Friday, June 30, 2023

Asian Network for the Philosophy of Social Sciences

The third meeting of the Asian Network for the Philosophy of Social Sciences (ANPOSS) took place in Bangkok last week (link). It was a highly stimulating success. Organizers Chaiyan Rajchagool, Kanit (Mitinunwong) Sirichan, Yukti Mukdawijitra, and others put enormous effort into carrying it off, and host institutions Thammasat University and Chulalongkorn University provided excellent coordination and facilities. But best were the papers and discussions that took place among scholars from many countries during the several days of the conference and associated meals. There was also a full day of papers delivered in Thai — evidence of real interest in the questions raised by the social sciences. 

For me the most stimulating and rewarding feature of the conference was its genuinely intercultural and international character. It was hugely interesting to discuss subjects of social change, methodology, or ontology with scholars from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, or China. And the very different historical, political, and cultural experiences of those different Asian zones of academic life inevitably stimulated new and different questions.

The experience of being in Thailand was itself a powerful one. The omnipresence of Buddhism as a cultural current is unmistakeable. But so is the level of inequality and poverty that Thailand still experiences. Talented young people are stymied by a lack of opportunity in education and employment. The legacy of social conflict during the time of the Red Shirt movement is still unresolved. And environmental degradation in Bangkok continues to outpace measures taken to improve water quality and pollution.

The profound problems the world faces today inevitably have to do with behavior, institutions, and the legacy of earlier disasters. So it is pressingly important for philosophers to make productive contributions to the efforts of political scientists, sociologists, ethnographers, public health experts, and economists to figure out how our many civilizations can bend the curve away from the catastrophes that are looming on the horizon — climate collapse, environmental degradation, rising human poverty and misery, authoritarian political regimes, and war. Collaborations like ANPOSS can make a genuine difference. And if philosophy is of any enduring importance, it needs to be focused on making a practical difference in the world.

Thanks, then, to the philosophers and social science colleagues who are making such strong efforts to facilitate productive international discussions about the nature and impact of the social sciences!

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Eric Hobsbawm's history of the Historians' Group

photo: Hobsbawm at work

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm was a leading member of the British Communist Party-affiliated Historians' Group. This was a group of leading British historians who were members of the British Communist Party in the 1940s. In 1978 Hobsbawm wrote a historical memoir of the group recalling the important post-war decade of 1946-1956, and Verso Press has now republished the essay online (link). The essay is worth reading attentively, since some of the most insightful British historians of the generation were represented in this group.

The primary interest of Hobsbawm's memoir, for me anyway, is the deep paradox it seems to reveal. The Communist Party was not well known for its toleration of independent thinking and criticism. Political officials in the USSR, in Comintern, and in the European national Communist parties were committed to maintaining the party line on ideology and history. The Historians' Group and its members were directly affiliated with the CPGB. And yet some of Britain's most important social historians were members of the Historians' Group. Especially notable were Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Maurice Dobb, Raphael Samuel, Rodney Hilton, Max Morris, J. B. Jefferys, and Edmund Dell. (A number of these historians broke with the CPGB after 1956.) Almost all of these individuals are serious and respected historians in the first rank of twentieth-century social history, including especially Hobsbawm, Hill, E.P. Thompson, Dobb, and Hilton. So the question arises: to what extent did the dogmatism and party discipline associated with the Communist Party since its origins influence or constrain the historical research of these historians? How could the conduct of independent, truthful history survive in the context of a "party line" maintained with rigorous discipline by party hacks? How, if at all, did British Marxist historians escape the fate of Lysenko? 

The paradox is clearly visible in Hobsbawm's memoir. Hobsbawm is insistent that the CP members of the Historians' Group were loyal and committed communists: "We were as loyal, active and committed a group of Communists as any, if only because we felt that Marxism implied membership of the Party." And yet he is equally insistent that he and his colleagues maintained their independence and commitment to truthful historical inquiry when it came to their professional work:

Second, there was no 'party line' on most of British history, and what there was in the USSR was largely unknown to us, except for the complex discussions on 'merchant capital' which accompanied the criticism of M. N. Pokrovsky there. Thus we were hardly aware that the 'Asiatic Mode of Production' had been actively discouraged in the USSR since the early 1930s, though we noted its absence from Stalin's Short History. Such accepted interpretations as existed came mainly from ourselves— Hill's 1940 essay, Dobb's Studies, etc.—and were therefore much more open to free debate than if they had carried the by-line of Stalin or Zhdanov....

