Malika Rahal on the Algerian Revolution of 1962

After a successful opening roundtable, we moved this week to a close examination of decolonisation, undoubtedly one of the most important revolutionary processes in the modern world. We were fortunate to have with us Malika Rahal (Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent) who talked us through perhaps the most emblematic anti-colonial struggle of all: the Algerian War. Kate Ballantyne was in the audience, and she sends this report.

A celebration to mark the independence of Algeria in the summer of 1962.

In her well-attended talk, Malika presented her research, a reconceptualisation of the Algerian war for independence (1954-1962). Specifically, she argued that, to gain more clarity on the war’s impact and significance, historians should focus closely on 1962, an approach that allows them to better understand popular memories of the war as well. Utilising interviews with activists as a central part of the research, Malika’s work presents an exciting opportunity to better understand the meaning of revolution and decolonisation.

Malika divided her definition of revolution into three main, sometimes intertwining, categories: time, space, and bodies. In addition to the timeframe of the revolution itself (1954-1962), her presentation focused on the concept of time in terms of four phases in 1962. She argued that these four phases, spaced around three major dates (the Evian agreements on 19 March, the July referendum, and the election for the National Constituent Assembly on 20 September), are an important way to see the evolution of popular meaning around the war. The four phases were the war period prior to 19 March, the transitional period with the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) before the referendum, the political crisis of the summer 1962 after the referendum, and the emergence of an independent Algeria after 20 September.

In terms of space, Malika urged the audience to think about the contestations over land, land usage, and occupation of public and private areas for protests and demonstrations. These ever-evolving conceptions of space were, she argued, central to how activists viewed their political and social identities in 1962.

Lastly, she discussed bodies, which was relevant in terms of how activists occupied space during times of celebration, such as at the end of the revolution, but also when one considers those who died and were wounded during the conflict.  One particularly interesting point from Malika’s presentation was the discussion of military-style fashions that evolved from the revolution.

Stephan Malinowski (Edinburgh) gave a thoughtful comment on Malika’s research, focusing in particular on the importance of the three major categories (time, space, and bodies) and on the contributions her work makes to the field of social activism.

Stephan’s comment and a lively question-and-answer session confirmed that Malika’s research can make a significant contribution, not only to research on the Algerian Revolution, but also the study of twentieth-century revolutions more broadly. Moreover, by drawing our attention, not just to the beginning or the end of the war, but also to the complexity and personal significance of activism, she offered valuable lessons for historians and social scientists who analyse social movements.

Dr Kate Ballantyne is Career Development Fellow in Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on twentieth century southern student activism and free speech on American university campuses. She is a CSMCH steering committee member. 

Revolutions past and future: a roundtable

We started the new academic year at the CSMCH as we mean to go on: with thought-provoking conversations and a full house. It helped that our first event was a roundtable discussion on the controversial topic of revolution, which is our theme for the year. Fortunately, our panellists Jim Livesey (Dundee), Jake Blanc (Edinburgh), Kalathmika Natarajan (Edinburgh), and Megan Hunt (Edinburgh) were more than up to the task of dissecting the history of revolution. Marina Moya Moreno has distilled the roundtable into this blog post  – or you can listen again to the discussion via our podcast channel or by following the Audiomack link below. 

Jim, who works on the late 18th and early 19th century Atlantic World, opened the discussion in relation to the meaning of revolution by pointing out how, even though the terms revolution and revolutionary have  become very complex and problematic. Moreover, this denomination is deeply linked to North Atlantic dynamics and concepts of Western universalism, modernisation, liberalism etc. Nevertheless, he sought to lay out his appraisal of a revolution in terms of the path of creative action opened when the capacity to produce rational answers is exhausted. He pointed toa certain form of prefigurative politics, stressing the importance of the physical bodily participation in these.

Jake followed up by drawing on his own research area of 20th-century Latin America. He observed how many movements in Latin America have used the label of revolution, and how this label has become pejorative. This is related to the repetitive use of the term revolution to legitimise political claims. When this becomes the dynamic, who is to decide what is subversive? How does the cycle come to an end? As a result, the perception of revolution comes to be a constant struggle between different groups, a denunciation of betrayed revolutions, unfinished revolutions.

Kalathmika observed two ways of understanding revolution in relation to her own work on twentieth-century South Asia. Firstly, the term revolution is linked to a romantic idea, to the young idealists dreaming of overthrowing the British Empire. However, she also stressed that it is an ongoing theme in current South Asia, understood as part of social activism and everyday life; as an example, she referred to how many women challenge established gender-based practices.

For Megan, a specialist of postwar US politics, the term revolution is not clearly defined in her field, and she prefers to think about it as a question, rather than a fixed concept. What does revolution mean? Regarding her own research on the civil rights movement and black power nationalism, she identified a dichotomy in the analysis of these processes, with a clear emphasis on legislative and political achievements at the expense of radical ideas, the grassroots or the systemic change.

Moving forward, the dynamics of revolution became the focus. Panellists discussed how the very action of labelling processes as a revolution or revolutionary is significant in the context of analysis: were they named as such by their participants (and if so, on what grounds), or was it branded afterwards (either by opponents, members of the movement, or analysts)?

