Marc Bloch’s philosophy of history

Marc Bloch wrote The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. after the defeat of France in 1940. The title suggests that the book is a “how-to” manual for doing historical research, authored by one of the great historians of the twentieth century. But this would be to misunderstand the book. It is something better, more ambitious, and more important than a “users’ guide” to becoming a historian. Instead, it is a thoughtful, innovative historian reflecting on fundamental questions in what we can correctly describe as a philosophy of history. It is a reflective book that considers and reflects upon some of the great historians of France and Belgium, often praising but also often criticizing and correcting.

Bloch begins with a fundamental question: what is history? And of course, this is not an easy question to answer. Is history no more nor less than “the past” — everything that happened? This is not a particularly informative answer. Or more selectively, is history the sequence of important events, kingdoms, leaders, wars and revolutions, inventions, literary innovations, all set within a chronological framework? Even more abstractly, is history the study of great epochs — feudalism, ancient Rome, the absolutist French state, the Industrial Revolution? 

Bloch does not like any of these answers to the fundamental question. Instead, he offers a simple answer of his own: history is “human beings in time”. He chooses this answer for several reasons. History is not simply “temporal sequence”; rather, it is the actions, creations, meanings, and life experiences of concrete human beings. Further, human beings are themselves historically conditioned; medieval serfs were different in deep ways from American farmers or contract software coders. They are different, in particular, in their mentalities, their mental frameworks through which they understand themselves and their relations to others. These differences are profound; they involve differences in beliefs, dispositions, ways of framing the world, attitudes towards neighbors, strangers, the gods, and their families. Their “histories” have shaped them into different sorts of human beings.

So for Bloch, the study of history is the study of individuals and groups in social settings in the past, striving, interpreting, and cooperating or competing with each other. Further, it is the study of some of the practices, structures, institutions, belief systems, and inventions that emerged from these forms of human action and interaction. There is no fundamental break between “the past” and “the present” — rather, human beings and their actions and social relations create and propel change, whether in the year 1000 or the year 1940. And distinctively, Bloch underlines the fact that human actions influence the physical environment; for example, the silting of the river port of Bruges changed the nature of water-born commerce in that great market town.

If human beings and their actions are the key stuff of history, then Bloch is also dismissive of the importance of traditional “periods” of history. Periods are created by historians, not by the ebb and flow of historical events themselves. In Bloch’s view of history, change is of fundamental interest to the historian; words change their meanings, place names change, patterns of habitation change, social relationships change, and it is a central task of the historian to chart and seek to understand these various processes of change.

Also of special interest are the creations of human beings throughout our histories. Ideas and ideologies; religious beliefs; social practices; technologies and scientific methods; social structures; and even wars and revolutions are all creations of human beings that the historian is especially interested in probing and investigating.

Bloch links the past and the present in an especially intimate way. The historian needs to be deeply immersed in the ordinary processes and activities of the present, if he or she is going to be ready to understand the actions and thoughts of the actors of the past. Bloch’s own experiences of war in 1917 and 1940 provided him with forms of knowledge and understanding that enhanced his ability to understand the medieval world.

Another key question posed by Bloch is whether history is “useful”. Can we “learn from history”? Can the study of history improve our chances for a happy and peaceful future? Bloch’s view is that the central value and use of history is its intellectual interest for us as human beings, and the significance we human beings attach to our histories. We are historical beings, in the sense that we understand ourselves in terms of the stories and narratives we tell about ourselves. We understand ourselves in the present in terms of the ways that we have constructed and interpreted the steps of human action and meaning that led us to this point. So the key values of history include the intellectual interest we take in understanding the past and the meanings we create for ourselves by discovering and interpreting aspects of our history.

We want to understand the past. And in fact, this is what Bloch regards as the central challenge for the scientific historian: to understand and explain aspects of the past. Historians should discover the pathways and causes through which various historical features came to be. Why did the actors behave as they did in the circumstances? What were they trying to accomplish? What social structures or circumstances influenced their choices, and thereby caused some aspects of the outcomes we are interested in?

Bloch’s philosophy of history is an inclusive and open-ended one. He encourages the historian to be multidisciplinary; not confined by periods or places; not focused on “great events and great persons: and to focus historical research on the circumstances of ordinary human beings. His approach is a “human-centered history”. And of particular importance, Bloch argues for a wide range of kinds of evidence that are relevant to historical inquiry. He doubts the privileged position of “contemporary documents and narratives,” and points as well to the value of non-text sources of historical insight — ruins, inscriptions, monuments, archeological discoveries, place names, and other apparently mundane and unremarkable “markers” of historical meaning.

Bloch was a founder, along with Lucien Febvre, of the Annales school of historical writing and research. It is not surprising that The Historian’s Craft captures eloquently some of the most important and innovative commitments of the Annales school in this important testament of the great historian.

The Uyghurs and cultural genocide

In the last several weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the twentieth century and its unimaginable crimes against humanity on an almost inconceivable scale. The Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the mass starvation of prisoners of war, the executions and murders of vast numbers of innocent people; the reckless, unbounded cruelty of totalitarian states against their own citizens and innocent people who fell within their grasp; and largely, the world’s indifference and willful ignorance of these state-authored crimes while they were underway. These are nightmares from the twentieth century, and a central thrust of the posts in the past two months has been the urgent need for honest, careful study of these periods of human history. (Quite a long time ago I wrote a post called “Koestler’s nightmares” that described Arthur Koestler’s personal integrity in trying to see and record honestly the horrors that surrounded him in the 1930s; link. Here was my summary opinion of Koestler: “I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings — in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.”)

We might like to think that deliberate state policies to extinguish a whole ethnic population within its borders is thankfully a thing of the terrible past. But today the world is forced to contemplate the systematic and brutal efforts the Chinese government is making to subdue, confine, and reduce the Muslim population of western China, the Uyghurs. Using mass surveillance, forced sterilization, confinement in “reeducation camps”, and other tools of repression, the Chinese government is engaged in an all-out effort to suppress the Uyghur population of Xinjiang. This campaign has been called a policy of “cultural genocide” — an effort to erase the culture and identity of this people. Sean Roberts’ forthcoming book The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority promises to provide a great deal of detail about China’s illegal campaign of persecution against its Muslim citizens. (Here is an interview with Roberts in The Diplomat (link).)

Human Rights Watch curated a major report on the war against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in 2018 (link). Here is a haunting summary:

This report presents new evidence of the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and details the systemic and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life there. These rampant abuses violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials. More broadly, governmental controls over day-to-day life in Xinjiang primarily affect ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities, in violation of international law’s prohibitions against discrimination.

Mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment; pervasive controls on daily life; violation of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy … these are horrific conclusions by a world-respected voice in support of human rights worldwide. And their conclusions are supported by interviews and other direct empirical evidence.

A few lines later the report provides more summary devastating observations:

The human rights violations in Xinjiang today are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The establishment and expansion of political education camps and other abusive practices suggest that Beijing’s commitment to transforming Xinjiang in its own image is long-term.

It is also evident that China does not foresee a significant political cost to its abusive Xinjiang campaign. Its global influence has largely spared it from public criticism. And its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council means that it can deflect international action, whether sanctions imposed by the council or criminal prosecutions brought at the International Criminal Court, to which China is not a party.

This is a detailed, rigorous, and evidence-based report about China’s “Strike Hard Campaign”. It presents a devastating picture of China’s brutal repression of Uyghur people.

Since 2018 it has been widely reported that China holds at least one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslim people in detention and re-education camps (link). In February 2019 Freedom House issued a joint appeal calling for urgent investigation of these reports, representing 19 human rights organizations around the world (link). Here are the opening paragraphs of that appeal:

We, a diverse set of human rights and civil society organizations, urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to investigate credible allegations that up to one million Turkic Muslims are being arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps across Xinjiang, a region in northwest China.

Over recent months, UN officials, human rights organizations, and independent journalists have painted an alarming picture of the conditions endured by ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. According to these reports, the Chinese authorities have detained people outside any legal process in “political education” camps for their perceived disloyalty to the government and Chinese Communist Party. In these camps they are subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and in some cases torture. They are denied contact with family members.

It is important to notice what is in common between this twenty-first century war against a large ethnic minority and those of the 1930s and 1940s: an all-powerful authoritarian state with ample ability to impose its will against powerless men, women, and children within its reach. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, China today is an authoritarian communist state. But it is its authoritarianism and unrestrained single-party rule rather than its communism that fosters its lawless treatment of the Uyghur minority. Communism has little meaning in China today. But authoritarian rule is alive and well. The regime has political goals, and there are virtually no limits on its use of the power of the state in pursuit of those goals. In some ways its powers of repression are greater than those available to Stalin or Hitler — constant electronic and video surveillance, control of the internet, inspection of communications and social media, …. Crimes against humanity and repression of its own people are the result. The Chinese state is not murdering the Uyghurs in vast numbers; but it is repressing and controlling them in a completely remorseless, tyrannical, and purposeful way. It is endeavoring to extinguish the culture, freedoms, and identity of this minority population. The world must take notice.

