography was carved onto a stone. This was a narrative that was a little bit more from the perspective of the deceased person, but still premised upon the literary tradition, as you can imagine. There, we start to see a bit more from the perspective of these men who fought, becoming aware that they expected certain rewards based on certain services, and that the reward often should be a prefecture or governorship. So the expectation, even though it was not written down, was more or less familiar to the players of the game. And what is really interesting is that, the rules being clear to the players, they were not recorded in the historical narrative, which in turn makes these documents particularly telling and important as historical sources.

AC: Thank you! How about its later legacy beyond the ninth, tenth century? How much of an echo down the centuries in Chinese history do we see from this distinction that you pick up here?

SY: Its importance is tremendous. So, I started this during my MA thesis. Back then, I already noticed that a lot of manuals were produced during later periods on how to write official documents, how to emulate them, how to imitate them. And, I didn’t really understand why. We are talking about sixth, seventh, up to the ninth century. They are specific events, specific documents. But then, in the fourteenth century, fifteenth century, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not only in China but also in Korea and in other regions, they were writing the same prompts. Why were they doing that? This was kind of a by-product, something that I noticed but that I didn’t really understand while writing this paper, and it turned out to be a starting point of my later research.

So, this goes back to your question in the sense that the legacy is tremendous. In terms of the literary legacy, rhetorical knowledge based on the Tang legacy was produced from the fourteenth century. Elites were producing their own way of analyzing these edicts, how to divide them into three parts. So, I’m actually building upon their discussions, by dividing them into three parts. On the one hand, then, it is a rhetorical legacy of how to write a document. On the other hand, it is a legacy about political ideas. The idea became very . . .  I don’t want to use the word constitutional, it sounds very value loaded, and nor do I particularly want to say contract-based either, as that seems very loaded as well. But let’s just say contract-based, especially starting from the tenth, eleventh, twelfth century, into the thirteenth century.

The idea is that individuals were employed. The emperor was a manager, he employed me, and then I offered my services and if I offered this amount of service, then a certain kind of reward was due to me. A big question I want to figure out is whether it was a kind of conceptualization of rights; whether it was contract-based, a kind of entitlement. That is basically the framework I use here and the one that became so important later. So, as long as I offer a service to you, something is due back to me, and this contract is right there in my appointment letter. This kind of mentality became really important not only in China, but also in many nearby regions.

AC: Great, thank you! To wrap up, you mentioned that this article has served as a lead into some subsequent projects, which prompts the question, what are you working on now? What comes next?

SY: Next! There are many things next! But directly related to this article is the big project, basically a monograph based on my doctoral research. Before going into that, I want to add that I started this article as a Tang history project and gradually it became more comparatively enriched. I want to emphasize that it shows the merits of going beyond a regional and dynastic focus. In this article, we are talking about official documents of the eighth and ninth centuries. But I think I came to a much better understanding of them after I have read and studied later rhetorical manuals on how to write the Tang-style edicts, especially those of the thirteenth century and onward. Although many modern and contemporary scholars have theorized the theme of reciprocity, I am no less indebted to early modern Manchu writings on this subject matter. The Manchus, as we know, originated in northeast Asia. They have their own language and conquered China in 1644. When translating Chinese chronicles into Manchu, they were offering interpretations of medieval Chinese history, including Tang personnel management. Overall, I think it is productive to engage these marginalized intellectual traditions.

In addition, I believe that it helps to think about things comparatively. And not just the familiar comparisons between China and Europe. I’m trying to do more comparison with Byzantine, Japanese, and some Persian material too. The Tang edicts made new sense to me when I started to translate Byzantine appointment documents and see the parallels, and then I gained new insights into these kind of Chinese documents. In brief, the longue durée, trans-dynastic perspective, critical attention to previously marginalized intellectual traditions like the Manchu, and what one might call world philology—that is,  putting the Chinese documents, Latin documents, Byzantine Greek documents together—really pays off.

So going back to your question, I started writing my PhD dissertation around 2018, which basically originated from these documents. As we just discussed, I noticed that from the fourteenth to the eighteenth or even nineteenth centuries, many individuals were practicing writing the Tang edicts; not only those in China, but also the educated ones in Korea and Vietnam. There was once a curriculum that specifically trained individuals to produce documents in the voice of previous figures. It is a little bit like Renaissance humanism: you learn to recreate a document from the perspective of Cicero and so on. I want to understand how this curriculum took its shape, and in particular, I will argue that the Mongol tradition of employing scribes and valorizing scribal services played a pivotal role.

But what is really interesting is that it is also about political imagination. The politics behind the negotiation and making of an educational curriculum is always important but, for me, what is even more important is the fact that a curriculum, once there, creates countless imagining communities. Teachers and students, while teaching and studying the assigned or even imposed materials, came up with very creative ideas! It is this form of imposed intellectual creativity that remains most overlooked. In some cases, this training even promoted counterfactual imagination about real history. In 821, this political actor, this emperor, this minister, did this or that, right? Five hundred years later, when I am about to recreate this document, I want my political actor to do something else. In some cases, I want my political actress to do something else. If the emperor asked, “High palace lady, please marry the barbarian leader so that they will not invade us,” in real history the palace lady would say, “Oh, I have to accept my fate, however sorrowful I am.” But in rhetorical training, the writer could propose, “Nope, I don’t want to go, so I am writing a memorial, in this case, a formal official document saying: Emperor, you have important considerations, but I have my reasons. I decline.”

As such, directly related to this paper, there is a broader project about the reception of historical rhetorical knowledge. Particularly, it is about the institutionalization of rhetorical training and the reproduction of rhetorical knowledge that this kind of training fostered. These institutions and practices led to new kinds of political imaginations about what individuals said or could possibly have said in a very complicated bureaucratic system. In this sense, I am particularly interested in how the political imaginations of ordinary individuals in East Asia matter in our narratives of the history of political thought. So this is a book project that I’m working on.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of “The Decision” and to what extent it is a human universal.

Featured image: Portrait of Emperor Xianzong (778–820), Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

From Aristotle to Machiavelli: An Interview with Giorgio Lizzul

By Elsa Costa

Giorgio Lizzul holds a PhD in History from King’s College London, an MA in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History from UCL and Queen Mary, and a BSc in Government and Economics from the LSE. He has been a research fellow on the ERC project “Aristotle in the Italian Vernacular” at the Department of Italian Studies, University of Warwick, and Teaching Fellow in Medieval European History at King’s College London. His research concerns the intersection of economic, political, and ethical thought with the financial institutions of medieval and Renaissance Italy. Currently he is reworking his thesis into a monograph entitled “Debt and the Republic: Economic Thought and Public Debt in Italy 1300–1550.”