Making reference to the self-labelling of revolutionary processes and individuals, Kalathmika reflected on the use of these terms in South Asian politics. Even though she mentioned how normalised their use in the political scene has become, she also pointed out how their use is not always in accordance with everyone. As an example, she considered those who support the abolition of the Indian caste system, and how supporters of this proposal have usually been labelled as revolutionaries, a description that they would not have put on themselves. The broad and general use of this word might have resulted in dilution of its meaning, or a situation such that there is overlap with neighbouring contexts.

The following questions focused on violence and commodification. Violence, something considered an integral part of revolutionary processes, seems to have disappeared, or at least there have been efforts to have it removed.

Megan pointed out how differentiated the perception on the civil rights movement and black power are based on violence. Furthermore, she stressed the relevance of the aesthetic and ‘marketing’ choices made by different groups, and how not only violence, but these choices, served to frame their revolutionary character. As a result, whereas black power movements were easier to identify as revolutionaries, the marketing of the civil rights movement during the early 1960s was based on the construction of an image of respectability. Even when this choice changed in the late 1960s, the image that persisted associated with the civil rights movement was deeply rooted in the initial choices, differentiating it from other movements.

On the subject of the current perceptions of violence, Jim pointed out how the situation has changed since the nineteenth century. The reasoning behind the violence was that if one is not engaging in the violent response towards the system, then one is not taking responsibility as a citizen and has no moral legitimacy as such. People legitimised themselves through acts of violence, something that is nowadays often regarded as illegitimate.

Kalathmika and Jake both developed this point by exploring the relationship between violence and the state, and how this can be framed in terms of terrorism, in a way that depoliticises the term further, or how it can be (and it has been) used as a justification to increase the scale of violence.

Emile Chabal introduces the roundtable to a large audience

Finally, the discussion moved on to the commodification of revolution. Has revolution been commodified? Has it become a packaged good available for consumers? While Jim had emphasised the somatic character of the revolution and its practices, he also brought up how this can be catalysed through symbolic violence as well, through disrespect towards authority.

Kalathmika linked the commodification of revolution to a certain level of its depolitisation, but she stressed that this is not an all-embracing circumstance, and those parts of the most marginalised groups still participate in the most exposed forms of practice, putting their bodies on the line.

Returning for one final time to Latin America, Jake pointed out the ambiguities of commodification. On the one hand, there is definitely a revolutionary aesthetic cultivated for specific audiences, both outside and inside Latin America, where all these symbols, even though commodified, are still highly important as part of foundational and national narratives.

The roundtable discussion concluded with an extensive question and answer session, which focused both on conceptual aspects of revolutions, as well as current views of such processes. A number of topics emerged.

First, the problem of temporality. The audience and the panel explored whether revolution is the same when its focus is event-driven, or if it is associated with a particular individual, group, or idea, which then brings on the question of the end of such processes.

Second, the issue of revolutionary objectives and leadership. The panellists were asked to consider whether revolutions become less directed. In their various responses, they acknowledged the less tangible ends and more amorphous character of contemporary revolutions.

Finally, the last set of questions focused on the nationality and transnationality of revolutions, and how some movements seem able to easily spread throughout countries or, on the other hand, to stay contained within only one space. Jake, in particular, commented on the way revolutionary ‘feeling’ can be easy to disseminate, even when few structural changes actually take place.

As ever, this stimulating roundtable is likely to give rise to more questions than answers, but it nevertheless laid the path for this year’s seminars and subsequent discussions on revolution.

Marina Moya Moreno is a PhD student in History, working on the analysis of representations and memorialisation of the Spanish transition. Her research focuses on analysing the changes in the definitions of different narratives and portrayals of this period found within Spanish society. She is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.

Welcome back! A preview of this year at the CSMCH…

The fickle Edinburgh summer may be drawing to a close, but the hard-working CSMCH team have only just got started. After a long summer, in which our steering committee was renewed with bright new student and staff faces, we’re ready to take on our theme for the year: ‘revolution’.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in 1961

As one might expect, the topic of revolution has given rise to some of the most brilliant and politically charged scholarship in modern history. It is appropriate, therefore, that we should have such a strong line-up for our flagship fortnightly seminar series. This year, we will be welcoming some well-known figures – like Pankaj Mishra, Richard Drayton and Jay Winter – as well as a host of new talent such as Julia Nicholls, Nat Morris and Courtney Campbell. The range of topics covers as wide a geographical and temporal canvas as possible. We will travel from late 19th-century France, to Mexico in the 1910s, via Grenada in 1979, the triumph of ISIS in the 21st century, and the revolutionary impact of social media.

We’ll also get a chance to hear some of our own colleagues speak. Our new Latin Americanist, Julie Gibbings, will talk about her work on the Guatemalan Revolution in October, and our year-long CSMCH career development fellow-in-residence, Kate Ballantyne, will share some of her research on radical student activism in the American South in the 1960s in May. And, of course, many of our paper commentators and discussants are drawn from Edinburgh or Scotland.

As has been the case in the past, the CSMCH will again play host to an eclectic range of visiting scholars and students this year. This semester, we will be welcoming a visiting PhD student from Czechia, Martina Reiterová, who is working on revivalist movements on the Celtic fringe in the early 20th century. And next semester we’ll get to know Kristoff Kerl, who will be our CSMCH-IASH Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow. You’ll be able to hear more about his exciting work on psychedelic drugs and postwar European culture at one of our seminars in February.

