Saturday, March 31, 2012

A partial explanation

It has been suggested to me by more than one person now that geographical proximity to the USSR played a key role in the relative success of communism in Asia compared to Africa. This seems to have merit as a partial explanation. It certainly explains a large part of the success of communist movements in North Korea, China, and Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Vietnam.

More on Africa's lack of communists.

A number of people have posited orthodox Marxist interpretations for the lack of communists in Africa during the 20th century. That is they have pointed out the lack of a European style working class. But, Lenin basically removed this criteria from Marxism. There was only a small working class in Russia in 1917. Likewise China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954, and Cuba in 1959 were not anymore industrialized than most of Africa. So I do not buy this explanation as satisfactory. The country in Africa that most closely followed the Soviet model of development was Ethiopia. It had one of the smallest working classes in Africa in 1974 when Mengistu came to power. So why were there so many more Asian communists compared to African communists in the 20th century when both continents were largely pre-industrial and had experienced European colonialism? Surely somebody has done some research on this topic? If anybody knows any useful publications on this point could you please cite them in the comments?

Why were there so few communists in Africa?

Today I had a pretty good discussion in class about why there were so few communists in Africa during the 20th century compared to Europe and Asia. We did not come up with any definitive answers, but it was good to see the students thinking about an issue and attempting to come up with possible explanations. If anybody would like to speculate on the reasons for the lack of African communists feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Open Thread on Ethnic Minorities in the USSR

I do not expect anybody to actually comment. But, feel free to if you want. I am more convinced than ever that the structural practice of the special settlement regime towards deported nationalities and South African apartheid have far more similarities than differences. I think I can get another journal article out of this idea.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Good News

It looks like I am going to get my plane ticket to Ghana reimbursed soon by the administration. If I get the arrears paid from the single spine adjustment that the government has promised University of Ghana lecturers as well then I will be doing very well. I hope I get the money soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hey where did all the bots go?

According to my stat counter my hits have been declining since December whereas before that they were rising. I am not sure if that means anything since I think most of those hits were by spam bots rather than humans. Other than the six people who have ever commented here and my mother I can not verify that I have or have had any other actual live readers. But, if I do have any actual readers perhaps they can provide some advice on how to move my audience up to double digits?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Coup in Mali

Evidently there was a military coup in Mali on Thursday, but I have not heard anybody here say anything about it. Indeed I just found out about it by accident on the Internet now. Despite idle speculation by American "experts" quoted in the various news stories I read that this may cause regional instability, I am guessing that the coup will have close to zero influence on events in Ghana.

UTAG Strike Officially Over

On Thursday the UTAG strike officially ended. Although the union leadership never told most of the membership either that it had started last Friday or that it ended on the following Thursday. During this time I did not teach any classes at the main campus in Legon. But, I did teach one on Tuesday at City Campus in Accra. It would have been nice if the UTAG leadership had told us when the strike started and when it ended. We had to find out through the Ghanaian mass media. For an organization representing about 2500 faculty including 800 here in Legon it could do a lot better job of informing its membership of what the leadership is up to. But, the UTAG leadership does talk to the press and from the various news reports on the Internet I have garnered the following information. It appears that payment of the arrears will come. But, for some reason Winneba will get paid first before Legon. Optimistically lecturers in Winneba will have their money in a little over a week. I have no idea when we will get our arrears paid here in Legon, but I hope it is before June.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


We seem to be having a lot of electrical blackouts recently. Last night the power went down at 7:30, came back on for twenty minutes at 9:10, and then went out again until sometime after midnight. It is really hot at night in my room if the ceiling fan is not working. This morning there was power when I woke up, but then we lost it for about an hour between 10:30 and 11:30. We seem to be losing power more frequently and for longer recently. Maybe because it is hotter this time of year and there is more strain on the electrical grid from the running of air conditioning units.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


For the last couple of weeks they have been remodeling the entire second floor of the History Department. They are adding a large number of new offices. I don't know where they are going to get the faculty to fill all the new offices, but we will have a lot of new office space.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The worst organized strike ever

