Book Review, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia.

Published in The Toynbee Prize Foundation, June 2021.

In February 2021, the British government announced the appointment of a “free-speech champion” for higher education, a new role aimed to guarantee the right of people to express their views on campus without fearing censorship or other sanctions. In an increasingly tense atmosphere of culture war, this move was taken as a sign of the government’s turn against ‘woke’ calls for re-evaluation of British heritage, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical assessment of Britain’s imprial past. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Dowden, the culture minister, thought it was necessary to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

As I was reading Priya Satia’s magisterial Time’s Monster, I could not but wonder how Dowden would have reacted to it. Satia’s well-argued book seeks to show how the study of history generated the moral and political scaffoldings that held up the British Empire. Historians provided the imperial enterprise with conceptions of “progress” and “civilization” that served to justify the conquest and domination of vast overseas territories and peoples. While Satia concedes that historians did not always have direct impact on politicians, she shows their long-lasting influence on British society, where contemporary scholars like Nigel Biggar and Niall Ferguson can still depict the British Empire as a vehicle of global positive change. The mere legitimacy of this position in Britain’s public debate today confirms the relevance and importance of Satia’s argument about the political and ethical implications of Britain’s understanding of its past.

For Satia, a professor of international history at Stanford University, since the eighteenth century British historians have developed a conception of a linear and progressive time that served to consolidate imperial rule in Africa, the Middle East, India and the Caribbean and to justify Britain’s brutality and violence. In an ambitious narrative that starts with the Enlightenment and ends with Brexit, Satia weaves together the ideas of a vast range of thinkers, mostly white British male, into a persuasive argument about the capacity of history-writing to shape collective conscience. In this sense, ideas about history create the mental landscapes that define and delimit human behaviour.

The main target of the book is the idea of progress, intended as a teleological temporal move towards a better future. Historians played a decisive role in describing time as linear, and, by consequence, in setting a universal standard of progress that all societies should be measured by. Satia’s strength is in showcasing the intellectual evolution of this idea in the hands of British historians over the past three hundred years. She draws on the writings of Macaulay and Seeley, Burke and Mill, outlining the modes of thinking that justified imperialism as an expression of Britain’s world-historical mission for progress. These historians’ role in creating and transforming Britain’s imperial consciousness has already been scrutinized by Jeanne Morefield, Duncan Bell and Stefan Collini, among others. Here, Satia situates them in a long durée narrative that effectively demonstrates the persistence of their ideas over time. As she shows in chapter 5, even their anticolonial opponents ended up accepting the same categories of progress and development that emerged from the imperialist historical narrative they sought to reject.

Time’s Monster is a useful read in today’s political climate, where historical narratives serve as weapons of exclusion and revolution. History has always been an educational tool at the hands of the state, but now, when the historical curriculum and heritage industry face constant challenging by those who see themselves excluded or silenced, the re-evaluation of the historians’ role in the public sphere seems more timely than ever. Intentionally or now, historians hold a significant power in forging society’s identity by recounting its past. Yet, as Satia argues in conclusion, history-writing is an ongoing process. While some see ‘re-writing history’ as a national offence, Satia reminds the readers that the quest for historical truth is never-ending. Looking forward, Satia invites her readers to question the imperial, linear and oppressive conception of history and to develop alternative, less linear and more complex histories.

The book’s rich and erudite narrative generates many reflections, but here I would like to focus on two wider questions that arise from it. From the perspective of international history, I wonder if this is a story about Britain, or about empires more generally. Did Britain develop a unique perception of its past that generated an urge for empire in a distinct way from other European empires, such as the French, Portuguese, German or Italian? Or, in alternative, is the temporal linearity of the historical narrative of progress an inherent aspect of all imperial ideologies? Non-British empires, including fascist Italy, were also motivated by visions of historical lineage, continuity and duty, relying on a mythologised Roman Empire, famously thought the notion of ‘Romanità’. The imagined conception of the Orient also did work to justify colonial invasion and rule. Should we therefore see Britain’s case as distinct, or is historical consciousness at the root of all modern empires?

This leads me to the second question. As a historian, Satia’s book seemed to me as a call for action. On the whole, historians come out of her narrative as powerful ideologues. Intentionally or not, they seem to hold the power to shape political ideas and transform the world (sometimes for the worse). While she acknowledges that historians do not always succeed in ‘speaking truth to power’ because politicians don’t like their advice or because they ignore it, she still seems to argue that they set the conceptual foundation for political action. Looking at the future, I would be interested to know more about the kinds of non-linear, non-oppressive histories that she envisages to reform the imperial mindset and offer new perspectives on Britain’s role in the world. Historians have already published damning accounts of Britain’s imperial past, many of which appear in the book’s notes, but do not seem to settle the debates on the Empire’s moral and political worth. Would a new conception of history succeed in transforming the historical perception of empire, where so many other critical histories have, apparently, failed?

