Intellectual history

Bhakti Beyond Borders: Sufi Serenades in Love’s Laboratory

By Ankur Barua

Today, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are often presented as three rigidly self-enclosed worldviews in political rhetoric and historical reconstructions of the last two millennia in South Asia. This think piece reveals a different picture by navigating theological exchanges across the social spaces of Hindus and Muslims, focusing on the idioms and the affectivities of devotional love (taṣawwuf, bhakti). We begin with an outline of the religious history of South Asia, highlighting how the arrival of a non-Indic religion – namely, Islam – led to various political upheavals and the development of interfaces of mutual intelligibility. The Hindu scriptural text, Bhāgavata-purāṇa (c.1000 CE), became the generative matrix of certain Indo-Islamic styles of devotional poetry which writers cultivated from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. The central motif — Kṛṣṇa (Krishna), the God of enchanting beauty, and the gopīs, the cowherd women who are the prototypical devotees – would be reworked multiple times across the precolonial centuries and in contexts of colonial modernity.

During the first century CE, two spiritual visions – today clustered under the rubrics of “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” – gradually developed their conceptual contours, occasionally in dialectical competition with each other’s idioms. They spoke in the common Sanskrit-rooted vocabulary of ātman (self), saṃsāra (cycle of rebirths), karma (action), avidyā (ignorance), and jñāna (knowledge), even if they occasionally disagreed sharply on how these crucial terms should be understood. Hindu and Buddhist (“Indic”) philosophers were developing sophisticated analyses of a range of motifs: the nature of reality, the structure of cognition, the shape of the ideal polity, and soteriological discipline, to name a few. The knowledge these philosophers cultivated often depended on the patronage of local kings and powerful landlords. For instance, brahmin priests were not averse to ritually consecrating a ruler through singing Vedic chants in return for tax-free lands on which to build temples and found monasteries. These sites would become the Hindu homes for propounding – and sheltering – the dharma.

The polyvalent word dharma – like the Greek word logos and the Arabic word dīn – defies translation. From a cosmic perspective, dharma is the cement of the universe: the  sky is not falling on my head right now because the sky has a specific dharma-grained structure. From a socio-moral perspective, dharma is the existential engine animating everything related to what I think, where I live, and how I act. Around the turn of the first millennium, the motif of dharma was codified by Sanskrit-speaking brahmins who prescribed specific duties for women (strī-dharma) and for individuals belonging to specific groupings (varṇa) with their distinct occupations. These socio-ritual classifications are encompassed in the dharma-sāśtra literature (200–700 CE), which was subsequently reworked by the different Vedantic traditions. Crucially, the dharma-sāśtra codifications pointed to the lands of the “outsiders” (mlechha, yavana) where the cosmos-regenerating dharma could not be practiced.

A few centuries later, Islam irrupted into Indic lands. In one sense, this generalization is as misleading as the claim “Hinduism landed at Heathrow in 1972”. People move, and they move along with their ideas housed in their sociocultural systems. Likewise, we should speak of a diverse spectrum of intellectuals, traders, and settlers who began to stream eastward from lands as far away as Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. These movements were initiated by a series of devastating raids on lands and Hindu temples – hence, the image of an irruption – carried out by Muslim figures such as Mahmud of Ghazni (971–1030) on the north-western terrains of India. In 1206, a Sultanate was established at Delhi by a Persianate dynasty; much of the landmass of South Asia was controlled by Indo-Turkic and Indo-Afghan kings before Mughal paramountcy was founded in 1526.

Picture Delhi in 1622. The “inter-faith” landscape does not look particularly promising. To many of the Hindus we meet in the local temple, Islam is stamped with alienness – the (Persian and Mongol) rulers and courtiers are ethnically distinct, they speak weird languages, and their stand-offish mleccha-lifestyle does not conform to the dictates of dharma. First impressions often matter more than any high-minded idea you throw at others – the apocalyptic nightmare of ruthless hordes raining down hell on infidels structure the “imaginaire” of these Hindus. But perceptive (ethnographic) eyes would discern something more, especially in the vast hinterlands beyond the contact zones ravaged by military mobilization: Islam is becoming indigenized in music, painting, medicine, and dress. Urdu appears at the intersections of Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit linguistic streams; Muslims are translating Hindu scriptural texts such as the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Yogavaśiṣṭha into Persian; and certain styles of architecture combine Islamic and Indic forms.

One such “inter-faith” pioneer was the Mughal prince Dārā Shukōh (1615–1659), who was born at Ajmer, the city with the tomb (dargāh) of the Sufi master Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Heeding a call from the minaret, Shukōh felt inspired to boldly declare that explanations of the Qur’ān could be found in the Sanskrit Upaniṣads. A recurring Islamic critique of Hindu religious life-worlds was founded upon the latter’s polytheism; however, while Dārā was plumbing the depths of Islamic unicity (tawḥīd), he discovered Indic pearls such as this declaration from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.2.1–6.2.3): “In the beginning, this was simply what is existent–one only (ekam eva), without a second”. A generation before Dārā, Ras Khān (Syed Ibrahim Khān: 1548–1628) had walked down another pathway that would become a vitally osmotic site of synthetic borrowings across Hindu-Sanskritic and Muslim-Perso-Arabic milieus – the language of self-effacing love (prem, bhakti, ‘ishq, maḥabba). While little is known about his life, it is clear from his couplets (doha) that he was immersed in Hindu theological universes, and especially fluent in speaking the idioms of ecstatic love of Kṛṣṇa as expressed in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa by the exemplary cowherd women.

In a cosmic narrative that would be engraved into multiple styles of painting, poetry, architecture – and later Bollywood music – the Hindu God Kṛṣṇa plays on his world-enchanting flute whose mesmerising call is heard by his ideal devotees, the cowherd women (gopī). Leaving aside their strī-dharma in response to this call of the spirit, the gopīs rush to meet Kṛṣṇa. The scriptural narrative now unfolds through a series of dialectical twists and turns – the gopīs become inflated with pride and think that they possess Kṛṣṇa, suddenly Kṛṣṇa disappears, they are riven with an unbearable pain of separation, and finally, Kṛṣṇa re-appears and dances with them in a circular formation. Reflecting on the pathos experienced by them in separation from Kṛṣṇa, Ras Khān writes that when a gopī hears the melodious call of the cuckoo in the springtime, she feels excruciating pain.

An entire army of Hindu exegetes began to work on this (historical-mythic) narrative. How did they explicate it? The Kṛṣṇa-gopī dance represents the spiraling oscillation between the non-finite divine self and the finite human self. God wishes to draw us ever more tightly into the divine matrix, but we are not yet ready for God–marred as we are with our worldly imperfections. So, God entangles us with the lure of love (bhakti) and keeps on – time and again – turning us away from our worldliness till our hearts become perfectly Godward. In loving this world – God’s world – we must inhabit it by unswervingly turning our heart’s compass towards God. At the spiritual summit, a Hindu devotee would declare: “God: everything I do – including submitting this confession to you – is an expression of my bhakti for you”. In short, love is (not just a candlelit dinner but also) a fiery crucible that burns away our existential dross so that we become increasingly worthy of the God who would (deign to) dance with us. Love hurts, and in that agony is salvation.

All these themes are encoded in līlā – a Sanskrit word whose semantic range cannot be encompassed by one English word. Distracted by the demands of the next publication, I routinely fail to discern any divine presence in the dusty shelves of libraries. Then, God shocks me out of my existential complacency, and fills me with unbearable pain as I experience God’s absence. Paradoxically, when I feel, with my gopī-self, that God has deserted me, I become wholeheartedly re-oriented to God. So, God freely chooses to draw me outwards on a journey of deepening love of God as part of God’s līlā.

Depending on your academic affiliations (and existential dispositions), all this may be too much “theologizing” for you. However, no theological system can survive for too long if it is completely disconnected from the heat and dust of everyday life – and indeed, quotidian analogues of these cosmological claims can be found. That you experience presence in absence is a platitude to which the wisdom of Bollywood repeatedly points you (such as this song: “Why does it happen in life – when you have left, it is just then that I suddenly remember all these little things about you?”), and every divorce lawyer will caution you that taking your spouse for granted is a recipe for existential disaster.

Figures such as Ras Khān recognized that this bhakti­-shaped vision was more than malleable for Sufi (in Islamic terms, taṣawwuf) hermeneutic recalibration. The Sufi motifs of the painful surgery (fanāʾ) of the world-immersed self, the (symbolic) exile (hijrat) from the divine who is our true home, and the practice of constantly re-calling (ḏhikr) the (ninety-nine) names of our gracious host were housed across the hinterlands of Hindustan by reimagining Hindu hymns. The utterly destitute (Arabic: faqīr; Sanskrit: akiñcan) devotee still abides in (and because of) the divine plenitude. Again, in the Sufi cosmologies of Mir Sayyid Manjhan’s Madhumālatī (1545), love (Sanskrit: prema) is presented as the cosmic glue through which the tissues of the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) are threaded together. The narrative is set as a circle of love within which Manohar meets the heroine Madhumālatī at night, gets separated, and painfully works his way back to her through various halting places. Manohar and Madhumālatī become the relishers of the sentiment (Sanskrit: rasa) of prema, such that the wayfarer (sālik) is the lover (‘āshiq) who sees in their love for the human beloved (‘ishq-i majāzī) a reflection of their love for the divine beloved (‘ishq-i ḥaqīqī). Around this time, Mīr Abdul Wāhid Bilgrāmī (d.1569) suggested, in his Haqā’iq-i Hindī, allegorical readings of Kṛṣṇa as the reality of a human being, the cowherd women (gopīs) as angels, and the flute of Kṛṣṇa as the appearance of being out of non-being.

In short, both these worldviews, of taṣawwuf and bhakti, are shaped by the allegory of love – what applies to the human beloved is a this-worldly instantiation of what is paradigmatically exemplified by the divine beloved. So, statements about a human lover are translatable – with some disanalogies – into statements about the divine lover. Thus, propelled by the call to return to God, the Sufi wayfarer wanders about, bewildered and yet assiduously, on the paths of love – paths that lead through the battlefields of Karbala, the rose gardens of Shiraz, and the hermitages and the marketplaces of India.

These syntheses of bhakti and taṣawwuf spread across Indic terrains, and by the eighteenth century, many Muslim poets were singing of Kṛṣṇa. In a middle Bengali reworking of the narrative Majnūn Laylā, Daulat Uzir Bahrām Khān (c.1600 CE) infuses the Perso-Arabic idioms of “veiling”, confusion, and selfless love (maḥabba) with the vernacular valences of painful separation (biraha).

[Lāylī says:]

The fire in my mind burns without respite

Strength, intellect, happiness, purity – all have I lost

In solitariness do I stay enclosed in biraha.

In this way the grieving woman-in-separation (birahiṇī) suffers always As she lies close to death.

My translation from A. Sharif, Lāylī-Majnu (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1984), p. 129.

