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From Factions to Parties: The Eighteenth-Century Debate

By Max Skjönsberg

When is party politics beneficial and when does it become so polarized and militant that it risks tearing societies asunder? This question has been central in Western politics for several years on both sides of the Atlantic. It became acute during the Trump presidency, especially during the 2020 Presidential election and its violent aftermath. This discussion emerged at the very beginning of party-based politics in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain, as well as the early years of the American republic.

The Whig and Tory parties emerged in the English parliament in 1679-1681 at the time of the Exclusion Crisis over the succession of the monarchy. “Whig” and “tory” were initially deployed as terms of abuse, and borrowed from earlier usages in Scotland and Ireland, but they were gradually adopted by the parties themselves. After the beginning of annual sessions of parliament in the wake of the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89, political parties became an entrenched part of political life. This quickly generated a debate about whether parties were an unavoidable part of modern parliamentary politics, and whether they were beneficial or pernicious.

In this debate, parties were blamed for encouraging a form of herd mentality in politics. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, likened parties to “an Inquisition, where Men are under such a Discipline in carrying on the common Cause, as leaves no Liberty of private Opinion.” More fundamental was the concern that parties exacerbated division and turned neighbors into enemies. As Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator, “I am sometimes afraid that I discover the seeds of civil war in these our divisions.” What made things worse was that partisanship often seemed random. “There is a sort of Witchcraft in Party, and in Party Cries, strangely wild and irresistible,” wrote Thomas Gordon, co-author of Cato’s Letters. “One Name charms and composes; another Name, not better nor worse, fires and alarms.”

Most astute political commentators, however, realized that parties were not going away. They were a price worth paying for parliamentary politics and ultimately a sacrifice for political freedom. A state without parties was a state without liberty, as Montesquieu put it in his history of the Roman republic. A government without parties is an absolute government, since rulers without opposition are autocrats. Opposition, to be effective in a parliamentary system or in any system with an assembly, must be organized.

If the liberty of states depended on political parties, but certain parties could cause instability and even disintegration, this prompted another question: What made parties legitimate or illegitimate? The Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729/30-97) is traditionally considered the first defender of party. Others, however, preceded him. The French Huguenot historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), in his Histoire d’Angleterre (History of England), put forward the most important Whig interpretation of the English constitution in the eighteenth century. Before his History, Rapin had written a long pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on the Whigs and the Tories, published in 1717. This was a momentous text, not only for its historical insights but also in the sphere of political theory. It was the first text which offered a powerful argument in favor of political parties as distinguished from the social forces and private factions in the writings of Machiavelli.

Rapin argued that the two parties in Britain, the Whigs and Tories, represented the two pillars of the mixed and balanced constitution – parliament on the one hand, and monarchy on the other – and that both parties were necessary for the equilibrium between them. They were likewise necessary for balance in the religious sphere, which was as important as secular matters in public life at the time. The Tories favored the Church of England, the Whigs toleration for Protestant Dissenters, and the only way to achieve a sustainable equilibrium between the two extreme positions was competition and mutual checking and balancing between the parties. These parties would alternate in government and take turns to hold each other to account when out of power.

The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume (1711-76), who read Rapin at an early age, wrote at length about party in general and in its British guise in a series of essays published as Essays, Moral and Political in different instalments starting in 1741. Hume believed that parties – or “factions,” terms he used interchangeably – based on “principles” were particularly pernicious and unaccountable. Religious principles had the potential of making people fanatical and ready to both proselytize and persecute dissidents. Because they were more transparent and less extreme, parties based on “interests,” meaning different economic interests, were more tolerable. His early essays on party, “Of Parties in General” and “Of the Parties of Great Britain” (both 1741) treated the phenomenon as inevitable since the British parliamentary system produced to Court and Country parties, or parties of government and opposition.

In later writings, Hume suggested that party politics could be necessary and possibly salutary for political societies. In “Of a Coalition of Parties” (1758), Hume opened by arguing that it may be neither possible nor desirable to abolish parties. This essay was an apologia for his own History of England (1754-61). In this earlier work, Hume had written that “while [the Court and Country parties] oft threaten the total dissolution of the government, [they] are the real causes of its permanent life and vigour.”

Even as he offered this limited, skeptical defense of party politics, Hume treated “party” and “faction” as synonymous terms. However, a distinction between the two was crucial for party to gain wider acceptance. In the first half of the eighteenth century, no one worked harder to distinguish party from faction than Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751). Since Bolingbroke was barred from taking his seat in the House of Lords after his short stint as Secretary at the Jacobite court – the rival court championing the claims of the Stuart pretender to the British Crown – in 1715-16, he picked up his pen and led the opposition to Robert Walpole’s Court Whig administration as a writer in his opposition journal, the Craftsman.

In the pages of the Craftsman, Bolingbroke justified the existence of an oppositional “Country party.” In Bolingbroke’s formulation, it would function as a constitutional party, and he argued that the government of the day (Walpole’s Whigs) had betrayed the core principles of the constitution by corrupting parliament and making the legislature dependent on the executive. In A Dissertation upon Parties (1733-4), Bolingbroke separated the political landscape into three camps: 1) enemies of the government but friends of the constitution, referring to his own Country party; 2) enemies of both, meaning the Jacobites; and 3) friends of the government but enemies of the constitution, that is, the Court Whigs. Only the first category was a legitimate party, whereas the other two were factions, according to Bolingbroke. To save the nation, he argued, the enemies of the constitution had to be opposed, and opposition must be systematic and concerted.

Burke, a Whig later in the century, was not favorable towards Bolingbroke’s Country Tory politics and even less so towards his Deistic and anti-clerical religious writings. Burke continued, however, to distinguish between party and faction in even more forceful terms than Bolingbroke, as he sought to justify his party connection, the Rockingham Whigs, in the 1760s and onwards. To defeat what he viewed as the Court cabal and the abuse of the royal prerogative in the reign of George III, Burke believed that party connection was essential to restore Britain’s mixed and balanced constitution. “When bad men combine, the good must associate,” Burke wrote in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), “else they will fall, one by one.” Politics was not about having a clean conscience but about making a difference, and party was a necessary instrument that could unite power and principle. As he famously defined party: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” At the heart of this definition is a distinction between party and faction. Parties for Burke are devoted to promoting an understanding of the national interest, and they are united by principle, and not exclusively by interest, although that can be a supporting principle.

The core of Burke’s party was made up of major Whig aristocratic families such as Cavendish and Devonshire. In the Present Discontents, however, Burke stated that he was “no friend to aristocracy,” in the sense at least in which that word is usually understood, that is to say, as “austere and insolent domination.” What the Whig aristocrats possessed was property, rank, and quality which gave them a degree of independence, and this enabled them to stand up to both the Court and the populace. In this sense, Burke’s conception of party was indeed aristocratic, but it was not aristocracy for its own benefit but for the sake of the whole, and part of his defence of Britain’s mixed and balanced constitution.

The British party debate left an ambivalent legacy among early American political actors and thinkers. The most famous discussion of party and faction in the early American republic is found in James Madison’s Tenth Federalist. In this canonical essay, Madison argued that differences and “mutual animosities” could not be extinguished in free governments. He further agreed with Hume that parties of interest were generally more peaceful and governable than parties united and actuated by passion. His solution to party violence resembled Hume’s argument from “Of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752): the effects of faction can be better controlled in larger states and federations than in city states. Thanks to the greater size and the scope of the United States, the impact of each faction would be mitigated

A less philosophical but comparably historically significant party argument surfaced in the 1790s. After Madison and Alexander Hamilton had co-operated as Publius in the Federalist Papers, they became rivals as the early American republic split into two political parties: Republicans and Federalists. Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793 led to a sharp disagreement between the two on the question of executive power in the constitutional order. In short, Madison associated with his old friend and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the  Secretary of State, to oppose Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s centralizing ambitions. In this political environment, a party argument emerged which had more in common with Bolingbroke, and to an extent Burke,  than it did with Hume. This was the idea of partisan opposition. The ideal for Jefferson and other opponents of the Federalists was national unity. However, because of what they perceived as the corruption of Federalists such as Hamilton, an opposition party in the shape of the Republican Party was necessary to defeat the enemies within. Jefferson believed that the Hamiltonians and the Federalists were monarchists, and he viewed the 1790s as an ideological battle between liberty and tyranny. In this struggle, partisanship became a necessary evil.