Well evidently adherence to the strike is voluntary which means it is not really a strike. The Head of my Department told me today I had the option of striking or not, but if it went on for more than a week the administration would probably extend the academic year to make up for the lost teaching. He suggested returning to teaching, he never left, so that I could finish my classes without losing any vacation time. In at least one other department nobody stopped teaching. Since it is evident that the whole call by the UTAG leadership was badly planned I will return to teaching tomorrow. A strike is only effective if everybody adheres to it.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Strike and the Blogosphere

Left wing academic blogs like to pretend they support the rights of people of color, labor, and academics. But, none of them has written anything about the ongoing UTAG strike here in Ghana. Nor did they cover the UTAG strike in October 2010. However, they have lots of blog posts on labor issue pertaining to mostly white academics in the US. I find this total non-coverage of what is probably the largest labor action by any faculty union currently in the world to be quite telling. If a similar strike were taking place in the US, UK, Canada, or Australia I am quite sure it would get lots of coverage on the left wing academic blogs. But, for some reason left wing academics despite all their claims of being anti-racist just do not seem to care as much about people in Africa as they do about people in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Friday, March 16, 2012


UTAG (University Teacher's Association of Ghana) called for its members to stop teaching this morning. We recently got a substantial raise due to the previous activities of UTAG. The raise was supposed to be retroactive for up to two years. The strike is over the payment of the arrears. So this afternoon I did not teach my two classes and it is unlikely I will be teaching Monday morning. This is the first time I have been involved in a strike. I hope it is resolved by Monday afternoon.

Power Outage

The power was out in Legon today from 10:48 to 6:48 and it was very hot. So I tried sitting in my dark and very hot office reading. But, I ended up going home early to take a nap.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ethnic Theory and Practice in the USSR and the Republic of South Africa

It has become apparent to me that in both theory and practice that there are a lot of similarities between Soviet nationalities policies and South African apartheid. In practice this is most apparent in the treatment of the deported peoples who were placed under the apartheid like restrictions of the special settlement regime. Restrictions that the Stalin regime decreed to be for all eternity "navechno" on 26 November 1948. But, even under the reformist post-Stalin regime legal restrictions on the freedom of residency remained on Soviet citizens of German nationality until 3 November 1972. This practice rested upon a theory that ethnoses are immutable groups into which people are born into and can not ever leave even after generations of acculturation have eliminated all actual cultural distinctions between the stigmatized groups and their larger host populations. While real cultural traits such as language may disappear during this time ascribed negative traits such as inherent disloyalty due to having an ancestral homeland abroad are considered to be innate and effectively eternal. I consider the permanent ascription of negative traits to people based upon their membership from birth into immutable categories of people defined by the state to be racist, but apparently I am among a very small minority of people with PhDs to take this position.

Ethnic theory in the USSR upon which the classification of people into different nationalities was based rests on the idea of essentialized and primordial groups tied forever to particular pieces of soil from which individuals could not escape through the process of cultural assimilation. Descendants of German immigrants to the US became simply Americans in a few short generations. In Russia and Central Asia people whose ancestors came from Central Europe to the Russian Empire as early as 1764 and who have almost completely lost all connections with their ancestral culture are still considered completely German in their essence. Such a situation has far more in common with racial formation in places like the US or even more so South Africa than it does with maintaining ethnic (i.e. cultural) identity. The ethnic theory that racialized nationality in the USSR in fact has a lot of similarities with the volkekunde used to provide a theoretical basis for apartheid.

Sergei Shirokogorov's work turns out to be one of the primary intellectual foundations of South African volkekunde. The literature freely acknowledges this fact. He was a student of Lev Shternberg, one of the most important early ethnographers in the USSR. Shirokogorov later went into exile in China, but his work continued to be influential not only in the USSR, but also Germany, and later South Africa. Despite being an emigre Shirokogorov's work remained central to Soviet ethnic theory as developed by Yulian Bromley. But, Shirkogorov's ideas were not ever alien to the USSR. The idea of primordial ethnicity which was put into rigid legal practice by the NKVD in 1938 was shared by a number of early Soviet ethnographers including Shternberg and his close collaborator Vladimir Bogoraz.

