music Political history

“It’s Coming Back Around Again”: Rage Against The Machine as Radical Historians

By guest contributor Jake Newcomb

The music world has been abuzz this year with the reunion of Rage Against The Machine, whose reunion world tour includes a headlining stint at Coachella in April. Rumors of the imminent return have abounded since a spin-off band (Prophets of Rage) formed in 2016 to protest the “mountain of election-year bullshit” that emerged that year. Prophets of Rage’s lineup consisted of the instrumentalists of Rage Against The Machine with Chuck D (of Public Enemy) and B-Real (of Cypress Hill) performing vocals in lieu of Zack De La Rocha, the vocalist of Rage Against The Machine. Guitarist Tom Morello stated back in 2016 that they “could no longer stand on the side of history. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both constantly referred to in the media as raging against the machine. We’ve come back to remind everyone what raging against the machine really means.” Prophets of Rage embarked on their “Make America Rage Again” tour in 2016, and they even staged a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, an attempted repeat of Rage Against The Machine’s renowned performance directly outside of the Democratic National Convention in 2000, on the street in Los Angeles. Now, Zack De La Rocha has returned to complete the reunion. Their “Public Service Announcement” tour was scheduled to begin on March 26th, in El Paso, Texas, as a response to the domestic terror attack there last August, but in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, they have postponed all the shows scheduled between March and May. The July and August legs of their world tour are, as of now, still on schedule.

Aside from their signature sound, Rage Against The Machine (hereafter RATM) are most commonly beloved and denounced for their commitment to radical politics, which has commanded significant attention by fans and critics alike. Their songs are public stances taken on some of America’s most polarizing topics: police brutality, wealth inequality, globalization, racism, and the two-party system, the media, and education. They also publicly embraced radical movements outside of the United States, like the Zapatista movement against NATO during the 1990s. Culturally, their fame and left-wing politics have seen them associated with figures like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, both of whom RATM has worked with in some capacity. Their politics are often discussed as inseparable from their music (aside from the bizarre case of Paul Ryan, who claimed to enjoy their sound but hate their lyrics) since their political stances and statements are viewed as a key component of their entire act. What is much less discussed, or analyzed by scholars, however, is RATM’s presentation of history. This is surprising, because RATM’s music engages in a “re-casting” of history, not unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, with the past a recurring element of their lyrics. The historical narratives in the songs identify the downtrodden as the protagonist, continuously battling multiple, interlocking spheres of oppression (a.k.a., The Machine) over centuries. This generations-long struggle, and the consistent oppression of the poor and weak, gives urgency to lyrics such as, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past,” a direct homage to George Orwell. Breaking out of this cycle of history is what RATM preaches.  

On their first album, released in 1992 as Rage Against The Machine, RATM’s songs argued that the education system, the media, and the state worked in tandem to brainwash the population into believing false historical narratives and fake news. De La Rocha specifically took aim at public school curriculums and teachers that forced “one-sided” Eurocentric histories down the throats of pupils. This false narrative (of American history), accordingly, celebrates and obscures the violent realities of “Manifest Destiny” ideology as well as stripping non-white students of their historical and cultural identities, in order to assimilate them into American society. The true narrative, according to the lyrics, is a history of racial and economic oppression at the hands of both the state and private corporations, who have succeeded in no small part over the centuries by actual and cultural genocide. Further, this false narrative of history interlocks with contemporary false media reports and psychologically-manipulative advertising that keep the population docile, obsessed with consumer products, and supportive of oppressive class and racial relations. They sing that the United States is trapped in a loop that perpetuates injustice, ignorance of that injustice, and ignorance of the history of that injustice. This is the loop they first called their fans to rally against. 

Despite the unique rap-metal denunciation of “The Machine” that RATM presented on this first album, those familiar with historiography from the 1980s and 1990s will recognize the similarities between their presentation of America’s past and those of others. Compared with popular historiography, RATM presents similar longue durée historical claims as A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told, according to which the long-term history of oppression and exploitation in the United States has been long-obscured by false, nationalistic history. Like RATM’s albums, these books were massively successful, although in the latter case, their popularity derived explicitly from their depiction of history. RATM’s presentation of history was present, but it was (and is) obscured by their denunciation of contemporary politics, their revolutionary slogans, and their distinctive sound. Of course, these shifts in popular historiography to initiate a change in the dominant narrative of history also emerged in academic historiography, as with the Subaltern Studies group. Scholars like Ranajit Guha and Gyan Prakash published works on India that tried to move beyond the British colonial and Indian nationalist narratives that obscured the lives of “subaltern” Indian populations and the exploitation they suffered at the hands of colonialism and industrialization alike. Women and gender scholars also prominently emerged at this time to analyze long-term subjugation of women and gender minorities as well as address the lack of women’s historical contributions in academic historiography. RATM’s music can be viewed as an extension of these historiographic shifts into the world of music, specifically the emerging world of alternative rock and rap. Their inclusion alongside this historiography also points to a broader cultural moment, whereby the traditional historical narratives broke down.  

