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Response to Review no. 343

Near the end of his review, Professor Hosking notes that I accurately summarized his account of Russian nation-building in my book. I am pleased to return the compliment. His review is fair and, embarrassingly, more clear on several crucial arguments than I was. His scrupulousness allows me to focus in my reply on the large conceptual issues on which we disagree.

The largest of these issues is what a nation is. Hosking’s view is that it is a certain type of social collective that is built through a process of (usually violent) contestation, but then enters a phase of mature nationhood in which horizontal linkages based in sentiment take some of the ‘ferociousness’ out of the political community. National violence in this model is the result of national conflict, either within the nation itself (as part of the process of nation-building) or between nations (in international wars). This is an intellectually respectable – indeed the dominant – understanding of what nations are.

Nevertheless, I think this conception of the nation does not account for the dynamic and ‘productive’ aspects of violence. In the book, I argue that violence is an autonomous political force, one that is not simply a direct result of conflict. Another way of saying this is that the production of violence has a logic of its own, one related in complicated ways to politics but not completely consumed by its political manifestations. This is not a recent argument. Rather, due in large part to Clausewitz and his enormous influence, it is an argument that has lain at the core of military politics for the better part of the past two centuries.

One implication of a broader appreciation of violence as a political act is that it cannot simply be taken as an outcome of other processes (ethnic conflict, international tension, or the like). It would be foolish to deny, of course, that heightened conflict or tension raises the likelihood of organized violence, but my argument is that this violence has far-reaching implications and that it exists both in active and latent forms even when obvious sources of conflict are absent. As Hosking notes, I pay a good deal of attention in the book to the ways that the performance of violence is linked to citizenship, to masculinity, indeed to the very notion of national belonging. My ‘splendid Hobbesian phrase’, that sociable killers are at the heart of the nation as a political form, was not as a result intended to show that brutishness was only thinly covered by modern political authority, but to argue that the concepts of civic virtue and civic action in modern republics emerged through the figure of the citizen-soldier. As such, it is much more a Machiavellian phrase.

A second implication of this focus on violence is that it calls into question the claim that the nation is a social collective. I argue instead (following Rogers Brubaker in particular) that the nation is a field of political practices, a field defined by an ideological covenant between the state and its citizens about ideal social relations, political relationships, and, yes, the proper use of violence. Indeed, it is specifically the institution of military conscription that allows us to see national violence in a different light, as a practice that links the individual to the political community. As I note in my book, the planning commission that drafted the universal conscription decree of 1874 stressed in its very name (Kommissia po sostavleniiu polozheniia o lichnoi voennoi povinnosti) that the key change that was occurring was the establishment of a ‘personal military obligation’. Universal conscription was designed to take the community out of the military recruitment process and to establish a personal duty on the part of the conscript. In principle, neither local elites nor any other social body could now determine who would be drafted. Nor was this simply a matter of bureaucratic happenstance: the focus on the individual was at the heart of the military reform project, for a series of reasons I describe in the Introduction. The introduction of rifled weapons, large armies, and the concomitant tactical atomization of the modern battlefield required soldiers who could operate efficiently when isolated and could provide their own combat motivation. Russian nationalism in the military certainly appealed to Gemeinschaft and the motherland, but it was clear-eyed in its focus on the individual soldier. This is an insight I extend in the book to the ideology of the nation more generally: national ideologies establish the political nexus between individuals and the state through the language of community. As a result, community-building of the sort that Hosking sees at the national level in mature nation-states is much less important for national ideologies than the constant stress on community in national propaganda might suggest.

