Think Piece

Opinion Polls in International Perspective: The Case of West Germany

by guest contributor Sonja Ostrow

One can hardly open a newspaper without being inundated by graphs and charts offering up the latest poll numbers on presidential candidates. Almost as prominent are poll results covering attitudes toward everything from religion to home ownership. While public opinion research is typically thought of in conjunction with election cycles, it is more broadly integrated into the fabric of modern life. As Sarah Igo has observed, it has become one of the chief ways we know ourselves as citizens and as humans.

Still from Welt im Bild reel from August 28, 1953.
Still from Welt im Bild reel from August 28, 1953.

Igo was writing about the United States, but the trajectory of polling in other countries teaches different lessons about the collection and dissemination of knowledge. The history of public opinion research in West Germany in the first few decades after World War II makes clear how national polls have an outward-facing function: not only do they inform people (and their governments) about themselves, they have also provided a methodology for demonstrating national change to concerned foreign observers.

Rather than being conceived primarily as a way to forecast election results, empirical opinion research in postwar West Germany was prized as an innovative method for assessing denazification and democratization. Unlike in the United States, where historians like Igo have identified a persistent obsession with “the average,” in West Germany, public opinion polling was intended to illuminate the extremes of public opinion, the potential threats to a nascent democratic state. Especially in the 1950s, West German opinion research was as much about projecting an image outward into the rest of the “free world” as it was about developing insights that would make governing at home more responsive and effective.

In the wake of World War II, Allied political leaders and their social-scientific advisors were convinced that empirically-grounded survey research would help them to assess and, eventually, to shape the political cultures of former enemy lands. Survey units trailed the combat branches of Anglo-American forces in Italy in 1943 and in Germany in 1945, and began polling residents on issues including access to food, living conditions, radio habits and preferences, and political stances. While public opinion polling was already an entrenched part of the political culture in the United States and England, it was World War II that facilitated the spread of public opinion research worldwide.

The earliest German surveys were conducted under the auspices of Allied occupation forces, who only gradually convinced Germans that they were neither Communist spies nor agents of punitive denazification procedures. But native West German opinion research institutes quickly emerged in the western zones. Following in the rhetorical and methodological footsteps of Americans like George Gallup and Elmo Roper, these institutes—most notably the EMNID Institute in Bielefeld and the Institut für Demoskopie at Allensbach—loudly argued that their surveys, each of which unearthed the opinions of a statistically representative sample of roughly 2,000 Germans, would aid in the establishment of a democratic political culture by facilitating communication between government and governed and granting a voice to those who would otherwise have none. What is more, they claimed that their methods were inherently democratic, since polled subjects were selected based on their fulfillment of statistical criteria, and the opinion of each statistical citizen held equal weight.

These institutes analyzed millions of survey responses each year, producing chart- and number-filled reports about the hopes, fears, and perceived realities of West German citizens. The surveys conducted by the institutes are notable for their variety: no topic, from cosmetics-buying habits to anti-Semitism, was off-limits. “Trend questions” were asked annually to trace shifts in opinion over the years. One recurring EMNID poll asked respondents, “Do you have the impression that we can count ourselves among the society of western peoples, or in your opinion are we still enemies as we were in the past?” In 1954, EMNID emphasized the increase in the number of respondents agreeing that “we belong completely” (23% in 1954, up from only 8% in 1951) on the front page of its weekly newsletter, the EMNID-Informationen (Issue 7/54).