In terms of teaching, the CSMCH will be expanding its links with our MSc in Contemporary History programme, and collaborating more closely this year with the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities. Student participation has always been at the heart of what we do, so we’re delighted to be developing this area.

Let me end, however, with a reminder that our activities depend on you! We are always very happy to hear from Centre members about ideas they might have. There is plenty of scope to participate in our activities and, indeed, to organise your own events through our CSMCH Discussion Group or our conference co-sponsorship initiatives. In addition, students can gain ‘affiliated student‘ status (just write to us and we’ll add you), and join the steering committee when applications open in the new year.

We look forward to seeing you!

— Emile

Workshop and film screening on transnational solidarities

As part of their visiting fellowships at the CSMCH, Ljubica Spaskovska and Claudia Stern each had to organise an academic and public engagement event. With a bit of imagination, however, they were able to combine their expertise and put together a workshop and film screening. In this blog, they tell us a little more about what happened on the day. 

On 27 May 2019, the CSMCH hosted a workshop on the Histories of Solidarity, Youth and Transnationalism in the 20th Century. There were two panels. The first focused on ‘Youth, Generation and Activism in the Cold War’ and featured papers by Nikolaos Papadogiannis (Bangor University) and Ljubica Spaskovska (University of Exeter).

Nikos’ presentation, entitled “Internationalism, Holocaust Memories and Organised Youth Mobility from West Germany to Israel during the Cold War”, concentrated on the “special relationship” between West Germany and Israel and interrogated internationalism’s characterisation as a solely benevolent phenomenon. Ljubica’s paper on “Non-Aligned Punk – Youth Cultures and Politics Between the Blocs” presented part of her first monograph on “the last Yugoslav generation” and used the citizenship lens to analyse youth negotiation and contestation, as well as the framing of transgressive cultural and political acts in the context of the 1980s.  

Emile Chabal’s presentation focused on student activism in Paris in the late 1930s, especially in the Rassemblement mondial des étudiants

The second panel, ‘Revolutionary (Inter)nationalism in the ‘Short’ 20th Century’, featured presentations by Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) and Harini Amarasurya (Open University). Emile’s paper was entitled “Revolutionary Dreams: Eric Hobsbawm and Global Communism in the Late 1930s”. It uncovered Hobsbawm’s transnational engagement and early political socialisation as a young student in interwar Europe, in particular through his involvement with the Rassemblement Mondial des Etudiants (The World Student Association for Peace, Freedom and Culture), underlining the importance of the little explored aspect of politics and sociability. Harini’s presentation was entitled “From respectable to violent revolutionaries: changing narratives of student activists in Sri Lanka”. She looked at the reasons for and representations of radical leftist student violence, in particular the Sri Lankan student insurrection in 1971, demonstrating that student politics can sometimes be hierarchical, gendered and authoritarian.

The workshop on transnational solidarities ended with the screening of the documentary Nae Pasaran!, directed by Felipe Bustos. The screening was followed by a Q&A moderated by Fraser Raeburn, with the participation of Martín Farias and Claudia Stern, that centred on the Chilean recent history, the political background of Salvador Allende’s government, the Coup on September 11, 1973, and the subsequent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The screening of ‘Nae Pasaran!’

The story of solidarity of Scottish union workers from the Rolls Royce company who refused to repair the engines of the Hawker Hunters jets used by the military junta in Chile is unravelled throughout the documentary. With a variety of testimonies and unprecedented colour images from the period, the documentary brings together different experiences and exposes the scope of the act of solidarity of the Scottish trade union organisation at the East Kilbride engine factory, with both the Chileans in the country and in the communities in exile during 1970s.

Claudia and Ljubica after the screening

Bob Fulton, Robert Sommerville, John Keenan and the rest of the workers’ refusal to work on arms for Chile is a story of hope that reflects the sense of unity, courage and morality of the factory workers, in a period of trade union strength in the UK. The documentary presents an unknown episode of solidarity toward Chile, that from a transnational viewpoint can be seen as a Cold War nuance. It also shows different faces of Chilean society and their political positions, their ambiguities and their divergent versions of memory. The meaning of democracy, power and the sense of solidarity interconnects with the idea of the collective, where past and present are in dialogue. The director of the documentary sends an inspiring message of global solidarity based on his own history.

This blog post was written jointly by our CMSCH-IASH Visting Fellows for 2018-9, Ljubica Spaskovska and Claudia Stern. You can find out more about their research here.

Claudia Stern on class and urban space in Chile, c.1970-c.1990

For our last seminar of the year, the group was treated to a stimulating talk by Claudia Stern (Tel Aviv), one of the Centre’s two visiting fellows this year. Following a workshop and a screening of the documentary film ‘Nae Pasaran’ the previous day, Claudia delivered a richly detailed presentation exploring how middle class identities were redefined in Chile over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. Robbie Johnston was there to listen to her presentation.

The military dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990

The 11th of September 1973 remains a notorious date in Chilean history. It was on this day that military forces, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende in a coup d’état. The subsequent military regime would rule over Chile until 1990.

