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.


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.





Reflections on history and theory

The first day of our Oxbridge Conference ( was an interesting and stimulating exchange of ideas not only between the two universities but also between two disciplines, Political Theory and History. Our aim was to bring together these two ways of thinking about the global. And I feel we did create a conversation between researchers who use different methods to look at the same problem – how to think about the global  – from distinct viewpoints. Yet I could not but notice, despite everyone’s enthusiasm and curiosity, that the encounter remained somewhat of a challenge. The historians readily accepted the need for a more theoretical background for their research, and the political theorists welcomed the historical background for theirs. But some differences could not be bridged. The theoreticians demanded that at the bottom line should be a reflection on ‘political relevance’, on what practitioners and politicians could do with the historial narrative to move beyond the present towards a better future. For the historians, of course, the questions ‘what is this good for’ is misguided. However, for me, the debate between history and theory persists as an underlying current in both disciplines. History should not necessarily be prescriptive, and theory does not need historical grounding to be inspiring. But both would benefit from a closer interaction, not to justify and legitimize an intellectual trajectory, but to find stimulating problems and inspiring paths towards new ideas.

I look forward to our second day, 7 June in St Antony’s college in Oxford, to continue this reflection on the interaction between the history and theory of the ‘global’.