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Intellectual history Think Piece

Romanticism before Romanticism?: Anglo-Rioplatense Cultural Encounters in the Early Nineteenth-Century (1806-1834)

By Daniela Paolini

Chronologies do not necessarily match among different societies, and the variation in Romantic periods across the globe is a good example of that. We could say that Britain, along with Germany, was the birthplace of Romanticism, an aesthetic tendency that emerged at the end of the 18th century, spread through Europe during the first decades of the next century, until it reached the Río de la Plata region –most of which would become present-day Argentina and Uruguay– thanks to the poet Esteban Echeverría, who brought the literary novelties from his trip to Paris. Thus, influenced by French Romanticism, Echeverría published Los consuelos, usually considered the first Rioplatense romantic work, in 1834, at a time when British Romanticism was extinguishing. This is a general but well-established approach to the diffusion of Romanticism as a literary movement, which goes from the center of Western culture to its margins with a certain delay, as if the “denial of coevalness” –the distancing in time of contemporary cultures made by the anthropological observer– could also be applied to processes of transculturation. However, before the alleged incorporation of French Romanticism via Echeverría, the creole elite of the Río de la Plata saw Britain as a desirable ally and model for the future nation; furthermore, economic, political, and cultural relations were frequent between the two during Britain’s Romantic period. Is it possible then to think that the cultural practices and discourses of Romanticism could have had an earlier impact in this part of Latin America, through the bonds that Rioplatenses and Britons forged in the first third of the 19th century?

This question is the starting point of my research on the cultural encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata between 1806 and 1834, in which I consider the synchrony of these encounters with the rising of British Romanticism. Taking this into account, I turn to the analysis of periodicals, letters, poems, memoirs, biographies, historical essays, and travel narratives that deal with these Anglo-Rioplatense networks and that indicate changes in Río de la Plata’s ways of perceiving, understanding, and feeling, which can be related to the cultural sensibility emerging in Britain during the Romantic age. The chronological frame covers the period of British Romanticism’s major activity and ends up before the rise of the avowedly Romantic 1837 Generation, a group of young intellectuals led by Echeverría, whose literary and political programs would be tied to the fight against the second government of Juan Manuel de Rosas (1835-1852). Prioritizing direct encounters –i.e., those that occur by in situ contacts through wars, travels and settlements– and readings that are not mediated by other cultures –in English and in Spanish, or in translations between these two–, I focus on four contact zones: the British occupations of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (1806-1807), the diplomatic journeys to London during the revolutionary years (1810-1816), the British residences in Río de la Plata since the British Invasions until the beginning of Rosas’s second government (1806-1835), and Rudolph Ackermann’s publications for Latin America, which circulated in Rioplatense society through this period (1823-1829).

The British invasions into the Río de la Plata marks a first contact zone, a concept that emphasizes the interactive, unforeseen, and mutually significant aspects of cultural encounters, even if they are determined by asymmetrical relations. While Britain turned its imperial ambitions to this part of Spanish America –conceiving the capture of Buenos Aires on the 27th of June 1806 as a chivalric enterprise, part of its crusade against Napoleonic expansion– the Rioplatenses experienced the loss of the Viceroyalty’s capital as a shock of modernity that disrupted the peaceful and stable course of colonial life. After forty-six days in which Buenos Aires belonged to the British Crown, the locals gathered in newly formed militias that recaptured the city on the 12th of August, a victory that infused, in the words of the British Major Alexander Gillespie, a “new spirit of chivalry” (Gleanings and Remarks, 1818) among the Rioplatenses, so initiating a militarization process that would later be crucial in the emancipation of the Spanish American colonies. In this sense, the war with the Britons modified the self-perception of the people of Buenos Aires as patriots and warriors, in a similar way as how Romantic Britain saw its fight in the Napoleonic wars through an imaginary recovery of Medieval values, like bravery, honor, and spiritual devotion. The second British attempt to take Buenos Aires over in July 1807, made while seizing control of Montevideo, brought with it a new media and visual experience, expressed in the circulation of British propaganda and of a bilingual periodical, The Southern Star (1807), which inaugurated the print culture of the Banda Oriental (present-day Uruguay). These materials politicized the Rioplatense public sphere by spreading ideas of free trade, freedom of expression and religious tolerance that advocated for new ways of living and engaging with the world, challenging the foundations of the colonial system.

After this frustrated enterprise, Britain became an important supporter of Spanish American emancipation, which was a means to expand its commercial and political power through alliance rather than formal imperial dominance. During the revolutionary years that led towards independence in the Río de la Plata (1810-1816), London was a key destination –and lieu of the second contact zone– as a negotiation center to open the local economy to the British and international markets, as a place of mediation in the disputes between the former colonies and the metropolis, and as a meeting point with other Spanish-American revolutionaries. However, far from being an ideal scenario, the English capital presented a complex situation, because the British government was trying to appear neutral in the conflict between Spain and its colonies, among other circumstances that hindered diplomatic relations. In this context, Rioplatenses envoys like Manuel Moreno and Vicente Pazos Kanki found another way to fulfill their missions through their insertion in the London periodical press and book market, partaking in the same cultural scene in which the British Romantics intervened. After the failure of the mission assigned to Mariano Moreno, who died at sea before reaching London, his brother Manuel Moreno had to find other means to fulfill the trip’s purpose and vindicate the memory of Mariano, accused by his opponents of being a Rioplatense version of Robespierre. With that in mind, he wrote and published in London the biography of his brother, Vida y memorias del Dr. Don Mariano Moreno (1812), where he depicts a moderate concept of the 1810 May Revolution more attractive to the conservative British eye, and an image of the deceased revolutionary that consecrates him as a civic hero, who sacrificed himself for an ideal. For Vicente Pazos Silva, the London experience meant an identity transformation, because during his stay he converted to Anglicanism, and on his return to Buenos Aires he adopted his mother’s indigenous name, replacing “Silva” for “Kanki”. This transformation can be linked with his future role as a cultural organizer in the Rioplatense press and with his way of recovering the past, customs, and languages of the Native-Americans in his Letters on the United Provinces of South America (1819), which manifests his interest in historical reconstruction to better understand the contemporary situation of the South American countries. Thus, Moreno’s and Pazos’s literary operations can be associated to the formation of Romantic culture in Britain, characterized by the disenchantment with concrete political action, the propagation of nationalist sentiments and historicist discourses, and the construction of the Romantic hero as a misunderstood and sacrificed genius.

In the 1820s, British interest in Spanish America began to increase as a result of invitations to emigrate and to invest economically in the promising new republics. In the Río de la Plata, the Minister of Government in Buenos Aires, Bernardino Rivadavia, applied a modernization plan that encouraged a considerable number of British foreigners to reside and establish their businesses in the region, whose residences shaped the third contact zone of this research. A group of them, including Santiago Spencer Wilde, financed the creation of a park inspired by London’s Vauxhall Garden, the Parque Argentino, where people could promenade in an environment adorned with exotic plants and be entertained by theatrical and circus performances. British merchants influenced the acquisition of a local taste for foreign commodities, popularizing tableware patterns with rural and exotic motifs, which embodied the feeling of romantic nostalgia in the face of advancing industrialization. The social ties between Britons like John and William Parish Robertson (Letters on South America, 1843) and members of the Rioplatense elite like Ignacio Núñez (Noticias Históricas de la República Argentina, 1857)and Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson (Recuerdos de la Buenos Aires Virreinal, c.1860) inspired the adoption of new habits and manners, such as greeting each other at the table with a glass or walking arm in arm, practices that are associated with the shape of a more modern and liberal society. These changes in customs and fashions and in ways of inhabiting the land which separates work and leisure, public and private, rural and urban spaces are sustained by a romantic experience of the visual, leading to a gradual awareness that the visible depends as much on the perceptible as on the imagined.

