The Holodomor

The Holodomor is one of the great evils of the twentieth century. The facts are grim and horrific. Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine was the first major historical account in English in 1986. Here is a brief summary of the history provided by Conquest to the US Congress; link. Conquest summarizes the basic facts in these terms:

The facts of the assault on the peasantry and on the Ukrainian nationality are complex. Essentially, it was a threefold blow. Dekulakization meant the deportation of millions of peasants. Collectivization meant the herding of the rest of them into collective farms. And in 1932-1933, the collectivized peasantry of Ukraine and adjacent regions was crushed in a special operation by the seizure of the whole grain crop and the starvation of the villages. We see no single and simply describable and assimilable event, but a complicated sequence.

Most important of all, a great effort was put into denying or concealing the facts. Right from the start, when the truth came out from a variety of sources, the Stalinist assertion of a different story confused the issue, and some Western journalists and scholars were duped or suborned into supporting the Stalinist version. Nor have the Soviet authorities yet admitted the facts. A recent novel published in the USSR briefly describes the terror-famine, and later notes “in not a single textbook in contemporary history will you find the merest reference to 1933, the year marked by a terrible tragedy.” (link)

Hungarian Communist, journalist, and writer Arthur Koestler (linklink) was an eye-witness to this evil. He was one of the earliest western journalists to travel in Ukraine in 1932-1933, and he describes some of his experiences in his 1954 autobiography, The Invisible Writing: 1932-1940.

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rages, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. The scenes at the railway-stations all along our journey gave me an inkling of the disaster, but no understanding of its causes and extent. My Russian travelling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who had resisted the collectivisation of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms. (51)

Officially, these men and women were all kulaks who had been expropriated as a punitive measure. In reality, as I was gradually to find out, they were ordinary peasants who had been forced to abandon their villages in the famine-stricken regions. In last year’s harvest-collecting campaign the local Party officials, anxious to deliver their quota, had confiscated not only the harvest but also the seed reserves, and the newly established collective farms had nothing to sow with. their cattle and poultry they had killed rather than surrender it to the kolkhoz; so when the last grain of the secret hoard was eaten, they left the land which no longer was theirs. Entire villages had been abandoned, whole districts depopulated; in addition to the five million kulaks officially deported to Siberia, several million more were on the move…. Officially the famine did not exist. (56)

(A great deal of the ideological self-justification described by Anne Applebaum below can be detected in the words of “my Russian traveling companion” … and in the laconic words, “officially the famine did not exist”.)

Timothy Snyder treats the Holodomor as one part of the mass murder zone of central and eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The deliberate waging of murderous policies against whole peoples occurred throughout the region, first by Stalin, and then by Hitler, leading to the deaths of more than ten million innocent and non-combatant people. He writes:

The mass starvation of 1933 was the result of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932. In those years, Stalin had taken control of the heights of the communist party, forced through a policy of industrialization and collectivization, and emerged as the frightful father of a beaten population. He had transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps. His policies had killed tens of thousands by execution, hundreds of thousands by exhaustion, and put millions at risk of starvation. He was still rightly concerned about opposition within the communist party, but was possessed of immense political gifts, assisted by willing satraps, and atop a bureaucracy that claimed to see and make the future. That future was communism: which required heavy industry, which in turn required collectivized agriculture, which in turn required control of the largest social group in the Soviet Union, the peasantry. (24)

The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, edited by Lynne Viola, V.P. Danilov, N.A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov, provides a detailed and closely documented narrative of the harsh period of collectivization and de-kulakization. (It should be noted that the term “kulak” itself is politically invidious: it was used by Soviet propagandists to paint ordinary peasant farmers of the Ukraine as disloyal enemies of the Revolution and deserving of extinction.) War Against the Peasantry includes a large collection of documents from Soviet archives from the period. The book and associated documentation make it clear that these actions were part of a “revolution from above” — an effort to impose collective ownership on agriculture throughout the territory of the USSR, to create communism in one country. But these actions and strategies were also a “war” against the peasantry — a deliberate effort to destroy and exterminate a whole people. In January 1930 the Central Committee of the Communist Party pushed forward a policy of intensification of the collectivization process, and added the goal of “liquidating the kulak as a class” (205). Violence by the OGPU (secret police) intensified under the direction of Genrikh Yagoda. “‘The kulak,’ he wrote, ‘must be destroyed as a class … [The kulak] understands perfectly well that he will perish with collectivization and therefore he renders more and more brutal and fierce resistance'” (206). Arrests and mass deportations to labor camps in the North ensured, leading to mass deaths. 

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine provides an accurate and powerful account of the famine period of totalitarian murder in 1931-33. Applebaum reviews the history of forced collectivization before turning to the agrarian and political crisis of 1930-33. Collectivization had led to a crisis in agriculture and a growing level of resistance by Ukrainian peasants; and the 1931 harvest was smaller than the prior year. Applebaum provides a detailed account of the decisions, policies, and actions in 1932 and 1933 by central and Ukrainian party officials through which the Soviet government systematically extracted all food — grain and livestock — from the Ukrainian countryside, leading to massive and growing famine over the next eighteen months. 

In the spring of 1932 desperate officials, anxious for their jobs and even their lives, aware that a new famine might be on its way, began to collect grain wherever and however they could. Mass confiscations occurred all across the USSR. In Ukraine they took on an almost fanatical intensity. Visiting the Moldovan autonomous republic that was then part of Ukraine, a Pravda correspondent was shocked to discover the lengths to which grain procurement officials would now go.36 In a private letter to a colleague, he wrote of “openly counter-revolutionary attacks” on the peasantry: “The searches are usually conducted at night, and they search fiercely, deadly seriously. There is a village just on the border with Romania where not a single house has not had its stove destroyed.” … The use of violence, the smashing of walls and furniture in search of hidden grain—these were a harbinger of what was to come. (Applebaum, 168, 169)

Massive famine ensued, on a region-wide level:

In Ukraine the situation of several villages in Odessa province was so dramatic that in March the local party leaders in Zynovïvskyi district sent a medical team to investigate. The doctors were stunned by what they found. In the village of Kozyrivka half the inhabitants had died of hunger. On the day of their visit 100 households remained out of 365, and the rest “are emptying”: “Quite a few of the remaining huts are being taken apart, the window and door frames are being used as fuel.” The family of Ivan Myronenko—seven people, including three school-age children—were surviving “entirely on carrion.” When the team entered their hut, the Myronenkos were eating boiled horsehide together with a “stinking yellow liquid” made from the broth. Nearby, the inspectors met the Koval family that had four children. On entering the hut, they found Maria Koval boiling the bones of a dead horse. An elderly woman lay on a bed, asking for medicine “in order to die more quickly.” (169)

The cruelty and human indifference that Applebaum documents are difficult to absorb. Like the peasants of Jedwabne (link), fellow villagers in the villages and towns of Ukraine denounced their neighbors, leading to arrest, confiscation, torture, and death. She speaks of the power of Party propaganda and ideology to motivate young people to engage in these horrific actions, for the sake of “the revolution”. And — as Jan Gross finds in Jedwabne — self-interest was also a motivation:

Even those who didn’t openly steal hoped to gain some advantage. As noted, informers had an expectation of reward. In some districts, activists received a percentage of what they collected outright. The 2 December law on blacklists contained an order to “issue a directive on bonuses to activists who find hidden grain.” A decision from the Dnipropetrovsk provincial council in February 1933 recommended that brigade members be given “10–15 per cent” of what they collected outright, and other provinces issued similar instructions. (235)

Mass starvation accelerated in the spring of 1933. 