RATM continued to expand their historical commentary throughout their initial run in the 1990s, even going so far as to start their second album with the lyrics, “Since 1516, Mayans attacked and overseen…” in the song “People of the Sun.” The song is an anthem of support for the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico, who De La Rocha visited before writing the second album. While politically the song was written as a song of support with the Zapatistas, the song associates the struggles of the Zapatistas with others in a long history of oppression in Mexico, dating back to Spanish colonization. So on their second album, RATM continued to address long-term historical trends that repeat over time, which they asked their listeners to fight against. They bring the long-term historical trends into the third and final studio album as well, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles. For example, in the song “Sleep Now In The Fire,” De La Rocha identifies many difficult historical topics as being aspects of the same long-term phenomenon: violent greed, specifically in the context of colonialism, slavery, and war. The crews of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria are part of the same lineage as the overseers of antebellum plantations, and the wielders of agent Orange and nuclear weapons. De La Rocha also suggests in the lyrics that Jesus Christ has historically been invoked as the ultimate justification for various forms of greed or intense violence, pushing that lineage back millennia. 

While music as history is nothing new (in fact, for some cultures, history has traditionally been expressed through music), it is rare to find such an explicit historical dimension in contemporary popular music in the West (although, some intrepid historians have begun interpreting western music and art as history). Not only did RATM present their fans with a unique sound and highly-charged politics in the 1990s, but they also advocated for a historiographical framing that paralleled changes happening in popular and academic historiography. Along with Subaltern Studies and A People’s History of the United States, for example, RATM asked listeners to shift their historical focus to the lives and stories of the oppressed, instead of glorying the rich and famous. This historical framing, no doubt, was tied to RATM’s political project, as were the writings of Zinn and Guha. And like Guha and Zinn, RATM’s productions (cultural rather than intellectual) became both highly influential and targeted by critics. RATM has not announced any plans to record and release any new albums, so the jury’s out on whether there will be any new takes on history from De La Rocha and co. What’s likely though, is that thousands of fans will pack out stadiums this summer to sing along with RATM’s radical history if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides in the United States and Europe.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and he is also a musician. He can be followed on Twitter and Instagram at @jakesamerica 

French history Intellectual history Interview Literature Podcast Political history

In Theory: John Raimo interviews Gisèle Sapiro on Writers and Politics in France

John Raimo, a founding editor of the JHI Blog and PhD candidate at New York University, interviews Professor Gisèle Sapiro, director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and the director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. They discuss her new book, Les écrivains et la politique en France: De l’affaire Dreyfus à la guerre d’Algérie (Seuil, 2018).

We have attached a diagram and bibliography to accompany the discussion.



Gisèle Sapiro, Les écrivains et la politique en France : De l’affaire Dreyfus à la guerre d’Algérie. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2018.

 “A Field.” Politika. Encyclopedia of the social sciences of politics.

La guerre des écrivains. 1940-1953. Paris: Fayard, 1999. (The French Writers’ War, 1940-1953. Trans. Vanessa Doriott Anderson and Dorritt Cohn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

“Responsibility and freedom: foundations of Sartre’s concept of intellectual engagement.” Journal of Romance Studies. Vol. 6. N° 1-2 (2006), pp. 31-48.

“How Do Literary Works Cross Borders (or Not)? A Sociological Approach to World Literature.” Journal of World Literature, N. 1 (2016), pp. 81-96.

« Le champ est-il national ? La théorie de la différenciation sociale au prisme de l’histoire globale », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, N. 200 (2013/5), pp. 70-85. English translation: “Field theory from a transnational perspective”, in T. Medvetz, J. Sallaz, Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2018, p. 161-182.

La responsabilité de l’écrivain : Littérature, droit et morale en France (XIXe-XXIe siècle). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2011.

The debate on the writer’s responsibility in France and the United States from the 1920s to

the 1950s.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society.Vol. 23, N. 2-3 (2010), pp. 69-83.

 “Rethinking the Concept of Autonomy for the Sociology of Symbolic Goods.” Jean-Yves Bart, trans. Bien Symboliques / Symbolic Goods, N. 4 (2019), pp. 1-50.

La sociologie de la littérature. Paris: La Découverte, 2014.

Mathieu Hauchecorne, La gauche américaine en France. La réception de John Rawls et des théories de la justice (CNRS Éditions, 2019).

Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Mur Méditerranée (Sabine Weispier, 2019).

György Dragomán, The Bone Fire (Ottile Mulzet, trans. Mariner Books, 2021); Le Bûcher (Joëlle Dufeuilly, trans.; Gallimard, 2018).

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dragonfly Sea (Knopf, 2019).

