CSMCH-IASH colloquium on the Indian left

To mark the end of his 3-month fellowship period, our inaugural CSMCH-IASH postdoctoral fellow Rakesh Ankit, organised a small colloquium on the left in 20th century India. The two invited speakers – Virinder Kalra (Warwick) and Taylor Sherman (LSE) – both offered contrasting perspectives on an important theme in Indian political history. After the event, Rakesh wrote this short summary of the day’s highlights. 

Virinder Kalra, ‘Pondering the Revolutionary Subject: From Ghadar to Kirti’

Starting the proceedings of the afternoon with a focus on the political consciousness of the Ghadar Party as gleaned from its poetics, Virinder Kalra posed the question, who is a revolutionary subject? With respect to the Ghadar-ites of 1914-17, this assumes added importance, when one realises their diverse and enduring legacies in the left in/on India. The Ghadar Party, founded in 1913, in Virinder’s words, was an ‘archetype of a certain kind of migratory and student consciousness’. Articulating its ‘politics through poetry’, in which ‘[political] truth was subordinate to the flow of political language’, it was a ‘proto-type secular anti-religious group’.

Virinder Kalra discusses the Ghadar Party

Beginning with the verses of Kartar Singh Sarabha and following it up with examples from Ghadar di Goonj, a 6-volume poem collection, described as a ‘lightening – storm – flame – fire’, Prof. Kalra mentioned its trans-national trajectory, well-traced by Maia Ramnath in Haj to Utopia (2011). Over the next 20 years, it would inspire many; from Bhagat Singh to Udham Singh. One of its more appealing features was its overt secular nature seen in forthright preferences expressed between the binaries of sacred versus profane and religion versus revolt. The Ghadar movement termed Pandits, Qazis and Rai Bahadurs as ‘black heart collaborators’ of the colonial regime thereby entwining the two, as shown by Harish Puri (1993). However, this interpretation has not gone unquestioned and it has been argued that the language of mobilisation employed in these poems was more often than not replete with Sikh religious motifs.

Virinder offered a more nuanced reading to decode these poetic motifs, which almost always portrayed organised religion as negative and, even when giving a call for action in the name of sacred duty, did not particularise it. Religious imagery was used outside a religious context. It can be read as a case of invoking religion to overcome religion. It was not so much a call for religious action but righteous action caused by material conditions and subjectivities. Unsurprisingly, it inspired revolutionary consciousness in a range of organisations like Kirti Kisan Party, Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Association, while also being attempted to be appropriated by right-wing religious movements like Ahrars and the Arya Samaj. This fount of ‘leading inspiration’ had then, its ‘identities as process…’ in the words of Stuart Hall.

Initiating the discussion, Talat Ahmed (Edinburgh) asked about the specificity of poetry as a historical source, whether the Ghadar-ites were ‘anti-religious’ or better understood as ‘non-religious’ and how we could more accurately or approximately define their revolutionary subject. In his response, Virinder agreed about the Ghadar-ites employing religious motifs, not ‘from above’, but ‘from below’. This ambivalence was accompanied by an absence of women and lower castes/outcastes in their midst, which further qualifies the Ghadar-ites’ claim to be a modern, revolutionary subject. Their Marxism may have been alternative but it had its own populated margins.

Following on from Talat’s comment, Taylor Sherman wondered whether the Ghadar moment was a case of ‘youthful misadventure’. Further, what immediacy or urgency were they seized by in their sense of time? Prof. Kalra offered that just as religion was a rhetorical vehicle for poetry, youth was a similar rhetorical device; as was Heroism. Taken together, they responded to the ‘unsettled’ time of 1910s and 20s and imparted a sense of now or never. After all, the anti-colonial nature of the group was never in doubt.

The final questions of the session came from the audience. Some wondered about the contestations around the contemporary meanings and legacies of the Ghadar Party and were accompanied by the as to why so much of the writings by the Ghadar-ites was without authorial identification. Especially when contrasted with the Progressives and Mavericks from 1930s onwards. Virinder agreed that identities, symbolisms and legacies are neither fixed nor settled to anyone’s satisfaction. Mixed practices and articulations made any institutional appropriation difficult and this makes the memory and history of Ghadar-ites more and not less fascinating. On the matter of to name or to not name, Prof. Kalra – his response amplified by Dr. Ahmed – elucidated by pointing that the critical factor here was 1917, which provided a context for what he called the clear, fixed, ‘settled left’ afterwards, a structured project, whereas before 1917, it had been a fluid churning of an ‘unsettled left’, largely rumblings.

Taylor Sherman, ‘Does a democracy need elections? Jayaprakash Narayan and democratic doubt in 1950s and 1960s India’

Taylor Sherman began by questioning the scholarly consensus that India in 1950s was a strong state with a stable democratic regime, personified by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, before it went downhill under his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1970s. Citing Ornit Shani’s recent celebration of India’s first general election and her eulogy to the ‘bureaucratic imagination’ that conducted it, Dr. Sherman brought up the limitations of this understanding.

Taylor Sherman explores the political engagement of Jayaprakash Narayan

While the former was ‘too long-term-ist and schematic’, Shani is too ‘short-term’. Neither consider ‘how Indians themselves viewed democracy’. Bringing up one such prominent Indian, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) – the Marxist, whose socialism was always tempered by a strong influence of Gandhi – and his ‘democratic doubts’ articulated to the extent of arguing for abolishing Parliamentary Democracy, Taylor asked the question JP seemed to be asking: does a democracy need elections to do its tasks of development?

Drawing upon JP’s trajectory from party politics to social movements like Sarvodaya and Bhoodan and his consequent criticism of the built-in iniquities of the ‘first-past-the-post’ system expressed most vocally between 1957 and 1961, she listed the ‘pure particulars’ of JP’s critique: (a) parliamentary democracy did not equal to majority rule given the discrepancy between votes polled and seats won, (b) people often did not vote ‘rationally’, (c) party machines were engaged in a relentless, remorseless and rapacious competition; a ‘competition of violators’ of democratic spirit, (d) the ubiquitous caste factor, (e) the 5-year electoral cycles meant that for a majority of that time, there was a state of executive rule through an indirect democratic arrangement, given the absence of recall/referendum, (f) Democracy was, all said and done, a ‘foreign’ system.

