Intellectual history Interview

The Pronouns of History: An Interview with Enzo Traverso

By Sakiru Adebayo

Cornell University historian Enzo Traverso’s latest book, Singular Pasts: The “I” in Historiography (Columbia University Press, 2022), begins with the observation that today, “history is increasingly written in the first person” (2). While historians such as Ivan Jablonka, Sergio Luzzatto, and Mark Mazower have written in the first person to lay bare their emotional ties to their subjects and to give their writing a literary flavor, literary writers including W. G. Sebald, Patrick Modiano, Javier Cercas, and Daniel Mendelsohn have presented their novels as historical investigations based on archival sources. Traverso suggests that the rise of first-person history writing mirrors our neoliberal era of apolitical individualism, tending to “privatize the past” (145) and fall into the traps of presentism and subjectivism. However, his epilogue argues that the subjective historiography of Saidiya Hartman “transcends the author’s self and results in a collective view of the past,” proving “that it is possible to write in the first person avoiding solipsism and connecting one’s manifold ‘I’ with the ‘we’ that makes history” (159, 163). Sakiru Adebayo interviewed Traverso about his new book


Sakiru Adebayo: Let’s start with the title of your book, Singular Pasts. What does it mean for a past to be singular, and how does this connect to the rise of subjectivist historiography?

Enzo Traverso: This is an old and controversial topic that often reemerges in historiography. All events are undoubtedly singular, but they cannot be understood without inscribing them into a broader historical context, in which their singularities reveal analogies and reiterations. What appears as unique is often the exceptional entanglement of elements that exist in several countries and continents or have already occurred in previous ages. I think that “absolute” singularities – unexpected events that are neither comparable nor repeatable – exclusively belong to the realm of memory, not to the field of historical interpretation. Our lives can be deeply and permanently shaped by happiness, tragedies, or traumas that appear to us as unique and incomparable, but scholars should be aware that such singularities are relative. Comparing them can be a delicate, uncomfortable, and difficult task, but it remains an irreplaceable procedure of historical investigation. The new “subjectivist” history writing I critically analyze in my book tends precisely to blur this boundary between the singularity of personal perceptions, feelings, and emotions, and the intelligibility of history that inevitably transcends individuals by placing them into a larger landscape in which they are not alone but interact with other actors of the past. I certainly don’t recommend ignoring feelings and emotions, which need to be respected and understood, but this “subjectivist” historiography often neglects the polyphony of the past by retreating into the monologue of the one or the few. Its horizon is limited, shrunk to the subjectivity of the few, or even to that of the historian themselves.

SA: Why does the “pronoun of history” matter so much? By this I mean the voice in which history is written – whether in the first or third person, singular or plural, or even in the voice of masculine, feminine, or neutral pronouns. What implications does each of these pronouns have on the writing, circulation, reception, and consumption of historical knowledge?

ET: Describing and interpreting the polyphony of the past means overcoming the limited horizon of one’s own self. This intellectual operation requires certain precautions, one of which is the impersonal style of writing found in most works of historical scholarship. Indeed, since antiquity, history has been written in the third person. Of course, this simple rule is a very precarious guarantee of “objectivity”; it nonetheless affirms a “universalist” perspective which, at least till now, was a premise for producing historical knowledge.

The starting point of my book is the simple fact (observed by other scholars like Jeremy Popkin before me) that, in recent years, historians’ autobiographies have very significantly increased in number. This is the symptom of a new self-reflexive posture that implies the abandonment of old positivist illusions about the objectivity of historical knowledge. Historians are not “neutral” observers; they obviously have a subjectivity made up of a very complex network of national, gender, class, religious, ethnic, race, and political identities, inherited cultures, psychological patterns, and lived experiences that shape their ways of writing the past. They should be aware of this background, of the part of subjectivity that is necessarily involved in their work, but writing history requires the capacity to overcome their own self (even without denying it); it requires a critical distance toward both their objects of investigation and their subjectivity. Their task consists in listening and understanding the voices of the past – you call them the “pronouns of history” – but writing in the third person means precisely not exhibiting their own “pronoun.” Subjectivist historians who write in the first person think that writing history does not mean describing and interpreting the voices of the past, but rather establishing a kind of posthumous dialogue between their own subjectivity and that of certain actors of the past. This creates a “singular past”: much more than discovering and learning history, readers penetrate the subjective universe of author, who writes for themselves. When scholars write a history book, they usually try to answer some conventional questions: when, whom, how, and finally, why. Subjectivist historians seem to answer different questions: Who am I? Why am I interested in this event or actor of the past? Why does this event affect me so deeply? Which emotions do I feel in discovering the past? This way, the past becomes a subjective experience, something that belongs to an individual sphere, not to a shared historical consciousness.

SA: When I first saw your book, I assumed it was one of those books that lament the dearth of objectivity and question the quality of historiographical works that employ the first-person narrative voice. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that your book argues that even though subjectivist historiography has many faults, it is a force that traditional historians need to reckon with and which can no longer be dismissed as “unserious” or “disingenuous.” As you pointed out above, historiography is filtered through the subjectivity of the historian, even when the third person is employed. Therefore, if “scientist historiography’s” claim to neutrality or objectivity is illusory, and subjectivist historiography “is not necessarily the best alternative to the abuses and deadlocks of positivism” (80), what then would the ideal historical methodology be?

ET: You are right in emphasizing that my book was not written with the purpose of defending traditional historiography against the attacks of new innovative scholars. I am not a “guardian of the temple,” and I am not attached to any school. I don’t think there could even be an “ideal” method of history writing; I am rather deeply convinced that historical knowledge requires a multiplicity of approaches, and that this diversity is beneficial to any of them. It is precisely to avoid misunderstandings about the goal of my book that it includes a chapter devoted to dismantling the positivist illusion of an “impartial” (Wertfrei) account of the past. Postwar German historiography is one of the most eloquent examples of the hypocrisy very often carried out by such an illusion: it is in the name of “objectivity” that many former members of the Hitler Youth – namely those who created the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich – accused of “subjectivism” their Jewish colleagues and sketched a very apologetic interpretation of Nazi Germany behind a façade of a supposedly “scientific,” “objective,” and “neutral” reconstitution of the past. It is curious to observe that today many German historians direct similar reproaches to their postcolonial colleagues, whose “political agenda” would hinder and damage their capacity for historical judgment (think of the campaign against Dirk Moses, a reputed scholar of the Holocaust and colonial genocides, about which I have written). As I said, writing in the third person is not a guarantee against subjectivism. Frankly speaking, I much prefer an avowedly subjectivist approach to a highly subjectivist approach hypocritically hidden behind a supposedly “scientific” objectivity and neutrality.

There are many forms of subjectivism. I don’t write in the first person – at least in history books – but I don’t deny its legitimacy, insofar as “subjectivist” historians fulfill some elementary requirements of their discipline (basically, a careful use of their sources and a respect for factual evidence). I simply observe that this approach – as fascinating as it can be – inevitably shrinks the historical landscape. In my book, I stress the contract between this subjectivist methodology and the practice of “microhistory,” which starts from a detail and, by gradually zooming out, enlarges it by opening the window into a broader landscape. As Siegfried Kracauer pertinently emphasized, historical intelligence means a permanent “scale-game,” alternating long shots and close-ups. My impression is that writing history in the first person means looking at the past from a bad perspective, adopting the gaze of a shortsighted observer who is compelled to scrutinize facts, objects, and people exclusively by close-ups. This approach captures emotions and feelings, but unfortunately, it neglects their context.

SA: In the chapter “Discourse on Method,” you highlight the French historian Ivan Jablonka’s iteration of the typologies of “I” (positional “I,” methodological “I,” and emotional/sentimental “I”) that exist in the relatively new modality of ego-historiography. What are the differences between the “I” of positionality, methodology, and sentimentality in auto-historiography?

ET: It is Ivan Jablonka who, theorizing this subjectivist method as a kind of ideal way of writing history, establishes a typology that discomposes the historian “I” in three different categories: the “I” of “position” that locates the author in their context giving them a social, cultural, maybe even a political identity; the “I” of “method” that announces their procedure, their sources, and the process of investigating them; and the “I” of “emotion” which, instead of hiding them, displays the feelings aroused by their inquiry in the historian themself. Through these multiple articulations, the “I” becomes a kind of narrative device. Undoubtedly innovative, the results of this procedure are often remarkable. Subjectivist scholars invent a new relationship with the past that is creative, surprising, and certainly less boring than most linear accounts of conventional historiography. The problem, then, does not lie in the quality of their style but rather in the results of their research, which can be interesting but cannot overcome the limits of a shortsighted gaze. In many cases, their works are as narratively flamboyant as cognitively poor. They powerfully illuminate the mental and emotional universe of their authors, but such brilliance leaves the past that they are supposed to interpret in its shadow. Jablonka’s book on his Polish grandfathers, for example, is deeply moving. But, reading his book, we don’t learn anything new about the Holocaust. Instead, we are treated to a kind of radiographic view of the cultural, mental, and emotional world of a Jewish historian living in Paris at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the past, scholars tried to hide their subjectivity; today they can display, even exhibit it. This is not only possible but even encouraged when their subjectivity deals with topics – like the Holocaust – that are bound by powerful consensus.

SA: I admire Jablonka’s works, but I also share your criticism of his works. Can history really be thought of as contemporary literature? Is the appeal of subjectivist historiography even that strong in the discipline? On the other hand, does the objection to subjectivist historiography symptomatize a kind of disciplinary fear of a breach in the “moral contract” of every historian?

ET: You are probably right in observing that many objections to subjectivist historiography arise from some kind of “disciplinary fear.” This fear is legitimate, even if I don’t think it would justify a simple stigmatization of first-person or “ego-historiography.” My skepticism does not come from a desire of rejection or condemnation. I don’t share the enthusiasm this new historiography has engendered in recent years, but my warning is not at all an excommunication. If they wish to explore new paths, they are welcome to. I simply observe that, after displaying their multiple “I’s,” Jablonka and similar figures like Artières become the true heroes of their books, thus overwhelming the voices of the past, which they pretend to unbury and to listen to.

SA: There seems to be a longstanding tension between the novelist and the historian. The historian claims to provide historical truths (verifiable facts), while the novelist claims to provide emotional/affective truths (which do not necessarily negate facts but, as some novelists will argue, are often more resilient if not authentic than facts). I wonder if the emergence of the novelistic historiographer does not blur this separation between history and historical fiction. Do the historical novelist and the novelistic historiographer now have similar missions?