Eastern Europe Intellectual history Interview Political history

Political Thought Beyond Methodological Nationalism: Alex Langstaff Interviews Michal Kopeček and Balázs Trencsényi

Over ten years ago, Michal Kopeček, Balázs Trencsényi, and colleagues decided to embark on an ambitious intellectual history of modern political thought that would span all of East Central Europe. The resulting two volumes—“a must-read” (Holly Case) and “a work of reflection and learning that readers will turn to for generations” (John Connelly)—constitute a milestone in the historiography of the region, as well as an innovative editorial attempt to engage dozens of scholars across languages in a cooperative, group-authored product. Alex Langstaff sat down with them to discuss their project and its contemporary political stakes.

Stańczyk, Jan Metejko 1862, Warsaw National Museum

Alex Langstaff: I know these volumes have many layers behind them–their own history. Tell us how it began.

Balázs Trencsényi: We have to go back to a previous multi-volume project, Discourses of Collective Identity, when we were still Ph.D. students or post-docs trying to do something that went beyond the national historical trends we resented. All of us came from certain subcultures, in which the transnational and multinational were cultivated as counter-traditions—like a liberal Catholic, Balkanist, or Central Europeanist supra-national tradition—and we found each other. We realized that the respective national canons were not transparent. So we collected texts in five volumes that students could actually use as synthetic anthologies. We had to invent these from scratch, and over the course of fourteen years, we found that we had produced a metanarrative but that there was no room in the series for it.

In 2007, when the European Research Council was launched by those disappointed by the non-academic logic of EU funding (trying to hack the system from the outside but eventually becoming hacked by the logic of the very system), we applied in its first year and received a large grant. We created a big group, with six fellows and about twenty-five recurrent team members, moved around one hundred people, and had twenty-five research workshops over the years. It was a huge project, something the EU research funding bodies would not accept anymore now. Throughout the five years, we visited all the intellectual centers of the region, creating a dialogue with local colleagues from Plovdiv to Tirana, L’viv to Vilnius. This dialogue took on very specific dynamics: instead of us telling them what our objective was, we brought a counter-narrative to the traditional story of national hagiography and wanted to see if they could find themselves in that narrative.

The team was specifically composed to cover most of the region’s languages. Four of us spoke Hungarian, for example, so quite unusually we could work through materials in tandem. This allowed us to have a genuinely group-written text that transgressed standard national boundaries.

AL: The volumes cover intellectual figures in eugenics, economics, aesthetics, but the common thread is undoubtedly ‘political’. What was it about ‘political’ thought that attracted you? And can you explain what you expected the project to achieve regionally?

Michal Kopeček: In generational terms, there was an increased interest in the history of political ideas in the 1990s democratization moment—a lot was imported from the West, and a lot of it was “transitology,” a social-scientific language of transition to democracy and market economy that was hard for historians to work with. But we knew an effort to understand politics in the region could not begin from reading Michael Walzer. Polish and Hungarian historiography had their own established traditions in the history of political thought, but this was rather an exception—you did not have this in other countries. Of course, “national” political thought had always been reflected, but more as a part of building specific political identities—e.g. post-1989 liberalism—rather than as a historical discipline with clear a methodology. And a comparative regional aspect was missing completely in this respect.

Offering a regional and transnational reading, we wanted to overcome the pitfalls of methodological nationalism. At the same time, we did not seek to override the respective national canons through some abstracted, detached Central or East European myth. I still believe that national historiographies are the major engines driving most of contemporary historical knowledge production, and therefore we must engage them. One of the strong feelings we had in the early 1990s was also that while there may be a European intellectual canon to which the thinkers and politicians in the region always referred—no one had to teach them about J. S. Mill, or Carl Schmitt—there has been little space for East Central European thought within this European canon, and very little exchange of knowledge between neighboring countries. So, the Czechs might know the European canon, but not the Polish one. In this sense, we were driven by a sort of emancipatory urge for our own national and regional contexts, but also by a desire to see to what extent we were talking about parallel stories.

Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (1872–1905), Polish philosopher, member of the Polish Socialist Party, eminent early Marxist theoretician of nationalism.

AL: So in some respects this grew out of a generational experience?

BT: Of course, you will get these contextualist answers from us because we are contextualists! There was a double miscommunication problem: in the 1990s, it was clear that with the booming interest in East Central European politics, everyone was reading Havel and Kołakowski, but usually in a sort of selective way, a kind of cherry-picking in marked contrast to local discussions; and in the 2000s, there was even more distortion when this general interest in dissident figures diminished, but certain preconceptions and forms of selective reading persisted. One might find scholarship extracting marginal figures but ignoring discussions of the major stakeholders of a given period, in order to fit the needs and preferences of specifically Western audiences and historiographical trends. Obviously, there was, and continues to be, the problem of Western political actors misreading political reactions from East Central Europe— think of the “skeletons in the bag” narrative about nationalism, as if there was no communist nationalism!