It is true that the Soviet ethnographers unlike those in Nazi Germany always defined ethnoses on the basis of things other than genetics. But, so too did the South Africans. Culture has since Boas served as a very convenient substitute for biology in the construction of immutable groups defined by ancestry. It is telling that although Hirsch makes numerous references contrasting Soviet and Nazi theories that her book Empire of Nations does not once mention Shirokogorov. An investigation into scholars positively citing his work shows not only similarities, but the actual intellectual influence of Soviet ideas of ethnicity in the construction of the theoretical basis of South African apartheid. The South Africans both in theory and practice erected a system of racial discrimination that thus had far more in common with Soviet nationalities policies than it did with Nazi Germany.

Yet, Hirsch and Weiner defend the USSR from the charge of racism by pointing out its differences from Nazi Germany as if that were the only example of racism in world history. If the Soviet national deportations are not racist because they were justified along lines of ethnicity stressing historical, cultural, and geographical differences rather than genetic ones than it seems impossible to claim that apartheid was racist. It too was justified along a rationale very different from the biological one of Nazi Germany. Indeed defenders of apartheid pointed out that 'separate development' was based upon providing for the different needs of ethnicities defined by differences in  history, culture, and geography not genetic inferiority. Nobody of course took the defenders of apartheid seriously even though they may have sincerely believed what they were saying. So why do most US scholars of the USSR buy the line that there was no racial discrimination in the USSR towards the deported peoples because the Stalin regime called racialized groups nationalities and like South Africa defined them along cultural rather than genetic lines?


They are still remodeling the upstairs of the department. But, it is coming along much faster than I expected. I am curious to see what the finished product will look like.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shirokogoroff (Shirokogorov) a common link in the theoretical construction of Soviet nationalities policy and South African apartheid

It appears that the similarities between Soviet and apartheid era South African anthropology are not coincidental. They stem from the common influence of Sergei Shirokogorov who in turn was a student of Lev Shternberg on both Soviet and South African scholars particularly with regards to theories of ethnicity. I was not aware of the influence of Shirokogorov or as it appears in the South African literature Shirokogoroff on volkekunde until recently. Evidently the writings of Shirokogorov formed a very important part of the theoretical basis of South African volkekunde.  But, given the similarities and resemblances between the Soviet and the South African literature it is not surprising.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Looking for old issues of RAIN

Last night I saw an interesting end note in an old piece by Richard Jenkins. I have quoted the note below.

The intellectual resemblance between South African volkekunde and Soviet anthropology is too complicated a matter to discuss here: see, however the controversy in the pages of RAIN (Royal Anthropological Institute News), numbers 35, 36, 37 and 38 (1979-80).
I would love to get my hands on those issues of RAIN. I thought I was the only person in the world who noticed the similarities between Soviet and apartheid era South African anthropologists in focusing on a primordial conception of ethnicity. Current US scholars of the USSR certainly completely ignore these resemblances.  A preliminary search in the electronic catalog of the Balme Library did not turn up anything that looked remotely promising. If anybody knows where I might be able to acquire copies of the relevant articles please let me know.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Today to avoid the crowds in Legon I went with a friend to Osu. He thought we might be able to find a Lebanese or Indian place there. But, we did not succeed in this task. I had never been to Osu before. I was not overly impressed. Other than having high prices and a lot of Obrunis it did not look any different from any other region of Accra. It had a lot less to see than Makola Market, James Town, or other more authentically indigenous areas of the city. I guess the fact that it has a KFC attracts a lot of Obrunis. Accra, however, still has no McDonald's.