Many eighteenth-century thinkers contended that constitutional party politics were sometimes necessary to save liberty from authoritarianism and corruption. Indeed, party politics itself was a sign of liberty, since it enabled isolated individuals to participate, and thus gave life and vigor to politics. Such politics could generate “harmonious discord” and be as close an approximation of the common good as the imperfections and diversity of human society permit. But for this to materialize, the political debate must retain a degree of civility. Admittedly, most eighteenth-century partisans fell as short as we moderns in this regard. This is the reason why Hume sought to persuade partisans “not to contend, as if they were fighting pro aris & focis,” literally for altars and hearths, or for God and country.

For Hume, it was also crucial that parties were “constitutional.” According to him, “[t]he only dangerous parties are such as entertain opposite views with regard to the essentials of government,” be it the succession to the throne as in the case of the Jacobites, or “the more considerable privileges belonging to the several members of the constitution,” as with the great parties of the seventeenth century. On such questions there should be no compromise or accommodation since that type of party strife could turn into armed conflict. Eighteenth-century politics retained a civil-war edge on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent events, and indeed the nature of party politics itself, have shown that this is a history and a debate we forget at our peril.


Dr. Max Skjönsberg FRHistS (University of Liverpool) is the author of The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Featured Image: William Hogarth, Triumph of the Deputies from Humors of an Election, 1755. Sir John Soane Museum, London. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Privileged Access Through the Eyes of the Chinese-Cubans

By Charmaine Au-Yeung

‘I didn’t know there were Chinese people in Cuba!’ is the common reaction I received from my peers at St Andrews when I explained my research to them. The only person who wasn’t surprised was a Puerto Rican friend of mine, who said that her family had all sorts of ancestry, including an Asian great-grandparent somewhere, and that most people had a genealogy like hers. In fairness to my friends in St Andrews, I had been in their shoes before; I first learned about Chinese-Cubans through a YouTube video on their cuisine. That led me to JSTOR, then to the friendly people at Nottingham’s Hennessy archives, then to reading primary sources in Spanish and Chinese. I found myself writing a dissertation on the political activities of Chinese-Cubans in Cuba in the twentieth-century.

‘Chinese-Cubans,’ as noted by Kathleen López in Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History, refers to Chinese emigrants to Cuba, ethnic Chinese born in Cuba, and mixed-race Chinese-Cubans. Their presence in Cuba is reflective of a wider Asian presence in South America and the Caribbean. After the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833, and the fear that the Haitian Revolution would inspire other uprisings, colonial administrators turned to Chinese and Indian people as an alternative labour force, turning them into indentured labourers, or ‘coolies.’ Though technically paid, indentured labourers earned little, were often unable to leave their host countries at the end of their contracts, and the system they were in is now seen as “a modified form of slave trade”. Specifically, for the Chinese, political instability caused by the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), Michael Gonzales writes, left millions as refugees and even more vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of Chinese warlords, local labour contractors, and British and Portuguese merchants. In The Coolie Speaks, Lisa Yun estimates that roughly a quarter-million Chinese were labourers in Cuba and Peru.

Methodological nationalism in history has traditionally overlooked the role diasporas and emigrants have played in the shaping of the past. Methodologically nationalist histories reaffirm the doctrine that nations are, in the words of Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, the “natural social and political form of society.” Diasporas therefore “appear as spots on the pure colours of the national fabric” as they are perceived as “outside” national borders, which leaves them ignored. This traditional view is incorrect and problematic. The idea that diasporas are “outside” nations implies that they cannot and do not impact the very shape of the nations they move to. It also implies wrongly that diasporas are imagined as inherently separate from the nation and so they exist in a separate bubble from everyone else. With the recent surge of interest in transnational history, historians have started to take diasporas seriously. In the last decade, transnational history “has opened up broader analytical possibilities for understanding the complex linkages, networks, and actors in the global South,” writes Isabel Hofmeyr. This, in turn, has encouraged more scholars to look past traditional understandings of nationalism and to consider the role diasporas have played in shaping nation-states, moulding the broader structures of the nations they encounter with their own experiences and perceptions of the world.

I ask how Chinese-Cuban experiences with indenture and political instability influenced their understanding of Cuban revolutionary nationalism. “Revolutionary nationalism”, Jennifer Riggan writes, describes the process of nation-building that involves structural overhaul and “a continuous struggle for identifying self-determination and national identity.” Although Riggan’s work is centred on Eritrea, her definition of revolutionary nationalism is applicable to Cuba. After the Wars of Independence (1868-78, 1879-80, 1895-98), questions about the nature of Cuban nationalism permeated political discourse there in the twentieth century. Although Cubans had gotten rid of Spanish colonialism, revolutionaries regarded this freedom as being “in name only” as they had fallen under American influence. The United States instituted the Platt Amendment (1901), intervening in Cuban affairs to maintain “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty” and ensure its leaders were sympathetic to the US. This included Fulgencio Batista, who repressed all opposition to his American-backed leadership, including the Partido Comunista de Cuba, which led Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to instigate the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). But even after the Revolution, discussions about national identity persisted. As Castro attempted to subsume everyone under one Cuban identity, Chinese-Cubans were prevented from performing Chinese culture in public, and Chinese dimensions of Cuban history were ignored. Therefore, Cuba is still undergoing revolutionary nationalism as it continues to struggle to identify self-determination and national identity.

Only recently have Cuban authorities started encouraging people to explore their ethnic origins. Within this project, Chinese-Cubans have been hungry to demonstrate their participation in Cuban nation-building by writing memoirs and historiography, like The Chinese in Cuba and Our History Is Still Being Written. These works are keen to emphasise how Gonzalo de Quesada, a revolutionary and contemporary to José Martí—‘father’ of the Cuban nation— regarded Chinese-Cubans as fiercely loyal to independence. Quoting de Quesada, they proclaim that ‘there was not one Chinese-Cuban deserter; there was not one Chinese-Cuba traitor!’ The works discuss how Chinese-Cubans also participated in the Revolution. The authors of Our History, Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong, were all generals deeply involved in the struggle led by Castro and Che Guevara. Considering these perspectives at face-value, the message to take is that Chinese-Cubans were seriously engaged with Cuba.

But while I was reading these works, I noticed that they were, to borrow a phrase from Joan Scott, ‘adding and stirring’ Chinese-Cubans into a prevailing Cuban narrative. The sources are methodologically nationalist because they are overtly-patriotic, painting Cuba as genuinely egalitarian and culturally free of external influence. Their reasons for doing this are clear; Choy, Chui, and Sío Wong all served in the Cuban government after the war. But by perpetuating and buying into an imagined Cuba that is geographically limited, sovereign, and defined by a deep, horizontal comradeship, we ignore influences from elsewhere that have permeated and contributed to the imagination of Cuba. The revolution, for instance, was a Communist uprising. The original Wars of Independence were a response to a global movement against slavery. Chinese-Cubans continued to have links to China despite their engagement in Cuban politics, which López demonstrates by tracing their remittances, investments, and return visits to China well into the twentieth century. Cuba was, and is, global.

This led me to analyse the history of Chinese-Cubans through the lens of global intellectual history, which examines the movement and adoption of global ideas. I suspected that Chinese political thought informed Chinese-Cuban understandings of Cuban nationalism. China underwent political upheaval at a similar time to Cuba across the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, experiencing events like the Taiping Rebellion, the Xinhai Rebellion (1911) that overthrew the Qing dynasty, the rise of the Kuomintang, and the success of the Chinese Communist Party in the Civil War (1945-1949). It felt plausible that Chinese-Cubans believed events in China ‘spoke to’ events in Cuba and could use their experience in China to translate revolutionary knowledge between cultures. In Tokens of Exchange, Roger Hart notes that historiographies that aim to translate between cultures tend to reach “dramatic conclusions about the fundamental differences” between people instead of analysing complicated divisions along class, schools of thought, and how these influence the way people think and translate.

Hart’s idea of understanding specific differences and contexts that inform translation led me to understand Chinese-Cubans as having ‘privileged access’, a term I borrow from epistemology. It refers to the fact that actors who translate might see themselves as unique in their ability to do so. This sense of ‘having privileged access’ was an idea implicitly communicated by one specific Chinese-Cuban, Antonio Chuffat Latour (1860 – ?), in his work Apunte Histórico, a history of the Chinese in Cuba published in 1927. A second-generation, Afro-Chinese Cuban, Chuffat’s story is interesting as he “positioned himself as someone who could travel and ‘translate’ between Chinese and Cubans because of his Afro-Asian heritage.” In his life, he had as many jobs as people do outfits. He was a translator for the Chinese embassy in Habana, a sanitary inspector for the town of Jubilado, and even proclaimed himself ‘President of the coloured race for the district of Colon y Yaguaramas.’ Overall, these self-perceptions demonstrate that Chuffat viewed himself as a fluid figure: a leader and spokesperson for both Chinese and Cuban interests due to his ability to manoeuvre within both cultures, making Apunte Histórico a source that provides “a rich, compelling view of the coolie and cultural identity”, as Lisa Yun argues.