ET: My book stresses this paradoxical crossing: whereas historians write in first-person, giving to the past an emotional dimension that was usually treated as the privileged province of literature, novelists have become more and more obsessed with history, renouncing the creation of fictional characters, digging through archives, and telling stories grounded on properly verifiable (and not merely plausible) facts. The boundaries between history and literature, between scholarship and fiction, are indeed now blurred, with the emergence of such unexpected figures as “novelistic historiographers” and “historical novelists.” In my view, this is quite an exciting novelty: blurring the frontiers is fruitful for both literature and historiography. This change, however, is not completely new; it simply makes explicit an old tendency. Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Littell, and Javier Cercas, for example, all conducted large archival investigations before writing many of their novels, but they are not the first novelists to depict or recreate the flavor of a bygone age. Our image of the Napoleonic Wars is inseparable from the heroes of the novels of Tolstoy or Stendhal. Conversely, outstanding historians such as Jules Michelet, Isaac Deutscher or, closer to us, Saul Friedländer, did not need to write in the first person to give a literary dimension to their historical frescos.

This new symbiotic relationship between history and literature is fascinating. No one could reproach historians for improving their literary style and making their books as readable and attractive as fictional works; and equally, it would not make sense to lambaste novelists for grounding their stories on extended and careful archival inquiries, thus making more credible their characters and their plots. However, as close and overlapping as historians and novelists can be, their symbiotic relationship does not erase every distinction. History and fiction are not the same thing, nor are they interchangeable. They can overlap, but they possess their own rules and have their own purposes, neither of which are the same. Great literature does not need to be a critical discourse on the past, and history writing cannot be reduced to painting the human comedy. What we ask of history is to elucidate the social relations, economic interests, cultural patterns, political conflicts, moral and cultural habits, motivations, and mental worlds behind human agency. Literature – as well as film – can better transmit sentiments, which are another dimension of the past, and they can do that by inventing characters or dialogues in a manner forbidden to historians. I am certainly not fixing any hierarchy between literature and history. I simply state that, as close and intertwined as they can be, they are two different things.

SA: In the book, you also argue that “the linguistic turn transformed the relationship between history and literature and favored the emergence of memory – individual and collective – in the public sphere, a phenomenon that has deeply shaken historiography” (139). As a memory scholar, I am curious to hear your thoughts on how memory studies influenced the proliferation of subjectivist historiography.

ET: It is true that many works of subjectivist historians seem to confirm Hayden White’s thesis of a substantial identity between history and literature. There is a significant synchronicity between the emergence of memory studies and the linguistic turn in the early 1980s, with both becoming central in the humanities. The linguistic turn was born in the U.S., whereas memory studies irrupted first in continental Europe, notably in France, but both tendencies significantly changed the intellectual landscape on a global scale. From different perspectives, they gave subjectivity – either the plurality of historical subjects with their languages and identities, or the subjectivity of lived experiences – a new role in interpreting the past. This also corresponded to the awakening of minorities in the public sphere when some categories previously central – think of the category of class – seemed to decline. In the U.S., it was the time of “identity politics,” at the end of two decades shaped by the rise of feminism and Black struggles for civil rights, as well as by the Vietnam War that deeply shook a certain ideal of Americanness. In Europe, it was the Holocaust moment, with the striking emergence of the extermination of the Jews as a central theme of political and cultural debates, from the Historikerstreit in Germany (1986) to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in France (1985), and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved in Italy (1985). Previously ignored or forgotten by the social sciences, memory returned to center stage, theorized by such scholars as Pierre Nora and Yosef Haym Yerushalmi.

Memory and history are both representations of the past, but they are different. Whereas history supposes a distance, a gap between past and present, memory carries out an emotional link with the past, which tends to erase distance. Memory can be defined as a lived experience – the past deposited in someone’s recollections – or as a representation – a whole of ideas and images with which we visualize or think of the past – but it always supposes an emotional link with history. I don’t follow Pierre Nora, the scholar who forged the concept of “realms of memory,” when he theorizes a kind of ontological difference between memory and history, since they permanently interact, with history usually trying to answer questions and to fulfill a social demand for knowledge that arises from collective memory. Nonetheless, memory differs from history insofar as it means looking at the past through a subjective prism, and this seems to me a necessary premise for the birth of subjectivist historiography. Several decades later, writing history in the first person aims at overcoming the dichotomy between history and memory. Subjectivist scholars usually fulfill all the conventional rules for historical research – notably the use of archival sources. But they narrativize their inquiry through a parallel procedure that simultaneously describes what happened in the past and how they reconstituted these events, without hiding the feelings engendered by this intellectual operation. In this sense, both the linguistic turn and memory studies are crucial steps toward the advent of a new historiography written in the first person.

SA: In the book, you show how presentism favors the retreat of scholars into the sphere of the intimate. You also note that this phenomenon cannot be divorced from the advent of individualism as a major feature of the regime of neoliberalism. In other words, presentism and individualism, two features of neoliberalism, are partly responsible for the rise in subjectivist historiography. However, you caution that a neoliberal regime of historicity does not necessarily produce neoliberal historiography. If subjectivist historiography is, in part, a reflection of the neoliberal age, when or how does it not count as neoliberal historiography?

ET: Neoliberalism is a civilization or a form of life related to a particular stage of capitalism. It should not be confused with a political regime. Does it affect history writing? Yes, insofar as neoliberal policies mean a managerial governance of universities that cuts budgets in the humanities. But neoliberalism does not mean an official view of the past like those seen in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or the USSR. There is a neoliberal historiography that depicts finance as the hidden impulse of civilization and progress, but it remains very marginal in history departments. Now, most subjectivist historians do not share a neoliberal agenda. On the contrary, many of them belong to the left. I don’t characterize writing history in the first person as neoliberal historiography; I simply point out that it belongs to the age of neoliberalism. It is no great surprise that the age of market society, individualism, entrepreneurship, and competition as universal forms of life produces a historiography written in the first person. Without defending neoliberal values, subjectivist historians look at the past through an individual lens. They do not try to reconstruct collective actions and are quite impermeable to the polyphony of the past. They wish to redeem forgotten figures – often anonymous people or their family’s ancestors – and attune to them by exhibiting their own emotions. Their historiography is neither useless nor insignificant; it can be fascinating and touching, but it is a mirror of an age of individualism, of the anthropological paradigm introduced by neoliberalism in our culture.

SA: I found it quite pleasing that you end the book with an exploration of auto-historiography in Black intellectual traditions because we can learn a lot from Black scholars on how to productively position oneself as the subject of one’s inquiry. I particularly found your delicate analysis of Saidiya Hartman’s works quite satisfying, not only because I am currently re-reading and teaching them (Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives), but also because you present them as models for doing subjectivist historiography (although one cannot say for a fact that Hartman views her own works that way). You argue that Hartman overcomes the limits ­– and avoids the trap – of most subjectivist history in the way that her writing is not simply a self-indulgent introspection but a way of reaching to the collective through the individual. I guess this is less of a question and more of an affirmation of your argument that subjectivist historiography, despite its pitfalls, is legitimate historiography and that scholars like Hartman have proved that this style of historiography has a place in the discipline of History (with a capital H). Do you agree?

ET: You have perfectly captured the spirit of the epilogue. The works of Hartman are worth so much to me precisely because they find an admirable synthesis between a vast historical landscape (slavery and the slave trade), the subjectivity of its actors (black suffering and black rebellion, respectively), and the author’s identity quest (the search for her ancestors and African roots). Presentism acts in Hartman’s works not as a closed temporality unable to escape from the “now,” but rather as the context in which a haunting legacy becomes attuned to and resonates with the struggles of the present. From this point of view, Hartman seems to me a fruitful alternative to the impasses of Jablonka. Differently from the French historian, whose voice overwhelms those of the heroes of his books, Hartman’s narrative is a lesson in modesty, the apprenticeship of a collective belonging, and the search for a singular place in a choral ensemble. Her voice is more authentic and beautiful the more it dissolves into that of a collective actor, an actor who is powerful precisely because she knows its history. Though she is not really a historian but rather an “anthropologist writer,” she is able to find a universal voice by writing in the first person. This is the opposite of withdrawing historiography into the author’s subjectivity.

Sakiru Adebayo is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. His new book, Continuous Pasts: Frictions of Memory in Postcolonial Africa,is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2023.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured Image: Umberto Boccioni, Self-Portrait, 1905, oil on canvas, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Intellectual history Interview

Participant Observers: An Interview with Freddy Foks

By Tingfeng Yan

Freddy Foks is Simon Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is a historian of modern Britain and its empire. His first book, Participant Observers: Anthropology, Colonial Development, and the Reinvention of Society in Britain (University of California Press, 2023), draws on his doctoral research. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge.

Tingfeng Yan is a contributing editor of the JHIBlog. He interviewed Foks about the intellectual history of anthropology.


Tingfeng Yan: The book addresses how British anthropology started to focus more on “the social” instead of the anatomical or the archaeological since the 1930s. Moreover, how anthropologists interrogated “the social” informed broader discussions in Britain and contributed to the “reinvention of society” in 20th-century Britain. Could you say more about where the notion of “the social” came from for the anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and their interlocutors in other disciplines? Did they get the idea of “the social,” for example, from French sociology or some other traditions?

Freddy Foks: This question of “the social” was one of the things that first got me interested in the history of anthropology. Like most ideas, it is very hard to pin down, and when searching for origins there is always the danger of infinite regress. As you suggest, the intellectual history certainly leads via Durkheim back to what Maurizio Meloni calls the “transcendence” of the social from the biological. There is another lineage of “the social” by contrast to the political, as reconstructed by Patricia Owens. She points to the long history of the “oikos” (household), the new discourses of custom and commerce in the 18th century and “the social question” of the 19th century. But as I brought these threads together, I worried that I was tying myself up in knots. Towards the end of my PhD I started to move away from writing an intellectual history to something more like a social history of ideas. I found the history of science very helpful in making that move, especially the essays in the collection edited by Andrew Kaiser Pedagogy and the Practice of Science. I also drew inspiration from Randall Collins and Stefan Collini.

TY: How did turning towards a social history of ideas reformulate your research questions?