JP’s alternative Indian vision was a communitarian democracy of ‘pooling of resources, moral quality and mental attitude’. At its heart was not universal adult franchise but ‘universal adult participation’, leading to not merely democracy but self-rule from bottom i.e. the primary village community. This was welfare in miniature, local self-government and a decentralized structure, which could ‘avoid’ elections, which it did not ‘require’ for its primary, everyday goals of community development.

The discussion that followed threw further light on JP’s milieu, especially his disillusioning experience of the Congress party-apparatus during the 1937 and 1946 elections. Seeming contradictions in JP’s thinking viz. the inherent caste/communal violence in villages, the ‘client-patron’ relations and lack of land reforms were brought up and it was wondered whether his disenchantment with democracy was not a part of a larger disillusionment, which emerged in late—1950s India. Talat wondered what JP was reading so as to be so reliant on the ‘good-naturedness’ of the elites in his almost ‘oriental despotic’ model. Virinder queried about the parallels in JP’s thinking with the nativity/indigeneity that today’s right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP profess. Finally, another audience members saw echoes of Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ and ‘Deliberation’ in JP’s thought.

In her replies, Dr. Sherman shed more light on aspects of JP’s ‘individualist democracy’ of an ‘enlightened local and not distant rule’, albeit with the danger of dissent being smothered. In sum, the time of 1950s was reposited by Dr. Sherman as a ‘period of experiment’, in which JP – a pro-development figure – was a key thinker on ways to overcome the shortcomings and violence of the then-existing socialist democracy(s).

Rakesh Ankit teaches history at the Law School in OP Jindal University, Sonipat. He studied at the universities of Delhi, Oxford and Southampton, from where he completed his PhD in 2014. His dissertation was published as Kashmir, 1945-66: From Empire to the Cold War (Routledge, 2016) and he has also worked on the Interim Government of September 1946-August 1947 in British India. He was the inaugural CSMCH-IASH postdoctoral fellow from November 2017 to January 2018, during which he worked on a new project on the history of Indian Communism.

Peter Jackson explores Franco-British relations after World War One

Earlier this week, the CSMCH hosted one of its own steering committee members – Peter Jackson of the University of Glasgow. Peter has recently been awarded a major AHRC grant to explore the impact of stereotypes on Franco-British relations and we were lucky enough to learn more about this exciting area of research. You can read Fraser Raeburn’s summary below or listen to the full lecture by clicking on the audio link.

How is history marshalled to meet the needs of the present?

This fundamental question lay at the heart of Peter Jackson’s talk to the CSMCH on Franco-British relations in the aftermath of the First World War. In pointing to history – or, more precisely, diplomats’ and politicians’ understandings of history – as the root cause of the collapse of the Entente Cordiale after the war, Peter’s paper ventured from the Hundred Years’ War all the way to Brexit in search of answers.

This approach borrowed heavily from recent work in memory studies, positing that the past is inherently malleable, endlessly reconstructed in the present based on changing needs, contexts and expectations for the future. In particular, Professor Jackson pointed to the importance of anxieties in shaping policy, depicting history as a reservoir from which answers might be found to solve future dilemmas. History, in this depiction, forms part of a decision making chain, where previous experience and future expectation are in a constant, often self-perpetuating cycle.

The Franco-British (or, more aptly, Anglo-French) relationship provides fertile ground to observe the ongoing influence of history in understanding the present. Particularly for a certain breed of traditionalist thinker, Anglo-French rivalry and animosity is very much a live trope.

France is portrayed as culturally and strategically other – incomprehensible, fickle and untrustworthy, very much a historical enemy, not least in battles from Trafalgar to Agincourt that are constantly refought in popular representations and memory. France is Napoleon, Louis XIV, the constant continental power whose potential for dominance implicitly threatens British interests. This ignores, of course, that France and Britain have been at peace for two centuries, and have fought several major wars as close allies in that time. In the grand, sweeping view of history, these are exceptions to a longer rule.

While there is certainly reciprocity at play – French views of England and Englishness do occasionally revert to somewhat accurate stereotype – Peter pointed to their particular salience in British official thinking after the First World War to explain the rapid divergence in perceived interest between the two victorious powers. While French policymakers, Clemenceau in particular, were forced by the experience of invasion and occupation to address hard questions about their future security and plot a new way forward, British policymakers reverted to earlier ways of thinking with astonishing rapidity.

Key to understanding this divergence is each sides’ view of history. For France, this history centred on 1870, and the sudden loss of continental pre-eminence. German invasion was the existential threat of the future, as it had been twice before in living memory. This led to a two-pronged approach to security – the strengthening and support of new Eastern and Central European powers as a counterweight to Germany on the continent, and the forging of a trans-Atlantic democratic bloc. Britain, it was now clear, was essential to future French security.

For British policymakers, however, the view was different. Germany, shorn of its fleet, was no longer an imperial threat, but rather a valuable potential economic partner. Rather, France assumed its age-old role as Britain’s nearest imperial rival, the strongest continental power on land, sea and air.

Moreover, the needs of imperial defence, and the increasingly independent security demands of the Dominions, mitigated against continental security commitments. The underlying motivations of French security demands were therefore treated with suspicion. Would enabling an ascendant France, able to dominate the continent, simply be inviting a new challenger to imperial hegemony?

As Peter pointed out, this historical view of France as a British rival had little to do with the present. France was exhausted by war, and painfully aware that German industrial and demographic potential outstripped theirs. This was an imagined threat, and one that needs to be treated with some scepticism, given that the armed forces were forced to protect their budgets in the aftermath of demobilisation, and cast around for new threats to defend against. Yet it is still telling that France could so easily be cast in the role of strategic rival, and that they – not Japan or the United States – were the most convincing new rival.

Commentary was ably provided by Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, through the medium of Edinburgh’s own Dr David Kaufman, who also demonstrated considerable familiarity with Foreign Office documents and personalities alongside clear fondness for 1980s television.

Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Students tackle the Catalan crisis in the first CSMCH Discussion Group

Thanks to the hard work of its affiliated students, the CSMCH now has an informal discussion group. This new initiative is designed to allow students and early-career scholars to discuss different aspects of the yearly theme in a more intimate setting. History PhD student Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz took the lead for the very first session, which was about the Catalan crisis, and wrote this report for the blog.

Since October 2017, the Catalan conflict has been all over the news. The images of the violence exercised by the police drew international attention. While the conflict has been polarised in the last few months, it has been an issue in Spanish politics for a long time. Inside the complexity of the Catalan conflict lies a core question of democracy.  An important element is the different understandings amongst the political parties of what democracy is – and should be.

To help the participants get a grip with the complexities of the crisis, I gave a short introduction to the different political movements struggling over the future of Catalonia.

Iker introduces the discussion group to the intricacies of the Catalan crisis

The “Catalan nationalist side” has three main tendencies. ‘Together for Catalonia’ has traditionally been a representative of the middle class and entrepreneurs. Since 1980, it has been the hegemonic force in Catalan politics.  Neoliberalism and conservatism are prominent aspects of its ideology and, until 2012, it was always a political ally of either the centre-left Socialist Party or the centre-right People’s Party.

For ‘Together for Catalonia’, democracy has always been related to parliamentary politics, elections every four years and the rule of law. Nevertheless, immersed in many scandals since 2010 about the party’s funding, it suffered significant political defeats. This situation pushed them into radical politics, trying to profit from the situation created by the crisis in Spain around the far-left Indignados movement and the growing mood for independence in Catalonia.

Alongside ‘Together for Catalonia’, there is the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a centre-left party. In the 1930s, it was the principal Catalan party. From 1980, it was a marginal political force in Catalonia until 2012 when it successfully harnessed the anger engendered by the crisis by supporting the independence and the Indignados movements.

Finally, “la Cup” (Popular Unity Candidacy) is a revolutionary and anti-capitalist party. Its ethos is based on a strong defence of democracy from below inspired by the “Municipalism theory” and “assembly” politics.

Since 2012 the Catalan nationalist side has asked for a legal referendum to determine the future of Catalonia. In the last elections in 2015, they claimed –because they had the majority of MPs in the parliament – that they had a majority of people willing to push for a referendum to determine the future of Catalonia, and that they had a democratic mandate for this, even if it was not “legal” in terms of Spanish law. Together for Catalonia and ERC wanted to use the referendum as a demonstration of civil disobedience to attract an EU intervention to force Spain to negotiate a legal referendum. For “la Cup”, the contradictions between the people’s hopes during the referendum and the oppression of the State would have triggered a revolution.

On the anti-independence side, there are two main tendencies. On the right, Citizens, a right-wing party born in 2016 as an anti-Catalan party, funded by a major Spanish entrepreneur. It is composed of strong elements of neoliberalism, centralism, Spanish nationalism and neoconservatism. Since 2012, because of its anti-Catalan character, it has been an emerging force in Catalonia attracting voters who have a strong hate and anger against Catalan nationalists. The party defends the “empire of law” and Spanish Unity by any means necessary. Also on the right, the People’s Party is the largest party in Spain – currently in government – but the weakest political force in Catalonia. It has always been marginal in Catalan politics.

These two right wing parties share many similarities in terms of democratic feeling. For them, the unity of Spain counts above all else. It must be unconditionally defended. This posture can be traced back to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist side, which articulated the idea that one should not talk with the enemy, but, on the contrary, “eliminate” him. For them, there simply cannot be a referendum because it is illegal according to both law and the constitution.

On the left of the anti-independence movement, Catalonia in Common defend the particularities of the peoples of Spain, a legal referendum, a reformed or new constitution, and decentralization of the Spanish State. However, the left has been characterised by emergent strong contradictions between adherence to internationalism, on the one hand, and accommodating particularistic nationalism, on the other. They have tried to occupy a “middle” place by supporting neither Catalan nationalism nor the right-wing parties.

Inevitably, this brief presentation gave rise to a whole host of questions.

Those present asked about whether civil disobedience is a legitimate mode of democracy? If so, why? Do you have to follow the law, even if it is unfair or could you rebel against it? Can the left be nationalist and internationalist at the same time? Is self-determination possible in today’s Europe? Can we create new states inside the EU? Can a majority of MPs in a parliament legitimate decisions that are outside law? What is the relation between decisions taken at the top by the political parties, and what the people think or do? What was the referendum in democratic terms?

Overall, three themes emerged from our lively discussion: first, how each side in the Catalan conflict understands democracy, and how those differing interpretations were used to push for or against independence; second, how other nationalism movements have acted – such as in Scotland or in Taiwan’s regionalist movement; and, finally, how the past is not only used to justify present decisions, but also the myriad ways in which it permeates and shapes contemporary conflicts.

If this first experience is anything to go by, our discussion group will be an exciting and lively forum for debate, with many overlapping perspectives. Fortunately, we have several more sessions planned over the coming months. Stay tuned for further information!

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977).

Aditya Sarkar on the Hindu right and the reshaping of Indian democracy

We kicked off the new semester with a fantastic paper by Aditya Sarkar (Warwick), who presented a wide-ranging analysis of the current advance of the Hindu right in India. The exciting topic ensured that it was standing room only, but Anita Klingler managed to find a seat. She sends this report. 

Aditya began his talk by acknowledging that the topic was somewhat removed from his usual research on the social history of South Asian labour and capitalism. He did not claim to be arguing from a point of neutrality in this often controversial debate, but nevertheless wished to offer the listeners an analysis rather than mere polemic. In this, he succeeded handsomely.

He began very helpfully by providing a definition of some key terms, including the central notion of Hindutva. He characterised this as the ideology of the Hindu Right since the 1920s, based around the conception of India as a fundamentally Hindu nation. He followed up with a bleak and unsettling run down of recent Hindu right-wing extremist attacks on Muslims, dalits, and other minority groups in India.

