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Reading Room: Radicals and Reactionaries in Twentieth-Century International Thought

01 Jan 2018
Reviewed by Gillian Davenport

International Relations has long been dominated by classical and often Anglo-American theorists. This book seeks to address this issue by exploring the lesser known and unconventional thinkers of Asia and Europe. In so doing it works to highlight the sheer variety and depth the discipline has to offer.

International Relations (IR), as an academic discipline, almost exclusively focuses upon Anglo-American interpretations of modern social and political thought. The often tacit and normalised assumptions of mainstream theories can obscure the ideas of unconventional thinkers who have also shaped international thought. In his final novel, Victor Hugo stated, “Wide horizons lead the soul to broad ideas; circumscribed horizons engender narrow ideas…”. It follows that the reconstruction and interpretation of historical texts outside the mainstream consensus and their association to theoretical enquiry can be highly relevant for a better understanding of the discipline.

Radicals and Reactionaries in Twentieth-Century International Thought, edited by Ian Hall, follows this vein eloquently. It is a fascinating book that challenges our consolidated academic understandings of international theory, uncovering idiosyncratic and contextualised accounts of non-Western, non-Anglophone thinkers during the twentieth century. Radical and reactionary thinkers from France, Germany and Italy, as well as beyond Europe, (in India and Japan) are discussed with curiosity and intellectual rigour. These thinkers deliberate on the pre, inter and post-war period—a time similar to now, beset with diverging ideas on how best to approach the future.

The chapters by Leonie Holthaus and Andreas Osiander are discussed from the radical and reactionary tradition respectively. Only by reading around nine chapters, however, can the full range of borrowed, hybridised and interdisciplinary ideas be fully considered.

Leonie Holthaus’s chapter draws on revisionist literature to explore the legacy of German thought on British IR. In doing so she upends the prevalent myth that realism is simply a “doctrine of disillusionment”, as well as uncovering the tension and anxieties within both realism and idealism. What is shown through the work of a sample of British radicals throughout the war periods is that realist ideas were well known and deep-rooted, albeit perceived largely with abhorrence. Norman Angell’s contortion of ‘Prussianism’, an overtly nationalistic and irrational manifestation of German Hegelian philosophy is a case in point.

The chapter further makes apparent the limited understanding of British and American realist thought vis-a-vis German theories and German fascism. E.H Carr’s apparent borrowing from Hitler’s amoral fascism in the mid-1930s is deliberated on in detail. As such, the chapter converses around the fact that realism and idealism were far from consolidated in the previous century. Holthaus references Martin Wight, also a remarkable theorist from the same era: “simplified antagonism between realism and utopianism lacked any productive tension”. The changing and—in Carr’s case—replacing of English radical tradition is found to be pivotal to understanding the development of British IR.

As well as stirring the pot on our perceptions of IR general theory, one cannot depart from the prominent theme implicitly or explicitly mentioned by the radical and reactionary thinkers in the book: the moral ambiguity of nationalism. Andreas Osiander takes us back over a century to 1914, when German diplomat and theorist Kurt Riezler promulgated ideas on unprecedented economic interdependence, concurrently with the ever-present ‘national tendency’. His theoretical work Fundamentals, includes a synthesis of these two elements which is unique as  twentieth century general theory has largely neglected to prioritise nationalism. Despite being written a century ago, the book draws stark parallels in describing the present context of integration and fragmentation and the many global disjunctures.

Riezler argued that economic interdependence would be a mitigating force on the struggle between states and a means to resolve zero-sum games; he concluded that the present epoch would render warfare irrational due to the dire costs on great powers. At the same time, however, Riezler was careful to emphasise the ‘national tendency’ as the “elementary factor of political life”. Regrettably, the anomaly of global warfare, as well as the changes in the international arena in the interwar and post-war periods rendered him a ‘forgotten theorist’. Come the close of the Cold War, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye could write of interdependence as if it were a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, by theorising how global integration had in fact given impetus to nationalism and vice versa, Riezler is a timely addition to the book.

Both radicals and reactionaries in the book contend with notions of western domination and American hegemony. Andrew Williams, in his chapter, explains how the ‘far-right’ in France was a powerful force in the mid-1930s. He describes how ‘indigenous’ fascist ideas invariably clashed with British and American cultural and political ideals. The Vichy regime’s collaboration with Nazi occupation during WWII is rooted back to a loss of belief in American liberalism and the existence of an anti-Anglo-Saxon sentiment.  Similarly, Krishna Menon, the ‘roving ambassador’ for Indian self-rule, expressed critical views of American hegemony in the post-colonial period.

Ian Hall’s final chapter illustrates how Menon sought an independent foreign policy for India, borrowing from the teachings of the English radical tradition to achieve his objectives. Such awareness of these cultural and historical sensitivities of the twentieth century lends valuably to the globalised present.

As mentioned in Hall’s introductory chapter, with the addition of a more complete enquiry into the vibrancy of ideas from the twentieth century as well as greater attention to contemporary cross-cultural and non-conventional ideas, a Gadamerian style “fusion of horizons” could be reached. The book uncovers a range of multi-layered ideas and their implications for policy. For IR enthusiasts, especially those with an interest in the historiography of international thought, this is a valuable contribution in that direction. What’s more, certain parallels to today such as the push and pull of nationalism and internationalism, help to better conceptualise global challenges moving forward.

Ian Hall (Eds), Radicals and Reactionaries in Twentieth-Century International Thought, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. ISBN13: 9781137447258

Gillian Davenport is a former intern at AIIA National Office. She is currently studying a Bachelor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.