Julie Gibbings on affective politics and Guatemala’s 1944 revolution

Although our seminar series mostly plays host to visiting speakers, we do sometimes give a platform to our own colleagues. Last week, we were lucky to hear a talk by Julie Gibbings (Edinburgh), our newly appointed historian of the indigenous Americas. She told us more about her fascinating work on the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944. Marina Moya Moreno was in the audience and sends this report. You can also listen again to Julie’s talk via the Audiomack link or on the CSMCH podcast. 

Julie started her talk with a contextualization of the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution that inaugurated the so-called ‘Ten Years of Spring’ before being brutally terminated in 1954 by a CIA-supported coup. She also explained how the idea of the 1944 revolution is still present in Guatemala. Even if it does not carry the same meaning as it did seventy years ago, it has become a symbol of justice and democracy. As she showed in her slides, these links to the revolution are still visible in demonstrations and public commemorations.

Julie introducing the complex dynamics at play in the Guatemalan Revolution

Following this introduction, Julie argued for the need to reconceptualise the Guatemalan revolution after the end of the civil war in 1996. Traditionally, the revolution has been framed by the dynamics and geopolitics of the Cold War. This analysis, however, leaves out the key point of land ownership, one of the main focuses of her research, which seems to be absent in most of the literature.

In her talk, Julie identified different elements playing an important role in the reappraisal of the Guatemalan revolution and adding layers of complexity to the process, like a sense of historic justice over dispossessed lands from Guatemalans, the national claims over expropriated lands in the 1950s from German and German Guatemalans. Finally, she made reference to the role of intimate politics and the intricacy of family relationships, loyalties and rumours, and how these can help us understand the meaning of revolution for Guatemalans at that time.

In Guatemala, similar to what happened in other places within Latin America, a populist dictator had come to power after the depression on the eve of the Second World War, and had found support from fascist groups in the process. Interracial relationships and marriages were common in Guatemala and praised by the state, as German Guatemalans were considered la raza mejorada (the improved race).

Even though such policies were marginalised after the US declared war on Germany (and with it, most of Central America), the racial tensions and complexities did not disappear from society. Social and personal dynamics in plantations demonstrated the result of these cultural understandings. For instance, some employers would pay German workers extra for impregnating Guatemalans, this being a practice that was considered to ‘improve the race’. Even within families or closed communities, racial differences carried a strong symbolic meaning in terms of social status.

Julie used the personal story of Hugo Droege to walk the audience through these tensions within Guatemalan society in the middle decades of the twentieth century. After the First World War, a number of German citizens found in Guatemala a new land of opportunity. Hugo Droege was one of them. He migrated to Guatemala, where he ran the plantation of San Vicente and married Dorotea Winter Tot, who herself was mixed race.

In 1936, following a common practice at the time, he left Guatemala and his family to find a German wife back in Europe. He returned to Guatemala with his new wife, with whom he started a new family, and displaced Dorotea to a small house in a different plantation. The story of Hugo Droege was not a particularly unique one, but it interacted in important ways with a broader historical context.

As Julie made clear, the international situation played a significant role in Guatemalan politics, especially when the country declared war on Germany. The government published lists of German businesses and assets, and established constitutional limits and guarantees for Germans appearing on that list. This increased existing tensions, not only for Germans, who could face expropriation and deportation, but also, and especially for, mixed races families. Shortly after, the state nationalised German properties across twelve departments in Guatemala, which was justified as a public need.

This gave rise to significant expectations within certain parts of society, but also to a deeper social and political rupture. As World War Two drew to a close, university professors and students, as well as the middle classes more generally, used the language of antifascism as a way to articulate their protests against the government. This ultimately led to the 1944 revolution. However, the advent of a new regime could not immediately solve the complex picture of competing nationalisms, intimate politics and racial tensions that were deeply embedded in Guatemalan society.

In the last part of her talk, Julie emphasised the importance of plantation politics through two key aspects: inheritance politics and plantations as political entities. The Decree 900, a land reform law passed in 1952, was meant to redistribute unused lands of great size to local peasants. This was again a source of tension particularly for mixed race families, with descendants of Germans claiming the right to the property of their parents.

Not only were familial politics at play in land reform, but also the politics of inheritance and social status. For instance, when it was clear that Hugo would not be able to recover his plantation, he took a job as an administrator at a different one, and ended up being sold a part of it for a knockdown price, as the owner preferred that situation than the land being given to a peasant.