Some survivors specifically recalled the many diseases of starvation and their different physical side effects. Scurvy caused people to feel pain in their joints, to lose their teeth. It also led to night-blindness: people could not see in the dark, and so feared to leave their homes at night. Dropsy—œdema—caused the legs of victims to swell and made their skin very thin, even transparent. Nadia Malyshko, from a village in Dnipropetrovsk province, remembered that her mother “swelled up, became weak and looked old, though she was only 37. Her legs were shining, and the skin had burst.” Hlafyra Ivanova from Proskuriv province remembered that people turned yellow and black: “the skin of swollen people grew chapped, and liquid oozed out of their wounds.” (243)

An emaciated person can die very quickly, unexpectedly, and many did. Volodymyr Slipchenko’s sister worked in a school, where she witnessed children dying during lessons—“a child is sitting at a school desk, then collapses, falls down”—or while playing in the grass outside.17 Many people died while walking, trying to flee. Another survivor remembered that the roads leading to Donbas were lined with corpses: “Dead villagers lay on the roads, along the road and paths. There were more bodies than people to move them.” (243)

What was the result of these deliberate policies of the Soviet state, aimed at destroying the political will of Ukraine and its people? It was massive death, by the most prolonged and tortuous process imaginable. Murder by hunger. Holodomor.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor. (xxvi)

And it is crucial to recognize that this catastrophe was entirely the result of intentional policy. It could have been prevented; it could have been alleviated; it could have been stopped. But it was not.

(Vasily Grossman’s final and unfinished novel Everything Flows provides a great deal of powerful description of the conditions of cruelty and suffering in the Ukraine during these years of Holodomor in Ukraine, his home region.)

Herder’s philosophy of history and humanity

An earlier post attempted to express the idea that “humanity” and human culture are self-creators: there is no fixed and prior system of meanings, values, allegiances, and ways of acting that constitutes humanity. Instead, human beings have, through the history of millennia of culture formation, created frameworks of value, meaning, and social relationships that have structured human communities and individual lives in different epochs. This view can be described as “historicist”, in the sense that it places human nature and human values into contingent historical traces. 

Human beings bring something crucial to this epochs-long process that other living organisms do not (ants, rabbits, lions): a capacity for thinking, experiencing, reflecting, and feeling that leads them to adjust their value systems over time. Through ordinary experience, human relationships of love and hate, poetry and religion, philosophy and story telling, human communities shape their values over time. And sometimes there are revolutions of thought in which profound changes ripple through the value systems and systems of meaning of various human communities.

In reflecting on the history of western philosophy to identify thinkers who have advocated for ideas like these to explain the history of humanity, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) stands out. He stands in contrast to his teacher Kant, but also to the British empiricists and to Platonic philosophy, in his strong philosophical conviction that human beings are fundamentally historical creatures. And in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions Martha Nussbaum suggests that Rousseau offers a similar view in Emile (link). Michael Forster puts this feature of Herder’s philosophy at the center of his philosophy of history (SEP, Herder):

His most intrinsically important achievement arguably rather lies in his development of the thesis already mentioned earlier—contradicting such Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire—that there exist radical mental differences between different historical periods (and cultures), that people’s concepts, beliefs, values, sensations, and so on differ in deep ways from one period (or culture) to another. This thesis is already prominent in On the Change of Taste (1766) and it lasts throughout Herder’s career. It had an enormous influence on successors such as the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dilthey. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

Herder makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental diversity that this thesis posits the very core of the discipline of history. For, as has often been noted, he takes relatively little interest in the so-called “great” political and military deeds and events of history, focusing instead on the “innerness” of history’s participants. This choice is quite deliberate and self-conscious. Because of it, psychology and interpretation inevitably take center-stage as methods in the discipline of historiography for Herder. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

One way of interpreting this philosophy of history is as a developmental conception of civilization: human history is a sequence of civilizational systems that give way to their successors, with the suggestion that there is a direction or teleological structure to this sequence. That is the way that Hegel’s philosophy of history works: great historical epochs (civilizations) represent partial and one-sided ideas of freedom, to be superseded by complementary ideas in future epochs. 

But we can adopt the historicist view of human culture without any commitment whatsoever to directionality, progress, or unified movement. Instead, we can look at the process as contingent, path-dependent, and heterogeneous at any given moment in time.

Here are suggestive excerpts from Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (link). Here is a very clear statement on the transitory nature of human cultural, civilizational monuments:

Thus everything in history is transient: the inscription on her temple is evanescence and decay. We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history. (Book XV)

And here is an especially clear passage commenting on the “self-creation” of human beings:

Thus we everywhere find mankind possessing and exercising the right of forming themselves to a kind of humanity, as soon as they have discerned it. If they have erred, or stopped at the half way of a hereditary tradition; they have suffered the consequences of their error, and done penance for the fault they committed. The deity has in nowise bound their hands, farther than by what they were, by time, place, and their intrinsic powers. When they were guilty of faults, he extricated them not by miracles, but suffered these faults to produce their effects, that man might the better learn to know them. (Book XV, Chapter 1)

This line of thought about human beings, civilization, and history is historicist in a particular sense: human beings create themselves through actions and the process of living, using their consciousness as a way of attempting to understand and guide their actions. Human beings take shape through their histories. From this process emerge culture, norms, and ways of living.

Georg Iggers provides a helpful account of the meaning of “historicism” in his 1995 article, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term” (link). And in his telling, only one of the several meanings this term has had in the past two centuries is relevant to my intended use in application to Herder. The meaning that I have in mind is synonymous with the idea of the “self-creation” of human cultures: no Ur-text of human values at the beginning, no necessary path of development, no uniform and homogeneous “world culture” at any point. Instead, there is only humanity, in the persons of specific communities and populations; and the systems of values their poets, philosophers, preachers, and fanatics have proliferated during a period of time. There is diffusion, dispersion, cross-fertilization, innovation, and back-tracking, as living human beings and their poets struggle forward in cooperation and competition in changing circumstances of nature, society, and technology. Sometimes communities emerge with what we would describe as deplorable values; and sometimes there are long stretches of time in which value systems prevail that support benevolence, fairness, and concern for others.

As Iggers points out, one of the criticisms of historicism was its supposed “relativism” — the idea that it implies that all moral and religious belief derives from a community’s social and natural circumstances, and that no moral or religious scheme is superior to any other. In a sense this conclusion follows from the view that there is no objective, rational, and extra-historical standard for comparing and judging competing moral systems in concrete human communities. But we can also take the view of “self-creation” very seriously, and can maintain that the struggle to live across time in typical human circumstances has resulted, for us, in a system of values that we can both endorse and continue to criticize and correct. We prefer to be beings who have compassion for each other and who treat other human beings fairly; therefore a moral system that favors benevolence, compassion, and justice is superior to one that favors cruelty, indifference, and exploitation. We are now the kinds of creatures who have defined ourselves partially in terms of those values; and we can judge ourselves, our ancestors, and our fellow human beings accordingly. There is no external “epistemic” basis for these values; rather, they are values we and our predecessors have created for ourselves; we have become (partially) the embodiment of those values. And when Klingons, Nazis, or NKVD officers fundamentally violate those values, we must oppose them if we can.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy.

Bauman on the Holocaust

There sometimes seems to be an important intertwining between personal biography and a person’s sociological and historical imagination. Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was a Jew of the generation in Poland who were destined to die — most did in his generation of Polish Jews — and he was exposed at various times to the murderous regime that conducted this campaign of death. And by the 1960s Bauman had become a sociologist of global importance. It would seem apparent Bauman’s language and mental maps of the world were shaped by his experience in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Soviet Union during the searing decades of the 1930s and 1940s. Bauman had direct experience of the Nazi terror in Poland after 1939. As a Polish army officer in the Soviet Red Army he witnessed the Majdanek death camp and the horrors that it encompassed, and he witnessed the totality of the Nazi program of murder upon his return to Poland in 1945. And he served as a senior army intelligence and communications officer in the post-war Communist regime in Poland.

