All posts filed under: History

Populism and Nostalgia’s False Promise

Yuval Levin’s book The Fractured Republic and Andrew Brown’s essay on Trollhätten in Granta recount how Western societies have moved from a conformist and consolidated culture to a diffuse but bureaucratically centralised one, paralysed by gauzy nostalgia for a time that is never coming back. Such nostalgia has helped fuel the populist surge seen across the West today. The present poses challenges to who we are, how we behave, what we believe and how we act out those beliefs in everyday life. But the wish to return to the past is perhaps an inherent part of the human condition, and one that must be resisted lest it disfigure our perceptions and control our actions too greatly. The populist revolt symbolised by the surge across Europe by parties like the Sweden Democrats and in America by Donald Trump is both a product and driver of a kind of nostalgia that risks trapping us in a spiral of longing and bitter disenchantment. It represents a backlash against an ossified establishment nostalgia that has failed to deliver on its …

The Problems of “Privilege”: Lessons from the French Revolution

In recent years, ‘privilege’ has become an important concept in modern politics, academia, and popular culture. It appears in an increasing and disorienting number of forms, from male privilege and white privilege, to “gay privilege,” “black male privilege,” and “family privilege,” and these claims about privilege animate a wide array of political stances. Supporters of Hillary Clinton criticized voters for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein as privileged radicals risking a Trump victory for the sake of inflexible principles. Supporters of the latter candidates returned fire, targeting Hillary voters as privileged centrists out of touch with America’s economic and racial inequalities. Donald Trump, of course, as countless media outlets insist, is (white, male) privilege personnifed; his supporters, meanwhile, are said to demonstrate the extent of their own privilege by denying that privilege exists. In the classroom and in the media, people are increasingly asked (or made) to measure, acknowledge, and strive to reduce their privilege. “Privilege studies” is a growing field, with more and more scholar-activists devoting themselves to its practice. In the midst of all …

How the Politics of the Left Lost Its Way

One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and set up the first long-lasting Marxist government. The Russian Revolution’s impact was wide-ranging. One important – and overlooked – effect was how it changed the idea of the term “Left” in political terminology. Following the Bolshevik takeover, the term Left became more strongly associated with collectivism and public ownership. But originally the term Left meant something quite different. Indeed, collectivism or public ownership are not exclusive to the Left. The word fascism derives from the fasces symbol of Ancient Rome, a bundle of rods containing an axe, which signify collective strength. Another effect of 1917 was to undermine further the democratic credentials of the Left. These had already been undermined by early socialists such as Robert Owen, who had been opposed to democracy. After Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, part of the Left was linked to totalitarian regimes with human rights abuses, execution without trial, little freedom of expression and arbitrary confiscation of property. Origins of Left and Right The political terms Left and …

Muslim Vikings and Abuses of History

Two weeks ago, Swedish researcher Annika Larsson of Upssala University announced that she had discovered a thousand year-old Viking textile with ‘Allah’ inscribed on its hem. Major international media outlets rushed to publish news of Larsson’s supposed discovery. Within a few days, the BBC, The Guardian, and The New York Times had run articles on the subject, all of which raised the possibility that the Viking wearer of this cloth might have been Muslim, or even a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East. Larsson, and the reporters who echoed her, argued that the Viking culture of medieval Sweden was therefore open to Islamic influence–an idea, they gleefully noted, bound to enrage right-wing opponents of mass immigration from majority-Muslim countries. The New York Times was insistent on the political meaning of the ‘Allah cloth,’ interviewing Swedish activists who try to disassociate their country’s Viking past from its appropriations by right-wing nativist groups. Archaeologists and historians immediately pointed out problems in Larsson’s interpretation, recalling similarly outlandish claims that she had made in the past. In response, Sigal …

Applebaum vs. Fitzpatrick: Is History Political?

The 1932-3 famine in Ukraine claimed the lives of 3 to 5 million people (by conservative estimates). The tragedy was proven to be the result of Stalin’s “collectivization” agricultural policies. However, it is still debated whether the deaths were a result of mismanagement and the failure of collectivization, or of a conscious plan to exterminate the Ukrainians in an act of deliberate genocide. Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Penguin, 2017) offers a new contribution to this discussion, drawing upon archival sources as well as first-hand accounts of the famine, or Holodomor, as it is known in Russian and Ukrainian historiography. Applebaum is known for her extensive writings on Soviet history, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History (Doubleday, 2003) and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 (Allen Lane, 2014). Red Famine, a new addition to her works on the USSR, claims that Holodomor was engineered in order to destroy Ukrainian identity and the Ukrainian peasantry, which posed a threat to Stalin’s power. Red Famine naturally appeared on the radar of Sheila Fitzpatrick, …

Yes, the Romans Were Diverse—but Not in the Way We Understand It

“Neither sea nor intervening continent are bars to citizenship, nor are Asia and Europe divided in their treatment here. In your empire all paths are open to all.” – Aelius Aristides, ‘Roman Oration’. trans. Oliver. The above words, so apparently congenial to the ‘open border’ mentality of the modern Western mind, were in fact written in the third century AD by a Greek orator who was also a Roman citizen. In the speech from which this extract was taken, thought to have been given in Rome in AD 143 or 144 during the reign of emperor Antoninus Pius, the Greek Aristides illustrates a remarkably beneficent portrait of Roman power, the same power which had after all made his home the subject, ultimately, of a non-democratic Roman governor. The speech is a paradox to modern temperaments. Far from extolling the spread of an altruistic globalisation, Aristides extols the virtues, as he sees them, of a violent imperial power which had not only ingested his homeland but in doing so had implicitly repudiated traditional Greek notions of …

What to do with Confederate Statues?

Could Russia teach us something about how to deal with difficult aspects of our national history? Many places in the South – from New Orleans to Louisville – are in the process of bringing down statues that glorify the Confederacy. That process raises questions about what to do with these remnants of the past. Do we just toss them into the ash bin of history, purging them as if they never existed? As a student of southern politics who recently traveled to Moscow, I wondered if we can look to the Russians and how they have treated their Soviet past. The situations are not perfectly analogous. Many Russian people lived through the Soviet experience. Not so for the Confederacy. That said, in both cases, there is the question of whether – and how – to purge the past. From propaganda to kitsch In Moscow, and in the former Soviet Union in general, there is Soviet detritus all over the place. Hammers and sickles are chiseled into buildings, bridges and other infrastructure. Sculptures of happy, heroic …