What We're Reading

July Reading Recommendations – Part 2


It’s been a long hot summer here in New York, and we are only halfway through the season.

Paul Fusco died on July 15th. Two days later, on July 17th, John Lewis died

John Lewis needs no introduction. By now, you’ve probably seen this 1963 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, featuring a young John Lewis:

In the midst of another long hot summer, Danny Lyon hitchhiked to a small town in Illinois called Cairo. It was 1962. As Lyon recounted in an essay for the New York Review of Books, “One of my classmates, Linda Pearlstein, had been arrested in civil rights demonstrations in Cairo, Illinois. With contacts from Linda, I put my 35 mm Nikon F reflex into an old army bag, asked my sister-in-law to drive me to Route 66 at the city’s edge, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked south. I thought I was just going on an adventure.”

Lyon made this photograph on his second day in Cairo. He followed “a small group” to “a segregated swimming pool that sported a “Private Pool, Members Only” sign.” The group knelt to pray, and Lyon saw before him “a sublimely beautiful moment: the grace of the three, the two men kneeling at each side, the child in the middle.” 

Lyon met John Lewis in Cairo. The two would go on to work together in the SNCC, and they also became lifelong friends. You can see the two in conversation in this interview from 2016, on the occasion of Lyon’s retrospective, “Message to the Future.” Lyon recalls how he found his calling as a photographer that same hot summer: “[When I arrived in Albany, Georgia,] over my shoulder was a Nikon F reflex. “You got a camera,” James Forman—then SNCC’s executive secretary—said to me when we met at the Freedom House. “Go inside the courthouse. Down at the back they have a big water cooler for whites and next to it a little bowl for Negroes. Go in there and take a picture of that.”

Go in there and take a picture of that.


Paul Fusco had a long and productive career as a photographer. He began as a staff photographer for Look magazine in the heyday of magazine photography. After LOOK shut down, fusco joined magnum photos. Fusco is perhaps best known for his photographs of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train. Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968. After the funeral on June 8th — held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, where for 2 days crowds lined up for blocks to pay their last respects — a slow train carried RFK’s casket from New York to Washington. D.C. Fusco was also on that train.  “All I was thinking about was how to get access when we got to Arlington,” he said. “Then, when the train emerged from beneath the Hudson, and I saw hundreds of people on the platform watching the train come slowly through — it went very slowly. I just opened the window and began to shoot.”


I invite you to take some time to sit with these photographs. 

And then, turn your attention to Danny Lyon’s reminiscences of John Lewis, interleaved between other topics–some heavy, others mundane. 

I invite you to sit with these images, sit with the people in them, some of them ghosts now, and look upon them with a regard both raw and tender.  Walk through their blind departure. Feel the rush of the past, the still point of the present.


Danny Lyon, again: ‘That day in Washington when John showed me the star where Dr. King had stood, I listened to Al Sharpton, the keynote speaker at the 2013 march, as his voice boomed out through the public address system.

“And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers. Take out a photo of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner. Take out a photo of Viola Liuzzo.

“They gave their lives so we could vote. Look at this photo. It gives you the ID of who we are.”’


Look upon them with a regard both raw and tender.

Take up the labor they left undone.

Maryam Patton

Early Modern Aristotle: On the Making and Unmaking of Authority

What did Aristotle really believe? For early modern humanists and scholastics, the answer depended, not surprisingly, on whom you asked and to what end they were either defending or decrying his views, and why. Professor Eva Del Soldato’s brand new book Early Modern Aristotle: On the Making and Unmaking of Authority revisits the debate over whether the ‘re-discovery’ of Plato (and other ancients) was the true hallmark of a Renaissance renovatio that triumphed over the stodgy Aristotle of the universities, or whether, in actuality, Aristotle as a thinker was re-imagined and re-figured to serve new ends. She argues that Aristotle, just like any ancient thinker, was a stand-in for a figure of authority and thus was tailored to suit certain, sometimes contradictory, agendas, further substantiating Charles Schmitt’s efforts to illustrate the multitude of early-modern Aristotelianisms. Del Soldato convincingly traces the use and abuse of Aristotle through thematic chapters acting like case studies, beginning with the late Byzantine genre of comparatio and a thorough study of the sheer variety of the conclusions found in early modern Latin comparatio. I especially enjoyed the final two chapters on apocryphal proverbs attributed to Aristotle, and the genre of texts in the vein of “if Aristotle were alive…,” what would he really think?

