Categories
Intellectual history

The Year in Review: Best of 2022

As the year is drawing to a close, we are looking back on some of the highlights we have published over the course of 2022. A big thank you to all of our authors, editors, and readers!

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A New German Historians’ Debate? A Conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg (Part I and Part II), by Jonathon Catlin.

How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part I and Part II), by Isabel Jacobs.

Lukács and the Early Frankfurt Institute: An Interview with Alexander Dmitriev, by Véronique Mickisch.

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

Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos: An Interview with Simon Truwant, by Isabel Jacobs.

Take the Time to End: Schiller, Hegel, and the Dangers of Poetry, by Ivan Boldyrev.

The Transatlantic Machiavelli: “Reason of State” and Twentieth-Century Power Politics, by Andrew Gibson.

Margaret Cavendish, ‘Restoring Beds, or Wombs,’ and a Feminist-Materialist Quest for Everlasting Life, by Anne M. Thell.

Subaltern Politics and the Question of Being– An Interview with Ranajit Guha, by Milinda Banerjee.

A Very English Story: The Transition between Feudalism and Capitalism in Merrie Olde Englande, by Julián González de León.

The Political Thought of Adam Smith: An Interview with Paul Sagar, by Serena Cho.

Morris R. Cohen’s Critical Lessons in Legal Reasoning by Samuel Turner.

Isaac Nakhimovsky on Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik, by Thomas Furse.

The Image of the British State in the Macartney Mission to Qing China, by Gongchen Yang.

Non-Human Intellectual History: Virtual Issue 1.1, by Shuvatri Dasgupta.


Featured Image: Pierre Mignard I, “Clio,” 1689. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Categories
Intellectual history

Third-Worldism in Twentieth Century Latin America: An Intellectual History from the Global South

By Daniel Barragán

Buenos Aires, 1974. Several international voices, including Beatriz Bissio, Samora Machel, Neiva Moreria, Aquino de Brançanza, Jawdat El Atassi and Vessa Burenett, gathered around an intellectual and political journal: Cuadernos del Tercer Mundo (henceforth Cuadernos). In its first number, the editorial perceived that the twentieth century’s “main antagonism” was the contrast between two global projects: Third-Worldism and Imperialism. The Cuadernos’s editorial was clear: against the desire of the centers of the world to consolidate their dominance and power, the marginate and underdeveloped nations needed to “eliminate the causes of exploitation and dependence”.

The inclusion of the term Third World was not a coincidence. In 1952, it was coined by Alfred Sauvy, inspired by the “Third Estate” of the abbé Sieyès. As Vanni Pettiná has recently pointed out, Third World encompassed the countries “ignored, exploited and despised” by the two great projects of modernity and society during the Cold War: the United States and the Soviet Union. The analysis of Third-Worldism has gained importance in recent historiography on the global relations between the so-called “Cold War” and the socio-political processes of Latin America. In this sense, a constellation of historians, such as Gilbert Joseph, Vanni Pettinà, Giuliano Garavini, Hal Brands, Odd Arne Westad, Vijad Prashad, Anne Garland Mahler, Germán Alburquerque, Eugenia Palieraki, Martín Bergel, Stella Paresa Krepp and Daniel Kent Carrasco, have gone beyond historiographic teleologies in the explanation of Latin American historical processes during the Cold War. Instead of a univocal process, these historians have explained how global relations between the different contexts comprising the “Third World” were characterized by a strong “polycentrism”.

Here I will contend that the political and temporal concept of Third Worldism was one of the tools Latin-American actors used in their international struggles, being thus central in its construction. They recurred to Third Worldism as an imaginary that could defend the ideas they presented in cultural and international events such as the Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba, and printed journals such as the Cuadernos or Casa de las Americas. Thus, in Latin America, Third Worldism helped political and intellectual actors claim and defend their role in the construction of global politics, acting as a concept of movement, which houses experiences and expectations that are mobilized towards the future.

This piece will show how Third Worldism can be conceived as a counterweight to liberal doctrines defended by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), for instance. Third Worldism inherited the “ideological enthusiasm of interwar intellectual debates” the former rejected, and sought to establish its “utopian ideals” on legitimizing and practical instances and institutions. The processes of decolonization and the critiques of the imperialist models of the US and the USSR sedimented a layer of political experience that simultaneously nurtured and fostered the utopia of transnational solidarity. Historians, such as Bergel,  have shown that, as a political concept, Third Worldism drew on a conceptual heritage marked by the values of solidarity, international aid, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism, all of which were integral to the set of critical utopias that oversaw the conception of a Third World sensibility. This is clear from the classic study of Vijad Prashad, The Darker Nations. A People’s History of the Third World.

