Fascism as a recurring possibility: Zeev Sternhell, the anti-Enlightenment, and the politics of an intellectual history of modernity
by Tommaso Giordani
Examining the development of Zeev Sternhell’s work yields a precise impression: that of a movement from the particular to the general, from an intellectual history rooted in precise contexts to increasingly broad studies dealing with larger and less narrowly contextualised traditions of thought.
His first monograph, published in 1972, was titled Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français and examined the role of Barrès in transforming a French nationalism which was originally “Jacobin, open, grounded in the doctrine of natural rights” into an “organic nationalism, postulating a physiological determinism”. In the decade between 1978 and 1989, Sternhell publishes the three works which created his reputation as one of the world’s most important historians of fascism: Ni droite ni gauche, La droite révolutionnaire, and Naissance de l’idéologie fasciste. Though still maintaining a focus on France, these studies—especially the last one—cannot be reduced to contributions to French history. They are instead an attempt to outline a theory of fascism centred on the importance of the ideological element, something which naturally brought the Israeli historian and his collaborators beyond the borders of the hexagon.
Following this interpretative line, we can identify a third phase of Sternhell’s work starting from the 1996 collective volume The intellectual revolt against liberal democracy. Having first moved beyond the examination of French nationalism towards a more general theory of fascism, in this third phase Sternhell leaves the question of fascist ideology behind, embedding it in a larger narrative embracing the last three centuries of European intellectual history and revolving around the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas. The high point is represented by his last and most ambitious study, Les Anti-Lumières, in which the Israeli historian traces the development of what he calls a “different modernity”, consisting in a “comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views”.
There is obviously a great deal of truth in this way of reading the Israeli historian’s trajectory, especially given the substantial growth of the materials treated and the enlargement of both chronology and geography. And yet, there is an important way in which this reading is wrong, namely if it is taken to claim that the large, meta-historical categories of “Enlightenment” and “Anti-Enlightenment” are inductive generalisations, synthesising decades of work in intellectual history and emerging from Sternhell’s previous studies. A summary look at Sternhell first book reveals, instead, that these categories have informed his work since the beginning.
Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français is, as we have pointed out, not a simple intellectual biography, but a work which sees the significance of Barrès through the wider lens of a study of the transformation of French nationalism. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that even the framework of French nationalism is a very reductive description of Sternhell’s perspective, for it is a nationalism which is embedded in a wider current of ideas, both spatially and temporally. Spatially, Barrès participates in a tradition of thought which is continental. He is cast by Sternhell much more as a European than as a Frenchman. Barrès is “the child of his century: Baudelaire and Wagner fascinate him, he calls himself—and is—a disciple of Taine and Renan; he has read Nietzsche, Gobineau, and Dostoevsky. For his first trilogy, he claims to have been inspired by Schopenhauer, by Fichte, and by Hartmann”. Temporally, this continental tradition to which Barrès belongs is cast as deploying itself over a broad chronology, as can be evinced by Sternhell’s insistence on its similarities with “another movement of revolt against the status quo: pre-1830, post-revolutionary romanticism”. Without denying the decisive role of European fin de siècle culture, Sternhell finds common traits between this “neo-romanticism” and the older movement. In both cases, we have a “resurgence of irrational values”, the “cult of sentiment and instinct” and, finally, “the substitution of the ‘organic’ explanation of the world to the ‘mechanical’ one”. Even if the connections are merely sketched, it is clear that the temporality in which Sternhell places his object is that of modernity. Barrès, in other words, is significant not just as a French nationalist, but as a member of a tradition marked by the “systematic rejection of the values inherited from the eighteenth century and from the French Revolution”.
Granted, the term “Anti-Enlightenment” does not appear in this work, and comparison of this initial sketch of the tradition with later versions yields some differences, such as a greater role he later ascribes to German and Italian historicism, as well as a tendency to read this current of ideas in an increasingly static and monolithic way. And yet, beyond these small differences, substantial similarities emerge: the broad chronology, the continental extension, and the dichotomous division of the last two centuries of European intellectual history into the two opposing camps of the Enlightenment and its enemies.
This dichotomy informs virtually the entirety of Sternhell’s works in the history of political ideas. We see it at work in his trilogy on fascist ideology, and it is subtly yet unmistakeably active in his analysis of Zionism, in which Jewish nationalism is characterised, inter alia, as a “Herderian” response to the “challenge of emancipation”. Underlying historical enquiry on particular political ideologies, in other words, is a theory of European modernity revolving around the opposition between what Sternhell came to label the universalistic “Franco-Kantian Enlightenment” and its particularistic opponents.
Methodologically, the advantages of this approach are many: it allows the writing of a profoundly diachronic history of ideas, capable of embracing a multitude of contexts and spaces, and in theory able to trace the evolution of traditions of thought without losing sight of the underlying continuities. At the same time, various critics have underlined its limits. Sternhell has been accused of not having learnt the lessons of postmodernism, and of reconstructing the intellectual history of European modernity in the form of a “Manichean struggle” between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. General accusations of Manicheanism, approximation, and teleology are, in fact, amongst the most common directed against Sternhell. Shlomo Sand gives a more precise way to consider the limits of this approach, identifying the problem in Sternhell’s use of “narrow, static, unhistorical definitions”, that is, of meta-historical categories.
Here we come to the crux of the question: Sternhell’s way of proceeding is indeed marked by the use of categories of analysis which transcend the contexts in which historical actors developed their thought. Is this, however, enough to methodologically invalidate his analysis? The use of categories transcending narrow historical contextualisation is a necessity for any work with diachronic ambitions. Tracing the development of any tradition of thought over time, in other words, implies the use of descriptions and definitions which would have appeared bizarre to the thinkers of the time. The employment of a meta-language, and the anachronism, teleology, and de-contextualisation that come with it, are, to a point, a necessity of any genealogy, of any historical enquiry which aims to do more than simply take a synchronic snapshot of the past. Therefore, it seems incorrect to identify the problem in the mere use of categories such as Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment.
The problem lies not in the mere presence of these meta-historical tools of analysis, but, rather, in the way in which Sternhell has come to employ them over time. As we have seen, in Maurice Barrès the anti-Enlightenment tradition was sketched with a certain nuance, insisting on its internal transformations over time, and paying attention to the crucial distinction between the work of an individual and its reception. Over time, however, much of this nuance disappears, and passages from his later works do seem, at times, to interpret two centuries of European intellectual history through the prism of what is, after all, a not too dynamic dichotomy between French universalistic culture and German romantic particularism.
Take Sternhell’s analysis of Georges Sorel’s revision of Marxism at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. For the Israeli historian, it constitutes a crucial step towards the creation of fascist ideology. According to him, the key element of Sorelian revisionism is the destruction of the connection between the industrial working class and the revolution, something capable of altering “Marxism to such an extent that it immediately transformed it into a neutral weapon of war that could be used against the bourgeois order not only by the proletariat but by society as a whole”. Sorelian revisionism thus consists in the removal of Marxian categories of analysis based on social antagonisms grounded in the positioning in the productive structure of society, which are then replaced by antagonisms grounded in an opposition to the decadence of bourgeois civilisation. As Sternhell puts it, “history, for Sorel, was finally not so much a chronicle of class warfare as an endless struggle against decadence”. It follows that if the proletariat is unable to fulfil its struggle against bourgeois decadence, there is no reason why another historical agent, such as the national community, should not engage in the same struggle. The result is fascism.
The problem with this reading is that, despite its apparent plausibility, it is historically inaccurate. Real Sorelian revisionism consists in a number of texts published in the 1890s in which the main thrust is epistemological and social scientific more than political. Its consequences are opposite to those drawn by Sternhell. Animated by the desire “show to sceptics that… socialism is worthy of belonging to the modern scientific movement”, Sorelian revisionism revolved around three main points: (1) the refusal of historical determinism; (2) the rejection of economic determinism; and consequently, (3) a vision of Marxism not as a predictive social science but as the intellectual articulation of the historical experience of the workers’ movement. Even if this revisionism is much more concerned with Marxism as a social science than with Marxism as a political project, its political uptake is not the breaking of the connection between proletariat and revolution, but its strengthening. A Marxism which renounces its predictive capacity and the very idea of a necessary historical development cannot but evolve into what Sorel later called a “theory of the proletariat”. The removal of historical necessity means that the transition to socialism can only be yielded by the agency of the revolutionary subject—the proletariat. It should thus not be surprising that, as early as 1898, Sorel insists on working class autonomy, arguing that “the entire future of socialism resides in the autonomous development workers’ unions”.
The revision of Marxism does not exhaust Sorel’s production and there are parts of his trajectory, and of those of some of his disciples, which are more in line with Sternhell’s analysis. And yet, the fact remains that this analysis completely overlooks contexts which are crucial to Sorelian revisionism, resulting in an historically inaccurate picture. The point is not merely to underline the many substantial imprecisions which characterise Sternhell’s reading of Sorelian revisionism, but to emphasise how these misreadings derive directly from the indiscriminate use of the abovementioned meta-historical categories. “Marxism” writes Sternhell “was a system of ideas still deeply rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century. Sorelian revisionism replaced the rationalist, Hegelian foundations of Marxism with Le Bon’s new vision of human nature, with the anti-Cartesianism of Bergson, with the Nietzschean cult of revolt, and with Pareto’s most recent discoveries in political sociology”. But is it plausible to speak of a rejection of Hegel for someone so profoundly influenced by Antonio Labriola, who represented one of Europe’s main Hegelian traditions? Is it correct to speak of the “Nietzschean cult of revolt” for a figure who wrote over 600 texts and yet discusses Nietzsche virtually only in a handful of pages in the Reflections on violence? Is it historically acceptable to suggest proximity to Paretian elitism for a political thinker who wrote vitriolic pages against the leadership of French socialism by bourgeois intellectuals?
These misreadings derive from the fact that Sternhell’s dualistic approach, if taken rigidly, cannot make space for Sorelian revisionism, for that would imply accepting the possibility of a Marxism capable of incorporating elements of romanticism without ipso facto becoming a sworn enemy of the Enlightenment. But Marxism, for Sternhell, is “rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century”, and any deviation from this particular philosophical outlook is to be classified as anti-Enlightenment thought. Strictly speaking, for Sternhell, Sorelian revisionism is a betrayal. But here are the limits of Sternhell’s rigid application of his categories, limits which emerge not only in relation to Sorel, but also to Marxism more in general. Marxism is, from its beginnings, a politico-philosophical tradition which is transversal to the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. The mere suggestion of reading a tradition derived from Hegel and Marx as in opposition to German romanticism shows the dangers of overreliance on these categories. The appropriate historical context for understanding Sorelian revisionism is the battle, internal to Marxism, between positivistic and humanistic interpretations of Marx’s work. Against Sorel’s insistence on the impossibility of historical laws there is Lafargue who advocates their existence; against Antonio Labriola who struggles to free historical materialism from positivism there is Enrico Ferri who goes in the opposite direction. To miss this transversality of the Marxist tradition cannot but yield serious mistakes. How would Sternhell judge Gramsci’s claim that Marxism is “the continuation of German and Italian idealism, which in Marx had been contaminated by naturalistic and positivistic incrustations”? Would he see a voluntaristic cult of revolt in the affirmation that “the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man”?
Why, in the face of much criticism, did Sternhell never even go close to admitting the risks of a certain way of employing an approach based on meta-historical categories? Why did he not only stick with it, but began using it in an increasingly rigid and passionate manner? To answer these questions, a preliminary point must be clarified. If the Enlighenment/anti-Enlightenment dualism is the conceptual centre of Sternhell’s work, its existential core is the question of fascism. Orphaned and turned refugee by anti-Semitic violence in his native Poland during World War II, Sternhell has always been very clear on the fact that for him the study of fascism went far beyond purely academic interest. Anyone who has read the pages he has written will be aware of the urgency of his prose, of the passionate tone of warning which permeates most of them, especially those on fascism. “Thinking about fascism” he wrote in 2008 “is not a reflection on a regime or a movement, but a reflection on the risks that might be involved for a whole civilisation when it rejects the notion of universal values, when it substitutes historical relativism for universalism, and substitutes various communitarian values for the autonomy of the individual”. Aside from clarifying the relationship between fascism and anti-Enlightenment in Sternhell’s thought—with the former political option becoming possible only in an environment in which the latter’s ideas are present—this quotation sheds much light on Sternhell’s insistence on the Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment duality.
To frame fascism as a political possibility enabled by the existence of certain anti-Enlightenment ideas means adopting a view of fascism as a recurring possibility of modernity. Fascism is thus not an abstract and a-historical ideal type, but neither is it an historical particularity inextricably linked to the specific, and unrepeatable, conditions of interwar Europe. To embed fascism in a theory of modernity, in other words, allows one to see it as a living political culture, perhaps at times dormant, but constantly capable of making the leap from cultural contestation to political project, at least as long as the particularistic ideas of the “alternative modernity” of the anti-Enlightenment continue to inform European intellectual life. Sternhell’s dismissal of the decisive role of World War I and his insistence that the fascist synthesis was already achieved in the belle époque substantiate this reading.
The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment framing, in short, stems from the fiercely held conviction that fascism is not a thing of the past, but of the present. It is a framing, thus, that at once emerges from the need for public engagement and simultaneously enables a mode of public intervention which could not as easily be sustained through a narrower contextualism or a taxonomical approach. Recent years have brought, together with the electoral victories of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, a flurry of analyses on the return of fascism. Whether through taxonomies, historical parallels between the present and the interwar period, or analyses of fascist mentality, this literature has been animated by the same conviction that has long animated Zeev Sternhell’s work: that fascism is not a thing of the past. Eschewing these strategies, however, Sternhell has long pioneered a different way of thinking about fascism: not an historical particularity, not a mentality, not a list of criteria that regimes must possess, but instead a constant potentiality of European modernity, embedded in two centuries of anti-Enlightenment thought.
By way of conclusion, a tentative answer to the obvious question: from where does Sternhell’s conviction that fascism is always possible emerge? It is true that the defeat of 1945 has not been the historical caesura one unreflectively imagines, and that fascism has continued to exist, in less ideologically assertive forms, in many countries of southern Europe. At the same time, before the recent, possibly short-lived, resurgence of the fascist spectre, academic analyses of fascism were rarely animated by this urgent conviction of its relevance. The answer to this conundrum is to be found in Sternhell’s political engagement in his country, Israel. In March 1978, together with other reservists of the Israeli army, Sternhell signed an open letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, warning that a policy “which prefers settlements beyond the Green Line to terminating the historic conflict” was a dangerous one, which could “harm the Jewish-democratic character of the state”. The letter established the organisation Peace Now, in which Sternhell continued to be active for the rest of his life.
Over the years, the evolution of the political situation made the positions Sternhell supported increasingly minoritarian. But the Israeli historian did not back down. On the contrary, he continued to put forward his positions. This earned him a pipe bomb attack at his home in Jerusalem in 2008, from which he emerged substantially unscathed. Flyers offering over 1 million shekels to whoever killed a member of Peace Now found near his home left little doubt as to the motivations behind it. After Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, Sternhell became increasingly vocal, denouncing what he saw as a dangerous evolution of Israeli society. In his many public interventions, he uses the language with which we have been dealing here, that of the anti-Enlightenment. He saw the rise of the Israeli right as that of a “power-driven national movement, negating human rights, and rejecting universal rights, liberalism and democracy”. In a 2014 interview in which he denounced signs of fascism in Israeli society, he framed that political option in familiar terms: as a “war against enlightenment and against universal values”. In 2013, he was called as an expert witness in a defamation case put forward by the nationalist association Im Tirzu against some activists who had labelled it as fascist. In an exchange with Im Tirzu’s lawyer, we see, again, the same language: “…they are not conservatives, but revolutionary conservatives. What they seek is a cultural revolution. ‘Neo-Zionism’ as they define it is an anti-utilitarian, anti-western, anti-rational cultural revolution.”
Examples of this kind could be multiplied, but the point should by now be clear. Certain methodological options may seem puzzling when judged uniquely by the standards of academic practice, but the rationale for their employment may become more understandable when they are seen as connected to a concrete historical situation. The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment dichotomy, with all the limits that Sternhell’s passionate use involved, is one such case: it must, at least partially, be seen as emerging from the imperative of engagement. Still, Sternhell’s historical works are not political pamphlets. Even if sometimes they possess the urgent tone of that genre of writing, they remain contributions to the study of European intellectual history, and should be judged also according to those standards. And yet, the separation of these two layers, engagement and scholarship, is not easy and, to a point, not desirable. To effect this separation would be to misunderstand the work of a scholar for whom the two were intertwined. As he argued in the most articulate defence of his method, “through contextualism, particularism, and linguistic relativism, in concentrating on what is specific and unique and denying the universal, one necessarily finds oneself on the side of anti-humanism and historical relativism”.
The author would like to thank Or Rosenboim for discussions on the Israeli context and for help with translations from Hebrew. All other translations from French and Italian sources are the author's. Research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under Grant Agreement No. 757873 (project BETWEEN THE TIMES).
 Zeev Sternhell, Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français , 3rd ed. (Paris: Fayard, 2016), 251.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 1.
Sternhell, Maurice Barrès, 56.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 41.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel. Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 12.
 David D. Roberts, ‘How not to think about Fascism and ideology, intellectual antecedents and historical meaning’, Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 2 (2000): 189.
 Shlomo Sand, ‘L’idéologie Fasciste en France’, L’Esprit, September 1983, 159.