From there, he moved towards laying out his central thesis, namely that Hindutva and democracy do not stand in opposition to one another in modern India, but instead have been moving “in lockstep”.

He acknowledged that this claim might seem a little surprising, but he felt it was necessary in the light of two common misconceptions: firstly, the notion that Hindutva, as an ideology, is a simple negation of democracy; secondly, that India – often hailed as the world’s largest democracy – is not actually a democracy at all because of its corrupt election practices and the socio-economic constraints that weigh on India’s poorest. Instead, Aditya made the case for a historical analysis of “really existing democracy” in India, and highlighted the need to analyse the relationship and the tensions between normative and historical conceptions of Indian democracy.

The crucial historical point is that the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with a broadening of the social base of democracy, involving an increasing number of people in democratic processes. This meant that the main Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could easily rebut claims that they were “anti-democratic” since they were winning a significant number of seats in elections.

Aditya thus drew attention to the fact that, with its embrace of electoral democracy, the BJP had succeeded in democratising collective identities, based on the notion of a Hindu national community, rather than individual ones. This focus on the “nation-as-Hindu” has only been exacerbated by the continuous electoral cycle, in which opposition parties have increasingly been compelled to abandon the language of secular nationalism to remain relevant to the debate.

Aditya helps the audience get to grips with the meaning of the Hindu right in India

Finishing his historical overview, Aditya pointed out what the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has to offer voters. First and foremost, he is unapologetic in his self-portrayal as an economic moderniser, determined to lead the booming Indian economy to even greater successes. However, just as importantly, he has staked his legitimacy on a strong anti-corruption (and universal ‘pro-cleanliness’) agenda.

Aditya presented an example of the success of this language from his own field work amongst metal workers on the industrial outskirts of Delhi during the 2016 demonetisation campaign. While the workers had long been staunch supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party, literally the ‘Common Man’s Party’, he noticed a shift in their loyalties towards the BJP. This was especially surprising given that poorer people, whose livelihoods depend largely on cash, had suffered severely under the policy of demonetisation, in the course of which several of the most widely used currency notes were taken out of circulation by the government. To counter this potential negative publicity, Modi successfully invoked a spirit of national sacrifice. Surprisingly, this worked. Aditya’s respondents told him that they hoped for a better, less corrupt future, in which the rich would finally be made to pay their dues, the poor would ascend, and equality would be established.

This unexpected endorsement of demonetisation exhibited the power of the language of sacrifice employed by Modi, and served as an example of how his nationalist discourse is in fact broader than traditional notions of Hindutva. For Aditya, this suggests a nationalist shift within (not against) democracy, reinforcing his thesis that Hindutva and democracy are moving side-by-side in modern India, thus requiring us to pay more attention to its changing nature under a nationalist government.

The paper was followed by a brief comment by Wilfried Swenden (Edinburgh). He encouraged the room to view the Hindu Right not simply as an ‘Indian story’, but as part of a global rise of populism, the structural causes of which needed to be analysed more widely. He further raised the question of the self-styled “illiberal democracies” of Eastern Europe, such as Hungary and Poland, and whether this terminology constituted a contradiction on terms, or not.

Lastly, Wilfried offered a series of causes which he viewed as contributors towards the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, which included the establishment of economic liberalism without an accompanying social safety net; increasing upward mobility of the lower castes, which provoked upper caste resentment; and the first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it difficult for smaller parties to play any meaningful role in electoral politics.

The seminar ended with stimulating questions from the audience. Many of these focused on the normalisation of certain radical discourses that endanger minorities globally, from the United States to Myanmar. The exchange demonstrated both the impact of Aditya’s paper and the importance of the issues he raised.

Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany.

Semester round-up

It’s been a fantastic semester here at the Centre. We’ve had excellent talks by a very wide range of speakers; we’ve had sell-out audiences at our events; and we’ve welcomed our inaugural CSMCH-IASH visiting postdoctoral fellow. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the highlights, with links to all the relevant blog posts.

We started the year with an exciting event on ‘truth and democracy’, with three distinguished speakers, and a spirited exchange during the question and answer session. You can read about – and listen again to – all three short interventions here. This opening event was followed by a series of excellent talks throughout the semester on, amongst other things, generational change in French politics, Soviet visions of modernity, Muslims and Holocaust memory in contemporary Germany, dam protests in 1980s Brazil, and the politics and geography of South Asia.

Jake Blanc captures the audience’s attention during the Q&A session for his talk in November.

The Centre also co-sponsored an excellent workshop on the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ in September and a roundtable on academic freedom in Uganda, Bangladesh, Turkey and China in December.

Finally, we’ve had a number of fascinating guest contributions on the blog about everything from the history of the postcard to Harold Macmillan’s ‘Middle Way’.

And there’s a lot more to come. Next semester’s programme is bursting with exciting events, including talks by Aditya Sarkar, Peter Jackson and Rana Mitter on India, Europe and China respectively; a Czech New Wave film screening series in February; and a workshop on democratic politics in Africa in early March. Please join us as we continue to explore democracy and the democratic imagination in the modern world!

— Emile

Seminar double-bill on the politics and geography of South Asia

For our final seminar of 2017, we teamed up with the Centre for South Asian Studies and the Institute of Advanced Study in the Humanities (IASH) to offer contrasting perspectives on the politics and geography of South Asia. As Rosalind Parr explains in her blog report, these inspired us to think about how European ideas were deployed and manipulated in South Asia during the colonial and postcolonial periods.

An 1893 map of British India

The first paper of the evening was given by Nilanjana Mukherjee (Delhi University), who is this year’s Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at IASH. In her paper, ‘From Highlands to Himalayas. The Making of a Borderland,’ she used conceptions of the Himalayas to illustrate how maps, paintings, and travel writing, were languages of power that articulated the colonial project. For the inhabitants of the Himalayas, the mountains represented a central sacred space while, for Europeans, they came to mark a peripheral borderland.  The latter reflected conceptions of mountains drawn from the British context, with the Highlands of Scotland providing an important parallel.

