Summer Round-Up!: May-July 2019

Tom Shillam

Communism and State Violence

As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre passes, it seems apt to begin this round-up by considering state violence. Writing in The Conversation, Chongyi Feng explores the divisions in the Chinese Communist Party of 1989 over how to approach the million-strong protests, which called only for mild government reforms. A ‘hard-line’ faction came to view the protests as symbolising ‘a conspiracy of hostile forces backed by Western powers to create turmoil and divide China’ while a ‘moderate’ faction welcomed them as ‘patriotic’.

On the topic of hard-line authoritarian leaders, Alan Taylor has compiled a brilliant series of photographs of ‘Cold War Bunkers’ in Albania which the increasingly paranoid head of state Enver Hoxha began to construct from 1968. These bunkers spanned the country and were intended as shelters from a potential Soviet attack or invasion by a neighbour. Many still stand, some nestled among high mountains and others grouped on seashores.

Moving towards popular experiences of Communism, Arnos Chapple constructs a similar photo archive which conveys everyday life in Hungary from the 1940s through to the 1980s. From bears visiting delis to divers on the Danube, we get a very broad picture of how ordinary citizens (and animals) laboured, loved and lived in Hungary during these years.  Finding creative outlets in song and dance, the population was nevertheless subject to relentless state surveillance throughout.

Indeed, authorities in communist Eastern Europe did not just monitor citizens but sometimes stole their stuff. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Catherine Hickley reports on a pilot project by the German Lost Art Foundation which considered the acquisitions of several Brandenburg museums between 1945 and 1989. It transpires that ‘between 1% and 8% of their inventories’ may have been ‘unethically acquired’ – books, sculptures, paintings and furniture which had often been taken from the homes of people who fled East Germany in the late 1950s subsequently found their way into local museums.

The visual history of the Cold War has also been discussed in great detail on our own blog by Agata Fijalkowski. In the final post in her series, she considers how, towards the end of World War Two, pro-Soviet forces in the Polish eastern territories looked to remodel the legal system. Photographs of new courts which the regime constructed ‘convey an air of watchfulness’ which was intended to keep judges in line with the ideological dictates of the new regime. The authorities distrusted pre-war judiciaries and created special schools to ‘train the new judges on aspects of people’s justice’.

Art, Culture, and Space

Considering the hit new historical dramatisation Chernobyl, The University of York’s Sam Wetherell asks why the bureaucratic doublespeak of the post-war Soviet Union sounds so familiar in a British accent. Though, as he suggests, the comparison should not be pushed too far, the authoritarianism of a state or social system can often be discerned through studying its use of empty abstraction and failed formulae. Wetherell draws interesting parallels between Soviet industrialisation – with its efficiency units and 5-year plans – and what cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls the ‘market Stalinism’ of the contemporary British state, with its relentless and stultifying resort to a complex of measures and metrics with which to evaluate university, school, and hospital performance.

Indeed, such moments frequently presage episodes of popular mobilisation and grassroots creativity. Once upon a time, before news of Stalin’s purges among other atrocities spread, the Soviet Union provided hope and inspiration to oppressed groups worldwide in its apparently progressive and inclusive political credentials. Owen Walsh describes how a significant group of African American writers, activists and journalists, frustrated with ‘white creative control and racial stereotyping’ in Hollywood, took up an invitation in 1932 to travel to the Soviet Union and produce a film about US racism. Unfortunately for the group, the plan failed – largely due to the governmental cynicism and economic rationalism discussed above. The Soviets needed American materials for their infrastructure projects and feared the geopolitical consequences of such a film being released.

Progressive artist groups later in the 20th-century – both within the Soviet Union’s borders and beyond – sought an escape from governmental and societal constraints on creative expression . Arianna Cantarelli studies how philosopher Timur Novikov acted as a ‘frontman for Russia’s wild youth’ during the 1980s and 1990s, experimenting with futuristic technology and art which was anathema to Eastern bloc realism. Of course, as formal dissent began to grow in the Eastern bloc from the 1960s onwards, subcultures and resistance movements also grew in the West. One of these was the LGBTQ movement. As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots passes, Christopher Giola probes ‘grassroots organising’  among activists in the aftermath of the riots. George Lakey recalls how opportunities disappeared and doors shut when he came out in the US in the early 1970s, but that he also stepped ‘into a new place of freedom’, agreeing with the feminist injunction that ‘the personal is political’ and ‘the political, personal’.

