Ideas & Ideology

Roundtable: Glenda Sluga

By Glenda Sluga

I have always thought it bad form to assess a book on the grounds of what it does not set out to do. Indeed, Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The history of an idea is in many ways a satisfying read precisely because it surprises with unexpected facts and analysis. There are many comments that one could make too about the strengths of Governing the World that are not surprising given Mazower’s talents as an historian and a story-teller. In particular I found his foray into the history of economic internationalism and the complicity of international economic institutions in the legitimation of an American neo-liberal agenda one of the most gripping aspects of his analysis. Here, however, I want to use my few paragraphs to reflect on the important example that I believe it offers of an historian following an all too familiar narrative and analytical template, and eliding women as significant political actors or intellectuals in two centuries of world history.

Governing the World is structured around the key theme of the struggle between capitalism and communism. It may be this approach that, over more than 400 pages and two centuries, leads Mazower away from women and towards male (often European and American) actors. In this sense, the book is not only a history of an idea, but also it is about the work that idea has done since the turn of the nineteenth century. Nor does it steer away from social or cultural history. On a number of occasions, Mazower discusses the reach of the idea of ‘world government’, in its various versions, sometimes liberal or capitalist, at others communist. Many of the key male figures of the proponents of that idea through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, make an appearance as minor figures, whether, in no particular order, Saint Simon, H. G. Wells, Albert Thomas, Emile Morea, Montagu Norman, Dean Rusk, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Daniel Moynihan, Benjamin Constant, Giuseppe Mazzini, Karl Marx, William Randal Cremer, Elihu Root, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jan Smuts, Francis Galton, Julian Huxley, Jeremay Bentham, Prince Albert, Raymond Fosdick, Eric Drummond, George Slocombe, Jean Monnet, Paul Otlet, FDR and Leonard Woolf. Mazower mentions some women in this story:: Madame de Stael as the object of Saint-Simon’s wooing; Eleanor Roosevelt as the subject of too much hagiography; Florence Nightingale prepares the path for Henri Dunant’s efforts to create the Red Cross; Virginia Woolf assists Leonard Woolf in the assemblage of his classic text International Government; Gertrude Bell gets a guernsey for working with T.E. Lawrence; Queen Victoria as the consort to Prince Albert; Margaret Thatcher is the antithesis of the 19th century free trader Richard Cobden; and Margaret Anstey we are reminded was the undersecretary of the UN. Women do better in the period since the 1990s as the representatives or critics of US foreign policy (Madeleine Albright, Samantha Power, Anne-Marie Slaughter). But, before then, no woman’s ideas or actions drive the main story, let alone the thinking through of the idea of world government.

By contrast, if we look back at feminist historiography, we find that the internationalism and international institutions that are the core of the new international history exemplified by Mazower’s work have, since the nineteenth century, been closely allied to women’s political activism, thinking, and ambitions. However, that historiography, like the equally marginalized historiography of pacifism, much of it written by women, has rarely been brought into the mix of political and economic themes that structure mainstream international history, and not even the new international history, where the opportunities for greater attention to marginalized or subaltern figures have been improved by the emphasis on non-national archives, including those of international organizations. But, in truth, for historians based in North America, Britain, Europe, (and even Australia!) one does not even have to look that far. A journey to the local university or municipal library—let alone the internet will often reveal as much.

In 1940, at the age of 25, Edith Wynner wrote to the Editor of Philadelphia’s Saturday Evening Post, ‘the establishment of modern, practical Federalized World Government is the Unfinished Business of our Century’ and there was no time to lose; rather than a gradual evolution, built out of regional federations, a common-enough idea, she argued for immediate world government. Four years later Wynner published, together with her co-author Georgia Lloyd, Searchlight on peace plans; choose your road to world government. This was an annotated compendium of all the plans for some form of World Government since ancient times that had relatively less publicity at the time, and that the two women were able to get their hands on in the constraints of wartime. It also stated Wynner’s own view of world government, built around the representation of individuals rather than nations, and self-consciously inclusive. She refused, for example, to recognize the idea of ‘immature peoples’ and believed that world government had as its special purpose the ending of colonialism. She deemed the League of Nations a ‘diplomats club’ run by victorious nations, and uninterested in representing or listening to minorities. Nor did she have in mind the communist version of the World State because, she claimed ‘communists want an economic revolution first, but the Soviet Union shows economic revolution was no guarantee against nationalism or militarism’. World government in effect required a ‘continuous solution’, not a single solution. Like many of the individuals who ended up transforming this wartime interest in world government into actual collaboration with the new international organizations that were created in 1945, Wynner believed that science and technology would be crucial to dealing with the world’s social and economic problems. By 1944 Wynner was corresponding with Isaiah Berlin, to whom she wrote that the individual not the nation has to be the unit of international or ‘true world government’ that is federal in structure. She took tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, who discussed her book and the importance of including women in discussions about postwar – an episode that lulled her into a false sense of the role she herself might play in that political future. Re-issued in 1946, Searchlight on peace plans remains an invaluable source for a book such as Mazower’s, in more ways than one.

Posing the question how did Wynner come to this politics, is a useful way of thinking about just how widespread, as well as diverse, the idea of world government could be. Certainly, there was a ‘New Deal’ aspect to her thinking about the kind of public works and planning role the new organization could have, a characteristic idea of this period that historians have argued puts the American president at the time, FDR at the centre of this story. But when it came to Wynner, there were other as important contexts, including her job as the carer of Rosika Schwimmer, a famous Hungarian feminist who had since become stateless. In the 1920s, Schwimmer, along with the Texan Lola Maverick Lloyd (Georgia’s mother), had begun the ‘Campaign for World Government’ working out of an apartment on New York’s upper west side. They published pamphlets on the choice between Chaos, War or a New World Order, which typically argued that ‘The Federation of Nations must be a democratic league controlled by direct representation of the peoples and not by governments and bureaucracies.’ Schwimmer brought the organizational nous, Lloyd the money; both were feminists of the WILPF-breed, Lloyd was a socialist. When Schwimmer won the world peace prize in the late 1930s, the ‘campaign’ expanded to a hub in Illinois run by Lloyd’s children. Within a decade the world government movement was in serious decline, despite its mid-century ‘apogee’. Now Wynner worked on depositing the movement’s papers in the New York Public Library, in the hope that future historians would find them and write them, and women more specifically, into the history of the idea and its political influence.

The textual evidence that leads us to the significance of individual women in the story of ‘world government’ also connects the history of ‘world government’ as an idea to the history of the political, economic, legal and sociological conditions that for more than a century attracted women—like other so-called ‘minorities’—to the international. Virginia Woolf was among those early twentieth century (female) intellectuals who explained that laws and norms had left women without a country—even at the most basic levels in most European nation-states women had no political and limited legal representation—and therefore they looked to international institutions for representation. The history of world government leads us to women as well as men, to mid as well as high-level intellectual history, to the ideologies of popular social movements as well as elites, and to non-Europeans and colonials as well as the ‘West’. All of which makes the new international history one of the richest and most surprising fields for recovering and mining evidence of the political agency and ideas of women, and other ‘subalterns’. However, given the bias inherent in the archive and in the historiography, seeing them often requires historians to actively seek them out. That women were not just there but important also raises the question, should the inclusion of women agents and actors in international history be a matter of choice, or matter of fact?

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