 Zeev Sternhell, Maia Asheri, and Mario Sznajder, The Birth of Fascist Ideology. From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution., trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 37.
 Ibid., 38
 Sorel to Croce, 20/12/1895, in Georges Sorel, ‘Lettere di Georges Sorel a Benedetto Croce’, La Critica 25 (1927): 38.
 Georges Sorel, ‘L’avenir socialiste des syndicats’, L’humanité Nouvelle 2 (1898): 445.
 Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 24.
 Antonio Gramsci, ‘La rivoluzione contro il Capitale’, Avanti! 24 November 1917.
 Zeev Sternhell, ‘How to Think about Fascism and Its Ideology’, Constellations 15, no. 3 (2008): 280.
 Open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, March 1978, https://peacenow.org/entry.php?id=2230#.YK5yjKGEY2w
 Zeev Sternhell “Does Israel still need democracy”, Haaretz, 17 November 2011
 Gidi Weitz, ‘Signs of fascism in Israel reached new peak during Gaza op, says renowned scholar’, Haaretz, 13 August 2014.
 Oren Persico, “Analyzing with an ax”, Ha-ain ha-shvi’it, 12 May 2013, https://www.the7eye.org.il/62652
 Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, 35.
by Gregory Claeys
Is utopianism an "ideology", in the loose sense of a coherent system of ideas, and if so where does it sit on the traditional spectrum of right-to-left ideas? Or does the "ism" merely describe a process of dreaming or speculating about ideal societies which in principle can never exist, as common language definitions usually imply? The former conception is relatively unproblematic, if too easily reduced to a psychological principle and then deemed deviant or pathological. Presuming the "ism" to imply the quest to attain or implement "utopia", however, we still encounter a vast number of often contradictory definitions, ranging from the common-language "impossible", "unrealistic", or without reasonable grounds to be supposed attainable, to "idealist" (as opposed to "realist"), to the "no-where" of Thomas More's original text, Utopia (1516), and its attendant pun, the "good place", or eutopia. Much confusion has resulted from inadequately separating these various definitions, two particular aspects of which, the non-existent/unreachable, and the realisable, are seemingly contradictory.
The "ism" is often divided today into three "faces", as Lyman Tower Sargent first termed them: utopian social theory, literary utopias and dystopias, and utopian practice. This typology is shared by another leading theorist, Krishan Kumar. On this reckoning, one definition of utopian ideology would simply be utopian social theory, regardless of how we define the destination or ideal society itself, and whether it purports to be realistic or realisable, or remains an imagined ideal or norm which serves to inform action but which cannot be in principle be attained, because it continues to move forward even as its original vision comes to fruition.
This approach allows us to describe every major ideology as harbouring its own utopia, or ideal type of self-realisation, while acknowledging the brand with varying degrees of reluctance. Modern liberalism, usually averse to the utopian label where it seemingly implies human perfectibility, might be supposed to entertain an ideal framed around free trade, private property, increasing opulence, and democracy. Its most extreme form lies in the promise of eventual universal opulence. But it can extend further leftwards, for instance with the self-proclaimed utopian John Stuart Mill, towards socialism and much greater equality, as well as rightwards, with less state action to remedy inequality, as in libertarianism or neoliberalism. Modern conservatism differs little from this, having yoked itself to commercial progress in the nineteenth century, though it sometimes retains deference to traditional elites, and greater aversion to democracy. Fascism certainly possesses utopian qualities, some rooted in the past and others in ideas of the future. Socialism inherits the Morean paradigm, with communism closer to More, and social democracy to liberalism. A specifically utopian ideology is thus more or less linked to More's paradigm of social equality, common property, substantial communal living, contempt for luxury, and a general practice of civic virtue. This can be termed utopian republicanism, and its origins traced to Spartan, Cretan, Platonic theory and Christian monastic practice. Within this typology, to advert to Karl Mannheim's famous distinction in Ideology and Utopia (1936), we can also speak of utopianism having generally a critical function, and ideology a defensive one, vis-à-vis the status quo and class interest. This involves a less neutral definition of ideology, not a system of ideas as such, but much closer to Marx's definition in the German Ideology (1845-6).
These approaches to the utopian components in major ideologies are perfectly serviceable. They help to tease out the ultimate aspirations of systems of political ideas, as well as to reveal their whimsicalities and shortcomings. They give us a distinctive sense of More's paradigm of utopian republicanism, and of the continuity of one strand of political thought from Plato to Marx and beyond. They also reveal the more prominent role often played by fiction in the expression of utopianism compared to more overtly political ideologies.
Nonetheless existing accounts of utopianism often leave us with two problems. Firstly, they do not reconcile the differences between the imaginary and realistic aspects of utopian ideals by adequately differentiating between the main functions of the concept. Secondly, they do not allow us to consider what the three "faces" share in common by way of content, or what the common goal of utopian movements, practices, and ideas alike might consist in. Let us briefly consider how these two problems might be solved.
Clearly ideal societies portrayed in literature and projected in social and political theory share much in common. Both are imaginary and textual, and sometimes only a thin veneer of fiction separates literary from theoretical forms of portraying ideas, particularly where "novels of ideas" are concerned. The chief definitional problem arises here from including the third, practical component. How should we categorise the content of utopian practice? That is, how do we describe what happens when people think their way of life actually approximates to utopia, rather than merely aspiring to it or dreaming of the benefits thereof? And how does this relate to the fictional and theoretical forms of utopianism? Utopian practice is usually conceived as communitarianism, or the foundation of intentional communities of mostly unrelated people who share common ideals. But it can also refer to other attempts to institutionalise the practices we associate with utopianism, most notably common or collectively-managed property, for example co-operation, or the promotion of solidarity in the workplace. Where the claim is made, we must cede to its proponents that what they practice is indeed a variant on the "good society", because they feel this is the case. That is to say, after a fashion, they have achieved, if only temporarily or conditionally, or in a relatively limited, perhaps "heterotopian", space, "utopia".
There is no contradiction between utopia possessing this realistic element and also implying the unrealisable if we concede that the concept serves a number of diverse purposes. It has historically had two main functions. One is to permit visionary social theory by hinting at possible futures on the basis of returning to lost or imaginary pasts, or extrapolating present trends to their logical conclusions. Once images of the Golden Age and Christian paradise served this purpose of providing an anchoring function, reminding us of what our original condition might have looked like, if for no other reason than to mock the follies and pretensions of the present and the fatuousness of any prospect of returning to a condition of natural liberty or primitive virtue. But from the late 18th century onwards utopianism began to turn towards future-oriented perfectibility, still conceived in terms of virtue, stability and social harmony, but now also more frequently linked to science and technology. So for the later modern period we can call this tendency towards imaginative projection the futurological function. By permitting us to think in terms of epochs and grand changes, the process allows us to burst asunder the bubbles of everyday life and push back the boundaries of the possible. It usually consists of one of two components. It may offer a blueprint, constitution, or programme which might actually be implemented. Or it may produce an image which allows us to criticise the present, but recedes like a mirage as we approach it, such that while we may realise past utopias we also constantly move the conceptual goal-posts, and our expectations of progress, forward.
A second function of the idea of utopia is psychological, and is often addressed to explain the sources and motivation of utopian thinking. Here the concept satisfies an ingrained natural demand for progress or betterment, with which utopianism is often confused generically, and which corresponds to a personal mental space, a kind of interior greenhouse, in which the imagined improvements are conceived and nurtured. This function, associated with Martin Buber and even more Ernst Bloch, involves positing an ontological "principle of hope" or "wish-picture" where utopia functions to express a deep-seated longing for release from our anxieties. This "desire" is sometimes regarded as the "essence" of utopianism. This approach is often linked to religion, with which it has much in common, and in the early modern period with millenarianism in particular, and later with secular forms of millenarian thought. In Christianity both the Garden of Eden and Heaven function as ideal communities in which we participate at various levels. Our longings can be merely compensatory, alleviating the stress and anxiety of everyday life by positing a disappearance of our problems in any kind of displaced, idealised alterity. Here they may be non- or even anti-utopian, insofar as we wish our anxieties away by merely seeking distraction without social change. They may be satirical, mocking the pretensions of the wealthy and powerful. Or they may be emancipatory, demanding the alteration of reality to fit a higher ideal. This function permits escapism from oppressive everyday reality while also potentially fusing and igniting our desire for change. We can call this the alterity function, since it gives us a critical standpoint juxtaposed to our normal condition.
Neither of these functions contradicts the prospect that utopia can be described as "nowhere" while also possessing a realistic dimension in communitarianism and other forms of utopian practice. They merely acknowledge the concept's multidimensional nature. This can be clarified further if we consider the problem of the content of utopianism, that is, the common normative core of the three "faces", and ask what utopian writers actually seek to realise when they actually propose restructuring society. This is easily portrayed if we remain within the loose parameters of the Morean paradigm. The existence of common property and a more communal way of life is the core of this ideal, and is shared by many forms of socialism and communism as well as many literary depictions of utopia, the best-known later modern example being Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888). Marx is of course its most famous non-literary expositor. Not all intentional communities have been communist, however. Charles Fourier, for example, proposed a reward for capitalist investors, who would receive a third, labour five-twelfths, and talent a quarter of any community's profits. Anarchist and individualist communities have sometimes promoted much less collectivist modes of organisation and social life than their socialist counterparts.
But these still retain a core ideal which unites their "utopian" aspirations. All are clearly more egalitarian than the societies for which they purport to offer an alternative. They are also, or aim to be, much more closely-knit. They offer what sociologists from Ferdinand Tönnies onwards have usually referred to as a Gemeinschaft form of community, where social bonds are far stronger than in the looser and more self-interested Gesellschaft type of association which dominates everyday urban capitalist life. These more intense bonds constitute an "enhanced sociability", which epitomises utopian aspiration. Normatively, utopia in general thus presents the ideal type of a much more sociable society, where something akin to friendship links many if not most of the inhabitants, and the aspiration to achieve it.
But we need to give this shared content greater depth, specificity, and clarity. Not only are there many different forms of friendship, which exhibit varying degrees of solidarity, mutuality or altruism. It is readily apparent that merely consorting with others is not as such the aim of sociability. That is, we do not seek friendship, camaraderie, and other forms of intimate association and closer bonding purely for the sake of that connection, and merely out of loneliness or boredom, important though such motivations are. We aim rather at satisfying a deeper need, which can be described in terms of an elementary desire for "belongingness". This is the goal, usually conceived in terms of group membership, for which sociability is the means, and which utopian "hope" chiefly aims at. It can be described as the antidote to that alienation so often associated with the moderns, and which was at the core of the problematic the young Marx grappled with.
But much of the rest of modern sociology, philosophy and political theory bears out the point. To the sociologists Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, the "modern mind" has been described as typically a "homeless mind", a condition "psychologically hard to bear" which induces a "permanent identity crisis". Buried under the blizzard of impulses modern urban life creates, moving frequently and thus often uprooted, isolated, driven apart by the dominant ethos of individualism and competition, we feel we have lost both a unity with our community and a wholeness in our inner selves. Longing to retrieve both, we search accordingly for symbolic places where we imagine we once possessed such unity. Here a Heimat - the German term evokes a richness and depth of feeling lacking in English - or "home", now lost to some other group, or just to time, easily becomes the focus of imaginary virtues, peace and fulfilment. This can be projected backwards or forwards, as well as to distant locations or even outer space. Where homesickness or Heimweh lacks a definitive, objective past or place upon which to focus, it may be preferable to conceive our imaginary home as a future utopia, where Heimatslosigkeit, the feeling of loss, is conquered. If such a word existed, "homefulness" would define this domain. Another German term, Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl, does part of the work of giving a sense of "togetherness" as well as belonging.
"Belongingness" will do as well in English, and is a rich and somewhat open-ended concept which clearly invites greater scrutiny than is possible here. It enjoys a prominent position in modern group psychology, which is a key entry to point to the study of utopianism. As elemental as "our need for water", Kelly-Ann Allen writes, it is so fundamental that its manifestations often passed unnoticed. Some see the need to belong as the primordial source for our desire for power, intimacy, approval, and much else. It commences in infancy, drives our willingness to conform through life, and may haunt us in our dotage. It is reflected in an attachment to places as well as people, and extends by association to all our senses, including smell and taste. The sense of belonging or connectedness is a crucial component in solidarity, and is sometimes even portrayed as the basis of morality as such. Everyone has experienced the anxiety of feeling alone, abandoned, ignored, friendless, rejected, shunned, dispossessed, displaced, foreign, alien, and alienated. Not being part of a group we aspire to join can be devastating. Exclusion cuts us to the bone. Not feeling part of a place also makes us uncomfortable and unwanted. By the effort to exclude others from the in-group, or "othering", belongingness can thus also play a fundamental role in the dystopian imagination. So the aspiration for friendship, association, the feeling of neighbourliness, in a word belongingness, guides much of our behaviour through life.
The condition of homelessness can inspire imaginary future ideal societies, and in utopian literary form has often done so during the past two centuries or so. But it also still often induces backward-looking perspectives. It "has therefore engendered its own nostalgias - nostalgias, that is, for a condition of 'being at home' in society, with oneself and, ultimately, in the universe". This endangers more accurate and balanced accounts by encouraging a nostalgic rewriting of history, where we hearken back to an imagined superior past, and redact unpleasant facts which interfere with this vision. This process corresponds to an unfortunate desire, of which we have been reminded far too often in the past few years, to want to be told things which please us rather than those whose truths make us feel uncomfortable, and which we would rather ignore or forget. We are happy to be lied to if the lie makes us feel better, and rationalist conceptions of the inevitable conquest of error by truth are thus misguided where they fail to acknowledge this weakness. This process is aided by the fact that memory is often faulty and selective, and we can concoct an ideal starting-point without worrying about its accuracy. The further back we go, too, the poorer are the records which might contradict us. This makes propaganda the more readily successful.
This has a bearing on one ideology more than any other. Nationalism in particular often depends heavily on and can indeed be defined as an "imagined community", in Benedict Anderson's well-known phrase, which makes it a distinctive form of utopian group. It often adverts to periods when our nation was "great" and its enemies vanquished and subservient, and frequently demands a rewriting of history to accord with such narratives, as modern debates over imperialism and the statues of heroic conquerors and defenders of slavery make abundantly clear. To those not motivated by the search for more balanced stories, but who primarily seek ego reinforcement amidst their national identity crises, the glorious fictional history of the imagined nation is often preferable over its more likely inglorious and bloodstained real past. Whole nations feel a romantic nostalgia, "a painful yearning to return home", for their lost golden ages of innocence, virtue and equality, and for their mythical places of origin, or the peak of their global power and influence. Denying the reality of the present and compensatory displacement are key here. But the same process occurs as nations age, become more urban and complex, and are more driven by capitalist competition, by consumerism and the anxiety to work ever harder. Personal relations suffer under all these forces. Increasingly, suggests Juliet B. Schor, we "yearn for what we see as a simpler time, when people cared less about money and more about each other". Susan Stewart sees such nostalgia as a "social disease" which seeks "an authenticity of being" through presenting a new narrative, while denying the present.
We can readily see, then, that all major political ideologies advert to one or another glorious pasts or future images which recall or herald greater individual fulfilment, prosperity, and more powerful bonds of community. Not all address belongingness in the same manner, however. Liberalism tends from the early nineteenth century onwards to stress the value of individuality, and often under-theorises the need for and benefits of sociability. Communitarian liberalism has made some effort to redress this omission, with varying degrees of success. Older forms of conservatism tended to locate the ideal state in the past and in more traditional systems of ranks, though this is not the case for more recent incarnations. Socialism is closest both semantically and programmatically to More's original utopian paradigm, and places great stress on the effort to rebuild communities around various artificially-constructed ideas of sociability and solidarity. To that inveterate critic of utopian aspiration, Leszek Kolakowski, Marxism-Leninism in particular shared a desire with all utopians "to institutionalize fraternity", adding that "an institutionally guaranteed friendship … is the surest way to totalitarian despotism", since a "conflictless order" can only exist "by applying totalitarian coercion".
To summarise the argument briefly presented here. What we can for short call the "3-2-1" definition of utopianism involves seeing the subject as possessing three faces or dimensions, utopian social theory, literary utopias and dystopias, and utopian practice; two functions, that of providing a space of psychological alterity, and that of permitting the futurological dream of ideal societies; and one content, defined by belongingness. Utopianism is a stand-alone ideology insofar as it adopts variants on the Morean paradigm, but all major systems of ideas have utopian or ideal components which are used as reference points to suggest the goals of their systems. All forms of utopianism aim in particular at providing circumstances in which belongingness can be fulfilled. This ideal can be understood as the resolution of the central problem of alienation in modern life, an issue crucial to Marxism but equally to many other strands of modern social theory. The chief task now before us in the 2020s, to determine how it can achieve practical form in the face of the looming environmental catastrophe of the present century, can be addressed at another time.
 Lyman Tower Sargent. Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5. This typology dates from 1975, and is revised in Sargent's "The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited", Utopian Studies, 5 (1994), 1-37. See further Sargent's "Ideology and Utopia", in Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent and Marc Stears, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 439-51.
 Krishan Kumar. Utopianism (Open University Press, 1991).
 On the aversion to adopting the utopian label, see David Estlund. Utopophobia. On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2020). Estlund argues that "a social proposal has the vice of being utopian if, roughly, there is no evident basis for believing that efforts to stably achieve it would have any significant tendency to succeed" (p. 11).
