Thinking

Aung San Suu Kyi, René Girard and Kotkin

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Rohingya refugees.

Roger Cohen can’t bring himself to say it. Kofi Annan told him “We created a saint and the saint has become a politician, and we don’t like that.” That immediately raises the question: Why is it in her political interest to obfuscate the suffering of the Rohingya? What Cohen can’t bring himself to say; more generally, what remains unsaid in the Western discourse, is that collective violence has deep roots in mass politics; in mass psychology; that ethnic violence has a definite populist aspect to it. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot take on the monks because she risks undermining her own political support base. She is not alone. In the dominant model of modern political science, Wilkinson’s, a pogrom is driven by electoral calculation: the ethnic party at risk of losing power can generate a temporary electoral boost by engineering a pogrom. Why?

René Girard did not offer a theory of modern collective violence. The problem he struggled with concerned archaic culture; more precisely, pre-Axial Age religion. He sought to understand the central role of ritual sacrifice across archaic cultures. In his frame, sacrificial rituals were reenactments of actual acts of collective murder of scapegoats that solved the central problem of archaic society: How to prevent the breakdown of the social order and the onset of Hobbesian instability. In his theory, the intensification of mimetic rivalry sets off the ‘sacrificial crisis’; man turns against man; brother against brother. The universal solution to sacrificial crises—across archaic societies—was the scapegoat mechanism. It was the collective murder of the scapegoat that restored the social peace.

I submit that collective violence against social pariahs performs the same function down to the present day. The Axial revolution did not do away with the need to gang up against a defenseless victim. The Enlightenment did not transform mass psychology. Modernity too failed to dispel the darkness. If anything, mass politics exacerbated it; combined and uneven development exacerbated it. This is what breathes life into Wilkinson’s theory. This is the frame in which we must soberly grapple with the traumas of the twentieth century. In particular, this is how we ought to frame the greatest explanandum of Stalinism: the communist great power’s attempt to castrate itself in 1936-1938.

In Magnetic Mountain, Kotkin famously framed the terror as an inquisition in a Bolshevik theocracy. Fitzpatrick emphasized the bottom-up, populist aspect of the purges; that she framed as the attendant of the coming of age of the Stalinist generation. In Waiting for Hitler, the 1200-page second volume of his biography of Stalin, Kotkin presents an entirely different theory of the terror. Looking at the world through Stalin’s office, Kotkin posits that Stalin engineered the terror to liquidate the Soviet upper class. Stalin’s ‘theory of rule’, says his biographer, was that the old guard had to go so that the Stalinist revolution could be consummated. This is framed as a top-down, intentional strategy emerging from the mind of the despot.

Kotkin spends a lot of time on Stalin’s turn to despotism—no more ‘first among equals’—and explores the mass politics of the Stalinist dictatorship. But he fails to connect the two or tie them to the terror. An entirely different account of the terror is called for; one that ties the bottom-up with the top-down.

With the liquidation of the kulaks, the Bolshevik party-state ran out of class aliens. But that did not do away with the need for internal enemies. If anything, forced-pace modernization exacerbated the sacrificial crisis. It is this vacuum that must be appreciated to accurately frame the attempt at self-castration. An enemy had to be found. In the Bolshevik theocracy, it had to be an enemy of the toiling masses. Moreover, social space had to be created for the Stalinist generation. That’s why the bosses had to go. The terror was not a sign of Stalin’s strength but rather of his weakness. After Kirov’s assassination, Stalin was scared; whence the turn to despotism. The terror must be seen as mass politics; as Stalin indulging in populism to strengthen his hand against his rivals and provide a cover for their elimination in his bid to perfect his despotism.

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