2007-09-08 20:07:34
Soviet Theories of Ethnicity: The Case of a Missing Term




All through the twentieth century the significance of 'ethnicity' in the structuring of social life and in setting patterns of political action has been extensive and usually unpredicted. Neither its treatment by 19th-century 'rationalists' as a retrograde piece of barbarism nor its biological-racial explanations by their 'romantic' foes stood well the test of further experience. Ethnic diversity and nationalist ideologies proved extra-biological, persistent, pernicious and inexplicable--a major tool in the arsenal of political demagogues, a determinant of repression, and a spanner in the works for socialist theory and action. The theoretical inadequacies and predictive failures of social scientists and political activists, especially on the Left, were a constant cause for disappointment. This was particularly true with regard to the Third World, where the analytical meaning of ethnic divisions was as under-researched as its significance was major for the prevailing ideologies, collective cognitions and political life. Even the debate on such questions was slack. To expand these theoretical fields by introducing a different vision rooted in a different political experience, rich in ethnic complexity, should be particularly useful. What follows is a brief review of the theoretical positions adopted in mainstream Soviet studies of ethnic phenomena after a major debate in the 1960s. These positions differ substantively from those of their West European counterparts, non-Marxist and Marxist alike. [*]


There are two possible misconceptions one must consider at the outset. The first is more general, more direct and less interesting. Contemporary social sciences fail to acknowledge the extent of their cultural/linguistic insularity. It is often repeated that scholarly research into humans and societies has assumed an increasingly global form. Yet, behind the humdrum of a hundred-score international conferences stands the fact that much of this supposed universalization involves an exercise in talking at cross-purposes. People meet and write, words are used and seemingly understood, and then, much later, it becomes clear that people of different cultural and ideological backgrounds have actually understood them differently, often staggeringly so. Such consistent misreadings are made worse by the fact that we admit to them much less than did mid-19th-century scholars, who had little doubt that the 'critical idealist' philosophy was German--that is, had to be understood in relation to the conceptual, political and terminological context of contemporary German scholarship--and that, in a similar sense, political economy was British, political theory Italian, and so on. When linked, as in much of Anglo-Saxon scholarly practice, with linguistic incompetence and a polite refusal to see the 'otherness' of others as anything but the sign of self-evident backwardness or a piece of exotica, such miscomprehensions rapidly thicken into major blinkers.


Soviet social sciences have been particularly vulnerable to this dismissive attitude on the part of outsiders. There are some good reasons for this. The 'purge' of the 1930s decimated a generation of Soviet social scientists and at times caused whole disciplines to go under (sociology, for example, was eradicated lock, stock and barrel for a quarter of a century as a 'bourgeois discipline'). Ideological structuring and censorship often limited research and favoured smart, pliable and superficial men and women who made breath-taking careers as the administrators of sciences. The selection of 'safe' Soviet representatives for international conferences often left their Western counterparts with the impression of stolid plodding rather than theoretical élan. Sometimes, the persistent Soviet claims to supreme knowledge as a birthright elicited a childish reaction on the 'Western' side: a belief that since 'they' claim to be better in all, they must surely be worse on all scores. At other times, the scorn has been downright naive or petty, representing the anti-Russian xenophobia of old, mixed with half-literate rejection of anything labelled as 'Marxist' or socialist, all dressed in quasi-objective academic garb. The common denominator is a refusal to accept that anything useful can ever be learned from 'them'. Such views plainly disregard the unevenness of the Soviet social sciences, which, despite considerable shortcomings, have performed very well in certain areas or even out-stripped Western research. The journalistic image of Soviet social sciences as monolithic, propagandist and 'totalitarian', simply and smartly reproducing what is ordered of them by the government, is also a piece of misinformation. Conceptual debate was constantly taking place in theussr during the 1960s and 1970s, and many of its results were far from a foregone conclusion, despite the ideological boundaries which could not be breached. This does not mean, of course, that Soviet social scientists are cushioned against political pressures and powerful institutional controls which harm their research. Far from it.