 See my Mill and Paternalism (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 123-72.
 This typology is defended in my (and Christine Lattek) "Radicalism, Republicanism, and Revolutionism: From the Principles of '89 to Modern Terrorism", in Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys, eds., The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 200-254.
 See Lyman Tower Sargent. "Ideology and Utopia", in Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent and Marc Stears, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 439-51.
 I draw here on my After Consumerism: Utopianism for a Dying Planet (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).
 This leaves aside the broader problem as to how far any ideal society rests on the labour or exploitation of some group(s), for whom the utopia of one group may thus become the dystopia of another. Decolonising utopia is an ongoing project. Some communes, like that founded by Josiah Warren in Ohio, have been called "Utopia".
 See Martin Buber. Paths in Utopia, and Ernst Bloch. The Principle of Hope (3 vols, Basil Blackwell, 1986). Ludwig Feuerbach's idea of God as a projection of human desire, and of love as the essence of Christianity, formed the methodological starting-point for Marx's theory of alienation in the "Paris Manuscripts" of 1844.
 Ruth Levitas. The Concept of Utopia (Syracuse University Press, 1990), p. 181. See also Fredric Jameson. Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso, 2005).
 An earlier version of this argument is offered in "News from Somewhere: Enhanced Sociability and the Composite Definition of Utopia and Dystopia", History, 98 (2013), 145-173.
 Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner. The Homeless Mind. Modernization and Consciousness (Pelican Books, 1974), p. 74.
 Its opposite is Heimatslosigkeit, which has no exact English equivalent, since "homefulness", sadly, is not a word and "homelessness" simply means being forced through poverty to live outside of a dwelling. Hence the use here of belongingness, despite its awkwardness.
 It is acknowledged as such, however, chiefly in the literature on communitarianism.
 Kelly-Ann Allen. The Psychology of Belongingness (Routledge, 2021), p. 1.
 B. F. Skinner insists that "A person does not act for the good of others because of a feeling of belongingness or refuse to act because of feelings of alienation. His behaviour depends upon the control exerted by the social environment" (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 110).
 See my Dystopia: A Natural History (Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 34-6.
 Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner. The Homeless Mind, p. 77.
 Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991).
 Fred Davis. Yearning for Yesterday. A Sociology of Nostalgia (The Free Press, 1979), p. 1.
 Juliet B. Schor. The Overspent American. Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (Basic Books, 1998), p. 24.
 Susan Stewart. On Longing (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 23.
 For a survey of this problem vis-à-vis John Stuart Mill, for instance, see my John Stuart Mill. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
 Leszek Kolakowski. Modernity on Endless Trial (University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 139, 143. The argument here turns largely on two assumptions, firstly that "human needs have no boundaries we could delineate; consequently, total satisfaction is incompatible with the variety and indefiniteness of human needs" (p. 138), and secondly opposition to "The utopian dogma stating that the evil in us has resulted from defective social institutions and will vanish with them is indeed not only puerile but dangerous; it amounts to the hope, just mentioned, for an institutionally guaranteed friendship".
by Aristotle Kallis
For centuries ‘civilisation’ has been a loaded, unstable, and ambiguous term. It has been used as a description of the present but also as an aspirational projection of a process that promises to lead to perfection. It could be seen to designate a positive process and trajectory, as well as a desired destination in the future; or conversely it could be suggestive of liberation from the ghosts of a supposedly primitive and barbaric prior human state. At times claimed to be objective or subjective, absolute or relative, universal or culture-specific, permanent or temporary and reversible, ‘civilisation’ has proved to be a formidable discursive formation that thrives in controversial polysemy.
If ‘civilisation’ is hard to pin down, its dialectical opposites too has eluded specificity. Was civilisation the antithesis or overcoming of barbarism or did it co-exist with it in a state of unity of opposites? Was it all about a zero-sum game, whereby gains in civilisation presupposed broadly equivalent distancing from a state of barbarity, and vice versa? And, perhaps more importantly, was the ‘civilising’ trajectory linear, progressive, and path-dependent or could it become subject to unpredictable movements in the opposite direction?
* * *
Exhibit number 1. In 1939, the German sociologist Norbert Elias, by that time living in Britain after having fled his home country in the wake of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, published his mammoth treatise Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (translated in English as The Civilizing Process). Elias saw both courtoisie—deliberate references to courtly life—and civilité as the ancestors of civilisation; but it was the middle stage (civilité), he claimed, that witnessed the cultural embedding of civility in everyday behaviour as the key driver of the ‘civilising process’. Elias also identified the gradual monopolisation and strict regulation of violence by the various institutional appendages of the modern state as conducive to a longer-term shift from externally imposed control of behaviour to individual self-restraint. The ‘civilising process’ then was the historical engine room of ‘civilisation’, the latter analysed by Elias as the cumulative outcome of deeper, sedimented over the long(er) term, changes in society (sociogenesis) that in turn effected, over time, appreciable transformations in individual and collective human behaviour (psychogenesis). This historical translation of sociogenetic/structural changes into psychogenetic/behavioural shifts underpinned and explained the gradual move towards more individual self-discipline and pacification—both qualities that Elias identified as critical to the ‘civilising process’.
It took more than three decades for Elias’s work to gain international recognition (courtesy of its translation and updated publication in English in 1969). During this long hiatus between the publication of the original German text and its English translation, his interpretive schema had been put to an extreme stress test by the atrocities of WW2 and the revelation of the full horror of the Holocaust. The interwar crisis, and the rise of National Socialism in particular, had already left a mark on the original 1939 edition, when Elias observed that the 1920s and 1930s represented a challenge to his overall historical schema:
"in the period following World War I, as compared to the pre-war period, a ‘relaxation of morals’ appears to have occurred. A number of constraints imposed on behaviour before the war have weakened or disappeared entirely. Many things forbidden earlier are now permitted. And seen at close quarters, the movement seems to be proceeding in the direction opposite to shown here."
Nevertheless this and other ‘fluctuations … criss-cross movements, shifts and spurts’ in history ought not to ‘obscure the general trend’. The ‘civilising process’, he argued, ‘does not follow a straight line’ and is prone to ‘very slight recession(s)’. More than half a century later, Elias revisited his original ‘civilising process’ thesis, this time confronting the full dystopian panorama of Nazi brutality, including of course the Holocaust and the institution of the industrialised death camp. In the face of such a devastating ‘counter-spurt’, Elias conceded that the ‘final solution’ constituted a callous reversal of the ‘civilising process’ and evidence of decivilisation that pointed, in his view, to the ‘deepest regression into barbarism’.
* * *
Exhibit number 2. When interviewed in 1991 about his early life in 1930s Shanghai, the author J G Ballard observed wryly:
"Many people have said to me, ‘What an extraordinary life you’ve had’, but of course my childhood in Shanghai was far closer to the way the majority of people on this planet, in previous centuries and in the 20th century, have lived than, say, life in Western Europe and the United States. It’s we here, in our quiet suburbs and our comparatively peaceful cities, who are the anomalies."
For Ballard ‘civilisation’ is skin-deep, fragile, transient and unpredictable, more akin to a randomly generated pattern than to a temporal arrow pointing purposefully towards the promise of a ‘better’ future. In his view, under the thin veneer of civilised society contradictory human passions continue to seethe and even intensify because of their proscribed, taboo status, at every moment threatening the comforting fantasy of purposeful collective progress. Civilisation was like the ‘thin crust of lava spewed from a volcano’, its apparent stability being more a wishful projection than an empirically validated condition. ‘If you set foot on it’, he continued, ‘you may feel the fire (underneath)’. Unsurprisingly perhaps to anyone familiar with Ballard’s dystopian fiction, his message was pessimistically cautionary: ‘we have to admit that humanity is not completely civilisable’ and therefore, as ‘the real hurricanes are starting to blow more strongly … (a)nd the wind in our heads is getting stronger day by day’, humankind had to accept that whatever we may celebrate as ‘civilisation’ was fragile, contingent, cancellable. Rather than bending inexorably towards progress, the arch of history in the Ballardian universe remained decidedly crooked.
* * *
Exhibit number 3. Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of the Nazi ‘final solution’ as ‘rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society’ involved a stinging critique of the ‘civilising process’. Bauman called it a ‘myth’ constructed on the wobbly foundations of a ‘morally elevating story of humanity emerging from pre-social barbarity’:
"in view of this myth (civilising process) … we do not have as yet enough civilisation. The unfinished civilising process is yet to be brought to its conclusion. If the lesson of mass murder does teach us anything it is that the prevention of similar hiccups of barbarism evidently requires still more civilising efforts. There is nothing in this lesson to cast doubt on the future effectiveness of such efforts and their ultimate results. We certainly move in the right direction; perhaps we do not move fast enough."
Rather than viewing the Nazi spasm of genocidal violence as a deviation from a normative historical path and a gross aberration of (Enlightenment) ‘civilisation’ (a view that historians often put forward post-WW2), Bauman contended that uncivility and violence were intrinsic to modern ‘civilisation’. He argued that modernity has provided the crucial wherewithal—technological, organisational, moral—to use violence in peerlessly extreme and devastating ways, not to mention at the service of chillingly brutal ends. Therefore, far from being a hallowed state at the end of a supposedly meaningful historical development, ‘civilisation’ was in no way antithetical to ‘barbarism’; in fact, very often the line separating the two was agonisingly thin and twisted.
* * *
The civilisation–barbarism conundrum posed in different ways by the three authors above highlights the contested meaning of ‘civilisation’ itself. For Elias civilisation was the historical mean of a particular—and fortuitous—constellation of (western) modernity that gradually took hold and generated powerful ‘civilising’ path dependences in the development of societies. It may have been a story without start or linear progression but it had produced a range of structural, attitudinal, and behavioural shifts whose effect he viewed as positive and in sharp ethical contrast to its antithesis, ‘barbarism’. Responding to the darkest episodes of the twentieth century that he lived through and experienced in a profoundly personal way, Elias concluded reluctantly that the ‘civilising process’ was not a failsafe guarantee against ‘barbarism’—but the latter was presented as the temporary or partial exception on a micro-historical sense that did not threaten the macro-historical direction of travel.
Bauman, on the other hand, narrated a very different story about modernity, this time one in which modern civilisation was potentially generative of unpredictable and uncontrollable excess. This potential for excess, reaching one of its most devastating spasm in the ‘final solution’, was no deviation from modern civilisation, no ‘counter-spurt’ in an assumed civilisational mainstream as per Elias’s own terminology, but structurally intrinsic to it. Thus Bauman’s ‘civilisation’ was a protean construct, capable of the ‘civilising’ and the ‘barbaric’ all at once, as well as evidently prone to excess, violence, and transgression when safeguards and regulation failed:
"the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilisation failed as safeguards against barbarism. Civilisation proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being."
Ballard’s views on ‘civilisation’-versus-‘barbarism’ shared Elias’s understanding of the former as something positive and the latter as its inversion. He also echoed Bauman’s ambivalence vis-à-vis modernity as an essentially Janus-faced project, capable of generating both positive and devastating potentialities. Where Ballard stood on his own, however, was in his pessimistic view of the balance between civilisation and barbarism: if for Elias the latter was the short-term exception to the former, and for Bauman its alter ego, Ballard saw civilisation as a short, always fragile islet in the midst of multiple flows of fiery lava. He thus effectively inverted Elias’s image of exception: it was civilisation, not barbarism, that resembled a quirky and unpredictable counter-spurt. Violence and rupture, on the other hand, were never too far away, never contained, let alone tamed. To Bauman’s warning about barbarism as a mere potentiality towards which society could drift, Ballard revealed how violent excess inhered in a million everyday ‘normalities’, behaviours, and sedimented habits untouched (perhaps even untouchable?) by civilisation or modernity. That violence appeared so contained and inconspicuous in comparison to the past was not because it had now become uncommon but because it has mutated into a pervasive new normality. Thus the seeming absence of violence as the benchmark of modern civilisation was little more than a collective cultural blind spot: it appeared rare and exceptional because it had become more and more widely pervasive and routinised that it barely registered on the standard-resolution monitors of everyday life.
I am arguably exaggerating the difference between the three ‘exhibits’ because I wish to draw attention to a critical element that, in spite of their different vantage points, Elias, Ballard, and Bauman shared: the belief that the apparent drift to violence was the upshot of some kind of comprehensive systemic failure (Elias: ‘many things forbidden earlier are now permitted’; Bauman: ‘the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilisation failed as safeguards against barbarism’; Ballard: ‘a continuous decline had been taking place for some time, a steady erosion of standards … a falling interest in civilised conventions of any kind’). The sobering message was that ‘civilisation’ was best understood as a social and moral stratagem to re/design norms of behaviour and—crucially from the point of view of self-preservation—delineate boundaries of (un)acceptability. These two components--norms and outermost boundaries--determine the ‘mainstream’ space of a society at a given point in time and space. Norms indicate desirable cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioural standards. Boundaries mark two critical thresholds that in theory ensure the very ‘safeguards’ that Bauman spoke about: first, the all-important boundary between legality and illicitness; and second, the more subtle and elusive (though at least as important) line that distinguishes tolerable from unacceptable social behaviour. Taken together, norms and boundaries map a vast and heterogeneous space of moral gradations from positive aspiration to the outermost fringes of tolerability and permissibility, with the overwhelming majority of a society’s members roaming the in-between spaces between the two poles.
It is the more elusive second boundary of (un)permissibility—the threshold of shame qua Elias—that presents the biggest challenge. Situated in the fuzzy hinterlands of mainstream society, it marks a constructed set of cultural and social fortifications against the kind of behaviour that, while openly challenging or even defying and subverting a society’s norms, is hard to delegitimise as stricto sensu illegal. Societies have always devised and promoted a set of norms in both positive/aspirational and negative/inhibitory iterations. Thus in many ways the obverse of the positive norm was (and is) not obvious illegality but a different, more vague kind of transgression of the threshold of tolerability.
The concept of taboo comes very close to capturing the essence and function of this threshold. It refers to a strong prohibition that is ethical rather than strictly juridical. There are sacred and secular taboos; taboos seemingly fixed and enduring or taboos that are pliable and more amenable to change or that—at a certain point in time and place—become even delegitimised; taboos so embedded in cultural and social practice that appear forbiddingly unquestionable and taboos with a shorter, more contested history that has rendered them less effective, less accepted, and thus more vulnerable to challenge. Taboos are negative norms and thus a particular society’s constructed taboos mirror to a significant extent its constructed norms and vice versa. Changes in one very often echo and reinforce changes in the other. When previous taboo prohibitions come under scrutiny or attack, it is usually because the positive assumptions and conventions that underpinned them have also lost their normative status in the eyes of social majorities or at least significant minorities.
However not all taboos are made equal. Some are universally operative and remain broadly unquestioned. Others rely more on the regularity and strength with which prohibition is directly and indirectly (through effectively aligning them with repugnance and the shame triggered by transgression) regulated. While some taboos have, over time, become embedded and reproducible without scrutiny, others are—or come to be seen in certain conditions—as imposed, undesirable, alien or counter-productive when it comes to the pursuit of other positive goals. Thus while taboos may become hard-coded into a society’s everyday practices and may appear unassailable most of the time, they may also come under scrutiny, be transgressed, abrogated or eroded, whether temporarily and conditionally or more permanently. As Georges Bataille observed, taboo and its transgression were in necessary—indeed relational—coexistence and mutual dependency.
Elias, unlike Bauman, made numerous references to the functions of ‘taboo’ prohibitions, whether directly enforceable or implicitly invoked, in his Civilizing Process. He understood a taboo as a social construct that marked and enforced the qualitative threshold of repugnance and shame. In many respects his entire ‘civilising process’ was the story of the gradually ‘expanding threshold of repugnance’ in modern (western) societies. This stretched from everyday manners and attitudes to bodily functions to broader moral questions such as attitudes to violence and empathy towards others. Here it was possible to observe the transition from sociogenesis to psychogenesis: what was initially enforced as either legal sanction or formal rebuke (shame) gradually became so deeply embedded in social and cultural practices that it was internalised and quasi-automatically reproduced by individuals and communities in the form of voluntary self-restraint. It was also in this macro-historical process that Elias grounded the entire ‘civilising process’ as positive path dependence: the forbidding net of repugnance became both thicker (stronger condemnation) and wider (extending in adjacent areas of social conduct). ‘Counter-spurts’ could be neither ruled out nor ignored for their devastating effects on the civilising process; yet they were not part of this story—hence the significance of the Eliasian imputation of ‘decivilising’ effect.
With this in mind it is perhaps easier to understand Elias’s earlier tendency to single out the experience of National Socialism and especially the Holocaust as extreme historical ‘regressions’ and lapses into ‘barbarism’. His trope of a ‘decivilising counter-spurt’ deployed the full armour of exception—a double negative in the civilising process used to intensify the negation of, and divergence from, ‘civilisation’ itself. While dealing in his later—post-WW2—work with the challenge posited by the full horror of totalitarianism and of the Nazi ‘final solution’, Elias imbued his earlier schema of the civilising process with more nuance. He did not question his earlier conviction that, over time, structural shifts became culturally embedded and effected behavioural changes. In his attempt to explain the National Socialist ‘regression’ from the canon of the civilising process, he treaded a delicate and sometimes awkward path between (German) exceptionalism and broader critiques of modernity qua Bauman. He therefore conceded that, on the one hand, the drift to extreme violence in interwar Germany was also facilitated by ‘common conditions of contemporary societies’ and that the ideas that nurtured National Socialism and ensured its social appeal in the 1930s were far from unique to Germany or even the interwar crisis.
