Sarah Badcock on Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective

A seminar on revolution would be incomplete without some consideration of the Russian Revolution, one of the great world-historical events of the twentieth century. Fortunately, we were able to persuade Sarah Badcock (Nottingham) to come and talk to us about her “kaleidoscopic” perspectives on 1917. She gave a wonderful panorama of the Russian Revolutions in the plural. Anita Klingler was there to hear it.

Sarah began her talk by stating what it was she would be arguing against, namely the notion, still widespread, that revolutions ‘belong’ in capital cities and that all that spreads beyond the urban centres are ripples. Instead, she wanted to put forward the idea that an opposite dynamic is often at play, wherein the elites’ decisions and actions are shaped and determined by what is happening in the provincial hinterland. To this end, she said she would be examining structures of power and powerlessness during the Russian Revolutions of 1917, looking at people on the margins of society, and examining the case study of the food crisis. Her ultimate aim, she said, was to show why regional studies matter and what they can add to our understanding of history.

Sarah introduces the key themes of her presentation

As Sarah was primarily concerned with examining Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective, she first reminded her audience of the complexities of the term ‘peasant’. Far from denoting just one particular life experience, ‘peasant’ could apply to a multitude of different people living away from Russia’s urban centres, doing many different kinds of work, and could even include the identities of ‘worker’ and/or ‘soldier’ simultaneously.

The term ‘peasant’ therefore is an abstract generalisation and rather a blunt tool, while more specific regional studies can help us understand more individual experiences. Furthermore, Sarah made sure to draw the audience’s attention to the vast geography of the Russian landmass, which, though described as one national whole, is so varied that regional approaches may be a very useful way of explaining and understanding historical processes away from the urban centres of power.

Looking at the year 1917 and the local committees established all over the country once the Provisional Government had come to power in Petrograd, Sarah elucidated how it was the elected representatives who were accountable to the people and who were feeding back the people’s demands to the Provisional Government, while the Provisional Government – nominally the centre of power – often found itself unable to implement its decision, for example on land use, in the provinces. Power was thus not a one-way process: without appropriate means of implementing central decrees, local communities were empowered vis-à-vis the Provisional Government and often ignored or rejected their decisions.

However, Sarah was quick to point out that this empowerment was also imperfect and excluded certain marginalised groups along the lines of ethnicity, gender, as well as along a rural-urban divide, and, given the revolutionary context, access to weapons. Young, urban, ethnically Russian, armed males were the ones most empowered in this process.

Nevertheless, within the diffuse space and time of revolutions, marginalised groups were able to stake their claim to power. As an example, Sarah cited the case of the ‘soldiers’ wives’, who, when their husbands had been drafted into war, were granted an allowance from the state. By 1917, however, this allowance was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of daily life and the wives coalesced into an unmistakable collective voice, pressuring local governments all over Russia. Writing petitions in a noticeably empowered language, the ‘soldiers’ wives’ worked effectively outside the structures of power, but also within them. In Kazan province, the Soviet became concerned enough about public order to eventually meet the women’s demands. Power, therefore, did not only lie with the Provisional Government in Petrograd, but also with those who lived and took action in the provinces.

Another example Sarah gave was that of the food crisis. The efficient distribution of food across the vast Russian space was a defining challenge for Lenin’s new Bolshevik government. While some regions produced a surplus of food, sustenance was needed particularly in the cities as well as for the army. But surplus regions were unwilling to sell their surpluses to the state at below-market prices, thus exhibiting their power to defy the authorities. The central state failed to define the discourse surrounding food distribution and found itself unable, yet again, to implement its policies in the provinces.

Sarah added that it was most certainly not the case that local people simply failed to understand the official decrees and language of the revolution, but rather that they consciously chose to defy it and take power themselves to act as they saw fit. When Lenin, after asking his generals in October 1917 about the state of the army, learned that men were deserting in their thousands, Sarah argued, these individual decisions, taken on a mass scale, shaped Lenin’s ability, or rather inability, to negotiate favourable terms at Brest-Litovsk.

Thus, Sarah concluded that political elites often had their scope of action defined by the actions of ordinary, often provincial, people. Regional studies, which Sarah identified as a fresh and exciting field of research with plenty of potential for future work, can help us uncover these actions which had a forceful potential to upset traditional power structures.

In her short comment, Anna Lively (Edinburgh) acknowledged how regional approaches help complicate out understanding of the Russian Revolution, or indeed revolutions. She raised several historiographical points, asking whether the current ‘regional turn’ will lead to new narratives of the Russian revolutions. Furthermore, she wondered how we might reconcile regional studies, and the specific insights to be gained from them, with the increasing move towards global as well as transnational histories of this revolutionary period. She also contemplated the challenges of working with silences, for example of women, in the historical record.