The second misconception concerning the work of Soviet ethnologists lies deeper and may throw more light on the subject of this note. The West/East differences of political experience are considerable and often represent a different 'angle of vision'. The relevant difference of perception begins with common speech. Our social theory is mostly West European, and the term 'nationality' describes in English and French the passport one carries, i.e., the relationship to a specific state. To a Russian-speaker, the term natsional'nost', the semantic equivalent of the above, has nothing directly to do with a state. One's 'belonging' to a state is denoted as citizenship (grazhdanstvo). The inventory of human characteristics on everybody's passport or other identity papers carries, together with citizenship, age, colour of the eyes and so on, the item natsional'nost' as a specific characteristic inherited from one's parents (sometimes replaced by 'the language one uses at home'). It is not a matter of race--skin colour is not significant in itself, and the natsional'nost' of an 'assimilated' Tatar or of Alexander Pushkin, who clearly displayed the genetic features of an Abyssinian ancestor, is indisputably Russian. Nor is it a question of citizenship--the grandchild of a Ukrainian who emigrated to Canada is Ukrainian in that sense; a Pole who has lived all his or her life in Russia and holds Soviet citizenship is still a Pole. The term 'ethnicity', as ordinarily used in English speech, does not quite catch the full meaning of the concept, for it was developed to denote 'minorities' who, being mostly unassimilated, presented a 'problem' to 'the authorities' as well as to their neighbours and themselves. But it is the natsional'nost' of the Russians which is central to collective perceptions in the USSR.


The lack of a linguistic coin to translate fully into English or French the expression natsional'nost' is highly significant. Every Russian, layman and scholar alike, understands it and treats it as a meaningful, manifest and major parameter of social orientation and living. So will a Pole, a Latvian, a Czech, a Georgian and usually a German, but not a Frenchman or a Briton, while the Yankee and some others will be ambivalent on that score. People in the Middle East or India belong to the 'East' in this common perception, but their scholarly language has been shaped mainly by 'Western' social science. The 'case of the missing term' is a good way to delimit a dimension of consistent mutual miscomprehension but also to 'open up' a set of major analytical problems. In what follows we shall use the word 'ethnicity' to designate natsional'nost', remembering the particular 'Eastern' way in which it will be used.


Western Perceptions


For a century and more, a fundamental 'West European'/'East European' division in theoretical approach has followed and developed the differences of perception reflected in common speech. Throughout the world many would agree with the testimony of the greatest Catalan historian, Pierre Vilar, that 'in the relationship between my own life and history, national problems seem to overwhelm all others'. [1] (The word 'national' has evidently been used in the sense of natsional'nost'--the one way to grasp more clearly the position of the Catalans within Spain.) But there is a wide variation in the questions that follow from this judgment, as well as in the answers and theoretical constructs. More specifically, the 'West European'/'East European' diversity of concepts and experience represents differences of theoretical texture, of questions posed, of empirical data collected or selected, and of conclusions drawn. We shall look at these differences and then consider what the Western-trained social scientist or layman of today can learn from contemporary Soviet analyses of ethnic processes.


Western Europe's predominant attitude to ethnic phenomena has been polarized between consistently nationalist analysis related to right-wing politics, and the liberal-socialist view. The first treated ethnic entities as essentially racial, ahistorical units which could never transform, or be integrated into, a more comprehensive whole. An individual's loyalty to the nation was treated as the ultimate norm. Any doubts as to its ultimate nature were written off as either utopianism or treason. The rationalist mainstream of the social sciences was decisively influenced by a contrary approach for which the issue was not one of nations but of nationalisms--that is to say, of demands for the creation or legitimation of a sovereign state of a definite ethnic group. There was a secondary question of self-identification, which closely followed the answer to the first. In this line of thought nationalism is not the result of the existence of nations; it is the nations themselves which are constructed by nationalist movements from a mixed bag of available materials, religious, linguistic and racial, plus the actuality of divisions between states. [2] Any search for objective criteria of nationhood, singly or in combination, must necessarily break down. [3] In particular, to quote a major theorist, of 'the two especially promising candidates for the construction of a theory of nationality: will [to establish a "nation-state"--T.S.] and culture...neither is remotely adequate.' [4] The realistic way is to redefine the issue and to relativize it. In particular one cannot trust nationalist theorists because their romantic outlook mythologizes a-historical images and unchanging structures. Such myths are very dangerous in the eyes of the rationalist tradition in which the social sciences as well as the liberalism and socialism of Western Europe have been rooted. After all, they climaxed with those racists who, believing in immutable biological divisions, tried with Hitler's gas-chambers to keep such human divisions 'pure'.


