About Time

In this seventh post in a series of reflections on the New Directions in French History Conference in London in September, Alex Paulin-Booth (Oxford) asks what an attention to time can tell historians of radical political movements.

Few people would argue that time lies at the heart of much of what we do — the blunt fact of clock-and-calendar time and the underlying structure it provides make that hard to deny. But the ways in which we conceive of time are also vital: the ideas we form of past, present, and future have an impact on our efforts to implement change or establish continuity. How far should the past be brought to bear on the present? How different can and should the future be from the present? Should change be sudden and ruptured or gradual and smooth? I argue that the conceptualisation of time is often crucial to the creation and the development of political or social endeavours and, furthermore, that it is crucial to the ways in which those endeavours are articulated.

This was particularly true of radical political movements — nationalism, syndicalism, and socialism to name a few — in France at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. These movements were to a large extent predicated either on re-establishing lost continuity with the past or ushering in a radically different future (or, indeed, some combination of both these things), and issues surrounding time were insistently and explicitly addressed in their publications and in their speeches. The accentuation of past and future was compounded by the fact that the period of the Third Republic represented a malaise so profound that it was expressed in terms of present time being rotten, a lost cause; the effort towards change was then displaced onto the concepts of past and future. Time was therefore at the core of these political movements and their interactions: it provided both a structure and became a source of contestation between movements who used the concepts of time to define themselves against one another.

I try to understand precisely how the various conceptualisations of time which emerged from this context shaped the ideologies and the political projects of those on the fringes of mainstream politics. Interrogating such ideas and the ways in which they were contested opens up new ways of thinking about political identities, and about the discourse surrounding the vitally important concepts of revolution, the nation, and progress. The debates surrounding Jules Soury’s infamous call to arms, Campagne nationaliste, and the Universités populaires movements provide two particularly pertinent examples of how this research works in practise.

When Jules Soury, an intellectual father figure for many nationalists, published his Campagne nationaliste in 1902 there was a considerable reaction on the left by figures such as Eugène Fournière. Fournière and others were dismayed at what they took to be a backward-looking glorification of death and an obsession with ancestry. The debates surrounding Soury’s text were largely conceived in terms of time: the language of time was used explicitly to depict Soury as retreating into the past and rejecting the present and the future. Socialists like Ferdinand Buisson went on to emphasise that their own political programmes brought past and future together much more meaningfully and much more usefully, demonstrating that ideas about time were used to delineate political positions.

But this isn’t something particularly unusual: calling someone’s ideas out-dated or of the past is a well-worn political slur. I contend that there’s more to it than that, because this use of ideas about time was very common in the political culture of 1890s France, and identification with the forces of the past or with a certain idea of the future signified a strong attachment to broader groupings. In short, they formed a way of expressing a particular political identity.

The use of time also goes deeper than delineating particular political positions; ideas about the flow of time go right to the heart of how thinkers and activists conceived of the possibility for political change. The example of the Universités populaires illustrates this.

This was a popular education initiative aimed at workers and begun in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. Universités populaires activists saw themselves as creating their desired future society in the present (and this is rhetoric they themselves used very insistently in their publications and speeches). They argued that they were tired of waiting for progress or change to arrive: the time had come to build the future now. It seemed that the turmoil of the Dreyfus Affair had opened up a window of opportunity which activists were frantically keen to take advantage of in full awareness that this chance to implement change wouldn’t last for long. Ultimately, those involved in this endeavour saw it fail because — as they themselves pointed out — this highly-charged conception of time and sudden change was unsustainable in a movement which necessarily relied on slow and steady improvement. An education initiative simply couldn’t bring the sort of rupture and sudden push forward into the future that was needed. This enables us to see how a whole political movement could be animated by — and could indeed fail because of — a particular understanding of time.


The historiography surrounding time and its conceptualisation has moved forwards somewhat fitfully, and I want now to address the question of the directions it might usefully take.

Studying experiences and understandings of time was first opened as an area of enquiry by sociologists and anthropologists; historians came comparatively late to the use of time as an analytical category. The undisputed authority on time remains the conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck, who theorised in the 1970s that one of the most important aspects of modernity was the way in which it changed perceptions of time. Work on time hasn’t significantly advanced on this.

One potentially fruitful avenue is the idea that understandings of past, present, and future were contested. Koselleck mentions this but doesn’t expand on it, and at times he ends up portraying ‘modernity’ as an all-encompassing and unchallenged phenomenon. The sociologists Hartmut Rosa and William Schuermann have been successful in demonstrating how the acceleration that characterises modernity can exclude certain groups (such as the elderly or the sick); acceleration can become a function of social privilege. At first glance this sociological work might seem distant from the historical work on time — but these arguments alert us to the fissures that different experiences of or ideas about time can create, and this deserves to be developed.

As a further way of avoiding the pitfalls of generalisations about overarching concepts such as modernity, it will be important for historians of time to move on to explore the specific ways in which movements and individuals have developed understandings of time. If we remain on the level of sweeping statements about modernity as a temporal category, as we sometimes have, we ignore the many ways in which ideas about time have been elaborated and have been fought over. And it is through studying these developments and these contests that we can really gain an enriched understanding of the groups and the individuals we study.

Most importantly of all, it will be crucial to move on from somewhat descriptive analysis of how time has been understood and utilised. This is a great temptation in this field: one finds something relating to time and simply points out that it’s there; it can risk becoming an exercise in recategorising political groups according to their differing cultures of time. But it is not, in the end, particularly surprising that ideas about time are often fundamental to ideologies and to the articulation of those ideologies. The real merit of studying ideas about time will lie in demonstrating precisely where these ideas have had an impact: what did time and its different conceptualisations actually do to people pursuing particular political projects?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo