Global Capitalism and Trans-Atlantic Revolution: An Interview with Andrew Zimmerman

The American Civil War decisively showed the world how thoroughly America dominated cotton production. From Berar in Western India, to the fields of Egypt and German Togoland, pockets of cotton production suddenly expanded, even as this cotton was derided for not being as fine, or the correct length, for the spinning machines in Europe’s factories. German imperial ambitions coloured their interest in American cotton production and strategies for its replication in German Togo. It also drove their incorporation of the Polish periphery into Prussia and sugar beet cultivation by labour gangs of Polish migrant workers to rival British sugar production in the Caribbean. What connected these projects in Germany and German Togo to the American New South was the need to manage racially dominated labour for complex and large-scale production processes.

Andrew Zimmerman (George Washington University), our latest guest to the Global History Forum

Andrew Zimmerman’s book Alabama in Africa draws together the disparate threads, and often surprising intersections in a global history of how capitalism produces transnational forms of labour expropriation; a globalization of the ideology and practices of oppression across nations and global regions. Alongside, he shows also how sociology emerged as a discipline in Germany that buttressed the claims and concerns of the imperialist German nation-state. In America, the influential Chicago School of Sociology under the German trained sociologist Robert E. Park became the institutional framework for a new objectification of African American migrants from the New South to Chicago. The transnational exportation of “the Negro problem” of the New South undergirded the emergence of specific forms of labour and its control globally; and this in turn produced a global humanitarian discourse through which the Global South emerged as an object of policy.

It is easy to imagine Zimmerman as a thoughtful young person growing up in the Reagan years, already interested in the German intellectual tradition through high school introductions to Marx and Nietzsche and alive to Southern California’s “somewhat incoherent but oppositional culture.” One of his undergraduate syllabi I notice assigns “God Save the Queen” by The Sex Pistols and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again as texts alongside Hegel, Freud and Lenin. While punk is definitely a great example of a sometimes incoherent but oppositional political moment, Zimmerman notes that it’s also been a good way to introduce music as a primary source to undergraduates. Born to academic parents, Andrew Zimmerman grew up within the University of California system and ended up completing his PhD there as well. He tells me that they did the work of swatting away incredulous queries of “You’re thirty, and still studying?” well known to every graduate student.

Yet the path to becoming a historian was hardly prefigured. Andrew almost became an engineer and it was a serendipitous encounter with the Frankfurt School through a Comparative Literature class he happened to experiment with and an encounter with Simon Schaffer that marked the path towards cementing History as a disciplinary choice. Zimmerman’s work, but especially his second book Alabama in Africa, though not a history of science, draws partly on what he calls a history of science perspective: namely, following the actors and attending to the co-production of knowledge and social orders. According to Zimmerman, however, writing history through a global perspective is different from merely following the networks of global actors. It is “intensively politicized” – a way for a historian most interested in the power and place of ideas to zoom in on contingent moments of political struggle.

Alabama in Africa is an incredible story in the true sense of the word. I hear the incredulity that Zimmerman still holds about how it felt to have all the connections he was making between Booker T. Washington, Max Weber, Togolese cotton and the emergence of the Global South. These are connections that come to life not just in terms of a coherent narrative but more importantly, a conceptual framework within which they take on greater import than a dilettante-like history of accidental intersections. While he is very clear about what worked out to be a “lucky choice” for him – taking Simon Schaffer’s class in the History of Science at UCLA as part of the undergraduate degree requirement – it becomes clear over the course of our chat that for Andrew what he learnt as a result of that lucky choice informs the choices he makes as a historian. What marked that fateful semester was the realization that an interest in theory needn’t only mean writing about theory. Schaffer’s “epistemological reflexivity” and demonstration of the productive usage of different and differing traditions of intellectual thought got Zimmerman thinking: “I gotta have another year with this guy.” That led to a Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University in England. Later during our chat, Andrew confesses to not finding books that don’t have a clear conceptual framework hard going, and his own work reflects the epiphanies of what he calls the most productive year of his graduate career at Cambridge.

