William Whitham studies the political ideas and institutions of modern Europe and Russia in a global context.
His dissertation, “Statism and Anarchy: Illusion, Insurrection, and the Tragedy of the Left,” uses the ruin of anarchism to explore how politics became modern. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anarchists dominated the global far Left. They won supporters from artisans to artists, organized affinity groups and trade unions, and shocked the world by killing seven major leaders in 1894-1912. In the years after 1917, when revolution seemed at hand, anarchists all but vanished. Fomenting disorder but unable to create durable institutions, anarchists were repressed by police and outwitted by rivals. At the same time, street politics sprouted, states grew their capacities, and the origins of totalitarianism were sown.
Focusing on Spain, Italy, and Russia in 1917-23 and integrating state and police records with left-wing sources, Whitham’s dissertation interprets anarchism as an idea, a way of life, and an historical moment. Anarchism promised a dazzling future without the compromises of social democracy or the horrors of communism. It inspired followers to think, speak, and act according to new conventions. And it defined an era when empires and far-flung networks gave way to nation-states and compact mass organizations. The struggles of anarchists ultimately illuminate how the nineteenth-century Left imploded in the late 1910s and early 1920s, as revolutionary agitation animated by sincere aspirations radicalized the Right and empowered dictators.
In May 2017, Whitham passed his general examinations with distinction in fields on Europe since 1770 (Philip Nord and Anson Rabinbach), modern Russia (Stephen Kotkin and Ekaterina Pravilova), and global history since the 1850s (Kotkin).
In 2015, Whitham completed an M.Phil. in Political Thought and Intellectual History with distinction on the Eben Fiske Studentship at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he was awarded the Quentin Skinner Prize. In 2014, he received a B.A. in Social Studies, summa cum laude, from Harvard College, and a Hoopes prize. Whitham is affiliated with the Princeton Writing Center and the Harvard-Cambridge Center for History and Economics.
“César De Paepe and the ideas of the First International.” Modern Intellectual History, published online December 2017.
“A reconsideration of John Stuart Mill’s account of political violence.” Utilitas 26:4 (2014), 409-31.