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Louis-Sebastien Mercier, between prophetic and historical engagement with time

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

Louis-Sébastien_Mercier
Portrait of Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814), (Public Domain).

In his novel The Year 2440 published in 1770, the French homme de lettres Louis-Sebastien Mercier (1740-1814) evokes an idealized Paris in the twenty-fifth century. In it, Paris has been rebuilt on a scientific plan, luxury and idleness have been banished and education is governed by the ideas of Rousseau.  The historical past, that “shame for humanity, every page being crowded with [its] crimes and follies” has effectively been superseded in favour of an atemporal Enlightenment vision of the ancient regime in such a teleological fashion that the vision of the future delivered by Mercier has merely been “deduced” from the present with which it was already pregnant. Both present and future constitute two distinctive points on a same linear continuity that merely follows its natural course of indefinite ‘perfectibility’.

And yet Mercier seems to repudiate this vision almost as immediately as he had laid it down on paper by questioning the conditions of its enforceability, something The Year 2440 had neatly sidestepped through the device of the dream. In the sequel to The Year 2440, The Iron Man, Mercier presents the reader with a rather different picture, one of Paris in disarray in which an “iron man,” embodying force and justice, deambulates throughout the city in an attempt to wipe out any trace of its barbaric past through moralization, graffiti, and even force when necessary, and to bring it in harmony with the ideal it ought to be. His attempt to enforce the dream of The Year 2440’s enlightened ideal society, and to rewrite the past and script the future, fail miserably and rather farcically when the protagonist is captured and dismembered.

Mercier could not resist the urge to ridicule the demiurgic pretensions of the “fabricators of universe” and self-proclaimed sages of his time who had imposed the tyranny of their own certainty and dogmas on knowledge. They had confiscated knowledge and obfuscated reality through the dissemination of an inaccessible jargon in the shape of ‘artificial algebraic formulas’ which had reduced the infinite complexity of the world to illusory certitudes. And, in the belief in their own narrative of triumphant progress, they had spawned a new form of occultism and intolerance towards knowledge other than mathematical. Reality, in its infinite and sensible complexity was a force made up infiniments petits which escaped all control and defied any simple causal explanation and which, in the revolutionary period, had morphed into a “force,” a chemical poetic replete with “fermentations,” “toxins,” and “explosions.”

Ultimately, “the sphere of sentimental moralities was lit up by a sun whose phases were unknown to our calculators.” Against the tyranny of abstract calculations and predictions, Mercier sought to rehabilitate alternative forms of knowledge including linguistic, in particular. He rejected the mathematization of the sensible in favour of the vibrancy of language.  For Mercier, the writers were the true painters of their time. Language, under the influence of court society, had lost its “colour;” it had become stultified, denatured and “expressionless” and fallen into such a state of decomposition as to have become reduced to “exaggerations” and “unintelligible utterances.” The Terror itself had occurred through the “abuse of words” which, in its dissemination of “magical and sanguinary” jargon had turned words into “words that kill.” For Mercier, meaninglessness bred violence.

Language needed to be constantly renewed for only a language embedded in the here and now could enliven us and “make that unknown fibre vibrate” in us. It was not the preserve of grammarians or bound by fixed rules but a “mysterious art-form” which conveyed the “power of our ideas” and the “warmth of our feelings.” Periods of unrest, such as the French Revolution presented auspicious junctures for the renewal of language. In the preface to the Nouveau Paris, Mercier even advised young authors “to make their own idiom since [they] had to depict the unprecedented.” Mercier’s own endeavour to emancipate language from the hold of the academies culminated with his Neologie of 1801.

In Mercier’s two following Parisian works, Le Tableau de Paris (1781-1788) and Le Nouveau Paris (1798), Mercier reasserted his materialist take on history. Uchronia gave way to concrete and fragmented day to day accounts which sought to convey the urban tumult at the heart of Paris, that gigantic organism which bound together rich and poor, and criminal and law-abiding. In Le Tableau de Paris, Mercier was engaged in the seemingly impossible task of capturing in writing a contemporaneity which was constantly slipping away from beneath his feet.  The city he described was like a palimpsest, a vessel which was constantly renewed but whose past lay hidden just beneath the surface. In this manner, the history of the city of Paris was first and foremost thought through the multitude of superimposed layers which composed its ground. Its temporal density offered itself to the discerning eye; a walk through the city was a walk through time. Within this historical configuration, the past was fully integrated to the present into which it continuously flowed. Each corner and monument resurrected ghosts from the past, further blurring the different temporalities at play.

In Le Nouveau Paris (1798), written after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the experience of time had been still further accelerated and even the immediate past had already been historicized:  Mercier henceforth walked in Paris on “that no longer [was].” The Revolution had marked a radical rupture and given rise to a new sharpened historical consciousness. Historical writing henceforth played the role of a funerary rite, acknowledging the past whilst firmly excluding it. The Terror was held at an incommensurable distance and exorcized: the “shadow” of Robespierre was only evoked to be better purged.  Crucially, history, in the awesome forces it conjured, acquired an aesthetic dimension: in its admixture of greatness and brutality, it became a source of sublime.

Cut off from its past and with no discernible future, post-revolutionary Paris was drifting aimlessly in a state of generalized confusion caught between fantasies of regeneration and prospects of looming destruction. Construction inevitably seemed to spell future destruction, linking ruins, past and future in a strange and seemingly inexorable “poetic of ruins” before which all civilizations were called to disappear. Pure historicity seemed to have reached its logical conclusion.