Stay tuned for my forthcoming interview with Professor Del Soldato and the role of authority in Early Modern Europe, on JHIBlog.

Simon Brown 

Karl Marx projected from the 1860s that the capitalism shaping the London around him would concentrate more and more proletarian workers in conditions of immiseration, while also leaving them more and more “disciplined, united, organized.” The factories that now defined the capitalist landscape pulled their denizens out of their domestic workshops, placing their occupants side-by-side with strangers rather than their families (who had also been their coworkers, or subordinates). There was no reason to think that the factories’ magnetic power would not attract more and more people inside, while those workers — and the class condition that unified them — became less and less anonymous to one another. From our standpoint looking back, the turn to remote work out of urgent necessity but likely to continue as a general trend reverses the story of capitalism’s tendency to physically bring together more working people. But computer programmers, grad students and clerical workers have not evacuated factories but rather offices, and the advent of the large office space and the economy that called it into being posed its own challenge to Marxist thinkers that sought to hasten the end of capitalism and the conservative commentators that celebrated its individualistic spirit. That history of how critics thought about the office space and its implications for work and social relations is brilliantly interwoven through Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Vintage, 2014). 

Saval traces literary representations and critical reflections on the nature of the modern office space and the “white collar” work that it typifies, from “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Office Space. That intellectual history runs through absorbing accounts of architectural innovations and modern interior designs. Behind nearly every new office layout or skyscraper design was an idealistic aspiration to make work more human, which was subsequently undercut by the financial imperative to optimize limited space and maximize return on profit. The notorious cubicle farm originated in the optimistic “Action Office,” which would allow the “knowledge workers” of midcentury the opportunity to encounter and meet with their colleagues in ample space. We’ve inherited a powerful intellectual tradition from the post-war period that looked askance on offices as incubators of conformity and alienation. But reading this history from our current WFH moment left me longing for a common office space with my colleagues. University campuses aren’t quite the same as offices, though early twentieth-century office spaces like Bell Labs were intentionally designed to emulate the “chance encounters” in university departments, as Saval shows. Those chance encounters aren’t just opportunities to exchange teaching tips (though that’s helpful too). They’re also the occasion to talk about work, what we need, and how we can work together to get it. Marx focused on the factory, but he still saw real political potential in that space of coworking that could never be entirely closed. The office has always left space for those conversations as well, usually to the consternation of the people in the corner offices.   

Find more reading suggestions in our July Reading Recommendation Part 1.

Featured Image: Raphael, Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals (detail). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Think Piece

Is There a Social History of Indian Liberalism?

By Anirban Karak

Histories of liberal thought in India begin, almost invariably, in the early nineteenth century with Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) and James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855). Both men were vocal supporters of social and political reform in colonial India and Britain alike, and are considered pioneers of the Indian press. As self-identified liberals, Roy, Buckingham, and their followers were part of a common front against the reactionary regimes of the post-Napoleonic period and bound together by networks of direct communication. They advocated for a dismantling of the East India Company’s monopolistic privileges in the name of free trade, and criticized restrictions on vernacular newspapers and racial prejudice in the appointment of company officials. For liberals of this generation, colonial institutional reform was just one front in a larger battle between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress, whether in Bolivia, France, or Britain. They indeed formed a new public, infused by the republican spirit of the American and French revolutions, and worked tirelessly to open up a space of commercial participation and mutuality between Indians and Europeans.

To a large extent, then, the conventional periodization of Indian liberalism is almost self-evident. The early nineteenth century was clearly the moment when a self-conscious and articulate anti-absolutist public sphere first emerged in India. It is not enough, however, to point out the distinctiveness of that specific moment. Without an analysis of the social roots of Indian liberalism, it is difficult to sort out the true legacy of the early liberals, a problem that has been compounded by the stranglehold of nationalist frameworks on historical imagination. One particularly unsalutary effect of this “territorial nativism” on historical memory, to borrow a phrase from Manu Goswami, has been the increasing hostility with which the internationalist ethos of the early liberals, and especially their “collaboration” with Europeans, has been treated. Although the first generation of nationalist historians – unable to deny the contributions of the early liberals to the creation of a democratic culture in India – were defensive on the issue of “collaboration,” the tide has turned quite definitively since the 1970s. Beginning in that decade, historians launched a critique of the early liberals, accusing them of being naive visionaries at best and willing conspirators at worst. Despite some notable and important exceptions to the general trend in Andrew Sartori’s and C.A. Bayly’s scholarship, Rammohan and others now stand accused, in most accounts, of having been privileged “elites” who failed to realize the complicity of liberalism with empire. The mirror image of these claims is that early nineteenth century “popular” culture had no liberal (read “European”) ideological content.