FF: It prompted me to ask new questions about the reproduction of this distinctive method in this particular discipline. Why did “the social” gain traction amongst this community of anthropologists and how was it operationalized? What were the enabling conditions (material as well as intellectual) that led to this concept being taken up rather than other competing alternatives? Why did anthropology, which had been a wide field of inquiry in Britain in the 1900s, narrow its focus onto “social life” by the Second World War? Rather than look to the origins of “the social” conceptually, I started to pose the question sociologically. So I drew on existing genealogies and then told a causal and chronological narrative of pedagogy and method. That seemed more manageable to try to do in the book.

TY: While Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown are often viewed as the two greats of modern British social anthropology and comparable to each other (albeit with Radcliffe-Brown playing a less foundational role), Radcliffe-Brown received considerably less treatment in the book than Malinowski. He seemed to mostly appear as a competitor to Malinowski and a founder of alternative traditions of anthropology such as that of Oxford, whereas Malinowski was at the center of the work at the LSE, which is given pride of place in your narrative about the rise of social anthropology in Britain. Could you say something about what motivated this choice of focus on Malinowski and the LSE, and what is your assessment of Radcliffe-Brown’s role in the formation of social anthropology?

FF: The usual way of telling the origin story of social anthropology focuses on those two figures: Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. That’s right in terms of ideas. But in terms of the sociological history of the discipline, Malinowski was more important for two reasons. The first reason is pedagogical. Malinowski’s famous seminar at the LSE was the training ground for almost all the major figures in British anthropology who gained professorial appointments in the 1940s and 1950s. While Malinowski was training the next generation of anthropologists in Britain, Radcliffe-Brown was in Sydney and then in Chicago. Radcliffe-Brown had a huge impact via his ideas, but it was only when he became Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford in 1937 that he spent considerable time in a British institution, discussing ideas and methods with a small group of Malinowski’s former students like Meyer Fortes, Max Gluckman, and Edward Evans-Pritchard. Connected to this issue of the relative importance of pedagogy was the question of funding. Both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown urged anthropologists to enter the field. But then, as now, fieldwork was incredibly expensive. Anthropologists need time, resources, travel expenses etc. By the early 1930s, Malinowski held the purse strings of most fieldwork funding in the UK via the Rockefeller Foundation. Between 1919 and 1940 the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Harkness Philanthropies collectively funded British social science to the tune of £690,000 (Donald Fisher did extensive research on this funding back in the 1980s). These were huge sums of money at the time and should be seen as even more significant in an age when there was almost no central government spending on the social sciences. American funding transformed the British universities before the Second World War. It also transformed anthropology by concentrating disciplinary power in a few hands. If you were a graduate student in anthropology in Britain who wanted access to Rockefeller funding in the 1930s you had to go via Malinowski. So in terms both of pedagogy and funding, Malinowski had a greater impact on the reproduction of “the social” in British anthropology than Radcliffe-Brown, even though Radcliffe-Brown may have had a more lasting impact through the 1940s and 1950s in intellectual terms.

TF: This seems a very good reason for giving Malinowski more prominence over Radcliffe-Brown in accounting for the rise of social anthropology.

FF: There was also a second, more pragmatic, reason why I focused more on Malinowski than Radcliffe-Brown. The practical reason was, in part, about the relative richness of existing archives and also of secondary sources. Malinowski’s papers are voluminous and mostly in London, within striking distance of Cambridge, where I did my PhD and the postdoc where I finished the book. Radcliffe-Brown does not have an equivalent existing archive. For that reason, the secondary literature on Malinowski is also much richer than that on Radcliffe-Brown. As a PhD student and an early career researcher there are huge professional pressures to publish. That sets practical limits on the length of time I felt I could devote to coming up with novel arguments based on original archival research. It felt hard enough to write about Malinowski’s importance to the discipline in such a limited time. Doing the same for Radcliffe-Brown would likely have taken another two years of research and another hundred pages of writing. More often than most people like to admit the topic of a book is set by limits of patience, funding, and energy. There’s also the question of the practicalities of structuring a book around some kind of narrative. One of the hardest things about turning a PhD into a monograph is to find a way to make the diffuseness of a PhD thesis into a more coherent and satisfying whole. My editor at the University of California Press, James Vernon, was very helpful in pushing me to find ways to make narrative links between chapters. It was Malinowski who ended up linking the chapters. Malinowski helped me tell the story of disciplinary development within British anthropology during the 1930s and he also helped me connect that story to later chapters about Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London and E.P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi’s rethinking of industrialization. So, there were pragmatic and intellectual reasons for focusing so much on Malinowski. I think Radcliffe-Brown was important too. But stressing his importance relative to Malinowski would have meant writing a different book. I hope someone will soon write a biography of Radcliffe-Brown giving a full account of his impact on anthropology.

TY: Could you say more about social anthropologists’ changing approaches to history in the period you studied? On the one hand, we see that post-WWII historians such as Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson borrowed ideas from social anthropology to study the English past. On the other hand, social anthropologists seem to have had a more complicated relationship with history. Bronislaw Malinowski prided himself on studying the present functioning of societies instead of speculating about the unfathomable past. Nevertheless, some later social anthropologists, such as E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Kenneth Little, were more open to a rapprochement between anthropology and history. Was this turn to re-valorize history a general trend in social anthropology in the later period you studied? If so, what do you think may have motivated this shift?

FF: Yes, that’s right about re-valorizing history and also about Malinowski’s skepticism about conjecturing about past times on the basis of little evidence. But I think there’s a misapprehension that British anthropologists only became interested in social change after the Second World War. That myth was largely perpetuated by Edward Evans-Pritchard who famously argued in 1950 that anthropologists were mistaken in thinking they were studying the ethnographic present. Rather, he wrote, “what social anthropologists have in fact chiefly been doing is to write cross-sections of history.” That argument was a polemic aimed at a group of anthropologists (Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown and many of their students) who thought they were, as Evans-Pritchard disparagingly put it, “discovering the sociological laws in terms of which […] actions, ideas and beliefs can be explained and in the light of which they can be planned and controlled.” What Evans-Pritchard meant by “history” was a refusal to concede that social change could or should be planned and controlled. His argument was not accepted by many of his colleagues. As Isaac Schapera, one of Evans-Pritchard’s contemporaries pointed out in the early 1960s, almost all the anthropologists of their generation had been analyzing societies historically, just not in the way that Evans-Pritchard liked. If there was a short moment when history wasn’t discussed all that much by anthropologists, it was in Malinowski’s publications, and that was mostly because he sought to criticize theories of cultural diffusion based on tenuous hypotheses about the past. Evans-Pritchard’s argument wasn’t really about whether anthropologists had stopped being historical after Malinowski. It is better understood as a polemic against planning and positivism written by a recent Catholic convert in the context of the early Cold War. The relevant point was stressed by Schapera in 1963: that anthropologists had not gathered enough evidence one way or another to say definitively if there are “‘general laws’ of social change, or whether, as many historians [and Evans-Pritchard] maintain, changes are all unique, and therefore incapable of being reduced to universal patterns of cause and effect.”

TF: Where do you see the debate between these two camps stand today?

FF: That debate has still not been settled, even though we now have a huge number of case studies. In fact, it seems unlikely that any number of cases will ever be sufficient to adjudicate between those who believe in general social laws and those who don’t. I think it’s fair to say that the cultural history and cultural anthropology of the 1980s – 2000s tended to side with the Evans-Pritchard side of the debate and set aside causal arguments in favor of in-depth descriptions of difference. But things seem to have shifted recently. In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books, William Davies surveys the recent trend in social science to look again at causation and the long-term determinants of social life. Trevor Jackson has gone into even more detail about this literature in Past & Present. The human and social sciences are still caught, as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, between camps that, in Sara Maza’s formulation, pit one group who believe that “causes matter because causes link the past to the present directing us to the future” and another camp who propose that “the strangeness of the past [and the ethnographic present] on its own terms is a lesson in tolerant relativism and an invitation to critique the present.” There is evidence, it seems to me, that causation is coming back into fashion. Maybe there is some hope that a new series of studies will combine causal arguments with an attitude of “tolerant relativism.” In fact, that’s what lots of Malinowski’s students thought they were doing, and I wanted to unearth part of that way of thinking in Participant Observers by pointing readers to maybe less well-known figures in the history of social science like Elizabeth Bott and Phyllis Deane and Raymond Firth, all of whom I think are still worth engaging with and learning from.

TY: It is mentioned in the book that three traditions of social anthropology were practiced at Oxford, the LSE, and the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in the mid-20th century, which made anthropology less appealing to the post-WWII British government as a ready body of knowledge to draw on for tackling practical questions. I wonder if the division of social anthropology into the three traditions affected how scholars in other fields, such as history, made use of anthropology. When historians such as Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson borrowed from anthropology, for example, was the difference between the three traditions of any concern to them? Which tradition did they most heavily draw from, and what implications did this have for anthropology’s wider reception in the academy?

FF: My hunch is that historians didn’t have much of a sense of the differences amongst anthropological schools of thought in this era, and maybe still don’t. For them, social anthropology offered a way to make arguments about social context as well as many analogies from other cultures to interpret their sources. This failure to think about the differences between anthropological theories comes out clearly in the lengthy review by Hildred Geertz of Religion and the Decline of Magic.

TY: How did post-WWII anthropologists respond to the way historians such as Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson made use of social anthropology?

FF: This is a really interesting question and I don’t know the answer. There does seem to have been some dialogue. For instance, Keith Thomas talked to anthropologists at a conference in 1968 at King’s College, Cambridge about witchcraft, published as Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, ed. by Mary Douglas (1970).  As I mentioned before, Hildred Geertz gave a less sympathetic hearing, and she took Thomas to task for failing to systematize his theories sufficiently. E.P. Thompson’s concept of the “moral economy” has, of course, been very influential across disciplines, including in the work of James C. Scott and James Ferguson.

TY: An important concept in the history of anthropology is holism, or the idea that a given society can be studied as a whole. While Malinowski thought he was doing holistic studies of “primitive” societies on the Trobriand Islands, the anthropological aspiration to holism was later problematized or at least put under more pressure by other anthropologists such as Max Gluckman and Raymond Firth. On the one hand, Gluckman’s Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand (first published in 1940 and 1942) stressed the connections between the Zulu society and larger forces, such as the global economy, undermining the idea that there could be self-bounded societies for one to study as a “whole.” On the other hand, Raymond Firth noted in his assessment of post-WWII community studies in Britain that holistic research was not universally applicable to all societies. Firth held that while one could study small-scale “primitive” societies holistically, holism was ill-suited to the studies of complex, dynamic Western societies. Despite these critical reflections on holism by anthropologists, holism seemed to live on as what social anthropology was perceived to offer to other disciplines in the 1960s and 1970s. We read on page 161: “social anthropologists’ ideas about ‘the social’ still live on as one particular kind of holism,” and “[a]t least to outsiders looking in, ‘culture’ and ‘the social’ were both holistic concepts that could help reconstruct” the past. Do you think the critical reflection on holism in social anthropology has been lost on scholars in other disciplines at least to some extent? If so, what implications did this have on social anthropology’s reception in the wider academia?