This presumed parallel fed into a process whereby the Himalayan landscape was interpreted through the lens of the Scottish tradition. Mukherjee demonstrated how this juxtaposition played out in practice through the work of the Scottish painter, James Baillie Fraser (1783-1856). The ‘view-from-above’ Scottish Enlightenment tropes employed by Fraser in his depictions of the Indian landscape reflected a sense of power and opened up the space for the colonial gaze.

This had far-reaching consequences. In displacing traditional, polycentric conceptions of the space, the colonial regime established a territorial borderland that later became the frontier of the postcolonial state. The idea that mountain ranges represented the heart of the political and spiritual world – a view common in Indian mythology – was gradually displaced by a decidedly European idea of mountains as impenetrable and dangerous liminal spaces.

Rakesh and Nilanjana answering questions

Our second speaker was Rakesh Ankit (Jindal University, Delhi), who is the inaugural CSMCH-IASH Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary History. His paper ‘Many Ways of Being One: The Hindu Communist?’ examined the life stories of prominent Indian communists in order to help us understand the history of communism in India.

As Ankit pointed out, the question of whether India was ripe for communism has exercised many a commentator over the years. However, the question of why Communism succeeded or failed has rarely been treated in relation to the biographies of the Communist movement’s key leaders.

As a way of rectifying this balance, Ankit offered quickfire biographies of eight founding fathers of the Indian Communist movement: Sachidanand Vishnu Ghate (1896-1970), Gangardhar Adhikari (1898-1981), S.A. Dange (1899-1991), P. Sundarayya (1913-1985), M. Basavapunniah (1914-92), E.M.S. Namboodiripad (1909-1998), Jyoti Basu (1914-2010), and Bogendra Jha (1923-2009).

Despite their differences, Ankit’s eight subjects bore significant similarities.  Their subjectivities as Hindu, high caste, upper-class men, who came of age at the height of the anti-colonial nationalist movement affected the ways they applied and refashioned communism for the local context. In many cases this included marked social conservatism and religious intolerance. This meant that difficult questions around nation, gender, caste and religion were rarely confronted.

By casting his analytical net beyond the usual suspects of M.N. Roy and Rajani Palme Dutt, Ankit offered an original take on early Communism in India. The cohort of Communists he discussed embodied a range of local contexts and intellectual trajectories, which naturally raised the question about the utility of the label ‘communist’. Not surprisingly, a good deal of the question-and-answer session was devoted to precisely this issue of nomenclature: if, as Ankit suggests, there is such a thing as a ‘Hindu Communist’, what do these two words really mean?

There are no easy answers to such questions, but at the very least these two papers illuminated different aspects of South Asian history and offered tantalising insights into the processes of modern globalisation. This, in turn, should challenge us to consider the relative importance of power, appropriation, and exchange in the modern world.

Rosalind Parr is PhD student in History. Her research interests are located in transnational and global histories of the twentieth century, particularly through the lenses of South Asian and gender history. Her thesis examines the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. She is a members of the CSMCH steering committee.

Jake Blanc on rural democracy in 1980s Brazil

The Centre welcomed one of its own this week, hosting Jake Blanc, Edinburgh’s newly-appointed Lecturer in Latin American History. This talk represented both a geographical and conceptual shift from those that have preceded it this semester, leaving behind histories of Western, urban spaces to concentrate on rural areas in the global south. Fraser Raeburn sent this report – or you can listen again to the whole talk by following the link below.

The focus of the talk was the Itaipu Dam megaproject on the border of Brazil and Paraguay. The dam displaced 40,000 people in the Paraná region of Brazil and led to unprecedented political mobilisation in the early 1980s. Blanc has done extensive research on this mobilisation and he used this talk to advance several theoretical and empirical hypotheses based on this case study of political and environmental activism.

Challenging urban-centric histories of Brazilian democratization, he pointed to the emerging protest movements not just as an effective instance of activism that succeeded in many of its goals, but as the politicisation of the countryside itself.

This movement was not just a challenge to the military regime on the question of Itaipu’s effects, but was able to articulate a positive message about agrarian reform that resonated throughout much of the country. Taking place as it did during a key period in Brazil’s democratic transition, known as abertura, the issue became a test of the government’s new-found commitment to democratic processes.

Despite the unity of purpose, Blanc also observed that there were tensions within the movement between different categories of displaced people. Landed farmers – generally of European heritage – saw the question as one of property rights, and sought fairer compensation for the land they were losing. Landless agrarian workers, on the other hand, saw the issue in terms of land reform, seeking ‘land for land’ as a replacement. Lastly, the local indigenous peoples, the Avá-Guarani, saw the lost land as a threat to their specific way of life.

Perhaps predictably, each group of stakeholders saw substantially different outcomes and post-Itaipu trajectories. Landed farmers were generally successful in gaining higher levels of compensation for their land, and were often able to purchase new land elsewhere in the region or Brazil, and this success meant an end to their participation in the political movement.

Jake Blanc captures the audience’s attention during the Q&A session.

Agrarian workers, by contrast, were less successful in pressing their claims, and their continued activism spawned a wider movement still active in Brazil (known as MASTRO). This put them into conflict with the Brazilian Government, and they faced violence and repression at the hands of the police and military. Nevertheless, the mobilisation sparked a surge in rural political consciousness, as well as connecting rural struggles with urban political movements.

Finally, indigenous peoples remained marginal to post-Itaipu political movements, and were seen as apolitical actors, making their struggle as much one of recognition as legitimate participants in the political process as of land rights.

Blanc used the case study of the Itaipu Dam protests to make two theoretical observations. First, that Brazilian abertura needs to be understood as having dual realities – that of official rhetoric and promises, as understood by an urban elite, and the experiential reality faced by Brazil’s rural population. In Blanc’s view, abertura was an attempt to democratise Brazil without upsetting existing social orders, meaning that these rural campaigners for agrarian reform experienced similar problems under both dictatorship and democracy.

Blanc’s second point was that we should challenge our periodisation of Brazil’s democratic transition. Historians have tended to accept a national periodisation of the military dictatorship, with less regard to the actual experiences of the different strata of Brazilian society. He stressed, in particular, the continuities in the struggles of rural Brazilians that both predated and continued past the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, with entrenched structural inequalities defying the neat dichotomy of dictatorship and democracy. Competing realities, in other words, produce competing chronologies, meaning that historians need to be more critical in their use and acceptance of established periodisations.