How did these life experiences influence Bauman’s sociological imagination and his interpretation of the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Poland and elsewhere in central Europe? Bauman’s personal life story involved direct experience of the Holocaust in Poland and the horrific tragedies, personally experienced, of German genocide and murderous warfare. Bauman himself witnessed and experienced some of the worst suffering of the Holocaust. And yet in his sociological writings in Poland through 1968 he never addressed the topics of genocide, totalitarianism, or the Nazi period. He turned to topics having to do with the fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust only later in life — in the 1980s, when he was over sixty. It appears that he was led to write Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) only after reading his wife Janina Bauman’s powerful and moving account of her own experience in the Warsaw ghetto in Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945 (1986; link). And, when he does turn to the Holocaust, it is through the lens of his critique of modernity and the cult of rationality. The book is not a profound contribution to understanding the realities or historical horrors of the Holocaust; in fact, the results are banal and not especially insightful.

The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at  the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization and culture…. The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or a malady of our civilization — rather than its horrifying yet legitimate product — results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament…. Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition. Without it, the Holocaust would be unthinkable. It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable. (x, xii, 13)

Here is Ali Rattansi’s summary of Bauman’s view of the Holocaust in Bauman and contemporary sociology: A critical analysis. Fundamentally Bauman sought to understand the Holocaust as an expression of modernity:

This truth could not, for Bauman, be denied by viewing the Holocaust as only a peculiarity of German history or Hitler’s evil personality and the cruelty, the moral decrepitude and sometimes the sheer indifference of those who in one way or another were implicated in such vile deeds. The effect of any such interpretation is to see the Holocaust as only something to do with Germany or Germanness, thereby absolving everyone else of responsibility, and, in particular, of shifting the blame away from the typical characteristics of modernity so widely taken for granted. For Bauman the factors involved were indeed ‘quite ordinary and common’; but they had come together in a historically unique encounter. The taken for granted civilisational framework which in fact harboured the seeds of the Holocaust consisted of the modern nation-state, the concentration and centralisation of the means of violence in its apparatuses and the adoption of a bold and sweeping project of social engineering by those in command of this immensely powerful state. The capacity of the leaders was enhanced by the dismantling of all sources of opposition and the possession of a particular modern apparatus of administration: a state bureaucracy. Science and modern technology had their own crucial role to play in the terrible sequence of events. It is in the combination of these common features of modern civilisation within a particular historical period that Bauman finds the basic causes of the Holocaust. (kl 753)

It is striking that Bauman’s diagnosis of the Holocaust seems to have had more to do with his own in-depth experience of a totalitarian state as a functionary and eventually a victim in post-war Poland than with his childhood and adult experience of Nazi extermination: “the concentration and centralization of the means of violence”, “a bold and sweeping project of social engineering”, the “capacity of leaders [being] enhanced by the dismantling of all sources of opposition”. This is a diagnosis that puts the responsibility for the Holocaust most fundamentally on the features of a totalitarian state.

Moreover, according to Bauman’s diagnosis, genocide is a circumstance that emerges within the conditions of modernity:

I propose that the major lesson of the Holocaust is the necessity to treat the critique [of modernity] seriously and thus to expand the theoretical model of the civilizing process, so as to include the latter’s tendency to demote, exprobate and delegitimize the ethical motivations of social action. We need to take stock of the evidence that the civilizing process is, among other things, a process of divesting the use and deployment of violence from moral calculus, and of emancipating the desiderata of rationality from interference of ethical norms or moral inhibitions. As the promotion of rationality to the exclusion of alternative criteria of action, and in particular the tendency to subordinate the use of violence to rational calculus, has been long ago acknowledged as a constitutive feature of modern civilization — the Holocaust-style phenomena must be recognized as legitimate outcomes of civilizing tendency, and its constant potential. (Modernity and the Holocaust, 28)

Modernity would not have got where it has if it had relied on things as erratic, whimsical and thoroughly unmodern as human passions. Instead, it relied on the division of labour, on science, technology, scientific management and the power to make a rational calculation of costs and effects — all thoroughly unemotional stuff. Stephen Trombley’s remarkable study does for the ‘execution industry’ what the work of Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim did for the murderous enterprise of the Nazis: it shows beyond reasonable doubt that the setting which in modern society which makes mass production and unstoppable technological rationalization possible. Aly and Heim documented the crucial role played by the medics, psychologists and countless others — in making mass extermination on a previously unheard-of scale feasible. (Modernity and the Holocaust, Afterword, 247)

But here is a crucial point to ponder: is the Holocaust a singular and evil event, or is it simply a manifestation of “modernity”? Bauman seems to be inclined down the road described by the second branch here; and that seems to be a mistake. To generalize the facts of the Holocaust to a few concepts characteristic of “modernity” rather than a particular period of suffering, evil-doing, and historical particulars seems to ultimately result in placing it beyond our reach. And yet, fundamentally, we want the generations prior to and following the Holocaust (including our own) to take responsibility for what occurred — not dismiss it as the inevitable consequence of the modern world.

Here is one of the more personal passages in Modernity and the Holocaust on the intriguing idea about the moral importance of shame rather than rationalization from the final chapter:

The issue is that only the liberating feeling of shame may help to recover the moral significance of the awesome historical experience and thus help to exorcise the spectre of the Holocaust, which to this day haunts human conscience and makes us neglect vigilance at present for the sake of living in peace with the past. The choice is not between shame and pride. The choice is between the pride of morally purifying shame, and the shame of morally devastating pride. (205)

The inhuman world created by a homicidal tyranny dehumanized its victims and those who passively watched the victimization by pressing both to use the logic of self-preservation as absolution for moral insensitivity and inaction. No one can be proclaimed guilty for the sheer fact of breaking down under such pressure. Yet no one can be excused from moral self-deprecation for such surrender. And only when feeling ashamed for one’s weakness can one finally shatter the mental prison which has outlived its builders and its guards. (205)

It is interesting to compare this abstract reflection with a passage from Janina Bauman’s wartime diary from the Warsaw ghetto, which she quotes in Winter in the Morning.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘no’. (J Bauman, Winter in the Morning, 42)

Did Zygmunt Bauman himself have to face such choices — in Poland, in the USSR, or in Poland once again as a political officer and informant? Is the experience of shame that he describes here one that was for him also a current human situational emotion? Izabela Wagner raises the question of culpability in Bauman’s service as a political officer and informant in the Polish KBW (Internal Security Corps) during the imposition of Soviet-style dictatorship in Poland (Bauman: A Biography, 110-132); and she comes to a forgiving conclusion. Bauman did not inform meaningfully on others — either his own circle or others. But what about the implications that Bauman himself may have drawn — about an evil regime in whose service he was an active agent for several years? Did he experience this emancipating shame about his involvement in an authoritarian Communist regime in Poland?

Modernity and the Holocaust is an unsatisfying book, in that it fails to meaningfully address the historical and human specificity of the Holocaust. Bauman subordinates the Holocaust to a dimension of “Modernity” — an abstraction, and lacking the deliberation and compassion demanded of the particular experiences of so many millions of people throughout east and central Europe. But these ideas have little of the sharp and penetrating insight of memoirs of survivors like Primo Levy or the contemporaneous writings of Vasily Grossman.In 2009 Bauman wrote “Jews and other Europeans, old and new”, where he reflects on the situation of European Jews in the twentieth century; link. This piece is more specific about the circumstances of European Jews than anything included in Modernity and the Holocaust. But it continues to link the war on the Jews to the failure of the modernization project in Europe. The emphasis is on nationalism and spurious assimilation.