Lastly, Anna encouraged Sarah and the audience to consider the problems with the notion of just one Revolution; the chronology of the Russian revolutions; as well as to what extent the involvement of many different ethnicities and several national independence movements complicate the notion of a ‘Russian’ revolution.

In the wide-ranging concluding Q&A session, audience members raised issues from the importance of transport links across the vast Russian spaces, to the influence of the Church, to the role of other religious groups, national movements, education and more.

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.

Courtney Campbell on women revolutionaries in Brazil

We kicked off the new semester with a closer look at the history of Brazil’s “rebellious” and “revolutionary” women. Courtney Campbell (Birmingham) was there to help us navigate this complex and understudied field, and her talk was a perfect way to escape from a particularly blustery Edinburgh evening. Joe Gazeley sends this report.

A picture of Dilma Rousseff when she was a young revolutionary.

In this exciting seminar, we got a sneak-peak at a developing project that explores the narratives surrounding revolutionary female figures in the Brazilian popular imagination. In particular, it looks at how these narratives often mirror the evolving national identity of Brazil itself

Courtney began by outlining the lack of space in Brazilian popular media for complex depictions of revolutionary women. She showed two clips from the film O Que É Isso, Companheiro? (Four Days In September), which tells the story of Vera Sílvia Magalhães, a member of the group Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (MR-8). She became publicly known due to her involvement in several high-profile bank robberies where her use of two .45-calibre pistols and a blonde wig earned her the nickname ‘Blonde 90’.

The poster for the film O Que E Isso Companheiro?

Whilst Magalhães was undoubtedly a strong character for whom revolution was a part of her life in the MR-8, she was also a slight and attractive woman who had to navigate a patriarchal society. In the film, the filmmakers could not reconcile these two aspects of her personality. Instead, they created the new character of the slight and girlish Renée to more easily fit the complexity of the real-life Magalhães into established stereotypes about women. For the purposes of the narrative presented in the film, Magalhães could be the fierce revolutionary or the feminine seductress but not both.

This example served as the jumping-off point for Courtney’s discussion of how legendary women in Brazilian popular culture have been interpreted over time, and how those interpretations shifted along with the developing idea of the Brazilian nation itself.

She explained that her project will be broken down into sections exploring these revolutionary women by category. These include:

    • Indigenous women such as the fictional Iracema who has been symbolically adopted as the mother of the Brazilian nation.
    • Enslaved women such as Chica de Silva who, in the popular imagination, escaped the restrictions of her place in society through marrying her slave-owner to achieve freedom and wealth
    • Religious rebels such as Jacobina Mentz Maurer, who led an unsuccessful revolt against the state and was seen by her followers as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
    • Soldiers and bandits such as Maria Bonita, a notorious bandit who fought the Brazilian police and authorities throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
    • Sex symbols such as the singer Carmen Miranda.
    • Politicians such as Dilma Rousseff, who was a part of the Marxist revolutionary group Comando de Libertação Nacional (COLINA). She was arrested and tortured by the state, before going on to a career in politics eventually serving as President of Brazil from 2011 until she was impeached in 2015.

Courtney also explained that initial impetus for this project was the story of German-Brazilian icon Olga Benário Prestes. She was a Jewish, German, Communist revolutionary who was trained by the COMINTERN in Moscow before being sent to Brazil with the leader of the Brazilian Communist Party, Luís Carlos Prestes, in 1934 to assist him with the anticipated uprising.

She and Prestes went into hiding together after the failure of their attempted revolution in 1935 and she was arrested in 1936. Pregnant with the child of Prestes, her lawyers attempted to prevent here extradition through arguing that her unborn child was a Brazilian citizen and therefore could not be extradited under any circumstances. However, this argument was rejected and in September 1936 she was extradited to Nazi Germany where she was imprisoned until the birth of her child, which was returned to the Prestes family after 14 months.

Olga was then transferred to a concentration camp in 1938 and then a death camp in 1942 where she was murdered by the Nazi regime. She went on to become a well-known figure in Brazil and East Germany where she has streets named after her and appeared on stamps as a hero of the revolution.

Courtney concluded her talk by considering the tragic nature of most of these stories of female revolutionaries who, despite their later status and acclaim, often suffered greatly and died violently after witnessing the failure of their political projects. This contrast between how these women are regarded now and how they were regarded in their own time is important in understanding their evolving legacy and the extent to which these legacies have been interwoven with the grand narrative of Brazilian nationhood itself.

