July 1, 2017, by Stephen Legg

Reading Group: Internationalism and Race

This reading group presented us with an opportunity to discuss what was a key concern of the grant proposal and will be a key concern of our research; how race inflected and played a key role in forming internationalism in the interwar years. Each reading was related to one of the research topics of the three team members, namely: Steve Legg’s work on India; Jake Hodder’s work on African-American history; and Mike Heffernan’s work on the League of Nations.

Goswami’s paper addressed many of the analytical and theoretical questions which we will pursue throughout this project: is internationalism best understood as a historical phenomenon or an analytical tool that is still useful? Can internationalism get away from nationalism, or was it achieved through agents who thought of themselves in national terms and may well have had national (or explicitly nationalist) objectives? How can we reconstruct the expectations of the past that did not come to be realised? That is, what did the future look like in the 1930s? Goswami pursued these questions through an intellectual biography of sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887–1949), tracking his international movements, his critical unpicking of colonial reliance upon assumptions about Occidental Reason (see here for one of his analyses, 70 years before Edward Said’s publication of Orientalism), and his creation of different histories and different views of the interwar present to imagine different, less imperial, more international futures.

Themes of race and internationalism were also addressed in Pal Singh’s book, which approaches big questions of race, democracy and geography in accessible and provocative language. A question which the book returned to was the status of race within the USA: an undoubtedly unresolved racial history with legacies of violence and ethnicity still apparent in often segregated local landscapes; yet, internationally, America’s racial story has often been portrayed as one of redemption, with America being the source of globally dominant “black” cultures and forms of political international mobilisation.

The latter theme intersects with those taken up in Manela’s Internationalist Moment, a very influential book which examined the defeated potential for the Versailles Peace Conference, and the League of Nations which resulted, to have taken colonised or repressed non-white peoples’ claims for self-determination seriously. Ironically, Woodrow Wilson’s protracted campaign in Paris was premised on expertise in racial relations that could help craft a better post-war world. The Egyptian, India, Chinese and Korean petitions would not, however, receive an audience in the “Wilsonian Moment” which, it would later be agreed, had allowed white, western imperialists to craft interwar internationalism in the image of liberal, anti-Bolshevik, and pro-colonial policies that suppressed the voices of anti-colonial nationalists (in international spheres, if not in the villages and cities to which their campaigning returned).

The three readings provide alternative ways in which we will continue to think through the relationships between geographical scale, which concerns space (local, national, imperial, international), and historical scale, which concerns time (the past, the present, the future as well as long- to short- term patterns). It was clear that the First World War had opened up people’s imagination about what the future could be. If the 18th-century Enlightenment had encouraged people to think of their destiny in terms of a rationally planned future rather than a traditional and inherited past, and the 19th century revolutions of science and technology had created an ever more interconnected world of manufacture, commerce and conflict, the First World War had encouraged communities all around the world to consider how they would plan their future in a “moment” that suggested that the future would not just be determined by the agendas of white, European and American imperialists. These bright futures were rapidly eclipsed in the 1930s but their histories remind us of the complex geographies of the interwar period and the vividly different international worlds they were imagining and attempting to bring into being.

Posted in Reading groups