The Western world’s imagination of historical time seems at present to be pulled between auguries of irreversibility and narratives of stubborn repetition—focusing now on impending ecological collapse, now on a new Great Game that retraces an older geopolitics, or else on the extent to which the current economic crisis will re-run the sequence of 1929–33. The so-called ‘lessons of history’ tend to provide little by way of orientation, at most serving as a series of warning signs. But for all the condemnations and celebrations of postmodern amnesia, the question of the identities and differences between past and present—and of their relevance for political practice and historical research—remains very much on the agenda.

Luciano Canfora’s typically erudite exploration of the political use of historical paradigms—that is to say, of analogy as the hinge between politics and history—provides many important elements for rethinking this question. The author of numerous scholarly works on Ancient Greece and Rome, Canfora is possibly Italy’s most prominent communist historian, regularly stepping into the breach of public polemic. He is best known in the Anglophone world for his Democracy in Europe (English translation 2006), which became the object of sustained controversy when its prospective German publisher refused it, due to its alleged calumny of the achievements of West German liberalism, and its leniency towards Stalinism and the ‘socialist democracies’ of the Warsaw Pact (see nlr 56). In recent years, he has published a series of short essays in which he brings the historian’s craft to bear on contemporary events; for instance, Esportare la libertà (2007) examined the gulf between the rhetoric deployed and the realities inflicted by states claiming to be ‘exporting freedom’, from Athens and Sparta to the us invasion of Iraq.

In The Political Use of Historical Paradigms, Canfora turns his attention to the question of analogy, and its place in historiography and political thought. His approach contrasts with a contemporary trend to see analogy as a representational expedient that stifles singularity and novelty, reinforcing the standardized prejudices of doxa. The ascendancy of philosophical categories such as immanence and ‘the event’ from the late 1960s onwards is an important dimension of this anti-analogical perspective, much of it inspired by Spinoza—as evidenced in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Antonio Negri. We might also recall the objections from within the tradition of dialectical thought to the kind of ‘picture-thinking’ associated with analogical reasoning; in Volume 3 of Capital, for example, Marx warned against the misleading and merely ‘formal analogy’ between the agricultural economies of antiquity and capitalist agriculture, ‘which turns out to be completely illusory in all essential points to a person familiar with the capitalist mode of production’.

Against this broad front of critics, Canfora strongly defends analogy’s ability to impel transformations in the scale and scope of historical research, all the while underscoring its relativity. For although such parallels can on occasion act as lures away from sober reflection, Canfora sees them as crucial ‘bridges between the known and the unknown’; between identity and difference, logical abstraction and lived experience. He cites the German mediaeval historian Josef Engel, who in a 1956 essay declared that ‘every historical judgement is an analogical judgement’. Indeed, analogy is an inextricable component of any cognition which seeks to understand and judge phenomena that are not the objects of direct perception. It is a response to the problem of how something distant and long gone is thinkable for us, here and now. In the practice of the historian, this is a two-way process, in which past paradigms are transposed into the present, just as the present serves as the movable frame through which we capture the past.

Yet an analogy’s capacities for illumination cannot be neatly separated from its ideological effects. Here, the method of the historian cross-cuts his status as a citizen of his time, and as a participant in that time’s struggles. For Canfora, historical comprehension is a partisan affair: ‘our judgement on historical facts, especially if expressed in their making, is determined by our understanding of them: an understanding which takes place precisely through the analogy in which we immerse said facts.’ Analogy, then, involves a calibration of the degree of identity and difference between now and then; a bad analogy can obscure the singularity of the present by subsuming it under some paradigmatic past, or distort the contours of history through rear-projection of the present.

The volume under review is a revised and expanded edition of a collection of essays, five of which originally appeared in Italian in 1982 as Analogia e storia; together with a sixth, these were published in France on the bicentenary of the French Revolution with a title—La tolérance et la vertu—that highlighted Canfora’s concern with the political use of the historical paradigms inaugurated in 1789. Indeed, the question of how to think revolutions, historically and politically, is at the heart of the book. In the preface, Canfora spells out how circumstances have altered since the composition of most of these essays: the victory of the West in the Cold War brought with it not only a triumphalist reassessment of the Soviet experience—the years from 1917 to 1989 now bracketed as a ‘negative parenthesis’—but also an analogical reappraisal of the October Revolution’s French progenitor. To the extent that analogies harbour (political) judgements, struggles over historical meaning are also wars of analogies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background as a classicist, it is with Thucydides that Canfora begins his explorations of ‘analogy as a form of historical understanding’. The Athenian’s ‘discovery’ of the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 bce serves as a kind of inaugural moment and benchmark. Where previously only discrete conflicts could be perceived, Thucydides saw an underlying unity to the Archidamian and Decelean Wars, which he revealed by ‘digging back’, as Canfora puts it, to Athens’s earlier imperial ascent and the ensuing frictions with Sparta. It was Thucydides who identified what Canfora glosses as the ‘inextricability of fact from subject’; the latter ‘finds’ the right periodization and names historical developments through an analogical comparison between similar, but hitherto distinct, events.