Jake Blanc (Edinburgh) offered a short comment, which reflected on the importance of this work for the overall field, given the relative decline of work on Latin American revolutionary women from a high point in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Amongst other things, he suggested that Courtney’s innovative approach has much to contribute to a revival of work in this field. Using gender as a lens to take in the broad sweep of Brazilian history is an ambitious but important and necessary contribution. By looking at snapshots of these women’s lives, and then tracing the developing narratives that surround these women over time, it will be possible to compare their image in the popular imagination with the snapshot of their lives to see how they have been represented and for what purpose.

Joe Gazeley is a PhD student in Politics working on the historical foreign and security policy relationship between Mali and Europe. His research focuses on recontextualising the 2013 military intervention in Mali and moving beyond ideas of state weakness by exploring the historical agency of a supposedly ‘weak’ state within an extraverted foreign policy relationship. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Martina Reiterová looks back on her stay in Edinburgh

At the end of 2019, we hosted Martina Reiterová, a doctoral student from Charles University in Prague. In this farewell blog post, she tells us about what she got up to while she was here.

The main purpose of my two-month research stay in Edinburgh was to gather and study archival materials connected to the Scottish side of my research project on the organisation An Comunn Gaidhealach and its activities at the turn of 19th century.

Martina hard at work in the National Library of Scotland

I gained the most from two archival institutions – the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections (CRC). The materials I focused on were mostly of an individual nature, especially correspondence. In particular, I have uncovered “behind the scenes” interpersonal relations that played a role in the formation of the public image of the Gaelic language movement at the time. Such insights are extremely valuable as they allow me to go beyond a discourse analysis of printed sources.

Probably the most interesting material I found were the minute books of An Comunn’s councils. Since these have been donated to the NLS very recently, almost nobody knows that the National Library is in possession of the archives of An Comunn. I was not aware of the existence of this material and its availability until very late. I discovered them only during the last week of my stay in Edinburgh.

An invitation to a Gaelic event in 1891

For this reason – and the fact that I was not allowed to take pictures of the materials – I plan to come back to Edinburgh later this year for a week or more in order to finish the study of these documents.

As regards the sources stored in the CRC, there were two very interesting archival collections, both of which are potentially important for my research.

First, The Carmichael-Watson Collection, which consists of papers belonging to Alexander Carmichael, the most influential Scottish folklorist of the second half of 19th century, and to his family members. Secondly, the Collection of Professor Donald Mackinnon, which does not unfortunately contain personal archival material, only lecture notes, and religious texts and songs. Even though I expected these collections to be richer in personal documentation, they nevertheless contained significant sources for my research.

In addition to collecting my sources, I had great opportunities to talk about my topic with various scholars in the field, especially Rob Dunbar, the Chair of Celtic Languages, Literature, History and Antiquities in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. Unfortunately, I did not manage to visit scholars at other the University of Glasgow and the University of St Andrews. I hope to make these connections in the near future, potentially at the 3rd World Congress of Scottish Literatures, held this year in Prague.

Overall, then, my stay in Edinburgh has brought an extra dimension to my dissertation project. Not only have I widened my primary source base, I also have a better understanding of the peculiarity of the Gaelic language movement in the broader European context of the second half of the 19th century. This, combined with the student life experience and excellent study facilities at Edinburgh, made this an extremely rewarding trip.

Martina Reiterová was a Visiting Research Postgraduate Student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology and the CSMCH in October and November 2019. She is a third-year doctoral student at the Charles University in Prague. Martina has studied in Prague, Budapest and Paris. She is conducting research into the formation of collective representation at the turn of the 20th century in the Celtic countries under the influence of local revivalist movements. During her time at Edinburgh, she did archival work, particularly in the university special collections and the National Library of Scotland. 

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.

CSMCH Discussion Group on Spanish history and politics

In the light of the upcoming elections in Spain on 10 November and the recent exhumation of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, postgraduate steering committee members Marina Moya Moreno and Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz organised a CSMCH Discussion Group on historical memory in Spain. The discussion opened with a screening of the award-winning documentary The Silence of Others. Iker sends this report of the event. 

In recent times in Europe, the painful and troubled past has been at the centre of many political narratives. Nostalgia for a better past, or troubled relations with the recent post-dictatorial past in Eastern Europe, has somehow darkened European optimism since 2008. Spain has been no exception to this trend, and from 2010 there has been a growing social movement seeking historical justice for the victims of Francoism.