Sometime before the eighteenth century, we hear the lament of another Muslim poet as he sings of Kṛṣṇa (not named but hinted at with stock allusions).

Without my friend –

I waste away day and night

I cannot restrain myself.

Tell me, my girl-friend, what do I do now?

Without my friend my life has no companion,

I keep on waiting every day for my friend.

In that waiting I go about floating on sorrow,

If I were to find my friend, I would hold on to his feet.

Irfān says –

“My friend is the flute player, By playing on that enchanting flute he stole my heart away.”

My translation from J. M. Bhattacharya, Bāṅgālār Baiṣṇab-Bhābāpanna Musalmān Kabi (“Bengal’s Muslim Poets Infused With Vaiṣṇava Sentiments”) (Calcutta: Calcutta University, 1945), p. 48.

In such premodern songs, it is only in the line where the author signs their name that the author is revealed as an individual from a Muslim milieu who is lamenting their sorrow in separation – or exile – from their friend who is the divine beloved. This stream of sonic theology – Hindu and Indo-Islamic – continues to flow through the lands of Bengal (in India and Bangladesh). Here is a fragment of such a song from one of Bengal’s finest poets, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).

The night that is passing, how do I bring it back?

Why do my eyes shed tears in vain?

Take this dress, my girl-friend, this garland has become a burden—

Waiting in desolation on my bed, a night such as this has passed.

My translation from R. Tagore, Gītabitān (Calcutta: Visvabharati, 1938), p. 370.

Such allegorical reworkings of the narratives of Kṛṣṇa and the cowherd women appear also in the poems of Hason Raja (1854–1922). Born in Sylhet (present-day Bangladesh), he invokes various Hindu tropes in presenting himself as a girl whose heart has been captivated by Kṛṣṇa. Thus, (s)he pines away, by “annihilating” (fanā) her worldly self in her love for the divine beloved.

I shall let the national poet of Bangladesh, the inimitable Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976), have the last word. He inherited some of the theological idioms configured by figures such as Ras Khān, and his socioreligious visions do not allow any straightforwardly modular characterisation as either “Hindu” or “Muslim”. For instance, he composed songs about both the Prophet Muhammad and the Hindu goddess (debī). Married to a Hindu woman, fired by a cosmic vision of Islam as the gospel of egalitarianism unto the wretched of the earth, and tragically reviled – both by Muslims and by Hindus – precisely because of his hybrid socioreligious locations, Nazrul skilfully interweaves the threads of bhakti into the tapestry of taṣawwuf.

O girl-friend, in your youth dress up as a yogi

Go looking for Kṛṣṇa in forest after forest

Hearing his flute, abandon all concerns about family honour

Keep searching for him along the pathways

Kalyani Kazi (ed.), K̭āzī Nazruler Gān (Calcutta: Sahitya Bharati Publications, 2005), p.602.

The “de-familiarization” that bhakti points to – this world is our home and yet it is not quite our true habitat – would become the generative motor of the migration of Hindu devotionalism (for instance, ISKCON, a Hindu organisation founded in 1966 in New York by Swami Prabhupāda and the Neasden Temple in London) across national borderlines. In the reverse direction, the motif of bhakti provided the conceptual currency to Muslims in their multiple quests to modulate the Meccan message to Indic idioms, as they went looking for rejuvenating oases for Islam across the heartless deserts of the world. 

Ankur Barua is a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge. His primary research interests are Vedantic Hindu philosophical theology and Indo-Islamic styles of sociality. He researches the conceptual constellations and the social structures of the Hindu traditions, both in premodern contexts in South Asia and in colonial milieus where multiple ideas of Hindu identity were configured along transnational circuits between India, Britain, France, Germany, and USA.

Edited by Luke Wilkinson

Featured Image: Krishna with Gopis (Creative Commons).

Conference Report Intellectual history

Walter Benjamin in the East: Networks, Conflicts, and Reception

By Caroline Adler and Sophia Buck

From July 7-9 2022, the international conference Walter Benjamin in the East – Networks, Conflicts and Reception [1] took place at Berlin’s Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL). It examined readings, receptions, and appropriations of the work of German Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in Central and Eastern Europe, during and after state socialism. The title of the conference, Walter Benjamin in the East, refers first of all to a Western European orientation towards the East in the 1920s. Benjamin himself traveled to the ‘margins’ of Europe (as they were then seen from a Western perspective) during his trip to Moscow in the winter of 1926/27. 

Benjamin’s preoccupation with the young Soviet Union – poignantly laid out in his essay Moscow for the journal Die Kreatur and numerous essays on cultural politics in Die Literarische Welt – is an outstanding example of his ability to think “off-modern” and to “detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project”. Indeed, Benjamin observed the USSR in its formative years with an eye toward what Svetlana Boym called the clash of two ‘eccentric’ modernities, evident in the tensions between a utopian, revolutionary potential and the restorative, soon-to-be totalitarian tendencies of the late 1920s. This preoccupation, in turn, remains a marginal aspect in Benjamin studies, at least when considering most scholarship conducted at and circulating in ‘Western’ academic circles.

The clash of these two contingent – temporally and spatially ‘out of sync’ – modernities is said to have ended with the collapse of the so-called Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. A subsequent hope was that largely separate communities of scholars were to create a newly interwoven intellectual landscape in Europe. First, by creating and fostering intellectual networks and mutual academic exchange. Second, by retrospectively acknowledging the intricate and mutual cross-connections during a long 20th-century divide between Western and Eastern versions of modernity, as embodied in Walter Benjamin’s tumultuous reception.

Taking up this undertaking, scholars, translators, and editors came together in Berlin to present and discuss different case studies on the reception and productive appropriation of Walter Benjamin’s work: in 1920s Moscow, the GDR, the Socialist Republic of Romania, the Hungarian People’s Republic, the CSSR, as well as contemporary Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and Slovakia.

“European and Soviet Art.” Vecherniaia Moskva, 14 January 1927.

The conference started with the chronological ‘origin’ of Benjamin in the East – his travel to the young Soviet Union in 1926/27, alongside his reception of and work on Soviet aesthetics and literary practice. Pavel Arsenev (University of Geneva) introduced Benjamin’s preoccupation with the works of the Soviet literary avant-garde – namely Sergei Tretiakov – as a form of ‘reverse thinking’, interpreting Benjamin as an intermediary of the Soviet avant-garde in Western Europe, especially Paris. While these contacts between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’ were mainly reduced to issues of technology and production, Arsenev highlighted contact points to the social sciences, in particular ethnology and anthropology. 

Moments of contact and synergies ‘against the grain’ were also of interest to Iacopo Chiaravalli (University of Pisa), who presented an exciting archival find: the issue of the Moscow newspaper Vecherniaia Moskva that includes an interview on “European and Soviet Art” that Benjamin gave in 1927. This interview, in Chiaravalli’s interpretation, served Benjamin as the starting point for his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), tracing back Benjamin’s thoughts on the aestheticization of politics to discussions with Bernhard Reich and Asja Lacis in Moscow. While Benjamin remarked signs of a growing orthodoxy and dogmatism of Russian cultural production, he did not revert to bourgeois aesthetics but radicalized his concepts of technology and the materiality of social production. 

Our conversation on ‘re’-constructing the 1920s continued with Sergei Romashko’s (Moscow) keynote “Walter Benjamin/Moskau – Zwei Flächen eines Kristalls” [Two planes of a crystal]. Romashko – himself the Russian translator of Benjamin’s Moscow Diary – focused on some speculative possibilities of encounters between Benjamin and figures such as Iakov Slashchov, Michail Bulgakov, Lev Kuleshov and Viktor Shklovski. Through reading Benjamin’s Diary as a historical, yet unfinished sourcebook, Romashko offered a timely understanding of Benjamin as a ‘conversation partner’ in reconstructing a history buried by the ruptures of fascism and Stalinist repression.

A joint visit to the Walter Benjamin Archive rounded up the first day, guided by the archive’s research associate Ursula Marx. In addition to the rare opportunity to marvel at Benjamin’s original manuscript of the micrological Moscow Diary, there was a lively discussion about practices of archiving and cataloguing non-German editions and translations. While the opening and accessibility of the archive, on the one hand, promotes the study of Benjamin, on the other, it makes ‘quality management’ more difficult, as keeping track of new translations, editions or appropriations of his work is a task on its own.

Book cover of the first, somewhat corrupted Hungarian edition of Benjamin’s work, Kommentár és prófécia, edited by Dénes Zoltai, Budapest 1969.

On the second day, the section on Theoretical Reception until the 1990s targeted productive appropriations [‘Entwendungen’] of Benjamin’s work in the GDR, the Hungarian People’s Republic, and the CSSR. Martin Küpper (FU Berlin) discussed how Benjamin’s reflections on operative aesthetics and reproduction techniques were incorporated into the philosophical canon of the GDR after 1968. Of central importance were figures like Lothar Kühne, whose reception of ‘aura’ and concepts of ornament and ‘Behutsamkeit’ [gentleness; caution] considerably touched on functional aesthetics as an approximation of situation and space. Adapting and reworking Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’, Kühne challenged the schism between utility and handicraft while criticizing commodity fetishism. 

Konstantin Baehrens (University of Potsdam) focused on an important mediator of Walter Benjamin’s work in the socialist context: György Lukács. Lukács stimulated a reading of Benjamin not only among members of the Budapest School but also in the environment of the Yugoslav Praxis Group and Marxist philosophers in the GDR – a redirected interest in modernist tendencies of the 1920s, at a time when Lukács himself was ostracized from official cultural politics. Both Baehrens and Küpper amplified the role that reception plays in legitimizing ideological standpoints. Thereby, the papers provided striking examples of the practical use of Benjamin’s theoretical legacy beyond a philological ‘Benjamin-School’. 

Gábor Gángo (University of Erfurt) further expanded the engagement with the Budapest School. For him, too, the reception and appropriation of Benjamin’s work, especially through Hungarian writer Sándor Radnóti, can be understood as a kind of ‘mediation’ or reconciliation between Eastern and Western versions of modernity and its respective strains of Marxism. Following the reading of Benjamin through Lukács, Anna Zséller and Károly Tóth (ELTE) presented excerpts of extensive interviews they had conducted with editors and translators of Benjamin’s work in Hungary. These conversations with figures such as Radnóti, Mihály Vajda, or János Weiss gave striking insights into a ‘Marxist Renaissance’ in Hungary up until the 1970s and its sudden halt after the so-called ‘Philosopher’s Trial’ in 1973. These circumstances produced a unique ‘belatedness’ in the publication of Benjamin’s work in Hungary and a reception marked by fragmentation and generational conflict. 

Book cover of Walter Benjamin, Dílo a jeho zdroj, translated by Růžena Grebeníčková, Prague 1979.