Book review: Boundaries of the International

Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire By Jennifer Pitts. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp 304.

Forthcoming in The Historian, by Or Rosenboim

The history of international law has captured the interest of historians, political theorists and jurists who sought to uncover the theoretical development of legal structures beyond the state. In recent years, scholars sought to challenge some of the theoretical premises that characterised existing literature to reveal the contradictions underpinning past ideas about the law of nations. In Boundaries of the International,Jennifer Pitts argues that global imperial relations set the foundation for the emergence of international law in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a brilliant and masterly analysis of key legal and diplomatic texts, Pitts argues that the law of nations sought to responded to and regulate the encounter between Europe and non-European societies. In this hierarchical, unequal and discriminatory context, claims about the law of nations emerged as the basis for a presumably universal legal system.

The book combines erudite historical narrative and sophisticated theoretical analysis of important legal thinkers, in order to challenge conventional accounts of the history of international law. Five thematic chapters examine the legal thought of the book’s dramatis personae, who include well-known thinkers such as Montesquieu, Vattel, Burke, J. S. Mill, and Maine, alongside less familiar writers. Thus, the book offers a fresh interpretation of the implication of international law in the European imperial project.

Pitt’s study is rich with ideas that cannot be distilled in a short review. Chapter 2, for example, examines the place of the Ottoman Empire within the nascent system of international law, through an insightful discussion of ‘oriental despotism’ as a new analytical tool used to mark the boundaries of the presumably universal law of nations. As religious differences ceased to justify the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire and other non-European polities from the legal universe governed by the law of nations, ‘oriental despotism emerged as the organizing category for the question of what sort of diplomatic and legal relations between European states and the Ottoman Empire [..]’ (37). While legal theorists employed this category to provide a ‘rational and accessible for all’ justification for the universal authority of the European states, diplomats with direct experience of Ottoman politics were more critical. Pitts pays particular attention to Sir James Porter, England’s ambassador to Constantinople from 1746 to 1762, and to the French orientalist Abraham Hyacinth Anquetil-Duperron, who provided effective critiques of Montesquieu’s concept of Ottoman despotism. For her, they represent an alternative, critical view, which identified early on the limits of European legal universalism.

Pitts’ remarkable book is an important contribution to contemporary debates on the history of international law, as well as its future prospects. ‘International law is the product of a history at once distinctively European and also, often devastatingly, global: its history is a history of aspirations to universal validity that itself cannot be told impartially’. Pitts’ impressive study leaves the reader with a feeling of uncertainty – perhaps shared by the author – that international law could ever be emancipated from the chains of its imperial past.
























City, University of London                                                                               Or Rosenboim

Book Review: The Year of Our Lord 1943

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian humanism in an age of crisis

By Alan Jacobs (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018)

Book review for H-Diplo By Or Rosenboim

In his new book, cultural critic Alan Jacob puts the spotlight on 1943 as a significant moment in the development of Christian humanist thought. In January, the Casablanca Conference set out the strategy for the remainder of the war, underlining the confidence of the leaders of the Allied nations in their imminent military success. For Jacobs, the implications of this military turning point extended beyond the realm of political decision making: Western thoughts started turning towards life after the war. What could warrant the moral survival of humanity? What kind of education served to preserve humanity’ cultural and moral achievements? How to counter the rise of destructive technologies, whose impact was not only physical and material but also – importantly – spiritual?

Out of the vast plethora of proposals for post-war world orders that were discussed in European and American political and cultural circles, Jacobs focuses on the ideas of a group of ‘Christian humanists’, concerned with reviving the moral and cultural backbone of humanity. Writing before the atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these intellectuals were concerned with the technological advances that facilitated the victory. They reflected on the doomsday prospects announced by technological innovation, which, translated into political terms, promised a post-war world ruled by experts and technocrats. If the world would survive devastating conflict, a new moral framework was necessary to guarantee humanity’s future.

In a sweepingly original narrative style, Jacobs examines the writings of a Christian intellectuals five Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden and Simone Weil, to outline their reflective critiques of technology and its impact on the human soul. ‘They saw with uncanny clarity and exposed with incisive intelligence the means by which technology has arisen and the damage it had inflicted, and would continue to inflict, on the human person’ (206).While these thinkers were not part of a coherent group, or constituted a recognizable school of thought, Jacobs outlined the similarities between their visions of the post-war future of humanity in general and the Western democracies in particular: they all sought to figure out and answer to the question ‘how should humanity live after the war?’. Jacob weaves together the biographical stories, political visions and literary works of his dramatis personae into a compelling history of a Christian reaction to crisis. Evidently, these thinkers were not alone or unique in their concern about humanity’s future. Other intellectuals make guest appearance, revealing the complex networks of personal and professional acquaintances linking Christian humanists in the mid-twentieth century: Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Mannheim, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Ellul, and J. H. Oldham. Together, these intellectuals wanted to ‘rescue the world for a deeply thoughtful, culturally rich Christianity, and to rescue that Christianity for the world’ (206).