"Few of the social and, especially, the national myths of our age are free of similar falsehoods and barbarisms. The National Socialist doctrine shows, as if in a distorting mirror, some of their common features in a glaring form." 
Still the historical specificities in the case of German history did matter because, in his view, they went a long way towards explaining the depth and severity of the Nazi ‘counter-spurt’. The problem with interwar Germany, Elias claimed, was that short-term contingencies intersected with, and intensified, longer-term peculiarities (late unification, middle-class weakness, anachronistic social structures, and so on). Sociogenetic idiosyncrasies or shortfalls graduated into allegedly irregular psychogenetic traits. The overall translation schema (from structure to behaviour) still worked as a macro-historical interpretation; the issue with modern/interwar Germany was with the particular long-term social and political trajectory that had produced the particular structures in the first instance. Taboos were in place and the threshold of repugnance had been raised, very much in line with the precepts of the ‘civilising process’. Yet at a certain point the taboos proved—perhaps, more accurately, they were revealed to be—not strong enough to regulate and enforce the prohibition, let alone to embed it as standard social practice.
Elias was only too keen to highlight how the transgression of the taboo of violence formed the backbone of the Nazi ‘regression’ into ‘barbarism’. The taboo prohibition of violence directed at other humans may be arguably rooted in the (universal) ‘animal pity by which all normal men are afflicted in the presence of human suffering’; but it can also be relativised, qualified, and effectively transgressed in a seemingly normative, legitimate and authorised disguise. The formula ‘transcending without suppressing’ identified by Bataille underlined how a taboo can be fully operative in 'normal’ times but can legitimately be transgressed when a perceived crisis, threat or emergency generated the possibility of exception—an exception within or alongside the prohibition itself. Back to the 1930s and the German case, it must be remembered that the regime headed by Hitler operated as a ‘normal’ constitutional arrangement for just twenty-nine days. In the wake of the arson attack that destroyed the Reichstag building in late February 1933 the declared ‘state of exception’ granted the executive extraordinary legal and political powers with which to counter the alleged emergency. Of course exception was not per se an illegal deviation from the constitutional order: Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution that Hitler instrumentalised in 1933 had already been used by the liberal Chancellor Gustav Stresemann in September 1923 in order to confront the Ruhr crisis. Yet while Stresemann’s use of constitutional emergency powers lasted five months, Hitler’s proved a prelude to a permanent exception and licence for transgression. The trope of crisis beget exception and exception beget the theoretically open-ended potential for deeper and wider authorised transgression. In a similar way to violence as authorised transgression in a state of war, Nazi violence was uniquely transgressive as an exception to the otherwise affirmed taboo prohibition as ‘normal’ condition.
From this point of view, what Elias saw as the ‘deepest regression into barbarism’ in the 1930s and 1940s, in Germany but arguably elsewhere as well, was not the product of failing taboos regarding civility, let alone intra-human violence. The paradox of the National Socialist violent spasm was it was peerless in the brutality of its logic, methods, and effects yet strikingly banal as an ‘exception’ and unremarkable as a step-by-step justification. Exception was practised on every level and in the name of national self-defence not in order to abrogate the taboo of violence but in order to suspend it in a limited and conditional way—only against particular groups of ‘others’, only in specific spaces, only under the guise of an ‘external war’, only for as long as it was deemed necessary in order to eliminate the claimed ‘threat’. Extreme, transgressive violence against the existentially threatening ‘other’ cohabited with intense group self-love. The problem was not only, not even primarily excess or violation per se but their conditional sanctioning and normalisation. If taboos are indeed negative norms, if they correspond to a large extent to positive projections, then the Nazis did very little to disrupt the symmetry on either end. The ‘civilising process’ carried on in principle—but for the exclusive benefit of the ethnic/racial majority. By redefining the community, ostracising a host of allegedly dangerous ‘others’, and invoking the necessity of exception, the Nazi authorities could also generate zones of authorised conditional taboo-breaking excess. Even in the darkest days of the war, the two—the taboo of violence and its extreme transgression—continued to cohabit in the same abode but in strictly quarantined rooms.
Therefore it may be that Elias posited the ‘civilising process’ in a way that was too tidy and arguably too normative. The upshot of this was he was often forced to reckon with false positives and felt the need to resort to the awkwardly dualistic explanation of ‘regression to barbarity’ in order to defend the historical validity of his overall theory of civilisation against violent ‘counter-spurts’. By comparison, Ballard’s conception of ‘civilisation’ was a much less tidy space riddled with contradictions and zigzags, where both ‘civilising’ movements and ‘decivilising’ spurts constantly fought it out without definitive winner or overall plot. Whereas Elias encountered the threshold of the taboo prohibition as the furthermost outpost of civilisation, and Bauman approached it as the point of the critical equilibrium between two anti-diametrical potentials inherent in ‘civilised’ modernity, Ballard saw it as a brittle and inevitably short-lived truce. Such an ambivalent and pessimistic view may be unsettling for it hypothesises a different kind of ‘civilisation’—one that is often self-contradictory and morally directionless, where individual self-restraint, empathy, and civility coexist incongruously with uncivility, violent excess, and taboo-breaking transgression, whether as norm or as exception or more often both. Rather than viewing the ‘civilising process’ as a story of meaningful advancement in which every ‘counter-spurt’ needs to be tagged with ‘decivilising’ effect and treated as aberrant, we may instead approach it less as ‘civilising’ (that is, conducive to ‘civilisation’ as an index of progress) and more as an essentially direction-less ‘process’ of negotiating and balancing—always precariously and inconclusively—a multitude of contradictory impulses and ’spurts’.
 Florence Delmotte and Christophe Majastre, “Violence and Civilité: The Ambivalences of the State in Norbert Elias’s Theory of Civilizing Processes”, 9th EISA Pan-European Conference (2015), 55-80.
 Bryan S. Turner, “Weber and Elias on Religion and Violence: Warrior Charisma and the Civilizing Process”, in Steven Loyal and Stephen Quilley (eds.), The Sociology of Norbert Elias (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 245–64.
 François Dépelteau, Enio Passiani, and Ricardo Mariano, “Ariel or Caliban? The Civilizing Process and Its Critiques”, in François Dépelteau and Tatiana Landini (eds.), Norbert Elias and Social Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013), 41–59.
 Dépelteau and Landini, 20-40.
 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 157.
 Norbert Elias, The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Polity, 1996), 308–15.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 12-13.
 For example, Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963).
 Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
 John Keane, Violence and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 54–88.
 Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, 111.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).
 Cristina Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Aristotle Kallis, “When Fascism Became Mainstream: The Challenge of Extremism in Times of Crisis”, Fascism 4(1) (2015), 6–11.
 Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman, “Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable”, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics 3(2) (2011), 139–64.
 Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild, viii.
 Benjamin Noys, Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 84–6.
 Elias, The Civilizing Process, 71–99.
 Stephen Mennell, “Decivilising Processes: Theoretical Significance and Some Lines of Research”, International Sociology 5(2) (1990), 205–23; Jonathan Fletcher, “Towards a Theory of Decivilizing Processes”, Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 22(2) (1995), 283–96.
 Stephen Mennell, “The Other Side of the Coin: Decivilising Processes”, in Thomas Salumets (ed.) Norbert Elias and Human Interdependencies (Montreal, QC: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2001), 32-49; Mennell, “Decivilising processes”.
 Elias, The Germans, 302–3, 315.
 Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell, “Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the Balance Between ‘Civilizing’ and ‘Decivilizing’ Trends in the Social Development of Western Europe”, The British Journal of Sociology 49(3) (1998), 339; cf. Moses on Elias, 'The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, H-German, February 1999, available at https://networks.h-net.org/node/35008/reviews/43630/moses-elias-germans-power-struggles-and-development-habitus-nineteenth
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 106.
 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 15.
 Agamben, State of Exception, 3.
 Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality (New York, NY: Walker and Co, 1962), 71–80; Stuart Kendall, Georges Bataille (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 151–8.
 Karel Plessini, The Perils of Normalcy: George L. Mosse and the Remaking of Cultural History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 93–130.
by Tejas Parasher
It is difficult to overstate just how much of a watershed moment the immediate aftermath of WWI was for modern democracy. No previous global crisis had revealed on such a scale the self-destructiveness and the fundamental unsustainability—political, economic, and military—of the European states-system. Writing from London in 1917, the British economist John Hobson predicted the rise of new movements which would increasingly seek to disentangle democracy from the military-industrial state; as a result of the war, Hobson argued, “not only the spirit but the very forms of popular self-government have suffered violation.” The war had made clear in stark terms the ever-present possibilities of autocracy and violence underneath the veneer of democracy in modern states.
Hobson’s observation proved prescient. The months after November 1918 witnessed a proliferation of political experiments, ranging from the council communism of the Spartacus League in Berlin to pluralism and guild socialism in Britain, France, and the United States, bringing together political and legal thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, Léon Duguit, Harold Laski, and G.D.H. Cole. Though distinct in their respective ideologies, these movements were all propelled by disillusionment with the representative, parliamentary republics created in Western Europe through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
That diagnosis was not restricted to pacifists and democrats. Carl Schmitt asserted confidently in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923) that nineteenth-century liberal models of representative government inherited from John Stuart Mill and François Guizot had outlived their usefulness in a new age of mass politics, and only remained standing “through sheer mechanical perseverance as an empty apparatus.”
But how the problem that Schmitt called “the crisis of parliamentary democracy” was perceived beyond Europe and North America after 1918 still remains a largely untold story. In recent years, historians have uncovered the depth of interaction between subject peoples in the colonial world and the various political ideologies and institutional proposals circulating in Europe in the wake of the Great War. A notable example is Susan Pedersen’s exemplary study of petitions submitted to the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission by groups in the Middle East, the South Pacific, and south-western and eastern Africa, demanding political independence from imperial rule. A much less examined aspect of this period, though, is the orientation of anti-colonial thinkers and leaders towards the critiques of nation-state sovereignty and representative democracy consuming European political thought of the time. To put it differently, how were Hobson and Schmitt’s diagnoses of the post-WWI situation understood in Bombay or Cairo, instead of in London or Berlin? The point of such an inquiry is both to provide a more global historiography of the early twentieth-century crisis of parliamentarism and to better understand the full range of political thought precipitated by the crisis.
My recent research explores these themes through an examination of the rise of a normative challenge to representative democracy, particularly its nineteenth-century parliamentary variant, within Indian political thought between 1918 and 1928. My focus is on a group of historians and philosophers based at the north Indian universities of Allahabad and Lucknow and at the southern University of Mysore. Identifying themselves as political pluralists, these writers turned to pre-modern Indian history to unearth forms of classical republicanism and participatory law-making. Their books, pamphlets, and draft constitutions contained the earliest theories of direct democracy as a tangible constitutional ideal in modern South Asia.
By the mid-1910s, there was an established, well-organised nationalist movement in the Crown Territories of British India. For three decades, the Indian National Congress (INC) had been lobbying for political and economic reform within the empire. Politically, the INC sought the introduction of a parliamentary system elected through adult suffrage, modelled on the settler colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Parliamentarism was seen both as a distinctively English achievement and, as an arrangement wherein only representatives deliberated and legislated, as the most effective way of selecting members of an educated, urban elite to govern in the interests of the wider population.
Thus, between 1885 and 1915, Dadabhai Naoroji, a key figure in the evolution of Indian nationalism, repeatedly defined the Indian demand for self-rule (swaraj) as an extension of parliamentary principles established in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and imported to the satellite states of the Anglosphere by the late nineteenth century. Even as nationalist politics came to be divided between liberal and revolutionary camps from the first decade of the new century, the embrace of parliamentarism remained secure. For the revolutionary leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who constantly linked Indian nationalism with the struggles for Home Rule in Ireland and Egypt and was hailed by Lenin as a “democrat” in 1908, swaraj meant the election of members of political parties into self-governing representative institutions. For all the disagreement over tactics, early nationalist arguments in India converged on a view of popular self-government as an indirect electoral enterprise, exercised by a limited number of deputies on behalf of the citizenry.
From 1918, the nationalist attempt to mediate popular sovereignty through the established procedures of parliamentary representation provoked a reaction amongst a new group of writers who held a different understanding of swaraj. A key moment in the fracturing of the consensus around parliamentary government was the publication of Radhakumud Mookerji’s Local Government in Ancient India in 1919. Mookerji was born in rural Bengal in 1884 and trained as a historian at the University of Calcutta. The backdrop to his political formation was the upsurge of anti-British agitation in eastern India in 1905, known as the swadeshi movement, which highlighted to him the role of historical narratives in shaping anti-colonial nationalist politics. Radhakumud eventually settled at the University of Lucknow as Professor of Ancient Indian History.
Local Government in Ancient India was a strikingly presentist political book to have been written by an academic historian. Radhakumud challenged the Indian National Congress’ uncritical acceptance of parliamentary government. He insisted that WWI had made clear not only that parliamentary republics did not always express the full will of their people, but that representative institutions under the conditions of modern economic life, electioneering, and party politics could easily be co-opted by political and economic elites and interest groups. In seeking to transpose the nineteenth-century English system of electoral representation into India in the 1910s, the Congress was essentially introducing “self-rule from above,” leaving the power to make and amend law in the hands of a relatively small political class.
Radhakumud’s response was to turn to constitutional models from ancient and medieval South Asia. Relying on recent archival discoveries of Sanskrit and Pali-language treatises and archaeological inscriptions from southern India in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, Radhakumud made the claim that pre-modern Indian states had been elaborate federal structures consisting of semi-independent local jurisdictions overseen by a central monarchy. The jurisdictions themselves were governed by large citizens’ assemblies (sabha) consisting of adult house-holders; the sabha performed all legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and chose sub-committees for specialised functions on the basis of sortition.
Radhakumud was not the first modern Indian writer to give a republican re-interpretation of states which had frequently been denigrated in terms of either Oriental despotism or ungoverned anarchy, as in James Mill’s History of British India (1817). But Radhakumud was the first to consider a medieval federation of citizens’ assemblies as a viable political model for the twentieth century, as a real alternative to parliamentarism. Much to the chagrin of other historians, Radhakumud proposed that replicating a system of citizens’ assemblies provided a coherent model of direct democracy, much more participatory than the models of representative government espoused by the INC leadership.
Local Government in Ancient India went through two English editions in 1919 and 1920. Its core thesis was reproduced in a number of other Indian texts from the 1920s, including Brajendranath Seal’s Report on the Constitution of Mysore (1923), Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Democracies of the East (1923), and Beni Prasad’s A Few Suggestions on the Problem of the Indian Constitution (1928). Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Democracies of the East—from which I draw the title of this post—was the most detailed example of the genre. Radhakamal Mukerjee decried the nationalist acceptance of the English model of electoral representation, premised on suffrage, political parties, and parliamentary supremacy, as insufficiently democratic. Nationalist politics limited legislative sovereignty to “a certain small and well-defined class which packs and directs the assembly, and speaks in the name of the people.” Radhakamal accordingly presented the creation of directly democratic assemblies patterned on medieval Asian states as a way to overcome the structural hierarchies of sovereignty embedded within parliamentary government. As in Local Government in Ancient India, the reconstruction of pre-modern republicanism was a response to the perceived inability of parliamentary states to allow for wide political participation.
Democracies of the East framed its program of historical recovery as an attempt to avoid the fate of European parliamentary regimes during WWI—in particular the threat of unaccountable governance by a class of periodically elected political elites, the conversion of popular rule into the rule of a few. Indeed, Radhakamal Mukerjee saw his proposals as part of a wider trans-national backlash against statism and representative democracy between 1918 and 1923, praising movements such as syndicalism, pluralism, and guild socialism in Western Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and beyond. Indian history was for him a repertoire of intellectual resources to aid these movements in the imagination of new democratic futures. He was especially drawn to the guild socialist G.D.H. Cole, aligning his own intellectual project with the latter’s attempts to revive medieval practices of self-management in associational life in lieu of electoral forms of labour politics. While there is no evidence that Democracies of the East was read in the British guild socialist circles around G.D.H. Cole, in the mid-1930s Radhakamal did travel to London to meet with Cole’s fellow pluralist Ernest Barker at the Institute of Sociology.
The Indian pluralists’ visions of participatory democracy remained academic experiments in the 1920s, never really taken up by political movements on the ground. By the late 1940s, the dominant constitutional paradigm in India came to be narrowed into a demand for sovereign statehood and parliamentary democracy. As John Dunn has argued, in such circumstances the mid-century transition from imperial rule was unable to be a truly transformative rupture with the state-form of representative democracy ubiquitous in Western Europe following the Second World War.
Given these subsequent developments, returning to the defeated democratic traditions emergent in the immediate aftermath of WWI in British India is an exercise of intellectual retrieval. It allows us to reconstruct the contours of a discourse and ideology at odds with the tradition of self-government which eventually triumphed with independence. The existence of the pluralist discourse indicates, above all, how the profound crisis of liberalism and modern democratic thinking that Carl Schmitt associated with the European 1920s was a global phenomenon stretching far beyond Europe.
In South Asia, these years were similarly an opening for thinkers to challenge the principles of representative government consolidated in the region’s political thought and practice by the 1910s—principles which, in the hands of nationalist leaders, would re-assert their dominance by the 1940s. The civilisational language that Indian pluralists adopted in their opposition to representative democracy—turning to an invented tradition of ‘Asian’ republicanism—was of course strikingly different from Schmitt or Hobson. Yet their turn to history was a response to similar underlying political dynamics, produced by a shared global moment of transformation and experimentation in theories of sovereignty and collective self-government.