However, Chuffat’s work also argues that Chinese-Cubans like him have privileged access. In one instance, Chuffat claims that the Chinese-Cuban captain, Juan Sánchez (Lam Fu Kin)], “knew the war” when he fought in the first War of Independence. His use of ‘knew’ indicates a more profound dimension to his work that has been underappreciated. This is apparent when Chuffat states that “Liberty lives eternally in the Cuban’s thought … Liberty [also] appears in the Orient … like golden rays that extended to the Occident, teaching the Cuban the route.” The passage implies an unequal relationship of epistemic exchange in producing and circulating meanings across mental worlds. ‘Liberty’ is a concept that ‘shines’ onto the West from the East, so Chinese-Cubans, who have links to both East and West, have a special purchase to understand, access, and thus teach Cubans. This idea, of Chinese-Cubans accessing and teaching revolutionary values to Cubans, appears elsewhere in Apunte Histórico. In another chapter, Chuffat states that indentured Chinese “knew to teach the love [of brotherhood] to Cubans,” which would in turn help “construct” a “new political condition for Cuba.” Overall, Chuffat’s work demonstrates that the ‘worth’ of concepts fluctuates when particular actors engage with them; Chinese-Cubans gained power by ‘knowing’ Taiping.  Apunte Histórico depicts Chinese-Cubans as  having a unique understanding of revolutionary nationalism, which in turn helps them justify their claim to Cuban identity and participation in Cuban nationalism.

It’s clear from Chuffat’s work that emigrants foster intellectual connections between homeland, hostland, and other spaces by translating between competing schools of thought. A global intellectual history of the Chinese-Cubans reveals a nuanced relationship between diasporas and revolutionary nationalism. Further work on diasporas in intellectual history – and links between China and South America – must be done, particularly histories that examine historical actors ‘from below.’ Although interesting, Chuffat occupied a unique position as ‘President,’ so saying that all Chinese-Cubans thought like him isn’t true. Nevertheless, I hope my work is a step in the right direction towards a history that examines intellectual exchanges between South America and China.


Charmaine Au-Yeung graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MA in Modern History and Philosophy. She will be starting her MPhil in World History at the University of Cambridge in October. She is currently interested in studying Asian migrants in South America through the lens of food.

Featured Image: A mural, likely outside a martial arts (wushu) centre in Havana, commemorating the Cuban thinker, José Martí, health, life, and the Cuban Communist Revolution, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Politics of Theo-Colonial Encounter: Observations from South India

By David Martin

…Christianity and the palmyra have appeared to flourish together. Where the palmyra abounds, there Christian congregations and schools abound also; and where the palmyra disappears, there, the signs of Christian progress are rarely seen.

—Robert Caldwell

This lyrical description of Christian proselytism in South India was written by Caldwell in his Lectures on the Tinnevelly Missions, which appeared in perhaps the most momentous year in Colonial Indian history, 1857. It speaks of a Victorian idyll of India, a tropical dream where the spread of Christianity is elegantly measured against the geographic distribution of the palmyra tree. Notwithstanding the strong likelihood that this piece of self-congratulatory oratory is meant to detract from the momentous events of 1857, Caldwell’s rhetorical strategy offers a window into the history of “theo-colonial” encounters in South Asia. He was writing at a particular moment when evangelical forms of Christianity were fighting to keep a foothold in the region, against the increasingly dominant strain of orientalist rhetoric in British policy towards India. As such, only the most efficacious methods of proselytism could be allowed to grow, and then be pushed as hard as possible; which prompts the question: why was Caldwell’s economically savvy form of anthropological Christianity more effective than any other form?

One way to approach this question is to compare Caldwell’s practice with that of another minister, however, most of Caldwell’s contemporaries tended to follow fairly similar methods when their goal was conversion plain and simple. One must look a little further back in time to find a good counterpoint, a missionary who’s first and only aim was to make converts, but one who took a radically different approach—Roberto de Nobili. This minister’s inability to make any lasting impact on South Asian history, religious or otherwise, is instructive since it belies a historical paradox: why is it that in an age when missionaries were given free rein to choose any proselytizing method did de Nobili pick, and stick to one which categorically failed, while in a time when proselytizing activities were more policed by the colonial government, Caldwell succeeded? Both missionaries focused on the “Tamil Country,” the imagined Tamil heartland which stretches between centers like Madurai, Thirunelveli, and Tiruchirapalli (among numerous others), but their similarities end there.

De Nobili seemed to implicitly believe that religion belonged to the sphere of culture and had little to do with social politics or economics, while Caldwell, was forced to act differently. Effectively, these two missionaries represent two sides of a feature of colonial history, which could be termed as ‘theo-colonial encounters’, i.e. that part of the colonial experience based on religious interaction. They both played the missionary-anthropologist, to varying degrees; living with, working alongside, and producing knowledge about the people they attempted to convert. This, of course, is not an innocent act by any measure, as Rupa Viswanath has demonstrated in her seminal work The Pariah Problem. Proselytism was not a simple act of trying to understand the native to construct the best method to convert them; it was also a matter of these native groups negotiating certain socio-political and economic structures in order to derive certain benefits from the missionary encounter. In effect, a complex epistemological game is made out of the relatively simple question: “What will it take to get you to pray to my god?”

Southern section of British India, from the The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1909. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The temptation here is to invert the paradigm and understand missionaries as unwitting participants in local power dynamics. However, this idea is no less problematic than its foil. Both Caldwell and de Nobili came to South India with a certain amount of baggage. The former was a member of the London Missionary Society who had been denied a place at Oxford due to his Irish ancestry, while the latter was an Italian noble, and nephew to a cardinal—facts which very likely mapped on to the almost opposing styles of missionary work which the two utilized.

Precious little is known about De Nobili’s life before arriving in India in 1608; thus, even his purpose in coming to South India remains unclear. He was, as mentioned earlier, a well-placed nobleman with a sufficient number of connections not only in the Catholic Church, but also among the Italian noble families. For such a privileged individual to abandon his homeland and set out to foreign shores just to juggle alien customs and religions would have been difficult to say the least. Notwithstanding the Portuguese settlements he would have encountered, de Nobili’s first impulse seems to have been to construct a mini-Italy in his new home.

From this point, the records become much clearer: de Nobili tried and, by all accounts, failed, to produce as many converts as he would have liked, with most of those who did convert coming from the lower castes. Some commentators, like Manu Pillai have argued that it was only after this initial failure (in de Nobili’s mind) that he learnt about the caste barriers that existed in the region, impelling him towards reimagining himself within the theo-aristocracy of the Tamil Brahmins, adopting their manners and a good degree of their customs (especially ones that reinforce hierarchical divides). It is not surprising, then, that historians and scholars over the centuries from Francis Ellis to Arun Shourie have given him various appellations to unify the two facets of his identity as a European and one trying to integrate into the upper echelon of South Asian religious hierarchy; names like the “White Brahmin” or the “Roman Brahmin”. In effect, de Nobili’s approach to conversion was a socio-cultural push to re-create a certain form of Italiana within the hierarchical systems of South India which placed the priestly Brahmanical caste (and the Brahmanized de Nobili) at the top.

Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While this did work for a time, and indeed many Catholic communities in South India quite proudly trace their ancestry to the Brahmins of yore, de Nobili ultimately had no theological or intellectual descendants. His peculiar methods, which included dressing in sanyasi style orange garb and often speaking of the Bible as a lost “Fifth Veda,” earned him the ire of the Jesuit establishment in South India. The turmoil that ensued put him in conflict with the Archbishop of Goa, and was only resolved by the intervention of Pope Gregory XV, who effectively ended his methods of proselytizing. One could further argue that his own brahmanized converts found no real benefit in putting their own lives or good standing with the Portuguese at risk by trying to defend the increasingly unfavorable Roman Brahmin. When push came to shove, both his high and low caste followers found no good reason to follow him. In 1656, he died in Mylapore as nothing more than a fascinating footnote in the history of Catholicism in South Asia.