Claims about humanity’s moral decline were not uncommon in mid-century political thought. The dichotomies of technology and morality, matter and spirit, generated reflections on the high cost of modernity and progress. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the exiled German intellectuals who denounced the corruptive effect of enlightened modernity on humanity, found no solace in religion, and therefore little hope for redemption. Yet this book’s protagonists were more comfortably situated in the realm of optimism. Education provided the main cause for hope: as Jacobs states, ‘the primary task of this book is to explore this model of Christian humane learning as a force for social renewal.’ It is, perhaps, their Christian faith that reinforces their moral confidence, but, as Niebuhr had shown, faith is hardly enough to salvage humanity from the vices of power, both material and spiritual.

Jacobs diagnoses a degree of optimism in Maritain’s vision of Christianity and democracy, based on a personalist vision of human rights. These ideas have been scrutinized in detail, as Jacobs recognises, by Samuel Moyn in Christian Human Rights, but Jacobs is correct in highlighting the contribution of the oft-forgotten Weil to the emerging rights discourse. Weil was an original thinker about the interplay of morality and political order, who has not received, so far, the scholarly attention that her ideas deserve. Her life experience and intellectual force were characterised by a strong conviction about the need – and the possibility – of social and moral reform. Her writings weave together a wide range of ideas and experiences, based not only on her Christian faith but also on her first-hand knowledge of the social malaise of her time. In 1934, she spent months working in a factory, where she felt the dehumanizing effects of modern labour conditions. She described her reflections in a ‘factory diary’, later published as La condition ouvrière,as well as in her autobiography. The complete – physical and mental – dedication to exploring the conditions of modernity set Weil apart from the rest of the book’s protagonists, to my mind. For Weil, the life of the mind was much more closely related to the social organization of society than for Auden, Lewis, Maritain or Eliot.

In recent years, the humanist reaction to apparent moral crisis has interested scholars and cultural critics. Particular attention was granted to the mid-twentieth century, an era marked by the devastating implications of technology, most notably the atomic bomb. In 2009, Mark Greif published The Crisis of Man, a book that anticipated some of the themes and claims proposed by Jacobs. Greif discussed the ‘long’ mid-century, from 1933 to 1973, as an era of perceived crisis, that generated a range of responses from public intellectuals and scholars concerned with the future – and survival – of humanity. While Jacobs’ protagonists make only a passing appearance in Greif’s book, the underlying assumptions of the two books are similar: spiritual revival was identified as the appropriate and most effective answer to the material dangers facing humanity by technology of its own making. Another aspect that connects the two books is the relative minor place played by politics in their discussions.

Jacobs’ book reflects on the interplay of political ideas, such as elitism, nationalism, personalism, and universalism, within the intellectual realm of the Christian humanists; yet such interactions were obviously not without contradictions. How would Weil’s vision of rights translate into a concrete political plan? What was Maritain’s conception of democracy and Christianity’s role within it? How did Hutchins’ and Adler’s humanist education inspire their political universalism? Such questions, which occupied the minds of the book’s protagonists – and those of their opponents – emerge from the book’s discussions, but are not analysed in detail. Niebuhr appears as the most ‘political’ of thinkers, but others engages in more political tribulations than appear in the book. For example, the Chicago world constitution, drafted in 1945-1947 by a group of humanists that included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Richard McKeon and Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, inherited many of the conceptual frameworks of the educational Christian Humanist ethos that Hutchins advanced at the University of Chicago and sought to apply them to global politics and law. Maritain was a keen supporter of the constitution, and discussed it in his address to the UNESCO conference in Mexico City in 1948. The failure of this project does not undermine the fact that its proponents envisioned it as a direct result of their humanist world vision, which sought to revive humanity’s moral and spiritual standing after the destruction inflected on it by technology and war.

The complex and fascinating story that emerges from this book is, therefore, not only about a humanist resistance to materialism and technology, but also about a personal experience of displacement, detachment and exile. Weil, Maritain and Auden envisaged modernity through this lens of detachment, that conditioned their poetic and political reflections. During the war, the once-desired life of the immigrant, free from the shackles of society, because another cause for anxiety and distress. At the Moot, Eliot encountered European exiles such as Mannheim but also Michael Polanyi, the scientist and economist who embraced Christian faith and endorsed a humanist revival based on a community of faith. The sense of community remains, in the writings of Christian humanists, a strong lacuna which they sought, often unsuccessfully, to fill in.