Zimmermann’s perspective on scholarship continues to be informed by his abiding interest in intellectual history – a field whose value lies, for him, in how it requires an incorporation of a variety and methods and practices. One must follow the actors in order to follow the ideas, and one must also investigate the material conditions and physical geographies where these people and ideas tried and sometimes failed, to hold sway. While Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany was a book about imperialism and anthropology, Alabama in Africa marks a moment of definite attention to the transnational context within a global orientation that an interest in the history of capitalism necessarily entails. Zimmerman did not approach such a transnational context without trepidation: “I worried, perhaps, that Africanists, or historians of the New South would see me as an interloper.”

But an intellectual historian of nineteenth century Germany may, like many who study the various global empires from the 15th century on, find much to connect themselves with the history and historiographies of places quite unfamiliar to themselves. “My knowledge of German meant that I could bring German sources into the story. German is not that common a research language in either West African history or the history of the American South. So I could tell people about stuff that was relevant but which they probably wouldn’t normally have had access to,” he says.

Zimmerman’s first book, “Alabama in Africa”

The exercise, it turns out, is fulfilling in more ways than one. Freeing oneself from the pigeonhole of regional expertise involves reading new and unfamiliar material and this is always exciting, gaining competency in them, a welcome challenge. Writing, as the completing act, is constitutive of his new scholarly work. Writing figures closely within how Zimmerman conceptualizes his presentation as a teacher, as a scholar, and as he says, his new aim of drawing in the general reader.

“Undergraduates are great general readers,” he laughs. And that has been the challenge specifically for his new book-in-progress, on Marxism and the American Civil War, to which we shall come later. But the imperatives of writing for a non-specialist reader first arose with Alabama in Africa. “You can’t really expect that my reader is going to be somebody who already has a strong interest in US, Togolese and nineteenth century German history. And this was something I liked – that I couldn’t really assume that my reader would already be interested.” What is also important is the disruption in scholarly form that writing transnational history encourages. Undesirable though it is in a profession where asking questions is what we do, academics are often loathe to ask questions if that makes them appear less knowledgeable. For Zimmerman, writing Alabama in Africa meant enabling people to ask questions, because, he laughed, “I’m probably the only person in the world with all three regional interests.”

When I ask what enabled him to ask all the questions he did, the answer is swift and so prosaic that we both laugh. “Online book repositories.” Of course, researching the book involved combing the German state archives, the archives of Gold Coast newspapers, and other institutional records; but Zimmerman raises the question of what it means for historical epistemology that certain kinds of connections can only be made and followed up on because of searchability within digitized texts. This means texts that are found in the first place through a crossways sweep through WorldCat and Google Books – a task that is physically and practically impossible without those online research tools. History departments mostly continue to be organized around regional specializations, and graduate student admissions follow that taxonomy with a set number of spots each year for each region. This remained the case in the 2000s when Hardt and Negri’s claim that this was the end of nation-states was hotly debated in classrooms, as it does now, in a post-2008 world, where politics is becoming again a space for growing international solidarities against global finance and the national institutional structures that undergird it. But graduate students are increasingly responding to the need to historicize the structural connections that explain our present. And doing so has meant adopting a global perspective that, at least in the early stages of graduate school, couldn’t be explored through primary sources without open-access resources online.

Zimmerman himself took Hardt and Negri’s Empire as a jumping off point for a course he taught every other year since 2000 until recently. He found that the by the last time he taught the class, a far more critical perspective animated students’ approaches to modernization theory or to globalization. They were responding to the failure of a “universal utopian hegemony,” which was a vision that helped make the 1990s a “really weird and semi-dystopian decade for a lot of academia,” says Zimmerman. That decade, he recalls, also saw a major shift in US college curricula. Global history might very well be carving out its own institutional space at major elite universities across the US now, but the door to it, he is keen to remind us, was opened up by pedagogical imperatives at state universities back in the 90s. Taking himself as an example, he tells me, that the ubiquitous “Western Civ” course was the stand-in for undergraduate requirements as a kind of general knowledge back when he was at university. Such a survey course performing the function of a general introduction to the world is no longer deemed fashionable at most universities, and rightly, impolitic. By the 1990s, pressure mounted on state institutions to reform or replace such courses with less Western-centric “World History” courses.