And finally, many of us were repeatedly encountering the following situation at conferences: The Western colleague would present on an unknown paper by J.S. Mill criticizing Tocqueville, and of course he would not have to contextualize Mill or the slavery question. Then you would get the Eastern European participant who is talking about Palacký and, instead of talking about the text, would have to provide an entire intellectual biography! Because people in the audience would say, “Ok, but who is Palacký?” So we had both this individual and existential pressure to create a work that would stop the informed Western reader from exclaiming that they had never heard about these figures, and that would move not just these individual thinkers but also the linkages between them into the global discussion. Otherwise, we would just be repeating biographical information until the end of our lives.

AL: I hope you will not have to explain who Palacký is again! The project took over ten years— how did it evolve, especially with the changing political environment within Europe?

BT: When we started work on this project, we were still facing the optimist moment of European integration. There was a need for a common European story to tell. And we did not want to create a superficial, positive discrimination narrative, where you would pick one person from each country and say they are ‘integrated’. Rather, we wanted to provide those engaging seriously with the idea of a European story with a framework with which one would have to negotiate. All the while, of course, not arrogating to ourselves the claim to tell the final story, or final truth. The project was intended much more as playing a Popperian game of putting together some working hypothesis that could be falsified. It is meant as an intellectual provocation, and we hope that people will engage in the dialogue it proposes and, if need be, demolish our interpretative framework.

AL: And did you see the comparative and transnational intellectual lenses diverge or conflict at all? Did you primarily approach it as a transnational project?

MK: As comparativists, we are rather suspicious of attempts to create transnationalism for its own sake. But through our dialogical method, we arrived at a genuinely transnational story that emerged quite naturally. Rereading the book, I am surprised at how much it is there!

BT: Yes, we tried for a transnationalism from below—not a transnational story that is illustrated with national actors, but one that starts from local, provincial or regional contexts of identification and gradually gives rise to non-national space as an actor.

AL: How did this collaborative praxis shape your own work? And were there unexpected discoveries?

BT: The stakes of the work changed radically between 2007 and 2018. Although we started with a framework that sought to redress European imbalances, it became clear in political culture and European fragmentation by the end of the process that these kinds of East-West cleavages are not going away. Our story is not the owl of Minerva flying and overcoming this cleavage. If our project could appear as a regionalist, self-reproducing marginalization, the advent of Trump and Brexit put things into global perspective! In my case, I was suddenly forced to deal with very contemporary history. I am trained as an early modernist, but over the last five years, most of my intellectual history has focused on the last two decades, trying to understand what happened.

MK: I would say the project enabled us to overcome both our ingrained nationalist and regional stereotypes, including certain mythologies like the Kunderian Central European myth that has been severely criticized since the 1990s by both cultural figures from and scholars working on the Balkans. This regional myth is obviously something the political actors of the region toy with, but it also projects itself into the settings of comparativist work, which we generally find positive and which has its own self-regulatory mechanisms. My own research sometimes runs the risk of becoming a “Visegrád story” (e.g. focusing on the “core” dissident cultures of East Central Europe such as Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian). But once you add Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Romania and others to the picture, this Visegrád self-centeredness gets really watered down.

Mykola Kostomarov (1817–1885), Ukrainian historian and romantic poet, author of a landmark essay “Two Russian Nationalities”

BT: Yes, our project is not only asking Europeans to look into the canon from the outside—we forced ourselves to do the same. When we worked on dissent, for example, we did not start with Czechoslovakia or Poland, and the usual figures like Adam Michnik. We realized that there is, in fact, a vastly overlooked story of 1960s Ukraine, which is preceding the happenings in the non-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and which features the relationship between national and civil society-based dissent as a natural part of the story.

MK: There is a canonical story about how dissident movements came about—the Helsinki effect, KOR, ROPCiO, Charter 77—but as Balazs says, once you get the Ukrainian story or the Baltic story next to the Polish one, you see that there is a whole spectrum of oppositional activities throughout the region, only with different stresses in different countries. This also helps overcome the self-mythologization of dissidents after 1989, which often occurred less because they intended it than because they told their stories so many times. But in addition to derailing canonical stories, we found fields of new research topics through our effort towards synthetic history, including theoreticians of authoritarian state-socialist governance in the 1970s and 1980s, which included industrial and social management, political sociology or the theory of authoritarian socialist Rechtsstaat.

Mihail Manoilescu (1891–1950), Romanian economist, journalist and politicians, prominent thinker of corporatism

AL: When reading the volumes, I am struck by the patterns I had previously been unaware of between thinkers and movements, say agrarian political economists in Romania and Latvia. How did you negotiate the synchronicity or divergence between geographically diverse intellectuals? Sometimes there is some connection between them, other times none.

BT: We were trying to take a soft approach to causality, avoiding a single master narrative but also the simple aggregation of individual positions. In Hayden White’s terms, we were situated somewhere between a contextualist and an ideographic method. In some cases, we had a hunch  that similarities might not be a coincidence, but in the case of other figures, it was interesting to discover that there was no link whatsoever, even though the debate was unfolding similarly—in which case we would discuss a certain regional predicament rather than genealogy.