Ultimately neither fiction nor any authority which struck Mercier as sacralized could ever stand the test of time nor the fickle judgment of the historical process. Writers could imagine the future from the past and speculate as to what of the past would survive but ultimately, only time would tell. In those circumstances, it was incumbent on us to resist the temptation of “pantheonising lightly.” Renown, like all else, was “beholden to the course of events.” Seeking to decide on ruins or great men from the present was absurd: only the future looking back on its past could pass those kinds of judgments. Attempts to overwrite history or to seek to predict it retrospectively through future projections were not only futile, but also hubristic.

Yet, Mercier’s gaze was never stable, torn between present and future, between a materialist and prophetic engagement with time. On the basis of his Year 2440, Mercier would, for instance, later self-style himself the “genuine prophet of the revolution” in the new preface he penned in 1798. He recognized that those projections also expressed a deep yearning toward something that went beyond the purely factual. As he wrote in Adieux à l’année 1789 published in the Annales patriotiques et littéraires, one still had to “dream of public felicity in order to erect its immutable edifice.” (« il faut encore rêver la félicité publique, afin d’en bâtir l’édifice immuable »)

Dream acted as a powerful motor in history; it offered the hope of tearing mankind “from the formless chaos” in which it was mired; it provided it with a horizon toward which it “could run with all its might,” ready to “precipitate its march to reach out for it and grasp it.” That The Year 2440 with its “mass of enlightened citizens” would never come about suddenly was eminently clear; but this would not stop man of dreaming of seeking to escape the historical predicament in which he found himself trapped and its final overcoming, once and for all.

Audrey Borowski is an historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

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Atlantic history Think Piece

The Problem of Democracy: Radical Political Traditions in the Revolutions of 1848

By guest contributor Pamela C. Nogales C.

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Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848

Prompted by the experience of the second world war, historian Lewis Namier described the undemocratic birth of modern republics in his 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1944) and warned of the unintended consequences of nineteenth-century liberal ideals. On the process of nation-making, he wrote, “States are not created or destroyed, and frontiers redrawn or obliterated, by argument and majority votes;” rather, “nations are freed, united, or broken by blood and iron, and not by a generous application of liberty and tomato-sauce; violence is the instrument of national movements.” He reminded historians that forging national democracies had required men of influence and wealth, who were capable of combining their force to create a government and to defend it against imperial bayonets. Thus, if successful, the government of a democratic nation was composed of those who were victorious in seizing the political leadership of a new state and using its executive force to fight hostile forces—both from outside and within. While their final aim was a world without war, European liberals of the nineteenth century imagined that this end required a national government ready and willing to defend itself against armed invasion and domestic insurrection. It was common, for example, for liberal papers in Prussia to call for war against the Russian Empire in order to secure the success of democratic republics. Thus, already by 1848, the contest for democracy was bound up with the problem of executive force and raised difficult questions about the appropriate means to an end.

Liberals’ strategic orientation toward state governments corresponded to the political realities of 1848. The Austrian, Prussian and Russian Empires, the pillars of the old eighteenth-century “Holy Alliance,” aimed to extinguish any spark of national revolution. And in the end, they were successful—this time, with the help of the soon-to-be French emperor, Louis Bonaparte. In the German states, the Frankfurt National Assembly was dissolved, and revolutionary governments and rebellions were crushed by Prussian troops; Bonaparte dismantled the French National Assembly in Paris, reestablished the monarchy and helped to restore Papal rule in the Italian peninsula; and the republican Magyar government in Hungary was toppled by a joint army of Russian and Austrian forces. This international defeat was among the most formative, political experiences of an entire generation of reformers and it signaled a split in the liberal tradition in Europe and beyond. Political demarcations shifted and became considerably more pronounced after the failure of the revolutions. The republicans, socialists and anarchists of this generation drew different lessons from these conflicts. But at the center of their disputes was the role of the nation in creating a democratic society.

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Ferdinand Schröder’s caricature of the suppression of the revolutions of 1848 (published in the Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849)

While the initial American response to the 1848 revolutions was overwhelmingly positive, the excitement over the French revolution was short-lived in the American capital. The Polk administration sustained the recognition of the new French republic by the U.S. Minister in Paris, Richard Rush, but several government officials preferred a mere congratulatory message—if any. South Carolina’s John Calhoun suggested that the Senate withhold their esteem until a new French Constitution was drafted and a permanent government was installed. Only then would it be possible to know if the national government deserved the Senate’s approbation. A cautious attitude was required because, as Whig Congressman Samuel Phelps of Vermont noted, “when the wheel of revolution begins to revolve, who can…tell where it will stop.”

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Walt Whitman’s poem “Resurgemus,” paying tribute to the Revolutions of 1848 (published in the New York Daily Tribune, June 21, 1850).

While Calhoun prioritized the stability of the American republic above the risky upheavals of the Parisian workers, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass argued that to abandon the people of France because they demand freedom, jobs and better wages, amounted to a betrayal of America’s revolutionary roots. But Calhoun’s perspective was more representative of the majority of the Senate than those held by the radical abolitionists.

Ambivalence toward the European socialists was common among the liberals in the United States. Of special concern were the French National Workshops, a state program designed to facilitate the employment of all laborers. Whig Senator Daniel Webster commented on the new constitution, which guaranteed “to all Frenchmen, not only liberty and security, but also employment and property.” For Webster this was an impossible task, “How can any government fulfill such a promise?”