FF: You’re right. This poses something of a paradox. Anthropologists often grappled with the limits of holism and continually debated how to square fieldwork in a limited area with general claims about cultures and societies. Some dwelt particularly on this problem by analytically connecting their particular field site to the global processes affecting the area under observation. This was especially the case in the work of Max Gluckman and Kenneth Little and also in a really important book by Godfrey and Monica Wilson called The Analysis of Social Change(1945). Many outside the discipline, though, saw holism as British social anthropology’s calling card. It was their functionalism or structural-functionalism that appealed to many. As Keith Thomas wrote in his groundbreaking 1963 review of a large body of anthropological literature, the “attraction of anthropology, whether ‘functional,’ ‘structural’ or ‘cultural,’ is that it does constitute such an attempt to explain things in terms of each other, rather than treating them separately, like patients in a hospital.” Relationality is slightly different from holism, of course, but it was their attempt to describe a “whole way of life,” as the literary critic Raymond Williams put it, that made works of social anthropology so appealing to readers outside the discipline.

TY: Why do you think holism was so appealing to scholars in other disciplines?

FF: For many, it was the promise of a non-Marxist way of thinking about systems, relations, and institutions. This is a really important part of anthropology’s reception history in the postwar decades. That reception history carries on through the 1970s and 1980s, via interdisciplinary discussions about “rationality,” “translation,” and “interpretation” in the human sciences. Anthropology gained another lease of life in this era when many focused on questions of the commensurability and incommensurability of beliefs and cultures. A detailed study of these trends is given in the criminally under-cited From History to Theory(2011) by Kerwin Klein.

TY: While the book takes an imperial lens to study the history of social anthropology in Britain and its empire, I wonder if you could say more about transatlantic connections between anthropology in Britain and that in America. A recurrent idea in this book seems to be that anthropology in Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s was more similar to that in America than people usually thought. Just like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict who “loom large in political and intellectual debates about race, class and gender” (p. 81), British anthropologists such as Malinowski actively engaged in early 20th-century discussions on the family and influenced studies of “the social” in other disciplines. Mead and Malinowski corresponded with each other and shared a similar fight against Victorian visions of sexuality across the Atlantic (pp. 84-85). Moreover, British anthropological research on race and colonies was very much aligned with the agenda of reformist philanthropists in America. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, espoused a “technocratic worldview” and sought to advance social development based on planning and control (p. 29). When Malinowski and Oldham wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation, they made “comparisons between East Africa and the American Deep South” on the issue of race relations (p. 43). The division between social anthropology associated with Britain and cultural anthropology associated with America is also said to be not as substantive as many made of it in the 1960s and the 1970s (pp. 180-181). Is it your view that there is more commonality between the anthropological traditions in Britain and America than one usually thought, and does the imperial history of social anthropology presented in this book indicate that a transatlantic history of anthropology may be a plausible next step for further investigations into the modern history of anthropology?

FF: Finding similarities as well as differences across the Atlantic was definitely something that came out of my research. Two of the major works of the history of anthropology by George Stocking and Henrika Kuklick are deeply invested in making British and US anthropologies seem very different from each other. Stocking wrote from the University of Chicago and for current anthropologists. It might be helpful to think of him as doing a kind of disciplinary exorcism: trying to cast out the legacy of Radcliffe-Brown from American anthropology by venerating Franz Boas and the Boasians. Stocking wanted to draw a clear, bright line between the UK and the USA. But that overstates that difference and makes US anthropology seem far too Boasian, which speaks more to the concerns of the 1960s than the 1920s and 1930s. There certainly were differences between the USA and UK, but there were also many common interests. Some of those common interests were in psychology and kinship, as suggested by the letters sent between Margaret Mead and Malinowski. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, there were many overlapping concerns about economic change and economic development. I make a great deal of the importance of American foundation funding in the book. It is hard to overstate how crucial the Rockefeller Foundation was to the remaking of social science in the 20th century and to the transformation of anthropology in Britain in particular. Tamsin Pietsch writes about the importance of the settler colonies in making a British “empire of scholars” by the early 20th century. In the inter-war decades American funding began to pull that network closer to the USA. Doing research in the Rockefeller Foundation archives is a bracing experience. Almost all the classics of 20th-century Anglo-American social science had some connection to the Rockefeller Foundation and its subsidiaries.

You asked earlier about Radcliffe-Brown versus Malinowski. He’s relevant to this question about the USA too. Centering him rather than Malinowski would have meant writing a more transatlantic and global history. Rather than having Britain at its center it would have had South Africa (Cape Town), Australia (Sydney), and the USA (Chicago) as its main locations. And rather than telling a story about the disciplinary development of social anthropology in Britain, a book centering Radcliffe-Brown’s pedagogy and institution building would have had the advantage of connecting British and American anthropology in a much more satisfying way than I was able to do in Participant Observers.

TY: One of the goals in your book seems to be to nuance our understanding of the historical relations between social anthropology and colonialism. Beyond “[t]he fact that anthropology was a colonial science” (p. 7), you linked British social anthropology in the 1920s-1960s more specifically to a strand of reformist imperialism. Have there been other recent historiographies addressing the specific relations between social anthropology and colonialism, and if so, how does your book speak to these works?

FF: Parts of the diary Malinowski kept during his fieldwork were published in 1967. The entries revealed his frustration and loneliness and provided evidence of his racism and sexism (George Stocking provides an assessment in his essay “The Ethnographer’s Magic”). The Diary’s publication is often seen as a totemic moment in the reappraisal of Malinowski’s legacy and since the 1960s, writing about the history of anthropology has often focused on empire and imperialism. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973), edited by Talal Asad,stands as a landmark. Asad famously wrote that “colonial power made the object of anthropological knowledge accessible and safe.” But, Asad warned, it would be a mistake to draw from this fact the conclusion that anthropology was “primarily an aid to colonial administration” or a “simple reflection of colonial ideology.” Rather, anthropology reflected the “profound contradictions and ambiguities” of “bourgeois consciousness” and, in a Marxisant turn of phrase, that the discipline possessed the “potentialities for transcending itself.” Since Asad, there has been a great deal of writing about these ambiguities, contradictions, and (failures of) transcendence, including an overview of a great deal of literature by George Steinmetz and an excellent recent essay in the JHIBlog by Nile A. Davis.

My book speaks to this historiography in two ways. First, I approached the history of social anthropology from the perspective of the “new imperial history.” That meant trying to write a history that encompassed both the “metropole” and the “periphery” of the British Empire. I did this by arguing that the discipline’s fortunes in the UK affected what anthropologists researched in the field and then showed how imperial policy guided anthropology’s institutionalization in UK universities. The second body of scholarship that I drew on was the recent turn towards the study of inter-war “internationalism.” A core part of my argument in the first few chapters stands on the connection I draw between social anthropology as practiced by Malinowski and the politics of “trusteeship” associated with the League of Nations. I went to see one of Susan Pedersen’s Ford Lectures (now published online open access as Internationalism and Empire: British Dilemmas, 1919-1939) just before beginning my PhD. Pedersen’s argument about the importance of the mandates system made so much sense in the reading I was starting to do about the politics of inter-war anthropology. Her later book, The Guardians: The League of Nations and The Crisis of Empire, was also a huge influence.

What I thought I could add to the disciplinary history of anthropology was a sense of how historians have been thinking recently about imperial history. The archives of many of the social anthropologists I wrote about are exceptionally rich, and I was only really able to scratch the surface. One of my main hopes is that Participant Observers might inspire others to seek out those archives to write new histories of anthropology that are about anthropologists and also about the communities where anthropologists did their fieldwork.

Tingfeng Yan is a graduate student in Social Thought and History at the University of Chicago. He researches the founding of the United States and the Age of Revolutions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Malinowski’s home in Oberbozen, Wiki Commons.

Intellectual history Interview

The Counterinsurgent Imagination: An Interview with Joseph Mackay

Joseph MacKay is a Fellow/Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. His research focuses on historical international hierarchies, historical international security, and the history of international thought. His first book, The Counterinsurgent Imagination: A New Intellectual History (Cambridge, 2022), draws on his doctoral research. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto.

Thomas Furse is a primary editor of the JHIBlog. He spoke to Mackay about the intellectual history of counterinsurgency wars.  


TF: You set the outline of the book as “a long-run intellectual history of counter-revolutionary wars” that uses a set of “military manuals as records of idealized practice” to maintain the status quo (pp. 3, 6). To understand these texts, you take your methodological cue from the Cambridge School, specifically from J.G.A. Pocock and David Armitage’s “serial contextualism.” Why did you choose this approach for your set of texts and to argue your case about counter-revolutionary war?

JM: The puzzle motivating the book is that there is a lot if you look at counterinsurgent or counter-revolutionary ideas over the long haul. A really remarkable variety of ideas. That variety narrows out quite a bit after 1945 or so, but that lines up broadly and roughly with a decline in counterinsurgent success rates in practice. So: why the wide variety? And why an eventual convergence of ideas that do not seem to work reliably in practice?

Answering these questions calls for a look at the relatively long run of modern counter-revolutionary war. I wanted to pull out a longer time horizon to consider what we now call counterinsurgency and its antecedents. Many historical accounts of this stuff start in the late nineteenth century, at the height of European colonialism. Work like that ties more recent practices back to overt, formal imperialism. It does that very effectively. I wanted to go further and see how imperial “small wars” talk came about. Doing that required going back to the centuries before the “new imperialism” in Africa and Asia and an in-depth case from before that period. So that is Johann von Ewald, a Hessian officer who served with the British in the American Revolutionary War. What we find there is not just a prior tradition but a fair bit of contestation already happening. Ewald came from a Central and Eastern European “small war” tradition associated with rural and geographically marginal spaces. It was not particularly ideological. But in America, he ran up against actual revolutionaries. His project became tacitly counter-revolutionary in response.

