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Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world (1880-1940)

By Leandro Losada

How was Niccolò Machiavelli read in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, meaning the vast region encompassing Spain and the nations that had made up its former American empire? This is an issue that, despite the signal importance of the reception of one of the foremost writers in the history of Western political thought, has not been tackled in a systematic fashion, neither in proper depth.

This impression becomes apparent when compared to the attention paid to the subject in the English-speaking Atlantic world, in such studies as John G.A. Pocock’s, which had a profound and lasting impact not only on the field of studies dedicated to the author of The Prince¸ but also on the history of political thought. Strictly speaking, the existing research devoted to the reception of Machiavelli in Spanish Baroque thought (for instance, studies by José Antonio Maravall or Keith David Howard), helps us to come up with hypotheses and arguments that shed more light on the reasons why this topic has not received more attention in recent times. The overall picture that that corpus gives is that Machiavelli was received with scorn or explicit disapproval, and that this was so for two main reasons. The first, because he was seen as a writer who separated politics from Christian morality, thereby legitimizing all aberrations imaginable (from lying to murder) as well as the arbitrary exercise of power. The second aspect is that this interpretation was indicative of a more general tendency shaping Hispanic political thought: the influence wielded by Catholicism. In these intellectual latitudes, a writer chiefly known for his criticism of Christianity and the Church could only be condemned. The Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, in short, was a case in point of the so-called “anti-Machiavellian movement” that favored criticism of Machiavelli based on an interpretation of his work as inherently “evil” (in the words of Pierre Manent).

It is a known fact that Protestant Reformation and Humanism espoused their own versions of this type of reading. Likewise, the study of Spanish Catholic “anti-Machiavellianism”, and its relationship with the revival of Thomism in the 17th century, does not ignore that there were Catholic versions of concepts condemned in the Florentine’s writings (such as “good Reason of State” or the “Christian prince”). Beyond this seminal nuance (meaning that the Spanish Catholic anti-Machiavellianism movement possessed certain Machiavellian ingredients), the overall view indicates that any other possible readings of the work by the author of the Discourses, such as one linking it to freedom and the republic (highlighted by research devoted to the English-speaking Atlantic space), would have had neither weight nor relevance.

Faced with this situation, the exploration of a specific period —between 1880 and 1940, whose singularity lies in the fact that it marked the apogee and crisis of liberalism in Spanish-speaking political thought (and also beyond it, of course)— indicates that the aforementioned characterization does not match this historical moment. Throughout the period, interpretations of Machiavelli that were widespread in other intellectual geographies made their appearance also in this specific context. The singularity of the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, as far as receptions of Machiavelli are concerned, did not lie in any exceptional or unique readings, but in its peculiar development of the topics and arguments related to the study of his work since the publication of his principal texts in sixteenth-century Europe. What were, then, the most important axes of the reception of Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world between 1880 and 1940?

In the first place, one could say that as long as anti-Machiavellianism of Catholic origin is visible, there was a similar sentiment of a liberal hue. The rejection of Machiavelli as tantamount to tyranny or the exercise of immoral politics was not exclusive to Catholic intellectuals or apologists. Liberals authors, such as the Argentine Juan Bautista Alberdi, who described Machiavelli as an enemy of modern freedoms in his book El crimen de la guerra (1870), would come up with criticism in a similar vein.

Anti-Machiavellianism (understood as a conception of the Florentine as a defender of arbitrariness and even evil) was not only reflected in his connection with the concept of unlimited personal power. Negative readings of Machiavelli shifted in line with political events: the Florentine was thus seen as the intellectual father of militaristic nationalism and imperialism at the end of the 19th century, and as the referent of fascism during the first post-war period (largely enabled thanks to Mussolini’s fulsome appeals to Machiavelli).

Secondly, then, as a result of these shifts in interpretation, which cannot be attributed exclusively to textual or scholarly analysis – as pointed out above – but rather to the influence of political circumstances, the Florentine was associated with different political phenomena. Despite the persistence of his portrayal in negative terms (an enemy of freedom), this version would change. Thus, over time, Machiavelli simply ceased to be linked to tyranny, and came to be seen as a theoretician of the State (of a form of State at odds with liberalism for its aggressive and militaristic nature, according to the Spaniard Adolfo Posada in La idea del Estado y la guerra europea -1915), or even as the harbinger of totalitarianism. These were the reasons why several texts written during the 1920s warned about the “return” of Machiavelli.

The third point of note is that, as this period progressed, there was a major change in the conception of Machiavelli and his work. One of the most popular views espoused by his 19th century critics was that he was an “ancient” author. Therein lay (especially for those of liberal ideas) the threat to freedom, for he represented passions and principles that were contradictory with modernity. And these, it is worth clarifying, were to be found not only in the apologies for the concentration of power in the hands of the prince, but also in the republicanism (of a militaristic and patriotic tone) underlying the Discourses on the first decade of Tito Livio, as stated by the aforementioned Alberdi.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the perception of the Florentine began to be the one of a seminal modern author. The reason for this was a well-known aspect of his work, the separation between politics and morality. With this split, Machiavelli had founded a conception of politics as a “thing in itself”, something immanent and independent of any higher authority: an exclusively human activity. His political ontology, rather than his doctrinal arguments, was the truly revolutionary aspect, since it defined the way in which, from then on, philosophers and political scientists experienced and conceived politics. Consequently, Machiavelli went from being read as an “ancient” writer and an enemy of freedom, to being understood as a “modern” one, whose work had brought about political modernity, and with it, liberalism.

The fourth point, related to the previous one, is that this new perception was espoused neither exclusively, nor even mostly, by liberal authors, among whom such readings heralded a celebration of the Florentine. This was the case with the Argentine writer Mariano de Vedia y Mitre, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, who, moreover, saw in Machiavelli a bastion of a version of republicanism. Unlike the conception held by 19th century liberal authors such as Alberdi, for de Vedia y Mitre, there were points of contact with liberalism rather than opposed to it, because of the central role afforded to the rule of law. And also because of a notion of freedom that did not offset but reconciled political freedom with individual freedoms.

Without leaving aside these versions, it is worth noting that it was primarily Catholic intellectuals, or, at all events, those closest to neo-Thomism and classical natural law (Tomás Casares in Argentina, Luis Legaz y Lacambra in Spain), who spearheaded the portrayal of Machiavelli as a modern and liberal. In other words, the Catholic anti-Machiavellianism of this period did not base the view of him as anti-Christian on the perception that he wrote in favor of tyranny. In fact, Catholic anti-Machiavellianism during the first half of the 20th century took quite a different doctrinal approach, concluding that Machiavelli was anti-Christian for having made modernity and liberalism possible.

A fifth point to be raised is that, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, anti-liberalism did not turn to Machiavelli as an intellectual figure of note. This, despite the fact that liberalism, as previously noted, had repudiated him, and that furthermore, during the first half of the 20th century, fascism had crowned Machiavelli as one of its intellectual fathers (the recovery at the hands of Antonio Gramsci exalted the Italian dispute over Machiavelli). This reveals two things. Firstly, that despite its ideological renewal in the interwar period, anti-liberalism in the Spanish-speaking world continued to bear the enduring stamp of Catholicism. And, secondly, that this rejection or disdain for Machiavelli can be seen as an expression of the persistence of an anti-Machiavellianism with Catholic roots, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for the Florentine’s rejection during this period was that his work was synonymous with freedom rather than tyranny.