This is not to imply that these historians pursued their research in a fundamentally disinterested or politically neutral way. Rather, they shared a broad commitment to a progressive and labor-oriented perspective on British history. And these were the commitments of a (lower-case) marxist interpretation of social history that was not subordinate to the ideological dictates of the CP:

Third, the major task we and the Party set ourselves was to criticise non-Marxist history and its reactionary implications, where possible contrasting it with older, politically more radical interpretations. This widened rather than narrowed our horizons. Both we and the Party saw ourselves not as a sect of true believers, holding up the light amid the surrounding darkness, but ideally as leaders of a broad progressive movement such as we had experienced in the 1930s.... Therefore, communist historians—in this instance deliberately not acting as a Party group—consistently attempted to build bridges between Marxists and non-Marxists with whom they shared some common interests and sympathies. 

So Hobsbawm believed that it was indeed possible to be both Communist as well as independent-minded and original. He writes of Dobb's research: "Dobb's Studies which gave us our framework, were novel precisely because they did not just restate or reconstruct the views of 'the Marxist classics', but because they embodied the findings of post-Marx economic history in a Marxist analysis." And: "A third advantage of our Marxism—we owe it largely to Hill and to the very marked interest of several of our members, not least A. L. Morton himself, in literature—was never to reduce history to a simple economic or 'class interest' determinism, or to devalue politics and ideology." These points are offered to support the idea that the historical research of the historians of this group was not dogmatic or Party-dictated. And Hobsbawm suggests that this underlying independence of mind led to a willingness to sharply criticize the Party and its leaders after the debacle of 1956 in Hungary. 

But pointed questions are called for. How did historians in this group react to credible reports of a deliberate Stalinist campaign of starvation during collectivization in Ukraine in 1932-33, the Holodomor? Malcolm Muggeridge, a left journalist with a wide reputation, had reported on this atrocity in the Guardian in 1933 (link). And what about Stalin's Terror in 1936-1938, resulting in mass executions, torture, and the Gulag for "traitors and enemies of the state"? How did these British historians react to these reports? And what about the 1937 show trials and executions of Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Rykov, along with hundreds of thousands of other innocent persons? These facts too were available to interested readers outside the USSR; the Moscow trials are the subject of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, published in 1941. Did the historians of the Historians' Group simply close their eyes to these travesties? And where does historical integrity go when one closes his eyes? 

Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, and many ex-communist intellectuals have expressed the impossible contradictions contained in the idea of "a committed Communist pursuing an independent and truth-committed inquiry" (linklinklink). One commitment or the other must yield. And eventually E. P. Thompson came to recognize the same point; in 1956 he wrote a denunciation of the leadership of the British Communist Party (link), and he left the Communist Party in the same year following the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising. 

Hobsbawm's own career shows that Hobsbawm himself did not confront honestly the horrific realities of Stalinist Communism, or the dictatorships of the satellite countries. David Herman raises the question of Hobsbawm's reactions to events like those mentioned here in his review of Richard Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History and Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (link). The picture Herman paints is appalling. Here is a summary assessment directly relevant to my interest here:

However, the notable areas of silence -- about Jewishness and the crimes of Communism especially -- are, ultimately, devastating. Can you trust a history of modern Europe which is seriously misleading about the French and Russian Revolutions, which barely touches on the Gulag, the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution, which has so little to say about women and peasants, religion and nationalism, America and Africa?