After the talk, Cassia Roth (Edinburgh) offered a thoughtful comment, in which she challenged the relevance of the rural-urban dichotomy in a Brazilian context. This was followed by an engaged question and answer session from an inquisitive – and interdisciplinary – audience.

Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.

Lighting the way: Harold Macmillan and the audacity of balance

We continue our series of guest contributions with Theo Zenou’s reflections on Harold Macmillan’s famous book The Middle Way and its continuing relevance in the febrile politics of the twenty-first century

1938, Britain. While the political class was fixated upon foreign affairs, in the hope of averting world war, a quirky Member of Parliament—Harold Macmillan—authored a socio-economic treatise entitled The Middle Way. It was his sixth book in a decade, a feat rendered somewhat less impressive by the fact he literally owns the printing presses. Macmillan is the scion of publishing powerhouse, Macmillan and Co., and a partner at the family firm.

Macmillan, the free thinker

Born at the turn of the century, Macmillan was a child of privilege but not one of luxury. The Etonian inherited his wardrobe from his older brothers—making him, already as a youngster, appear old-fashioned and out of place. Prone to ill health and bouts of depression, Macmillan found solace in the family’s book collection. He admired Benjamin Disraeli’s One-Nation conservatism, yet found much of interest in Liberal reformism and Christian socialism. Macmillan, in short, was something of a political free-thinker.

After service in the Great War, Macmillan joined the Conservative Party and, in 1924, he was elected Tory MP for the constituency of Stockton-on-Tees in the North of England. In parliament, he rapidly emerged as a rebel. But a very peculiar kind of rebel: not brash or irate, but eccentric, impertinent and, some believed, pompous. His self-restraint, stiff even by the day’s standards, irked many.

Consigned to the back benches, Macmillan spent the roaring twenties and bleak thirties honing his vision. Recognising in the great depression a breakdown of modern civilization, he castigated the Conservative government for its punitive austerity programme. He went so far as to deem his own party “dominated by second-class brewers and company chairmen—a Casino Capitalism—[that] is not likely to represent anybody but itself.” All the while he feared poverty would engender the ascent of Soviet-style socialism. By the year 1938—and the publication of The Middle Way—Macmillan, the statesman-in-waiting, was fully formed.

The Middle Way

The original 1938 book cover of ‘The Middle Way’

The Middle Way made the case for a mixed economy, that is one neither wholly—or explicitly—capitalist or socialist, instead striking a balance between the “unfettered abuse” of the free market and the “intolerable restriction” of the state. To Macmillan, this entailed relinquishing economic dogmas, thinking critically about the trends that led to crises and experimenting with new approaches.

He outlined the methods by which not just recovery but prosperity could be achieved: a dynamic partnership between the public sector and private enterprise, bold projects of industrial reconstruction and infrastructure works, a regulatory framework for the financial industries in order to curtail speculation and encourage investment, social programmes to limit the fallout from unemployment. If this sounds similar to the economic theories of another Old Etonian—John Maynard Keynes—that’s because it is. Macmillan, whose firm published Keynes, quoted him extensively. Yet Macmillan, unlike Keynes, was a politician and The Middle Way is most interesting if seen not as a thesis on policy, but as a work of political philosophy that also speaks to the character of its notoriously unflappable, enigmatic author.

The Middle Way was a book about ensuring the survival and continuation of civilisation and democracy. Macmillan saw them as precious but wobbly edifices in need of constant repair. He identified as the great challenge ahead the necessity to “retain our heritage of political, intellectual and cultural freedom while, at the same time, opening up the way to higher standards of social welfare and economic security.” To him, politics was a tool to liberate society from “the humiliation and restraints of unnecessary poverty”, so that individual men and women could develop and realise themselves in relative harmony.

He emphasised that the mere accumulation of material things could not be the aim of these intersecting quests. Rather Macmillan imagined a world in which happiness—he defined it as “a light which illuminates the mind and spirit of those (…) ready to receive it”—is the main business of being human. However, he did not make any false promises of utopia: his middle way wouldn’t get anyone there. Macmillan firmly believed that “happiness is personal,” and it is up to the individual—and him alone—to tread his own path.

Underscoring this humanism were the ideas of rigour and responsibility. To achieve his political vision, Macmillan reiterated throughout The Middle Way—like a mantra—the need for “conscious regulation” and “conscious direction and control.” The qualifier “conscious,” straight out of psychology, appears odd when referring to the economy. No economist has used this turn of phrase before or since. However, Macmillan’s idiosyncratic choice of adjective says much about him as a man.

All his life, Macmillan struggled with regulating his own unconscious mind. By nature, he was hyper-emotional, easily upset and dispirited, susceptible to over-thinking and doubt. Not long before his death, Macmillan confided in his biographer Alistair Horne: “I always felt that one must maintain great control, but it is very exhausting keeping it to yourself. I wasn’t really ‘unflappable,’ I just had to keep it down.” Macmillan overcame his own mood swings through a constant quest for mental balance and he saw society in much the same way: as a living organism privy to the brutal pendulum swings of the left and the right, under threat from the excesses of socialism and capitalism. To ordain and order society—that is to be in the business of politics—is a perpetual balancing act. It offers no time for complacency, demands vigorous thinking and effective action and, above all, it never ends. That was, ultimately, the message of The Middle Way.

Beyond the Middle Way?

Consensus or crisis? Kennedy and Macmillan in June 1963

During the Second World War, Harold Macmillan served in the cabinet of another formidable Tory backbencher, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And at long last, in 1956, he became Prime Minister himself. By the time Macmillan reached office, his middle way had gone a long way. The post-war settlement, informed by the theories of Keynes, resulted in the creation of the welfare state and a more preponderant role for the government in economic affairs. Macmillan, then, possessed the tools to govern he so relishes. Though some experts credit global conjuncture for his economic success, his tenure nonetheless guided the return of prosperity and achieved a rise in living standards for all Britons. In 1957, in his most famous remark, often the source of mockery, he stated: “Let’s face it, most of our people never had it so good.”