A sixth and final point is that Machiavelli’s republican facet was well known to Spanish and Latin American intellectuals and publicists. The republican interpretation of the Florentine’s work, so important for its reception in the English-speaking Atlantic world, was also a feature in the Spanish-speaking countries. One could even say that the controversies surrounding this point originated in issues that were less visible in the United States or England. These included the view that Machiavelli’s republicanism, instead of converging with liberalism (a reading that, as has been pointed out, did exist), was based rather on anti-liberal principles. This was stated by Alberdi, as well as the Argentine historian José Luis Romero or the Spanish philosopher Francisco Javier Conde (all three writers, incidentally, adhered to political and ideological positions that not only differed but were opposed to each other – classical liberalism, liberal socialism and anti-liberalism close to Francisco Franco’s regime, respectively-). 

However, one may as well argue that perhaps the most unique feature of the Spanish-speaking reception of Machiavelli’s work, at least when compared to what has been written for the English-speaking Atlantic world, was the importance given to his views as a theoretician of the modern state. Such an interpretation also calls for many understandings at odds with each other: there were those who considered him a benchmark of the rule of law, seeing in the prince the figure of a “great legislator” and perceiving in Machiavellian republicanism the centrality of law, while others associated him with an aggressive and militaristic form of state power. In any case, this reading is but an example of the type of intellectual figure most prominent in the reception of Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world at the time.


Leandro Losada is a researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and Associate Professor at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM), where he serves as Director of the Institute for Political Research (CONICET-UNSAM), in Argentina. He is a specialist in Atlantic history, history of elites, and history of political thought. He has been a visiting researcher in Italy (Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Università degli Studi di Milano, Università per Stranieri di Siena), France (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), Spain (Universidad Complutense, Casa de Velázquez- Madrid Institute for Advanced Study, Universitat de Girona), and Germany (Freie Universität Berlin). His works have granted him awards from the Academia Nacional de la Historia (Argentina), the Ministry of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires, and Argentina’s Presidency. He has published La alta sociedad en la Buenos Aires de la Belle Époque. Sociabilidad, estilos de vida e identidades (2008; second edition, 2021), Historia de las elites en la Argentina. Desde la conquista hasta el surgimiento del peronismo (2009), and Maquiavelo en la Argentina. Usos y lecturas, 1830-1940 (2019), among other books, and many academic articles. Machiavelli in the Spanish-Speaking Atlantic World, 1880-1940. Liberal and Anti-Liberal Political Thought is forthcoming at Edinburgh University Press.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Featured Image: Statue of Machiavelli by Lorenzo Bartolini outside the Uffizi, Florence. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Altering the Nation from Within: The Mexican “Working Nation” in the 1840s

By Matias X. Gonzalez

Like most Latin American societies in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico spent its first three decades of independent life (1821-1851) in a contentious process of nation-building. Since the 1990’s, scholars have continued to discuss which signifiers were mobilized for the construction of a concept of nation as determined by specific conflicts and alliances. Florencia Mallon’s effort to drift away from a category of nation as an “already defined, integrated community with a territory, language, and accepted set of historical traditions” continues to be especially relevant in these queries. Those who have managed to introduce a greater degree of contingency into the study of Mexican nation-building have, not coincidentally, identified certain groups that destabilize the image of the nation as dependent upon an ex post facto artifact, which corresponds to a Nation-State that was ensued only in the second half of the century. The 1840’s concept of industry was a significant threshold where the world of labor and official industrialization agendas mutually contested their ideas of nation-building. In this piece, the contingency introduced by the former is analyzed.

One might justifiably ask: why analyze the world of labor and these industrial projects to understand the contested nature of the nation? The answer follows the wake of previous efforts to go beyond an “artificial” conception of the nation: the working groups articulate an original project of the nation that is in creative dialogue with other official political projects. Here, two symbolic examples are offered. On the one hand, Lucas Alamán’s Memoria (memory, or report) on the status of agriculture and industry in 1845. On the other, Estévan Guénot’s project for a silk company and some entries in one of the principal newspapers regarding Mexican industry: the Semanario Artístico. These contending figures embody, and thus help explain, the “contested processes of nation-building” in nineteenth century Mexico.

Arguably one of the most prominent thinkers and politicians of post-independence Mexico, Lucas Alamán hallmarked some of the most significant economic proposals that wished to establish a national industry. He was behind the Banco de Avío, the “world’s first national development bank” in 1830, was the head different ministries as well as the Dirección General de Agricultura e Industria (General Direction of Agriculture and Industry) in the 1840’s. Throughout the Memorias he commissioned to the government, an underlying message may be found: Mexico needed an industry that functioned as a “producer of public wealth” which could garner “enough “powerful means for the improvement of the mass of the population’s customs”. Alamán described Mexico’s economy as “backward” because it had not procured the insertion of the real product surplus into a commercial economy. This “backwardness” would only be solved by ensuring consumption of all those products that had been left out of the commercial circuit of production for consumption. The “land’s products” did not have any value if they were not “transformed in products for commerce” by local factories.

As John Tutino shows, Alaman’s proposal for a new cycle of industrial and agricultural production intended to enhance the cheapened commodities and land by increasing the availability of product and its consumption. This would increase the demand for workforce which would in turn benefit from better pay loads that would drive the population to sustain a consumption-driven, commercial economy. After the serious blows to internal finances inflicted by external debt and low mining activity since the wars of independence (1810-1821), for Alamán Mexico’s industrial recovery could only come from the activity that linked agriculture, factory production and manufacture: the burgeoning textile industry.

For Alamán, to foment the industry of spinning and weaving expressly meant producing a greater number of “habits” that could provide “more consumers for [the manufacturer’s] production”. These pieces of clothing would also serve as moral correctors for the working populations, as these individuals would forcibly present themselves in the public sphere with the clothes that had been put at the commercial market’s disposal. By enforcing the use of these habits or pieces of clothing, the rest of the population would imitate them. It was the means for the textile industry to introduce “habits of greater comfort”, a concept that was economic but had moral implications to the extent that it inspired “the taste for certain necessities and conveniences, to the general mass of the population”. Consequently, greater production would be achieved in the textile industry (by then one of the most important industries in the country). By “always appearing dressed in public”, the workers almost instantly installed “civilization” through the promotion of consumption and, therefore, of the demand for a product: a prerequisite for increased productivity.

The metaphor of “habit” as a piece of clothing capitalized to reform the working population’s customs is quite illustrative of the profound intentionality that was built into Alamán’s project of a national industry. If there was a moral dimension to this project, it was conveyed by a correction of “public morality”, which was intended as a space of economic production that, in turn, sought the consumption of habits and their public display by the individuals that inhabited the “public sphere”. If the idea was directed at the working populations, it was because of their significance for Mexico’s industry, by virtue of their number––hence the impact for the rest of society––these groups lodged: more and better habits for the working groups banally meant more and better habits in the public sphere. Reforming their habits meant reforming a great deal of the national customs people would see strolling through Mexico’s streets and plazas. The material aspect of the reformation of their customs was limited to the production of commodities, by turning the worker himself into a display of a product, and the morality it reflected, through the neatness of “economic habits”. The conceptual circuit of national industry is functional, in Alamán’s Memorias, to the cycle of production aimed at the rise of consumption. Ultimately, the construction of a national industry and a national economy was a commodity and commercial-driven transformation of the nation that sought a singular way of insertion into the international capitalist economy.

