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Interview

Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.

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Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.

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Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

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Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at chloebordewich.wordpress.com.

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Dispatches from the Archives

Mandate Agent, Colonial Subject, and Jewish Citizen : Jamil Sasson

by guest contributor James Casey

On a chilly winter day in 1941 Jamil Sasson, a Syrian employee of the French Mandate bureaucracy, sent a letter to the Secrétaire général du Haut-Commissariat de la République Française en Syrie et au Liban to protest his termination and loss of pension. “Permit me,” Sasson wrote, to underscore the essential French “principle of equality for all.” (1/SL/20/150) This was not merely the protest of a disgruntled former employee: Jamil Sasson was a Syrian Jew who had lost his position in the civil administration of the French Mandate after the application of Vichy’s antisemitic laws to French overseas territories. Based on the records of his  professional duties, it seems he was also a spy.

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The cover tab on Jamil Sasson’s personnel file. From the Centre des Archives diplomatiques de Nantes.

The French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (1920-1946) marked the zenith of the French empire in the Middle East but came with novel legal and political constraints. France held the former Ottoman territories that today comprise Lebanon and Syria under the auspices of a League of Nations Class A Mandate trust territory. France was obliged as the Mandatory power (in theory if not always in practice) to safeguard the rights, property, and religious affairs of the people of the trust territory and to answer for their conduct to a Permanent Mandates Commission that sat in Geneva (62-64).

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Grand Rabbi of Damascus Hakam Nessm Inudbu at the Synagogue of El Efrange with three companions. (United States National Archives/RG84 Syria Damascus Embassy General Records/1950-1955/510-570.3)

Jamil Sasson was not a French citizen, but the French state that ruled Syria purged him from his profession, rendered him destitute, and sent police to toss his residence in much the same frightening way that French Jews experienced the onset of Vichy. Sasson’s situation underscores how the bureaucratic state can quickly dehumanize and dispossess; what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” It is also a reminder of the poor practical defense that the idea of equality could offer in the face of bigotry and bureaucratic inertia. Sasson, a Francophone Arab Jew from Damascus, was a trusted interlocutor between the Muslim and Christian religious hierarchies and the French officials in the Contrôle des Wakfs. Personally and professionally, he navigated multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory worlds. His experience offers granular insights for historians of modern Syria and the French empire. It also should interest scholars concerned with citizenship and those interested in the relationship between individuals and state power. Few individuals in the French Mandate could or did cross the borders  – geographic, political, sectarian, linguistic – that Sasson did, let alone with ease or credibility.

Sasson’s personnel records show he was nominally employed as a secrétaire interprète in the Contrôle des Wakfs et de l’Immatriculation foncière; the department charged with overseeing the administration and management of pious endowment property, or waqf. My dissertation research strongly suggests that his duties consisted of espionage and administrative surveillance, rather than clerical work. His French superior Philippe Gennardi, Délégué du Haute-Commissariat auprès du Contrôle Générale des Wakfs, saw Sasson as a lynchpin of a surveillance and intelligence gathering apparatus. This apparatus, controlled by Gennardi, functioned separately from the formal security and intelligence services of the French Mandate. Evidence I assembled from the superficially mundane ephemera of bureaucracy – performance reviews in personal files, receipts submitted for reimbursement, back-and-forth correspondence between different Mandate departments over whose budget should pay Sasson’s salary – indicate that Sasson was an integral figure supporting a sophisticated, semi-autonomous surveillance and human intelligence operation run by Gennardi, focused on waqf (Islamic pious endowments) as a surveillance space. This is a story that is essentially absent from the records of the Service de renseignement, the Mandate’s formal security-intelligence service and from scholarship on the Mandate. Gennardi explicitly described that Sasson’s duties defied his prosaic job title to justify Sasson’s salary in budgetary disputes with his superiors: Sasson was in constant communication with all local administrations and managed the French Mandate’s day-to-day relations with the heads of all of the religious sects in the Mandate. This partnership between French official and Syrian Jewish civil servant was a critical, if understudied element of the formal and informal surveillance capacity of the Mandate state. That is, until the the Fall of France, the installation of Maréchal Pétain in Vichy, and Sasson’s sacking.        