Raja Rammohan Roy, painting by Sibnath Sastri, 1907

But is it really true that liberal norms found no practical and social relevance in India? Can the political convictions of the early liberals really be dismissed as the ramblings of a few elites? A closer look at eighteenth-century Bengal, and especially at the neglected social history of demands from below for commercial liberties, suggests a very different story.  

Under Mughal rule, market taxes (called sair in official Persian) were an important component of state revenue in much of northern India including Bengal. In addition, the right of state could be evoked (usually by local administrators but sometimes by regional Nawabs or the emperor too) to justify blatantly arbitrary exactions. As Eugenia Vanina has put it, Mughal nobles and local chiefs who molested traders treated them “much like the knights in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe treated Isaac of York.” (215). Economic as well as cultural historians, however, have tended to underplay these conflicts within the social fabric of pre-colonial Bengal. This has allowed for a portrayal of both the East India Company (EIC) and Indian society as homogeneous entities, and hence for the propagation of straightforwardly nationalist readings of disputes between the company and the Nawabs of Bengal.

In an extremely influential 1998 study, for example, Sudipta Sen claimed that for Bengal’s merchants, “impositions on markets, market goers, and goods were accepted features of rural life.” (49-50) In other words, readers are asked to believe that despite heavy impositions on commerce, market culture in pre-colonial Bengal was largely consensual, and that exchange was “part of a larger moral economy of prestation that characterize(d) the relationship between rulers and subordinates.” (12) The judgment that follows from such claims is that liberal arguments for “free trade” in the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries were nothing more than ideological justifications for empire.

Sen’s interpretation, however—which has made a lasting impression not only on economic and political historians of Bengal, but also on scholars of religion, including recent works by Hugh B. Urban, Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, and Kaustubh Mani Sengupta—does not do justice to the complexity of social relations in eighteenth-century Bengal for at least three reasons. First, one ought to remember that the rapid growth of the city of Calcutta during the first half of the eighteenth century created the possibility for “collaboration” between British and Indian merchants, and for the emergence of a liberal politics of free trade in Bengal much before Rammohan Ray was even born. In the decades immediately preceding colonial rule in Bengal, artisans, merchants, and indigenous officials alike migrated in large numbers to Calcutta, often from places as far away as Dhaka and Murshidabad. The result was a gradual transformation of Calcutta into a commercial rather than an agricultural center. Between 1713 and 1747, for example, the proportion of market taxes to total revenue from the town increased from 13 to 37 per cent, even as total revenue itself increased by about 80 per cent, as Farhat Hasan has shown. The growth of Calcutta and of other factory towns with European presence meant that by the 1720s, the interests of British and Indian merchants were thoroughly enmeshed with regard to both foreign and inland trade. The sale of dastaks (passes that allowed duty-free trade)to non-Englishmen was a massive “business,” but one conducted strictly on the private account of the EIC’s servants. As early as 1720, the EIC’s gomastah (agent) Raghunandan was arrested for protecting the goods of other merchants from the payment of customs dues under the Company dastak. Indian merchants also sought refuge in Calcutta under the EIC to evade duties, and in 1755, a group of merchants claimed that they should be shielded from the Nawab’s demands for taxes while “under the protection of the Hon. English Flag.”[1]

A Calcutta Passage Boat, via British Library. Digitized image from “Narrative of a journey through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay 1824-25. (With notes upon Ceylon.) An account of a journey to Madras and the Southern Provinces, 1826, and letters written in India” by Reginald Heber, 1783-1826. London.

Second, the Indian merchants to whom free trade and company protection mattered the most came from modest backgrounds. For great merchant and banking elites, such as the Armenian Khwaja Wazid and the Jagat Seths (an honorific title meaning “bankers to the world”), private trade was a major nuisance because it threatened to weaken their monopoly control over trade and currency. It was the smaller traders who lacked access to the Nawab’s court that stood to benefit the most from attaching themselves to the company. A large number of such traders, lacking monopoly farms and royal favour, dealt primarily in subsistence goods such as rice for the internal market of Bengal, acting as middlemen between rural production and local hats (periodic markets) and ganjs (market towns).