            It would not be unreasonable to argue that Alamán’s was probably the most important industrial project in 1840’s Mexico. But it would quite naïve to disregard the specificities of his projects. Particularly, to whom they were destined: if at a first glance it may seem as though they were a plight for the insertion of Mexico’s working classes into a capitalistic global market, when treading beyond the first glimpses of his ideals’ consequences, the defining borders of his economic and political theories emerge. Indeed, there is little doubt among recent historians that his industrial projects were quite clearly destined to certain groups of the nation, the so-called hombres de bien: the rising middle and high classes, mainly industrial entrepreneurs and landowners, to which and by which the republican project known as the “Centralist Republic” (1836-1846) was greatly favored. Investments, credit, monopoly over certain products as tobacco, and trade protection were all important mechanisms through which Alamán and the hombres de bien built a particular, in the strict sense of the term, capitalist economy: their very own form of “crony capitalism”. This political and economic class was not exempt of facing a conflictive appreciation by the nation’s other groups, among others by those less advantaged industrials that were more concretely seeking the establishment of industries for the nation.

The difficulties in the establishment of a national industry and a national community emerge quite immediately when the historian minds another set of sources. A Frenchman named Stéphane Guénot, rechristened Estévan, had patiently sought the establishment of a Compañía Michoacana para el Fomento de la Seda (Michoacan Company for the Fomentation of Silk) through a discordant negotiation with the Junta General de Industria (General Council for Industry) in Mexico City. His dissent with the Junta General, and with the official agenda backed by Alamán and the hombres de bien, is quite transparent in an article published in the Semanario Artístico, probably the main newspaper where the idea of the “fomentation” of industry in Mexico was discussed at the time.

In it, he discussed the idea that productivity linked to consumption was the adequate solution for Mexico’s industry immobility. This idea, he argued, was based on a system of competition between the nation’s groups that did not even slightly consider that “not all are what they resemble because of the humble suit that covers them”. In an outright defense of their labor, Guénot warned Mexican manufacturers to beware of how the opulent confusingly “blames you for their shortcomings”. Although they continuously lamented about the need to morally reform the worker’s habits and customs, they did not “employ their riches to occupy you and thus remedy the ills they complain about”, namely, idleness. Instead of accurately distinguishing those that “affectionately embraced idleness” from those that were reduced to idleness because of “lack of work” due to the “current state of affairs”, the rich industrial continuously evaded the real solution to the nation’s industry: giving labor to the working groups. If they gave labor to those in lack of work or employment, the rich would alleviate the worker’s luck while simultaneously increasing “their own wealth”. The hombre de bien, who knew that “his duty was to provide well-being to himself as well as to his like” and did not pursue this affair, was nothing short of a “criminal”.

Guénot was openly criminalizing the crony capitalism that was being built by Alamán and the hombres de bien. Not necessarily because of its corrupt system, but because of the selected advantages their industrial system for consumption enacted. His project did not revile the idea of “material prosperity”: “pecuniary advantages” were not to be preemptively disregarded. Yet the development of national industry involved “conciliating the interests of all social classes”. Indeed, the economic and political conciliation of the nation’s groups was carried out by the participation of the “vast majority of the population”, the “impoverished classes”, in the benefits produced by “material labor”. Labor was thus conceived as the destiny of the “poor classes”, which would ward off the worker from the “hideous egotism of the monopolists”.

Instead of conceiving an industry trapped in the circuit of production for consumption, industry was fueled by labor, which was not the result of commodity production, but of the conciliation and cooperation of the working groups of the nation. This concept was not only his. In 1844, an artisan corporation backed his ideas on industry and labor: “To give a productive industry to the impoverished class is a purpose the governments should not lose sight of”. Noticeably, the contrast between these groups’ industrial projects stems in the principle upon which they were built.

For the hombres de bien industry was erected on the principle of increased consumption in relation to the existing, and potentially growing, productivity of local factories and economic activities. Theirs was an industry destined towards commercial activity understood as the search for “lucre”. Productivity and competitivity between the producing sectors were in contrast with the cooperation and conciliation between the working groups, intended in the broad sense of the word, which includes the hombres de bien, industrialists, as much as the manufacturer and the artisan. In fact, Guénot did not refrain from including the wealthy heads of national industry in his project, albeit with a critical stance. The contrast he conceived between productivity and cooperation is transparent once the historian notices that the class antagonism at the root of these divergent industrial projects is not so much suppressed as displaced. Capitalist competitivity was shifted towards the logic of labor cooperation, hence class antagonism between the “monopolists” and the working groups is not so much “solved” through consumption of the product of labor, as much as it is funneled through the cooperation of the working groups of the nation.

The working groups embodied a concept of industry that was in open “disagreement” with the one imagined by Alamán and other industrial leaders of 1840’s Mexico. Through the practices incorporated into their labor, national industry was repurposed as a guarantee of productivity through the conciliation of hitherto contending parts of their economy. In this sense, they were seeking new political values upon which to organize their society. The motive behind these new set of political-economic values thus utter a concept of nation that was radically alternative to previous and coexistent conceptions of nation. Instead of hampering these groups’ political projects through an ex post facto reconstruction that veils their logics of the nation under the Nation-State, labor historians should conceive their alternativity as radically as the worker and entrepreneur Guénot did. In sum, it should be possible to think of the labor association’s political and industrial projects as capable of epitomizing their very own political, social, and economic imaginaries of the nation, what could be called “Working Nation”[i].


[i] This concept is the product and title of a two-year seminar in the Laboratorio de Investigación sobre Movimientos, Estado y Sociedad (LIMES) in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina. It is thus nothing short of a fruit of collective discussion with colleagues that come from different social sciences backgrounds.


Matias X. Gonzalez is a PhD candidate at the University of Turin, in Italy. His interest in the intercrossed dialogues between conceptual history and social history have taken him from studying Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin, to C. H. de Saint-Simon, to currently writing a dissertation on the interconnected history of the Mexican and French working nations in the mid-nineteenth century.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Mexican dresses by Casimiro Castro.

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Nostalgia to (Un)Make the Nation: Partition and Intizar Husain’s Fiction

By Zehra Kazmi

In a remarkable moment in Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (1995), translated into English by the noted critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil, the narrator Jawad meets an old, frail man called Khairul Bhai, whom he had known before the Partition as a student and fiery supporter of the Pakistan Movement. Despite his avowed espousal for the movement, after 1947, Khairul Bhai decided to remain in his crumbling, solitary family home in Meerut, North India, with only his cat for company. When Jawad probes him about his decision to stay behind despite the pro-Pakistan activism of his youth, he replies: “…But at that time, it was not a country; it was a dream…A dream contains the promise of a morning till it remains a dream, but…”(156). The sentence is left unfinished.

Intizar Husain (1923-2016) is widely recognised as one of Pakistan’s greatest writers. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, Husain narrated the story of Partition and its discontents like few others. His non-linear novels use myth, memory and illusory prose, and dextrously sweep through time and space to investigate ‘the wounds of Partition’ (Jalil)[i]. Born in the village of Dibai in Bulandshahr district of the former United Provinces, British India in 1925, Husain migrated to Lahore in 1947 to edit Nizam, the official magazine of the Progressive Writers’ Movement.[ii]Before his death at the age of 92 in 2016, Husain published six novels, a memoir and several essays and short stories.