Concluding the section, Anna Förster (University of Erfurt) focused on the intellectual climate and conditions for a Benjamin reception in the CSSR after 1968. Her contribution centered on the 1979 Czech edition Walter Benjamin: Dílo a jeho zdroj and how – unlike other Western philosopher’s works – it was possible to get it past the multiple censorship laws, despite Benjamin being considered a ‘horkým bramborem’ [touchy subject]. Förster examined the tactics of editors and translators to escape censorship not through anonymity or pseudonymity but through allonymity: a practice whereby authors and translators ‘lent their names’ to colleagues who could not publish officially.

The section Artistic Responses until the 1990s engaged with artists’ responses to Benjamin’s work in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Due to its split with Stalin after 1948, Yugoslavia went a quite distinct path, resulting in its transitioning towards market-based socialism and relatively liberal cultural politics. Isabel Jacobs (Queen Mary University of London) focused on the underground art practice of Goran Đorđević, his disappearance and subsequent resurrection as ‘Walter Benjamin’ in a 1986 performance lecture in Ljubljana. Jacobs proposed to consider Đorđević’s artistic strategies of copying and un-originality less an ‘influence’ of Walter Benjamin than a reversed intervention that questions claims of cultural originality.

Deirdre Smith (University of Pittsburgh) took a closer look at artists of the New Art Practice Movement in 1970s Yugoslavia, particularly the work of Sanja Iveković. Smith pointed out that Iveković’s artistic strategy of montage and image-constellation can be traced back to a specifically feminist reading of Benjamin’s work in the edition Eseji, published in Belgrade in 1974. Both contributions referred to the productive possibilities of a non-academic, but rather interventionist appropriation of Walter Benjamin’s work in a relatively liberal socialist context.

Sanja Iveković, Dvostruki život / Double Life (1975).

The section Artistic Responses since the 1990s targeted cultural, theatrical, and cinematic as well as film-theoretical engagement with Benjamin’s work in contemporary Russia and Romania. In her keynote “Translating Benjamin from Theory to Practice – Russian Edition”, Oxana Timofeeva (St. Petersburg) evoked some of Benjamin’s concepts – such as the angel of history, divine violence, and the tradition of the oppressed – and their harnessing within political struggles in today’s Russia.

Timofeeva recalled the artists collective Chto Delat‘s 2014 performance “Who burned a paper soldier,” in which the collective transformed the vandalization of an installation in public space into an investigation of monumentality in collective memory culture. In doing so, the self-incrimination of the Angel of History aimed at exploring emancipatory strategies for addressing and overcoming entangled complicities in the past. The urgent task of demystifying Benjamin, Timofeeva suggested, begins with exposing him as a dislodged reference material or ‘cultural asset’. Instead, a militant reception in the art world would allow to grasp an ‘untimely’ moment in his philosophy through our own experiences and struggles. 

In a similar vein, Bogdan Popa (Transilvania University Romania) explored how the reception of Benjamin transited from branding him as a historical materialist thinker to a reference for ‘cultural studies’ within Romanian film theory. The influence of Benjamin on Romanian film theory and aesthetics are surely productive. However, Popa argues, Benjamin’s thought needs to be decisively situated in a Marxist tradition of thinking; also to be able to reconceptualize Romania’s own history of socialism. Here, the works of Benjamin are seen not through the lens of appropriation but through the possibility of theoretical self-understanding.

In contrast, Anna Migliorini (University of Florence and Pisa) examined the productive appropriation of Benjamin in the aesthetic realist school of Romanian New Wave cinema, in particular the movies of Radu Jude. In her analysis of Radu’s work, Migliorini pointed out two purposes of such an appropriation: on the one hand, as a thematic reference and, on the other, as a methodological model.

Still from Radu Jude’s I do not care if we go down in history as barbarians (2018).

The last section on Day 3 dealt with theoretical landscapes and Reception since the 1990s, specifically Romania and Slovakia. Markus Bauer (Berlin) traced the political, linguistic, and social-theoretical preconditions of Benjamin’s reception in Romania from 1972. He outlined various theoretical influences of Benjamin’s work that conditioned the respective reception waves in Romania, as enacted through, for example, Valeriu Marcu, René Fülöp-Miller, or Panait Istrati. At the center of the subsequent discussion was the concept of ‘Europe’, both in Benjamin’s writing, but also in the self-understanding of the Romanian reception marked by the discovery of Benjamin’s works in French translation. 

Adam Bžoch (University of Bratislava) brought together areas of artistic engagement and theoretical reception in Slovakia as ‘traces of an apparition’ assembled in a 2006 conference ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Media Challenges’ in Bratislava and an accompanying exhibition in 2008. The 1990s saw a shift toward Benjamin’s art and media theory. For example, the translation Iluminácie (1999) – only coinciding with the German edition by chance – was curated along the lines of media-theoretical considerations rather than literary reflections.

Following from the ‘Velvet Divorce’ (or dissolution) of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovak intellectuals also increasingly tended to foreground biographical aspects of Benjamin’s exile as a starting point to rework a perceived disconnection from Slovakia’s own history. Both Bauer and Bžoch highlighted the importance to address social and political contexts of particular receptions, as new editions and translations also constellate novel proximities of thought that can change supposedly ‘neutral’ readings radically.

The final roundtable discussion Translating (in) the East took up these questions once again and expanded the spectrum towards the possibility to intervene through translations and editions. Three translators and editors reflected on their practice, considering circulation, institutional infrastructures, publication requirements, discursive tendencies, and readership. Kateryna Mishchenko (Berlin) started to work on translations of Benjamin’s writings on dreams in 2014 to introduce them “as an alternative form of political reflection”.

More translations into Ukrainian gradually appeared after the turn of the century, with a focus on political aspects and echoes in artistic circles. In light of the war in Ukraine, Mishchenko advocates further Ukrainian translations not as an alternative to existing Russian ones but to open a linguistic zone for pondering ambivalences, tensions, and mutual illuminations. Whilst translations culturally transform Benjamin’s thought, they are also a means for a translator to construct a future for transcultural and political community building. 

Book cover of Walter Benjamin, Iluminácie, translated by Adam Bžoch, Bratislava 1999.

Christian Ferencz-Flatz (Alexandru Dragomir Institute for Philosophy Bucharest) – currently working on translating Benjamin’s Arcades-Project into Romanian – outlined the recent translation history within the Romanian intellectual landscape. First comprehensively translated after the fall of the socialist regime, Benjamin would become part and parcel of ‘culture wars’. Iluminări (2000), translated by Catrinel Pleșu, favored a depoliticized, theological selection that supported an anticommunist stance. Nonetheless, Benjamin’s writings soon turned into a key piece of ammunition in constituting a New Left shortly before Romania’s integration into the EU. Ferencz-Flatz inscribed Benjamin’s work into a consistent streak of new translations since, accompanied by a more thorough academic engagement with Benjamin’s writings. 

Adam Lipszyc (Polish Academy of Sciences Warsaw) situated his own Polish translation against the horizon of historically longer trends and re-translations in Polish academia. Broadly, the reception of Benjamin passed from aesthetics and literary theory (1970s) through cultural studies (1980/90s) and post-secular readings down to a political philosophy across the political spectrum. Similar to Ferentz-Flatz’ observation for some Romanian translations, more politically ‘conservative’ or ‘leftist’ presentations of Benjamin would take shape through curating his Œuvre selectively according to ‘theological’ or ‘Marxist’ underpinnings. Lipszyc’s translation, in his view, aimed at reinstating the philosophical value of Benjamin’s work as opposed to a restricted view of him as either a theologian or a media theorist.

Book table at the ZfL in Berlin, with translations and editions that were discussed during the conference.

The conference brought together perspectives from the European ‘East’ in a fascinating and fruitful constellation. Thereby, it opened outlooks for future collective work on the entangled aspects of Western, Central and Eastern European intellectual histories through the lens of Benjamin’s legacy. Understanding the afterlife of his thought as it traverses ideological and geographical boundaries also means accounting for the specificity of local contexts. Individual case studies from this conference highlighted previously neglected similarities as well as differences within the European context.

Going beyond essentializing a ‘Polish’ or ‘Romanian’ or ‘Hungarian’ version of Benjamin, the contributions shed light on how reception and translation may enable scholars to reinterpret and expand Benjamin studies across linguistic contact zones. With this outlook, real and imaginary constructions of the ‘East’ and ‘West’, for instance when speaking about divides within Marxism, were critically addressed. Thus, the conference unveiled how a focus on the various receptions and appropriations of Walter Benjamin’s work across Europe may open up a new, transnational home for a supposedly ‘over-researched’ thinker.

[1] The event was supported by the ZfL Berlin, the Oxford/Berlin Research Partnership, and the Research Training Group GRK 1956 “Transfer of Culture and Cultural Identity” in Freiburg.

Caroline Adler is a scholar of Cultural History and Theory. Her research focuses on representation, method, and literarization in Walter Benjamin’s work, epistemologies of the aesthetic, and theory and critique of scientific exhibition practice. She is a PhD Student in the Research Training Group The Literary and Epistemic History of Small Forms at Humboldt-University Berlin, where she works on Benjamin’s “Moscow” essay between vividness and literary construction. She is an active member and treasurer of the collective diffrakt – centre for theoretical periphery in Berlin-Schöneberg.

Sophia Buck is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford in German Studies and an associate of the Research Training Group Transfer of Culture and “Cultural Identity”. German-Russian Contacts in the European Context in Freiburg. Her research concerns literary criticism and theory, European cultural thought, intercultural optics, knowledge transfer, and the history of the discipline. She currently writes a doctoral thesis with the working title “Moscow – Berlin – Paris: Walter Benjamin’s Transnational Spaces of Comparison”. In 2021, she was a visiting researcher at the École normale supérieure Paris, and until summer 2022 a visiting researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin.

Edited by Isa Jacobs

Featured Image: Book Cover of Walter Benjamin’s Moskovskii dnevnik [Moskauer Tagebuch], Moscow 1997. Credits: Ad Marginem.

Intellectual history Virtual Issues

Reimagining the History of Ideas – The JHI in the Early Cold War – Virtual Issue 3.1.

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

      — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors

By Thomas Furse & Thomas Holland

This Virtual Issue series investigates how the Journal of the History of Ideas became involved in political and intellectual debates about Marxism, totalitarianism, and class warfare between the 1940s and early 1960s. The Journal, as the premier space for the history of ideas in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, is an artifact of the political and social context of the time. The nation was victorious against the Axis Powers and the rising superpower for Western capitalism. Its opponent was the global ideological project of communism with a center in Moscow and a second in Beijing that was fast enveloping what it could in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia. Following American universities, research institutes, and colleges, the Journal contributed to curating an ideology that could benefit the United States as a liberal democratic world power in its fight against totalitarianism, and specifically, global communism and Marxism. It became, what we call, an anti-communist laboratory. In tow with elite power, the Journal helped establish a space to challenge and reevaluate the intellectual foundations of the Soviet experiment. Its founding editor, Arthur O. Lovejoy, was a committed Wilsonian liberal internationalist who firmly opposed communism. A theme throughout this series is how the Journal weaponized various methodological approaches to highlight and conceal certain features of politics and history. This first installment looks at the Journal from 1940 to 1959 to show how it condemned Marxism, Nazism, and domestic isolationism as the United States was on the path to becoming a superpower. The next installment, led by Thomas Holland, explores how the Journal strove to limit the radical implications of class warfare by promoting alternative non-revolutionary socialist visions of class derived predominantly from the British tradition.    


