Think Piece

A History of Humanity, Humanitarian Law, and Human Rights

by guest contributor Boyd van Dijk

Like human rights, the popularity of the term of international humanitarian law (IHL) has skyrocketed since the late 1980s. Following the downfall of bipolarity, the term regularly appears on the covers of various print and digital media. Similarly, IHL has attracted the attention of countless reporters, diplomats, practitioners, scholars, and students. The Jean-Pictet competition, named after its mythicized founder, receives every year record numbers of student applications from across the globe. Similar to human rights, IHL usually guarantees law professors of full classrooms, illustrating the booming nature of this field of international law, despite of its countless violations during recent armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.

Contrasting with this rising interest, it is remarkable how few historiographical insights there exist about the origins or genealogy of this branch of law. Unlike that of human rights, this field of academic study still suffers from the traditional weaknesses in legal-intellectual historiography – e.g. Whig history, triumphalism, and so on. Building upon Nietzsche’s critique of the search for Ursprung, Michel Foucault famously commented in the 1970s on the problem of describing the history of law in terms of a linear development. Genealogical approaches, he argued, are designed to achieve the very opposite, that is to identify the “accidents, the minute deviations, [and] the errors [that] gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us” – IHL, for instance.

Jean S. Pictet (1914-2002)

When I recently attended two conferences in Uppsala and Berlin about the origins of IHL, I was struck by the continuing relevance of his words. For many colleagues, IHL and its origins can be traced back to certain foundational ideas of either the ancient Stoics, the early modern period, or to the colonial civilizing mission in the late nineteenth century. In reality the origins of IHL are far more recent, dating back to the 1960s. Around this period, the term became more regularly used while the United Nations and ICRC began fusing human rights law with early humanitarian law, as part of their larger efforts to revise the legally amorphous Geneva Conventions of 1949.

The first serious and systematic attempt to define the concept of IHL occurred only in 1966, with the publication of Jean Pictet’s famous essay in the Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge et Bulletin international des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge. Pictet, one of the primary founders of the original drafts for the Geneva Conventions, had first coined a briefer version of this term (“droit humanitaire”) in the late 1940s. Then, it still mostly lacked systematic thought. In his new essay, however, he laid out a comprehensive theory of what “le droit international humanitaire” actually meant – or could mean. Essentially, he designed an expansive, colorful legal patchwork whose origins go back to a range of different intellectual modalities – from natural law, positivist human rights law, Hague Law, Calvinism to Genevan humanitarianism. By the 1970s, Pictet’s terminology of IHL, or DIH, became widely known. It was used by various practitioners to protect “victims of war”, the ICRC’s original vocabulary for the law’s main focus-group, against inhumane treatment.

The terminology of international humanitarian law raises another, far more important question: to what extent are the discourses of humanity, humanitarianism, genocide, human rights, and the Geneva Conventions actually related? Echoing an expansive notion of IHL, many scholars have argued in favor of drawing a connection between these fields of law and politics – or both, although this claim is historically contentious. For example, neither the Martens Clause, defining the laws of humanity, and the words of “crimes against humanity”, first catapulted into legal history as an Allied response to the Armenian Genocide, are mentioned in the original Geneva Conventions (see Kerstin von Lingen’s forthcoming Habilitation.) Nor do these treaties strictly forbid the use of scorched earth policies, or even starvation, as a means of warfare. In other words, while often called humanitarian conventions, they have a remarkably inhumane instinct as well as consequences.

Another example of the troubling relationship between the Conventions and other fields of international law is genocide. Like the famous international lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht whose own contributions to the Geneva Conventions are now largely forgotten (see Philippe Sands’ magisterial work and its neglect of them), Pictet found this term, originally coined by Raphael Lemkin, far “too political.” He also disliked its focus on collective as opposed to individual rights. For these and other reasons, the ICRC hardly referred to the term of genocide after its coining in the 1940s, even though the Conventions do make mention of “extermination” (see Article 32 of the Civilian Convention), its apparent moral equivalent. However, this terminology has technically – though not effectively – little to do with genocide: the former was originally suggested by the Soviets in order to ban atomic warfare altogether, a tactic that had turned the Geneva diplomatic conference in 1949 into a major Cold War-battleground.

Still, the most widely discussed topic remains the often contested relationship between the Conventions and human rights. Many Anglo-American scholars – though not only them – question whether there are really any connections between them. Their answer is often negative because they focus almost exclusively on the translated minutes, drafts, and/or ICRC commentaries. Pointing to the fact that none of the four Conventions make any direct reference to human rights, they argue that these two fields had remained fundamentally distinct in this period of the 1940s.

My research employs a more genealogical approach to challenge this assumption. This entails a sharpened focus on the ideas, inspirations, and contributions of influential European continental drafters, particularly those from the Francophone countries, in developing the laws of war before and after WWII. For these men – very few women were involved – there existed in the late 1940s a tight connection between human rights and early humanitarian law, a much closer relationship than might be easily assumed in retrospect.

