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.

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Blog Round-Up!: January-February 2019

Tom Shillam

The beginning of 2019 has seen much commentary on authoritarianism, political violence and student activism across the academic blogosphere. Here, I summarise some pieces that draw on new research by promising scholars, which will hopefully offer food for thought and debate!

A fitting place to start might be Brexit and the political wrangling, factionalism and jingoistic posturing it continues to unleash. Not only are leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming more strident; those who oppose Brexit in the major parties are splitting away to form an ‘Independent Group’ which straddles both.

This brings to mind Andrew Heath’s piece for History Matters, based at the University of Sheffield, on whether the American Civil War can teach us anything today. Heath proposes that the splits we are seeing in 2019 Britain resemble those wrought by the ‘slavery question’ in the 1850s United States – dominated similarly by two political parties – though he is careful not to elide today’s Europe question with slavery in scale or moral consequence.

What is clear is that domestic political discourse around Brexit is deeply imbued with authoritarian and violent undertones which speak to the importance of submerged, brutal histories. Karis Campion, observing the bitter hostility and ridicule meted out to Labour MP Diane Abbott on the BBC’s Question Time of 17 January – and the routine sexist and racist abuse directed at her on social media – employs the concept of  ‘misogynoir’ in considering how ‘both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression’.

The history of British colonialism explains this. Noting that lighter-skinned black women such as Meghan Markle receive comparably less abuse, Campion explores the histories of Caribbean plantation societies. Here, while black slave women were routinely raped, mixed-race women were used as an ‘intermediary between black and white’, sometimes becoming part of new managerial classes. Campion proposes that these ‘historical societal structures’ explain ‘misogynoir’, which ‘systematically devalues darker-skinned women’.

At the same time as history excludes some, it serves others. Kojo Koram focusses on the irony of Brexiteer MPs employing the language of national liberation in a country which historically understood itself to be too ‘civilised’ for ‘overt nationalism’. In the recent past, the language of national liberation was an anti-colonial one which paternalist British elites scorned; but Koram observes a parity of intent between today’s Brexiteer elite and certain postcolonial elites of the 20th-century, whose rhetoric sometimes concealed lust for newfound political and cultural power. Understanding where such political languages come from, Koram suggests, is one step to exposing dishonest latter-day adherents.

Other interesting pieces on the themes of race, resistance and authoritarianism in colonial history include Marlene Daut’s article on the Kingdom of Hayti, and Teju Cole’s article in the New York Times on the camera as an instrument of imperialism. Daut’s is a readable and informative piece on ex-slave Henry Christophe who became king of the first free black state in the Americas. Cole’s thorough and profound piece makes powerful arguments about how photography and photojournalism – which, when paired with a ‘political freedom of movement’, has often served to ‘aestheticize suffering’ – practiced more carefully can catalyse public action on key issues.

Ayona Datta, writing in The Conversation about how young women living on the outskirts of Delhi are using selfies to challenge standard orderings of public space, agrees with Cole that photography can be both a liberating and dangerous act. The locations where young women snap selfies, and their immediate surroundings, provide insights into control over women’s bodies in contested urban settings. Datta suggests the selfies express deeper yearnings and anxieties than ‘a simple rendition of a millennial trend’.

Indeed, studying the political arguments and expressions of the young matters to understanding contemporary politics on several continents. Dan Hodgkinson and Luke Melchiorre highlight the agency of radical students in 1960s and 1970s Africa in pushing alternate pan-Africanist and socialist decolonisation projects which authoritarian postcolonial states combatted.

Elsewhere, Associate Professor of History Elspeth Brown explores the history of Canada’s first gay student organisation, the ‘University of Toronto Homophile Association’, founded in 1969. The body prefigured today’s LGBT liberation movements in the region, and Brown includes audio clips from lead activist Jearld Moldenhauer which shine a light on the challenges – including unemployment – Moldenhauer faced for his agitation.

Finally, returning to the theme of the language and concepts employed to stigmatise disadvantaged groups and populations, Kate McAllister of the University of Sheffield writes about the history of mental health treatment in Britain. Charities like Mind are currently calling for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health conditions as politicians move painfully slowly – if at all – to recognise the country’s ongoing mental health crisis. McAllister investigates how in early 20th-century welfare legislation, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ was used to brand mental health problems imaginary. Again, the detailed study of history and its organising concepts and narratives offers crucial insights into today’s problems.

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.