In some cases, research institutes invited survey participants to compare themselves explicitly with other national subjects. EMNID, for instance, asked West Germans on an annual basis throughout the 1950s, “Do you have the feeling that Americans see us today primarily as friends, as strangers, or as enemies from the past?” The percentage of those stating that they were seen by Americans as friends grew from 19% in 1951 to 49% in 1954, while the percentage of those declining to answer the question shrunk from 22% in 1951 to 10% in 1954 (EMNID-Informationen 7/54). Both figures likely represent a shift not only in attitudes toward the United States, but in a willingness to answer questions touching on matters of geopolitical significance in uncertain times. But the question construction itself is worth considering: why would EMNID ask people to see themselves through the eyes of another nation? In doing so, could the opinion research institute have helped propagate the idea that identity was only created through observation from the outside? Other historians have elaborated on the theory that national identity is brought to the fore at moments of encounter which bring one’s own unique background into sharp relief. Empirical opinion research helped to systematize and “scientize” such moments of encounter and comparison.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, co-founder of the Institut für Demoskopie, Allensbach on the cover of Der Spiegel (October 1953).
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, co-founder of the Institut für Demoskopie, Allensbach on the cover of Der Spiegel (October 1953).
The Allensbach Institute, through its publications and the tireless work of its co-founder, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, fostered this notion more assertively than did EMNID. How else to understand the decision by the Institute to publish a compilation of its opinion research for an English-speaking audience? Noelle-Neumann and her husband introduced the 1967 publication of The Germans: Public Opinion Polls 1947-1966 with the observation that “This is not a portrayal of the Germans based on second or third hand reports; it is the nation’s own description of itself” (The Germans vii). The Neumanns described this self-assessment of the German people as a useful corrective to the assumptions of foreign observers. “The editors feel … that the most fruitful attribute of this publication is the fact that it disproves, or at least casts doubt on, stereotype judgments of a nation by its neighbors. The Germans, on account of their role in world politics over the past century, have at times been exposed to collective repudiation, more than any other nation, with the inevitable consequence that the entire population was identified with small ruling groups … only the self-portrayal of groups in the form of poll results can project a picture that is comparatively objective” (ix). The authors presented opinion research as the means by which Germans clarified their identities to themselves and to international observers. They also noted the public opinion research would be impossible in anything other than a democracy—thereby resting their case that there could be an lingering concerns about West Germany. The Germans was thus a multi-leveled vindication of the postwar West German public, and a clear attempt to sever that public from any continued association with National Socialism.

Sarah Igo, and, more recently, Jill Lepore, among others, have brought to life the biases and assumptions that often shaped the carrying out and reporting of polls. Yet in practice, historians frequently continue to refer to poll results as stable sources for understanding popular experiences of history. Of course, in many cases poll results do provide insights that would otherwise be completely unobtainable; yet they can never stand completely on their own.

The polling institutes that emerged in West Germany after 1945 were themselves quite aware of the malleability of polls. The Allensbach Institute led the charge in identifying, publicizing, and even exploiting biases contained within certain question formulations. Noelle-Neumann commented in a letter exchange with another researcher that the results for one survey on anti-Semitism in West Germany had to be understood in context: the questions in the survey had been crafted in order to evoke higher levels of anti-Semitism to gauge possibility rather than everyday attitudes – again, they were searching for the extremes rather than the average (Noelle-Neumann to Diedrich Osmer, 26 Jan. 1954, Korrespondenz mit Instituten, 1951- , Archive of the Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt). Noelle-Neumann observed in a later address at a global congress of opinion researchers that question construction remained the crux of her work. Despite the attention paid to the accuracy of various sampling methods—the debate between those favoring random versus quota sampling raged throughout the 1950s—she argued that question construction that was more likely to prompt enormous shifts in responses.

However, for Noelle-Neumann and other opinion researchers, this element did not make polls any less “scientific.” And as Anja Kruke has shown, for the media outlets that were increasingly hungry for “news” of any sort, the subjective aspects of polls did not make them any less desirable.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there were also frequent attempts to develop comparative studies of European nations based on opinion polls. Such projects were made easier by the spread of the American Gallup Institute into Western Europe through partnerships with extant native institutes. For example, EMNID became Gallup’s West German affiliate in 1955, and in 1962 the institute carried out the polling in West Germany for a study on opinions about a European community, commissioned by the Press and Information Office of the European Community. European integration proceeded in tandem with the Europeanization of public opinion research. At the forefront was West Germany and West Germans, whose views on rearmament, anti-Semitism, and refugees, among other topics, were (and remain) a pressing concern for those within and beyond German borders.

Sonja Ostrow is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University and a Review Editor at H-German. Her dissertation examines the use of empirical opinion research to measure and influence political change in Germany after World War II.

