I have commented a number of times on one of the deep paradoxes of Stalin’s era in the Soviet Union: he was in many respects the architect of the world’s first and – until now – most ambitious and far-reaching affirmative action program. I have now read carefully Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action EmpireThis is a 500 page book, peerless in its use of archival material and chock full of insights. It has its shortcomings, especially in the theoretical area, thereby missing some of the complexities and dialectical tensions at work. All the same, he argues persuasively that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state, not a federation, nor indeed an empire (despite the title). Instead, its ‘imagined community’ was the friendship of the peoples, or ‘international nationalism’. (As someone suggested to me recently, China too is a new form of the state, developing further the experience of the Soviet Union.) What Martin does not do is use this to develop a Marxist theory of the state based on actual practice, but then he is not so interested in Marxist theory.

Let me return to the question of affirmative action, for not a few will be a little sceptical: sure, the Soviet government may have made many statements concerning affirmative action, and Stalin may have made many speeches to that effect and even shaped the 1936 constitution, but what about actual experiences? What happened on the ground? An extraordinary amount, as Martin shows. One small example comes from the Harvard Interview Project of 1950-51, which interviewed displaced persons – 250 Ukrainians, Belorussians and Russians – after the Second World War, from Smolensk and Leningrad.

The interviewers did not ask direct questions concerning ethnic conflict. Instead, they asked respondents to list the ‘distinguishing characteristics’ of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Kalmyks and Tatars. To the astonishment of the interviewers, many of the respondents replied that there were no ethnic differences whatsoever. The interviewers pressed their case, but the respondents (as Martin points out) determined that there were two very different issues at stake. First, did the Soviet government treat nationalities differently, even persecuting them as the Nazis did? The responses: ‘Politically and in living standards, no. In national customs, yes'; ‘Yes, the Jews have the first place in the Soviet Union’. Second, the respondents inferred an interest by the interviewers in popular prejudice in the Soviet Union. In response: ‘Yes, of course there are [national differences]. But the nationalities are not enemies because of that'; ‘But that does not mean there are necessarily antagonistic feelings between us’.

Even more, many of the respondents connected the absence of popular prejudice and conflict to state policy. In response to the question concerning ‘distinguishing characteristics’, a dozen respondents asserted that the absence of open national prejudice was due to the very severe punishments for racial-hate speech. The responses are worth noting:

No, that is impossible. Everyone must love everyone in the Soviet Union … It is against the law to have national animosities.

There is no chauvinism. You can get ten years for it.

In the army, a soldier got seven years for calling a Jew ‘Zhid.’

All are alike. You cannot tell somebody that he is a Ukrainian and brag that you are a Russian or you would be arrested.

It is strictly forbidden by law to offend any member of any nationality, regardless of whether he is a Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian, or anything else.

If you cussed out a member of a minority group, there was serious trouble.

If you call a Jew a ‘zhid’, he can go to the police and you will get a prison sentence.

A primary school teacher told a personal story of how she had used a Russian proverb, ‘An untimely guest is worse than a Tatar’, and almost lost her job.

Martin observes, ‘When one considers that the interviewers neither asked about national prejudice nor about state policy, these spontaneous responses are impressive testimony to the success of the Soviet campaigns against great power chauvinism and in favor of internationalism and friendship among the Soviet peoples’ (p. 390).

What about the 1936 ‘Stalin’ constitution’s guarantee of national equality for all peoples? How did respondents see it? They initially opined that it was a complete fraud and not worth the paper on which it was written, but then pointed out, ‘correct’, this guarantee is observed; ‘in this case there is no conflict between the text of the constitution and reality'; ‘all nations have the same rights’. What a contrast with Russia now.

Bear in mind that these positions were also voiced in the context of immediate memories of Nazi racial theory and practice. And that they arose from the same period as the extensive purges of the 1930s – part of my investigation of the practical contributions to a materialist doctrine of evil, if not a thorough revision of Marxist theories of human nature.

For many a year I have been looking forward to this time of life: when an afternoon nap becomes irresistible. (One of the many pleasures of age, which I have been noting from time to time.) I mean not the occasional nod at a meeting, or the brief kip on a train. This is the real thing: lean back on a reclining chair, or perhaps on an old day-bed in the sun-room, close your eyes, and soon enough you are off. The trick is to snore, for without snoring it is not an old-fogey nap. Since I am not a natural snorer, I ensure that I lie on my back. The first low rumble in my throat indicates that sleep is about to come upon me. And about an hour later, I will wake with a snore, thinking, ‘I hope I didn’t snore too much and disturb people’. This is best done when visiting others and is a very appropriate act for grandfathers.

The University of Newcastle is offering the following PhD scholarships to high calibre international applicants. This is – as usual – extremely competitive. A few details:

  • A high quality, international University partner
  • Agreement of the supervisors and student to undertake a jointly supervised PhD with at least one supervisor from each University
  • Availability of a high quality (top) student preferably from the partner institution
  • Student to spend (face-to-face) time at both institutions during their PhD, the time distribution being flexible
  • Up to 50% full scholarship support from University of Newcastle and the remainder from the partner

Please contact me at my university email address if you know of anyone eligible and interested in a joint PhD in Marxist philosophy and religion.