Claudia’s talk addressed a crucial, but understudied, aspect of this long period of dictatorship, namely the development of middle class identities. Her paper explored this through the lens of cultural trauma, defined as an aftereffect of social collapse, a force that undermines group identities, sense of belonging and community. The importance of public space was also a central part of Claudia’s analysis.

Claudia began the talk by contextualising the political turmoil of early 1970s Chile, as its social fabric came under increasing strain. At a fourth attempt, the leftist Allende won the Presidency in the 1970 election. In a relatively short space of time, the new Government nationalised the country’s highly prized copper industry, and initiated a host of sweeping reforms in land and housing. Such radical change did not go uncontested. Large sections of the Chilean middle classes had contempt for the Allende’s ‘Chilean Road to Socialism’. Claudia presented her audience with the spectacle of an early protest (or ‘Cacerolazo’) against the socialist government on the 1st of December 1971. The picture was striking. Middle and upper class women took to the streets of Downtown Santiago, banging pots, pans and various kinds of kitchen utensils to register their discontent. Occupying the streets in dramatic fashion, they sought to demonstrate how women – specifically housewives – felt the effects of economic deterioration especially hard (by 1973, inflation reached a dizzying rate of 600 per cent).

Of course, the middle classes did not respond to these disorientating years of political polarisation in a unified way. As Claudia stressed throughout the talk, although the middle classes tended to share common values, they moved on multiple planes in terms of how they viewed themselves. Identities were in flux between generations. For instance, young men from middle class backgrounds were often attracted to left wing movements, identifying with the projection of a masculine, proletarian image.

A major part of Claudia’s talk centred on the national football stadium. The ground, the Estadio Nacional de Chile, became an iconic space in 20th century Chilean history. It contributed to the formation of the middle classes and their place appropriations; it highlighted the extreme split of Chilean society between Allende’s followers and Pinochet supporters; and it symbolised the first effect of the dictatorship on this civic space.

Chile’s Estadio Nacional was converted into a detention centre during Pinochet’s dictatorship

In September 1973, the military junta converted the stadium into a detention centre, where political prisoners were tortured and executed. It remains a site of cultural trauma. Hatch 8, a point on the terrace where prisoners were led into the stadium, has been preserved as a monument to the brutality of the regime. ‘Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro’ read the words inscribed on the stadium wall. (‘A people without a memory are a people without a future.’)

“Hatch 8” in the Estadio Nacional

Elsewhere, in its attempt to stir patriotic sentiment behind the regime, the dictatorship appropriated national symbols and public spaces, including the national stadium, as its own. Claudia drew our attention to Pinochet’s lighting of ‘The Chilean Eternal Flame of Liberty’ in Bulnes Square, Santiago. The ceremony, marking two years since the coup, was plainly designed to symbolise the triumph of ‘light’ over forces of ‘darkness’. The fervently nationalist discourse of the regime had some appeal. Many welcomed the new regime, at least in its early stages. One of Claudia’s interviewees, whose parents had both been middle class employees at private firms nationalised by the UP government, spoke to this outlook. Although he later came to regret the dictatorship, he nonetheless recalled: ‘I was so calm that I was not interested in knowing anything. Tranquillity was back. Though we could not go out at night, we lived in peace’.

Claudia then examined the ways in which urban housing was contested over this period. The radical public housing programme of Allende’s left-wing Unión Popular (UP) played a key role in its electoral rise. Much of its strength came from rural migration into urban areas. By 1970, Santiago alone contained over 33 per cent of Chile’s entire population. As Claudia emphasised, many of these voters became politicised; the working class politics of the time was well captured in the song of Victor Jara, ‘Las casitas de barrio alto’. In power, the UP defined housing as an ‘inalienable right’.

However, Pinochet’s regime, under the influence of the Chicago School of economics, instigated a pushback. Housing was reframed as a ‘right that is acquired through effort and savings’. Policies like these inscribed the politics of the regime into the everyday spaces of city residents.

Edinburgh’s own Tereza Valny opened the discussion with her comment. She focused her remarks on Claudia’s ‘methodologically innovative research’ and the ways it illuminated such multifaceted experiences. Her enthusiasm for Claudia’s work shone through clearly.

Claudia commented that she had not initially intended to centre her project on the idea of cultural trauma. However, its utility as a guiding concept for her work became clear as she gathered testimonies. In addition, Claudia spoke to the problem of conducting archival research. She commented that during her PhD work, looking at an earlier timeframe of 1932 to 1962, archival material was far more readily available. For the 1970s and 1980s, she has had to fill archival gaps by drawing more extensively on different methodologies, in particular, oral history.

In any case, it was clear that Claudia’s research is rich in content and at an advanced stage. It was a fitting presentation to round off this year’s theme of ‘Space’, as the Centre moves to looking at ‘Revolution’ next year.

Robbie Johnston is a PhD student in History. His primary research interests lie in the twentieth-century politics of Scotland and Britain. He is currently working on a thesis which explores the development of Scottish Home Rule and Nationalism from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Olivier Estèves on the desegregation of English schools

This week, we teamed up with our friends in the Citizens, Nations and Migration Network to invite Olivier Estèves (Lille) to talk about his new book, The ‘desegregation’ of English schools: bussing, race and urban space, 1960-1980. This is the first ever study of the little-known but vitally important phenomenon of ‘bussing’ in postwar England, which affected thousands of Asian children in the 1960s and 1970s. Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz sends this report on Olivier’s presentation. You can also listen again to the talk by clicking on the Audiomack link below or via the CSMCH podcast channel.

