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Left, Liberal or Social Democrat? Traversing Political Affiliation in Recent US Intellectual History

By Christopher Sarjeant

Students of intellectual and political history, interested in the modern American left, face an acute ambiguity. In thinking about the modern American left, what metrics should we select when attempting to distinguish true believers from liberals? A commitment to the traditional logics of class inequality or an emphasis on identity politics? Protection for workers or open borders? The pursuit of common values or the celebration of cultural difference? We frequently find ourselves dealing with terminologies and ideological labels that contain both historical and analytical valence.

In the case of my own research, focused on the recent history of a group of what many scholars continue to refer to as “left-liberals”, matters continue to remain complicated. Here I find myself in a double bind — hampered not only by competing interpretations of the left but also by the ever evolving characteristics of what historian Gary Gerstle famously described as the uniquely “protean” traditions of American liberalism. While on the one hand, the notion of a “left-liberal” might make perfect historical sense — think back to an era in which liberals and leftists were clearly divided over the big questions of the day, most of which tended to revolve around the economy and the role of the state — its analytical or descriptive currency has been largely devalued in an age in which a different set of questions have become predominant and in which scholars and pundits alike, argue over the extent to which the two parties still exist in any kind of adversarial relationship, if at all.

It is in this context that I have found myself drawn to the somewhat overlooked category of social democracy in an effort to re-establish key ideological and intellectual anchor points capable of tethering the thematic strands of my research whilst preserving the political contours of the left/liberal debate themselves. While historians of the U.S. may once have had good cause to dismiss the typically European-inflected traditions of social democracy in favour of more Americanised hybrid forms, the moment to reassess its utility as a descriptive device has arrived.

Whatever the historically evolving complexities of American liberalism, the principle causes of today’s taxonomic confusion lies in recent transformations within the left. Many—like the celebrated essayist and academic Louis Menand—locate the origins of these transformations in the rise of the New Left during the 1960s, a time when “individual freedom and authenticity” became primary goals of “political action”. Historian Rhodri Jeffries-Jones on the other hand, places greater emphasis on a moment sometime during the early 1970s when the New Left itself was forced to give way to an even “Newer Left” determined to “diversif[y] beyond the goals of socialism, opposition to the Vietnam War, antipoverty and civil rights”. In either case, as these changes took hold, so the effects were the same: the older distinguishing characteristics of the left — its emphasis on class solidarity, its faith in nation-building — were gradually joined, or displaced, by new categories and commitments.

Writing in 1998, the cultural historian Eric Lott gave explicit voice to the primacy of these new commitments. “[B]lacks, Latinos, women, queers and others”, he argued, had “transformed the very meaning of “the poor””. Activists engaged in the politics of the resulting “new social movements” had in fact not given up on economic justice as some critics argued, rather they had recognised that any attempt to line said groups up behind the universalist nostrums of the old left risked divesting them of the very autonomy they had fought so long to establish. Those that chose not to confront this paradox head on, Lott argued, revealed themselves to be heirs to that peculiar American religion that preached universalism on the one hand whilst jealously guarding the privileges of a select few on the other. In the hands of “Boomer liberals” as he branded a particular set of opponents, “class solidarity” functioned like “colorblindness”: as a rallying cry for a group of ex-radical white males engaged in a rear-guard action to protect not only their influence at the intellectual apex of the post-war left itself but also their new found status as court intellectuals for a new Democratic establishment wholly set against substantive reform.

Whatever the force of Lott’s accusations — and it is certainly true that the movement he sought to skewer was predominantly both white and male — twenty years later, not all historians perceive much distance between traditional liberal values and the aims and assumptions of Lott’s radical left itself. Doug Rossinow, for instance, notes that however hard radicals railed against the various Enlightenment-derived axioms in which American liberals have traditionally placed their trust, they themselves consistently struggled to find alternative grounds upon which to stake out their own campaigns. Fellow historian Andrew Hartman, a committed Marxist, has taken this a stage further. The very reason that the left was so successful in “radicaliz[ing]…the culture” in the wake of the 1960s, he has argued, is precisely because its aims “aligned” so readily with the “liberal tradition” against which it set itself up in putative opposition. For Hartman, this alignment possesses disturbing consequences, diverting attention within the left away from collective notions of the “social good” and training them instead on questions of “individual ascent”. He argues that this process has intensified with the rise of modern identity politics and consequently, the left’s appetite and ability to resist the “neoliberal dismantling of the social welfare state” has receded.

Support for at least some aspect of Hartman’s interpretation comes from a different point on the ideological spectrum: not all who perceive the connection between identity-based politics and the traditions of American liberalism are critical of the relationship. For historian Kevin Mattson, it is quite the reverse: in his eyes, modern campaigns to end racial, gendered and sexual injustice ground themselves in the very best of an American liberal tradition. In its rejection of overly simplistic solutions— the reductive economic populism promoted by Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, whom Eric Lott places squarely in the “Boomer Liberal camp”, and more recently Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders— the post-war liberal tradition underwrites the kind of pluralistic space in which alternative viewpoints and analysis can be heard. In Mattson’s view, these figures belong to the left precisely because they construe power as operating “purely on a socioeconomic axis”. It is the mark of the liberal, Mattson argues, to observe that questions of power are in reality a good deal more complex and multifaceted than that.

It is here, that the somewhat schizophrenic contemporary nature of what were once comparatively solid categories comes into view. We are not simply dealing with divergent political viewpoints, rather we are encountering profoundly different linguistic approaches to political history. When Eric Lott invokes a term like “Boomer liberal”, it is not in an attempt to highlight the general openness and pluralism of his chosen subject, but rather an effort to associate them historically with a tradition that, according to many critics, has repeatedly failed to live up to the weight of its own promises. Both Hartman and Mattson meanwhile, despite their divergent aims, base their definitions on a more analytical interpretation; they define the category of liberalism in accordance with the varying promises (openness, pluralism, individual freedom) made on behalf of liberalism itself.

The shift from the analytical to the historical is well illustrated by dwelling further on Rorty, Gitlin and at least some of those others whom Lott described as “Boomer Liberals”.  In their case, a signature preference for at least some form of socialist-inspired economic organization, on the one hand, combined with a strong defense of the legitimating moral force of democracy on the other, has led many historians to continue to refer to the group as “left-liberal” — a choice which does benefit at least from the virtue of taking this particular subset of historical actors at their word.

Nevertheless, a problem remains. Were we discussing the group in relation to debates within the left occurring prior to the process of diversification, when — to paraphrase Andrew Hartman’s underlying historical conceit — an explicitly Marxist left continued to work to establish itself in direct “tension” with the very traditions (as opposed to historical failures) of American liberalism, we would probably raise little objection. But, in relation to debates that occurred some two decades after the cultural turn of the 1970s — debates that in one guise or another spoke directly to the formation of new cleavages and diversification of interests that followed — we are liable to experience a sense of disorientation. It is by no means necessary to embrace the full, critical implications of Andrew Hartman’s analysis to ask in what sense Todd Gitlin’s call for a reaffirmation of “liberal” patriotism, Richard Rorty’s ethnocentric pragmatism, the political theorist Michael Walzer’s thinking on the various cultural and structural limits of equality, or the critic Susan Linfield’s defense of value judgement in the arts as metaphor for their application in the sphere of public ethics, can be usefully located on the “liberal” left of a contemporary radical movement likely to perceive such positions as markedly less liberal than their own views on corresponding issues? What we may at very least have to concede at this point is that in its diversification, the political and ideological landscape around us has outpaced the vocabulary available to describe it.

It is here that the turn to social democracy offers a solution. Despite the fact that a number of Lott’s “Boomers” themselves used terms like liberalism and social democracy interchangeably on occasion, rarely did they consider the two traditions one and the same. It is precisely here, in the points at which social democracy departs from the liberal creed that we can plant ideological stakes in the ground and attempt to resolve the potential contemporary paradoxes invoked by use of the term “left-liberalism”.  