In 1947, Stalin’s found himself assessing a thesis on Carl von Clausewitz, the German theoretician of war. Not a bad example of how might assess a doctoral thesis:

The thesis contains too much philosophy and abstract statements. The terminology taken from Clausewitz, talking of the grammar and logic of war hurts ones ears. The question of the factional character of war theory is primitively posed. The hymns of praise to Stalin also pain the ears, it hurts to read them (Works, vol 16, p. 73).

So no hymns of praise … but no psalms of demonisation either.

Australasia’s own Historical Materialism conference will meet again this year: 17-18 July at the University of Sydney. More information here, but I have copied the call for papers.

Historical Materialism Australasia 2015: Reading Capital, Class & Gender Today

The year 2015 marks a series of conspicuous anniversaries. Three books in particular celebrate significant milestones this year. Raewyn Connell and Terry Irving’s seminal Class Structure in Australian History was published thirty-five years ago, Louis Althusser and his students published Reading Capital fifty years ago, and Silvia Federici produced Wages Against Housework forty years ago. These works function at once as indices of the diversity of approaches licensed by the Marxist tradition – historical sociology, philosophical inquiry, polemical ardor – while also sharing that singularly Marxist commitment to the ruthless criticism of all that exists (including Marxism itself) in light of the real movement that abolishes the present state of things. It is in that spirit of diversity and critical engagement with the world as it is that we announce the 2015 Historical Materialism Australasia Conference.

The diversity in the works commemorated above is not limited to their methodology. The issues they address remain alive today, as questions of politics or scholarship or both: the interaction of class and race in settler colonial societies; the place of class and labour in historical inquiry; the concept of a transitional period; the philosophical status of Marx’s work and its relationship to other forms of knowledge; the concept of critique itself; the question of Capital’s continued reproduction; the relationship between feminism(s) and Marxism; the role of care labour in a theory of work; the place of the wage in capitalist society. This list does not exhaust the challenges these works undertook to address nor, of course, the specific challenges and opportunities that confront us today. But it is the wager of this conference that the vitality of historical materialism is precisely in this propensity, even bias, towards interdisciplinarity, seen not as a conference buzzword, but as the only adequate response to the society that faces us.

With that in mind, we welcome submissions of 250-word abstracts for papers on the questions above or any others that engage with this broader tradition, critically or otherwise; panel proposals should include short abstracts for each paper coupled with an outline of the panel as a whole. We especially welcome contributions from activists and scholars outside of (or peripheral to) the academy. All submissions should be emailed to hmaustralasia [at] gmail.com by Friday the 15th of May.

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is out. Permit me to say that I like the way this book has turned out, largely due to careful and detailed attention from the people at Westminster John Knox Press. It is part of the Library of Ancient Israel series. The blurb reads:

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel offers a new reconstruction of the economic context of the Bible and of ancient Israel. It argues that the key to ancient economies is with those who worked on the land rather than in intermittent and relatively weak kingdoms and empires. Drawing on sophisticated economic theory (especially the Régulation School) and textual and archaeological resources, Roland Boer makes it clear that economic “crisis” was the norm and that economics is always socially determined. He examines three economic layers: the building blocks (five institutional forms), periods of relative stability (three regimes), and the overarching mode of production. Ultimately, the most resilient of all the regimes was subsistence survival, for which the regular collapse of kingdoms and empires was a blessing rather than a curse. Students will come away with a clear understanding of the dynamics of the economy of ancient Israel. Boer’s volume should become a new benchmark for future studies.

Sacred Economy

In December, 1933, Stalin did an interview with a correspondent from The New York Times. Already there is a glimmer of the potential for the cooperation between Stalin and Roosevelt in the Second World War, although his comment on United States solipsism still seems to apply.

Roosevelt, by all accounts, is a determined and courageous politician. There is a philosophical system, solipsism, which holds that the external world does not exist and the only thing that does exist is one’s own self. It long seemed that the American Government subscribed to this system and did not believe in the existence of the U.S.S.R. But Roosevelt evidently is not a supporter of this strange theory. He is a realist and knows that reality is as he sees it (Works, volume 13, pp. 284-85).

Indeed, a little earlier a certain Colonel Robins from the United States, also in an interview, expressed a strong wish for the two countries to work together.

I am not a Communist and do not understand very much about communism, but I should like America to participate in, to have the opportunity of associating itself with, the development that is taking place here in Soviet Russia, and I should like Americans to get this opportunity by means of recognition, by granting credits, by means of establishing normal relations between the two countries, for example, in the Far East, so as to safeguard the great and daring undertaking which is in process in your country, so that it may be brought to a successful conclusion (Works, vol. 13, p. 277).

Makes one wonder what might have been possible instead of the Cold War.