The history of the forced dispersal of immigrant children in England, which affected mostly non-Anglophone Asian pupils in areas such as Southall (West London) and Bradford (West Yorkshire) in the 1960s and 1970s has only very recently elicited the interest of historians. But, with the help of archival material as well as interviews with formerly bussed pupils, Olivier Estèves (Lille) has now finally written the first book on the topic.

As Olivier made clear, the term “dispersal” or “bussing” has always been a controversial concept. Although the phenomenon of dispersal, or “bussing” is acknowledged in policy literature it has attracted scant historical attention. This is contrary to the media, political, and academic interests in American bussing, which have inspired many headlines as well as monographs over the decades, despite the fact that it never concerned more than 5% of the total number of American pupils even at its peak in the 1970s.

In the UK, where it was officially known as “dispersal”, bussing was a form of social engineering initiated in a dozen LEAs, whereby immigrant children of mostly primary school age were (forcefully) dispersed to predominantly white suburban schools. The aim was twofold: first, and originally, to placate white fears of an immigrant demographic takeover in areas such as Southall where the number of Asians had dramatically soared in 1960–1961. Second, and dispersal’s official raison d’être, to make sure those mostly non-Anglophone Asians learnt to “integrate”.

Olivier pointed out that dispersal policies were ushered in by Conservatives in power, when Sir Edward Boyle was at the DES, later to be officially sanctioned and nationally championed by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, under circular 7/65, which was issued on 14 June 1965. It noticed that the circular only recommended the implementation of dispersal in areas which had a proportion of “about one third” of immigrant children.

Despite the proverbial exceptions that proved the rule, bussing was a failure. One reason was that dispersed, marooned, and unwelcome Asian youths faced racist bullying in schools far away from their homes. The assimilationist rationale behind dispersal was also ephemeral: it increasingly ran counter to the emerging multicultural principles of British education from the 1970s onwards

Moreover, the legal framework that underpinned dispersal was flawed. First, as Olivier observed, there was no clear definition of “immigrant children”, which ran the risk of political instrumentalisations, reifications, and local abuses. Second, the absence of actual statistics on “immigrant children” made it impossible to calculate their proportion; on top of this, some LEAs (Brent, Haringey) were notoriously hostile to collecting such statistics, as opposed to Bradford for instance. Lastly, the “about one third” proportion proved controversial.

The issue regarding the “about one third” proportion in the circular was about whether or not the percentage rested on evidence-based research. The Labour MP for Brent, Reginald Freeson, asked for further clarification as to the rationale behind this figure in the House of Commons in October 1965). Pressured by his colleague to give details, Denis Howell claimed that the “overwhelming evidence of the professional people involved” pointed to this being the maximum acceptable proportion of immigrant children. Years later in his autobiography, however, Howell confessed that the statistics were based on nothing more than the words of the headmaster of Park Hill school in Moseley (Birmingham) to which he had sent his four children.

Olivier compares bussing in the UK and the US

Olivier emphasised the fact that most children who were bussed faced racist bullying. The focus placed on the ethnic identity of bussed children acted, at least for some, as an identity obliterator, which tended to deprive these pupils of sense of childhood (“you never thought you were a kid”), a feeling nurtured by the fact that many had busy parents working shifts in factories and also had to take care of their siblings, whether or not they were bussed as well.

Olivier ended the talk with a reflection on sources and source material, particularly the long-term consequences of bussing at an individual and group level. For some interviewees, memories of being bussed are an ongoing process of meaning-making through time. Had they been contacted a few years before, certain answers, or a certain twist or shape given to answers would have been different, as is suggested by Maurice Halbwachs’s analysis of the way collective memory is an ever-shifting reality being reconfigured through time and by language. Thus, although the realities of bussing can be reconstructed by historians, the subjective memories of those involved are not nearly as easy to describe.

The talk was followed by a comment from Tim Peace (Glasgow) who raised some questions about the sources and the implications of the study of racial discrimination in English schools both historically and at the present time. In the question and answer session, the curious audience raised a number of questions about the events Olivier had discussed. It was clear that there was a real desire in the room to understand better this complex and unknown aspect of English scholar life between 1960 to 1980.

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).

Alexander Geppert on the post-war production of outer space

Our theme of ‘space’ has led to a wide range of contributions to this year’s seminar series, encompassing topics as broad as building materials in 1970s Tanzania, the postcolonial spaces of offshore capitalism, and French colonial borderlands in India. This week, Alexander C. T. Geppert (New York University) provided an even more expansive interpretation of our theme by moving the focus beyond Planet Earth entirely in his examination of cultural responses to the exploration of outer space. Mathew Nicolson sends this report.

A poster for a space exhibition in Berlin in 1956.

Drawing from his recent work editing the ‘Astroculture Trilogy’ – Imagining Outer Space (2012), Limiting Outer Space (2016) and the forthcoming Militarizing Outer Space (2019) – Alexander offered multiple insights into cultural representations and understandings of outer space, with a particular emphasis on postwar Western Europe. He began by clearly defining the term astroculture as ‘[comprising] a heterogeneous array of images and artifacts, media and practices that all aim to ascribe meaning to outer space while stirring both the individual and collective imagination.’

