Modernity in the Soviet Union

In this article, historian, David Hoffman discusses the trends of modernity during the late 19th to 20th century, particularly in Russia as it became the Soviet Union. According to Hoffman, modernity is linked with the many ideals of the Enlightenment. Many tend to link the term modernity with democracy and associate it with the political and economic systems of the United States, England, and France. Hoffman briefly discusses the ideas of the enlightenment and the need for reason. Instead of associating modernity with democracy and the spread of industrial capitalism, particularly in Western Europe, the basis of modernity are science and reason, and therefore, Hoffman argues that many facets of Enlightenment thought were integral in the emergence of the Soviet Union. Hoffman also makes the argument that modernity also largely consists of the idea of stemming away from tradition and transforming into something new using rational thinking.  Hoffman continues by giving examples of how certain aspects of Russian society such as, education, the military, health, etc. transformed into the Soviet state with the use of reason and rational thinking. Hoffman focuses a lot on the creation of the welfare state. Hoffman states, “throughout Europe the interventionist welfare state resulted from new forms of knowledge, new goals of government, and new technologies of social control … in their [government officials, political leaders, and professionals] quest to order society rationally and scientifically, they strove to know the population statistically” (252). With the use of rationale and scientific thinking, statistics and studies paved the way from new observations and developments within Russian society. Hoffman describes that when observing poverty, which had been previously been viewed as “human errors,” statistics showed that poverty was a social issue that called out for the establishment of a welfare state with social work and programs that could help the impoverished become better citizens (252). Ultimately, modernity in Russia consisted of an attempt to transform individuals and society in rational and productive manner.

A New Society: Modernity in Soviet Russia

For most of Europe in the 19th century, modernity was seen as the emergence of nation-states, the establishment of a parliamentary democracy, and the rise of capitalism. Imperial Russia and Soviet modernity differed from this concept. Instead, their modernity focused on Enlightenment ideals such as the belief in progress, a focus on reason, and the belittlement of religion and tradition. The inclusion of Russian modernity broadens the definition parameters of this obscure term. The Soviet Union encompassed mass politics, population management, and socialism.

Anthony Gidden defines modernity as the establishment of abstract systems to measure time and space. In other words, reordering tradition to scientific and medical expert systems. In Russia, these expert systems consist of rationalizing economic production, and reorganizing the population and society. Mass politics were a major influence in Russian culture during the 19th and 20th century. In Hoffman’s article, he argues that in order to be visible to the public, experts had to employ myths and “make a participatory but nondemocratic form of politics. Experts did this by inventing traditions, specifically folk culture, in order to promote certain ideologies. These soviet experts sought to reorganize and retrain the citizens in order to make these valuable assets. The ultimate goal of citizenship was to be rational and productive. For ultimate productivity, the Russian government insisted on population management. To them, the citizens were statistics on a map. The Soviet Union introduced tactics such as sterilization in order to keep citizens at maximum efficiency. Socialist ideology played a huge part in Russian society. Socialism was a product of European modernity. Things such as elimination of private property, unequal distribution of wealth, and economic exploitation were a response to Europe’s modernity. The Soviet Union chose national interest over individual interest in order to improve the society as a whole. For the Russian government reshaping, disciplining, and mobilizing the population in order to meet industrial and welfare needs characterized modernity. As Hoffman points out, “Soviet socialism responded to challenges and aspirations of Europeans modernity.”

The Modernity Debate

In the article “European Modernity and Soviet Socialism,” David Hoffman strives to eradicate the notion of Russia being unique in comparison with other European countries (and therefore backwards and uncivilized).  While Russia did not follow the path of “…liberal democracy and industrial capitalism which characterized the political and economic systems of England, France, and the United States,” (Hoffman, 245) Russia certainly can be perceived as modern, if only the very definition of modernity be broadened.

Hoffman notes that in Western Europe, the definition of modernity and what constitutes as “modern” is very specific. Modernity in this instance entails the development of nation-states, the establishment of parliamentary procedures, and the spread of industrial capitalism. By this definition, Russia is certainly not modern. Subsequently, Hoffman argues that “…it is important to consider more universal trends associated with the coming of modernity. A number of aspects of Soviet socialism paralleled developments throughout Europe during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (Hoffman, 245). Indeed, several ideals commonplace in Enlightenment thought are very prevalent in Russia. The belief in progress, faith in reason, veneration of science, and the disparagement of religion and tradition all characterized the Soviet system in various ways, as Hoffman continuously demonstrates.