The Human Rights Watch report quoted above closes with detailed recommendations to the Chinese government, other governments, and businesses and non-profits that have relationships in Xinjiang. Here are the recommendations from Human Rights Watch to the Chinese government:

To the Government of the People’s Republic of China

  • Close immediately all political education camps in Xinjiang, and release all individuals held;
  • Cease immediately the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang, including the “fanghuiju” teams, “Becoming Family” and other compulsory programs aimed at surveilling and controlling Turkic Muslims;
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and culture to ensure that Turkic Muslims are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms;
  • Impartially investigate Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other senior officials implicated in alleged abusive practices associated with the Strike Hard Campaign, and appropriately hold those responsible to account;
  • Review all cases of those detained or imprisoned on state security, terrorism, or extremism charges and drop all wrongful charges, and seek fair retrials in cases in which those convicted did not receive trials that met international due process standards;
  • Suspend the collection and use of biometrics in Xinjiang until there is a national and comprehensive law that protects people’s privacy; delete biometric and related data that has already been collected under current policies;
  • Refrain from the collection and use of biometrics unless according to law and demonstrated as necessary and proportionate for legitimate government aims;
  • Cease the operation of the big data program, Integrated Joint Operations Platform;
  • Return immediately passports to Xinjiang residents and cease the policy of recalling passports;
  • Stop pressuring Turkic Muslims abroad to return or collecting information about them. Stop pressuring host governments to forcibly return Turkic Muslim nationals abroad unless pursuant to an extradition request for legitimate law enforcement purposes;
  • Provide prompt and adequate compensation, including medical and psychological care, for people arbitrarily detained and mistreated under the Strike Hard Campaign; and
  • Grant access to Xinjiang as requested by several United Nations special procedures.

These recommendations have direct parallels with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China is a signatory to the UDHR and participates in United Nations human rights organizations; but it shows little evidence of conforming its behavior to the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his review of Ann Kent’s China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance Greg Moore offers a very careful summary of China’s history of relationships with the United Nations and international human rights regimes; link. This 2012 Chatham House report by Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin provides insight into China’s relationship to the UN human rights regime; link.

Mass murder in the borderlands

The facts of mass murder in eastern Europe in the 1930s through the 1950s are simply too horrific to fully absorb. These decades include the mass killings of millions of Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi state and military and their collaborators in territories they conquered in eastern Europe — the Holocaust. And they include the murder by Stalin and the deliberate policies of the Soviet state of further millions of peasants, Poles, and other ethnic minority populations in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states — the Holodomor. Anne Applebaum’s recent Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine chronicles Stalin’s war of starvation against the small farmers of the Ukraine and the deaths by hunger of almost four million people, the Holodomor. Applebaum’s Gulag: A History provides a vivid and horrific account of the story of Stalin’s prison camps and labor camps where his regime sent millions of “class enemies” to labor and often to die (link).

An earlier post discussed Tim Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which treats the almost unlimited mass killings of eastern Europe. Alexander Prusin’s 2010 book The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 treats roughly the same region over a longer time period (1870-1992), largely the same regimes of killing, and a somewhat different historiographic orientation.

Prusin describes his historical methodology in these terms.

The main methodology employed in this study can be dubbed ‘integral’ — namely, it neither attempts to provide a detailed description of each borderland region, nor to illuminate all political and socio-economic changes that transpired in the borderlands as a whole. Rather it intends to create a larger synthetic narrative and analytical framework that encompasses all the borderlands as a specific region, giving it the appearance of a particular zone, within a specific time-frame and across whatever arbitrary and usually quite provisional international borders that had been determined by external or internal forces. (7)

Thus Prusin (like Snyder) defines his subject matter as a region rather than a nation or collection of nations. The national borders that exist within the region are of less importance in his account than the facts of ethnic, religious, and community disparities that are evident across the region. He chooses the concept of “borderlands” to capture the region he treats.

The term ‘borderlands’ here is applied in a geographical rather than in an ethnographic sense and implies as a spatial concept, a zone of overlapping, co-habitation, and contact between different polities, cultures, and peoples. In comparison, the more ideological term ‘frontier’ would denote a fluid zone within or outside of the state-organized society, even if bounded by clearly marked political boundaries. (10)

By the turn of the twentieth century approximately 16,352,000 people lived in the borderlands, including 10,809,000 on the Russian and 5,542,000 on the Austro-Hungarian side of the border. Situated on the fringes of the empires, the borderlands were ‘incomplete societies’, where modernity coexisted with the outdated socio-economic structures and socio-economic inequalities coincided with ethno-cultural categories, often defined in terms of religion. (38)

Snyder emphasizes the breakdown of state institutions in these “borderland” nations as a crucial determinant of the regimes of mass killing that ensued. Prusin too looks to the states — Germany and the USSR — and argues that these states, and their leaders and bureaucracies of killing, were the “main instigators of violence”. The two views are complementary: when intact, state institutions in Ukraine, Poland, or Lithuania had some autonomous ability to subvert or ignore the murderous policies of the Nazi and Soviet states. Once destroyed, the local impulses of lethal anti-Semitism and the organized strategies of the German military occupiers spelt doom for millions of Jews and other victims.

The Soviet and German rule in the borderlands followed the same methods of eradicating ‘class-enemies’ or the racially ‘inferior’ ethnic groups. Both states greatly facilitated internal conflicts by encouraging latent hostilities and creating an environment in which inter-communal violence was conceived as a legitimate means and could assume a genocidal character. This study, accordingly, accentuates the role of the state as the main instigator of violence. (Prusin, 5)

Here is Prusin’s map of the borderlands in 1920-1939:

Snyder’s map of the bloodlands picks out essentially the same region as the “borderlands” delineated by Prusin.

Image: Snyder, Bloodlands

Prusin gives a great deal of attention to the ethnic groups and relationships (as well as antagonisms) that existed across each of the national jurisdictions of these borderland nations (“the amazing heterogeneity of the borderlands”; 15), as well as the empires (Russian and Austrian, and earlier, the Ottoman) that dominated the region for a century prior to the shattering associated with the end of the Great War into the 1930s. Prusin finds that the borderlands were exceptionally violent when it came to war and largescale conflict:

The frontier wars displayed the appalling combination of extreme violence such as pogroms, massacres, the murder of prisoners of war, and collective reprisals. Violence thrived within and without clear ideology foundations and it was committed in the name of ideology as well as base human instincts. Its most disturbing aspect, and arguably its most profound cause, was that in many instances the state structure ceased to exist. (87)

Mass killings and pogroms were familiar in the borderlands. But the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 led to killings of many groups, including especially Jews, on a huge scale.

Since the mechanisms of the Holocaust in the different regions of the borderlands are discussed in numerous studies, this chapter focuses on the attitudes of the local population towards the situation of the Jews…. Local volunteers constituted a fraction of the populations in which they lived, but their involvement cut across social status, educational level, creed, and age, and entailed a variety of motives. While the political aspirations of the nationalist groups that were particularly active in the initial stages of the war diverged from the Nazi ideological objectives, their interests effectively converged in the elimination of the Jews as ideological enemies or socio-economic rivals. (150)

Writ large, Prusin’s account of German invasion and occupation mirrors that of Jan Gross in Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (link). He notes, for example, that the mass executions of prisoners and class enemies committed by the Soviets as they retreated in face of the German armies were attributed to the Jews, and led to horrific reprisal mass killings of Jews. Prusin believes that the massive killings of Jews that occurred in the region were the result of the intersection of Nazi strategic aims (elimination of the Jews) and local antagonisms towards the Jewish population in these countries that could be triggered into a frenzy of mass killings.

It can be argued, however, that the combination of these factors was at the core of the pogroms. Since the annihilation of Jews was inseparable from the Nazi military and ideological preparations for the war, the invasion of the Soviet Union created a particularly murderous environment — aptly named the ‘Jedwabne state’ by a prominent Polish historian — whereby anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence were officially structured and integrated into the emerging pattern of the Holocaust. Where the Germans and Romanians did not partake directly in the pogroms, they acted as organizers and overseers, guiding and encouraging native-driven violence as long as it was directed against the specific target — Jews. (154)

The initial period of “spontaneous” attacks on Jewish communities was followed in areas of Nazi occupation with organized systems for mass killing. These systems depended upon German leadership and organization, but also depended on large numbers of local volunteers who populated units assigned to eliminating Jews.

With the front moving eastward, the offices of the security and the Order Police commanders oversaw the reorganization of the native police forces that were to be deployed for regular duties, anti-partisan operations, and ultimately for the liquidation of Jews…. The constant shortage of German manpower was but one problem that the native auxiliaries helped resolve. As important was their ability and willingness to carry out the murder of thousands of men, women, and children, at least partially reducing the psychological stress and physical fatigue endured by the German police and security functionaries deployed in carrying out such tasks. Indeed, in any place where the ‘Final Solution’ was carried out, the role of the native policemen was crucial…. Some of the native police details smoothly mutated into proficient and zealous killing squads such as the notorious Arājs commando, which drove through Latvia and murdered at least 26,000 Jews.” (169-170)

There is one striking topic where Prusin’s book differs from Snyder’s Bloodlands: the mass starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33 created by Stalin as a way of destroying “class enemies of the Soviet state” — the Holodomor. This is a central topic in Bloodlands, but it receives no meaningful treatment in The Lands Between. Why is this? It seems as though it is a result of the way that Prusin defines his topic. Prusin’s book addresses mass killing in the borderlands region; but its primary focus is on mass-killing and extermination as policies by states at war. Prusin provides detail about the wartime policies and actions of the Nazi military and the Soviet Union and Red Army in its treatment of the peoples of the Baltics, Ukraine, Poland, and the other parts of this tormented region, but the internal use of mass killing through starvation by Stalin is not part of his definition of the scope of the book — apparently because at the time of this event, the people and territory were part of the Soviet Union. Prusin refers to a later period of famine in Ukraine caused by German military commanders (166), but he refers to the much larger Soviet famine of 1932-33 in just a single sentence: “By controlling food supplies, the state had at its disposal a powerful weapon to combat potential resistance, and in the early 1930s the Soviet government demonstrated its willingness to use this weapon to starve millions to death” (215). Here is a map of the extent of starvation in 1932-33:

The omission is perplexing. This region falls squarely within the borderlands that are the focus of Prusin’s book. So why was it not part of the story that Prusin tells? Apparently simply because it was at that time a part of a powerful nation, the USSR, and not the result, directly or indirectly, of inter-state war. Ukraine was no longer a borderland but a national possession.