Lizzul spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Liberality as a Fiscal Problem in Medieval and Renaissance Thought: A Genealogy from Aristotle’s Tyrant to Machiavelli’s Prince” (volume 83, issue 3).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this fascinating article. There was one subplot I found particularly interesting. I am accustomed to thinking about early modern debates over political expedience in terms of the debate over whether Machiavelli was immoral or whether he was perhaps onto something. Generally there’s a correlation between loyalty to Aristotle and dismissing Machiavelli as amoral, in other words as someone who inverts Aristotle’s political virtue ethics in service of cheap expediency. Yet here we see that there were also debates over whether Aristotle himself was a philosopher of expediency. Contemporaries of Machiavelli connected the latter’s financial expediency with Aristotle’s methods for keeping a tyranny on life support, and even before that Petrarch had speculated on the unvirtuous cynicism of Aristotle’s financial recommendations in this passage. As you explain, this was further complicated by the fact that Aristotle apparently only offered financial advice for tyrants, leaving it unclear whether the good king ought also practice oikonomia. Can you speak a little more on how contemporary readers perceived Machiavelli’s relationship with Aristotle, on the suspicions which recur in this article that Machiavelli was more Aristotelian or that Aristotle was more Machiavellian than we normally assume?

Giorgio Lizzul: Thank you. By way of answering your question on expediency and morality in Machiavelli’s thought and its relation to Aristotle, it might be useful to first briefly set out how I came to work on this article. As a side part of my doctoral research on debt and fiscality in Italian political thought between the fourteenth and early sixteenth century, I became interested in the intellectual exchanges between the Neapolitan Court and the d’Este court at Ferrara, and specifically the traffic of missives and memoranda that touched on economic topics around the time of the marriage of Eleonora d’Aragona, the daughter of King Ferrante I, to Ercole d’Este. The earlier 1444 letter of Borso and the Marquis Leonello d’Este to Ferrante’s father Alfonso in its advice to limit liberality, and its attitude toward expediency in the organization of the Neapolitan fisc, struck me as foreshadowing important aspects of Machiavellian political morality and specifically the advice in the Prince Chapter 16. This was of course a text unknown to Machiavelli. So, I was interested in exploring what could account for certain thematic similarities. Was the absence of citations to philosophical authorities and the expedient attitude to moral virtue symptomatic of a political culture found and developed in pragmatic and chancellery writings in the vernacular? If so, were there interfaces and interpenetration with political theory? An underexplored connection, to which lots of the concerns about expediency in fiscal writing could ultimately be traced, was the reception of Aristotle’s Politics Book 5 in texts such as the Secretum secretorum and Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum, as well as the commentary tradition. This part of the Politics and its traces in later texts was key for understanding where a problematization of liberality emerged, and how it shaped some of the formal framing of problems of public finance and moral philosophy in late medieval and Renaissance political thought. Working on the ERC project “Aristotle in the Italian Vernacular: Rethinking Renaissance and Early-Modern Intellectual History,” a project run between Cà Foscari and the University of Warwick, enabled me to explore this topic in greater depth.

So, to come back to your question on the connection between Aristotle and Machiavelli. It’s an old topic that has quite a venerable literature stretching from the very earliest reception of Machiavelli until the present day, including recent contributions from scholars such as Jean-Louis Fournel, David Lines, and Carlo Ginzburg. In Giuliano Procacci’s study of the reception of Machiavelli in European political culture the topic has been quite thoroughly mapped. Following the notoriety gained with his inclusion on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 and Innocent Gentillet’s later demonization of him following the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, Machiavelli was associated with defending tyranny and expediency. Ginzburg has argued that seventeenth-century attempts to rehabilitate Machiavelli by figures such as Kaspar Schoppe sought to underline Machiavelli’s adherence to Aristotle and the commentary tradition. Political amorality was argued to be shared character of the art of politics. Prior to his posthumous vilification and defense in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of Machiavelli’s acquaintances and contemporaries read him alongside Aristotle, seeing them as part of a shared enterprise of writing on political science, and perceived strong correspondences between aspects of their texts. Parallels between the morality of the Prince and Aristotle’s tyrant were not lost on them. This of course led to Machiavellian readings of Aristotle, or the reading of the Politics through the lens and problems of the Prince. Machiavelli was fed into attempts to make sense of Aristotle’s advice on the preservation of tyranny. This influenced the presentation of new translations and commentaries. For example, the Florentines Antonio Brucioli and Bernardo Segni’s Italian vernacular versions of the Politics felt the need to make clear that when discussing a tyrant’s simulation of good kingship, his gifting and spending on superfluities was not to be associated with curbing liberality but the avoidance of prodigality. This introduction of the vice of prodigality in a description of the tyrant had not been seen in the previous Latin translations and commentaries before Machiavelli’s Prince appeared and problematized the moral virtue of spending. Segni and other mid-sixteenth century commentators would note the parallels between the Aristotelian tyrant in the Politics and Ethics and Machiavelli’s prince. They also drew on Machiavelli’s examples to illustrate arguments within Aristotle’s political theory. Agostino Nifo would provide a notable case of an attempt to Aristotelize Machiavelli and harmonize the two in his Latin specula regis where he rewrote large parts of the Prince prior to the actual print publication in the 1530s. Although Nifo would drop many of Machiavelli’s most controversial arguments, he followed Machiavelli and an earlier tradition of reading Aristotle’s tyrant, that liberality was indeed troublesome for preserving kingdoms. With Machiavelli’s increased notoriety from the mid sixteenth century, his early reception and association with peripatetic philosophy was increasingly relaxed or dropped, especially in Italy.