Hoffman offers countless instances of Soviet modernity initiatives that were replicated all over Europe and in the United States. For example, the Soviets focused especially on the study of Eugenics. Eugenics is the belief that by sorting through and rooting out deficiencies (both mental and physical) found in humans, a new and vastly improved race could be achieved. While Germany certainly took this study and used it as justification for their racial cleanse, the United States expressed interest in Eugenics as well. Specifically, “In 1907 the state of Indiana passed a law that allowed sterilization of the ‘degenerate’ and in 1927 the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization ” (Hoffman, 254-255). Simultaneously, a strong Eugenics movement developed in the Soviet Union. Though this is a specific example, Hoffman’s point is made extremely clear. Russia can easily be seen as modern, once a definition is expanded. The idea of modernity can include a wide array of requirements or stipulations. By broadening our definition, Hoffman states we are better enabled to explain the wide array of modern proposals designed to reorder society on a rational basis.

Modernity and Soviet Socialism

David Hoffman’s article analyzes the meanings of what it means to be a modern state and how the Soviet Union has historically fit into this definition. A modern state is recognized as a nation-state that has developed a system of parliamentary democracy and a social and economic system based on industrial capitalism (Hoffman, 246). He acknowledges that the Soviet Union did not develop at the same rate or way compared to its European counterparts, particularly France and England. Hoffman argues that although the Soviet Union remained an autocracy until 1917 and had distinct political and social systems, it did develop several characteristics and fundamental ideas during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that Hoffman aligns with modernity. These developments include mass politics and a greater effort by the state to regulate and quantify the state’s population.
Many Soviet policies show development of mass politics and while it was not on the same scale as the French Revolution, Soviet propaganda, demonstrations, and campaigns were all focused on involving the greater public. The ultimate goal of involving and integrating the greater population into political structures was to create a society that was both conscience and cultured (Hoffman, 247). One particularly interesting development is that the Soviet Union became increasingly concerned with the capacity and health of society. Officials became interested in factors such as working conditions, urban planning, social hygiene and the spread of disease (Hoffman, 253). The Soviet Union took interest in the welfare and behavior of society later than many other countries in Western Europe, however this development and control of social welfare programs allowed the state the calculate population statistics and potential capabilities in both economic and military sectors as these areas were in the interest of national security (Hoffman, 250-251).
Hoffman closes his analysis with the argument that the developments mentioned above paired with the socialist ideology were unable to keep up and evolve with the Soviet Union’s European counterparts as they moved into the postmodern era. This was partly a result of the Soviet Union’s inability to successfully promote new technology and service sectors (Hoffman, 257).

European and Soviet Modernity and Socialism

Within David L. Hoffman’s article about European Modernity and Soviet Socialism he explores the many ways that the European governments viewed their populations. He further explores the many different policies and regulations that they put upon their populations. To view the history of Russia and its take on its population one must understand that while England and France were transforming into liberal, democratic, and a industrial  capitalistic state, Russia did not follow suit. Russia remained a absolute monarchy under the tzars . It was not until the october revolution of 1917 that Russia’s government shifted into a socialist state. As different as the governments and economic systems of the west and the Soviet government where the leaders of each system had a similar view on their population. As modern Soviet and Western powers entered the modern age they began to see not only the opportunities but also the resource of having a large and healthy population. The governments understood that in order to maintain power a government must have its people healthy and educated this in turn would benefit the society and the country as a whole. Each country began to initiate well fair programs for the benefit of the population and with the aim to increase the population size and safety. In 1936 the Commissar of health in the Soviet Union justified the ban on abortion as curtail to increasing the population of the country which would lead to an increase of nationalism. In other countries the government took a darker approach to maintaining their population. In Nazi Germany the regime began a eugenics program aimed at sterilizing the members of the population with disabilities both physically and mentally. As most people think only of the Nazi regime committing this crime it is also true that the Stain regime also committed this crime. However unlike the Nazis Stalin sent his political enemies and minorities to Siberian  work camps. Zygmunt Bauman has argued that the reason why Hitler and Stalins victims were killed was because they didn’t fit into the scheme of a perfect society. It is impossible to put all the blame of these crimes on modernity it is true that modernity enabled the industrialization of nations which led to governments taking an increased concern with their populations.

A Countries’ True Agenda

The introduction and first chapter of The Lost Children by Tara Zahra and the first chapter of Cultivating the Masses by David Hoffman both explore the concept of the welfare state. Although these works focus on different groups, Zarah focusing on children and Hoffman focusing on the population as a whole, both authors have come to the same conclusion; a country’s welfare programs are implemented to benefit the country as whole, not necessarily for an individual’s gain.

