Think Piece

Croce between Hughes & White

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

The AHA met in Denver this past weekend. What follows is not a conference report, although there was much worthy of that. It is, rather, a response of sorts to two of the events I attended there in the form of a reflection on two classic works of intellectual history—H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society and Hayden White’s Metahistory—that were discussed at these events. The very different books both assign great importance to Benedetto Croce, and treat him at some length as part of a much broader argument.

The problem of objectivity in social science occupies the heart of Hughes’s 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. The book is rich, wide-ranging, and combines durable typologizing with uncommon subtlety. The narrative runs something as follows. In the middle of the 19th century, positivism reigned supreme, and positivists were certain that the social world could be known and perhaps even acted upon just as could the natural world. Such knowledge turned out to be at once elusive and unsatisfying. In the later part of the century, many thinkers in parallel staged a “revolt against positivism.” The positivism they attacked was often a caricature. For Hughes, the most enduring thinkers to emerge from this moment were those that felt deeply within themselves the pathos of the age, the wrenching pain of relativism, but also remained faithful to the core rationalist project of Enlightenment that had issued in the now-bankrupt positivism. Many proved to be all too willing to give up the egalitarian and democratic bent of the Enlightenment mindset when its notion of science proved unequal to social reality. Hughes’s story is partly one of the generation of 1890, but also of the encounter of this generation with the war in 1914, and the shards of what had come before that survived into the 1920s. This generation, Hughes writes,

had passed their youth at the climax of the Enlightenment—and simultaneously had inaugurated its most probing critique…their own psychological security—their confidence in such unstated assumptions as humane behavior and intellectual integrity—had given them the inner strength to inaugurate an unprecedented examination of conscience…The philosophies of urbane doubt—skepticism, pragmatism, pluralism—held no terrors for them (Hughes 426).

Their younger brothers (and here we indeed are speaking entirely about men) did seem to be terrified of these things, and Hughes identifies his period as one of experimentation and permissiveness between two ages of dogmatism.

Hughes identifies three figures as the geniuses of the age: Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Benedetto Croce. He explicitly writes about the problems and the figures he does because they have relevance in his own time, because the United States in the 1950s had not lost the orientation in social thought then established. Although Hughes doesn’t put it quite this way, as I read him, he believes that Weber more than anyone else posed rightly the central problems of value and objectivity and so provides a sort of standard—and leads into midcentury American social science; that Freud probed more deeply into the individual human psyche than ever before and is therefore an indispensable methodological tool, for instance for understanding Weber’s personality; and that Croce, who first formulated what Hughes takes to be the social science objections to Marxism, provides essential orientation for the historian in pursuing historical work.

Croce’s career can be schematized in terms of his three best-known slogans or positions: first, that history is to be subsumed under the category of art; second that all history is contemporary history; third that history is the story of liberty. This last is the title given in English translation to his 1938 La storia come pensiero e come azione, in which he defends what he describes as “absolute historicism.” Each of these slogans has a certain initial appeal. Yet Hughes’ description of the experience of reading Croce rings true:

Croce’s prose is limpid; it has the rare charm of sounding like the voice of common sense…With irresistible persuasiveness Croce carries his readers along with him. As we come to the end of a chapter we are both captivated and convinced. But when we subject the same pages to more careful analytical scrutiny, we find ourselves no longer so sure…we are driven to ask ourselves in despair: exactly what has Croce said anyway? (Hughes 223)

Indeed for Hughes the problem with Croce was that perhaps just because he in the end assimilated everything into the category of history, he never successfully came to terms with the non-rational character of value. Thus, “the ultimate irony of Croce’s thinking” is that “what starts as a rationalist theory terminates in a kind of mysticism” (Hughes 227). Hughes indicts Croce finally for a certain detachment, what has often been describes as an Olympian equanimity, “in brief, he lacked a sense of tragedy” (Hughes 229).

Irony and tragedy are key terms in White’s Metahistory, which appeared just 15 years after Hughes’ book. White uses the tools of structuralist literary criticism to examine what he calls the “deep structure” of the 19th century European historical imagination. The introduction establishes a system of interpretive categories: master rhetorical tropes, narrative or emplotment, explanatory or argumentative strategies, and modes of ideological implication. Just as, for Hughes, the truly enduring thinkers are those who struggled mightily with a deep contradiction, so for White those texts that remain alive to us are the result of internal struggle. Together with the centrality of rhetorical categories, White has taken on a theory of literary excellence: the best works struggle to synthesize incompatible modes. We as readers may continue to return to Michelet, but not to Ranke: “we admire the achievement of the latter, but we respond directly and sympathetically to the agon of the former” (White 191). White describes the larger goal of his book as an overcoming, through Irony, of the Ironic mode that is the origin of “the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking.” In so doing, “the way will have been partially cleared for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns—as it was during history’s golden age in the nineteenth century” (White xii).