I do not mean to create an Aristotelian Machiavelli or vice versa, or suggest that Machiavelli must be contextualized in a problem originating in Aristotle’s Politics—my intention wasn’t to suggest that Machiavelli was an Aristotelian, whatever such an identity would consist of in the early sixteenth century. I guess part of the question is: what is the nature of Aristotelianism in the Renaissance? Besides the application of ideas drawn explicitly from Aristotle and pseudo-Aristotelian texts, another fundamental aspect is an Aristotelian framework for approaching problems and organizing inquiry into them. One aspect of this I was specifically interested in was how an intellectual legacy unconsciously held could subtlety shape the formal presentation of arguments and ways of posing questions. So, in the article my aim was to emphasize how liberality came to be problematized in a series of texts shaped by the reception of Politics Book V.11’s discussion of tyrannical fiscality. The model of the tyrant’s oikonomic techniques was taken up and used by authors who did not always know its provenance. As I show in the article, for a variety of reasons certain practical fiscal recommendations from the thirteenth century came to either be disjoined from a discussion of virtue or vice (for example in extrapolating the tyrant’s economic techniques, such as limiting gifting and accounting, from the art of good kingship) and then newly problematized in relationship to virtue (as in the concern for “excessive liberality”).  Machiavelli’s discussion of taxation and liberality in chapter 16 of the Prince engaged with key elements of the inheritance of the fiscal concerns raised by Aristotle’s tyrant. Machiavelli never defends tyranny, but the connection with Aristotle’s tyrant is seen in the discussions of taxation and appearance. These parallels were not lost on those who accused him of defending tyranny. What was perhaps ignored by some of his critics was how expedient actions suited to circumstances could nonetheless be tied to higher moral ends. In Aristotle’s analysis of defective constitutions and how tyrannies are preserved, he demonstrates how expedient actions suited to circumstance can preserve rule and benefit subjects. For Aristotle the techniques of simulation of good kingship by a tyrant make the worst constitution less bad by reducing fear and hatred and incline his character toward virtue, or at least make him only half bad.

EC: To generalize a rich and complicated argument, you show here, among other things, that liberality was not generally considered a problematic virtue until the fourteenth or fifteenth century. I think it’s fascinating how you suggest toward the end (p. 382) that in Machiavelli the problematization of liberality is associated with a new valorization of martial virtue. This seems to be true of more writers than just Machiavelli: you see enormous anxiety over “excess” and “luxury” as contrary to martial virtue throughout the early modern period, across Western Europe. Do you think the early modern tendency to see military spending as the most crucial form of spending to achieve political stability could help explain why liberality came to be associated with excess?

GL: The primacy given to fiscal matters in political literature, I show in the article, simply came from the formal presentation and ordering of Aristotle’s recommendations to the tyrant who sought to preserve his regime through regal methods. This prioritization is also found in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, where it is among the first things a deliberative orator should have knowledge of and be able to give counsel on. In the pseudo-Aristotelian Book of Secrets and in Giles of Rome, this importance is undermined by the virtue of liberality, alongside a discussion of the relationship of this virtue with regard to the use of wealth for the defense and preservation of a kingship. So, there is certainly an Aristotelian tradition of statecraft that prioritized matters of revenue management for military expenditure. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, among the Italian states for example, it certainly becomes a commonplace of deliberative preambles and prefaces to provisions on military fiscal matters, as well as in civic chronicles, that there was a continuous fiscal crisis where ordinary revenues were inadequate for extraordinary expenditures. This required prioritization of fiscal policy. There is of course in part a socio-economic explanation for these discursive developments; however, the tendency for the growth of military expenditures certainly predated the fourteenth century. But as a broad generalization I think it is fair to say a concern for extraordinary finance comes to permeate political observations with greater ubiquity. However, I didn’t want to make the argument that liberality was problematized on the basis of new political fiscal dynamics that emerge with the fiscal contraction of the fourteenth century, not only because some of these dynamics were present in the earlier communal period, but also because part of what is so important was the vernacularization and translation of texts of moral philosophy and the lexical choices that had to be made. This opened philosophical texts to new readings that could be used at this specific juncture to frame and problematize fiscal dynamics. How to render liberality was a site of contention in this respect. Contemporary usages of liberalitas and largitas and their corresponding vernacular translation problematized where the stress of liberality lay: was it in a disposition of generosity to give or was it more the correct measure of expenditure and receipt. Liberality’s association with excess can of course be related to Aristotle’s suggestion that in being liberal it is better to err toward prodigality than avarice, since it is preferable to put wealth to use rather than to hoard. I don’t want to suggest the caution I describe in the article toward liberality became by any means a dominant way of treating liberality; it certainly didn’t in much moral and political philosophy. However its problematization becomes more frequent especially in texts touching upon taxation.

We can see how some of the issues raised by Aristotle’s tyrant and his impact on later writers intersected with the wider debates on excess and luxury. First of all, that a reputation for not spending on luxuries was expedient, since it avoided earning the hatred of subjects when they saw their wealth spent on morally decadent superfluities. So avoiding a reputation for spending on superfluous luxury was a technique to prevent sedition, yet it was also an important contribution to much debated question of whether it is better to keep the people poor and the treasury rich or to leave wealth with the people and not accumulate riches in a treasury. Of course, Machiavelli’s treatment of this topic would be informed by his reading of Roman historians such as Sallust and moralists such as Vegetius, where Rome’s martial virtue was negatively correlated with its citizens’ prosperity. This was a topic that had already been taken up by the scholastics, for example, we can find it in Aquinas’s portion of De regimine, as well as notably in the humanists of the fifteenth century, many of whom were concerned with how city-republics with a fundamentally mercantile character balanced a disposition toward money-making with defending their patria and liberty. What is interesting in the Aristotelian contributions to this debate is that there are dangers associated with funding a treasury and the power it could give those who seize it, and also that there is an illusory distinction in part of whether wealth is left in the people or accumulated in the fisc, since tyrannical power does not respect ownership. The medieval commentators would emphasize how wealth could be then seized when needed but were also careful to explain it ought to be accompanied by legitimation through appeal to higher ends such as the common good. These issues of fiscal sovereignty, property, and reputation would be taken up Machiavelli in a most striking way.

EC: It seems extraordinarily significant to me that Machiavelli is so comfortable with expropriation. The question of the expropriation of Church property, for example, arguably became the fundamental issue of the early modern era. Aristotle considers the tyrant to have possession of his subjects’ property, but does not specifically mention expropriation as a means toward stability (although he associates it with democratic excess). You mention that the medievals were not always averse to reading Aristotle’s prescriptions for extending tyranny as recommendations for competent rulership in general. What was the medieval attitude toward the monarch’s potential to appropriate his subjects’ lands into the royal demesnes?