Finally, the belief that Mughal officials in Bengal were proud defenders of the law is untenable, for there is ample evidence that illegal tolls and taxes were very often no more than bribes demanded by revenue officials.[2] In short, not only was the “conflict” in the eighteenth century not a simple binary one between the EIC and the Mughal state, Sudipta Sen’s claim that refusals to pay duties (whether by the EIC or by Asians) constituted “a travesty of the rules of gift and exchange in the merchant-aristocratic society of contemporary northern India,” (62-63) is itself based on the implausible belief that all taxation was justified, whose evasion can therefore only be interpreted as a crime. On the contrary, the heavy-handedness of the pre-colonial state was, in fact, the first object of proto-liberal critique in Bengal.

This social interpretation of internal conflicts within Bengal’s emergent commercial society fits well with recent revisionist readings of the ideological roots of the Second British Empire.[3] Broadly, the revisionists have shown that both in 1757 and in the years immediately preceding 1765, a faction of free traders within the EIC along with their Indian counterparts tried to radically reorder political institutions in ways that would allow commercial enterprise to flourish. Especially in the early 1760s, the “maverick council” within the EIC managed to build a broad coalition made up of Indian, Arab, Chinese, and Armenian merchants and bankers; the Indian manufacturers whose products the company servants and their commercial allies sold in Indian and other Asian markets; and, most crucially, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II in Delhi himself. To overcome the crisis of authority in Bengal, the maverick council sought to place the province under the direct authority of emperor Shah Alam II. Such a move would accomplish, the council believed, a second Glorious Revolution, laying the foundation for a new Mughal empire of liberty, a natural partner to a liberal British polity. In such an empire, both the Hanoverian and the Timurid “crowns” would represent a new revolutionary sovereignty, so that there could arise no question of divided allegiances.[4]

Portrait of John Johnstone of the “maverick council,” Betty Johnstone, and Miss Wedderburn. Artist: Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

During the years 1761-65, the maverick council and its allies tried valiantly to actualize their anti-monopolistic project. In the end, it was only the contingent defeat of liberalism in Britain, and the victory of a neo-Tory coalition in the 1764 EIC elections in London that turned the tide against them. This alliance between the monopoly interests within the company and the neo-Tories in Britain led by Robert Clive and George Grenville (also well-known for his imposition of stamp duties on the Atlantic colonies in 1765), had very different ideas about the future position of Bengal within the British empire. Instead of marching the EIC army to Delhi and proclaiming Shah Alam II as the emperor, the neo-Tories withdrew into Bengal in 1765, but not before they had acquired the diwani (the right to collect land revenue)for Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. With an extractive and illiberal empire thus established, a systematic assault on all ties between Asian and British free traders was begun. At the same time, the revenue collected in Bengal was used to pay for the EIC’s own procurement of manufactures from the province. The hopes for a radically open-ended commercial society were thereby quashed, and Bengal ended up paying for its own exports.

In spite of a slew of illiberal reforms between 1765 and 1773, however, the impulses towards free trade did not die a meek death. In fact, people found innovative ways of making their demands heard. From the mid-1770s up to the Charter Act of 1813, conflicts over the establishment of “prejudicial” markets, complaints from weavers and merchants against excessive duties, as well as disputes between the EIC and Indian merchants were ubiquitous. Although the existence of such conflicts is acknowledged by social and economic historians —see, for example, the works by Rajat Datta and Tilottama Mukherjee—there is no comprehensive interpretation of their normative content and implications. I do not believe it is possible, as Sudipta Sen does, to reduce the multiple claims made by a variety of stakeholders during this period to a one-dimensional narrative about the imposition of “European” principles of “free trade” on an unwilling colony.