In 1966, Pictet wrote in his essay that humanitarian law from its very beginnings had been about protecting “la personne humaine.” In his view, this field of law had reached a decisive stage in its development already in the late 1940s, with the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Geneva Conventions (1949), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) – interestingly, he did not include in this list the Genocide Convention of 1948. Claude Pilloud, a fellow ICRC-official and a co-drafter of the original drafts of the Geneva Conventions, made a similar claim. In April 1949, right at the start of the diplomatic negotiations, he argued in an essay for the Revue, which was entitled: “La Déclaration Universelle des droits de l’homme et les conventions internationales protégeant les victimes de la guerre,” that there existed “des points communs évidents” between the UDHR and the drafts that he had helped to design for the upcoming diplomatic conference.

Strikingly, the French-Jewish co-drafter Georges Cahen-Salvador, also René Cassin’s colleague at the Conseil d’État, strongly echoed his view at the end of these negotiations. In an article for Le Figaro, he argued that the drafters of the Conventions had finally safeguarded human rights (“des droits et des libertés humaines”) in wartime, which further indicates the degree of closeness between these two fields of international law – why, how, and to what extent this connection was made by the drafters as a whole is more extensively discussed in my research.

Equally important, it is critical to identify not just those moments of overlap, but also the instances when human rights failed to connect with humanitarian law – the occasion upon which a mostly continental European aspiration remained unrealized, to paraphrase Foucault. Put differently, why are human rights not mentioned in the Geneva Conventions? One answer to this question is to refer to the drafting history of Common Article 3, a critical legal provision that the US Supreme Court used in 2006 (look here for its judgment) to end the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Originally, the text for this article, co-drafted by Cahen himself, had made mention of human rights; they were made part of a list of individual protections against forms of inhumane treatment, such as hostage taking, summary executions, and torture. However, the drafters decided, under pressure from various delegations, to remove this reference to human rights from the final texts, eventually causing a bias in the literature which claims that human rights had nothing to do with early humanitarian law.

What is true, however, is that a direct legal contact between these two branches of law was only established in the period since the 1960s, following the attempts by particularly the UN Human Rights Division in seeking to remedy for the failures of Common Article 3 to regulate so-called “non-international armed conflicts,” such as colonial wars. This was partly a response to the previous years during which it had witnessed how colonial powers had denied the relevance of this article for their brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Algeria, as well as in Kenya.

As a consequence of these failures of Common Article 3, the UN body and the General Assembly wished to use human rights as a means to fill the law’s gap with regard to insurgencies that were considered short of armed conflict. Such an approach has fundamentally changed the language, typology, nature, and practice of legality in war. Whereas it formerly applied only in peacetime, human rights law now did so in wartime as well (see Guglielmo Verdirame’s criticism of this point). Ironically, the unintended consequence of this effort to strengthen IHL led to its gradual weakening, if not overtaking, by human rights – or, as some prefer to call it, to the weaponization of human rights law.

Boyd van Dijk is a doctoral candidate at the European University Institute and a GTA at the War Studies Department of King’s College, London. He is currently working on a new international history of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Previously, he published a book on the bystanders of an SS concentration camp in the Low Countries.

Think Piece

Intellectual History and Global Transformations

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

During the final weekend of this last October, eighteen graduate students from a variety of history and literature departments gathered at UC Berkeley for the “Futures of Intellectual History” graduate conference to workshop dissertation chapters and to think more deeply about the sub-discipline of intellectual history, its future, its methodology, and its relevance in an age of global history. This year’s conference, organized by Gloria Yu (UC Berkeley) and Ari Edmundson (UC Berkeley) continues a format began last year by a trio of graduate students—Alexander Arnold (NYU), Justin Reynolds and Asheesh Siddique (both from Columbia)—allowing history graduate students interested in intellectual history to more self-consciously address the methodological aspects of their projects in a small conference setting. The themes of the panels themselves offered much food for thought as topics ranged from early modern theology and vegetarianism, late 20th-century debates in France and the US on technology and AI, and to the circulation and diffusion of Adam Smith’s political economic theories in various colonial settings. A recurring theme of the conference, from this observer’s perspective, was how intellectual history as a sub-discipline, with its indebtedness to a rarefied strand of western European philosophical output, can continue to speak with any relevance to other historians and disciplines who are now engaging with increasingly diverse and global intellectual traditions and contexts.

After two days of lively—sometimes anxious—discussion on such issues and the future of intellectual history, participants received a timely reminder of the sub-discipline’s past successes in overcoming skepticism about its relevance in the concluding remarks offered by Professor Martin Jay of UC Berkeley. Specifically, Jay recounted some of the scornful critiques of his first book, The Dialectical Imagination (1971) penned by philosophers contemptuous of the historical method. These critics averred that Jay’s book displayed the weaknesses of contextualization and genealogy of ideas in that it declined to engage with the contemporary and political ramifications of the ideas in question. One philosopher had written that Jay’s historical reconstruction of the Frankfurt School was “a mile long but an inch deep” while another had remarked that “he had brought the pot to a boil but didn’t cook anything” (Alan Montefiore in conversation). By giving a historical account, Jay was reducing the potency of the ideas in the present in favor of a noxious act of contextual delegitimization.