Indeed, it was not just state and political violence which activists confronted as the 20th-century wore on but also private and domestic violence. Cara Diver pens a piece for History Workshop about Irish feminists in the 1970s who raised awareness of marital violence and ‘shattered the illusion that the home was always a site of safety for women (and their children)’. The problem had been side-lined with whispers about ‘troubled couples’, but various groups including ‘Women’s Aid’ now formed, which amplified the voices of abused wives.

Civil Society, Race and Internationalism

Vigorous civil societies provide one of the means by which oppressed groups can mobilise – even in dire social and political conditions. Harry Merritt, writing for Peripheral Histories, investigates Latvian Jews who served in the Red Army during the Second World War as part of the 201st Latvian Rifle Division. Facing hostility from gentiles who feared their presence, and soon to encounter horrific German atrocities against Jews upon retaking their homeland in 1944,  a ‘diverse and engaged civil society’ offered hope to Latvian Jews, even as the horrors of war took their toll. Among the ideas that moved them were socialism, Zionism, and fusions of the two ideologies.

Tiffany Florvil, for Black Perspectives, studies how Black Germans among other racialised communities, used international book fairs in the 1980s and 1990s as platforms through which to discuss ‘the return of German ethno-nationalism’ and racist politics and discourses more broadly. These annual fairs of ‘Radical Black and Third World Books’ allowed intellectuals from across different continents to come together and forge a Black internationalism which in turn drew on other internationalisms represented at the events.

For those more interested in the 19th century and in individuals rather than networks, Kevin Duong puts together a fascinating piece about little-known French feminist and internationalist Flora Tristan. Tristan self-published a successful book entitled The Workers’ Union, which argued for ‘workers of both sexes to come together to form a common international union’ in 1844. In the book, Tristan drew on utopian socialist currents in challenging ‘conventional ideas about women and social organisation’. Duong suggests that such internationalisms are neglected as compared with 20th-century liberal internationalisms associated with the UN among others.

If you have written a blog which pertains to any of the above themes and would like to be included in a future round-up, please tag us @authlanguage or me @tomshillam! Comments, advice and feedback all welcome. Thanks for reading!

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

Advertisements

Authoritarian Discourse in Civil Society: Notes from the Congress for Cultural Freedom

Tom Shillam

It seems easy, today, to distinguish between progressive and authoritarian political discourse. The battle lines have taken shape in front of us. Strongman leaders and xenophobic demagogues identify ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’ and ‘globalists’ as collective enemies. They shut down universities, block NGO boats from saving desperate migrants adrift in the Mediterranean and disappear journalists who don’t agree with them.   Organised in political parties, civil society groups, and protest movements, their opponents remain steadfastly supportive of civil liberties and human rights.

But is progressive political discourse constituted by the defence of rights alone? As progressive parties lose electoral support – with few exceptions  – across Europe and beyond, it is becoming increasingly clear that bolder strategies and messages of hope are needed to resist authoritarian advancement.[1] Rights we hold dear – which include, for researchers, academic freedoms – might be best maintained by constructing narratives of past, present and future which emphasise their historical importance and future promise.

Protest and civil society movements which attempt this are already having success. ‘Extinction Rebellion’, a new UK-based direct action group focussing on climate change, positions its activism within a longer history of civil rights, suffragette and anti-authoritarian agitation. Thousands gathered in front of Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square, London on its launch. To have success, movements need narratives, and narratives draw on influences and voices of hope, repurposed for the future. Gandhi is a prime example.