Writing for the political quarterly Dissent in 2013, the former Princeton philosopher, Avishai Margalit laid out some of social democracy’s core distinguishing characteristics: its faith in community; its commitment to institution building; its belief that national borders continue to represent the tangible limits of “effective” solidarity. This moves us beyond the contentious dichotomy between class and identity politics and trains our attentions to more analytical themes. For Margalit, what, above all, singles out the social democratic worldview and underpins all other commitments, is its insistence that the pursuit of the good life should be thought of as a profoundly “intersubjective” process – one neither formulated according to any “objective” standard, nor left entirely up to the “subjective” conscience of the individual. Within this framework, he explains, “equality” is to be seen as a “means” rather than an “end”. 

Margalit’s taxonomy is, naturally, a subjective one. We should be careful not to overdetermine the distinctions between social democracy and other left-leaning ideological traditions, and we should be alert to the fact that not all self-identifying social democrats ascribe to precisely the same ways of thinking. Nevertheless, taken as a starting point for moving beyond the somewhat restrictive left/liberal dualism familiar to historians of US political and intellectual history, a reconsideration of ideo-political categories like social democracy offer compelling ways of navigating the otherwise complex range of caveats required to switch between the historical and analytical idioms with fluency and precision. In the effort to make sense of the shifting sands of recent progressive debate in the United States, it becomes clear that whatever the varied responses to the “diversification” of the left from a political standpoint, for historians and other dispassionate observers, a parallel diversification of the language used to talk about and observe the left is long overdue.


Christopher Sarjeant is currently a PhD candidate at University College London’s Institute of the Americas. His core research interests focus on the modern intellectual history of the American left with a particular emphasis on both the domestic and foreign policy debates of the 1990s.

Featured Image: The United States Capitol. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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“Through Nature We Know God”: Religion and Science in Early Modern Dutch Periodicals

By Charlotte Meijer

The Dutch Enlightenment has often been characterized as moderate and protestant compared to its counterparts elsewhere in Europe. This was partly because, as Dorothée Sturkenboom has argued, thinkers in the Netherlands sought to unite Christian revelation and reason, rather than using reason to critique Christian thought. Moreover, as has been shown by Eric Jorink, the discourse on the so-called liber naturae, or book of nature, was more uniform in the Netherlands than in other European countries. One characteristic expression of these beliefs was the idea that good Christian practice involved improving one’s knowledge of the natural world.

In the following, I will explore how ideas about religion and the natural world were connected in the Dutch press, using examples from three periodicals which have thus far received relatively little attention from historians: the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker (The Sensible Scientist, 1751-1753), the Natuurkundige Verlustigingen (Natural Delights, 1769-1778) and the Ryk der Natuur en der Zeeden (The Empire of Nature and Morals, 1770-1772). Research by Joost Kloek and Wijnand Mijnhardt estimates the number of publications in the eighteenth century to be double what it had been in the previous century, with about 200,000 titles published. Periodicals like the three addressed here—which were not quite newspapers, but not ‘regular’ journals either—would appear around two to three times a week, with themes ranging from science and news to satire and opinion. Their contents reflect changes on the political and intellectual scene both domestically and abroad: as the Enlightenment spread around the world, the Netherlands was building towards a year of revolution. In 1795, the ruling house of Orange collapsed, and revolutionaries seized power with the help of French allies.

The Dutch Republic was a promising place to explore new (religious) ideas. Historians still generally agree the Dutch were relatively tolerant in religious matters, but religious freedom differed by religion and by jurisdiction. Toleration, moreover, relied less on benevolence and more on the fact that the Dutch Reformed Church was itself a minority, so it would have harmed political stability and prosperity—and been practically impossible—to engage in widespread religious persecution. Nonetheless, this relative openness made an attractive refuge for people whose religion or ideas weren’t tolerated in their own country. Indeed, as Geert Janssen has argued, even contemporaries characterized the early modern Netherlands as the ‘republic of the refugees.’

In this unique context, according to Ernestine van der Wall, the European trend of theology losing its hold on intellectual culture and being replaced by new philosophies had distinctive effects. Across the continent, one religious response to this trend was the rise of physico-theology. This movement used new scientific findings to make arguments for divine creation, examining the relationship between nature and God. Dutch intellectuals quickly adopted this approach under the name godgeleerde natuurkunde.

The most common strategy for uniting God and nature was to describe nature as a second book of revelation, as Jorink’s study of the liber naturae demonstrates. Although the idea of the liber naturae could be found in many Protestant countries, it was only explicitly included in the confession of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker, written by the Dutch doctor Johannes Wilhelmus Heyman (1709-1774), we find one of the clearest expressions of this idea of nature as a book of Scripture:

Because the most honored and revered book of H. Scripture, through which the Supreme Being has liked to reveal himself to us humans, consists, so to speak, as of two parts, of which the first is Nature, and the second the Revelation, and of which the latter steadily exhorts us to consider the first. Both should therefore be considered with great attention

p. iv; 1777

Heyman emphasizes how the world is a ‘stage’ that proves the existence of a perfect, eternal Supreme Being, who is both the creator and organizer of everything (p. v; 1777). He even declares how lucky he is to be alive at a time in which people have been ‘pulled from the former darkness’ and ‘put in broad daylight’ (p. vii; 1777), a clear reference to the Enlightenment and a reminder that these ideas were (at least partly) inspired by what Anne-Charlott Trepp characterizes as the ‘rational cognition of nature inspired by the Enlightenment’ (p.137; 2020). According to Ann Blair and Kaspar von Greyerz, these ideas of a rational, omnipotent, and wise God who is actively present in the natural world were some of the key characteristics of physico-theology across Europe (p.7-8; 2020). But, in the closing words of the final installment of the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker, Heyman takes this argument further and argues that God has kept caring for ‘miserable’ people even after the Fall, seemingly believing in a God that is still actively involved in human affairs, rather than only as a creator of natural phenomena as many of his contemporaries believed (p. 201; 1777).

The idea of Nature being God’s second book of revelation appeared again in Natuurkundige Verlustigingen, a periodical written by the Dutch amateur zoologist Marinus Slabber (1740-1838). Here Slabber, an elder of the Protestant Waalse Church, describes what he saw as the Christian duty to learn more about God through nature:

But also, on the other hand, the research of Nature is our duty, because of all Creatures here on Earth, we are the most admirably created Creature, gifted with reason, which makes us Human: so we are the most perfect; so that we, above all other creatures, can glorify God in the most perfect way in his complete creation

p. i; 1769

By giving thorough descriptions of insects and organisms that can only be observed through a microscope, Slabber intended to show his readers all of God’s wonders, provoking awe, and, in turn, reverence for God. As shown by Jorink, this idea that even the ‘lowest’ creatures are worthy of attention – and, accordingly, can be used to increase the awe for God – was popularized nearly a century earlier by Dutch scientist Johannes Swammerdam (1637-80).  The Dutch interpretation of physico-theological thought was thus embedded in much older traditions of thinking about God and nature in the Netherlands.

Slabber does not, however, pretend to know everything about every little creature. For example, when he writes about the spinybacked orbweaver (aranea conchata), Slabber observes that the spider has something resembling eyes, although they don’t seem to function as such, and declares that he does not know why the Creator put them there. But ignorance is part of the argument, as he later writes, ‘…we, mortal Creatures, will never know the true goal of the wisest Supreme Being,’ (p. 65-66; 1769). He then proceeds to describe the placement of ‘real’ eyes and argues that their intricacy shows God’s inscrutable wisdom (p. 5-7; 1769). Even unassuming creatures, like worms and fleas, are described with a sense of awe, and are, according to Slabber, ‘worthy of the astonishment of a being gifted with Reason.’ (p. 23; 1769) Using personal scientific insights to show God’s might and care in creating Earth, Slabber’s Natuurkundige Verlustigingen is a prime example of how practitioners of godgeleerde natuurkunde combined the new scientific tradition with the older biblical one.

A second religious response to the growing influence of Enlightenment philosophy was the emphasis on piety. According to recent research by Joke Spaans and Jetze Touber, religion in the eighteenth century ‘gradually distanced itself from its sixteenth century confessional moulds’ and shifted its emphasis to the Christian lifestyle. Piety remained a central aspect of Christian writing and became ‘increasingly identified with civic virtues’ (p. 9; 2019). On the other hand, Blair and Von Greyerz identify a more conflictual aspect to the new literature, with polemics against deism and atheism being one of the main components of physico-theology (p. 7-10; 2020). On this point, there is greater variation between the journals. Although a lack of sources makes it hard to pinpoint why, some authors preferred to emphasize the wonders of God’s creation, hoping to instil emotions of reverence, whereas others used a combination of showing wonders and scare tactics.