Prusin’s book is an important contribution, and it is a good complement to Snyder’s Bloodlands. In a very real sense each book sheds light that the other does not choose to discuss at all.

*    *    *
Prusin offers a quotation from Nicholai Bukharin, leading figure/victim in the Moscow show trials, that is grimly ironic eighty years later:

In the words of a prominent Soviet theoretician, Nicholai Bukharin, “however paradoxical it sounds, proletarian oppression (принуждение) in all its forms from executions to forced labour, is a method of the separating and forging the communist humankind from the capitalist epoch.” (141)

So tovarishch [comrade] Bukharin, you pronounced your own death sentence under the banner of принуждение … a term that is also translated as compulsion, coercion, constraint, duress, and forcing. In Moscow 1938 it meant a bullet in the back of the neck (link).

The Gulag

The ruthless authoritarianism and tyranny of Stalinist rule depended on a leader, a party, and a set of institutions that worked to terrorize and repress the population of the USSR. The NKVD (the system of internal security police that enforced Stalin’s repression), a justice system that was embodied in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, and especially the system of forced labor and prison camps that came to be known as the Gulag were the sharp end of the stick — the machinery of repression through which a population of several hundred million people were controlled, imprisoned, and repressed. And, like the Nazi regime, Stalin used the slave labor of the camps to contribute to the economic output of the Soviet economy.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History is a detailed and honest history of the Gulag and its role in maintaining Soviet dictatorship. Here is her summary description of the Gulag:

Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word “Gulag” has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths. (kl 133)

Here is a map of the locations of thousands of camps in the Gulag, according to the Gulag.online museum (link). (This site is worth visiting and exploring.) It is remarkable how many of the camps are in the borderlands or bloodlands of eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Baltic states as defined by Prusin and Snyder.

Applebaum estimates that roughly two million prisoners inhabited the camps at a time in the 1940s, and that as many as 18 million people had passed through the camps by 1953 (13). And the economic role of the Gulag was considerable:

By that time the camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. They produced a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of almost everything else. In the course of the Soviet Union’s existence, at least 476 distinct camp complexes came into being, consisting of thousands of individual camps, each of which contained anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of people. The prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable—logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery—and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost a separate civilization. (13)

Applebaum makes a crucial and important point about historical knowledge as she frames her attempt to put together the history of the Gulag: the inherent incompleteness of historical understanding and the mechanisms of overlooking and forgetting that get in the way of historical honesty. She notes that public knowledge of the camps outside the Soviet Union was available, but was de-dramatized and treated as a fairly minor part of the reality of the USSR.

Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.” (16)

The reality — that the USSR embodied and depended upon a massive set of concentrations camps where millions of people were enslaved and killed — was never a major part of the Western conception of the USSR. She comments, “far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror” (18), and she quotes the odious Jean-Paul Sartre, apologist for Stalinism to the end:

“As we were not members of the Party,” he once wrote, “it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of the system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” On another occasion, he told Albert Camus that “Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.” (18)

It is interesting though not surprising to know that there were a number of major rebellions in large camps in the Gulag, which Applebaum describes in a chapter called “The Zeks’ Revolution”. The largest of these was the Kengir uprising in Kazakhstan. This rebellion occurred in spring 1954 (after the death of Stalin) and was put down some 40 days later by overwhelming military force, including tanks. Solzhenitsyn provided an extensive description of this uprising in the third volume of Gulag Archipelago in a chapter titled “The forty days of Kengir” (link). (Here is an analysis of the Kengir uprising by Steven Barnes in Slavic Reviewlink.)

Wide knowledge in the West of the scope and specific human catastrophe of the Gulag was first made available by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, first published in Russian and English in 1973. And he wrote, not as an investigative journalist, but as a former prisoner, a zek. While serving in the Red Army in 1945 Aleksandr Isayevich was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 and sentenced to eight years of forced labor. He spent the full eight years in several different camps in the Gulag, from 1945 to 1956. Following his release he lived in internal exile in Kazakhstan for several years before being pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev.

Here are the opening lines of The Gulag Archipelago:

How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it-but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of anyone of its innumerable islands.

Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Those who go there to be guards are conscripted via the military conscription centers.

And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.

Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?

The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.”

If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?

In 1978 — thirty-three years after his own arrest at the German front while serving as a decorated combat officer in the Red Army — Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University, and he offered these important words about hard truths:

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

The primary truths that Solzhenitsyn addressed that afternoon in Cambridge concerned the realities of colonialism and the Cold War and the moral failures of Western intellectuals and political leaders to confront authoritarianism and injustice. These are important words for us in the United States today; both truth and courage are called for. But beyond the present, these ideas underline the importance of the honest historical writings of scholars like Snyder, Judt, Applebaum, Gross, and Prusin in describing the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Solzhenitsyn himself demonstrated that courage and that commitment to revealing the truth about a gigantic and secret system of repression.

source: Russia Beyond

Analytic philosophy of meaning and smart AI bots

One of the impulses of the early exponents of analytic philosophy was to provide strict logical simplifications of hitherto vague or indefinite ideas. There was a strong priority placed on being clear about the meaning of philosophical concepts, and more generally, about “meaning” in language simpliciter.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World and Pseudoproblems in Philosophy:

The present investigations aim to establish a “constructional system”, that is, an epistemic-logical system of objects or concepts. The word “object” is here always used in its widest sense, namely, for anything about which a statement can be made. Thus, among objects we count not only things, but also properties and classes, relations in extension and intension, states and events, what is actual as well as what is not. Unlike other conceptual systems, a constructional system undertakes more than the division of concepts into various kinds and the investigation of the differences and mutual relations between these kinds. In addition, it attempts a step-by-step derivation or “construction” of all concepts from certain fundamental concepts, so that a genealogy of concepts results in which each one has its definite place. It is the main thesis of construction theory that all concepts can in this way be derived from a few fundamental concepts, and it is in this respect that it differs from most other ontologies. (Carnap 1928 [1967]: 5)

But the idea of absolute, fundamental clarity about the meanings of words and concepts has proven to be unattainable. Perhaps more striking, it is ill conceived. Meanings are not molecules that can be analyzed into their unchanging components. Consider Wittgenstein’s critique of the project of providing a “constructional system” of the meaning of language in the Philosophical Investigations:

12. It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. There are handles there, all looking more or less alike. (This stands to reason, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank, which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two operative positions: it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brakelever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder the braking; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.

Here Wittgenstein’s point, roughly, is that it is a profound philosophical error to expect a single answer to the question, how does language work? His metaphor of the locomotive cabin suggests that language works in many ways — to describe, to denote, to command, to praise, or to wail and moan; and it is an error to imagine that all of this diverse set of uses should be reducible to a single thing.

Or consider Paul Grice’s theory of meaning in terms of intentions and conversational implicatures. His theory of meaning considers language in use: what is the point of an utterance, and what presuppositions does it make? If a host says to a late-staying dinner guest, “You have a long drive home”, he or she might be understood to be making a Google-maps kind of factual statement about the distance between “your current location” and “home”. But the astute listener will hear a different message: “It’s late, I’m sleepy, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do, it’s time to call it an evening.” There is an implicature in the utterance that depends upon the context, the normal rules of courtesy (“Don’t ask your guests to leave peremptorily!”), and the logic of indirection. The meaning of the utterance is: “I’m asking you courteously to leave.” Here is a nice description of Grice’s theory of “meaning as use” in Richard Grandy and Richard Warner’s article on Grice in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).

This approach to meaning invites a distinction between “literal” meaning and “figurative” or contextual meaning, and it suggests that algorithmic translation is unlikely to succeed for many important purposes. On Grice’s approach, we must also understand the “subtext”.

Hilary Putnam confronted the question of linguistic meaning (semantics) directly in 1975 in his essay “The meaning of ‘meaning'” (link). Putnam questions whether “meaning” is a feature of the psychological state of an individual user of language; are meanings “mental” entities; and he argues that they are not. Rather, meanings depend upon a “social division of labor” in which the background knowledge required to explicate and apply a term is distributed over a group of experts and quasi-experts.

A socio-linguistic hypothesis. The last two examples depend upon a fact about language that seems, surprisingly, never to have been pointed out: that there is division of linguistic labor. ‘Ve could hardly use such words as “elm” and “aluminum” if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. (144

Putnam links his argument to the philosophical concepts of sense and reference. The reference (or extension) of a term is the set of objects to which the term refers; and the sense of the term is the set of mental features accessible to the individual that permits him or her to identify the referent of the term. But Putnam offers arguments about hypothetical situations that are designed to show that two individuals may be in identical psychological states with respect to a concept X, but may nonetheless identify different referents or extensions of X. “We claim that it is possible for two speakers to be in exactly the same psychological state (in the narrow sense), even though the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the one is different from the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the other. Extension is not determined by psychological state” (139).

A second idea that Putnam develops here is independent from this point about the socially distributed knowledge needed to identify the extension of a concept. This is his suggestion that we might try to understand the meaning of a noun as being the “stereotype” that competent language users have about that kind of thing.