 J.A. Hobson, Democracy after the War (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1917), 15.
 Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 21.
 Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Tejas Parasher, “Federalism, Representation, and Direct Democracy in 1920s India,” Modern Intellectual History (January 2021): 1-29. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-intellectual-history/article/federalism-representation-and-direct-democracy-in-1920s-india/625B0116F57186A02ABE261B001012CE.
 Radhakumud Mookerji, Local Government in Ancient India, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1919).
 Radhakamal Mukerjee, Democracies of the East: A Study in Comparative Politics (London: P.S. King & Son, 1923), 356.
 Mukerjee, Democracies of the East, 340-41. Also see G.D.H. Cole, Self-Government in Industry (London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1918).
 Radhakamal Mukerjee, India: The Dawn of a New Era (An Autobiography) (New Delhi: Radha Publications, 1997), 166.
 John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 154.
by Yiftah Elazar and Efraim Podoksik
When liberals and libertarians speak of liberty today, they often think of it as ‘negative’, in the sense of being left to our own devices, especially by the government. The distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty was popularised by Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth century British historian of ideas and philosopher, whose 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ has made it into a staple of late modern political thought.
Berlin portrayed negative liberty as a liberal political ideal, but he was no libertarian in the American sense of minimal government and anti-welfare state. Some of his libertarian followers have taken the argument further. They have advocated the maximisation of negative liberty and the corresponding minimisation of the state. In popular political discourse, the idealisation of negative liberty has produced a belief, famously articulated by United States President Ronald Reagan, that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’.
Surprisingly, however, when the concept of negative liberty first emerged in early modern political thought, it was not conceived as a political ideal. It was more like an anti-ideal. Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham, the two most important theorists of negative liberty in early modern political thought, both used the negative definition of liberty as a deflationary device, in order to deflate democratic political language.
Hobbes argued that democratic writers were conceptually confused about the meaning of liberty, which led them, in turn, to democratic excess. The Hobbesian definition of liberty as the absence of external impediments was supposed to pour a bucket of cold water on their excessive demands for freedom. Bentham, who popularised the claim that the idea of liberty is ‘negative’, used his negative definition of liberty as an ideological weapon. Writing on the concept of liberty during the American Revolution, he expressed his wish, intended to ‘cut the throat’ of what he believed to be a false and dangerous rhetoric of liberty and rights serving the cause of pro-American ‘democratic fanaticism’. He thought that the pro-American democrats had confused notion of liberty as something ‘positive’ (in the sense of being something real and desirable), and he wanted to rid them of their illusions.
On its road from Bentham to contemporary libertarianism, then, the negative idea of liberty has undergone a curious transformation. It has turned from a deflationary device to a central ideal. How did this happen? This is the historical puzzle that has caught our imagination. We are making the task of addressing it more manageable by revisiting Berlin’s account and fleshing out some of the ideological history underlying it. Two themes in particular, that Berlin’s piece had obscured, deserve examining.
First, the theme of negative liberty and democracy. Negative liberty has served, in different historical moments, as an ideological weapon against radical democracy. But it also points to an important shift in the manner in which the negative conception of liberty has been deployed against radical democracy. Hobbes and Bentham used it as deflationary device against what they saw as the confused demand for excessive freedom from restraint. But from the eighteenth century onwards, Whigs and liberals shifted towards the endorsement of liberty as a moderate liberal ideal, which must be protected from democratic despotism or, in a later phrasing, from ‘totalitarian democracy’.
Second, the late and contingent association of the liberal conception of liberty with the idea of negativity. The liberal tradition was slow to adopt the classical utilitarian argument that the idea of liberty is ‘negative’. It is only towards the mid-twentieth century that several historical contingencies—the disentanglement of liberty from democracy, the rise of ‘positive’ liberty and its association with totalitarianism, and what we describe as ‘the fashion of negativity’ in the twentieth-century interwar years—combined to create ‘negative liberty’ as a central liberal ideal.
Let’s take this a bit more slowly. One way of tracing the history of the negative idea of liberty is to keep our eye on a tradition of Whig and liberal political thought that advocated individual liberty as a moderate ideal. Prior to this tradition, demands for liberty were often associated with radical democratic politics. But in the work of Montesquieu, and in the debates that took place in the context of the American Revolution, liberty was disengaged from democracy and associated with moderation.
The French Revolution exerted crucial influence on the development of an antagonism between individual liberty and democracy. The peculiar circumstance that the Jacobins employed the slogans of liberty while conducting a campaign of systematic violence gave birth to a discourse that placed liberty squarely at the centre of the political map, threatened by both the political left and right. Thus emerged nineteenth-century French liberalism as the centrist ideology of the post-Revolutionary era.
The historical divorce of liberty from radical democratic politics and its transformation into a liberal ideal reached its apex in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. If previously many radical currents felt themselves generally at ease with the promotion of ‘bourgeois’ freedoms, now under the influence of the Soviet regime the very idea of these freedoms became more and more suspect. This allowed the critics of the leftist regimes to forge the notion of totalitarian democracy and identify it with the revolutionary left. This term—‘totalitarian democracy’—was thus adopted by centrist liberals to describe regimes emerging out of the radical democratic rhetoric of the Bolsheviks. The historical divorce of liberty from radical politics was completed. Liberty was now firmly situated in the sphere of non-revolutionary bourgeois politics.
This schematic account clarifies the historical context for the tendency of Cold War liberals like Berlin to depict liberty as an ideal that faces hostility both from the radical left and from the reactionary right, depicting both extremes as versions of totalitarianism. But it does not explain how the supposed clash between Western democracy and totalitarianism came to be perceived in terms of an opposition between negative and positive liberty.
To understand that part, we looked, first, to the legacy of German Idealist philosophy and its relation to the twentieth-century debates on totalitarianism. It is in Kant and Hegel that we find the idea of ‘positive’ liberty as a conceptually valid and normatively superior idea of freedom. This new understanding of liberty greatly influenced the British Idealists, such as T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, who brought the dialectic of negative and positive liberty into the British philosophical scene.
In the work of some of the younger theorists of new liberalism, such as J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse, the idea of positive liberty was used in order assign the state the task of removing via social reforms obstacles to the mutual cooperation of harmonious individuals, thus liberating rather than suppressing the spontaneous energies of individuals. But in the work of German romantics such as Adam Müller, liberty was taken to contain a strong conservative element. It espoused the ideal of devotion to a national collective and advocated an increased role of the state in the life of the society and culture.
When this German ‘conservative’ tradition, as Karl Mannheim described it, was supplanted by a movement of conservative revolution, and, in turn, by Nazi totalitarianism, its ‘qualitative’ or ‘ethical’ conception of liberty was coloured in a much more sinister light. Liberal critics such as Karl Popper accused German advocates of positive liberty of substituting the true meaning of liberty with its exact opposite. At the same time, liberal critics began to blur differences between the anti-liberal right and left, so that qualitative liberty began to be ascribed to both. Thinkers such as Rousseau and Marx, whose radical and emancipationist credentials had formerly been beyond doubt, were now associated with the reactionary rejection of liberty.
The critique of positive liberty opened the possibility of a complementary movement: the transformation of negative liberty into a positive ideal. But to complete this latter part of the story, we need one more component, which we have described as ‘the fashion of negativity’.
Philosophically, the interwar years were the period in which the logical positivists and the British realists successfully demolished the influence of philosophical Idealism, and advocated, instead, sceptical modesty. Culturally, the worldview of the post-World War I generation was marked by anxiety, alarm, and even despair. ‘Negative’ carried a tone of sophistication and superiority over pre-War naïveté. In this context, to prefer ‘negative’ over ‘positive’, even while admitting the philosophical power of the ‘positive’, would not appear as rhetorically self-defeating. On the contrary, opponents of ‘negative liberty’ were faulted for sinning against a commonsensical, modest idea of liberty.
This brief account suggests that the tortuous history of negative liberty has led not only to its transformation into a central liberal ideal, but also to an ironic reversal of its original purpose. Hobbes and Bentham defined liberty in negative terms not in order to turn it into an object of ideological worship. On the contrary, they wanted to diffuse the passions aroused by the language of liberty. Ironically, shifting ideological contexts have turned this act of rhetorical diffusion into a magnet for new political passions.
 On this, see Yiftah Elazar, ‘Liberty as a Caricature: Bentham’s Antidote to Republicanism’, Journal of the History of Ideas 76(3) (2015), 417–39.
by Fernando Lizárraga
When pursuing the clarification of socialism’s core concepts, according to the methodology advocated by Michael Freeden for the study of political ideologies, equality stands out as one of the undisputed ideas on that complex, variegated, and often quarrelling tradition. The other key concepts or conceptual themes that form the kernel of socialism are, according to Freeden, “the constitutive nature of the human relationship, human welfare as a desirable objective, human nature as active, … and history as the arena of (ultimately) beneficial change”. The method leading to this list involves a particular understanding of political ideologies which differs from the usual approach taken by political theory or political philosophy. It requires a thorough study into the main currents of socialism—not only of the Marxist version—and the specification of the relevant concepts through a process of decontestation. The research aimed at specifying those core concepts is also necessary when it comes to depicting the ideas that comprise the adjacencies and periphery of the socialist ideology. There is a particular difficulty that arises when looking into socialism’s morphology, namely, the fact that socialism is both a critique of capitalist society and also a project of a society yet to be brought about: “unlike conservatism, or even mainstream forms of liberalism, socialism is peculiarly prone to a dual temporal existence. It is centrally founded on a critique of the present, yet significantly projected onto a future of which there is as yet little empirical evidence”. This second aspect demands a “leap of faith and imagination”—to use Freeden’s expression. By and large, the self-awareness of socialism—as an ideology containing at the same time a dominant scientific side and a subordinate utopian (normative) dimension—faded away in the face of different dogmatisms promoted by socialist states. But with the collapse of the socialist bloc, there emerged a need for a revision and updating of key elements of the tradition.
Recent scholarship about socialism has largely benefited from the impact of John Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism on several fields of the social sciences and the humanities. After a reckoning of the ethical deficit caused by an extended belief in the scientific prowess of Marxism, a good number of socialist thinkers and activists admitted the need for a normative turn. This is not to deny, of course, the existence of a deep-seated ethical current in Socialism, as it is evident in the works of Eduard Bernstein, R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole, amongst others, but only to highlight the fact that, because of the mainly Marxist anti-moralism, normative work was demeaned and considered powerless in the face of the anticipatory prodigies of historical materialism. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Theory of Justice, and the shockwaves of Rawlsianism are still highly influential. Discussion of the core concepts of socialism, from a normative perspective, have gained a promising place within academia and also within grassroots organisations. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Alex Callinicos, in his Anti-capitalist Manifesto, advocated a specific form or socialist democracy that embodies four key values of an anti-systemic program: justice, efficiency, democracy, and sustainability, where justice embraces ideals such as liberty, equality, and solidarity. A recent entry on “Socialism” by Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy singles out equality, democracy, individual freedom, self-realisation, and community or solidarity as paramount values of this tradition. As we can see in these two examples, together with Freeden’s construal, the proposed lists of core concepts do not fully match with each other but have one striking coincidence: equality.
This quick exercise seems to support Norberto Bobbio’s famous statement about equality being the Pole Star of the left, as opposed to the anti-egalitarian right. More important, though, is the acknowledgement that values matter to socialism and Marxism in particular, and that it was a shortcoming to eschew any talk of ethical principles, fearfully avoiding a collapse into what Marx and Engels described as petty utopianism. One must only be thankful that this anti-utopianism was not understood as an outright rejection of utopia altogether. So, in defiance of Marx and Engels’s strictures against moral theory, important varieties of moral thinking emerged within the socialist purview, and a strain of ethical socialism came around in the second half of the nineteenth century, paving the way for the post-Rawlsian normative turn. Although the name of Ethical Socialism normally refers to a group of thinkers and activists of the late 1800s in the United Kingdom, it had outstanding representatives in other parts of the world. William Jupp, John Trevor, Thomas Davidson, and Edward Carpenter were key representatives of British ethical socialism. The last two are of particular importance since they were deeply influenced by American Romanticism and immanentism, especially by the works of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the United States, a provincial writer destined to become an almost involuntary political protagonist of the Gilded Age, Edward Bellamy, can be counted as one of the few who, despite the widespread dismissal of utopias, decidedly resorted to this genre—inherent to socialist critique and history—to carry out a double task: to cast a harsh indictment on capitalism as a predatory and unjust system, and to advance a vernacular conception of egalitarianism, which was the most cunning way to bring socialism and Marxist themes to the American public. He was also under the influence of American immanentism, transcendentalism, and the experiences of intentional utopian communities such as the famous Fourierist Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Bellamy’s ideas had a profound impact on the organised labor movement, especially among the Knights of Labor. Eugene Debs, founder of the Socialist Party in the United States, revealed that he became a socialist thanks to Bellamy and even met with the writer in his last days. Daniel De Leon, too, is said to have started his revolutionary career under “Bellamy’s inspiration”; and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the leading feminist activist and writer, was also a prominent member of the Bellamyist movement. John Dewey famously wrote that Bellamy was “A Great American Prophet”, and remarked that “what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the anti-slavery movement, Bellamy’s book may well be to the shaping of popular opinion for a new social order”. In short, and in keeping with the morphological approach, I find it plausible to hold that Edward Bellamy’s condemnation of capitalism and the account of the alternative egalitarian society he advocated are founded one a thick idea of equality which, at the same time, involves an outright rejection of the principle of self-ownership. This last rejection, I also sustain, must be either counted as a component of equality as a core idea of socialism or as an adjacent but necessary concept that contributes to making sense of the kind of egalitarianism espoused by Bellamy and, to a large degree, by contemporary egalitarian socialists.
It must be noted that the principle of self-ownership, first conceived by John Locke, constitutes the founding tenet of contemporary libertarianism. In its most usual rendition, the principle says that individuals have over themselves the same kind of rights that a master has over a chattel slave and, by implication, those who enjoy self-ownership cannot, as a matter of right, be forced to help others through personal service or any other mandatory scheme of redistribution. Bellamy’s opposition to self-ownership must be understood in the context of his life-long advocacy for egalitarianism, as it is conveyed in his most famous utopian novels: Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), and Equality (1897). Such opposition—as I will explain—was founded on the idea of the common ancestry of humankind, on the belief that each person has ha debt to society and past generations; and most importantly, on the notion that it is “fraudulent” to believe that individuals deserve and fully own their natural and social endowments and owe nothing to each other. Looking Backward was one of the most significant literary works in the late 1800s in the United States. It sold millions of copies in a few years and was translated into several languages. The plot, as it normally happens in utopias, is a setting for the development of theoretical propositions. Bellamy uses a time-travelling scheme in which the main character falls into mesmerised sleep in 1887 only to wake up 113 later in his home city, Boston, which in the Year 2000 is part of a perfectly egalitarian society. Julian West, the protagonist, learns about the institutions and ethos of the new world in dialogue with his host, Dr Leete, a retired physician, and his daughter Edith. The sequel of Looking Backward, Equality, is a lengthier description of this new society. Bellamy gained almost immediate international recognition and country-wide acclaim, to the point that he became a keynote speaker for many associations, wrote extensively in his own newspaper, The New Nation, and, eventually, the Nationalist Party was created to advance Bellamy’s ideas. Nationalism, it must be said, was the name Bellamy adopted for his proposal, in an attempt to avoid the word socialism which was associated with violence and social unrest in the wake of the Haymarket Massacre and the mass strikes of the 1870s.
An in-depth exploration into Bellamy’s rejection of self-ownership reveals that such a stance is an integral part of his particular form of radical egalitarianism. The writer from Chicopee Falls (Massachusetts) thought that some of the dominant currents of socialism of his time were not radical enough as to how far they were prepared to push in the direction of equality. He thought that Fabians were too attached to the mechanism of retribution according to contribution, whereas Marxists allowed personal assets to have undue influence on distributive matters. These critiques of other varieties of socialism were the basis of his own understanding of equality. Bellamy considered equality to be the only relevant moral relationship between persons. From this uncompromising stance, he mounted a full criticism of the notion of self-ownership and propounded a strong egalitarian principle: “From each, equally; to each equally”. The institutional arrangements of the utopian society that Dr Leete presents to Julian West are carefully designed and crafted to meet this extremely high standard, without giving in to the annulment of singularity or individual tastes.
It is well known that William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) is a direct response to Bellamy’s vision, from an anarchistic and pastoral perspective, as opposed to the industrialist and somewhat highly regulated Bellamian society. Morris wrote a critical review in which he remarked that Looking Forward should be “considered seriously” but not taken as a “socialist Bible”. He thought that Bellamy only wanted to get rid of the ills of modern life, without changing that life altogether. He described the utopian system as State Communism, criticised its severe discipline, its industrialism, the major role of great cities, and the limited conception of work as productive activity dissociated from pleasure and creativity. But the core of Morris’s critique was aimed at Bellamy’s peaceful “economical semi-fatalism” that lead to the egalitarian society instead of a conscious struggle for a “free and equal life”.