Cultural representations, therefore, lay at the core of popular conceptions of outer space during the postwar period.  This can be witnessed in the vast array of space-themed films, books, albums and artwork produced during this period, including the 1956 ‘Unbegrenzter Raum [The Unlimited Space]’ exhibition in Berlin and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968.

Space stations, Alexander suggested, served as the main focal point for imagining space exploration until they were supplanted in the 1960s by a growing interest in the possibility of a Moon landing.  Until then, space stations were conceived as ‘outposts’ or ‘springboards’ for further travel into outer space and prompted a number of competing proposals.  Most iconic among these was the rotating wheel space station, a design advanced by NASA engineer and former Nazi rocket designer Wernher von Braun with the aim of artificially creating Earth-like gravity on the station through the wheel’s rotation.

The rotating wheel space station underpinned the ‘von Braun paradigm’ of space travel in which the station would act as a staging post for transit between permanent colonies on the Moon, then Mars and then beyond the Solar System itself. Although emerging as a cultural icon in the 1950s and regularly featuring in representations of space travel, NASA ultimately rejected both this paradigm and the wheel station design, opting instead to orientate the Apollo program towards direct journeys to the Moon.

Alexander then turned his attention towards efforts to characterise the ‘Space Age’ as a distinct historical period. The Space Age is sometimes used to refer to the period between the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the end of the Apollo programme in 1972, characterised by intense public interest in space exploration and growing technological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling away as this ‘space race’ gave way to apathy in the 1970s.

However, the Space Age was also conceived as a period yet to arrive, in which space exploration and travel would become the defining feature of the near future. Once again, several competing frameworks were advanced, ranging from NASA’s model of ‘linear infinite progress’ to projections of exponential rates of expansion into outer space.  It became possible to look forward to a period when humanity would attain total control over space and time.  This optimistic zeitgeist lasted until the late 1960s before declining alongside reduced public and governmental interest in space exploration during the following decade.

Alexander discusses contactee narratives.

Contact narratives with extra-terrestrial species were identified by Alexander as the third major manifestation of popular conceptions of outer space.  Images of UFOs and ‘flying saucers’ gained a prominent position in the public imagination and shaped representations of such encounters.  This new concern towards threats from the sky highlighted growing fears relating to continuing developments in rocketry and nuclear weapons.

Two accounts by George Adamski and Cedric Allingham (later revealed to be a hoax orchestrated by prominent astronomer Patrick Moore) gained particular attention, in which extra-terrestrial beings were portrayed as Christ-like entities offering humanity salvation from the threat of nuclear war. Outer space can thereby be interpreted as a canvas upon which earthly concerns were projected and reflected.

Alexander concluded by tracing declining interest and enthusiasm towards space exploration in the 1970s.  The Apollo program ended after its sixth Moon landing in 1972 and the role of outer space in the popular imagination diminished. Yet, in a trend Alexander terms the ‘post-Apollo paradox,’ such apathy developed alongside the continuing advancement of space technology as the development of satellites gave outer space greater relevance in peoples’ daily lives.

In his commentary, Matjaz Vidmar (University of Edinburgh) responded to multiple aspects of Geppert’s talk.  He emphasised differences between the Soviet and American roadmaps for entering outer space, the former retaining aspects of the von Braun paradigm and the latter adopting an increasingly direct approach for reaching targets. He also noted the transformative impact of Sputnik’s launch in 1957, which he analysed in the wider context of the militarisation of space exploration. Regarding the ‘post-Apollo paradox,’ Matjaz highlighted the economic crises of the 1970s and post-Vietnam disillusionment as possible explanations for the phenomenon.

The subsequent discussion proved to be equally wide-ranging.  The collapse in optimism towards space exploration was linked back to cinematic representations as the dangers implied in 2001: A Space Odyssey gave way to outright horror in Alien (1979) merely a decade later, while other questions focused on the origins of the flat Earth conspiracy, conceptions of interstellar colonisation and imperialism and whether a gendered analysis can be applied to different staging models of space flight.

Mathew Nicolson is a PhD student in Scottish History.  His research interests focus on the politics and culture of postwar Scotland with particular emphases on its ‘peripheral’ island groups and imperial connections.  His thesis explores the politics of culture, identity and constitutional change in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles from 1969 to 1999. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Stefanie Gänger on medicine and sociality in the Atlantic world

This week, we welcomed Stefanie Gänger (Universität zu Köln) who took us on a global journey through the history of science and medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her talk brought to life our theme of ‘space’ and offered a wealth of insights into the circulation of knowledge. If you were not able to come along, you can catch up with the full talk via the Audiomack link below or via our podcast channel. Alternatively, Calum Aikman sends this pithy report. 

Cinchona, also known as Peruvian bark, first became known for its medicinal qualities back in the seventeenth century. Grown by the Jesuits on the eastern slopes of the Spanish-American Andes with the prosaic aim of combating fevers and chills, the drug did not easily conform to existing practices: it was unable to dispel ‘humours’, nor did its bitter, astringent taste endear itself to those willing to consume it.