San Diego State was where one such successful replacement of “Western Civ” with “World History” took place in the 1990s. Zimmerman himself had his first teaching experience as an adjunct there and found that Ross Dunn, a veteran faculty member at the university, had taken on the challenge of responding to students’ queries as to why a history of Western Europe traced through spurious genealogies with the Classical Mediterranean World was what counted as “general knowledge.” One might imagine a young person growing up in Southern California in the 90s, studying engineering, legitimately wondering why their sole introduction to the world and our collective pasts was through Plato, Napoleon and Victorian England. And so it was, Zimmerman tells me, that it was working-class student bodies in diverse and democratic state institutions, rather than places “overdetermined by capital,” that sparked the beginning of the trend towards a global historical perspective in History Departments.

Bismarck (Kwelle Ndumbe) Bell, a Duala dignitary from Cameroon who refused to be photographed by anthropologists in “native” costume while performing in an ethnographic show at a colonial exhibition in Berlin.

The attention to race and class that partly determined the shift in curricula is crucial to a successful transregional focus, indeed to any kind of global framing. We have spoken earlier already of how writing global history for Zimmerman is intensively politicized and this story he shares itself makes clear how as a pedagogical strategy, teaching students to frame global historical topics, itself requires a certain politics of locating oneself and ones scholarship. After finishing Alabama in Africa, Zimmerman felt that one thing that he would like to think about more is the question of the autonomy of anti-capitalist resistance. One major conceptual point that Alabama in Africa makes is that capitalism comes with the preconditions for overthrowing capitalism. Forms of expropriation lead to the rise of new social and political forms. These become the condition of possibility for “truly free labour”, but since the system supposedly based on the free market and free labour cannot actually tolerate free labour, capitalist elites devise new forms of racial, political and economic control. In the narrative arc of Alabama in Africa, the smallholding household is shown to be the unit of new forms of coercion, from the American New South, to the Prussian estates and the Togolese countryside.

In the United States, Black reformers such as Booker T. Washington and his industrial training school, the Tuskegee Institute, advocated Black self-improvement through their apparently “natural” facility for directed, hard labour within the framework of the family homestead. It was no coincidence of political economy that ex-slaves seeking to build their lives anew through smallholdings in the New South were pressed into sharecropping in large labour gangs on the old plantations. In Germany, various institutions interested in sociology, agrarian improvement and nation-building studied the new Negro household as the perfect hetero-patriarchal unit through which labour gangs of Polish migrant workers could be at once racially contained and economically exploited. Such Polish workers sustained the Prussian estates and their escalated production, but housed in mixed gender barracks and enjoying a new autonomy from traditional familial control alongside the income garnered from their labour, these Polish Sachsengänger were seen to pose a deep threat to traditional German society and its racial purity. W.E.B Du Bois’ work on agrarian economics in the American South, based on a PhD thesis completed in Berlin and inspired by the work of Tuskegee Institute, became the focus of the German agricultural department and Sociology as a form of social activism in Germany. While Du Bois distanced himself politically from Washington and his message, Max Weber and his wife visited Tuskegee in Alabama. Weber’s own conceptions of the household as a sociological unit were formulated through his understanding of how it could function as a form of socio-political control in America and in Germany. In Togo, German officials brought over teachers from the Tuskegee Institute to set up model cotton estates, so that Africans could learn to be “good” labourers, hard working and disciplined. Through social legislation and punitive measures, they disrupted the matriarchal open households of Togo, where women had multiple husbands and held the economic reigns so as to engender the rise of the hetero-patriarchial family unit.

Zimmerman’s narrative, whilst alive always to the multiple political possibilities present at each contingent moment, focuses on the forms of oppression that partly defined those moments. The orientation of the book, ultimately, is as a critique of imperialism as one of the ideological and economic forms that capitalism gives rise to. He cites Cedric J. Robinson’s classic Black Marxism as a resource through which he began thinking more seriously about forms of resistance within capitalism that nonetheless are independent from the systemic preconditions within itself for its own demise.