Harold Macmillan resigned in 1963, on grounds of poor health, following the Profumo affair. Beyond this unfortunate turn of events, it’s clear that Macmillan was increasingly out of touch with the  British public. His composure, once lauded as a sign of stable leadership, was now the object of ridicule. A new Britain was emerging, and it had no room for an archaic gentleman born in the Victorian era.

In 1979, after a decade of economic decline and poor political management, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She embraced the “unfettered” free market, loathed the state and preached the doctrine of monetarism, in many ways the very “casino capitalism” Macmillan had battled his whole life.

Thatcher derided, in particular, the middle way—though she referred to it by the more widely-used term of “consensus” (as in post-war Keynesian consensus). She said it is “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’” Thatcher’s argument was salient, and an apt commentary on much of what ails politics. She forgot, however that, in 1938, Macmillan’s middle way was far from heralding consensus.

Unlike the flabby Prime Ministers who succeeded him, Macmillan had not been a passive receiver of consensus, but rather an active shaper of it. His successors failed to achieve equilibrium in the political balancing act that is the middle way, yet that is certainly no justification to throw the baby out with the bathwater. With gusto and method, Thatcher destroyed the middle way and replaced it with her own consensus: neo-liberalism.

Harold Macmillan died, disillusioned, in 1986. As a statesman, he hailed the middle ground as the only position in politics that can be occupied “with honour.” His eclecticism was not the result of a lack of conviction, but rather the harbinger of the strength of his principles. He had the temerity to think outside of existing dogmas, and formulate his own outlook. Macmillan, too, looked to his own life to understand truths about human existence and find an ingenious way to integrate them to politics.

Macmillan may seem the stuffy relic of a bygone world, but his middle way is urgently topical in our age of brutal political polarization and dizzying technological progress. Beyond the economic ideas—many of which still sound judicious—it is his breadth of vision we sorely need. In 1938, as now, it is the “preservation of Democracy” that is at stake. In an eerily prescient passage of The Middle Way, Macmillan noted: “[Man’s] present task is to liberate himself from the dominance of the machine; to found a new civilisation in which human life is supreme, and in which new vistas of freedom open up because the machine becomes his slave.” That is but one of the reasons why The Middle Way deserves re-appraisal as a major work of political thought.

Theo Zenou is an MSc Research student in History. His research interests lie in twentieth century American politics, and the way political leaders formulate grand visions for their country and people. His dissertation centres on the communication strategies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He is an affiliated student of the CSMCH.

Esra Özyürek on Muslims, the Nazi past and the German national character

We were delighted to welcome Esra Özyürek (LSE) to the Centre to present some of her work on German Muslims. In front of a packed crowd – there were people sitting on the floor! – she gave a fascinating dissection of the German ‘national character’ through the lens of young German Muslims and German-Muslim intellectuals. Anita Klingler reports back on a stimulating and controversial evening.

Esra speaks to a sell-out audience in David Hume Tower

A young child appears on the stage, sitting, blindfolded, and eagerly awaiting the surprise his father has for him. It is a toy gun. The father takes off the blindfold, the child rejoices at the new plaything. Then the father begins to instil in his son his worldview: that the Jews who surround them are bad people, evil, less than human. All the while, the father is dressed in a black leather trench coat, immediately recognisable to the audience as representing a stereotypical item of Nazi attire. The Palestinian present and the Nazi past have become one on this stage, indoctrinating the young to hate.

It was this scene, acted out as part of a campaign to teach young Muslim men in Germany about the Holocaust, that captured our speaker Esra Özyürek’s imagination early on in the conception of this research project. As would become apparent in her talk, Özyürek is sceptical that ghettoising, in particular, Muslim youth to teach them about antisemitism and democracy is the most effective way of addressing issues of failed integration, violent behaviour, and a lack of identification with the liberal-democratic values of the Federal Republic.

In examining certain strands of the public discourse on how best to ‘reform’ these youths, Özyürek discovered an interesting parallel to another re-education programme which had taken place on German soil some 70 years earlier. Drawing on the 1944 movie Tomorrow the World! as an example, she set out how the image of Germans at the end of the Second World War was that of the ‘unruly boy’; a child, misguided by Nazism, but able to be taught right from wrong and rehabilitated into the civilised world.

Most importantly, according to Özyürek, American re-education efforts, bolstered by anthropological studies of ‘national character’, focused on changing the Nazis’ authoritarian child-rearing methods and strict patriarchal family structures. Germans needed to learn from Americans how to be democratic by imitating their behaviours, and in particular by adopting a softer ideal of masculinity, rooted in trust and emotions, rather than order and authority.

This pathologization of the German ‘national character’ as a patient, who is sick but can be cured, is repeated, in Özyürek’s analysis, in modern-day Germany with regards to young Muslim men. The Germans, having learned from imitating the Americans after the Second World War, are now mature enough to teach the unruly young Muslims the same lessons. Citing, in particular, self-styled experts who come from Muslim backgrounds themselves, but have gone on to publish books which are critical of Islam, Özyürek showed how their discourses draw on similar ideas of the patriarchal family, forced obedience, domestic violence, and sexual repression as the root cause for young Muslim men’s frustrations, violent behaviours, and religious radicalisation.

She fleshed out this parallel by presenting extensive quotations from three such experts, two of Turkish origin, one with Arab roots. All of them focused on the Muslim father figure as a cruel and almighty ruler of the household, who demands obedience, forbids questions, punishes misconduct, and instils shame in his children. At the same time, he is often perceived as dysfunctional by his children, especially if he speaks only broken German or faces challenges such as unemployment, which question his authority. Thus, the argument goes, the adolescents remain forever immature and seek an alternative figure of authority in the shape of Allah, or his representatives on earth, especially radical imams who offer clear structures, answers, and welcome them with open arms.