At the same time, Julie emphasised the role of plantations as important hotbeds of labour activism, which were affected by racial tensions, family disputes and cultural differences. At times, plantations were used as political entities, with employers coercing their workers against voting, or forcing them to vote in their own interest.

Julie concluded her talk by reflecting on two dichotomous narratives that have prevailed in Guatemalan imagery about the revolution: the first blaming Guatemala for the abandonment of their loyal German immigrants, driving the country towards modernity, and the second still regarding the revolution as a period of hope and social justice, still invoked in the present. These two narratives remain unresolved, especially given the collapse of the country into a genocidal civil war after 1954.

Julia comments on Julie’s paper

Julie’s talk was followed by a comment by Julia McClure (Glasgow), who reflected on the intersections of gender, race and status in this process, and how they conditioned the politics of reproduction and the politics of land reproduction in the Guatemalan 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 CSMCH steering committee member. 

Jay Winter on war, memory and silence

This week, we teamed up with the Connecting Memories Research Initiative in the School of Literature, Languages and Culture to bring Jay Winter (Yale) to Edinburgh. Almost a hundred people came to hear one of the world’s leading experts on the history of memory talk about war and silence. You can read Anita Klingler’s report on the talk below. You can also listen again via Audiomack or on the CSMCH podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ in your favourite podcast app).  

Jay began his talk by emphasising that, although there has been a “memory boom” within the historical profession, the term still has not been adequately analysed. Furthermore, he also posited that his central claim – namely, that “language frames memory” – required further analysis. Memory, as Jay reminded the audience, comes in many forms, among them visual, auditory, textual, or intertextual.

The main focus of the talk, however, was on just one domain of, specifically, auditory memory, namely silence. Jay proposed that the link between silence and the psychological injury resulting from the First World War, generally referred to as shell shock, must be examined more closely. He stated his conclusion early on, which was that there was a significant discrepancy between the official estimates of the numbers of shell-shocked British soldiers, and the real numbers of men who suffered this psychological injury.

Jay introduces the concept of silence

In this context, it is also crucial to note that the First World War did of course not end on 11 November 1918, but continued on, in various guises of revolution and civil war, and with extreme levels of violence, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Jay spoke of a resulting “civilianisation” of war in those areas, again raising the numbers of people directly affected by the psychological damage of war.

While shell shock had many different symptoms – among them stupor, paralysis, trembling, and nervous collapse – one of its manifestations was silence. Jay identified three different types of silence:

    1. Firstly, the silence of those who cannot speak, either because the war left them mute, or, more significantly, because they did not think anyone would listen to what they had to say.
    2. Secondly, Jay listed the silence of those who choose not to speak, either due to gender codes which forbid, especially, men to speak about certain physical and even more so psychological injuries, or due to a general reluctance to relive the past; or to cover up the past for personal or political reasons.
    3. The third silence was the silence of groups, or collective silence, which occurs when a group agrees to not speak about certain subjects either in public or in private. Importantly, Jay stressed that silence was not the same as forgetting; just because a memory was silent, did not mean that it was not present.

Jay then went on to identify a number of different social constructions of silence, as well as domains of silence. He traced the construction of silences from their creation in a social space, via the price paid by those who transgress these social rules, to the way that, once the silence is broken, the taboo subject becomes a matter of discussion and debate, and, usually, the subject’s taboo status does not last long. As an example, he pointed towards Spain’s ongoing struggles to come to terms with the crimes of its Francoist past.

As the domains of silence, the places where silence exists and what it looks like, Jay listed four key areas. These were:

    • liturgical silence, accounting for certain topics, such as the presence of evil in the world, which believers know not to ask about;
    • political silence, which denies political crimes or errors;
    • essentialist silence, which Jay used to describe the idea, that only those who lived through an experience can adequately describe or speak about it;
    • and lastly, familial silence, an unspoken agreement never to speak of certain family conflicts.

Each of these silences relates to war in particular ways, posing questions such as: How are the cruelties of war possible if God is good? How should a state or society treat war criminals? Can only soldiers understand war? And most significantly for this paper, how did the things left unsaid by shell-shocked soldiers affect their families, especially their wives and children, who often had to suffer under the violence meted out by their silent, traumatised but undiagnosed, husband or father?