My particular interest in Husain’s work lies in his use of nostalgia as a subversive tool to articulate lost histories and possibilities of the subcontinent. Nostalgia has a vexed relationship with the politics of the present, often viewed with suspicion as an attempt to impose or aestheticise oppressive values of a bygone era. As we witness the rise of right-wing populist political leaders who seek to make their nations “great again”, nostalgia is used to rewrite histories, engender hierarchies and counter strides made by sexual, ethnic or gendered minorities. Nostalgia, not always undeservedly, gets a bad rep. However, this uniformly hegemonic perception of nostalgia does not take into account its creative and progressive possibilities. Carrie Hamilton writes in her essay “Happy Memories”:

“The recounting of happy memories need not involve a denial of oppression… or ‘letting go’ of the past…Rather than disabling change, such memories may act as an ingredient in formulating alternative futures. Far from being the prerogative of the privileged, happy memories may be especially important in sustaining political projects of the oppressed” (2007,67).

Many recent scholars like Boym, Bonnet, Walder and Raychaudhuri have influentially theorised about the creative, subversive and progressive forms that nostalgia takes on in different contexts, especially with regards to providing alternative maps towards the future or reaffirming the politics of oppressed identities. Husain’s meditations on memory are suffused with unabashed nostalgic longing, which give a specific pathos-ridded quality to his writing. However, far from simply reproducing trite sentimentality, the deployment of critical nostalgia in his writing creates a unique aesthetic sensibility that informs a deeply subversive politics. The nostalgia of Husain’s writing works on two levels, it is a pastoral elegy for the death of an older, syncretic Indic civilisation and an affective register for articulating the global and local histories of Muslims as a people. Much before recent scholars of nostalgia were viewing nostalgia as a radical, temporally multi-directional force, signalling towards the future as well as the past, Husain distinguished himself as one of the earliest South Asian intellectuals who intuitively recognised the critical potential of nostalgia as a discursive and creative lens.

Within the Indo-Muslim literary tradition, nostalgia and mourning have a particularly rich and complex history as affective modes. From majlis, marsiya, shahr ashob, ghazal or nauha—these are different poetic forms that exist in the cultural lexicon of Muslim South Asia. Husain draws from that legacy to expand it to prose. Amina Yaqin observes that in keeping with Franco Moretti’s ‘law of literary evolution’, the modern Urdu novel arises as triangular whole which is made up of ‘foreign form, local material – and local form’ (Moretti qtd. in Yaqin 380), corresponding to the western novel form, Indic socio-cultural concerns and the incorporation of Urdu lyric/storytelling traditions. M. Asaduddin points out that while the novel is a distinctly Western import mediated by English-educated intelligentsia into the subcontinent’s cultural sphere, the readership familiar with local forms of storytelling like the qissa or dastaan took to it “quite naturally, without any great sense of shock or novelty” (84). However, while novels have conventionally aspired to verisimilitude, dastaans ignored all “laws of probability” to eschew reality “as hermetically as possible” (Asaduddin 78). With the rise of the periodical press of colonial India, these hybrid experimentations in prose “acquired sophistication and realism became a virtue’’ leading to the standardization of the Urdu novel as a genre (84).

What distinguished Husain from other Urdu novelists before him was his (post) modern rejection of linear temporality in storytelling. For Husain, the straightforward realist mode of Urdu novels of yore could not fully articulate the stakes and trauma of the wounds of colonisation, Partition and migration on the Indo-Muslim psyche. Aamer Husain writes, “Subtly and over several decades he drew readers and writers away from the hegemony of foreign influences…into an examination of the subcontinental modes of oral and written storytelling, which had been despised and discounted by many of his predecessors who, indoctrinated by colonial and postcolonial policies of education, lauded and claimed only western influences’’.  Ironically enough, Husain’s BBC obituary stated that he “was part of a powerful literary movement that emerged in India in the 1930s, and that transformed the old moralist and romantic traditions of Indian and Persian-Arabic literature into Western realism’’, mistakenly conflating him with the Progressive Writers and also, perhaps even more egregiously, claiming that Husain was invested in transforming Indo-Persian storytelling narratives into Western realism when, in fact, Husain’s novels are examples of a rejection of Western realism and a re-insertion of the more affective and fantastical elements of traditional Urdu literary culture into the novel. Although, it is worth noting that Husain was admittedly influenced by writers like Franz Kafka and perhaps aware of the frequent comparisons made between him and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These transcultural influences on Husain’s work led him to become the  emblematic creator of the Indo-Muslim modernist fiction.

Husain’s nostalgic vision relies heavily on spatial metaphors allowing us to ‘revisit time like space’ (Boym xv). Recurring spatial motifs in Intizar Husain’s fiction are pastoral idylls, ruins and lost cities. A typical example of Husain’s pastoral idyll is Rupnagar, described in shimmering detail in the opening chapters of his most famous novel Basti (1979) translated into English by Frances Pritchett in 2012. The village of Rupnagar, with a Black Temple and a local Karbala, is presented as an idyllic site of harmonious coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. The narrator, Zakir (whose name literally translates to ‘‘he who remembers’’) vividly recollects the rain-soaked Janamashtami nights and the hum of folk songs about Krishna reverberating through them. This idyllic village, however, now only exists in Zakir’s memory. While Zakir never physically returns to Rupnagar after Partition, his memories simultaneously trap him there; the deferral of return is psychologically compensated for with an imaginative return. In a moment that illustrates Husain’s remarkable knack for combining fragmented, dreamlike imagery with potent symbolism, Zakir’s mother informs him that she still has the key to the store-room of their family home in India, where she locked  up family heirlooms. Zakir then imagines the family home now being turned into an overgrown ruin–a forest of memories. As she worries about termites eating away at the blessed shroud brought by Zakir’s grandfather from a pilgrimage to Karbala, Zakir remarkably wonders if “time (is) a termite, or is a termite time?” (117). Husain often dwells on abandoned spaces—what remains as ruins and what is lost. It is in these remnants of memory that Husain explores spectral possibilities of belonging. As Zakir remarks “Houses never stay empty. When those who live in them go away, the time lives on in these houses.” (189). If any relatives or loved ones stay on, they exist in narrative memory as not really functionally distinct from the long-lost, leftover objects that might be gathering dust in an abandoned house. The material particularities of space may get lost or bleed into other memories, but the fact of inheritance, of legacy, is preserved via memorialization.

Similarly, Husain’s fascination for lost cities is also a key identifying feature of his engagement with nostalgia and memory. A casual turn in a Lahore street-corner transforms into the home that Zakir left behind or the trigger to excavate generational, inherited memory of places. In Basti, as Lahore remains still in the silence of a government-imposed curfew during the Bangladesh War of 1971, Zakir finds himself transported to the “ruined city” of Delhi after the Revolt of 1857, quoting from Ghalib’s letters to say that — “a river of blood is flowing”, which, in the course of that paragraph, transforms into the destroyed city of Jerusalem (162). Cities with associations to Islamic empires like Cordoba, Granada and Delhi have been spectral presences weighing on Muslim writing across history, be it Iqbal or Hali.  Husain, however, distinguishes himself from them by fusing Islamic history with stories from the Mahabharata to invoke stories of mythical cities like Hastinapur and Dwarka. The story of expulsion and return, one that is oft repeated in both Shia and Hindu traditions, and bears strong resonance with Partition narratives, is invoked in Husain’s fiction. The eclectic references to both the sweep of global Islam juxtaposed against local Hindu and Buddhist mythology draw attention to the specificity of Indo-Islamic identity.