On July 20th, 1943 Sasson wrote to his longtime superior Gennardi, with whom he appears to have been close. He had yet been unsuccessful in either returning to his position in the administration or receiving a pension, even after the defeat of the Vichy-aligned administration in the Mandate by Free French and British Commonwealth forces in the summer of 1941. Since first protesting his dismissal at the beginning of 1941, “I have had to abandon all hope of justice given the circumstances and my religion.” Thus Sasson was dispatched by the security machinery of the state, of which he had once surreptitiously been a part.

It is challenging to situate a figure like Sasson in much of the historiography of twentieth century Syria. Notwithstanding more recent scholarship, the Anglo-French historiography of modern Syrian history pivots from elite nationalism under French rule to a series of military coups after independence, and ultimately to the coming of the Baʾth Party. Jamil Sasson’s biography does not fit neatly into this standard narrative. He was born in Damascus in the Ottoman province of Syria, the French Mandate state recorded his nationality as Syrian, and he frequently moved back and forth across the borders of the Mandates for Syria and Lebanon and the British Mandate for Palestine where he had family. He spoke French, worked in the Mandate administration, and was Jewish in his religion. He stood out to senior French administrators in the Mandate and local Christian and Muslim religious chiefs as someone reliable. While his nationality was Syrian, he did not enjoy the protections of citizenship.

Sasson worked for the French Mandate state in a historical context in which Jews (as well as Christians and Muslims) had been intermediaries in commerce and diplomacy during the Ottoman Empire (178-79, see also Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-century Palestine, 62-63). Many Jews in the Arab provinces, along with Christians and Muslims, embraced the Ottoman state’s fitful attempts to impose equal citizenship (147). Cast against his sectarian background, Sasson’s personal and professional profile was both complex and quotidian: he played a key role in building the Mandate state, but does not fit the profile of a nationalist hero or a collaborator. Sasson had a government job that was not glamorous on paper, but he performed specialized, sensitive work on issues of religious faith, custodianship and care of pious endowment property, and he carefully built and maintained relationships across sectarian lines, relationships that could be prickly in the best of times. Sasson’s appeal to legal and personal protection in the principle of equality for all speaks to the paradox that defined the interwar period: the vast expansion of rights and international peace-affirming institutions built on the Wilsonian idea of popular sovereignty could not be reconciled with prevailing systems of unequal citizenship, colonialism, and racism. Indeed, formal independence for Syria in 1946 did not resolve this tension, either for national sovereignty or equal citizenship: the postwar United Nations provided better but still unequal international forum and meaningful equal citizenship in independent Syria remained elusive under liberal parliamentary and military regimes alike.

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Front and back cover of an identification booklet issued to citizen members of the national guard of the Syrian Republic under French tutelage.

Ideas about “equality for all,” like the institution of responsible French trusteeship of the League of Nations Mandate for Syria seemed to support broad rights, representation, and protection. In practice, they overpromised and underdelivered. The “principle of equality for all” amounted to little practical protection for Sasson by the time he wrote his appeal, yet the idea of equality remained the basis for his case. Equality, as a legal framework, was not sufficiently institutionalized to provide tangible protections. However, equality as an idea persisted.

A number of contemporary tensions reflect the the interwar period that produced the French Mandate in Syria: inadequate yet expanding possibilities of legal personhood and protections for more people; an international system invested with such promise and possibility for peace, but seemingly defined by its inability to prevent conflict; chilling attempts to legally enshrine “extreme vetting” of purported traitors within and enemies without. The discourse of human rights, legal personhood, and citizenship that Sasson invoked in 1941 resonates now with even greater urgency. We would do well to take heed of the experience of a man who found that his world no longer had a place for him.

James Casey is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton University. His dissertation examines the relationship of pious endowment properties to the development of state surveillance capacity in Syria between 1920-1960. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria from 2008-9.

Categories
Think Piece

Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher

 

Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

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Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

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File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.