Even though Bellamy does not reply to Morris’s review, many of these objections seem to have shaped the more nuanced portrayal of the utopian society in Equality and other writings. At the same time, he comes up with a more straightforward rebuttal of self-ownership. So, when writing in The New Nation, he contends that it would be a “fraudulent” principle that which “would assume that an individual owns himself and has a valid title to the full usufruct of his powers without incumbrance or obligation on account of his debt to the past and his duties toward the social organism of which he is a part”. At the same time, alongside a handful of acute arguments against increasing social inequalities and an outright indictment of monopoly capitalism, Bellamy pulls off a brilliant case against the entailment of the principle of self-ownership which forbids someone from lending assistance to others unless it is done by a consented interpersonal contract. In Equality, he contends that under capitalism it is accepted that “everyone is entitled to … the result of his abilities” and that this is plainly wrong because “they would naturally acquire advantages over others in wealth seeking as in other ways”. Since he thought that abilities and the capacity for effort were due to the mere chance of birth, Bellamy ruled out the claim that the better endowed had a rightful claim over the advantages they could muster by using those undeserved talents. Therefore, it was the mission of social institutions to keep these inequalities from arising. It is easy to see that Bellamy was advancing similar arguments to those that, in the early 1970s, John Rawls used to build his monumental theory of justice as fairness.
If Rawls springs up in this account of Bellamy’s thought, it is because, in my view, they represent a deep-seated egalitarian trend both in American political thought and, more importantly, in the socialist tradition. The egalitarianism of Bellamy and Rawls, as noted before, is part of a rich ethical tradition that overcame the staunch anti-moralism of the more orthodox Marxist versions of socialism. Rawls spent two years in Oxford, at a time when G. D. H. Cole, who thought of Bellamy as a mere “populariser of other men’s ideas”, was teaching about utopian socialism; when the Labour Party was divided between friends and adversaries of public ownership; and when Tawney’s new edition of Equality rekindled the debate over and against equality of opportunity, as he advocated a kind of relational egalitarianism that despised the crude distributive view marked by “details of the countinghouse”. Without openly calling themselves socialists, both Rawls and Bellamy were no foes of socialism. On the contrary, Bellamy was convinced that his egalitarian model was even more radical than any socialist program of his time, and Rawls repeatedly emphasised that his theory of justice as fairness can be realised under a system of liberal or democratic socialism. Rawls believed “that the choice between a private-property economy and socialism is left open; from the standpoint of the theory of justice alone, various basic structures would appear to satisfy its principles”. Moreover, after dismissing laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, and state socialism as incompatible with his principles of justice as fairness, he asserted that “property-owning democracy and liberal socialism [in] their ideal descriptions include arrangements designed to satisfy the two principles of justice”.
In Bellamy and Rawls we can see proof of that "dual temporal existence" of Socialism identified by Freeden. As already mentioned, socialism encompasses both a critique of the present and a projection into the future. Bellamy chose the utopian genre to accomplish both tasks; Rawls, in the same spirit, called his otherwise unadorned and formal theory a “realistic utopia”. Above all, both political thinkers were adamant in rejecting self-ownership as part and parcel of their egalitarian views. It should come as no surprise that the first systematic challenge to Rawls was launched from within the liberal tradition, in the guise of the libertarian theory of Robert Nozick, whose endorsement of self-ownership leads to a form of rugged anti-egalitarianism. To sum up: I understand that self-ownership has no place in a radical egalitarian version of socialism and that a good deal of theoretical work needs to be done in order to refine our understanding of the precise place of this rejection in a morphology of the socialist political ideology.
 M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory. A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 425-426.
 Ibid., pp. 417-418.
 Ibid., p. 418.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. First published, 1971.)
 A. Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press), pp. 107-108.
 P. Gilabert and M. O’Neill, “Socialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/socialism/>.
 M. Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 220-227.
 F. Rosemont, ‘Bellamy’s Radicalism Reclaimed’, in Daphne Patai (Ed.) Looking Backward 1988-1888. Essays on Edward Bellamy (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 162.
 Ibid., p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 176.
 J. Dewey, ‘A Great American Prophet’, in Boydston, Jo Ann et. al (eds.) John Dewey. The Later Works 1925-1934. Volume 9: 1033-1934 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 106. [First published in Common Sense 3 (April 1934), pp. 6-7).
 E. Bellamy, Looking Backward. 2000-1887 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 E. Bellamy, Equality (New York: Appleton, 1897).
 E. Bellamy, Talks on Nationalism (Chicago, IL: The Peerage Press, 1938), p. 25.
 Morris, W., News From Nowhere and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 2004), pp. 353-357.
 E. Bellamy, Talks on Nationalism, op. cit., p. 27.
 E. Bellamy, Equality, op. cit., p. 107.
 K. Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice. Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 18-24.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 228.
 J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness. A Restatement (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 138.
by Meir Hatina
The development of Islamic Studies during the twentieth century and beyond has found little favour with Islam as a religious phenomenon. The body of knowledge on Islam has expanded, and new genres based on new sources have gained momentum, such as social history, urban studies, public space, holy landscape, religious practices, gender, and the documentation and empowerment of subaltern voices (women, minorities, and slaves). But it seems that this wealth of scholarship has touched on Islam as a culture and civilisation, much less on Islam as religious thought, especially in terms of theology and jurisprudence, religion and state, jihad and martyrdom, war and the treatment of captives and non-combatants, international relations—issues that continue to provoke debates and polemics in the modern era as well.
The twentieth century witnessed a religious resurgence in all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, depicted by sociologist Jose Casanova as the “de-privatisation” of religion and its return as a contentious issue to the public sphere. The Enlightenment project, which raised the banner of secularisation, confining religion to the private sphere, was contested, whereas manifestations of blasphemy remained on the sidelines. Thus, while modernity indeed constituted a significant challenge to the established faiths, it was also a fertile breeding ground for religious redefinition, innovation, and rejuvenation. In essence, modernisation had spawned new religious ideas, communities and movements. Some of these movements, like neo-evangelical Christianity, messianic Zionism, Israeli ultra-orthodoxy, or Islamists, questioned and often defied the prevailing “secular” order. In the Islamic milieu such defiance was accompanied by assertiveness, protest and violence, affecting intellectual and scholarly discourse, which also became dominated by rigid paradigms of tensions and antagonism among the Abrahamic creeds.
These paradigms lacked a comparative historical perspective and an awareness of the diversity of Islam and the complexity of interfaith encounters. One such paradigm, nurtured by post-colonial climate, was that of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978), which accused Western discourse of harbouring demonic perceptions of Islam and the East as archaic and intolerant entities, in contrast to a rational and progressive West. The contribution of Orientalism to the craft of history and to Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies has been extensive. It has significantly altered the way we think, write and present the history of the peoples of Islam and the East by displaying sensitivity and empathy towards them. Orientalism heightened our awareness that non-Western societies can develop their own modernity without necessarily breaking away from indigenous identities and cultures—what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities.” Yet, in spite of its merits, Said’s concept precisely because of its sweeping assertions sharpened the dissonance between East and West and gave further impetus to the politics of identities. Orientalism portrayed a Western plot to uproot indigenous cultures, and it permeated not only Islamic protest movements, but also academic institutions in the Arab-Muslim world.
The rise of the “culture of criticism” (al-thaqafa al-naqdiyya), carried out by socialists and liberal circles, which challenged and even dismantled Islamic traditions and norms, has been largely marginalised in the Western scholarship. Rather, many researchers were preoccupied with political Islam or Islamism and its call for the restoration of past legacies.
Another paradigm that drew the attention of scholarly discourse in the early 1990s was Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations (1996). It delineated a built-in tendency in Islam to violent conflict and to “bloody borders” between Muslims and non-Muslims, and demonised Islam as a religion of tyranny, intolerance and violence. The emergence of global jihad—especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks—played into Huntington’s thesis, creating a climate of cosmic war, of a permanent state of dissonance and confrontation.
The militancy image of Islam was reinforced by the rise of ISIS at the threshold of the twenty-first century and its chain of victories in Iraq and Syria. The question, posed by early Islamists in mid-twentieth century, as to whether there would be a revival of the religion of Muhammad has now been replaced by the question posed by global jihadists whether someone would be able to stand against the religion of Muhammad. Kasr al-hudud, namely the dismantling of geographical and political boundaries was ISIS’s driven force. This self-confidence mood was also reflected in ISIS’s English-language online magazine Dabiq, which opened one of its issues with the title “Break the Cross” and closed it with “By the Sword.” The cross had become a code phrase for the “new crusade,” which harboured humanity’s deviation from the path of God—such as democracy, liberalism, feminism, and atheism. It served as a trigger for violence as a purifying force.
Yet, even analysts who were not convinced of such paradigms as Orientalism and the Clash of Civilizations continued to focus on the political aspects of modern religious revival, while downplaying historical legacies and ignoring other, more ecumenical voices, in favour of such labels as “fundamentalism,” “puritanism,” “scripturalism” and “strong religion.” Accordingly, fundamentalism in world religions was explained in the five-volume Chicago Fundamentalist Project (1991–1995) as a product of pressures of modernity and reactions to these pressures: thus secularisation led to religious revivalism; the consolidation of feminist ideologies caused a backlash favouring modesty and family-based ideologies; and technology and free access to knowledge have led to religious confinement and censorship.
Neither Said’s Orientalism, nor Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and nor the Chicago “Fundamentalism” project reflect the complex nature of interfaith encounters. Viewed from a historical perspective, civilisations were never fixed polities, but rather heterogeneous and diverse, with changing boundaries and intellectual orientations. Moreover, they were exposed to inner frictions, which at times overshadowed external conflicts with other cultures. This is true with regard to the religious wars in European history, as well as to clashes within Islamic societies, as the global jihad of al-Qaʿida and ISIS represented only one small radical fraction in a multifaceted Islamic spectrum.
On the Jewish-Christian axis recent years have witnessed an abundance of research reflecting a revived Christian interest in Jewish tradition, for example in Kabbalah. The revised scholarship has changed the long-standing stereotype of a monolithic divide between Judaism and Christianity in pre-modern times that was fed by sustained polemic traditions and modern anti-Semitism. It demonstrated the diverse nature of the study of Jewish esoteric lore among Christians, and, simultaneously, presented the Jews as agents of cultural transmission functioning within the framework of a wider society. The existence of a more diffused reality applies all the more to the multiethnic and culturally diverse Muslim world, where Jewish and Christian communities were influenced by Muslim values, norms and practices, and vice-versa, revealing deeply acculturated processes.
Approaching prevailing paradigms in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies as relative concepts that should be examined cautiously will highlight cross-cultural features and introduce a more constructive analysis of modern Islamic resurgence. Such an approach will also eschew a binary picture in favor of a diffuse reality of intertwined worlds: on the one hand, religions striving for the sole possession of revelation and holy places; and on the other, mutual recognition by religions of a shared background of myths, founding figures, injunctions, values, cosmology, social behaviour, and interactions across time and space.
Moving away from artificial precepts to examine more concrete communal realities, using sociological insights and fieldwork, is more productive and insightful. Thus, for example, many speak of religiosity and its manifestations in the public sphere. However, in the context of Islam in Israel, for instance, an increase in the number of mosques and welfare associations is clearly not a sufficient indication of the strength of the Islamic Movement and the degree of Islamisation of the Arab public domain. Public polls conducted in recent years among Muslims in Israel show that only 20% of the respondents indicated that religion should play an active role in the public sphere; the rest saw it as a moral and cultural code, and adopted a pluralistic approach to religion. Moreover, field studies conducted in mixed localities in which Muslims and Christians live, such as Haifa, Nazareth, and Kafr Qana, show cordial interethnic relations based on interpersonal and family acquaintances, joint activities in local institutions, and common interests related to their positions as minority groups vis-à-vis state authorities.
A similar picture of Islamisation as a relative process can be traced in the Middle Eastern environment. For example, with regard to the veil or head covering which stem from a social, not only a religious, trigger that allows women to move freely in public. In addition, opinion polls and interviews conducted in various Arab countries from the 2000s onward showed that a significant percentage of respondents, mainly young people, expressed a desire for the shielding of personal freedoms and the establishment of a democratic regime. Some of them even displayed indifference and skepticism to religion. These indicators, together with the different approaches regarding the place of Islam in the polity, are clear signs of religious diversity.
Perhaps it is, after all, not surprising that the Arab revolutions of 2011 (dubbed the “Arab Spring”), did not erupt on religious demands for the implementation of the shariʿa (Islamic law), but against the background of mundane issues, such as individual and civil rights, social justice, and democratisation. It is also plausible that the failure of the elected Muslim Brethren to promote these secular issues eventually brought on their downfall in 2013 only a year after they had gained power. The 2011 uprisings overturned entrenched research paradigms about the endurance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the inherent submissiveness of the people. The Arab public space changed both its face and its historic role. It was no longer a background against which rulers projected their authority in public processions and official festivals, while the masses played a submissive role, cheering and granting them legitimacy. The demonstrators, led by educated and embittered youths, stormed the symbols of sovereignty of the Arab state, creating new modes of collective action. The dramatic events attested to a Middle East that was an integral part of the global village in terms of its exposure to modern technology, communication networks, and Western ideas.
The post-2011 scholarship was seemingly reorganising its patterns of thought, but this was not the case. Two years after the Arab revolutions, and in the shadow of civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and against the backdrop of the rise of ISIS, another paradigm emerged—the failed state. The failed state model refers to the breaking of the state’s authority, which is reinforced by the renewed vitality of ethnic, religious, tribal, and regional identities. Hence, ethnic-religious sectarianism became a central component of the Middle Eastern landscape and provided a platform for bloody confrontations. This conclusion seems too sweeping, and completely eliminates 100 years of state-building project in the Arab world, which witnessed the consolidation of geographical borders and the construction of national identity, even if feeble one.
Critical review of prevailing paradigms in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies does not aim to draw firm conclusions, but only to highlight the importance of having a historical and sociological perspective. Historical monitoring will keep us from falling into essentialist concepts, such as “Islam is the religion of the sword” or “the army of shrouds,” referring to suicide bombers. Of course, one cannot ignore society’s formative ethos and judicial rulings anchored in classical texts, but one must closely examine their historical evolution and the new interpretations that have permeated them. After all, social agents and movements play a crucial role in remoulding of the “truth” of scriptures, in accordance with the circumstances and aspirations of their time.
 José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), mainly chapters 1, 8.
 Said, Orientalism (new ed., London: Penguin, 2003).
 S N. Eisenstadt, "Multiple Modernities," Daedalus 129/1 (2000): 1–29.
 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), mainly 254–265.
 Dabiq, 1437 Shawwal, no. 15. In: http://clarionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/islamic-state-magazine-dabiq-fifteen-breaking-the-cross.pdf
 Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds.), The Fundamentalist Project (University of Chicago Press, 1991-1995).
 Muhammad al-Atawneh and Nohad Ali, Islam in Israel: Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 73-101; Muhammad al-Atawneh and Meir Hatina, "The Study of Islam and Muslims in Israel," Israeli Studies 24/3 (Fall 2019), 101-125.
 Brian Whitaker, Arabs without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East (California: Createspace, 2014).
 Kobi Michael and Yoel Guzansky, "The Nation State vs. the Failed State and the Arab Upheaval in the Middle East,” in Vladimir Sazonov et al (eds.), Cultural Crossroads in the Middle East (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2019), 220-235.
 Meir Hatina, Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
by Piotr Kuligowski and Quentin Schwanck
In numerous studies, the 19th century is identified as the dawn of modern politics, for it was then that contemporary political ideologies emerged and/or gained popularity outside the narrow circles of intellectuals. Indeed, the rise of capitalism and the entanglement of deep social and economic phenomena then paved the way for new comprehensive ways of thinking and perceiving the world. This intellectual process gained a particular momentum in the period that Eric J. Hobsbawm correctly called ‘the age of revolution’ (roughly 1789–1848). It was in this period that numerous authors clustered together novel single concepts such as ‘liberalism’ and ‘socialism’ to create all-encompassing intellectual systems. These conceptual constellations subsequently allowed political actors to grasp the entirety of socio-political phenomena and recognise them within the framework of a well-ordered system of thinking.
Yet how and why could French political concepts penetrate Polish discourse and contribute to the emergence of a distinct national ideology? And how do ideologies disappear?—these are two crucial questions we have addressed in our recent research. To tackle these questions, we combined research toolkits provided by ideology studies in the way proposed by Michael Freeden and his followers, as well as the methods elaborated by the representatives of German conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte). Therefore, we perceive ideologies as relative stable galaxies of concepts (following Freeden’s definition of concepts as the ‘building blocks of ideology’)—even though, as happens in the cosmos, certain changes may occur from time to time: supernovae explode, meteorites fall, and stars and planets collide. In other words, our perspective allowed us—by tracing the transfers and transformations of individual concepts—to grasp the moment of the emergence and disappearance of the ideology we are interested in.
In our case study we underline the role played by the asymmetrical pair of counter-concepts ‘individualism-socialism’, coined initially by the French philosopher Pierre Leroux (1797–1871), within the discourse of Polish democrats in exile. Indeed, despite the highly divergent sociopolitical conditions that obtained in Poland and France at the time, in the wider picture it is possible to observe certain common points and problems they intended to face. In particular, both Polish and French political actors from that time perceived the world as being in turmoil, and sought effective remedies to cure fears related to the modernising world. An important watershed in this story is the year 1830—a year of revolution in France, which also marked the outbreak of the anti-Russian November Uprising in the Russian-controlled part of Poland. Both events triggered profound changes in these countries’ political landscapes.