Think Piece

Wilhelm Reich: A Disappointed Utopian

by guest contributor Zachary Levine

Wilhelm Reich, later in life (Wikimedia Commons)
Wilhelm Reich, later in life (Wikimedia Commons)

What should we do when brilliant thinkers push their ideas in strange directions? Should we try to interpret their later work in the context of their earlier work, or vice versa? Should we reject their later work but embrace their earlier work, as JS Mill did with Auguste Comte? By and large, this latter approach has been applied to Wilhelm Reich. His early political writings,including “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis” (1929) and The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), have been of interest to political dissidents and intellectual historians, while Character Analysis (1933) is still read by psychoanalysts. By contrast, Reich’s theory of the “orgone,” a specific, measurable life energy that formed the centerpiece of his research from the late 1930’s until his death in 1957, has been written off as an especially bizarre form of vitalism by all three groups. While Reich argued that orgone energy could be detected and harnessed in cells and living beings, few other scientists agreed that it existed at all. Deservedly or not, Reich’s orgonomic work earned him a reputation for unfounded medical treatments and amateurish research that has largely precluded serious historical interest. (Two notable recent exceptions are Petteri Pietikainen’s Alchemists of Human Nature and James Strick’s Wilhelm Reich, Biologist.)

For his part, Reich later in life argued that a “red thread” ran through all of his work: “the theme of the bio-energetic function of excitability and motility of living substance” (as cited in Chester Raphael’s forward to Early Writings, Volume 1). In other words, the orgone can be found at the core of his earlier studies, though he was not initially aware of the true nature of the object of his own research; scratch the surface of the character analyst and you find an emerging orgonomic scientist. If he saw bio-energy as the red thread of his work, he was willing to jettison his social theories, or at least relegate them to the periphery of his worldview. By the early 1940’s, he claimed to have entirely abandoned political thought, having been hurt and offended by his 1933 expulsion from the Communist Party and quickly becoming disillusioned by the USSR’s sexual conservatism and apparent truce with fascism. As he ceased to see himself as a political thinker, he came to emphasize the role of bio-energetic function in his earlier writings. By the end of his life, he understood the most crucial features of his early work to be those that he emphasized in his orgone research program.


One of Reich's "Orgone Accumulators," which he believed could have healing properties (Wikimedia Commons)
One of Reich’s “Orgone Accumulators,” which he believed could have healing properties (Wikimedia Commons)

Still, in spite of Reich’s self-assessment, political and social thought remained key components of his intellectual framework. As Reich became disillusioned with the USSR, he began to develop a new political theory: “Work-Democracy.” In a set of chapters that were added to English translation of the 3rd edition of The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946) based on pamphlets written from 1937 through the early 1940’s, Reich described the nature of Work-Democracy: “Work-Democracy is the natural process of love, work, and knowledge that governed, governs and will continue to govern economy and man’s social and cultural life as long as there has been, is a, and will be a society.” Reich argued that Work-Democracy was not a political or ideological system, but it seems clear that it was designed to be a political system built on labor organization. Though Work-Democracy is the system in which laborers naturally self-organize, Reich argued for a future political order based on Work-Democratic principles: “For the first time in the history of sociology, a possible future regulation of human society is derived not from ideologies or conditions that must be created, but from natural processes that have been present and have been developing from the very beginning.”

Reich’s biological and political theories never ceased to be interconnected. Just as Reich’s psychoanalytic theories informed his earlier sex-political and Marxist social theories, Work-Democracy was built on his new research platform. As he argued, it was from the “point of view of bio-sociology” that “there could be no clear-cut division between one class and another.” He also claimed that Work-Democracy produced the conditions for “objective and rational interlacing of the branches of work.” The intersections between biology and physics necessary for orgonomic research would develop most easily in a work-democratic society. The idea that orgone research would be a tool in political struggles for the future of humankind is also built into Reich’s later published work. In Reich’s 1949 Ether, God and Devil, he described his research as “not a question of philosophies, but of practical, decisive tools in the formation of human existence; it is a question of the choice between good and bad tools in the reconstruction and reorganization of humanity.”