GL: It would be hard to give a characterization of a general attitude and associated policies that were shared across medieval European polities with regard to appropriation and subsummation of subjects’ lands into royal demesnes. Also because of the very different ways in which wealth was extracted and utilized from demesnes. Local conditions effected the logic and efficacy of sale, leasing, resumption and retention, or growth of the demesne alongside the diversification and introduction of new forms of exaction as part of states’ fiscal strategies. Notwithstanding the developments that occurred with regard to the demesne’s contribution to the total revenues of the state over the course of the late Middle Ages and early modernity in the so-called move from a “domain state” to a “tax state,” it would be fair to underscore a shared character to much medieval and early modern monarchical political theory regarding it. Generally, for scholastic writers, such as Thomas of Aquinas and Giles of Rome, and humanists, such as Petrarch and Patrizi, and pragmatic-administrative writers such as Diomede Carafa, there was a strong advocacy for the retention of the royal demesne rather than any overtly explicit advocacy regarding expansion at the expense of subject’s land holding and property rights. These were to be respected with the exception of outlaws and rebels. The demesne, for many of these writers, enabled a prince’s self-reliance and its preservation. The ideal that a king should live off his own holdings became a staple of monarchical advice literature. Oikonomic writing in this context clearly had a political-economic character, as I try to show in the article. In much medieval political theory a large demesne enabled provision for military expenses and only when it was insufficient should extraordinary taxes be levied on subjects through appeal to emergency. Valorization of the demesne ran parallel to warnings against reliance on credit or instituting permeant direct taxation that could earn the hatred of subjects and could lead to sedition. We can see this caution regarding taxation in Aristotle’s tyrant and also in pseudo-Aristotle’s Rhetorica ad Alexandrum and later for example in the d’Este brothers’ warning against Alfonso’s use of the focatico. The Neapolitian Diomede Carafa when writing on management of the demesne stressed the importance of a prince managing his reputational image by using tax farmers for income collection. In mid fifteenth-century England, John Fortescue advised Edward IV on the resumption of crown lands and against selling any of the demesne as it reduced revenues and leads to the depopulation of the realm. In England we can see this prizing of the value of crown land in fiscal literature all the way back to Richard FitzNigel’s twelfth century Dialogue of the Exchequer, where he would hark back to the time of the Conquest when a king was able to live off his own demesne. This importance given to the demesne can also be seen in the early modern period. If we fast forward to Jean Bodin, the public demesne ought to be inviolable and never alienated. Its preservation would avoid burdening subjects with imposts or the need to confiscate their property. To come to your other point with regard to Church property, its vast wealth made it a keen focus for fiscal systems seeking new sources of revenue. The Reformation was key in changing rulers’ relationships with subjects’ property and see would see huge increases of revenue from ecclesiastical expropriation; however, there were many notable prior attempts before the sixteenth century to harness Church wealth. For example, in Florence the often-cited case of the War of the Eight Saints in the late fourteenth century where the clergy were targeted with forced loans and church property was sold to finance its war with the Papacy.

Machiavelli praised the virtue of the Eight Saints (the name given to the Florentine war council), for having served their patria rather than their souls by despoiling the Church of its possessions. The wealth of the clergy, however, could also be tapped in to through other means than expropriation, for example, in the city-states by seeking their participation in civic credit through forced loans or voluntary investment to secure perpetual endowments. Machiavelli’s statements on expropriation were in part so controversial because he is promoting being a liberal user of wealth derived from the property of others. Aristotle and Cicero explicitly argued giving from the property of others was not generosity but the mark of tyranny. It is interesting to note in the Prince and the above example drawn from his Florentine Histories the targets of expropriation are conquered enemies and the Church, so in certain ways external to the political community. However, like many medieval writers who came before him, Machiavelli was not promoting an unrestrained use of the power to exact. What limits how much a prince taxes is a Prince’s estimation of how much it tarnishes his reputation and his ability to preserve his regime. Machiavelli looks to a model of redistribution that in part he draws from the examples he found in Roman history, but also a model provided by the Aristotelian tyrant, who need not overaccumulate, since his power is in effect a sign that his subjects do not enjoy an unlimited right or capacity to preserve their own wealth.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, and the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. 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 and political thought.

Featured image: “He took great pains in going from bush to bush until every individual flower and bud and even the worms at the heart of some of them were changed gold,” illustration of King Midas by Arthur Rackham, from A Wonder Book, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Richard Hofstadter’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,

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Ephemeral Documents and Enduring Debates: An Interview with Daniel Blank

By Nuala P. Caomhánach

Daniel Blank is Assistant Professor in Early Modern Literature, 1500–1700 at Durham University. His main research interests include Shakespeare, early modern drama, and theater history, as well as the intellectual culture and classical heritage of the early modern period. His first monograph, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming next year from Oxford University Press.

Blank spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about his recent article “Debating Drama in the Early Modern University: John Case, Aristotle’s Politics, and a Previously Unknown Oxford Disputation,” which appears in JHI 83.3.


Nuala P. Caomhánach: By focusing on a university student, you argue that Aristotle’s Politics was more influential in antitheatrical discourses than scholars have allowed. You show the impact that these controversies had by stating “[Edmund] Leigh’s notebook is a local document with universal implications” (405). What avenues does the university as a site of analysis in the early modern period open up for understanding the reception, dissemination, and longevity of debates about theatrical performance?

Daniel Blank: That’s a great question. One of the things I aim to show is that the universities had their own culture of antitheatricalism. My article refers to the famous 1590s dispute between John Rainolds and William Gager—an important episode not only in the history of debates about theatrical performance but also in the history of Oxford, when two prominent university figures clashed over the issue of student drama. As Leigh’s notebook attests, however, these academic debates were by no means limited to that episode: since Leigh seems to have been writing sometime at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we gain insight into how that quarrel continued to reverberate through the university sphere. And this is where the university becomes so important as an institution, as a coherent site whose members are interacting with each other in both formal and informal contexts. The fact that Leigh was Rainolds’s student allows us to think about how these debates might have seeped into the university’s pedagogical interactions. In Leigh’s notes we see him engaging with both Rainolds and John Case, two members of Oxford who had decades earlier found themselves on opposite sides of the theatrical question. So Leigh’s own views were shaped by his Oxford predecessors, and he himself may then have shaped the debate further—if indeed he broadcast his own antitheatrical views in the disputation that his notes suggest he was preparing to give.

But the wider impact of these institutional debates is also significant. They ultimately extended beyond the academic sphere, due largely to the publication of the correspondence between Rainolds and Gager under the title Th’overthrow of stage-playes in 1599. As I discuss at greater length in my forthcoming book, Th’overthrow had a significant impact far beyond the academic sphere (as did the student plays to which Rainolds objected). So focusing on the university allows us both to see the specific flavor of antitheatricalism that arose there and to understand better its engagement with, as well as its effect on, broader cultural discourses. Leigh’s notes illustrate this dual purpose: they bring the university scene into clearer view, but the discussion of the Politics in particular has much broader implications for the relationship between Aristotle and antitheatricalism.