In ordinary parlance a “stereotype” is a conventional (frequently malicious) idea (which may be wildly inaccurate) of what an X looks like or acts like or is. Obviously, I am trading on some features of the ordinary parlance. I am not concerned with malicious stereotypes (save where the language itself is malicious); but I am concerned with conventional ideas, which may be inaccurate. I am suggesting that just such a conventional idea is associated with “tiger,” with “gold,” etc., and, . moreover, that this is the sole element of truth in the “concept” theory. (169)

Here we might summarize the idea of a thing-stereotype as a cluster of beliefs about the thing that permits conversation to get started. “I’m going to tell you about glooples…” “I’m sorry, what do you mean by “gloople”?” “You know, that powdery stuff that you put in rice to make it turn yellow and give it a citrous taste.” Now we have an idea of what we’re talking about; a gloople is a bit of ground saffron. But of course this particular ensemble of features might characterize several different spices — cumin as well as saffron, say — in which case we do not actually know what is meant by “gloople” for the speaker. This is true; there is room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, and misidentification in the kitchen — but we have a place to start the conversation about the gloople needed for making the evening’s curry. And, as Putnam emphasizes in this essay and many other places, we are aided by the fact that there are “natural kinds” in the world — kinds of thing that share a fixed inner nature and that can be reidentified in different settings. This is where Putnam’s realism intersects with his theory of meaning.

What is interesting about this idea about the meaning of a concept term is that it makes the meaning of a concept or term inherently incomplete and corrigible. We do not offer “necessary and sufficient conditions” for applying the concept of gloople, and we are open to discussion about whether the characteristic taste is really “citrous” or rather more like vinegar. This line of thought — a more pragmatic approach to concept meaning — seems more realistic and more true to actual communicative practice than the sparse logical neatness of the first generation of logical positivists and analytic philosophers.

Here is how Putnam summarizes his analysis in “The Meaning of “Meaning””:

Briefly, my proposal is to define “meaning” not by picking out an object which will be identified with the meaning (although that might be done in the usual set-theoretic style if one insists), but by specifying a normal form (or, rather, a type of normal form) for the description of meaning. If we know what a “normal form description” of the meaning of a word should be, then, as far as I am concerned, we know what meaning is in any scientifically interesting sense.

My proposal is that the normal form description of the meaning of a word should be a finite sequence, or “vector,” whose components should certainly include the following (it might be desirable to have other types of components as well): ( 1) the syntactic markers that apply to the word, e.g., “noun”; (2) the semantic markers that apply to the word, e.g., “animal,” “period of time”; ( 3) a description of the additional features of the stereotype, if any; ( 4) a description of the extension. (190)

Rereading this essay after quite a few years, what is striking is that it seems to offer three rather different theories of meaning: the “social division of labor” theory, the stereotype theory, and the generative semantics theory. Are they consistent? Or are they alternative approaches that philosophers and linguists can take in their efforts to understand ordinary human use of language?

There is a great deal of diversity of approach, then, in the ways that analytical philosophers have undertaken to explicate the question of the meaning of language. And the topic — perhaps unlike many in philosophy — has some very important implications and applications. In particular, there is an intersection between “General artificial intelligence” research and the philosophy of language: If we want our personal assistant bots to be able to engage in extended and informative conversations with us, AI designers will need to have useable theories of the representation of meaning. And those representations cannot be wholly sequential (Markov chain) systems. If Alexa is to be a good conversationalist, she will need to be able to decode complex paragraphs like this, and create a meaningful “to-do” list of topics that need to be addressed in her reply.

Alexa, I was thinking about my trip to Milan last January, where I left my umbrella. Will I be going back to Milan soon? Will it rain this afternoon? Have I been to Lombardy in the past year? Do I owe my hosts at the university a follow-up letter on the discussions we had? Did I think I might encounter rain in my travels to Europe early in the year?

Alexa will have a tough time with this barrage of thoughts. She can handle the question about today’s weather. But how should her algorithms handle the question about what I thought about the possibility of rain during my travels last January? I had mentioned forgetting my umbrella in Milan; that implies I had taken an umbrella; and that implies that I thought there was a possibility of rain. But Alexa is not good at working out background assumptions and logical relationships between sentences. Or in Gricean terms, Alexa doesn’t get conversational implicatures.

Luca Gasparri and Diego Marconi provide a very interesting article on “Word Meaning” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link) that allows the reader to see where theories of meaning have gone in philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science since the 1970s. For example, linguists have developed a compositional theory of word meaning:

The basic idea of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach (henceforth, NSM; Wierzbicka 1972, 1996; Goddard & Wierzbicka 2002) is that word meaning is best described through the combination of a small set of elementary conceptual particles, known as semantic primes. Semantic primes are primitive (i.e., not decomposable into further conceptual parts), innate (i.e., not learned), and universal (i.e., explicitly lexicalized in all natural languages, whether in the form of a word, a morpheme, a phraseme, and so forth). According to NSM, the meaning of any word in any natural language can be defined by appropriately combining these fundamental conceptual particles. (36)

This approach is strikingly similar to that described in the Carnap passage above, in that it attempts to decompose meanings of complex concepts into “atoms” of meaning.

Some research on language in computer science and artificial intelligence has been striking and surprising. For example, OpenAI’s GT3 natural language text producer, grounded in massive machine learning on billions of pages of text, creates text that appears to be conversational and intelligent — without a milligram of meaning (link). Here is a short (two paragraph) piece of philosophy text about freedom of speech, generated purely mechanically by Arram Sabeti using GT3 as a demonstration of the capabilities of GT3 (link):

There’s a concept that comes up often in debates about free speech called “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. The basic idea is that you can’t just say whatever you want whenever you want – especially if it’s likely to cause panic. And the reason for this is obvious: panic leads to violence, and violence hurts people. If you are causing panic, then your right to free speech ends where the other person’s right to not get hurt begins.
But this isn’t really true. If shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then there wouldn’t be any actual fires in theaters, would there? How could there be? If everyone knew that shouting fire would get them thrown in jail, then they’d all keep quiet when they smelled smoke – and thus there would never be any fires at all. The only way someone could shout fire is if they were lying – but lying is also illegal. So if shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then theaters would never burn down, and no one would ever die from a fire.

The way I see it, the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” should be replaced with “yelling ‘there’s an angry mob coming with torches and pitchforks’ in a theater”. This doesn’t sound quite as catchy, but it has the advantage of being true. And this matters because the whole concept of free speech is based on people getting the facts right. If you’re going to shout fire in a crowded theater, then you need to actually have seen a fire – not just heard about one from someone else. You need to have checked that there really is a fire before you warn everyone else that there’s a fire. Otherwise you’re just causing panic for no reason – and that’s not free speech, that’s just yelling “boo” in a crowded theater.

The passage is no argument at all — no guiding intelligence, and obvious non-sequiturs from one sentence to another. The first four sentences make sense. But then the next several sentences are nonsensical and illogical. In sentence 5 — what “isn’t really true”? Sentence 6 is flatly illogical. In fact, it is as illogical as Trump’s insistence that if we had less testing then there would be less COVID in the United States. And the statement, “… but lying is also illegal” — no, it’s not. The bot is misinformed about the law. Or more precisely: these are just words and phrases strung together algorithmically with no logical construction or understanding guiding the statements. And the second paragraph has the same features. It is kind of entertaining to see the logical flaws of the text; but maybe there is an important underlying discovery as well: machine learning cannot create or discover rules of logic that allow for argument and deduction. The passage is analogous to Noam Chomsky’s example of a syntactically correct but semantically meaningless sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. This GT3 text is syntactically correct from phrase to phase, but lacks the conceptual or logical coherence of a meaningful set of thoughts. And it seems pretty clear that the underlying approach is a dead end when it comes to the problem of natural language comprehension.

New thinking about European genocide and the Holocaust

Image: names of Holocaust victims

It sometimes seems that some questions in history are resolved, finished, and understood. At various times the industrial revolution, the outbreak of World War I, and the French war in Indochina fell in this category. And then a new generation of historians comes along and questions the assumptions and certainties of their predecessors, and offers new theories and interpretations of these apparently familiar historical happenings. the narrative changes, and we understand the historical happenings differently. Sometimes it is a matter of new evidence, sometimes it is a reframing of old assumptions about the time and place of the happening, and sometimes it is a shift from agency to structure (or the reverse). And sometimes it is the result of new thinking about the concepts and methods of history itself — how historians should proceed in researching and explaining complex events in the past.

The occurrence and causes of the Holocaust seem to fall in this category of important historical realignment in the past twenty years. After a period of several decades in which the central facts of Nazi war against Europe’s Jews were thought to be understood — horrible as those facts are — but beyond any serious doubt about causes, extent, and consequences. Perhaps Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, captured that postwar historical consensus; Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975) falls in that early wave of scholarship as well. But recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination, and important new insights have emerged.

Where did the Holocaust take place?

One of those groundbreaking historians is Tim Snyder, with his books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood — too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands”; largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the  Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. And perhaps most striking, Snyder links the mass killings of Jews with the almost equally numerous mass killings by the Soviet state of peasants, Poles, Ukrainians, and other non-Russians in the same region. Here is Snyder’s delineation of the bloodlands and the re-centering that he proposes for the way that we think about the Holocaust:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century. (kl 444)

Here is a map in which Snyder indicates the scope of the bloodlands of slaughter.