Jay’s subsequent remarks served as a refutation of sorts to this attack on contextualization. Intellectual history can and does have an immediate impact on contemporary affairs, practical and political, as evidenced by the way visual artists used his 1988 essay “The Scopic Regimes of Modernity” as well as the cautionary tale of how right-wing extremists misused The Dialectical Imagination in their anti-Marxist propaganda. More broadly, Jay made the case that intellectual history should not be seen as an activity distinct from the philosopher’s conceptual theorizing or critical analysis but rather as an integral component of it. As Randal Collins observed in The Sociology of Philosophies (pg. 19), the intellectual has always been someone who believes his ideas transcend context and origins and the intellectual historian plays an important role in helping him or her see the idea in a new light, excavating new relationships and resonances inherent in any original intent. For young intellectual historians today, the moral was clear: engaging ideas through their historical contexts, development, and diffusions is not a quietist step away from politics and relevance but a positive, interventionist act in its own right.

Photo © Timothy Wright

In various ways, Jay’s comments tied together a number of important themes dominating the conference’s six panels. Participants were asked to consider not only how their papers would play for historians, but for much wider audiences across disciplines and even beyond academia. Professor Cathryn Carson, for example, pleaded with the presenters on the “Technology and Instrument” panel, and especially Daniel Kelly (“Herbert Simon and the Image of the Future”) to intervene and shape Silicon Valley’s discourse in the area of artificial intelligence. And Lilith Acadia’s paper on the long genealogy of the problematic “consent-based” theories of rape asked what centuries’ old intellectual traditions could mean for public and legal policy. But Professor Carson also noted that intervening in debates of contemporary significance does not simply mean rethinking how we apply the fruits of intellectual inquiry, but also requires adjusting the methods themselves. How might we have to rethink the basic premises of contextualization and time if we want to truly engage with the qualitative disjuncture that Big Data and AI (for example) represent in technological modernity?

When it comes to the them which dominated the conference more than any other, that of what the rise of global history means for intellectual history, the necessity to rethink methodological commitments felt even more pressing. Conference participants explored what methodological or theoretical challenges the intellectual historian interested in global history might have to confront. Some of these challenges involve avoiding one-way reception histories (ideas emanating from Europe which shape the global south), empirical disconnects when applying larger conceptual ideas to local contexts, as well as how to precisely theorize the idea of ‘global’ itself. Several panels, such as Friday afternoon’s “Utility, Usefulness and the Reality of Ideas, and Saturday’s “Political Economy and Intellectual, Colonial Encounters” revolved around such challenges. David Delano (UC Berkeley), in his paper “Of ‘Real’ Abstraction: Social Theory and the ‘Objects’ of Intellectual History” introduced, intentionally or not, the conference’s leitmotif and working theory of the ‘global’, Andrew Sartori’s (NYU) assertion that global intellectual history should take the “spread of capitalist social forms and social relations” as its object. Sartori has posited in various publications that global history shouldn’t be about scale or the increasingly interconnectivity of the world (i.e., the world market), but rather about the global penetration of specific types of abstractions rooted in capitalistic social forms, such as the commodity, or “real abstractions.” “Global intellectual history is what intellectual history becomes once it begins to grapple with the problematic of real abstraction” writes Sartori in the 2014 edited volume, Global Intellectual History (p. 128) edited by Sartori and Samuel Moyn. Delano’s paper, although primarily interested in contextualizing Sartori’s theory within the Frankfurt School and Marxian discussion of how conceptual abstractions emerge from social practices, nevertheless spurred the conference-goers to think more deeply about the theoretical underpinnings of the many transnational projects on display at the conference.

But Sartori’s model of global history had its fair share of objections as well. One faculty commentator, Jonathan Sheehan, pointed out that the discourse of political economy, on which Sartori’s particular reading relies, had begun well before the emergence of the “social.” On a more theoretical level, participants asked whether global intellectual history should really start from the privileging of western, Marxian theoretical constructions (not to mention the western origins of capitalist forms itself). One paper that took such questions seriously was Susanna Ferguson’s (Columbia) paper on pedagogical practices in nineteenth-century Lebanon and how this might advance our understanding of wider, transnational developments and movements within pedagogical thought in a “non-western intellectual history.” In her paper “Tracing Tarbiya: The Political Economy of Pedagogy in Ottoman Mt. Lebanon,” Ferguson positioned her methodology self-consciously against that of Sartori’s in arguing that “local social transformations” explain how pedagogical reforms became the vehicle for a variety of actors and institutions (Catholic missionaries, American Protestant schools, and Sunni Maqasid schools) to pursue their vision of personal and communal transformation amidst modernization in Ottoman Lebanon. These groups were responding to anxieties about social transformation specific to the Ottoman empire and the role of education in bringing about progressive, not revolutionary change. Ferguson emphasized that local contexts must have priority since endogenous corollaries to western ideas might in fact go further in explaining the rise of conceptions of pedagogy, for example, rather than assuming that this must be owed to the diffusion of western ideas. Concepts, as we know, might emerge at the same time in different places.

