Author Archive

USSR, Socialism and Brutal Dictatorship

One of the quuestions that arises is whether the authoritarian turn for the USSR was caused by the personal characteristics of Stalin or whether there were other underlying factors such as culture, ideology, institutions, international politics, that led to the authoritarian nature of the USSR. This question also applies to subsequent regimes as well.

Deudney makes the case that these regimes turn to authoritariansim because the ideology upon which they are built has no discussion of internal violence and abuse of power. Marxism in contrast to republicanism, discusses international conflict, but fails to take into account the problem of abuse of institutional control. Marxism itself has no discussion of the state under communism which it assumed would whither away, but Lenin’s discussion on the vanguard state is explicitly concerned with the other capitalist states and not the abuses this vanguard state might undertake.

There is some confirmation to this view. First, the fact that even Lenin had authoritarian tendencies and conducted a red terror of his own with the Bolsheviks. After all it was Lenin who formed the Chekka, the early version of the KGB. Second, even though there was a tempering of paranoia and witch hunts after Stalin’s death, subsequent leaders continued to be authoritarian. Third is the problem that all socialist states were authoritarian, the only states that managed to successfully prevent the abuse of authority over its citizens were the democratic socialist ones. This might be due to the influence of the USSR, but it is in line with the argument about Soviet ideology. This also contradicts the cultural explanation as we see this occur across a number of cultures. Here I mean by authoritarianism, not the absence of democracy, but abuses by those in positions of authority over their people in unaccountable and violent ways, including the miniscule control of everyday actions.

Another explanation pops up in reading the literature on the history of the KGB in the USSR. There are two versions of this argument. The first is that international hostility to communism and the Bolsheviks led these regimes to react by moving towards authoritarianism. Under intense international hostility and plots to overthrow their regimes, paranoia and authoritarian rule becomes a necessary turn. The second version of this argument is that the belief that a worker’s state was an existential threat to capitalist state led the leaders of Socialist states to expect continuous and intense efforts of capitalist states to subvert them. In this version, the capitalist states don’t really have to do anything, rather it is inscribed in the communist ideology that capitalist states will be threatened by worker states and try to undermine them. Therefore written into the soviet ideology is the need for continuous vigilance against plots when there is no overt fighting with capitalist states. When these plots fail to appear, it must be because the Soviet union missed them rather than their non-existence. This would lead to increased paranoia and intense suspicion which would end up in brutal authoritarian rule. What’s interesting about this explanation is that it explains regime type through ideology, but it does so not through an absence of consideration with power abuse, but because of an expectation of international conflict.

The Mitrokhin files seem to confirm this argument, when the KGB (or its predecessor) acquired documents on British SIS operations, they were confused by the absence of major operations in the USSR, and the almost complete absence of agents. Although the sources were quite accurate, the KGB head concluded that the source was trying to trick them. They cut off communications for a while from this source because the information provided failed to confirm the expected plots that were ideologically expected to be taking place.

This provides an interesting parallel to the other authoritarian state tendencies. There is often a rhetorical return to the threat the regime poses to the US or the liberal world which is used to justify acts of repression. While I do not doubt that such operations exist, it still doesn’t change the fact that inscribed into the ideology, or mentality of these regimes is the expectation of conflict, which pushes these regimes to paranoia and authoritarian rule.

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Fiction Impacting Politics

The movie Rambo IV apparently inspired Burmese rebels to continue fighting the government. It apparently gave Karen freedom fighters a boost in Morale.

This would make an interesting addition to the work on how politicians and political actors are inspired and guided by works of fiction. PTJ is hosting a panel on this at ISA-NE which this could nicely fit into.

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The State and Al Dawl

There’s an interesting book, which is a bit too ideologically Islamic for me, called  Turath Al Arab Wal Muslimin fi Al Alaqat al Kharijiya.

The first chapter by Mustafa Manjood has an interesting discussion on the concept of the state in Arabic.

