Earlier, I commented on a glorious pleasure of age: the afternoon nap with snoring. I have them now on an almost daily basis. But I have always envied the ability of an old professor to nod off during a lecture given by someone else. He or she may give an introduction, especially if it is a visitor, and then promptly fall asleep, with snores, for the full stretch of the lecture. At it’s close, he or she is then able to ask a question and end with words of thanks. So that is my next aim: the lecture nap. I have a few conferences coming up, so intend to use them for some serious practice.
I usually don’t mention news stories, but this one intrigued me. It is tucked away in a small corner of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) webpage and is entitled: ‘China pollution: Beijing’s improved air quality a result of good policy, city officials say’. The article mentions the notable improvement in air quality over the last few years, especially in the last year. I have noticed this myself and mentioned it here on a number of occasions. When I first began coming to Beijing some years ago, it was a rare day that you could see blue sky. Now, we have days on end with blue skies. It can still get bad, but those periods are becoming fewer. Often, I go for a run outside. The reason for improvements? By 2016 there will be no coal-fired power stations in Beijing (Australian coal industry take note); old cars are being pulled off the roads (half a million last year and more this year); and polluting factories are being closed down or moved. The last item is not quite a solution, but the general trend is one that I have experienced first hand.
What gender do Chinese couples prefer for a first child? I must admit that until now I had assumed the conventional wisdom of the international media: traditional Chinese couples, especially in rural areas, prefer a boy first. Indeed, such an image suggests they will go to the extent of seeking illegal abortion if they know that the embryo will be a girl. Or, if they do have a girl first, they can have another baby in the hope that it will be a boy. The reason: the family’s name, tradition and inheritance passes down through the male line, so a boy is the pride of a couple – given that traditional Chinese society is hopelessly patriarchal
Recently, I heard a somewhat different perspective from a woman who grew up in the countryside, where traditional practices have a greater hold.
‘A couple prefers a girl first’, she said.
‘What?’ I said. ‘I thought a boy was more desirable’.
‘No,’ she said. ‘The birth of a girl is a great relief for the couple in question, especially if they are of modest means’.
‘Why?’ I said.
‘If a boy is born’, she said, ‘the parents already have nightmares about the costs involved’.
Now I was truly puzzled. ‘Do Chinese boys demand more?’
She laughed. ‘Not in that way’, she said. ‘If a boy is born, then the parents know that later they will have to pay for a wedding, if not a house for the couple. It can cost quite a lot’.
‘So they prefer a girl first’, I said.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘Then they can relax a little’.
‘What about the second child?’ I said.
‘Well’, she said. ‘If they have a boy first and then decide to have a second child, then they worry endless whether it too will be a boy’.
‘That would clearly be too much’, I said. ‘So they sweat out the possibility of the second child also being a boy’.
‘Yes’, she said.
‘But what if they have a girl first?’ I said.
‘Then there is less worry’, she said. ‘If a boy is born then, then that is manageable’.
‘And a girl for the second child?’ I said.
‘That is the easiest’, she said.
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 Empire. This 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.
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.