AL: Covering so many national contexts (and over two hundred years!), how did you actually come to select the intellectuals that you included in the volumes, and those you excluded? Was there a systematic process?

BT: We played a sort of ironic game and created a ranking system. On the first level were constitutive figures, those present on the international stage, who we were expected to engage with—the Masaryks, Havels, and Michniks. On the second level, we had figures that were important on the local level, but not on the transnational. Third came illustrative figures for a given phenomenon. We called them “three star,” “two star,” and “one star,” partly reflecting the level of hotels we were staying in. This was a mnemotechnical way to ensure none of the “three star” figures were missing.

MK: This actually became a very pragmatic tool for prioritizing while discussing things with six authors and many other people involved in the project. Categorizing whether someone that was being discussed was “two star” or “three star” helped us work out the basic narrative structure, in the sense of “these fourteen people have to appear in the national communism chapter” etc. It was a truly collective undertaking, and some of our friends joked that we were reviving a form of Soviet collective writing-group practice! The volumes were simply not written by one author, and we consciously pushed back against the pervasive myth of the genius author in the hermeneutic sciences.

Editorial Core Group of History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe: Maciej Janowski, Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, Maria Falina, Michal Kopeček, Monika Baár, and Balázs Trencsényi.

AL: Do you have any goals for how the volumes should be received within, and beyond, the region?

BT: We always joked that the death of the book would be the East Central European historians who only look at the few lines per chapter that are about their own national culture and comment: “You chose intellectual A and B. But how come you left out C, they were just as important!” And we have indeed encountered this kind of myopic nationalist reaction, where readers were only interested in how their own culture is represented. Our response was always: “Please, skip reading about the culture you know best!”

MK: I am confident that the project will reach not only regional specialists. It has a strong narrative and can also be used as a compendium, even though it was not structured this way. If you are working on agrarian populism in one or two countries, you can see how the concept operates within the whole region. And we hope that it will reach historians in the so-called Western canon and aid their efforts to rethink the European narrative, as we provide enough points of connection for them to engage us. Our dream would be that it is read by students of the region we are writing about, leading them to rethink their own stories through the broader comparative framework we provide.

BT: We should not forget that the volumes were able to get published at the very moment that the publishing world is collapsing. If this project had been published ten years ago, there would have been enough institutional infrastructure for it to be translated into five languages. Today, I am afraid, we are reencountering stark cleavages with the rise of the populist right and the retrenchment of the nationalist narrative, which is not only for pensioners and frustrated margins, it is socializing students and present more than ever in the educational system. In this environment, if the text is not translated from the English, it might miss entire regional readerships—which would be a shame, given that we are deconstructing nationalisms through contextualization, not through parodies or self-denial.

AL: Finally, the key question: did you enjoy it?

MK: Immensely! It was a lot of hard work, but mostly of the joyous kind. We struggled most with the post-1989 chapter. In a field like intellectual history, you feel a need for distance, and we were children of this transition period. As Balázs mentioned, we had anticipated it ending in a happy European unification story, but the moment that we realized this was not going to be the case with the contemporary political situation, we knew our projected ending had to change as well. Showcasing the development of political thought in this region is our contribution to a self-reflection of political cultures, which took on, next to our scholarly engagement, a kind of civic duty in the last few years.

BT: It mattered that people involved in the project knew each other from before, and that there was a sort of moral and intellectual commitment we shared. I think all of us probably felt a certain personal responsibility. It was a common journey. And with the unexpected nature of our funding, there was a sense that this was a ‘never before and never again’ opportunity to actually do something bigger. This bound us together too. ~

A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe is published in two volumes by Oxford University Press.


Michal Kopeček is Head of the Ideas and Concepts Department at the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague, and Co-Director of Imre Kertész Kolleg, Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.

Balázs Trencsényi is Professor in the Department of History, Central European University Budapest. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is Co-Director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill).

This project was funded by ERC grant no. 204477, hosted by the Center for Advanced Study, Sofia.

Alex Langstaff is a Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at New York University. He has recently written on the Begriffsgeschichte of crisis, and the relationship between Ernst Kantorowicz and Hans Blumenberg.

Intellectual history nationalism Political history political theory

Vincenzo Cuoco: Moderation as a Revolutionary Act

By Contributing Writer Thomas Furse

In a letter to a fellow republican during the 1799 Neapolitan Revolution, Vincenzo Cuoco proclaimed, ‘our philosophers, my dear friend, are often deceived by the idea of something excellent which is the worst enemy of the good’ (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 228). Politicians and revolutionaries have often grappled for the perfect constitution or government; defeat in this pursuit appears tantamount to failure. For Italian thinker Vincenzo Cuoco (1770 – 1823), revolutionary failure in 1799 brought him exile, but his optimism for progress did not recede. He reflects on this in his book, Saggio Storico sulla rivoluzione di Napoli (Historical Essay on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799), which ascribes the failure of the Neapolitan Revolution to the rupture between the revolutionaries and the people they were meant to be liberating.  