The other major approach considered by the conference in writing transnational global intellectual history was, of course, that of the diffusion of ideas through translation, transnational intellectual exchange, and comparative analyses. Several papers explored transnational intellectual trends by these methods such as Kaitlyn Tucker’s (Chicago) “Experience as Device: Traces of Russian Formalism in the Ljubljana School of the 1970s,” and Colin Jone’s (Columbia) “The Rise of Social Legal Theory in Interwar Japan.” Colin’s paper and the discussion afterward about Japan’s absorption and reformulations of European theories on “social law” underlined just how difficult it is to write a reception history where the non-western nation (Japan) isn’t simply a receptacle for western ideas. In the case of legal theory, there was very little awareness in the west of Japanese legal theories whereas Japanese thinkers read widely in European thought. This presents a tendency, even when endogenous practices and theories are clearly present but deeply influenced by the new ideas, to formulate the question with an orientation to the European sources. Some ideas explored as to how to nevertheless write a reception or translation history that presents the ‘receiver’ of translations as an agent in its own right was to conceptualize the nature of intellectual transfer as more about a multilayered, and contingent process involving a power dynamics as opposed to a mere set of equal choices in the mind of the translator, intellectual, or members of the public. What about the local context makes some ideas more alive than others? Or what specific choices made in translation can shed light on how the receiving nation shapes, and forms so-called ‘western’ ideas. Aren’t they picking and choosing from the west what they think corresponds to their context? While the global influence of modern western intellectual traditions through colonialism and economic might cannot be ignored, the emphasis must still be on the rich systems into which these ideas were introduced, and the relative impact they had.

Summaries do no justice to the range and depth of the substantial issues emerging in each paper and in the discussions afterward. For example, an issue lurking within many papers but especially in Gili Kliger’s talk “Philosophy from the Margins: Durkheim on the Science and Art of Morality” and the above-mentioned talk by David Delano, was the ever relevant question of the ontological status of ideas themselves and what the ‘object’ of intellectual history should be. Are ideas ultimately reducible to economic and material realities, à la Timothy Mitchell, or should we, following Peter Gordon, pursue a ‘limited’ or ‘restricted’ contextualizing method that references social factors but ultimately maintains a stance of causal indeterminacy to allow for the flexibility and potency of the ideas themselves? It may be telling that most faculty commentators insisted on “more context” from each panel, even if many papers presupposed underlying shifts in economic and political conditions as the origins for the “ideas” in their papers. But even as the tensions over the “grounds” or ultimate “object” of historical inquiry were on full display at this conference and the discussions it engendered, it was also clear from the vibrancy of the debate that intellectual historians will continue to play an indispensable role in precising and elucidating the broader stakes and implications of intellectual output.

For those interested in a complete overview of the panels and participants, please see the conference poster here.

Timothy Wright studies early modern European intellectual history, with an emphasis on the relationships between theology, ritual practice, and secularization. He is currently finishing a dissertation at UC Berkeley on dissident Protestant communities in early enlightenment Germany.  

Think Piece

Pushing at the Seams: US Intellectual History

by guest contributor John Gee

Intellectual historians, I’ve heard it said, are people who argue about what intellectual history is. The field of US intellectual history has been marked in recent years both by growth—one might even say rebirth—and by persistent concerns about its boundaries: between the US and the world, between ideas and politics, and between professional “intellectuals” and others. The Society for US Intellectual History’s annual conference, which took place October 13–15 at Stanford University, once again justified this conversation’s continuance by demonstrating the vibrancy of the histories at these crossroads.

Several panels revolved around connections between the intellectual histories of the US and those of other places. This is an enduring concern (as the society’s current and past book award winners demonstrate), and it pops up even when not explicitly the subject of discussion. For instance, in the roundtable discussion “Whither Puritanism?” Chris Beneke, David Hall, Mark Peterson, Sarah Rivett, and Mark Valeri spent a good deal of time not on the origins of American Puritanism in Europe, but on its ongoing Euro–American basis. While there was lively discussion of the legitimacy of looking to Puritans for “origins” (of modernity, democracy, etc.), they can clearly no longer serve as a nationalist origin story.

