Wednesday, April 04, 2012

More on why Hirsch is wrong

One of Hirsch's problems is her adherence to a definition of racism that only people intent on defending the USSR or other culprits from the charge of racism still use. Her definition of racism  is one that requires the categorization of population groups in purely biological and physical terms (Hirsch, pp. 30-36). As I have noted elsewhere modern scholars including John Rex, Kenan Malik, Saul Dubow, Etienne Balibar, Paul Gilroy, and many others reject this premise. They note that cultural traits can also be used to define racial groups.  Hirsch states, "But, to call Soviet population politics 'racial' - to insist that a state sees its population through a 'racial lens' if it ascribes cultural or behavioral traits to its population groups (that is, if it stereotypes) is to obscure important differences between the Soviet and Nazi regimes and their projects." (Hirsch, p. 37). I would argue that racism is in fact the ascription of negative cultural or behavioral traits to entire populations determined to be immutable and defined by ancestry. Even more bizarre, however, is Hirsch's apparent belief that the only form of racial discrimination to exist in world history was what existed in Nazi Germany. One of her claims is that the Soviet deportation of nationalities was not racist because the Stalin regime did not seek, "to eliminate their 'genetic material' altogether" and that this distinguished it from Nazi Germany (Hirsch, p. 40). It does in fact point to a difference between Nazi and Soviet forms of racism, but it does not clear the Soviets of the charge of racism itself. Hirsch, however, is unable to conceive of racism as anything other than the Nazi policies of total extermination based upon genetics. For instance she notes that the Soviet government did not treat the Chechens in the exact same manner as the Nazis treated Jews at places like Auschwitz as evidence that Soviet policies were not racist (Hirsch, pp. 40-41). Racism does not require genocide and genocide does not require an attempt to physically exterminate all members of a group based upon their genetic material.

There are a number of different models for the construction of racial categories and many of them such as apartheid in South Africa followed a model of racializing cultural groups such as ethnicities and nationalities similar to Stalin's practice in the USSR. Hirsch continues her defense of Stalin's USSR against the charge of racist practices by noting the differences between it and Nazi Germany, never bothering to note the similarities between the USSR and places like apartheid South Africa regarding nationality policy and ethnos theory. She states, "The Soviet regime did not persecute nationalities because of suspected 'biological weaknesses' or 'deficient inner constitutions.' It did not brand particular nationalities as inferior or degenerate races." (Hirsch, p. 37). To which it should be noted that on the basis of the same type of evidence that the South Africans did not either. Instead the official discourse justifying apartheid stressed that the differences in culture, history, geography, and material levels of development between separate ethnoses required 'separate development' of these different groups.

The South African volkekundiges were among the first post-war racists to grasp that "Volk and culture functioned as a useful substitute for a biological view of race." (Dubow, p. 283). Indeed in the official racial discourse in South Africa, "the diffuse language of cultural essentialism was preferred to the crude scientific racism drawn from the vocabulary of social Darwinism." (Dubow, p. 246). But, they were far from the only ones to define racial groups in a cultural rather than biological manner. As Kenan Malik has noted, "By divesting the concept of race of its biological heritage, and conceiving it in terms of cultural inheritance ('an endlessly transferable set of beliefs and burdens'), the new discourse of race has reshaped the concept into a form usable in the post-Nazi era." (Malik, p. 187). Note that Malik's definition of the new racism is very similar to what actually existed in the USSR. This culturally based racism has the great advantage that like Hirsch with the Soviet Union it allows its defenders to deny it is racist while performing the exact same function as the old biologically based racism (Malik, pp. 186-187). In this sense the USSR was way ahead of the rest of the world with replacing the discredited notions of biology with an exclusionary and primordial definition of ethnicity.

Hirsch, however, denies that racial categories can ever be constructed along cultural rather than biological and genetic lines. She notes, "For the NKVD and the party the issue was not an individual's biological (genetic or blood) membership in one or another group, but his or her cultural heritage and possible ties to other states." (Hirsch, p. 39) She neglects to note that 'cultural heritage' often serves as the basis for racializing a group and assuming political ties to foreign states based solely  upon that heritage is in fact a racist ascription.  Indeed she seems completely unaware of the vast body of work by people like John Rex, Kenan Malik, Paul Gilroy, George Fredrickson, and others precisely on the point of racial formation based upon 'cultural heritage' rather than genetics.


Saul Dubow,  Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa, Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Francine Hirsch, "Race without the Politics of Racial Politics," Slavic Review, vol. 61, no. 1, (spring 2002), pp. 30-43.

Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society, London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996.

1 comment:

The Ancient said...