Indeed, the case of post-1789 France is particularly interesting. During the first decades of the 19th century, many French thinkers, and particularly the first socialists, acknowledged the radical changes faced by society, that is to say the collapse of political legitimacy, the contestation of religious values, and the emergence of the question sociale in the wake of liberalisation and industrialisation. Trying to describe and analyse the new human condition, early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and their successors decisively contributed to shaping modern political categories.
Their critique of the existing order led them to define the two great ideological alternatives that we still know today as socialism and liberalism, elucidating this opposition with the articulation of decisive counter-concepts. In this article, we investigate one of the most interesting cases of this ideological process, focusing on Pierre Leroux—the first French thinker to use the concept of socialisme. Leroux began to formulate his original philosophy in the 1830s and, although he was largely forgotten after the rise of scientific socialism, he greatly contributed to the political and social debate in the 19th century. As he insisted in 1857, it was he ‘who first used the word socialisme. It was then a neologism, a necessary neologism [coined] in contrast to individualisme, which was beginning to prevail.’
Indeed, in his periodical publications such as the Revue encyclopédique (1831–1833) and the Encyclopédie Nouvelle (1833–1840), but also in many of his books, Leroux formulated an innovative social philosophy based on the pair of counter-concepts individualisme and socialisme. He originally defined both terms in a pejorative fashion to describe the most extreme expressions of liberté and égalité, that is to say, atomisation and authoritarianism (referring to hierarchical forms of socialism such as Saint-Simonism): his objective being to find the golden mean between them.
Finally, Leroux adopted a positive defition of socialism on the grounds that he considered this notion to be the best one to describe his philosophy, asserting that ‘we are socialists if one calls socialism the doctrine which will not sacrifice any of the words of the formula liberté, fraternité, égalité, unité, but which will conciliate all of them.’ By doing so, he conferred a deep political dimension on this concept, and argued that the only way for a nation to become socialist was to be democratic. Indeed, democracy was for Leroux the true regime of the golden mean: as all voices would be heard and all social energies would be expressed in the democratic debate, tensions would gradually fade and the oppositions would converge in a higher state of harmony.
Pierre Leroux never became an ideological leader as he did not create a party or school of thought, but his original philosophy exerted a great influence on the 19th-century intellectual stage. His theory of democracy enabled him to become the first thinker to establish a fruitful dialogue between socialism and republicanism, thus becoming the great pioneer of republican socialism, an ideological stance and sensibility which played a great role in 19th- and 20th-century France. Furthermore, his doctrine gained a considerable audience at the European level, particularly in the small circles of the reformist elite. Indeed, as Leroux was a very close friend and interlocutor of George Sand, many of his most central ideas were presented or debated in her novels. As Sand was then the most famous female writer on the European continent, as well as an inspiration for many socialist movements, she enabled Leroux’s ideas to reach European intellectuals such as Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), and Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), making him a central figure to evaluate the impact of ‘wandering ideas’ in 19th-century Europe.
In turn, the November uprising (that was finally defeated in 1831) marks a new period for Polish history, in which the massive emigration of cultural and political elites to Western Europe began. This phenomenon is called the Great Emigration, which had a profound impact on Polish culture (notably literature and poetry); but at the same time, its impact on the modernisation of the Polish political imagination should also not be underestimated.
One of the political milieus of crucial importance that emerged amidst the waves of Polish emigration was the Polish Democratic Society. The Society was created in 1832 in Paris in the wake of a split within the Polish National Committee, which was the result of debates about the failed uprising and the directions of the activities in exile. As possibly the first organisation in Europe to have the adjective ‘democratic’ in its name, the Society exerted a strong influence on Polish political life in the 19th century. In fact, it was the longest-existing organisation in exile, as its dissolution took place only in 1862. Moreover, the Society proved its organisational effectiveness: it had a clearly exposited political program and agenda, it established a network of would-be conspirators within the Polish lands, and was able to run several journals, amongst which Demokrata Polski (Polish Democrat) occupied a central place. The Society was also influential in the number of its rank-and-file members: at the peak of its activity, this organisation had approximately 2,500 members. For these reasons, certain historians (e.g., Sławomir Kalembka) have contended that the Society was in fact the very first modern Polish political party.
Thanks to these democrats’ close engagement with the ideas of the day, the asymmetrical pair of counter-concepts ‘individualism-socialism’ became transferred into Polish political discourse. As usual, however, transfer is not solely a process of passive transmission of a certain idea from its domestic context into the new absorbing one. Rather, it is always a process of creative adaptation that does not take place without frictions. From this angle, conceptual transfer arrives rather as multi-layered mediation involving numerous creative actors (authors, translators, publishing houses, funders, readers, and the like). This was exactly the case with the Polish democrats-in-exile, as they adapted the pair of ‘individualism-socialism’ to their own particular goals. Primarily, it came in handy when they tried to present themselves not as dangerous radicals, but rather as representatives of a golden mean between two extremes. In this way, the democrats made an effort to position themselves between the two political wings that existed within the Polish political milieu in exile: socialism represented by certain groups situated on the left of the Polish Democratic Society (such as the Commons of the Polish People, Gromady Ludu Polskiego), and individualism, associated with liberal-aristocratic conceptions, was to create negative alignments with the political milieu led by prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski (1770–1861).
Over the course of time, the Polish idea of democracy broadened its meaning. In the early 1830s, when the Polish Democratic Society was formed, democracy as a concept was associated solely with certain forms of organising political power. As the debates unfolded, however, it received new layers of meaning, saturated by new transferred concepts (derived mostly from the French republicanism and early socialism). First of all, in the 1840s democracy became a definite political movement, opposed to aristocracy, and, consequently, one type of possible political identification. What is more, democracy during that decade was also associated with a specific vision of society: its realisation was to be dependent on the transformation of the Polish socio-political realities that existed at that time. Last but not least, ‘democracy’ likewise meant supporting a certain historical viewpoint, as it encompassed a precise vision of the past as well.
These conceptual changes finally set the scene for the emergence of the concept of ‘democratism’, which became a label for a fully-fledged ideology that in the Polish context encompassed several ‘spaces of experience’—to use the term Reinhart Koselleck deploys to depict our experiences not as structures depending on chronological time, but rather as interrelated, malleable, and contingent paths. Indeed, ‘democratism’ was a future-oriented concept, defined as a golden mean between socialism and individualism (or egoism). ‘Democratism’ was presented as a specific adaptation of the pure teachings of Jesus, and thus became the watchword of the Polish people’s liberation. Interestingly, however, despite its clear universalistic orientation, ‘democratism’ was further described by the Polish democrats as a native Slavic concept.
In spite of their claims, we instead suggest that the notion of ‘democratism’ itself was likely first coined in German political debates (in the early 1840s), and potentially permeated into Polish political discourse from there. This is also indicated by the fact that one of the first Polish democrats who began to use the concept of democratism was Jan Kanty Podolecki (1800–1855), who before 1848 lived in Galicia, so in the part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled by Austria. Podolecki found himself in exile after 1848, and became a member of the central section of the Polish Democratic Society that was formed in London at the turn of the 1840s and 1850s. Seen from this angle, the concept of ‘democratism’ encapsulates experiences related to several different political and social contexts.
The concept of ‘democratism’, however, turned out to be relatively short-lived. In the 1850s and 1860s, when the Polish Democratic Society found itself in organisational crisis, it began to lose popularity and importance. In fact, later on, the meaning of the concept of democracy (rather than ‘democratism’) in Polish political discourse became twisted once again, no longer signifying an ideology, but rather returning to its original meaning, i.e., referring mostly to the form of organisation of political power. The history of the concept thus acts as a microcosm, offering an insight into the process by which a political ideology is constructed and then later declines.
Our method and revealed case exhibit an additional dimension of topicality, which lies not only in addressing these questions by tracing the international connections that pervade intellectual history, but likewise in shining a light onto the process of unfolding a new ideology and, subsequently, onto its disintegration. It may be particularly interesting for scholars working on contemporary history in a time of great ideological changes such as today, where numerous conceptions coined beyond the Western world are coming to the fore and constituting new ideological constellations.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Abacus, 1977).
Michael Freeden, Ideologies and political theory: a conceptual approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Reinhart Koselleck, 'Einleitung', in: Reinhart Koselleck, Werner Conze, and Otto Brunner (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland. vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972), XIII-XXVII.
Sławomie Kalembka, Towarzystwo Demokratyczne Polskie w latach 1832-1846 (Toruń: TNT; Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1966), 261.
Jörn Leonhard, ‘Another “Sonderweg”? The Historical Semantics of “Democracy” in Germany’, in: Jussi Kurunmäki, Jeppe Nevers, and Henk te Velde (Eds.), Democracy in Modern Europe: A Conceptual History (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books: 2018), 74–75.
by Bruno Leipold
Bruno Leipold: This book is the culmination of a long engagement of yours with the German council movement that emerged during the Revolution of 1918-19. You wrote your PhD on Hannah Arendt’s account of council democracy and have also edited two volumes on the subject: Council Democracy: Towards a Democratic Socialist Politics (2018) and, with Gaard Kets, The German Revolution and Political Theory (2019). What is it about the councils that keeps drawing you back to them?
James Muldoon: The councils offer an alternative vision of democracy that expands our political imagination and questions the compatibility of democracy with capitalism. This perspective helps us to see our political inheritance of liberal democratic capitalism from a new perspective. The council movements believed it was necessary to extend a program of democratisation into a range of social and economic institutions such as schools, universities, workplaces, industry bodies, economic regulatory institutions and the civil service.
Many political theorists and actors come back to some form of council model when they are searching for alternative forms of political organisation outside of the state. The classic image of a council democracy is of a federal structure of councils with local and regional councils electing delegates leading to a national council that would exercise political and economic powers.
For those interested in examining more democratic ways to organise the economy, the experience of the council movements still provides a guiding light for what could be possible. There are specific institutional features such as recallable delegates, imperative mandate and average wages for political representatives that I think should get more of a hearing in contemporary debates, but which aren’t necessary for some form of council system.
Studying these bottom-up democratic institutions might seem anachronistic today, but what I find most interesting isn’t necessarily the precise institutional features, but the unfulfilled aspirations for political transformation which remain alive in the present. They show that a participatory society with more institutions organised along democratic lines is not only desirable but could be within reach.
BL: The title of your book seems to be a sceptical nod towards John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, a book that encapsulated the anti-hierarchical ideology of the Occupy movements. Do you see your book as challenging that model of political organisation and strategy?
JM: The title of my book, Building Power to Change the World implies a different strategy and approach to the ‘horizontalist’ tendency that was prominent in social movements in the 2010s. When I started this project on the workers’ councils of the 1917-1923 era, there had been a return to public assemblies and anarchist-inspired direct democratic methods as part of the global “squares movements”. Movements such as the Spanish 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street and other square and assembly-based protests sought to negate principles of hierarchy and representation and advocated for strategies of withdrawal and autonomous self-activity.
I participated in these movements as part of Occupy Melbourne and what many of us started to see was the limitations of such an ephemeral form of organisation. There was a sense in the neo-anarchist currents of these square movements that we could just re-create the world anew without having to engage with what was perceived to be an outdated and archaic form of democratic government. By refusing to engage with the domain of the state and parliamentary struggle these movements did not build up long-term organisational power or challenge the power of neoliberal capitalism head on.
In contrast to this strategy of refusal, the central point that most participants in the council movements of the inter-war period agreed upon was that in order to secure lasting social change the movement should develop the independent power of the working class. There were many disagreements over methods, but there was a shared horizon of acknowledging the importance of strategising ways in which workers’ power could be enhanced while diminishing the organisational and ideological power of the capitalist class.
BL: That would seem to involve a quite distinct understanding of organisation and power than we find in the horizontalism of Occupy and Holloway?
JM: There are many similarities between the approach of the Councils and that adopted by Holloway so the differences should not be overstated. However, his idea of “not taking power” relies on an ontological distinction between a “power to” (potentia) and a “power over” (potestas) and the presumption that there is some qualitative difference between the organisational form of parliaments versus other more grassroots forms of organisation. We can supposedly build our capacity for collective action (potentia) without creating new structures for controlling others (potestas).
I have always found this distinction dubious to hold in practice. It ends up valorising forms of political activity seen as “from below” or “of the people” while demonising strategies that involve forms of parliamentary struggle or action in and against the state.
Any movement seeking to form a more emancipatory society will eventually have to confront the question of which institutions will manage political conflict and enforce collective decisions in a post-capitalist polity. When you start to ask the question of how these institutions would be structured, what participatory rights and legal protections citizens would have, and how law would be created, the distinction between two separate kinds of power seems less helpful.
BL: One of my favourite lines that you quote in the book is by the Revolutionary Shop Steward Ernst Däumig who said he wanted ‘a Germany whose affairs are really determined by active people doing more than running to the ballot box every two or three years’, which sounds like the model of a good Rousseaian republican citizen! What role do you think republicanism plays in the ideology of the Council movement?
JM: The tradition of republicanism has some deeply conservative and even anti-democratic tendencies, but there are also prominent forms of radical republicanism. We are beginning to understand in more detail how the socialist tradition emerged from radical strands of republicanism in the 19th century.
Theorists of the council movements inherited a democratic republican legacy through the writings of Marx and Engels. Rosa Luxemburg is somebody who at different points has been seen as exemplary of a radical republicanism due to her calls for greater participation in public life and her defence of democratic freedoms. The council movements represent some of the more radical elements of the German socialist movement who favoured “bottom up” forms of socialist organising in comparison to the more statist versions of socialism in the German Social Democratic Party.
The real gambit of theorists like Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg is on the question of citizen participation. Their entire political theory relies on a conception of democratic citizenship which demands a lot of citizens in terms of their commitment to public life. There is a kind of Rousseauian idea here of active citizens tending to public institutions, but it’s a form of republicanism beyond the state - a republic of councils perhaps.
BL: An important contribution of your book is that it reconstructs some of the core concepts of the ideology of the Council movements, including Rosa Luxemburg’s account of ‘socialist civic virtues’. How do these socialist civic virtues differ from what we traditionally understand by civic virtue?
JM: When I first read Luxemburg’s account of socialist civic virtues I was surprised by the use of such republican language. But the more closely I followed her thought in the 1917-1919 period, I began to see how much she had turned her attention to the cultural transformations that would be needed for a democratic socialist revolution to be successful. She thought that worker-controlled institutions such as workers’ councils would need to be accompanied by new social norms and widespread modes of relating to others that would protect and maintain these new institutions.
The content of these socialist civic virtues mirrors certain aspects of republicanism: the need for an orientation towards the common good, the negation of egoism, the development of political judgement and the importance of self-discipline and personal sacrifice. But the way these virtues figure in Luxemburg’s thought is very different to traditional republican theory. It’s not the state that cultivates these virtues in citizens through education, but the workers themselves that develop them in political struggle. They are also not oriented towards preserving the state as in republican theory, but towards an emancipatory political movement of overcoming relations of domination.
It’s for these reasons that I wouldn’t go as far as interpreters such as Hannah Arendt who sees Luxemburg as some kind of ‘republican’, however broadly understood. Although there are interesting elements of republican language and themes in her writings, they are thoroughly transformed and reconfigured within a revolutionary socialist outlook.
BL: Another important conceptual innovation of the councils that you highlight is idea of ‘freedom as collective self-determination’, which you particularly associate with Anton Pannekoek. Where does this conception of freedom lie in relation to some of the classic debates, including the distinction between positive and negative liberty?
JM: The council movements envisioned a new participatory society of democratic collectives involved in public life and democratically managing all of societies major institutions. Their ideal of political freedom involved democratic collective participating in their community and helping to shape its underlying character, laws and future direction.
The revival of republican accounts of freedom as non-domination have all been tied to negative ideals of liberty. Even radical republicans such as Alex Gourevitch – who has reconstructed the political thought of the Knights of Labour – situate their own interpretations primarily within the negative liberty tradition. For many of the radical council theorists, freedom was best understood as an activity – and indeed a movement – rather than a status or condition of non-domination. Democratic participation was seen as a necessary aspect of freedom rather than something auxiliary that was need to secure its conditions.
This view of freedom goes back to an older Athenian tradition (“the liberty of the ancients”) of active participation in exercising collective power. But this wasn’t just a nostalgic view of direct democracy. It was also attentive to how the state and modern labour market were two of the principal sources of domination in modern life.
It is a demanding view of freedom, but one that is too often discounted in debates between liberals and republicans as either conceptually incoherent or not worth considering. I think such a dismissal is too hasty. The ideal of freedom as collective self-determination has important resonances with a range of emancipatory social movements who see freedom as a collective practice and a constant struggle. It captures something attractive about our intuitive ideas of freedom that are left out of a purely negative lens.
BL: One subsidiary aim of the book is to rehabilitate the reputation of Karl Kautsky. You argue that during the German Revolution he advocated for a kind ‘socialist republicanism’ that combined elements of both parliamentary and council democracy. How does that position differ to some of the other positions taken by socialists and social democrats at the time?
JM: Karl Kautsky is little read today, even by Marxists. Mostly he is associated with the rigid orthodoxy of the Second International. He is said to have vulgarised Marxism into a crude economic determinism in which revolution was seen as a historical inevitability and all the party needed to do was passively wait for capitalism’s downfall. The book attempts to show that Kautsky was a far more sensitive and dynamic thinker than this characterisation implies.
I focus on his writings leading up to and during the German Revolution. During this period, Kautsky found himself occupying a middle position between two different groups. The moderate social democrats wanted the workers’ councils demobilised and for a speedy transition to a parliamentary republic. The radicals in the party called for a council republic with the workers’ councils forming the basis of the new structures of political authority.