As a project, Third Worldism was instituted at the hands of concrete international meetings at the Conferences of Bandung (1955), Cairo (1961), and Belgrade (1961). Faced with the bipolar world of the Cold War, the Third World created a spatial and temporal project aimed at an anti-imperialist future which sought to host the international diversity of national liberation movements. By perceiving these movements’ diversity as a virtue, the Cuadernos wished to avoid “sectarianism” as conducted by a bipolar perception of the world, which was the “least representative modality” in which to portray the “rich diversity of the Third World”.

The Cuadernos are thus an example of the complexity of Third Worldism’s strategical instruments. The global relations that were ensued in its institutions were an important channel for the diffusion of publications issued from different Third World countries. Publishing centers in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, as well as different African countries, soon became important hubs for the material diffusion of Third Worldism. Besides Tricontinental, which was conceived during the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, the Cuadernos are an important tool to understand how the ideal of transnational solidarity originated and later spread globally. Though the journal circulated during the 1973 “Non-aligned conference”, it was also present in the Americas during those years. Noticeably, it traveled from Argentina to Mexico as soon as the 1976 dictatorship censored its circulation. The journal can thus help trace the movements of people, as well as help explain the regional configuration of ideologies of Third Worldism throughout the Latin American space.

The particular political sensitivity that arose from Third Worldism as a poly-centric concept and movement is notorious when we see that these publications were a fundamental tool for transmitting news, from Africa and Asia to the Americas, on the national liberation movements. According to Alburquerque, Marcha and Casa de las Américas were imagined as spaces for dialogue and intellectual debate for writers such as Carlos Fuentes or Julio Cortázar, who called for the integration of a “Third-Worldist us” based on the similarities of Latin American, Asian, and African countries. A member of the editorial committee of the Cuadernos, Beatriz Bissio, for example, wrote about these international movements and institutions through the glasses of the Third World Film Committees which were present in Algeria and Buenos Aires.

The Cuadernos are thus a powerful testimony of the Latin American centrality in the conception and enactment of Third Worldism. For obvious reasons, this was a posture defended by Latin American members of its institutions. It could be said that from the 1966 Conference in Havana, these intellectuals conceived Third Worldism as a process that extended the “Tricontinental” solidarity towards an internationalism that embraced the processes of decolonization in Africa. This, in turn, was mirrored by the South-South dialogue that was created thanks to journals such as the Cuadernos, which fastened and allowed to summarize the sharp criticism they shared towards the imperialist Cold War powers, namely the US and the USSR. As Westad suggests, such actors’ claims served as powerful frameworks for the ideals of international cooperation they pursued by enhancing their political imaginaries as intellectual workers that were part of a vast network spread throughout the Third World.

Journals, however, were not the only means of circulation of Third Worldism in Latin America. According to the research of Pettinà, Alburquerque and Stella Krepp, during the “golden” years of Third-Worldism, the governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Cuba shared the spaces of the international diplomatic scene with the Non-Aligned Movement based on the Third World notions of blackness, decolonization, and solidarity. The movement had a strategic dimension in Latin American internationalism and its diplomacy. The foundation of institutions dedicated to the study of Latin America such as ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences), CLACSO (Latin American Council of Social Sciences) or CLAPCS (Latin American Center for Research in Social Sciences) at least partially responded to its circulation in the region. Palieraki, in turn, has suggested the notoriety of cultural missions, transnational intellectual networks, and “militant global networks” in ushering the mobilization of the historical experiences of the Americas, in the hope to build a common and better future for the Third World.

In effect, they played an important role within the global strategy of Third Worldism to encourage its countries to take a significant role in the transnational community that wished to knock down bipolar conceptions of the world. Three central countries were Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina. Indeed, as Christine Hatzky explains, the Cuban government ensued from the Revolution supported national liberation movements by exporting the Revolution to the rest of the third world countries. Through arguments relating to Third World international cohesion, as Eric Gettig suggests, Cubans wished to establish a “critical mass” that could counter Cuba’s exclusion from the international scenario as a result of the US embargo. The work of diplomats such as the ambassador to the United Nations Raúl Roa Kourí, as well as some Cuban delegations led by Carlos Lechuga and Leví Marrero in Third World countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Greece, Egypt, and Yugoslavia) sought to spread the image of Cuba as a revolutionary model to follow. Likewise, the efforts of the Congress of Underdeveloped Nations to promote a “global third force” may be well seen as taking part in these attempts. 

