Final Public Oral Exam: William Whitham

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
August 2, 2021 - 3:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Statism and Anarchy: The Politics of Subversion in Spain, Italy, and the Soviet Union


Stephen Kotkin, adviser
Jeremy Adelman
Philip G. Nord
Emma Rothschild, Harvard University


In 1880-1914, anarchists, not social democrats or communists, defined what it meant to be a revolutionary. They articulated a dazzling imaginary in texts written in thirty languages, organized networks and trade unions on six continents, and assassinated more major leaders than any movement in history. Anarchists drew on liberal ideals and constitutional freedoms to agitate in favor of revolution, which in turn encouraged officials to deploy new techniques of surveillance and control. At the same time, anarchist activism offered pretexts and some- times inspiration for new authoritarian movements that sought power after 1917. Far from being quixotic rebels, anarchists catalyzed a revolution—one they did not intend—during the era of the First World War.

A political and intellectual history informed by political science, sociology, and social history, this dissertation argues that anarchists and regimes made, as much as fought, one another. It documents a transnational struggle between revolutionaries and rulers across Spain, Italy, and the Russian Empire/Soviet Union. The plot spans the 1870s and 1930s, focusing on 1917-23, an era of civil unrest followed by the imposition of a dictatorship in each country. The cast features those who promoted, and those who fought, the far left: mili- tants and police chiefs, propagandists and provincial governors, rank-and-file constituents and intellectuals, assassins and cabinet ministers. Sources include politicians’ writings, interior ministry records, trade-union files, newspapers, pamphlets, manifestos, and memoirs. Seven chapters investigate how left-wing activists, their political rivals, and state officials competed for influence, how anarchists articulated a resilient imaginary and built dynamic organizations, and how anarchist sensibilities inflected Soviet institutions, disappeared and then reappeared among western nonconformists, and informed new approaches in political sociology.

Traditionally, historians treated anarchists as “petit-bourgeois” artisans and peasants, while political theorists made them timeless figures in “anti-statist” genealogies stretching back to Laozi. Recent scholarship rehabilitates globe-trotting activists who animated students in 1968 and contemporary protest movements (Neozapatismo, Occupy, Antifa). Such ap- proaches all presume that anarchists were the enemies of power. By contrast, this dissertation suggests that anarchists were also the subjects and agents of power. In so doing, it uses anarchism to illuminate how politics became modern.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.