NC: Your close reading of Leigh’s university notebook offers the reader an engrossing and exhilarating adventure through impressive sleuthing and deep archival analysis to understand the significance of our understanding of the debates over theatrical performance. What are the challenges of working with material from the early modern period? Are there any caveats with using one document for broader arguments?

DB: One of the main challenges is access to the archives where much of this kind of material can be found. I was fortunate to be doing a year of archival research in England when this manuscript first came to my attention, but it can be very difficult to view early modern documents in person, especially when they’re held in a repository across the globe. There are other challenges as well. Much of the business of the early modern universities was conducted in Latin, so you have to be able to overcome that linguistic barrier; and documents like student notebooks only survive in rare instances. Like university plays, the fact that many of these documents are in Latin and that most exist only in manuscript has contributed to their obscurity.

Handwriting can be another issue when dealing with materials from the period. Leigh’s notebook is actually quite readable by early modern standards, but he does seem to be writing in haste on the pages concerned with theatrical performance, and he’s liberal in his use of abbreviations and contractions—so it can still be difficult to decipher. And it’s important to get the transcription exactly right, or as close to it as possible: especially with such a brief passage, every word is necessary to fully grasp the meaning.

You raise an excellent point, too, about using a single document to make a broader argument. As I say in my article, it’s important not to extrapolate too far from one student notebook, illuminating as it might be. But at the same time, it is true that most archival work from the premodern period involves some degree of extrapolation. An archive like this one is never going to be complete, especially when dealing with ephemeral documents from the early modern university. You’re never going to have everything. The best you can do is to put together something like a complete picture from the relatively few puzzle pieces that remain. And Leigh’s notebook is a very important piece.

NC: Theatrical performance and concerns over morality go hand-in-hand during this period as your historical actors (no pun intended) worry over the impact on the most impressionable in society—young men. Comedy and obscenity are top of the list over fears of the youth slipping into “idleness,” “lustfulness,” and other “evil behavior.” In reading your article, it was easy to think about the current climate over the role of the state, for example, pedagogy and content in school classrooms, cancel culture in comedy, and disinformation during epidemics. In what ways do the debates over theatrical performance reflect the concerns over how to create, govern, and control the ideal state, and more importantly, who gets to decide what is required, and what needs to be “driven out of a well-governed commonwealth” (402)?

DB: It’s an important question, and I agree: it’s difficult not to draw those parallels, especially since one of the words that comes up again and again in these early modern discourses is “obscenity”—the same word that has been frequently deployed in the recent spate of book bans in schools and libraries (which you allude to and which, as a literature scholar, I find especially disturbing). In the early modern period, theatrical performance is merely one of the “obscene” activities to which figures like John Rainolds are objecting. I think these debates are absolutely about authority and control, but the context varies: for Rainolds, it’s about the preservation of an institution—he wants a university in which students aren’t exposed to the “evils” he perceives so they can continue into the clergy uncorrupted. For John Case, some theatrical performances (those put on by professional players) are “obscene,” but others (those put on by academics) are “dignified”; in his notebook, Leigh picks up on Case’s description of the former. On the national level, of course, the Puritans looked to outlaw theatrical performance as one facet in creating an “ideal state” that conformed to their own worldview. And I think it’s vital to recognize that, whether we’re talking about early modern antitheatricalism or modern book bans, the rhetoric is often the same: censors speak of “protecting” children from anything that might disrupt the specific identities that conservative ideologues deem acceptable.

But it is telling that, even going back to ancient Greece, antitheatricalism has often been about—or appeared in contexts concerning—something much broader than the theater itself. Even the Aristotelian passage cited by Rainolds and Leigh as a basis for their antitheatrical arguments appears amidst a discussion of the rearing of children, which itself appears amidst a larger work of political philosophy. Similarly, for some early modern antitheatricalists, the goal of eliminating theater is part of a much larger goal of reshaping, and ultimately controlling, society—the primary example being the closure of the London theaters near the beginning of the English Civil War. I wonder if that’s a bit of what we’re seeing today as well with the highly politicized banning of “obscene” books: the proponents claim these bans to be about the books’ content, but in reality they’re about promoting a larger ideological agenda.

If there is a link here, then as a vocal advocate of both theatrical performance and access to diverse literature, I take some comfort in the fact that antitheatrical movements have seldom succeeded. Rainolds’s diatribes did little to curtail dramatic performance at early modern Oxford; even during the English Civil War, drama continued to circulate in various forms. If history is any guide, then one can hope that this latest round of bans won’t succeed in the long run. It’s just a question of how much harm they will cause in the meantime.

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).

Image: Ancient Roman theater in Mérida
user:Mimi-chan / Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

The Far Right in Contemporary France: An Interview with Sarah Shurts

By Alexander Collin

Sarah Shurts is an intellectual historian of modern France and professor of history at Bergen Community College. In particular, she is interested in the construction of intellectual identity on the French extreme right during the periods of active intellectual involvement in public affairs known as “engagement.” Research in this area has led her to ancillary interests in the history and nature of fascism in Germany, France, and Italy; Holocaust studies; nationalism and national identity construction; and oppositional communities. She is the author of Resentment and the Right: French Intellectual Identity Reimagined, 1898–2000 (University of Delaware Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), among other publications on French intellectual history.

She spoke with contributing editor Alex Collin about her recent article “Identity, Immigration, and Islam: Neo-reactionary and New-Right Perceptions and Prescriptions” in JHI 83.3.


Alexander Collin: Thank you for agreeing to discuss your research with us, Sarah. I want to begin by asking about your approach to this article and how this plays into your work at large. The distinction between left and right has been central to your writing for a long time, from your first book Resentment and the Right through to this most recent article in JHI. Why is the right-left distinction important to you? What does it tell us that other lenses of political analysis might miss?

Sarah Shurts: This is an interesting question because one of the things that has fascinated me since the beginning is the movement across these left-right divides by intellectuals like Ramon Fernandez in the 1930s and Renaud Camus and Alain Finkielkraut today. There is also the phenomenon of works from one political extreme serving to inspire later intellectuals of the opposing extreme— the work of a socialist like Charles Péguy being cited by fascist collaborationist Robert Brasillach, for example, or de Benoist claiming to draw inspiration for his political approach today from the work of Antonio Gramsci. And, certainly, there is support for the argument, made by many scholars, that there is common ground in political extremism whether on the left or right and that many of these philosophies today opposing capitalism, globalization, or the establishment would find supporters on both sides.