The New Orleans Daily Picayune wondered why the French would riot after they were given the vote. Why rebel against their own constituent assembly? Charles A. Dana, a Boston novelist and European correspondent for the New-York Tribune, offered a radical interpretation. He explained that the Revolution of 1789 aimed to destroy feudalism, while the new revolution was “to destroy the moneyed feudalism and lay the foundations of social liberty.” New England poet James Russell Lowell shared Dana’s interpretation when he called 1848 the first social revolution of the modern world. Lowell wrote that the “first French Revolution was only the natural recoil of an oppressed and imbruted people.” In contrast, “the Revolution of 1848 [was] achieved by the working class,” and “at the bottom of [it] lies the idea of . . . social reorganization and regeneration”.Faced with armed citizens in the streets of Paris, the French liberals were forced to confront the “social question” squarely.

The forceful confrontation with the social question was provoked from outside liberal circles. Outside of France, European liberals were supporters of constitutional monarchies, that is, they were the defenders of parliamentary sovereignty over the dynastic power of kings. But they displayed outright contempt for the uneducated masses and had no intention of giving working people the vote. During the revolutions of 1848, it was those who fell under the label “social democrats” who were alone in demanding the extension of the franchise beyond the propertied classes. Among them was a motley crew of utopian socialists, Christian communists and “red Republicans” who rejected an elite democracy for a greater vision of political participation. These radicals were also in conversation with anarchists of different stripes, as well as women like George Sand, the revolutionary French socialist, who included women’s emancipation as part of her utopic demands. These radicals targeted the problems posed by the “hungry ’30s,” the rampant famine in the countryside, the rise in unemployment among city laborers and the decline of the artisan system of production. They argued that contemporary social inequality was hardly a natural outcome of talent, rather, it was a problem of society and thus could be resolved if made subject to politics. The disparate political tendencies grouped under social democracy were thus connected by the belief that the democratic revolutions of previous centuries promised a vision for human emancipation yet to be realized, but one that was receding from view amidst the changing social relations of the nineteenth century. While trying to recover past promises, radicals began to demand a future otherwise unimaginable from the perspective of European liberals alone.

What is the role of the modern nation in the long battle to achieve democracy? This was the question posed in 1848.  Liberals, anarchists, and socialists all attempted to answer this question in thought and political practice. Their ideological differences did not correspond to sociological demarcations—they did not “express” a class position. Rather, the differences between these traditions must be found in their intellectual histories as well as their political practice. And we can hardly understand the meaning of these differences without a grasp of the shared concerns across these traditions.

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Thibault, “Barricades After the Attack, Rue Saint-Maur” (June 26 1848)

It has become commonplace over the course of the twentieth century to imagine the political traditions of anarchism and socialism as fundamentally opposed to classical liberal values. From this perspective however, it is impossible to understand why an insurrectionary anarchist like Louis-Auguste Blanqui spoke of the French liberal Benjamin Constant as “one of the firmest upholders of French freedom”; why Karl Marx felt indebted to Adam Smith and John Locke for their conception of civil society; why during 1848 and ’49, the red flag was carried sometimes in opposition to but sometimes as a supplement to the tricolor of French republicans; or why the radical tailors of the 1840s reading Gracchus Babeuf out loud in their Parisian workshops still supported small-property ownership as a fundamental right of all free citizens. What we miss by setting up a strict antinomy between these political traditions are their embedded intellectual histories and their entanglement in the revolutionary history of the nineteenth century. We overlook how these ideas were tested, reconfigured and revised in response to the on-going attempts to transform society. And we do a disservice to intellectual history by treating political ideas as static concepts (as hardened “ideology”), rather than deriving their hermeneutic force from the transformative potential they carried at the time of their articulation.

Pamela C. Nogales C. is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at New York University, working on radical political thought on both sides of the Atlantic, with a special interest in the mid-nineteenth century crisis of democracy, the social question, and the contributions by nineteenth-century European political exiles in the United States. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Reform in the Age of Capital: The Transatlantic Roots of Radical Political Thought in the United States, 1828–1877.” She is based in Berlin and can be reached at pam.nogales@gmail.com

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A Man Walks Into A Bar; or the possibilities of the individual in international history.

by Editor Sarah Claire Dunstan.

One summer’s afternoon in 1923, a French barrister was enjoying a drink in a Parisian café.  A man of broad experience and education, the barrister was also a medical doctor who had served in the First World War. This service had allowed him to become a French citizen in 1915, a privilege denied previously because he was a native of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, now a French colonial territory. Kojo Tovalou Houénou

Cécile_Sorel,_par_Reutlinger
Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Francaise

was not just from Dahomey, he also claimed the title of Prince on the basis that his mother was the sister of the last King. Contemporaries and later scholars doubted the veracity of this claim but it made him of much interest to the Parisian dailies. In their pages, tales of his exploits amongst bohemian circles – notably his on-again, off-again affair with the Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Française – were reported with glee.

On this particular August afternoon, Houénou was simply a French man. Or at least he was until a group of drunk Americans sat down at a table nearby. He thought little of them until they began to object, loudly, to his presence. The waiters, virtuous Frenchmen one and all, refused to eject Houénou from the café but the Americans grew rowdier. Finally, the foreigners stood up, dragged him from the café, beating him up and throwing him in the gutter. This example of American racism shocked Houénou, awakening him to the reality of black experiences outside of la belle France. He resolved to do all that he could to extend and uphold the principles of French civilization and to protect the less fortunate amongst his race. To this end, Houénou founded the Ligue Universelle pour la défense de la race noire and its journal, Les Continents. This very tale was printed in one of the early issues and reiterated as the origins story for the Ligue by other press outlets such as the African American journal the Crisis and Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, the Negro World, as well as by Houénou himself in speeches delivered to mainly black audiences in Paris and New York.