The final chapter is on Benedetto Croce, regarded by White as “the most talented historian of all the philosophers of history of the century” (White 378). The first pages of the chapter recapitulate the path so far. After Nietzsche, “it remained only for a philosopher of history to reflect on this severed condition of historical consciousness and to conclude that historical knowledge itself was nothing but the existential projection of the Ironic mode to complete the cycle of possible historical attitudes in the philosophy of history…The problem would then be: how could one live with a history explained and emplotted in the Ironic mode without falling into that condition of despair which Nietzsche had warded off only by a retreat into irrationalism?” (White 378). Thus White must end with Croce because the task he believes Croce to have shouldered was just the one that White sees himself as taking up.

And Croce evidently failed. Looking over the first major phase of Croce’s work, from the 1893 programmatic essay reducing history to a subcategory of art, then the tetralogy of books from 1902-1917 making up his “Philosophy of Spirit,” White notes the central place occupied by history as a category. White goes on to object that “Croce consistently presupposed the absolute adequacy of his own “Philosophy of Spirit” for the spiritual needs of his age,” and that “he looked out at contending systems and back to preceding ones with that same Ironic gaze which the great cynics have shared with the great fanatics.” In short, Croce could not regard himself with ironic detachment (White 379). Despite his claims to have constituted “ethico-political” history, “in aestheticizing history, Croce de-ethicized it” (White 401).

White’s final judgment on Croce is withering. Croce’s liberalism, indeed his whole system of philosophy and history “was a sublimate of his generation’s awareness of the passing of an age, the Age of Europe, of humanism, and of that combination of aristocratic and bourgeois values which gave to the ruling groups of nineteenth-century Europe their distinctive life style” (White 423). History as contemporary history indeed. If White’s approach is narratological, it has frequently been pointed out that his chapters are nonetheless biographical. The chapter on Croce is no exception, indeed in the end the facts of Croce’s biography are adduced as evidence (not, White says, that more is needed) to show in good Marxist fashion that his work derives from his class position. White finds “the social equivalents of Croce’s main abstract philosophical categories: the principle of Life was nothing but a sublimation of aristocratic heroism; that of Death was nothing more than the bourgeois acceptance of practical exigency. The interplay of the two constituted Croce’s conception of culture, and the story of that interplay was his idea of history” (White 425)

The gambit of Metahistory, of course, is also to aestheticize history. White does not want to repeat Croce in emptying it of ethical content, if indeed we agree with him that this is what Croce did, and one can surely argue about his conduct under fascism. Rather, by being yet more self-conscious than Croce, White wants to pull the teeth of Irony itself and with liberatory intent:

Historians and philosophers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents, and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations. And historical consciousness will stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century (White 434).

Hughes’s criticisms of Croce may be turned on White’s own attempt to overcome Croce. Like Croce his vision of what the writing of history might be seems impossibly encompassing. Beginning with art, White brackets the objectivity that so concerned Hughes and ends in historiography as freedom. White sets out with a rational formalist (although not a formist) account of historical thought and his book issues if not exactly in mysticism, in a therapeutic for historians.

Think Piece

“Many thanks to Teddie Adorno”: Negative Dialectics at Fifty

by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

Ten days after the fateful U.S. presidential election, several leading scholars of the Frankfurt School of critical theory gathered at Harvard University to reevaluate the legacy of the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. The occasion—“Negative Dialectics at Fifty”—marked a half-century since the publication of Adorno’s magnum opus in 1966. Fitting with the mood of the political moment, co-organizer Max Pensky (Binghamton) recalled Adorno’s 1968 essay “Resignation” in his opening remarks: “What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others.” To use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, dialectical work as demanding as Adorno’s has a Zeitkern, or temporal core: its meaning unfolds over time through constant re-interpretation. As participants reflected on this work’s profound legacy, they also translated its messages into terms relevant today. Time has served Negative Dialectics well. Fulfilling Adorno’s call for philosophy to restore the life sedimented in concepts, the critical energy of this conference demonstrated that both the course of time and the practice of intellectual history do not necessarily exhaust texts, but can instead reinvigorate them.

Adorno’s work has received a surge of recent attention for the ways in which it speaks to our present moment. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross went so far as to title a recent article, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,” writing: “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” Ross notes that our time’s “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination.” In his opening remarks, co-organizer Peter E. Gordon (Harvard)—author of “Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump”—addressed the sense of intellectual defeat palpable in the wake of the election. Yet this prognosis endowed what followed with a certain urgency that made the rigorous intellectual history of Gordon and Martin Jay (Berkeley) feel just as timely as the new critical work of theorists like Rahel Jaeggi (Berlin) and Jay Bernstein (New School).

Participants gathered in Harvard’s Center for European Studies, which, suiting Adorno’s cultural tradition, once housed the university’s Germanic Museum and resembles a fin-de-siècle European villa, ornamented with sculpture and inscribed dictums from the likes of Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. Yet Michael Rosen (Harvard) rightly described Adorno as a “Jeremiah” within German society for decrying the ways it had not come to grips with its Nazi past and then foretelling catastrophe still to come in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adorno’s disciple Jürgen Habermas once remarked that he wouldn’t speak of Adorno and his time’s other great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in the same breath—and Adorno himself once claimed that he returned to Germany to “finish off” his compromised rival. But while Heidegger’s affinities with Nazism have recently left his work mired in controversy, Adorno’s corpus has re-emerged as a source of critical resistance. Without the space to address each conference speaker’s contributions, my aim here is to illustrate some reasons why they all still found Negative Dialectics compelling today.

