At the broadest level, my research focuses on the persistent paradoxes of modern democratic theory: What is the power of the people? How do societies of free and equal individuals cohere? What is the relationship between institutions of representative government and experiences of popular agency? I combine these interests with a concern for how the experience of participation in political events shapes theoretical reflection. Thus, although I am trained as a historian of the political theory canon, my research approaches these questions by examining figures of what I call the ‘middle ground’ – political practitioners who theorized in their own right about their political activity.
Methodologically, instead of fleshing out such middle ground thinkers by assimilating them to more systematic ideological traditions, I try to break such traditions down, bringing to the fore the minor keys and subterranean currents underlying the seemingly familiar. This careful work of reconstructing unfamiliar contexts, in turn, offers surprising intellectual resources for interventions in contemporary debates. I outlined this interest in the political significance of intellectual traditions in a 2021 review essay for Contemporary Political Theory, ‘The Politics of Twenty-first Century Socialism.’
Major topics I cover in my research include: contemporary theories of representative government and constituent power, revolution, and resistance; the history of socialist and communist thought and practice; empirical and theoretical approaches to populism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism; comparative, transnational, and global political theory; Chinese politics; and theories of freedom and domination, drawing on critical theory, neo-republicanism, and phenomenology.
My first book project, Vanguardism and Vigilance: Revolutionary Socialism and Representative Democracy, exemplifies this approach. Based on my doctoral dissertation, I plan to spend the coming years reworking it into an academic monograph. The project provides the first book-length study of the concept of the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ in contemporary political theory. Associated with defunct Marxist-Leninist ideology, the communist claim to represent the vanguard of the revolution is universally treated by contemporary political theorists as a populist antithesis to representative democracy’s limitation and separation of powers. But by offering an original reconstruction of the communist ‘tradition’ of vanguardism, this dissertation challenges the assumption that such claims necessarily express unaccountable modes of leadership. It shows that, beyond the obvious association with the Marxist-Leninist party, communists described the political work of the ‘proletarian vanguard’ in terms of a component considered essential to the proper functioning of representative democracy: the capacity for citizens to vigilantly hold political office-holders accountable.
The introductory chapter critically analyzes how the rich historical problem space denoted by the concept of the proletarian vanguard has been covered over by the lingering effect of anti-totalitarian revolutionary historiography on contemporary democratic theory. I show that, just as contemporary approaches to representative democracy have become increasingly critical of formal institutional checks and balances, highlighting the role for supplementary forms of decentralized public oversight, the boundaries of the liberal democratic canon remain obstacles to considering this question of oversight in more expansive ways. This contemporary concern sets the stage for my historical investigation of the shared aims of liberals and communists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the search for more accountable government. The dissertation’s three historical chapters engage with three key episodes in communist history: nineteenth-century France in the lead-up to the 1871 Paris commune; central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution, and; China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
The first substantive chapter explores the entry of the term vanguard into political speech, engaging the writings of Henri Saint-Simon – who first invoked the metaphor – and Auguste Blanqui – nineteenth century France’s most notorious communist. The dialogue I stage between these early socialists draws out tensions inherent in the metaphor of the political vanguard: Saint-Simon dreamt of an elite technocracy beyond popular sovereignty that could justify its rule as consistent with the natural laws of political economy; Blanqui, meanwhile, claimed a communist vanguardism that reserved a place for popular oversight. The second chapter returns to communism’s decisive split from European social democracy with the foundation of the Third International (1919). It interprets this disagreement in light of the question of popular oversight, revealing how a common concern for the ‘vanguard’ party as a means for attaining accountable government undergirded more conspicuous arguments about Eastern dictatorship and Western democracy. The third chapter engages with the writings of activists from the late-1970s Democracy Wall movement in China. It shows how these activists’ calls for democratic reform in the Maoist one-party state were centered around an abiding concern for the principle of strengthening ‘supervisory’ powers that found its roots not only in Mao’s Sinicized Marxism but also in earlier constitutional projects from China’s republican period. Taken together, these episodes constitute a way of engaging with the ‘defunct’ communist canon that brings out unexpected resources for a key concern of today’s liberal democracies: how to establish and maintain popular oversight over unaccountable elites.
