Thursdays in Oxford are supposed to be my down day, but things never quite work out that way. On the one hand, it’s true, I have a book discussion group later this afternoon where we’ll be discussing Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders, which I enjoyed very much (and may review sometime in the near future), followed by the thing that keeps me sane, namely several hours of typesetting and engraving in the delightful Oxford Bibliography Room. I’m working on a lavish edition of the first paragraph of Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s The History of England, the first paragraph of which I spent the autumn typesetting and a portrait of the author of which I’ll begin engraving in resin today. Working with the hand tools always makes me fret that I’m about to canalize out several inches of a pointer finger; but after spending eighty percent of my time typing away on my laptop, it’s immensely refreshing to actually work with your hands in a substantive way – time to put off the ‘symbolic analyst’ hat and pretend to be an artisan for a few hours.
On the other hand, there’s still a dissertation to write. I’m currently working on what I hope will eventually become the first chapter of the work, a piece on how the Soviet Union thought about ‘economic development’ and ‘modernization’ in the Third World, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, and with special reference to strategic Afghanistan. This might sound like a relatively straightforward question – and it is, basically, if you’re only looking at the ‘what’ of the question.
But I think there’s also plenty of deeper, more interesting ways for historians to look at this question. I’ve been reading more into the work of the Penn intellectual historians Benjamin Nathans and Kevin Platt, for example, and in much of their work they encourage us to think more about how, methodologically, we can write about ideas under a quasi-totalitarian system like that of the USSR. “Here’s a question worth pondering,” writes Nathan in one recent piece, “why does the phrase ‘Soviet intellectual history’ sound odd?” His exploration of that question, which takes him through a review of recent works by Andrew Stone and Benjamin Tromly, forces historians (and people trying to get an in-depth understanding of the CIS today) to think more about how we use concepts like ‘the public sphere’ to refer to the Soviet Union.
As scholars like Aleksei Yurchak have argued, in the Brezhnev-era USSR people had a remarkable ability to combine rich interior ‘private’ lives (think Leningrad physicists getting together for discussion of physics and philosophy in their kitchens outside of their role as ‘public’ state-supported intellectuals, or exurban Moscow engineers meeting up with friends to take the kids on hikes and play bard music) with public support for the Party and the Soviet state. ‘Private’ or semi-private networks of intellectuals worked rather differently than the structure of, say, grad students working under professors who had contacts with intellectual journals which then have some influence on the policy discussion … etc., etc. that we see in the USA.
More than that, other scholars have deployed an impressive conceptual vocabulary in thinking about the history of the social sciences. One recent volume that I’m excited to read is Macht und Geist im Kalten Krieg (‘Power and Intellect in the Cold War’), a huge edited book that covers the history of the social sciences – mostly American but also some Soviet and German material – during the Cold War. (The book comes to us thanks to the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.) In the provocative words of the book blurb:
‘Ideas have consequences – especially when intellectuals and experts find the ear of the powerful who fear that they could run out of ideas. Such was the dynamic during the Cold War: total mobilization of all intellectual resources in order to excel against the enemy camp in the global struggle for power, prestige, and influence. It is in this context that the conjuncture of modernization theory and planning theory; the emergence of cybernetics and area studies; of game theory and other models of conflict management, broadly conceived have to be understood.’
I’m in! Or am I? Part of my work right now, to return to the original point, looks at how Soviet academics and Party élites looked at the problem of economic development in the Third World. We, too, today, assume that there exists something called ‘development’ in the Global South, and that it’s taking place, but part of what I’m trying to do – and haven’t yet really pulled off in current drafts – is to ask: if we assume, almost as a counterfactual, from the outset, that some independent Platonic concept called ‘economic development’ doesn’t exist, then what are we to make of this significant investment of resources that the two superpowers did build up?
Hopefully this isn’t leading me too much down the rabbit hole of theory, but by asking this question I think we develop a better idea of how the Soviet Union sought to ‘intellectually manage’ the changing world during the Cold War. It helps us better historicize the development of our own disciplines like area studies, ‘international relations,’ and to some extent economics, none of whose concepts exist independently of their disciplines but are, rather, tools we invented to make sense of a complicated world. Looking at how another big superpower with a significant economics, social sciences, and area studies establishment did this all helps us better understand how we ourselves got to where we are today, I think.
This is the road I’m headed on as I work on this chapter and paper, a working copy of which you can download here. Anyone interested in this topic or with comments, quarrels, or disputes – contact me.