Writing the Histories of People in Motion: An Interview with Laura Madokoro

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Laura Madokoro, McGill University

The movement of people across borders, seas and deserts saturate contemporary international news headlines. Refugees are often described in legalistic and sensationalistic terms: the assumption being that the search for refuge is an exceptional and out-of-character experience that should take place within the parameters of international law. Yet the language used to speak about the movement of people has as much to do with its historical context than the actual experiences of movement and migration. Indeed, the history of migration is an ancient one, while attempts to control and rationalize the movement of people only arose with the modern state.

In Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2016) Laura Madokoro spotlights the history of migrants leaving the post-1949 People’s Republic of China for the then-British colony of Hong Kong and beyond. This movement—and the millions of people who fled China—was largely ignored, especially when compared to displaced peoples in Europe. In addition to recovering these stories, Dr. Madokoro argues that framed in the context of the Cold War they can tell us much about humanitarianism, geopolitics and the shadow of settler colonialism, from the Antipodes to North America and South Africa.

I recently met with Laura Madokoro in Montreal, where she works as a historian at McGill University. She discussed the politics of migration during the global Cold War, the revelatory nature of language when describing people in motion, and her current and future research plans. Elusive Refuge is her first book. You can follow her on twitter via @LauraMadokoro and keep an eye on the evolution of her current projects here.

–Martin Crevier…

Development Politics and India’s Cold War Triangle: An Interview with David Engerman

David Engerman, Professor of History, Yale University

In The Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India (Harvard University Press, 2018), David Engerman, a leading historian of US and Soviet modernization ideology and expertise, extends his focus to the intricacy of Cold War competition in India. Through an adroit study of Indian, American, and Soviet domestic and international politics regarding aid for Indian development, he analyzes the complex dance behind how and why particular development projects were built. The debates that surrounded these projects attempted to shape, and were in turn shaped by Cold War conflict and the political maneuvering of the Indian state. Price of Aid deftly captures and articulates the contradiction at the heart of development assistance—that international aid for nation-building projects sought by post-colonial states came with consequences that constrained the very state sovereignty those projects aimed to serve.

Our conversation, at Intelligentsia Coffee in Watertown, MA this June, was wide-ranging—on the arc of Engerman’s remarkable intellectual career, the evolution of the historiography on development, the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War, and that of governmentality and geopolitics, to flag just a few themes that arise in the following interview.

Lydia Walker

Exploring the History of Science and Religion: An Interview with Job Kozhamthadam

PhD student

Job Kozhamthadam at the University of Maryland in the 1980s

Few today acknowledge the role of religion in the development of modern science and technology. But scholars have shown that religion has actively contributed to the rise of modern science. Joseph Satish sat down to discuss this and other matters with the award-winning historian and philosopher of science, Job Kozhamthadam.

Kozhamthadam is one of a unique breed of scholars who specialize in the history and philosophy of science – unique, because he also happens to be a Catholic Jesuit priest. His journey from a young boy in a nondescript town in South India to being acclaimed as a pioneer in the history of science and religion in India is interesting and inspiring.

Kozhamthadam is a Professor of Science and Cosmology at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, India. He was previously a Visiting Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Loyola University, Chicago. He completed his PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. His first book, The Discovery of Kepler’s Laws: The Interaction of Science, Philosophy, and Religion (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994) was named Outstanding Academic Book of the Year 1994 by Choice Magazine. His other books include East-West Interface Of Reality: A Scientific And Intuitive Inquiry Into The Nature Of Reality (2003), Science, Technology And Values: Science-Religion Dialogue In A Multi-Religious World (2003) and Science, Mysticism And East-West Dialogue (2016). He founded the Indian Institute of Science and Religion (IISR) in 1999.

Joseph Satish (University of Hyderabad, India)

Troubling the Empire: An Interview with Antoinette Burton

Prof. Antoinette Burton, Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, UIUC

The British Empire, in its various guises, remains a rich historiographical field. Over the course of the past forty years, imperial history has undergone a series of changes stemming from the cultural turn, postmodernism, and postcolonial studies. A central element of this has been to break away from the male-dominated approaches to the ‘Official Mind’, and incorporating gender, race, and class into our understanding of Empire. Professor Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been at the forefront of this change, as part of a wider group of scholars breaking down the insular boundaries of the field. Prof. Burton is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and its empire, with a specialty in colonial India and an ongoing interest in Australasia and Africa. She has written on topics ranging from feminism and colonialism to the relationship of empire to the nation and the world.