The traditions of rationalism and the West European social sciences also basically agreed about why and when nationalism began the task of nation-building. This is seen as resulting from the spread of industrial capitalism through the world, with its corollaries like the destruction of 'traditional' rural society, the rise in social and territorial mobility, mass education and urbanization, the development of a national market and mass society. The decisive determinants of the rise of acute ethnic self-identification and demands for sovereignty were thus: (a) the class interest of the bourgeoisie in the establishment of a nationally defined sphere of market relations, political order and legal homogeneity; (b) the collapse of the social structure and 'niches' of old and, as a result, the need to confront, understand and handle ideologically, on personal as well as interpersonal levels, the disruptions brought by capitalist modernization and industrialization; (c) the growing significance of communication and therefore of a 'national' language, with its education systems and hierarchies of clerks; and (d) the legitimation, via 'civic religions', of the modern state. Nationalism, in this view, is 'false consciousness'--a combined reflection of all of the above, or some of them. But the word 'false' must be qualified. What underlies it is real enough in social terms, without, however, being primarily 'ethnic'.


It goes without saying that much scope is left for specific analysis in this vein. The first major division concerns the decisive element assumed to shape nationalism and the attitude to it. One influential view, held especially by orthodox Marxists at the turn of the 19th century, was that the creation of national markets governed other determinants of nation-building, [5] which should thus be historically correlated with the advance of the commercial bourgeoisie. A necessary decline of nationalism with the establishment of a global economy was therefore confidently predicted, and when this did not happen, the whole interpretation was thrown into disarray. Subsequent alternatives or amendments mainly stressed the power of the modern state to generate and manipulate ideologies which serve it. But a more radical rethinking of the capitalism/nationalism/ethnic-consciousness sequence has focused on the 'uneven development' of global society. Particularly in the 'developing societies', an underprivileged position in the world gives rise to necessarily defensive postures against the threat of being 'swamped' by the dominant international powers. The major fields where such struggles can be fought with some chance of success are those of the state apparatus, language, communication and consciousness. The principal stratum with a direct interest in establishing a nationalist creed and administration is the local 'intelligentsia', Western-educated and closely linked with the leadership of various liberation movements and with the elites of the newly created states. [6]


The second divergence among scholars and political activists trained by West European rationalism concerns their attitude to the phenomenon of nationalism/nation-building. On the one hand, they have understood the dangers of nationalistic belief, perceiving its capacity to mobilize masses of the population against the essential tenets of liberalism or socialism and against social groups which hold them dear. On the other hand, nationalist demands have served as a powerful unifying force of movements of liberation--that is, of popular struggles against foreign and local oppressors. A united front of the whole nation, mobilized 'to transform itself' and to fight off external forces, was the main form in which radical social changes took place, often of utmost benefit in the eyes of those who call for freedom, equality and fraternity. Not surprisingly, the diversity of conclusions ranged from those which assumed the essentially beneficial character of nationalist movements to those which held them to be a mystification barring any solid advance of liberal and socialist principles. 'In between' stood those who regarded the nationalist struggle as a 'stage' which, once accomplished, should be succeeded by a struggle for the equality of all humans as humans.