In this venture, I suggest, it is vital to remain critical and reflective about such

gandhi statue
Gandhi Statue in Parliament Sq, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

influences. Take Gandhi; environmentalists draw on him, but elsewhere, Ghanaian students remove his statue from university campuses, raising attention to the racial slurs he used during his time in South Africa. Voices which civil society movements draw on can – even when raised in favour of an ostensibly progressive cause – subtly exclude, degrade, even oppress certain groups. Clement Attlee is currently enjoying a revival on the British Left – a Prime Minister whose government described early ‘Windrush’ Jamaican immigrants as an ‘incursion’ and did not promote acceptance of them.

My research strongly emphasises the importance of considering these questions. At a conference held in West Berlin in June 1950, a number of well-known liberal and left-wing intellectuals gathered to discuss the threat posed to freedom of cultural expression by Communism. They soon founded a permanent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established offices, produced magazines and arranged conferences across 35 countries and several continents in the 1950s and 1960s. The aim was to forge a new kind of liberal and ‘anti-totalitarian’ cultural criticism which counteracted the appeal of Communist ideology among progressive intellectuals reading CCF magazines and attending CCF conferences.

A number of prominent progressive thinkers on the British Left – such as Bertrand Russell and Stephen Spender – and on the Western Left more broadly, became involved with the project. These thinkers often believed that the freedoms they enjoyed, including freedom of expression and freedom of speech, were linked to the level of individual freedom achieved in Western societies. Human progress followed a democratic capitalist path; certainly, tensions existed, which Western CCF writers suggested might be eased by introducing welfare states, but a basic formula for attaining key freedoms had been worked out in the West.[2]

When turning to the pages of British CCF magazine Encounter, though, it is easy to uncover less than progressive sentiments festering beneath the veneer of liberalism and human advancement. These sentiments often reared their heads in essentialised treatments of the Third World. In the first edition of Encounter, Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, seeking to ‘find’ India, oozed stereotypes; spiritualism was ubiquitous, and the country was stunted by its ‘primitive’ hierarchy which kept all passive. The ‘profound crisis of India’, inhibiting any advancement towards ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, crystallised in its failure to ‘rupture with magic’.[3]

Similarly, in October 1955, South African writer Laurens van der Post turned an ostensibly critical eye on prospects for progress and development in Africa. A deeply racialised account ensued. The ‘African’, or the ‘black man’, had endured in a timeless state of ‘natural and innocent society’ until the arrival of the ‘white man’ or the ‘European man’. Now, Africans entered onto the stage of history. Their temperamental quiescence meant that, for some time, they ‘served the white man in a way that is almost too good to be true’ in a moment of ‘hush and suspended indigenous development in Africa’ which carried ‘immense potentiality’. Van der Post believed his account was progressive – he proceeded to critique ‘unenlightened white policy’ in Africa which had destroyed these potentialities of development – but it clearly turned on racist imagery.[4]

Such essentialised depictions had long featured prominently in Western writing. A well-known example regarding India is James Mill, a utilitarian so convinced that wisely formulated laws precipitated human progress that he dismissed the entirety of so-called ‘Hindu’ or Indian civilisation in an 1818 book without ever having visited the country. In the later part of the 19th century, this civilisational thinking became indistinguishable from racialised thinking; white connoted civilisation and progress, black connoted savagery and stasis.

De Rougemont and van der Post are extreme examples, but the same thinking subtly undergirded many Encounter considerations of similar topics. Where a progressive politics might have engaged with Indian and African intellectuals and invited their ideas on what human ‘freedom’ meant and how it might be achieved, a ‘progressivism’ characterised by race exceptionalism predominated.