In Marina Beach, a few kilometers away from de Nobili’s final resting place, a proud statue stands as a gift from the Church of South India to the Government of Tamil Nadu — a memorial to Robert Caldwell, who is sometimes thought of as a founding father of that Church. At first glance, one might wager that if a well-connected and culturally sophisticated missionary like de Nobili could not manage to lay a sound foundation for Christianity in South India, another outsider like Caldwell would be even less likely. By the time he arrived in South India, the British Raj was quickly moving towards the orientalist mode of engagement according to which the Indian population ought to be left to practice their religions without interference from missionaries, making his Christianizing mission that much harder. Caldwell’s early successes in conversion were comparable to de Nobili’s, since both of them relied heavily on conversion from one particular caste, and they both experienced some big setbacks in their work — de Nobili running up against the Jesuit establishment, and Caldwell having to come to terms with the orientalist stance of the British Government, especially post-1857.

Robert Caldwell Statue at Marina Beach, 2013. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

However, the Victorian world of utility and industrial efficiency had created a man who was a near dichotomic opposite to de Nobili in terms of approach. Where the Roman Brahmin attempted to insert himself into a cultural milieu and adapt it to his own interests, plain Caldwell was content to leave cultural norms alone and focus on practical questions like living conditions and work ethic. In 1844, Caldwell arrived in Madras and was assigned the Tinnevelly district (modern day Thirunelveli). He was quick to take note of the people’s “pleasant” mannerisms, but most impressed by their hard lifestyle which was a prophylactic to laziness (the “fount of all vices”, as he put it), and their “inclination towards spiritual matters”. His insistence on mapping Christianity onto labor was different from de Nobili’s proto-cultural appropriation-based approach to conversion, as can be seen in the opening quote, given that toddy-tapping from palmyra trees was the major profession of the caste he worked with, the Shanars.

I would suggest that the answer to the conundrum in the opening section of this piece, that Caldwell’s mission succeeded in producing a lasting intellectual and social impact while de Nobili’s did not, lies in their modus operandi. While de Nobili attempted to create a cultural dialectic between the Brahmins and the Catholics, effectively relegating religion to the realm of culture, Caldwell subverted such classification altogether and produced a socially and economically grounded religion. It also appears probable that his own experiences of identity-based discrimination would have led him to have a much more sympathetic view of the Shanars, who were themselves a marginalized group at the time. He certainly favored a business-like demeanor in his approach to his work, following in the Victorian way. In his works, he constantly praised the work ethic of the Shanars and implicitly made an economic argument in their favor, aiming to persuade the British government to stop the traditional discrimination against this caste. This extra layer of economic advocacy from Caldwell takes the place of cultural synthesis in de Nobili’s work. Vishwanath’s argument that caste groups picked and chose what they took from their missionaries as much as their missionaries tried to turn them into ideal objects for conversion rings true. As Robert Hardgrave points out, it was in the Shanar’s (now rechristened ‘Nadars’) best economic interest to do so convert.

Thus, Caldwell’s success was not simply an exercise in colonial proselytism. Rather, it represents an idea that only recently received serious academic consideration—that Christianity in South Asia was as much a matter of politico-economic negotiation as a social, cultural, or spiritual change. In Caldwell’s case, conversion constituted a unique form of socio-economic negotiation wherein the simple paradigm of “colonizer vs. colonized” was problematized and, to a certain degree, inverted: a theo-colonial encounter where salvation was a good bargain.


David Martin graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil in Modern South Asian Studies and is currently an independent researcher and lecturer at Christ University, Bangalore. His interests lie in intellectual and global history, and the intersection of religion, politics, and economics.

Featured Image: Illustration from Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, QUARTERLY PAPER, No. LVIII.–April, 1851. Courtesy of Project Canterbury.

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Elan Vital and the French ‘Cult of the Offensive’

By Tom Furse

In 1871, Prussia resoundingly beat France, which was meant to have had the greatest land army in the world, in the Franco-Prussian War. German troops besieged Paris, and they captured the French emperor, Napoleon III, at the town of Sedan. French casualties numbered over hundreds of thousands and the state spent millions on a war not even a year long. At the end of the war, the Prussians forced France to pay a war indemnity of 5 billion gold francs. This was equivalent to a quarter of France’s annual economic output. Prussian troops took Alsace and Lorraine and occupied French industrial areas in the northeast until France paid for all the indemnity. The state was in disarray: Napoleon III’s Second Empire fell and the Paris Commune’s uprising rose to international acclaim, and then the Third Republic rose in their place.

Yet in this grim postwar juncture emerged ideas that reshaped the French armed forces from a somewhat unlikely area: avant-garde vitalist philosophy. Henri Bergson’s term “élan vital,” from his book Creative Evolution (1907) conceptualized the elusive intuitive spirit that drove evolutionary change and the will to survive. In this book, he took ideas from the natural sciences and argued that evolution was not a linear path of adaptions to stronger forms of life, but one that was multidirectional. What drove this evolutionary spread was élan vital—this impulse to live free from constraints. Rational thought, Bergson argued, could not truly comprehend life because life was not just a mechanistic force. He posited that human life was not machine-like with clear inputs and outputs, but rather had a deeper spirit that gave it meaning. His thinking was partially a “revolt against positivism,” such as the ‘scientific management’ techniques from Americans, Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, and in France, Henri Fayol. Bergson’s élan vital was, in a manner, an epistemological response to this, in that it effectively created knowledge through making matter come alive.

In the decades between 1871 and 1914, rhetoric of warrior spirits and Bergson’s élan vital travelled into France’s military schools and its strategic thinking as the officer corps attempted to adapt themselves for the next war. To French Army officers, still reeling from defeat years on, offensive warrior spirits held an opportunity for redemption. They had access to some impressive military technology—the new Lebel Model 1886 rifle and the Canon de 75 modèle 1897—but according to the officers, the Army lacked a life spirit. The Army founded the École de Guerre in 1875 to bolster military thought and reformed the General Staff so its members would alternate between frontline duty and headquarters. In the first decade of the twentieth century, they created the ‘Cult of the Offensive,’ a strategy that solely emphasized attacks in wars and that rendered defense as a moral and strategic weakness. To justify this they used élan vital, which had little immediate purpose for the military or war, to emphasize that morale or life spirit was essential to winning wars.

There was a broad group of old and young officers, Hippolyte Langlois, Frederic Culmann, Georges Gilbert, Joseph Joffre, and Ferdinand Foch who attended École polytechnique, the French Army’s artillery school, and Georges Ernest Boulanger and Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison who attended the Saint-Cyr academy, who merged art and science together to create their own philosophical—and strategic—attitude to war. Their hearts were full of revanchism, a specific sort of revenge for past military defeats over territory, after fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. Elan vital came to them during this emotional state and suited them because of its emphasis on freeing oneself from constraints. They combined a version of it with the Army’s nationalist, masculine and hierarchical social structure.

Bergson gave lectures at the Sorbonne on Nietzschean creative will which chimed with the writer, Lieutenant Ernest Psichari, whose book L’Appel des armes, was popular in military circles in itscall for a professional and violent army. Successful armies could not rely on ‘living off the land’ as they had with Napoleon; they required the nation behind them through its economic and moral power to embolden them forward. Elan vital gave shape and intellectual depth to their strategic ideas, that were not always a dominant opinion in the Army. Offensive struggle provided a doctrine for the nation and the military to rally; like élan vital it purported to give some direction to living beings. During the First World War, Bergson became more openly nationalistic. His book, The Meaning of the War supported the French war effort and disparaged Germany, and he worked on a propaganda mission to Spain and travelled to the United States to draw it into the war in 1917.

Elan vital, or at least the French Army’s version of it as a warrior spirit, remained an epistemological approach to understand war and the nation. It gave them a way to interpret how the German army, and in particular Adalbert von Bredow’s cavalry charge at the Battle of Mars-la-Tour on August 16, 1870, was successful. Many later called it “Von Bredow’s Death Ride” because of the enormous costs, but for French military thinkers it seemed to illustrate that charging with gusto against rifle and cannon fire was honorable and successful. The German army practiced it continually throughout the war at Mars-la-Tour, but also at Spicheren, Frœschwiller, and Gravelotte. It was a blundering tactic and losses were always high. The more accurate assessment might have led them to see that it wasn’t German ‘spirit’ that won those battles, it was French defensive failures. But to the French officers, stung by defeat, it dramatically displayed an inspiring form of offensive power.