In the late nineteenth century the great European project of nation-building was set in motion. It was meant to end in a Europe of unified nation-states, each of with its own language, history, traditions and a people undivided in its loyalty. The local or ‘merely ethnic’ communities would be effaced, subsumed into the homogeneous nation. Assimilation was the means whereby outsiders would become insiders, strangers would become citizens.

The Second World War, and the Holocaust, brought this project to its tragic and murderous end, laying bare the contradiction at its heart. Outsiders could not be assimilated since their loyalty was, by definition, always voluntary and therefore always seen as untrustworthy. As the historical epitome of the European outsider, Jews accordingly remained suspect despite all their ingenious efforts to assimilate. They experienced first-hand the ambivalence of the assimilatory drive, which was, from their point of view, to become like everyone else, and, from their hosts’ point of view, to deepen belonging by emphasizing difference. (121)

But once again — all theory, no compassion, and no real “micro-sociology” of the historical circumstances of the Jews of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and the vibrant cultural and intellectual Jewish life that was part of the 1930s in central Europe. General sociological theory does not help to explain the Holocaust; instead, we need to trace the contingencies and pathways through which murder on a continent-wide scale came to be, and we need to reckon what we have lost. Grossman is more right than Bauman — “Ukraine without Jews” is a horrendous, tragic, and irreplaceable loss to humanity, and it cannot be subsumed under the arch of the sociological theory of modernity.

And how about the question of intellectual formation with which we began above? Do Bauman’s writings about the Holocaust reflect a worldview and sociological framework notably shaped through his lived experience? It seems clear that the answer is no. Bauman’s intellectual framework is one of pure sociological theory, and this he gained through his graduate education and professional activities as a professor of sociology in Warsaw. There appears to be a very sharp line between Bauman’s history as a Jewish teenager in Poland, a refugee in Molodechno, and an officer in the Red Army during the re-occupation of Ukraine and Poland, and his subsequent framing of the history he had lived through in Modernity and the Holocaust. (See this earlier post for more extensive discussion of Bauman’s intellectual development.)

Jedwabne as memory and history

In July 1941 a terrible massacre of Jews took place in Jedwabne, a town in eastern Poland. The town consisted of some 3,000 residents, about half of whom were Jewish. On July 10, 1941, weeks after the German army took control of the town from the Soviet Red Army (according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), a largescale action of mob violence against the Jews of Jedwabne took place, leading in the end to the murder of almost all of the Jewish population of the town. (Jan Gross estimates the death count to be about 1,600 men, women, and children.) Most horrifically, the largest number of these victims were herded into a barn which was set afire; everyone inside the barn was burned to death. Similar massacres occurred in nearby villages in the same week, in Wąsosz (July 5; link) and Radziłów (July 7; link).

Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2000) attempted to gather together the historical evidence available about the massacre and to provide a fact-based narrative of what happened on that awful day. His account, and the issues about Polish Catholic complicity in anti-Semitism and murder that it raises, have created a great deal of debate in Poland.

Several major questions have dominated the historical debate over what happened at Jedwabne:

  • Was the massacre ordered or instigated by the Germans?
  • Was ambient hatred of Jews among inter-war Poles responsible for this willingness to murder fellow human beings?
  • Was resentment against Jews for “collaboration with the Soviets” during the short period of Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland a primary factor in hostility to the Jews of Jedwabne by their neighbors?
  • Was Jedwabne typical of a common experience in rural Poland in 1941?

Journalist Anna Bikont undertook in 2000 to provide a fresh review of the events of Jedwabne, and the results are provided in The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (2004). Her book is a remarkable work of investigative journalism, involving careful review of existing archives and interviews with a surprising number of persons who were present in Jedwabne on that terrible day. In almost every large detail Bikont confirms Gross’s key factual claims.

Bikont provides substantial documentation of the high level of anti-Semitism in eastern Poland (and the Łomża region in particular), promulgated by the extremist National Party and the Catholic Church. (The publication Catholic Cause was a frequent source of anti-Semitic exhortations.) These conclusions are based on her interviews, publications of the Church and the party, and investigative reports by the Interior Ministry. “In an Interior Ministry report of February 3, 1939, we read, ‘Anti-Semitism is spreading uncontrollably.’ In a climate where windows being smashed in Jewish homes, stalls being overturned, and Jews being beaten were daily occurrences, one case from Jedwabne that came to trial in 1939 concerned an accusation made against a Jewish woman” (51).

Bikont documents rampant anti-Semitism in the historical record. Here is a statement from her interview with Jan Skrodzki, who witnessed the brutality and murder in Jedwabne as a six-year-old child:

I often hear there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland now. I always say, ‘There are a lot of anti-Semites in my family, and of the people I know, every other one, or maybe every third, is anti-Semitic, and I could easily have been, too.’ And where did we get our anti-Semitism? The priest preached it from the pulpit, that fat Father Dołęgowski. And Poles in Radziłów lapped it up because they were uneducated or completely illiterate. Envious of Jews because they were better off. While Jews were working harder, organizing their work better, supporting each other. (235)

Bikont shares a few lines from her interview with Prosecutor Radoslaw Ignatiew in the Bialystok Institute of National Remembrance:

AB: You say, “The perpetrators of the crime, strictly speaking, were the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and its surroundings—a group of at least forty men … They actively participated in committing the crime, armed with sticks, crow bars, and other tools.” Let us try to trace how you came to the description you gave of the atrocity in your final findings. You read Gross’s book … (589)

Here is Prosecutor Ignatiew’s summary conclusion:

I can state that the perpetrators of the atrocity were Polish residents of Jedwabne and its surroundings, at least forty men. There is no proof that the townspeople in general were the perpetrators. To claim that there was a company of Germans in Jedwabne is as implausible as maintaining the whole town went crazy. Most people behaved passively. I can’t judge where that passivity came from. Maybe some people felt compassion for the victims but were terrified by the brutality of the killers. Others, though they may have had anti-Semitic views, were not people quick to take an active part in actions of this kind. (600)

Prosecutor Ignatiew disagrees with Gross’s account on two details. First, he believes the total number of murdered individuals was significantly fewer than the 1,600 reported in Neighbors. And second, based on his investigation he believes that the killings were instigated and encouraged by the Germans, though not commanded or organized by them. The evidence available to him supports the conclusion that the number of uniformed Germans was very small on the day of the killings. 

Antony Polonsky notes that Gross’s book created great discord about Poland’s history on its publication. Polonsky reviewed the debate about Jedwabne as it has unfolded in Poland in his important 2004 article, “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” (link). Polonsky is a well-respected scholar of Jewish history, and especially of the history of the Jews in Poland, and his treatment of the facts and the historiography of Jedwabne is judicious and credible. The question of Polish culpability and collaboration is important; but in his view, the genocide was chiefly the work of Germany. “The primary responsibility for these crimes clearly lies with the Nazis” (128). But this conclusion is about the genocide of Poland’s Jews throughout the period — not specifically at Jedwabne.

Polonsky addresses the question of whether the murderous violence in Jedwabne occurred because Christian Poles believed that Jewish Poles had been disloyal under Soviet occupation. Polonsky takes a nuanced position on this question. He believes that this suspicion and resentment played a role in elevating anti-Semitism in 1940, and he notes that it was natural for the Jewish community to suspect that Soviet rule would be less harmful to them than Nazi rule. But he does not appear to believe that this was a primary cause of the murderous actions of ordinary Polish people in July 1940.

