<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Cynthia Mahmood

Cynthia Keppley Mahmood
University of Notre Dame
Department of Anthropology


Current Research Projects 

Democracy and Bare Life: Silencing Violence in the Garden of India

The world's largest democracy is also a site of substantial unrest, social upheaval, violent insurgency and communal conflict.  The state's ability and willingness to abrogate rights in the interests of security can be seen in terms of exceptional time periods (Indira Gandhi's "Emergency" years), exceptional regional demarcation (Punjab, Kashmir, the Northeast), exceptional legislation (TADA, POTA, AFSPA), and exceptional police methods (organized vigilantism, arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance).    Thus although the overall national structure of democracy remains vibrant, shifting exceptional arenas where rights are abused with impunity mean that the lived experience of being Indian equates with the cramping sense of fear, alienation and humiliation - more often associated with dictatorships - for many.   This ground-level perception among peripheral, minority, and disadvantaged groups in India appears paradoxical given the real democratic structure of the country, but illuminates operationally Giorgio Agamben's notion of the "razor-thin" line between democratic and dictatorial political forms today.   The Indian state's response to the Sikh rebellion of the late 20th century, and the near-uniform cultural consent of the non-Sikh population behind that response, is a useful exemplar of a how a sector of citizenry can come to be stripped of civil rights quite within the rule of democratic law.  India's response to this first real challenge to its territorial integrity must be examined as we examine the health of the canary in the coal mine, as, indeed, the Punjab model is now being applied elsewhere as a successful means of combating terrorist violence.  But the state's own violence in Punjab has yet to be fully accounted for; the history of suffering  there is silenced in favor of economic triumphalism in the new Punjab.  If the state is portrayed a garden, as Zygmunt Baumann suggests, and disruptive populations  as weeds within it, who will protest when leaders create blossoms by poisoning the undergrowth?   India blooms, and its internal violence escalates.   The United States, Britain and other contemporary states can learn from this South Asian example, which is not anomalous but all too ordinary as power, fear and identity politics jostle up against the commitment to rights upon which our democratic governments were founded.  [book I'll be working on in fall 2010 as Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Victoria's Centre for Religion and Society]


Fragments of a Political Life:  Elwood Keppley and the American Labor Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania

Cynthia K. Mahmood, University of Notre Dame
Paul C. Mishler, Indiana University


It begins with an old wooden trunk, saved by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood because it is filled with papers and artifacts of her father’s life and work. But while Cynthia is well-known as an anthropologist of South Asia, she does not know what to do with the chest of documents. . When she asks her colleagues who would be interested she is told to call Paul Mishler-across the river in South Bend, Indiana at the regional campus of Indiana University. Paul Mishler teaches and writes about the labor movement, and is a historian of radicalism in the US.  So we meet and sit on the floor of her house one fall evening in 2009 unpacking this box. It contains copies of the local socialist newspaper from Reading, where Cynthia grew up, handwritten letters and drafts of articles, photographs of a Conscientious Objector camp during WWII, and other artifacts of a life lived at the intersection of the labor movement, the socialist movement and religiously-inspired pacifism. Paul’s favorite artifacts are two armbands for strike leaders in the 1934 Berkshire Hosiery strike - an iconic strike in American labor history. 

Elwood Keppley was born into the world of Mennonite, Amish and Brethren farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania, in the growing town of Reading in which many rural Pennsylvania Germans resettled along with a growing influx of eastern European immigrants.   When he died, still a young man in 1961, he was the Educational Director of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.   A self-educated man, he had become the editor of a socialist newspaper in one of only three cities in the nation that elected socialist municipal governments.  As Cynthia and Paul talked about the documents that emerged from the box, our common interests emerged in strange ways. Paul is interested in the experience of mid-20th century radicalism as expressed in local cultures. Cynthia has written about how religion and politics intersect, and is interested in the radical Anabaptist roots of her father’s activities. In a contemporary world in which religion, class, and violence appear so explosively connected, they find the life lived at the axes of these vectors in another time fascinating – particularly when so well-documented.  This book has emerged from these two scholars’ discussions, field research in Reading, Pennsylvania, and bibliographic research into the history of labor unions, socialism, and pacifism in America.

Chapter 1-Elwood Keppley’s life; how can we construct a life from fragments and memories; what can a single life teach us about a time and place now vanished from the American landscape?  We draw the reader into the cultural and historical scene of a small industrial city enmeshed in the rural culture of German Anabaptism.

Chapter 2- Socialism in Reading, Pennsylvania-the historical literature.  Juxtaposed with the intimate portrait of a man is the academic literature, focused on Reading as one of the few socialist “successes” in the country, along with Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Bridgeport, Connecticut.  But we find this academic literature (limited as it is)  inadequate; it doesn’t capture the flavor of what Cynthia, one of the co-authors, remembers of her father, nor what others who knew him or were active in the movement remember about it.  It isn’t persuasive as to the way that real people lived these lives.