General Langlois and General Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison were key to shaping this new strategy of offensive war and the Army’s own meaning of élan vital, which changed how they interpreted a possible German attack in western France and Belgium. De Grandmaison, a student of Foch at École de Guerre in 1898, was an offensive-minded general who was an archetypal student of Bergson’s élan vital. Through his service in wars over Indochina in the 1880s, he recognized, as others had, that the French military needed superior morale as their guiding force, not just tactical brilliance or gleaming machines, to win. He wrote In Military Territory: French Expansion in Tonkin in 1898 and Infantry Training for Offensive Combat in 1907, which laid out his views. In these works, the army could find their spirit through offensive operations. He called the doctrine attaque à outrance (‘attack to excess’), which channeled élan vital as it was, literally, for the attacking army to be zealous professional soldiers and march toward gunfire with so much intensity that the enemy would lose their will to survive.

This found common cause with retired General Langlois, who founded Revue Militaire Générale a military journal in 1907 partly to defy “transvaalitis,” which was that potentially paralyzing fear among the general staff of losing too many troops in battle. Langlois argued that during the Anglo-Boer War the British generals were under a spell of transvaalitis that stopped them from collecting all the material and morale at their disposal to counter the insurgency. It was a constraint that ran counter to his interpretation of élan vital. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 seemed illustrate their strength of their argument. The Russian fortified their encampments with foresight and depth, and yet the Japanese Army, went fully offensive and won. This emboldened Japanese ultranationalists who pressured the government to launch an expansionist foreign policy in northeast Asia. From this perspective, hundreds of thousands of deaths could be justifiable because it symbolized to de Grandmaison and Langlois decisive strength, not weakness.

For Bergson, élan vital was the act of becoming fully conscious of reality. This influenced the officer’s approach to interpreting military matters. Statistics, for instance, were only half the story because there was this elusive, but powerful, spirit that went with it. Belief in élan vital meant generals could see a huge blood sacrifice in a single battle as a positive because through this the army could fully realize the reality of war and win it. In his journal, Langlois argued that although Germany had more artillery and more soldiers, they lacked the “precious qualities of race” the French had. Georges Gilbert argued for furie française (French fury) that would be one feature of a broader national regeneration. Despite wars around the world showing that camouflage was useful, the French Army, unlike the British and Germans, remained in blue coats with red kepis and trousers. Camouflage was not prudent, but a symbol of weakness. Overtime as offensive spirit took more of a hold in the French Army, they grew less interested in machinery. They ignored that the German Mauser rifle was easier to reload than their Lebel rifle, which suited bayonet charges. Some were unimpressed even with machine guns; and General de Castelnau saw forts as unbecoming of professional soldiers. This was their mindset as they approached 1914. 


These notions meant the Army discriminated against the large pool of army reservists for political reasons. Some generals dismissed them as part-time soldiers who did not have a warrior spirit. The Vice President of the Supreme War Council, Victor-Constant Michel, who trained many reservists and was sympathetic to republicanism, critiqued the highly offensive revanchist mindset among conservative officers, like De Grandmaison, as strategically unsound. They misunderstood how machine guns and heavy artillery could destroy infantry attacks. He argued at the military colleges in the 1910s that a potential German Army would come through central Belgium instead of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. This meant that reservists would have to be deployed across the French border and that the frontline would likely be a mix of reserve and professional soldiers. In response, de Grandmaison gave exciting lectures that Michel’s defensive strategy was a display of spiritual weakness and, therefore, a poor strategy. He won the argument. Michel was dismissed as head of strategic planning and the government put Joffre in his place. De Grandmaison was now sure that the Army doctrine would settle on offensive aggression. Reservists would not dilute the confidence—the spirit—of the professional army. As de Grandmaison stated in Infantry Training, “risking your life at every step for hours on end is not a game for the common man.”

For some, this period 1871-1914 was ‘La Belle Époque,’ a time of decadence and optimism. Counteracting this was the revanchist nationalism that lingered around radical conservative politics. The Army’s establishment was largely Catholic and conservative, and some were sympathetic to the monarchy. One French Army officer, Georges Boulanger as Minister of War, started a monarchist proto-fascist movement, Boulangism, who received hundreds of thousands of votes (despite not standing as a candidate) and was once on the cusp of power in 1887-89. This politics was about finding the ‘true’ essence of France.

Bergson did not create élan vital for the Army or conservative politics; he criticized ‘closed societies’ because they hurt spontaneity. But his idea travelled beyond his initial intentions. Strategy was not a neutral form of knowledge that prioritized the most practical choices. The philosophical mindsets of strategists created the intellectual architecture that shaped moral or practical decisions and attitudes. For this group of revanchist officers, élan vital influenced their epistemological perspectives that forced them to look at evidence in front of them in a certain way. It eventually guided them into huge strategic blunders; hundreds of thousands died years later in the First World War partly because of their thinking during this period. De Grandmaison himself died fighting on the frontline in 1915. Bergson’s élan vital captures how the social sciences have adapted and borrowed paradigms and conceptual language from the natural sciences to improve the discipline’s academic rigor. And in turn, strategic thought has borrowed from the social sciences and philosophy to justify violence.


Thomas Furse is a contributing editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD candidate at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between military and strategic thought and the social sciences, primarily in the US Army. His interests include international relations, imperial history, and political thought. 

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Rethinking ‘Civil’ Rights with Marx

By Ali Ahmad

The Rights of Man was Karl Marx’s topic of concern in his 1843 essay On the Jewish Question. After that, Marx never spoke again of rights per se. However, an examination of his division between base and superstructure would pave the way for formulating a notion of what Marx could have thought of rights in the modern sense of the word—a notion that, based on the ideas of equality and liberty, presumes rights to be constitutional in nature. In the following, I will contend that Marx challenged the Rights of Man on the grounds that they were part of a bourgeois liberal ideology and show how Marx’s critique was in line with the generality of the leftist political thought paradigm. Ultimately, this essay will defend the stance that, within the Marxist paradigm, it is considered viable and fitting to argue that the Rights of Man are part and parcel of a bourgeois liberal ideology. After all, the foundations of the Marxist theoretical body, as Karl Kautsky has stated, “bring morality down to earth” from “heavenly heights,” given that scientific socialism has proved to be an inhospitable home to theories of abstract moral idealism.

In order to understand Marx’s position within the history of the Rights of Man, one needs to understand On the Jewish Question in its entire logical connectivity: as a grand scheme within which the critique of the Rights of Man fits contextually. In this essay, Marx launched his first attack on “civil society” and its impact in fostering “egoistic life”; he avowed that “man […] leads a two-fold life, a heavenly and earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual.” Since the sphere of egoism, in all its “abstract” arbitrariness, separates man from his community, and since the State was the political child of civil society, Marx wrote, the only way to destroy both was to destroy the parent: civil society. It followed, then, that the Rights of Man, which demonstrated an ontological conflict yet still existed in a “spiritual” relation with the State, were consequently “nothing but the rights of a member of a civil society, i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.”

Given that the Rights of Man were political rights, they were deeply ingrained within the illusory sovereignty of the State. And since the State was the child of civil society—the society which Marx wished the demise of—the Rights of Man would be automatically abolished along with them. It is made obvious here that the establishment of a political state devoid of concepts such as law, privileges, and rights should become the only way to achieve the final stage desirable for society: a stage described by a political program leading to the emancipation of mankind and resulting in a recognition of their species-being, all to the detriment of bourgeois ideology.

This emancipatory procedure has been reinterpreted by Joseph Femia as happening through the purification of juridical institutions from their atomistic view of “formal citizenship.” According to Femia, these institutions should be responding to the real concern of humanity by transforming “formal citizenship” into an active social force instead of endowing it with meaningless abstract materiality. This, consequently, would lead to the completion of the emancipatory program—which Marx later understood as “communism.”

Allen Buchanan has taken this argument even further by claiming that the goal of Marx’s critique of ideology was to highlight the fact that “capitalist conceptions of justice, like other juridical conceptions, presuppose certain factual generalizations which are usually taken for granted.” These generalizations present themselves as an illusion of symmetry between the worker and the exploiter—the free competitive market—that the capitalist puts in place. The free competitive market was, according to Marx, supported and maintained by the Rights of Man that had been articulated in the French and American constitutions. These rights were not eternal truths about the nature of man. Making an example of the right to liberty, Marx saw such rights as the root cause of “the separation of man from man.” Liberty, or the right to self-interest, became the basis of civil society. Conversely, as Steven Lukes has argued, communism would instill in society a sense of harmony between man and nature, and a resolution of the conflicts between men. In communism, humans would live in such a way that there is no need for such individualistic conceptions of rights.