Reich’s FBI file further belies his claim to have abandoned politics. Reich had been detained by the FBI for several weeks in 1941-1942, but after a cursory investigation in 1945, the FBI determined that Reich was no longer an active Communist. Consequently, after 1945, the file consists almost entirely of attempts by Reich and his followers to contact the FBI about the political importance of his work. In a 1953 letter to John J Finn, Reich argued that the US was in grave danger from “the inner emotional and characterological helplessness of people at large who, through their passivity and neuroses are unwillingly and unknowingly carrying political evil to power.” Reich’s followers made similar claims. In a 1949 FBI interview with Myron Sharaf, Sharaf reported Reich’s skepticism about erstwhile fellow researcher William Washington to the FBI “because the directors of the Orgone Institute Research Laboratory felt that it would jeopardize the welfare of the United States for the information and knowledge that Washington has on Orgone Energy, specifically, its reaction to the Geiger-Muller Counter, to fall into the Russian or foreign agent’s hands.” Communism and scientific criticisms of Reich were seen as interrelated. Sharaf complained that “Dr. Frederick Werthan [sic], in [The New Republic], on December 2, 1946, was slanderous and critical in reviewing the work in Orgone research; and that the Communists and fellow travelers have been very critical to Dr. Reich since 1939.” For Reich and his followers, Reich’s scientific research into the orgone could not be separated from the challenge it presented to the Communist party and the USSR. In fact, Reich’s views fit nicely into the anti-totalitarian rhetoric of the postwar years; the FBI file is rife with references by Reich and his followers to “red fascists” and “red imperialists.”

"Orgonon," in Rangeley, Maine, where Reich lived and worked for the last several years of his life (Wikimedia Commons)
“Orgonon,” in Rangeley, Maine, where Reich lived and worked for the last several years of his life (Wikimedia Commons)

Reich’s political and scientific ideas were intermingled, and despite the evaluations proffered by both Reich’s supporters and his detractors, this connection established the ideological framework that motivated all of his work. Reich was derided and persecuted throughout his life. To the best of my knowledge, he holds the dubious distinction of being the only person to have been targeted by the Communist Party, the Nazi party, the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA), and the Food and Drug Administration. When Reich was disappointed by his expulsions from the Communist Party and IPA, he slowly stopped trying to understand the connections between his ideas and those of Freud, or the resonance between his vision of the state and the USSR. And yet, he never abandoned his attempt to reconcile therapeutic or scientific practice and political engagement. In my view, he was a consistent scientific utopian, protecting the overall shape of his ideological framework by modifying its pieces as the political and scientific world disappointed him.

Zachary Levine is a third-year doctoral student at Columbia University. His research involves the role of the case study in the brain and mind sciences, intersections between intellectual history and the history of science, the history of psychoanalysis, and the history of neurology and psychiatry in France.

Think Piece

Asking the Social Question

by guest contributor Steven McClellan

What’s in a name? When I began thinking about writing a dissertation on the history of the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy), I assumed that the largest problem would be related to the “Verein” part of the name: tracking down members, finding personal papers, mastering the voluminous output of their writings, etc. After all, this was an association that included some of the most important economists and sociologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Gustav Schmoller, Lujo Brentano, Adolph Wagner, Max Weber, Alfred Weber, Werner Sombart, Ferdinand Tönnies, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Emil Lederer, and Eduard Heimann among others. It is more or less a who’s who of German social scientists for the time period. However, though this issue still remains (and will continue to do so), I’ve found it far harder to nail the jelly that is the word ‘Sozialpolitik’ to the wall. Often translated into English as ‘social politics,’ it isn’t quite the equivalent of that still-ambiguous term. Certainly, calling someone a ‘social politician’ doesn’t roll off the tongue, or invite understanding in the way that calling someone a ‘Sozialpolitiker’ in German does. Although this group is well-recognized—a biographical lexicon of German Sozialpolitiker during the Imperial Germany has recently been published under the supervision of the Kassel historian Florian Tennstedt, with a volume on the Weimar period is underway—this hardly gets us any closer to a definition. Both the notion and the practice of social politics/Sozialpolitik are crucial to the history of the last 150 years, and not just in Germany.

