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Think Piece

The state, and revolution, Part II: View from a Public Square Closed to the Public

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

This is the third and final installment of “The state, and revolution,” following the introduction and “Part I: The Revolution Reshuffled.”

The new age needed only the hide of the revolution—and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who then slipped into it spoke the language of the Revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1960), trans. Robert Chandler (2006)

Scholarly interpretations of modern revolutions used to revolve around the idea of the state as the main structure for understanding them—mostly in national, sometimes in comparative, perspective. Since the last decade of the Cold War, however, many of the revolutions, which used to be known as English, French, American, Chinese, Irish, Russian, or Cuban, have been gradually placed in a different kind of order: like Grossman’s words, they began to enter into dialogue with other post-revolutionary legacies, aligned on an imperial meridian, put on a global scale, or, on the contrary, shrunk to the space of a single house. While some of the national labels have disappeared behind inverted commas, the very idea of ‘revolution’ has recently been replaced by a new interest in civil wars and the ‘roads not taken’. Peace itself is increasingly seen as a postwar pretext for new disputes over sovereignty, and the hybrid realities of paramilitary violence are being examined in terms of their effects on mass migration. This kind of revisionism is no longer just a reaction to the supposed end of history, but arguably, the beginning of a new response to the issues we are all facing in the present.

In contrast to this academic trend, most public responses to the latest centenaries are still wrapped in national flags, or at least, in national kinds of silences. In March 2016, I was briefly in Dublin, just before the centenary of the Easter Rising. A minimal common narrative of events appeared to have emerged, as the city was preparing for a large crowd, many of them from abroad.

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A stack of books on 1916, Dublin Airport (photo by Dina Gusejnova)
2 Dublin 2016 parade announcement
Poster announcing the parade (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Some public history projects even revived the language of revolution to establish a connection between the events of Easter 1916, modern Irish sovereignty, and other world events. In Parnell Square, a uniformed “Patrick Pearse” read aloud the 1916 Proclamation every day at midday.

In 1916, one of the buildings in Parnell Square, the Ambassador Theatre, had served as the backdrop to a famous photo marking the defeat of the Rising by the British, who posed with an inverted Irish flag, which they had captured from the Citizen Army. In 2016, an exhibition by Sinn Féin used the building to show some original objects from the revolution, and a reconstruction of Kilmainham Gaol,  where the sixteen men of the Rising had been executed.

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The Ambassador Theatre at Parnell Square (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Visitors were encouraged to take selfies and portraits while listening to recordings of their last words, and it was particularly striking to see a mother doing a photo-shoot of her children in front of the sandbags.

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Photo by Dina Gusejnova

What a contrast to Russia where, in April 2017, nobody was reading the April Theses aloud, neither in St. Petersburg nor in Moscow. Granted, Moscow’s Red Square was certainly not as central to the revolution as Petrograd’s Palace Square had been, but it was, still, an important site of revolutionary action in November and December of 1917. Since the Bolsheviks had transferred the capital here, channeling the older, Muscovite center of Russian power, it remained the symbol of Soviet and now post-Soviet claims to global influence. Yet the one set of events that epitomizes this universal aspiration does not suit current plans. Instead, as always at the end of April, preparations were in full swing for the celebrations of an anniversary that the government felt more comfortable with: the Victory of 1945. In April 2017, the public square was therefore routinely closed to the public.

One of the visitors to the Square that month was Richard Bourke, professor of the history of political thought and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He had travelled to Moscow to attend a conference at the Higher School of Economics. Bourke’s recent intellectual biography of Edmund Burke places Burke’s responses to the revolutions of his age in an imperial, transatlantic, and party political context, disentangling Burke from his later image as a rhetorician of reaction. With Ian McBride, Bourke has recently also co-edited the Princeton History of Modern Ireland, and, with Quentin Skinner, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. I could not miss this occasion, therefore, to ask a few questions about the contrasting revolutionary legacies in Ireland and Russia, as they engage with the burden of anniversaries of 1916 and 1917.

Standing by the walls of the Kremlin, near a plaque marking the place where the eighteenth-century author Alexander Radishchev had been held prisoner before being deported to Siberia, offered a compelling setting for the discussion. The view of one-way traffic beneath the Kremlin towers, and a reference to W.B. Yeats, concludes these reflections on the politics and ethics of commemorations.

Video by Kseniya Babushkina

 

“Well, that is disappointing. This is my first visit, but when I arrive, it transpires that the Square is closed to the public.