According to Christy Thornton’s recent research, Mexico also developed its own strategy to cohere a Third Worldism from Latin America by proposing a New International Economic Order that followed president Luis Echeverría’s ideals, presented in the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States during the United Nations Assembly in 1974. Mexicans strove to find similarities between its process of independence (1810-1821) and the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century in the Third World. Latin American independences taught the world how independence in political terms did not ensure the end of economic colonization, which continued to wreak havoc on their nation’s economies ever since. This is why the values of solidarity and anti-imperialism were enhanced by Third Worldists in Mexico to seek economic decolonization while establishing national self-determination. Economic cooperation between equally represented countries in international institutions could only be upheld on this set of principles. Their strategy can hence be synthesized in their search for an equitable distribution of the “profits of global capitalism”.

During the conflictful decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s, as Valeria Manzano suggests, Argentina also had a particular place within the “geography of rebellion” it was a part of. It received and created productive dialogues with other international left-wing movements that developed, for instance, in France and Italy. The conflict that stemmed from constant hostile encounters with the military regimes determined the creation of a New Left that articulated the dialogues, receptions, and exchanges it had with those movements. Such intellectual exchanges would be decisive even for the Argentinian dictatorship which sought support of the Non-Aligned Movement during the crisis in the “Falklands/Malvinas” Islands, according to recent scholarship.

Even in a present which no longer strictly lodges a Third Worldist imaginary as a value crowned by a set of countries that defend international solidarity, it has not completely disappeared. Transformed by the end of the Cold War, what formerly appeared as languages of solidarity and anti-imperialism, now Third Worldism may be seen to designate the spaces that were scarred by processes such as “capitalist globalization”. As Anne Mahler points out, historians have continued to argue that its legacy resonates in international claims on racial justice, inequality, or criticism of global capitalism which continue to structure anti-racial movements to date. Latin America’s importance in the establishment of Third Worldism can thus be identified in the wake of such global movements of discontent.

As this piece contends, building on decades-long scholarship on the topic, Latin American experiences were determinant in shaping the heterogeneous and internally diverse character of Third Worldism. In this sense, when adopting a conceptual history perspective as has been done here, Third Worldism can be read as a “concept of movement”. In its temporal dimension, Latin American Third Worldism conducted a critical utopia by receiving and adapting demands of solidarity, anti-racism, and decolonization against a bipolarized imperialism in the twentieth century. Journals and magazines, as well as international conferences and congresses were important milieux for the establishment of dialogues in the midst of a polycentric political project. Not only does its study merit more attention by historians, it is also an important call of awareness for international solidarity to continue political struggles “by other means” in the optic of establishing “concrete utopianism” in our present’s political projects.


Daniel Barragán is a PhD candidate at El Colegio de Mexico, in Mexico City. He was member of the Research Training Group Temporalities of Future at the Freie Universität Berlin. His research concerns conceptual history, printed artifacts, political languages, and theory of history. He is currently working on a thesis on the temporal dimension of political economy in Hispanic modernity. His Twitter handle is @danielmbarragn.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: Rostgaard, Tricontinental Conference Third Aniversary, 1968. Creative Commons.

This work was the product of a postgraduate seminar that Vanni Pettinà taught in the first half of 2020 at the El Colegio de México, in Mexico City. The historiographical discussion presented here responds to the recent research agenda that incorporates Latin America into the framework of a global history of the Cold War. I thank Eugenia Palieraki and Vanni Pettinà for their comments to improve this think piece.

Categories
Intellectual history

Our Duties to the Earth: Pliny the Elder as a Proto-Environmentalist

By Max Wade


Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) remarks that one of humanity’s great acts of ingratitude toward mother earth is our ignorance of her nature. This ignorance manifests in many ways; most clearly in our senseless plundering of her riches which are used not for our betterment but to wage war and kill our fellow living creatures. This attitude, Pliny says, is a kind of “rage” [furor], “madness” [insania], and “crime” [scelus], which his Natural History serves to remedy by drawing his reader’s attention back to the fascinating aspects of the natural world. An attentive attitude toward Nature, for Pliny, can view the world as miraculous – a world filled with celestial, animal, vegetable, and even mineral mirabilia that possess odd, unexpected and unique properties – which instills both respect and admiration, stemming from the order underlying the world in its entirety.