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Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, and Martin Jay (author’s photo)

It would have been quite a feat to produce a unified conversation around a work like Negative Dialectics, which proclaims itself an anti-system and even anti-philosophy. Alas, the nearly three-hour-long conference panels often meandered far from their prescribed topics. Still, there was one theme nearly every presenter circled around: Adorno’s resistance to the overweening tendencies of concepts, a problem engaged most concretely through Adorno’s relation to his dialectical forbearer, Hegel. Negative Dialectics attempted to develop a mode of dialectical thought that harnessed Hegel’s negativity to counter his triumphalist narrative of the “slaughter-bench” of world history, which glorified existing reality and thereby undermined the possibility of critiquing it. As Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “Regarding the concrete utopian possibility, dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” The end goal of negative dialectics, then, is to transform present conditions into those that would render dialectics itself superfluous. If the challenge confronting Adorno in the 1940s was to develop a form of critical thought that could break through the blind, positivistic reproduction of the world order that had produced Nazism, Negative Dialectics can be seen as proposing a constellation of tentative solutions.

Gordon’s paper situated Negative Dialectics in a long intellectual tradition of disenchantment (Entzauberung) from the Enlightenment to our present “secular age.” Yet beyond the traditional sense of alienation, Gordon also identified a positive, critical potential in another use of the term: “the disenchantment of the concept.” If one historical marker came to represent disenchantment in modernity for Adorno, it was Auschwitz, an event referred to in nearly every presentation. Lambert Zuidervaart (Toronto) in particular grappled with Adorno’s search for a new mode of truth that would be adequate to a new reality after Auschwitz: “The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth.” He suggested that this demand necessitates a material turn in Adorno’s thought toward a “thinking against thought” undergirded by a bodily revulsion at what happened at Auschwitz. Zuidervaart argued that metaphysical experience “after Auschwitz” must make contact with the nonidentical, which he connected to a practice of redemption, an undying hope for the possibility that reality could yet be otherwise.

Negative Dialectics is thus centrally motivated by a critical relationship to history. As Henry Pickford (Duke) remarked, Adorno’s task in Negative Dialectics was to attempt to see things “in their becoming,” opening up a space of possibility beyond the “hardened objects” and “sedimented history” of the reified social world as it exists in late capitalist modernity. In one of the most original presentations, Rahel Jaeggi grappled with how Adorno’s philosophy of history at the same time challenges and requires a view of history as progress. As “indispensable as it is disastrous,” Jaeggi remarked, a progressive view of history must be posited if history is to become available to consciousness as something changeable. Hegelian universal history thus exists insofar as antagonism, agency, and resistance do. Jaeggi called for an Adornian philosophy of history open enough to allow progress without requiring it. The task of progressive history would be, fitting with Adorno’s “determinate negation,” to extract progress step-by-step from the regressive historical problems with which we are confronted. This process would define progress not as teleological but as free-standing, open, and even anarchic.

Yet this critical operation remains as difficult as ever, and several speakers questioned its political efficacy. Max Pensky’s presentation on “disappointment,” noted the difficulty of Adorno’s uneasy hybrid of philosophy and empirical social theory. Since negative dialectics offers no moral sanctuary or inner realm, a critical thinker must be both in the midst of objects and outside them. Yet philosophy’s isolation from the world, its essential “loneliness,” would also seem to entail permanent disappointment. Pensky’s reading of Negative Dialectics as an anti-progress narrative was sharpened by the observation that progress for Adorno means that “the next Auschwitz will be less bad”—echoing the title of a recent book on Adorno’s practical philosophy, Living Less Wrongly. Pensky began from Negative Dialectics’ opening line: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” This recalls Hegel’s image of the “owl of Minerva,” whereby philosophy always comes too late to shape the present that has always already outpaced it. Marx’s last “Thesis on Feuerbach” subsequently called for philosophy to stop interpreting the world and start changing it. For Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), who sought to reconcile Adorno’s apparent “resignation” with a form of political protest, Adorno always seems in the end to side with Hegel against the possibility of changing history. Seeing no way to square Adorno’s thought with Horkheimer’s early conception of critical theory as inherently emancipatory for the proletariat, Cooke instead proposed an analogy with the “vagabond” or “resistant” politics of the French novelist Jean Genet, who participated in activism from Algeria to the Black Panthers but refused to ever sign a manifesto or explicitly declare his revolutionary intentions. In his response to Pensky, Rosen connected Adorno’s disappointment to present responses to the election of Donald Trump: like Auschwitz for Adorno, Trump represents for the intellectual left today the sudden dissolution of a shared humanistic project of an ongoing, regulative commitment to liberal Enlightenment values.

One of the final panels on aesthetics led the participants, at the urging of Lydia Goehr (Columbia), into the sunny renaissance-styled courtyard, where a makeshift “chapel” was arranged.

