This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Swiss child labor

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From a century of using Swiss children as cheap farm labor, to the many crises of 21st-century imperialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Switzerland’s Shame: The Children Used as Cheap Farm Labour

Kavita Puri
BBC News

Thousands of people in Switzerland who were forced into child labour are demanding compensation for their stolen childhoods. Since the 1850s hundreds of thousands of Swiss children were taken from their parents and sent to farms to work – a practice that continued well into the 20th Century.

David Gogniat heard a loud knock on the door. There were two policemen. “I heard them shouting and realised something was wrong. I looked out and saw that my mother had pushed the policemen down the stairs,” he says. “She then came back in and slammed the door. The next day three policemen came. One held my mother and the other took me with them.” At the age of eight, he was in effect kidnapped and taken away to a farm. To this day he has no idea why. [continue reading]

Critical Histories of the Present

Antoinette Burton
Modern British Studies – Birmingham

. . . . In empire history, for example, it’s quite clear that Niall Ferguson hasn’t read a page of what’s been written by cultural or postcolonial historians in the field in the last twenty years; nor has John Darwin for that matter. They are certainly within their rights to disagree vehemently with it. But by now it surely has enough of an accumulated density to warrant genuine engagement, if not the status of legitimacy as well.

As a result of these occlusions, grand narratives of British imperial power remain not just incomplete but distorted; they suffer from false claims not just of totality but of explanation and causality and scale; they cannot actually track cause and effect or historical consequence without the full range of subject matter and methodological approach that a combination of old and new approaches make available. [continue reading]

Democracy’s Porous Borders: Espionage, Smuggling and the Making of Japan’s Transwar Regime

Tessa Morris-Suzuki
Asia-Pacific Journal

Itagaki Kōzō was an orphan of empire. At the end of the Asia-Pacific War, then aged fifteen, he was stranded in the former Japanese colony of Karafuto (Sakhalin). His father, a coal miner, had died in a mining accident when Itagaki was a child, and his mother had been killed in the brief but fierce fighting that erupted as Soviet forces swept into the southern half of Sakhalin following the USSR’s declaration of war on Japan on 8 August 1945.1 Just as many young men in Japan sought survival after the surrender by taking jobs with the occupying American forces, Itagaki survived by becoming a “houseboy” to a Soviet officer, and his employer, Maxim Tarkin, appears to have been connected to the GPU (the forerunner of the KGB). In 1949, Tarkin left for Moscow via China, and allowed Itagaki to accompany him from Sakhalin as far as Shenyang in northern China, from where Itagaki hoped to be able to find a way to the Japanese homeland he had never seen.

From Shenyang, Itagaki crossed the porous border into North Korea, made his way alone down the coast of the Korean Peninsula as far as the port of Wonsan, and found a berth on a smuggling boat going to Japan. The boat, just one of many thousands crossing the seas surrounding Japan in the immediate postwar years, entered Tokyo Bay without detection, and dropped Itagaki off in the port-side district of Shibaura. But Itagaki Kōzō had no job, no home and no immediate family in Japan, so after a few days wandering around the capital, he took up an offer made by one of the smugglers, who had told him that if he decided not to stay in Japan, he should go to the quayside on a certain day, when a second smuggling boat, the Kōhoku Maru, would put into port. Itagaki boarded the Kōhoku Maru, and worked as a deck hand on this smuggling boat for almost two years, as it quietly plied the seas between Japan and various destinations in Okinawa, North and South Korea, China, Taiwan and Far Eastern Russia. [continue reading]

The Multiple Crises of Imperialism

Alex Callinicos
International Socialism

On a regional scale, the picture is less of deadlock than of fluidity. The same causes behind the rise of ISIS—the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and the Arab revolutions—have destabilised all the Arab regimes. Obama, like his predecessor, is now using American military power to freeze this flux. He is, as we have seen, unlikely to succeed. Along the way, however, this new intervention will no doubt cause much human suffering and political damage, in all probability strengthening rather than weakening ISIS. The successes of the counter-revolutionary forces across the region—and above all in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world—have given the initiative to reaction, whatever shape it takes—the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, ISIS. In the IDF’s bombardment of Gaza, the sectarian massacres in Iraq and Syria, the counter-revolutionary repression in Egypt and the US-orchestrated air campaign we see concrete images of the barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg predicted would engulf humankind in the absence of socialist revolution. Much hangs on a new revolutionary wave.

For revolutionaries, opposing Obama’s bombing campaign—and whatever other military actions follow—should be straightforward. (We should also, of course, oppose NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.) But this opposition needs to be informed by an understanding that the latest US intervention in the Middle East takes place against the background of a renewal of inter-imperialist rivalries on a scale not seen since the end of the Cold War. Anti-imperialism during that era required, not simply opposing our “own” imperialism, but also refusing to prettify the actions of its rival and acknowledging that it too operates according to an imperialist logic. The same stance is required today, with the complication that today we are seeing multi-polar interstate competition. This is clearest in East Asia. On a global scale, the US remains the only world power, but it faces serious regional challenges from Russia and China, and within the Western bloc Germany and Japan are newly assertive. [continue reading]

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