Arthur O. Lovejoy supported US entry into the First World War and the League of Nations, wrote against conscientious objectors, and in a 1938 article critical of trade unions, outlined how free universities upheld Western civilization against totalitarianism (p. 415). During the First World War, Lovejoy joined the National Security League (and the YMCA). This elite-backed group supported the mass naturalization of immigrants, conscription, the Espionage Act (1917), and the Sedition Act (1918), promoted Germanophobia, and national infrastructure with inter-state highways. In association with the Preparedness Movement, they helped organize the United States for war. The NSL rode the wave of elite and populist anger against political radicals and immigrants, especially Germans (Lovejoy was born in Berlin to a German mother and American father in 1873). Through the NSL and as a founder of the American Association of University Professors, he advanced a vision of academic freedom while vetting professors who were possible security risks and also promoted American patriotism through education. The NSL fell into turmoil after the First World War and collapsed in 1942. But Lovejoy remained relatively committed to the ethos of assertive nationalism and liberal interventionism throughout his life. He died in 1962.

During the 1940s and 1950s, which is the timeline for this installment, Americans experienced another round of political repression and state surveillance, known as the Second Red Scare. This time, it was directed against communism, not German-American culture. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthyism, the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and Federal Loyalty Boards helped to stimulate anti-communism, hostility to racial equality, and working-class power. There were trials for suspected spies, such as the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, and the Communist Party USA leaders, and repression for unions and black equality and the Hollywood Ten. In 1949, Lovejoy wrote “Communism versus Academic Freedom” in the New Republic, arguing that Communist Party members should not take up academic positions. This was an anti-revolutionary politics designed to manage the potential extremism in a heterogeneous mass democracy.

American Legion, November 1951

It would be an overstatement to view the Journal as on the frontline of the early Cold War. But it was a bastion of elite power for an educated audience of public opinion formers as the US geared itself into a superpower struggle. These five articles published between 1940-1959 indicate how the US, as a liberal superpower, defined itself first against fascist totalitarianism and then Soviet communism. As these selected articles show, the Journal constructed an elite intellectual space where ideological alternatives to Marxism and communism could be explored. The Journal was anti-communist that generally adhered to liberal internationalism but avoided harsh dogmatism. It hosted Erik R. Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a staunch conservative critic of mass democracy, communism, and Nazism; Max Laserson, a firm supporter of democracy but one nostalgic of the early Soviets; Charles A. Madison, a historian of progressive politics; James W. Vander Zanden, a historian of race and racism in the United States; and Frederick H. Cramer, a historian and scriptwriter.

Aside from James W. Vander Zanden, all figures in this installment were born outside the United States. They were émigrés who broadly aspired to contain the Soviet Union’s world-domineering power and nurture ideological alternatives. Charles A. Madison (b. Kyiv), Frederick H. Cramer (b. Berlin), and Max Laserson (b. Jelgava, Latvia), worked at the publishing house Henry Holt and Company, Mount Holyoke College, and Columbia University respectively. Erik R. Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (b. Tobelbad, Austria) moved to the US in 1937, became influential in American conservative thought, and taught at various colleges in the Northeast before moving back to Austria.


Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Bohemian Background of German National Socialism: The D.A.P., D.N.S.A.P. and N.S.D.A.P.,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jun., 1948), pp. 339-371

Max M. Laserson “Democracy as a Regulative Idea and as an Established Regime: The Democratic Tradition in Russia and Germany,”  Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jun., 1947), pp. 342-362

Charles A. Madison, “Anarchism in the United States,” Journal of History of Ideas, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 46-66

Frederick H. Cramer “Isolationism: A Case-History,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Oct., 1940), pp. 459-493

James W. Vander Zanden “The Ideology of White Supremacy,” Journal of History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jun., 1959), pp. 385-402


Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s article is an almost proto-libertarian analysis of modern mass democracy and totalitarian politics. He advocated for enlightened rulers to safeguard economic freedom and individualism. Here, Thomas Jefferson is not an arch-democrat but an “Agrarromantiker,” that is, a believer that the natural aristocracy should rule in the interests of all and that the urban lower class was “prone to render sane government impossible” (p. 340). Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn tracks how European communist and socialist parties before and during the Second World War frequently collaborated with the Nazis. Not out of mere survival but because they were ideologically united behind similar visions of totalitarianism and mass politics. European socialist parties and Nazis opposed aristocrats, traders, and Jews in the name of supporting the “Common Man” and favored welfare systems to this end (p. 366). Thus, socialist and National-Socialist antisemitism becomes an anti-elitist, anti-capitalist, and racist ideology (p. 354). For von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, National-Socialism was “ideologically the full heir and probably the most complete synthesis of ideas springing directly or indirectly from the French Revolution” (p. 342). 

The Austrian origins matter. As Quinn Slobodian has shown, the areas of the old Habsburg Empire after the First World War were a place of origin for neoliberal intellectuals who gathered to use the state and global institutions to defend and depoliticize the market economy. Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was not a neoliberal like Ludwig von Mises. But his emphasis on defending individualism and economic freedom against anti-capitalist totalitarian ideologies and turbulent mass democracies was a shared outlook. There is barely any mention of capitalism or freedom, but where they do appear, he adopts a fatalistic attitude towards them. He states, “the older liberalism, with its emphasis on economic freedom, is fighting a hopeless rearguard action” against contemporary mass parties who fight protracted disputes over minor policy changes. What is sacrificed is individualism for collectivism (p. 339). Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn viewed economic inequality as natural and emphasized the ‘socialism’ of National Socialism. Whereas Mary Margaret Ball’s analysis of the ‘Leadership Principle’ in National Socialism argued that as an ideology, it required inequality, most obviously in race, but importantly between Nietzschean Supermen and everyone else. Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn is far less open to examining the leadership and Nazi theory of the state, preferring instead to focus on the economic, social, and racial policies. It is clear in relation to Ball’s article (written in 1942) that von Kuehnelt-Leddihn does not account for inequality because of his commitment to Catholic hierarchy and capitalism.   

In postwar Europe, some US administration officials thought of German Catholics, who tended to be critical of Nazism, as providing a base layer to rebuild German politics. Waldemar Gurian, a Catholic émigré who moved back to Germany in 1948, mobilized Catholicism to be anti-communist and build trust between West Germany and the United States. This Catholic conservative project sought to build communitarian politics centered around the Catholic Church. With Rockefeller Foundation funding, Gurian and other German Catholic intellectuals developed Soviet studies or Sovietology in the United States. This field of knowledge entrenched Gurian’s argument that communism and Nazism were the same totalitarian ideology. As a committed Catholic, Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s article can be read within this postwar history of Catholic anti-totalitarianism and the development of organic communities. He wrote, for instance, that Luther did the “spadework in preparing psychologically the rise of National-Socialism in Northern Germany” (pp. 343-344).

A debate in Catholic intellectual circles was about the difference between individualism and ‘personalism.’ The former, influenced by the Enlightenment, considered the individual a secular, rational being inhabiting a universal society. The latter saw the person as a spiritual entity interconnected in organic communities. Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s primary motivations were against mass politics; he only touches briefly on these differences (p. 339). His driving focus was to ensure continuity in capitalist elite power, and only then, with the inclusion of Gurian’s personalist democracy. Under his émigré pseudonym, Francis Stuart Campbell, he wrote The Menace of the Herd, or Procrustes at Large (1943), one of his major interventions against mass politics. He ends the article in foreboding terms: if collectivism, totalitarianism, continental democracy, socialism, and utilitarianism remain features of Western Civilization, then “a minor incident such as the defeat or even the destruction of the German Reich will hardly stem this powerful tide” (p. 371).    

Anti-Communist Protest in Iowa in 1959. Iowa Dept. of Cultural Affairs

Max M. Laserson’s 1947 article, “Democracy as a Regulative Idea and as an Established Regime,” envisions democracy as an ideal to be yearned for. “We have had many democracies-in-law, partial democracies, but no democracy in full fact” (p. 342). Laserson’s preoccupation in the article is to reassess the meanings of political categories. Like Kuehnelt-Leddihn, he puts Boleshvism and Nazism into the same ideological box. Specifically, both used democracy, precisely local-self government, for oppressive ends: liquidation of the press and curtailing political parties (pp. 357-58). In contrast, in Anglo-Saxon countries, “organic and simultaneous growth of political government and local self-government, had a liberating importance” (p. 358). This presents a shift in Laserson as a thinker and public advocate. He graduated from Saint Petersburg Imperial University in 1910 and worked for the revolutionary government in 1917 as the deputy director of national minorities in the Interior Ministry for Provisional Government in Russia. A theme throughout his archival papers is an interest in minority rights, particularly of Jews and the Baltic states and their relationship with democracy. As a Latvian legal philosopher in the interwar years, he led Ceire Cion, a small socialist-Zionist party in the Republic of Latvia. In the 1930s, he moved to Mandatory Palestine as a lecturer at the Tel Aviv School for Law and Economics and Latvia barred him from re-entry after the 1934 Ulmanis’ Coup.

Laserson was nostalgic for the Soviet Russian Constitution. That Constitution, he argued, had democratic potential at the federal level and among the many ethnic groups within Russian borders. Articles 126 and 141, however, dangerously reinforced the Communist Party’s monopoly and stopped freedom of association. Laserson argued there was no pretense of democracy in Nazi Germany, despite the state’s history of legal philosophy and constitutional law. “Hitlerite Germany as a state-order was so sure of its internal power over the German people that it did not even try to disguise its totalitarian character by any concessions to democratic phraseology or thinking” (p. 359). Obedience was so great there that there was no armed resistance, unlike in Soviet Russia. In his book Russia and the Western World, he directs his ire against the cynicism of German legal professors, such as Carl Schmitt, even while remaining disappointed by Soviet Russia. Throughout the article, Laserson adopts a cultural argument about democracy’s development. In contrast to other European states, England had a democratic legal order “fixed in an act of feudal time” through the Magna Carta. He considered the Weimar Constitution to have been a sensible democratic order where “leftist Marxian” politics, through the Social Democratic Party, led the federal republic, but crucially “did not provoke the propertied classes and their most intransigeant representatives to an out-and-out social and political fight” (p. 361).

While living in the United States, he wrote The Development Of Soviet Foreign Policy In Europe (1943), a collection of Soviet documents published by Carnegie Endowment, Russia and the Western World: The Place of the Soviet Union in the Comity of Nations (1945), and The American Impact On Russia: Diplomatic And Ideological, 1784-1917 (1950). Laserson’s work at Columbia University, his several published works in English on Russian law, and his fluency in Russian, Latvian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, French, and English made him a practical importer of ideas into postwar intellectual circles. However, he was not always that convincing to his new audiences. Reviewers were puzzled by Laserson’s optimism about a possible rapprochement between the West and the Soviet Union and his argument that Soviet law was just. His inclusion nevertheless suggests that the Journal was a plural space. It was not automatically hostile to former communists. In this article, at least, Laserson subtly espoused the virtues of Anglo-Saxon democracy.