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Dispatches from the Archives

Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures: ‘History in English criticism, 1919-1961’

by guest contributor Joshua Bennett

A distinctive feature of the early years of the Cambridge English Tripos (examination system), in which close “practical criticism” of individual texts was balanced by the study of the “life, literature, and thought” surrounding them, was that the social and intellectual background to literature acquired an equivalent importance to that of literature itself. Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures, in common with his essay collections, Common Reading and Common Writing, have over the past several weeks richly demonstrated that the literary critics who were largely the products of that Tripos can themselves be read and historicized in that spirit. Collini, whose resistance to the disciplinary division between the study of literature and that of intellectual history has proved so fruitful over many years, has focused on six literary critics in his lecture series: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, Basil Willey, William Empson, and Raymond Williams. All, with the exception of Eliot, were educated at Cambridge; and all came to invest the enterprise of literary criticism with a particular kind of missionary importance in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Collini has been concerned to explore the intellectual and public dynamics of that mission, by focusing on the role of history in these critics’ thought and work. His argument has been twofold. First, he has emphasized that the practice of literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical in nature. The second, and more intellectual-historical, element of his case has consisted in the suggestion that literary critics offered a certain kind of “cultural history” to the British public sphere. By using literary and linguistic evidence in order to unlock the “whole way of life” of previous forms of English society, and to reach qualitative judgements about “the standard of living” in past and present, critics occupied territory vacated by professional historians at the time, while also contributing to wider debates about twentieth-century societal conditions.

Collini’s lectures did not attempt to offer a full history of the development of English as a discipline in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they raised larger questions for those interested in the history of the disciplines both of English and History in twentieth-century Britain, and what such histories can reveal about the wider social and cultural conditions in which they took shape. How should the findings from Collini’s penetrating microscope modify, or provide a framework for, our view of these larger organisms?

First, a question arises as to the relationship between the kind of historical criticism pursued by Collini’s largely Cantabrigian dramatis personae, and specific institutions and educational traditions. E. M. W. Tillyard’s mildly gossipy memoir of his involvement in the foundation of the Cambridge English Tripos, published in 1958 under the title of The Muse Unchained, recalls an intellectual environment of the 1910s and 1920s in which the study of literature was exciting because it was a way of opening up the world of ideas. The English Tripos, he held, offered a model of general humane education—superior to Classics, the previous such standard—through which the ideals of the past might nourish the present. There is a recognizable continuity between these aspirations, and the purposes of the cultural history afterwards pursued under the auspices of literary criticism by the subsequent takers of that Tripos whom Collini discussed—several of whom began their undergraduate studies as historians.

But how far did the English syllabuses of other universities, and the forces driving their creation and development, also encourage a turn towards cultural history, and how did they shape the kind of cultural history that was written? Tillyard’s account is notably disparaging of philological approaches to English studies, of the kind which acquired and preserved a considerably greater prominence in Oxford’s Honour School of “English Language and Literature”—a significant pairing—from 1896. Did this emphasis contribute to an absence of what might be called “cultural-historical” interest among Oxford’s literary scholars, or alternatively give it a particular shape? Widening the canvas beyond Oxbridge, it is surely also important to heed the striking fact that England was one of the last countries in Europe in which widespread university interest in the study of English literature took shape. If pressed to single out any one individual as having been responsible for the creation of the “modern” form of the study of English Literature in the United Kingdom—a hazardous exercise, certainly—one could do worse than to alight upon the Anglo-Scottish figure of Herbert Grierson. Grierson, who was born in Shetland in 1866 and died in 1960, was appointed to the newly-created Regius Chalmers Chair of English at Aberdeen in 1894, before moving to take up a similar position in Edinburgh in 1915. In his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, Grierson argued for the autonomy of the study of English literature from that of British history. As Cairns Craig has recently pointed out, however, an evaluative kind of “cultural history” is unmistakably woven into his writings on the poetry of John Donne—which for Grierson prefigured the psychological realism of the modern novel—and his successors. For Grierson, the cultural history of the modern world was structured by a conflict between religion, humanism, and science—evident in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth—to which literature itself offered, in the present day, a kind of antidote. Grierson’s conception of literature registered his own difficulties with the Free Church religion of his parents, as well, perhaps, as the abiding influence of the broad Scottish university curriculum—combining study of the classics, philosophy, psychology and rhetoric—which he had encountered as an undergraduate prior to the major reforms of Scottish higher education begun in 1889. Did the heroic generation of Cambridge-educated critics, then, create and disseminate a kind of history inconceivable without the English Tripos? Or did they offer more of a local instantiation of a wider “mind of Britain”? A general history of English studies in British universities, developing for example some of the themes discussed in William Whyte’s recent Redbrick, is certainly a desideratum.