And what, finally, can we say about Hobsbawm's view of Soviet Communism? In a review called "The piety and provincialism of Eric Hobsbawm", the political philosopher, John Gray, wrote that Hobsbawm's writings on the 20th century are "highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism." Tony Judt wrote that, "Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age." Thanks to Richard Evans's labours it is hard to dispute these judgments. (199-200)

Surely these silences are the mark of an apologist for the crimes of Stalinism -- including, as Herman mentions, the crimes of deadly anti-semitism in the workers' paradise. Contrary to Hobsbawm, there was indeed a party line on the most fundamental issues: the Party's behavior was to be defended at all costs and at all times. The Terror, the Gulag, the Doctors' Plot -- all were to be ignored.

Koestler's protagonist Rubashov in Darkness at Noon reflects on the reasons why the old Bolsheviks would have made the absurd confessions they offered during the Moscow show trials of the 1930s:

The best of them kept silent in order to do a last service to the Party, by letting themselves be sacrificed as scapegoats -- and, besides, even the best had each an Arlova on his conscience.  They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves.  There was no way back for them.  Their exit from the stage happened strictly according to the rules of their strange game.  The public expected no swan-songs of them.  They had to act according to the text-book, and their part was the howling of wolves in the night....

This is the subordination of self to party that was demanded by the Communist Party; and it is still hard to see how a committed member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s could escape the logic of his or her commitment. Personal integrity as an intellectual was not part of the bargain. So the puzzle remains: how could a Hobsbawm or Thompson profess both intellectual independence and commitment to the truth in the histories they write, while also accepting a commitment to do whatever is judged necessary by Party officials to further the cause of the Revolution?

Regrettably, there is a clear history in the twentieth century of intellectuals choosing political ideology over intellectual honesty. Recall Sartre's explanation of his silence about the Gulag and the Soviet Communist Party, quoted in Anne Applebaum's Gulag

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

So much better is the independence of mind demonstrated by an Orwell, a Koestler, a Camus, or a Muggeridge in their willingness to recognize clearly the atrocious realities of Stalinism.

(Here is an earlier post on the journal created by the Historians' Group, Past & Presentlink. And here are several earlier posts about post-war Marxist historians; link, link, link.) 

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Aldon Morris on the Civil Rights movement


Aldon Morris's Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (1984) is a highly valuable treatment of the US civil rights movement of the 1950s through early 1960s. The book is a work of history and sociology, and it is deeply informed by the sociology of social movements. (It is significant that Morris and Doug McAdam were fellow graduate students in sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook. McAdam's dissertation and its 1982 published version, Political Process, are cited in the book. It is also interesting that sociologist Charles Perrow was one of Morris's graduate advisors at Stony Brook. Perrow's emphasis on how organizations work seems to have been a useful influence for Morris.)

Here is how Morris formulates the theoretical perspective that underlies his treatment of the US civil rights movement. It is a perspective on mass mobilization and social movements that gives full attention to the ordinary human beings who were the subject of racial oppression; and it emphasizes the essential role played in mobilization by effective local and regional organizations.

In the present inquiry an indigenous perspective is used to study how the modern civil rights movement actually worked. The assumption is that mass protest is a product of the organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base. A well-developed indigenous base includes the institutions, organizations, leaders, communication networks, money, and organized masses within a dominated group. Such a base also encompasses cultural elements -- music, oratory, and so on -- of a dominated group that play a direct role in the organization and mobilization of protest.... A central concern of the indigenous perspective is to examine the ways in which organizers transform indigenous resources into power resources and marshals them in conflict situations to accomplish political ends. (xii)

As this passage makes clear, Morris places organizations and an energized mass population of black Southerners at the center of his analysis. He provides information about the SCLC, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, HFS, SCEF, and FOR -- the strategies and levers of power available to each of them, and the complicated relationships that existed among them. (Full names and dates of the organizations are provided below.)

And, significantly, Morris goes into a reasonable amount of detail describing the strategies of protest organizations and their mass followers in different locations: Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Montgomery, Nashville, Shreveport, Greensboro, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Georgia. The Birmingham experience is described in particular detail. This use of multiple case studies is important, because it establishes that Morris is not aiming merely to provide an explanatory template of mobilization; instead, he wants to use the research tools of the historian to see how mobilization unfolded in specific times and places. And this means documenting the organizations, leaders, and strategies that were present in different places.