The Other Viewpoint


Contemporary Soviet analysis of ethnicity has been consistently different from that which we have described. It has followed the alternative tradition of thought developed in Eastern and Central Europe, mostly within the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires at the turn of the nineteenth century. Its starting point is not the issue of nationalism and its extra-ethnic causes but that of ethnic entities treated as real and primal phenomena and social determinations (not just as epiphenomena of the economy or the state). Although ethnicity is to them neither eternal nor genetic--racialism and ahistoricity being consistently rejected--ethnic particularity is 'socially real' and not a mystified expression or reflection of 'something else'. At the beginning of the century, this 'national problem' was debated with particular heat and considerable analytical sophistication by the Russian, Austrian, Polish, German and Jewish organizations affiliated to the Second International. The multi-ethnic or, as they called it, 'multinational' composition of the European empires of the day, the ethnic repressions and restrictions, the division of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews among different states made imperative certain programmatic decisions. Theorists and parties of the all-European Second International adopted a wide range of positions, from the substantively 'Western' view of Karl Kautsky to Otto Bauer's emphasis on the autonomously ethnic dimension of culture. Some other highly original suggestions were also made within the Marxist idiom, such as B. Borochov's attempt to relate natsional'nost' to the 'forces of production' while defining social classes in terms of the 'relations of production'. [7]


The political conclusions differed even more dramatically: while Rosa Luxemburg capped Kautsky's line of analysis by combating the creation of states along ethnic lines as a bourgeois charade, Bauer demanded cultural autonomy for separate linguistic-ethnic nations within each state (and, as a step in this direction and toward socialism, the organization of the Austrian Social Democratic Party into ethnically defined Social Democracies, closely allied within a confederate party). In the Russian Empire the position of the Bund was fairly similar to that of Bauer, but the Georgian, Polish and Latvian sds followed the views of Luxemburg. Lenin refused to be drawn into the debate about the nature of ethnicity. His political strategy was somewhere 'in between': there should be one party of the working class in each territorial state, but it should support progressive nationalisms and give particular attention to the suppressed 'nations' while absolutely rejecting the repressive nationalism of the Russian or other ruling nations. [8] Stalin's article 'Marxism and the National Problem', eclectically adding up Kautsky and Bauer into four objective characteristics of a nation, became part of a doctrine, and later canonization made his formula obligatory on pain of excommunication. [9] In the 1930s to 1950s, when Russian nationalism was enjoying a new field-day, debate on such matters completely ceased in theussr. Simultaneously, a wave of Nazi-type nationalism was destroying the intellectual centres of social democracy and liberalism in Central Europe and causing their particular variants of analysis to disappear.


Things only began to change in theussr with the onset of the post-Stalin thaw. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and not without a considerable measure of disagreement and debate, Soviet ethnologists recovered the full problematic of the 'Eastern' line of analysis. They also moved forward from the positions and 'philosophical' tendencies of the beginning of the century. The postulation of a social reality and causality defined by natsional'nost' was retained, but the characterization of ethnic phenomena changed considerably and received important empirical grounding. Its significance was enhanced by the adoption of the concept 'etnos' as the differentia specifica of ethnology as a discipline. The phenomenon in question was reclassified in such a way as to include explicitly not only nations under capitalism or socialism, but ethnic (natsional'nye) structures and periods much broader in scope, historically and analytically. The conceptual core of ethnicity was increasingly seen as self-reproducing cultural patterns linked to self-identity, significantly autonomous from the forces and relations of production. The institute of ethnography of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and its senior fellows such as Tokarev, Bromley, Kozlov, Arutyunov, Olderogge, played a major role in this conceptual re-tooling which climaxed with the definition of ethnology/ethnography as a scholarly discipline whose subject-matter was ethnic phenomena.


In an interesting development L. Gumilev of Leningrad, Russia's leading expert on the history of Turkic nomadic people, has approached this issue in a different and still more radical way. In his view, human society should be analysed simultaneously in two separate dimensions of collective being: the production of material goods, and the physical environment in its broadest sense. The first is explored by the social sciences, with political economy as its core. The second should be explored by a natural science, namely ethno-geography, and is for the most part expressed in ethnogenesis, which links societal processes, primary environments and personality/leadership patterns (pasionaria). Gumilev has gone on to develop a general theory of ethnic phenomena along those lines.

Returning to the mainstream of Soviet ethnological theory, we must first ask what further illumination it can offer. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. What are the questions, if any, which are being posed anew? What type of evidence can be and is being gathered as a result of such an approach? What type of analysis has been followed, and in which way have its conclusions been different? Only the briefest possible comment is attempted, a pointer to major issues of which each needs further elaboration.