Several republican revolutions sprang up against tyrannical governments at the end of eighteenth century. The Neapolitan Revolution followed the republican revolutions in America, France, the Brabant revolution in Belgium (1789-90), and the United Irish rebellion (1798). Each of these revolutions had radical and conservative factions that disagreed on what should come after the seizure of power. Cuoco, however, developed a moderate, even conservative path to instituting a republican government. He was an administrator for the new government that with French support overthrew King Ferdinand of Naples. But the republic lasted only six months. Popular discontent, royalist conspiracies, mismanagement by the republican government, and military defeats restored the old monarchy. During the restoration, a royalist terror campaign executed revolutionaries with a bloodthirstiness that politicians across Europe denounced. Luckily, Cuoco escaped.

According to Cuoco, the roots of republican defeat lay in Italy with the revolutionaries themselves. The revolutionaries were too enamoured with the 1789 French Revolution. He declared, ‘the French Revolution was understood by only a few, was approved of by even fewer, and wanted by almost nobody,’(Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 42). For Cuoco, Italians’ failure came from their attempt to transfer the ‘alien ideology’ of abstract rationalism from Jacobin France to southern Italy. He created the term ‘passive revolution’ to explain this, which he imputed to the separations in society. ‘Passive revolution’ diagnosed that Italian revolutionaries had the ideological fervor and resources necessary to overthrow the monarchical power, but that the people felt apathetic, or worse, hostile to revolutionary change.  

Cuoco had studied law in Naples, which was one of the largest cities in Europe and a center of the Italian and European enlightenments. His participation in this intellectual culture led to working for the economist, Giuseppe Maria Galanti, a critic of feudalism and aristocratic power. From this, Cuoco grew sympathetic to calls for democracy and republicanism. Although not aligned with the radical Jacobinism that captured many southern intellectuals, Cuoco engaged in political debates in Naples and later during his exile. He always remained ideologically flexible, from supporting the republican revolution in 1799, to working for monarchs, Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat, in 1806 and 1808.


From Saggio Storico and his 1799 letters to Vincenzio Russo we get the impression that Cuoco understood that radicalism was not the answer. He turned to study the revolution not out of deep disappointment, but ‘to alleviate the leisure and tedium of exile.’ In this light, Cuoco positions himself as a detached observer. These letters illustrate a much stronger line against a French-inspired Jacobin constitution. The precise date of these writings is debatable, and they may have even been fictitious to bolster Cuoco’s intellectual standing. But certainly the letters show that Cuoco remained active in Italian political debates after June 1799 (de Francesco, Naples in the Enlightenment, 170-171). Combined with the short and relatively self-contained chapters in Saggio storico, it indicates that Cuoco wanted people to read his work—and learn from it. He was in the battle to explain European politics, and his involvement in this was a radical act that could be punished. Saggio Storico lists how the revolutionaries were separated from almost everyone else, and that this chasm was the main obstacle to success. Cuoco suggested that the concerns of ordinary people barely registered with the revolutionaries, many of whom were aristocrats. The French troops who initially drove away King Ferdinand became reluctant to give full support to the new republican government and abandoned it. Cuoco proclaimed that the French moreover worked against the republicans when they disarmed them. This frustrated attempts to recreate the king’s old army as a republican army. The lazzaroni, the staunchly monarchist lower class, deepened the division between the government and the people.

Based on this postmortem, Cuoco advocated that a middle path could harmonize social relations during a revolution. He displayed his democratic zeal and moderation concurrently: ‘the secret of revolutions is this: to know what all the people want, and to do that… the obsession with reforming everything leads inevitably to counter-revolution’ (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 96). We could dismiss this as ideological incoherence. But for Cuoco, respecting tradition and enacting reforms was the path to power. Successful revolutionaries had to tack toward prudent reform to succeed in their aims. In this insistence, Cuoco leans away from the conservatism of Edmund Burke in Reflections (1790), and more toward a reforming attitude for democratic politics and governance.   

This emphasis on practical considerations shaped his vision for a united Italy. Distinctive patterns of local life had to organically relate to a new national space, and not be forced to change. Accordingly, starry-eyed radicalism and foreign support could not deliver a fair and just government. For a united Italy, he argued that federation had significant drawbacks, but also ‘infinite advantages.’ Although Cuoco does not name it, his argument was in remarkable contrast to the centralized Jacobin government of revolutionary France. An all-powerful government would be like a ‘single eye’ with a ‘single arm.’ Yet, in a federal system power would be better dispersed among the people and the elites. A federation could respect local needs and forge a new Italian political space. Cuoco’s argument throughout Saggio storico, among his other works, became a mainspring for the ideas behind the Italian Risorgimento from 1815 to 1871. His moderate path inspired the conservative politics of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, who succeeded in uniting Italy with Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861.