One relative blindspot in Origins is its inclination to be urban-centered. The bulk of the protests and activism described in the book take place in cities across the South. But the struggle for racial equality -- including especially voting rights -- had an important reality in the rural South. Morris refers briefly to the circumstances of rural black people in the Jim Crow South that made mass mobilization extremely difficult in rural locations: 

The rural setting was hardly ideal for organized, sustained collective action by blacks. In the rural milieu blacks experienced grinding poverty that closely tied them to the land and to the white man. Whites usually arranged the economy so that blacks always owed them money and were forever dependent on them for food and shelter. Outnumbered, defenseless, and with no hope of protection from the law, blacks usually avoided overt conflict with whites simply to stay alive. On the rural plantations, furthermore, blacks seldom experienced themselves as a tightly knit, cohesive group, because they were widely dispersed across the countryside. The sociologist E. Franklin Frazier described rural black communities as follows (78):

"The cabins are scattered in the open country so that the development of village communities has been impossible. Consequently, communication between rural families as well as the development of rural institutions has been limited by the wide dispersion of the population."

However, some of the most difficult developments in the struggle for equality in the South took place in rural counties (for example, Lowndes County, Alabama). This is especially true in the struggle for the right to vote, and the persistent campaigns of voter registration organized by SNCC, CORE, and other organizations were a highly important step in the progress of the movement. Here is how Hasan Kwame Jeffries describes Lowndes County in Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt:

Jim Crow was a grim reality in Lowndes County, Alabama, at the beginning of 1965. African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, lived in dilapidated and deteriorating housing, and toiled as underpaid and overworked domestics and farm laborers. They were also completely shut out of the political process.  There were five thousand African Americans of voting age in the overwhelmingly black rural county, but not a single one was registered. (Introduction)

Origins gives almost no attention to these rural voter registration drives, but they were an important part of the history of the movement. Bob Moses is mentioned once, but no detail is offered for the nuts and bolts of mobilization under these special circumstances. (It is true that much of that activism occurred after the end of Morris's narrative, which is confined to 1953-1963. The SNCC Freedom Summer initiative took place in 1964.)

The special strengths of Morris's book are its detailed focus on the workings of the major civil rights organizations during this crucial period of US history; his emphasis on the essential role played in the movement by masses of highly committed ordinary people in supporting mass meetings, boycotts, demonstrations, marches, and strikes; and the strategic and facilitating role played by the Black church in almost all of these episodes of contention. The book also does an excellent job of allowing the reader to see how the struggle for equality played out somewhat differently in different locations. Different local organizations, different leaders, and different circumstances for ordinary local people led to a fascinating degree of local variation. This use of detailed cases throughout the book offsets the inclination to subsume "struggles for Civil Rights in the South" under a single template of homogeneous processes and outcomes. There were deep similarities, of course, in the experience of the Jim Crow regime across the whole region; but there were also important local differences in the way that struggles for equality were constructed and carried out. Morris also documents the ways in which experiences in one city influenced strategies and outcomes in other cities -- for example, the successful bus boycott in Baton Rouge was influential on leaders and organizations in Montgomery when the struggle to reform the bus system came to a head in Montgomery.

Is Origins chiefly a theoretical exercise, illustrating a sociological theory of social movements? Or is it a work of historical research, making use of sociological ideas but fundamentally dependent on reaching an understanding of what the facts were about successes and failures in different parts of the South? In my view, this is what differentiates Morris's book from McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Morris's book is seriously committed to uncovering the important historical details, whereas McAdam's book is an exposition of "latest thinking" on the sociology of social movements, with illustrations drawn from the history of the Civil Rights movement. McAdam's book is historical sociology; Morris's book is sociologically informed history. Both approaches are valuable. But ideally, interested readers would read both books, and keep track of both theoretical insights about mechanisms and important but contingent features of the historical experience of places as diverse as Nashville and Baton Rouge. Each work is a perfect companion to the other for anyone interested in understanding better the course of the movement for racial equality in the United States.