Manjoud points out that “Dawla” in Arabic derives from the root “Dawl” from which we also derive “Tadawul” “Dulab” etc… Linguistically the word Dawl has many meanings. It refers to the use of money and war, where Dawla with a fatha refers to war, aldawla with a damma on the d refers to money (think of tadawul).The Dawla has also been refered to as that which regulates the laws (Mulk) particularly of ownership, and the laws in general (sunan). (50)

At root however Dawla ultimately means that which changes one condition to another, or that which revolves, either to a new situation or returning to an old situation. As far as I understand it, the closest term in English is the Transact, where transact is not a verb but a noun. This is the way Ibn Khaldun uses the word to refer to political units, in Arabic these are ever changing, unstable, and do not remain the same. Ibn Khaldun’s use also implies change which has a pace different from the pace of individual life and death.

The emphasis on change – be it the state being that which changes the world, or the state being that which changes – is interesting when contrasted to the Latin word which is the state. In the Latin conception, the political unit is described as a condition that exists, this emphasizes stasis and existence rather than transformation. Manjood argues that we can see this in western philosophy, in the emphasis on the glorification of the state and the concern with its durability. In contrast Muslim philosophers understand the state as transient.

I’m not a fan of explaining current political behavior based on old (or even current) texts which no one reads, and in this case I still wouldn’t use this to explain politics in the Arab world, but it’s still really interesting, if only to deepen our historical understanding of the state historically.

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Every time I come across the word “Nation” from an older text I am immediately reminded of the claims that Nationalism is a modern phenomena that has precedent historically. Obviously the word nation and nationalism are distinct, one indicates an identifiable group of people, the other is an ideology that these people belong together politically, usually in a fixed space.

I just came across a 10th century text by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII. The works is partially based upon an earlier work title “On the Governance of the state and various nations“. The word nations stands out here and I wonder what is indicated by it for the Byzantine Emperor. For me at least, the use of the word nation puts a chink in the degree of novelty that nationalism embodies. The word has an older lineage and it refers to the existence of a distinct group of people. All of the nations mentioned by the Emperor might not be politically united, but at least some of the members of this nation present themselves as a cohesive force which must be addressed. Their loyalties to each other seem to stem from a common identity which gives them unity. Interesting nuance on the history of nationalism and nations.

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Controlling Hierarchical and egalitarian societies

One explanation for the rapid control of Europeans over foreign populations often refers to the importance of existing hierarchical political arrangements which Europeans can take over. This can be seen in the book by James Mahoney on Colonialsim and Post-Colonial Development. Extrapolating from this, one would expect that the US invasion of Iraq should have led to easy political control for the Unites States. Authoritarian Iraq is a clear case of an existing hierarchical political system. Why is it that we do not see an ability for the US to exert control on Iraq, similarly why is it that these systems collapse so totally into non-hierarchical politics with the subsequent state being unable to exert control?

Two answers come to mind. The first is that the US did not take on the existing political organization of Iraq, but rather it destroyed it and attempted to build up a new one. A second answer focuses on the ideological repertoires available to inhabitants of these countries. Ideas of self determination and rejection of foreign based rule become widespread after WW2 and under such an ideological environment simply taking over an existing political apparatus ceases to work like it did. If either of these are true than the Mahoney thesis stands, however if these are not true, then the explanation for the ease of takeover of Europeans of colonial lands is not a convincing one.

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Policing in the Ancient World

The book Espionage in the ANcient World, by SHeldon RM is a great bibliograohy with many juicy sources for disparate topics. I’m looking at covert ops right now, but there is an interesting entry on the police on anceint egypt under Rome that indicates the existence of policing in the ancient world, including domestic information gathering and capturing of spies (p43). It is very interesting to see th extensive use of cryptography and codes in the ancient world to hide information from unwanted audiences. The practice is quite extensive and well documented. (60) A Greek residing in persian court Histiaeus wanted to communicate with his son-in-law Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus. Since the roads were guarded, he shaved the head of a trusted slave, tattooed the message on the slave’s head, and let the slave’s hair grow back. THe slave was sent to Aristagora with verbal instructions to shave his head.

Also  see Dvornik’s “Origins of Intelligence Services” on p137-138 on Egyptian police.

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ISA 2015

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Had a good conference this ISA. Here are some highlights:

Lucas Freire had a great presentation on the ancient near east international order and its institutions. HE navigates the tensions between anachronism and particularism marvelously. That international order aimed at preserving the major polities (great kings) from destruction, and a maintenance of the two tier system of great kings and vassals. The system has two sets of rules, the first of normative aspiration and the second to keep the peace. The king wanted to look heroic to a domestic audience, but also wanted to preserve the system.  He also argues that the volume of silver gifts in this system was to such an extent that it counted as international trade. Though I am skeptical about this, I also know it is interesting that chinese scholars do not regard the tribute to china to be of major economic significance.