Snyder’s approach to the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews in Bloodlands is striking and original, but the approach it takes is not unique. Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933-1945 in much the same geographical terms. Here is the abstract of Prusin’s book:

ABSTRACT The book traces the turbulent history of the borderlands that before World War constituted the frontier‐zones between the Austro‐Hungarian, German, and Russian empires and in the course of the twentieth‐century changed hands several times. It subscribes to the notion that internal socio‐economic cleavages and ethnic rivalries — the most common patterns to the East European landscape — were at the root of conflicts in the borderlands. However, its dominating thrust is predicated upon the notion that the borderlands’ ethno‐cultural diversity was in basic conflict with the nationalizing policies of the states that dominated the region. In peacetime, when the state’s control over all forms of social relations was unchallenged, it acted as the highest arbitrator, manipulating the conflicting claims of rival groups and maintaining relative stability in its domain. But in the time of crisis, when the state’s resources became strained to the limit, suspicions of the groups deemed less loyal to the state blurred the concept of internal and external enemies and entailed the persecution of allegedly ‘corrosive’ ethnic elements. Simultaneously, state‐violence was sustained and exacerbated by popular participation and acquired its own destructive logic, mutating into a vicious cycle of ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

Christian Gerlach reviews the two books together in American Historical Review (link).

Large factors that have been overlooked

In Black Earth Snyder offers another kind of re-centering of the Holocaust, this time by attempting to identify the consistent worldview through which Hitler came to put the extermination of the Jews (of the entire world) as his most important goal. Snyder refers to this as Hitler’s anti-scientific “ecological” theory of race, in which Hitler attributes everything bad in the world to the Jewish people. He places Hitler’s ideas about “Lebensraum” into the context of this batty ecological thinking. So Snyder makes a point about anti-Semitism: was Hitler just another instance of a European anti-Semite, carried to a lunatic extreme? And Snyder’s view is that the truth is much more horrible. Hitler’s war on the Jews derived from a deeply held worldview, not a superficial cultural attitude.

Snyder also introduces a new line of interpretation of the causes of the Final Solution by emphasizing that mass murder by the Nazi regime depended crucially on destroying the state institutions of other countries that might otherwise have interfered with the mass murder of their Jewish citizens.

In 1935, German Jews had been reduced to second-class citizens. In 1938, some Nazis discovered that the most effective way to separate Jews from the protection of the state was to destroy the state. Any legal discrimination would be complicated by its unforeseen consequences for other aspects of the law and in bureaucratic practice. Even matters that might seem simple, such as expropriation and emigration, proceeded rather slowly in Nazi Germany. When Austria was destroyed, by contrast, Austria’s Jews no longer enjoyed any state protection and were victimized by a majority that wished to distance itself from the past and align itself with the future. Statelessness opened a window of opportunity for those who were ready for violence and theft. (Black Earth, pp. 84-85). 

Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a conclusion: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse. Referring to the Red Army photographs and films of German concentration camps that reached the West, he writes: “Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction” (Bloodlands, kl 476). 
Both of Snyder’s books have been controversial in the field of Holocaust studies. Some critics are concerned that Snyder diminishes the significance of Nazi extermination of the Jewish people by intermingling his treatment with Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder against peasants, Poles, and other enemies (e.g. Thomas Kühne’s excellent review in Contemporary European Historylink). Kühne also faults Snyder for subscribing to the “Great Man” theory of history, while paying little attention to the agency of ordinary people in the conduct of mass murder. Kühne writes, “The two Great Men who made the history of the ‘bloodlands’ are Hitler and Stalin, of course.” Others have criticized Black Earth for a leaving a sort of disjunct between the theoretical claims of the opening chapters and the actual historical narrative in the substantive center of the book (e.g. Mark Roseman’s review in American Historical Reviewlink).

Ordinary perpetrators

Kühne’s point about “agency” within mass murder identifies another important theme in Holocaust scholarship since 1980 or so — the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A number of historians and sociologists who have asked fundamental questions: who were the “front-line workers” of the machinery of murder? What were their motives? Were they Nazi ideologues? Were they coerced? Was there some other basis for their compliance (and eagerness) in the horrible work of murder? Kühne’s own book The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century takes up this theme. And a major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Thomas Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and came to fairly shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments; but the great majority did not.

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action. Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost. As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. (74)

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) used mostly the same materials but came to even more challenging conclusions — that a deep and historically unique kind of anti-Semitism in Germany underlay the entire structure of mass murder.

It is my contention that [explaining their actions] cannot be done unless such an analysis is embedded in an understanding of German society before and during its Nazi period, particularly of the political culture that produced the perpetrators and their actions. This has been notably absent from attempts to explain the perpetrators’ actions, and has doomed these attempts to providing situational explanations, ones that focus almost exclusively on institutional and immediate social psychological influences, often conceived of as irresistible pressures. (7)

There is not a very large difference in substance between the books by Browning and Goldhagen: ordinary men did horrible things, knowing that they were horrible. But these books created a large debate among historians. (Here is a symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum including extensive contributions by Goldhagen and Browning; link.)

Another important example of research on “ordinary people committing mass murder” is Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross provides a case study of a single massacre of Jews in a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, it was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a barn, and burned the barn, killing about 1600 Jewish men, women, and children. What were their motives? Gross refers to a culture of anti-Semitism at the local level; but he also refers to an eagerness on the part of non-Jewish townspeople to expropriate the property of the Jewish victims. (Here is a valuable article in Slavic Review by Janine Holc (link).) Gross raises the question of individual responsibility, but as Hole observes, he is ambiguous about how he views individual, collective, and national responsibility in this case, or in the larger tragedy of the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population (456).

So what do these new contributions to the historical study of the Holocaust matter? For all of us, they matter because they promise to provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how this horrific part of our recent past came to be — the institutional, political, ideological, and local circumstances that facilitated the mass murder of the majority of Europe’s Jewish population. And there are contemporary consequences that should be considered: does the extremism that is found in radical populism in so many countries, including the United States, create the possibility of horrific actions by states and peoples in the twenty-first century as well? Snyder apparently believes so, at least insofar as a slide from democracy into authoritarian government based on nationalistic ideologies is a possibility (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century).

These new developments in the field of Holocaust history also create an important reminder for historians: historical events are large, complex, multifaceted, and conjunctural. This means that our understanding of these events, both large and small, can always be improved, and sometimes progress in our understanding involves large shifts in perspective and analysis. We see things differently after reading some of these historians. For example, we may be led to think of the occurrence in different spatial or temporal terms. Was the story of the extermination of Europe’s Jews a German story or a story located on a large, multinational map? Is it best told through national histories or a more synthetic approach? Are extermination camps the most important parts of the story, or are the many thousands of sites at which organized killing occurred more important? Can the story be told in broad strokes at a high level, or does it depend crucially on the micro-processes through which it came about? How much do we need to know about the motivations of participants at the high level and the street level?

Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) undergo paradigm shifts, following which we view the natural world differently and investigate it with different tools. Current developments in historical research on the Holocaust support the idea that historical thinking too undergoes paradigm shifts.

(An interesting resource on the topic of new research on the Holocaust is the Defending History website (link). Based in Lithuania, this site is dedicated to maintaining high-quality historical understanding of the Holocaust and resisting the resurgence of new forms of extremist rightwing anti-Semitism.)

Rational life plans and the stopping problem

Image: a poor solution to the stopping problem

In earlier posts I discussed the question of “rational plans of life” (linklinklinklink) and argued that standard theories of rational decision making under uncertainty don’t do well in this context. I argued instead that rationality in navigating and building a life is not analogous to remodeling your kitchen; instead, it involves provisional clarification of the goals and values that one embraces, and then a kind of step-by-step, self-critical direction-setting in the choices that one makes over time in ways that honor these values.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions provides a very interesting additional perspective on this problem of living a life. The authors describe the algorithms that computer science has discovered to handle difficult choice problems, and they make an effort to both explain (generally) how the problem is solved formally and how it finds application in ordinary situations of human decision-making over an extended time — such as the challenging question of where to stop for a meal on a long road trip, or which candidate to hire as an executive assistant.

The key features of decision-making that drive much of their discussion are time and uncertainty. We often have to make decisions and choices among options where we do not know the qualities of the items on offer (restaurants to consider for a special meal, individuals who are prospective friends, who to hire for an important position), the likelihood of success of a given item, and where we often cannot return to a choice we’ve already rejected. (If we are driving between Youngstown and Buffalo there are only finitely many restaurants where we might stop for a meal; but once we’ve passed New Bangkok Restaurant at exit 50 on the interstate, we are unlikely to return when we haven’t found a better choice by exit 55.)

The stopping problem seems relevant to the problem of formulating a rational plan of life, since the stream of life events and choices in a person’s life is one-directional, and it is rare to be able to return to an option that was rejected at a prior moment. In hindsight — should I have gone to Harvard for graduate school, or would Cornell or Princeton have been a better choice? The question is literally pointless; it cannot be undone. Life, like history, proceeds in only one direction. Many life choices must be made before a full comparison of the quality of the options and the consequences of one choice or another can be fully known. And waiting until all options have been reviewed often means that the earlier options are no longer available — just like that Thai restaurant on the Ohio Turnpike at exit 50.

The algorithms that surround the stopping problem have a specific role in decision-making in ordinary life circumstances: we will make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty and irreversibility if we understand something about the probabilities of the idea that “a better option is still coming up”. We need to have some intuitive grasp of the dialectic of “exploration / exploitation” that the stopping problem endorses. As Christian and Griffiths put it, “exploration is gathering information, and exploitation is using the information you have to get a known good result” (32). How long should we continue to gather information (exploration) and at what point should we turn to active choice (“choose the next superior candidate that comes along”)? If a person navigates life by exploring 90% of options before choosing, he or she is likely to do worse than less conservative decision-makers; but likewise about the person who chooses after seeing 5% of the options.