For Slabber, despite his role in the Church, the struggle against infidels was less relevant than for the other authors, who were actively opposing the perceived threat of atheism and deism. In the Ryk der Natuur en Zeeden, for example, the authors don’t hide their dislike of ‘people without morals’ and ‘godless’ people. Although originally published in German, the Ryk became popular in the Netherlands once translated. Its sixteenth instalment was dedicated to the question ‘How and when is the best time to tell someone without morals the truth?’ The authors cite the influence of the devil and Beelzebub (p. 121; 1771) and declare war on anyone promoting his ‘follies’ and ‘slander’ (p. 8; 1771). This more confrontational mode shows that physico-theology was not just a way for early modern thinkers to unite ideas about the natural sciences and the biblical tradition out of sheer curiosity, but also a very practical response to socio-religious changes of the time.

Heyman, in the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker, not only warns his readers about the ‘godless’, but also about God’s revenge on them. He claimed that some natural phenomena, such as hail, were created by God as a form of revenge. The hail we know—not big enough to kill people on a large scale, but enough to scare them and occasionally destroy crops—is meant as an example (‘image’) of His ‘awful punishment and judgement of the Godless’ (p. 138;  1777). Here we see a less benevolent view of God as punisher, who not only uses nature to reveal himself but also to warn, and potentially hurt, infidels. To Heyman, this did not make God—a being of ‘infinite Goodness’ (p.iii; 1777) — any less good. On the contrary, it showed how much He cared about the safety of those who do believe. In this context, it is useful to remember that physico-theology was, at least in part, a response to the perceived threat of atheism and deism.

These late eighteenth-century periodicals offer a unique view into the minds of early-modern Reformed thinkers in the Netherlands. The growing influence of new philosophies, the fear that theology was losing its hold on society, and the perceived threats of atheism and deism led intellectuals across Europe to innovatively combine the new (natural) scientific insights of their time with ideas about religion. Far from the view that religion and science are antithetical, these authors regarded the scientific tradition as compatible with, and even proof of, the biblical tradition. It was knowing nature, after all, that would bring them closer to knowing the Creator.

The specific context of the Netherlands is no less interesting in this regard. Due to its climate of relative openness and toleration, the Dutch Republic became a place of international intellectual exchange, which led to stimulating discussions as well as fierce polemics. With the Dutch Reformed Church including the dogma of the liber naturae in its confession, the Dutch Republic proved to be a fertile ground for physico-theological ideas. It’s as if the journals have come full circle: from writing about a religious revelation to, in a sense, becoming a historical one.


Titular quote from Meier, G. F. e.a., Ryk der Natuur en der Zeeden, trans. G. Bom (Amsterdam, 1771).

The author would like to thank Dr. Peter Forshaw for his thoughtful comments on an earlier version of this essay.


Charlotte Meijer is a graduate student in history at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include big history and environmental history.

Featured Image: R. Muys after P.M. Brasser after Martinus Slabber, Spinybacked Orbweaver, 1778, in Natuurkundige Verlustigingen, p. 1.

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Theorizing the 1930s: Black Radicalism, Antifascism and Anticolonialism in Interwar Britain

By Theo Williams

In May 1938, the Trinidadian Marxist and Pan-Africanist, George Padmore, published an extraordinary article—“Why Moors Help Franco”—in the New Leader, the newspaper of the British Independent Labour Party (ILP). The eyes of the international socialist movement were fixed on Spain, where a civil war (1936-1939) between Republican and Nationalist forces was being waged. For many on the Left, the Spanish Civil War was the central battlefield of a global struggle between socialism and fascism. The Communist International formed military units—International Brigades—to fight on behalf of the Popular Front government against the far-right Nationalists. Foreign radicals outside the orbit of the international Communist movement volunteered to fight alongside other socialist and anarchist groups on the Republican side.

“Why Moors Help Franco” provides an insight into the ways in which Black socialist ideas were engaging with and reshaping wider British and global socialist ideas during the 1930s. In the article, Padmore commented on the vitriol directed at the Moroccan troops who formed part of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. He observed that the left-wing press in Britain and elsewhere had called these troops “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” and “mercenaries.” For Padmore, however, the blame did not lie with the Moroccan troops. As he wrote in the article:

It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.

This was a cautionary tale. Padmore urged that “the British workers have much to learn from this tragic affair,” as any socialist government that failed to break from colonialism risked suffering the same fate as the Spanish Republicans. It was the government’s “treachery” that led to the deaths of “the Spanish workers and peasants, on the one hand, and the Moors, on the other.”

Here, Padmore was engaging in a debate that animated many in the British and global socialist movement during the 1930s. He, like many others, sought to explain the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war. Disagreements about the nature of the relationship between these four phenomena go a long way towards explaining left-wing alliances and divisions during this period. Padmore had been a member of the Communist International during the 1920s and early 1930s, and played a crucial role in recruiting and organizing Black workers and trade unionists. He broke from the movement in the mid-1930s. Scholars contest the reasons for this break. It is unclear if Padmore jumped or if he was pushed, but what is indisputable is that during the second half of the 1930s, Padmore and the Communist movement held vastly different conceptions of the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war. While the Communist rallying cry became “against fascism and war”—even if this meant compromising struggles against capitalism and colonialism—Padmore maintained that the only way to truly defeat fascism and war was to overthrow their root causes: capitalism and colonialism.

After advocating an uncompromising “Class against Class” policy from 1928, the Communist International shifted its priorities after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The movement saw Nazi Germany as an existential threat to the Soviet Union, and therefore global communism. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations in September 1934 and signed a treaty of mutual assistance with France in May 1935. The Seventh Congress of the Communist International, held in the summer of 1935, advocated a “Popular Front” against the menace of fascism. This front would include bourgeois elements, so long as they opposed fascism. Communists, in seeking alliances with liberal antifascists in imperial powers like Britain and France, felt the need to moderate their anticapitalism and anticolonialism. The Popular Front enjoyed limited success in Britain, but Popular Front governments were formed in Chile, France and Spain.

By this point, Padmore was a central figure in a group of Black radical activist-intellectuals in London, which included Amy Ashwood Garvey, C. L. R. James, Chris Jones, Jomo Kenyatta, T. Ras Makonnen, and I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. These activist-intellectuals first came together in 1935 as the International African Friends of Ethiopia, in the months before Italy’s invasion of one of only three independent Black-ruled states in the world. They regrouped as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Several of the group’s members—such as Jones and Kenyatta—had also previously been associated with the Communist movement, but broke from the movement as a result of the Popular Front.

As far as the IASB was concerned, the Popular Front made a grave theoretical and programmatic error in compromising anticolonialism in the name of antifascism. For one, the IASB argued that the systems of racial domination created by colonialism and fascism were analogous. More than this, however, the group made the case for a profound relationship between colonialism and fascism. Padmore argued in his 1937 book, Africa and World Peace, that:

Were the imperialists of Britain or France to lose their colonies to-morrow, or were they faced with a challenge for power by their working classes at home, they would dispense with democracy and apply the same ruthless methods of dictatorship at home by which they govern their colonies. About this the white workers in Britain and France should have no illusions. “Democratic” Imperialism and “Fascist” Imperialism are merely interchanging ideologies corresponding to the economic and political conditions of capitalism within a given country on the one hand, and the degree to which the class struggle has developed on the other.

pp. 251-2

For Padmore and the IASB, then, fascism was no aberration from liberal democracy, but the refuge of an embattled bourgeoisie. Liberalism in Europe went hand-in-hand with brutality and racial oppression in the colonies. The possession of colonial empires might help to forestall fascism at home, but also propped up capitalism and was the primary cause of war. Following this logic, it was impossible to separate the struggles against colonialism and fascism. As Padmore concluded in Africa and World Peace, “in the present epoch there is no way out except Social Revolution.”