And for the reader in 2023, Morris's account of the full-scale effort by southern legislatures, governors, and business groups to destroy the NAACP (26-39) and to refuse compliance with Federal court mandates is disturbingly familiar from today's headlines. Today's southern governors and legislatures are highly focused on reducing voting rights for African-Americans (gerrymandering, long lines for voting, voter ID rules, limitations on absentee ballots ...). And the war on "critical race theory" and the 1619 project sounds very much like the organized resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.


Here is a list of the primary organizations that Morris discusses:

Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC, 1957)

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, 1910)

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, 1942)

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, 1960)

Highlander Folk School (HFS, 1932)

Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF, 1938)

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, 1915) 

Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA, 1955)

Inter Civic Council  (ICC, 1956)

Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR, 1956)

Thursday, June 8, 2023

How "micro" does the sociology of social movements need to go?

Doug McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 is recognized as a leading sociological study of the US Civil Rights movement. With the addition of the new introduction to the 1999 edition, the book provides a cutting-edge treatment of the movement from the point of view of the field of contentious politics. McAdam offers three broad families of social mechanisms intended to account for the success of mobilization of groups with a grievance about the status quo:

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action. These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

And McAdam holds that these three factors help to account for the dramatic rise in Civil Rights activism, protest, and strategic choices of the movement across the South in the 1950s into the early 1960s. He asks the key question: “What led normally accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights?”. This is the theoretically central issue of mobilization: what factors facilitate mass mobilization around a set of interests or grievances?

Given the diversity of local situations in cities, towns, and farms across the South, we can speculate that the answer to this question will be different in different locales. But significantly, McAdam provides very little "micro-sociology" of the development of engagement on the part of ordinary African-American people making their lives in various places. He writes about the significance of churches, colleges, and the NAACP as "the organizational base of the movement" (125), but he goes into little detail about the activities and resources associated with these institutions and organizations. He writes:

Representing the most organized segments of the southern black population, the churches, colleges, and local NAACP chapters possessed the resources needed to generate and sustain an organized campaign of social insurgency. (128)

But how did these organizations actually act during the critical period; how were their actions different in different settings; and how did this influence rising activism on the part of ordinary people? What were the local processes that led to local mobilizations? His answer is a general one:

On one level, then, the importance of the churches, schools, and NAACP chapters in the generation of insurgency can be attributed to their role as established interactional networks facilitating the "bloc recruitment" of movement participants. That is, by building the movement out of established institutions, insurgent leaders were able to recruit en masse along existing lines of interaction, thereby sparing themselves the much more difficult task of developing a membership from scratch. (129)

This is a general formulation of a social mechanism. But it is not a specific and factual account of "recruitment" in a particular time and place -- for example, Montgomery prior to the bus boycott. Rather, McAdam emphasizes the idea that ordinary people saw it as their church-created duty to participate in protest. McAdam treats the church, colleges, and local chapters of the NAACP chiefly as "network" sites, where potential participants in the activist movement were located, where they further developed their claims and commitments, and where they encouraged each other in protest.

The general hypotheses provided within the current literature of contentious politics is valuable enough. But we would like to know more about variation: were the dynamics of the Black church different in Montgomery and Little Rock? Were local NAACP chapters different in their behavior or engagement, and did these differences result in differences in level and kind of activism in their surrounding communities?

Social historians of the Civil Rights movement go into much more granular detail about the movement. In greater or lesser detail, the social historians provide readers with insight into specific episodes of mobilization, conflict, and adjustment. They provide us with relatively detailed case studies of these episodes, with a reasonable amount of detail about background circumstances, existing organizations, the leadership available to the black community, instigating events, and the level of grievance and activism present in the population. For example, Aldon Morris's Origins of the Civil Rights Movement provides substantial detail about the individuals, leaders, and organizations that played important roles in the mobilization of support for movement goals in a variety of locations; Hasan Kwame Jeffries' excellent book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt describes the origins of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization among black rural "tenant farmers"; and Lance Hill's Deacons for Defense does similar work in his analysis of the mobilization of rural African-American people in organized self-defense. A detailed history of particular episodes -- the Montgomery bus boycott, voter registration drives in rural Mississippi, 1960 (link) -- would give the reader of McAdam's book a much more substantial understanding of the mechanisms and processes through which activism and insurgency worked out through ordinary people and local institutions. But there is very little of this kind of detail in McAdam's treatment of the Civil Rights movement. For all its emphasis on the need for accounts of the specific mechanisms through which mobilization, coordination, and protest occurred, not very much concrete detail is provided in the study. The level of aggregation at which McAdam's analysis proceeds is "the South"; whereas we might imagine that the real nuts and bolts of the movement took place in places as diverse as Selma, Little Rock, Montgomery, and the cotton fields and hamlets of Lowndes County.