There is a very noticeable convergence between the algorithms of stopping and Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing (link). (The authors note this parallelSimon noted that the heroic assumptions of economic rationality are rarely satisfied in actual human decision-making: full information about the probabilities and utilities associated with a finite range of outcomes, and choice guided by choosing that option with the greatest expected utility. He notes that this view of rationality requires an unlimited budget for information gathering, and that — at some point — the cost of further search outweighs the probably gains of finding the optimal solution. Simon too argues that rational decision-makers “stop” in their choices: they set a threshold value for quality and value, initiate a search, and select the first option that meets the threshold. “Good enough” beats “best possible”. If I decide I need a pair of walking shoes, I decide on price and quality — less than $100, all leather, good tread, comfortable fit — and I visit a sequence of shoe stores, with the plan of buying the first pair of shoes that meets the threshold. But the advantage of the search algorithm described here is that it does not require a fixed threshold in advance, and it would appear to give a higher probability of making the best possible choice among all available options. As a speculative guess, it seems as though searches guided by a fixed threshold would score lower over time than searches guided by a balanced “explore, then exploit” strategy, without the latter being overwhelmed by information costs.

In one of the earlier posts on “rational life plans” I suggested that rationality comes into life-planning in several different ways:

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc. (link)

The algorithms of stopping are clearly relevant to the first part of the story — local action-rationality. It is not so clear that the stopping problem arises in the same way in the other two levels of life-planning rationality. Deliberation about longterm objectives is not sequential in the way that deciding about which highway exit to choose for supper is; rather, the deliberating individual can canvas a number of objectives simultaneously and make deliberative choices among them. And choosing medium-term strategies seems to have a similar temporal logic: identify a reasonable range of possible strategies, compare their strengths and weaknesses, and choose the best. So the stopping problem seems to be relevant to the implementation phase of living, not the planning and projecting parts. We don’t need the stopping algorithm to decide to visit the grandchildren in Scranton, or in deciding which route across the country to choose for the long drive; but we do need it for deciding the moment-to-moment options that arise — which hotel, which restaurant, which stretch of beach, which tourist attraction to visit along the way. This seems to amount to a conclusion: the stopping problem is relevant to a certain class of choices that come as an irreversible series, but not relevant to deliberation among principles, values, or guiding goals.

(Christian and Griffiths describe the results of research on the stopping problem; but the book does not give a clear description of how the math works. Here is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the solution to the stopping problem in American Scientistlink. Essentially the solution — wait and observe for the first 37% of options, then taken the next option better than any of those seen to date — follows from a calculation of the probability of the distribution of “best choices” across the random series of candidates. And it can be proven that both lower and higher thresholds — less exploration or more exploration — lead to lower average payoffs.)

Are randomized controlled trials the “gold standard” for establishing causation?

The method of randomized controlled trials (RCT) is often thought to be the best possible way of establishing causation, whether in biology, or medicine or social science. An experiment based on random controlled trials can be described simply. It is hypothesized that

  • (H) X causes Y in a population of units P.

An experiment testing H is designed by randomly selecting a number of individuals from P into Gtest (the test group) and randomly assigning a different set of individuals from P into Gcontrol (the control group). Gtest and Gcontrol are exposed to X (the treatment) under carefully controlled conditions designed to ensure that the ambient conditions surrounding both tests are approximately the same. The status of each group is then measure with regard to Y, and the difference in the value of Y between the two groups is said to be the “average treatment effect” (ATE).

This research methodology is often thought to capture the logical core of experimentation, and is thought to constitute the strongest evidence possible for establishing or refuting a causal relationship between X and Y. It is thought to represent a purely observational way of establishing causal relations among factors. This is so because of the random assignment of individuals to the two groups (so potentially causally relevant individual differences are averaged out in each group) and because of the strong efforts to isolate the administration of the test so that each group is exposed to the same unknown factors that may themselves influence the outcome to be measured. As Handley et al put the point in their review article “Selecting and Improving Quasi-Experimental Designs in Effectiveness and Implementation Research” (2018): “Random allocation minimizes selection bias and maximizes the likelihood that measured and unmeasured confounding variables are distributed equally, enabling any differences in outcomes between the intervention and control arms to be attributed to the intervention under study” (Handley et al 2018: 6). Sociology is interested in discovering and measuring the causal effects of large social conditions and interventions – “treatments”, as they are often called in medicine and policy studies. It might seem plausible, then, that empirical social science should make use of random controlled trials whenever possible, in efforts to discover or validate causal connections.

The supposed “gold standard” status of random controlled trials has been especially controversial in the last several years. Serious methodological and inferential criticisms have been raised of common uses of RCT experiments, and philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has played a key role in advancing these criticisms. Cartwright and Hardie’s Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing It Better (link) provided a strong critique of the use of RCT methodology in areas of public policy, and Cartwright and others have offered strong arguments to show that inferences about causation based on RCT experiments are substantially more limited and conditional than generally believed.

A pivotal debate among experts in a handful of fields about RCT methodology took place in a special issue of Social Science and Medicine in 2018. This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in causal reasoning. Especially important is Deaton and Cartwright’s article “Understanding and misunderstanding randomized controlled trials” (link). Here is the abstract to the Deaton and Cartwright article:

ABSTRACT Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are increasingly popular in the social sciences, not only in medicine. We argue that the lay public, and sometimes researchers, put too much trust in RCTs over other methods of investigation. Contrary to frequent claims in the applied literature, randomization does not equalize everything other than the treatment in the treatment and control groups, it does not automatically deliver a precise estimate of the average treatment effect (ATE), and it does not relieve us of the need to think about (observed or unobserved) covariates. Finding out whether an estimate was generated by chance is more difficult than commonly believed. At best, an RCT yields an unbiased estimate, but this property is of limited practical value. Even then, estimates apply only to the sample selected for the trial, often no more than a convenience sample, and justification is required to extend the results to other groups, including any population to which the trial sample belongs, or to any individual, including an individual in the trial. Demanding ‘external validity’ is unhelpful because it expects too much of an RCT while undervaluing its potential contribution. RCTs do indeed require minimal assumptions and can operate with little prior knowledge. This is an advantage when persuading distrustful audiences, but it is a disadvantage for cumulative scientific progress, where prior knowledge should be built upon, not discarded. RCTs can play a role in building scientific knowledge and useful predictions but they can only do so as part of a cumulative program, combining with other methods, including conceptual and theoretical development, to discover not ‘what works’, but ‘why things work’.

Deaton and Cartwright put their central critique of RCT methodology in these terms:

We argue that the lay public, and sometimes researchers, put too much trust in RCTs over other methods of investigation. Contrary to frequent claims in the applied literature, randomization does not equalize everything other than the treatment in the treatment and control groups, it does not automatically deliver a precise estimate of the average treatment effect (ATE), and it does not relieve us of the need to think about (observed or unobserved) covariates…. We argue that any special status for RCTs is unwarranted. (Deaton and Cartwright 2018: 2).

They provide an interpretation of RCT methodology that places it within a range of strategies of empirical and theoretical investigation, and they argue that researchers need to choose methods that are suitable to the problems that they study.

One of the key concerns they express has to do with extrapolating and generalizing from RCT studies (3). A given RCT study is carried out in a specific and limitation set of cases, and the question arises whether the effects documented for the intervention in this study can be extrapolated to a broader population. Do the results of a drug study, a policy study, or a behavioral study give a basis for believing that these results will obtain in the larger population? Their general answer is that extrapolation must be done very carefully. “The ‘gold standard or truth’ view does harm when it undermines the obligation of science to reconcile RCTs results with other evidence in a process of cumulative understanding” (5). And even more emphatically, “we strongly contest the often-expressed idea that the ATE calculated from an RCT is automatically reliable, that randomization automatically controls for unobservables, or worst of all, that the calculated ATE is true [of the whole population]” (10).

In his contribution to the SSM volume Robert Sampson (link) shares this last concern about the limits of extending RCT results to new contexts/settings:

For example, will a program that was evaluated in New York work in Chicago? To translate an RCT into future actions, we must ask hard questions about the potential mechanisms through which a treatment influences an outcome, heterogeneous treatment effects, contextual variations, unintended consequences or policies that change incentive and opportunity structures, and the scale at which implementing policies changes their anticipated effects. (Sampson 2018: 67)

The general perspective from which Deaton and Cartwright proceed is that empirical research about causal relationships — including experimentation—requires a broad swath of knowledge about the processes, mechanisms, and causal powers at work in the given domain. This background knowledge is needed in order to interpret the results of empirical research and to assess the degree to which the findings of a specific study can plausibly be extrapolated to other populations.

These methodological and logical concerns about the design and interpretation of experiments based on randomized controlled trials make it clear that it is crucial for social scientists to treat RCT methodology carefully and critically. Is RCT experimentation a valuable component of the toolkit of sociological investigation? Yes, of course. But as Cartwright demonstrates, it is important to keep several philosophical points in mind. First, there is no “gold-standard” method for research in any field; rather, it is necessary to adapt methods to the nature of the data and causal patterns in a given field. Second, she (like most philosophers of science) is insistent that empirical research, whether experimental, observational, statistical, or Millian, always requires theoretical inquiry into the underlying mechanisms that can be hypothesized to be at work in the field. Only in the context of a range of theoretical knowledge is it possible to arrive at reasonable interpretations of (and generalizations from) a set of empirical findings.