Collini partly defined literary critics’ cultural-historical interests in contradistinction to a shadowy “Other”: professional historians, who were preoccupied not by culture but by archives, charters and pipe-rolls. As Collini pointed out, the word “culture”—and so the enterprise of “cultural history”—has admitted of several senses in different times and in the usage of different authors. The kind of cultural history which critics felt they could not find among professional historians, and which accordingly they themselves had to supply, centered on an understanding of lived experience in the past; and on identifying the roots—and so, perhaps, the correctives—to their present discontents. This raises a second interesting problem, the answer to which should be investigated rather than assumed: what exactly became of “cultural history” in these senses within the British historical profession between around 1920 and 1960?

Peter Burke and Peter Ghosh have alike argued that the growing preoccupation of academic history with political history in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries acted regrettably to constrict that universal application of historical method to all facets of human societies which the Enlightenment first outlined in terms of “conjectural history.” This thesis is true in its main outlines. But there were ways in which cultural history retained a presence in British academic history in the period of what Michael Bentley thinks of as historiographical “modernism,” prior to the transformative interventions of Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and afterwards. In the field of religious history, for example, Christopher Dawson – while holding the title of “Lecturer in the History of Culture” at University College, Exeter—published a collection of essays in 1933 entitled Enquiries into religion and culture. English study of socioeconomic history in the interwar and postwar years also often extended to, or existed in tandem with, interest in what can only be described as “culture.” Few episodes might appear as far removed from cultural history as the “storm over the gentry,” for example—a debate over the social origins of the English Civil War that was played out chiefly in the pages of the Economic History Review in the 1940s and 1950s. But the first book of one of the main participants in that controversy, Lawrence Stone, was actually a study entitled Sculpture in Britain: the middle ages, published in 1955 in the Pelican History of Art series. Although Stone came to regard it as a diversion from his main interests, its depictions of a flourishing artistic culture in late-medieval Britain, halted by the Reformation, may still be read as a kind of cultural-historical counterpart to his better-known arguments for the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of social upheaval. If it is true that literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical, perhaps it is also true that few kinds of history have been found to be wholly separable from cultural history, broadly defined.

Joshua Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Christ Church, Oxford.

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Think Piece

The Revival of Harper’s Weekly, 1974-1976

 by Erin McGuirl

The story of the revival of Harper’s Weekly, a magazine published from 1857 to 1916 and then 1974 to 1976, begins with William (Willie) Morris. As Editor-in-Chief of the Monthly from 1967 to 1971, Morris changed the tone of Harper’s Monthly by publishing long-form, liberal-minded pieces by writers like Norman Mailer and William Styron. In 1971, magazine owner John Cowles, Jr. pressured Morris to take it easy, blaming his lefty writers for driving away advertising revenue. Morris refused, and much like the mass resignation of editors at The New Republic in 2014, many of Harper’s best writers, including Mailer, Syron, and Bill Moyers, walked out with him, leaving behind a lot of big shoes to fill.

Hired four months after Morris’s departure with his staff, Editor-in-Chief Robert Shnayerson (formerly of Time) needed to retain the interest of the new readership built up under his predecessor’s leadership without driving away much needed ad revenue. Enter Tony Jones, and a new section in the magazine: WRAPAROUND. First appearing in 1973, WRAPAROUND, edited by Jones, was a riff on the Whole Earth Catalog. In fact, there’s a direct link between the two, because Stewart Brand and the Catalog were the cover story of the April 1974 issue, and guest editor of WRAPAROUND. Like the Catalog, WRAPAROUND published reviews of tools for living and solicited content directly from it’s readers. “Above all,” Jones wrote in his first editorial, “the WRARPOUND invites your participation. …[We] would like you to think of these pages as an extension of your own processes of discovery, as a place to contribute whatever information, perspectives, resources, and conclusions you have found valuable in your own life – and share them with all Harper’s readers.” This is a page taken directly from the Whole Earth playbook. Stewart Brand and his team published regular Supplements to the Catalog that included content (fiction, poetry, and non-fiction) solicited directly from readers. Anyone could submit their own work for publication in both the Supplement and the Catalogs, and all printed contributors were paid for the work. And very much like the Catalog, each WRAPAROUND included an order form, so that readers could order anything they read about in the magazine directly from Harper’s offices.