Recent events

University of Ghana is having its graduation ceremony today and the campus is very crowded. I am going to try and find some place away from the crowds. They are reconstructing the history department offices so that is not an option. In addition to having no power to run any computers we have workmen pounding away upstairs. I hope they can get the power back by Monday. We have had three working days so far without it.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Happy International Women's Day

Everybody have a Happy International Women's Day today. It has to be better than International Women's Day for the Balkars in 1944. On that day Stalin celebrated the holiday by deporting almost the entire Balkar population including nearly all the women as special settlers from their Caucasian homeland to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

How I spent my Holiday

Today was Ghanaian Independence Day and I did not accomplish much work wise.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Tomorrow is Ghanaian Independence Day - 55 Years Ago

Ghana got its independence from the UK on 6 March 1957. It was the first African colony south of the Sahara to gain independence.

Africa is hot today

Legon feels really hot today. I had to make a long trip on foot today and now I am covered in sweat. According to the Internet the temperature is only 30 C with 66% humidity. But, it feels like it is around 40 C.

Why do they train specialists for generalist work?

The task of writing a PhD dissertation is almost completely opposite of what university lecturers do in the class room. In graduate school you write a detailed work on a limited subject. My own dissertation was a comparative study of about a half century of modern history of three national groups with a total combined population of less than three million people. As a lecturer you teach the broad history of whole continents for periods of time stretching for centuries. Writing a dissertation on the comparative experiences of internal exile in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia of Russian Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks is probably not the best possible preparation for teaching nineteenth century European history.  I think Soviet, Russian, or maybe even Ottoman history might actually have a more direct relationship with the subject of my PhD dissertation. Had I known I was going to be teaching European history despite the topic of my dissertation and publishing record I would have spent more time in Arivaca reading about England, France, and Belgium. Back then I thought I would be teaching the history of the Islamic world.  It turns out that the specialist approach favored in academia for dissertations and publications has almost no application in the classroom. There the more general, particularly regarding breadth of time and space, the better. A working knowledge of all the important events of world history from Middle Ages on is more useful in university teaching than specialization in anything.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Racial Discrimination in the USSR Once More

I know that I am the only one of three people in the world who believes this, but I still fail to see how the Soviet deportations of whole nationalities was not racist. Just because the Soviet government used the term natsionalnost rather than race does mean the actions were not in effect racist. In practice the term natsionalnost meant the exact same thing as race when it came to the treatment of the deported peoples. In these cases the category functioned exactly like the term 'race' and was even constructed along similar historical and cultural lines as existed in apartheid South Africa with regards to restricting freedom of residency and movement. Yet a Google scholar search on "racial discrimination in the USSR" shows only two articles. The first is my recent publication in Human Rights Review. The second is an article on Jews from 1977. The more I think about it the more I come to the conclusion that Hirsch's argument that there was never any racial discrimination by the Stalin regime against the deported peoples to be extremely weak. The racist function of institutions like the 'special settlement regime' is not dependent upon what term is used to describe the division of humans into immutable groups based upon ancestry. It is the differential treatment by the state of humans divided into such groups that constitutes racial discrimination. Why is it scholars are able to recognize this for every other case in the history of the world, but still claim that racism never existed as an official policy in the USSR towards groups like the ethnic Koreans, Germans, Chechens, Kalmyks, and Crimean Tatars?  Strangely enough a number do claim that official racism existed against Jews even though the Soviet government never subjected Jews as a group to the apartheid like restrictions that greatly reduced the life chances of the above mentioned groups during the 1940s and 50s.

Thursday, March 01, 2012


There is a popular brand of ramen noodles here called Indomie. They are imported from Indonesia. I have taken to eating them in a quick approximation of Ghanaian light soup. Basically I serve them in a broth of tomato paste, ketchup, and shito sauce. Sometimes I add a sriracha style chili and garlic sauce if I can find it. The result is a spicy tomato broth similar to light soup, but containing ramen noodles rather than fufu. I call this concoction Afromie. It is quite tasty.

Rethinking Life

Given the strange trajectory of my life in the last decade or so I definitely over think the contingencies that brought me here. I should dwell less on the failures of my own past and concentrate more on succeeding in the future. I can be a successful lecturer here in Africa and that is a greater contribution to overall human good than many people make.