So, what about it? Should we imagine that randomized controlled trials constitute the aspirational gold standard for sociological research, in sociology or medicine or public policy? The answer seems to be clear: RCT methodology is a legitimate and important tool for sociological research, but it is not fundamentally superior to the many other methods of empirical investigation and inference in use in the social sciences.

Tony Judt and Tim Snyder on the twentieth century

Timothy Snyder helped Tony Judt to create a “spoken book” during Judt’s final months of illness through a truly unique series of conversations about biography and history. The book is well worth reading. Snyder is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, and the spoken book he created with Judt is Thinking the Twentieth Century. This work deserves recognition both as a contribution to the philosophy of history as well as to the task of making sense of Europe’s often horrible complexity and darkness throughout much of the twentieth century. The book is a mix of Judt’s reflections about his own intellectual and personal development (biography), and the complicated back-and-forth that the twentieth century embodied between thinking and history — between ideologies and philosophies of society, and the large schemes of social and political systems that dominated the twentieth century — fascism, totalitarianism, liberal democracy, conservative democracy, capitalism, and communism. Each system had its theorists, from Marx to Lloyd George to Keynes to Pareto to von Mises to Stalin; and the theories had important effects on the evolution of the systems and the movements of resistance that sometimes arose within them. So “thinking the twentieth century” is meant very literally: Judt believes that the large movements and shifts that occurred during the century were importantly influenced by ideologies and philosophies, often in pernicious ways. And, of course, both he and Snyder have spent their careers as historians “thinking the twentieth century” through their efforts to make sense of its enormous tides, storms, and seismic realignments.

There is a deep reason why it makes sense to pay attention both the the supra-individual events of the century as well as the theories that were debated in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, and Warsaw. This conjunction emphasizes the intimate relationships that exist between thinking, doing, and historical change. As Marx observed, “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” By giving emphasis to the ideas and theories that occupied activists, philosophers, economists, and revolutionaries, Judt and Snyder offer their own affirmations of agency in history. For better, and often for worse, the great events of the century flowed fairly directly from theories and ideas.

Snyder and Judt spend a good deal of time on several large historical features of the twentieth century: the trajectory of Marxist thinking — both communist and non-communist — in western and central Europe; the complexities and contradictions of liberalism, in both western and eastern Europe; the rise of Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe; the critics of Communism whose voices became audible in the decades following World War II (Kolakowski, Koestler, Orwell, Havel, Kundera, Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, …), the internal national dynamics of Soviet-installed regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other central European countries from 1946 to 1989, the Cold War, and the vicissitudes of liberal democracy. It is not exactly intellectual history; rather, it is a history that is sensitive to the ways in which intellectuals — theorists, philosophers, poets — influenced events in very profound ways.

The Marxist left often regarded the intellectuals who renounced their loyalty to the Communist movement as turncoats and reactionaries. Judt and Snyder make it clear that this frequently is not the case. Many critics of Communism in the 1950s retained their progressive beliefs and values, but saw clearly the oppression and tyranny that Soviet Communism had come to embody.

It’s best to think of the Cold War liberals [Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler] as the heirs to American Progressivism and the New Deal. That’s their formation, in the French sense of the word, that’s how they were molded, that’s what shaped them intellectually. They saw the welfare state and the social cohesion it could generate as a way to avoid the extremist politics of the 1930s. That is what fueled and informed their anti-communism: the latter was also driven by a background many of them shared in anti-fascist activities before 1939. The anti-fascist organizations, the fronts, the movements, the journals, the meetings, the speeches of the thirties have their counterpart in the anti-communist liberalism of the fifties. (228)

The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (227)

And here is a very good statement by Judt of what these “Cold War liberals” defended:

What made the West a better place, in short, were its forms of government, law, deliberation, regulation and education. Taken together, over time, these formed an implicit pact between society and the state. The former would concede to the state a certain level of intervention, constrained by law and habit; the state, in turn, would allow society a large measure of autonomy bounded by respect for the institutions of the state. (229)

One of the themes that Snyder pursues is how Judt’s identity as the child of working class immigrant Eastern European Jewish parents affected — or did not affect — the development of his interests as a historian. This is all the more important in consideration of the facts of the Holocaust and the central role that Nazi extermination had in virtually all of the historical developments of the period.

Like my mother, my father came from a Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe. In his case, though, the family made two stopovers between the Russian Empire and Britain: Belgium and Ireland. My paternal grandmother, Ida Avigail, came from Pilviskiai, a Lithuanian village just southwest of Kaunas: now in Lithuania, then in the Russian Empire. Following the early death of her father, a carter, she worked in the family bakery. Sometime in the first decade of the century, the Avigails decided to make their way west to the diamond industry in Antwerp, where they had contacts. There in Belgium Ida met my paternal grandfather. Other Avigails settled in Brussels; one started a dry-goods store in Texas. (2)

And his ordinary sensibilities as a boy and adolescent:

Even the very car in which we drove suggests a certain non-Jewish Jewishness on my father’s part. He was a big fan of the Citroën car company, though I don’t believe he ever once mentioned to me that it had been established by a Jewish family. My father would never have driven a Renault, probably because Louis Renault was a notorious wartime collaborator whose firm had been nationalized at the Liberation as punishment for his Vichyite sympathies. Peugeots, on the other hand, got a favorable pass in family discussions. After all, they were of Protestant extraction and thus somehow not implicated in the Catholic anti-Semitism of Vichy-era France. No one ever said a word about the background to all this, and yet it was all somehow quite plain to me. (7)

Judt was named “Tony” in remembrance of his father’s cousin Antonia in Brussels, who was known as “Toni” and was murdered in about 1943 along with her sister at Auschwitz. It is also interesting to learn that Judt spent the better part of two years as a teenager on a kibbutz in Israel before returning to Britain to attend Cambridge University. The Holocaust was a direct and living reality for the young Tony Judt in England — “I cannot recall a time when I did not know about what was not yet called the Holocaust” (6).

The world of my youth was thus the world that was bequeathed us by Hitler. To be sure, twentieth-century intellectual history (and the history of twentieth-century intellectuals) has a shape of its own: the shape that intellectuals of right or left would assign to it if they were recounting it in conventional narrative form or as part of an ideological world picture. But it should be clear by now that there is another story, another narrative that insistently intervenes and intrudes upon any account of twentieth-century thought and thinkers: the catastrophe of the European Jews. A striking number of the dramatis personae of an intellectual history of our times are also present in that story, especially from the 1930s forwards. (11)

And yet Judt did not become a historian of the Holocaust. He did not focus his studies, as so many young intellectuals did, on the question of how the Holocaust could have occurred.

If I have any special insight into the history of the historiography of the Holocaust, it is because it tracks my life quite closely. As I mentioned earlier, I was unusually well-informed on this subject for a ten-year-old child. And yet, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1960s, I have to confess that I was remarkably uninterested in the subject—not only the Holocaust, but Jewish history in general. Moreover, I don’t believe that I was in the least taken aback when we studied, e.g., the history of occupied France without any reference to the expulsion of the Jews. (31)

The more one looks back on the twentieth century, the bleaker it becomes. Mass killings, tyrannical states, deliberate starvation of millions of peasants in Ukraine, war without end; and following the end of the Second World War, a protracted Cold War, more state-sanctioned mass starvation in China, colonial wars in Indochina, and the murderous, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Where in this story does one find grounds for hope for the future? Both of Tim Snyder’s books — Bloodlands and Black Earth — are awesome and admirable demonstrations of honest, unblinking historical research into unspeakable human catastrophe. Consider just a paragraph from Bloodlands:

The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day under the cryptonym Operation Barbarossa was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage in a war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht (and its allies) with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers, not to speak of the comparable number of civilians who died in flight, under bombs, or of hunger and disease as a result of the war on the eastern front. During this eastern war, the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and more than three million prisoners of war. (155)

It was, indeed, the “beginning of a calamity that defies description.” And it is a history that all of us need to confront more honestly than we ever have, if we are to create a better world.

Where today is a practical vision of a world that is just, humane, and peaceful? Where are the leaders who can help steer a global world of dozens of armed powers to a stable, peaceful future? Where are the institutions that can help navigate through the challenges our century will face? What in fact have we learned from the horrors of the twentieth century that will help us navigate to a world that permits the full and free development of all human beings?

It is not quite true to say that we altogether lack a set of ideas that might constitute the core of such a vision: nations that embody secure institutions and values of liberal democracy, full equality of opportunity, ample provision of social services, and a reasonable range of economic inequalities; and international institutions that ensure equitable economic relations among states, robust conflict-resolution mechanisms, and effective ability to solve problems of the global commons, including especially global climate change. It is a liberal, social democratic, and internationalist worldview that depends on a simple theory: a just and equitable world is a peaceful world. If our mood today is gloomy, it is because so many features of this vision for the future are under attack by the extreme right, including the frenetic lurches of the current president. Liberal democracy, social welfare policies, economic equality, and international institutions are all under attack from some of the same forces of hate that led to such destruction in the previous century. The platforms of hate and division seem more powerful than ever, amplified by seemingly ubiquitous social media. And our leaders of all stripes seem to have only myopic vision when it comes to the problem of navigating through the turbulent waters we now find ourselves in. We want a world that is more free, more just, more peaceful, and more sustainable than the one we find today.  Is this too much to ask?