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Peter Gordon, Lydia Goehr, Espen Hammer, and Lambert Zuidervaart (author’s photo)

The session addressed a question raised earlier by Brian O’Connor (University College Dublin) as to whether, if intuitions of truth are in the end not “reportable” in language, philosophy is not therefore “singular,” or fundamentally lonely. Goehr and Bernstein noted that, for Adorno, only particular, fragmentary works of art can be true precisely in their singularity and incommunicability. It is the negativity of this aesthetic that gestures toward utopia, for, as Adorno wrote, “In semblance nonsemblance is promised.” Goehr convincingly argued for the centrality of aesthetics in Adorno’s negative dialectics: his notion of “necessary semblance” holds that art does not merely point toward rational truth, but rather constitutes a conception of truth that is itself aesthetic.

As Pickford remarked, Adorno has at once been seen as a failed Marxist, a closeted Heideggerian, and a precocious postmodernist. Peter Sloterdijk has critiqued him for positing “a priori pain,” while Georg Lukacs accused him of taking up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” Adorno may have been among the loneliest of philosophers and yet, as Seyla Benhabib reminded us, he was also a Sozialpädagog for a generation of Germans who listened to his lectures and unrelenting radio addresses on everything from classical music to “working through” the Nazi past. Perhaps it is on account of, and not in spite of, such contradictions that Adorno continues to engage philosophers, Germanists, political theorists, and intellectual historians in equal measure. Martin Jay no doubt spoke for many in the room when he aptly dedicated his paper: “Many thanks to Teddie Adorno, who’s been troubling our sleep since the 1970s.”

Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University, where he studies modern European intellectual history. He is particularly interested in responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought.

Think Piece

Histories We Repeat

by guest contributor Timothy Scott Johnson

 You know, I’ve always been suspicious of analogies. But now I find myself at a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies, and I’m beginning to wonder if by any chance there isn’t a reason.

            Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (William Weaver, trans.)

Analogies abound in historical writing. Despite their near-ubiquity, however, I find historical analogies drastically under-examined in modern historical analysis. When examined, they usually emerge under the rubric of explaining why one historian’s analogical reasoning proves defective. But examining historical analogies used by our historical subjects can prompt us to ask larger, important questions.

The work done by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White on historical tropes and metaphor, Reinhart Koselleck on concepts, and Hans Blumenberg on myth and metaphor all importantly contributed to the study of historical representation. None directly address analogies as such, however. At best, they treat analogy as a subset of metaphor, one in which the connecting logics are perhaps more clearly (or crudely) asserted than in mythic or metaphoric representation. Whereas myth and metaphor tend to be impressionistic with underlying logics pushed to the background, process and structure are foregrounded in historical analogy. Processes, narratives, and historicities embed themselves in historical analogies.

Analogies themselves are one of the key ways of thinking difference and similarity. Accordingly, we should not be all that surprised that the likes of Kant, Humboldt, and Droysen foreground the analogy’s role in rational judgment. And insights on analogy litter the first and concluding chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Even thinkers further afield like Fourier and Swedenborg were captivated by analogical reasoning. Without planting flags in any particular philosophical camp, it is not, I think, too controversial to recognize the importance of analogical thought in epistemology and aesthetics in general. To push even further, we could speculate with the linguist George Lakoff that analogies are a universal anthropological fact to be dealt with and not simply an anti-rational demon to be exorcized.

If analogies prove part of our human understanding, what then of historical understanding? For historians, analogies provide something akin to the efforts at modeling the so-called hard sciences developed after the Renaissance, making past reflections a sort of historical laboratory for contemporary and future reflection. Luciano Canfora’s brief study Analogia e storia offers some provisional insights into how historians have thought analogically. Dating as far back as Thucydides’ introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War analogical thinking has been at the historian’s disposal for discerning shared processes and dynamics among different events. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are perhaps an even clearer exemplar. Canfora’s colleague Carlo Ginzburg has also made the case that Aristotle’s discussion of paradigms in the Rhetoric is essential for understanding his view of history. Yet, at the same time, Canfora observes that large-scale similarities brought about by analogy also tend to obfuscate small-scale differences and represent history as tautological and self-referential. Thus, for instance, by definition every revolution risks being interpreted according to the French or Russian Revolutions. The political as well as historical pitfalls of such heuristics are many. Often, Canfora claims, these analogical oversimplifications can be productive in their own right; they can also be political expedients with little concern for historical understanding.

If the particular analogy of a given event to the French Revolution seems familiar—even well-worn, thanks perhaps to the legacy of Theda Skocpol’s comparative revolutions approach—the French Revolution has had other, more surprising, analogical applications. Often, these applications occurred by historical subjects themselves as a way of grounding their own historical situation. Even before French historian Albert Mathiez claimed the Bolsheviks were neo-Jacobins, for instance, Lenin adopted the mantle for himself. When grasped from the subject’s perspective, examining the historical analogies subjects use to describe and understand their own historical moments, the analogy actually has the power of getting beyond the pitfalls of the historian’s macrohistorical determinations. Rather than foreclosing analysis, they can point to analytic surprises.