In analogy to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative speech acts, Jay characterised silence as a performative non-speech act, the silent performance of the terror endured during the war. He suggested that, while official estimates put the percentage of shell-shocked British soldiers in the First World War at 2%, the real figure was closer to 20-40%. To arrive at this estimate, he compared the official estimates of shell shock at the Battle of Gallipoli with official estimates from other battles, for example the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, which he considered similar in intensity of fighting but where numbers of shell shock diagnoses were notably higher.

This method led him to conclude that between 4-8 million British soldiers suffered from shell shock as a result of the First World War. If the average family size was assumed at three, he continued, this would bring the number of people affected by shell shock, either directly or via a family member, to 12-24 million people.

Jay was passionate about the impact that this discrepancy had, and continues to have, on those men affected, their families, and British society more generally. It was militarily opportune for the British Army during the First World War not to admit to higher numbers of shell shock, as this would have had an adverse effect on recruitment; this tendency, Jay implied, continues today. His thesis was that Britain had never recovered from the First World War, and that the collective silence about the real damage done by it continued to affect people today, the descendants of World War I veterans, as well as the families of current active service members.

Jay also explored several moving literary examples of silences becoming manifest in the writings of Ted Hughes and Anna Akhmatova. He ended his talk by indicating some of the goals he hopes that his research will achieve, including meaningful change regarding how psychological damage is dealt with in the armed forces.

The talk was followed by a brief comment by the founder of the Connecting Memories research initiative, Paul Leworthy, and a stimulating, wide-ranging question and answer session with the audience.

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.

Julia Nicholls on the French revolutionary tradition

In this week’s seminar, we looked at one of the most paradigmatic countries of revolution: France. We hosted Julia Nicholls (King’s College London) who presented part of her excellent new book on the development of the French revolutionary tradition after the Paris Commune of 1871. Calum Aikman sends this report – and you can listen again to Julia’s talk via the Audiomack link below or on the CSMCH podcast channel.

It is impossible to consider modern France without ruminating on the impact that ‘the Revolution’ has had on the nation’s fortunes. Historians have long considered it to be the dominant theme, the leitmotif through which the recent past can be understood – so much so that the word itself has taken on an almost omnipresent significance, and is used to refer not just to the famous events of 1789 and the following decade, but to all those insurrections that erupted in imitation throughout the nineteenth century.

But what did being a ‘revolutionary’ mean at a time when Revolution – in any shape or form – no longer seemed feasible? It is this question that Julia sought to answer in her paper, by concentrating on the decade following the collapse of the Paris Commune, the last of the great ‘revolutionary’ episodes, in 1871.

She began by arguing that conventional historiography frequently portrays late-nineteenth century revolutionaries as caught on the horns of a dilemma – they were, it is said, either compelled to struggle onwards in pursuit of an imagined future, at a time when their prospects were dim, or risk becoming trapped by the fervent need to worship the past.

Julia thinks this is an unproductive false dichotomy: many revolutionary activists were actually willing to critically reassess their tradition, and did so in a way that disentangled the Revolution as an idea from its specifically French context. At the same time, however, they remained conscious of the pervasive influence the Revolution still had in late nineteenth-century France. This resulted in an apparent paradox, for although the revolutionaries continued to embrace the legacy bequeathed by the Revolution, some were also sceptical of the claims that were made in its name.

So how did this manifest itself in practice? Instead of paying endless homage to the revolutionary tradition or futilely chasing their utopian visions, Julia claimed that the revolutionaries became fixated on trying to shape the character of the new Third Republic. Having been led by supporters of the monarchy in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune, from the late 1870s the Republic was in the hands of a moderate republican government.

Although egalitarian in sentiment, the refusal of the republicans to support the Commune had prompted accusations from the radical left that their apparently progressive bona fides amounted to ‘opportunism’, and Julia argued that once in power the government courted popularity among different electoral groups by seeking to tame the Revolution and make it ‘respectable’ – extolling its historical virtues on behalf of the liberal bourgeoisie, while simultaneously reassuring both conservatives and reactionary Catholics that it had ceased to present any kind of danger.