Moving on to the right to property, Marx argued that it suffered the same fate as the right to liberty. In essence, he equated it with “the right to self-interest.” L. J. Macfarlane, in line with orthodox Marxism, has identified it as a class right of the bourgeois against the totality of society. According to him, it was a ubiquitous anti-human right which denied the working class its rightful aim in achieving liberation and self-realization. Hence, “abolishing the right of property as private ownership of capital, would transform the nature of human relationships and the character of the rights men would have or require.” To achieve this transformation, Marx argued that we should destroy all barriers which separate individuals from each other so that the community can overthrow “sovereign power and raise[] state affairs to become the affairs of the people.” For this, he categorically distanced himself from theories of natural rights, claiming that they “all start reasoning from the individual and not from social reasoning,” as Miguel Abensour has put it.

In his Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’ from 1843,Marx went on to point out that “the constitution is rational in so far as its moments can be reduced to abstract logical moments.” It was an illusory arrangement of beliefs which caused the State to treat individuals not as political but as physical, henceforth stripping them from all social qualities that they might possess. In this subsidiary attack on the liberal tradition that atomizes the individual, Marx’s purpose was to rid society of the objective abstract conceptions regarding human nature in the hopes of giving humans a more “conscious” experience of their reality. Following this line of argumentation, Ian Forbes has asserted that “the construct of sensuous being, either in the material sense of producing and reproducing the means of existence, or in the social sense that the human builds up a consciousness of the interactions between the material elements of that existence” is always limited to the context set by economic and social formations. In due course, concrete and sensuous humans, embroiled in economic and social realities, should thus become the real subject and prevail over the abstract theoretical humanity which presents itself in bourgeois liberal ideology.

When breaking down the phrase “bourgeois liberal ideology,” it should be clear that the word “liberal” is equated with the capitalist modes of production—in other words, the economic structure. The word “ideology,” on the other end, is equated to the superstructure. In his later years, Marx saw these two ontologies as closely interrelated. Social reality, in this manner, became a representation of the totality of the relations of production which “constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” In The Eighteenth Brumaire, written in 1852, Marx insisted on discarding all forms of legal existence in the superstructure—including the Rights of Man—as “peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions” and considered them to be ideological in a peculiar bourgeois manner, serving solely the interests of the ruling class. He further emphasized that this superstructure would cease to exist once it stopped serving the material mode of production at the given time. Naturally, this fit into his grand idea of the superstructure as an illusion, a man-made impulse created in order to rationalize the world in the abstract realm.  

In relation to that, Antonio Gramsci’s thesis has emphasized dominion under capitalism as not only achieved through compulsion, but, in a subtler manner, also through the hegemony of ideas where the ideology of the reigning class becomes vulgarized into the common sense of the average citizen. Power, for Gramsci, was “not just crude legal force” but more so a “domination of language, morality, and culture.” This domination was bound to lead to the internalization of hegemonic ideas by the subordinate class and would consequently become subsumed under their actual living experience, which Andrew Vincent has described as ingrained in all facets of bourgeois culture and discounts material inequalities by adhering to “formal” legal, moral, or political equality of rights. Marx’s owns words in the Critique of the Gotha Program of 1875 support Vincent’s claim. As he stated in this critique, “the equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognizes no class differences […] right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals”—which amounts to the perfection of mankind’s slavery albeit under the veil of a false, pretentious equality.

During his years of publishing in the Rheinische Zeitung in the 1840s, and in particular during a debate on law-making, Marx had already begun arguing in favor of dismantling the State, claiming that it lost its identity in a degradable manner when it reduced itself to private interests. In a subsequent article, he wrote that a “true State” was not a “material thing” but a spiritual force which should permeate the entirety of nature and drop its status as an intermediary actor between emancipation and civil society to allow for the birth of the much-anticipated “free human being.” Since the origin of the State lay in the contradictions between the interests of different classes in society, the State would never be an effective tool in solving the ailments of society. Consequently, both the French and the American revolutions had left man bound as a private individual in economic society.

In the long swell of tension between communist ideology and liberalism that characterized the Cold War, the winning agenda was the latter—of which the Rights of Man are part and parcel. In the kind of capitalist society that was reinstated thereafter, humans became “objective sensuous beings,” met with a destiny that was imposed on them and transformed them into “a suffering being.” Alas, their fate as communists had escaped them. They had lost their battle in being recognized as a species-being, confirmed and realized in their being and knowing. This type of freedom, Carol Gould has contended, is attained in communism through a process of self-realization and “the origination of novel possibilities” which can only arise when the social conditions allow for self-transcendence and fosters an environment in which society is “a constituted entity not a basic entity” and “exists only through the individuals who constitute it.” By doing away with human rights as a liberal bourgeois ideological construct, then, communism would end the clash between two ontologies: individual and society.


Ali Ahmad is a PhD student in Political Thought and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. He is particularly interested in the epistemological and political elements of thought, their interrelation, and their grounding in influential economic ideologies that have developed throughout history. He is currently writing his thesis on the epistemological foundations of the economic doctrines set forth within the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt between 1923 and 1945.

Featured Image: Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Idea of Work, From Below

By Joel Suarez

How capitalism’s recent history is judged depends on where you start in time. From the vantage point of the late 1990s, it was a triumph. Strong wage and GDP growth, rapidly globalizing trade, and, most intoxicatingly, the ascent of new technologies in telecommunications gave many the sense that capital was sending us into a new era of prosperity where, as the saying then went, “rising tides would lift all boats.” As naïve as it sounds now, the progress was real, if uneven and short-lived. The view a decade later, of course, would be quite different. From that standpoint, the late 1990s would rightly be remembered as merely the byproduct of dollar-depreciation and a debt-fueled asset bubble. We overcame that bubble through easy credit and mortgage securitization pumping up an even bigger asset bubble that would wreak havoc worldwide beginning in 2007. Amid the fallout of the financial crisis, the optimism encapsulated by the idea of rising tides disappeared. This was no time for metaphors. Something tangible was needed. The constant refrain then, as now, was: we don’t make stuff anymore.

Gregory Crewdson, “Redemption Center” (2018-19). Digital pigment print. Image courtesy of Gagosian.

In one sense, this is undeniable. There is something weightless about production in the now-matured “new economy.” This economy deals in data, “knowledge,” financial instruments and transactions, and promises of frictionless futures by way of apps. Cars and clothes, toys and tablets—these tangible things have seemingly been left for the machines and the global proletariat to produce. It’s an on odd picture of American economic life, one with an abundance of entrepreneurs and consumers, but, apparently, no workers. They belong in the past, the corpse of which can be found dotting abandoned factories across the Midwest. Indeed, by now columns by coastal reporters parachuting into the Rustbelt to encounter survivors of deindustrialization have become a cottage industry. The tales might be overly familiar, but that doesn’t make the reality any less horrid. Deaths by alcoholism, suicide, or drug overdoses in regions plagued by chronic unemployment have produced what was previously unthinkable: declining life expectancy in the world’s wealthiest nation. 

Yet despite all this despair, somehow the U.S. is awash with capital. If we don’t make stuff anymore, why? The global currency reserve role of the dollar in the world economy is one answer, of course. The speculative frenzy backstopped by the Federal Reserve—the grim alternative to which appears to be higher interest rates and higher unemployment—is another. But there is some actual investment going on. Where is that money headed and what does it do? Much of it chases liquid assets, seeking quick returns based on value fluctuations, rather than fixed capital that can both employ more people and increase productivity. Relatively little of current capital flows increase the productivity of service sector workers that constitute vast majority of the workforce, particularly in the low wage ranks of the health care, education, hospitality, and retail industries where people do things rather than make them. These colossal industries suffer from low profits, low investment, low wages, and low productivity growth. Their supplanting of the more dynamic manufacturing sector in the U.S. economy goes a long way in explaining the economic stagnation and rising inequality that has cursed the U.S. since the 1970s. But for all the warranted despondency over the shape of American capitalism, in the eyes of much of the world, the U.S. continues to possess the “crown jewel of capitalism” that causes investors to throw mountains of money at sometimes transparently stupid things: Silicon Valley.