Indeed, the Western CCF did attempt to bring Indian and African intellectuals, among others, into the fold, but not as independent contributors. They got in contact with intellectuals deemed receptive to a Western liberal and anti-Communist politics, inviting them to organise magazines and conferences on related themes in their home countries. When these intellectuals talked too much about politics – Indian CCF intellectuals frequently drew on their experience of colonialism to challenge the notion that ‘freedom’ was a Western import – they were seen to have gone off script; Western organisers complained and set up replacement magazines.[5]

Not only did the ‘liberalism’ of the CCF’s founders conceal beliefs which were authoritarian in their political implications – if Indian and African societies were uniformly illiberal, it would take a strong and robust state, as Western writers often observed, to change them – it also served unexpected geopolitical ends. The CIA, which sought from the late 1940s to promote the ‘non-Communist Left’ in the US and beyond, found something it approved of in the CCF, covertly funding early meetings and offering further support throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Several historians have suggested this had the effect of taming the more radical and innovative currents within CCF branches whilst strengthening the ‘liberal’ ones examined above; anyhow, a seemingly independent civil society movement was relying on CIA funds.[6]

These points emphasise that anti-authoritarian political and civil society forces are not, by default, progressive, an impression that is easy to gain when one looks at political landscapes today. ‘Liberal’ political languages can exclude and essentialise different groups of people, with authoritarian implications. This is not a problem restricted to colonial history; several professedly ‘liberal’ publications including The Economist have recently welcomed President Bolsonaro of Brazil, suggesting his premiership may do good even whilst openly acknowledging his despicable views. To be a progressive is to constantly consider and reconsider whether one’s own views and those of movements one finds appealing contain exclusionary elements. This helps a truly progressive politics take root against its openly authoritarian counterparts.

Tom Shillam is a PhD student based in the Department of History, University of York, whose research considers the cultural Cold War and decolonisation in 1950s & 1960s South Asia. He is currently looking into early Congress for Cultural Freedom journals published in Britain and India, which reveal intriguing divergences on what ‘freedom’ and ‘authoritarianism’ meant to intellectuals from different political and cultural backgrounds. His broader interests include blogging and public history, which has led to articles for fora such as The Conversation.

References

[1] The British Labour Party is a rare exception: https://www.opendemocracy.net/jon-cruddas-response-to-michael-sandel

[2] Frances Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999); Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Political Economy of American Hegemony 1945-1955 (London: Routledge, 2002).

[3] Denis de Rougemont, ‘Looking for India’, Encounter (October 1953), 36-42.

[4] Laurens van der Post, ‘The Dark Eye in Africa’, Encounter (October 1955), 5-12.

[5] Eric Pullin, ‘Quest: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics’, in Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, ed. Giles Scott-Smith, and Charlotte Lerg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 286.

[6] Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Empire and the articulation of fascism: The British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940

By Liam Liburd

The legacy of the British Empire left indelible marks on the political, social and economic fabric of Britain. This was as true on the political margins as in the mainstream and was no different for Britain’s most prominent fascist movement, the British Union of Fascists (B.U.F.). The experience of the British Empire, either first-hand or vicariously, influenced the B.U.F.’s articulation of their fascism.

Founded in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley and outlawed in 1940, the organisation wanted a British Empire reborn along fascist lines. In the words of the title of Mosley’s 1932 book

Sir_Oswald_Mosley,_6th_Bt_by_Glyn_Warren_Philpot
Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Bt (1925, Glyn Warren Philpot)

—essentially the manifesto of the movement— the B.U.F. wanted to build a Greater Britain.[1]

Many prominent members of the organisation had encounters with the Empire. William Joyce (the infamous ‘Lord Haw-Haw’) spent his early years in Galway where his associations with the local Black and Tans eventually led to him fleeing the country in December 1921. Similarly, A. K. Chesterton was born in South Africa and grew up in a ‘racially stratified’ white settler community.[2] J. F. C. Fuller had fought in the Boer War and both he and Francis Yeats-Brown spent a number of years serving India. Beyond these examples, a glance at the profiles of the men and women who served as prospective parliamentary candidates for the B.U.F. shows that those with imperial careers —tea planters, colonial administrators and such— were drawn to the movement.

Alongside those with direct experience of Empire were those who had come into contact with the imperialism that permeated British popular culture particularly during the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Stories of imperial heroes were retold in history lessons, plays, music-hall acts and even pantomime. The B.U.F. maintained this tradition, worshipping imperial heroes in their periodicals.