One especially intriguing aspect of this Black radical politics is the influence it had on the wider British socialist movement, especially in the Independent Labour Party. This influence should compel historians to incorporate the histories of Pan-Africanism and Black radicalism into the history of the British socialist movement as a whole. At its annual conference in 1937, the ILP declared its opposition to “the tactic of the Popular Front, which aims at combining the working class forces with the ‘democratic’ elements within the Capitalist parties in opposition to Fascism and Reaction. This tactic ignores the fact that Fascism and Reaction are inseparable from Capitalism and can only be defeated by the overthrow of Capitalism.” The following year, an article in the New Leader argued that “one of the worst features of the Popular Front Policy advocated by the Communist Party is the betrayal of the colonial workers which it involves.” Although no member of the IASB was officially a member of the ILP (C. L. R. James was once a member, but left in 1936) the two groups were closely allied. The ILP incorporated a range of Black radical ideas into its official thinking, and even let the IASB move into its offices in 1938.

Of course, not every group on the British Left was as receptive to the IASB’s ideas as the ILP. Tensions over questions of capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war played out at the Conference on Peace and Empire, held in London in July 1938. The conference was organized by activists associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. There were fierce debates between those delegates who wished to build a Popular Front, such as the Communist Party and left-wing members of the Labour Party, and those who rejected what they saw as pleas to support colonialist policies under the guise of antifascism, such as the IASB and ILP.

The conference’s general resolution declared that “the national freedom and independence of all colonial countries and subject peoples are indispensable to world peace.” However, the resolution alienated the IASB and ILP by couching the importance of national independence within the language of the “strengthening of the democratic and progressive movements everywhere” and “halting Fascist aggression.” The ILP tabled a series of amendments to explicitly support the self-emancipatory struggles of colonial peoples, and to “correct the emphasis of the resolution” so that independence was demanded as a “death-blow to Imperialism rather than as a means of securing assistance for European ‘democracy.’” T. Ras Makonnen, representing the IASB, asked “How can you have peace with empire? What you really want is peace of mind to continue to loot your empire. In fact we want war not peace, because only war will settle the contradictions latent in this empire, and show how false its pretensions are.” The ILP amendments were defeated, and the general resolution passed. (The Communist-aligned Colonial Information Bureau reported that the resolution passed by an “overwhelming majority,” and the ILP reported it was by a ratio of three-to-one.) Nevertheless, the IASB and ILP were happy to have caused such a stir at a Communist-organized conference.

Seven years later, the ILP’s general secretary, John McNair, extended fraternal greetings to the Fifth Pan-African Congress on behalf of his party. The congress, held in Manchester in October 1945, was primarily organized by IASB members like Makonnen and Padmore. McNair declared that, “We believe, with Lenin, that no nation is free which oppresses any other nation. We must remember that human liberty is absolutely indivisible.” We can see from this address the continuation of a deep comradeship and a set of ideas that offered one way out—a way out not taken—of the crises of the 1930s.


Theo Williams is a lecturer in twentieth-century British history at Durham University. His book Making the Revolution Global: Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation is forthcoming with Verso.

Featured Image: George Padmore smoking, reading and fighting imperialism.

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“You Know It’s Fake, Right?” Fandom and the Idea of Legitimacy in Professional Wrestling

By Aaron D. Horton

When mentioning one’s fandom of professional wrestling to a layperson, the most likely response will be some iteration of the question: “you know it’s fake, right?” Such inquiries, often asked in a derisive and condescending tone, are charged with implications of the fan’s ignorance of professional wrestling’s predetermined nature, amusement that said person would bother watching a “fake” sport, or surprise, even indignation, that an otherwise intelligent individual could be duped into following such a “lowbrow” form of entertainment. Those asking such questions are often fans of so-called legitimate sports, such as football and baseball, or of film, television, and other forms of mainstream entertainment widely considered more acceptable than professional wrestling. “You know it’s fake, right?” assumes that the fan in question is either ignorant of professional wrestling’s “worked”  nature or, more likely, wasting their time watching an illegitimate sport. This is not a new phenomenon. Since the late 1800s, numerous sources in mainstream media have derided pro wrestling as fake, with limited impact on its popularity. While pro wrestling has largely been “worked” since the turn of the twentieth century, promoters and performers began increasingly prizing entertainment value over maintaining the appearance of legitimate contests, with top wrestlers determined increasingly by their looks and popular appeal rather than their actual grappling skills.

Such questions persist, despite the fact that professional wrestling has been increasingly open in the past several decades, with promoters and wrestlers freely admitting to the sport’s predetermined nature. In February 1989, World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon declared to the State of New Jersey Senate that his business’ primary purpose was “providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest,” a move intended to free the WWF from state athletic commission regulation and oversight. McMahon and others’ recent transparency about the performative nature of pro wrestling contrasts sharply with the rigid maintaining of kayfabe throughout most of the sport’s history. Despite widespread openness among promoters, wrestlers, and fans about the fact that wrestling is not a competitive sport in the past several decades, sports media personalities such as Colin Cowherd have continued to deride and mock pro wrestling and its followers. Cowherd notoriously made light of the deaths of Eddie Guerrero (2005) and the Ultimate Warrior (2014) and has repeatedly referred to wrestling fans as “booger eaters” on social media. Cowherd’s attention-seeking sensationalism aside, a brief examination of pro wrestling history will reveal that its fans have almost always prized entertainment value above “legitimacy,” despite ongoing derision from mainstream sports media and numerous exposés from both media and insider sources. Indeed, many fans eagerly embrace wrestling’s recent openness, as the preponderance of WWE-produced behind-the-scenes documentaries, shoot interviews from Kayfabe Commentaries and others, and the publication of seemingly countless memoirs and other books that acknowledge the underlying reality beyond the performance.

Professional wrestling, as detailed by Tim Corvin, Gerald Mortion and George O’Brien, and Scott Beekman among others, emerged in the nineteenth-century United States as a combination of legitimate grappling styles, from collar-and-elbow wrestling, popular among Irish immigrants serving in the Union army during the Civil War, to the misleadingly-named Greco-Roman style (developed and popularized in France), to catch wrestling (from “catch-as-catch-can,” with an emphasis on submission holds such as armlocks, leglocks, and chokes) from Lancashire. Many early matches, such as those involving Greco-Roman grappler William Muldoon, the top star in American pro wrestling in the 1880s, appear to have been a mix of works (predetermined matches) and shoots (legitimate contests). Contemporary newspaper accounts frequently questioned the legitimacy of professional wrestling matches, with regular accusations of “hippodroming” (fakery). For example, a November 14, 1877, article in The Brooklyn Eagle claimed of professional wrestling that “there has scarcely been an important contest in which the result had not been known beforehand.”

A pair of Muldoon’s matches against Clarence Whistler illustrate one likely impetus for wrestling’s shift toward predetermined matches. In 1881 (exact date unknown), the two wrestled to a grueling eight-hour draw in New York City, a likely shoot match the New York Herald referred to as a “torture marathon” (p. 65) that left both competitors bloodied and bruised, and spectators exhausted and frustrated. According to an account in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, their rematch in San Francisco on November 1, 1883, was a far more entertaining affair. The two-of-three falls match featured several spectacular elements, including a quick Muldoon pinfall after a slam in the first fall and a second-fall tumble out of the ring, during which a “desperate gang of toughs” attacked Muldoon, supposedly because they had bet money on Whistler. When the undersized Whistler pinned Muldoon in the second fall, after a series of exciting near falls, the crowd “[jumped] into the main floor, cheering and throwing their hats in the air.” The match was stopped in the third fall after Whistler broke his collarbone when slammed by Muldoon, but the latter agreed to split the $2,000 purse with his opponent as a gesture of respect. While determining the match’s work-shoot ratio is difficult, the contrast with their earlier bout is striking, and implies that the two may have, at the very least, agreed to cooperate to make the match more exciting, even if the outcome was not predetermined.

Many early matches were worked not to entertain, but rather to maximize gambling profits, with many spectators betting throughout the match. Wrestlers would often make it appear one was on the verge of victory, leading to an influx of bets on the “sure” winner, only for the impending loser to make a surprising comeback. The wrestlers had accomplices among the bettors, placing money on the “sure loser,” only to reap considerable profits from the “surprise” ending. Wrestlers and promoters also became increasingly aware of the correlation between matches’ entertainment value and box office receipts. A match with an exciting or controversial finish was far more likely to draw paying spectators to a rematch than a lengthy, dull contest that left fans bored or resentful.