The Journal’s general adherence to liberal internationalism was flexible enough to hold and accept various views and politics. Charles A. Madison discusses a social and intellectual genealogy of anarchism in the United States and Europe. Early colonialist settlers on the frontiers of British America and the Native Americans lived in anarchy due to the absence of a genuine state (p. 49). By the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau had elaborated a philosophy of anarchism that carried this ‘ideal type’ of non-state society to “its logical extremity” with unprecedented “clarity and conviction” (p.50). Although Madison finds Thoreau hyperbolic, eccentric, and aloof, he was at least in the Jeffersonian democratic orbit. The serious problems of anarchism for the United States came from foreign anarchists during rapid industrialization. “Communist anarchism was a foreign importation and clashed with the authorities from the very beginning… It reached this country on a wave of strikes and riots in the late 1870’s. A number of radicals, mostly German immigrants, became disgruntled with the reformist views of the Socialist Labor Party and broke away from it in order to create an organization more in keeping with their extreme beliefs” (p. 57). Madison was no xenophobe. “The fact that most of the anarchists were recent immigrants-Germans, Russian Jews and Italians tended to intensify the prejudice against them. The newspapers, always eager to capitalize on matters of public interest, began to play up the threat of anarchism” as if every strike was the beginning of revolution (p. 58-59). Perhaps the underlying point is that high levels of immigration fragmented communities of unassimilated migrants, creating social outsiders who adopted heretical, risk-fuelled, and sometimes violent ideologies. 

Madison is keen to show how anarchism had an international stamp: Josiah Warren flirted with Robert Dale Owen’s New Harmony, Indiana, a communal project inspired by his father, Robert Owen, although he eventually cast off this “utopian communism… to the doctrine of extreme individualism.” Another example was Emma Goldman, a sixteen-year-old Jewish immigrant from the Russian Empire. Her toil in a Chicago sweatshop led her to dedicate herself to anarchism through her extensive travels across North America and Europe. And finally, there was Russian nihilism in the 1892 Homestead Riot (pp. 52, 60-61). Madison was himself an immigrant and assimilated well into the US. Born in Kyiv in 1896, he arrived in 1906 and graduated from Michigan University and then Harvard University with an MA in comparative literature in 1922. Perhaps through life experience and his work as a labor historian, he was sensitive to how foreigners integrate and the troubles they face. He was straightforward, for instance, about how the Sacco-Vanzetti case was “tragic” and a “grievous miscarriage of justice” (p. 64).

A protest in favor of Sacco and Vanzetti. Boston Public Library

Methodologically, Madison provides a nascent consensus-oriented history of anarchism. He wrote this in 1945, three years before Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s broadside against collectivism and before McCarthyism in the Second Red Scare started. Certainly, state authorities disliked communist activity in 1945. But Madison, a labor historian by interest and publisher by trade, avoids denouncing anarchism as a foreign communist plot. His principal concern is countering xenophobia, a worthy enough intention. “When the thick crust of prejudice is removed from the popular conception of anarchism, the doctrine assumes an idealistic character bordering on utopianism” (p. 65). In making this argument, he downplays their genuine revolutionary desires and cannot explain why figures would want to change politics other than for banal material interests. He never uses “collectivism” in a pejorative sense or otherwise. He prefers the more neutral-sounding terms: voluntary association, cooperation, and mutual aid to describe anarchist politics. Thus, he downplays their radicalism for better or worse. He shields them from nativism and makes a conservative argument about the US political order. In the end, for Madison, contemporary foreign-born anarchists were not the heirs of Jefferson, nor were they terrorists bent on revolution. They were more likely, in this reading, to be victims of long migrations, sweatshops, and police brutality. For Madison, consensus and steady moral improvement is the basis of American history; it does not need a revolution.     

The same cannot be said about isolationists or non-interventionists for Frederick H. Cramer. Primarily, Cramer was a historian of Roman astrology and European intellectual history, but he was interested in US foreign affairs and, in 1927, worked for Universal Studios as a scriptwriter. In 1940, he wrote a dramatic Greek-style play for the Journal entitled “Isolationism: A Case-History.” In this unusual format, we find “Mr. D.” who advocates for interventionism and is a patriot; “Mr. A.” does so for isolationism and is a patriot; “Mr. X.” is the dictator of a foreign state called “M…”; and a Chorus that is a democratic assembly. The prologue sets the scene that “A…n republic had pursued an imperialistic” foreign policy and wars far away from its soil (p. 460). In this environment, Mr. D., under the wing of his rich backers, initially espoused isolationism and peace. However, the M…n threat led by the semi-feudal Mr. X began to seize territory. And Mr. D. changed his politics to fit this moment and pushed for national preparedness and global democratic solidarity. But it was too late, A…n republic did not listen, and Mr. X. took over and installed himself as ruler after thirteen years.   

The writing style is unusual in the Journal, but the analogies are clear. Mr. X’s M…n is likely a combination of the Axis Powers—faraway states that do not appear to threaten the US, safe as the regional hegemon in North America. For Cramer, Mr. D.’s pivot from isolationism to national preparedness was not a way to stop wars but “a means of keeping the number of wars to an (inevitable) minimum” (p. 462). War, then, is a conditioned feature of human nature, and the isolationists essentially have their heads in the sand. Cramer finds that hope is not a strategy; he argues that the isolationist strategy is to simply wait to be invaded to be sure that fighting is necessary (p. 484). Although the play’s content is foreign policy, it turns to domestic politics for its most cutting analysis. Mr. X. is a sly political operator who manipulates “the friendship, the goodwill, the benevolent neutrality, or at least a defeatist attitude, among influential A… ns” and spreads fifth-column traitors across the nation (pp. 478-479). Cramer could not change the world order in a meaningful way, but he could change the politics within the US so foreign dictators could not spread their malign ideas. To Lovejoy and Cramer, pacifism in the face of totalitarianism demanded excommunication from public opinion. In 1940, the anti-war supporters were a mix of socialists, pacifists, the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, some of the Republican Party, and the America First Committee.

1940 is not the Cold War, but this debate about the strategy of US foreign policy was a vital launchpad for the US in the 1950s when it stood against USSR. Cramer was talking to an elite educated audience, involving them in a fundamental political debate about how the US should conduct foreign policy in the context of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. The US was never isolationist, but a significant force in elite and public opinion was against military and diplomatic entanglement in Eurasia. Nicholas J. Spykman’s America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942) directly contributed to this debate. Or Rosenboim demonstrated that he played a central role in introducing geopolitical thought into the United States and persuading Americans to favor interventionism against fascism. He argued that the US was ideally positioned for global leadership because it was geographically safe (with three oceans and peaceful neighbors), but it had to be interventionist because the Western Hemisphere was surrounded by Eurasia. This notion of Encirclement meant the US had to engage with the world and became the geographical basis of the Containment Policy from 1947. Cramer’s article is a small example of how US elite power grew to support intervention.

Rev. Fred Stroud of Bible Presbyterian Church leads a protest against desegregation and communism in in Nashville, Tennessee [Nashville Public Library.​]

Despite the era of European decolonization and Civil Rights during the 1940s and 1950s, the Journal took little open and explicit interest in race or race relations. When racism does feature, it is usually about the racial politics of National Socialism, such as with Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Mary Margaret Ball, and Karl W. Deutsch. A major exception to this trend is James W. Vander Zanden’s 1959 article, “The Ideology of White Supremacy,” on the contemporary segregation debate. In its second paragraph, he references Chief Justice Earl Warren’s landmark opinion in Brown v. Board of Education that ‘separate but equal’ in public education was unconstitutional. He traces the history of three ideas in the US administrative state and civil society, particularly in the South, that conceptualized the racial inferiority of African-Americans to unite white power. The first is based on the biological differences in the caste-based natural order that was a “carry-over from the pre-Enlightenment Period” (p. 387); the second premise is that there were sufficient differences between the two races, which meant that there was a racial order but that African-Americans could ‘catch up’ through moral guidance (pp. 394-95); the third idea is based on how desegregation would damage the Anglo-Saxonism which was according to Zanden was “a product of modern nationalism and expansionism” (p. 397). 

As a sociologist, Zanden offers us a (then contemporary) intellectual history of social movements and emphasizes the connection between thought and action. “Movement has begot counter movement; ideas have begot counter ideas” (p. 402). He regards segregationism as “a surging social movement,” implying that it was citizen-based rather than a form of elite power (p. 385). This movement featured the hundreds of (White) Citizen Councils that protested and petitioned against desegregation, usually at a state level. He is primarily interested in the practical use of ideas in the social order. He demonstrates this through exploring the history of American literature on race, slavery, and society by figures such as John Saffin, George Frederick Holmes, William Montgomery Brown, John C. Calhoun, George S. Sawyer, Samuel George Morton, Josiah C. Nott, and many others. Importantly, these were lawyers, politicians, natural scientists, religious figures, judges, and businessmen, whose power came from their (usually public) employment and elite social network.     
Yet the term ‘elite’ never appears in the text, and the term ‘class’ only once in passing. As a social movement, segregation was a cross-class coalition of big and small business owners, religion, armed forces, and poor urban and rural voters, as seen in the Citizen Councils. White supremacy worked to keep the working class divided across racial lines and thereby halt an anti-elitist revolution but also ensured whites predominated in a competitive capitalist political economy. The end of the article summarizes the general thesis of the article: the “lineal descendant of slavery: segregated institutions.” He is not making a radical point here. Zanden’s argument lies broadly within consensus history, which was, to an extent, a conservative reply to progressive historiography. This is not conservative in a political sense. Zanden finds that conservatism sails too close to reactionary nativism. Rather, it is that the US is relatively unchanging.

The violent struggles and fierce debates against slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are smoothed over into simply seeing it live on in segregation. Segregation is not a specific feature of mid-twentieth-century American modernity but a reactionary inheritance of a bygone era. The Citizen Councils appear to be racist nostalgics paranoid about status, not as a particular growth of postwar class development. He thus avoids critiquing capitalist exploitation or pondering the possibilities of cross-racial working-class power. This critique of consensus history is aptly demonstrated by Matthew Karp, James Oakes, and Judith Stein, among many others, who have prised open the historical debates of racism and race to show that many mainstream liberal historians and commentators are continuing arguments like Zanden’s which can sideline progressive radicalism and class conflict. They instead forge a history of melancholy and continual violent oppression.     

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

Edited by Thomas James Holland is a PhD candidate in Political Thought and Intellectual History at King’s College, University of Cambridge. His thesis explores political theories of inherited wealth between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Rawls, questioning how these can inform contemporary debates about distributive justice.