Schriften des Vereins (Titelblatt)

Traditionally, Sozialpolitik refers to the responses by actors from the state, church and civil society to the ‘social question,’ or the group of problems centered on alleviating the social and economic disadvantages of particular groups in society. In the particular case of Germany, rapid industrialization and political unification in the latter half of the nineteenth century spurred interest in Sozialpolitik. It was in this context that Gustav Schmoller called a group of academics, civil servants, businessmen, politicians, union leaders and journalists to Eisenach (where the Social Democratic Workingman’s Party was founded in 1869) to discuss ways to address the social question. This meeting would lead to the founding of the Verein für Sozialpolitik. One year later, Schmoller declared that, “Standing above egoistic class interests, [the State] would issue laws, administer justly, protect the weak [and] raise the lower classes[‘s]” standing in society. Schmoller’s conception of Sozialpolitik was one based on moral-ethical and nationalist premises, as he sought the social unification of Germany, thereby completing her political unification. The founding of the Verein was a great success and resonated with contemporaries. Many commentators at the time and successive generations of historians would point to the effectiveness of the Verein in mobilizing support for the social policies implemented under Bismarck during the 1870s and 1880s.

However, two things need to be pointed out. First, the Verein did not monopolize Sozialpolitik—in fact, far from it. Furthermore, it was never a monolithic group. At times there were prevailing tendencies, but individual members often did not fit this mold. Therefore, the Verein always found itself in a peculiar dialectic between inner and outer tensions and debates. This was especially the case when it came to issues related to the working class. Approaches to Sozialpolitik were loaded with a host of ideological underpinnings and assumptions that were shaped along the lines of members’ political, social and religious affiliations. What is perhaps most odd about the Verein is that it attempted to navigate the stormy waters of these often divergent strands of German society by standing on the firm ground of “science”. They were, as their secretary and historian Franz Boese repeatedly wrote in correspondence, merely a “scientific publication society.”

Gustav von Schmoller )by Nicola Perscheid, c. 1908)
Gustav von Schmoller (by Nicola Perscheid, c. 1908)

Flying the banner of Sozialpolitik became a way to ingratiate oneself into the academic fields of economics and sociology at the time, however. The leading figures of the Verein (especially Schmoller, through his personal relationship with the Prussian Minister of Education, Friedrich Althoff) were thought to dictate postings in Prussian academic institutions. The idea that Schmoller and the Verein wielded this sort of influence led dissident economists and political opponents to use words like “tyranny” and “terrorism” in the press and in pamphlets to describe their iron grip on economic teaching in Germany. Did this mean that young economists had to become a Sozialpolitiker in order to hope for an academic posting? Not exactly. But that opponents levelled the accusation shows that the Verein had helped to shape Sozialpolitik. But how did it exactly do this? And for how long did it do so? This is the at the heart of the problem that I am grappling with in my research.

Another key issue is one of boundaries. Can the term be globalized, or at least expanded beyond the borders of the nation-state? For some members of the Verein, it certainly could be. In a meeting that took place in Dresden on May 15, 1910 to decide the future research agenda, the Munich professor Moritz Julius Bonn proposed an “international” investigation on whether white races could live and work in the tropics. During the exchange that followed, noted economist Max Sering explained, “In the colonies, the race question is always an economic and a sozialpolitische question.” This was in response to his mentor Georg Friedrich Knapp’s dismissal of the proposal on the grounds that such a study did not fall under the purview of the Verein. That Sering objected to this extension and argued that colonial spaces were important to the national economy at home (heimischen Volkswirtschaft) while also claiming that the Verein’s work should taken an international turn is suggestive. Coupled with his statement about the race question and Sozialpolitik, one has to wonder how far the Verein was willing to really push the boundaries of Sozialpolitik, geographically and conceptually. The transformation of the members’ ideas about economics and sociology beyond continental Europe is a dimension of their work that is not often discussed by historians.

Indeed, around the same time of Bonn’s proposal, the Verein was undergoing an expansion of its working groups and investigations. It was recruiting scholars from numerous countries to collaborate and publish in their publication series. Unfortunately, the First World War put a stop to much of this activity, though efforts were made to rebuild those transnational scholarly networks in the 1920s. Still, the question remains: how successful was the Verein in broadening the confines of the social question? In what ways did they spur changes in Sozialpolitik in Germany and elsewhere? These are questions that we need to be asking, even if conclusive answers are hard to find.