Revolution as a foundation for political legitimacy—prudentially, that has to be discarded in Russia, surely; I can’t imagine the current government wanting to embrace it. Secondly, and equally challenging, there is the communist legacy itself: the attitude to capitalism and private property. Since attitudes to the original ideology have been so utterly transformed, what is there for the establishment today to take ownership of? 

For its part, Ireland is full of commemorations. So, in this case, historians tend to greet such festivities as an irresistible opportunity to publicize their views, and to generate putatively deep, manifestly more penetrating analyses than politicians can muster… whereas I think that risks ending up with a confusion of roles.

Before the Good Friday Agreement—before, that is, the current settlement of the Irish problem—commemoration had the power to rock the state. It was, in other words, a very serious thing. So, the peaceable passing of 2016 in Ireland is, from a political point of view, entirely gratifying.

The political utility of 1917—one can’t see that quite so readily at all. Hence, presumably, the reluctance to celebrate.

I see commemorations as essentially pieces of political theatre. I don’t regard directing them as the business of the historian. Presumably, in the Russian case now, a shared narrative is far more difficult to achieve by comparison with Ireland. There is a will to disavow the revolutionary legacy without that having ever been overtly articulated. On the other hand, in the recent Irish case, the Southern Irish state’s commitment to abjuring certain versions of the 1916 legacy during the thirty years of the Troubles [1968–1998] had already passed, and consequently the need for revolutionary disavowal had (as it were) already been “worked through” the polity by 2016.

With Ireland, you have to remember, in 1966—and that was just two years before the ‘reinauguration’ of the Troubles in 1968—and then over the next thirty years, the Southern state had to disown much of the legacy of 1916 for the next three decades. So, with the end of the Troubles, as a result, a certain distance between the Southern Irish state and the history of its own militancy was possible. Also, generally speaking, a mood of collaboration around a possible shared narrative emerged. There was a commitment all round to manufacturing—because these are essentially manufactured stories—to manufacturing a liberal, cosmopolitan vision: excavating the diverse roles of peoples in 1916; children in 1916; women in 1916—so a diversified picture, by comparison with the original “16 Dead Men” narrative. It was a sort of attempt to bring all parties on board: the British state could have a role, because they’d accepted all that now; Irish republicans could have a role; we could pretend that Northern Irish Protestants might have a role; we could pretend that we can fully acknowledge that the First World War at the time was a far bigger event in Irish history than 1916 had been—certainly, considerably larger numbers died. In effect, there was a mood of opening up to these diverse possibilities. Actually, it was quite a constrained vision, to be honest. But nonetheless, the self-congratulatory story was that tremendous “openness” was prospering, then and now. Having said that—having just put it critically—I was there in Ireland at the time for the centenary celebrations, and in truth I don’t think it was at all badly done. There was no inappropriate pomp: I went with my children, and it was perfectly inoffensive to be there. I am no purist: states habitually resort to such rites of passage, and it’s just a matter of coming up with productive versions of the fanfare—a conducive version of it.

There is one poem, just a single poem, which has had as large an influence on the interpretation of the events of 1916 on subsequent historiography as any other document or text—and that is, of course, W. B. Yeats’ poem of that title: ‘Easter 1916’. Many, many historical studies of the period invoke its version of what transpired. The final stanza poses a rhetorical question: Was it needless death after all? So, the poem has a provocative question at its very heart. And, in a way, that has the effect of casting doubt on the whole enterprise: it seems it was needless death, a vain exercise! That’s another way of asking: Was this whole undertaking without any positive justification? But then there’s a gear change in the poem, which amounts to proclaiming that, given the fact that a ‘terrible beauty’ has indeed been born, the national poet has no choice but to lay claim to the legacy of this martyrdom, and that’s what the author proceeds to do in the poem.

I am currently working on a book, which is on the relationship between the philosophy of history, on the one hand—that is to say, fundamental views about what drives the historical process, and its direction of travel—and, on the other hand, the effect of one’s philosophical commitment to a given vision of the kind upon one’s investment in particular historical narratives. So, basically, I am concerned with conceptions of progress, specifically the notion that history is progressing—a perspective that emerged in the eighteenth century as a basic, almost a priori assumption about historical development. I am interested in the connection between that assumption and the impulse to read events themselves as progressive or retrogressive. That amounts, in turn, to an interest in the very idea of being “on the right side of history” in the familiar sense—of deeming oneself to be making the right moral choices because these choices coincide with the overarching directionality of history. It is fascinating to reflect on how this mode of thinking about our world first emerged, and now frames our approach to the past and the future.