David Wilkinson presented his projected which coded international orders by polarity. It was a bit underwhelming and I think for all the work he has put into it, he could have done something beyond polarity. Might be worth looking into further. He argues that a central civilization in Eurasia had emerged.

Meera Sabratnam presented an interesting perspective on how standpoint theory could be combined with historical sociology. She proposes contrapuntal historiography (Said) as an alternative.

Early Modern:

Was on a great early modernity and IR panel with David Kang. Interesting periodization of medieval from 6-12th century and Early modern from 15th-18th with different scholars adopting different measures. Everyone agreed that the period of early modernity is a useful concept but that the periodization of modernity is terrible which puts things in an awkward light. Early Modern marks a period where we can still find similarities of processes around the world. The breaking point of the 12th century seems to be based on the revival of the roman empire in Europe and the start of a legal revolution in Europe so that behind every throne was an italian lawyer. First university of law is founded in this period.

Another way of looking at the European international order is according to the logic that motivates war and state politics. From the 14th to 18th century, European international order is basically the relations of family disputes. War is a family feud. This changes in the 18th century from raison de famille to real politik. Argument that the European state only emerges in 18th century, no seeds in the early modern. In the European early modern it is only the Italians who are not playing the dynastic game.

Our study of the early modern is inhibited by our search for the seeds of the sovereign state. In fact the seeds of the sovereign (another paper by Andrew Latham actually traces the seeds of sovereignty to the 12th century).

What distinguishes the early modern period are two factors: The expansion of many systems that are linking up; and ecological turbulence. There is some similarity of patterns in which famines lead to religious millenarianism.

Nexon: Tilly regrets using the word formation, he wanted to talk about state transformation. There is a possibility of having transposable analytical concepts. Things like actors, organized violence, taxation, rent seeking, economic exchange …

Kang: The British borrow their form of state from 8th century china (reminds me of the Prussian military getting their military reforms from jesuits). Great Quote: The biggest critique to his work was the charge of orientalism or essentialism. Thus historical IR is stuck between 2 poles, Eurocentrism and essentialism. We need to find a way to navigate this.

IR is parasitic on history (Vultures). Secondary sources seem to be enough if you read very thoroughly and use primary sources as a supplement if possible. Kang thinks that historians take for granted background stuff and IR brings a focus on power and economic which historians assume as a background.

Andrew Latham: Brown’s tyranny of a construct demolished feudalism as an essential description of the medieval era. Latham seeks to do the same to heteronomy, the idea of multiple overlapping sovereigns. The medieval era had multiple political forms, but all were built on the logic of supreme authority.  Corporate sovereignty acted as a constitutive concept. There were Kingdoms, principalities, communes, and leagues, and all were built on corporate sovereignty. The dual sovereign of the emperor and the pope ended when the pope said the emperor was just another kingdom.


Blaney’s frustrations that what is produced in China is not beyond the horizons of western knowledge indicate a desperation to find difference. Indian IR, Chinese IR, etc… but these scholars see themselves as doing universal IR.

A lot of problematic discussion on what it means to find “true difference”.

David Chan put forth a very interesting statement on how critical theory becoming respectable in IR has had the effect to silence alternatives. It is no longer emancipatory and this is problematic. Though the standard of critical theory seems to move with the goalposts, is it simply what isn’t in the discipline?

Sibagro as always had a lot of interesting things to say, mainly on the story of felix eboue’ who decided to fight for the republic in WW2.

Sanjay Seth makes an important definitional argument that you cannot be postcolonial if you do not accept that politics is about what meaning people give to the world.

Randy Persaud argues that you don’t need postcolonialims or critical theory, just by using positivism in a different way one can provide an alternate insight into reality. He uses numbers on the kill ration and finds that the white to non-white fatality rate in astronomical.

I think it was Bilgin who argued that there are two types of Eurocentrism, one is intellectual, and one can identify this in the text, the other is a subconscious the permeates the academy, and that is more diifficult to root out.

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