Given recent developments in Spanish politics, Marina and I decided to organise this discussion group to highlight and discuss what has been happening. Coincidentally, our event took place just one day after Franco’s remains were exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen, one of the biggest legacies of post-Franco dictatorship. Given this context, the initial discussion was on the rise of the far-right party Vox, which remembers proudly both the Civil War and the dictatorship as a struggle against the enemies of Spain, mainly the Communists and the “independentists”.

After that, we screened the documentary ‘The Silence of Others’, released last year. The documentary explores the struggle of the victims of Franco’s regime, who seek recognition to this day. Filmed over six years, the director follows survivors of the dictatorship as they organise the ‘Querella Argentina’ (Argentinian Complaint) and confront the ‘Pacto de Olvido’ (‘Pact of Forgetting’) in a country that remains divided after four decades of democracy.

The film explores three kind of victims: people who were looking for missing family members who were shot in the Civil War or immediately after, and who were buried in mass graves all over Spain; people who were tortured during the dictatorship and seek justice toward the people who tortured them; and finally, the case of the stolen babies, a practice which continued after the end of  the dictatorship, but which originated  during the civil war. Inspired by Nazi eugenics, it was premised on the belief that children born from communist families were sick and could only be made healthy by taking them away from their families and educating them in the values of the Spanishness (Hispanidad).

The documentary screening was followed by a discussion of some of the elements it covered. The first thing discussed was the issue of victims. The documentary explores how justice and memory have been denied to victims. The pact of forgetting approved in 1977 sought to close off any possibility of looking for justice. Since then, this denial of judicial redress for the victims has held firm, so that victims had to seek justice in Argentina.

One of the points that was raised by the participants was how the documentary emphasises the emotional significance for victims of achieving justice, and how the Spanish experience is not unique. There are other examples in other parts of Europe and the world (i.e. Argentine, Chile, Peru, Poland, Italy, etc).

Marina Moya Moreno introduces the film ‘The Silence of Others’

A second problem raised by the documentary that informed our discussion was the absence of attention to the positions of Spanish political parties on historical memory. While there is a strong focus on how the People’s Party (PP) has always opposed any historical justice, others parties like the Socialist party (PSOE), Citizens (Ciudadanos) and Podemos, were totally absent from this documentary. The documentary lacked a deeper representation of what other parts of Spanish society thought about historical justice. While some of the families’ victims didn’t want to “remove” the past, the documentary portrayed their concerns as a lonely battle against state and society.

Finally, we explored how other European countries have faced post-dictatorship memories. The main example was Germany. In the documentary, the main characters often cited Germany as an example of the kind of managing of historical memory they would wish for Spain. However, as some people in the audience pointed out, the process was not as easy in Germany as the documentary seemed to suggest, and it did not include any reference to what is happening today with the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland).

In conclusion, our discussion underlined how citizens of democratic states that have suffered from dictatorship manage memory and justice in post-dictatorship contexts. As many of us who are Europeans were reminded, our troubled past needs to be continually reflected upon and dealt with in order to construct a more democratic and inclusive continent.

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.

Introducing Martina Reiterová

The CSMCH regularly hosts visiting postgraduate students. This year, we’re very pleased to be welcoming Martina Reiterová, who will be spending two months with us pursuing her research on Celtic revivalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this post, she tells us more about herself and her work.

Thank you for having me – I am very excited to be part of your Centre, even though it is only for two months.

I am starting my third year of a Ph.D. at Charles University, Prague, under the supervision of Jaroslav Ira, assistant professor at the Seminar of General and Comparative History. This is also where I completed my undergraduate studies. For my Master’s, I was awarded an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to study at Eötvos Loránd University in Budapest and the EHESS in Paris.

This autumn, I am a Visiting Research Postgraduate Student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh, thanks to the CSMCH director, Emile Chabal, who kindly agreed to supervise me. My visit to Scotland is being funded by the Anglo Czech Educational Fund.

The main objective of my research is to explore the process of formation of collective representation at the turn of the 20th century in the Celtic countries under the influence of local revivalist movements. I compare the particular case studies of Breton, Irish, Scottish and Welsh revivalist groups and their representational strategies to reveal how forms of collective representation can be influenced.

This rather challenging project has brought me to Edinburgh as part of a series of study stays I am undertaking. At the end of last year, I did a research internship in the Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, and in May, I also spent a couple of weeks in Aberystwyth in Wales at the National Library, mostly for collecting my sources.

As for the Scottish side of my research project, I am focusing on An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Highland Association) and its activities. It was founded in 1891 with the objectives of cultivating, teaching and promoting Gaelic language, literature, music, and culture. It also launched the annual gathering we all know as Mód, a festival of Gaelic language and literature which offers awards for the best Gaelic performances and texts.