Despite – or perhaps because of – their haughty aspirations, the visions of the Christian humanists were not always met with enthusiasm. Luigi Sturzo, an Italian catholic priest exiled by Mussolini to London then New York, regarded Maritain’s ideas of a Christian democracy with suspicion. As the founder of the Italian popular, then Christian Democratic party, Sturzo was keen to bring together Christian teachings, human values and democratic politics. Yet for him, Maritain’s vision lacked a real engagement with pluralism, which was the lifeline of any democratic system. Sturzo did not want a political system inspired by Christianity, but rather, a democratic system where Christians could operate freely and on equal terms with others. Jacob does not challenge Maritain’s claim that democracy and Christianity were closely intertwined rather than contradictory, and does not investigate in detail Maritain’s superficial treatment of democracy. Such discussions may be beyond the scope of the book, but the political assumptions behind them seem to me to be an inherent part of the Christian humanist vision, which the advance of technology and materialism as much as it feared the open-ended nature of democracy.

Did the Atomic bomb announce the final technological disaster, or the beginning of a new era? In the book, the nuclear bomb is mentioned only a couple of times. Possibly, for Christian humanists the new weapon of mass destruction was not a ground breaking novelty, but a continuation of a trend against which they had warned the public for a long time. Some mid-century thinkers, like Lewis Mumford, argued that the bomb epitomised the dichotomy of humanity versus technology as the final debasement of humanity. He denounced the cult of expertise, which infiltrated also the universities in terms of science and industry oriented research prevalence over humanities. In line with the gospel of Christian humanism, he called for a return to a moral education of humanity, based on the fundamental values of culture, faith and civilization. Mumford would have identified with Jacobs’ affirmation that, for Christian humanists, ‘the world has gone astray because its people had been poorly educated and if the total destruction of the human world were to be averted new ways of educating had to be found.’(xiv) for him, as for the protagonists of the book, the values that should illuminate the process of re-education were grounded in the cultural and historical experience of the West. The world worth saving from nuclear destruction did not encompass the entire globe. Despite Christianity’s claims for universality, Jacobs’ book highlights the geopolitical and conceptual limits of the mid-century humanist vision, that could not envisage a true interaction with non-Western people or values as a defining element of the post-war era.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is a fascinating and insightful reflection on intellectuals’ reaction to perceived crisis. In their literary, philosophical, journalistic and private writings, Eliot, Weil, Maritain, Auden and Lewis expressed their fear that humanity is approaching a destructive crisis of its own making. The book’s elegant style and gripping prose linger with the reader, along with a persistent reflection on the desirable and possible intellectual reactions to contemporary men-made crises, and on the human moral values worth preserving as a guidance for the future.

Book Review: Globalists by Quinn Slobodian

By Or Rosenboim, forthcoming in German Studies Review.

Quinn Slobobian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-674-97952-9, x + 381 pp.

In recent years, the intellectual foundation of neoliberalism has attracted the attention of historians and economists. Scholars like Angus Burgin and Dotan Leshem have looked to the past to define the meaning of neoliberalism and outline its future trajectories. Quinn Slobodian, a historian of modern German and international history based in Wellesley College, made a significant contribution to this growing body of scholarship with his remarkable study of neoliberalism in the twentieth century, Globalists. Slobodian’s main thesis in the book is that neoliberalism sought to adapt the liberal market-based global vision to the reality of the modern states-system in the post-imperial world.

The book’s dramatis personae are a group of economists centered around what Slobodian calls the ‘Geneva School’, which included Friedrich Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, Ludwig von Mises, Michael Heilperin, Lionel Robbins and Gottfried Haberler, and Frieder Roessler. Thus, Slobodian argues that scholars who seek to understand the rise and the meaning of neoliberalism should shift their gaze away from the English-speaking intellectual sphere to the German speaking one. In this narrative, the Swiss city by the lake becomes a hub of intellectual, political and economic exchanges between mostly Central European economists – many of them refugees – concerned with the future of liberty after empire. The appropriation of their ideas by American economists in Chicago or by international organizations like the WTO came at a later stage. The origins of the neoliberal global worldview were anchored to Europe, and in particular to the political and economic legacy of the Habsburg Empire and fin-de-siècle Vienna.

The book’s meticulously researched narrative progresses in seven chapters, each dedicated to a different aspect of the globalists’ vision of renewed economic liberalism: from tariffs to federations, from constitutions to new international organizations, the globalists explored a wide range of means to adapt the state to their liberal idea of absolute property rights, wholly integrated world economy and individual liberty. Writing in the shadow of totalitarianism and fascism, these neoliberals advocated setting constrained to both democracy and nationalism. But their critique of the ideology of nationalism did not translate into a call to abolish all states or to establish a supranational political system (although some, like Hayek, were at one time federalists). Instead, they sought a structural adjustment that could embed the post-imperial world order within an integrated, liberal international institutional design. For them, ‘order was not a steady state, but an adjustment, an often painful process of learning’ (262). The market could not function on its own; the globalists’ role was to finetune its mechanisms and ensure its smooth operation on a global scale. Thus, Slobodian argues that neoliberalism ‘is less a theory of the market or of economics than of law and the state’ (268).