This Janus-faced strategy, which venerated Revolution but refrained from trying to actually re-establish it, unsurprisingly provoked radical activists such as the Marxist propagandist Gabriel Deville, who later claimed that the ‘public love and respect’ for the Revolution was merely ‘a trick of the eye’. Rather than respond with their own uncritical celebrations of the Revolution, however, the revolutionaries tried to ensure its relevance by placing it in a broader historical context. Many writers sought to trace the heritage of French revolutionary thought by drawing inspiration from events that occurred long before 1789, citing the inspiration of Spartacus and the popular hero Etienne Marcel among others. They also pursued their own alternative concept of Revolution, one which was based on ideas of wholesale social transformation rather than the parliamentary reformism of the republican government. Their ultimate aim, Julia said, was to provide an alternative, viable definition of what the Revolution could still be.

Julia expanded her ideas further by drawing attention to the example set by Louis Auguste Blanqui – at the time one of the leading intellectuals on the French revolutionary left. Blanqui’s work was influential, and became part of a shared discourse that involved many other political activists. But even he was affected by the environment that prevailed after 1871, as was demonstrated by his reconceptualisation of revolutionary politics during this period. In an influential text he wrote on standing armies, for instance, he drew inspiration not from the Revolution, but from the ‘grandeur’ of ancient Republics and America during the Civil War.

Nonetheless, Julia pointed out that the Commune did not unleash a fundamental change in Blanqui’s thought, but merely exacerbated a sceptical outlook that had existed long beforehand: as early as 1851, he wrote a toast to French exiles in London deploring those who revered the Revolution without any restraint, which he saw as leading to a ‘hail of bullets – and poverty always!’

Emile commenting on Julia’s paper

Commenting on behalf of the CSMCH, Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) struck an emollient tone, expressing his sympathy towards the main thrust of the arguments presented in the paper. But he felt that the notion of ‘tradition’ could have been examined more closely. Perhaps what Julia highlighted was an example of an ‘invented tradition’, he mused, a conglomeration of myths and realities that were vying to outflank each other?

With that in mind, he went on to outline three points for further consideration: first, that there is perhaps a difference between the ‘tradition of Revolution’ and the ‘inspiration of Revolution’; second, that temporality is important, with revolutionaries often using the past to justify their view of the future; and, finally, that geographical distance can often preserve a tradition that has been either subverted or diluted in its homeland.

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.

Paolo Gerbaudo on politics and the social media revolution

Speaking before a packed audience, Paolo Gerbaudo (King’s College, London) delivered a lucid commentary on how online platforms have transformed political life beyond all recognition. Robbie Johnston sends us this report on another thought-provoking talk for the CSMCH. You can listen again to the talk via the Audiomack link below or on our podcast channel.

As social media has transformed the political landscape, its reverberations have been felt everywhere. Prominent analysts and commentators have been left bewildered at the ‘vulgarisation’ of public discourse, intense populist campaigns and the electoral earthquakes left in their wake. Paolo, whose book The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy, was published last year, grounds these developments in a much-needed intellectual framework to make sense of this unfamiliar terrain, and properly examine the affinity between social media and populism.

Three key shifts have redefined politics as we know it. Firstly, the consumer roll-out and mass distribution of technology, enabling people to be more or less constantly ‘connected’. Secondly, populism must be seen in its proper context – the long economic stagnation in the shadow of 2008. The flatlining of wages, job insecurity, the enforcement of austerity, feudalistic levels of inequality, meagre prospects for the young and the hollowing out of comfortable middle class lifestyles have all contributed to an overwhelming sense of decline. The signs are all too visible. And, as the IMF have darkly hinted in recent weeks, further trouble may be on the way.

The third destabilising element is the way in which this discontent has been channelled through the political process. That is, the emergence of populist parties and movements, which have achieved remarkable success almost overnight. Political groupings with hugely differing ideological complexions, from Podemos in Spain to the Italian Five Star Movement, nonetheless articulate a similar sense of betrayal and rage at the elites and experts who govern their lives.

Crucially, they pioneered ground-breaking methods of online campaigning to capture and then mobilise supporters, catching the traditional parties off-guard. Prominent media pundits, initially dismissing them as unelectable upstarts, have seen their assumptions unravel. Populists have not only made electoral inroads across the globe; they set the very terms of the debate. ‘Populism,’ said Paolo, ‘is the new common sense.’

Progressives are caught between a sense of dismay at what they deem to be the coarsening of political discourse, and, on the other hand, a realisation of the potential liberating power of mass communication. In liberal commentaries, social media is typically assigned the blame for the collapse of consensus. It represents a place where ‘fake news’ is disseminated, racism is legitimised, and authoritarian movements are forged. In what has become an all-too familiar sequence of events, strongmen then take power.