In many ways, Karl Kautsky was the goldilocks of the German Revolution. He supported the workers’ councils and thought they played a valuable role in the initial phases of the revolution. But he didn’t see the councils as sufficiently universal or indeed that well suited to administering a future socialist society. In practice, rule by the councils had excluded many groups of people from any form of political suffrage: from many women, to the unemployed, peasants and even some male workers outside densely populated industrial areas.
But he didn’t think the councils should disappear after the revolution. He advocated for retaining the workers’ councils alongside parliamentary institutions to maintain an institutionalised power base for safeguarding workers’ interests and for the organisation of the economy.
BL: What did this ‘goldilocks’ position on the councils mean for Kautsky’s relations to those political factions, such as the leaders of the SPD, that rejected this hybrid approach?
JM: The leadership of the SPD at the time represented a social democratic compromise with capital and the state. They wanted to take over the reins of power but for private property to remain largely unchanged and for German industry to continue on as before. Kautsky is widely seen as going along with this basic idea and as having effectively sold out his radical roots by the time of the Revolution. His writings during this period show this not to be the case. Kautsky still advocated for a thoroughgoing socialisation of the economy and a transformation of the state.
One of the more innovative aspects of his program was his call for the radical decentralisation of the administrative apparatus and for power to be devolved to municipal apparatuses including the power of taxation, policing and the delivery of basic services. The radical housing projects and cultural life of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s stands as a living experiment of the kinds of policies Kautsky was advocating at the time.
Kautsky could be criticised for his naivety in relation to the true intentions of the SPD leadership, but he was pushing for far more radical policies than what he is usually given credit for.
BL: And what about Kautsky’s positioning beyond Germany? How did his socialist republicanism influence his view of the concurrent revolutionary events in Russia?
JM: What makes Kautsky’s position a socialist republican one is its starting point of political democracy, universal suffrage, parliamentary elections, a multi-party electoral system, and its insistence on maintaining civil and political rights. Kautsky was therefore critical of the Bolsheviks for what he argued were the use of ‘methods of violence’ which he contrasted with the ‘methods of democracy’.
One of the key points of difference between Lenin and Kautsky is on the role of the state. Lenin models the Russian soviet system on the Paris Commune with workers’ councils as the main institutions of political power. Kautsky doesn’t think the state should be abolished, but rather transformed into a democratic and then socialist republic. Kautsky finds in Marx a distinction between a “military autocratic” aspect of the state which should be abolished, and the democratic republican institutions which would need to be transformed for a future socialist society.
He argues that institutions such as a parliament with free elections, a multi-party system, a civil service and some kind of basic administrative apparatus would be necessary in a future socialist society. The purportedly “anti-bureaucratic” institutions of the Commune were simply no longer suitable for a large, complex and industrialised nation state. The socialist party needed to take what was best from the tradition of democratic republicanism and push it to its radical edges.
I think the identification of socialist republicanism as an ideology is a useful way of revealing significant differences within socialist ideology and an under-examined strand of democratic socialism in contrast to the more insurrectionary communism of the Bolsheviks.
BL: The Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution have, of course, played a much greater role in the political imagination of the Left. What do you think explains the relative neglect of the Councils of the German Revolution?
JM: The various strands of socialist democracy that existed within pre-revolutionary Germany were eventually overtaken by the communism of the Bolshevik Party.
The experience of the councils was also not well incorporated into the history of political thought. Every historical event will be subject to partisan interpretations, but as John Medearis has shown, three of the most well-known interpreters of the councils, V. I. Lenin, Hannah Arendt and Joseph Schumpeter, each offer distorted readings of the councils that have led to confusions over their reception.
Lenin’s admonishing of the ‘infantile leftism’ of council theorists such as Anton Pannekoek had perhaps done the most to sink the reputation of theorists associated with this strand of socialism. Contrary to Lenin’s interpretation, many of the council theorists made significant theoretical innovations within Marxism, particularly by advancing democratic republican aspects of Marx’s political thought.
BL: Do you think that anything has been lost in our political vocabulary as a result of that neglect?
JM: I think the biggest neglect has been of these more ‘bottom up’ and democratic approaches to socialist organising which have been marginalised both with social democratic and communist discourse.
This relates to both strategy and institutions. On the strategic front, we have seen insurrectionary forms of socialism and vanguardist theories of political parties dominate for most of the twentieth century. For the most part, parliamentary politics has been seen as corrupted and not worth pursuing leading to a marginalisation of small socialist groups.
In terms of institutions, there has been very little theorising about what these would look like in a future socialist society or how you would practically organise the economy and manage political conflict. The idea that with the end of capitalism the majority of conflict would disappear has never really been plausible. In this respect, socialist republicanism adds an important political and institutional dimension to the socialist tradition.
BL: Finally, if you could pick out one text from the German council movement for people to read today, what would it be?
JM: I’ll cheat slightly and recommend one in German and one in English. For those who read German, I would get a copy of the stenographic report of the National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers Councils which met from 16-20 December 1918. This was dubbed the “Parliament of the Revolution” and was the meeting at which the councils decided on a number of important questions such as whether Germany would be a council republic or a liberal democracy and how far it would go in socialising the economy. The debates at the Congress are insightful for how the workers and soldiers understood their choices.
It was republished on the centenary of the revolution in 2018 by Dieter Braeg and Ralf Hoffrogge as Allgemeiner Kongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte Deutschlands. Unfortunately, it’s yet to be published in English, although certain speeches have been translated in Gabriel Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919.
My personal favourite from this period that has been translated in English is a short pamphlet by Karl Kautsky written in January 1919 entitled “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme”. It provides an overview of how a democratic republic could be expanded into a socialist republic through a dual strategy of democratisation and socialisation and offers a different perspective on Kautsky’s political views during this period.
Constructing ‘alternative’ ideological narratives in conservative thought: Populist strategy from village politics to a post-truth world
by Richard James Elliott
One of the most remarkable traits of modern conservatism in Britain and the United States is its populism—its ability to speak for and to a working class audience. Traditionally, conservative parties attracted popular support by pitching themselves to the masses as steadfast bastions of property and the established order. Yet in recent years, disruptive political movements on both sides of the Atlantic—Brexit in Britain and Trumpism in America—have magnified the importance of the direct (and personal) dialogue between conservative leaders and their working class supporters.
Calls from leading Brexiteers for Britain to ‘take back control’ from the European Union continue to resonate with disempowered voters in deprived regions of England, amplifying the reach of Boris Johnson’s opportunistic brand of conservatism. In the United States, Donald Trump speaks directly to the concerns of his working-class base, delighting thousands of adoring supporters at mass rallies, while—at least until recently—captivating (and enraging) millions more instantaneously via Twitter. And across the airwaves, conservative pundits like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson address viewers face-on, speaking directly to camera in an ersatz conversational style in order to give the impression that right-wing talking points emerge out of a straightforward and ‘authentic’ dialogue among reasonable Americans.
Using this approach, conservative leaders have been able to cultivate personal loyalty, to construct an ‘alternative’ narrative of political events around core ideological beliefs, and to undermine the credibility of the experts and journalists that question the new political orthodoxy. To those outside the bubble, this ‘alternative’ narrative often appears like a bewildering display of mendacity, bombast, nationalism, and self-aggrandisement, bearing little resemblance to reality. But for all the talk of transition to a ‘post-truth’ era of politics (and the cannibalism of conservatism), the current state of affairs is not as unprecedented as we often tend to imagine.
The ‘alternative’ narratives that have developed out of the contemporary dialogues between conservative leaders and their working-class supporters draw on many of the same strategies that have been used over the past three centuries to mobilise mass support during periods of intense political partisanship. By examining two rich historical examples (without losing sight of the clear differences in historical context) it should be possible to elucidate how these strategies work in practice. Moreover, it should become easier for us to step outside our own experience and reflect on some of the ways that populism expands and transforms conservative ideology.
The first example is a classic propaganda pamphlet targeted towards the labouring classes. Hannah More’s Village Politics (1792) was published at the height of the French Revolution, as the moderate constitutional aims of the early revolutionary years gave way to much more radical demands for social and political transformation. More’s popular pamphlet reflects the growing anxiety of the British ruling elite that revolutionary ideas would spread across the Channel, inspiring the lower orders to rise up and overthrow the existing political system. More sought to counter this threat (manifested in the immense popularity of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man) by addressing the labouring classes directly in the form of a dialogue between two characters: Tom Hod, the mason, and Jack Anvil, the blacksmith. At the beginning of the dialogue, Tom reveals that a book of revolutionary ideas has caused him to grow dissatisfied with his lot. He demands ‘Liberty and Equality, and the Rights of Man’. Jack initially laughs off Tom’s sudden political transformation, before countering his demands with a discussion of the violent excesses of the French Revolution and the natural superiority of the English constitution. As Tom gradually cedes ground, Jack demonstrates that the ‘Rights of Man’ are all abstract theoretical principles with no real foundation. And he reminds Tom of the tangible benefits of the existing order (from a day off every week on the Sabbath to the ‘superfluity’ of ale). Ultimately, Tom abandons his new revolutionary ideas, accepting that ‘we’re better off as we are’.
The second example plays on many of the same themes. C. S. Price’s Love and Mr. Smith (1932) was one of a series of ‘Plays for Patriots’ intended for use as propaganda during the interwar period. These mini-dramas were official campaign materials (approved by the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Parties), performed by party-members to an audience of local electors. Crucially, the plays were not simply am-dram electioneering: they reflected real anxieties among conservatives about the dangers of socialism and the threat of class war. Love and Mr. Smith centres on the tension that arises in a working-class household when ‘good old-fashioned’ conservative values are challenged by the arrival of a communist interloper. Mr. Smith returns home from a political meeting fuming that the local Conservative candidate has been heckled by communists intent on stirring up trouble. His daughter has invited Billy Johnson, the young man that she is walking out with, for dinner. But it soon emerges that Johnson is one of the communist agitators that disrupted and ultimately broke up the meeting. Mr. Smith is outraged, and proceeds to lecture Johnson and the audience on the perils of social disintegration if the communists get their way. Fortunately, the drama is resolved when the middle-class curate arrives and explains that Johnson was fighting back against the bully tactics of his comrades, and Johnson renounces his former political beliefs for the love of Mr. Smith’s daughter.
Neither historical example is especially subtle. But the similarities between Village Politics and Love and Mr. Smith highlight some of the most effective strategies employed by conservative cultural and political leaders to construct an ‘alternative’ ideological narrative for their working-class supporters.
First, the narrative is presented in the form of a horizontal (i.e. a non-hierarchical) dialogue between ‘authentic’ working characters, encouraging the audience to identify with the message presented to them without closely scrutinising its provenance. Both historical examples then build upon this conceit by contrasting the horizontal transmission of conservative ideas with the vertical transmission of revolutionary ideas from detached intellectual sources (books) and pernicious left-wing elites (philosophers and party apparatuses). While the audience is encouraged to laugh at Tom the mason for gesturing towards the intellectual authority of The Rights of Man and proclaiming that ‘I find here that I'm very unhappy, and very miserable; which I should never have known if I had not had the good luck to meet with this book’, the message is clear: revolutionary ideas (and all related discontents) are artificially imposed from above, while conservative principles arise naturally out of the community.
And yet, there is a certain irony to this horizontal dialogue, given the didactic tone and the condescension that the authors privately felt towards their working-class audience. More commented that Village Politics was ‘as vulgar as [the] heart can wish; but it is only designed for the most vulgar class of readers’, while historian David Jarvis has noted that ‘Plays for Patriots’ were informed primarily by middle-class prejudices about the workers, and for this reason draw on very simple stereotypes. To contemporaries that saw through the conceit (and that cared about such things), the cognitive dissonance must have been jarring. The insincerity of conservative strategy was obvious, while its success was positively bewildering.
Second, the narrative is played out in the sphere of domestic drama, building personal stakes that transcend the political message. Love, friendship, family prosperity, and the social order are all thrown into turmoil by the prospect of revolution. Mr. Smith reminds everybody around the dinner table that communists ‘envy the people who’ve got the grit an’ the stomach to work ‘ard an’ get on’, inciting the weak and desperate to class war. By turning the communist preoccupation with the welfare of the working classes on its head, he elevates the domestic concerns of the household over the political concerns of the party activist. At the same time, he explicitly challenges the communist conception of the worker, bolsters a competing vision of working-class respectability, and primes the audience to remember that their own security and happiness is tied to a conservative political outlook.
Nonetheless, for all the anxiety, the audience is inclined to root for a happy resolution in both domestic dramas because the characters are relatable, pragmatic, and funny. Poor Billy Johnson has to suffer through a traumatic first meeting with his sweetheart’s parents before he can reveal that he has turned his back on communism for the love of Mr. Smith’s daughter. The eventual dénouement draws sympathy and laughs from the audience in equal measure. Likewise, in Village Politics, Jack’s repeated references to Sir John, the local landowner, his ‘rantipolish’ wife, and her desire to tear down and rebuild the estate with the changing fashions lends an element of mirth to a staid, conservative analogy for revolutionary reform. In the end, it is the personal stakes of this amiable cast of characters—and the humour that they bring to the dialogue—that enables the audience to look past the contrivances and identify with an ‘alternative’ ideological narrative.
Third, the narrative defines conservative values relative to a ‘foreign’ ideological antithesis, allowing the audience to fall back on the simple dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Throughout their debate, Tom never really challenges Jack’s assertion that ‘Liberty, Equality, and the Rights of Man’ are quintessentially French principles and are thus intrinsically alien. In fact, Jack makes hay with this distinction, contrasting French freedom (‘They make free to rob whom they will, and kill whom they will’) with English freedom (‘a few rogues in prison keep the rest in order, and then honest men go about their business, afraid of nobody’), before demanding to know ‘suppose the French were as much in the right as I know them to be in the wrong; what does that argue for us?’
Ultimately, the nationalist distinction between English conservative values and foreign revolutionary dogmas applies a subtle psychological lever that makes it possible for conservative leaders to draw their supporters towards quite radical patriotic affirmations. As Jack and Tom proclaim: ‘While Old England is safe, I'll glory in her and pray for her, and when she is in danger, I'll fight for her and die for her’.
Fourth, by drawing and expanding upon all three preceding strategies, the audience is persuaded of the existence of a conspiracy to subvert natural social relations and suppress the truth. Though Jack has some success in casting doubt onto the value of foreign innovations, Tom remains obstinately convinced that his new revolutionary principles are sound until Jack pulls back the curtain: ‘Tis all a lie, Tom. Sir John's butler says his master gets letters which say 'tis all a lie. Tis all murder, and nakedness, and hunger’. The abstract theoretical principles of the revolution are a cover for an all-out assault on civil society. As Jack makes plain: ‘when this levelling comes about, there will be no Infirmaries, no hospitals, no charity-schools, no Sunday-schools’, and no security in marriage, because ‘for every little bit of tiff, a man gets rid of his wife’. Or, as Mr. Smith puts it rather more bluntly, the communists would have ‘No Gawd, no country, no marriage’.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter that the conspiracy appears wildly outlandish and all-encompassing, because it plays into a much more fundamental aspect of the ‘alternative’ ideological narrative: its anti-intellectualism. The plan to overthrow civil society is being perpetrated by a self-serving intellectual elite determined to further its own power at any cost. In Village Politics, this elite is embodied by Tim Standish, the local philosopher, who talks ‘Nonsense, gibberish, downright hocus pocus’, and is every bit the treacherous rat: ‘He is like many others, who take the king's money and betray him’. Men like Tim Standish should be grateful for the patronage of their social superiors, and should feel an obligation to preserve the status quo. Instead, they actively challenge it: they are guilty of the ancient Socratic crime of corrupting the youth with radical and dangerous ideas. Emphasising this point has two major consequences. First, it absolves all ‘misguided’ idealistic working class participants in the dialogue from blame (as Jack tells Tom, ‘they've made fools of the most of you’), and opens the door for reconciliation and even romance. Second, it primes the audience to believe that any attempt by intellectuals to appeal to reason is simply another attempt to deny the truth.
For those that are willing to buy into the narrative, the only reliable source of information becomes the ‘horizontal’ dialogue with likeminded conservatives. And at this point, it becomes more logical to deny expert authority and to reject evidence that appears to contradict the party line than to try to come to terms with a complicated reality. Thus, the narrative really does become an ‘alternative’ framework for understanding and explaining the world.
Of course, Village Politics and Love and Mr. Smith only provide a glimmer of insight into the kind of strategies that conservatives use in order to shape ‘alternative’ ideological narratives for their working-class supporters. But both of these examples do reveal continuity across time that may help to explain the flourishing of ‘alternative’ ideological narratives in the ‘post-truth’ world of today. Core aspects of conservative ideology clearly do incentivise cultural and political leaders to cultivate a direct dialogue with their working-class supporters, and to use that dialogue to shape the political reality. All it takes is a charismatic, amiable, or funny candidate, and the right kind of political appeal.
 Hannah More, Village Politics (1792).
 Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1791-92).
 C. H. Price, Love and Mr Smith – A Play in One Act (June 1932). This play, and many others like it, form a rich body of propaganda literature in the Conservative Party Archive.
 As quoted in M. G. Jones, Hannah More (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 134.
 David Jarvis, ‘British Conservatism and Class Politics in the 1920s’, English Historical Review, cxi (1996), p.63-4.