Throughout her career, Antoinette Burton has drawn our attention to the place of women in imperial movements in Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture 1865-1915 (UNC Press, 1994), the experiences of non-white subjects moving across the empire in At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (University of California Press, 1998), and the perpetual weakness of the empire itself in The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism (Oxford UP, 2015). These works, as well as her extensive list of further publications, have allowed us to understand the metropole and empire as co-constitutive, with bodies and ideas crossing imperial boundaries and breaking down previously held assumptions of insularity. Revealing the voices of marginalized groups has also stimulated a wide array of research into localized perceptions of empire.

In this interview, Burton discusses the origins of her interest in gender and the British Empire, and her transition to broader questions of British imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We also spoke about the pitfalls of studying the Empire in the current era of revisionism and imperial nostalgia, and how we as historians can combat the challenges raised by the amnesia surrounding colonial actions. Finally, we talked about how both collaborative projects and the field of World History can enrich our understanding of the British Empire, as well as the benefits of these approaches to early career researchers.

James Parker

Populism in History: An Interview with Federico Finchelstein

Federico Finchelstein, Del Fascismo al Populismo en la Historia (Taurus) and From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).

Academics and commentators across the world have diagnosed what seems to them a global crisis of liberal-democracy. Many of them have focused in on populism, forming what some have called a ‘populism industry’. Feeding a confused and worried public’s desire for a prognosis, they have crafted definitions of populism that can explain and connect the seemingly new tide of right-wing politics in many very different contexts around the world.

Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, argues that to understand our contemporary political predicament, we should instead start by contextualizing it by studying the actual historical experiences of populism within the long-term patterns of challenges to democracy. This, he insists, is preferable to theorizing perfect definitions of populism. Starting in 1945 in Latin America, where fascistic sentiments were reformulated for a post-war era and then brought into power through democratically elected governments, Finchelstein takes us around the world to see both patterns and divergences as this specific form of anti-democratic sentiment, populism, is expressed in various political contexts.

His book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017) provides the reader with an understanding of many of the most important theories of populism and how these theories stack up in the face of the ‘messiness’ of the global historical record. This hybrid intellectual-political history demonstrates how fascism and populism are connected but not the same, and why this matters for understanding the world today. In doing so, Finchelstein shows why we cannot afford not to have historians engage in contemporary political conversations.

Collin Bernard

Negotiating Maritime Power in Early Modern East Asia: An Interview with Adam Clulow

Adam Clulow. Source: Adam Clulow.

The Dutch in Japan have often been represented as a pragmatic company of merchants that prioritized the quiet progress of commerce over everything else. Not quite, says Adam Clulow, Associate Professor of history at Monash University and author of the acclaimed monograph The Company and the Shogun (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Clulow’s work on the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its role in the turbulent political environment of East Asia challenges standard views of power relations in the diplomatic encounter between early modern Europe and East Asia. Looking at conflict and negotiation between a European overseas enterprise and a powerful military government in Japan, Clulow questions analytical categories such as state and company, piracy and privateering, diplomacy and violence. The VOC, he shows, was a master shapeshifter, altering its appearance whenever it needed to. When it came to Tokugawa Japan, the Company was in fact relatively small and weak. Clulow’s work challenges widespread notions about early modern relationships between Europe and East Asia, and the evolution of modern state institutions.

Jonas Rüegg (Harvard University)…

‘Doubt Everything’: An Interview on the State of Marxist History with Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs, Part I

Ewan Gibbs (left) and Vijay Prashad (right). Source: Authors

This is the first of a two-part interview with Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs on the state of Marxist history today. The second part, on the role of the Marxist historian and the challenge of post-modernism, will be published next week.

When I planned it initially, this interview was designed to highlight the differences of thought between two Marxist historians, each focused on radically different parts of the world, with one more experienced colleague and one exciting prospect for the future. In effect, I sought to highlight how differences in circumstance might lead to diverging interpretations of theory.

What struck me as I compiled and edited this interview, however, was not divergence, but harmony. Of course, there are differing opinions in the interview which follows, but two shared and salient themes emerge. The first is the desire among Marxist historians to constantly expand our horizons, incorporating new techniques and ideas to strengthen our analysis. The second is more cautionary. It is a profound scepticism of the elimination of meta-narratives from history. While specialisation brings welcome depth to our discipline, it must not do so at the expense of the broader picture.