Despite the long shadow cast by the philosophy of history, practicing historians ought to think more multi-perspectivally about the past, and therefore in less partisan and party-driven ways. I think that’s an honorable vocation for historians, though it’s not always the one they choose.”

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

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Interview

Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.

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Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.

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Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

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Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at chloebordewich.wordpress.com.

 

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Think Piece

The Brain-for-Itself: Soviet Psychoneurologists Debate the Psychophysical Problem

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

At a meeting of the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists in Moscow in 1930, the Chairman of the Society, Aron Zalkind, appraised the current the state of their field in the Soviet Union, and spoke in particular about the work of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity at the Communist Academy: “here they not only work experimentally,” he said, “but also sometimes philosophize” (Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk [ARAN], f. 351 op. 2 d. 25 l. 23ob).

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Workers at the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, part of the Communist Academy, Moscow, 1931. It is not immediately clear from their behavior to what extent they are philosophizing. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 15)

Such a remark might evoke Monty Python-esque images of a workday never begun, of materials left untouched on tables, as white-robed scientist-philosophers pace about the lab in anticipation of the eureka moment. Coming from Zalkind, however, these were words of praise. Soviet psychoneurologists frequently bemoaned and disparaged what they saw as the naïve empiricism of their Western scientific counterparts, their lack of theory, their reluctance to philosophize. And nowhere was this truer than at the Communist Academy, and its Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists, formed in 1928 with the express goal of bringing ideological direction to the scientific study of psyche, brain and behavior, and of uniting the work of these sciences into a materialist, dialectical theory of the human.

But what was a materialist—let alone dialectical—theory of the psyche? The Soviet Union in this period saw some rather spectacular attempts at reductive explanations of the psyche through correlations in the structures of the brain. Most famously (or notoriously), a group of researchers at the Moscow Brain Institute spent several years cutting Lenin’s brain into thirty thousand little slices in search of the material substrate of his genius, and claimed to find it, at least in part, in an exceptional development of the pyramidal cells of the third layer of the cerebral cortex. Around the same time, the psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev issued a proposal for a “Pantheon of the USSR,” a Pantheon of Brains, in which the brains of outstanding dead Soviet individuals would be displayed in glass cases, alongside their biographies and list of works, with accompanying diagrams and explanations to demonstrate the correlation between them. Such a Pantheon, Bekhterev suggested, would serve both to advance scientific understanding of the brain and psyche and as “propaganda for the materialist view on the development of creative human activity.” (V. M. Bekhterev, “O sozdanii panteona SSSR,” Izvestiia, June 19, 1927).

For all the fanfare of such endeavors—and they seem to have been greeted enthusiastically by both government and public—doubts remained. Bekhterev’s own brain, removed from his skull mere months after its proposal for the Pantheon (and intended, ironically, to be its first occupant), proved in death to be rather unremarkable, in mute defiance, as it were, of the ideas of its living predecessor, as if to say, ‘What, after all, is there to see here?’

Человек и Природа, 1929-02, П???????????? ?  Проблема анатомийеской основы одаренности и мозг В. И p. 16 cropped.jpg
The material substrate of his genius: microphotographs of slices of the brain of Lenin (right) and an “ordinary person” (left). From N. I. Prozorovskii, “Problema anatomicheskoi osnovy odarennosti i mozg V. I. Lenina,” Chelovek i priroda No. 2, 1929, p. 16.

The claims made of Lenin’s brain provoked skepticism as well. A discussion in the Presidium of the Communist Academy briefly considered whether it might be possible to put the brain back together again to subject it to other methods of study. “They’ve shredded it to smithereens,” one lamented, “the conclusions are negligible, and the brain is lost” (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 188 ll. 36-39). More than mere empirical questions, there were conceptual concerns about the overly “mechanistic” understandings of the psyche that such explanations offered. Where in these big or small cells, to paraphrase one objection, was class consciousness? (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 269 l. 8). Such research might be useful, it was argued, but was in need of ideological direction, a push toward more “dialectics.” They didn’t philosophize enough, it would seem, or they philosophized badly.

It was in the context of such concerns that, in late 1928 and early 1929, philosophers, psychologists, physiologists and others came together at the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists for a discussion between mechanists and dialecticians on the psychophysical problem. The transcripts remain preserved in the archive of the Communist Academy in Moscow (ARAN f. 350 op. 2 d. 337, 393). They make for dense and at times inscrutable reading; a full exegesis would require volumes. But a brief consideration might provide some insight into what—if anything—came of this meeting of minds and brains.