Paolo said that if we truly want to understand the problem, we have to take a wider view. Firstly, it is first important to understand the sea change in the social composition of who is active online. Two decades ago, only about 10 per cent of the world population had access; that figure is now somewhere between 55 and 60 per cent. Plainly, this constitutes a shift from an elite to a mass medium. For Paolo, this partly explains some of the more hysterical liberal commentaries, which resemble a kind of moral panic at the thought of the uneducated mass storming the public sphere.

Beyond the headlines of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, there is more going on beneath the surface. Paolo thinks that, instead of viewing social media as the property of right-wing demagogues, it should be thought of as a vital resource to persuade people to embrace an egalitarian agenda. After all, the technology itself is neutral.

Moreover, the potential of mass-communication to build a mass-movement is self-evident; there are already countless examples on the left. Moreover, as Paolo reminded his audience, today is the first time that people are engaging in public writing on such a mass scale. People who you would not usually expect to have strong political convictions are now expressing their hopes and visions for the world. Moreover, there is enormous potential for a broader educational agenda, to spread knowledge and develop a framework in which to interpret political power.

Paolo explores the ‘reactive’ quality to social media politics

The reality, of course, often falls short. Rather than producing meaningful action, social media can produce a more emotive and shallow form of political engagement. In particular, Paolo underlined the problem of the asymmetry of power. Online platforms promise interaction and that all voices matter. For much of the time, though, it results in a kind of ‘reactive’ democracy, whereby ‘power-users’ (e.g. famous leaders) post messages, which the mass responds to with likes and comments. Politics, in this way, risks becoming another form of casual entertainment.

Another key example of a trend towards this form of ‘reactive democracy’ is the way in which Podemos and the Five Star Movement’s online platforms have worked in practice. Paolo’s work has found that issues debated online and settled through internal referenda almost invariably follow the guidance of the parties’ charismatic leaders. For all the rhetorical allusions to ‘the people’, the dominance of the ‘hyperleader’ reflects the persistence of top-down organisational structures.

In a thoughtful commentary, Rory Scothorne (Edinburgh) focused on intellectuals’ own troubled relationship with populism. For the most part, intellectuals have traditionally preferred deliberative, thoughtful spaces to impulsive populism. Historically, this found expression in their ‘fear of the crowd.’ Today, though, they can hardly escape social media and, by extension, a populist state of mind.

More and more intellectuals feel they have to take to online platforms and so threaten to become locked in a cycle of addictive populism themselves. In his closing remarks, Rory suggested that the political party, allowing for a deliberative form of democratic participation, still provides the best means of effecting real and substantial change.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, an audience member echoed this pessimistic message. Do these technologies not ultimately serve as a great distraction from substantive politics? Are we, in the words of Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death?

Paolo recognised that social media can reduce politics to another form of superficial entertainment; a spectator sport. However, he stressed that, for all its faults, political engagement on social media is unavoidable. It is a fact of life. Progressives must keep in mind its power to spread empowering messages, overcome a hostile media environment and actually influence events. But, in the end, there are no certainties. As Paolo has written elsewhere, ‘Only time will tell whether social media is a sphere for radical and vociferous, but democratically legitimate, expression, or a channel for authoritarianism’.

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. He 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.

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).

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.

Alex Paulin-Booth on the utopias of the French left

We kicked off the new year with a return to ideas of political ‘space’. This came by way of the sometimes unusual fantasies of late 19th century French left-wing authors. Fortunately, we had Alex Paulin-Booth (Université Libre de Bruxelles) on hand to decode the meanings and implications of this utopian and dystopian thinking. Anita Klinger sends this report or you can listen again by following the Audiomack link below or subscribing to our podcast channel (on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts).

Alex’s research is concerned with ideas of time; in particular, she examines experiences and understandings of time and their effect on political activism. In her paper, she focused on the radical French left around 1900 and spoke about how their ideas about time shaped their politics. Notions of time, she argued, became particularly bound up with the questions of the day. As the possibility of a revolution became less certain after the Paris Commune, it provided the left with new, alternative discursive and political spaces to think about possible futures.