Following De Gaulle’s return to government in May 1958, on the cover of the French magazine L’Express a Marianne, symbolic of the French Republic, is ready to guillotine herself.

Take, for instance, the French Revolution’s role in deciphering the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) and the fall of the fourth French Republic. Beyond an occasion to examine the important tensions between colonial difference, identity, and hybridity in postwar France and Algeria, the French Revolution analogy can also act as a diagnostic index uniting assumptions about French politics and history with assumptions about Algerian politics and history. That individuals on all sides of the war would refer to the French Revolution to mediate their own experience is both obvious—nationalism 101, so to speak—and illuminating. It highlights the various expectations actors had of the limits and possibilities of their moment. The historical analogy thus serves as a way into the microhistorical world. Taking subjects’ own large-scale assumptions about the unfolding of history as a starting point allows the historian to reconstruct their moment from within.

Let’s look at three specific instances of this analogy during the war. First is testimony from Jean-Claude Paupert, a veteran of the war in Algeria and subsequent member of pro-Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) support networks. Despite declaring years later that he was no “revolutionary hothead,” Paupert was tried and found guilty of providing material aid and support to the FLN in 1960. In his closing trial declaration, Paupert explained his actions were meant to defend French civilization and French values, particularly those tied to the Revolution:

I have not chosen to help the Algerians because of their mistreatment, but because the struggle of the Algerian people is a just struggle, and I have not chosen to aid Algerian militants in spite of their terrorism, but because terrorism is their destiny.… Being French is not a virtue stored in a refrigerator, it is a fidelity one invents. To be French today is to be Algerian … We know well, for both princes and for valets, that fraternity is a terrorist act.

The Revolution’s Jacobin ideals of terror and fraternity were applicable in 1960 since Algeria was going through its own revolutionary moment that obeyed the same dynamics as the French Revolution. In this way, examining statements like this one and the many others like it from the war, we can build an understanding of what a nascent metropolitan third worldist engagement meant.

Next is a completely different sentiment, a message from General Jacques Massu, a rightwing supporter of French Algeria. By the end of the war he would help direct the Secrete Army Organization (OAS), a rightwing terrorist group bent on keeping settler control over Algeria. In May of 1958, however, he proved instrumental in bringing down the Fourth Republic and returning Charles de Gaulle to power. In a letter addressed to “Mon Cher Camarade,” dated 13 May 1958, the day of the Algiers generals’ putsch that would bring down the Republic, Massu wrote, “I must ask the best of yourself in order to combat the enemy and make the great ideas of generous France triumph in Algeria, these ideas that, since 1789, have shaken the world” (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Fonds Daniel Guérin). Pro-colonial military action and the perpetuation of the civilizing mission were behind this instance of analogy to the French Revolution.

Lastly, analogy to the French Revolution emerged as popular among FLN supporters educated either in France or in state-run francophone North African schools. The poet, radio host, and FLN spokesman Jean El-Mouhoub Amrouche, criticized the ethnologist Germaine Tillion for failing to see Algerian nationalists as properly modern political subjects:

It is true that one can hardly recognize these hungry souls demanding the destiny of free men and being inhabited by spiritual needs. ‘Liberty or death’: it was good and true for the great ancestors of 1793 and the barefoot of Year II. Who could imagine the fellagha [rebels] of the Aurès, Oranie, Soummam, or the clandestine actors from the towns or villages of Algeria, have discovered in their desperation the only path towards the light by proclaiming themselves free and sovereign over the land of their forefathers?

Amrouche saw the legitimacy of the Algerian nationalist cause through the prism of the universal French ideals the civilizing mission encouraged him to embrace. Recognizing the FLN’s political legitimacy meant recognizing their affinities with Revolutionary actors.

Jean-Claude Paupert, center, was part of support networks that sheltered Algerians and laundered money for the FLN. (Image from Mediapart)

Simply observing these three different analogies to the French Revolution does not automatically reveal any obvious conclusions, except perhaps about the sheer elasticity of what the French Revolution could mean to different hereditary claimants. And the variety of events within the Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1799 allowed for a large degree of adaptation, highlighting on the one hand citizen military defense or on the other radical Jacobin universalism. But the analogy also works like an index of the type described by Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory, pointing in various directions to further research questions. Why, for instance, would Paupert and Amrouche think that Algerian history was at a moment similar to the end of old regime France? North African history had been denied by historians throughout the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps something had changed in perceptions of North African history (and indeed, much had changed). After all, the analogy is not present in earlier moments of anticolonial violence in North Africa. Further, why would a rightwing military officer feel the need to call upon the principles of 1789 when planning a government coup? What conditions would drive Massu to connect French Republicanism with a rather Bonapartist move (another historical analogy ever present in 1958 France)? Insofar as analogies reveal a subject’s assessments of the logics at work in a given moment, they grant a uniquely valuable point of entry for intellectual historians.


Timothy Scott Johnson recently defended his dissertation on the use of the French Revolution in the French-Algerian War at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the intellectual history of postwar France.  