The solution presented by the Muslim-background experts for how Muslims can learn to be democratic, respect women, Jews, and homosexuals, and adopt the values of liberal mainstream Germany, is to rebel. Again, a parallel with the German past is drawn, this time with the generation of 1968 and its rebellion against their Nazi fathers. Young Muslims today must rebel against their authoritarian fathers just like young Germans did in 1968; only then can they emancipate themselves from the undemocratic principles instilled in them by their upbringing.

Özyürek criticised how, in presenting this solution, the self-appointed experts vastly oversimplify the varied Muslim experiences within Germany and draw a faulty total dichotomy between ‘German’ and ‘Muslim’ families, the former representing an ideal which the latter ought to aspire to, to truly belong. These experts also draw heavily on their personal biographies and present themselves as having successfully completed the process of rebellion, and having embraced the liberated ways of Western democracy, just like the Germans had 70 years prior, bringing the analogy full circle.

The paper was followed by a stimulating discussion, initiated by Mathias Thaler’s thoughtful comments. He raised the question of the role of a less pro-American strand of post-1945 re-education, namely the Frankfurt School’s engagement with authoritarianism, which seems to complicate the notion of Germans having become democratic solely by following the American lead. He also asked how Özyürek’s analysis might fit with the pan-European character of the ‘Muslim troublemaker’, in light of the fact that no other country in Europe experienced denazification and American re-education on the scale Germany did.

After this, audience members questioned the speaker on the difficult definition of ‘Muslim’, which led Özyürek to speak about the ethnicisation of Islam in Germany, according to which all individuals with roots in Muslim countries were counted as Muslims, but not the around 100,000 ethnic Germans who have converted to Islam. Other questions concerned methodology, with some of the audience questioning whether by simply citing the Muslim-background experts who she evidently disagreed with, Özyürek had done enough to demonstrate their arguments’ fallaciousness. Some wondered to what extent the parallel in discourse was cogent or simply coincidental, and whether the trope of educating a ‘child-like’ people towards democracy was not one familiar from imperial contexts.

In the end, the paper presented an interesting case study of two re-education efforts which evidently exhibit uncanny parallels. The complex issue of analysing them in relation to each other and to the challenges of the present raised many difficult questions, and will have left the audience members with much food for thought.

Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany. She is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.

Lorena de Vita on the 1952 reparations agreement between Germany and Israel

This week, the Centre welcomed Lorena de Vita (Utrecht), whose work on postwar German-Israeli relations formed the basis of her talk entitled ‘Democracy, morality, pragmatism: The 1952 agreement between Germany and Israel’. You can read Rosalind Parr’s seminar report below and you can also listen to a short interview Emile Chabal did with Lorena about how she first became interested in this research topic.

Lorena de Vita’s work examines the history of International Relations between Israel and ‘the two Germanys’ in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War.  Although East and West employed radically different approaches, de Vita nevertheless includes them in a common frame – a historiographical innovation which, amongst other things, offers insights into the globally-wrought framework on which German-Israeli relations rested.

In her paper, de Vita examined the 1952 agreement through which the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR) paid Wiedergutmachung (‘reparations’, literally ‘making good again’) to Israel following the Holocaust. The overlapping rivalries between East and West Germany on the one hand, and between Israel and its Arab neighbours on the other, form the background to this diplomatic episode.  As de Vita demonstrated, the agreement contributed to the FDR’s self-representation as a stable, responsible democracy on the world stage. In doing so, the new FDR made a conscious bid to differentiate itself from both ‘the Germany of the past and the Germany of the East.’

By 1949, Israel was reeling under austerity, inflation and the arrival of a new wave of refugees created by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Official boycotts prevented economic or political links with Germany but a series of secret missions took place to assess the willingness of either West or East to negotiate on the subject of shilumim (‘payments’), as well as to consider the possibility of trade links.  Meanwhile, Chancellor Adenauer signalled the FDR’s willingness to ‘make good again’ by publicly pledging ten million German Marks in reparations. This laid claim, not only to the FDR’s new democratic credentials, but to its status as the real representative of Germany.

Lorena de Vita fielding questions from a packed room of staff, students and visitors

As de Vita explained, the issue could not be resolved so easily. When the Israeli parliament met to discuss whether to start official talks with the FDR, there were violent protests. After negotiations had begun, they were disrupted by explosive parcels sent by Jewish terrorists opposed to the talks. There were voices of dissent, too, on the German side amid suggestions that the FDR’s relations with Israel could undermine trading opportunities elsewhere. In Jakarta, the German Ambassador objected on the grounds that the FDR had already paid out to individual Jewish claimants. Meanwhile, the FDR had unfulfilled financial obligations to the Allies, making it difficult for the German government to commit to specific figures despite Adenauer’s earlier pledge.

As de Vita pointed out, pressure came from elsewhere too. While the British and United States governments urged Adenauer not to let the talks fail, the Arab League was deeply opposed to the prospect of payments to Israel, fearing they would boost Israeli military might.  One fascinating dimension of the FDR-Israeli agreement is how, in March 1952, Arab states became prominent players in the story of FDR-GDR rivalry when delegations from the two German governments arrived simultaneously in Cairo for negotiations, raising the question of who represented Germany on the world stage.

Amid these multiple tensions, a clear theme of the paper was the history of human connections between the FDR and Israel. Over the course of the negotiations, a German and an Israeli delegate discovered, on the basis of a common accent, that before the war they had attended the same school and shared a favourite teacher.

Commenting on the paper, Stephan Malinowski was impressed by the multiple levels of analysis, ranging from domestic agendas to regional rivalries and global connections.  This was something that was further discussed in the Q&A session that followed.  Malinowski also provided fascinating insight into the ‘monster word’ Wiedergutmachung, drawing our attention to the subtle connotations of the term. Finally, he raised the question of the reparations model, prompting a thoughtful response from de Vita about the morality of reparations in the international postcolonial context.

De Vita’s research on the agreement between the FDR and Israeli forms part of a wider project on Israel-German relations.  We look forward to the book’s publication!

Rosalind Parr is PhD student in History. Her research interests are located in transnational and global histories of the twentieth century, particularly through the lenses of South Asian and gender history. Her thesis examines the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. She is an affiliated student of the CSMCH