The imperial heroes of legend became the masculine model for the B.U.F.’s ‘new fascist man’. They considered the men of their movement as the reincarnation of imperial pioneers like Sir Francis Drake and Clive of India.[3] Their fascism would mean the rule of the ‘true aristocrat’; the best kind of man because of his character and abilities.[4] Again based on pioneers like Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, this ‘true aristocrat’ was classless and above sectional interest, struggling only in the interests of Britain.

The B.U.F.’s enemies such as the ‘Old Gang’ politicians, socialists and pacifists were all compared unfavourably with the ‘Empire Builders’ they wished to emulate.[5] Next to these ‘rough men’, the others were painted as effeminate, indecisive and treacherous.

The B.U.F. expressed their vehement opposition to Indian nationalism in terms of this imperial masculinity, and when discussing India regurgitated almost unreconstructed the colonial hierarchies of race. When B.U.F. members wrote or spoke of India they employed the language of martial race theory dating back to the 1857 Indian Mutiny. This theory ordered the various ethnic groups of India according to how many qualities they shared with the ‘manly Englishman’. For the B.U.F., the culprits behind Indian nationalism were Western-educated Bengali Hindus. The latter were at the bottom of the martial race scale, referred to by the epithet ‘effeminate babus’.[6]

The B.U.F. made extensive use of this racist colonial stereotype to oppose independence and to advocate fascist leadership of India. For them, an independent India would be a

Clive
‘Clive of India’ was one of the imperial ‘pioneers’ admired by men of the BUF.

country of docile people run by effeminate and cunning ‘Babu lawyers’.[7] They argued that, culturally and psychologically, Indians were better suited to an authoritarian ruler than they were to democracy. In the B.U.F.’s vision of a fascist future, India was to be governed not by way of negotiation and concession, but in the strong and decisive style of the ‘Empire Builders’.

The history of British imperialism was also used to frame the B.U.F.’s support for the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935. The invasion was discussed in terms of a colonial rebellion in need of quelling. Abyssinians were not simply repelling an invasion but, in the eyes of the B.U.F., were ‘Black Murderers’.[8] A. K. Chesterton described the action taken by the Italians as ‘the heroism of Empire warriors’.[9] Mussolini’s actions were compared with Kitchener’s reconquering of the Sudan in the 1890s and both were found to be simply ‘put[ting] down slavery and barbarism with a strong hand’.[10] The Abyssinia crisis was portrayed as part of an ongoing race war, the fulfilment of the white man’s imperial ‘Destiny’. In this conflict, William Joyce asserted, fascism represented the defender of white civilization against the ‘Oriental and African barbarian’.[11]

Imperialism was not simply a past glory for the B.U.F.; it was a political model for the future. One fascist described the ‘direct object of fascism’ as the revival of ‘the pioneering spirit upon which the magnitude of the British Empire is founded’.[12] From stories of Britain’s imperial past, such as the exploits of Clive of India, as well as from the direct experience of Empire some of their number possessed, fascists took two lessons.[13] One was that imperialism worked best where a suitable person was appointed and given a free hand. And the other, that mistakes were down to the inference of elected party politicians. British imperialism became an object lesson in the qualities of fascist leadership when compared with its democratic counterpart.

Roger Griffin has written of fascism as one of a number of anti-Enlightenment ideologies seeking to give birth to an ‘alternative modernity’.[14] The B.U.F.’s use of the language of imperialism shows that they sought an alternative modernity based on their conception of British imperialism. In imperialism they saw a model of masculinity and a system of government that was anti-liberal, authoritarian, white supremacist and aggressively nationalistic. In short, they saw reflected in Britain’s imperial past their imagined fascist future.

The relationship between Britain’s far-right and the British Empire casts further light on the nature of fascist ideology and is an area ripe for study. The study of the far-right, a collection of nationalistic and racist movements, necessitates an examination of the engagement of these movements with the British Empire, an important aspect of both British nationalism and racism.