Although primarily concerned with abuses being perpetrated towards the indigenous populations in the French colonies, Les Continents became one of the first francophone print forums for collaborations between African American activists and thinkers and their French counterparts, crafting a bridge between Harlem and the Parisian left bank. The Ligue itself had a mission statement that articulated its desire to ‘develop the bonds of solidarity and universal brotherhood between all members of the black race.’ Celebrated Harlem Renaissance figures from Alain Locke and Langston Hughes through to Countee Cullen published in the journal.  Under Houénou’s leadership, the group built relationships with the American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. As a result, the Ligue has received some scholarly attention as an institution that fostered black international solidarity (most notably in Brent Hayes Edward’s wonderful The Practice of Diaspora, Christopher L. Miller’s Nationalists and Nomads and Michael Goebel’s Anti-Imperial Metropolis.) More than that, Houénou’s neat origin story has much in common with those employed contemporaneously by other black activists as they attempted to leverage the potential of French civilization against the specter of American racial discord and to agitate against racism in France. Insofar as the existing scholarship is concerned, Houénou tends to appear in histories of black internationalism that focus upon institutional organization or ideological mechanisms. Where his activism is given credence, it is as a corrective to the scholarship’s tendency to focus upon the African American presence in movements towards black internationalism. Always, Houénou’s experience is subsumed in the institutions he founded or participated in.

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From left to right: Marc Quenum, Kojo Tovalou Houénou and Marcus Garvey in Harlem, 1924.

This is due in part to the scarcity and nature of remaining sources. No archive holds Houénou’s personal papers. Fragments of his life have to be pieced together from newspaper articles from his heyday in the Parisian social landscape, or from letters appearing in other collections such as that of W.E.B. Du Bois. The Service de contrôle et d’assistance des indigènes, established by the French Minister for the Colonies Albert Sarrault in 1923, offers perhaps the most comprehensive chronology of Houénou’s life. Given that Sarrault utilized the Service for surveillance of those deemed threatening to the French imperial system, this tends to emphasize his involvement in black activist organizations rather than pay heed to his individual behavior. All the more so given the French authorities’ tendency to conflate all Pan-Africanist organization with Garveyism and all Garveyism with insurrectionist and usually Bolshevik politics. When Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne successfully sued Les Continents for libel in 1924, the paper and the organization folded, leaving Houénou bankrupt. He was forced to leave Paris and to renounce his diasporan affiliations (specifically any connection with Marcus Garvey) before he was allowed back into Dahomey. Black international solidarity at this moment, then, appeared to crumble in the face of the machinery of French Third Republic.

Inverting the study to map an international history through Houénou’s individual perspective, however, changes the narrative from one of failure at the hands of unstoppable empire. Instead it allows us to re-position the way we think about the spatial geography of black internationalism which is often characterized in terms of experiences in Northern hemisphere metropoles. Houénou himself participated in the construction of this narrative with his repeated telling and refashioning of the café incident. The Ligue and the other black activist organizations he participated in certainly were rooted in Paris and New York. Moreover, the freedom of speech permitted in Paris as opposed to the colonies created a space for black internationalism that would not have been possible elsewhere. However his own individual experiences belie the story he constructed.

In 1921, two years prior to his ‘racial awakening’, he had visited Dakar. Whilst there, he spoke to the Senegalese tirailleurs who had been abandoned by the French Government after fulfilling their conscripted duties. The reality of their exploitation was only too visible and Houénou spoke out to local authorities about it. He was ignored. Soon afterwards he published a little-read book entitled L’Involution des métamorphoses et des métempsychoses de l’univers. In it, he attacked European assumptions of cultural superiority by arguing that each people and culture comprised equal parts of a universal civilization. Early in 1923, in the aftermath of rioting in Porto-Novo in Dahomey, he criticized the colonial administrators’ handling of the issues, to little avail. True, neither incident was quite so personal and dramatic as being beaten up in a Parisian café but they do indicate a public engagement with the question of race on an imperial, if not an international, level much earlier than narratives focusing upon the Ligue or his UNIA support allow. It also locates the site of his racial awakening outside the colonial metropole.

This reframes our understanding of the valency of a racial awakening in Paris rather than Porto-Novo or Dakar, pointing to the way that gestures of black solidarity were sometimes easier to perform in the metropole than elsewhere.  In particular, it demonstrates the crucial symbolic role that examples of US racism played in francophone black activism at this time. This is especially clear when one looks beyond Houénou’s sanctioned version of the story to the one relayed in other sources such as the Parisian press: it was a French bartender who threw Houénou from the premises and beat him, not the crowd of racist Americans who bayed for his removal.  Moreover, Houénou’s activities after the collapse of the Ligue and his departure from Paris lead the historian away from the print formulations of universal black brotherhood found in Les Continents to their application on the ground in Africa.

Hardly a year after his relocation to Dahomey, Houénou and a group of unnamed allies attempted to overthrow French colonial rule there. His movement was small, ill-equipped and failed spectacularly. Forced to flee to Togo, Houénou was quickly caught and imprisoned. Some reports indicate that he was incarcerated for five years, others three. What we do know is that he was never allowed to enter Dahomey again. Instead, he went to Senegal by 1930, possibly as early as 1928, and became heavily involved in Senegalese politics. At first he supported Ngalandou Diouf against Blaise Diagne in the elections of 1932. He would switch candidates for the following election of 1934, supporting Lamine Gueye against Diouf. In both cases, Houénou applied a committed Pan-Africanism of the type that the French colonial authorities feared Garveyism represented: the call for the recognition of the equality of all races and the independence of African territories from colonial rule. Neither Diouf nor Gueye were quite so radical in their views. Indeed, Houénou’s platform was far removed from the Parisian story that played American racism off against la belle France. His early cries for universal black brotherhood had transformed at the hands of the treatment of colonial authorities to his support for the total independence for Africa.

