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Review – Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography – Georgi M. Derluguian

"Bourdieu's Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography" book coverThe title of this book by itself could already warrant a read, yet there is much more to find in this book, its interesting title aside. The work mainly deals with the question of the Soviet Union and particularly its collapse and the subsequent descent of certain regions within the former Soviet Union into ethnic violence, particularly focusing on the Caucasus. To do this, the author, himself an ethnic Armenian from the Caucasus, sets out on the ambitious goal of not only explaining these phenomena but also on integrating a meso, macro and micro level analysis in his work. To accomplish this the author mainly takes from world-systems analysis, comparative sociology a la Tilly and Skocpol and, in relation to the micro level, Bourdieusian analysis. The incorporation of this micro level of analysis mainly happens through charting the life of Yuri Shanibov (Musa Shanib when he became a Chechen nationalist leader), an academic from the Caucasus whose aspiring career was cut short during the Brezhnev era for intellectual non-conformism, but who later re-emerged during the post-collapse upheavals as a nationalist leader. This is also where the name of the book is derived from as when Shanibov was recuperating from wounds sustained during the Abkhazia conflict of the nineties, he managed to get his hands on the newly translated works of Pierre Bourdieu and became a great admirer of the man and his work. Throughout the book the author charts the life of this extraordinary persona in the context of the evolution and collapse of the USSR, thus giving us the ambitious subtitle “a world-systems biography”.

The author characterizes the USSR as a developmentalist state, namely a regime that rapidly industrializes peripheral countries based upon state coercion led by a state bureaucracy, in response to the underdevelopment inherent in the capitalist world-system. He then continues explaining the differential occurrences of ethnic violence throughout the former USSR and Eastern Block by basing his analysis mainly around a class analysis of these territories. This class analysis is not a strict Marxist form of class analysis, yet it appears to have a relatively decent explanatory capacity. Derluguian cites the existence of four classes: nomenclature, intellectuals, proletariat and sub-proletariat. The first and the third speak for themselves yet the second and fourth require some extra explanation and coincidentally are key in the authors explanation for ethnic violence. Intellectuals mainly being a disaffected, highly educated group who during the Brezhnevite closing of the ranks of the nomenclatura, were denied positions of social advancement and played a critical role during the post-collapse upheavals. The sub-proletariat being the group being not or only partly dependent upon wage labour, and mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture, black market trading, smuggling, migratory labour…etc. These groups often were quite numerous in the peripheral areas of the USSR and strongly represented among certain ethnic groups within these peripheral areas. The key explanation Derluguian then advances for the outbreak of ethnic violence is the class relations within certain areas of the USSR, mainly how the dissident intellectuals, who originally engaged in a variety of reformist political projects such as environmentalism, socialist reform, democratic reform, over time more and more adopted nationalist ideology to challenge the power of the nomenclatura while mobilizing the sub-proletariat for their cause. According to Derluguian in the Caucasus the nomenclatura remained steadfast and eventually caused a frontal confrontation which resulted in severe ethnic violence produced by the sub-proletariat and degeneration into the periphery of the capitalist world-system while in for example the Baltic states the nomenclatura voluntarily incorporated the intellectuals in response to Soviet collapse and were successfully integrated in the semi-periphery. Yuri Shanibov is then portrayed by Derluguian as being an example of this process as he could be classified as a disaffected intellectual who started out as a socialist reformer who eventually ended up being a nationalist leader during the ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus.

The analysis presented by Derluguian, although interesting and thought provoking, is often somewhat muddled and at times lacks in clarity as the author loses focus when describing certain phenomena and starts unsystematically describing a whole range of factors, often making it hard to follow and synthesize. Furthermore, although sometimes enlightening, the Bourdieusian analysis often comes out as lacking and not completely fitting into the broader picture sketched by the author, adding even more to the unorganised character of the book. Although these problems are somewhat inherent to the approach Derluguian takes throughout the book, where he consistently puts forward a complex and nuanced analysis that stands in stark contrast to an overly simplified approach to the issues raised in the book, yet sadly this often means that clarity is sacrificed in favour of complexity throughout the book.

Nevertheless I would still like to recommend this book to anyone still looking for a summer read, it deals with questions that are supposed to be of interest to the readers of this blog, such as the collapse and character of the Soviet Union. And although it is not “pure” Marxist analysis (in my opinion never a reason not to read something) it still incorporates perspectives that are supposed to sound familiar to Marxists while still providing interesting new perspectives inherent with forays outside of their own intellectual ghetto. Besides this, the book incorporates both well written, more personal, anecdote-like stories from the author who has travelled and interviewed extensively in the area, and more dense theoretical chapters that contain interesting insights and furthermore a significant amount of references to other interesting works that are bound to spark the interest of the reader, making this quite the enjoyable read. All in all thus an interesting read.

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About yeksmesh

Yeksmesh is kinda sorta an anarchist but with many influences, who likes to make jokes about trots. It is therefore pretty much certain that Yeksmesh will be put against the wall for petty-bourgeoisie infantile deviationist intransigence after the revolution has come.
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