The main contribution of this original and compelling study is outlining a new context for assessing and understanding neoliberalism in which the state plays a major role. Politics and the law now play a much more central part in constructing the neoliberal worldview than previously assumed. Slobodian shows how the protagonists of the globalist neoliberalism envisioned a range of legal, institutional and political tools to ensure the integration of the world economy, and the preservation of the unequal global power relations after the decline of the European empires.


The book is set as a contextual intellectual history of the economists who made up the Geneva School, yet the contextualization provided is inevitably partial. Importantly, the readers lacks a clear view of the political and intellectual opposition to the neoliberal vision. Who was Hayek arguing against? What were the alternative visions and plans of a global order available after 1945? If the core of neoliberalism is to be found in Central Europe, it would be valuable to situate the proposals of the globalist neoliberals within the horizon of European post-war politics. In this sense, for example, the wartime federalist vision of Hayek and Robbins emerges as an alternative to a popular vision of welfare-based federalism, proposed by William Beveridge, Barbara Wootton and others who celebrated democracy as the true ethos of any federal or global order. Welfare politics, as reflected in the Marshall Plan and the European post-war reconstruction, make haphazard appearances in the book, whetting the readers’ appetite for an in-depth discussion. While the book avoids the pitfall of neoliberal triumphalism, it would have benefitted from a more detailed discussion of neoliberalism’s opponents.

Globalists is a rewarding reading for those interested in the historical trajectory of the state-economy nexus. With its eloquent prose and strong arguments, the book offers a compelling account of the history of neoliberalism as well as interesting insights on its future. By emphasizing the German and Austrian intellectual ties of the neoliberalist approach, Slobodian draws a map of interconnections that may serve as a guideline for future scholars. The many merits of the book are therefore crowned by the future paths of research that it has opened up for the study of European politics, international history and economic thought.

Trump and the age of the vulgar

The rise of Donald Trump presidential was facilitated by the waves of populism that radiated from his public figure. Trump attracted voters who felt excluded from existing power, capital and government centers, and from the political discourse of the Obama administration that emphasized the importance of minorities, immigrants and women’s rights. Trump offered another vision, “attentive” to those who felt “left behind” by old-style politics. Trump’s manners, character and proposals were not only populist but also vulgar. Trump uses vulgarity to stick a finger in the eye of good taste. He chose a deliberately exaggerated style, gilded and luxurious, extravagant and rude. Even the image of his wife Melania shows the same spirit, covered in brilliant jewellery, wearing revealing garments. Both have turned the Trump name, stamped on luxury buildings across America, into a vulgar status symbol. Members of the old political elite were dismissive and complained that Trump, the perfect social outcast, does not know how to play by the rules of the “good society”. He is vulgar, they accused. But this is his power.

A new exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London reviews the history of vulgar fashion. Rich and fascinating, the exhibition offers not only a wide selection of contemporary and historical exhibits, but also some critical insights by curator Adam Phillips on the meaning of vulgarity in culture. Within the elegantly designed exhibition, vulgarity emerges as a conscious choice in defiance against the establishment, a bemused game that ignores the rules, a shiny exaggeration that knows no limits, and a sophisticated interpretation of familiar cultural tropes.


The exhibition begins with some dictionary definitions of vulgarity. The word derives from the Latin vulgaris and in turn from vulgus  which has given us also the German word people, volk. Hence vulgarity is a kind of populism. But it is a rough, unrefined populism that defies civilisation. The vulgar person does not belong to the ‘good society’, does not know the rules of behaviour. Eliza Doolittle as a vulgar cockney girl who becomes a “lady” in the musical My Fair Lady, reveals in her persona how vulgarity is rude and embarrassing, but also entertaining and fun, unconventional and “authentic”. Vulgarity needs correction, but it is, in its way, appealing.

Fashion is inherently vulgar, because it can transform a piece of art into a functional object, popular, wearable and commercial. In contrast to sublime art that aspires to be timeless and ethereal, fashion has a price tag and expiry date. At a certain point, it ceases to be relevant and attractive. Fashion designers had reduced the classical art of Greece and Rome into consumers’ product. Fashion copies artistic creations and brands them with a commercial logo. Is the Mondrian dress of Yves Saint Laurent an elegant tribute to modernist painting or a vulgar interpretation of abstract art?