The first pro wrestling superstar, heavyweight Frank Gotch, who drew the then-largest attendance (approx. 30,000) and gate ($87,000) for a September 4, 1911, rematch against rival George Hackenschmidt at Comiskey Park in Chicago, was a skilled shooter who few could likely defeat in a legitimate contest. While his biographer, Mike Chapman, insists that all of Gotch’s matches were shoots, several instances suggest otherwise, chief among them Gotch’s upset loss to Fred Beall on December 6, 1906, in New Orleans. Beall (167 lbs.) pinned Gotch (202 lbs.) in two straight falls after Gotch “accidentally” fell and hit his head either on the mat or ring post, depending on the account. There were a suspiciously high number of bets on Beall to win, and in their rematch for the American heavyweight championship on April 29, 1907, in Chicago, Gotch duly reclaimed his title. The Dawson Daily News account of the rematch claimed that it was “considered an exhibition.” In contemporary newspaper accounts, referring to a match as an “exhibition” was a circumspect way of claiming that it was not a legitimate contest.

In the 1920s, Ed “Strangler” Lewis became wrestling’s top attraction. He and his promotional partners, manager Billy Sandow and former wrestler Joseph “Toots” Mondt, began staging full pro wrestling cards, rather than the single or handful of bouts at past events, with a focus on exciting, entertaining (and entirely worked) matches that would encourage fans to keep spending money to attend events. There were occasional unplanned shoots, usually when a legitimate grappler decided to steal a championship from a “show” wrestler; for example, shooter Dick Shikat, full of animosity toward Lewis’ promotional cartel, submitted champion Danno O’Mahoney, a “show” wrestler who rose to prominence due to his looks and popularity among Irish-Americans, at Madison Square Garden on March 2, 1936. However, the overwhelming majority of matches were held strictly for entertainment purposes, to maximize ticket revenues. Wrestlers such as O’Mahoney and Jim Londos were pushed due to their looks, popularity, and drawing power, rather than any legitimate grappling skill. This was a gradual transition, as some promoters, including Sam Muchnik, founder of the National Wrestling Alliance (1948), and Verne Gagne, founder of the American Wrestling Association (1960), continued to prefer champions who could shoot, including longtime NWA champion Lou Thesz and Gagne himself, ostensibly so they could defend themselves against any attempts at a Shikat-like attempt to “steal” a title. Despite some promoters’ lingering attachments to “legitimacy,” the long-term trend most definitely favored colorful characters over skilled shooters, especially after the beginning of the television era.

As wrestling pivoted increasingly toward entertainment, with more spectacular (and therefore increasingly implausible as legitimate) moves and performances, there was a proportionate increase in direct attacks on wrestling’s legitimacy from mainstream sports media. Dan Parker, sports columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, regularly poked fun at pro wrestling, often predicting outcomes of matches beforehand in order to demonstrate that the “burpers” (his oft-used derisive term for wrestlers) were “phonies.” For example, in his February 20, 1935 column, he noted that he found his “entertainment” at wrestling events in the “preposterous acts of buffoonery enacted by the gentlemen of the ensemble, as you might call the burpers in the supporting bouts.” Parker also frequently questioned the mechanics of wrestling maneuvers, arguing (correctly) that many could not be done without cooperation. In 1937, the first book-length exposé, Marcus Griffin’s Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce, discussed in detail the history and inner workings of the business, despite numerous factual errors. Most likely, both Parker and Griffin were fed insider information from promoter Jack Pfefer, who began exposing pro wrestling’s secrets in the 1930s in retaliation against the Lewis promotional cartel, who had blackballed Pfefer from promoting events in the lucrative New York market. Over fifty years before McMahon admitted that pro wrestling was not a legitimate competition, these figures openly discussed the worked nature of pro wrestling, with limited impact on its popularity among fans, who continued to buy tickets to see Jim Londos and other top stars.

In the 1950s, owing partly to the rapid rise in television ownership in the United States, professional wrestling experienced a surge in popularity, with the four major broadcast networks regularly airing wrestling events during the decade. Pro wrestling was ideal cheap programming for early television. Promoters booked arenas for their events, so unlike many television shows, they did not usually require studio space. Thus setting up a single, stationary camera at arenas was the only significant production cost, one often borne by promoters rather than networks. Despite receiving little to no revenue from early televised events, promoters used television to build interest in their stars and thus encourage fans to buy tickets to attend shows at their local arenas. Wrestlers such as “Gorgeous” George and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers pushed the envelope of showmanship, with more emphasis on outrageous characters and “gimmicks” than on perceived or actual grappling ability, though respected shooter Lou Thesz and other “legit” wrestlers continued to be top draws alongside the “entertainment” performers. Newspaper coverage in the era largely reported results and angles without questioning wrestling’s legitimacy, hoping to capitalize on the sport’s television-fueled popularity to attract readers. There were, of course, continuing mentions of wrestling’s predetermined nature, as in a December 17, 1955, Associated Press article, “Fair Bouts Could Kill Wrestling, Official Fears,” in which California state athletic commission chairman Norman O. Houston acknowledged that wrestling was predetermined, and that any attempts to force promoters to feature actual competitive contests would likely kill the sport, presumably because shoot matches would fail to attract spectators. This and other articles demonstrate a widespread awareness of wrestling’s “fakeness” that had little effect on its popularity around the country, with major territories (regional promotions) often drawing thousands of fans to their events, including Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, formerly Capitol Wrestling Corporation, renamed in 1963), which regularly sold out events at Madison Square Garden. Even the occasional attempts to stab or otherwise harm “heel” (bad-guy) wrestlers, an act especially common among older women, represented a small portion of the overall audience, and some of these individuals were probably simply caught up in the moment, rather than genuinely believing in the reality of the performance.

In the 1980s, several high-profile exposés of pro wrestling had little effect on its popularity, fueled by Vince McMahon’s rapid national expansion, aided by cable television and his top star, WWF champion Hulk Hogan. In autobiographies, disillusioned wrestlers publicly admitted wrestling’s “secrets,” including British grappler Jackie Pallo and Japanese wrestler Satoru Sayama. Newsletters such as Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer and Wade Keller’s Pro Wrestling Torch began offering subscribers legitimate journalism on wrestling’s inner workings and backstage machinations, indicating a growing market for insider information among hardcore fans, whose fandom was enhanced rather than harmed by such knowledge. Former NFL player and preliminary wrestler Jim Wilson spoke openly about wrestling’s predetermined nature on the “Pro Wrestling Exposed” episode of 20/20 (December 28, 1984), remembered largely for WWF wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz slapping reporter John Stossel multiple times in response to the latter declaring his belief that wrestling was fake. Wilson also appeared on a 1989 episode of the Morton Downy Jr. Show, explaining the inner workings of pro wrestling while claiming he was blackballed from the business for refusing promoter Jim Barnett’s sexual advances. The Downy episode was particularly fascinating, as wrestling personalities such as Schultz, Lou Albano, Paul E. Dangerously, and others lambasted Wilson’s claims, with most accusing him of simply being bitter that he wasn’t “good enough” to succeed in the business. Albano even declared that if his wife believed he was faking matches, she would have divorced him.

The wrestling personalities’ adamant insistence upon wrestling’s “legitimacy” is especially remarkable, because by 1989, the only people who seemed overly concerned with maintaining the pretense were those within the business, many of whom seemingly believed, as their forebears surely had decades earlier, that any acknowledgment of wrestling’s predetermined nature would destroy their profession. Of course, that same year, Vince McMahon openly admitted that pro wrestling was not a legitimate sport, with little effect on the WWF’s popularity or revenues. While pro wrestling in the United States experienced a decline in viewership and attendance in the early-to-mid 1990s, due to a variety of factors unrelated to its perceived legitimacy or lack thereof, the industry reached unprecedented heights of popularity and revenues in the late 1990s, during an intense period of competition between the WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW, despite the fact that few, if any, fans could possibly believe wrestling was anything other than entertainment. Throughout its history, pro wrestling has elicited derision from mainstream media for its obvious “fakery,” to the point that one finds it implausible that the majority of fans, whether in 1910 or 2010, or many points before, after, or in-between, have ever truly believed pro wrestling was a legitimate sport.