Featured Image: Is This Tomorrow?, a 1947 anti-Communist comic book. Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history

Highland Asia as a World Region

By Michael T. Heneise and Jelle J.P. Wouters

Imagine an Asia where trails and paths fork out uninterrupted by nation states, the stoppages of borders, and the daily geopolitics of border crossings, passport patrols, and custom checks. In such an Asia it would be possible for you – provided always that you possess extraordinary stamina and abundant time – to walk from Kyrgyzstan to Vietnam without setting foot in a single lowland. This contiguously hilly and mountainous expanse cuts across the traditional divides inherited from colonial and Cold War era divisions – Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent/South Asia, China/East Asia, Southeast Asia. Geographically and geomorphologically, it connects three adjoining massifs, namely the larger Pamirs, the Himalayan Massif + Tibetan Plateau, and the Southeast Asian Massif, including the hills and highlands of Southwestern China, and is estimated (conservatively so) to be home to well over 250 million inhabitants who adapted to “highland living” in an astonishing variety of ways. The introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia, and the 31 chapters that follow, insist that this region should be affirmed and treated as a world-region in its own right. It is a region that we propose to call Highland Asia.

From the vantages of state, nation, and capital, these lands and peoples are alternately depicted in terms of authentic/exotic cultures, as sensitive geopolitical spaces, as remote peripheries to be developed, as realms of cultural deviance that need assimilation, as new resource and capitalist frontiers, and as dangerous smuggling routes and sanctuaries for rebels. However, as this book variously relates, such stereotypes are nowhere close to an adequate representation of the past, present, and envisaged futures of highlands, highlanders, and highland living. There once was an exception to the general misrepresentation of this region, as Stéphane Gross rightly pointed out in Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia — with a comment – The Himalayas and beyond namely the French scholarly tradition of affirming Haute Asia (High Asia), including a chair in “Religions of China and High Asia” and a book series titled “Research on High Asia”, published by the French Ethnological Society. This scholarly tradition largely terminated in the 1970s.

Much of the impetus and inspiration for this project derives from the concept of Zomia, a term introduced by the maverick historian Willem van Schendel in “Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: jumping scale in Southeast Asia” (2002). Van Schendel questioned the spatialisation of social theory as arranged through “methodological nationalism” and politically implicated area-studies that made scholarship coalesce with lowland heartlands from which dependent arteries spread out into highland borderlands. In a sense, what had emerged was a scholarly mandala in which highlands progressively acquired analytical autonomy, yet in their final evaluation theorized back to a lowland centre it shared little in common with.

Van Schendel breathed Zomia into being in essence to both challenge and reassure area studies scholars straight-jacketed by an institutionally calcified vision of the world that took its shape amid processes of decolonisation at the end of the Second World War and was further reified during the Cold War; a vision that seemed to reflect less and less their fieldwork realities. The idea was to take the area studies institutional scaffolding upriver and allow the model to take root at the edges. Some years after Van Schendel proffered the term, Zomia was taken for a wild spin as a region of reactionary statelessness by James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009); and then pruned, racked, and blended by Jean Michaud, particularly in “Editorial – Zomia and beyond” (2010).

The proponents of Zomia have challenged us to rethink the pervasive model of seeing spaces through national boundaries and by default framing the world. Zomia has indeed helped us to view a part of the world, largely considered a periphery, in a logical way that challenges how people that have been invisible and opaque in modern historical writing, must now be taken seriously not only as a people with agency but also as a people who have the capacity to cultivate hope in a time when the threat of the national states and the global order is far reaching. As we build on the Zomia thesis, we not only hold to its broadest geographical configuration, but also suggest that its history – rich and important as it is – is not yet fully written. And in this sense we depart from Scott, who famously stated that “all bets are off” when applying his Zomia thesis to Asia’s contemporary highlanders. Now nearly two decades after Van Schendel first coined the term, the gradual ingress of oxygen has allowed us to address the more astringent critiques, and a rich corpus of Zomia research now available allows us to stand back, take stock, note its faults, but ultimately reflect on how it relates to, or informs, new configurations of space and spatialisation, including that of Highland Asia.

To think of Highland Asia as a world-region also crucially allows us to rethink global histories, variously in relation to ideas, flows, and frictions. While highlands and mountains today readily conjure images of isolation and remoteness, large swathes of Highland Asia were long connected by flows and drives of humans and the objects, ambitions, knowledge, beliefs, and fears they carried with them. And this network – piecemeal, dispersed, and linking oases, caravan cities, steppes, depots, mountain passes, gates, and corridors – connected peoples and polities across large distances. In the words of modern-day Silk Road traveler and writer, Colin Thubron (2008): “a distant disturbance at one end of the road trembled along its length like an electric current, so that the pressure of pastoral tribes along the Great Wall, in a relentless chain reaction, might unleash the Huns over Europe” Indeed, when we widen our historical lens, we recognize that for millennia highland Asians have connected far-flung regions through movements of peoples, goods, and ideas. This makes highland Asians as much movers and actors of global history as the European colonists, Indian intellectuals, Japanese imperialists, Mongol nomadic invaders, Buddhist monks, or Han and Arab merchants who occupy centre stage in global history.

Today’s often more limited readings of history that present Highland Asia as historically isolated and out-of-the-way is derivative of colonial encounters, Cold-War politics with its territorial rivalries, and postcolonial transformations and developments that jointly worked to reshuffle constellations of connectivity, remoteness, and isolation. To illustrate: the Wakhan valley was once a main gateway of economic and cultural exchange and used by travelers between East, South, and Central Asia. However, as part of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols, which formally ended the so-called Great Game, Wakhan was reduced to a corridor and buffer between the Russian and British empires so that no boundaries would be shared between both adversaries, in the process reducing it to an isolated and remote frontier of Afghanistan.

This is just one example out of many. In fact, central to historical dialectics between connectivity and remoteness in Highland Asia was the colonial and postcolonial drawing and closure of borders and the cutting off of old routes of exchange. These were the eventual outcome of most political rivalries, rebellions, and revolutions and turned into the epic of Highland Asia’s modern geopolitical history. This is an epic of centres becoming margins and vice-versa, of corridors turning into remote frontiers, of mushrooming and mobile political borders, of increasingly ambitious and heavy-handed states coming eye-to-eye in the most unlikely of places (glaciers, mountain deserts, and forested hilltops) where they fence, trench, and garrison themselves in based on the firm belief that territorial sovereignty is best reproduced at the borders. To now think of Highland Asia as a world-region allows us to unearth and see the linkages, connections, and corridors that became blurred by exclusive visions of nation-states.

Besides movers and shapers of global history, Highland Asians have always also been political world-makers and thinkers in their own right, not just the rebels, refugees, actors of resistance, or timeless “primitives” influential socio-evolutionist traditions of scholarship have often reduced them to. Their political craftsmanship reveals itself as much in projects of state and empire-building, such as is central to Tibetan political history and the rise of upland monarchical rule in Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, as in polities brilliantly designed to resist predatory regimes of power and capital, with their loci in adjacent valleys and lowlands.

Premodern state projects repeatedly faltered at the hills, whether in Afghanistan, Northeast India, or the hills of Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Significantly, this was because forms of highland production, exchange, and thought were honed in ways that resisted domination by states and ruling classes. Some of these communities might have originated as runaways from oppressive state projects, as James C. Scott influentially argued, but many others have been in the hills for as long as their oral history can remember. But whether empire-builders, state resistors, rebels, or runaways, Highland Asians have for centuries, and to the present, been skilled and successful practitioners of political worldmaking and have existed sometimes in active connivance and connection, but often out of joint with the worlds created by contemporaneous lowland states and powers.

Combine all of the above: approaching highlanders as actors of global history and political designers sui generis, the linking of the massifs and Zomia perspectivism, and the cumulative knowledge value should be fresh and grounded theory-making that is not just “on” or “about” but also from and with the highlands. However, our comparative and theoretical apparatuses have been slow to catch up with the fresh highland ethnographic and other insights to be explained.What significantly thwarts such theoretical developments is the stubborn salience of the hill-valley/highland-lowland binary as a prime analytical trope, in the sense that most comparisons and theories continue to be developed in the lowlands and from where they are extended into the highlands, either to confirm or critique these theories. In this way, highland historical and ethnographic data have long been treated akin to erosion or mining, with them being extracted to feed the ever-hungry power grid of lowland hubs of social theory.

Said otherwise, akin to the ways in which the highlands are currently incorporated into the capitalist market, which is as a supplier of raw material, scholarship has long mined the highlands for raw data to test and illustrate theories from elsewhere.Thus, most social theorising is constructed and channelled through the lowland-highland binary, and this ultimately keeps in place the centrist, lowland ontology as the designer label of social theory.

If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that our historical and social analysis must be re-tooled because earlier modernisation discourses have fallen flat in the face of rapid, ideologically-driven geographical and geopolitical reconfigurations. The Asia of the future – modern, technologically advanced, politically pragmatic and increasingly ‘open for business’ – is not what it used to be. While Asia’s largest states still promote this old futurism, what is being experienced on the ground races in the opposite direction, and its deepening plights increasingly difficult to censure.

Climate change will undoubtedly pose the greatest challenge, as populations in increasingly hot, disaster-prone, and ultimately uninhabitable regions across Asia’s lowlands, seek better living conditions, largely in adjacent highlands. Temporary migratory patterns will turn to permanent settlements, and Highland Asia, as China’s and India’s supplier of water, will become their refuge – very likely the world’s greatest human refuge by the end of the century.

Is Highland Asia therefore important to study? We feel we make a compelling case, and very much look forward, in the coming weeks, months and years, to engaging scholars in debate and dialogue about this region, it’s importance as critical world region, historically and in the histories to come.

Michael T. Heneise is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. His work focuses specifically on dream experiences and dream narratives as sites of intersubjective encounter, negotiation, and sociopolitical agency. He has worked in Latin America, in Northeast India and more recently in the Norwegian Arctic. The founding director of the Highland Institute in Nagaland, he is co-editor of the journals Himalaya and Highlander.

Jelle J.P. Wouters is an anthropologist and teaches at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. He is the author of In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India (OUP, 2018), the co-author (with Milinda Banerjee) of Subaltern Studies 2.0: Being against the Capitalocene (Chicago/Prickly Paradigm Press 2022), the editor of Vernacular Politics in Northeast India: Democracy, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity (OUP, 2022), and the co-editor (with T.B. Subba) of The Routledge Companion to Northeast India (Routledge, 2022). 

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Ze-Mnui (Yangkhullen), Manipur, India 2014. Courtesy of Tristan Heneise.

Intellectual history

The Image of the British State in the Macartney Mission to Qing China

By Gongchen Yang

After the British commutation of the tea tax in 1784, the British purchased £1.3 million worth of tea in Canton in 1786 and paid for nearly half of this in silver bullion rather than other export goods (p. 272). At the same time, the British manufacturers created a vast array of new British goods (mainly textiles) that needed an export market. The trade deficit created by the Sino-British tea trade and the potential of the Chinese market drove British policymakers and merchants to send an official embassy to China to improve the restricted trading environment.