In keeping with Husain’s historicizing lens of narrativising the story of exile and loss for the diasporic Muslim, ‘home’ expands cartographies, collapsing distinctions of border, nation and ethnicity in this process. In his intergenerational homecoming, where the home is not always a singular point on a map or some sort of promised land for a community but instead a shared history that is spread across time and geographies. Husain’s historicization of Indo-Muslim identity goes beyond the immediate bloodbath of the Partition, even though it is irrevocably shaped by it, evoking also the roots of Islam and its arrival into South Asia from different parts of the world. His vision is also cognizant of cross-cartographic Muslim legacies, bringing to mind the unique status of South Asian Muslims when it comes to questions of indigeneity, where they are enmeshed into the local topography but have mythic roots westwards. This western, foreign tag that follows Indian Muslims especially until today, as people who came from somewhere else is a pernicious and recurring trope in Indian politics. This is largely ahistorical, as most Indian Muslims are converts to Islam — the ajlaf (middle caste Hindus who converted to Islam) or arzal (previously ‘untouchable’ caste of Hindus who converted into Islam). Caste hierarchies have sustained, so have divisions between ashraf (upper caste Muslims of foreign ancestry) and ajlaf/arzal Muslims. Hence, the obsession with this ‘foreign’ origin of Muslims is an unsubstantiated myth, utilized both by orthodox Hindus and Muslims for different ends. However, the import of the faith from cultures beyond the subcontinent is a factor in how South Asian Islam is practiced and historicized. Husain’s conception of Indo-Muslim identity fervently rejects the binary between the ‘foreign’ and the ‘indigenous’, emphasizing how mutually interdependent the constructed nature of both tags is. Thus, what Aamir Mufti writes of Maulana Azad in another context applies perfectly to Husain’s vision of Indo-Muslim identity as “a reconfiguration of the relationship of the alien to the indigenous, of past to present, and of tradition to modernity” (155).

Husain’s works then offer a consciously syncretic reflection of Indo-Muslim identity as inseparable from Hindu traditions . Can this history be revitalized and mobilised for presenting us with an alternative to the sectarian, puritanical understanding of Hindu and Muslim identity in modern South Asia? Husain’s critical, self-aware nostalgia propagates a certain humility in the face of history’s constant march, mocking the perverse hubris of seeing the nation as a uniform symbol of everlasting glory. A lamentation for the past wherein extinction takes on a life of its own can be a symbol of time’s irreversibility. This irreversibility resists the temptation of perfect restoration and yet eulogizes the values of the past to have a contemporary political function which does not always have to be ‘backward’ in the usual sense. Critically alert nostalgia for a period of history, with a fidelity and commitment to some of its values, can be the foundation for the vision of a new beginning. As Nauman Naqvi writes about melancholia, nostalgia too “ exerts a claim beyond the grave, even as closed options become the condition of possibility of a new imperative and imagination” (210). Critical nostalgia, then, must be aware of the processes of history. By allowing for the powerful hold of nostalgia to be informed by a careful reading of history, Husain gives us the chance to reimagine a culture built on those very best parts of its past.


[i] Jalil, Rakhshanda. ‘Translator’s note’ in The Sea Lies Ahead

[ii] Husain eventually distanced himself from the Progressive Writers’ Movement, largely due to his differences over the extent to which Marxist ideology should define his literature.


Zehra Kazmi is a second year PhD candidate at the School of English, University of St Andrews. Her research looks at historical memory and nostalgia in 20th century South Asian Muslim writing, in the context of the rise of religious nationalism in South Asia and the “long Partition”. She holds an MPhil in English Studies: Criticism and Culture from the University of Cambridge and has previously worked as a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University. She is also a co-founder of the Tasavvur Collective, a consortium of ECRs interested in contemporary Muslim South Asia.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Cover of the english translation of Intizar Husain’s Urdu novel ‘The Sea Lies Ahead’. (From the author’s personal collection).

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Intellectual history Think Piece

Listening to Geese: The Non-Human, Art, and The Possibilities of Global Thought (Part II)

By Nina Fouilloux

   As discussed in Part I of this article, “listening to geese” and reflecting with the non-human can be an interesting mechanism to expand our beliefs and practices around Global Thought. The remainder of this work will be used to discuss how Canadian artists may have already been considering this particular theoretical angle, and how we may include it in our understanding of Global Thought.  

  The Canada goose has been reinterpreted in the imaginary of Canadian artists for centuries and has made its way into the most unlikely literature, visual art, and even song, allowing artists to explore and meditate on the concept of freedom, boundaries and more. Take the following poem for instance, in which the emblematic goose inspires poet Robert Bly to escape an abusive relationship with his father:

“The drunken father has pulled the boy inside

The boy breaks free, turns, leaves the house.

He spends that night out eating with the geese

Where, calling and balancing on wide feet,

Crossing rows, they walk through the broken stalks”

(Bly, 1986)

   In this poem, the goose inspires human action and represents feelings of safety, defiance, and community. In a different piece of writing, Indigenous prisoner and writer, Vernon Wilson, takes the freedom trope and turns it on its head. In an ironically written article, Wilson compares the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons to the over-representation of Canadian geese in prison yards:

“All these tragic statistics lead to a geese population that is more injured, constipated, and dependent on the institutional environment which contributes to a lower rate of geese migrations south and a higher rate of geese returns to the prison yards”. (Wilson, 2012, p.12)

Wilson calls the high presence of geese in the prison yards a “national outrage” that “says a lot about the state of our nation” (Wilson, 2012, p.23). Here, Wilson is substituting the Indigenous prisoner with the beloved goose in order to incite a more emotional reaction out of the reader. What I believe makes writers like Bly and Wilson creative theorists in relation to geese is that, like van Dooren’s push to “think with others”, these artists are actively putting themselves in relation to the non-human and allowing themselves to create reinterpreted world views based on what they were able to learn from goose behavior.

    The same can be said for visual art, where in the works of renown Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), the Canada goose becomes a surrealist and abstract expressionist muse. As the most prominent Canadian artist of the twentieth century, Riopelle was a signatory of the Refus Global (Global Refusal), a 1948 manifesto written by Quebecer artists stating their disapproval of clericalism and provincialism, ideas that were strongly associated with the nationalist government of Quebec Premier, Maurice Duplessis. Thus, what better symbol to capture ideas of freedom, modernity, and open-mindedness than the Canada goose? Appearing in a large amount of Riopelle’s works, the goose is seen flocking chaotically in Les Oies Bleues (1981-83) and making up the rays of a sun L’ île Heureuse (1992). I believe it is fair to interpret Riopelle’s goose as an anti-nationalist symbol, a defiant voice against division and borders. In fact, it is quite unique that as an abstract expressionist, Riopelle chose to represent geese as they are in his paintings, because, it was Riopelle himself that said: “Those of my paintings considered the most abstract have been, for me, the most figurative (…) These paintings whose meaning we think we can read—aren’t they even more abstract than the rest?”.  In this sense, the goose for Riopelle is but an abstract idea, one we can mold and reinterpret in the necessary conditions, similarly to what we would do with a theory that we apply to different ideas. Finally, the goose makes a recent return in Canadian art in the works of Cree artist Kent Monkman, who in his work The Affair (2018), portrays his gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle with her arm wrapped around a Canadian goose with its tongue out and wings flared in protest. The piece appears to be a reinterpretation of the mythological story of Leda and the Swan, where Leda is raped by Zeus in the form of a Swan. In Monkman’s piece, the goose is a clear metaphor for Canada or at least the government, abusing its Indigenous people. However, there seems to be a role reversal in this work, as the goose seems more uncomfortable than Miss Chief, who seemingly tempts the bird. In this sense, the goose and Miss Chief represent the dialectical process between politics of exploitation in Canada.