In this respect, Edinburgh is a perfect place for discovering historical sources, most of them in the National Library of Scotland. An substantial part of An Comunn‘s publications are already available online, which is why I will be focusing on the study of unpublished sources, mostly personal archival materials of An Comunn‘s representatives and members.

Edinburgh’s own Special Collections are also an amazing source of information for me and many other researchers. I am excited about having an opportunity to discuss my topic with experts in the field in the Celtic and Scottish studies department, and I hope to uncover additional sources for my research.

I also hope to learn more about the more general Scottish historical context, which is necessary for understanding An Comunn‘s activities. The wide range of Scottish history books in Edinburgh will help me immensely in this task.

Last but not least, I am thrilled to be allowed to participate in the different seminars at Edinburgh, all of which help me to widen my understanding of historical research, in a thematic as well as methodological perspective. This experience is very beneficial to my personal development too.

In short, I am grateful to spend this rather intensive and packed time in Edinburgh. I hope to be able to transmit some of the inspiration from here to Prague as well – and I would be  happy to repay you for your hospitality, especially to those interested in Central European History and research opportunities in Prague. Please, do not hesitate to get in touch with me during my time in Edinburgh for a chat, or even afterwards at a distance!

NB. Martina’s e-mail address is

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.

Call for papers: Ecstatic States of the Body and Social Group Cohesion

This year’s CSMCH-IASH Fellow, Kristoff Kerl, is organising a conference in March 2020 as part of his fellowship. The call for papers is below – please circulate it widely!

Ecstatic Communitarization/Sociation: Ecstatic States of the Body and Social Group Cohesion from the 19th Century to the present

Having sex, using intoxicating substances, listening and dancing to music, making sports, driving fast, experiencing pain, getting into religious trance or committing acts of violence – all these body practices have been used by different groups of actors in different times, at varying places and in manifold and changing ways to create and experience ecstatic states of the body. Doing this, they aimed at the intensification of emotional and bodily experiences, at transcending the self or just at having a relaxing and joyful leisure time.

Furthermore, the practices of getting ecstatic and the experiences of ecstatic/intoxicated states were in manifold ways linked to processes of sociation and communitarisation and, thus, contributed to the shaping of social groups, milieus and societies. For instance, during the Third Reich, the Nazis used techniques and events to create states of mass ecstasy that aimed at the strengthening of political allegiance and the ‚Volksgemeinschaft;‘ during the 1960s and 1970s, Western counterculturists conceived of ecstatic states as liberating the body and the self from the shackles of western capitalist societies and they drew on manifold practices of getting ecstatic in their striving to create new forms of society; and in milieus such as the Burschenschaften (student fraternities) drinking alcohol has very often constituted an important tool of male bonding and of consolidating group cohesion.

However, it is not only the (common) experiencing of ecstatic states that constitutes an important factor of communitarisation/sociation, but also the (shared) opposition towards (specific) forms of intoxication and ecstasy. For instance, the antagonism towards sex, drugs and rock ‘n‘ roll was an important driving force in the context of the conservative turn that took place in the United States during the late 1960s and that contributed to the election of Richard Nixon.

It is the aim of the workshop to shed light on the relationship between ecstasy/intoxication, the users’ self and processes of sociation/communitarisation. Possible topics for papers presented at the workshop are, amongst others:

    • Ecstasy and social cohesion: How did common experiences of ecstasy/intoxication contribute to the shaping of social groups and societies? In which way did the shared antagonism towards certain kinds of ecstasy/intoxication constitute a factor in processes of strengthening the sense of belonging to a social group?
    • Ecstasy/intoxication and societal conditions: How did different social actors link ecstatic states of the body to social conditions, for instance, by conceiving of ecstasy/intoxication as a means that contributed to social change or the conservation of social conditions? How did different political regimes draw on ecstatic states to stabilize the social order and, thus, their political power?
    • Ecstasy and social categories such as class, race, gender, (dis-)ability or age: How did social categories such as class, race and gender shaped the experiences of ecstasy? How did the doing and experiencing of ecstasy/intoxication contribute to the stabilization or undermining of social and cultural stratifications and power relations?
    • Settings and spaces of ecstasy: Which role did certain spaces and their design play for the practices of getting ecstatic? For example, how did material and spatial arrangements influence the creation and shaping of mass ecstasies?
    • Objects and technologies: What kind of objects and technologies were used to create or to prevent certain states of (mass) ecstasy?

Please send proposals (max. one page) and a short biographical note to the organizer of the workshop, Kristoff Kerl ( Deadline for applications is December 15, 2019. The workshop will take place at the University of Edinburgh on March 26, 2020.