Transnational perspectives were also on display in back-to-back panels on international politics. “Intellectual Bases of American Hegemony” revolved around the transition from World War II to the Cold War. Tightly-connected papers from Daniel Bessner, Stephen Wertheim, and Anne Kornhauser examined justifications of a US-led global order, and the increasing permanence of “states of exception” justifying otherwise-extraordinary reductions of liberty at home and abroad. These are familiar themes, but they received careful attention and usefully raised the question of what made this moment such a turning point. Next up was “American and European Internationalisms, 1920-1940,” which showcased persistent ambiguities rather than decisive transitions: the Vatican’s challenge to the Wilsonian vision (Giuliana Chamedes), the ambivalent Russophilia of many liberal Protestant internationalists (Gene Zubovich), and the left’s attempts to rethink international solidarity in the wake of World War I (Terence Renaud). These two panels not only offered a thoroughly transatlantic perspective on their subject matters. They also bridged the gap, thankfully no longer so wide, between histories of internationalism and international histories.

Other preoccupations of US intellectual historians have been their fuzzy boundary with cultural historians and their putative elitism—both of which were subjects of discussion at another plenary roundtable, “The Many Faces of Gender in American Thought.” Mia Bay, Kimberly Hamlin, Deborah Dinner, and Daniel Wickberg called on the field not merely to include women’s voices more prominently in their research and teaching, but also to incorporate gender more thoroughly as an analytical tool. While women may not have participated in every conversation, for instance, gendered metaphors are everywhere in the texts we tend to study. We would do well, the panelists suggested, to borrow more from the methods of women’s and gender studies in exploring these dynamics. (Would that I had more detailed notes, but that’s asking a lot for an evening panel held after an open-bar reception.)

One panel featuring both gender and women prominently was “Historicizing Morality in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Andrea L. Turpin presented work from her recently-published book, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917, showing how the increasing presence of women in higher education caused colleges and universities to change their mission. Rather than prepare students to be good Christians, the rising progressive generation would prepare them to be good men and women. Laura Rominger Porter, meanwhile, took a close look at the dynamics of church discipline in the antebellum upcountry south, where white men resisted impositions on their masculine and republican independence with a vision of “republican” rather than “monarchical” church governance—a rhetoric that would later transition smoothly into arguments for secession from the United States itself.

Another panel pushed at the boundaries of religious history by examining “The Search for a Democratic Religion.” Amy Kittelstrom discussed James Baldwin’s atheist attachment to Christianity, which she argued revolved around moral agency and an insistence on seeing each person as fully human. She related these ideas to Emersonian self-reliance, to Gunnar Myrdal’s American Creed, and to broader currents in African-American religiosity. Natalie Johnson, meanwhile, discussed Louis Finkelstein’s attempt to theorize a Jewish religion/way of life that would be fully compatible with world religions and pluralist democracy. Finkelstein, part of the general midcentury interfaith movement, represented both inclusions and exclusions: while he successfully pushed social scientists to be more respectful in their explanations of religion, he also enabled critical or dismissive evaluations of indigenous religious practices left out of the “world religions” basket.

Near and dear to my heart as a historian of social science was the roundtable on “The Work of Dorothy Ross and its Significance for Intellectual History.” A powerhouse crew of colleagues and students went well beyond the usual encomiums to present a remarkably coherent view of Ross’s oeuvre. To a person, they spoke not only of her sensitivity to the ideological dimension of thought—the ways formal, disciplinary work never fails to connect to wider currents in aesthetics, religion, politics, etc.—but also the rigor and care of her portraits of individual thinkers. One can, Ross has proven, be a faithful interpreter of the most technical of arguments without confining oneself to narrowly disciplinary ways of thinking. (One can also, the panelists concurred, do this while being a first-class mentor of younger scholars—which the Society for US Intellectual History has recognized with the new Dorothy Ross Prize for the year’s best article by an “emerging scholar.”)

In the spirit of the Dorothy Ross roundtable, I would suggest the eclecticism of the conference helps to remind us of the connectedness of historical phenomena. It is difficult, of course, to move from religion to philosophy to social science, from gender to race to international politics. But when the basic question we ask is how our historical subjects thought about the events they were a part of, we owe it to them to be capacious in our response. We may not all live up to Dorothy Ross’s example, but it is a fine one to follow.

John Gee is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Harvard University, where he studies modern social thought in the Americas. His dissertation project examines how US and Mexican anthropologists used theories of culture to engage with indigenous politics from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Think Piece

Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.

Think Piece

“Good men are God in the flesh” : Frederick Douglass, Virtue Philosopher

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In his most famous speech, “Self-Made Men,” written in 1854, and performed for the rest of his life, Frederick Douglass contends that: “from the various dregs of society, there come men who may well be regarded as the pride and as the watch towers of the [human] race.” Social class does not determine one’s virtue or worth. For the last thirty years of his life, between the legal demise of chattel slavery in 1865 and his death in 1895, Douglass gave hundreds, if not thousands, of speeches, published countless articles, and two books, offering an alternate vision for how humans could conceive of difference between one another. In an 1865 speech, Douglass asserts that good “poets, prophets and reformers,” must act as “picture-makers,” painting for their audiences visions of the future of the human race. They must keep, “ever present” in their “mind some high, comprehensive, soul-enlarging and soul-illuminating idea, earnestly held and warmly cherished, looking to the elevation and advancement of the whole [human] race.” Douglass’s vision, in the last thirty years of his life, is of a world built on virtue.