In addition, Jewish collaboration with the new Soviet authorities aroused widespread Polish resentment. It is undeniable that a fair number of Jews (like the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, a considerable number of Ukrainians, and even some Poles) welcomed the establishment of Soviet rule. In the Jewish case, this welcome was natural: it is explained by a desire to see an end to the insecurity caused by the collapse of Polish rule in these areas and the belief that the Soviets were less hostile than the Nazis and the resentment of Polish anti-Jewish policies in the interwar period. There was, in addition, some support for the communist system, although this was very much a minority position within the Jewish community. While the Soviets did offer new opportunities to individual Jews, they acted to suppress organized Jewish life, both religious and political, dissolving kehillot, banning virtually all Jewish parties and arresting their leaders. Jews made up nearly a third of the over half a million people deported by the Soviets from these areas (which inadvertently saved many of them from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis). Under these conditions, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population here very quickly lost whatever illusions they might have had about the Soviet system. (140)

Further, Polonsky and Michlic in their introduction to The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (2009) suggest that the Łomża region was exceptional for the degree of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism it exhibited in the years before Germany’s invasion:

Such evidence as we have, both Polish and Jewish, suggests that the Łomża region in northeastern Poland where Jedwabne is located, an area that had long been a stronghold of the extreme right, was the only area in which collective massacres of Jews by civilian Poles took place in the summer of 1941—when the region, previously occupied by the Soviet Union, was reoccupied by Nazi Germany. (The Neighbors Respond, 45)

Polonsky and Michlic suggest that pogroms like these in the northeast were uncommon elsewhere in Poland, and that similar pogroms occurred in western Ukraine on a much broader scale. They quote research by Marco Carynnyk documenting largescale pogroms in 1941 in more than thirty places in western Ukraine, resulting in deaths estimated between 12,000 and 35,000. By that account, then, Łomża region atrocities (including Jedwabne, Wąsosz, and Radziłów) were not typical of the experience of Polish-Jewish communities in most of Poland, and were more similar to the localities of western Ukraine.

Another important resource on the active involvement of non-Jewish Poles in the murder of Poland’s Jews is Jan Grabowski’s “The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust” (link). Grabowski documents the substantial role that the “Blue Police” (Polish nationals in a reconstituted police force under Nazi command) played in implementation of Nazi Jewish regulations, including confinement in ghettos in Poland’s major cities. This role included carrying out mass executions of Jews. Here is an example of Blue Police involvement in an aktion in Węgrówa small Polish city:

On the day of the Aktion in Węgrów, the German-Ukrainian Liquidierungskommando, with the assistance of the Blue Police, local firefighters, and so-called “bystanders,” murdered more than 1,000 Jews in the streets of the city. Another 8,000 Jews were marched to the Sokołów railway station, eight miles distant, and delivered to Treblinka. The Liquidierungskommando left Węgrów the following day. Their job, however, was far from complete: more than a thousand Jews remained hidden inside the ghetto. In the subsequent days and weeks the Polish Blue Police and the local firefighters conducted intense searches and found most of them. They either killed these Jews themselves, or delivered them to the German gendarmes for execution. (11)

Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were sued under Poland’s recent libel and defamation laws, created by the Law and Justice Party government, for publication of their book Night without End on the basis of statements about Polish individuals who were responsible for crimes against Jews. Engelking and Grabowski were first found responsible for libel against a descendent of Edward Malinowski and ordered to publicly apologize. This verdict was profoundly chilling to historians conducting historical research on the Holocaust in Poland. An appellate court took note of the negative effect the lower court ruling had on academic freedom and reversed that finding in August 2021 (link).

Polonsky makes a key point in both “Poles, Jews and the Problems of a Divided Memory” and the introduction to The Neighbors Respond, that parallels Tony Judt’s arguments in “The Past is Another Country” (link) — that confronting the ugly truths about the past is essential to moving forward to a democratic and peaceful future. Polish society has had difficulty in confronting the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the political realities of Communist rule in Poland, and the current government is emphatic in its efforts to “sanitize” the telling of this history. In Judt’s phrase, the current government prefers myth to truth. Gross, Grabowski, Engelking, Michlic, Polonsky, and a whole cohort of historians of Poland, both inside Poland and abroad, are working hard to discover the truth.

Decline of democracy in India

The entrenched rule of the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, has led to a truly alarming degradation in India’s democratic institutions (link). Hindu nationalism and the degradation of citizenship rights for Muslims and other non-Hindus; the rise of paramilitary violence in cities; the repression of non-compliant students and academics through violence and the threat of violence; the systematic undermining of judicial institutions — India is fast becoming an “illiberal democracy” (link) in which single-party rule and an autocratic leader systematically erode the principles of equal citizenship, freedom of speech and association, and the integrity and independence of other constitutional mechanisms. 

The well-respected Freedom House index of freedom documents the decline of democratic freedoms in India (link). Here is a summary of the 2021 Freedom House assessment:

India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.

Overview

While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized. (link)

Here is a sober account of Hindu nationalist violence, organized by RSS groups, against students and faculty in February 2020 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi (link). 

The group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), is the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded 94 years ago by men who were besotted with Mussolini’s fascists, the RSS is the holding company of Hindu supremacism: of Hindutva, as it’s called. Given its role and its size, it is difficult to find an analogue for the RSS anywhere in the world. In nearly every faith, the source of conservative theology is its hierarchical, centrally organised clergy; that theology is recast into a project of religious statecraft elsewhere, by other parties. Hinduism, though, has no principal church, no single pontiff, nobody to ordain or rule. The RSS has appointed itself as both the arbiter of theological meaning and the architect of a Hindu nation-state. It has at least 4 million volunteers, who swear oaths of allegiance and take part in quasi-military drills. (link)

The violence was organized and brutal, and eye witness reports assert that the police stood by without intervening.

The police were called, but they didn’t move to stop the violence. Instead, a posse of policemen installed itself at JNU’s gate, allowing no one in. Yogendra Yadav, a political activist, arrived at the gate at 9pm. Ninety minutes later, the attackers emerged, still masked and armed. Even then, the police detained no one. Instead, they were permitted to walk away as if nothing had happened. When Yadav’s colleague took photos, Yadav was set upon by a knot of men, knocked down and kicked in the face. The police did nothing. Later, from a video, Yadav identified a local ABVP official among those who had hit him. In a statement, the ABVP blamed the attacks on “leftist goons,” but on television members admitted that the masked, armed men and women on campus were part of the ABVP. Still, the Delhi police pressed no charges. “The police gave the goons cover, gave them free rein on campus,” Yadav said. A JNU professor went further, claiming that: “The police are complicit.”

This is fascism — and the history of the RSS goes back directly to its admiration for Mussolini’s fascist movement in the 1920s. Paramilitary violence is a horrific step forward in the decline of democracy.

The attack on intellectuals and the attack on the independence of the judiciary come together in the increasingly aggressive efforts made by the BJP and Modi to silence their critics. Consider for example the legal assault on Anand Teltumbde (link). “Teltumbde, an advocate for India’s most disadvantaged communities, including Dalits, once called ‘untouchables,’ has been swept up in a broad crackdown against lawyers, activists and dissent in general.” And he has been treated in a very prejudicial manner by the courts in India: “Teltumbde’s unfair treatment by our judiciary underscores the loss of independence by India’s institutions. The refusal by the Supreme Court to grant him bail came soon before a former chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, joined Parliament after being nominated by Modi government…. It’s clear India’s Supreme Court has been politicized and has become pliant toward the current administration. Recently, Justice Arun Mishra, who has also ruled in favor of Modi, hailed the prime minister as a versatile genius, an internationally acclaimed visionary who thought globally and acted locally” (link).