“When I was writing the final draft of Alabama in Africa,” he explains, “I thought that both my books have been about capitalism and imperialism and forms of oppression. But in the context of these as a sort of counter-revolution – against the possibility of free labour. So I thought, why not focus on the revolution?” Zimmerman talks about “plebeian internationalisms” that he began thinking about over the course of writing Alabama in Africa. This is the theme that runs through his new book-in-progress on the American Civil War. The two forces that could instantiate plebeian internationalism as he investigates it are German-American Communism and African-American Conjure. He points out that Conjure, like other Afro-Atlantic religions such as Santeria in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, or Voodou in Haiti played an important role in resistance within and against slavery. Zimmerman is interested in the influence of both trans-Atlantic traditions in the creation of revolutionary currents in the Civil War. “Both these forces were really instrumental not only in bringing about emancipation, but turning the war into a war by enslaved peoples against slavery.” The book will discuss, amongst other things, how solidarities did and did not work between revolutionary Europeans and African-Americans; about revolutionary strategies centred on the destruction of property rather than any sense of American “patriotism”; and it will start with a focus on the plebeian transnationalism of places such as Hoboken, New Jersey or Boonville, Missouri at the peripheries of the War but from whence emerged successful Union Army strategies often at odds with the imperatives of American capitalism.

James Nathan Calloway, the leader of the Tuskegee expedition, travels by hammock, as was customary for dignitaries in German Togo. German officials used hammocks made of African cloth because it was much sturdier than the European cloth sold in West Africa. The man grasping Calloway’s hand is likely John Winfrey Robinson, who would soon become the head of Tuskegee efforts in Togo. Source: Family collection of Constance Calloway Margerum, granddaughter of James Nathan Calloway. Reprinted with permission.

There is a way in which all of Zimmerman’s books hold to intellectual history as a way to think of theory and to illuminate the world from which that theory came about. He says that just as Alabama in Africa was a History of Sociology book with Weber and Robert E. Park embedded within the narrative, so, too, is the new work a History of Marxism book where Marx is a character in the narrative along with many of his comrades in exile (many ended up in the Union Army). But this new work is much more of “a collapsing of the theoretical framework into the primary sources” than his previous books. Marx was theorizing property even as he watched closely how the destruction of private property and the seizure of land functioned as revolutionary methods for slaves’ self-emancipation. Zimmerman’s book will draw connections between these methods and Union military strategy – to show how Union military tactics drew from the successes of these strategies.

I am surprised to learn how there were a huge number of Germans in the Civil War, especially when Zimmerman tells me around ten percent of the Union Army was German-born. This makes sense in the context of immigration numbers at the time. “German exiles, both in the 1840s-50s and in the 1930s too, tended to be left-wing and so, with this book, it’s not just a German perspective I’m bringing to a pretty non-German topic, it’s also the Leftist, German perspective that is interesting to me,” says Zimmerman. This project has resulted in a side project of sorts, where a new edition of Marx and Engels’ writings on America with an introduction by Zimmerman has come out recently. When I ask whether Zimmerman has read anything engaging recently, most of the titles he shares are related to the American Civil War (David Kazanjian, Steven Hahn, Chandra Manning). But he also mentions the work of Sylvia Federici, William Gibson’s speculative fiction, and Neel Mukherjee’s novel set in Naxalite Bengal of the 1970s. The metaphorical ever-growing stack of books that he laughingly refers to might cause temporary anxiety, but as with his scholarship, Zimmerman is clearly making headway in it in a variety of directions.

Throughout our conversation, Zimmerman laughs often and has an elongated “yeah” of agreement that usually accompanies that laugh. We have ranged very quickly over a diverse set of issues where he has laughed his agreement with something I’ve said, before then proceeding to illuminate the topic through a set of insights that could have come only from him. A few times during our chat, Zimmerman has prefaced some explication or other with a version of Deleuze and Guattari’s famous line from Anti-Oedipus: “A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on a couch.” Various instances, such as his enthusiasm for university students taking whatever class they like, animate the sense he is conveying with that line. He remains the engineering student who went and read Horkheimer’s Authority and the Family, almost chose a graduate career in Comparative Literature and then went off to study History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge because of Simon Schaffer’s visiting semester at UCLA. He recalls that he had been reading Marxian theory at the time but it was also being at the University of California where student-workers had long unionized, and hearing teamsters and truck drivers as they passed by student picket lines that brought home the tangible solidarity that labour creates.

That interest in conceptualizing labour and thinking about its associative formations critically informs both Alabama in Africa and the equally ranging connections in his forthcoming book. Various kinds of scholarly minds produce histories with a global conceptual framework. It is clear that with Zimmerman, the open and curious mind that is especially necessary for making the kinds of associative connections that are an imperative of such histories has marked his trajectory from student to scholar.

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