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The allure of the Valley is simple. It thrives on utopianism. With plentiful smarts and massive sums of money, the place relentlessly promotes its capacities to change the world and perhaps even what lies beyond it. The main protagonists of the region’s self-promotion are undoubtedly CEOs and company founders. These are the supposed visionaries that attract billions of investors’ dollars to not just create and sell products but also dreams. Dreams alone, however, are never enough. At some point someone must deliver something real. And that delivery is the product of workers—tech workers and other workers that enable them to do the work that they do. To understand the peculiar style of capitalism that has emerged from the region, it helps to understand not just its ideas and products, but the people that actually make them.

Doug Menuez, Sun Engineers at Work, Sun Microsystems, 1992. Image courtesy of Stanford University. Libraries. Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

Tech workers certainly “make things.” But the difference between software and steel isn’t just economic. Building cars and steel beams produced particular kinds of culture: the clothes, the bars, the churches, the language, the families, the unions. How do the things tech workers make, in a sense, make them? How do changes in the nature of work change the normative visions of those experiencing them? How does the nature of power in the workplace shape that consciousness of those subjected to and deploying it? 

A recent rich literature on technology and work—popular, academic, and somewhere in-between—has wrestled with these questions. Those like Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and, more famously, Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People have warned of automation’s march making a dystopian, workless future. They echo mid-twentieth century fears espoused by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr. that likewise feared that automation would render humans obsolete, leading to mass unemployment. More empirically grounded recent work by Aaron Benanav and Jason Smith, on the other hand, have stressed broader economic dynamics, rather than technological advances, as leading causes of the problem with work today. To them, it is not rapid technological development but rather slow growth, low productivity growth, and underinvestment in fixed capital that has led to rising unemployment, underemployment, and the casualization of formerly good jobs. 

The explosion of this kind of literature suggests something has happened to both technology and work to urge serious study of it. Yet for all their breadth and rigor, few of these studies have attempted to explore the experience of work from the perspective of workers themselves. In this respect, few books have done as good a job of delving into these kinds of questions of tech work as Voices from the Valley by Ben Tarnoff, himself a tech worker and co-founder of Logic magazine, and Moira Weigel, a historian and fellow co-founder of Logic. What distinguishes their work from others is their refusal to adopt much of broader analytical apparatus to their book. They were wise enough to approach the topic with a light touch. They allowed workers to speak for themselves through oral history. The value of this approach, both intellectually and politically, is a simple but radical truth, or perhaps an attempted willing of truth, that those who are burdened by labor are well-equipped to understand and transform it. Unlike the countless stories of Rustbelt misery, which are rightly taken as tales of self-evident economic failures, Tarnoff and Weigel’s decision to focus on Silicon Valley workers gives us a unique view of the idea and experience of work in the one area where economic success is supposed to be self-evident. 

Oral histories of workers, of course, have a rich tradition. From the Federal Writers’ Project that captured the oral histories of former slaves to Michael Honey’s oral histories of black workers under Jim Crow, this methodology and genre has helped capture the rich language with which historical subjects tell their stories and create meaning. Yet today such oral histories are increasingly the domain of academic presses or historical archives, lying largely out of sight of most reading publics. And this is precisely what makes Voices from the Valley so unique—this is a popular oral history of subjects that loom large in the popular imagination but have been underexplored in oral history.

Quite explicitly, Tarnoff and Weigel are working in the tradition of the legendary Studs Terkel, who subtitled his epic 1974 oral history of workers People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do and is given the generous nod in Tarnoff and Weigel’s own subtitle: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—and How They Do It. There’s real purpose in working in Terkel’s tradition. It’s perhaps more intuitive to marvel at the gadgets and greenbacks, at the seductive power of imagination produced by the Valley. But Tarnoff and Weigel are after something different, something more fundamental that can’t be captured by statistics or simple tales of heroic inventions. “I was constantly astonished by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people,” Terkel reflected on his own worker oral history collection. “No matter how bewildering the times, no matter how dissembling the official language, those we call ordinary are aware of a sense of personal worth—or more often lack of it—in the work they do.” Through workers’ stories, Tarnoff and Weigel provide a window into the inner life of postindustrial political economy. 

The book is slim but the range of the cast of characters that people Voices from the Valley is vast. We hear about startup founders and technical writers, cafeteria workers and massage therapists. Above all, what Tarnoff and Weigel enable us to see is that capital’s crown jewel exemplifies the problem with capital. Consider the startup founder, a “sacred figure in the Valley.” One anonymous founder from a modest family in Texas describes his journey to an elite college that one can probably safely assume is Stanford. Since his freshman year he would watch as tech companies would lavish students with gifts and stretch limos in hopes of enticing the next great innovator to join their firm. The allure was strong, but the school had developed a culture that believed “that building a business was the best way to make the world a better place.” Student debt, however, made him risk averse, so he took a job with a big tech company upon graduation, earning a salary greater than either of his parents. This high income came with a deep sense of regret: several of his former classmates had founded startups that were soon bought out for ungodly amounts of money. 

The regret proved so intense that he soon quit his secure, well-paying job to start his own company with an old college friend. More than a chase for fast money, he was determined to really devote himself to self-directed work on what he describes as “interesting” and “important” problems. Soon enough, he received offers to buy out his company. While on the surface this appears a classic tale of American success, this was, in fact, the beginning of the end of meaningful work for him. Whereas in the past venture capital would buy up and fund startups, today it’s increasingly common for tech giants themselves to buy startups. The actual products and talents of startups are of secondary importance to the acquirers—the point is simply to stifle any potential competition. 

Once acquired, this founder quickly confronted the reality that he was no longer working on interesting or important problems, but rather simply trying to maximize users’ time spent on a given application to increase revenue. The end result of this process took him to a politics far removed from his earlier belief that business was the best way to make the world a better place. Now, instead of identifying as an engineer or founder or innovator, this former-startup founder calls himself a tech worker and increasingly believes his fellow workers and users alike should demand greater control over the company’s decision-making process.

This inkling for workers’ control of the workplace isn’t reserved for former founders-turned employees. One technical writer Tarnoff and Weigel interviewed was fired after getting pregnant and asking the company’s founder about its maternity leave policy. The experience was an education in how class power and patriarchy reinforce one another. “I was so upset at the time,” she recalled, “I signed the paperwork and went home sobbing. I was tired. I was pregnant.” Asked if she sought a lawyer, the technical writer responded: “…the worry when you’re a woman in tech is that if you raise your voice, you’ll get branded as a trouble maker. Tech is actually a small industry. You don’t want to be the woman who’s not easy to work with. I was so scared at that moment that I didn’t do the right thing.” When she commenced the hunt for a new job, she sought out companies that offered remote work. This proved a revelation. Her newfound autonomy enabled her to take her child to doctors’ appointments, to pick up prescriptions, to attend school meetings—to attend to the care work that is indispensable but often invisible and unwaged. With more control over her work, she relished not being under the direct scrutiny of a boss, not having to ask for permission to do the things she needed to keep her child alive and flourishing.

The idea of workers’ control and autonomy, of course, is hardly new. It stems from a long labor political tradition that stretches back centuries. Workplace domination does not mechanically produce these kinds of ideas, but it does create its conditions of possibility. For example, one cook for a tech giant that Tarnoff and Weigel interviewed explained the outlines of his day. He’s up by 5:00 a.m., at work by 6:00 a.m., out by 3:00 p.m., and then the twist: “…everybody’s gotta have two jobs. Myself, I just started a new part-time gig. Most of my coworkers, when they get out at 3:00 p.m., they go to another job and work another shift. With the way traffic is, they have to go straight there. They have to be at their second job at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. to get that next eight hours in, so they can at least be home before midnight.” For both capital and labor, time is of the essence. Capitalism, fueled by the compulsive need to turn past and present investment into future profits, demands ever-more time of its workers. Time itself becomes a tyrant, and it’s precisely this time-crunch that pushed this cook into politics.

“Cristobal was born in Bakersfield, out in the desert. After high school, he served eight years in the Army, including one tour in the Iraq war. He now works full time as a security guard at Facebook. He starts at dawn, guiding cars on and off the campus, and making sure walkers looking down at their phones cross safely. Despite this job, he has no health benefits, and he can’t afford to have a home in Silicon Valley. He’d like to go back to Bakersfield, to be near his mother, but there’s no work there. So he keeps doing his best. Cristobal feels he works hard, and has given back to his country, but his pay forces him to live in a rented repurposed shed, in a back yard in Mountain View. He’s starting to get angry. “Silicon Valley is a shithole,” he says.” He has begun to organize with other service employees in the tech industrycooks, custodians, security officers, to fight for better benefits, higher pay. —Text and Image from Mary Beth Meehan’s documentary project, “Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America.” University of Chicago Press, 2021.