A third dimension of the decline of democracy under Hindu nationalist rule is the effort to redefine citizenship to disadvantage Muslim immigrants. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed in 2019 was plainly designed for the purpose of reducing the rights of citizenship of immigrant Muslims in comparison to other religious minorities:

Now there will be an exception for members of six religious minority communities — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian — if they can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. They will only have to live or work in India for six years to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation, the process by which a non-citizen acquires the citizenship or nationality of that country. (link)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill has provoked extensive protest because of its plain purpose of placing burdens and disadvantages on Muslim residents of India. It should be recalled that Prime Minister Modi was partially responsible for anti-Muslim violence in 2002 in Gujarat while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat (link), and was denied a visa by the US State Department on the basis of evidence in support of this finding (link). Narendra Modi is now the apparently unshakeable chief executive of India’s democracy of 1.4 billion people.

Fourteen years of Understanding Society

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Greetings, readers… This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of Understanding Society. With this post there are 1,412 entries in the blog — about 1.4 million words. The blog began on November 2, 2007, with a post on the topic of the plasticity of the social — a theme that has persisted to the present. Here is a paragraph from that initial post:

This ontology emphasizes a deep plasticity and heterogeneity in social entities. Organizations and institutions change over time and place. Agents within these organizations change their characteristics through their own behavior, through their intentional efforts to modify them, and through the cumulative effect of agents and behavior over time and place. Social constructs are caused and implemented within a substrate of purposive and active agents whose behavior and mentality at a given time determine the features of the social entity.

Several of the themes of the philosophy of social science I have advocated over several decades are encapsulated here: the heterogeneity and plasticity of the social world, the importance of understanding social phenomena in terms of the actors who constitute them, and the deep connection between explanation and causal mechanisms.

The idea I had for the blog from the start was that it could serve as a form of “open source philosophy”, an open laboratory notebook through which this single and particular individual philosopher could work through many interesting problems, without feeling the need to create an architecture or research design for the whole. In an inchoate way I had the idea that a series of themes and cross-connections would begin to emerge, and that perhaps in the future there would be tools permitting the discovery and mapping of these interconnections more explicitly. I tried to incorporate category labels and keywords that would permit the reader to pursue a topic through many separate posts, over multiple years. Now, years later, I’ve been very struck by the fantastic efforts by Joseph DiCastro to provide a graphical interface to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link)Here is a link to an interactive screen that provides a map of the SEP with respect to topics in social and political philosophy. If only my digital assistant Alexa would develop some genuine AI skills and construct such a map for Understanding Society!

There has been a good deal of continuity through these fourteen years — philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, moral philosophy. But every year new themes and preoccupations have emerged as well. Here are a few recent examples. I’ve had an interest in the philosophy of history for many years. In the past year or so, I’ve focused that interest on the question of “confronting evil in history”, and have asked how philosophers and historians can best confront the evils of the twentieth century. There have been numerous posts in the past year on the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, and other atrocities of the twentieth century (CAT_evil). I’ve been led to understand the Shoah in very different terms as a result.

My longstanding interest in topics in social contract philosophy gained much greater urgency for me in face of the rise of radical right-wing populism and the threat that these movements present to liberal democracy, throughout the world and in the United States. The past year has involved numerous posts on various issues raised by the theory of liberal democracy and the rising threat of authoritarian populism (CAT_progress). Is liberal democracy viable? A very recent post asks a gloomy question: what would a post-democracy United States look like (link)?

Another rising interest for me that finds expression in the blog is the topic of “organizational causes of large technology failures”. I’ve come to see accidents like Fukushima, Texas City, the Ford Pinto, and Grenfell Tower as being inherent in the fabric of modern life. Accidents and disasters like these almost always involve a dense set of connections and dysfunctions involving companies, regulatory agencies, engineering firms, and management systems — as well as the intricacies of technology design for wildly complex machines. The Boeing 737 Max disaster illustrates every aspect of this picture (link). We cannot ignore the dysfunctions to which the social infrastructure of technology systems are vulnerable, or look at them as second-order problems, if we are to have any hope of managing complex and interconnected technologies in the future. Here too there are numerous posts in Understanding Society that explore various aspects of the social and organizational causes of failure (link). 

Beyond these large themes, I’ve always found myself writing about topics that come up through unexpected paths. For example, the reading I’ve been doing about the cultures of pre-war Poland and Ukraine led me to learn about the career of Ludwik Fleck (link), a Polish medical scientist in the 1930s who anticipated many of Thomas Kuhn’s thoughts about scientific change. If I hadn’t been stimulated to think about the development of the careers of Zygmunt Bauman (link) and Leszek Kołakowski (link), I wouldn’t have been drawn to Fleck. Another fortuitous example — I have a general interest in the history of science and technology, but a chance news story about the Antikythera mechanism led me to learn more about this surprisingly complex and sophisticated technology from the second century BCE (link). And this led into more reflective thinking on my part about the history and philosophy of technology. A final example — Vasily Grossman went from being for me a dimly recognized name in Russian literature, to being a writer and human being whose journalism and fiction about the Holocaust and Stalinism are a beacon of insight for me (linklink). 

The blog is a tool of discovery and exploration for me.

Understanding Society was very fortunate to develop a fairly wide readership in the first several years of publication. I owe this good fortune to Mark Thoma, who frequently linked and sometimes reposted entries from Understanding Society in his outstanding blog, Economist’s View. Thank you, Mark! This seems to have set off a virtuous circle in the world of social media: more readers led to higher page ranks in Google and Bing, leading to more pageviews, which sustained the page ranks of the website. 

Here are two graphs of pageviews as recorded by Blogspot, the blog platform. The first graph records pageviews since 2010. The pageview count reached a peak in the middle of 2017, declined quite a bit in the next two years, and seems to have stabilized over the past two years. The second graph shows pageviews over the past twelve months, and this data is now fairly stable at about 68K pageviews per month. The total page views recorded by Blogspot since 2010 is 12.7 million.

All time:

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Last 12 months:

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The second pair of tables below record the top 10 posts in 2010-2021 and for the past twelve months. There is a good deal of consistency between the two time periods. Posts on Lukes, Bauman, Marx, and Sassen are in the top-ten posts of both time periods. 

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I’m grateful to everyone who reads the blog from time to time. This has been an important part of my intellectual growth over the past fourteen years. I invite you to think of the blog as an eclectic bookstall on the Seine that can be a source of stimulation in philosophy and social thought. Thanks for visiting — and I am confident there is more to come! 

How are institutions sustained, reproduced, and changed?

Institutions are “supra-individual”, in the sense that they establish a context of identity and mental-framework formation for all individuals, and they create the environment of choice for the current actions of individuals. Further, they exercise an influence that is beyond the control of any particular individual or group of individuals. But at the same time, institutions are constituted at a given time by individuals and their mental frameworks, actions, and interactions with other individuals. This is the thrust of the idea of ontological individualism. This raises an important question for sociological theory: what are the chief mechanisms through which institutions preserve their properties over time and personnel change, and what mechanisms lead to change in institutions over time?