The delimitation of ethnicity in terms of self-reproducing collectivities bound by a distinctive culture and self-identification, as well as their treatment as a primary topic and not as a reflected or subsidiary issue, have placed specific ethnic processes at the centre of Soviet scholarly attention. Ethnogenesis--that is, the initial establishment of ethnic groupings--has come to be studied with close, systematic attention. There has been a conscious rejection of the 'great historical divide' postulated by mainstream 'Western' scholarship, according to which the 'national problem' begins with commercial capitalism or 'modern' statehood while its earlier forms are assigned to a murky past or 'defined out' as heterogeneous materials from which real nations are to be built. Instead, ethno-history and ethnic entities which cross-cut different epochs (and 'modes of production') have been adopted as a major analytical dimension. The specific impact of different forms of political economy has been built into it through a sophisticated system of subcategories and specifications. But the extensive changes on the ethnic map of the pre-capitalist world have been grasped as highly significant for the understanding of past and present human history. General history is specifically analysed for ethnic causalities and processes, and the results are made available for comparative consideration of various societies and social histories. [10]


To exemplify, one could look at the slow ethnic crystallization of the proto-Manchur or Chzhur Chzhen after the sixth century A.D. The many stages of this process included the complex patterns of unification and de-assimilation of their different groups (the 'free tribesmen' and those subjected by the Lao), the 'wars of liberation' against the Lao Empire, the formalization of common language through the development of a separate script in the twelfth century, and the establishment of the Manchu Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The state of the Manchus was then destroyed by the Mongols. But a Manchur ethnic identity persisted, and the new Manchurian state formed in 1616 went on to incorporate most of China (called Tsin, in direct reference to the initial name of the tribal confederation of the Chzhur Chzhen), before entering into decline and ethnic disintegration. The ethnic history of the Manchus was consequently assumed to have played a major political role through a millennium, right up to the beginning of the twentieth century. A second interesting example of such research would be the study of the Amhars' development from a professional caste of warriors into the dominant ethnos of Ethiopia, in a political and cultural process which included the establishment of a language. [11]


'History of the Present'


The treatment of 'ethnicity' as 'history of the present' has led to a variety of empirical studies focusing on social structures of consistency as well as fluidity in theussr--for instance, of the family and interfamily ethnic socialization. The consolidation through which ethnic groups clarify their frontiers, and the assimilation in which such frontiers disappear, have been investigated in terms of the social institutions and processes which sustain them. Thus, extensive research into intermarriage has established its quantitative and qualitative correlation with other ethnic processes, and analysed the differential impact of limited and extensive rates of intermarriage--say, ten per cent and twenty-five per cent, respectively--on the stability or assimilation of ethnic groups. The choice of ethnicity by children of mixed marriages has been shown to be indicative of ethnic patterns (e.g., the fact that nine-tenths of the children of Chuvash/Russian marriages, but only one-tenth of children of Turkman/Russian marriages, see themselves as Russian). Bilinguality (dvuyazichie)--that is, the use of two languages by ethnic groups sharing the same territory, and especially of Russian by non-Russians--has also been widely studied, as has the wish to congregate socially and to work within the same working place with members of other natsional'nosti. Various correlates of ethnicity have been looked at comparatively and relevant causalities and results considered--for example, differential rates of urbanization, professional choice, geographical mobility, advanced education, and so on. [12] The long-term impact of the growth of different ethnic groups on the future parameters of Soviet society has been the object of especially active research and debate.


Such temporal consideration of ethnic consistencies and causalities might in fact offer a broader and more interesting context to the study of 'ethnic minorities' undertaken elsewhere. Moreover, this analytic framework may prove useful to researchers who are studying not only assimilation but also ethnic crystallization, not only 'minorities' but also ethnic characteristics of the 'majorities' and of ethnic groupings which live side by side within one state. Soviet ethnologists have in fact been producing an extensive and well-informed literature concerning the ethnic nature of countries outside theussr, especially in the Third World. Its quality has been defined not only by the capacities of individual scholars or the empirical data gathered by Soviet scholars, but also by a different approach opened up by a particular conceptualization.