  With just a few examples mentioned, we see that by “listening to geese”, these artists have been able to expand their creative interpretations of world events and views and have been able to put themselves in relation to their environment. These artists are philosophizing in their works, not at the expense of the goose or at the expense of their beliefs, but rather by creating a dialogue between their ideas and what they can extract from the non-human. This proves art to be an efficient and undervalued method to reflect on and reconceive global ideas. In fact, using art as theory challenges the idea of “art for art’s sake”, and places art as an expression of an individual or a collective’s view on a social phenomenon. Ultimately, in order to theorize more globally around the land debate in Canada and around other issues of land around the world, it is important to consider all beings affected by land when reimaging its use.

  As a Canadian abroad, I have had the pleasure of seeing Canadian geese in England, Scotland and in France. Like me, these geese have come from far and have found a home in an unlikely place. However, unlike myself, these geese I’ve seen most likely do not reflect on their national affiliation and belonging in the same way I do. In turn, this reminds me that ideas of belonging are fluid and constructed, giving me hope for the land debate in Canada, as well as for further divisive debates that may require a simple reframing or rather, a tilt of a head towards the sky.


Nina Fouilloux is a MA student at the University of St Andrews in Global Social and Political Thought. Her primary research interests revolve around Canadian politics and Indigenous studies, specifically Indigenous political thought and intellectual history, reconciliation, and decolonization. She holds a BA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a double major in Political Science and Art History.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Canada Goose, from the Game Birds series. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Think Piece

An Intellectual History of “Culture” from the Global South c.1950-1970: The Congress for Cultural Freedom in India and Mexico

By Daniel Kent-Carrasco

In recent years, the story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) has become well known. Constituted as a network of mostly male, upper class, elite intellectual circles of militant liberal persuasion, the CCF was a front for anticommunist cultural activism and a powerful vehicle for the cultural ideals associated with the Free World, liberal democracy and anti-totalitarianism promoted from the North Atlantic. In the Third World, a transcontinental arena that took shape at par with the Cold War, the CCF’s heritage was ambivalent. Between 1950 and 1967, it failed to establish itself beyond elite circles of capital cities like Beirut, Delhi, Mexico City or Cairo. However, as we will see below, it contributed to a more subtle and enduring feat: the establishment of a public sphere of debate defined by anti-utopian and “post-ideological” principles of the early Cold War, the coordinates of which continue to entrap the contours of intellectual debate in many Third World countries. In essence, these principles rejected the ideological enthusiasm of interwar intellectual debates in favor of a moderate sphere of discussion marked by the open dismissal of utopian ideals, now identified with the evils of authoritarianism.

From its moment of inception in June 1950, the CCF aimed at becoming a transcontinental organization. In November, James Burnham—member of the CCF’s US delegation and infamous promoter of Containment doctrine—announced that he had been contacted by an “Indian friend” who wished to help the Congress expand its activities in the recently created Republic of India. This “friend” was none other than Minoo Masani, an important socialist leader of anticommunist leanings who had been in communication with Burnham for some years. In that same meeting, Burnham also suggested the importance of celebrating “some kind of conference” in Latin America, “maybe in Mexico”, that could help advance the cause of the CCF in the region. Both suggestions were celebrated by the meeting’s attendants, all of whom were eager to contribute to the creation of a broad anticommunist intellectual front across the emerging arena of the Third World (“Congress Pour la Liberté de la Culture. Séance du 27 Novembre 1950”, International Association for Cultural Freedom Records [(IACFR), box 56, file 7].

Shortly after, the CCF consolidated its presence in both countries. In January 1951, Masani headed the creation of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ICCF). Based in Bombay, the Committee soon set out to finance and organize a meeting of writers, artists and intellectuals from across the “free countries” of Asia, a label that spoke not of any postcolonial political reality, but rather of a stringent anticommunist paranoia (Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom, “A Working Paper prepared in connection with a preliminary meeting of writers and others from the countries of South, South-East and East Asia” IACFR, 173, 5). Fueled by the emerging international anti-totalitarian consensus of the day, along with the support of peers in the central office of the CCR in Paris, the event brought together intellectuals from the North Atlantic and important representatives of Indian public debate such as B. R. Ambedkar, Stephen Spender, Norman Thomas, Salvador de Madariaga, Asoka Mehta, and Jayaprakash Narayan. The Indian branch of the CCF grew considerably during the following years. It rallied the support of writers and scholars such as the poets Nissim Ezekiel and Buddhadeva Bose, and writers Eric Da Costa, Sachchidanand Vatsyayana, Rajni Kothari, and S. C. Dube. Its promoters also gained ground in the international arena: Masani was soon integrated to its international Executive Committee and Jayaprakash Narayan was included into the prestigious list of Présidents d’honneur of the Congress, along with stalwarts of western liberal culture such as John Dewey, Benedetto Croce and Karl Jaspers. In 1960 its Delhi office was recognized as the CCF’s Asia regional headquarters, turning the ICCF into a continental enterprise.

         During those same years, the CCF also secured its presence in Mexico City. Thanks to the joint effort of the Spanish writer Julián Gorkin and the Mexican editor Rodrigo García Treviño, the Mexican Association for Cultural Freedom (AMLC) was created in 1954. The group, initially focused on fighting the “dictatorship” led by communist artists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros in the realm of Mexican culture (“Activities of the Latin American Committees of the Congress for Cultural Freedom During the Last Six Months of 1954”, IACFR, 57a, 1), garnered support from important members of the country’s cosmopolitan intelligentsia, including figures such as Rufino Tamayo, Alfonso Reyes, Octavio Paz, Margarita Michelena and Daniel Cosío Villegas. The AMLC’s highpoint came in 1956 with the celebration of the CCF’s Interamerican Conference in Mexico City. One of the biggest events of the CCF outside European soil, the Conference brought together figures such as Germán Arciniegas, Benjamín Carrión, Rómulo Gallegos, John Dos Passos, Ralph Waldo Ellison, Frank Tannenbaum, Roger Baldwin and Luis Alberto Sánchez.

By the end of the 1950s, Burnham and his colleagues in Paris had ample motive to celebrate the growth of CCF branches in India and Mexico. In 1958, John Hunt, undercover CIA agent and CCF Secretary, acknowledged not only the local importance of both the ICCF and the AMLC, but also their relevance as platforms for the spread of the militant faith of Cold War liberalism in other countries like Ceylon, Burma, Brazil, and Colombia (Activities of the National Committees of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. 1957, and Comité Exécutif International, 18-19 Janvier, 1958. Brief by John C. Hunt, IACFR 58, 4).

            In both countries, the thrust and funds provided by the CCF strengthened the consolidation of a new front of elite cultural activism marked by a growing—and at times delusional—conviction of the political importance of the intellectual. In a text published in Foreign Affairs in 1955, Masani claimed that intellectuals in Asia held more power than the “landed aristocracy and the capitalist landowners” in “making and unmaking governments”. In virtue of their links with the West and their ability to represent the more modern and cosmopolitan sectors of their societies, Masani assured his western readers that elite intellectuals represented the true “ruling class” of Asia. This fantasy fed on the ideas of western authors interested in the “new countries” of Asia and Africa, such as Edward Shils, who saw intellectuals as the mediators between “tradition” and “modernity”. Echoing the defense of the liberal premise that promoted the autonomy of the intellectual regarding political power, rejecting “ideological possession”, Third World defendants of the CCF posed that the cultural arena should work as the bedrock for the creation of a truly free society. In the line of authors such as Daniel Bell, these men were fearful of the monster of “ideology”, which they saw as the greatest obstacle for the emergence of a rational public arena of debate and intellectual exchange.