Photographic portrait of Frederick Douglass by George Francis Schreiber, 1870. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass fought for an America beyond slavery. He believed that emancipation had not merely “emancipated the Negro, but liberated the whites” as well. In an Emancipation Day Address, titled “Emancipation Liberated the Master as Well as the Slave,” Douglass held that the institution of slavery enacted violence against all of its member. In another speech, “Strong to Suffer, yet Strong to Fight,” Douglass declared that since emancipation, people are no longer “required to defend with their lips what they must have condemned in their hearts.” Slavery was a system that forced people to deny the fundamental, to Douglass, truth, that all humans are created equal. By enslaving another person, slaveholders had to violently strip them of a central tenant of their humanity, and had to support their dehumanization with systematic, normalized violence. Slaveholders had to present a united front. They could not speak out against, or even question, the violence and domination that was central to the system.

However, the American promise of Emancipation dissipated. Lynch law dominated the whole nation, as it begun amassing overseas territories. In an 1895 speech, “The Color Line,” he declared that in this supposedly emancipated and advanced society, the “rich man would have the poor man, the white would have the black, the Irish would have the negro, and the negro must have a dog, if he can get nothing higher in the scale of intelligence to dominate.” Though slavery had ended, the mindset that underlay it had survived. People still placed themselves in relation to each other based on characteristics about which they had no power.

Throughout the last thirty years of his life, Douglass fought against all outgrowths of a philosophy built upon prejudice and discrimination. He fought against sharecropping. He supported the work of women’s rights, calling himself a “radical women’s suffrage man” and declaring that granting women the power to vote would be “the greatest revolution” that the world had ever seen. Douglass lent his voice to the struggle for reparations for the formerly enslaved, arguing across a number of speeches and in a widely circulated pamphlet that “American slaves were emancipated under extremely unfavorable conditions. (…) even despotic Russia gave a plot of land and farming implements to its emancipated serfs and (…) when the Jews left Egypt they were allowed to take their former masters’ jewelry.” On this basis, he called for reparations for the formerly enslaved in America. Douglass rhetorically supported the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish people in Europe, and stood behind oppressed Chinese laborers in California. The philosopher even supported the rights of animals to be treated well, admonishing farmers not to beat their work animals.

In the vision of the world that Douglass offered his listeners, the highest ideal of a person was one who was like God. In a speech of the same name, Douglass argues that “Good men are god in the flesh.” Across a number of eulogies and public speeches, he extolls as examples of this his fellow abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone. In Douglass’s phrasing, Garrison becomes “the man–the Moses, raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage.” Abraham Lincoln, he declares in a speech on “Great Men,” likewise, possesses “a more godlike nature than” any man he had ever met. Though he often uses wealthy and famous men as his examples, Douglass acknowledges “wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of men.” Still, “personal, family and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations.” If everyone worked towards the betterment of themselves and their communities, Douglass contends, “we should have no need of a millennium. The world would teem with abundance, and the temptation to evil in a thousand directions, would disappear.” Everyone could become godlike.

Frederick Douglass’ study and library in 1962. Note portraits of Toussaint L’Ouverture, himself. Out of frame are pictures of his other heroes: Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass’s philosophy of virtue was not wholly new. It fit into a tradition of radical humanist and liberal thought going at least far back as the reformation. In a 16th century poem, the Settennario, God appears to the author, only known as Scolio, and explains that he had given to each group of people on earth “Ten Commandments to each of them The same, but which they comment on separately.” He goes on to explain that each group of people could go to heaven if they just followed their own set of commandments, which were quintessentially the same.

Douglass took many ideas from the famous Scottish historian and enlightenment thinker, Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840). In the work, Carlyle argues that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men.” Each chapter is dedicated to a different form of innate greatness and a different person who exemplified such greatness in their society’s history. All but one of Carlyle’s great men are white and European. The only exception is the prophet Muhammad, whom Carlyle describes as “by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one.” While Carlyle evinces a theory of virtue as based on thought and action, he ends up supporting a tautology. Someone is great because they greatly impacted the world. Carlyle’s philosophy, then, implies that people who do not greatly impact the world must be morally inferior. Consequently, Carlyle held that the “African race” was incapable of producing Great Men. In 1849, nine years after publishing Heroes, Carlyle anonymously published an article titled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in which argued that African people were naturally inferior to whites and because of their inherent degradation, fit to be slaves. In the face of derision and public humiliation, Carlyle stuck to his beliefs, republishing the piece with an even more overtly racist message as a pamphlet in 1853.

