Ideas & Debates
Craig Brandist speaks about hegemony, the national question and colonialism in the early years of the USSR.
May 25, 2018
Image: Aviator, by Kazimir Malevich
Craig Brandist is Professor of Cultural Theory and Intellectual History, Director of the Bajtín Center, and acting president of the university teachers’ union at the University of Sheffield, UK. He is author of The Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia, published by Brill and HM Book Series in 2014.
His book makes an important contribution to the study of hegemony in the Soviet Union during the 1920’s. Scholars of post-marxist or postcolonial studies usually present issues such as the national question, colonialism or the subaltern classes as discoveries that belong outside of Marxism. In contrast, Brandist argues that most of these questions were actually part of the historical experience of the Russian Revolution. This experience, in turn, shaped Antonio Gramsci’s reflections on hegemony, later published in the Prison Notebooks.
Marxist writer Juan Dal Maso speaks with Craig Brandist about the principal themes in his book and possible lessons for the present.
In your book, you say that the idea of hegemony played a central role in the USSR up until 1930. What are the main issues around which the Bolsheviks used this concept in that period?
The Bolsheviks needed to build and maintain a popular alliance between the proletariat, peasantry and formerly oppressed national minorities. They had no illusions that the proletariat was large or developed enough to take state power or to maintain it without that alliance, so they needed to develop ways to maintain the proletariat’s political and cultural leadership over kindred classes while repressing the bourgeoisie and former aristocracy.
Hegemony was shorthand for the complex and multifaceted strategy and activities required to achieve this. The title of my book was an attempt to foreground the multidimensionality of the project, which was simultaneously economic, political, cultural and linguistic, and encompassed the relations between city, countryside and former colonies.
You highlight the importance Lenin gave to the question of nationality and language. How did Soviet policy toward oppressed peoples evolve after Lenin’s death?
Until the end of the 1920s, the Party tried very hard to accommodate and promote the aspirations of non-Russians by transferring resources from the metropolitan centre to facilitate economic, social and cultural development. The scale of tasks was enormous, however, and the development of national regions extremely varied and uneven. There were also significant numbers of inter-ethnic conflicts that had been exploited by the Tsarist regime in order to govern, and these were not easy to unravel. While the bureaucratic drift of the regime affected all areas, the national question was to some extent insulated from the worst aspects of this because of the compromise settlement that emerged from the 12th Party Congress, which enshrined the legal rights of minorities.
Nevertheless, the political weight of the centre became apparent during the 1920s. This was often, but not always, something that originated in the centre. It was quite common for prominent intellectuals involved in conflicts between national groups to appeal to the centre to resolve disputes in their favour and the central bureaucracy to seize the opportunity to pursue its own agenda. Examples might be the movement towards the Latinization of the alphabets of the peoples of the USSR, which was originally centred on Baku, but with rival initiatives elsewhere.
There always was going to be tensions between the central, economic planning body and the autonomy of various areas, and this became more pronounced over time. It was not until the crisis of grain procurement at the end of the 1920s and the so-called ‘war scare’ that the bureaucracy moved decisively to subordinate the regions to the centre and to take central control of the grain supply. Much followed behind this, culminating in the imposition of the Cyrillic alphabet on the various peoples of the USSR in order to bring them closer to Moscow. This was an expression of the USSR being recast as a family of peoples with Russia as the big brother of them all.
In your opinion, what were the main contributions made by Soviet linguists in this period?
The study, standardisation and codification of a wide range of languages of Eurasia, the development of scripts, dictionaries and text books for these under-studied languages, and the subsequent development of a print culture. In addition, the study and theorisation of the sociological dimensions of language, the politics of standardisation and research into interactions between languages and social groups cannot be minimised.
It was only decades later that similar movements emerged in the West, and the Soviet initiatives were obscured. This was not least because of the strictly normative approach to language that emerged in the wake of Stalin’s June 1950 intervention in linguistics, after which the sociological approach was largely discarded along with the excesses of Marrism.
Proletkul’t: hegemonic project or "workerism"?
Both. The general position was workerist because it assumed that the proletarian perspective on the world was superior because of the sociological position workers occupy. This actually became part of Lukács’s idea of the standpoint of the proletariat, though this position was philosophically a little different due to his Hegelian orientation.