Rudolph Ackermann’s cultural project for Latin America is the last contact zone of this series. The German publisher, bookseller, inventor, and businessman, settled in London since 1787, was a relevant figure that contributed to the shaping of middle-class culture in Early 19th century Britain. He saw works of art as commodities that could facilitate the democratization of good taste, and his colorful plates and engravings, magazines, and other publications meant to teach cultural literacy to their audience. This type of undertaking attracted the attention of Spanish-American representatives in London that wanted to civilize their countries through the dissemination of enlightened knowledge, like Rivadavia, who attended Ackermann’s literary meetings in the 1810s. Rivadavia, who later became the first president of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (1826-1827), arranged with the businessman the importation of magazines (e.g. Variedades o el mensajero de Londres, 1823-1825), books (e.g. Spanish Translation of Ivanhoe, 1825), literary annuals (No me olvides, 1824-1829), and secular catechisms made by a group of liberal Spaniards exiled in London, among them José María Blanco White and José Joaquín de Mora. These writers –often included in what is called Transatlantic Romanticism– managed to use Ackermann’s publications to disseminate their aesthetic and ideological interests, which contrasted with what they considered “frivolous” aspects of sections dedicated to fashion or picturesque travel. Such contrasts materialized the disputes at stake in Romantic era Britain, transmitting tensions between high culture and mass culture, knowledge and entertainment, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, to the Rioplatense reading public.  

These encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata show the many forms in which cultural connections can be manifested, such as through sociability, intervention in the public sphere, taste acquisition, or cultural ventures. This way, we seek to detect unexpected phenomena of transculturation, that are affected by an emerging state of new experiences –which we can critically described as “romantic”– in a period of Argentine and Uruguayan cultural history considered predominantly Neoclassical. By looking for transformations in sensibility –changes in ideas and concepts, but also in emotions, beliefs, values, and perceptions that are not necessarily defined or rationalized at the moment they are experienced– we can explore how contact with British culture prepared the sociocultural setting of the Río de la Plata for the assimilation of Romantic sensibility at a time prior to its appearance as a literary movement.


Daniela Paolini is a doctoral candidate at the Universidad de Buenos Aires working on cultural encounters between the Río de la Plata area and Great Britain during Britain’s Romantic Period. Currently, she also teaches 19th century Argentine Literature at this university and, as a doctoral fellow, she develops her research at the Instituto de Literatura Hispanoamericana. She has published an article on Mariano Moreno’s biography in Cuadernos de Ilustración y Romanticismo and a chapter in a book on Gothic Fiction in Argentine Literature, both in open access.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia.

Featured Image: La Reconquista de Buenos Aires (1909) by Charles Fouqueray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Think Piece

Listening to Geese: The Non-Human, Art, and The Possibilities of Global Thought (Part I)

By Nina Fouilloux

One of the most prevalent issues in Canada today, that has dominated media coverage, the Supreme Court, scholarship, and activism, is the concession of land in Canada to its Indigenous peoples. Countless court cases have been held over decades, where judges and Indigenous advocates are left to interpret the vague land claims in Canadian law. Although many successes have been achieved, notably the creation of section 35 in the Constitution Act which grants Indigenous peoples land claims, the more court cases arise, the more the court is left to interpret what exactly these land claims entail: R. v. Sioui (1990) left the court wondering whether or not land agreements made in the eighteenth century were still valid in contemporary times, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) left judges debating whether or not oral history could be used as evidence for a land claim, and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014) highlighted whether a land claim required regular occupation of the land in question. This large disconnect between what the law addresses and what cases are actually being brought forward is emblematic of the competing theories at stake when it comes to managing land in Canada: there is Indigenous land theory, which has been given little to no authority for centuries, and Euro-Canadian theory, which has dominated and structured all of Canada since its colonization period. Reconciling these theories has proven to be a highly emotional and contentious affair, worsening national division, and echoing issues of land, belonging and borders across Turtle Island and the world. What I propose in this study is a mediation to this debate, an encouragement to broaden our use of theory, and a uniquely Canadian solution: listening to geese.

We all have memories of them, whether it be getting pecked in the park or discovering a flock in a corner of the Earth you never thought possible, every Canadian remembers looking up at the sky in bewilderment at a large “V” formation, with its sporadic loud cackle drifting away in the wind. The beaver may be the national animal of Canada, and the polar bear may be its rarest sight, but the Canadian goose is truly Canada’s national symbol. My mother used to point to them in the sky when I was young and cup her hands to yell: “You’re flying the wrong way, Mexico is that way!”. Despite her comedic attempts, the geese were most likely flying the right way. In fact, geese have a strict migratory pattern determined by the seasons: in colder months, they fly down south to escape the chill and find food, and in warmer months, they fly back north to reproduce. Due to this, Canadian geese can be found in most parts of North America and have a unique reputation for not respecting boundaries: geese are often considered pests for nesting on private properties like golf courses and will even be culled in areas where they are deemed unwanted. Despite this, the geese do not cease; they are not interested in performing border politics, they cannot differentiate private property from public, and they interact differently with land than most humans do.

In response to the debate mentioned above and the theoretical limitations that exist, I will attempt to demonstrate how considering an undervalued theoretical angle: that of the non-human, can help broaden our use of theory to find solutions to global and complex issues. On top of this, I will vow for the use of creative art in helping provide theoretical framework in which to conceptualize global theory. In relying on the framework set out by researcher Thom van Dooren on human and non-human relationships, this study will find that theorizing the movement and behavior of Canadian geese allows for the exploration of concepts related to land, such as borders and private property, in a broader way that creates a dialectical process between the human and non-human, which in turn, participates in the creation of a more holistic approach to theory.

Known for his pioneering research on crows around the world, Professor Thom van Dooren is an advocate of “field philosophy”, a type of philosophy which emphasizes a hands-on approach to theorizing the world, a method which van Dooren utilizes heavily in his study of the non-human. It is out of this that van Dooren elaborates his theory on “multispecies ethics” which operates on the basis that it is possible to live in harmony with other species when considering different world views around an issue, for example, climate change and its effects on humans and crows. Therefore, in studying different crow groups around the world, van Dooren was able to create a “two-species ethics” for how crows and humans can interact with their environment; he does so by outlining how each group interacts differently or similarly with concepts such as hope, community, and sacrifice. The main aspect of van Dooren’s research that is relevant to us is his push to “think with others”, which he describes as a “philosophy that is engaged and committed, interdisciplinary and experimental, grounded in collaboratively imagining, understanding, and crafting better possibilities for life.” It is within this push to “think with others” that I propose to “listen to geese”. Listening to geese is similar to thinking with crows: it does not entail extracting how the non-human thinks about an issue and then attempting to respond in that exact same way, but rather it is about broadening our philosophical landscape, collecting data from different sources in order to find solutions that cater to a larger group. Therefore, the first concept Canadian geese and their interactions with land allows us to reflect on in that of borders.