As an abolitionist, woman’s suffrage man and radical, Douglass sought to open up greatness to all people. As a result, he needed to have a clear conception of what godliness did and did not look like. In an outline to a speech, written during his visit to Egypt in 1884, Douglass accuses Egyptian Coptic Christians of being “Mohamedan in custom” and points out disparagingly that “their women are veiled.” Only American missionaries could bring true Christianity and education to the Egyptians. “It is the redeeming of the land” from misrule and misbelief, Douglass wrote, and “the bringing to people our knowledge of the” gift of education “that is its great need.” They have been “establishing schools, distributing Bibles, showing the people how to be clean, how to live virtuously, which is to live healthfully + honestly.” American protestants needed to teach the “degraded” people true virtue. By opening up virtue to some, he had closed it off to others. Carlyle’s definition of virtue could be malleable, allowing even Muhammad to be great, because he had restricted virtue to the achievements of a single class and, essentially, geographic setting.

However, in an era marked by the rise of Lynch Law, across the U.S. American South, restrictions on voter rights, and a turn away from African American rights across the nation, Frederick Douglass travelled widely, and used his podium to argue that any person, notwithstanding physical attributes, class, or caste, could attain virtue. Douglass built his conception of virtue on a long tradition of a not-quite-universal universalism. Douglass was, and remains, far from alone in not being able to accept that other systems of virtue could be equally valid, nor that other gods could be equally divine.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live. 

Further Reading:

Think Piece

Anti-Imperialist Publications and Suspended Disbelief: Reading the Public Materials of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937

by guest contributor Disha Karnad Jani

“Why We Appear”: so begins the September-October 1931 issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the official journal of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI). This organization was founded in 1927 and brought nationalists, Communists, socialists, and sympathizers together under the direction of the Communist International (Comintern) to organize a complex solution to a complex problem. Based in Berlin, then London, but arguably led from Moscow, the organization would disintegrate by 1937, despite the fanfare that accompanied its arrival in the anti-imperial spaces of the interwar period. Their inaugural sessions at the Palais d’Egmont in 1927 had resulted in an organization tasked with bringing empire to its knees, through the cooperation of all those who considered themselves “anti-imperialists.” As the attitude of the Comintern towards non-Communists and national bourgeois leaders hardened, the LAI turned away from this avowedly inclusive agenda. The socialist origins of the organization, when combined with the nationally-circumscribed aims of many involved, meant that the League’s rhetoric and activities reflected the complexities of a negative association such as “anti-imperialist.” These were the years during which men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Hatta, Achmed Sukarno and J.T. Gumede met and forged links that contextualized and strengthened their decades-long struggles for freedom.

A historian seeking to understand this organization—and the tremendous significance of this moment for the long decades of nationalisms and decolonizations to come—will likely ask some basic questions. What did the League Against Imperialism look like? Who were the participants? How did this organization function? How did its members make decisions? What did it set out to do? To whom was it appealing?

Luckily, the answers to these questions lie in the LAI’s official publications, journals, and resolutions. Take the first piece in the Anti-Imperialist Review‘s September 1931 issue:

We are faced at the present moment with the need to draw up a concrete and detailed programme for the international anti-imperialist work in the spirit of the principles and organizational lines led down by the second World Congress and by the recent session of the Executive Committee [of the League Against Imperialism], a programme that will serve as a mighty weapon in the struggle for integrity of principle and against national reformism. This journal will systematically prepare for the working out of such a programme by free and open discussion. (Anti-Imperialist Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5, author’s emphasis).

This publication is very clear in its aims and its desired audience. No national reformists or members of the bourgeoisie need read this journal. Only those truly committed to the liberation of the “struggling masses in the colonies and the revolutionary workers in the imperialist centers” need read further. The Review—as well as news bulletins, resolutions, and policy briefs emanating from Friedrichstrasse 24, Berlin between 1927 and 1933—present themselves as fostering a genuinely robust community of revolutionaries from all oppressed nations in order to bring about an end to imperialism and capitalism.

These statements of intent and organizational success do little for us, however, when we read them in concert with surveillance documents, correspondence, state archives, and the private papers of the people involved in decision making—such as the Executive Committee mentioned above. As Fredrik Petersson’s research has shown, the Communist International had a heavy hand in LAI proceedings, while the Eastern Secretariat in Moscow influenced the financial and ideological direction of the organization. The German Communist Willi Münzenberg had organized the initial meetings and later facilitated the LAI’s reorientation in policy towards a more hardline, anti-bourgeois stance in 1931. These goings-on highlight the often-chaotic shifts in larger forums that affected the way this purportedly international organization functioned.

But what was it like to be a part of an organization like this one, taking what its leaders said about free and open discussion and resistance led by the colonized at face value, without having access to the kinds of archives a historian can rely on to tell the behind-the-scenes story? If you learned about the LAI sometime in 1928, for example, at a meeting of one of its affiliated groups, how were you meant to remain connected to the larger struggle against imperial injustice? One way was through engaging with the language and rhetoric of the LAI’s circulated resolutions and its “official organ” the Anti-Imperialist Review. Once the conference in Brussels, Frankfurt, or Berlin was over and one went back home, participating in this grand project meant receiving things in the mail and reading them, and writing back.