Few, therefore, could have foreseen how popular it would become; yet, by the turn of the early nineteenth century, the reputation of cinchona was so well established that it was estimated that a total of between 15 and 38 million doses per annum were administered globally. Such was its success in tackling ailments that it was even considered to have divine medical virtues.

The purpose of Stefanie’s paper, however, was not to enumerate the reasons for cinchona’s reputation as an early ‘wonder drug’, nor to examine the nature of its production, but to trace how the knowledge of its restorative properties was subsequently diffused throughout the world. One important factor which aided propagation, she claimed, was the increasing significance of the written word in Western culture. The utility of Peruvian bark was soon recorded in medical dictionaries worldwide, such as those edited by Samuel-Auguste Tissot and William Buchan, and translated into numerous different languages.

In addition, for those laymen practitioners unacquainted with textbooks, there were an array of almanacs and periodicals to guide them: one common resource in Spanish America, for instance, was the volume of remedies compiled by the Jesuit missionary Juan de Esteyneffer, which was favoured by the local Creole populations.

Discourses in how to prepare cinchona were thus gradually woven into the fabric of Western and colonial societies. Many remedy books advised that the bark be infused in an aromatic compound to make it more palatable, usually by mixing it with wine; this was the case with Agua de Inglaterra (‘English water’), which was found throughout Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone communities in West Africa. But recipes varied by region: whereas Chinese physicians imbued the bark with cinnamon, in Morocco it was more likely to be treated with vinegar. Stefanie argued that this exemplified how the understanding of a common resource could quickly be subjected to indigenous tastes and mores.

The changing nature of medical practice also allowed cinchona to gain acceptance in areas far removed from its natural habitat. Although relatively cheap in the Andes, it was expensive to procure in most overseas markets. Nonetheless, this did not stop it from growing in popularity far beyond the upper echelons of consumer society. Literate, middle-class households may have dutifully inscribed in notebooks the many ways in which they used the bark, but paupers and slaves were also given it as a cure. In the latter case, it was often mixed into their healing potions. This was frequently at the behest of state authorities and charities, which would have subsidised the expense.

Finally, Cinchona’s fame was also disseminated by word of mouth, which reassured those who were inclined to place their trust in popular testimony. In the Andean territories of Peru and New Granada, native healers were assiduous in preparing the drug for all manner of treatments, which led to knowledge transfer and regular lines of communication about how it should be used.

Stefanie noted that soldiers and sailors were also influential in this regard; many would have been familiar with Cinchona due to its prevalence in army medical supplies (as troops were regularly exposed to insalubrious climates, they were often given it prophylactically in order to shield them from disease), and their willingness to spread the word further helped ensure its acceptance far and wide.

In her concluding remarks, Stefanie suggested that many existing perceptions of global historical development stress the primacy of locality. Her counter-argument is that, while this is important, knowledge can also transcend such a context. Cinchona is a good example of this: its inherent malleability assured its recognition beyond the Andes, allowing it to spread across the globe and become newly situated in a myriad of contrasting environments where understandings were not identical. The production of scientific knowledge, therefore, is not just bound to one place, but can be interpreted anew in locales far removed from its original circumstances.

In her comment, Sarah Easterby-Smith (St Andrews) attempted to place Stefanie’s paper within the wider context of recent historiographical debates, suggesting that it echoed a 2004 journal article by Jim Secord, which depicted science as the product of knowledge in transit and contingent on local production of information. She was pleased to see several examples of source material on display during the presentation, but felt that Stefanie’s analysis was nonetheless limited in some areas.

Were there, for example, any examples of cinchona failing as a drug, and could there have been problems in its circulation? Arguing that people were both ‘present and absent’ in the paper, she also wondered if it was possible to properly strike a balance between the ‘big picture’ and the efforts of select individuals. Moreover, although claiming that an attribute of Stefanie’s analysis was that it was resistant to the easy narrative of ‘flows’, she determined that there had been little opportunity for surrounding power structures to be properly investigated. Despite these apprehensions, she welcomed the paper as an imaginative step forward in conceptualising how knowledge proceeds to enter different ‘spaces’.

Calum Aikman is a PhD student in History. His research mostly focuses on twentieth-century British and Scottish politics, trade union history and the fortunes of the Labour Party in the post-war era. His thesis is on the political thought of the Labour Party’s ‘revisionist’ right wing in the 1970s. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Ben Smith on the US-Mexico borderlands and the ‘war on drugs’

In the midst of the current debate about the construction of the wall between the US and Mexico, we invited Ben Smith (Warwick) to discuss the origins of the war on drugs between the US and Mexico in the 1950s. His entertaining talk gave us a welcome additional perspective on this year’s theme of ‘space’. Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz sends this report. 

Ben began by describing the emerging moral panic in the USA over drug use in the 1950s. In California, both politicians and members of civil society developed a distinct set of arguments about how to stop the drug trade. These blamed US drug use on Mexican supply, targeted the problem of Mexican corruption, and suggested manipulation of the border as a means to blackmail the Mexican authorities to crack down on traffickers. By the late 1960s, these arguments had become cornerstones of US, and particularly Republican, counter-narcotics policy. In 1969, President Nixon even implemented the de facto shutting of the border in the form of Operation Intercept.