From the start of reading The Lost Children Zahra writes that programs were implemented to increase the productivity of the country. Mrs. Roch, and American social worker, was assigned to Ruth-Karin Dadowic’s case. Roch described Ruth-Karin as “well built for her age with a strong and firm handshake.” Ruth-Karin was chosen to participate in the Displaced Persons Act, and from this description it is implied she is chosen because of her health and capabilities. She is more likely to be a contributing member of society, and thus increase the productivity of the country. Another example of the true goals of social welfare programs is exemplified through the Spanish Civil War refugees. The social welfare programs only saved children to secure their political, social, and religious loyalties and to transform them into the republican or nationalist militants of the future (Zahar, 16). This was also true of the campaign to rehabilitate Europe’s lost children; it was merely for the future of Europe’s well being (Zahar, 23). In the St. Goin colony, J. M. Alvarez would use his position as director to instill Republican and nationalist values in the wards he was in charge of educating and looking after (Zahar, 26). All of this was to benefit the country, not the individual.

Hoffman’s writing in Cultivating the Masses is directly related to these examples from Zahar’s text. Hoffman wrote that a country was concerned with social welfare to increase productivity of the country. By implementing social welfare programs, it increased the standard of living of the citizens, increasing the productivity of the country (Hoffman, 18-20).

From Hoffman and Zarah, the reader learns that the citizen is merely a pawn for the country. Although it may appear that social welfare is implemented because the country cares about the individual, it is simply not true. A country is merely concerned with it’s well being as a whole, and the benefits trickle down to the individual.

Social and Psychological issues surrounding the “Lost Children”

Tara Zahra’s book, The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II, describes the psychological impacts and social problems of war on displaced children. The psychological problems that occurred with children being separated from their families arose after the First World War, but became more of an issue after World War II. There was complete chaos in Europe with the children being in the center of social and political upheaval.

After World War I, families were separated and there were a lack of resources. Campaigns were created to protect children. These campaigns focused on getting enough food and water, and having shelter for the children to rest in. Many children, during the war, were sent to live with a foster family in a neighboring country where they were well nourished and supported by their foster parents. After the war there was a movement to reunite families, but this created an issue. Children were sent to their home state to be reunited with their families, but their families lacked adequate resources, including food, housing, and income. Another issue that arose was that families had been separated for such a long period of time that they didn’t reconnect, so children wanted to be sent home to their host families. “Children were central objects of population politics, nation building projects, and new forms of humanitarian intervention in the twentieth century, as they represented the biological and political future of national communities.” (Zahra 20).

After World War II, Germany divided into four zones by the Allies. Many organizations, including social workers, German foster parents, and Jewish agencies, fought for the “lost children” to determine their fates.  This became the social problem: “The lost identity of individual children is the Social Problem of the day on the continent of Europe.” (Zahra 3). The psychological problems came about because of Europe being in ruins after World War II.  “They linked the physical ruin of European cities to the psychological disorientation of their residents.” (Zahra 3).

The psychological problem with the children being uprooted all of the time was that they would never forget what happened to them during the war. During war, children were starving, put in concentration camps, and forced into labor. The government believed that it was better when the children were reunited with their families because it was in their best interest and their psychological problems would diminish if they were safe and sound.

Much of what is stated in Zahra’s book can be compared to Hoffman’s articles on social welfare and the modern state. In Hoffman’s modern state article, he argues that using social science is key to eradicate problems that are occurring in a nation. The social science will tell the public statistics about a certain issue, such as how many children were displaced during and after the war. These statistics helped the government to see how many children were reunited with their families after being displaced. Hoffman’s social welfare article is extremely relevant to Zahra’s introduction and first chapter of her book. His thesis in this article is that social welfare is for the betterment of the country and not the people. In Zahra’s article she refers that the governments force children to return to their families, when in actuality their host family was a better psychological environment for them. The government is more concerned about the state because it wants maximum production, so sending a child back to his or her home country will help the output of that country.