Comrade V. N. Sarab’ianov, a mechanist philosopher, gives the principal paper. Are our thoughts, or ideas, our sensations, he asks, material or not? When Marx says that “being determines consciousness,” does he mean to oppose consciousness to being, in the sense that consciousness is not being, is not objective, spatial, material? Absolutely, as Sarab’ianov affirms: he opposes them. That which in itself is objective, a physical act in the body, Sarab’ianov continues, , is for me subjective, a psychical act. To the disappointment of the reader, he then launches into a long disquisition on primary and secondary qualities, from Locke and Galileo to Plekhanov and Lenin. (Sarab’ianov’s preferred example, fitting for the circumstances, was the quality of red-ness). But his point, in effect, comes to this: subjective phenomena are immaterial and cannot be objectively observed, and the only path to an objective materialist science of the psyche is through what is directly observable in the body and behavior. The dialecticians’ attempts to treat the psyche as “objective being,” Sarab’ianov contends, prove essentially wrong-headed.

The dialecticians, in turn, counter that

350-1-1077(7).jpg
What is there to see here? A cabinet full of brains in the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, Moscow, 1931. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 18)

Sarab’ianov has confused the ontological problem with an epistemological one, and that the mechanists fail to understand, as one dialectician puts it, “the development of the world,” the emergence of new orders of lawfulness at different stages of development. The mechanists, they argue, conceive of the world only in terms of physical and mechanical forms of motion, and either attempt to reduce the psyche to primary elements, to the brain and physiology, or—what amounts to much the same—isolate consciousness from the world, and render it unintelligible. Either way, they are “unwitting idealists,” for they ignore the problem of the psyche as a distinct property of highly organized matter, as a distinct property of that specially organized piece of matter called the brain. The problem with the mechanists, the psychologist-dialectician Iu. V. Frankfurt asserts, is that they cannot imagine that matter can think. They fail to understand the brain as a thinking thing; they fail to understand the brain, he says, as a “thing in itself and for itself.”

Does any of this make any sense? Certainly, there is no eureka moment here—or in the discussion that follows—and indeed the prevailing sense is of an immense confusion. The psychophysical problem is not solved. Rather, what we begin to see is that they are in fact posing different questions. At the risk of stretching Frankfurt’s use of the term here (though not, I think, the stakes of a broader intervention), the problem of the brain ‘for-itself’ for the dialecticians was not, in the first instance, a question of matter and sensation, but of the possibility of conscious and purposeful action, of the active role of consciousness, as they liked to say, in human behavior. It was a problem of the place of the psyche in the world.

In this respect, we might begin to see how a push towards “dialectics” could point to a different approach to the brain, and to what a materialist explanation of the psyche would be. On one hand, it entailed a turn away from the physical and immediately observable as the privileged form of explaining the psyche: thinking the brain as a thinking thing, the demonstration of “substrates” and “correlates” in itself was of no explanation at all. On the other, it focused attention, above all, on the question of development, and the relation of the brain to the structure of consciousness. Posed in this way, the question to be answered was not one of how the brain produced ideas and sensations, but rather of why, of the role of thought and affect in conscious human activity. In this vein, a number of Soviet psychologists in these years would turn to evidence from the clinic, from child development, and even from socialist construction, to understand the development of specifically human higher psychological functions. As Alexander Luria would later say of the work done in this period by Lev Vygotsky (himself one of the participants in the psychophysical discussion), it was a question of how “history ties new functional knots in the cortex” (Luria, “L. S. Vygotsky and the Problem of Localization of Functions,” p. 391).

The fate of that research is a story for another time. The idea here is not that such attempts to rethink the brain came out of this one discussion, or even that they had much to do with dialectics as we might understand it. Rather, it is to consider how such attempts at “ideological direction” may have raised significant questions about what it is we can see, and what it is we explain, when we look at the brain—dead or alive. In this respect there is still perhaps some value in not only working experimentally, but also, sometimes, philosophizing. And, just maybe, in thinking historically as well.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.

Further reading:

For more on the dispute between the Mechanists and Dialecticians, see David Joravsky, Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 1917-1932 (Routledge, 2009)

For lighter fare, join Joy Neumeyer as she takes A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute to explore what’s left of the Pantheon in a delightful article for Vice.