Johann von Ewald (Wiki Commons).

There has been some great work on European small wars that broader period in the last decade or so, for example, by Sibylle Scheipers, Beatrice Heuser, Bruce Buchan, and Benjamin Deruelle. Looking at that period, and focusing on Ewald, allowed me to establish a status quo ante for later imperial warfare practices associated with C. E. Callwell and others. From there, the story moves to better-trod ground and the eventual emergence of a post-1945, especially post-1960 consensus.

I focused on military manuals as a genre because they are the texts that most programmatically survey what counterinsurgents—armed counter-revolutionaries—think of as the right way to do what they do. Of course, there is no straightforward correlation between the manuals and actual practice. But manuals tell us what counterinsurgents think they should do, should be seen to, and think is politically permissible and desirable. They also change in interesting ways over the long haul of the study—becoming more official, technical, and detailed.

Anyhow, to unpack those variations across time seemed to me to require two parallel tasks, methodologically speaking: a long-run historical narrative and a series of deeper dives to look at how specific manuals—instructional texts—came about. The manuals belong historically to political, social, military, and sometimes institutional contexts. So I adopted a broadly contextualist approach, aiming to situate them among other period texts in the genre, as well as those larger sociopolitical situations. Doing that requires showing contextual change over the long run and then a series of specific manuals and their authors in a sequence of historical contexts. I follow David Armitage in calling the latter “serial contextualism”: a set of linked contextualist studies, in sequence, to capture moments in a longer set of overall processes. So that is what the book does. The aim is to explain where each text came from—how a given set of circumstances produced the authors and the books they wrote. From there, we can look at how they shaped practice, or at least official rhetoric, in the period that followed.

TF: In Graham Greene’s 1955 book, The Quiet American, Alden Pyle tells Thomas Fowler that it is “not that easy to be uninvolved,” which is, in a way, one the book and film’s takeaway quotes. It is about the French war in Indochina and foreshadows the US entry into the war, but it is also about the problems of remaining neutral and detached when covering wars. Similarly, in your book, you had to tread a line between understanding your subjects and how they found themselves in situations beyond their control and seeing them as morally questionable. We might sympathize with our subjects sometimes and other times find them repulsive during the process of historical research. How did you research and write your book with this in mind?

JM: As a matter of method, if I am honest, I do not think there are easy or systematic answers here. The record of these events and ideas has some ugly stuff in it. The reader is, I suspect, going to want to both understand and judge, in one balance or another. That presents a problem of how to present and interpret the record. Not knowing how to solve the problem, I tried to manage it. When historical figures in the book engaged in what we might call bad behavior, especially the three solo authors of historical manuals, I made a point of showing them doing that. I tried to trust the reader to judge rather than do that for them. Where there was useful context—incriminating, exculpatory, or otherwise—I tried to provide it. The book should leave the reader with a sense of the lay of the intellectual land and how they might navigate it in the broader historical record.

For example, Charles Edward Callwell is the figure in the book most associated with comparatively extreme violence, including against civilians, as a style of counterinsurgency. He repeatedly endorsed destroying villages, destroying food supplies, and otherwise openly violating the laws of war as he understood them. During the second South African war, he burned Boer farms. In his memoirs, he describes this as a practical matter, with no particular moral qualms at all—even with a sort of mordant humor. I contrast this with a report from a rank-and-file British soldier describing his own horror at a similar event. This way, we know other British troops made moral judgments here. Yet Callwell did not—it does not seem to have occurred to him. I think that is pretty telling.

These things can get harder to weigh at more remote historical distances or when the record is more ambivalent. For example, Johann Ewald, the Hessian mercenary who served with the British in the American Revolutionary War, said racist things about Black and Indigenous people. As someone fighting in a settler war in the Americas, he participated in slavery and settler colonialism. Yet race seems not to have been important to his ideas about irregular war, which were focused on Europe and European peoples. Here I was, concerned mostly to make sense of that apparent contradiction. I tried to make the wider period context of European ideas about race, irregular war, and related matters clear on the page. The reader can—should—still judge him, but my main concern was to make sure they had some reasonably sophisticated tools with which to do so.

All this goes a bit by the wayside in the book’s conclusion, where I admit I allowed myself to editorialize more. Rereading the manuscript as I wrote the conclusion, I found I had pretty strong opinions about where the historical long run leaves us. By this point in the text, I hope I have given the reader the wherewithal to draw conclusions of their own if they want to. They are welcome to disagree with me, but the balance of evidence points in some complicatedly troubling directions.

I might add that Greene’s novel is a favorite of mine. I think it is the only work of fiction I have ever required students to read. These questions of intellectual and political remove seem to me central to it. I wonder sometimes if Greene did not sympathize with Pyle more than he was willing to let on. Fowler, after all, is a kind of ideal unreliable narrator. And at the end, of course, Fowler is as involved as anyone—he gets his hands very dirty, albeit not for ideological reasons. In the line you quote, I wonder if Greene may have been speaking for himself, as a writer, as much as anything. The book has blindspots of its own. I suspect he knew that—and knew he could lose intellectual remove as easily as his characters.

TF: You have a chapter on C. E. Callwell, the “doyen” of Victorian small war theory (p. 152). His work was the Boer War, where he practiced his theory of war. We could think that southern Africa was a ‘bloodlands’ for the German, British, and Portuguese empires, who each fought a series of wars (the Herero and Namaqua wars and genocides, Boer Wars, the First Chimurenga, Anglo-Zulu Wars, Bailundo revolt, and Battle of Mufilo) at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As you show in the text, Callwell had an imperial arrogance about him, and this regional violence (or any at all) barely seemed to feature in his thinking. Did you find that the army officers across your timeline shared ideas about counter-revolutionary wars, or were their intellectual horizons quite narrow?

JM: Callwell was kind of an incurious guy. He liked to talk about learning from practice, but he had pretty strong priors. The British imperial project was absolutely central for him. The other empires do sometimes loom into view in his writing. At some point, he visited French North Africa and reported in his memoirs that “we could not have made a better business of developing and civilizing that part of the world than the French have.” For him, this was high praise. He also made chiefly positive comments about Russian colonialism, particularly in Small Wars, his manual, and elsewhere. He attributed a considerable predilection for violence to them, which he endorsed. But while he knew he was participating in a larger imperial system or set of projects of domination in Africa and Asia, his focus centered on the British experience. His knowledge of the others seems to have been chiefly historical.

That said, this is still the moment small wars become well and truly global. Callwell does get deployed across Afro-Eurasia—India, Afghanistan, and the like. And he had that historical knowledge of British, French, Russian, and other imperial wars globally. He seems to have been vaguer on the Americas, but it is still a pretty wide view.

In any case, once that global turn kicks in, it more or less sticks. Irregular warfare between, and at the margins of, the two world wars was, of course, pretty globally distributed. The attempts to preserve the European empires against revolutions that followed were as well. The British were trying to suppress revolutions in Kenya and Malaya at roughly the same time, if not reliably, in the same ways. The resulting instructional texts, their authors, and their biographies tend to reflect that scope. Someone like Frank Kitson turned up in Malaya, Kenya, Oman, Cyprus, and eventually Northern Ireland. And those are roughly the “lessons” that American counterinsurgents try to pick up circa 2005.

David Galula (WikiCommons)

TF: The book really comes into its own with the chapter on David Galula and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). His life makes a good story. He was a Jewish Tunisian raised in Casablanca who then got an elite French officer education at École spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr in 1939. He then evaded the Vichy government and the Nazis and, after the war, went to China to learn Mandarin and Maoist revolutionary tactics. His main deployment was, of course, Algeria, where he fought the FLN that were pursuing Algerian independence. The systematic torture of suspected terrorists, the Milk Bar Bombing, the French Foreign Legion, the film Battle of Algiers, two failed French military coups in 1958 and 1961, the end of the Fourth Republic, and of course, Franz Fanton’s The Wretched of the Earth made the war infamous. It seems an messy uncontrollable counterinsurgency war. You argue Galula adopted a “spare and modernist model of counterinsurgency” (p. 160), which you akin to a bureaucratic sociological approach to counterinsurgency operations (as opposed to psychological). After the war, Galula went to Harvard and wrote the Pacification in Algeria, 1956–1958 paper that later became influential in US military circles. So, how can we think of Galula as a theorist of empire?

JM: Empire was incredibly central to Galula’s political experience in all sorts of ways. It is odd then that, in a sense, he had very little to say about it theoretically. It was as much a thing he did and had done to him as something he had any general conception of—at least that he put to paper. He was certainly a carrier of colonial ideas. He seemed to be a true believer in French colonialism as an ameliorative project. Of course, it is also all over his personal experience from his colonial education before Saint-Cyr onward. The high school (lycée) he attended in Casablanca was named for Hubert Lyautey. So we might say his pathway to his eventual French nationalism was distinctively influenced by the empire. He thought and spoke in ways that took the French empire as given. We see this in his attitudes toward Islam, ways of speaking about colonial “development,” and the like. His basic project was to roll back insurgency, which he understood in Maoist terms, and re-establish colonial control. Victory for Galula was a victory not just over insurgency but also “maintained by and with the population.” He hoped to regain, if not their beliefs, then at least their reliable acquiescence—that was the world he wanted back.

In terms of how he saw himself, perhaps the first thing to know is that he was a kind of nationalist or patriot. When his biographer asked his widow about his politics, the first thing she said was, “He loved France.” That bears out. At some point in the mid-sixties, he declined a job with an American firm because he would have had to give up his French citizenship to get the required security clearance. He was serious about it, though he had acquired it somewhat tenuously.

Perhaps because of all this, his ideas about empire do not always easily disentangle from his general status quo conservatism and his anti-communism. He also likely played his colonialist views a bit close to his chest—his Anglophone readers were chiefly Americans who, rightly or wrongly, did not think of themselves as engaged in colonial warfare. He could be defensive about this stuff. He says in his RAND report, describing something in Algeria, that “I sound no doubt terribly colonialist, but it’s a fact.” Recall Fowler letting the mask slip a little and saying to his American counterpart, “We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle, but we’ve learnt a bit of reality.” This was Galula’s situation—he aimed to make a case for his own methods without quite saying out loud that he was an imperialist.