Liam Liburd received a BA in History and Sociology from the University of Sheffield, before going on to complete an MA in Modern History. Liam is now in the first year of a PhD, also in Sheffield, exploring constructions of race, gender and empire on the extreme Right in Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s. He has previously written blogs for History Matters, and was heavily involved in the organisation of the ‘Gendering Peace’ conference which took place in Sheffield earlier on this year. Find Liam on twitter @Liburd93

References:

[1] The phrase itself has imperialist roots, originating in the 19th century, as the title of a popular 1868 book by Charles Dilke. It became a shorthand term for the Empire and the imperial ideal.

[2] D. Baker, Ideology of Obsession: A. K. Chesterton and British Fascism (London; New York, 1996), pp. 24-25.

[3] O. Hawks, ‘Revolution is a National Characteristic’, Blackshirt, 87 (December 21, 1934), p. 6.

[4] A. Raven Thomson, ‘Aristocracy of Worth’, Fascist Week, 13 (February 2-8, 1934), p. 4.

[5] “Lucifer”, ‘Pink Dreams in a Yellow Jacket – Sobbing Away the Empire: The Intellectual Noxiousness of Bloomsbury Socialists’, Fascist Week, 2, (November 17-23, 1933), p. 7.

[6]M. Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century (Manchester; New York, 1995), p. 2.

[7] T. Lang, ‘The Albert Hall Rally’, Blackshirt, 101 (March 29, 1935), pp. 1, 2, 5.

[8] E. D. Hart, ‘The Bleating Wolf of Ethiopia: Britain’s Press Pets’, Action, 11 (April 30, 1936), p. 7.

[9] A.K. Chesterton, ‘The End of a Stupid Story – Let Eden Follow Selassie’, Action (12, May 7, 1936), p. 11.

[10] A.R.T., ‘With Kitchener to Khartoum’, Action, 2 (February 28, 1936), p. 3.

[11] W. Joyce, ‘The Forces of Darkness Arrayed Against Fascism’, Blackshirt, 119 (August 2, 1935), p. 2.

[12] J. Rudd, ‘Fascism’s Mission to British Youth, Blackshirt, 75 (September 28, 1934), p. 6.

[13] E. D. Hart, ‘Men Who Built the British Empire: A Survey of the Great Colonists’, Action, 65 (May 15, 1937), p. 9.

[14] R. Griffin, ‘Studying Fascism in a Postfascist Age – From New Consensus to New Wave?’, Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, 1 (2012), p. 15.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: Glyn Warren Philpot [Public domain], currently at NPG London, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Francis Hayman [Public domain], currently at NPG London, via Wikimedia Commons

An Emotional Break-Up: Historical Pathos Rhetoric in the Brexit Debate

London_June_13_2016_Vote_Leave_in_Islington_Brexit_(27576083301)

By Liz Goodwin

In an impassioned speech to assembled campaigners in Leeds on the eve of the EU Referendum, Ukip leader Nigel Farage tried to convince his audience to #Vote_Leave. His argument was not new to the campaign as a whole – focused on encouraging ordinary people to make a stand against the lazy European elite – but the way in which he phrased his case was even older.

In suggesting that ‘this is our chance as a people to get back at a political class that has given away everything this nation has ever stood for, everything our forebears ever fought for and everything we want to hand to our children and grandchildren’, Farage employed one of the most deep-rooted and consistently utilised rhetorical talents – that of pathos.[1]

In this roaring speech, intended to invoke and elicit feelings of patriotism, love and loyalty to family, and anger at a sense of disenfranchisement and anti-elitism in his audience, Farage used language to appeal firmly to the heart – yet his linguistic mode of doing so is inherently linked to a pan-European intellectual tradition going back millennia.

Both campaign sides were characterised by emotional rhetoric: the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were frequently criticised for lacking passion in presenting their Remain case.[2] Leave financial backers like John Caudwell of high street retailer Phones4U denounced ‘Project Fear’ on the opposite side, branding such claims made by experts as ‘subjective’ and ‘hysterical.’[3]

Even campaign tweets were aimed at provoking emotional responses – in an analysis of language used in both camps’ social media, ‘fear words’ relating to immigration and the economy were shown to be demonstrably more frequently in use than across Twitter as a whole.[4]

I’ve just started work on the use of pathos as a rhetorical tool in Reformation debates in sixteenth-century Germany, and it strikes me as appropriate, following a campaign so imbued with emotionally-charged language intended to move the voter to action, to examine the context of this tried-and-tested rhetoric device. Emotional rhetoric is something that, somewhat ironically, connects politicians and political regimes across the spectrum – it’s a linguistic tool that works for the authoritarian and the liberal.