Houénou’s involvement in Senegalese politics is usually not considered in the context of black internationalism. To be strictly honest, it has not exactly earned him a noteworthy place in the annals of Senegalese history either. He met an ignominious end in the electoral campaign of 1936 when the meeting he was running exploded into violence. Nevertheless, by focusing on Houénou’s own story, rather than solely upon his involvement in the international and diasporic institutions he helped to build, it is possible to shift the geography of black internationalism away from imperial metropoles back to the African continent.

Sarah Claire Dunstan is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow with the International History Laureate at the University of Sydney (@IntHist ). She is an intellectual historian of 20th century France and the United States with a particular interest in questions of race, rights and gender. She can be found on Twitter  @sarahcdunstan .

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Silencing the Berbers

By guest contributor Rosalie Calvet

 A little less than a year ago, a prestigious American university hosted a conference about French-Algerian history, gathering the leading specialists of the topic.

A prominent French scholar closed his presentation by opening the debate to the audience. Immediately, one of his North American fellows asked “Since you do not speak Arabic, do you feel somewhat limited in your work on French Algeria?”

“I see what you mean,” he replied, “but fortunately, we have the archives of the colonial administration, so French is enough.”

Suddenly, a man, sitting on the first row of the audience, stood up, and, speaking in French, replied “I am Algerian. I was born before the Independence. You taught us French and nothing else. We had to learn Arabic after the War of Liberation. Arabic must come back to Algeria.”

And then, another man, sitting next to him, added “Arabic … and Berber. Nobody talks about Berber. Historians have forgotten that North Africa is the land of the Berbers.”

Who are the Berbers?

The indigenous population of North Africa, the Berbers call themselves i-Mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight. If over the centuries, the Berbers have split into smaller communities, the Chleus in Morocco, the Touaregs in Libya and the Kabyles in Algeria, they have remained faithful to a clear sense of unity. The history of the Berbers is that of an identity constantly reshaped by internal and external mutations, of cultural blending and ongoing intellectual developments and innovations. Invaded by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the Berbers were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 200 BC and their land constituted the cradle of European Christianity. The Arab Conquest of the seventh century led to the merging of Berber and Arab culture, the conversion to Islam and the fall of the Christian Church. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of Muslim-Berbers dynasties ruled over the Maghreb (the Arabic name for North Africa) achieving its territorial and political unity. Most of the region, except for Morocco, passed under Ottoman domination in 1553 and remained part of the empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, the three political entities composing modern North Africa emerged. While Tunisia and Morocco were to become protectorates of France, in 1881 and 1912 respectively, Algeria was to be French for over a century.

During the first decades of colonial rule (1830-1871), the French authorities privileged Berbers over their Arab fellows (8). The main goal of the administration was to eradicate Islam from Algerian identity (23). According to French observers, the Berbers seemed keener to renounce their Muslim legacy, as they more closely resembled the French and shared their Christian roots.

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Eugène Delacroix, Fantasia Arabe (1833), Städelscher Museums, Germany. One of Delacroix’s most famous representations, of a “fantasia” (a traditional Berber military game played on horseback) he witnessed in North Africa. The composition, centered on three moving figures, reflects Delacroix’s fascination with the ‘wildness’ of the cultures he depicts.

To fuel this narrative, the French progressively constructed the “Kabyle Myth.” In 1826, the Abbé Raynal claimed that the Kabyles were of “Nordic descent, directly related to the Vandals, they are handsome with blues eyes and blond hair, their Islam is mild.” Tocqueville wrote in 1837 that the “Kabyle soul” was opened to the French (182). Ten years later, the politician Eugène Daumas claimed that the “Kabyle people, of German descent […] had accepted the Coran but had not embraced it [and that on many aspects] the Kabyles still lived accordingly to Christian principles” (423). This the reason why French colonial officer Henri Aucapitaine concluded that: “in one hundred years, the Kabyles will be French” (142).

The situation shifted in 1871 when two hundred and fifty Kabyle tribes, or a third of the Algerian population, revolted against the colonial authorities. The magnitude of the uprising was such that the French decided to “fight the Berber identity […] which in the [long-run] empowered the Arabs.”

From then on, the differences between the Berbers and the Arabs became irrelevant to France’s main priority: to maintain its control over the local populations by fighting Islam. The idea emerged that to be assimilated to the French Republic, Algerian subjects needed to be “purified” from their religious beliefs.

By the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, the French had ruled that “Muslim Algerians were granted the right to apply for French citizenship […] once they had renounced their personal status as Muslims”(444). This law, which had established a direct link between religion on the one hand and political rights on the other, now further reflected the general sense of disregard towards the diversity of cultural groups in Algeria, all falling into the same overarching category of Muslim. After the 1880s, the French gave up on the Kabyle myth, marginalizing the Berbers who had become a source of agitation.

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Henri Rousseau, La Baie d’Alger (1880), Private Collection. In this view of the Bay of Algiers, the Douanier Rousseau pictures a Berber tribe.

As the independent Republic of Algeria triumphed in the Fall of 1962, the newly funded regime identified the Berbers as posing an “existential threat to the Arabo-Muslim identity of the country” (103).

Repeating the French practice of destroying those regional identities allegedly challenging the legitimacy of an aggressively centralized and centralizing state, the leaders of Algeria denounced the political claims of the Berbers as a “separatist conspiracy,” and after 1965 the Arabization policy became systematic throughout the country.

To assess the respective impact of colonization, nineteenth and twentieth century nationalist pan-Arab ideologies and the role of post-independence Algerian leaders upon the persecution of the Kabyles after 1962 constitutes a somewhat limited debate.