Saggio storico does not present us a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that would match the rise, establishment, and fall of the Neapolitan Republic. Instead, it judges how and why the republic failed. There are relatively discrete chapters on military strategy and public order, and more philosophical tracts on the nature of liberty and how property law ought to reflect social equality in a republic. By reflecting on the revolution this way, Cuoco conveys the problems of installing a government led by a small group detached from the populace. The new government could not solve all the mounting and simultaneous problems, from public order to guarding liberty, from education reform to repealing feudalism. In one chapter, Cuoco points out that the new government gave the appearance of organization, but neglected its ‘most essential part’— communication (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 162). The government did not engage with other parts of Italy, communicate orders to the provinces—or even between government departments. Saggio storico, like his other work, Platone in Italia (Plato in Italy), catches him looking back to failure, and forward to the hope of progress.


Cuoco writes in his conclusion, ‘destiny is ensuring that the kings strive to prepare the work attempted unsuccessfully by the republicans’ (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 223). For Cuoco, failure and success are joined; the roots of one are enmeshed in the progress of the other. The brutal restoration of King Ferdinand in 1799 after the republic’s end had sown seeds for the next revolution. His reflections then are not a surrender of hope, but a polemical intervention for the possibility of progress. This informs his grasp of passive revolution—a positive event that simultaneously carries its own destruction. 

What Cuoco adds to the idea of revolution is that failure does not scramble all hope. If we learn from the event, it can still lead to success in the long-run. What’s more, his moderate attitudes posit that revolution is not necessarily a radical shock, but a slower shift that continually builds on a set of malleable, but home-grown, political ideas. In a time of radical Jacobinism and reactionary monarchs, Cuoco presents us with moderation as a revolutionary act. He invites us to see that success is made in connections, and that revolutionaries do not have to be perfect, but instead have to hold oppositional and contrasting ideas and values together. Neither failure nor success is absolute and final.   

Thomas Furse is a Ph.D student at City, University of London. He is researching American foreign policy, specifically the history of strategic thought. He is interested in Antonio Gramsci and related thinkers.

Twitter: @TomFurse and email: 

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Political Survivors. In conversation with Prof. Emma Kuby

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani talks with Professor Emma Kuby about her new work Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight against Concentration Camps after 1945 (Cornell, 2019).

Ancient Classics empire history of science Mediterranean Political history

Divi filius: The Comet of 44 BCE and the Politics of Late Republican Rome

By guest contributor Dora Gao

Celestial objects and events have appeared in the historical record for a myriad of reasons, serving as portents of either fortune or doom or asserting the divine authority of a ruler. The comet of 44 BCE is one example of the way in which astronomy played a role in political narratives, given its use to legitimate the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) as a significant and serious figure in the politics of the late Roman Republic. We can look at the fact of this comet’s occurrence and its interpretation as a case study to examine the use of celestial phenomena as a sociopolitical tool.

The comet of 44 allegedly appeared in the sky over the funeral games that Octavian had put on for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in July of that year. As Octavian himself would later write in his Memoirs, “On the very days of my games, a comet (sidus crinitum) was visible over the course of seven days, in the northern region of the heavens (= near Ursa Major). It rose at about the eleventh hour of the day (= ~5 – 6:15 PM) and was bright and plainly seen from all lands” (Memoirs, fr. 6 [Malcovtai], translation and interpretation by Ramsey and Licht). According to Octavian’s testimony, “the common people believed the comet to signify that the soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods” (Memoirsfr. 6 (Malcovtai)).

The comet and its interpretation had significant ramifications given the political climate of the late Roman Republic. With a growing schism between the conservative senatorial faction and popular politicians that culminated in the assassination of Caesar and threatened open civil war, the Roman Senate was facing a leadership vacuum. Though Caesar had named Octavian as his son in his will, Octavian was only eighteen years old with no political or military experience at the time, and had been adopted by Caesar only months before. There was no reason for the Roman Senate to view him as a legitimate contender for leadership. The fortuitous appearance of the comet in July, then, presented an opportunity for Octavian to distinguish himself. 

In order to examine the role that the comet of 44 played in Roman politics, it is first necessary to evaluate whether there was any comet at all. Though some may argue that the existence of the comet is secondary to its impact on Roman history, it is important, for our purposes, to question whether the comet’s existence in Augustan imagery may have been prompted by an actual celestial event. Such an inquiry is necessary to distinguish whether political messages were created in response to astronomical phenomena, or whether existing methods of discourse regarding heavenly bodies alone shaped the form of propaganda. The case for the comet certainly appears suspect, given that the first attestation of its existence is from Octavian’s own Memoirs. Astronomers, furthermore, would ideally verify any comet with six unique parameters and then use the information to cross reference with a catalogued comet, but the paucity of rigorous astronomical data on this comet from our ancient sources makes it impossible to verify its existence under these standards.