But California’s moral panic not only formed the basis for Nixon’s war on drugs, it also had serious effects south of the border. Here, a complex interplay of exogenous and endogenous pressures emerged. Californian denouncements of Baja California’s corruption interwove with and strengthened homegrown Mexican hostility to the ruling party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Such opposition took the form of a critical public sphere, combative civil society organizations, and, by the late 1950s, a powerful local branch of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). Such groups, when combined with US pressure, forced local authorities to enact periodic, well-publicized crackdowns on narcotics traffickers, corrupt cops, and addicts.

By analysing the dynamics and effects of California’s 1950 moral panic, Smith’s talk brought together, worked off, and revised two distinct historical traditions. First, the origins of the USA’s war on drugs of which many scholars have pinpointed the 1950s as a decisive point of inflection. During this decade, politicians, bureaucrats, and members of civil society not only established a new, and radically more punitive, judicial framework, but also developed a distinct underlying “narrative” or “cultural script” to describe the drug trade and justify these legal changes. This narrative contained two elements: the African-American or Mexican- American drug pusher and the white, often female, drug user or victim.

In his work, Smith has built on such findings and pushed them further. He argues that a third and crucial element of this narrative was the figure of the Mexican drug trafficker. This narrative underlay a series of suggested approaches to drug use, which also emerged during the 1950s. These stressed the idea that anti-narcotics efforts should squeeze supply south of the border, that Mexican authorities were often unwilling to do this, and that manipulation of border traffic and trade could coerce them into action. Yet these measures were not simply reactions to exogenous US pressure. They were also responses to endogenous demands from members of Mexican civil society to clean up local politics. To put it another way, Mexican drug policy was often determined by subnational politics.

In summing up, Smith pointed to the connections between the domestic and the international aspects of the war on drugs. Rather than seeing them as separate issues (to be studied by separate disciplines), Smith suggested we should instead observe them as deeply intertwined. We should, in short, view the thousands of African Americans languishing in US prisons and the thousands of dead and disappeared Mexicans as two sides of the same coin – victims of the same interlinking processes.

In his comment, Edinburgh’s resident Brazilianist Jake Blanc focused on three main ideas: the range of historical concepts employed by Smith, in particular, the concept of US moralising and how to think about it transnationally. Secondly, the context of the early 1950s and the role that the global Cold War might have played in the origins of the war on drugs by US authorities, a question absent in Smith’s talk. And, finally, the roots of the cooperation across the borders between the USA and Mexico.

The seminar ended with a lively question and answer session, which touched on a diverse range of topics, including current conflicts between the USA and Mexico, the role of the DEA in the War on Drugs, the primary sources that have underpinned Smith’s research, and the role that films and television play in shaping realities, notably Netflix’s Narcos Mexico.

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). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Akhila Yechury on borders and colonial sovereignty in French India

What can a dispute over a tiny river island in nineteenth century India tell us about our current political crisis? At first glance, not much. But a richly-drawn talk by Akhila Yechury (St Andrews) inspired an eager audience to reflect on how seemingly small events can have major political consequences. Read Ros Parr’s seminar report to find out more – or listen again to the entire talk via the Audiomack link below or directly on the CSMCH podcast channel

The focus of Akhila’s paper was sovereignty and, in particular, the interactions between French administrators and their British rivals in India. Analysing these colonial-era debates, she highlighted the interplay of ideas framed by Westphalian-inspired international law with older, more fluid local understandings of sovereignty based on hereditary and administrative claims. Her astute reflections on the hybrid forms of legitimacy this produced reveal much about the concept of sovereignty and its multiple and evolving meanings in the modern world. The British deployment of the concept of divisible sovereignty, in which French jurisdiction co-existed with the perceived right of the dominant imperial power to intervene, was particularly enlightening.

The paper introduced research from Akhila’s forthcoming book on French colonialism in India.  This framework, in which territorially fragmented French claims existed alongside those of the British, provides a unique lens for examining the imperial state. Yet, as befits a reflection on the Centre’s current theme of space, the paper moved up and down the spatial scales ranging from tiny French settlements known as loges to the universalist assumptions of the international system.

Akhila explains the geography of French India

One striking feature of Akhila’s study was the detailed analysis of the everyday within these debates.  Local smugglers and colonial administrators appeared alongside each other, their various perspectives meticulously traced in the archival record.  This approach firmly roots ideological debates about sovereignty in the context of time and place to reveal the constant negotiation and renegotiation that occurred over time. An obscure controversy about the use of the British postal service to smuggle cocaine into French territory, for example, illuminated the contrast between different abstract notions and the fluidity of sovereign rights in practice.

Commenting on the paper, Harshan Kumarasingham (Edinburgh) drew out some of the contingencies produced by wider events, such as the rebellion of 1857, and the contrasts between the status of French territories and Princely States.  The richness of the archival research was widely acknowledged from the floor and prompted further discussion on the breadth of insight this reveals. With discussions about sovereignty dominating our public debates, Akhila’s research is timely and we look forward to discovering more on this important topic in her book.

Ros Parr is a Lecturer in Modern South Asian History at the University of St Andrews. 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 PhD thesis examined the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. She is a CSMCH steering committee member.