I am extremely grateful to both Vijay Prashad and Ewan Gibbs for devoting their time to this interview. It was conducted by email over a number of months and their stimulating dialogue challenged many of the presumptions I had when commencing the project. I hope that readers will enjoy the interview and reflect on what it might teach us, not just as Marxists, but as historians more generally. I hope more broadly that readers of the Toynbee Prize Foundation website who may not consider themselves Marxists are able to identify with the themes of this interview: the importance of embracing new methods and ideas; the salience of global histories; the need to challenge institutional assumptions within our discipline.

Vijay Prashad is the Executive Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Chief Editor of LeftWord Books. He is the author of twenty-five books and the editor of twenty others. His most recent book is Red Star Over the Third World, a study of the impact of the 1917 October Revolution on the anti-colonial movements and on the post-colonial states. He writes regularly for Frontline and The Hindu (India), BirGün (Turkey) and Alternet (USA).

Ewan Gibbs lectures in sociology and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He was awarded a PhD in 2016 for a study of deindustrialization in the Scottish coalfields. Ewan has published on the moral economy of Scottish colliery closures,  the poll tax non-payment movement, policy-making and the idea of a Scottish ‘industrial nation’, and on the intellectual origins of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism.

Dexter Govan (University of Cambridge)

Echoes of Weimar in American Cold War Politics: An Interview with Daniel Bessner

Credit: Cornell University Press

In Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018), Daniel Bessner tells the story of a previously little-known German sociologist who changed the way we think about the role of intellectuals in American public policy-making. Born into a conservative Lutheran family, Hans Speier turned to Marxism during the early Weimar years. As a student of Karl Mannheim, he spent the 1920s trying to implement a social democratic version of his teacher’s political-pedagogical vision. To this end, Speier worked as a lecturer at the Hochschule für Politik, a college of worker’s education. With the rise of Nazism, Speier’s infatuation with Marxist theory, socialism, and the people waned. Democracy, after all, had put Hitler in charge. When Speier moved to America, he brought the trauma of the crisis of Weimar with him.

For Speier, this crisis was the result of excessive trust placed in an inherently untrustworthy demos. He consequently advocated expert governance as an alternative to broad-based popular rule. Calling on émigré intellectuals to actively involve themselves in American politics, Speier himself went on to occupy important positions during World War II as part of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service and the Office of War Information. He subsequently moved to the head of the newly founded Social Science Division at the Air Force-funded RAND Corporation. From there he advised the U.S. government on questions of propaganda and psychological warfare. To defend democracy against both Nazis and Soviets, Speier argued, the United States had to become more authoritarian. In this way, Speier’s story traces the rise of the American “defense intellectual” as well as the emergence of what has come to be known as the U.S. “military-intellectual complex.”

Katharina Isabel Schmidt

The Human Condition and the Laws of War: An Interview with Tanisha Fazal

Dr. Tanisha Fazal

Today, declarations of war belong to the museum of international history. Most states no longer declare war (e.g. Ukraine, Afghanistan, Korea) and often resist signing peace treaties. This has not always been the case. Until the late 1940s, half of all interstate wars were formally declared and seven out of ten ended with a formal peace treaty.

In Wars of Law, Unintended Consequences in the Regulation of Armed Conflict (Cornell, 2018), Tanisha Fazal, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, argues that declarations of war and peace treaties are more than legal niceties alone. In fact, they can tell us when wars begin and end; can trigger the laws of war; and can set the legal boundaries of wartime. In her book, she suggests the proliferation of increasingly restrictive laws of war has, ‘in a perverse unintended consequence,’ critically altered the incentives for belligerents to formally declare war or peace.

Fazal argues warring parties have stopped filing formal declarations of war and signing interstate peace treaties in order to create ambiguity as to whether the laws of war apply. An important reason for this development, she claims, is the growing split between the ‘lawmakers’ (humanitarians) and ‘lawtakers’ (soldiers). With the declining percentage of military representatives at lawmaking conferences, the laws of war have become increasingly restrictive on those applying them in times of war. 

The main consequence of this proliferation of tougher restrictions for warmaking is, according to Fazal, that states increasingly tend to frame their wars as ‘counterterrorism’. Some states today are both never and always in a state that approximates war. Fazal first encountered this puzzle when she witnessed how after 9/11 US troops invaded Afghanistan without filing a formal declaration of war. With the Bush Administration’s initial decision to reject applying the Geneva Conventions, she found that the laws of war created ‘perverse incentives’ for warring parties to engage in legal gymnastics to limit their obligations in wartime. The rising costs of compliance with ever-higher standards, she claims, have encouraged states to avoid stepping over ‘any bright lines’ that would directly oblige them to comply with the rules of war.