Steven McClellan is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently on a DAAD Research Fellowship in Germany. His dissertation project is a history of the Verein für Sozialpolitik, focusing on the years between 1890 and 1936.


Think Piece

New Grounds, New Voices: Postwar Politics and Economics

by guest contributor Eric Brandom

The Western Society for French History meeting is always rewarding, and this year in Chicago did not prove an exception. “Searching for New Ground: Re-Evaluating the Theoretical Foundations of Politics and Economics in Postwar France,” a panel of graduate students at different phases of their work, is particularly worth highlighting here.

Alexander Arnold presented an essai at recovery of the rationalist historical epistemology of Gilles-Gaston Granger, especially his investigation into the conceptual foundations of economics, principally in his 1955 thesis Concept, structure et loi en science économique. Arnold began by sketching the widely noted postwar crisis of economics or, in the title of one important early statement, La crise de la pensée economique. What are the foundations of economics? What kind of a science is it? This, Arnold indicates, remained a problem not least because the study of economics was not institutionally centralized. It was conducted here as econometrics, there as social studies, and nowhere was a sustained investigation into its theoretical content carried out. In any case, no agreement could be found and no central institution emerged in which such agreement would be forged.

Gilles-Gaston Granger (© Martine Franck/Magnum Photos)
Gilles-Gaston Granger (© Martine Franck/Magnum Photos)

In this context then, we have Granger’s attempt at a rationalist historical epistemology of economics in the vein of Bachelard and Cavaillès. The bold move here is to transfer an historical epistemology developed with the natural sciences (and especially mathematics) as an object to the terrain of social science. The method would be to investigate the historical movement and development of concepts. Granger argued that only when the concepts of economics have been thus investigated and clarified would they become productive and mobile again. Arnold gives us the central example of equilibrium, which Granger traced back to ancient notions of two balanced physical forces. How is it possible to get between the individual instance of exchange and this larger metaphor of balanced forces, say supply and demand?

Arnold’s presentation was elegant, and I am convinced that we should read Granger. Two central questions occur to me. The first is that I would like to know a great deal more about the nature of this ‘crisis of economic thought’ that unfolded over the course of the 1950s. Why the crisis? Is the lack of institutional centralization a sufficient explanation? Are we coming down from Mont Pèlerin here? The legacy of fascist-era planned economies? And then, pointing toward my second question, there’s the other major claimant to being in possession of an economic science—the Communist Party. Even aside from the politics of economics and communism, does Granger not engage with the obvious theoretical interlocutor here, the Marxist tradition of critique of political economy? Arnold finished with a flourish: Granger may not be a major figure in the intellectual history of economics, but perhaps he should be—is—in the conceptual history of economics.

Luca Provenzano (a JHI blog contributor) suggested an unabashed ‘return to Althusser,’ although not to what is normally thought of as Althusserianism. Provenzano exploits the manuscripts relatively recently made available at IMEC (parts of which were published in PUF’s 1996 Sur la reproduction) to look again at Althusser’s famous 1970 essay on ISAs in La pensée. Out of the archive comes a much more pluralist and less straightforwardly pessimistic Althusser, one more willing to discuss the failures of ideology to successfully hail individuals, more interested in the competition between ideologies, their overlaps and conflicts. Provenzano is also interested in deepening our understanding of the context in which the essay appeared, and developed in this presentation arguments for the importance of three contexts: first, the institutional contexts of writing and publishing, here the relevant shift is from Maspero, a more broadly leftist publisher, to the PCF journal La pensée. Second is the ongoing political conflict between the PCF and the gauchiste students, some of them Althusser’s, for whom he was held responsible by the Communists. Third are the comments and objections made to Althusser’s earlier writings, or draft versions, by his students. Provenzano mentioned a fourth important context, Althusser’s illness, but prudently set it aside. I will simply mention here that, given Provenzano’s laudably dense approach to political context, it seems unavoidable if only at the most vulgar level of obliging Althusser to be periodically absent from Paris.

Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser

Provenzano argues that if we attend to the manuscripts, we can see Althusser elaborating a theory of ideology that, in its sensitivity to what I (not Provenzano and surely not Althusser) want to call human experience, comes to seem much more like a theory of social action, or practice. This is because ideology really does permeate everything, but is also not unified. So that ideologies compete and may well fail to ‘hail’ an individual into subject-hood. Provenzano argues that this work—transparently biographical in parts—was actuated by the specific political context. Althusser was torn between the PCF and the students. He wanted to support the students, to reconcile the students and the PCF, but in the end could not, and also could not abandon the PCF. So, says Provenzano, the moment closed and the manuscripts remained in the archive. I would like to hear more about the nature of this closure. Here in any case is an Althusser that E.P. Thompson might have hesitated to call (more or less) a theologian of Stalinism.

In 1975, the French educational system was subject to significant “modernizing” reforms, including a more unified early curriculum, fewer general requirements for those pursuing the scientific track, and a reduced role for philosophy in the lycée. This, indeed, is the world that Althusser criticized. Philosophers mobilized in different ways to defend themselves. David Sessions’ paper looks at how Jacques Derrida, together with GREPH (Le Groupe de Recherche sur l’Enseignement Philosophique), rejected the traditionalist defense of philosophy—and its “sacred” place in the curriculum—but also rejected the implied philosophy of “modernization.” Derrida’s historical starting point, nourished by a perhaps surprising engagement with sociology, for instance Bourdieu and Passeron on education and reproduction, was the recognition that philosophy had always been complicit, a prop to the established order, rather than a place somehow beyond politics. Conceptually, the beginning was to see that philosophy never argues against non-philosophy (as might at first appear to be the case in the reform), but against some other philosophy.

In his work with GREPH, Sessions tells us, Derrida argues that the 1975 reform represents scientism. Derrida is not anti-science, but against the essentially authoritarian modernizing ideology often associated with technoscience. Philosophy should not abandon the field of struggle (the state educational system), but should stay within it and remain critical. This would be a philosophy committed to understanding the institutional conditions of knowledge, whose practices would not be inherently subversive, perhaps, but which could open new possibilities. The position Derrida wished to occupy is a difficult one to maintain, and his attempt to do so should certainly be of interest to the humanities broadly in the contemporary Anglophone world. Sessions also suggests some historiographical consequences for attention to this part of Derrida’s work, first of all for answering questions about the political significance of deconstruction, although these writings also allow us to place Derrida together with certain contemporaries, Marxist theory, and more broadly the attempt to come to grips with changes in French society in the wake of 1968.

If I have understood Sessions’ account of Derrida’s critique of authoritarian technoscience correctly, it seems to me a critique leveled at a fundamentally modernist kind of modernization—that is, ideology flattening things out at the service of/by means of a centralized authority. Famously, it was the 1970s that saw Foucault move away from such an account of State power toward his analysis of neoliberalism as governmentality (we cut off the king’s head, now we must behead the State). We have Provenzano reminding us that Althusser was important for Foucault’s thinking here, and perhaps made some of the same moves away from monolithic ideology himself. I would love to hear what Provenzano’s Althusser has to say about Sessions’ Derrida. What did Althusser think about the reforms of the 1970s? Arnold argued that Granger sought in a more or less depoliticized way to put economics really in possession of its own concepts—is this the kind of critical/foundational work Derrida has in mind? Is it rather just the opposite?

IMEC-Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine
IMEC-Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine

Thomas Dodman’s comment was a model of the genre. For him the panel was evidence of a revival in intellectual history. Perhaps, Dodman suggested, it is a Koselleckian moment in which “concepts” matter most, but certainly all three papers gave an important place to context in actuating concepts or demanding work on them. Paris remains the scene, although the relevant documents seem mostly to be at IMEC in Caen or elsewhere now. I wonder if the increasing importance of IMEC, given its peculiar institutional position within the galaxy of French archives, will push intellectual historians of the later 20th century to think about the politics of their archives and subjects—what the archive itself reproduces and silences—as other sub-disciplines have done?

Eric Brandom is a James Carey fellow and visiting assistant professor in the department of history at Kansas State University. His book on Georges Sorel and the political thought of the Third Republic is in preparation. He maintains an page, and also tweets @ebrandom.