Intellectual history and politics

The Intellectual History cluster fosters collaboration between colleagues and PG students working within the broad field of the history of ideas & encourages the presentation and dissemination of research exploring the changing landscape of intellectual exchanges in the field of European cultures.


The richness of expertise of the cluster’s members means that it can encompass a multiplicity of critical approaches and methods (literary and cultural studies, political studies, sociology, psychology, among others).

As an interdepartmental structure under the aegis of the School of Languages and Cultures, the Intellectual History cluster is particularly keen to encourage comparative approaches to cross-disciplinary subjects.

Dangerous Democracy: The Idea of Democracy in Historical Perspective

The idea of democracy has been contested ever since it was coined in ancient Greece. This contestation has continued even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism. What has come to be called liberal democracy is today being challenged from both the left and the right; instead of the “end of history” (Francis Fukuyama), we are witnessing the emergence of a range or alternative socio-political projects.

There exists surprisingly little research into the contested nature of “democracy” and associated ideas such as “populism”. We believe that there is much to learn from history here – not in any direct sense (history never repeats itself in the same way), but by exploring the similarities and dissimilarities between previous eras and the challenges the world faces today.

The Cluster programme Dangerous Democracy looks at a range of topics in this broad area. These include:

  • the relationship between “demos” (Latin, “plebs”), “the people”, and categories such as the proletariat, the Volk, and the state
  • the rise of populism and ethno-nationalism past and present
  • the role and the representation of the intellectual and the expert 
  • forms of knowledge transfer and public discourse (the press, encyclopaedias, the essay, etc., but also social media)
  • the changing nature of factual and historical truth (“alternative facts”, conspiracy theories, etc.)

It does so from a historical perspective that stretches across the various cultural areas represented in our School of Languages and Cultures.

These are some of the projects Cluster members are currently working on:

Representing the Siege of Paris in Narcisse Chaillou’s Le Dépeceur de rats

The focus of this project, led by David McCallam, is on a fascinating and macabre painting held by the Graves Gallery in Sheffield, Narcisse Chaillou’s Le Dépeceur de rats (1871). The work depicts a boy carving up and selling rats for food as part of the terrible siege of Paris in 1870, when the capital was surrounded and starved out by Prussian forces through a bitterly cold winter. The siege is often seen as preparing the ground for the Paris Commune of March-May 1871.

The project aims to revisit Chaillou’s painting by researching its production and provenance in the Museum’s archives; by staging a public event around the painting to mark the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Paris; and by involving undergraduate students studying French history in investigating further its historical and ideological contexts. 

Chaillou’s work also provides an ideal opportunity to examine conspiracy theories such as the so-called “famine plots” and the shifting role of rats in the French political imagination.

A link to the painting can be found here.

Translating Freedom in Geneva: The Case of the Bibliothèque britannique and Bibliothèque universelle

This project is led by Karine Zbinden. In response to the French Revolution and the subsequent Consular and imperial regimes under Napoleon Bonaparte, the Republic of Geneva and neighbouring Pays de Vaud offered a place of asylum to French intellectuals and writers who contested either revolutionary ideology or the rise of Napoleon and his increasingly despotic regime. Famous exiles included Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Staël as well as counter-revolutionaries such as the Savoyard brothers Joseph and Xavier de Maistre. 

In 1796, the Pictet brothers, Marc-Auguste (1752-1825) and Charles (1755-1824), founded a periodical in Geneva, Bibliothèque britannique. From 1816, the periodical was named Bibliothèque universelle to reflect the wide scope of the source texts. 

The periodical had a double aim. First, it wanted to make accessible the liberal tradition of thought form England and Scotland, which had been marginalised in France during the Revolution and the reign of Napoleon. Second, it aimed to educate the masses, the middle classes, who had just recently acquired civic and political rights and responsibilities. In particular, it sought to elevate the minds of women in its literary series. 

The periodical was so popular that even Napoleon did not dare close it down. Yet it has so far been little studied, even though there is a wealth of archival materials to explore. Moreover, in our post-Brexit era it seems timely to study the emergence of Europe as a self-aware political entity.

Populism and National Socialism

When talking about the rise of political populism and authoritarianism today, people often evoke Weimar Germany, the short democratic interlude between Kaiserreich and Nazi dictatorship. Does this comparison make sense? What exactly are the similarities and dissimilarities between then and now? And while President Donald Trump was obviously not “some kind of Hitler”, are there not worrying parallels between, say, their critiques of the liberal-democratic “swamp”, or between their uses of negative stereotypes and political bogeys (Feindbilder)? These are the questions Henk de Berg’s project aims to answer. Exploring early National Socialism as a form of populism, it looks at issues such as globalisation and economic development; political propaganda, rhetoric, and branding; and the use of conspiracy theories and scapegoating.

Watch Henk de Berg’s interview with John Gray on political populism:

Interview with John Gray on political populism HQ

Previous cluster projects:

Tzvetan Todorov: Life and Work

The Bulgarian-born French scholar Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017) was one of the world’s foremost cultural theorists. His interventions covered an astounding range of topics, from narratology to ethics, from painting to politics, and from the Enlightenment to current affairs.

Our Cluster organized two international colloquiums on Todorov’s work, one in Sheffield in March 2015 and one in Paris in July 2017. We also conducted a French-language interview with Todorov, which you can watch here:

Tzvetan Todorov: un Entretien (intégral 1ère partie)

April 2020 saw the publication of the first-ever comprehensive examination of Todorov as a cultural critic: Tzvetan Todorov: Thinker and Humanist (Rochester, NY: Camden House). It includes chapters by Cluster members Christine Baycroft, Henk de Berg, Maxime Goergen, and David McCallam, as well as a number of other international experts in critical theory and intellectual history.

Watch Henk de Berg’s eulogy “Tzvetan Todorov, spectateur engagé”:

Tzvetan Todorov, spectateur engagé

Areas of research

  • Work, family and gender, in French and comparative European perspective (Jan Windebank)
  • Marxism, Early Soviet critiques of orientalism, Gramsci and cultural theory (Craig Brandist). Languages of ideological subjection (Althusser, Balibar), Imperialism and neo-colonialist discourse (Sophie Watt)
  • Czech underground and dissident literature (Jan Matonoha, corresponding member)
  • European (esp. German and French) intellectual history; social thought; literary and cultural theory; 18th-20th-century German literature (Henk de Berg)
  • Connections between the inter-war Eurasianist movement and Russian literature (Adam Fergus)
  • Todorov and Bakhtin, Cross-cultural transmission, Translation, European Intellectual History (Karine Zbinden)
  • Intellectual historiography of the French revolution, development of earth sciences in early modern Europe (David McCallam)
  • Latin American politics and history (Peter Watt)
  • Languages of ideological subjection (Althusser, Balibar), Imperialism and neo-colonialist discourse (Sophie Watt)
  • Representations of authority in 19th century French literature; utopian socialisms and the French cultural imagination (Maxime Goergen)

Intellectual history events

The cluster and its members are involved in the organization and animation of various activities across departments, such as:

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.