For Canadian geese, borders are determined by physiological changes in their bodies, not by politics. Studies in goose migration find that there are several physiological reactions that make geese know when and where to migrate, including sun positioning, olfactory stimuli, and magnetoception. All of these methods give Canadian geese somewhat of an internal compass, but it remains difficult for scientists to explain exactly why geese know where to return to the same places every year. Nonetheless, since geese must travel and follow their internal signal to ensure their survival, they naturally cross borders without question: geese can be found all over Canada, the United States and in northern Mexico. Beyond North America, the geese have been introduced in Europe in countries such as the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden, but also in places such as New Zealand, Chile, and Japan. It is this seeming boundlessness and global citizenship that has made the goose a symbol of freedom and a sort of challenge to the idea of nationally constructed borders. Here, we see the idea of borders themselves as challenged by the goose’s movement: they cannot respect politically determined borders as they simply do not see them and cannot respect them at the risk of their livelihood. Thus, by considering that the non-human, in this case, geese, do not see borders and thus cannot follow border politics adequately, we are then capable of putting the notion of borders into question and considering their fluidity and potential to change, as well as the potential for territory to be shared throughout different seasons and between different species and people. However, goose theory can go much further.

Another concept that Canadian geese compel us to think about in relation to land is that of “private property”, notably due to the fact that geese are considered pests when they are on “human property”. In fact, in areas where they are considered pests, hunting will be increased. In New Zealand in 2011, farmers who deemed Canadian geese as damaging to their crops successfully lobbied the government in order to have the geese be considered as abundant hunting game, putting them on the same scale as sparrows and pigeons, considerably increasing their risk of being killed. On the other hand, in 2018, the West Essex Golf Club in England, employed hunters in order to control the number of Canadian geese on their courses which they deemed got in the way of player’s shot’s. If we consider the point made earlier, that geese do not perform borders like we do, it is easy to see how, when putting the non-human and human in relation to each other, some ideas, here, that of private property, simply cannot coexist, compelling us to remember that the concept itself is a Western European construct that is not necessarily incontestable.

On top of these lessons which rely mostly on the freedom of the goose’s movement, there are many we can learn from their compromise as well. In fact, despite its seaming boundlessness, the Canada goose does know the “here” from the “there”: even if it does not understand crossing borders in the way we do, it still physiologically recognizes when it is in breeding grounds versus its feeding grounds, in some way meaning it can conceptualize borders similarly to how humans do. Thus, the Canada goose’s unconditional defiance of borders might actually not be much to romanticize. In fact, it has been shown that border walls, such as the U.S. – Mexico border can confuse Canadian geese during their migration, due to things like noise and light pollution, making them unable to migrate adequately, therefore putting their populations at risk. Similarly, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl has actually been shown to not be able to cross the U.S. – Mexico border walls, thus affecting its livelihood. Here, we see the emergence of an interesting dialectic between the human and non-human: it is not just that we as humans must “listen to geese” in order to find inter-human solutions, but that we must also create interspecies dialogue in order to mediate the negative effects that inter-human debates have on animals. Essentially, this requires reflecting on the concept of coexistence, something van Dooren places at the center of his multispecies ethics. Thus, when considering land and borders, it is relevant to explore what these concepts mean to all species involved. In doing this, dialogue on the need to reevaluate the ethos of borders can be created to mediate land debates in Canada. Moreover, this type of dialogue can go beyond the idea of borders and private property but can perhaps also allow for the revaluation of concepts such as land value, tradition, and community, which affects Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but also the non-human.

When it comes to the land debate in Canada and similar debates around the world, there is no catch-all solution: Canadian geese themselves are not the answer, and exclusively theorizing the non-human is not the theoretical push needed to breach the limitations presented by the land debate. However, by listening to geese, we can remember to think, because in doing so, one can deconstruct ideas such as that of borders, challenge them, meditate on their meaning, which in turn, has the potential to change in order to promote harmony. It is this reevaluation of borders, through the lens of something that views them drastically differently than we do and is affected by them differently, that will help us enrich our global thought.  

Theorizing the non-human to discuss concepts of land may be novel, but in some ways, this theorization has already been occurring for decades in the works of Canadian artists, who’s creations are rarely ever considered as intellectual material with the potential to participate in the creation of theory. Part II will discuss how artists have been “listening to geese” for centuries and how art can pose as valued theoretical material.


Nina Fouilloux is a MA student at the University of St Andrews in Global Social and Political Thought. Her primary research interests revolve around Canadian politics and Indigenous studies, specifically Indigenous political thought and intellectual history, reconciliation, and decolonization. She holds a BA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a double major in Political Science and Art History.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Geese Family in Dowtown Toronto, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Virtual Issues

NonHuman Intellectual History—On the Treatment of Animals: Virtual Issue 1.2

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the first being Nonhumans in Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

      — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors


The second installment of our Virtual Issue feature on Nonhuman Intellectual History provides a selection of articles from the Journal of History of Ideas which have focussed broadly on one central question: how have texts discussed the ‘treatment of animals’? Or to make the anthropocentrism clear, how have humans historically conceptualized animals, their behavioral patterns and their cognitive capacities, and treated them based on that? All the articles in the list below, curated by the executive editor of the JHI, Stefanos Geroulanos, and introduced here by the JHI blog’s primary editor Shuvatri Dasgupta, are inspiring in their own ways. Whilst some focus on Darwin, Aristotle, and similar canonical thinkers to understand ways in which animals were conceptualized, others focus on histories of objects, and also consider encyclopedias as sources for nonhuman knowledge and history. Through these virtual issues on the JHI blog, we hope to provide some methodological indications of what nonhuman intellectual history may look like, and what its stakes would be. 

  • Copenhaver, Brian P. “A Tale of Two Fishes: Magical Objects in Natural History from Antiquity Through the Scientific Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 52, no. 3 (1991): 373-98. doi:10.2307/2710043.
  • Guerrini, Anita. “The Ethics of Animal Experimentation in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 50, no. 3 (1989): 391-407. doi:10.2307/2709568.
  • Margócsy, Dániel. “Refer to Folio and Number”: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus.” Journal of the History of Ideas 71, no. 1 (2010): 63-89. doi:10.1353/jhi.0.0069.
  • McCalla, Arthur. “Palingenesie Philosophique to Palingenesie Sociale: From a Scientific Ideology to a Historical Ideology.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 3 (1994): 421-39. doi:10.2307/2709848.

As I mentioned before, it is better to acknowledge at the outset, the anthropocentrism that the question of ‘treatment of animals’ itself is laden with. It is related to the scarcity of intellectual histories which can potentially engage with the ways in which animals have treated each other. In order to address this, it is imperative to move beyond the text as the sole source for intellectual history writing, and open the doors for interdisciplinary methods inspired by biology, anthropology, and feminist theory. This is not to reject the textuality altogether, but rather to suggest that reading texts such as Aristotle on the behavior of bees, alongside works of biologists like Thomas D. Seeley provides a crucial indication of the ways in which we can address this question. In this regard, pioneering work of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlika titled ‘Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights’ provides some methodological indications on how the discipline of political thought might consider animals as actors within their own sovereign and self-sustaining communities. Through that the authors place animals at the heart of political theory and construct the nonhuman subject as a rights bearing political actor. Anthropologists and biologists have observed animal behavior towards one another which have enriched us with crucial insights on animal labor theory, socio-political organization, nonhuman kinship and care, and mutual interdependence

The other methodological stake which calls for discussion within the context of these groundbreaking articles from the JHI archive is the question of Eurocentrism, and how that shapes the field of nonhuman intellectual history. Buddhist and Jain political theologies in South and Southeast Asia were sustained on a foundation of animal ethics and morality. In recent times scholars have devised creative methodologies for thinking about the nonhuman in non Eurocentric ways. Sugata Roy’s innovative work ‘Climate Change and the Art of Devotion’ shows how manuscripts and their illustrations can be thought of as sources for an art history of climate change, animal treatment and habitat. Sumana Roy’s fantastic work ‘How I Became a Tree’ engages with approaches towards trees and animals in literary texts and thinkers from within and beyond South Asia. 

