Revanchism and Its Costs

Roundup
tags: Russia, Ukraine, Revanchism



Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is a Guggenheim Fellow and a distinguished visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. He is the author of "America the Philosophical" (Vintage, 2013).

With 298 innocent victims shot out of the sky by Vladimir Putin’s agents of revanchism and irredentism—yes, the ugly political-science terms drip blood as well as academic tone—the time has come to think hard about what those words mean.

Neither revanchism nor irredentism has attracted the incisive philosophical scrutiny  one might expect this past half year despite endless media attention to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and brutal sub rosa invasion of eastern Ukraine, ISIL's demolishing of the boundary between Iraq and Syria, and other blunt acts of disdain toward established territorial lines. "Revanchism" and "irredentism" pop up in passing in such coverage, but usually only as quick, erudite, and unexplained descriptions of, for example, Putin's general strategy to alter territorial lines he dislikes and to reclaim Russian speakers outside the Russian Federation as Russian citizens.

Aesthetic homeliness provides one surface explanation for why the terms draw little examination. We're hardly sure how to pronounce them, let alone analyze them. Indeed, it's a longstanding cultural truth that a conceptual word's ugliness provides one incentive to steer clear of its content. When philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce grew irritated by later writers reformulating his theory of "pragmatism," the maverick thinker announced that he'd henceforth call his approach "pragmaticism," a word he deemed "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers." Peirce got his wish. Few scholars or thieves bother with his coinage.

"Revanchism" and "irredentism" give pragmaticism a run for its money in the verbal atrocity department. But the reasons we've been avoiding their inner workings run deeper. What, then, do the two words mean, and why the deep aversion to analyzing them on the part of op-ed writers, political leaders, and pundits?

"Revanchism," from the French word revanche, or revenge, arose in the late 19th century as a description of aggressive political desire to regain territory, possibly by force, lost to another state. Its immediate trigger was France’s goal, partly driven by Georges Ernest Boulanger, the so-called Général Revanche, to regain Alsace-Lorraine, lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. France regained the territory after World War I in the Treaty of Versailles (score one for revanchism). As in earlier and later instances, linguistic, ethnic, and historic factors (e.g., earlier possession) fueled the revanchist agenda.

"Irredentism," from the notion of Italia irredenta ("unredeemed Italy"), is a political corollary of revanchism that may or may not accompany it. This peculiar strain of nationalism holds that people outside of a particular state belong to the human family of that state, and should or must be brought back into it by taking the territory where they reside, thus "redeeming" them. The original example, like "revanchism," also comes from 19th-century Europe—the Italian attitude toward foreign rule over territories containing ethnic Italians, such as today’s Trento and Trieste...




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