In terms of his background, I think there is a pattern of sorts here, with more than a few counterinsurgents coming from a grab bag of near- or semi-peripheral backgrounds. Callwell was born to Irish parents in London. Ewald came up through military service in a small (and highly militarized) German state to serve the British and eventually join the Danish nobility. Even David Petraeus is the son of an immigrant—though he grew up a few miles from West Point—and had an Australian in his circle. Beyond the cases in this book, midcentury counterinsurgents like Napolean Valeriano and Abdul Haris Nasution were explicitly figures from former colonies who learned in uniform to put down rebellions, sometimes across multiple settings. So there is a pattern here of people who were, variously, not or not quite from the core, who experienced upward mobility. For many of these authors, at least, imperial militaries were pathways to improved social class or status. And the networks they moved on, like many imperial networks, were profoundly transboundary or transnational. It is remarkably common across the modern period. While the networks are not all explicitly imperial, they tend to have that pattern of qualities.

TF: The last manual you examine is the 2006 US Army and Marine Corps field manual (FM 2-34), which is the most sophisticated text in the book and the one used in the Iraq War. It is, you argue, replete with neoliberal managerial speak and has a US securocrat feel, as opposed to the writing of a ‘genius’ individual. You explore the group that wrote and edited the manual—David Petraeus, John Nagl, Montgomery McFate, Conrad Crane, David Kilcullen, and others such as Don Snider and Richard Swain. You call them “internal nonconformists” (p. 203). They had a curious mix of backgrounds, McFate grew up in the poverty of ‘hippie’ communes in California, Kilcullen’s parents were left-wing academics, and Petraeus seemed to have a middle-class start in life. How did you draw out these identities and power structures in their work? How do you think future intellectual historians can think about the meaning of authorship when the text is collaborative and semi-anonymous?

JM: It is an interesting question. The other manuals, although not traditional intellectual history fare, are at least single-author documents. So we do not have to piece their authorship together. In this case, we only know who wrote what from reports after the fact. The authors partially promoted the text through a standard narrative of how it was produced. That narrative foregrounds the rush, the pressure, and the collaborative environment. Ironically, it also made several of them public figures. But in the end, we know one or two specific people drafted each chapter, many of them not well known, then fed through a revision and editorial process—one that, by the end, was pretty deeply embedded in military bureaucracy.

Some authors’ personal recollections of the process are pretty extensive. Conrad Crane’s memoir of it is forensic. It is a remarkable record. The less publicly visible authors, like Snider and Swain, have not spoken much about the process, at any length, that I am aware of (and I have not spoken to them). So there is a sort of closed-book quality to some of this.

I would bet these are methodological challenges intellectual history will continue to face variations on. As researchers turn to explain more recent genres of text, we are going to find that knotty questions of authorship, editorship, institutional setting, and so on are hard to avoid. I am thinking, for example, of what Jennifer Schuessler, Asheesh Kapur Siddique, and others have called “paperwork studies,” wherein lots of less canonical forms or genres of text turn out to have meanings, and thus histories, of their own. Those meanings and histories will often belong to institutional settings and styles of collaboration.

For me, at least, I tend toward two ways to think methodologically here. One is to do our best to reconstruct the micro-level processes. Who said what, when, in what context, and so on. So you build up the historical analysis of the individuals and how they dealt with one another. The other is to take institutional authorship seriously. The institutions will have norms, cultures, processes, authority structures, and so on, through which this stuff gets produced. In practice, the two kinds of processes will also interact a fair bit.

In making sense of FM 3-24, I tried to do a bit of both. I hope the reader will see two things. On the one hand, there is how the Army and the Marines went about causing the manual to be produced within a set of broad genre specifications and managing or constraining how the writing process went and what the manual could say. Conversely, we see how the individuals involved work within those constraints. Sometimes we see institutions contending with one another, too—which may constrain individuals and may open up opportunities for them. It all gets more, well, political. In this case, several authors—Petraeus, Nagl, among them—were students of organizational politics and learning. They brought, or likely thought they brought, prior understandings of how all that infighting would work. So a lot is going on here. In the end, capturing the cacophony is probably part of the job, and at times it may be the best we can do. I hope that is part of what the book does.

Tom Furse is a primary editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD student at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between strategic thought, the social sciences, management theory and political economy.

Featured Image: A pro-independence front de libération nationale protest in Algeria. Creative Commons.


How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part II)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. Following the first part of their conversation, Part II focuses on Nietzsche’s revival in 1960s France.


Isabel Jacobs: Let’s talk about the French revival of Nietzsche which opens your book. One of the key events you recall is the Nietzsche congress in Royaumont in July 1964, which marked the emergence of both a “Nietzsche Renaissance” and French postmodernism. One of the issues a young Deleuze and Foucault discussed in Royaumont was how to read Nietzsche’s texts. Can you tell us a bit more about the French reception?

Philipp Felsch: Let me expand on that. We can basically say there are two major Nietzsche waves or fashions in the 20th century. There’s an early one, up to the 30s, which is mainly German, or German-inspired. One problem with Nietzsche has always been that he was not a classical or academic philosopher. Nietzsche had renounced his professorship of philology in early years. He was a Weltanschauung writer, so his status is very unclear. And you can see that many of the early interpretations of Nietzsche, also Heidegger’s, are concerned with legitimizing Nietzsche as a proper philosopher by projecting a systematic, central thought or idea of principle into Nietzsche’s vast body of writing: be it the eternal recurrence, or the will to power, or the superhuman.

In the 70s and 80s, there’s a second wave of Nietzsche revival that had its epicenter in France. There’s a long history of reading Nietzsche in France which goes back to the late 19th century. Nietzsche himself was a Francophile. He was anti-German in many ways, at least in later years. So he made it very easy for French readers to like him, even though they didn’t like Germany. Despite this long tradition, a “French Nietzsche” really only emerged in the 60s and the 70s. And this French Nietzsche was in many ways the opposite of the older Nietzsche. All previous attempts had tried to qualify Nietzsche as a proper philosopher with one central topic. 

Max Klinger’s Nietzsche bust at the Nietzsche archive. Creative Commons.

The new French philosophers, people like Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, they do the opposite. They’re interested in Nietzsche because in their eyes he basically destroyed or exploded philosophical discourse from within. For them, Nietzsche’s work is, among other things, an event in the history of language. Along with the literary modernists, Nietzsche was the first to set free the sign as a material object on paper. Liberating the signifier also meant to free the “text” from a certain definite, fixed, or ultimate meaning. And of course the French post-structuralists were exactly interested in these things.

Now the Italian edition comes into play. It’s published in parallel in an Italian, German, and French version. The first volume of the French edition came out in 67 which is also a very significant year for post-structuralist theory. The novelty about this edition was that Colli and Montinari, for the first time, tried to decipher Nietzsche’s notebooks exactly as they were. Up to then, Nietzsche’s late, unpublished writings had mainly been read in the form of a book, The Will to Power, which his sister had edited. It’s a strongly edited book which tries to systematize a vast body of notes, scribbles, and jottings from his notebooks. Colli and Montinari, on the other hand, tried to merely transcribe these notes into printed letters. Half of their edition is just this collection of short fragments of texts: the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. 

These notes moved into the center of a new Nietzsche cult. Because they show that Nietzsche was not a systematic philosopher, that he was not writing books in a classical form but that he was just producing a vast, autonomous body of text which had its own logic and followed its own laws. Nietzsche’s texts didn’t even have an author in the classical sense, because you have a chaotic mixture in these notebooks of philosophical aphorisms and excerpts from the stuff he was reading, but also everyday notations, like what to buy in the grocery store, things like that. And the French philosophers, namely Foucault, made a point out of that by saying that Nietzsche was not really an author in the way we traditionally perceived authorship. In Nietzsche’s case, the author is then rather an effect of posthumous editing.

How did the French philosophers know that? Of course because they had the Italian edition! Foucault was even a collaborator of Montinari and Colli; he was the guest editor of the French version of their edition, so he had access to these notebooks very early on. Today, the notebooks are all online, but back then nobody had ever seen them because they were in the archives in East Germany. Therefore, I argue in my book, the death of the author and many other of the post-structuralists’ core ideas emerged from the knowledge of and acquaintance with the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. That’s the legacy of the Italian edition. 

At the same time, that’s really not what the Italian philologists intended. They were looking for Nietzsche’s original text without any posthumous distortions. Stemming from the same edition, on the one hand, you have this idea of ultimate textual truth, on the other, in French hands, it turns into the idea of free floating signifiers which are not connected to any definite meaning or truth. And that’s why the Italians felt mistreated, even betrayed by their French readers who were privileged by getting this very early access to this new material, but very openly denounced Colli and Montinari’s philological project as being ultra-traditional and belonging into the 19th century.

Volume from the Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Credits: De Gruyter, 1992.

IJ: This leads me to my question why reading is so important for your story. The reader, it seemed to me, is the main protagonist of your book—as important as the author or even more. Intellectual history is told from a different point of view. This shift in perspective that you already employed in your last book is very productive. One of your inspirations is Michel Foucault’s genre of “reportage d’idées,” this whole idea of focusing on the places and events that give birth to new ideas. Can you expand a little on your approach?

PF: That’s exactly what I’m interested in. Of course there are many different angles if you try to do that but the basic idea is always the same. There’s a book by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg called The Laughter of the Thracian Woman: A Protohistory of Theory which goes back to the early history of Greek philosophy. One of the Pre-socratic philosophers fell into a well because he was thinking so hard and didn’t watch where he was going. When his maid saw him, she had to laugh. Accordingly, in his book, Blumenberg was interested in philosophy as “exotic behavior” or, in other words, in the exterior, visible side of theory. In my book, and in the last one, I have also tried to describe theory insofar as you can see it. 

I’m interested in the exterior, material, behavioral aspect of supposedly interior ideas and theories. That includes scriptures, books, journals, or paperbacks, the gestures, the whole behavior and comportment of philosophers. What does it even mean to be a philosopher or theorist? And of course, if you’re interested in the exterior, then also the “practice of theory,” as they called in the 60s, comes into focus, but not the practice of theory in the sense of changing the world through practicing theory.

It’s more about the question: what do we do when we do theory? One of the answers is: we read. Reading seems to be a focal point where theory becomes visible and turns into a lifestyle for postwar generations. That connects Colli and Montinari with the protagonists of my former book. When Montinari first saw one of Nietzsche’s handwritings in Weimar in 1961, he was completely allured. He devoted his whole life to a never-ending reading exercise.

IJ: Is there a new project that follows from the Nietzsche book?