It is, however, critical to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the marginalization of the Berbers after the 1871 Kabyle riot. Progressively, the colonial administration changed a model of mixed and complex identities strongly rooted the Maghreb tradition into a binary model (235). Within this two-term model, people could only define themselves on one side or the other of a rigid frontier separating authentic French culture from supposedly authentic colonized culture. As Franco Tunisian Historian Jocelyn Dakhlia argues in Remembering Africa, “the consequence of such a dualistic opposition of colonial identities was [… ] that the anticolonial movement stuck to this idea of an authentic native Muslim Arabic identity,  excluding the Berbers” (235).

The very existence of the Berbers thwarts any attempt to analyze Algerian society in a way that resorts to a rigid griddle, whether in racial, cultural or religious terms.

This is probably the reason why the French, and after them the independent Algerian state, have utterly repressed the legacy of Berber culture in the country: for the Berbers could not exist in the dualistic narrative underlying both colonial and anti-colonial. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, would argue, they became unthinkable, and were silenced and excluded from History.

Yet, the most curious factor in this non-history is the paucity of French scholarship on the issue. (50). While some academics do focus on creating conversations and producing literature on the question of Berber identity, the most renowned French scholars systematically fail at doing so. As a direct consequence, most French academic discourses reproduce and maintain the somewhat convenient imperial division opposing the “Arabs” in the North to the “Blacks” in the South of Africa, thereby forgetting that the Sahara is not a rigid racial frontier, and that for centuries the Berbers have been circulated throughout the region.

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Centenaire de l’Algérie – Grandes Fêtes Sahariennes, Affiche, Musée de l’Immigration, Paris. This poster, issued by the French government in 1930, is an invitation to a military parade featuring colonial soldiers to commemorate the centenary of the 1830 conquest of Algiers.

Ultimately, the Berbers blurry the lines between colonial and post-independent notions of identity in North Africa. To acknowledge the Berbers would require scholars to accept their fluidity – a direct threat to the Western appeal for systemic and pseudo-universalist thinking, still prevalent in French academia despite the emergence post-colonial studies in the 1960s.

Recognizing the Berbers necessitates first, as claimed by Algerian scholar Daho Djerbal, to ask: who is the subject of History? This is the only way in which one can hope to put an end to the overly simplistic politics of identity imposed by the political power—on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rosalie Calvet is a paralegal working in New York City, freelance journalist and Columbia class of 2017 graduate. As a history major, Rosalie specialized on the historiography of French imperial history. Her senior thesis, “Thwarting the Other: a Critical approach to the  Historiography of French Algeria” was awarded the Charles A. Beard History Prize. In the future, Rosalie wishes to continue reflecting on otherness in the West—both through legal and academic lenses. More about Rosalie and her work is available on her website.

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Human Rights Interview Think Piece

The Historical Origins of Human Rights: A Conversation with Samuel Moyn

By guest contributor Pranav Kumar Jain

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Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale University)

Since the publication of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Professor Samuel Moyn has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the field of human rights studies and modern intellectual history. I recently had a chance to interview him about his early career and his views on human rights and recent developments in the field of history.

Moyn was educated at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied history and French literature. In St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Gerald Izenberg, who nurtured his interest in modern French intellectual history. After college, he proceeded to Berkeley to pursue his doctorate under the supervision of Martin Jay. However, unexcited at the prospect of becoming a professional historian, he left graduate school after taking his orals and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After a year in law school, he decided that he did want to finish his Ph.D. after all. He switched the subject of his dissertation to a topic that could be done on the basis of materials available in American libraries. Drawing upon an earlier seminar paper, he decided to write about the interwar moral philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. After graduating from Berkeley and Harvard in 2000-01, he joined Columbia University as an assistant professor in history.

Though he had never written about human rights before, he had become interested in the subject in law school and during his work in the White House at the time of the Kosovo bombings. At Columbia, he decided to pursue his interest in human rights further and began to teach a course called “Historical Origins of Human Rights.” The conversations in this class were complemented by those with two newly arrived faculty members, Mark Mazower and Susan Pedersen, both of whom were then working on the international history of the twentieth century. In 2008, Moyn decided that it was finally time to write about human rights.

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Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

In The Last Utopia, Moyn’s aim was to contest the theories about the long-term origins of human rights. His key argument was that it was only in the 1970s that the concept of human rights crystallized as a global language of justice. In arguing thus, he sharply distinguished himself from the historian Lynn Hunt who had suggested that the concept of human rights stretched all the way back to the French Revolution. Before Hunt published her book on human rights, Moyn told me, his class had shared some of her emphasis. Both scholars, for example, were influenced by Thomas Laqueur’s account of the origins of humanitarianism, which focused on the upsurge of sympathy in the eighteenth century. Laqueur’s argument, however, had not even mentioned human rights. Hunt’s genius (or mistake?), Moyn believes, was to make that connection.

Moyn, however, is not the only historian to see the 1970s as a turning point. In his Age of Fracture (2012), intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers has made a similar argument about how the American postwar consensus came under increasing pressure and finally shattered in the 70s. But there are some important differences. As Moyn explained to me, Rodgers’s argument is more about the disappearance of alternatives, whereas his is more concerned with how human rights survived that difficult moment. Furthermore, Rodgers’s focus on the American case makes   his argument unique because, in comparison with transatlantic cases, the American tradition does not have a socialist starting point. Both Moyn and Rodgers, however, have been criticized for failing to take neoliberalism into account. Moyn says that he has tried to address this in his forthcoming book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Some have come to see Moyn’s book as mostly about President Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the human rights revolution. Moyn himself, however, thinks that the book is ultimately about the French Revolution and its abandonment in modern history for an individualistic ethics of rights, including the Levinasian ethics which he once studied. In Moyn’s view, human rights are a part of this “ethical turn.” While he was working on the book, Moyn’s own thinking underwent a significant revolution. He began to explore the place of decolonization in the story he was trying to tell. Decolonization was not something he had thought about very much before but, as arguably one of the biggest events of the twentieth century, it seemed indispensable to the human rights revolution. In the book, he ended up making the very controversial argument that human rights largely emerged as the response of westerners to decolonization. Since they had now lost the interventionist tool of empire, human rights became a new universalism that would allow them to think about, care about, and perhaps intervene in places they had once ruled directly.

