Losurdo on Stalin: recreating the state, re-education (Gulags), and affirmative action

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education,  government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.

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Hegel: the state is the march of God in the world

Hegel certainly provided plenty of material for his right-wing followers, especially concerning the state:

The state consists in the march of God in the world, and its basis is the power of reason actualizing itself as will. In considering the Idea of the state, we must not have any particular states or particular institutions in mind; instead, we should consider the Idea, this actual God, in its own right [für sich]. Any state, even if we pronounce it bad in the light of our own principles, and even if we discover this or that defect in it, invariably has the essential moments of its existence [Existenz] within itself (provided it is one of the more advanced states of our time). (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p. 279)

Needless to say, the caveat is crucial for this dreadfully Euro-elitist moment in Hegel’s text. Then again, to give Hegel credit, he does identify the fundamental alienation at the heart of civil society (which we now like to call the ‘public sphere’), even if he fearfully and desperately offers lame ways to overcome it.

The perils of understanding the past

Goelet (1999) writes of ancient Egypt:

By now it is a well-worn truism among Egyptologists that the Egyptians were intensely religious, yet had no word corresponding to our term ‘religion’; that they had a highly developed aesthetic sense, yet had no single word for ‘art’; that they ran a stable, complex, and highly bureaucratic society, yet had no equivalent to the term ‘the state’. The common theme behind all these observations is that we frequently fail to realize that the Egyptians might have viewed the world entirely differently from the way we do.

He goes on the discuss what a ‘town’ or ‘city’ might mean, suggesting that the settlement was really an afterthought to a temple and a quay on the Nile.