Illustrations from the Manuscript of Baburnama, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is much to be done in terms of thinking about animals as meaning-makers.  It would require posing questions which elude easy answers such as: where and how can we locate animal agency within anthropocentric archives, which have their own set of violent hierarchies (of class, race, gender, caste, and ethnicity)? It would require methodological innovations such as considering observational studies, and oral histories, alongside canonical and non-canonical textual sources. At times, it would need moving beyond textual sources, and taking into account visual archives. Moreover, it would need intellectual historians to rethink the species divide. The methodology for thinking about nonhuman intellectual history focusing on animals would need to be based on an ethics of care-giving as a means to move beyond anthropocentrism. Within that framework, caring for the nonhuman would place them as agents of their own narrative. Caring would also enable historians to move beyond their authorial subjectivities as chroniclers of these animal intellectual histories, and account for the implicit epistemic hierarchies embedded within archives. Thus, it would allow their subjects to articulate their stories, and this caring methodology would therefore manifest as letting the nonhuman speak in ways that it has always desired!


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Wash drawing of a sculptured post from the railing of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya, by Markham Kittoe, 19th Century. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Think Piece

In Defense of Vanilla: Decolonizing a Historical Metaphor

By Ulrike Schaper

What can metaphors tell us about historical analysis? Why is it important to keep in mind the conceptual history of certain terms? And what has vanilla got to do with it? In his recent book Sex, France and Arab Men 1962-1967, Todd Shepard introduces the metaphor of ‘vanilla histories of the West’ to criticize histories that “erase the importance of people of color” and “ignore or ghettoize” their voices. Drawing on the US-American association of the term ‘vanilla’ with conventional sex, Shepard also argues against ‘vanilla histories of sex’ that “pretend that its multiple valences and diverse forms are best ignored” (16). In doing so, Shepard refers to two colloquial usages of vanilla as an adjective, one meaning “sexually conventional,” the other “racially white.” A term loaded with racialized and sexual connotations, vanilla history points to potentially productive overlaps and interrelations between race and sexuality.

Thus ‘vanilla’ is frequently used as a label to criticize historical research that omits people of color and non-normative sex as well as their intersections. In doing so, vanilla histories ignore the significance of race for sexual politics and desire. Distancing herself from vanilla histories, in Insurgent Intimacies, Chelsea Schields explores precisely this intersection of sex, race and politics, when she examines the significance of sexual politics for anti-racist activism of Antillean leftists in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles in the 1960s and 1970s. Analyzing decolonizing struggles through the lens of sexual politics, Schields attempts to reconceive the “substance and geography of the sexual revolution.” She relates her approach to a larger project of overcoming vanilla histories: histories with a “white cast of characters” (99) that were exclusively centered around Europe and the US. 

Similarly, in 2021, Schields organized the panel Beyond Vanilla History that assembled perspectives on both non-heteronormative sex and non-white and (post)-colonial contexts and actors. Furthermore, in a roundtable discussion, Shepard’s book was acknowledged for foregrounding the close connection between sex and politics. The success of this endeavor was linked to a peculiar use of the term ‘vanilla histories’ which provocatively dwelled on the multi-dimensional connotations of the metaphor ‘vanilla’ and the political fantasies it congealed.

The term vanilla history as it is currently used therefore provides a strong and multi-faceted image in which racial and sex-related associations intersect. However, I argue that it is not enough to use its imaginative implications that link race and sex. We also have to critically reflect, historicize, and expose the images this term evokes in order to not perpetuate its problematic meanings. If we want to take the metaphor of vanilla serious, we have to take a closer look. Before delving into a new reading of vanilla histories, I will illustrate some of the problematic implications the term vanilla histories in its current usage holds. I argue that the term fails to give credit to the complicated history of vanilla—both the spice and its metaphor—and even helps to consolidate colonial and racist ideas.

My reflection on this metaphor started with a confusion. A fan of vanilla flavor, I was struck that a spice with such intensity of taste became a label for boringness, normality, and “lacking distinction.” I am not alone in stumbling over this paradox which is usually explained with reference to vanilla being the most basic ice cream flavor by the 1950s. In Vanilla. The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance, Patricia Rain, too, argues that ice cream was the most common vanilla product once the spice became widely available. Because vanilla contained no other ingredients and had a subtle taste and color, it became synonymous with plain and common. Rain traces this use of vanilla from the aviation industry in the 1940s to the clothing industry in the 1950-60s. She only vaguely alludes to the appropriation of the term in queer and BDSM movements. In the 1970s, especially in the US gay movement, vanilla came to refer to conventional, particularly non BDSM sex. 

Bruce Rodger’s dictionary of gay slang, Gay Talk. Formerly entitled The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon, lists vanilla as non SM (184) or “rigid, conforming, goody-goody” (205). This usage of the term, is however, important for Shepard’s coining of the term vanilla histories of sex. I argue that Shepard’s idea of vanilla histories is Anglo-centric, or even US-centric, as it relies on the already metaphorical use in the English language the—association of vanilla with whiteness as well as conventional/non BDSM—without exposing, the extent to which the concept of vanilla histories is embedded in this cultural context.

If we label histories of the West as ‘vanilla’ that omit people of color the term serves as a metaphor for whiteness. But if ‘vanilla’ symbolizes all-white histories of the West, its antithesis is lingering just around the corner: chocolate. In Chocolate and Blackness. A Cultural History, Silke Hackenesch illuminated the often troubling entanglements between  the two. Following cocoa production and its links to slavery and colonialism and unveiling how tightly chocolate and Blackness were linked in advertising and popular culture she shows how chocolate has been used as a metaphor for the racialization and eroticization of Blackness.

Bearing in mind this history, I wonder if the term vanilla does not undermine the attempt to take people of color as historical actors seriously. If the term vanilla history marks a hegemonic white perspective which erases the views and actions of people of color, does this not implicitly associate these alternative narratives with ‘chocolate,’ thus burdening histories beyond vanilla with racist imagery?

Even more importantly, and quite ironically, the term ‘vanilla’ undermines the attempt to achieve more diverse, inclusive and decolonized narratives. We need histories that include people of color with an openness to how that inclusion changes our perceptions of developments that are usually imagined—at least implicitly—as white. Striving for such histories is part of a broader attempt to make marginalized voices heard and ongoing repercussions of colonialism visible; an attempt which draws on discussion within post-colonial theory and black studies. 

In this vein, I value Shepard’s marvellous contribution to this endeavor as he systematically reconsiders the role of Arab men in the French sexual revolution. “Against (French) vanilla history” (14), he weaves together histories of migration and sexuality. However, I do not think the term ‘vanilla history of the West’ is wisely chosen to label the antithesis of what Shepard and others aim for. Nor does it help the political agenda to go beyond white histories.

After all, the vanilla spice—the referent behind the metaphor—has in fact a long and complex colonial history that is anything but white. Obtained from the pods of the vanilla plant (vanilla planifolia), which originated in Mexico, the spice was and still is mostly cultivated in areas (formerly) colonized by European powers. In New Noir. Race identity, and Diaspora in Black Suburbia, Orly Clerge connects the erasure of Black people from history with the history of vanilla. 