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From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

WRAPAROUND must have been popular with reader/writers, because Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization was revived in 1974 using the one-year-old Harper’s segment as its model. Announcement of the weekly was something of a media stunt: Jones placed ads in local newspapers around the country similar to this full-page editorial/ad he published in The New Republic, explaining that he was reviving the Weekly, and he intended to exclusively publish content written by its readers. Here’s a summary of his intentions, in his own words:

“I want to offer a variety of communications from real people about just anything. … In a real sense, this communication would be a collection of points of view. A swath of our consciousness. An ongoing biopsy of our civilization. … So I’ve decided to revive the famous HARPER’S WEEKLY, a national newspaper that flourished concurrently with Harper’s Magazine from 1857 to 1916. The people who ran it had the temerity to call it ‘a journal of civilization.’ Well, that is exactly what I have in mind for the new Harper’s Weekly.”

As in the Whole Earth Catalog, writers would be paid for submissions that wound up in print; $25+ for features (a relative value of $116-140 in 2017 when calculated as labor earnings), $15 for items published in the “Running Commentary” section, $10 for “clippings, quotes, or other research material (please include primary sources.)”

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The Harper’s Weekly offices in New York, published in the magazine. From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

Published from November 1974 to May 1976, the revived Harper’s Weekly is an extraordinary body of work. Readers from all over the country submitted more content than Jones and his team of editors could use (more on that in a minute), and the editorial board was in constant communication with its writer-readers through the printed magazine. In April of 1975, Harper’s Weekly published a frank editorial about its design, admitting that it had not yet achieved the quality and uniformity it aimed for.  They published readers’ suggestions for improvement of the layout, logo, and typeface, and invited anyone to join their ongoing conversation. Perusing issues of the Weekly, one sees the staff working with new ideas – using larger typefaces, experimenting with heading styles and graphics, and moving regular sections from one page to another. Under Jones’ direction, however, they never abandoned the Harper’s Weekly 19th century masthead, and the paper’s tagline, “America’s Reader-Written Newspaper” always appeared in bold nearby.

The reader-contributed articles often focused on local or obscure issues. An issue highlighting the world of the American snake handler featured interviews with self-ordained Reverend Carl Porter of Cartersville, Georgia, snake handler Robert F. Wise, Jr. of Charleston, West Virginia, and William E. Haast, director of the Miami Serpentarium. Another reader, Robert Cassidy of Chicago, profiled Laurie Brandt and Julian Sereno in “Turning Words into Type,” an article describing their one-room typesetting business, Serbra Type. These young entrepreneurs were the compositors behind University of Chicago publications like Current Anthropology. The Weekly established regular departments, notably a Critics Corp that featured regular reviews of movies, books, records, television shows, organizations, and conferences.  They even printed a Critics Card that readers could clip from the magazine and present at an event, and printed readers’ accounts of what happened when they tried using it. Alongside this diverse and unusual content – which is remarkably well written – the revived Weekly featured ads by major corporations. Mobil, the Bell Telephone Company, and Smith Corona all bought prominent space.

The journal reported on its operations in both issues of December 1975. The Weekly received 125,000 mailed submissions, and printed 3 million copies of the magazine for distribution by subscription and in newsstands. Jones and his team also published a remarkable account of its readership, including demographic information (gender, educational background, income, marital status, employment) gathered from a survey completed by more than half of the randomly selected sample of 2,000 subscribers (a response rate of more than 50% is remarkable), and compared that to information collected in similar surveys of subscribers to Time, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In 1976, however, something changed in the Weekly, and at Harper’s. That year, Lewis Lapham replayed Robert Shnayerson as editor in Chief, and the Weekly gradually declined and died. The issue for the weeks of May 10 and 17 appeared on newsstands without the historic 19th century  masthead. The large photographic image on the cover, the typography, and the layout were unmistakably different from everything that came before it; most importantly, however, the “America’s Reader-Written Newspaper” tagline was conspicuously missing. A notice appeared on the first page of the paper:

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Harper’s Weekly, Weeks of May 10 and 17, 1975. From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

Inside the paper, long feature-length articles with prominent bylines replaced the shorter pieces. Peter McCabe, an editor at both Harper’s and Rolling Stone, took over as Editor of the Weekly, but it wasn’t the same magazine after Jones left because its core mission to publish the work of the common reader had been abandoned. The Weekly ceased publication sometime in the late summer or fall of 1976.