The ni droite ni gauche argument—of a third way heavily dependent on intellectual and political sources from the left as well as the right—has been influential in studies of fascism since Zeev Sternhell first proposed it, and is today claimed with equal force by those like de Benoist for the Nouvelle Droite (New Right). So, despite recognizing these crossovers and blended influences, and trying to acknowledge them in my work, why do I still emphasize the division between left and right? In great part because the intellectuals themselves do, and they see this division, and their assignation to one side or another, as a formative influence on their lives as engaged intellectuals.

When these public thinkers begin to express certain political or social or religious views, they are categorized by the general public and by their colleagues. As more people begin to attribute a right or left categorization to an intellectual for their views, the perception begins to dictate the professional networks, media outlets for expression, and social groups individuals can access or in which they feel welcomed. But it is not just external perception and attribution of a left or right categorization that creates the divide. We usually gravitate where we find sympathetic colleagues and our ideas are welcomed and supported.

All of those who are categorized as of the right that I have studied, from Maurice Barrès to Finkielkraut (who has just begun to express this frustration with his public disapprobation), have felt themselves excluded and alienated from what they consider to be the mainstream media and intellectual spaces. They have therefore worked to build spaces with like-minded people to better express their views—whether it is a political party like Camus’s In-nocence, a think tank like GRECE (Research and Study Group for European Civilization), a publishing house like Arktos, a journal like Éléments, stations or programs or podcasts, or just a sympathetic friendship like that between Finkielkraut and Camus. This segregation based on political affiliation reinforces the perception of difference and radicalizes the sense of separation from the opposing side—often nurturing a resentment of exclusion from this other—until perception of division becomes part of a distinct self-identification. This sense of self that comes from a perceived political isolation and divide between right and left has a strong influence on the transformation and radicalization of their philosophies, their networks of colleagues, and how they present themselves and their lived experience as intellectuals. It is this that intrigues me most and it is why I still keep the right-left divide at the forefront.

AC: You characterize the four thinkers at the center of this article—Guillaume Faye, Alain de Benoist, Renaud Camus, and Alain Finkielkraut—as belonging to the “New Right.” You also note, however, that they don’t always see their own work that way. What do we gain by considering these writings in contexts that the authors may not intend or even explicitly reject?

SS: I try in the piece to distinguish still between de Benoist and Faye who are founders of the Nouvelle Droite and the intellectuals who come from leftist and republican backgrounds like Camus and Finkielkraut whom I designate “neo-reactionary,” in keeping with the designation for them used by most scholars at the moment. However, I do attribute to them the same types of discourses about immigration and Islam despite these different political labels. And it is because they share these discourses that I categorize them, or more precisely their work, as belonging together under this right-wing umbrella, whether they would assign themselves this place in the spectrum or not. I am a strong proponent of letting the voices of these intellectuals do much of the speaking in my work and of trusting their writings to be reflective of their true philosophies and experiences. Usually this means accepting their own political self-designations at face value. Occasionally, however, it means letting their work speak for itself instead and categorizing it in a way that might not match the author’s own self-perception.

Just as people often don’t see themselves as clearly as those around them do, sometimes external and even scholarly perspectives can be an important contribution. This is particularly true when dealing with designation of a discourse as right-wing—a categorization that has a stigma in much of academia and in intellectual circles. Few French intellectuals of the 1930s or 40s publicly identified themselves as fascists and yet those who enthusiastically collaborated usually were, according to our historical definitions of fascism. Today someone in France supporting the anti-immigration policies and Islamophobia of Le Pen’s National Rally would be perceived as a far-right nationalist even if they did not claim this label, just as those advocating “Stop the Steal” or QAnon in the US would be categorized as right-wing even if they didn’t claim that affiliation. At some point, the job of the historian is not just to let the sources speak but also to analyze and make assessments about these ideas, including how they should be categorized and compared in the wider context of world history. However, I do try, whenever I privilege external assessment or an analysis of their work above their own self-designation, to at least acknowledge that this is not how they view their own work or their place within the political spectrum.

AC: Next, I am interested in some of the details of these thinkers and their ideas. How should we understand some of the more extreme statements these authors make, for example, Faye’s claim that he predicts “an ethnic civil war, and sound[s] the call to reconquering”? To what extent should we take that at face value as an analysis of the political situation and to what extent should we view it as a hyperbolic mode of emotional expression?

SS: Are Faye’s predictions of race war and militant reconquest and Camus’s theory of the great replacement and his envisioned solution of remigration just hyperbolic language for dramatic effect? To some extent yes, both of these discourses are certainly overblown rhetoric unmoored from reality or any statistical evidence. Both authors are emotionally overwrought, driven by irrational fears, which they translate into dire warnings and unhinged prescriptions for saving civilization. Is this rhetoric posturing for greater audience appeal? Possibly. But if they are using emotional expression to provoke their audience, it is because they truly believe they are making a reasonable assessment of a socio-political crisis.

They are not weaving words and fantasizing about future race wars and continental reconquest for the sake of a good narrative. They are actively seeking this reconquest by their readers. This is why I am drawn to working with intellectuals who engage in political affairs. Their engagement is not ivory tower abstraction. It is intentionally dispersed among the public and becomes a tool for immediate action—often violent action—or for legislative changes that shape our present. Faye and Camus may employ hyperbolic or emotionally dramatic expression, but they do so with a clear purpose of provoking the solutions they describe and with the clear intent that those who listen will take it at face value and will act on it.

AC: On a related note, alongside their polemical statements, your four writers sometimes raise questions which should be amenable to empirical testing, for instance, on the prevalence of antisemitism or gender-based discrimination within different groups in French society. To what extent are any of these claims empirically substantiated? And if so, to what extent can we separate those more substantive claims from the ideological conclusions that these authors draw from them?

SS: Empirical data, statistics, factual evidence, and any other form of scientific or sociological proof might be useful for these intellectuals, but it certainly is not required for them to make claims. The claims about migrants flooding into France, for example, upon which both Faye and Camus have based much of their work on the threats to native French society and the need for remigration or reconquest, have no foundation in reality. A quick look at the Migration Policy Institute website shows “More than 6.5 million immigrants resided in France as of 2018, the most recent year for which definitive census data are available, accounting for about 10 percent of the total population. Of these immigrants, 37 percent were naturalized citizens.” Only 54,000 requests for asylum were approved in 2021.