Edmond Albius, inventor of a technique for hand pollination of the vanilla plant

In 1841, Edmond Albius, a young enslaved Black man, discovered the pollination technique for cultivating the vanilla plant in the French colony Réunion. This revolutionary discovery—which enabled the cultivation of vanilla outside of Mexico—was soon denied by a slave owner in the region who falsely claimed he had invented the technique. For Clerge, this erasure of Albius’s achievement from history resonates with the twisted image of vanilla representing whiteness in US-American culture; twisted not least, because vanilla, a dark brown spice that used to be called ‘black flower’ is now perceived as white (163). Associations of vanilla with whiteness are fueled by the fact that vanilla flavored products often use cheaper synthetically produced white colored vanillin instead of natural vanilla.

The fact that vanilla represents whiteness goes back to the erasure of its own colonial history and the Black history of its cultivation. Historians that use the term ‘vanilla history’ usually seem not to be aware of these erasures when criticizing vanilla histories. They rather build on and replicate highly problematic associations of vanilla with whiteness when they use it as a label for the kind of history that needs to be overcome.

In its current use, vanilla histories of the West represent the exclusion of everything vanilla might stand for: the Mexican origin of the vanilla plant, Edmond Albius’ contributions to the colonial history of vanilla cultivation, and the discursive processes in which vanilla came to represent whiteness in American culture. The term thus undermines the attempt to make visible, acknowledge, and reintegrate people of color into histories of the West.

Finally, the term vanilla histories is problematic, if it is taken as a metaphor that refers to vanilla literally rather than in its already cultural embedded meaning. When Clerge points to the color paradox of a dark brown spice representing whiteness, she refers to vanilla as a spice rather than a metaphor for white/conventional. Describing actual colors when talking about social categories comes with the price of buying into racist ascriptions of skin color to a visible sign of race. This ascription, however, is a consequence not the origin of racist categories. In Desiring Whiteness. A Lacanian Analysis of Race, Kaplana Seshadri-Crooks argues that the cultural order precedes the racial differences that we see. Race, for her, is thus a regime of looking, a practice of visibility. She argues that we “believe in the factuality of difference in order to see it” (5).

However, even if the color paradox is set aside, the metaphor of vanilla history runs counter to the culinary logic of the spice. In a pudding made with natural vanilla, a small amount of pulp, originating from and being cultivated in socially non-white contexts, gives the pudding its particular vanilla taste. Culinary speaking, one might hence argue, that it is precisely the non-white minority-ingredient that defines the dish’s taste as ‘vanilla.’

Instead of using ‘vanilla’ as the epitome of an all-white history, I therefore propose to reverse and decolonize the metaphor. Vanilla histories, in this understanding, could be histories that draw their attention to agents of color or from (post-)colonial contexts that shaped and defined—or flavored—processes usually narrated as white histories. Such a usage of the term would acknowledge the colonial and Black history of the spice while also commemorating the attempts of its erasure. Vanilla histories in this sense would aim to reveal the often neglected Black and colonial dimensions of their own stories. 

Quinn Slobodian’s Foreign Front could in this sense count as a vanilla history, as it traces the importance of African, Asian, and Latin-American students within the emergence of the West-German students’ movement. It makes visible their contributions to this movement, usually narrated as being driven by white actors alone. Bearing in mind that vanilla is considered an aphrodisiac, and that etymologically, the term vanilla is related to the term vagina, an alternative usage of vanilla history would not even lose the ability to point to the complex intersections of race and sex. Using vanilla history in such an affirmative way contradicts a long-standing and seemingly self-evident metaphorical use of the term vanilla as either white or conventional. Why should that stop us from starting to use it differently?


Ulrike Schaper is Junior Professor of Modern History at the Free University of Berlin. Her research focuses on the global history of Germany in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on debates in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s that dealt with sex tourism and marriage migration. She has worked extensively on German colonialism and received her Ph.D. in 2010 with a study on law and jurisdiction in Cameroon, published in 2012 as Koloniale Verhandlungen – Gerichtsbarkeit, Verwaltung und Herrschaft in Kamerun 1884-1916 by Campus Verlag. 

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Vanilla plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Categories
Intellectual history Think Piece

The Fragility of Ideas: Intellectual History viewed from the South

By Jerónimo Rilla

Medea’s challenge

In his article “Dewey, between Hegel and Darwin,” Richard Rorty identifies tensions between John Dewey’s pragmatism and his idealism, asserting that his pragmatism has the more substantial legacy and is therefore more relevant to the modern reader. Rorty therefore develops an “anachronistic reading of Dewey” which sifts out “what is living” from “what… is dead in Dewey’s thought” (DHD, p. 292). In other words, this method emphasizes Dewey’s pragmatist, positivist, and historicist tendencies over his idealist, panpsychist, or vitalist affiliations. As a pragmatist, Rorty claims that this reading “works better by reference to our purposes, our particular situation in intellectual history” (DHD, p. 303). In Derek Parfit‘s terms, which distinguish between archaeologists, who worry about authorial intention, and grave-robbers, who are only interested in “whatever […] works to the argument,” Rorty operated as a grave-robber, scavenging for nuggets of value in the cemetery of ideas.

When I read Rorty as an undergraduate, I remember thinking “but what about the ‘dead’ remnant?”. Later I discovered contextualism, which would answer that the apparently outdated components of philosophical systems can also be seen as instruments with which we may reconstruct the big picture, revealing the historical meanings at stake, situated in the controversies of the time.

Figure 1. Medea Deceiving the Daughters of  King Pelias into Murdering their Father. NonCommercial license granted by Egisto Sani.

But is that all? What if the dead remnant can be the raw material for the concocting of something fresh? Perhaps Medea’s deception of Pelias’s daughters should warn us against this. Medea told the young women that she could turn an old ram into a lamb by boiling it, and demonstrated this with a magic trick, dismembering a ram and casting it into her cauldron, in which a living lamb indeed appeared. Eager to restore their ailing father to health, the girls likewise chopped their father to pieces and put his remains in the iron pot. Medea had deceived them, and no rejuvenation happened. But are we sure that intellectual rejuvenation is likewise an illusion?  

Two Carloses: Real de Azúa and Roxlo

Figure 2. Carlos Real de Azúa in 1962 via Wikimedia Commons

Carlos Real de Azúa (1916-1977), a Uruguayan intellectual historian, took up this challenge in his 1961 essay “Carlos Roxlo: A popular nationalism [Un nacionalismo popular].” The piece is a scrupulous analysis of the thought of his countryman Carlos Roxlo (1861-1926), the poet (or poetaster), literary critic, ideologue, and politician. Anticipating the accusation that he has devoted undue attention to someone who “falls with nearly his whole weight into the heap of forgettable authors” (CR, p. 42), Real de Azúa asks: Must ideas and authors necessarily be studied in light of their “present relevance [vigencia]” or “timeliness [actualidad]” (CR, p. 43)?

Anyone who has had to fill out a fellowship application will empathize with Real de Azúa’s annoyance at the unspoken injunction to highlight the present value of historical research.

Figure 3. Carlos Roxlo in 1892 via Wikimedia Commons.