The interesting thing about the Proletkul’t perspective is that while it maintained the Marxist approach to class as shared relationship to the means of production, it nevertheless encouraged an anthropological approach to class, which does have some validity. It also focused upon the conditions in which the proletarian perspective could be consolidated, systematised and gain a following among the non-proletarian masses. These are clearly important issues to address; the main problem was how they approached them. Gramsci does take a considerable amount from the likes of Bogdanov, Lunacharskii and others, but, at least in his mature work, does not succumb to the utopian urge to ‘hothouse’ a proletarian culture.
The Proletkul’t agenda was ambiguous, and it should not be identified with that of the bureaucratic advocates of proletarian culture who emerged in the 1920s, though neither can it be absolved of all responsibility. At times the drive for a mass, democratic egalitarian culture predominated and at others a nihilistic, utopian (in the negative sense) and intolerant approach came to the fore. Of course in conditions of mass illiteracy and very low levels of education the projects they proposed could not be realised, but this should not incline us to overlook the validity of the concerns they raised.
Between 1924 and 1926, the concept of hegemony was featured in different works by Bukharin, Zinoviev and Stalin to polemicize against Trotsky and construct a canonical defense of “Leninism.” Was there a more ‘mechanical’ use of the idea of hegemony than what you describe in your work?
The perspectives you mention here made the maintenance of the smychka, the worker-peasant alliance, as an end in itself rather than a means to an end – world revolution and socialism. This dispute was at the core of the polemic between Bukharin and Preobrazhenskii in the mid 1920s, in which the latter, as the chief economist of the Left Opposition, sought to use the smychka as a basis for shifting the economic weight of the NEP towards the working class and the cities in general, while the former argued this placed the smychka in danger.
Preobrazhenskii did not doubt that his proposal of increasing the taxes on the richer peasant, the kulak, to support industrialisation would place the smychka under pressure in the short term, but that in the longer term the hegemony of the proletariat in that alliance would be strengthened. Without this rebalancing, he argued, the social weight would shift inexorably toward the kulak and proletarian hegemony would be lost. In effect, Bukharin and Stalin saw the smychka and the hegemony of the Party as synonymous. Zinoviev moved from the Bukharin-Stalin line to the opposition line when he joined the united opposition.
To what extent did the NEP represent a hegemonic policy or realpolitik to survive? Relatedly, did Bukharin’s orientation from 1923 onwards have a more "populist" slant than a workers’ hegemony approach?
Clearly, the Bolsheviks had to find a way to re-establish and nurture the relationship between the proletariat and peasantry, the cities and the countryside, after the Civil War. This necessitated the return to a grain market and a transfer of resources from the metropolitan centre to the more peripheral areas of the state. In this sense, it was indeed ‘realpolitik to survive,’ but that did not mean an abandonment of the revolutionary agenda in both the domestic and international spheres. As the 1920s progressed, however, the two orientations became disjunct.
Bukharin’s approach was ‘populist’ in the sense of the old Russian populist movement (narodniki), only to the extent that he identified socialism with the growth of the peasant economy, but in reality it was an orientation of the kulak.
Why did the concept of hegemony in the USSR fall into disuse after 1930?
Well, it only fell into disuse as far as the internal politics of the USSR was concerned, and then not evenly. Stalin’s ‘Great Break’ ultimately abandoned the policy of winning the peasantry to the perspective of the proletariat when the bureaucracy launched its own project to subordinate socio-economic development to military competition with the imperial powers. Forced collectivisation and a massive attack on workers’ living standards and the last remnants of workers’ power made the entire project of hegemony besides the point.
Ideologically, it was declared that socialism had been achieved, that with the elimination of the kulaks and capitalists of the NEP, the proletariat and peasantry had been fundamentally transformed into kindred social groups.
Until cultural policy caught up with general politics, the idea that proletarian culture was still struggling for hegemony persisted among its increasingly belligerent advocates. However, when the groupings were dissolved by decree in 1932 and the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism was formulated in 1934, this too fell out of use.
The term was then only operative in the sphere of foreign policy, where relations between bourgeois national liberation movements and Communist Parties loyal to Moscow remained an important concern.
Part of your book discusses the ideas of Nikolai Marr, when you suggest that he is a paradigmatic example of how contradictory and a priori theories were constructed in the name of Marxism. What did this mean for the development of Soviet Marxism in the following decades?