Consider first the ways that institutions influence individuals. Institutions establish the foundations and context of action for individuals as they conduct their daily lives. Individuals at a particular moment have acquired specific mental frameworks through which they envision the environment of action that confronts them, and this mental formation is the result of various concrete institutions: family, mosque, school, military, workplace, media. Each of these institutional settings has the effect of inculcating cognitive and affective frameworks for the individual through which he or she understands the world around him and interacts with it. Likewise, individuals occupy “roles” within diverse sets of social relationships (families, kin systems, bureaucracies). They are to some degree influenced by ambient cultural and normative assumptions that have identifiable effects on their choices and practices. Further, they are located in social networks of various kinds — professional networks, expertise and educational networks, friendships, kinship networks, political affinity networks, and so on. And it is plausible to think that these “social location” features are sufficient to account for the continuity and persistence of institutions and organizations — even postulating the assumptions of ontological individualism. It is a fundamental premise of ontological individualism, however, that the behavioral influence of institutions is conveyed by individuals; institutions are not free-standing entities with their own independent ontological status.

Take the idea of a “role” within an organization. When Alice occupies the role of assistant director of purchasing in a mid-sized business, she has specific responsibilities that were conveyed to her at the time of appointment, and reinforced through continuing supervision. She has been trained in the appropriate behaviors and skills of various parts of this role — through a university program or through the organization’s training programs. She has acquired a “practice” of good business management through her education in a business school. She has a normative system that leads her to want to act efficiently and ethically within the definition of her role. At the same time, Alice is not a robot; her desires, plans, and intentions are not wholly defined by her business role and the scheme of business behavior she has internalized. So Alice’s actions within the business environment are influenced by expectations, role definition, and supervision — but they are also influenced by her own goals, desires, and commitments. Alice is not an algorithm, and her conduct is not fully subordinated to the demands of the organization or the features of her role. And knowing that, the creators of the organization have also created mechanisms to enhance conformance — active supervision, audits, separation of duties to prevent theft, continuing training, team-building exercises, etc.

These constraints and incentives surrounding Alice’s behavior as “assistant director of purchasing” are all embodied in the actions and dispositions of other individuals in the organization. Their behavior too is loosely linked to the organization’s expectations of them; but taken together, the conduct of supervisors, auditors, fellow workers, higher-level executives, and other participants create a web of interaction and feedback that creates a degree of stability for Alice’s behavior. Alice’s conduct within the company demonstrates greater consistency than it might otherwise have. It is a “house of cards”, in James Coleman’s metaphor (link), in which the stability of the structure derives from the confluence of influences of the actions of actors surrounding each individual within the organization or institution. And this in turn accounts for the relative durability and resilience of the organization through perturbance and change of personnel: as new individuals are trained and acclimated into the roles and culture of the organization, the field of action for any particular agent remains relatively unchanged.

This is the thrust of the idea of “methodological localism” — the idea that the social world is constituted by social actors who are socially constituted and socially situated. By “socially constituted” I mean to refer to the processes of mental and emotional formation through which an infant comes to be a socialized young person and adult. And by “socially situated” I refer to the set of incentives, opportunities, and constraints within the context of which the actor chooses his or her plan of action. Schools, mosques, and families provide an example of the first kind of influence, and the rules and practices of the Congress provide an example of the second kind of influence (for elected members of Congress).

This isn’t a sharp distinction, because individuals are purposive at all stages of life, and they continue to develop habits of character and behavior long into adulthood. This means that schools both shape individual children and create an environment in which they pursue their goals; and the Congress both sets pathways of incentive and constraint through which individual members act, and also continues to shape the normative and practical mentalities of the individuals who live and work within its rules. But analytically, it is important to recognize that social arrangements influence individuals at two levels: by contributing to the formation of the cognitive, emotional, and normative frameworks within the context of which they deliberate and act, and by establishing a set of rules, opportunities, and constraints that determine the likely outcomes of the various choices they may consider at particular times.

Here are a few formulations of aspects of this conception of the socially situated individual and the stability of supra-level social structures from earlier posts.

Social actors

According to methodological localism, the “molecule” of the social world is the socially constituted, socially situated actor in ongoing relationships with other social actors. (link)Social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions. (link)

Formation and constitution of individual actors

How are individuals formed and constituted? Methodological localism gives great importance to learning more about how individuals are formed and constituted—the concrete study of the social process of the development of the self. Here we need better accounts of social development, the acquisition of worldview, preferences, and moral frameworks, among the many other determinants of individual agency and action. What are the social institutions and influences through which individuals acquire norms, preferences, and ways of thinking? How do individuals develop cognitively, affectively, and socially? (link)
It is often useful to pay attention to the details and the differences that we find in the historical setting of important social processes and outcomes and the forms of mentality these create: the specific forms of education received by scientists, the specific social environment in which prospective administrators were socialized, the specific mental frameworks associated with this or that historically situated community. These details help us to do a much better job of understanding how the actors perceived social situations and how they chose to act within them. (link)

Institutions and norms

An institution, we might say, is an embodied set of rules, incentives, and opportunities that have the potential of influencing agents’ choices and behavior. An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. Institutions have effects that are in varying degrees independent from the individual or “larger” than the individual. Each of these social entities is embodied in the social states of a number of actors—their beliefs, intentions, reasoning, dispositions, and histories. Actors perform their actions within the context of social frameworks represented as rules, institutions, and organizations, and their actions and dispositions embody the causal effectiveness of those frameworks. And institutions influence individuals by offering incentives and constraints on their actions, by framing the knowledge and information on the basis of which they choose, and by conveying sets of normative commitments (ethical, religious, interpersonal) that influence individual action. (link)

Social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions. An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. (link)

The reality of institutions

It is important to emphasize that ML affirms the existence of social constructs beyond the purview of the individual actor or group. Political institutions exist—and they are embodied in the actions and states of officials, citizens, criminals, and opportunistic others. These institutions have real effects on individual behavior and on social processes and outcomes—but always mediated through the structured circumstances of agency of the myriad participants in these institutions and the affected society. This perspective emphasizes the contingency of social processes, the mutability of social structures over space and time, and the variability of human social systems (norms, urban arrangements, social practices, and so on). (link)

House of cards

Anyone who accepts that social entities and forces rest upon microfoundations must agree that something like Coleman’s recursive story of self-reinforcing patterns of behavior must be correct. But this does not imply that higher-level social structures do not possess stable causal properties nonetheless. The “house-of-cards” pattern of interdependency between auditor and worker, or between server and client, helps to explain how the stable patterns of the organization are maintained; but it does not render superfluous the idea that the structure itself has causal properties or powers. (link)

Telling the truth about genocide and totalitarian terror

A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.

This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times? 

A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years. 

There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk. 

But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat. 

Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.

During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.

Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.

There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.

Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.

The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:

In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)

Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956. 

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:

For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”

And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)

Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.

United States after the failure of democracy

Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and  Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies. 

Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):

From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.

Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?

So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:

At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.

The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.

A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.

In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)

But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.

Undermining of constitutional liberties

  • weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
  • weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
  • weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions

Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections

  • extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
  • unreasonable voter ID requirements
  • limitations on absentee voting
  • voter intimidation at the polls

The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures 

  • repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
  • open-carry firearms legislation

Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders

  • weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget

Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder

  • encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
  • persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
  • threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents

These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?

One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:

If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump? 

The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.

Human cultures as self-creating systems

Some philosophers and others have imagined that human beings are largely fixed in their most fundamental capacities — their “human nature”. Along with this idea is the notion that there are fundamental ethical and moral principles that are unchanging and serve always as guides to human action — and, perhaps, that philosophical ethics or theology help to identify these principles.

We can begin by asking, what is involved in a conception of “human nature”?

  • A conception of what human beings want; what motivates them
  • A conception of how human beings think; rationality and reason? Emotion? Passion? Sympathy? Compassion? Hatred? Fear? Envy? Indifference?
  • A view of the ways that human beings think about and interact with individuals and groups around them. Egoism and altruism; self-interest and commitment
  • A view of the effectiveness of normative systems

Against these views of permanence, I want to argue for the idea that human nature and human values are malleable and are best understood as a “self-creation” — a positing by generations over time about what human beings ought to be and to care about. Human beings create “cultures”, and these cultures orient individuals’ self-understandings, motivations, and moral ideas.

On this view, human beings have generalizable capacities for thinking, acting, and creating that permit us to create cultural systems that orient and underlie our behavior (link). And we have the ability to change those systems over time.

There is an intriguing resonance of this view with Sartre’s view that individual human beings define themselves through their freedom and their actions. This is his view that “existence precedes essence” for human beings. Steven Crowell describes this view in his SEP article on existentialism (link):

Sartre’s slogan—“existence precedes essence”—may serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is “self-making-in-a-situation” (Fackenheim 1961: 37). Webber (2018: 14) puts the point this way: “Classical existentialism is … the theory that existence precedes essence,” that is, “there is no such thing as human nature” in an Aristotelian sense. A “person does not have an inbuilt set of values that they are inherently structured to pursue. Rather, the values that shape a person’s behavior result from the choices they have made” (2018: 4). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one’s identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood. (Crowell, “Existentialism”)

But there is a wrinkle: Sartre’s view concerns the idea of the “self definition” of an individual human being, whereas the view I am exploring here concerns the idea of the self-creation of human normative and symbolic cultures. Communities over time created their systems of values and social practices that define their social behavior and their subjective identities. Greek cultures were in the process of making themselves through the centuries that separated Homer from Socrates and across the cultural differences separating Sparta from Athens. Deep as Sartre’s thinking about existentialism was, this view seems even more fundamental about the moral situation of humanity.

This is not a new idea. Johannes Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) offered a historicist view of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development. (Michael Forster’s essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent exposure to Herder’s philosophy; link.) Herder’s ideas are expressed in numerous works, including especially Ideen Zur Philosophie Der Geschichte Der Menschheit, Volume 1 (1791). Here is a representative passage from Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Book XV, chapter 2) (included in German History in Documents and Images):

2. The progress of history shows, that, as true humanity has increased, the destructive demons of the human race have diminished in number; and this from the inherent natural laws of a self- enlightening reason and policy.

In proportion as reason increases among mankind, man must learn from their infancy to perceive, that there is a nobler greatness, than the inhuman greatness of tyrants; and that it is more laudable, as well as more difficult, to form, than to ravage a nation, to establish cities, than to destroy them. The industrious Egyptians, the ingenious Greeks, the mercantile Phoenicians, not only make a more pleasing figure in history, but enjoyed, during the period of their existence, a more useful and agreeable life, than the destroying Persians, the conquering Romans, the avaricious Carthaginians. The remembrance of the former still lives with fame, and their influence upon Earth will continue eternally with increasing power; while the ravagers, with their demoniacal might, reaped no farther benefit, than that of becoming a wretched, luxurious people, amid the ruins of their plunder, and at last quaffing off the poisoned draught of severe retaliation. Such was the fate of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans: even the Greeks received more injury from their internal dissensions, and from their luxury in many cities and provinces, than from the sword of the enemy. Now as these are fundamental principles of a natural order, which not only shows itself in particular cases of history, or in fortuitous instances; but is founded on its own intrinsic properties, that is, on the nature of oppression and an overstretched power, or on the consequences of victory, luxury and arrogance, as on the laws of a disturbed equiponderance, and holds on coeternally with the course of things: why must we be compelled to doubt, that this law of Nature is not as generally acknowledged as any other, and does not operate, from the forcibleness with which it is perceived, with the infallible efficacy of a natural truth? What may be brought to mathematical certainty, and political demonstration, must be acknowledged as truth, soon or late; for no one has yet questioned the accuracy of the multiplication table or the propositions of Euclid. (link)

Herder is “historicist” about human nature. The logical implication of historicism is that human individuals become specific culturally instantiated persons through their immersion in a culture at a time. This casts doubt on all forms of “essentialism” about human nature and about the characteristics of a people or a culture. Cultures and their value systems are contingent; and the human individuals to whom they give rise are contingently different from their predecessors and successors in other generations. Or, in other words, human beings create themselves through history by creating cultures, norms, and schemes of thinking. It also has a radical implication for the possibility of change in humanity: our histories change us, and we change the histories we make. It also implies a radical anti-essentialism about social identities: there is nothing essential about being an Armenian, a Spaniard, a Buddhist, or a Jew. National and cultural identities have a certain stability over time. But they also change over time. National and cultural identities are themselves historically located and historically malleable.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy: culture, nation, “a people”, and a historicist approach to the concept of human nature. She argues that Herder endorses the anti-essentialism about “peoples” and identities described here.

Herder is actually not as strong a cultural essentialist as is sometimes thought. He explicitly acknowledges that cultures are not internally uniform, that they fuse to form new combinations, and that their evolution is shaped by interaction with one another. On the latter point, far from holding the view that cultures should shun foreign influence, Herder largely sees cultural interaction as a good thing, as long as it is not the result either of violence or of imitation arising purely from a sense of cultural inferiority. Sikka, 7

This historicist view of human nature stands in opposition to —

  • Philosophical fundamentalism — human nature is fixed and unchanging
  • Moral foundationalism — there is one permanent and unchanging set of moral principles that are binding at all times
  • Biological fundamentalism — human behavior is governed by a “code” created by the evolutionary history of our species

Against these ideas, this view holds that human beings are “general-purpose culture machines” capable of creating cultural and moral innovations that permit them to live better and more harmoniously together.

So what about biology? Has evolution made us into a certain kind of social animal after all, with pre-coded moral motivations and norms? some sociobiologists have imagined so. but philosopher Allan Gibbard provides a more plausible view in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.

Human cooperation, and coordination more broadly, has always rested on a refined network of kinds of human rapport, supported by emotion and thought. A person sustains and develops this network, draws advantages from it, and on occasion keeps his distance from it. He does these things only in virtue of a refined configuration of emotional and cognitive dispositions….. (27)

We evolved as culture emerged through our evolving. We evolved to have flexible genetic propensities — propensities to be affected profoundly in response to culture. We evolved to interact with others, in response to culture, in ways that themselves constitute having a culture. We acquired not a shapeless capacity for culture, but perhaps a whole configuration of adaptations to the kinds of cultures humans form and sustain. (28)

So Gibbard’s view is that the evolutionary history of hominids took place in a setting of social groups, where psychological capacities supporting cooperation were favored (possessed selection advantage). Gibbard’s view, then, is that the evolutionary history of hominids (including homo sapiens) resulted in a species that had a range of psychological “tools” or capacities that could be activated or deployed in a wide variety of ways. This prepared homo sapiens to become “cultural animals”, capable of creating and living within social groups and cultural systems. And this process of creation had a great deal of flexibility — as human technological and linguistic capabilities also demonstrated great flexibility.

These ideas provide an important naturalistic basis for interpreting human morality and meaning: we human beings have created the cultural and normative systems in which we live, sometimes with deeply admirable effect and sometimes with monstrous effect. And we have the collective capacity to change our cultures. 

Further, this historicist / existentialist understanding of the human being within human culture is encouraging when it comes to the topic of “confronting evil”. It provides a basis for the idea that we are capable of changing our values and expectations of each other. And equally importantly, learning of the capacity of “ordinary men” to do horrible things can lead us to attempt to create new values and new institutions that make atrocities like genocide, mass enslavement, and state oppression less likely. Confronting the evil of the twentieth century with unflinching honesty, then, can change humanity.

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