Knowing this, is it possible to read the “official” publications coming from the central offices not as a façade to be torn away, but a material and intellectual facet of what it was like to see yourself as part of a transnational project of resistance?

As an exercise, I found it helpful to read at face value the materials put out by the League and disseminated through its national sections and sympathetic friends. At least some of the people reading the materials the LAI put out likely believed the image they provided of the state of world revolution (though the profusion of qualifiers here indicates, I hope, my discomfort with assuming the intentions of these people). What can be learned from reading this organization’s so-called “propaganda” as intellectual production, as a genuine desire to work through the problems of anti-imperial struggle? Whether or not the Comintern was coordinating its efforts, and whether or not its organizing capabilities and financial situation were up to the task it claimed, the LAI’s official public materials presented an upwardly-striving, robust, diverse, and yet united revolutionary entity. That means something, whether or not it was a strictly accurate depiction, since the language and affect associated to this day with the cosmopolitan and radical and transnational 1920s and 1930s were predicated on this sort of source material.

Allow me, for a moment, to consider the LAI’s policy or outlook in the year of its founding by reading sincerely the 1927 resolution of the LAI. This document was produced as a summary of the decisions made at the first meeting, and was widely circulated in the LAI’s affiliated circles. The involvement of so diverse a group of nationalists, pacifists, Communists, and socialists lends an institutional unity to the League’s proceedings, smoothing out divisions born of specific national and colonial differences. Since these resolutions were discussed and agreed upon in Brussels, once might consider these documents an amalgam of the least objectionable viewpoints of key actors, since the LAI operated at the beginning with a culture of consensus. There was little evidence at that moment of open, recorded controversy—everyone involved was at least an “anti-imperialist.”

In 1920, the relationship between communist elements in colonial countries and the national bourgeoisie and their revolutionary movement (for independence, justice, or dominion status) was still being worked out. A somewhat open and exploratory stance continued to evolve after Lenin’s death. By 1927, the LAI believed the time was right to proceed in a manner indicative of the planning stages of the prospective world revolution.

According to the LAI, it employed three main categories of person in 1927: the home proletariat, the oppressed people(s) and the toiling masses (“Statutes of the LAI, 1927,” League Against Imperialism Archives, International Institute of Social History, Int. 1405/4). The home proletariat was the class of workers in the imperialist country, who also suffered from imperialism. They suffered, the League argued, because the exploitation of cheap colonial labor through industrialization lowered the standards of living of the workers in the imperialist country. This was the main thrust of the League’s argument for the cooperation of this sector in the anti-imperialist struggle. This group was supposedly accessed and represented in the League by European trade unionists, left-leaning social democrats, and socialists more broadly.

This is the easiest category to “define,” because it is clearly delineated in terms of nationality and class. The categories of “oppressed people(s)” and “toiling masses” are a little more troublesome. They are indicative of the complicated relationship between socialism and nationalism in the context of the League’s aims. “The oppressed people” (singular) is usually used with a national qualifier, for example “the oppressed people of India.” “Oppressed peoples” indicates a plurality of national groups, and each national group is by definition taken as containing a single “people.” Toiling masses was a term used to distinguish the European proletariat from the colonial one, and the colonial national bourgeoisie from the colonial national proletariat. The “toiling masses” in the context of anti-imperialism in 1927 was likely a distinction reserved for the unorganized colonial worker, while the same stratum in the imperialist countries is referred to merely as “the workers” or “the proletariat.” This underscores the fact that Europe-oriented socialists (i.e. socialists from the imperialist countries) did not consider the “masses” of the colonial world to have realized their proletarian character.

The complexities and assumptions contained within these terms can explain the shifting and contextually circumscribed stakes of world revolution. Who were the actors in the kind of world revolution the LAI wanted? Its resolutions contain categories that overlap and describe courses of action that are at times complementary, and, at others, mutually exclusive. The messiness of this struggle, and the ways in which the men and women involved related to one another and to the groups they claimed to represent—the workers in imperial nations and the oppressed masses in their far-flung colonies—these most basic categories are potent ones. Is reconstructing a realistic narrative always the goal of the historian? In the end, perhaps. But during the long process of archival work and the necessary selection and omission of information, if only for a moment, it might be useful to believe our subjects when they make a claim we know is false, or at the very least, much more complicated. Widening the lens to include state surveillance, correspondence, private papers, and other organizations’ collections may provide a more accurate portrayal of what the LAI looked like and how it worked. But sometimes suspending disbelief at a claim as outlandish as one to “free and open discussion” in Communist circles in 1931 can yield a degree of clarity as to the lived experience of participating in such a project.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Ph.D student in History at Princeton University.