This really is the point of the discussion here. McAdam's book functions largely to lay out "theories of the middle range" about the factors that facilitate or inhibit mobilization around shared grievances, and he illustrates these theories with examples from the history of civil rights activism in the South during the time period. The central interest of the book is theoretical and explanatory, and it is illuminating. But we can imagine a different kind of study that would incorporate much more attention to the specifics of the processes and events of mobilization in various places across the South. Such a study would result in a book consisting of a handful of moderately detailed case studies, along with sociological commentary on the events and processes that are uncovered in these various episodes. 

It is suggestive that Dynamics of Contention, co-authored in 2001 by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, takes just such an approach -- sociological theorizing embedded within detailed exposition of important case studies of contention. And given the emphasis that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly give in the 2001 book on contingency and variation across cases, we might argue that McAdam's study of the Civil Rights movement is couched at too high a level of generalization after all. It would be more instructive if it provided a more granular account of a number of episodes of mobilization, including successes and failures. (This is the reason for returning to Alain Touraine's research on the Polish Solidarity movement (post): Touraine's team did in fact engage in a granular and disaggregated study of the many strands of organization and activism that contributed ultimately to the national Solidarity movement.)

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Touraine's method of "sociological intervention" applied to contentious politics

Alain Touraine has been one of the most prolific sociologists in France for at least six decades. Of particular interest to me is his study of the Solidarity Movement in Poland in 1980-1981. In research reported in Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-81 Touraine (along with François Dubet, Michel Wieviorka, and Jan Strzelecki) undertook to understand the occurrence, rise, and consolidation of the Solidarity Movement at that moment in Polish history. (An earlier post provides some discussion of this work; link.) This research is a contribution to the sociology of contentious politics, and it is especially noteworthy for the methodology that the research teams pursued.

The Solidarity Movement was a remarkable instance of broad popular mobilization within a Communist dictatorship. As students of contention are common to point out, grievances and discontent are to be found almost everywhere; but organized protest, struggle, and resistance are rare. Successful concerted collective resistance is the exception rather than the rule. So the key scientific problem is to try to discover how this successful mass mobilization came about, and that means conducting investigations to -- 

  • identify the diverse motivations and grievances that individual workers experienced in the late 1970s;
  • identify the social mechanisms that allowed groups of workers to articulate their grievances and goals together; 
  • identify the processes of aggregation through which diverse "insurgent" groups in many locations came together into national and sub-national groups; and 
  • observe the processes through which various groups and leaders arrived at collective strategic and tactical plans through which to attempt to achieve their goals in the face of the armed power of the authoritarian state that Poland possessed at that time. 

Or in short, how, why, and through what mechanisms did mobilization and protest emerge?

The approach that Touraine's group took in attempting to discover answers to these questions was a deliberately granular approach. Rather than focusing on high-level statements of grievances, exhortations, and proposed plans of actions by nationally recognized leaders, the Touraine group recognized that this movement took shape through activist participants at the factory and local levels, and that the ideas, grievances, and mental frameworks about possible reforms that would ultimately become the "Solidarity Manifesto" took shape through conversations and debates at the local levels. Accordingly, the research teams gave significant weight to the processes of thought-change that were underway in six industrial centers: Gdansk, Katowice, Warsaw, Szezecin, Wroclaw, and Lodz. 