Think Piece

Solidarity, Fragmentation, and Welfare

By Daniel London

The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century.

Stuart Hall

The problem of solidarity is shaping up to be the problem of the 21st century.

David Hollinger

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. inaugurated the field of American urban history in 1940 with a sweeping declaration that most of what was most progressive about America originated in cities. This was a result, he believed, of the circumscribed conditions within cities which “forced attention to matters of common concern which could not be ignored even by a people individualistically inclined.” This forcing of attention, in turn, brought with it a “necessary concern with the general welfare” that “nourished a sense of social responsibility”, manifested in collective voluntary action and, ultimately, in the welfare state.

While this interpretation still finds its defenders 60 years later by some unreconstructed social democrats, more specialized scholars of the American welfare state have not echoed it, to put it lightly. Rather than the result of a bottom-up solidaristic consensus or pragmatically pluralist negotiations, the welfare state as described in the work of such luminaries as Michael Katz and Linda Gordon represents the triumph of particular and privileged social groups (white men, mostly), the operations of which were lodged in bureaucracies disconnected from the people they were meant to serve. There is no talk of ‘public good’ in these works, at least with a straight face; rather, the American welfare state is characterized by its uneven and private-sector oriented nature, and its cities permanently characterized by fragmentation and segregation.

Historian Thomas Bender

Both sets of interpretations, apparently irreconcilable, nonetheless rest on a similar set of over-drawn binaries between ‘public’ and ‘private’ as related to normative concepts (the public versus the private good), social groupings (civil society versus the state) and social provision (public sector versus the private sector). Here I would argue for a more open-ended, nuanced, and empirical research agenda as to the relations within and across these pairings, oriented around the concept of “public culture” articulated by Thomas Bender.

The welfare state was, for postwar social theorist and economist T.H. Marshall, the quintessential public good – an enrichment of the “universal status of citizenship” that both emerged from and ensured a “common culture and common experience” among the populace. Many urban historians sympathetic to this interpretation emphasize moments (and spaces) of communication and cooperation between social groups, tracking the rise of a progressive and redistributive Gemeinschaft that transcended, if not replaced, a more ethnos-oriented Gesellschaft.

Other historical works, however, argue that the idea of a “public good” was not only debilitating toward efforts at redistribution (usually via hegemonic interpretations), but that it overshadowed injustices oriented around what Nancy Fraser calls issues of recognition wherein gender and racial differences need to be stressed. Such battles over representation and multiculturalism, of course, are seen by social democrats as displacing attention from mal-distribution by failing to address its real causes, and undermining the solidarity that redistributive campaigns appear to require.

We need to move away from such zero-sum interpretations, and provide more historical accounts of how understandings of the public good were developed, articulated, and gained ideological and political purchase within and across different social groupings. To what extent do policies recognizing social differences (including those of class, race, and gender) inhibit trust, and empathy and cooperation between groups – and vice-versa? When, precisely, do languages and practices around solidarity – both in terms of cultural identifications and more abstract “interests” – weaken or strengthen the respective influence of different social institutions (civil society/state) and sectors (market/state) vis-à-vis one another?

T.H. Marshall also posited a unidirectional link between active “social responsibility” by citizens on the ground and the formations and operations of the Welfare State. Indeed, Marshall believed that at a certain point civil-society institutions such as unions would be unnecessary and distracting: it would be the State that ensured the common good free of any particularizing institutions. Conversely, Jürgen Habermas, believed that the welfare state actually destroyed the “public sphere” by making civil society seemingly unnecessary, thereby reducing citizens to State clients and eroding the zones of privacy – Nancy Fraser calls them “ ‘counter-publics’” – in which citizens can gain clearer and more participatory understanding of their interests.

More empirical work is needed investigating precisely when state organizations (and at what scale) are actually more open to inclusive and open participation than voluntary organizations. A more vexed problem, however, is examining degrees of overlap and connection between civil society organizations, communities, and state organizations. To what extent have diverse publics contributed to more general formation of public opinion on a scale sufficient to influence the state and other social institutions? How have transformations in the ownership and usage of communication – and the physical spaces where inter-group communication literally takes place – influenced their capacities to do so? How have ideas and policies around the ‘public value’ of redistribution and recognition been influenced by changing connections between, and degree of democracy within, these institutions? Finally, how have languages and practices around solidarity and conflict discussed earlier influenced participation within and across civil society and the state?

Finally, we must address the question of policies themselves. The entire point of Welfare, for Schlesinger and Marshall, was to ensure a certain equality of condition and opportunity for individuals that alternative mechanisms – the family, volunteer organizations, and especially the market – could not provide. America represents a “laggard” Welfare state, in the eyes of many historians, to the extent that these purportedly “private” institutions were responsible for sectors of social reproduction. Not only were such institutions insufficient in dealing with major economic crises, but they also discriminated on the basis of the recipients’ status or income in ways that universal, tax-financed policies (across class lines) do not. Other New Left and conservative critics argue that the State, by monopolizing social provision, erodes horizontal solidaristic ties within communities and civil society.