Chapter 3- From Anabaptism to Socialist-Pacifism.   What “insiders” find missing in the academic literature is an attention to religion, which permeated the lives of the German Anabaptists who made up the foundation of the Reading movement.  Elwood Keppley had originally wanted to become a minister, but chose later to become a union organizer as the best way to serve the goal of human equality.  We explore the history of Anabaptism in Europe as an early response to the Westphalian state and an origin point of later socialist thinking, questioning why this history is relatively silenced in contemporary understandings of Marxism.  While Engels and Kautsky recognized Anabaptists as significant to the intellectual history of socialism, later authors, adopting the atheism of the founding figure, simply left religion out of it.

Chapter 4- Socialist Reading.  Did a socialist municipal government, Marxist in orientation but acting in the cultural context of German Anabaptist tradition, actually have an effect on this small northeastern city?  Here we want to recount some specific stories of the times, using ethnography and oral history as well as documentary literature to examine whether the passions toward socialism and pacifism had any lasting effect on Reading beyond the playgrounds, public museum, parks and other structures built during the socialist period.  Was this city government really different from other, non-socialist, city governments of the time?

Chapter 5- Labor and the Berkshire Hosiery Strike – a strike that became a template for protesting workers in decades to come, inspired by Gandhian tactics of assertive nonresistance in India.  We reproduce heretofore unseen photographs of lay-down strikers as well as gas canisters used by police; historically unique posters and “Striker” armbands from this iconic protest; diary pages from the daily newssheet that rallied the strikers.  What was it about the time, place and culture that “worked” to effect a labor victory in these textile mills, inspiring wider activism beyond?

Chapter 6- Pacifism in a Time of War- Keppley and the WWII Conscientious Objectors- it was not a popular time to protest war, but the Anabaptist/labor/socialist contingent in Reading did exactly that.  They produced an underground literary culture we examine here, consisting of pamphlets, poetry, letters from jail to loved ones.  All are primary sources never before seen publically; the book serves therefore not only to interpret but also to preserve a political culture long gone.

Chapter 7- Family Life in a Quiet Culture of Dissent – Most histories track the big demonstrations and rallies of oppositional movements, but in this cultural milieu noted for its “plainness,” many families lived simple lives along socialist-pacifist principles practically unnoticed by the wider society.  Oral histories illustrate just how radically different this subculture actually was, how diverse our nation’s politics actually are.   A mother weeps over Ho Chi Minh’s death, warning her daughter that at school people might feel “differently,” parents break ground in the attempt to create cooperative housing parks in which working families could pool resources.     

Chapter 8- Conclusion: Keppley’s Life as Exemplar.  Creating a scholarship-for-
change that finds the holism of the human being in the conjoining of disparate
vectors.We look at issues of narrativity and representation as we dare to allow our writing here to speak for others, interrogating recent issues in postmodern academics.We question the changes Reading has gone through since Elwood Keppley’s time; with malls occupying the old textile mills and industrial jobs outsourced, with a new influx of immigrants from Puerto Rico overlaying the old Germanic core, what kind of movement would be possible today?  What is going on today?

Researching and writing this book, recreating a life, a place and a time – is labor of love for these co-authors.   Just as Elwood Keppley declined to sterilize his politics by focusing on his anger and leaving out his poetry, we too move against the grain of Western academia by including within our scholars’ vision the heartbreak and pain, the joys and triumphs – indeed, the prayers – we find to constitute our subjects’ world.  Today, the world faces similar contingencies in which faith, politics and violence commingle, yet it is only the far-seeing writer to dares put them together in a way that humanizes rather than demonizes.   Noting the example of Elwood Keppley and his cohort, who had enemies aplenty in their lifetimes, we can only urge a more humane,
broad-minded scholarship as we seek to understand not this or that “factor,” but how people really live. 

Neither of us can claim to be “objective” about this volume.  Cynthia is Elwood’s daughter, an activist herself though in a far different sphere; Paul comes from a family that for generations upheld labor’s cause.  We gain in empathy, we lose in distance. 

In the end, we offer this small effort to the working women and men of the world who continue to push forward for just, fair, and dignified lives for all.

[We plan to exhibit the extensive historical materials in our possession at some Notre Dame forum – perhaps the Kroc Institute – before donating them to a labor museum /archive.  Most probably this will be at the Pennsylvania State University.]

Brief Bibliography on Reading Labor and Socialism

Ronald Fillipelli. “Labor Manuscripts in the Pennsylvania State University Library” Labor History, vol. 13, no. 1, Winter 1972 , pages 79 - 88

Patricia Jean Harding. Remember That?" Reminiscences of Work. A Study of the World of Work of Full-fashioned Hosiery Industry Workers in Berks County, Pennsylvania, 1925-1965 Phd. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1966.

J. Paul Henderson, Darlington Hoopes: The Political Biography of an American Socialist. Glasgow, Scotland: Humming Earth, 2005.