Marr’s ideas provided Stalin’s nationality policy with intellectual prestige in the 1930s, positing the inevitability and desirability of an ever-closer convergence of societies under socialism. Indeed, Marr and his followers deliberately echoed Stalin’s pronouncements in order to consolidate their positions in Soviet research and educational institutions where there was considerable opposition among faculty. He also promoted the idea that the dominant paradigm in European philology was simply a legitimization of colonialism, whereas his own counter-paradigm should form the basis of a Soviet ideology. This notion of competing discourses of power-knowledge in the Foucauldian sense allowed Marrists to present their opponents as politically suspect, while the USSR made claims to lead the anti-colonial movements of the world in intellectual and cultural areas. This dichotomy was consolidated institutionally during the Cold War, even though Marr’s specific, and often fantastic, ideas about language had been discredited.
So to answer the question, Marrism was both symptomatic of, and played a formative role in, an important shift in research and educational institutions in the USSR. Theories were able to win dominance solely on the basis of their appeal to statutory authority rather than scientific authority.
Thus, along with Marr’s insightful, if overstated, observations on the entanglement of Indo-European philology and colonial ideology, which were accepted by many scholars at the time, his crackpot ideas about language, which found little or no support among contemporary scholars, were incorporated into the curriculum. The idea that all words in all languages derived from the four primordial phonemes sal, ber, ion, and rosh was the most notorious example. Entire paradigms were treated as discourses of power-knowledge, with evidence regarded as nothing but conveniences to further a particular drive for power. Official ‘Marxism’ now became what suited the political leadership of the time.
In your book, you make a sharp polemic that it is impossible to understand Gramsci when turning a blind eye to these debates. Explain.
Mainly because much of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks is an ongoing rumination on the lessons of the Russian Revolution and the NEP for the Revolution in Italy. His time in Russia in the early 1920s is little known but pivotal in his intellectual development – not least because of his involvement in the vibrant debates, strategic and tactical shifts that were taking place. Peter Thomas and I are currently preparing a volume of archival materials, contextual information and analysis on this question.
Moreover, Gramsci’s own Italian perspective and his removal from active political work at the very moment the revolutionary movement was undergoing its Stalinist degeneration placed him in a position of what Bakhtin called ‘outsideness’ (vnenakhodimost). This is a phenomenological distance that allowed him to reflect on his experience critically, to engage with the movement, and derive some important principles.
To tear Gramsci’s work out of this particular niche rather than consider and evaluate it in relation to them is not only to distort our understanding of his work as utterances in a larger dialogic process, but to weaken its political force. This is why isolated terms and ideas from Gramsci’s works have variously been adopted by Eurocommunist, reformist and liberal thinkers. My point was that these ideas are so vital and politically effective because they are products of and reflections on the revolutionary movement of the early 20th century.
You also argue forcefully against postcolonial and post-Marxist positions. What are their weaknesses?
Basically the problem is the widespread acceptance of the poststructuralist theory of language and the self-serving narratives of postmodernists seeking to justify their withdrawal from collective politics. The former is deeply problematic since it is based on a reading of Saussure that is open to considerable dispute and assumes one viewpoint on language exhausts its multiple dimensions. The massively overgeneralised and undertheorized notion of discourse that we find in Foucault is one such manifestation.
The second issue is connected with the first – the caricature of the Enlightenment as a single ‘discourse’ rather than a sphere of contestation and dispute and the presentation of Marxism as an extreme example of this putative ‘discourse’ misled many otherwise able scholars. The conflation of the Enlightenment with colonialism misrepresented the complex interaction between them, while the assimilation of Marxism into this perspective ignored its anti-colonial dimension.
Gramsci’s notion of hegemony was readily assimilated into this theoretical framework, which in reality was quite alien to Gramsci’s own. My argument was, therefore, that the category of hegemony was so potentially powerful because it was part of a wider complex of revolutionary theories and practice. My book was an attempt to illuminate the one-sidedness and distortions of the ways in which the idea has been appropriated and to reestablish this wider complex. This seems to me crucial work if we are critically to learn the lessons of the most important, though ultimately tragic, attempt to transcend capitalism.
Interviewed by Juan Dal Maso for the weekly magazine Ideas de Izquierda