Historically, those most insistent on pro wrestling’s legitimacy were not fans, but rather wrestlers, promoters, and other insiders, who feared that acknowledgment of wrestling’s worked nature would destroy their lucrative profession. Since its early days, the majority of pro wrestling fans have been willing participants in the performance, allowing themselves to suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment. While outcomes are predetermined, which seems to be the primary fixation of those decrying wrestling as “fake,” matches often feature a great deal of physicality and risk, evidenced in long-term (and occasionally immediate) damaging effects on most performers’ bodies. In most sports, predetermined or not, colorful characters tend to sell more tickets and draw better ratings (or pay-per-view purchases), building fans’ interest in the outcome of a game, match, or fight. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali and various MMA fighters, including Chael Sonnen and Conor McGregor, deliberately adopted pro-wrestling style heel personas in order to build interest in their fights, resulting usually in great financial success. At its core, pro wrestling shares much in common with other sports, specifically the concept of generating anticipation among fans for an upcoming contest in order to maximize profit. The fact that pro wrestling’s matches and outcomes are performative rather than competitive, has rarely been relevant to the majority of its fans, who are no more bothered by its predetermined nature than a moviegoer would be upset upon realizing that Robert Downey Jr. is not actually Tony Stark.


Glossary

Angles: “Storylines” intended usually to build toward a major match.

Kayfabe: Maintenance of the illusion of pro wrestling’s “reality.”

Push: To promote a particular wrestler as a top star, usually by giving them a series of wins or a championship.

Shoot: A legitimate contest or any element, such as an interview, that acknowledges the underlying reality behind wrestling’s established characters and conventions. The opposite of “work.” A “shooter” is a wrestler who possesses legitimate competitive grappling skills.

Work: A bout or element in which the participants cooperate with each other for the purpose of entertainment, rather than competition. The opposite of “shoot.” A good “worker” is a wrestler who is skilled at performing technically sound, entertaining matches.


Aaron D. Horton is a Professor of History at Alabama State University, and specializes in modern German and modern East Asian (Japanese and Korean) cultural history. He is the author of POWs, Der Ruf, and the Genesis of Group 47: The Political Journey of Alfred Andersch and Hans Werner Richter (Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2014). His recent publications, including several book chapters and the edited volume Identity in Professional Wrestling: Essays on Nationality, Race and Gender (McFarland, 2018), deal with the confluences of identity and popular culture, including film, music, and sports.

Featured Image: Ring in Detroit, from a 1972 issue of Body Press Wrestling Magazine.

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Think Piece

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: Renaissance Philosophy, Magic, and Botany

By Fabrizio Baldassarri

In the entry “Agnus scythicus” in their famous Encyclopédie (1751), Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert presenta plant growing in the land of Tartary, which was a vast region of Asia bounded by the Caspian Sea, the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, therefore including Machuria, Siberia and several other countries. This plant, they assert, produces fruits that “look exactly like that animal [i.e., a lamb]—it has the same legs, hooves, ears and head.” An astonishing body with a long tradition, the animal-plant known as the Tartary lamb was first described in medieval texts and later revived by early modern authors in the Renaissance (see Fig. 1). Conceived either as a zoophyte or a mythological body, the figure typically entails a combination of a plant and an animal; it even represents a transformation of a plant into an animal by means of procreation, insofar as the lamb is a fruit of the plant.

Fig. 1 – Representation of Tartary lamb in John Mandeville, The voyage and travaile of Sir John Maundeville (London, 1727). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, scholars engaged with the Tartary lamb as a case study to explore nature. Indeed, some of them conceived it as possibly existing. The frontispiece of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole Paradisius Terrestris (1629) depicts a Tartary lamb in terrestrial paradise according to sixteenth-century poems describing God’s creation of nature (see Fig. 2). But the vegetable lamb did not only exist in paradise, as Parkinson also devoted a chapter to the vegetable lamb in his Theatrum botanicum in 1640. During the Renaissance, fascination for fabled beings abounded, and the lamb of Tartary gained momentum not as a celebration of strangeness but as an epistemological tool to understand the hierarchy of natural bodies and the Aristotelian scale of beings. In this sense, the various reflections on the zoophyte that developed between the 1550s and the 1650s, which ranged from philosophical debates about its existence to its magical or natural interpretation as well as the naturalistic investigation of its nature, ultimately highlight its role as a heuristic.

Within the context of philosophical discussions in the 1550s, the Tartary lamb appeared in two well-known texts. The first was Girolamo Cardano’s De rerum varietate, in which the Italian polymath deals with the entirety of the universe and all its bodies. In the chapter devoted to strange or wondrous plants, Cardano describes an imaginary animal that lives in Tartary. According to the travel reports Cardano drew on, something similar to a lamb in all its parts grew from a specific plant—the eyes, the ears, the mouth, the legs, the hair, the flesh and blood. In his description, Cardano dismisses the Tartary lamb as a fable but also claims that “we receive no less benefits from fables, than histories.” Suggesting that the fable of the Tartary lamb may still be a useful exercise, in that it requires the reader to recapitulate the order of nature in order to discard it, he finally rejects the existence of this plant for two main physiological reasons. The first reason is based on the sixteenth-century conception of the differences in generation between plants and animals: while all the limbs of animals can grow dynamically, plants only grow in one direction. Moreover, Cardano argues, animals need a great quantity of heat to be generated, which is provided by their heart and womb, while “the soil is unsuitable for providing both pulsation and heat.” The second reason is that the plant has no flesh, heart, or blood, and it can thus not pass these to the lamb or produce it in a material way.

That same year, the Italian scholar and physician Julius Caesar Scaliger readily replied to Cardano’s claims. In exercitation 181 of the Exoticarum exercitationum … de subtilitate (1557), a text written to oppose Cardano’s philosophy, Scaliger devotes a section to the Tartary lamb, which he conceives as an admirable fruit and an incomparable case of lusus naturae—a Renaissance expression defining those phenomena extending outside the order of nature, such as monstrosities. In this section, he describes the plant in detail, starting with the seeds, which are similar to but smaller than those of melons. As the plant grows, he goes on, its fruit takes the shape of a lamb without horns; connected to the soil by its roots, its stalk is attached to the navel of the lamb. Scaliger also describes the plant’s skin and flesh: “[T]he flesh is like the one of cray-fish,” and its blood flows from incision, “whose sweetness is admirable.” While being still fastened to the plant, the lamb survives by grazing the herbs in its vicinity, but as soon as it has consumed these, the lamb withers and dies, ultimately entailing that the lamb consumes the food in the soil while it grazes, so that the plant dies. Consequently, the roots of the plant would not be able to acquire nourishment.

Although his contemporaries have read this text as a testimony of the existence of this plant-animal, Scaliger has a more sarcastic aim here, which is to refute Cardano by corroborating the possibility that nature could produce the Tartary lamb. By the time the text appeared, Cardano and Scaliger had been engaged in a long-standing controversy. Accordingly, Scaliger concludes his investigation by challenging Cardano (but erroneously, as Cardano had deemed the plant as non-existing) to explain “how four distinct legs and their feet can be produced from one stem.” In contrast to Cardano, who provides a clear rejection of its existence, Scaliger describes the entire fable as fantastic but not entirely improbable, at least from an analogical perspective, comparing the parts of plants to those of animals. By suggesting a direct comparison with animals, based on the story of the taste of its flesh and blood, Scaliger ultimately leaves it open whether this plant-animal exists or not.

Fig. 2 – The Garden of Eden with a Tartary Lamb in the middle, in John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisius Terrestris (London, 1629). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A different perspective on the vegetable lamb surfaced in the natural magic investigation of nature, as well as in work on spontaneous generation. In Book 4 of the Italian polymath Giovanni Battista Della Porta’s Phytognomonica (1588), a text focusing on analogies between plants and animal bodies, Della Porta describes a plant in Tartary that bears a lamb as its fruit. According to Della Porta, the flesh of the plant and its fruits are sweet and similar to that of a lamb, and the juices of the plant appear similar to blood. Here, he repeats the words of Scaliger, as it is clear that he had not directly observed this plant himself.

Della Porta’s point in Phytognomonica is to highlight the therapeutic powers of plants by means of the analogies between plants and animals. According to the Doctrine of Signature, analogical resemblances between a plant and a part of the body of a human or animal implied a sign of the healing power of that plant in relation to the disease affecting the corresponding organ, or the healing power of that plant which is similar to the animal it represents—in this case, a lamb. It is in this context that Della Porta discusses the horticultural possibility to produce the vegetable lamb, although it is not clear in the end how far he saw this possibility extending.