I plan to proceed in two major directions in the development of the dissertation into a monograph. First, I will supplement my focus on the communist tradition’s ideal of the proletarian vanguard with research on earlier republican conceptions of democratic oversight, contextualizing the vigilant proletariat against the renaissance and early modern figurations of the virtuous citizen as agent of popular control. Democratic theorists, and even contemporary Marxists, have increasingly turned to this ‘neo-Roman’ republican principle of non-domination as a language for discussing political freedom. Placing the proletarian vanguard in this larger intellectual history, and translating communist politics into this language, will contribute to scholarly engagement with this tradition that gets beyond the inherited boundaries of Cold War liberalism.
The second orientation for book project research grows out of my third dissertation chapter on Chinese political thought, in which I uncovered the rich discourse of revolutionary supervision before, during, and after the Mao period. I plan to expand on this material, developing a sustained comparative direction to the project as a whole by tracing how distinct conceptualizations of popular oversight emerged in modern China to parallel those of the West. It would take as its point of departure Sun Yat-Sen’s addition of a ‘supervisory’ branch as what he considered an improvement on the tripartite division of powers unique to Chinese political traditions. Separate but relatedly, I am also pursuing a translation project of the underground Democracy Wall journals I studied in my third chapter, aimed at making accessible this neglected context to a wider scholarly audience.
An article drawing on research from my first chapter, ‘Cosmology and Vigilance: Political Vanguardism in Saint-Simon and Blanqui,’ is forthcoming in Political Theory, and is attached as a writing sample to demonstrate the contributions I am already making to the premier journal in my field. By carefully reconstructing early socialists’ reliance on political arguments drawn from astronomy, the article challenges prevailing theological understandings of popular constituent power. Specifically, it introduces political cosmology as a cognate but distinct approach to the post-revolutionary interpretation of democratic sovereignty as sovereign will modeled on divine exceptionalism. Bringing together history of science and history of political thought, it argues that attending to the cosmological dimension highlights modes of figuring popular power as a form of empowered oversight.
My dissertation project engages an archive of communist thought long-neglected by political theorists, through a revisionist history of one concept in particular: the ‘political vanguard’. Although it was everywhere in the twentieth century, among contemporary democratic theorists the vanguard idea serves as an oft-invoked but never-unpacked negative example. The Communist Party as vanguard of the revolution – an organisation claiming political authority through its capacity to ‘scientifically’ interpret history – acts as convenient shorthand for the perverse domination that arises when democratic ends are sought through undemocratic means. I argue that, as political theorists pay increasing attention to the complex dynamics of representative claims, it is imperative that we get beyond this stereotyped account of one of the major conceptual innovations of modern democratic discourse.
Across four chapters grappling with four critical moments in the canonical history of revolutionary socialism, I show how political thinkers and actors have innovated with the vanguard idea in surprising ways. From nineteenth France leading up to the Paris Commune (1871), to Central Europe during the disintegration of the Second Socialist International (1889-1914), to Russia during Stalin’s final consolidation of power (1935-9), and, finally, to China at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), this comparative study recasts moments in an apparently monolithic global history as theoretically-rich crisis points. It reveal the forgotten vitality and diversity running through a tradition whose intellectual sources are usually dismissed as inert and irrelevant ideological justifications for domination, by charting how the modern paradox of balancing the need for political representation with the countervailing democratic desire for popular agency arose anew in each case. Through careful textual exegesis and attentiveness to cultural and linguistic context, I explore how political discourses usually dismissed as empty ideologies in fact contain creative reflections on democracy’s enduring dilemmas.