Recent scholarship into comparative welfare state formation, however, has overturned traditional understanding of the American State and welfare policy more generally. Most importantly for the purpose of this essay, they have demonstrated ‘public welfare’ activity always consists of a mixture of institutional players – many of them non-state – and policies at any given time. Under these conditions, how do individuals navigate changing configurations of welfare providers? How do differences in their funding structure (tax financed versus contributory), accessibility (means tested versus universal), and operation (via parochial organizations, civil-society, ‘community’ organizations, and so forth) both reflect and affect patterns of solidarity within and between groups?

As should be clear from this résumé, any simple characterization of the welfare state as either the embodiment or antithesis of solidarity rests on shaky foundations. The easy, unidirectional link between the “public” good”, the “public” sector, and “public” policies – as ultimately manifesting in the universal welfare state – does not seem born out by the evidence. However, both adherents of this position and its die-hard critics tended to state their cases in overly binary terms. This is partly an understandable reaction to the neoliberal valorization of the private sector since the 1970s. I also believe it stems, however, from the fact that so many historians tend to locate their areas of inquiry outside the realm of policy formation – preventing us from seeing in greater detail the actual inputs and effects of welfare policies on ideas, practices, and institutions as relating to solidarity.

Toward this end, I propose a research program scaffolded around the transformation and consequences of welfare policies (with “welfare” interpreted loosely), but whose locus of inquiry is what Thomas Bender calls the  making of public culture. Public culture encompasses the sites and processes whereby social groups interact and contest for the power to define legitimate social meanings – in my own work, around the meanings of “public” and “private” – for the polity.   This is not consensus or pluralist history, insofar as it critically examines how and why some groups and identities are not represented in these contests. It is, however, unapologetically built around interaction. Not as a way of avoiding questions of power and domination, but of more fully understanding and interrogating it: in Julian Zelizer’s words “how it was structured and changed, where it was contested what its impact was, and what assumptions shaped the discourse that framed it.” To this end, highlighting brief moments of social democratic deliberations or inter-group interactions is not enough: our study must also encompass the translation of (some) of these meanings into actual policies, along with their effects. If this entails a closer examination of institutional formations and interactions that many cultural historians have become accustomed to, so much the better.

What does all of this, finally, have to do with the city? We cannot naively assume that urban areas are, either historically or theoretically, the most generative space for social politics. However, they remain unparalleled as a site for investigating and comparing interactions at their most complex, heterogeneous, and dense. And in our investigations, we will need to deploy the methodologies of intellectual history in order to fully understand the contexts and complexes around the meaning of those keywords – public, private, solidarity, fragmentation – that are all-too-often unreflexively deployed by well-meaning commentators and chroniclers alike.

Think Piece

Intellectual History from Below

by Emily Rutherford

When he came to give a lecture at Columbia University last month, Chris Hilliard was introduced as “an intellectual historian from below.” “From below” is a term to conjure with in modern British history: a field whose forebears include E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill, and others; a field in which class as a category of analysis is never far from the foreground. But “intellectual history from below”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To judge from classrooms, conferences, even the pages of (ahem) a certain journal, it would seem that there is a rather specific and narrowly-defined vision of who gets to be a subject of intellectual history. But if, as Joyce Chaplin suggested in her Lovejoy Lecture earlier this month, intellectual historians might attune themselves to the nonhuman, surely they might also profit from inquiries into less elite, less educated subjects—even illiterate or barely literate ones. I am going to tell you a bit about how Hilliard has done this in his work. And then I am going to get a bit polemical. “Intellectual history from below” means two things: it refers to the subjects the intellectual historian investigates; but also to the culture of the field itself, which could be made more equitable and welcoming by a rethinking of what sort of subjects constitute intellectual history. As an editor of this blog, I have had probably a hundred conversations with potential writers who say, “What I do isn’t intellectual history/history of ideas. It’s not clever enough. It’s too far from political thought or the history of philosophy.” This perception is widespread and it is holding intellectual history back. Hilliard’s work shows us how it can be changed.

Hilliard’s first book, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006), is about how writing emerged as a pursuit for ordinary, working-class people in Britain in the interwar period. In his introduction, he clearly frames his project as “literary history from below,” taking seriously the literary aspirations of ordinary people and the magazines, clubs, and interest from democratizing publishers and agents that sustained them. His second book maintained his interest in the world of twentieth-century literature and literary criticism, but turned to F.R. Leavis and the literary-critical movement of which he was a leader, in English as a Vocation: The Scrutiny Movement (2012). Previous accounts of Scrutiny had tended to emphasize the centrality of Leavis, with other figures understood as disciples who sought simply to apply his methods to their reading, writing, and teaching. But Hilliard gives us a more contested and diffuse landscape, in which non-elite individuals such as schoolteachers and adult-education lecturers reinterpreted Leavis’s and other critics’ ideas to suit their own political and pedagogical ends, often with consequences for thought and action that the critics could not have predicted or intended. Hilliard’s creative use of sources makes both books stand out: he turns to documents, such as the records of provincial writers’ clubs or of adult education colleges, that others had not thought to use and in many cases did not even know existed. He reads those sources in original ways, revealing the idiosyncrasies in how individuals develop ideas about writing, politics, or the world around them.