This hypothesis also appeared in Magiae naturalis libri viginti (1589, the first edition in four books was published in 1558), a book on the secrets of nature explored from a philosophical perspective, where Della Porta presents a few recipes disclosing ways how to produce new bodies through copulation or grafting. While grafting as a way of “bringing two disparate things in nature into close conjunction [may also] result in something extraordinary, […] and a plant should look like something it was not meant to be,” vegetation can also be produced through magical copulation. In chapter 18 of book 3, Della Porta discusses the case of fruits: “Fruits that grow in diverse forms, and impressions,” he claims, such as pomegranates, pears, and apples, are also able to acquire the form of animals. Whether this transformation of plants into animals is substantial or merely external, however, remains a matter of investigation. Della Porta further suggests that one may mold the fruit’s external form to resemble that of an animal by sculpting the fruit by putting a clay shape around it. He then claims that the flavor and color of fruits may also be transformed by means of copulation—although it remains unclear whether it is possible to produce the vegetable lamb by copulation, as Della Porta does not refer to this plant specifically in the text.

Thirty years later, in De spontaneo viventium ortu (1618), Italian physician and philosopher Fortunio Liceti devoted a paragraph to the Tartary lamb in chapter 67 of book 4, where he argues that “the vegetable lamb shall not be counted among the fabulous.” In this chapter, Liceti proposes a historiography of the plant, presenting the diverse interpretations of scholars who had previously investigated it, before recapitulating Scaliger’s and Cardano’s dispute. According to Liceti, Scaliger’s final question about the physiological causes of the vegetable lamb does not intend “to deny its existence, but it is a question through which he hopes to engage physiologists about the knowledge of its cause.” Liceti ultimately suggests that the Tartary lamb is neither a pure vegetable nor a pure animal; if an animal grows from a plant, he argues, a new zoophyte results, which is partly an animal and partly a plant.

Yet if the fruit of this plant does not have sensation, Liceti further hypothesizes, it cannot be a case of a spontaneous generation. In chapter 46 of book 3, Liceti previously defined four kinds of the spontaneous generation of animals. While not discussing the Tartary lamb specifically, he made clear that spontaneous generation through plants is possible under certain circumstances, such as when some parts of a dead animal are interred among the materials that nurture a plant. This may be the case of the Tartary lamb. Yet while discussing the latter in the subsequent book 4, the Tartary lamb raises the question for Liceti whether the fruit can also display sensation and motion like an animal—i.e. whether the fruit is a lamb, or merely constitutes an image of it.

In his description of the fruit, Liceti mostly repeats Scaliger’s assessment. He claims that as the plant cannot provide a sensitive soul to the fruit-lamb, it should be seen as a spontaneous generation of an animal from a plant, comparable to the evolution of frogs from stones or the Barnacle tree, which he previously described in chapter 47 of book 3. In order to confirm whether this is a case of a spontaneous generation, Liceti investigates the ways in which the plant nourishes itself. On the one hand, he writes, it acquires nutrition through the roots, as is typical for animal fetuses and plants. On the other hand, the plant feeds through the lamb that grazes the grass in its vicinity and thus lives as an (imperfect) animal. Disclosing a combination of plant and animal, Licti thus deems the Tartary lamb a zoophyte whose origin lies in spontaneous generation, marking it as possibly existing.

Yet another approach to the Tartary lamb emerges from botanical texts, in which scholars studied the lamb in comparison and analogy with other bodies, either fantastic or real. A prime example of this genre is French botanist Claude Duret, who provides a broad description of the vegetable lamb in his Histoire admirable des plantes et herbes (1605), a collection of the most fantastic and wondrous plants that were ever conceived and can only be explained insufficiently by reason. Chapter 29 of the text, “Des Boramets de Scythie….,” is devoted entirely to the Tartary lamb (see Fig. 3, featured image above). Over the course of 20 pages, Duret describes the vegetable lamb in great detail, though without specifying its possible existence. While listing several fantastic and wondrous plants, Duret makes the point that, beyond the wonder that these cases evoke, they contain some seeds of truth. Through investigations of these plants, he argues, one is able to learn about all the virtues, powers, and properties of vegetables in detail, acquiring important knowledge of nature. This applies to the Tartary lamb as well, which illustrates the ways plants grow and nurture.

A quite different interpretation is offered by Francis Bacon in his Sylva Sylvarum (1626). For Bacon, the Tartary lamb is “a fabulous narration [concerning] an herb that groweth in the likeness of a lamb, and feedeth upon the grass, in such sort as it will bare the grass round about. But I suppose that the figure maketh the fable; for so we see there be bee-flowers, etc. And as for the grass, it seemeth the plant, having a great stalk and top, doth prey upon the grass a good way about, by drawing the juice of the earth from it.” While seeing the plant as a fable, Bacon suggests an interpretation of the Tartary lamb that is built on similar cases, such as flowers which look like bees. Since a few vegetal bodies produce a flower or a fruit that resembles an animal, he reasons, it is not impossible that the vegetable lamb exists, although no clear knowledge of its existence can be gained.

Fig. 4 – The Agnus Scythicus in Athanasius Kircher, Magnes sive de arte magnetica (Rome, 1654). Google Books.

In Magnes sive de arte magnetica (1654 [1641]), the German Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher also describes the vegetable lamb while exploring the magnetic faculty of plants to attract nutrients. The lamb as fruit has, as Kircher argues, a juice like blood under the wool-coat, suggesting that, beyond its shape of a lamb, it shares more important features with animals. Kircher claims that this analogy is neither fantastic nor extraordinary, as similar zoomorphic plants exist and are well-documented, such as orchids or flowers that resemble bees or flies, or the orchid anthropophora, the so-called man orchid. Like Bacon, he thus ultimately rejects an exotic explanation and accounts for this plant in common terms, finding similar cases to build analogies. Specifically, Kircher refers to plants that look similar to animals and human bodies, to plants whose juices look similar to blood (in color, consistency and taste), and finally to plants that attract nutrients with the same voracity as the vegetable lamb. Here, Kircher suggests that the absence of grass around the plant does not depend on the pasture of the lamb, but on the nature and physiology of the plant itself. Indeed, he argues, the Tartary lamb attracts a lot of liquids from the ground, ultimately depriving other surrounding plants or herbs of nutrients, similar to parasitic or invasive plants such as dodder or ivy, which can lead to the death of other species.

From the second half of the seventeenth century onward, the existence of the Tartary lamb was increasingly refuted, partially due to the emerging reports of travellers from Asia. In August 1664, for example, Samuel Collins, the physician of Tsar Alexis in Moscow, emphatically rejected its existence in a letter to Robert Boyle. Between the 1550s and the 1650s, however, as the different examples discussed above show, a variety of scholars conceived of the Tartary lamb as an important case study to understand living nature and basic processes of vegetation. By focusing on those living processes that are common to both animals and plants, they used the zoophyte to define the order of bodies. Even when they deemed it a fable, there was some degree of uncertainty concerning its existence, and it was ultimately considered a possibility, making it a heuristic tool to understand the nature of plants.


Fabrizio Baldassarri is a Marie Skłodowska Curie fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Indiana University, Bloomington, working on a project about the studies of plants in the early modern period. Financial support for this research is from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodovska-Curie Grant Agreement n.890770, “VegSciLif.” This essay is the result of research conducted as a visiting scholar at Leiden University.

Featured Image: The Boramets de Scythie in Claude Duret, Histoire admirable des plantes et herbes (Paris, 1605). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Think Piece

Reconsidering Anti-Urbanism

By Max Gaida

Although they lived just half an hour by train outside of New York City, I doubt my grandparents ever visited after my grandfather retired in the late 1990s and no longer needed to commute. After all, it was “That City,” the embodiment of crime, filth, and, perhaps most shockingly, liberalism. They were suburban people, content with all the Garden State had to offer, repelled by what could await them in Gotham. Perhaps in this attitude my grandparents are an embodiment of a particular prejudice which runs through American history: anti-urbanism.