Though widely acclaimed, Moyn’s thesis has been challenged on a number of fronts. For one thing, Moyn himself believes that the argument of the book is problematic because it globalizes a story that it mostly about French intellectuals in the 1970s. Then there are critics such as Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, a German historian at UC Berkeley, who have suggested, in Moyn’s words, that “Sam was right in dismissing all prior history. He just didn’t dismiss the 70s and 80s.” Moyn says that he finds Hoffmann’s arguments compelling and that, if we think of human rights primarily as a political program, the 90s do deserve the lion’s share of attention. After all, Moyn’s own interest in the politics of human rights emerged during the 90s.

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Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish-language copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Perhaps one of Moyn’s most controversial arguments is that the field of the history of human rights no longer has anything new to say. Most of the questions about the emergence of the human rights movements and the role of international institutions have already been answered. Given the major debate provoked by his own work, I am skeptical that this is indeed the case. Plus, there are a number of areas which need further research. For instance, we need to better understand the connections between signature events such as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the story that Moyn tells about the 1970s. But I think Moyn made a compelling point when he suggested to me that we cannot continue to constantly look for the origins of human rights. In doing so, we often run the risk of anachronism and misinterpretation. For instance, some scholars have tried to tie human rights back to early modern natural law. However, as Moyn put it, “what’s lost when you interpret early modern natural law as fundamentally a rights project is that it was actually a duties project.”

Moyn is ambivalent about recent developments in the study and practice of history in general. He thinks that the rise of global and transnational history is a welcome development because, ultimately, there is no reason for methodological nationalism to prevail. However, in his view, this has had a somewhat adverse effect on graduate training. When he went to grad school, he took courses that focused on national historiographical canons and many of the readings were in the original language. With the rise of global history, it is not clear that such courses can be taught anymore. For instance, no teacher could demand that all the students know the same languages. Consequently, Moyn says, “most of what historians were doing for most of modern history is being lost.” This is certainly an interesting point and it begs the question of how graduate programs can train their students to strike a balance between the wide perspectives of global history and the deep immersion of a more national approach.

Otherwise, however, in contrast with many of his fellow scholars, Moyn is surprisingly upbeat about the current state and future of the historical profession. He thinks that we are living in a golden age of historiography with many impressive historians producing outstanding works. There is certainly more scope for history to be more relevant to the public. But historians engaging with the public shouldn’t do so in crass ways, such as suggesting that there is a definitive relevance of history to public policy. History does not have to change radically. It can simply continue to build upon its existing strengths.

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Professor Lynn Hunt (UCLA)

In the face of Lynn Hunt’s recent judgment that the field of “history is in crisis and not just one of university budgets,” this is a somewhat puzzling conclusion. However, it is one that I happen to agree with. Those who suggest that historians should engage with policy makers certainly have a point. However, instead of emphasizing the uniqueness of history, their arguments devolve to what historians can do better than economists and political scientists. In the process, they often lose sight of the fact that, more than anything, historians are storytellers. History rightly belongs in the humanities rather than the social sciences. It is only in telling stories that inspire and excite the public’s imagination that historians can regain the respect that many think they have lost in the public eye.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student in early modern history at Yale University.

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Think Piece

The Emotional Life of Laissez-Faire: Emulation in Eighteenth-Century Economic Thought

By guest contributor Blake Smith

Capitalism is often understood by both critics and defenders as an economic system that gives self-interested individuals free reign to acquire, consume, and compete. There are debates about the extent to which self-interest can be ‘enlightened’ and socially beneficial, yet there seems to be a widespread consensus that under capitalism, the individual, egoist self is the basic unit of economic action. For many intellectuals from the right and the left capitalism seems, by letting such economic agents pursue their private interests, to erode traditional social structures and collective identities, in a process that is either a bracing, liberating movement towards freedom or an alienating, disorienting dissolution in which, as Marx famously phrased it, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Economic activity unfettered by government regulation was not always so obviously linked to the self-interest of atomized individuals. In fact, as historians inspired by the work of István Hont show, the first wave of laissez-faire political economists, who transformed eighteenth-century Europe and laid the foundation for modern capitalism, claimed that they were creating the conditions for a new era of mutual admiration and affective connections among economic agents. For these thinkers, members of the ‘Gournay Circle’, emotions, rather than mere self-interest, were the motor of economic activity. They specifically identified the kind of activity they wanted to promote with the feeling of ’emulation’, and touted the abolition of traditional protections on workers and consumers as a means of stoking this noble passion.

Emulation has only been recently been given center stage in the history of economic thought, thanks to scholars like John Shovlin, Carol Harrison and Sophus Reinert, but it has a long history. From Greco-Roman antiquity down through the Renaissance, it was understood as a force of benign mutual rivalry among people working in the same field. Emulation was said to set in motion a virtuous circle in which competitors, bound by mutual admiration and affection, pushed each other to ever-higher levels of achievement. When a sculptor, for example, sees a magnificent statue made by one of his fellow artists, he should experience an uplifting feeling of emulation that will inspire him to learn from his rival in order to make a still more magnificent statue of his own. Emulation thus leads to higher standards of production, generating a net gain for society as a whole; it also, critically, unites potential rivals in a bond of shared esteem rooted in a common identity. This form of friendly competition sustains communities.