Nevertheless, based on my own preliminary research in the colonial archive, I can confidently insist on two points. First, that the claims and counter-claims made in many legal cases of the period indicate that the company-state had a hard time finding a balance between demands for commercial freedoms from below, the right of the state to revenue, and the privileges that persons of status in Bengal hoped to enjoy. The need for maintaining such a balance arose because expansive commercialization, which pre-dated British rule, had made it increasingly difficult to keep the market subordinate to prevailing structures of civic and political authority. Even more striking is the fact that sophisticated political-economic arguments, such as the distinction between rent and market taxes, were used by those opposing the barriers to entry created by the colonial state and local figures of authority. Although Indian free traders were unsuccessful in winning concessions more often than not, they were sometimes able to force the EIC to accept that no real justifications for its nepotism and extractive policies could be found. In other words, political-economic arguments were adopted and used in Bengal neither because they had been imposed from outside, nor because indigenous elites in the early nineteenth century mimicked their colonial rulers, but because people in Bengal found an object for political economy in their own commercial aspirations and in the barriers that such aspirations came up against.[5]

A social history of the conflictual rather than consensual market culture in eighteenth-century Bengal is thus possible and necessary, but yet to be fully written. If attempted, such a history shall allow for a better grasp of the social – and very often the ‘subaltern’ – origins of the articulate ‘elite’ liberalism that emerged in the early nineteenth century. To undertake such an attempt, however, historians need to move beyond well-entrenched nationalist myths about eighteenth-century Bengal, and to concede that demands for commercial liberties were expressive of deeply felt aspirations for a more liberal and just institutional order.

[1] British Library, IOR/P/1/28: Calcutta Public Proceedings (August 11 and 19, 1755), 297, 323-324, 409.

[2] Spencer Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind? Illiberal Imperialism and the Founding of British India, 1757-1776.” PhD. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2010, 137.

[3] Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind?” and James M. Vaughn, The Politics of Empire at the Accession of George III: The East India Company and the Crisis and Transformation of Britain’s Imperial State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[4] Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind?” 18.

[5] The relevant EIC records include, but perhaps are not limited to, the “sayer” (anglicized version of sair) and “customs” proceedings of the Board of Revenue, the “commercial” proceedings of the Board of Trade, as well as the general proceedings of the Bengal Revenue Council and the Calcutta Committee of Revenue. These are housed partly in the British Library in London, and partly in the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata.

Author Bio Anirban Karak is a doctoral student of South Asian history at New York University, where he is exploring the evolving relationship between commerce and ethical norms in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Bengal. His overarching research interest lies in bridging the gap between traditional histories of capitalism as the history of European ascendancy, and specifically South Asian Histories. Anirban has published essays on the history of the English Premier League in the Review of Radical Political Economics, on the relationship between Indian Political Economy and state planning in Modern Asian Studies, and on the implications of revisionist Hegel scholarship for historiography in Mediations. He also has an article forthcoming in Critical Historical Studies on the possibility of a dialogue between heterodox economics and the new histories of capitalism. He can be reached at

Featured Image: Featured Image: A Thoroughfare in Calcutta, c. 1846, via British Library. Digitized image from “The History of China & India, pictorial and descriptive [With plates and maps.]” by Julia Corner. London: 1846.


In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte about Human Rights and Neoliberalism

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Whales, about her new book, Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso: 2019).

In Theory: The JHI Blog Podcast · Human Rights and Neoliberalism: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte

JHI US history

2017 Morris D. Forkosch Prize: Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress

Eli Cook, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Every year, the Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. The winner of the 2017 Forkosch Prize has been is Eli Cook, for The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The judging committee writes:

The 2017 Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history goes to Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life. As beautifully written as it is thought-provoking, this study illuminates the emergence of the idea that society is something to be invested in, to be capitalized, something, therefore, whose health can be evaluated statistically whether through measures of the cost of alcoholism or of worker productivity. Displaying impressive historical breadth, Cook moves from William Petty’s formative essay “Verbum sapienti and the Value of People” of 1665 to the adoption of the GDP as the standard measure of national health during the Great Depression, bringing to bear a vast range of thinkers—church ministers, business people, economists, politicians, bureaucrats, and social reformers—along the way. Meticulously and innovatively merging the history of economics and economic thought with intellectual and cultural history, The Pricing of Progress is essential reading for anyone interested in the ubiquity of the notions of capitalization and monetization in contemporary American society and politics.

Prof. Eli Cook (University of Haifa)

Eli Cook is assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa in Israel. The Pricing of Progress, lauded by reviewers as “groundbreaking” and “boldly original and compelling,” also received the 2018 S-USIH Book Award from the Society for US Intellectual History.


The entire JHIBlog team extends its heartiest congratulations to Prof. Cook and looks forward to learning more about his research.