Those familiar with John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters might read the revived Weekly as an outgrowth of the underground press movement, and the magazine itself certainly speaks to that. But the magazine itself was modeled on something that was also akin to, but not part of, the underground press. At a moment of crisis for a landmark American magazine, seasoned editors used the Whole Earth Catalog as a model for a new section of the Monthly, WRAPAROUND.The model worked, and Harper’s Weekly`was reborn in the wake of its success. This speaks not only to the impact of the Catalog across a broad spectrum of American publishing, but also, and most importantly, to the impact of its model on a growing body of readers who really wanted to access and exchange information. I see model as fundamentally bibliographic, and participatory.  Within that framework, discovery (or the act of reading) engenders participation by a community of readers and writers sharing a printed resource about tools for living. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner makes important connections between Stewart Brand and Whole Earth community, and the early days of Silicon Valley and the internet. By publishing its readers’ own writing and drawing them into the editorial process, Harper’s Weekly fostered a short-lived community of engaged participants with shared concerns who assumed the roles of critic, local historian, anthropologist, and activist, and then shared their experiences with a national audience through the magazine. This sounds a lot like what so many of us engage in online everyday as readers, blog writers, Tweeters… the list goes on. Harper’s Weekly is yet another example of the how the Whole Earth model took root in American information and popular culture, in the moment just before the dawn of the digital age.

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Think Piece

Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris

by guest contributor Jacob Hamburger

When asked about his political orientation, for many years Axel Honneth would reply almost automatically, “I think I’m a socialist.” Yet as he recounted recently at Columbia University’s global center in Paris, each time he gave this answer, the less he knew precisely what he was saying. This dissatisfaction with his own political identification was part of what motivated his newest book The Idea of Socialism (Die Idee des Sozialismus) which appears in French later this year. As Honneth also explained, the book also furnishes a response to the widespread belief in recent decades that socialism is dead. Though Margaret Thatcher had already captured this belief in the 1980s with her remark that “there is no alternative,” the fall of the Soviet Union has made it more and more tempting to give up on socialism over the last two decades. Though he could not be sure precisely what socialism stood for, Honneth knew that this was a hasty pronouncement. His book therefore attempts to look within the tradition of socialist thought in order to sort the living from the dead, to find something in this tradition that we can take seriously as a political goal in 2017.

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Axel Honneth

Honneth’s answer is to separate the “normative idea” of socialism from its outmoded theoretical framework. The original founders of socialism—from Owen, Fourier, and other utopian thinkers of the 1820s and ‘30s, up to Karl Marx—believed that capitalism prevented the realization of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Capitalism’s understanding of liberty proved overly individualistic and antagonistic, establishing a personal sphere in which others are barred from intervening. The normative thread that Honneth sees running through all of great socialist thought is the idea of a “social freedom” accomplished through cooperation rather than competition. Social freedom is based on an idea of mutual recognition (the subject of much of Honneth’s work), in which one person’s freedom depends on that of the other. As a result, social freedom would allow the ideals of equality and fraternity to fully flourish. Since capitalism has imposed its idea of freedom through the institutions of the economy, socialists have sought to reshape the economy in order to make social freedom a reality.

Though social freedom is an old idea, forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it is no less applicable today as a normative concept than it was two hundred years ago. As Honneth sees it, however, socialism’s greatest weakness is an outdated understanding of social relations. He identifies three main flaws with this nineteenth-century theoretical outlook: economism, the belief that the economy is the sphere that determines a society’s basic character; “ouvrierism,” the fixation on the industrial working class as the agent of social change; and determinism, the assumption that history follows general law-like tendencies. Economism, ouvrierism, and determinism have not only blinded socialist thinkers to new possibilities in a changing social world, but also led them to dismiss the value of political liberties and erect a cult of the proletariat and the planned economy. While there may have been good reasons to hold these beliefs in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Honneth urges scrapping socialism’s theoretical framework in favor of a more sociologically nuanced view of the modern world, along with a Deweyan “experimentalist” approach to social change.