These numbers hardly evidence an overwhelming flood that is destroying native French culture. But these intellectuals are not interested in the realities of immigration data, nor are their audiences. They have only a fear, a perception of change occurring in their nation that they don’t like. Camus and Finkielkraut do not provide statistics or data sets in their books, instead they describe feeling alienated walking through a town with a large Muslim population or tell stories of teachers struggling with the religious requirements of Muslim students in the school. It is the perception of a change, a crisis, and a threat, rather than the reality, that matters. This corresponds to the increasing right-wing rejection of scientific evidence, historical facts, legal evidence and court rulings, and judgment based on erudition or academic credentials.

AC: Next, I have a few questions on the broader context. As you described the French right’s liberalization on some issues, like gay rights, in parallel with less tolerance for religious or cultural differences, I was reminded very much of the Dutch politics of the 90s and figures like Pim Fortuyn, who began on the left, was openly gay, and moved right as his politics focused more on opposing immigration and multiculturalism. To what extent do these French writers operate in a strictly French context and to what extent are they drawing on figures like Fortuyn from outside France?

SS: Despite the ultra-nationalist and isolationist rhetoric of these right-wing parties, there is no longer any possibility of remaining isolated as a nation or completely unaffected by the intellectual and social currents of the rest of the world. The power of transnational currents of right-wing thought as early as the 1930s for the fascists has been well documented by scholars like Andrea Mammone, and Arnd Bauerkämper. Today, thanks to a heavy right-wing presence on the internet, these exchanges and influences are even more prevalent, constant, and immediate.

Occasionally these intellectuals will address figures and influences from beyond France directly. Camus has written an open letter to Viktor Orbán full of admiration and crowing about Orbán’s use of his concept of the great replacement. He is also a great admirer of Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, Camus, and Alice Weidel of AfD in Germany, as well as Marine Le Pen, and even Éric Zemmour are evidence of one of the more interesting shifts of the far-right community. The far-right’s focus on opposing immigration and Muslims has led it to find new allies among its erstwhile targets by supporting women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Jewish community all of whom it feels are threatened by fundamentalist Islam. This is both a reflection of the changing social attitudes of the new generations in France and a recognition of these currents among the right-wing intellectual milieu in other nations, even if the debt they owe to these external inspirations is never explicitly stated.

AC: To what extent do you see this as a particularly modern phenomenon? A number of historians have stressed use of pre-modern history by recent right-wing movements, for example, Krisztina Lajosi-Moore’s work on Hungary. Is this a feature of the French right? If so, to what extent do you see that as a real manifestation of older ideas and to what extent is it just giving historical trappings to distinctly modern phenomena?

SS: There has always been a great interest on the far-right in historic symbolism and references to the pre-modern past. Right-wing nationalists from Barrès to Le Pen have celebrated the life and inspiration of Joan of Arc, the Maurrassians glorified the ancien régime, the fascists celebrated medieval warriors and Roman virtues. The European far right and the American alt-right both have a fascination with Roman history, Nordic mythology, and all things medieval. All of this, in my opinion, is just the use and abuse of symbolism and the manipulation of history as window dressing rather than any true philosophical inspiration, particularly as it percolates down to the general public.

However, other premodern themes found circulating among the European New Right intellectuals, like paganism and ethnic communitarianism and traditional roles for men and women, have had more influence in shaping the philosophies of the far right and the policy proposals of those who follow them. And, of course, the very concept of blood and soil or blood and the dead nationalism that drives the protection of borders and the fear of deculturation and replacement is predicated on a sense of national lineage, bloodlines, heritage, memory, and ancient history in a people and a space. But even then, if we look at nationalism in general, the construction of nationalism in Europe was a nineteenth-century phenomenon despite the claims to a primordial national identity, as numerous scholars like Jo Tollebeek and Roderick Beaton have shown. So while they may utilize the symbols and reference the regimes of the past or even borrow from ideals and values of the past, the far-right as we see it today is a modern phenomenon.

AC: Lastly, a question on your experience working on this article and your previous research. How does being based in the US affect your perspective on France? What do you learn from that extra distance and, conversely, is there anything you think you miss by not always being on the ground?

SS: I always tend to think I miss more than I benefit from being in the US. While well-educated Americans might know the name Le Pen, they would not recognize any of the right-wing intellectuals and writers engaging in French political affairs today, so these individuals and their work are not part of the common conversations here. I miss the kinds of exchanges with colleagues, casual conversations, and constant news stories on right-wing politics, leaders, and ideas that would be prevalent in France the way conversations about Trump and January 6 are at the moment here in the US.

I do have the benefit of seeing some of these French ideas cross the Atlantic and become powerful tools here. This gives me a different perspective perhaps on the transmission of ideas that begin in books or articles or interviews and the transnational networks at play in spreading them to the masses worldwide (in podcasts, chats, and messaging platforms as well as in forums and conferences where these groups and speakers meet and merge and exchange ideas). And as a historian I always feel it is beneficial to have some distance from the object of study—since in this case I cannot have temporal distance, geographic distance helps to keep me out of the fray and allows me the analytical distance needed to view the forest rather than the trees.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. 

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

William Callison on Max Weber, Ludwig von Mises and State Economic Planning

William Callison is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political and economic thought, democratic theory, and critical theory. His work explores dilemmas of neoliberal capitalism, democratic crisis, political subjectivity, conspiracy theory, climate change politics, and far-right nationalist movements in Europe and the Americas. With Zachary Manfredi, he is the editor of the recent collection, Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture. He is a member in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

He spoke with contributing editor Alex Collin about his essay “The Politics of Rationality in Early Neoliberalism: Max Weber, Ludwig von Mises, and the Socialist Calculation Debate” in JHI (83.2).


Alex Collin: Firstly, a very general question. I’d like to ask how you came to write this piece, and how it relates to your research more broadly?

Will Callison: I came to this through my dissertation research on twentieth-century conceptions of rationality, technocracy, and politics, with a focus on the Austrian, Freiburg, and Chicago Schools of neoliberalism and the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism. At the time I was interested in the origins and critique of what we could call neoliberal anti-politics: the transformation of political economy into economics and the displacement of “the political” through notions of rationality. One thing I discovered through reading primary texts—and many dusty books with old German typeface—was the central if muted role Max Weber played in these intellectual traditions. This is perhaps unsurprising. But some key parts of that story have been overlooked. For example, an important point of departure for each of these schools was the so-called “socialist calculation debate”—a debate in which Weber was an early participant. Examining Weber’s place in the calculation debate became important for my dissertation; it also became the basis for this article. My work has changed as times have changed. But that research informed part of my current manuscript, which is a historical and theoretical study of what I call “haywire liberalism.” The book examines the evolution of different currents of neoliberalism, their tangentially authoritarian foundations, their distinctive constructions of (anti-)socialism, and their hybridization with far-right politics. This article explores one part of its epistemological and methodological backdrop.