In Pliny’s worldview, the natural order is founded on the assumption that the world is a single divine being; all things are connected as parts within a whole and are expressions of a cosmic design. To this end, Pliny speaks of Nature as having a pervasive vital spirit [spiritus vitalis] present in all things. This divine spiritus (understood not as something immaterial or ghostly, but as the corporeal element of air), “penetrates all the universe” (HN 2.4) and is drawn from the Stoic theory of pneuma and serves a similar function. The spiritus vitalis (like the Stoic pneuma) is the soul of the universe that fills its body – the matter in the cosmos – and gives it life and activity and accounts for the unity of all its parts, much in the same way that an animal’s soul allows for its different body parts to all act in unison. This same vital spirit is present in animal and plant life (HN 12.1), accounting for growth and other life processes that allow them to function. But it is not just living beings that are filled with the spiritus vitalis; the earth is literally bursting at the seams with it, spilling forth in volcanic eruptions, medicinal springs, and other geological phenomena.

At the center of the cosmic body lies the earth (HN 2.69). While the stars and other heavenly bodies operate somewhat at a distance from ordinary human life, the earth is the most immediate and imminent source of the divine manifestations of Nature. Pliny writes that there is a constant “bubbling forth” of the divine power of Nature contained within the earth (HN 2.95), leading him to speak about the earth as a goddess in itself. In other words, the earth is not numerically distinct from the divine cosmos but a divine body infused with the many powers of Nature and worthy of a “maternal veneration” [maternae venerationis] by the human beings that live and die on its surface. This explicitly feminine imagery consistently crops up in Pliny’s account of the earth. In speaking about the generation of fungi, for example, Pliny describes the formation of the organism within the “womb” [vulva] of the earth itself (HN 22.46), which nourishes the mushroom like the yolk [luteum] of an egg, and “spring[ing] up spontaneously and [not] grown from seed[s]” (HN 19.11). The earth, like a mother, nourishes new life into existence, which is why Carolyn Merchant views Pliny as part of a broader tradition, along with other Roman writers such as Ovid and Seneca, that closely unites a deep respect for earth as a maternal figure with a prohibition on mining. After all, if the earth is supposed to be viewed as a nurturing mother, “digging into the matrices and pockets of earth for metals was like mining the female flesh for pleasure.”

The earth “receives us at birth” and “nurtures” us, giving us food, shelter, and all sorts of medicinal herbs for our benefit (HN 2.63). Pliny says that even poisonous plants serve the benefit of allowing us to commit suicide by means of a quick and (comparatively) painless death, highlighting the way in which all of mother Nature’s provisions relate to other creatures within the order of Nature (HN 2.63). The earth, far from a mere conglomerate of rocky and dense matter, is a living being constantly producing life and things for human use. The products of Nature all speak to its power as manifested in the diversity of the various creations, which all serve a purpose within the greater whole.

Everything, from miniscule insects and plants to sea monsters and entire mountains, is a microcosm of Nature, provided one is able to view them in light of the whole. Pliny notes that “the power and might of Nature lacks credibility at every point unless we comprehend her as a whole rather than as piecemeal” (HN 7.7) and that “in the contemplation of Nature nothing can be deemed superfluous” (HN 11.1). For example, the mosquito exhibits a “labyrinthine perfection” [inextricabilis perfectio] – one should marvel at Nature’s ingenuity in giving such a small and seemingly insignificant creature the ability to pierce human skin and drink our blood, despite being so tiny and frail in comparison to us. Nature’s ability to give life to even the mineral world – the paradigm case being the magnet’s ability to stir up the “legs” in iron, causing it to move toward the magnet – encourages us to view the entire world as bristling with the vital spirit of the divine.

Contrary to the anthropocentric views common to his time, Pliny singles out certain aspects of the terrestrial world as being produced by Nature for her own use and needs, indicating that these are not meant for human use. This is most clear when he speaks about things most closely tied to the earth itself, such as mountains. He writes, “Mountains…were made by Nature for herself to serve as a kind of framework for holding firmly together the inner parts of the earth, and at the same time to enable her to subdue the violence of rivers, to break the force of heavy seas and so to curb her most restless elements with the hardest material of which she is made” (HN 36.1 emphasis added). When Nature’s order is disrupted in instances of mining, where humans strip away mountains or threaten to destabilize the integrity of the earth by removing her mineral veins, the conditions that give rise to life are threatened. The sea, without the confinement imposed by its mountainous barriers, will forcefully overpower the flatter and less rocky terrain on land. Nature, however, seems to have built-in defense mechanisms. As Pliny notes, mines have become infested with poisonous snakes and other dangerous beasts to “protect her and keep off our sacrilegious hands” (HN 2.63).

It is this view of the earth as a living being that steers Pliny toward the anti-anthropomorphic aspects of what can be called his “ecological ethics”; a picture of duties towards Nature that are in place for the sake of Nature, not humanity (even if humanity benefits from following these same duties). These duties all evince a particular ethical attitude. Namely, the idea that human activity must take place within certain limits designated by Nature. It is in the crossing of these boundaries that harm is done – first to Nature and the earth and then, secondly, to ourselves.