Earl George Macartney led an embassy to visit Qianlong Emperor in 1793 at his summer resort of Jehol (Rehe, now Chengde) to celebrate his 80th birthday. For the Qing side, the mandarin welcoming what is called ‘the Macartney embassy’ was Heshen (p. 288-290), the favorite Minister of the Qianlong Emperor. This was the first official encounter between Qing China and the British Empire. From the early Qing, many European missionaries served at the Qing court, offering their services in astronomy, mathematics, geography, and the arts. This think piece offers a ‘British-Sino diplomatic’ perspective on the further separation between China and the West after the Great Divergence, and it highlights the role of British and Chinese officials, Macartney and Heshen.

In the context of the Chinese tribute system, the wrong choice of gifts and Chinese officials’ filtering of information made the Mission’s attempts to demonstrate Britain’s technological superiority to the Qing court and to reverse its stereotypes fail. Eventually, the Qing court reinforced the original impression that the British were cunning and greedy for profit. The Mission brought back to the British Empire an image of the Qing Empire as “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside,” which significantly changed the British Empire’s perception of the Qing Empire.

The defeat of the American War of Independence at the end of the 18th century led the British Empire to pivot to Asia (p. 4, 6-7). As a commercial state, merchants were the most active and wealthy part of society and capital was of great concern to the government. At the same time, the British East India Company’s war with the Mysore Company (French ally) in South India also had dire prospects, war and territorial expansion nearly bankrupted the company. The British government sent an embassy to expand Sino-British trade to preserve EIC rule in India.

The victory in the Sino-Nepalese campaign of 1792 had given the Qing Dynasty remarkable military confidence. This campaign was the last of Qianlong’s Ten Great Campaigns (shiquan wugong 十全武功), which brought Gorkha (now Nepal) into the China-centered tribute system. The tribute system inherited from previous dynasties presumed the Middle Kingdom’s moral, material, and cultural superiority over other nations and required those who wished to deal or trade with China to come as supplicants to the emperor. Because the Qing court also tended to view maritime trade and traders as peripheral to its strategic and economic interests and as part of this manageable sphere, the European nations who came to trade at China’s ports were handled within this same tributary framework (p. 27-28).

Macartney had set high stakes for this Mission’s success. Among the European nations that traded with China, Macartney believed that “in consequence of irregularities committed by former Englishmen at Canton (like Lady Hughes Affair), Englishmen were considered as the worst among Europeans.” Therefore, believing that “the various important objects of the Embassy could be obtained through the good will of the Chinese,” Macartney ordered the Embassy to “impress the Chinese with new, more just, and more favorable ideas of Englishmen by a conduct particularly regular and circumspect” (p. 231).

Changing the Chinese ideas of the British became the key to the Mission’s success. Still, Macartney disagreed with the others about how to impress the most crucial person, the Qianlong Emperor. During the preparation phase of the Mission, the leading British manufacturers, like Matthew Boulton, wished to present products representing British industry as gifts to the Qianlong court. As a member of the Birmingham Lunar Society, Boulton conveyed the values of the Enlightenment and wanted to send buttons, buckles, plated wares, and other products that would make life more comfortable and of interest to Chinese consumers to China. In his letter to Macartney, King George III also demonstrated his desire to ‘communicate the arts and comforts of life to those parts of the world where it appeared they had been wanting.’ However, Macartney, a former diplomat to Russia, believed that ‘Asian courts would only be impressed by elaborate display, spectacle and pomp.’ Despite the aspirations of the manufacturers and the king, Macartney sent two coaches decorated in imperial yellow, an elaborate planetarium, and several luxury gifts (the introduction of gift, see p. 243-246).

Maxine Berg argued that Macartney’s Mission failed because the Embassy failed to express and convey the image of ‘useful knowledge’ to the Chinese ruling elite. And this probably stems from Macartney’s lack of knowledge of Chinese culture. Macartney was learning about China from works written by the early Catholic missionaries a hundred years earlier: knowledge of China’s recent court politics, which was crucial for diplomacy, was entirely absent (p. 69).

A few months before the embassy’s arrival, in June 1793 British and Chinese merchants in Canton submitted the official letters and translations of the embassy to the Beijing court in advance. The content of the translations is opaque and carefully avoids any clear statement of the embassy’s objectives, the main purpose of which seems to have been to bring birthday wishes to the emperor (p. 90). Once the embassy arrived in Chinese waters, officials conveyed a simple but misleading message to the Beijing court: Britain was showing deference to China by offering tribute to celebrate the emperor’s birthday. But Qianlong was not blind to these British visitors, he watched the Mission’s every move and had his favorite courtier Heshen, receive it.

The embassy arrived at Jehol in September 1793, but the supremacy of Chinese imperial power restricted Macartney’s communication with the Emperor. Apart from the Emperor’s birthday and a few necessary ceremonies, Macartney had no access to Qianlong. However, the exhibition of technology prepared by Macartney, who did not know the tribute system, angered Qianlong even before it was shown to him. Before arriving at Jehol, Macartney requested that four British artisans be sent to the royal palace to install the large planetarium, which would take a month. However, Qianlong believed that Chinese artisans could complete the installation and refused Macartney. After that, Macartney still stressed that this was a job only British artisans could do, leading Qianlong to believe that the British liked to show off. After they failed to impress the Emperor, the courtiers led by Heshen were the Mission’s last hope.

I argue that Macartney used close personal relationships to gain important political positions (p. 28-30), whereas Heshen’s promotion was more based on personal ability. With excellent language skills (Manchu, Mandarin, Mongolian, and Tibetan) and financial management skills, Heshen spent four years entering the Grand Council (junjichu 军機处), which is the chief policy-making body of the Qing court, at the age of 27, with members’ averaging age around 60. In 1786, at the age of 37, he was awarded the highest position in the Qing bureaucracy system and built a powerful political group under the emperor’s patronage. Investigating Heshen’s career path shows that the secret of his success was to please the Emperor, who could decide his fate. His interests were tied to Qianlong and his benefit. When Qianlong liked poetry, he then studied poetry so he could co-compose poems with Qianlong. When Qianlong liked calligraphy, he imitated Qianlong’s handwriting and could write on his behalf.

It was Heshen’s code of conduct to ‘side with the emperor,’ so he could not display too much interest in British technology. But Heshen’s pragmatism led him to display an ambivalent attitude towards British technology. On December 3, 1793, Macartney wished to show Heshen the latest European technology for hot air balloon ascension. Frustratingly, Heshen “not only discourage this experiment, but also the printed accounts of British empire that they prepared for Chinese courtier.” However, when suffering from hernia and rheumatism, the embassy’s doctor Gillan was sent to treat Heshen with western medicine (p. 321). Thus, had British technology been of visible benefit to him and his emperor, Heshen would have taken the initiative to learn about it and try it out.

Interestingly, Macartney’s inappropriate choice of British gifts may have been right for the future expansion of the British Empire in China, as transformative British technology could have been ‘stolen’ by China. For instance, Macartney decided not to take a steam engine, the emblematic technology of the Industrial Revolution. It may have impressed the Qianlong court. But it also risked being ‘stolen’ by Chinese artisans, who were talented in arts and crafts and had advanced technology. According to Mr. Barrow of the embassy, two Chinese artisans could “separated two magnificent glass lusters piece by piece and put them again together in a short time without difficulty and mistake, the whole consisting of thousand pieces, though they had never seen anything of the kind before” (vol.2, p. 98). Secondly, Qianlong intended to have Chinese artisans learn British technology. For the large planetarium, Qianlong sent two Chinese artisans to learn the skills of installation and repair (vol.19, p. 157). At this moment, Qing China lost the possibility of learning some transformative industrial and military technology.

Macartney had six demands: granting British merchants access to the Chinese market through Chusan (now Zhoushan), Ningpo (now Ningbo), and Tientsin (now Tianjin); to warehouse their goods in Pekin (now Beijing); owning a secure island for their unsold goods in Chusan and Canton; abolish trade duties between Macao and Canton; and prohibit all duties on English merchants over the Emperor’s diploma (see Canton System). For Embassy’s commercial demands, Heshen avoided discussing them with Macartney as much as possible and concealed these ‘excessive’ demands from the Emperor to avoid angering him. For many in the imperial court, these demands insulted the emperor’s dignity and, more practically, the empire’s stability.

While European missionaries stayed and served at the court in Beijing at the cost of not leaving China until they died, British Empire wanted to set up a permanent embassy compound in Beijing and to have some territory to live in. Macartney’s first meeting and commercial negotiations with Heshen took place a week before the Emperor’s birthday. It was not until after his birthday that the Emperor learned of the Mission’s commercial requirements through Heshen. Macartney could do nothing about Heshen’s evasion, saying, “I could not help admiring the address with which the Minister parried all my attempts to speak to him on business this day, and how artfully he evaded every opportunity that offered for any particular conversation with me, endeavoring to engage our attention solely by the objects around us.”

Other possible ways of impressing the Chinese were military exhibitions, but the information filtering by lower-ranking officials prevented the impact of military exhibitions from reaching the emperor. Macartney’s warship, the Lion, was the height of contemporary military technology (p. 73), but Chinese official reports stated that the Lion was simply a tribute ship. No one dared to truthfully report how the warship was a military threat or its advanced technology. Yet according to Macartney’s observations, “these mandarins had never seen a ship of the Lion’s construction, bulk, or loftiness. They were at a loss how to ascend her fides; but chairs were quickly fastened to tackles, by which they were lifted up, while they felt a mixture of dread and admiration at this safe, rapid, but apparently perilous, conveyance.” (p. 240). Poor translation skills meant no fruitful conversation about the Lion and naval warfare occurred. 

The Mission left Beijing on October 7, 1793. Qianlong sent several senior officials to accompany the Mission and report on all its movements. At the same time, Qianlong ordered the officials in Canton and Macau to prevent the British merchants from monopolizing trade and conspiring with foreign traders. Eventually, Macartney’s efforts to “impress the Chinese with new, more just, and more favorable ideas of Englishmen” failed, and the Qing court reinforced the original idea that the British were cunning and greedy for profit. In Macartney’s view, Qing China was not as strong economically, militarily, or technologically as it should have been. The Qing Empire was, in fact, “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside.”

Gongchen Yang is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. His doctoral research focues on the corruption of the Canton customs in Qing China. His general interests include corruption, Chinese maritime customs, and Sino-British interactions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China 1793. Creative Commons.

Intellectual history

How to Act Friendly: Informal Diplomatic Relationships in 18th-century Russia

By Anastasiia Lystsova

What was friendship in the eighteenth century? What did people mean when referring to each other as friends? What kind of sources might shed some light on these questions? Without a doubt, the question “what is friendship?” is always intriguing since it is as much a part of our everyday life as it was for people who lived in previous epochs. It would be anachronistic, however, to conceptualize friendship centuries ago in the same way that we would today. Though many historiographical works are devoted to trying to answer this question, most of them deal with the question’s theoretical dimensions. A far smaller number of works investigate the concept of friendship on a micro-historical level, mostly via case studies. One explanation for this disparity in focus could be the simple lack of primary sources since friendship is so frequently constituted by verbal interpersonal connections rather than by written remarks.