On the other side of the world, defendants of the CCF in Mexico shared Masani’s faith in the crucial role intellectuals were destined to play in the defense of the Free World. For these Mexican intellectuals, this was a way of affirming their belonging in the flow of Western culture. They conceived their country, and its geopolitical region Latin America, as the “spiritual prolongation” of Europe. Mexican intellectuals, claimed Gorkin, acknowledged their debt to European culture and enthusiastically accepted the “defense of Europe and its freedoms” as a commonly shared mission (“Report by Julian Gorkin on the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Latin America”, IACFR, 57, 5). These claims echoed the longings of young cosmopolitan intellectuals like Octavio Paz, who in 1950 claimed triumphantly that Mexicans saw themselves “for the first time in history” as being “contemporary with all men”. Shedding the cloak of revolutionary nationalism defended by previous Mexican intellectuals, members of these younger elites fervently pursued the dream of becoming integrated in the mainstream of Western cultural production arbitrated from the capital cities of the North Atlantic.

During the 1960s, the CCF moved beyond the realm of literary and artistic culture and ushered a platform for the promotion of intellectual debates linked to the ideal of “modernization” among elite academic circles in India and Mexico. Central to the agenda of development promoted from the North Atlantic during the postwar years, “modernization” was seen by intellectuals and policymakers across the world as the recipe for overcoming “traditional” socioeconomic constraints and advancing along the road of industrial capitalism and liberal democracy. This theory cemented a new transcontinental ideology that justified North Atlantic intervention across the Third World in the name of progress and development, thus serving as the geopolitical complement to the “post-utopian” militant liberalism of the early Cold War. In India, the Congress funded the activities of authors such as Asoka Mehta and Rajni Kothari, both of whom participated actively in its activities and promoted links and exchanges with scholars in the North Atlantic such as Myron Weiner, Louis P. Hartz and Edward Shils (“Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom. Calcutta Centre. Report of Activities during 1966”, IACFR, 179, 1). The CCF took Mexico as a standpoint to rally scholars from Mexico—including Jaime García Terrés, Juan Marichal, Víctor Urquidi and Daniel Cosío Villegas—and colleagues from across Latin America—such as Orland Fals-Borda, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Peter Heintz  and Gino Germani—who became invested in the defense of values and ideas central to the geopolitical transcontinental project of development and modernization (“Planning Committee Latin America—Mexico, 28-31 Oct. 1964”, IACFR, 215, 9).

As is well known, the CCF swiftly collapsed in 1967 following a series of journalistic revelations that documented its links to the CIA. Its reputation was badly damaged and its standing across the world was greatly diminished. These revelations coincided with the heightening of international apprehensions regarding US cultural interventionism in the Third World. In Mexico, the thrust of the Cuban Revolution, and the growing awareness of the meeting points between US anticommunist agendas and the repressive stance of the national government, opened new spaces for the emergence of renewed leftist and anti-US positions among intellectuals, scholars, and artists. In India, the growth of communist and other left groups, combined with the alarm generated by the invasion of Vietnam, strengthened the rejection of cultural and political US presence across the country. The eclipse of the CCF thus coincided with the beginning of a new stage of the global Cold War, marked by the open rejection of supposedly “post-ideological” stances and the weakening of the transnational liberal cultural and intellectual activism of the early postwar era.

Despite its boisterous descent in the late 1960s, during nearly two decades, the CCF served as an important forum for debate and cultural activism in both Mexico and India, shaping posterior trajectories of intellectual and artistic debates in both countries. As Patrick Iber pointed out, the CCF facilitated the consolidation of a sphere of cultural activity on the margins of the state, headed by cultural entrepreneurs. Embodied by figures like Masani, Gorkin or García Treviño, this new cultural type served to promote ideological positions related to anticommunist consensus of North Atlantic intellectuals. These agendas, focused on the need to succeed in the “free market of ideas”, linked with the fear of “totalitarianism” and the ideal of “modernization”, contributed to the consolidation of a new liberal intellectual dogma that defined the contours of academic, cultural, and political debate in both countries following the 1970s. In a global arena marked by the impact of decolonization, and the militant assertion of diverse strands of anti-imperialism linked to the rejection of old European and new American forms of influence, the CCF acted as an international forum for the defense of this liberal dogma, which lured some of the most visible and celebrated cultural and intellectual figures of countries like Mexico and India. Clinging to the old modernist defense of the separation of the realms of culture and politics, its defendants contributed to the growth and global spread of a new cultural horizon focused on the ideals of freedom, individuality, and elite cosmopolitanism. In this sense, the history of the CCF in locations like India and Mexico sheds light upon the strong linkages and continuities between the militant faith of Cold War liberalism and the emergence, and global triumph, of neoliberalism in the closing decades of the twentieth century.


Daniel Kent-Carrasco is a historian of Mexico, India and the reflected and interlinked histories of the Third World. He obtained a PhD degree at King’s College, London. He teaches at UNAM, in Mexico City, and is part of the editorial board of Revista Común. He is currently working on a biography of the itinerant scientist and revolutionary Pandurang Khankhoje.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: Victoria Terminus in Bombay in late 1930’s, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Think Piece

Can we do this in English? Scandinavian Idéhistorie and the Language Question

By Vigdis Andrea Evang

Who has not, at some point, been frustrated by a language barrier? An article with a tantalizing abstract in English but no translation; a Spanish book reviewed in Italian; a 19th-century German-language tome hiding, somewhere within its vast bulk, just the one date you need… In moments of frustration like these, we often ask ourselves why anyone would publish a brilliant piece of scholarship in a language inaccessible to most of their colleagues. What use is an article in Bulgarian, say, to me? Why not just publish in English?

As I set out to write about idéhistorie, the Scandinavian cousin to English-language intellectual history, I will display works and publications ensconced behind a particular language barrier, one which allows for Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian to communicate while holding most other languages at bay. In doing so, I intend to familiarize the Anglophone reader with a field that has grown on the other side of that barrier, shielded there the way a wall may shield a garden from the wind. Today, the increased use of English opens breaches in that barrier, allowing more people access – but, perhaps, putting the garden at risk.

What, then, is idéhistorie? What is its relation to intellectual history? What the two disciplines share is a propensity to raise just that question, searching for a self-definition without necessarily arriving at a definitive answer. Idéhistorie has been used to refer to a vast vestige of the old university Bildung: a vibrant and venerable branch of the history of science, a critique of modernity, a high school subject, a student-led Marxist initiative in the spirit of ’68, a useful master’s degree for aspiring journalists and editors, and finally whatever one imagines Michel Foucault was doing, as the latter is frequently given the epithet idéhistoriker; one who practices idéhistorie (In fact, Foucault is technically a failed idéhistoriker, as his doctoral thesis at the University of Uppsala was rejected by professor of idéhistorie Sven Lindroth).

If the above description seems more eclectic than most, it is because it refers to not one scholarly tradition but several. Idéhistorie is practiced throughout the Nordic countries in related yet different ways. It emerged in Sweden first, then Norway, then Denmark (I regret I cannot discuss Finland here; the Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible and form a language spectrum, whereas Finnish comes from a different language group). However eclectic, all forms of idéhistorie share an interest in past thought, in the ways how people have sought to understand the world. As a student, I learned that an idéhistoriker should make the unfamiliar familiar, seeking to understand past ways of thinking now foreign to us, and thereby make the familiar unfamiliar, denaturalizing the givens of the world of today.