The natural question that looms over the cook’s story is: why does an incredibly successful company that pays its other employees handsomely somehow not find a way to pay its non-technical staff enough to live on? The easy answer is simply because they can. This is how people are valued and the cook is at the bottom of the value chain. On the firm’s terms, this made enough sense, even to the cook. But his point was to change those terms: “Some homies that I work with pulled me aside and said, ‘We want to unionize.’ And then they introduced me to the people from the union. They wanted to make power moves. They wanted to give the workers the power to actually have a voice and make some changes.” And so began the meetings in the parking lot, at homes, and at pizza spots over beers. That was the fun part, but the risks were real. People could lose their jobs and losing a job, for many, meant losing everything—health insurance, housing, and perhaps most abstractly but importantly, a sense of self-worth and purpose. Forming a union, however, created a different purpose of its own. “It’s a really good feeling,” said the cook. “When people actually realize that they are worth more, it’s nice.” 

These power moves eventually won him and his coworkers a union contract, but it wasn’t a victory for cooks alone. In fact, other tech workers—those part of the Tech Worker Coalition—joined the cooks in solidarity, going to meetings and even negotiations. The struggle for a union helped break down boundaries between more affluent tech workers and low-wage service workers. What brought tech workers to the kitchen staff was an overlapping struggle. Like the cooks, many of these tech workers weren’t actually employees of tech behemoths, but rather contractors left unprotected by labor and employment law. The increasing casualization of professional workers created the possibility for solidarity with the tech world’s most precarious workers. 

“Imelda works for a cleaning service. In the early morning, six days a week, she gets picked up by a coworker who drives her to Atherton, one of the wealthiest towns in America. To reach the houses she cleans, she often passes through huge metal gates, up driveways flanked by fruit trees and security cameras. There have been days, she says, when she’s worked in eight of them. A recent pay stub logs her hours, including overtime, amounting to $1,122 for two weeks’ work. With housing prices what they are, Imelda lives in a trailer in a friend’s driveway. She has no utilities in the trailer, so she goes in and out of her friend’s cottage to use the bathroom and kitchen — which are crowded, because there are three generations living there. In Imelda’s sink sits a strainer of persimmons and guavas, gifts from the people whose houses she’s cleaned.”—Text and Image from Mary Beth Meehan’s documentary project, “Seeing Silicon Valley.”

These kinds of political struggles can transform workers of all ranks. “In our kitchens,” the cook explained, “the chefs are the bosses and the cooks are the workers. Right away,” after winning union recognition, “the chefs started showing a little more class. They started treating us nicer. Before, most of them treated us like peasants. Honestly. Most of the time they didn’t talk to us. They were just there to discipline us and keep us in line. But when they found out we were going to organize, their bosses were like, ‘hey, y’all better get y’all shit together. Because we don’t need this kind of tension.” Management’s power to hire and fire has a way of producing conformity. Fear of rebellion from below, however, has a way of commanding some respect, however begrudging.

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These stories collected by Tarnoff and Weigel speak to broader trends in U.S. political economy. They also speak to trends in the oral history of our current political economy, which, in turn, could be read as intellectual histories of workers since the “long downturn” that commenced in the 1970s. Through workers’ own stories and language of longing, workers implicitly and indirectly—though sometimes quite directly—made claims about the idea of work, of what it is and what it isn’t and of what it could be. In their view, work dominated their life, it punished pregnancy, and bored and disempowered them. But work didn’t have to be this way. It could be interesting, important, and controlled by workers. 

When Studs Terkel published Working in 1974, the world economy was suddenly thrown into crisis. Harry Maurer, an admirer of Terkel’s, ended the grim decade with an oral history of his own titled, appropriately enough, Not Working, published in 1979. Terkel dazzled readers with fascinating interviews of steelworkers, welders, cabdrivers, and telephone operators. He wrote memorably of “a search…for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Maurer, on the other hand, treated readers to interviews with public employees laid off due to New York City’s fiscal crisis, a young Native American man whose unemployment led him to attempt suicide, and a 62-year-old man who had worked and been laid off from jobs in coal mining, construction, meat cutting, trucking, and now had “little hope of ever working again.” 

What Terkel called the search “for daily meaning” and “daily bread” no doubt continued into the late 1970s when Maurer published his oral history. But this search took on a different tenor at the height of stagflation. “There are many people in this book whose living rooms have turned into prisons without bars,” Maurer wrote, “and others who gleefully feel they have escaped jobs that were jails. There are people who have been broken by years of idleness, and others who have discovered emotional resources that allow them to endure—even, in a way, to triumph.” Work had become almost an abstraction. Its daily tasks and texture erased and replaced by emotion—bitterness and anger for what was done by employers, desperation for a new paycheck, and, less often, exhilaration spurred by the possibility of starting anew. 

One finds much of the same affects in a book published more than 30 years after Maurer’s Not Working, this one by D.W. Gibson, also titled Not Working. Instead of stagflation, the setting for Gibson’s oral history of workers was the unemployment fallout of the 2007-8 financial crisis. As in Maurer’s book, Gibson’s oral history described how “routines are obliterated, not enough sleep, too much sleep, too much booze—insurance is skipped, roll the dice and hope for the best. Too much food, not enough food, trying to eat different food.” Yet for all the similarities in the experiences of unemployment collected by Maurer and Gibson, there are also profound differences. Mainly, where “stagflation” marked mass and prolonged unemployment as a confusing and historically unique catastrophe, by the time one hears from Gibson’s unemployed one loses a sense of the provisional nature of economic life. 

For some of Gibson’s interviewees, this was only the latest tragedy in a longer-term catastrophe. Mike Nurmela, for instance, hailed from the Bay Area. His grandparents were eastern European immigrants, his father was a carpenter, and his mother “a well-educated secretary.” He was born in 1951 and was “the first one in my family to go to college,” eventually heading into consumer lending for 25 years before working for a host of different companies. One of those companies went under when the dot-com bubble burst. It was the first of what would be several layoffs. By the time Gibson interviewed Mike Nurmela in the wake of the financial crisis, he was on the verge of losing his home even after draining all of his and his wife’s 401K.

One gets a glimpse of economic life after the New Deal order in Mike’s biography. “I’m one of those kids that grew up in that era when you had hope and you had dreams that you could see and touch and reach out for and get. You knew you were going to get it,” said Mike. “It was the middle class dream my generation dreamed about and it doesn’t exist anymore.” This was no lonely lament. This sentiment is widespread and well known to economists. Indeed, one economist, David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth, recently wrote a book attempting to explain it, aptly titling the volume, once again, Not Working

Blanchflower shows how official unemployment rates hardly tell the full story of work in the long downturn, a story defined by underemployment, stagnant wages, falling labor market participation, and other grim, if familiar, statistics: drug and alcohol addiction and falling life expectancy. The neoliberal fetish for “labor market flexibility” hasn’t produced more efficiency but rather low wages and, in turn, low productivity. Blanchflower’s solution—full employment through low interest rates and public investment—might be sensible enough but ignores the fact that the levers of economic life lie not only in the hands of those already powerful enough to make policy, but also potentially in those of ordinary people organizing in homes, parking lots, restaurants, offices, and even colleges where ideas and social bonds are forged and reconstituted. 

The power to pull work from its pitiful station—that is, to transform economic life as we know it—does not and cannot lie solely in the hands of economists and policymakers. What the pandemic economy has exposed is a change, however slight, in the ideological terrain of American capitalism. Pulled out of the workforce by newfound caregiving demands, health concerns, and relatively generous unemployment insurance benefits (at least by American standards), many former low-wage workers have had time to reflect on just how hurried and horrendous their work life used to be. Some of them are holding out for something better. Business owners call this a labor shortage. Workers might call this a tiny glimpse of labor power. “A particular ideological chain becomes a site of struggle,” Stuart Hall once wrote, “not only when people try to displace, rupture or contest it by supplanting it with some wholly new alternative set of terms, but also when they interrupt the ideological field and try to transform its meaning by changing or rearticulating its associations.” When workers change the understanding of work from something one simply does to something that dominates them, then work becomes the site of struggle, the potential site for liberation. But to do that, they have to make things again. They have to make power moves.


Joel Suarez is an Assistant Professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and a Fellow-In-Residence at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. He is working on a book on the relationship between work and ideas of freedom in U.S. history.

Featured Image: Janet Delaney, “Privately-Owned Public Space, LinkedIn Building,” 2016, from Delaney’s ongoing project, SoMa Now.