PF: Not directly. What I’m doing now is co-organizing an international conference on the comparative history of close reading which arcs from literary studies all the way into philology and philosophy. The idea that you have to delve deeply into texts is something very significant in the twentieth-century history of ideas. Of course, it has a long history rooted in biblical philology. But it seems to be very typical of the last century. Besides, I am writing a short book on the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, looking back at the decades of postwar German intellectual history that he represented like nobody else and that seems to finally come to an end.


Featured Image: Mazzino Montinari working at his desk. Credits: Aline Montinari.


How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part I)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. As Felsch retraces in his book, their critical edition of Nietzsche’s handwritings would pave the way for French post-structuralism. Felsch also sheds new light on European cultural politics during the Cold War, traveling with his protagonists from Florence to Weimar and Royaumont.


Isabel Jacobs: First off, can you tell us how you became interested in the story of your new book? What did the research process look like?

Philipp Felsch: The book started with an image in my mind. I either heard or read about the story, I don’t remember. I imagined one of my two protagonists, the Italian communist scholar Mazzino Montinari (1928-1986), who at the time was, I guess, around 30. He had just moved to East Germany in the early fall or late summer of 1961—a few weeks before the Berlin Wall was built. That was of course a highly significant date. Montinari moved to the GDR, to Weimar, the capital of German classicism and high culture.

Next to Goethe and Schiller’s archives happened to also be the papers of Nietzsche. Montinari came precisely to Weimar to reedit Nietzsche who, which adds to the whole irony of the situation as I perceived it, was of course considered a fascist thinker in the GDR. Therefore Nietzsche’s writings were stored, let’s say, in the Giftschrank [a collection of forbidden books] of Weimar’s archives. And that’s where Montinari goes—apparently undisturbed by the fact that the GDR was building this wall.

At the time, Montinari was already deeply immersed in philology. He moved to the GDR, temporarily at first, going back and forth between Weimar and Florence, where he was mainly staying at the time. But then, after a few years, he permanently settled in Weimar and married a local. He even acquired a certain fame and became part of the “high society” there. A couple of years later, he was interviewed by East German television on the occasion of Goethe’s 215th anniversary. Shortly after, Montinari had already four kids with his wife which led to a telegram with congratulations from Walter Ulbricht himself. So this Italian cigar smoking communist who moved to the GDR in 1961 to decipher Nietzsche—that was just an image so loaded with different cultural, theoretical, and historical symbolism that I became interested in the story.

Philipp Felsch’s Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam. Credits: C.H. Beck, 2022.

IJ: And then you started delving deeper into this figure? 

PF: Yes, somehow the story had an appeal to me, because my previous book, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, was about the theory obsession of postwar intellectuals, mainly in West Germany, and their departure into abstract theoretical thinking. And in a way my new book does the opposite. While The Summer of Theory was mainly set in West Berlin, Paris, and Frankfurt, the story around Montinari and his companion Colli was situated between Florence and Weimar; it follows a completely different axis in the intellectual geography of the Cold War.

It didn’t have to do with theory, but in a way with its opposite, namely philology. In fact, it’s a dialectical relationship. So the extremely diligent, classical philology of these two Italians led to a renaissance of Nietzsche in France. But first of all, their philology was not about moving into ever higher levels of abstraction. Although Montinari and Colli were leftists and communists, they had to deal with the shock of 1956, when the New Left was born in Western Europe.

But they did not take off into theory; instead, they moved from communism into philology as the quest for an original text. You can see the biblical association here: the idea to discover an ultimate truth that was the opposite of the theoretical movement of the time. So I thought I could tell here a story that was also situated in the postmodern context, a very symptomatic story about the history of intellectuals at the time.

At the same time the research process moved into a completely different direction. That was also, of course, somehow appealing for me. Because, first of all, it became clear that I had to deal with the history of the GDR, which in my previous research hardly featured at all, although the book was located mainly in West Berlin. On the one hand, I began researching the historical context of the GDR; on the other, I had the chance to spend significant time in Italian archives. I studied in Italy in the 90s and speak Italian, and I like to spend some time there every year. So now I had a very nice excuse to spend a large amount of time in Italy which was fantastic! During the pandemic, it was basically empty, there was almost nobody in the archives except for me.

IJ: I find it interesting how you described Montinari’s philological research as a kind of spiritual quest. Let’s speak a bit more about that illustrious figure. While Nietzsche had escaped Germany to Turin, Montinari traveled the other way round, from Florence to Weimar, praising Germany’s healthy air. How did the Italian anti-fascist end up spending decades in Nietzsche’s archives, many of these years depressed and lonely. And what did his work in the GDR look like in practice? We also haven’t spoken yet about his paedagogo, Giorgio Colli (1917-1979).

PF: Yes, it’s important to remember that this is not a story about one figure but about two. It’s a story about a lifelong friendship, which at the same time has certain, let’s say, erotic undertones in a Grecophile, Georgean vein [referring to the literary circle around German poet Stefan George]. It’s a friendship, it’s a master-disciple relationship, and a work relation. And it starts in the 1940s, in 1943, when Giorgio Colli, in his mid 20s, 12 years older than Montinari, moves to Lucca in Tuscany to teach philosophy. At the time, we are of course in the midst of Italian Fascism. Montinari was a pupil in Colli’s class. Colli comes from a liberal bourgeois family in Northern Italy, in Turin; his father was a high-profile journalist who had lost his job under Mussolini. Colli was devoted to anti-fascism.

Giorgio Colli (1917-1979). Public Domain.

Not in an overtly political sense—he was against fascism as he was against politics in general, you know, in a very German way actually. Within the Italian history of ideas in the 19th and 20th century, we can observe a tendency that Italian thinkers had to find their intellectual home somewhere outside of Italy. Many chose France, others, like the literary modernists in the early 20th century around the Einaudi publishing house, Cesare Pavese and others, chose American literature, Melville, Faulkner, people like that.

Many others chose Germany, and Colli was someone who was very versed both in German and Greek philosophy; these two very often go together because many German thinkers were so fond of Greek culture—among them, of course, Nietzsche. So, part of Colli’s anti-fascism was a Nietzsche reading group in the early 40s. And in this context, Nietzsche was understood as an anti-fascist author, as somebody who was against the state and devoted to extreme individualism and freedom. I mean, we can find all that in Nietzsche. At the same time, we’re in the summer of 43, Mussolini turned 60, and Hitler gave him the 30-volume collected works of Nietzsche, bound in blue leather, because they shared, at least officially, a certain fondness of this thinker.

This reading group was the beginning of Colli and Montinari’s collaboration. Since Colli often went to his family in Turin, already in the 40s they were not at the same place. Therefore, there are letters which start at this young age. A 14-year-old Montinari basically wrote love letters to his teacher and colleague. And these letters go on until the 70s, when Colli died, so you have 30 years of intense correspondence. That’s the original scene, this anti-fascist reading group.

Then many things happened in between: Montinari became devoted to communism. Colli was, as always, the Grecophile philosopher who basically deplored politics as something dirty, so they moved apart. And then, in the late 50s, they met again, for many reasons, one of them being the fact that after 56, with the Hungarian uprising, Montinari became skeptical and moved away from the official party line of Italian communism. He meets his old teacher again. And at the same time, a debate starts in West Germany about the legacy of Nietzsche.

When looking at this debate, we have to keep two things apart which are important for the story. After 1945, Nietzsche, on the one hand, was regarded a fascist philosopher, especially within the Western Left, but also in Eastern Europe. In East Germany, in the 50s, it’s György Lukács who called him Hitler’s precursor and the mastermind of fascism. But also within Italian communism Nietzsche was a persona non grata. That was basically the consensus when it comes to Nietzsche. The fact that Hitler gave Mussolini this birthday present was a visible proof of Nietzsche’s allegiance to fascism.

Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht, edited by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Public Domain.

On the other hand, and now we’re in the late 50s, there’s another line of discourse, namely, the question, whether the Nietzsche who was considered the mastermind of fascism was the real Nietzsche. Did the fascists even have the original writings of Nietzsche or was that merely a Nietzsche distorted by the editorial policies of his infamous sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche? That’s a whole story in itself, which I won’t recall here, it’s well-known that Nietzsche lost his mind in 1890. And then the last 10 years of his life, he was in custody of his sister and she began to witness the international fame of her brother. She published many books, among them the infamous Will to Power which Nietzsche himself never wrote in this form.

If we go back to the story, in the late 50s in Germany suddenly erupts a big debate about this question. Do we maybe need a completely new edition of Nietzsche? Of course, this was also driven by the attempt to denazify him. Because if you say it’s not Nietzsche himself but his sister who basically distorted his writing and even forged some of his writings, which in fact she did, then maybe we can save him and rediscover his work.

And that’s the point where the two Italian protagonists enter. They developed the idea to reedit Nietzsche. That’s why Montinari went to the DDR in 1961. You asked me about the existential undertones of Montinari’s philology. That was also for me one of the most interesting things. It’s, first of all, a question of character. Montinari wanted to become a monk in his youth, so the quest for truth was a constant in his life. 

Then he meets his Grecophile teacher, who moves him away from Christianity. Thus, Montinari becomes a devoted reader of Nietzsche and an admirer of the Ancient Greeks. And then he turned into a communist in the post-war years. The Italian Communist Party, as is well-known, was the most glamorous, so to say, and intellectually most interesting of the Communist parties in Western Europe after 1945. So you can imagine that it was a very appealing choice to become a communist in the late 40s in Italy! Communism was very avant-garde, it was not yet trapped in the trenches of the Cold War, but provided a very rich cultural environment.

In Weimar, Montinari discovered philology through his interest in Nietzsche. As we can see from his letters to Colli and also his diaries, the idea of philological truth and the search for the Urtext, the original text, is deeply Protestant in nature. In that way, Montinari was a model Protestant. His diaries of the time almost read like a Protestant Erbauungsbuch [Christian devotional book]. It’s a genre from the early modern period in which authors describe their quest for religion, for truth, for finding themselves. And we can observe all of that in Montinari’s writings. The search for his own personal truth is intimately connected to his search for the truth of Nietzsche’s texts. 

Nietzsche archive in Weimar, located at the Villa Silberblick, the late Nietzsche’s residence. Creative Commons.

Montinari pursued that search for many years, while going to the archive in Weimar every day—a very lonely existence during his first years in Germany. Nietzsche’s handwriting was hardly decipherable. Sometimes it took half a day to decipher two lines of Nietzsche. It was a monstrous task. And Montinari basically devoted the rest of his life to this task. That his work was driven by this very existential quest for personal truth reveals his philological undertaking as something of a deeply Protestant spirituality—which is maybe historically symptomatic for philology as such.