[Beyond centenaries and other posthumous symposia] I believe that th[e] obsession with calibrating the current value of a name overlooks a more level-headed approach, which is also more fertile. It forgets that a personality can be valued  –  and valuable – […] because of the simple and modest fact of having become part – the person, their oeuvre, their labors –  of the history of the community to which they belonged (CR, p. 43).

Even “buried” by history, obsolete authors are worthy of consideration, because their ideas have become sediment in the collective past.

At first, we may believe that Real de Azúa is suggesting an exercise of memory conducted sympathetically, with the humane interest of the town chronicler. Pierre Michon attempts a similar kind of benevolent archaeology in Small Lives [Vies Minuscules], evoking local tales, family jewels, and “name[s that] can no longer call up living beings,” [Michon, p. 42] to resuscitate “the dead, the poor dead” [Michon, p. 136] of a little town in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

But Real de Azúa goes a step further. He wishes to vindicate the exploration of ideas that are not only dead now but were already dead when articulated. “Roxlo represented − and he must have known that − the case of one who is born too late for his ways to have been undeniably current, but too soon to have adopted others” (CR, p. 59). Real de Azúa’s interest lies in the mismatch between thought and context, in the “constant offness, the permanent lack of focus that accompanies Roxlo” (CR, p. 54). Real de Azúa does not seek some past idea, discourse, or language, but the viewpoint of a failed intellectual effort and its “tragic” but inevitable “obsolescence” (CR, p. 37).

Real de Azúa emphasizes Roxlo’s eccentricity throughout. Eccentricity in the strictest sense, a displacement from the center of the timeline. Politically, Roxlo adhered to an “epilogistic romanticism,” “already nearly defeated” (CR, p. 51) in Uruguay at the beginning of the twentieth century. A “tense and deliberate” if “impassioned” nationalist, Roxlo had in fact been born in Spain, never dropping his stark European accent, forever doomed to “watch the collectivity from the outside” (CR, p. 51).

Moreover, “politics and intellectual work seemed to overlap in him in a particularly uneasy way,” the latter “infusing the former with a note sometimes naïve, sometimes pedantic, and almost always ineffectual” (CR, p. 58). Roxlo’s inability to influence in the way he desired was symptomatic of a broader historical phenomenon: the disappearance of “a human type with ever less circulation, an ever smaller audience,” the “politician-intellectual” (CR, p. 57).

An intellectual with no formal training, Roxlo resorted to “a strident prolificness to prove his cultural credentials and compensate for the stinging pits of inferiority” (CR, p. 41). As a poet, literary critic, and ideologue, Roxlo suffered from an “irrepressible vein of emotional display” that never managed to settle on an “irreplaceable, definitive, effective word” (CR, p. 38). He shared these traits with Jorge Luis Borges’ deuteragonist in “The Aleph”, Carlos Argentino Daneri. A clumsy writer, “whose mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging, and – all in all – meaningless,” Daneri becomes the gateway to infinitude. He is despite everything the one who reveals the Aleph, “the point where all points meet,” the peephole into numberless universes, to Borges in the depressing basement of his house in Buenos Aires.

Where do the points meet?

Unlike Borges, however, Real de Azúa does not seek to ridicule his object of study. Instead, Roxlo’s outdatedness served as an opportunity to reflect about his own position in the intellectual field of his time.

Figure 4. Borges in 1963 via Wikimedia Commons

Real de Azúa was an eccentric himself, “hardly circumscribable [mal circuible]” (Bernardo Berro, a Puritan in the Storm [un puritan en la tormenta], p. 102) a solecism which he coined to describe the subject of another tragic biography. Real de Azúa was a devout Catholic and a Falangist, if eventually a disenchanted one, in a country that made secularism its trademark. After travelling to Spain and witnessing the Franco regime for himself he wrote a devastating review: Spain from Close Up and from Afar [España, de cerca y de lejos] (1943). “To look at the real,” he pondered, “you have to look at it from an outside perspective. And, when the real is a field of anguish, from an even higher vantage point” (España, p. 10).

As historian, Real de Azúa was continually drawn to characters with a “sorrowful awareness of their singularity” (Bernardo Berro, p. 103), probably because he identified with them. In his introduction to Visible History and Esoteric History [Historia visible e historia esotérica] (1975), Real de Azúa confessed the fear that his texts, “instead of approaches to the history of ideas, were themselves, in their humbleness, objects for the history of ideas, historicizable, dated and superseded without recourse” (Historia visible, p. 11). It is hard not to conclude that Real de Azúa saw himself in Roxlo.

Real de Azúa’s temporal unease had a geographic counterpart. His essay is also an exercise in self-deconstruction as a Latin American thinker. Real de Azúa doubtless experienced, as he says of Roxlo, the “insecurity of the South American intellectual in the face of the omnipresent European comparison” (CR, p. 41). Like Roxlo, Real de Azúa’s only safeguard was his “solid erudition”. He felt obliged to exercise an “omnivorous proficiency” in matters of culture (CR, p. 41). Nonetheless, his “spiritual life always needed orthopedic fittings” (p. 54), the “authorizing prestige” of Europe, to “dignify even the most insignificant acts” (CR, p. 55).

This sense of urgent dependency was a sort of tradition in the Southern Cone: Ricardo Piglia has noted that Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo, the foundational text of Argentine political thought, begins with a “prophetic” gesture: a French epigraph, and, what is worse, a falsely cited one. “A clear sign… of a second-hand, ostentatious culture.”

Just as Daneri is Borges’s gateway to the Aleph, Roxlo is our gateway to the Latin American intelligentsia. He is synecdochic for a continent whose marginality cannot readily be identified either as an irredeemable “condition” or as a surmountable “situation” (Historia visible, p. 42). In Real de Azúa’s words, Latin “America, [a] wounded, incomplete reality; a radiant mud” (España, p. 293).

The fragility of ideas

Back to the initial question: why should we study the untimely, the out of place, the “inexpedient”? Shouldn’t we “make sure that old philosophical ideas do not block the road of inquiry” (DHD, p. 306), as Rorty puts it? Real de Azúa’s answer is not encouraging, but perhaps it is compelling. We explore obsolete ideas in order to unravel the fragility of our craft.

To be sure, Real de Azúa’s object of inquiry, Carlos Roxlo, was parochial, a Latin American ideologue interred in a “double periphery” (CR, p. 52): his own peripheral status and his country’s.

But there is universality. The sophistication and care with which Real de Azúa embarks on the reconstruction of this minor character bear witness to the potential misfortune to which any intellectual undertaking is liable. Real de Azúa’s endeavor points to how difficult it is ever to intervene in the “dialectic of palimpsests” (Historia visible, p. 11) that constitutes the history of ideas. As Real de Azúa has it, even in “geniuses” there is a mismatch between the “diamond core” of their inventiveness and the “set of fragilities” (CR, p. 35), of contingencies, that afflict their real lives and works.

This is also a Borgesian theme. Real de Azúa’s exploration of the tragedy of all intellectual endeavor resembles Rabbi Judah Loew’s exertions in the poem The Golem, culminating in the moment of regret in which he asks: “How could I […]give up my leisure, surely the wisest thing? What made me supplement the endless series of symbols with one more?”

What if all our creativity comes to nothing more than a “drowsy” “simulacrum,” a coarse sally at reproducing inherited ideas? This danger seems to loom especially over Latin American intellectual endeavors, but it is universal.

Real de Azúa’s essay finishes on a gloomy note, alluding to Roxlo’s suicide letter, “the first time in his life he wrote concisely” (CR, p. 60). Roxlo asked to be placed “in a pine coffin, carried in a poor man’s car, and interred in a common grave” (CR, p. 60). His final requests were as little heeded as his ideas had been.