Her two main strands of investigation for the paper were, on the one hand, futurist novels and, on the other, the discourse around evolutionary theory, both of which were experiencing a boom around 1900. Through these sources, Alex argued, historians were able to examine how the/a future might have been conceived of by political activists, allowing us to enter into their mind-sets, while also providing us with a history of “how people got things wrong”.

Following an illuminating summary of the limited historiography surrounding the study of time, Alex began by laying out a major concern on the French left around 1900. She spoke of the criticism of Marxism as taking away agency from the proletariat by insisting on “waiting around” for the revolution to come, rather than focusing on concrete, reformist steps which could be taken towards the betterment of society. As concrete discussion of the future was side-lined in political activism, Alex argued that it was displaced into the realm of literature. By way of example, she talked about four turn-of-the-century French novels in some more detail. They were Maurice Spronck’s L’an 330 de la République (1894); Eugène Fournière’s Chez nos petits fils (1900); Daniel Halévy’s Histoire des quatre ans (1903); and Anatole France’s Sur la pierre blanche (1905). Though all four quite different, Alex identified a few themes which these utopian and/or dystopian stories had in common.

One prominent theme was technological development and the anxiety which the new pace of change induced in contemporaries. Though this anxiety had been mounting since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Alex argued that especially evolutionary theory and science had placed all of humanity on a new and vast plane of time, heightening this anxiety even further. Another theme which some of the authors were particularly ambiguous about was the future of work, and the prospect of worklessness. While technological advances would likely reduce working hours, there were serious concerns about not losing control of time altogether and needing to balance the new spare time with some structure to prevent, as Halévy envisioned it, a society plagued by drug use and alcoholism, now that work was not central to the structure of society any more.

A third theme was that of the unity of European nations under some form of federalist structure. This unity, in Maurice Spronck’s imagining, had made redundant the need for any European armies and thus exposed the continent to great threats, particularly from ‘the East’ and North Africa. The utopia, therefore, revealed itself as more of a dystopia after all, at least to Spronck, who, notably, was the only one of the four authors who was on the political right, rather than on the left.

Alex explores notions of time in late 19th century French thought

Curiously, Alex noted, these novels all imagined a future, but once the future was arrived at – often through the heavy-handed literary device of having the protagonist transported there in his sleep – the imagined future proved static. The authors rarely explained how the future societies they had imagined had actually been brought about, presenting a future that was ‘cut off’ from the present with no plan of how to get there.

Towards the end of her paper, Alex went on to speak more about the ‘cult’, or ‘religion’ of science which became increasingly popular around 1900. Science promised progress, based on actual evidence, and evolutionary theory in particular was one such way of progressing. It allowed people to conceive of mankind as a living organism which followed the newly-popularised (and immediately bastardised) theory of evolution. In this way, a scenario in which people would fall out of step with the accelerated pace of change could hopefully be avoided entirely.

However, as Alex emphasised, while these (ab)uses of science may have served as a useful ‘shorthand’, they were more often than not lacking a deep understanding of the actual science behind them. Alex concluded that, overall, the French left around 1900 tried to use science, and especially ideas of time, to safeguard their revolutionary goals while also defending itself against the accusation of uselessly dreaming rather than engaging in meaningful reformist change in the present.

In his comment, Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) reminded the audience that thinking about time was central to the way we understand politics, and therefore a very appealing subject. By including one author from the political right, Emile posited, Alex had made us think especially about what was interesting or perhaps unique about the left at this point in time. In his view, the left was in a state of failure, and therefore in particular need of utopias, where – even though the process was left unclear – the endpoint at least was not.

Emile also raised the point of work and labour. How far had the four novels Alex presented posed the question of the future of work and how should the left position itself as technology may be making work, and workers, ever less central to societies and identities? He furthermore suggested that a political compass might be imagined which did not span from left to right, but from the past (traditionally the focus of more conservative politics), via the present (with which liberalism was most concerned) to the future (which was the remit of the revolutionary left, and right). Lastly, Emile wondered what it might mean for our conceptualisations of time and politics that the current generation in the Western world did not necessarily envision a better future for themselves, while vast populations for example in Asia were still full of utopian dreams and aspirations.

The seminar ended with a lively question and answer session, which touched on a diverse range of topics, including the significance of the French empire; the role of the revolutionary right; notions of constant crises on the left; the place of gender in the utopias imagined by the four authors; and the effects of the Russian Revolution and the First World War on ideas of time.

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 CSMCH steering committee member.