Beginning with a particularly evocative example, Pliny bemoans the absence of laws prohibiting the mining and importation of marble. Humans quarry mountains and “haul them away on a mere whim” (HN 36.1), which should be met with a response of “blushing prodigiously with shame” (HN 36.2). The arbitrariness of these acts is particularly egregious for Pliny – the “mere whims” of humans should not take priority over the proper functions of natural entities. Mountains were created to serve a particular purpose within Nature and instead, are flattened out, dissolving the natural arrangement of the earth’s geographical boundaries. When this happens, the earth itself is destabilized, resulting in earthquakes and other catastrophic geological events: “we trace out all the fibers of the earth and live above the hollows we have made in her, marveling that occasionally she gapes open or begins to tremble—as if it were not possible that this may be an expression of the indignation of our holy parent!” (HN 33.1). So, harvesting these mountains comes at a great cost both environmentally and economically, while only producing the reward of a kind of superficial luxury.

Not only is this plundering taken to be unnecessary – after all, these ornamentations serve no real utilitarian function – but it produces a net-negative result. In contrast to the bounty of plant and animal life provided for us on the earth’s surface, the treasures hidden within the body of the earth are associated with death and are best left untouched; after, in humanity’s hubris “we penetrate her inner parts and seek for riches in the abode of the spirits of the departed, as though the part where we tread upon her were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile” (HN 33.1). Pliny encourages his reader to “think how much more happily many people live without [precious stones]” (HN 36.1) and the way in which this sets a “bad moral precedent” [malo exemplo moribus] (HN 36.2). But why such strong moral indignation? Viewed abstractly, we recognize that, for Pliny, this is a transgression of the boundaries Nature has laid down for humanity.

Beyond this abstraction, Pliny wants to ensure that there is a visceral emotional reaction against mining the earth. To this end, he employs some of his strongest language to evoke an explicitly bodily sense of horror. In exploiting the earth, he writes that we “torture” [cruciatur] her body and, in digging deep into the earth in search of luxuries, we “drag out her entrails [viscera] to seek a jewel merely to be worn upon a finger” (HN 2.63). The kind of person who delights in precious gems and other luxuries, therefore, is some sort of monster, gaining pleasure from the pain they inflict not just on other people, but on their mother.

Therefore, proper human activity operates with the ebbs and flows of Nature; by enhancing and promoting these flows, we can aid in the proliferation of life. Pliny’s ecological outlook has rightly been characterized as deeply agrarian in orientation: the proper human agent is like a farmer who, in tilling the fields and creating the proper conditions for Nature to flourish,  is able to work with Nature to turn uncultivated land into fertile soil lush with plant and animal life. To this end, Nature is most properly viewed as a craftsman [artifex]: the creative, productive producer of all things in the world. Nature’s wild products are more abundant than cultivars, as the variety of all life, both plant and animal, can be traced to the glory of Nature as artifex. Humans, as a microcosm of Nature itself, reproduce Nature by the agency of art (HN 36.68), but, in the words of Mary Beagon, “rather than seeking to improve on Nature, man is invited to stand back and admire the truly perfect.”

Actions contrary to this – particularly mining and the wanton pilfering of exotic flora – disrupt these Natural flows, causing pain and suffering. Likewise, magic is seen as a debauched and suspect art, given how it tries to subvert and manipulate natural systems for human ends. So, while Pliny is still nonetheless deeply anthropocentric compared to contemporary perspectives that challenge the assumption that humanity is the “pinnacle” of the natural world, he nonetheless can reconcile this with a form of ecological ethics that insists upon respect and careful consideration given toward Nature. Our place within the world is unique, as we are especially well positioned to engage in activities that enhance and multiply the innately generative power of Nature. But this comes with a great burden of responsibility, as this same human power is what allows us to inflict deep cuts within the earth itself, ripping open mountains and letting her entrails spill out so we can decorate our houses and bodies with her riches.


Max Wade is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College. His research primarily focuses on the history of natural philosophy in the ancient world, as well as its impact on medieval philosophy. His dissertation is on Plotinus’ ontology of artifacts, specifically in relation to his responses to Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic accounts of the composition of artificial objects.

Edited by Kelby Bibler

Featured Image: Anton Goubau Italian Landscape with a Shepherdess and Ruins (Creative Commons).

Categories
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).

Categories
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.

Categories
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.    

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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.

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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

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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 by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society of Saint Paul. Wikimedia Commons.