In this way Roxlo’s thought (and Real de Azúa’s?), after a long series of failures, closes the door on itself. Victims of the temptation offered by Medea to the daughters of Pelias, we have accomplished nothing more than to consign Latin American intellectual activity to untimeliness and misplacement once again.

Be that as it may, I prefer a cheerier conclusion: a football analogy. Like Real de Azúa’s tragic heroes, provincial football players lack a suitable present and a fitting place. Their talent is always refracted: they are either exportable commodities, unproven, full of promise, or relics of past glory on a shameful return journey after going off-piste in Europe. And yet, for all that we know that the real game is always somewhere else, their dribbles and feints shine on under the stadium lights. In those fragile moments, no matter how deeply buried, they seem briefly to belong, as Brunetto Latini, to the victors, not to the losers.


Jerónimo Rilla is a postdoctoral fellow at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Argentina. He completed his PhD in 2018 at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His research deals with Hobbes’ political philosophy and with contemporary theories of collective action.

Edited by Elsa Costa

Featured Image: Diego Maradona scoring for Argentinos Juniors against NY Cosmos, 1980, via Wikimedia Commons

Categories
Intellectual history Think Piece

Manufacturing “Internationalism From Below”: Saumyendranath Tagore on Fascism and Ultra-Nationalism

By Manaswini Sen

The rise of authoritarian regimes across the world in the last few decades demands meticulous re-evaluation of the genesis of “authoritarianism” as a system. Considering that the nature and face of fascism have changed considerably over the course of the twentieth century, Ian Kershaw has commented that, “Trying to define “Fascism” is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.” The erstwhile dictators of early twentieth century have given way to our present day strongmen. These politicians have established their totalitarian regimes as leaders of conservative parties which have managed to garner electoral hegemony. This has in turn caused a veritable crisis evident through curtailment of free speech, and a systematic erasure of dissent rendering any sort of opposition a virtual impossibility. Therefore, not only is it imperative to revisit the rich corpus of anti-fascist literature, but it is also crucial to analyze its vernacular reception and reconceptualization, in the works of Indian anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist political thinkers such as Saumyendranath Tagore. This piece contemplates how anti-colonial narratives from the Global South transcended the narrow confines of nationalism, as anti-Fascism and communism was getting intimately entwined with the vision of decolonization generating a truly global discourse.

Tagore was born in 1901 and belonged to the elite upper caste-class group of intellectuals in colonial Bengal, known as the bhadralok. He was the grand-nephew of the renowned poet, artist, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and because of the tremendous cultural capital which the Tagore clan offered him he was trained in performing arts and literature. The Tagores represented a strong voice of dissent against the colonial injustices. The pen was their preferred weapon of offensive; however Saumyendranath broke this stereotype when he joined active mass politics during the heyday of the Gandhian Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s.  His disillusionment with the movement was inevitable as it was  called off in 1922  over a spontaneous incident at Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur in Bihar where a group of protesters were fired upon by the police and in retaliation they set the police station on fire killing all its occupants. . Tagore belonged to the newer brand of trade union vanguards who were caught up in the ebb and flow of mainstream anti-colonial struggle characterized by the Indian National Congress which was essentially a bastion of upper-caste Hindu bhadralok. The general disillusionment with appeasement politics laced with heavy overtures of Hindu revivalism and enchantment towards a new egalitarian world pushed them towards communism. Their transformed political ambitions and visions barely found any niche in an organization hegemonized by upper-class bureaucrats, barristers, and white-collar clerical conglomerates. This disenchantment ensued his acquaintance with the “Language of the class”.  He chanced upon a journal with a fairly unwonted name while traversing the by lanes of Harrison Road in North Calcutta. The unusual nomenclature, Langal (The Plough) triggered his interest, and by writing a letter to its editor, Shamshuddin Ahmad, Tagore’s tryst with Indian communism began. Soon after he joined The Labour Swaraj Party in 1925, Tagore was on the radar of the intelligence officers as “a zealous and dangerous Communist and revolutionary”. However, the Commissioner of Bengal Police, Charles Tegart knew that there would be tremendous public criticism of the British government, if they arrested a member of a Tagore family. In May 1927 Saumyendranath left for the Soviet Union where he attended the Sixth International of the Comintern in 1928. He left for Berlin right after, where his close association with the League Against Imperialism and direct exposure to contemporary European politics led to the sagacious comprehension of the multifarious ways in which “ultra nationalism” can manifest itself and exacerbate the social inequalities besides the political and economic ones.

Saumyndranath became a prolific writer engaging himself in active propaganda against Nazism during this time. The transcontinental ties and the budding solidarities to combat the rising tide of fascism marked an epoch of vibrancy in intellectual and ideological exchange. The inexorable repression from the Gestapo and the Nazi state culminated in his arrest in 1933 on the absurd ground of conspiring to assassinate the Fuhrer. After his release from the prison in Munich, he headed straight to Paris. Paris in the 1930s was a refuge to exiled revolutionaries from different corners of the globe. Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of the range of their ideological adherence, erecting a proletariat front against fascist onslaught was the call of the times. In the bid to counter fascism with communism he became overtly active in the Anti-fascist circles of Paris. These intellectual encounters shaped his political thought and praxis profoundly. The year also marked the release of Hitlarism: the Aryan Rule in Germany, an anthology of his essays written between April and December, divulging the sinister face of Nazism and the racial apartheid engendered by it.

In the article, Who Paved the Way for Fascism in Germany?, he highlighted how the German socialists had betrayed the interests of the working-class. In the garb of stabilizing the economy of the country after the First World War, they had systematically deprived workers of their basic rights as unemployment and fall in the standard of living became rampant. This essay was a scathing attack on Socialists like Ebert Noske and their pivotal role in the assassination of dissenting communist voices like Karl Liebrecht and Rosa Luxemburg. He critiqued the counter-revolutionary nature of the Socialists and pointed out their capitalist roots which caused them to launch a flagrant onslaught on the communists.  Their sheer apathy towards the downtrodden led to the displacement of the International theory of ‘solidarity of the working class’ with the bourgeois theory of ‘solidarity of all classes’. Tagore, like many of his contemporary socialists and communists were conflicted on the question of  class collaboration with the Bourgeoisie to launch any revolutionary struggle due to the intrinsic dialectical relationship between the classes, denouncing the theory of “solidarity of all classes” against “solidarity of the working class”.   What transpired was the most vicious of crimes against humanity orchestrated by the authoritarian German state in the form of Anti-Semitic violence. In his speech delivered at a protest meet in Paris around September 1933 against the Reichstag Fire, Tagore emphasized that racial bigotry against Jews served two specific purposes, ‘one is to divert the class struggle of working-class into blind alleys of racial struggle’, and second was holding the Jews accountable for the economic distresses of the German mass. He described the Nazi regime as a diabolical ‘racial cannibalism’ and called for condemnation by any “civilized individual. Scholars have dealt with his views on Nazism whilst assessing the broader Indian intellectual response to, and ties with, the Third Reich. However his deliberations on Italian Fascism often get overlooked in these works though, his monograph titled, Fascism (1934) written in Bengali, was one of the earliest Bengali critiques of an authoritarian state. This tract encapsulates conscientiously his perspective on fascism anchored in Imperialism, expansionism, and ultra nationalism (‘ugro-jatiyotabad’).  Through a careful dissection of the body politic of the Italian fascist state, he analyzed how Fascism effectively used jingoism, and insecurities of the petty bourgeoisie to create and legitimize a centralized government which aimed at erasing individual dissent and agency. In the preface, he writes,

 with the imminent crisis of the 20th-century dawning upon us never before in the history of mankind the world has been polarized into two specific camps: the Communists and the Bourgeoisie. Despite coming from disparate backgrounds all sections of the bourgeoisie ultimately have the common goal of saving capitalism, and hence pits itself as the class enemy of the proletariat. As the decisive moment of the Working-class revolution is nearing, the insecurities among these various sections of the Bourgeoisie are making them endorse various fascist groups. The days of saving capitalism through bourgeois liberalism are long gone. Hence, they have given up the facade of democracy and liberalism and have resorted to the use of brute force. (Tagore, Fascism, p.7)