Despite these problems, we cannot  say conclusively that the comet did not exist. First, the Romans were not particularly disciplined about their stargazing at this time; thus, the lack of any astronomical records is not indicative of the lack of astronomical events. Second, the fact that the comet cannot be identified in our existing catalogue does not necessarily mean that it did not appear over Rome. The best orbital reconstruction scholars have managed given available data indicates that the comet likely would have had an unstable orbit that takes several hundred years to complete. As such, it likely would have been thrown off course before it returned to Earth to be catalogued during a second viewing (Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games, 124-5). 

So scholars cannot rule out the existence of the comet from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, historical context and Roman attitudes towards celestial phenomena provide a compelling case  for its occurrence . The Romans, up to Octavian’s time, had viewed comets as bearers of misfortune and did not often receive them with optimism (e.g. Cicero, De Divinatione If there had in fact been a comet, one can imagine that Octavian might have felt the need for an interpretation advantageous to himself—or, at the very least, as something less ominous than usual readings of a comet, especially in light of the political situation at Rome. If there had been no comet, however, Octavian would have picked a surprisingly inconvenient object to construct in his favor. In addition to the traditional stigma attached to comets, a bright object that allegedly could have been seen from all lands and that remained in the sky for seven days would have by no means been an easy event to fake. More likely than not, then, the appearance of a comet in Octavian’s earliest messaging was due to a real, unexpected celestial phenomenon.

If the evidence suggests that the comet of 44 did indeed exist, the next question we must ask is how did Octavian deal with this phenomenon? Interestingly, the appearance of the comet in Octavian’s early political imagery was not the result of existing Roman discourse regarding the positive significance of comets. Instead, it was a response to a natural event of ominous nature which was then reinterpreted and redefined within a new and specific political context. By claiming the comet to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s deification, Octavian was also asserting himself as a divi filius, the son of a god. Such a statement had two immediately advantageous effects for the eighteen year-old: first, it established a clear legitimizing link between himself and his adoptive father; and second, it allowed him to showcase his commitment to filial and religious piety. 

Denarius minted by Augustus depicting himself on the obverse, the comet of 44 and divus Iulius (the divine Julius) on the reverse, c. 19-18 BCE (

Octavian’s bond with his adoptive father was tenuous compared to Caesar’s long-time relationships with his trusted generals and advisors. The teenage Octavian’s only legitimizing quality lay in his adoption by Caesar, and he thus would have benefited greatly from creating additional connections. Octavian had already begun to strengthen the relationship through the funeral games, themselves a public display of Octavian’s filial piety towards his late father. His declaration of Caesar’s apotheosis during those games would have further validated the association, since Caesar’s soul was rising to heaven during the time at which his son chose to honor him. 

Given the love for Caesar that the people of Rome held at this time, this ostentatious display of the link between Octavian and his adoptive father led both the general public and Caesar’s troops to view the former in favorable light and as a worthy successor to their beloved Caesar. This one claim would have been key in helping Octavian win the support he needed from the people and the legions, both vital constituencies for gaining political footing in Rome (Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 34).

The comet, as a symbol of Julius Caesar’s divinity, furthermore, granted Octavian the occasion to display both filial and religious piety and portray himself as a responsible youth dedicated to the moral traditions of the Republic. This in turn helped Octavian win the trust of the Senate and his first military command, aiding Decimus Brutus, upon whom Antony was laying siege at Mutina in 43. Indeed, the orator Cicero, who had been unwaveringly suspicious of Octavian only months before, wrote a letter to one of his confidants announcing his support of the protective force (praesidium) that the outstanding youth (puer egregious) had raised for the res publica (Cicero, Fam. XII 25.4). In a political landscape where Octavian needed to build his moral credibility over more seasoned politicians and generals, the comet provided him a way to capitalize upon an astronomical event and demonstrate his commitment to the Republic.

While we certainly cannot go so far as to say that the comet alone catalyzed Octavian’s rise within Roman politics, we can draw a clear narrative line between the fortuitous appearance of a celestial event and its appearance within the early self-fashioning of Rome’s first emperor. Though Roman political discourse had previously incorporated other celestial events, the use of comets as a symbol of divinity was a precedent set by Octavian through the comet of 44. For example, Suetonius writes that Vespasian famously joked, upon seeing a comet on his deathbed, “Woe’s me. Methinks I’m turning into a god” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.4). His interpretation of this phenomenon and the ways in which he used its appearance for his own political gain demonstrate both the role that astronomy played in the political life of Rome as well as its potential to shape the way in which Romans conceived of imperial legitimacy.

Dora Gao is an MA student in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in the mythology and cult worship of Diana/Artemis and the ways in which they inform the construction of identity for various groups under the Roman Empire.