How much gold makes a dress vulgar? Is the gold clergy-inspired dress of the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli vulgar or refined? Perhaps what makes the gold dress vulgar is the excess. Vulgar fashion is reckless. It emphasizes and exaggerates design elements irrespective of the good taste and refinement. Vulgar fashion offers no refined minimalism, but crazy rebellion against the bon ton, full of diamonds, glitter, textiles, fur, prints and ornaments.

Baroque style is vulgar because it ruthlessly exaggerates and enhances any element of design. But if baroque style offers interpretations on high culture, current vulgarism sends its long hands into the realm of poverty. The combination of luxurious dresses and simple fabrics, like the expensive Miu Miu jeans outfits for spring 2017, is also vulgar. It is vulgar because it appropriates the ultimate middle class fashion item, jeans, and manipulates it into a luxury status symbol for the rich, way beyond the reach of its original wearers.

The exhibition manages to evoke aesthetic and moral questions. It is interesting because it draws not only on archival garments but also on that contemporary designer clothing, transferred directly from the fashion shows to the ‘respectable’ museum. This act blurs the thin line between consumer goods and creative art.  Yet perhaps the main message of this exhibition is that vulgarity is the very essence of this blurring, a conscious act of breaking the divide between ethics and economics. However, a moralising attitude would necessarily fail at undoing the damage caused by vulgarity. The reason is simple: as radical British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes declares in a video interview, vulgarity is ultimately a lot of fun.

Montague Burton, a “model” immigrant

When I was writing my master’s thesis at Oxford, I explored the history of the discipline of International Relations. I was particularly interested in the career of Alfred E. Zimmern, who held in 1919 the first chair in IR in the world, as Wilson Professor of International Politics in Wales. A key moment in the history of the discipline has been the foundation of the Chair of International Relations at the University of Oxford (1930), named after its donor, Montague Burton. The Montague Burton professorship (held today by Andrew Hurrell) became a keystone in the study of International Relations in Britain, and in the wider world. Yet who was Montague Burton?

Burton came back to my mind recently, after reading about the plea of unaccompanied Syrian child refugees to settle in Britain. When Burton, then Meshe David Osinsky, arrived in London, he was just 15 years old. He was all alone in the world, after leaving his native Lithuania in search for a better life in the New World. From Britain he planned to board a steamer to America, but he discovered a dislike for sailing and decided to remain in London. An unskilled, uneducated Jewish young man, a child really, he settled in Manchester and found work in the tailoring industry (not as a tailor, but as a simple worker). After he married Sophie Marks, and had four children, he changed his name to endow his new life with more distinguished, British flair.

montague burton
Sir Montague Burton (1885-1952)

Burton made his fortune from ready-made men’s suits. The Great War marked the beginning of an era of social change in Britain, as surely those who followed Downton Abbey would know. More men needed elegant yet simple suits, and could not afford to use the services of expert tailors. Burton opened a chain of ready-made men’s tailor shops, and eventually also started manufacturing the suits in his own factories. With over 30,000 workers, he was the biggest employer in Leeds. It was an empire of low to middle class fashion, and it made Burton rich and respectable. Later, in the Second World War, he became one of the biggest manufacturers of military uniform for the British Army.

The disciplinary history of IR reveals not only the intellectual discussions of Oxford dons, but also the rise of the penniless, unskilled Jewish child immigrant (not even officially a refugee) to a fashion mogul and a generous benefactor. The story of Burton tells us about the changing nature of international relations as much as any of Alfred Zimmern’s books. In a sense, it is a story about a world of relatively open borders, free trade and capitalistic entrepreneurship. But it is also a world of second chances, of opportunities detached from the historical accident of citizenship. The current debate about the need to accommodate in Britain Syrian child refugees (or to keep the British doors open to European immigrants) should be read also in light of stories like Meshe David Osinsky’s, AKA Sir Montague Burton.


Sabbioneta, an Italian utopia

Few places are as daunted by their past as Sabbioneta, the ideal city envisaged by Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna in the 16th century. The Duke Vespasiano was a minor member of the famous clan of the Gonzaga, who ruled the near-by city-state of Mantova. Between 1554 and his death in 1591, he dedicated his energies to transforming his little duchy, the forgotten and insignificant village of Sabbinetta, into a humanist’s utopia.


Sabbionetta was supposed to host all the institutions and buildings that a secular cultured humanist could want and need: a frescoed palace with a public art gallery, a large library for scholars to browse his book collection, a municipal palace of government, a theater, a large piazza for public rallies, a church (to satisfy the local clergy) and a synagogue (to attract wealthy Jewish financiers), beautiful parks dedicated to leisurely activities, all surrounded by fortified defensive walls. Inspired by renaissance utopias, Vespasiano built an ideal city to match his political and moral vision as a scholar and art-loving enlightened ruler.