*****
Here is an excellent lecture by Tim Snyder on Bloodlands (link).

Judt on “A Clown in Regal Purple”

There is an intriguing paragraph in Tony Judt and Tim Snyder’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that made me curious. Judt says to Snyder:

My own tenure case at Berkeley proceeded under the shadow cast by a long article I published in 1979 criticizing popular trends in social history, under the title “A Clown in Regal Purple.” Various colleagues in the history department pompously advised me that, on account of this notorious essay, they would have to vote against me. As one of them explained it to me, this was not because of the essay’s controversial content, but rather because it had “named names.” In particular, William Sewell, one of those whom I had listed as a perpetrator of the more misguided sort of social history, was a Berkeley graduate. For a young assistant professor like myself to dismiss the work of his colleagues’ students was lèse-institution, and unforgivable. Lacking both institutional loyalty and prudential instincts, I of course had never understood the extent of my offense. Thanks to that essay, the tenure vote in my department was split, albeit with a positive majority. Whatever my long-term prospects, the atmosphere felt poisoned. (157)

What was this “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) that stirred up such passions when it was published in 1979? And why would one gifted historian (Judt) take such animus to another gifted historian (Sewell)? The article is worth reading, but frankly — not to Judt’s credit.

The article begins ominously: “This is a bad time to be a social historian.” Surprising — many might say rather that the 1970s and 80s were a particular good time for social history. And Judt’s answer to his own question is also surprising: “Social history is suffering a sever case of pollution.” The pollution in question? It is the intrusion of several pernicious influences into the field: feminism, ethnography, sociological theory, and Chuck Tilly. Ha! Here is Judt’s diagnosis:

Why, it may be asked, do we need a critique of modern social history? The response is that a whole discipline is being degraded and abused; a few more years of the work currently published in certain European and American journals, and social history will have lost all touch with the study of the past. Certain areas of historical investigation, notably the history of women, of revolutions, of industrialisation and its impact, have proved especially vulnerable. (67)

Who does Judt have in mind with his critique of “social history”? He names names — many, many names — which seems to be what particularly annoyed his Berkeley colleagues. But he also paints in broad strokes about the discipline as a whole. In a footnote to this passage he writes:

I have in mind in particular the following: Annales Economies-Societes-Civilisations (cited here as Annales ESC); Comparative Studies in Society and History (cited as CSSH); Journal of Interdisciplinary History (JIH); Journal of Social History (JSH); and, occasionally, Past and Present. (90)

Judt is generally dismissive of the research, rigor, intelligence, historical acumen, and general competence of the social historians whom he considers. The overall impression that he gives — they are self-inflated dunderheads.

The obsession with structures and demography, with what people ate and how many chairs they owned, is a feature of the pages of Annales, much altered since the halcyon days of Bloch and Febvre. Similar ‘static’ obsessions inform the pages of certain English-speaking journals as well. Such concerns are not laudable in themselves. They represent the mindless scraping of the historical dustbin, with no question or problematic behind them. (72)

Mindless scraping of the historical dustbin — what hubris!

Judt has particular scorn for Chuck Tilly:

Here, as elsewhere in his work, one must choose between a megahistorical theory without explanatory value, and a re-description in pretentious terms of a particular process which could better be described in its empirical detail. The model offered is simultaneously overblown and redundant. (69) 

Tilly divides protest into pre-modern and modern, Sewell divides artisans from proletarians on pre-selected criteria of adaptability to bourgeois attitudes, and so forth. This is rubbish — the changing character of rural protest in late nineteenth-century France has nothing to do with definitions of modernity, any more than we have any reason to expect workers in Marseilles to desire upward mobility. (70)

One key thread of Judt’s screed is his view that social history has forgotten about politics — “the means and purposes by which civil society is organised and governed” (68). This is an odd claim in two ways. First, I don’t think that politics is absent in the writings of Sewell or Tilly, so it is an unfair caricature of their work to suggest that it is. But more important — the claim is categorical: “History is about politics”. But surely history is about many things, not just politics. Judt’s own work illustrates the point: in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 he gives much attention to film, consumer habits, the educational system, the automobiles people drive, and many other interesting topics that reflect the multidimensionality and heterogeneity of “history”. And, on the other hand, Judt can be faulted for giving little attention to the details of ordinary life in France, Romania, or the USSR — a key topic of concern for the social historians of the 1970s and 1980s. Judt shows in Postwar that he is very aware of the importance of ordinary culture and social roles in historical settings — and these topics are complementary to issues of “politics” rather than subordinate.

It is very interesting that Judt’s diatribe coincides roughly with the point in time at which the Social Science History Association was founded in 1976. The association was founded to create an alternative voice within the history profession, and to serve as a venue for multi-disciplinary approaches to research and explanation in history. It is very interesting that many of the earliest advocates for this new intellectual configuration — including some of the founders of the association — continued their involvement for decades. Chuck Tilly, Bill Sewell, Andrew Abbott, Myron Gutmann, and Julia Adams all illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary work in their own research and writing, and these social researchers have all brought important innovations into the evolving task of understanding the social world. Here is the SSHA mission statement:

The Social Science History Association is an interdisciplinary group of scholars that shares interests in social life and theory; historiography, and historical and social-scientific methodologies. SSHA might be best seen as a coalition of distinctive scholarly communities. Our substantive intellectual work ranges from everyday life in the medieval world – and sometimes earlier — to contemporary global politics, but we are united in our historicized approach to understanding human events, explaining social processes, and developing innovative theory.

The term “social science history” has meant different things to different academic generations. In the 1970s, when the SSHA’s first meetings were held, the founding generation of scholars took it to reflect their concern to address pressing questions by combining social-science method and new forms of historical evidence. Quantitative approaches were especially favored by the association’s historical demographers, as well as some of the economic, social and women’s historians of the time. By the 1980s and 1990s, other waves of scholars – including culturally-oriented historians and anthropologists, geographers, political theorists, and comparative-historical social scientists — had joined the conversation.

In my view these impulses have been enormously valuable for the writing of social history in North America and Europe, and increasingly influential in Asia. And yet it seems entirely clear from the Purple Clown essay that Judt would have fully rejected both the premise of the organization and its work.

What is Judt’s summary judgment about social history as a discipline in the 1970s? It is glum:

One should not be over-sanguine. A return to the study of politics and ideology, a willingness to criticise and condemn where appropriate, an improvement in the level of scholarship and literacy are none of them very likely in the near future. Newcomers (the history of women, the history of the family) might yet force some rethinking on the profession, in order to avoid being stillborn. But that, too, is unlikely. The pessimistic prognosis is much the more realistic. We are witnessing the slow strangulation of social history, watching while a high fever is diagnosed as blooming good health. If the deity who watches over the profession did indeed desire the death of the past, what better way than to drive its high priests mad? It is quite disconcerting to be associated with this scene of progressive dementia. Now is truly a bad time to be a social historian. (89)

This is certainly not a fair, balanced, or intellectually generous assessment of the research of hundreds of young scholars at work in the 1970s and 1980s. The tone of the article from beginning to end is needlessly polemical and disrespectful — editors “pontificate”, social historians show “their inability to write the English language”, the historians are “academic juveniles”, their arguments are “ludicrous”, they place their “ignorance on display”. The only unambiguously positive remark that comes to mind is about Lefebvre and Soboul on the French Revolution (87) — and actually, Lefebvre and Soboul can only be loosely classified as “social historians”.

What is fundamentally disappointing about Judt’s article is not that it is devoid of legitimate intellectual criticism. It is rather that Judt has adopted such an aggressive, combative, and derogatory tone that it is impossible to take seriously the weightier criticisms that are embedded. The article gives the impression of an extremely dogmatic thinker who is unable to see the purpose or value of the other person’s work. It is a bridge-burning manifesto. In an odd way it finds echoes in comments that Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century about his one-time colleagues at Emory University, whom he described as “rather dowdy”, “mediocre”, and “unforgiving” about his end-run to the dean over a hiring decision. (His comments about his several wives are sometimes just as derogatory.) So maybe the Berkeley faculty members made the right call after all — Judt’s collegiality quotient was low enough to suggest that he was likely to harm the intellectual culture of the department.

Is there a better way of doing “critique” of a whole field? There is. For example, Peter Perdue is an accomplished historian of China who recently wrote a valuable and penetrating assessment on the achievements of the Social Science History Assocation and its journal, Social Science History, over several decades, “From the Outside Looking In: The Annales School, the Non-Western World, and Social Science History” (link). Perdue’s assessment is measured and critical, and it is a valuable contribution to scholars interested in contributing to future research in the field. Perdue’s essay presents a superb point of contrast with Judt’s article. It is critical but not polemical, and it leaves plenty of room for scholars from various points of view to learn and improve their understandings of the challenges facing social history. Significantly, Perdue dismisses Judt’s “vitriolic diatribe” against the Tilly school in a single sentence. Perdue attests to the importance of Tilly’s work in shaping Perdue’s own approach to understanding Chinese social and economic history, including especially China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, and notes the important and constructive influence that Tilly’s writings have had in the China field more broadly. (Here is an appreciation of Tilly’s contributions to the China field; link.) Perdue offers a number of criticisms of the way that research within this community has unfolded over the forty years since 1976. He finds that the Annales school had surprisingly little influence within the SSHA research community. He is disappointed to find that environmental history did not find a secure foothold in SSHA or Social Science History. And he finds that SSHA has a relatively poor record of dealing with transnational and non-European history, including Asian historical topics. These are fair comments, and can serve as valuable navigation points for editors of Social Science History and program organizers of the SSHA. This is useful and constructive commentary and can lead to better and more insightful research in the future. In all these ways Perdue’s critique is fundamentally different from Judt’s “diatribe”: it provides helpful guidance for future directions in the research field.

(Here is an insightful assessment of Judt’s intellectual character in StrangeHistory; link.)

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