His ‘longue duree’ approach towards analyzing the genesis of fascism can be seen in his essay, Mussolini, in which he makes a comparative study of the dictator’s writing before and after the initiation of The First World War(1914-19).  By looking at Mussolini’s pieces in socialist mouthpieces like Avanti and later Il Popolo d’Italia, Tagore illustrated how he used the veil of socialism to win the trust of the working-class and recruit them in an imperialist bourgeoisie war to serve the interests of their class enemies.  He advised the masses to stay neutral during Italy’s war efforts against Austria in the initial days, but by the end of 1914 he engaged in vigorous war propaganda inciting popular sentiments through the tool of ‘patriotism’ and ‘love and sacrifice for the motherland’. The anthology stands out owing to its range, encompassing theoretical rumination on fascism as well as analysis which emerged from his punctilious observations of the regime during his stay in Italy. Critiquing Mussolini’s false claim that he will improve the standard of living of the Italian mass, despite the Global Depression of 1929, Tagore wrote Fascism and the Labor-Peasant problem. The essay is not only contingent upon statistical data but also a testament to how political praxis and political thought shape one another. He pointed out that smaller cities like Naples were swarmed with destitutes in public places, whilst Rome, the capital, had its streets sanitized of such manifestations of poverty and pain. The Italian Government had orchestrated the coerced evacuation of the streets of Rome, and it was made out of bounds for beggars. He unmasked the true nature of the fascist state as it continued to engage in false propaganda maintained an outward show of political might, while the economy was plummeting. In Tagore’s eyes, “the deplorable state of the working-class living quarters” in Naples, was comparable to the “indigence in a colony, like India”. (Fascism, pp. 56-57)

Tagore implemented fascism as an analytical tool to comprehend colonialism and the systematic inequalities engineered by it. Introspected through the twin lenses of militarism and expansionism, he expounded how cultural movements such as Futurism aggravated the existing crisis caused by colonialism along with fascism.  Tagore, encountered the Italian futurist figurehead, Filippo T. Marinetti, and extensively engaged with the Futurist Manifesto which upheld and celebrated war as the sole source of regeneration for a moribund nation. This proposition made Tagore conclude how fascism was the perfect tool in the hands of warmongering capitalists to  forward their colonial extractivist designs.  He remarked,

‘Futurism, far from insinuating cultural efflorescence have been commemorating anti-intellectualism and anti-egalitarianism since decades. The only difference being they are doing it adorning the fascist blackshirts now’. (Fascism, p.72)

Throughout the length of the book, Tagore interrogated extensively how fascism and colonialism were intricately connected and analysed the ways in which the trope of ‘mystic nationalism’ was conveniently appropriated to justify brazen expansionism.

Tagore never saw the rise of fascism in isolation or as a strictly European phenomenon and stressed upon the possibility of upsurge of this vicious trend within the anti-colonial struggle in India.  He dreaded the efforts towards national liberation which elicited from unfettered and uncritical patriotism. Referring to professors from Calcutta University like Promotho Roy and Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay and their efforts at translating the speeches of Mussolini and eulogizing him, he was unveiling the reactionary nature of the Nationalist Bourgeoisie. The sojourn in Europe further nuanced his vision on trade unionism, a discourse that primarily emerged as a fierce polemic against Gandhian mass politics embedded in the rhetoric of spiritualism and non-violence. Saumyendranath wrote, Gandhism and the Labour Peasant Problem, in Europe commenting on the absurdity of the Gandhian tactics of arbitration as the ideal strategy for wage bargaining instead of striking. Drawing a parallel between the German state under the Social Democrats at the verge of transforming into a fascist state and their coercive action which made arbitration compulsory and Gandhi’s enticement with the same, he stressed how Arbitration was becoming ‘a mighty weapon in the hands of the capitalists’. The critical insight that the Gandhian tenet of ‘class collaboration’ was intrinsically flawed as dialectically the two classes harbor opposite interests was a reflection of his interaction with officials of fascist industrial trade unions in Italy. Tagore divulged how these unions were instrumental in the depletion of the ideal of ‘class struggle’, and supplanting it with one of collaboration and total submission to the profit-driven whims of the capitalists through systematic propaganda.  

One might argue that Fascism, was simultaneously published with British communist R.P. Dutt’s Fascism and Social Revolution and coincided with the occurrence of the 17th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, which officially considered fascism as a terrorist onslaught of the most vicious of the reactionary capitalists, and reflected similar arguments as that of Tagore’s. However, Saumyendranath far from being a full-fledged left theorist was a labor activist, whose appraisals emanated from his first-hand encounter as a colonized subject in the European heartland of fascism. Hence, it was a veritable local response to a global crisis, where the employment of the vernacular, riddled with scintillating metaphors was making Tagore’s ideas accessible to a wider population. His endeavor democratized the constricted space of ideological introspection monopolized by the anglicized upper-class intellectuals.

Tagore’s crusade against fascism found expression in his effort to open a branch of League Against Fascism and War in India in 1936, when Spain was ravaged by a horrific Civil War insinuated by fascist elements in the country. Addressing several working-class meetings he stressed how the Spanish struggle for democracy was an extended fight for Indian independence. In a conflict where the revolutionary was pitted against the reactionary, he called for collective action by the workers, peasants, and youths from India against it in a bid for manufacturing internationalism from below. Saumyndranath’s discourse on fascism transcended the confines of nationalism as proletarian internationalism was his answer to the onslaughts of totalitarianism. The most enduring of his contribution, however, is the provision of an alternative vision of anti-colonialism, which is grafted not in the orthodox trope of nationalism. Saumyndranath’s anti-fascist championing thus indeed led to the recovery of globalism within a history of eternal localism.


Manaswini Sen is an early career researcher and a Ph.D. candidate currently enrolled at the University of Hyderabad, India. Her thesis, tentatively titled, ‘The Unsettling Decades: Mapping the Changing Trends in the Trade Union Movement of Late Colonial Calcutta (1930-1947)’, will help in establishing why the period between 1930 -1947 was a decisive break in Labour Politics of Bengal and how it finally turned into a full-fledged radical Trade Union Movement. Her research interests straddle the fields of Labour History, History of Decolonisation in South and Southeast Asia, Intellectual History, History of Surveillance, and History of Communism in the Global South. She is the Grantee of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship (2022-23). She is also an Asian Graduate Student Fellow at National University of Singapore for 2022. Her article titled, “Mapping the Changing Notions Inequality Among the Trade Union Leaders of Colonial Bengal”, has recently been published in The Journal of Global Intellectual History, Taylor & Francis (ISSN:2380-1891).

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Saumyendranath Tagore, Courtesy of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India.