Last winter I visited the city, located less than an hour from Mantova, and found a material example for the power of utopian projects and their inherent limitations. I arrived in Sabbioneta on a cold, rainy, winter day. The bus dropped me off at the gate of the walled city, now surrounded by green fields. I walked into the majestic city square, turned right and entered Vespasiano’s palace. The red-brick monumental building was cold and empty. The humanist duke, an ardent art collector, constructed his palace as a consequence of frescoed rooms that led to the ‘gallery of the antiques’, a large windowed corridor meant to host artefacts from the duke’s collection. Today, the rundown palace hosts temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit, an exhibition of photography by Andy Warhol enhanced the surreal atmosphere at the empty palace, an ironic suggestion that Vespasiano’s 15 minutes of glory had long passed.


After a stroll in the abandoned synagogue (the Jewish community has long left for Mantova or Milan) and a visit in the local church that hosts Vespasiano’s mausoleum, I sought refuge from the chill of this ghost city in a local café. Between the renaissance monuments, the locals have constructed the necessary spaces for the survival of a small, unassuming Italian village: a couple of cafés and restaurants, a newspaper stand, a post-office and a hardware shop. At the café, the barista told me that even in summer, Sabbioneta lives only through the dreams of its founder. Very few people inhabit the old city, because its fame has raised the rents beyond the locals’ budget, while lack of commercial or industrial initiatives had increased employment.

The insistence on preserving the utopian vision of Vespasiano untouched and unspoilt has alienated many of the young local entrepreneurs. Without an active citizenry, Sabbioneta cannot rise above its mundane existence as a provincial village trapped in an ossified museum city. It lives in the eternal shade of the dead architectural realisation of one man’s political and cultural vision. Vespasiano may have been the perfect ruler, a philosopher-king who envisaged a perfect public life for his subjects. But his vision lived and died with him. He was unable to rally the support of the local population to ensure the continuity of his civil utopia. Without a demos, Sabbioneta has no life. Today, all that is left an empty buildings and a utopian dream, whose ambitious scale any local attempt to revive the city.


Waiting for the bus back to Mantova, I thought that the etymology of Utopia, a non-place, suggested that the realisation of the ‘ideal city’ was a doomed project. Maybe the failure of Sabbioneta provides an opportunity for inward inspection, a soul-searching exercise for planners of contemporary utopias. 500 years after the publication of Thomas More’s celebrated book, a visit to Sabbioneta is a melancholic reminder of the difficulty of constructing a real place according to ideal plans.


Review of A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci


The final version of this review will be published in Political Studies Review, Volume 14 of the Journal, Issue 4, November 2016.

A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci (ed. and trans. by Derek Boothman). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014.

This volume is a collection of the early letters of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist political thinker and leader of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci’s prison diaries, written during his long incarceration under the Fascist regime in Italy, appeared in English translation in 1994 and have since then become a reference point for theorists and historians alike. However, his earlier correspondence, dating from 1908-1926, have not yet been translated. The new collection offers therefore a much-needed addition to the English bookshelf of Gramsci’s works. During the two decades covered in this volume, Gramsci left his native rural Sardinia, discovered Marxism as a student at the University of Turin, and emerged on the national and international political scene as one of the key political leaders in Italy. As this volume reminds us, it is not sufficient to read the prison diaries to understand Gramsci’s thought. His social and political ideas were shaped while engaging actively in politics in Sardinia, as a student in Turin, as a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and its representative in Moscow, and finally in Rome. The collection includes two thirds of the known correspondence of Antonio Gramsci from his high school days up to his arrest, revealing his complex relations with his family, with his wife Julija Schucht, with other revolutionary activists like Palmiro Togliatti, Amedeo Bordiga, and with members of the Comintern in Moscow including Leon Trotsky.

As the editor and translator Derek Boothman suggests in his insightful introduction, the selection of letters sheds light on the evolution and continuities in Gramsci’s thought, tracing the early emergence through dialogue of key Gramscian themes like the nature of the superstructures of society, centralism and party politics, popular culture, passive revolution, hegemony and social alliances (49-50). Boothman’s introduction helps situate the letters in historical context, provides biographical details about Gramsci and his main interlocutors, and explains the conceptual meaning of the letters in the wider framework of his thought. The wide-ranging thematic scope of the letters – personal meditations, political commentary, policy plans for the Communist Party and theoretical reflections – offers a wealth of insights for scholars acquainted with Gramsci’s later writings as well as for first time readers of his work. The English translation from the original Italian is accurately and meticulously executed, paying attention to the different linguistic registers deployed by Gramsci in different periods in his life. Thus, this selection of letters represents a welcome addition to the English language sources by Gramsci and about his work.





Review of The Companion to Raymond Aron

Raymond Aron, 1966
Raymond Aron, 1966



Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Volume 15 of the Journal, Issue 1, February 2017.