Studies of ethnic processes in theussr have introduced an important dimension of social analysis, with conclusions new and often surprising to the scholarly community. They have also been relevant to policy-making and interesting to the public opinion of theussr, as the record of debate and publication clearly shows. In the contemporary world, where state planning has a powerful impact, analysis of the future plays a directly political role in the way the future is shaped. Ethno-history and projections for the future--involving judgments, for example, about the 'disappearance of nations', often regarded as imminent in the 1920s--are of major significance here. Will the next stage of Soviet society (and, by implication, of other multi-ethnic societies in the world) be one of disappearance of 'ethnic' diversity, or, to the contrary, one of flourishing ethnic distinctiveness? Or will it be a complex pattern of both? Each of these views has recently been argued within Soviet scholarship and the popular press and can be understood only in relation to the conceptual framework and terminology adopted. Each of these possibilities also spells different political conclusions and futures, especially in regions of high ethnic complexity, of which theussr is a prime example. The political importance of these issues was demonstrated by a 1982 conference of party leaders and professional ethnologists, where some of the views were as sophisticated as they were controversial. [13] Andropov's declaration then that 'national distinctions ...will exist for a long time, much longer than class distinction', and his call for a 'well thought-out, scientifically substantiated policy concerning natsional'nost" [14] were a strong confirmation of this trend.


We could proceed further with the various questions of political cognition, ideology and strategy opened up for debate and empirical investigation by Soviet ethnologists. But by now the point is made. Contemporary Soviet studies of ethnic processes are rich in content, and their very difference in approach from the main 'Western' analytical tradition may offer considerable illuminations. Soviet ethnographic research of the last two decades has opened new and important vistas of thought and research which are still only faintly understood outside theussr. This work proceeds to advance further, empirically as well as analytically, and bears considerable political consequences. To become party to it and to judge its uses, one must first understand the conceptual language and the assumptions and questions which underlie it.




[*] This paper was initially prepared as the introduction to a discussion of categories of Soviet ethnic theory by Yu. Bromley and V. Kozlov. Both texts will appear in a volume on State and Ideology, edited by H. Alavi and F. Halliday, to be published by Macmillan.


[1] Vilar, 'On Nations and Nationalism', Marxist Perspectives, 1979, No. 5, pp. 21-22.

[2] The most impressive recent discussions of the matter (which differ in analysis but correspond in fundamental Western-rationalist approach to its subject matter) have come from E. Hobsbawm, 'Some Reflections on Nationalism' and E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford 1983.

[3] Hobsbawm, p. 137.

[4] Gellner, p. 53.

[5] This view was promoted in particular by Karl Kautsky.

[6] Stressed especially in E. Gellner, Thought and Change, London 1964, ch. 7 and adopted in Marxist terminology by T. Nairn, 'Marxism and the Modern Janus', New Left Review 94, 1975.

[7] B. Borochov, Nationalism and the Class Struggle, Westport 1973.

[8] V. Lenin, 'Critical Remarks on the National Question', Collected Works, Moscow 1976, vol. 20.

[9] J. Stalin, Marxism and the National Problem, New York 1942.

[10] LN. Gumilev, Etnogenez i biosfera zemli, Leningrad 1979, vols. 1, 2 and 3 for a full summation of the author's views.

[11] Examples taken from M.V. Vorob'ev, 'Etnos v sredie veka', Doklad geograficheskogo obshchestva SSSR (Ethnography No. 3), Leningrad 1967, and the work of S. Chernetsov in Etnicheskaya istoriya Afriki, Moscow 1977 (which also carried the relevant studies by D. Olderogge, N. Girenko and V. Matveev).

[12] E.g., Sotsialnoe i natsionalnoe, Moscow 1972; Sov'remennye etnicheskie protsesy v sssr, Moscow 1975; M. Kulishenko, Osnovnye napravleniye izucheniya natsionalnykh otnoshenii v sssr, Moscow 1975.

[13] Sotsial'naya politika i natsional'nye otnosheniya, Moscow 1982 (proceedings of the Riga conference, 28-30 June, 1982).

[14] Pravda, 22 December 1982, p. 2.

 (Originally Published on: New Left Review I/158, July-August 1986 )




作者:Teodor Shanin