To summarize the approach of idéhistorie, if we want to understand something, we should look less at how it is defined and more at how it has been and is currently being practiced. However, before we consider the paths idéhistorie took in the Scandinavian countries, it is necessary to clarify how similar and how different the three languages are.

By analogy, the relationship between Norwegian and Swedish can be compared to that between Scots and English. In this analogy, Norwegian would be Scots, as it is the smaller and historically the less institutionally grounded language. Norwegian and Danish have a relationship not unlike that of modern English to the way English was written in the 18th century. Norwegians historically used Danish as a written language and, from the 19th century onwards, instituted a series of language reforms. The speakers of each language can understand each other with relative ease. This intelligibility allows for the existence of a radio program likeNorsken, svensken og dansken, in which a Swedish, a Norwegian, and a Danish journalist discuss current events, each from their particular point of view, for a mixed Scandinavian audience. The boundaries between the three languages are fuzzy.

Regarding idéhistorie, when the journal Lychnos was first published in 1936, serving as a yearbook for the field of idéhistoria in Sweden, it was with clear inspiration from history of ideas as practiced in the US. Its reach surpassed national borders, as the Scandinavian language spectrum allows for a wider readership than the national one. However, despite this connection, the development of idéhistorie in Norway and Denmark would follow quite a different path from that of Sweden.

In Sweden, from its inception in the 1930s, idéhistoria was closely connected to the history of science. Anton Jansson writes of idéhistoria in its early period as “a relatively broadly conceived discipline, with connections to positivist history of science as well as hermeneutic historiography.” He adds that “a literary but accessible style was expected from a budding idéhistoriker” and that many found their place as public intellectuals. This type of idéhistoria was particularly representative of the University of Uppsala. In Lund, the professor of theoretical philosophy Gunnar Aspelin practiced a more historically grounded approach to his field than the analytical approach of most of his colleagues. Through him, Swedish idéhistoria gained a connection to the history of philosophy; an element, as we shall see, much more present in Norway and Denmark than in Sweden.

In Norway, the first professor of idéhistorie did not have a background in philosophy but in European literature. Andreas H. Winsnes became a professor of idéhistorie in 1946. His aim was to counter the positivist-adjacent turn taking place in the philosophy department and to preserve a classical European university education in which Christianity and Antiquity played a pivotal role. From this rather conservative starting point, idéhistorie in Norway later maintained its critique of modernity while changing its ideological tenor. By the time the journal Arr (“Scar”) was created in 1989, idéhistorie had become a place where students read Lyotard, Foucault, and McLuhan on the dissolution of modernity.

In its shift to the left among idéhistorikere, Denmark went further than Norway. The appointment of the theologian Johannes Sløk as professor of idéhistorie at the University of Aarhus in 1967 similarly took place against a backdrop of an analytical turn in the philosophy department, which intellectual history was meant to balance or counter. However, this kind of classical Bildung clashed with the spirit of 1968. By 1972, Marx was an obligatory reading, and Sløk took a leave of absence. When he returned in 1974, it was not to decide the ideological profile of his department but to teach Kierkegaard. In 1983, when idéhistorie struggled to stay afloat, the journal Slagmark (“Battlefield”) was created. There, Habermas and Lyotard first appeared in the Danish translation: a sign of changing times.

What does this short survey of the history of the discipline in the three countries tell us? First, there is a great deal of variety within this area of study; more, I believe, than many Scandinavian idéhistorikere are aware of. Second, idéhistorie is a field of long-standing and deep roots, one which is more frequently associated with philosophy than with history departments – even as it defines itself in opposition to the former. Consequently, in Scandinavia, it would not be unusual to invite “historikere og idéhistoriere” to attend a conference. In Anglophone academia, it would make less sense to invite “historians and intellectual historians.” Idéhistorie is very much its own discipline.

Another thread to pick out from this short history of idéhistorie is that which connects the journals Lychnos, Slagmark, and Arr. As language is much under consideration in this essay, and as much has been made of the linguistic overlap between the Scandinavian languages, the reader might wonder whether these journals live up to expectations and publish in their neighboring languages. Indeed, they do, though they could stand to do it more often. Yet that is not the most intriguing thing about them.

Lychnos, as a yearbook, is a useful window into the world of Swedish idéhistoria, as it includes not only articles and book reviews but also descriptions of PhD dissertations. One finds the most English here out of the three journals, including abstracts and some articles in the language. Lychnos is usually, but not always, themed. Last year’s issue was dedicated to the baroque, the one before that to Latin America and Europe, preceded by internationalization. The Danish journal Slagmark appears more frequently, always with a given theme. The last few issues have been dedicated to medievalism, the materiality of the life sciences, and Karl Marx. Norwegian Arr, too, has themed editions, offering its readers such diverse topics as education, travel, the countryside, emotions, and the pig.

While the reader will hopefully be able to discern something of the tone and tenor of these publications, this is not the most interesting thing about them either. Their most intriguing trait is that they are read by people who are not academics.

Let us return to the question that I opened this essay with: what use is an article most academics cannot read? While an article in Bulgarian may be of no use to me or one in Norwegian of no use to my Bulgarian colleague, this, I believe, is looking at the situation from the wrong angle. Rather than ask what use an article is to us, we should ask what use it is to readers of Norwegian and Bulgarian – most of whom are not academics. The humanities cannot thrive in a closed circuit, passing from one academic to the next. What good does it do society if a small, isolated group is highly knowledgeable about its past?

To fill their public function, humanists must be able and encouraged to make themselves accessible to the public. “The public” is not some nebulous mass but consists of many groups of people who read and listen to certain things through certain channels, in certain languages. This need not be prohibitive. Journals with a close connection to academic and non-academic audiences in a smaller language than English can allow English-speaking scholars, too, to reach those audiences through translation. When Lychnos functions as a nexus for idéhistoria in Sweden, or Arr receives an award for its style and accessibility, that is a potential boon for all who publish there, no matter what their first language might be.

Even if we were all to agree that it is best to write both in English and our many other languages, we should choose which language to use for each publication only after careful consideration of who will benefit the most from reading it. Even if we were all to pledge to translate more often and explore the many gardens half-hidden by language barriers, it is not enough to appeal to the virtue of individuals when larger forces are in play.

Nobody is calling for abolishing all languages but the lingua academica. Yet smaller languages may still lose ground as academics feel a growing pressure to publish in renowned international journals – that is, almost invariably in English. The ability to write academically in one’s first language is not inherent but a skill that must be cultivated and maintained. If academics become incapable of expressing themselves in a given language, that language will suffer the lack. No idéhistoriker is blind to the importance of concepts, nor are intellectual historians deaf to the relevance of language. Do we think it is unimportant whose words must be italicized?

The increased use of English in an era of digital connection means there are now many formerly secret gardens to explore. The precedents we set now, the practices we adopt, are likely to cast long shadows. There is a danger; that a future generation of English-speaking academics will find themselves cut off from many of the societies they are supposed to serve, unaware of the loss that has taken place just on the other side of the linguistic garden wall. The possibility is that of opening a door in that wall, connecting without destroying.


Vigdis Andrea Evang is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Geiranger in der Tiefe. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.