The Companion to Raymond Aron by  Jose Colen and Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut (eds). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

The Companion to Raymond Aron seeks to provide an overview of the works and ideas of the French sociologist, political thinker and commentator Raymond Aron (1905-1983). The main aim of the book is to ‘aid in the study of Aron’s political, sociological and philosophical thought and writings’ (1). It is especially directed at the English-reading audience, where Aron’s ideas remain less known and studied, often due to lack of good English translations of his works. The volume is divided into three parts, representing the main themes of Aron’s work: international relations, philosophy, and the history of ideas. The long list of contributors include French and international scholars of Aron’s thought, such as Serge Audier, Pierre Hessner, Perrine Simon-Nahum, Joel Mouric, Iain Stewart, Daniel J. Mahoney and Giulio de Ligio. The essays seek to shed light on Aron’s versatile and diverse intellectual production, ranging from historical analysis, political commentary and philosophical studies. Each part includes numerous essays on various aspects of Aron’s thought, from totalitarianism to the Cold War, from the philosophy of history to theory of democracy, from Machiavelli to Marx. Furthermore, the volume includes an essay by Aron’s biographer, Nicolas Baverez, and a detailed bibliography of his works by Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut.

The volume provides valuable studies of Aron’s thought. The essays succeed in contextualising Aron in the intellectual horizon of the twentieth century and in shedding light on the nuances of his thought. The essays share a commitment to depicting Aron as an original liberal thinker who made a lasting, if sometimes under-appreciated, contribution to western liberal thought. Thus, the volume presents a complex, intriguing portrait of an important liberal thinker that goes beyond his stereotypical reputation as a ‘cold warrior’ and anti-communist. One of the underlying aims of many of the essays is to emphasise Aron’s relevance to contemporary thought, and to highlight his importance as ‘the greatest figure in French liberalism of the twentieth century’(3). It is doubtlessly true that, as the contributors to this volume ceaselessly argue, Aron’s impressive and original political analysis deserves a greater attention than it had so far received. Yet sometimes the reader is left with a feeling that a more critical rather than celebratory attitude would have helped some of the essays to do his work justice. Nonetheless, the volume makes an important and welcome contribution to the English-language literature on Raymond Aron.

On immigration

The recent tragedy in the Mediterranean, which cost the life of hundreds of African migrants, caught the attention of the media, at least for a brief moment. The European leaders were forced to pay attention to the rising problem, acknowledging that Italy should not carry the burden of dealing with illegal maritime migration alone. Many think of migration as a ‘problem’. Migrants, and especially the uninvited ones, are treated as a tolerable annoyance at best, and as criminal invaders as worst. In Britain, the Labour ‘immigration control’ mug stirred a little storm. In Israel, the constant attempts to jail or deport the illegal migrants who cross the southern border with Africa. In Italy, the fortunes of those who survive the perilous boat trip from North Africa to Lampedusa remain largely an untold story, that only starts to attract public attention.

Migration has been part of my life in the last decade. I arrived as a migrant to Italy, then to Britain. I walked through the complex bureaucratic routes providing documents, fingerprints, photos and certificates to comply with all the requirements to become a legal resident.  My experience was in no way life endangering, but it was not calm or enjoyable. My ancestors were migrants, too. Some had to flee their homes and seek refuge in foreign lands. Penniless, without a profession or a required skill, they tried to live and survive in Tajikistan, and then in the newly founded Israel. Other ancestors were born in Palestine, but their family histories were also stories of migrations, certificates, permissions and visas. Migrant are also part of my work, where I explore 20th century thinkers concerned with world order. Many of them share a personal history of migration: David Mitrany, Antonio Borgese, Reinhold Niebuhr.

Perhaps it is, again, the usual syndrome of ‘not in my back yard’. We all know that there is a problem, but none of us wants to take the responsibility (and pay a possible price) for solving it. The problem is not only one of policy-making but also of social norms: most people don’t like migrants, and are not particularly interested in helping the weak. A visit at the immigration museum in Melbourne last week suggested a key strategy to dealing with migration beyond the official policies. What I liked at the museum was the focus on historical data along with personal stories. The idea of the ‘migrant’ finds a face and a life once you read about the knitting worker who came to Australia from poor Italy to seek a better life and worked hard to get it, or when you read about the German pastry chef who invented glorious cakes but was interned in a camp during the First World War.


To complicate the banal stories of national homogeneity that many like to tell, historians can revive the past of Western societies, weaved of migrations, colonisations and transfers of populations. Migrations have always been integral part of human search for a better life. Doubtlessly, not all refugees and migrants can easily integrate in society, and they should not be granted an automatic leave to stay. However, in view of the growing waves of migrants who flee a terrible life abroad, we should start by hearing their stories to understand their life choices and find the adequate solutions.