Transnationalism and the Image

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No man is an island, and no nation is alone in the world.  Influence is constant and unavoidable. It has no respect for state lines or geographic boundary. This influence can have profound effect on the way history plays out. It helps define how governments and their people interact, how non-governmental organizations respond to national trauma, and, in the case of the 1960s, and for the case of this paper, how groups of protestors both consciously and unconsciously frame their resistance. Understanding transnational influence is an important facet of accurately and responsibly approaching history. It would be foolish to suppose that events and ideas don’t influence people simply because of arbitrary boundaries. This is supremely evident in the use of image and symbol in the protest culture of the late 1960s which consisted largely of images and texts from nations most actors had little direct connection with. That being said, it would be equally foolish to suppose that national identity does not play the titular role in determining choice and, ultimately, history. Transnational influence is best understood, and most usefully depicted, when approached from a nationalistic vantage point, a fact the use of protest imagery during the late 1960s and early 70s exemplifies, particularly in the cross cultural usage of The Little Red Book, and the image of Che Guevarra.

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It is valuable to begin a paper on transnationalism with a definition of the term. Unfortunately, transnationalism’s definition has been debated since its inception. Ian Tyrrell was one of the first and perhaps most prominent to make use of the phrase transnational history, and views it as a denaturizing of the nation-state in favor of understanding history as a series of connections between nations rather than a group of nations themselves.  Tyrell argues that nations themselves are actually predicated on the connections between nations, and that the state would not exist were it not for the political, monetary, and ideological connections it has with other states (also simple products of connection).  Though there is value in examining history this way, it is better put to use in conjunction with an understanding of the nation and nation-state as the primary push and pull of historical progress and change. Patricia Clavin’s take on transnationalism in her paper, Defining Transnationalism, resonates with this more moderate understanding of transnationalist influence on historical progress. She approaches transnationalism as a honeycomb in which the hollowed out spaces stand in for nations, defined by their connections to others, yet still independent within themselves, free to wither away to be replaced by new groups, ideas, and innovations.   This approach allows us to reflect on, while at the same time going beyond, the confines of the nation and will be the understanding of transnational history propagated within this paper as primarily in concert with the use of image in 1960s and 70s protest movements as a largely transnational occurrence. 

To understand the transnational significance of The Little Red Book, one must first understand the subtle difference between badge and brand books. Using Quinn Slobodian’s ideology as a guide, a badge book is a text that one uses to outwardly depict a belonging to some sort of political group and ideology, making use of the book as a physical signifier of your membership.  An example pre-dating the Little Red Book’s popular arrival in West Germany was the use of small red books with copies of the Soviet Union’s statutes and constitution in the 1930s.  Badge books transcend their text and exist instead primarily as symbol, almost more akin to a fashion statement than a manifesto. On the other hand lies brand books, which are also used as signifiers, but mainly for their content express[ing] cultural distinction through their consumption.  The Little Red Book rested somewhere between these two ideologies in West Germany during the late 1960s. Its location as either brand or badge would largely determine its place as a simple intellectual fad (brand) or a deeper, rising sense of transnational community and struggle aligning with Eastern plight and struggle (badge). Again, taking the more moderate avenue, The Little Red Book existed as both of these things. It served as both an intellectual fad for the elite to prove their status and a push, largely from disgruntled students, to prove themselves connected to a larger, richer, more diverse community of similar struggle. Therein, of course, lies the deeper question: is this truly a transnational phenomenon, or simply a group of discontents attempting to attach themselves to some larger identity they have no claim on in order to artificially strengthen their position? Though there is of course the nationalistic impulse and want to change their individual honeycomb, West Germans were engaging and trading ideas and physical objects across national bounds, influence flowing in both directions to further define and propel more strictly national institutions. That certainly would support at least Clavin’s claim to what transnational history is built upon.

Another example of transnational protest imagery in the 1960s is the image of Che Guevarra. A Latin reformer, resistant, and guerilla warrior, in his execution, Che Guevarra became a martyr for anti-establishment movements everywhere despite failing to unite South America in a socialist uprising.   His death was the catalyst for his image to be spread all across the world, becoming a staple for protest groups, and the embodiment of the internationalist Zeitgeist for radicals.   The primary image latched onto by radical groups of the period was that of Che, long haired and stoic, staring into the distance, dubbed The Heroic Guerilla.  This image of Che eventually began to crop up in West Germany and the United States and basically anywhere people were resisting some armed, intrusive power. Uing Che’s image, protestors were able to align themselves with the plight of South Americans beneath an unfair and harmful capitalist structure, a structure many protestors also felt they were stuck beneath. Resistants framed themselves as fighting with, even for, those who had been brutally colonized, even in instances where colonization was only tangentially related to the primary cause of protest. Similar to the Little Red Book, Che became both a badge and a brand: a collection of ideas to consume, yet also, and perhaps more transnationally relevant, a symbolic rallying point for protestors and resistants to attach to and say I also feel this oppression even if that particular oppression doesn’t exactly affect them on a daily basis. Che’s image was used a tool to promote largely national interests, bolstered by transnational sentiments.

The use of transnational images was essential to protestors in the late 1960s and early 70s. Symbols became the currency of oppression, identifiers of those plights with which you identified. It allowed students at Columbia Univeristy to commune with South American anti-colonialists without ever meeting them or understanding the deep nuances and intricacies of their suffering.  It allowed West Germans to identify themselves as Far Left by holding onto a small book without needing to understand or adhere to the particulars of its content.   Whether this borderline appropriation of struggle was right or wrong, it was certainly influential on the passage of history during the time period. Resistants were emboldened by their perceived transnational connections. Movements and national issues became international in nature, simply by someone holding up a sign or carrying a small book. This transnational history must be examined, but it must be examined in concert with the national histories it plays out between, only then can it be fully understood in its deep nuance and complexity.

Works Cited

  1. Clavin, Patricia, Defining Transnationalism in Contemporary European History Vol. 14, No. 4, asdfgasdfg (November 2005)
  2. Donne, John, No man is an island, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Several Steps in my asdfgasdfgSickness – Meditation XVII, 1624
  3. Prestholdt, Jeremy. “Resurrecting Che: Radicalism, the Transnational Imagination, and the Politics of asdfgasdfgHeroes.” Journal of Global History 7, no. 03 (2012): 506-26.
  4. Slobodian, Quinn, and Alexander Cook. Maos Little Red Book: A Global History. 12 – Badge books and asdfgasdfgbrand books: The Mao Bible in East and West Germany Cambridge: Cambridge University asdfgasdfgPress, 2014.
  5. Tyrell, Ian. “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History.” The American Historical asdfgasdfgReview Vol 96, no. 4 (October 1991): 1031-1055. doi:10.1086/ahr/96.4.1031.
  6. Tyrell, Ian. What Is Transnational History? Ian Tyrell (blog), last modified 2007, asdfgasdfg
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Transnationalism and The Image. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved May 28, 2023 , from

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