AC: Your article alludes to the social context between Weber, Mises, and other scholars living in and around Vienna, as well as groups and institutions like the Verein für Sozialpolitik and the Mont Pelerin Society. How important were the social and intellectual dimensions for these developments?

WC: Incredibly important. The article begins by highlighting the significance of the Methodenstreit, or methodological dispute, between Gustav von Schmoller’s German Historical School and Carl Menger’s Austrian School. That debate concerned the epistemological basis of the interdisciplinary economic sciences, including law and the “state sciences,” pitting German approaches to historicist institutionalism against Austrian formalistic subjectivism or “marginalism.” But the social dimensions were key to these intellectual developments. Here I draw on some excellent historians of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century political economy, such as Johanna Bockman, Bruce Caldwell, Erwin Dekker, Stefan Kolev, Niklas Olsen, Pavlos Roufos, Quinn Slobodian, Keith Tribe, and Janek Wasserman, among others. The debates of that time developed through social, political, and academic organizations, especially the Verein für Sozialpolitik.

My article explains how Weber’s frustration with the Verein’s overtly political debates spurred his famous formulation of “value neutrality” (Wertfreiheit)—a way of carving science off from politics. It also led his thinking about methodology and economic theory from the views of German Historical School toward those of Austrian School. Not coincidentally, Weber was invited to Vienna, where he delivered lectures on “Economy and Society: Positive Critique of the Materialist Conception of History” to university students and a talk on “Socialism” to military officers and Austro-Hungarian royalty. The time he spent in Vienna and elsewhere, with Austrians like Friedrich von Wieser and Ludwig von Mises, was significant for their work in general and for the socialist calculation debate in particular. Mises and Hayek’s ability to form intellectual and political alliances, many of which began in the Verein, laid the interwar basis for the postwar founding of the Mont Pelerin Society.

AC: In the socialist calculation debate, you describe Mises as having ‘radicalized’ Weber’s ideas about formal rationality. Could you introduce that debate and explain why their respective notions of rationality were important to it?

WC: Under the revolutionary conditions that obtained at the end of the First World War, the socialist calculation debate concerned the theoretical foundations of socialist planning. In the framing of Weber, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich von Hayek, it concerned whether socialism is possible at all. Their shared target of critique was Otto Neurath, a positivist philosopher, proponent of socialist rational planning, and a former classmate of Mises. Neurath also led the Central Planning Office for the Bavarian revolutionary workers’ council before it was crushed by state and proto-fascist paramilitary forces in 1919. The conceptualization and critique of “planning” in Weber and Mises made the logic of market exchange into the criterion of formal rationality. Weber posited state planning as inherently less rational than markets, whereas Mises radicalized the concept of formal rationality in Menger and Weber to make state planning definitionally irrational. This set the conceptual architecture through which the debate would unfold. While participants like Karl Polanyi and Felix Weil rejected some of this framing, market socialists like Lange, Lerner, and Dickinson largely worked within it. Lange even praised Mises’ scientific contribution, suggesting there should be a statue of him in the future Central Planning Board of the socialist state! Through a close reading of certain texts, particularly the second chapter in the posthumously published manuscripts titled Economy and Society, one can see how Weber’s binary typology of rationality shared a great deal with and even contributed to the Austrian framing of the calculation debate. Accordingly, if suspiciously, Hayek later argued that Mises, Weber, and the Russian economist Boris Brutzkus all “independently” arrived at the same conclusions about the “irrationality” of socialist planning.

AC: In the conclusion, you describe the calculation debate as ‘modelled on the Methodenstreit’. To what extent should we see the calculation debate as a unique phenomenon, and to what extent does it sit within a longer tradition of argument in the history of ideas.

WC: In addition to the Austrian School’s views on politics, culture, and civilization, the tradition was built on a series of epistemological interventions. Beyond Menger’s own writings, it was formed through his methodological polemic against Gustav von Schmoller and the German Historical School. In other words, a tradition of political and economic thought emerged through a critique of its alleged opposites. I argue that Mises, Hayek, Lionel Robbins and others learned a great deal from Menger’s maneuvering in the Methodenstreit. This form of critique was continued and transformed through Mises’ attack on socialist planning. In the early 1930’s, the neoliberals made “socialism” and “planning” into sliding signifiers for irrationality and existential danger, which were soon applied to Keynesianism as well. As I explain in the article, it’s important to track how that discursive maneuver was carried forward. But it’s also imperative to understand the history of such concepts, methods, and strategies—that is, how they develop within and between different traditions of thought.

AC: It has been argued lately, for instance by Gary Gerstle, that neoliberalism is coming to an end in many countries today. Do you agree, and if so, how does that affect our assessments of the importance of the calculation debate?

WC: We are surely witnessing a set of fundamental transformations to political and economic, order that are at once locally rooted and yet global in scope. But for reasons my current manuscript will explain, and Mutant Neoliberalism already indicated, I disagree. In our introduction to that edited volume, Zachary Manfredi and I offered a critique of kneejerk narratives proclaiming the “death” of neoliberalism. These began with the global financial crisis of 2008 and were run on repeat after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we again observed the implicit hope that declaring neoliberalism over might make it so. Gerstle is a renowned historian of the twentieth century. Yet with this book, I fear he has written a certain version of this story—the post-election version equating neoliberalism with free markets and rightwing populism with its assumed opposites—backward in time. Gerstle takes neoliberalism to be a combination of free-market globalization and cosmopolitan culture. This interpretation may allow for an accurate account of neoliberalism’s uptake by New Labour and the New Democrats, one which can also be found in Stephanie Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented, among other books. But as a century-spanning intellectual and political history of neoliberalism, that rendition is far too simple and does not adequately track the internal diversity of neoliberal thought or the evolution of neoliberal practice, as captured by books like Melinda Cooper’s Family Values, for example. Gerstle is right that there is an important connection between classical liberalism and neoliberalism, as my manuscript also argues. But for precisely this reason, one needs to account for longer and more global histories of political-economic struggle. As my article suggests, the socialist calculation debate is a part of that history. And as libertarian disciples and contemporary socialists like Evgeny Morozov and Aaron Benanav reconsider some lingering questions in that debate, it is also critical to political-economic struggles today.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. 

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Max Weber, Creative Commons.