IJ: And despite all that effort, at first, Montinari’s critical Nietzsche edition, the Kritische Gesamtausgabe, was not even very well received. Besides reflecting on philology, your book also explores cultural politics in the Cold War period. Through the lens of Nietzsche philology, you analyze the ties between the GDR, West Germany, and Italy. Could you tell a bit more about your treatment of the Cold War? And why was Montinari and Colli’s edition so explosive?

PF: Yes, exactly. First of all, we’re at the height of the Cold War in the 60s. And the Nietzsche edition is deeply tainted by that context. Already as a student I wondered: why has the definite edition of Nietzsche been edited by two Italians? It has to do with the fact that Nietzsche’s legacy was drawn into the frontlines of the Cold War. The majority of philosophers and publishers in post-war Germany considered Nietzsche a fascist philosopher. On the other hand, there were also the Nietzscheans, people like Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith or, Karl Schlechta—all of them fierce anti-communists. But Nietzsche’s papers were, and that’s the irony of history, in communist hands in Weimar. 

Thus, for a character like Heidegger it was very natural to denounce the unpublished writings of Nietzsche as being irrelevant. To denounce the Weimar archive, Heidegger even claimed that the communists had basically secluded Nietzsche’s heritage and that it wasn’t even possible to get access, which was basically not true. But Heidegger was only one among many others who made such claims. As a matter of fact, Heidegger himself wouldn’t have been welcomed in the GDR for sure—unlike these two Italian communists.

From his time in the Italian Communist Party, Montinari maintained intense connections to the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. He had been in the GDR many times before, also during the 1953 uprising. These contacts made his work in the GDR possible. From the start, there was a feeling of fighting against the West German “Nietzsche establishment.” That’s the one thing, the other is the reception of their edition in France. And that opens up a completely different chapter.


Featured Image: Private photograph of Giorgio Colli (left) and Mazzino Montinari. Credits: Margherita Montinari.


The Atlantic Realists: An Interview with Matthew Specter (Part II)

By Andrew Gibson

Matthew Specter’s The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States (Stanford 2022) provides a genealogy of “realism” through German-American exchanges over global politics. Following Part I, in Part II of their conversation, Andrew Gibson and Matthew Specter discuss the civilizational assumptions underlying IR “realism” and its emphasis on the “tragic” character of political life. With these limitations, Specter questions realism’s prospects for guiding future foreign policy decision-making.


Andrew Gibson: The concept of Haltung (posture or attitude) looms over many sections of the book, as does Bourdieu’s theory of habitus. What I find quite intriguing is how realist rhetoric often describes how one must come to “see the world” or take a “stance” toward the realities of power. You argue that this, however, is “a set of embodied attitudes and mental habits that can be historicized.” Thus, the ways of seeing and thinking that are assumed as “second nature” to the realist tradition are actually historical artifacts that can be “provincialized” (206).

Matthew Specter: What I found was this word that kept popping up in the texts from Haushofer to Morgenthau: Haltung, which can also be translated as “posture,” as you say. I thought well why is it that authors keep reaching for this word? Haltung is a very embodied word; it is not just worldview (Weltanschauung) or ideology. I saw this is realism’s “tell,” like poker players have a “tell.” It shows that realism is not all that convincing in its coherence. Instead, what holds it together is a sensibility.

Even though the policy dimensions of realism have evolved and waged widely from American empire to Nazi empire but what seems to persist across all of these contexts is a certain Haltung, a certain realist sensibility. There are metaphors of cold-bloodedness and sobriety. There are lots of metaphors of vision: being able to see the world as it is and face realities without flinching. You also find these metaphors of the face; these are all embodied and it is always a masculine, gendered body. 

In my Morgenthau chapter, what I was trying to argue was that Morgenthau didn’t just teach these ideas, he embodied them himself. In fact, he performed what it meant to be a realist. He was a charismatic leader of a certain kind, and my reading of his texts suggest that they are actually vehicles of the routinization of that charisma. When you are socialized into the American foreign policy establishment or into the discipline of international relations by reading its founding fathers, you are being socialized into not just specific axioms or doctrines—but, more importantly, a way of seeing, a way of thinking and feeling. For me, it is, fundamentally, a way of thinking like an empire and as an imperial subject. 

Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Realists often equivocate between describing realism as a set of scientific laws and an art. In his essay on Churchill, for instance, Morgenthau describes the wisdom of the statesman as unsystematizable. Maybe that is correct. Of course, I would want my statesman to have a good feel for his or her métier. But I’m not convinced that reading these texts will give you that set of tools. Realist habitus purports to be the equipment for a democratic statesman but embedded in that habitus are all kinds of ideas about hierarchy in international affairs.

In some ways, it is this “sensibility” which holds the whole tradition together and perpetuates a specific discourse over international politics. There is certainly a textual tradition at work within realism and its self-conscious creation of a canon creation of a “canon” in the mid-twentieth century. But there are also these supposedly enduring concepts like “vital interests” or “national interests” that can be traced back centuries. Instead of enduring concepts, I see them as unthought doxa we keep reproducing. 

I’ve been frustrated with one early review of my book in Foreign Affairs, where the reviewer wonders what purchase the history of realism has over its present-day value: “Although [Specter] is correct that the classical realists of the 1950s took concepts and ideas from earlier, less ethical theories of international relations, it is not clear why such borrowing undermines their later arguments…Much of Specter’s overall argument amounts to guilt by association.” But the reviewer’s implication that there is a clean break between the 1880s and 1930s discourses and those of the 1950s forward is not borne out. Not only are the discursive continuities more significant than the breaks but the temporality of imperial realism doesn’t conform to the moral narrative about 1945 as turning point. 

That’s why I pay so much attention to Mahan, because I see his writings of the first two decades of the century as a workshop in which the first realist syntheses were hammered out. Later figures like Morgenthau aren’t nearly as original as they seem. And none of us are innocent of history; we carry it within us. So, it’s not a matter of guilt by association. It’s more like we’re thrown into the world, and this is what we got, so now we need to work through it. Realism is a set of theories embedded in practices—practices of empires, practices of comparison. We don’t free ourselves from the broader way of seeing like an empire overnight.

AG: Certainly. My last question is on how to view history and the history of international thought. In your final chapter, you emphasize the place of the “tragic” in classical realist thought. Take Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics(2001), for example. By critically grappling with the history of this transatlantic discourse, you claim your study will help one see realism “not as a storehouse of accumulated historical ‘wisdom’, but rather a historical artifact—and one that has, tragically, exerted too much power over world politics.” Why is it important to move beyond tragedy? How will it help us “emancipate ourselves from realism’s tyranny over the political imagination”? (17).

MS: Well, to start, many scholars have noted the contributions of German-Jewish émigrés to the development of American IR after they fled persecution in the Third Reich. Take a figure like Henry Kissinger. Most of the biographies on him I’ve read often emphasize his pessimistic view of human nature, the sense of the inevitability of tragedy, and critiques of the illusions of liberalism coming out of his confrontation with Nazism. That generation, however, was quite successful in convincing that the lessons of the twentieth century were realist and that the moral catastrophe of history and the Holocaust demanded a certain kind of stance, a certain kind of sobriety and alertness to the weaknesses of liberalism.

But if the true origins of those ideas are much earlier, then the effort to derive moral capital from the confrontation with fascism and the Holocaust seems to be a distortion. If I’m right that late nineteenth century imperialism is the formative matrix, not the 1930s, then the moral capital accrued to it would not just be a world scarred by the Holocaust.

I can’t dismiss the view that a Morgenthau or a Kissinger gained some wisdom or insight of the tragedies of the twentieth centuries. After all, the émigrés are serious scholars and impressive in many ways. Yet, I feel as though there is a kind of romanticism of tragedy within their thought—a romanticization of the gap between ideals and reality. It becomes a sort of fetish of the tragic failure. My argument is that if that becomes a mental habit, then it is not a very empowering vision for us as political actors today.

To always be focused on the gap between intentions and outcomes or between ideals and power, I don’t find that empowering for political action. I think that if we want to be creative political actors in our time, we needn’t be fixed on this vision of the constraints of the world that emerged from a traumatized generation that attempted to construct a tradition which left intact many of the hierarchical imperial notions. 

So, my broader point is that the Atlantic realists all shared a common imperial blind spot and democratic deficit. Both Kissinger and Morgenthau were committed to the idea of an elite statesman who would understand and develop the art of statecraft. This art was for the privileged few, as statecraft was not something they believed the democratic public could handle—it was too emotional, too plural, too divided, too fickle, what have you. 

After writing this history, I remain skeptical of realism as a liberating project. I find realism’s tendency to prioritize great power competition and spheres of influence as the “hard-wiring” of international relations particularly ill-suited to thinking about common planetary challenges like climate change. I agree with the new coalition of foreign policy thinkers in Washington, D.C. that argues for a new grand strategy for the US focused on “restraint” as opposed to what Stephen Wertheim calls “armed primacy.” But many of the restrainers self-identify as realists. Defense Priorities, a think tank, calls themselves the “hub for realism and restraint.” Restraint and realism are distinct traditions. I am for the pragmatic wisdom of the former and against the more fatalistic ontological claims about international anarchy and inevitably “tragic” clashes of interest and principle of the latter. 

I worry that some of the restrainers take on too much realist baggage and breathe new life into a deeply flawed tradition thereby. I imagine the restrainers worry that the current backlash against realism, occasioned by l’affaire Mearsheimer and the realists’ inadequacy on Ukraine, will harm the strategic cause of restraint. Both are legitimate concerns. A progressive realism is not an impossibility, but I just don’t think it’s the right starting point for thinking international politics. The turn to “hierarchy studies” and away from the anarchy-centered problematic in IR is an example of that turn away from conventional realisms. But anyone who wants to be progressive and realist should at least be sensitive to the realists’ historic investments in imperial and racial hierarchies, as well as illiberal and undemocratic modes of thinking. 

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Andrew Gibson is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and a Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow with the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC). He is currently writing his dissertation on the “transatlantic Machiavelli” and mid-twentieth-century debates over the Florentine secretary’s political-historical legacy; pieces of his research were recently published on the JHI Blog

Edited by Isa Jacobs

Featured Image: The War Room with the Big Board from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.