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Polity (2016)

This critique of the left’s insufficient understanding of the social is a thread that stretches throughout Honneth’s philosophical career. In the doctoral dissertation that became his landmark 1985 work Kritik der Macht, he was inspired by the new approaches of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault to account for this dimension of human reality that he believed had been lost on, for example, the founders of the Frankfurt School. Their accounts of “communicative rationality” and “micropower,” respectively, provided a more convincing philosophical account of the sphere of social conflict and cooperation than Honneth found in the Marxist tradition.

A young scholar in 1970s Berlin, as Honneth recounted in another recent talk in Paris on the occasion of the first French translation of Kritik der Macht, he still found that the left was stuck between two unattractive theories of power. The first was that of Theodor Adorno, who saw power as something so totalizing and fearsome that no resistance could hope to stand against it; the other was captured by Foucault, for whom power and resistance were equally intertwined in every aspect of social life, no matter how minute. Despite his admiration for both thinkers, it was clear to Honneth that neither’s approach corresponded to the complexity of social reality. At the same time as he began to absorb the insights of empirical sociology, he was also drawn to return to Hegel and the notion that each society in history has its own guiding spirit. Honneth’s take on this historical relativism was the opposite of that of some followers of Foucault. He saw the way that concrete societies initiate individuals into their ways of life not as a form of domination, but rather as a positive affirmation, and following Habermas, he insisted on the indispensability of normative discourse.

Any socialism arising out of this philosophical perspective—with its deep empirical and normative streaks and its refusal of dualistic categories—invites the label of “reformism.” For some on the far left, Honneth’s program may not look like socialism at all (as he tells it, his critics have long branded him the Eduard Bernstein of the Frankfurt School). The alternative between reform and revolution is another dichotomy that Honneth rejects as a vestige of socialism’s outdated past. Analytically speaking, he is right to do so. But as with all of the conceptual errors Honneth skillfully dismisses, one indeed begins to wonder to what extent socialism can rid itself of the categories that have historically defined it, no matter how erroneous these have often been.

The current troubles of the French Parti socialiste are a case in point. The party has moved away from an outmoded fixation on the working class and a planned economy, perhaps necessary moves, only to find that it has lost its base of committed socialist voters. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Honneth’s attempt to revitalize socialism is that, precisely as a result of its open-mindedness and conceptual soundness, it risks cutting itself off from actually existing traditions of socialist thought. Honneth might do well to begrudgingly accept to fit his socialism into the “reformist” heritage.

The French sociologist Bruno Karsenti responded to Honneth’s presentation with the following question: do we need socialism in order to combat the neoliberalism and neo-nationalism of today’s politics, or is it rather an obstacle towards fighting these trends? Honneth’s answer was characteristically clearheaded, pointing out the ways in which neoliberal globalization and anti-global nationalism have worked together. As the market has expanded across the globe, those who suffer from the new economic order have transferred their frustrations onto liberal cosmopolitanism, which is a political and moral ideal rather than economic. Honneth sees potential for socialism, rightly understood, to cut between these two tendencies. Freed of its economism, it can address material inequality while both taking seriously the cultural specificity of each community, and articulating the various responsibilities between peoples. Specifically, he calls for a “European socialism,” and hopes one day to see various forms of “Asian” or “African” socialism emerge. Honneth presents an attractive balance between socialism as a universal idea of justice—à la John Rawls—and an understanding of how freedom emerges from cooperation within a concrete society. Hearing his presentation of its prospects for the future, a thoughtful person open to the nuances and complexity of society is tempted to say with Honneth, “I think I’m a socialist.” On reflection, however, Honneth’s attempt to justify socialism’s living reality may have only made more apparent the uncertainty built into this thought. His is a philosopher’s socialism, which will live on at the very least in the project of self-critique.

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student in political philosophy and intellectual history at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He has written on the history of neoconservative thought in the United States, and is currently writing a masters thesis on the idea of the “end of ideology.” He is an editor of the Journal of Politics, Religion, and Ideology, and his writing and translations have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Tocqueville Review, and Charlie Hebdo.