So too last month at Columbia, when Hilliard opened his lecture by challenging himself to tell a literary history of the most unlikely subject: a poison-pen letter-writer who, in 1920s West Sussex, attempted to frame a neighbor for the obscene and threatening letters she sent to residents on their street, including herself. Ranging over the uses of literacy in a criminal libel investigation of the period, Hilliard concentrated in particular on the contents of the letters: the handwriting, a key aspect of the criminal investigation; and also the kinds of obscenities the letter-writer used. Swearing was a distinctly masculine practice in interwar England, and so by being a woman who swore in letters sent to both men and women, the letter-writer was violating an important cultural taboo. Hilliard showed how this could be why her syntax seemed so irregular. She mashed obscenities together in compound forms, used verbs as nouns and vice versa, in a manner not attested in any other records of slang or swearing of the time, because she did not have access to the masculine environments in which she might have heard swearing regularly used. She was not, as Hilliard put it, a “native speaker” of obscenity.

What does this have to do with the kind of history JHI represents? In a seminar Hilliard held with graduate students later that week, we came back to Scrutiny, and to the present-day consequences of how topics like mid-twentieth-century Cambridge literary critics are understood. Political thought has recently been experiencing a revival of interest in modern British intellectual history, with investigations into other academic disciplines (such as literary criticism, history, economics, or anthropology) often understood as closely connected to the political questions facing, predominantly, the New Left—and thus to political questions that we face today, as we re-evaluate the welfare-state settlement of a period that our discussion demarcated as 1942-63. Historians of the United States in the same period might notice a similar trend. This is a topic that can be pursued skillfully (and is, by several of my contemporaries), enhancing our critical historical understanding of politics and political thought in the twentieth century. But it is also a topic that can lend itself to a peculiar kind of nostalgia, expressed by young people who were born long after the mid-twentieth-century settlement unravelled through challenges on a variety of fronts: not only from neoliberalism, but also from other left-wing political perspectives, foremost among them feminism, that challenged the profound limitations of the mid-century New Left perspective. Understanding this genealogy has allowed me to observe a certain collapsing of past and present: when some young intellectual historians admire the pre-1968 Left for its commitment to a socialist ideal from which our present world has fallen, they also naturalize the culture in which the subjects of their research operated. I’m just going to come out and say it: the history of leftist political thought and allied disciplines, operating within the pre-feminist paradigms of the subjects it studies, is not a comfortable atmosphere in which to be a woman—particularly when it is the main arena for young scholars interested in history of ideas. The intellectual history of other times, places, and political orientations is often no better, similar enough to academic philosophy to mirror many of the social and cultural barriers to women’s participation in that field.

As in philosophy, I believe that many of the gatekeepers in intellectual history would not like to imagine themselves as people who contribute to their discipline being a hostile environment for women, and are eager to remove barriers to women’s participation. Unfortunately, such discussions tend to cohere around topics such as parental leave, work-life balance, and unconscious bias in hiring or grant decisions—which, if important issues, seem to me to have little to do with the reasons that I and other young, early-career women feel socially and culturally unwelcome among groups of intellectual historians. We are intelligent, opinionated people who are experienced at historical research and have opinions about ideas and their history, but the conversation that is going on around seminar tables and in the pages of journals is too narrow and uncritical to be an interesting one, while joining or starting alternative conversations usually entails reaching the decision, “I’m not an intellectual historian. Intellectual history is not for me.” Put simply, intellectual history is as much of a boys’ club as the Universities and Left Review, and when there are so many other subfields in our discipline which are not, why would we stick around?

How to change this? We can turn not to HR practices, but to our research itself and how we talk about it. We can take a leaf out of Hilliard’s book—as, indeed, we editors have sought to do since we began this blog—and define intellectual history as widely as possible. It is a subject which can be studied above and below, and one which can include the widest possible variety of individuals, who do not necessarily conform to our preconceptions of someone who is capable of having “ideas.” We must be unfailing in our commitment to situate ideas and their authors in their social and cultural context, and thus avoid temptations to naturalize our actors’ analytic categories and political programs or to collapse the distance between their time or their subjecthood and our own. We must take seriously those whose primary subject of study is the social and cultural context: we must not marginalize them as helpmeets to “real” intellectual historians, but must make sure that our conversations about intellectual history, at least when they occur in public, demonstrate awareness that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, in the past or in the present. As Hilliard’s sources and methodology demonstrate, the circumstances in which ideas appear can involve unintended consequences, or unexpected meetings of “high” and “low.” They can challenge us as humans to treat new interlocutors with dignity and seriousness. Making room in one’s scholarship for unexpected interpretations of Scrutiny outside the academy, or for a West Sussex housewife’s profanities, is not after all so different from making room for an intelligent and inventive colleague who has not read every word of Gramsci or Foucault, and may still have something important to say.

Think Piece

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.