It is especially fair to say that this was the case in previous centuries, when writing culture was not quite as expansive as it is today. For instance, the genre of memoirs and diaries only emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In some countries, including the Russian Empire, they became popular only by the end of the eighteenth century. For historians of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, it is not a stretch to say that there are not many ego-documents that might shed some light on friendship or other intimate relationships in the early modern period. In light of the near-absence of memoirs, diaries, and other such sources, letters serve as particularly rich material for defining the concept of friendship between the courtiers in the middle of the 18th century.

In this post, I turn specifically to the correspondence between three Russian diplomats: Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Chernyshev, and Vorontsov. All three served at the Russian imperial court (and in Chernyshev’s case, also in European courts) from 1742 to 1762. This primary source is very hard to define as either strictly professional or strictly intimate correspondence—though the main questions discussed within its pages are about diplomacy and Russian foreign policy, the correspondence is also shot through with information about the diplomats’ families, as well as a variety of other intimate details. One of the most prominent historians of emotions, William M. Reddy, has argued that the epoch of sincerity and sensitivity reached its zenith in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. His argument suggests that the border between public and private was very blurry in the decades before the Revolution, and that such blurriness was also reflected in most written sources. This was certainly the case for the source I have identified above. Following Reddy’s work, I believe that the value of the correspondence between Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Chernyshev, and Vorontsov lies precisely in the vagueness between professional and private that it so well captures. I argue that intimacy, sensitivity, and friendship in the eighteenth-century Russian imperial court were impossible to separate from the professionalism to which it was attached. Friendship was both intimate and professional, exceedingly private and completely public.


Who were the men responsible for penning the letters that I will examine? Their names were Count Alexey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin (1693-1766), Count Petr Grigorievich Chernyshev (1712-73), and Count Mikhail Larionovich Vorontsov (1714-67). All of them belonged to the Russian aristocracy. All three courtiers came from noble families with fathers who had made careers under Peter the Great, the first Russian emperor (1682-1725), and all three had received the best possible education at that time (Bestuzhev and Chernyshev even abroad). The correspondence between them covers the twenty years between 1742 and 1762. This period was critical in Russian imperial history—during just these twenty years, three rulers were in power: Empress Elizaveta, Emperor Peter III, and Empress Catherine the Great. The coup d’état in 1741 that brought Elizaveta, daughter of Peter the Great, to power also initiated a fraught political climate. Her nephew, Peter III, ill-suited for imperial rule, succeeded her upon her death in 1761. He held the throne for only a few months before his wife, Catherine the Great, a genius political conspirator, overthrew him in a speedy coup d’état in Saint Petersburg. In other words, the period in which these letters were written and exchanged was marked by a tense and unstable political climate.

Despite the instability of court dynamics, the courtiers in question who wrote and exchanged these letters remained powerholders. Due to their high positions in the court’s hierarchy, they were still able to affect the court’s overall temperature. Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the most senior out of the three, was a Chancellor of the Empress Elizaveta and later a General Field-Marshal under Catherine the Great. In his early years, he served the court abroad and returned to Saint Petersburg in 1740, only to be imprisoned following the coup d’état that brought Ivan VI to power. He did not spend long in jail, however, because the following year, another coup d’état took place in the Russian court, after which he was released. He began his career over again under the new empress, Elizaveta Petrovna, a daughter of Peter the Great. From 1742 onwards, Bestuzhev-Ryumin returned to his daily activities as a courtier and consequently began corresponding with other courtiers, including Chernyshev, who served as a diplomat to the Danish, German, British and French courts from 1740 to the early 1760s.

During this period, Bestuzhev was also in constant contact with another high-ranking courtier, Count Vorontsov. The letters suggest that Chernyshev acted as a mediator between Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Vorontsov; in 1746, for instance, Bestuzhev wrote the following: “your Excellency [Chernyshev], I ask you with all my obedience to forward under your address this enclosed letter to count Mikhail Larionovich as well as all subsequent letters to him or other individuals.” According to the specialist of court intricacies in eighteenth-century Russia, David Ransel, in the 1740s, both Vorontsov and Bestuzhev had the same client, N. Panin; favoring the burgeoning career of the same man would have put both diplomats into the same camp. Despite their common interests, however, Vorontsov would later consciously bring about Bestuzhev’s disgrace at court. The moving parts that made up these diplomats’ relationships with one another were well-captured in the letters they sent and received. Let me turn here to the correspondence itself. When and in what context did the word “friendship” appear in their letters?

First, they often exchanged “friendly” letters or greetings, as well as New Year’s cards. For instance, Bestuzhev wrote to Chernyshev from Saint Petersburg on December 9th, 1748, that he was very thankful for Chernyshev’s “friendly greeting” during the holiday and that it “excited complete gratitude” from him. On another occasion, Vorontsov made sure to notify Chernyshev that he had indeed received his “friendly” letters. Similarly, Vorontsov stated that he was thankful for the “friendly” greetings he’d received from Chernyshev in 1760 upon his successful expedition to Berlin.

Though these greetings were meant partly to fulfill a code of politesse, they were not empty of meaning. These greeting cards were part of a complex process of ritualized and symbolic gift-giving. For instance, the quantity and quality of cards sent and received conveyed a sender’s positionality vis-à-vis the recipient in much the same way that his or her word choice or tone might. Additionally, though many stock phrases for New Year’s greetings existed, a writer still had to choose between them. The fact that Chernyshev, Bestuzhev, and Vorontsov all chose to inflect their holiday greetings with the notion of friendliness is thus quite significant. They could have, and in other instances, sent greetings without such inflection. For instance, Bestuzhev once sent Chernyshev a letter with the following greeting: “I am very grateful for your greetings of New Year, Your Excellency. I wish you mutually prosperity and good health. I do not look anything but to show my devotion and confederation in my service, and for that reason, I make reference to your dear wife, my Madam, who will approve benevolence of my sentiments.” This type of greeting could be opposed to a far more intimate and friendly one such as the following: “I want to use this chance and congratulate you with New Year as well, and wish you with my heart and your dear wife, my Madam Ekaterina Andreevna, and you dear children a good health and other things that you wish to yourself in this year in the following years as well.”

Finally, understanding the three diplomats’ holiday greetings as a larger part of a system of ritualized gift-giving also helps to understand that receiving a New Year’s card in return was also an act laden with meaning. Codes of politesse might compel individuals with less institutional power to send holiday greetings to those above them in the court hierarchy, but it certainly did not uniformly compel those individuals to send greetings in return. That these higher-ranking individuals might choose to send a greeting in return was thus no trivial matter and almost certainly indicated a desire on their part to continue a reciprocal relationship. The fact that Chernyshev, Bestushev, and Vorontsov did reciprocate one another’s “friendly” greetings certainly indicated their deep interest in their relationships, whether on an amicable or professional register.

Second, their letters sometimes contained direct evidence of “friendship” as a specific state of informal relationships between them. In this sense, for instance, Vorontsov wrote to Chernyshev in 1760 when he noted that he was happy to take any chance to show his friendship to him. In another instance, he thanked Chernyshev for enquiring after his illness and said that due to their “friendship,” he could not help but share details about his health. Indeed, a close reading of the entire letter series reveals that the topic of health came up quite often between the men. In one of the letters, Vorontsov even noted that he was in debt to Chernyshev since he had asked after his health so “sincerely.” If one were to focus on the term “sincerity,” it would be quite easy to interpret this interaction as an exchange of intimate information between friends. “Sincerity,” after all, gave an emotive color to their relationship and implied that their friendship was based upon feelings of honesty or earnestness. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that in the very same sentence, Vorontsov recognized his “debt” to the other man—and this kind of rhetoric, as opposed to ideas of intimacy and honesty, could be considered as part of the patronage letter code.

While the notion of friendship was applied to New Year’s cards and discussions of illness, health, and support, the word “friend” also served to label people as participants of someone’s professional network and, consequently, as a part of their web of interests. A “friend” was an ally at court who could be counted on to help advance one’s interests. This was especially true in a century known for its coup d’états, wherein the only way to assuage one’s paranoia over being the next to fall was to build a strong foundation. Indeed, Chernyshev, Bestuzhev, and Vorontsov, as well as other participants of their social network, were both courtiers and diplomats.

They did not quite understand diplomatic “friendship” in the same way they would have understood the “friendship” that existed between their families. For example, in 1761, Vorontsov wrote to Chernyshev about French diplomats in the Russian court and stressed that the ambassador, Baron de Breteuil, did not follow the court’s expected etiquette while looking for Vorontsov’s “friendship.” Instead, Breteuil used his “friendly” connection with another powerful French official, Étienne François de Choiseul, to try and improve his status at the Russian court. But not following the rules of court etiquette and relying on his “friendly” connections back home was read as rude and politically suspect by the other courtiers. Circumventing court etiquette and attempting to capitalize on one existing friendship instead of making new ones made it seem as if Breteuil was unwilling to tie himself too closely to any particular alliance. Almost as if he wished to share in the benefits of various alliances’ successes but disassociate himself from them in the case of their fall from grace. When a patron fell from grace, after all, his many “friends” and “clients” were also liable to lose their posts. Making “friendships” at court was thus something that was not done lightly; the only thing worse than choosing to pursue the wrong “friendships” was to pursue none at all. 

Ultimately, when “friendship” was understood as a professional state of relations, the stakes were not purely personal—they were also political. Vorontsov thus recommended that Chernyshev report on Breteuil’s behavior to Choiseul, though in a manner elegant enough not to compromise Her Majesty’s name (Catherine II) nor the status of the other French diplomat, the Marquis de l’Hopital. Unlike the Baron de Breteuil, the Marquis de L’Hopital (who served as an ambassador in Russia from 1757-60) was very well-respected by Vorontsov and Chernyshev, both of whom referred to him fondly and in a friendly manner in their letters. Vorontsov would even ask Chernyshev to “support a friendship” with L’Hopital, hoping the Marquis would return as ambassador again to the Russian court. In the end, “friendship” between these men, though certainly colored by sincerity and personal concern,  ultimately aimed at building up a future where more allies than enemies populated the Russian court. The value of a “friendship” lay not only in the current connections it helped to maintain but in its incredible potential for exponential growth—every new friendship introduced new networks of individuals that could consequently be added to the alliance, each time reigniting dreams of political fortitude and success.


Russian State Library. F. 064. Vyazemy. K. 82. D. 73., D. 74, D. 75 for various quotes from letters and diplomatic communication.

Anastasiia Lystsova is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University, specializing in the social, legal, and gender history of the Russian Empire. Her dissertation is about Russian imperialism and political projecting in the borderlands of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Edited by Stephanie Zgouridi

Featured Image: The Imperial Palace in Saint Petersburg, (Flickr)