In investigating the criticisms of urban spaces that Americans, like my grandparents, have voiced, I have eventually come across an impasse on how to incorporate different sentiments into one reasonable definition of “anti-urbanism.” As historian Steven Conn points out in his study of American anti-urbanism, even defining urbanism is “no small task.” I am not the first to struggle with coming to terms with what “anti-urbanism” really stands for. Pioneering urban historian Charles N. Glaab commented on the same issue in 1963, whilst also pointing out that perhaps the United States was not as anti-urban as was often proclaimed. Urban history flourished in this period, in part as a response to the changing character of post-war American cities, which were rapidly suburbanizing and being refashioned under the guise of “urban renewal.” The destruction of old neighborhoods for multi-lane highways or colossal housing projects animated historians to look at urban environments more closely.

Anti-urbanism is often noticeable in invectives such as that by Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, who asked his Twitter followers: “Serious question: I have to go to New York soon […] I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there. But is it like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?” But what, if anything, is behind the façade of revilement in statements like these? To me, three difficulties in understanding anti-urbanism polemics are particularly striking. First, there are those instances when the criticisms voiced are justifiable because they point to actual features of cities, albeit in an exaggerated way. Secondly, what is voiced as criticism of cities is sometimes not about the urban space per se but about attacking people associated with cities, in particular African Americans. The adjective “urban” has become, in the supposedly neutral language of post-Civil Rights era politics, synonymous with Black people and has been used by presidents since at least Nixon as a dog-whistle (a term that his supporters understand the true meaning of but that simultaneously offers enough plausible deniability to the user). Lastly, what may appear to be an invective against urban spaces can actually be directed toward a broader feature not inherent to cities, for example capitalism or materialism.

Concerning the first difficulty of defining anti-urbanism—that criticisms are justifiable or at least pointing towards actual features of a city—it is informative to look at Thomas Jefferson, possibly the most famous anti-urbanist in American history. Although his opinions on cities were often scathing, Jefferson’s criticisms of the early Republic’s urban areas were not all unfounded. Calling cities “pestilential” or “sores” was surely polemical, yet also not completely spurious, given how the dense quarters of Revolutionary era cities were hotbeds of a vast array of diseases. The fine line between polemic and reasonable criticisms is, however, hard to draw. Perhaps J. D. Vance would argue that his tweet is also justifiable and point to crime statistics or problems with urban sanitation in New York City. This issue notwithstanding, Jefferson’s example leads to the question if voicing reasonable criticisms, even in an exaggerated fashion, can also be classified as anti-urban.

Anti-urbanists are likely to denounce cities as being dirty, hectic, noisy, impersonal, and a host of other disparaging adjectives. Around the turn of the 19th century, this criticism became intertwined with ideas about poverty, crime, and social hygiene. Photographer turned social reformer Jacob Riis, for example, wrote of New York city tenements in his famous book How the Other Half Lives: “In the tenements all the influence make for evil; because they are the hot-beds of the epidemics […] the nurseries of pauperism and crime.” Although not attacking cities as such, Riis and his compatriots saw the density of urban areas as the root of urban problems, and few places were denser than tenements. However, Riis does not blame cities as such. Instead, it is “[t]he greed of capital that wrought the evil” of overcrowded tenements, which were packed with renters to maximize profits. More strikingly, Riis did not shine a light on urban issues simply to denounce cities, but because he believed doing so was the first step to the problems being rectified by city authorities. Cities were thus redeemable and could, given the right conditions, offer a good life to their inhabitants. Riis’ example suggests that anti-urbanist criticism is defined in part by the consequence its author desires. The solution for anti-urbanists is the eradication of the city as such, Riis and his compatriots were instead driven by a desire for improvement.

The second problem with defining anti-urbanism is that it is sometimes used as a front for voicing intolerant opinions in a more palatable fashion. The Civil Rights movement made open, blatant, vicious racism politically gauche. As a result, candidates who want to be taken seriously have opted to obscure their vitriolic opinions, hiding behind so-called dog-whistles. (At least this was true for candidates trying to run for nationwide offices like the presidency, although Donald Trump’s election in 2016 indicates a marked shift in what can be said on the way to winning the White House.)  “Urban” is one such term, used as “thinly veiled racial code” by presidents such as Reagan. But if the intended target of an anti-urban invective is not the city as such but covertly its residents, then is this truly anti-urbanism?

Disentangling these two strands proves particularly tricky because of the self-fulfilling prophecy this coded language has created. The reciprocal relationship between space and race in the US is such that as African Americans moved into urban spaces, these too became, like the people inhabiting them, undesirable to the white majority. George Lipsitz describes this process of the spatialization of racism in How Racism Takes Place, emphasizing that “social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual places.” By analyzing spatial processes such as residential segregation or the location of toxic hazards, he concludes that “race is produced by space.” Moreover, Michael Bennett argues that “anti-urbanism functions as the newest form of racism” achieved through a “semantic slippage from ‘Black’ to ‘urban.’” Yet recent works like Kevin Kruse’s White Flight stress that more than semantics were at stake. As urban spaces became more Black, whites left, taking their tax money with them. Municipal governments thus had less capacity to respond to urban problems, leading to the urban crisis of the 1970s in which cities often resembled anti-urbanist screeds: decaying buildings set the stage for rising crime and poverty. Rather than ask what came first—anti-urbanism or anti-Black racism—the mutually reinforcing relationship between the two forces needs to be stressed. Here, rather than trying to disentangle two seemingly distinctive issues to uncover the pure anti-urbanism behind dog-whistles and racism, perhaps the solution is to acknowledge that an outlook like anti-urbanism does not exist in a vacuum. There is no unadulterated anti-urban core inside Reagan’s diatribes against urban populations.

Lastly, anti-urbanists often criticize cities for features that are arguably not inherent to urban spaces but attributable to capitalist modernity. For example, some might accuse cities of being too fast paced, rushed, or hectic. However, when commercial activity is prohibited in cities, for example during a public holiday, the same places that were bustling less than a day before can become surprisingly quiet and peaceful. So instead, when anti-urbanists criticize how hectic cities are, they are, unwittingly or not, commenting on the pace of accelerated work rhythms. Maybe denser spaces simply allow observers to notice how hurried people are to get on and off their jobs or do work, such as deliveries, outside. Therefore, we have to be careful whether a seemingly anti-urbanist screed really is criticizing features inherent to the city or if it is condemning something the city helps make noticeable. After all, a comment on late-Soviet cities’ drab and desolate appearance would not be confused for a universal disapproval of cities as such but understood to be a critique of socialist realism. Similarly, criticisms of cities in the US can actually be pointing at issues related to capitalism, not to density or city life as such.

Although great work has been done on anti-urbanism, the question of what anti-urbanism really is has not been answered fully. If criticizing features (disease, hecticness) of the city, or the people living in it, or things associated with it (materialism, capitalism) is not anti-urbanism, then what is? Perhaps the answer is hidden in the lacuna left by the work of Steven Conn, who focuses on elite thought and its influence on public policy. Yet, like Kevin Kruse argues in White Flight, scholars are mistaken in focusing only on politically powerful actors such as presidents. Indeed, there is a need for analyzing anti-urbanism from below: how it has been experienced by regular people and how this shaped their outlook on cities, politics, and life in America more generally. How, for example, do people like my grandfather manage to commute into a city that they hate for their entire career? And how does this daily experience change their beliefs?

More recent history also deserves to be (re-)assessed. A momentous event like 9/11 is likely to have shifted the debate significantly, proving, in the mind of anti-urbanists, that cities are dangers both to the people living inside them and to the nation as a whole. And as we have entered the 21st century, a new urban crisis has appeared on the horizon. During the early heights of the pandemic, those who could afford to do so deserted cities, possibly changing their opinions towards urban spaces along the way. Perhaps the pandemic will even lead to a resurfacing of the association of dense urban spaces with disease, similar to the criticisms voiced by Jefferson and observed by Jacob Riis. The manifold problems facing urban spaces today—homelessness, an opioid epidemic, financing issues—are not entirely new, and looking at their pasts can inform how we address them in the present.


Max Gaida is a graduate student in North American Studies at the University of Cologne. He is writing his master’s thesis on African American police officers during the Reconstruction era. His research interests include the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the history of anti-urbanism, and the philosophy of history. He aspires to pursue a Ph.D. in American History. He can be contacted via email and found on Twitter @MaxGGaida.

Featured Image: Smog obscuring the view of the Chrysler Building, via Wikimedia Commons.