Solidarity was not simply a social and political force which modified the course of Polish history. It was, and is, a movement, a collective will, and its significance goes far beyond the results it has obtained. When the dominated protest and seek liberation, their hopes are never entirely realised: the shadows cast by history remain. But great upsurges like Solidarity bring with them at least the certainty that the behaviour of the dominated is never totally determined by the dominant forces. (5)

The research also paid attention, of course, to the leadership conversations and debates that were occurring within the national movement. But the heart of their analysis derives from the "sociological interventions" at the level of the regional groups of activist workers. Touraine writes, 

Because a social movement challenges a situation, it is always the bearer of normative values and orientations. Rather than enclosing the group in a reflexion upon itself, the technique involves opening it up so that it can experiences, in conditions which one might describe as experimental, the practices of the social group or movement to which it sees itself as belonging. (7)

This method resembles the use of focus groups to sort out attitudes, beliefs, and values within a target population; but it is more than that. It is critical and constructive, in the sense that it seeks to elicit from participants the more articulated versions of their beliefs, goals, and grievances. And Touraine suggests that this method is especially relevant for treatment of a social movement, because the ideas and values of participants in a social movement are themselves in a process of change and articulation. The method involves several "discussion leaders" who work to elicit ideas from the group; articulate those ideas in writing; and come back for further discussion and debate in a subsequent meeting. Here is how Marcin Frybes describes the method of "sociological intervention" (link).

The sociological intervention consists in organizing meetings of groups (composed of eight to fifteen people) in order to discuss a specific issue (which had been proposed and formalized by the sociologists). The group of intervention is not a real group of militants. It brings together individuals who share either the same commitment or the same kind of experience, but who, if it is possible, do not know other members of the group. The Sociological Intervention involves having the same group meet in a neutral area on several (ten or more) occasions in order for them to be able to propose some analytical schemas representing the historical dynamics and the different components of the action (the logic of the action and the levels of the action). During every sociological intervention, the sessions (which take 2 or 3 hours) could be open or closed. (72)

There are two noteworthy aspects of this method. 

First is the localism that it supports. It is entirely possible that the articulations of grievance, goal, and values that emerge from Gdansk will be different from those that emerge from Warsaw. And this is a sociologically important fact; a social movement is not homogeneous across regions and workplaces. 

The second is the interactiveness that the method implies between researcher and "subject". Touraine's view appears to be that the results of these "interventions" come closer to a truthful reflection of the political perceptions and values of the participants than would a survey instrument or a traditional focus group. It is analogous to an in-depth conversation with a group of men and women on the subject of gender equality -- superficial views may be expressed to start, and then more considered and reflective views emerge. But the critic might argue that the investigators have injected their own frameworks into the conversation in ways that lead to a less authentic representation of the political consciousness of the workers of Gdansk or Warsaw. (Frybes refers to subsequent criticisms along these lines; 77.) But Touraine justifies the validity of this method in these terms:

This work of self-analysis does, however, have its limits. Every actor is an ideologist, in the sense that he produces a representation of the situation in which he finds himself, and that that representation corresponds to his own interests. No actor can become a disinterested analyst. The researcher must therefore intervene more directly. But at this point a double difficulty arises. On the one hand, if he adopts the attitude of a remote and objective observer, he cannot reach the very thing which he seeks to understanding: the coldness of objectivity will hold him back from the heat of the social movement. Conversely, if he identifies with the actors' struggle, he ceases to be an analyst and becomes nothing more than a doctrinaire ideologist; in this case, his role becomes entirely negative. The method's response to this difficulty is to say that the researcher must identify not with the actors' struggle in itself, but with the highest possible meaning of that struggle, which is nothing other than the social movement. (7)

The method is defended, that is, because it helps to elucidate the process of the formation of the collective will that eventually characterized the movement. And this implies that Touraine believes the active and critical nature of the research -- the open-ended discussions with the various groups, and the effort to formulate these ideas in writing -- illuminates the processes through which the agency of workers and other participants in a social movement find their ground in the processes of contention in which they are involved.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Photographs from the Holocaust

image: Warsaw Ghetto Memorial 1948 (detail)

An earlier post analyzed Wendy Lower's stunningly original treatment of a single photograph of a 1941 mass killing in the town of Miropol, Ukraine (link). The photograph captures the murder of a Ukrainian Jewish mother and her child by German soldiers and Ukrainian militiamen. After extensive investigation Lower was able to determine the identities of the victim, several of the killers, and the photographer. Like many photos documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, this photograph was taken by a member of the German armed forces, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement. She finds that Škrovina was concerned to record for the outside world the atrocities he witnessed under German occupation. In fact, Škrovina was a resister, not a collaborator.