Emulation was not for everyone, however. It was understood only to exist in the world of male elites, and only in non-economic domains where they could pursue glory without the taint of financial interest: the arts, politics, and war. The circle of young male artists in the orbit of the great painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), as Thomas Crowe notes, could present their (not always harmonious) competition for attention, resources, and patronage in terms of emulation. In the homosocial space of the studio, anything so petty as jealous or avarice was abolished, and such artists as Antoine-Jean Gros, Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Germain Drouais could appear, at least in public, as a set of friends who admired and encouraged each other. Women, meanwhile, were largely excluded from the art world’s apprenticeships, studios, and galleries, on the grounds that their delicate psyches were not suited to the powerful emotions that drove emulation.

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Vincent de Gournay

The discourse of emulation shaped access to the arts, but, in a stroke of public relations genius, the members of the Gournay Circle realized that it could also reshape France’s mercantilist economy. Beginning in the 1750s, this group of would-be reformers coalesced around the commercial official and political economist Vincent de Gournay (1712-59). Largely forgotten today (but now increasingly visible thanks to scholars such as Felicia Gottmann), Gournay and his associates inspired the liberal political economists of the next generation, from Physiocrats in France to Adam Smith in Scotland. The Gournay Circle and those who moved in its wake called for the abolition of restrictions on foreign imports, price controls on grain, state monopolies, guilds—the institutions and practices around which economic life in Europe had been organized for centuries.

The Gournay Circle spoke to a France fearful of falling behind Great Britain, its rival for colonial and commercial power. Gournay and his associates argued that France was not making the most of its merchants, entrepreneurs and manufacturers, whose energies were hemmed in by antiquated regulations. To those worried that unleashing economic energies might heighten social tensions, making France weaker and more divided instead of stronger, the Gournay Circle gave reassurance. There was no conflict between fostering social harmony and deregulating the economy, because economic activity was not motivated by self-interested desires for personal gain. Rather, buying and selling, production and distribution were inspired by emulation, the same laudable hunger for the esteem of one’s peers that motivated painters, orators and warriors.

Just as a sculptor admires and strives to outdo the work of his colleagues, laissez-faire advocates argued, a merchant or manufacturer regards those in his own line of work with a spirit of high-minded, warm-hearted camaraderie. Potential competitors identify with each other, forging an emotional bond based on their shared effort to excel. Thus, for example, demolishing traditional guild controls on the number of individuals who could enter into a given field of trade would not only encourage competition, raise the quality of goods and reduce prices—most importantly, it would draw a greater number of people into emulation with each other. Social classes, too, would be drawn to emulate each other, and rather than stoking economic conflict among competing interests, deregulation would encourage economic actors to earn the admiration of their fellows. National wealth and national unity would both be promoted, joined by a common logic of affect.

Under the banner of emulation, reformers challenged the guilds and associations that had long offered some limited protections to workers. Since the Middle Ages, guilds throughout Europe had set standards of production, provided training for artisans, and offered forms of unemployment insurance. Critics observed that they also kept up wages by limiting the number of workers who could enter into specific trades, and further accused guilds of thwarting the introduction of new technologies. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), a political economist linked to the Gournay Circle, believed that the best way to “incite emulation” among workers was “by the suppression of all the guilds.”

For a brief moment, Turgot (still hailed as a hero in libertarian circles) was able to put his pro-emulation agenda into action. Appointed Comptroller-General of Finances (the equivalent to a modern Minister of Finance) in 1774, Turgot launched a laissez-faire campaign that included the abolition of guilds and the suspension of state controls on the price and circulation of grain. The royal decree announcing his most infamous batch of policies, the Six Edits, declared: “we wish thus to nullify these arbitrary institutions… which cast away emulation.” Turgot’s policies provoked outrage across French society, from peasants who feared bread prices would spiral out of control, to guild members who faced the competition of unregulated production. He was forced to resign in 1776; his most hated policies were reversed. But the damage had been done. The guild system, permanently enfeebled, straggled on for another generation. Peasants and workers, to whom the fragility of the institutions that protected their access to food and labor had been made brutally obvious, remembered the lesson. Their outrage in the mid-1770s was a rehearsal for 1789.

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“Carte d’Entrée” for the first annual meeting of the Société d’Emulation

Emulation gradually faded away as a justification for liberal economic policies, although throughout much of the nineteenth century ’emulation clubs’ (sociétés d’émulation) remained a fixture of French municipal life, promoting business ventures while excluding groups whose capacity for emulation was considered questionable: women, Jews, and Protestants. As a key, albeit forgotten, concept in the development of modern economic thought, emulation reveals the extent to which the notion of the self-interested individual as the essential subject of economic activity is not in fact essential to capitalist ideology. In eighteenth-century France, laissez-faire policies aimed at increasing economic growth were justified in terms of their contribution to social harmony and emotional fulfillment. In the rhetoric that promoted these policies, the imagined economic subject was not an isolated, calculating egoist but a passionate striver who wanted, more than mere utility, welfare or profit, the admiration of other members of his community (that this community should exclude certain groups of people went without saying). Such arguments may well have been deployed by cynical activists agitating on behalf of powerful financial interests, yet they nevertheless speak to an affective dimension of economic life that is too often occluded. In its short-lived role as an economic concept, emulation showed that the history of capitalism is necessarily entangled with the history of emotions.

Blake Smith holds a PhD from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, where he is preparing a study of the eighteenth-century French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.