Pathos was theoretically recognised and utilised by some of the greatest European minds of the Medieval world. Aristotle established it as one of the three modes of persuasion: alongside ethos (a kind of charismatic authority on behalf of the speaker) and logical explanation (or proof), it was the emotionally-charged pathos, appealing to something in the listener, that was the most highly valued.[5]

In a highly Farage-esque move, Cicero advised the orator ‘to prefer emotion to reason’, so that the audience is ‘so affected as to be swayed [by emotion]… rather than by judgement or deliberation. For men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or fear, or illusion… than by reality.’[6]

Caritas
Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer frequently employed pathos in her writings

St Augustine would justify this rhetoric concept for the Christian Middle Ages, stating that emotionally-laden language appeals were key to ‘moving the minds of listeners, not that they may know what is done, but that they may do what they already know should be done.’[7] He even used pathos to explain that fundamental, Medieval theological issue, the Fall of Man – it was an emotional appeal from Eve that caused Adam to be persuaded, rather than that of logical reason.[8]

Throughout the Middle Ages, pathos can be seen within preaching, aimed at moving the audience through emotionally-loaded language to be better Christians. In his thorough and influential preaching ‘manual’, near-anonymous fourteenth-century writer Robert of Basevorn defined the role of Christian sermonising to be to move the listener ‘to meritorious conduct.’[9] Fire-and-brimstone preachers like Savanarola in Florence would frequently incite audiences with apocalyptic visions of Godly judgement if they didn’t change their ways – surely the most emotive of language is that which threatens Hellish punishment to listeners.

During the religious upheavals of the Reformation, Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer utilised pathos throughout her Journal, detailing what happened to her convent amidst Lutheran attacks. She was one of many active, Classically-inspired, highly educated Humanists to engage with this emotional language as a form of defensive Catholic argument; her work aimed to move the reader to empathy and compassion for the plight of those in the religious life, threatened by new Protestant doctrine.

The use of emotional language in the construction of political argument, then, is nothing new. Nor is it the preserve of the right, or those with more ‘authoritarian’ worldviews. Whether this altered the vote outcome or not – and many media think pieces have claimed one way or the other – the fact remains that the moving rhetoric that broadly characterised the Brexit debate was built on the linguistic practice of pathos.

In light of Michael Gove’s assertion that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’ in the run up to the EU Referendum, it seems worth pointing out that the language used and the arguments utilised were actually built on centuries-old, highly intellectual, philosophical and, crucially, pan-European rhetoric tradition. Then again, our charismatic and Classics-educated new Foreign Secretary could probably have told you that already.

Liz Goodwin recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield on the impact of reform on female monastic communities in sixteenth-century England. Find her on Twitter @ElizMGoodwin.

[1] Nick Gutteridge, ‘Nigel Farage: Vote Brexit to take UK back from ‘contemptible’ Cameron and his rich cronies’, The Telegraph, 1/6/2016.

[2] Andy McSmith, ‘Brexit: Project Fear had reason on its side, but anti-experts caught public mood’, The Independent, 24/6/2016.

[3] ‘Project Fear gets personal: Cameron equates Brexit to ‘self-harm’, RT, 5/4/2016. 

[4] Ashley Kirk, ‘EU referendum: Remain uses Project Fear more in tweets than Leave’, The Telegraph, 22/6/2016.

[5] Gary Remer, Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration (Pennsylvania, 1996), p. 20.

[6] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] Eric Jager, The Tempter’s Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature (London, 1993), p. 114.

[9] Cheryl Glenn, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Illinois 1997), p. 91.

Image credits

Banner: Wikicommons

Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer: Wikicommons