Now consider some of the best-known photographs from the Holocaust and their provenance. Some of these images come from the merciless destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto following the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A largescale aktion was planned by the SS to put down the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in early 1943. The action was conducted by SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, and it resulted in the deaths of 13,000 Jewish residents immediately. In the aftermath almost all of the 50,000 survivors were dispatched to the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka.

We must ask a crucial question: how do we happen to have these photographs? Because the Nazi state was interested in documenting the success of its plans to exterminate the Jews of Poland and all of Europe. These photos were taken by a German military photographer at the orders of Stroop, to record the "efficiency" and completeness of the operation. Triumphal volumes of these photos were subsequently conveyed to Himmler and to the supreme commander of the SS, and eventually the collection of photos made their way into the Nuremberg trials. Originally titled "The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More!", the collection is now referred to as the "Stroop Report".

Perhaps the most powerful and widely known photograph of the Holocaust comes from the Stroop collection, the "Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto" image (reproduced below). It is an emotionally wrenching image of a group of adults and children with their hands raised being forced out of a Warsaw bunker by German soldiers. In the center of the image is a boy, apparently 8-10 years old, with his hands raised, and a German soldier in the background with a submachine gun aimed in his direction. The tragic inevitability of this group of innocent human beings at the power of ruthless armed men is a powerful emblem of the cruelty and remorselessness of the Holocaust. And what about the Nazi soldier? His identity is now known. His name was SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche, and he was a notorious genocider who had joined the Nazi Party in 1938. This was no "ordinary man" along the lines of the policemen treated in Christopher Browning's study of Reserve Police Battalion 101 (link). (Blösche appears in several photos in the Stroop collection.) Blösche was convicted of war crimes, including murder of some 2,000 people, and was executed in Leipzig (GDR) in 1969. During his trial he was questioned about the moment captured in this photograph:

Judge: "You were with a submachine gun...against a small boy that you extracted from a building with his hands raised. How did those inhabitants react in those moments?"

Blösche: "They were in tremendous dread."

Judge: "This reflects well in that little boy. What did you think?"

Blösche: "We witnessed scenes like these daily. We could not even think." (Dan Porat, The Boy: A Holocaust Story (Hebrew). Dvir, 2013; quoted in Wikipedia (link))

Here are three especially powerful images from the Stroop file, including the "Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto". Blösche appears in the first and third images, and may also figure in the second image.

These are historically important images of a tragic moment in history. But they raise a difficult question: how should photographs like these be used? They are doubly charged with moral valence: they depict tragic and evil events in which pain and death are imposed on innocent people; they were produced by the perpetrators of that evil history; and they were produced for the purpose of glorifying the "successes" of the Nazi plan of extermination. All of the civilians in these photos are almost certainly doomed -- either immediately in the streets of Warsaw or in the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka. So how can we treat these photos with the dignity that their human subjects deserve, while at the same time allowing the viewer to learn important aspects of the history of the Shoah that urgently need to be understood? (Recall the profound insights Wendy Lower reached in her analysis of an equally powerful and tragic image.)

Perhaps the question answers itself: treat images like these with the respect and dignity that the subjects deserve; and do so solely for purposes that lead to greater understanding of these terrible events -- not for entertainment, not for extraneous "marketing" purposes. For example, the World Wrestling Entertainment corporation recently used footage from Auschwitz to advertise an upcoming match. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum released a compelling statement: “Exploiting the site that became a symbol of enormous human tragedy is shameless and insults the memory of all victims of Auschwitz”. WWE subsequently apologized (link).

We could say the same about careless and unthinking uses of these black-and-white photographs for purposes other than respectful understanding and remembrance.

(A full file of the Stroop Report photos is available here. Here are brief historical accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (link, link) and a video exhibition recording survivors' experiences from Yad Vashem (link).)