Kenneth Hendrickson,"The Reading Socialists and World War I - A Question of Loyalty," Pennsylvania History, October, 1969.

Kenneth Hendrickson "James H. Maurer-Labor Leader," Berks County Historical Review, Winter, 1969.

Kenneth Hendrickson The Socialist Administration in Reading, Pennsylvania, Part I, 1927-1931," Pennsylvania History, October, 1972
Raymond Phillips, Jr. .The Reading Socialists In Retrospect” Historical Review of Berks County, Summer, 1965

James Maurer, It Can Be Done: The Autobiography of James Hudson Maurer. New York: Rand School, 1938.

J. David Pivar. “The Hosiery Workers and the Philadelphia Third Party Impulse, 1929-1935” Labor History vol. 5,  no. 4, Winter 1964

Pratt, William C. The Reading Socialist Experience: A Study of Working Class Politics. Ph.D. Dissertation, Emory University, 1969.

Henry Stetler. The Socialist Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania 1896-1936 : A Study in Social Change Connecticut: Henry G. Stetler, 1943; Philadelphia, Porcupine Press, 1974.­


Brief Bibliography on Politics and Anabaptism:

Bender, Harold.  The Anabaptist Vision.  Scottsdale, PA, Herald Press, 1944.

Besecker-Mast, Gerald.  “The Persistance of Anabaptism as a Vision.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  2007, vol. 87, o.1, pp. 21-42.

Friezin, Abraham, “Wilhelm Zimmerman and Friedrich Engels: Two Sources of the Marxist Interpretation of Anabaptism.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  1981, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 240-254.

Engels, Friedrich.  The Peasant Wars in Germany.  Translated by Vic Schreierson.  Moscow: Progress Publications, 1969.

Frazer, Thomas.  “Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Some Unexpected Similarities.” Journal of Ecclesiastical Studies  1994, vol. 51, no. 1, pp. 67-91.

Gish, Art.  “Anabaptism and the New Left.”  Brethren Life and Thought vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 68-86.

Herschberger, C.F.  The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision.  Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press,  1957

Heiser, Charles W.  “Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition.”  Theology Digest  2001.

Hamsher, Matt.  “Anabaptism and Democracy: A Constructive or Deconstructive Relationship?”  Conrad Grebel Review  2005, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 74-79.

Heike, Thomas.  “Theological and Secular Meta-Narratives of Politics: Anabaptist Origins Revisited.”  Modern Theology  1997, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 217-252.

Holland, Scott. “Preaching with Prophets, Musing with Mystics, Dancing with Strangers: Anabaptism as Public Theology.”  Brethren Life and Thought  1994, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 167-179.

Horst, I.B.  The Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation. Leiden: DeGraaf, 1972.

Juhnke, James C.  Vision, Doctrine, War:  Mennonite Identity and Organization in America.   Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989

Kautsky, Karl.  Selected Political Writings. Edited and translated by Patrick Goode.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.

King, Michael.  “Angels, Atheists, and Common Ground: Towards a Separatist and Worldly Postmodern Anabaptism.”  Conrad Grebel Review  1997, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 251-268.

Klassen, Walter.  “Sixteenth Century Anaptism:  A Vision Valid for the Twentieth Century?”  Conrad Grebel Review 1987, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 241-251.

Peachey, Paul.  “Zurich (1525) and St. Petersburg (1917)”   Mennonite Quarterly Review  1981, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 179-183.

Redekkop, Calvin.  “The Ethnic Ghost in Anabaptism.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  1984, vol. 58, o. 2, pp. 133-146.

Rowland, Christopher.  “Anabaptism and Radical Christianity.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  2000, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 549-554.

Rutschman, LaVerne.  “Anabaptism and Liberation Theology.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  1981, vol. 55, no. 3, pp.. 255-270.

Stauffer, Ethelbert.  “The Anabaptist Theology of Martyrdom.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  1945, vol. 19, pp. 179-214.

Snyder, C. Arnold.  From Anabaptist Seed: The Historical Core of Anabaptist-Related Identity.  Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999

Toews, Paul.  Mennonites in American Society: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community.   Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996

Verduin, Leonard and Franklin Littell.  The Reformers and their Stepchildren.  Grand Rapids:  Erdmans, 1964.

Walsh, Brian J.  “The Transformation of Culture: A Review Essay.”  Conrad Grebel Review  1987, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 253-267.

Williams, G.H.  The Radical Reformation.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957

Yoder, John Howard.  The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994

Yoder, Perry.  “The Importance of Judaism for Continental Anabaptist Thought.”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  1993, vol. 67, no. 1, pp. 73-83.

York, Tripp.  The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2007.

Zeman, J.K.  “Anabaptism: A Replay of Medieval Theatre or a Prelude to the Modern World?”  Mennonite Quarterly Review  1976, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 259-271.





Copyright Cynthia K. Mahmood. 2009. All Rights Reserved.