I would also like to respond to Hosking’s use of dedovshchina as an example of why the Soviet Union was not a nation. Though I do not in fact talk about late Soviet military hazing in my book, I agree with Hosking that my analysis relates to it. The problem here is that Hosking slips almost effortlessly from ‘nation’ to ‘nationality’ to ‘ethnic groups’. By the end of the discussion, violence between ethnically divided conscripts is seen to be antithetical to the presence of nation. In fact, the emergence of dedovshchina is a neat example of what I meant when I wrote that nations are unstable because they are centred on violence as a civic act. Violence can build community, but it also simultaneously undermines it. As a result, state actors (military actors in particular) cannot simply create a balanced and stable community that is self-perpetuating, because the very act that constitutes community also has a dynamic that serves to destroy it. In order to prevent complete military demoralization, states need constant military discipline and supervision. Left to their own devices, cadets everywhere will destroy each other. Hazing in late imperial military schools, for instance, was quite robust, despite the fact that the hazers and the victims were usually only one year apart in age and most often belonged to the same ethnic group and same (upper) class. More recently, one could cite several additional trainee abuse scandals from the US military in the last decade alone. Late Soviet dedovshchina was exponentially worse than the examples I just cited. Still, the core problem was not so much rising ethnic tension in the Soviet Union, as it was a catastrophic failure of leadership within the military that was linked directly with the emerging state crisis. Put another way, how much better would the situation have been if the Russian army had miraculously been mono-ethnic. One need not speculate – ethnically Russian conscripts are hazed quite energetically by fellow Russian soldiers up to the present day.

The more serious objection is that ‘Soviet nationality policy was intended to create not nations, but rather an international proletarian community.’ In principle, I have no objection to this argument. Indeed, I even deploy it in my chapter on the nation and the ‘dilemma of difference’. My argument, though, is that (ethnic) nationality policy was not the most important set of policies that formed the nation. Did the Bolsheviks intend to create an international proletarian community? Of course; but they also flooded the country throughout the civil war with materials proclaiming the need to protect a ‘socialist fatherland’. They candidly noted in closed party meetings that mobilizing peasants was necessary to win the war, and that this mobilization could only be successful if they appealed to the need to defend hearth and home, rather than to liberate Manchester proletarians. Furthermore, they never changed this position, not in the 1920s, not in the 1930s, and certainly at no time during World War II or afterwards. My argument is that the ideological basis of the military mobilization machine was a ‘national’ one and that it was at least as important as their ethnic nationality policies were. I am also clear when this ‘Great Retreat’ occurred. In February and March 1918, with the Germans knocking on the door of Petrograd, Lenin drove through a set of policies – hiring military specialists, launching a propaganda campaign with the theme ‘Defend the Socialist Fatherland’, agreeing to Brest-Litovsk, and then starting the process of reintroducing compulsory, personal, and universal conscription – that together killed the idea of a radical proletarian revolutionary force for good. This development was of crucial importance. Violence is at the heart of the state, and states are the single most important force in nation-building. Violence is therefore my main concern when examining the construction of the Russian nation and of nations in general, though I try also to indicate how other ideological forces affected the development of this Soviet nation that was, as Tolstoy might have put it, ‘unhappy in its own way’.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that disturbing conclusions emerge when one centres an analysis around violence. The book’s final conclusion (which Hosking alludes to) is that if violence of the sort I describe and analyze does in fact play a central role in the establishment and perpetuation of nations and individual national identities, then all nations carry within them the potential for catastrophic civil war. Further, the most significant variable for determining whether civil wars will occur is not the depth of division within a given society, but the capacity of a state to keep national violence mostly disciplined. This, I think, is why the events in Vukovar were so much more devastating than the riots in Los Angeles at about the same time, despite the fact that the historic antagonism between Serbs and Croats has been far less severe than that between blacks and whites in the United States. Of course, this suggests that Vukovar might in principle have been avoided, but it also suggests that Los Angeles might yet be the scene of similar carnage. Appreciating this danger is necessary to prevent it.

I have rambled on long enough, so I will conclude with a small point. Hosking is not the first reviewer of my book to comment on the process of creating ‘others’ through the mechanism of military conscription, and so avid readers of book reviews may legitimately assume that I employ the term myself. In fact, I am explicit in the book about the reasons why I think the term is not appropriate in this context. National identities, in my view, are constructed in part through matrices of difference and similarity. Using the term ‘Other’ or ‘others’ conceals this complex process by substituting fashionable language for a rich understanding of how people view their relationships to those around them.

Pet peeves aside, let me thank Professor Hosking once again for the care with which he read and reviewed my book and allow me also to thank the IHR for providing a forum in which we could exchange our views.