Lost Children in Post War Europe

In Lost Children : Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II, Tara Zahra explains the changes in attitudes towards the rehabilitation of children in Europe after the two major world wars. Millions of children were displaced as a result of the Armenian Genocide, World War I, and the Mexican Revolution, and World War II. In order to combat the mass orphanage, organizations such as the ARA (American Relief Association) and the IRO (International Refugee Organization) were created to feed, house, psychologically rehabilitate, and provide welfare to the displaced, wandering new “wolf children” of Europe. (4)

The welfare systems that were implemented to save children in Lost Children: Recontructing Europe’s Families after World War II revolved around psychological rehabilitation. According to Zahra, the social workers worked in the “best interest of the child, rather than any particular agenda”. (17) There is a stark contrast between the European post war welfare system than the one in an industrializing Russia, which was described by Hoffman as “a set of reciprocal obligations between the state and its citizens, rather than as a means to protect the dignity of the individuals”. (Hoffman, 19)

While programs such as the ARA and the IRO sought to bring stability to the individual emotionally and provide them with proper homes to rebuild European family life, the Russian welfare system was to serve as a catalyst for industrialization to catapult the nation into a modern era.

Children as a Special Category of Humanitarian Concern in Interwar Europe

The introduction and first chapter of Tara Zahra’s Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families After World War I, presents a fascinating survey of changing attitudes towards children across Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. We learn, thanks to Zahra’s research on four humanitarian crises during the Interwar Period – the Armenian Genocide, the efforts of the American Relief Association in Eastern Europe, the tragedy of refugee families separated from one another in different countries, and the Spanish Civil War- how children came to earn special consideration in response to humanitarian crises and in European peoples’ general understanding of war and violence.

Early in the introduction, Zahra echoes the two texts we read by David L. Hoffman, which describe the demarcation of a social realm apart from the political and economic spheres in order to better respond to problems related to poverty, crime, and social unrest and how this shaped efforts to respond to the pressures of industrialization and the prospect of modern warfare through new means of categorizing and governing citizens. According to Hoffman, these developments stemmed from the gradual realization by European monarchs that their success as political figures and military strategists depended on their ability to cultivate a productive workforce, strong and able enough to respond to the industrial and military needs of the modern state. It would appear logical then, that children, the root of such a workforce, might have much to gain from this mentality. Zahra confirms this at the bottom of page nineteen, informing her readers that European children did in fact reap the benefits of the age’s changing mentality, thanks to increasingly “romantic” views amongst Europe’s middle classes that no longer saw children as another source of labor, but as future citizens, who should have time to play and develop their minds in preparation for this important role. As this new mentality gained more legitimacy, humanitarian and religious organizations began protesting child labor and the separation of children from their families.

It therefore comes as no surprise that children forced into lives as refugees during and after the First World War would arouse the passions of the liberal-minded European middle classes.  In each of the four cases cited above, those advocating humanitarian initiatives on behalf of children saw their plight as especially distressing. Following the Armenian Genocide, for instance, the League of Nations Commission for the Protection of Women and Children in the Near East set an important precedent by considering the recovery of lost children as an international moral imperative (Zahra, 30).

Zahra also reveals that these same humanitarian organizations and their supporters came to consider the fragmentation of the family unit as one of the worst atrocities wrought by war. This I found particularly interesting, as it affirmed Mazower’s contention that the Interwar Left and Right considered the family as “the natural, primary, and fundamental unit of society” (Mazower, 89). Zahra’s work also reminded me of Wilhelm Reich’s book on the relationship between sexual repression and fascism, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. In it, he identifies the family as “political reaction’s germ cell”, the product of an authoritarian society, and thus “the most important institution for its conservation” (Reich, 104-105). One might therefore find him or herself tempted to argue that the privileging of family rights in conjunction with those of the child over the rights of individual civilians left out of those categories might lead to a situation, visible in fascist states, in which there exist no rights external to those concerning the family’s right to protection from dissolution and decomposition.

Critical Summary of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent

Dark Continent by Mark Mazower is a historical text which covers the interwar period of Europe in a unique way. The first four chapters each focus on a different aspect of interwar Europe: the decline of democracy, nationalism and the effects it has on minority groups, health and social welfare as a means of control over populations, and the economies of nations. Mazower’s geopolitical coverage of Europe is large; he touches upon other countries in Europe that are usually neglected. Mazower’s interpretation of these historical events is also unique. He ties his interpretation into his themes of decline, fall, and social struggles in Europe to his thesis that Communism, Nazism, and democracy are more related than the reader may have originally thought. Through these views of the forms of governments and the main social struggle of the era, Mazower helps the reader gain a greater understanding of interwar Europe.

Starting with the first chapter and continuing through the next three, Mazower repeatedly points out the primary social struggle present throughout all countries and political parties: the strained relationship between the individual and the population as a whole. This is especially apparent in chapter three, when Mazower expands on the welfare state and social welfare. The welfare was not for the good of the individual; it was for the good of the country as a whole (89). This was constant throughout all countries in Europe. Another historian, Hoffman, reaffirms this idea in his historical writing, Cultivating the Masses. Hoffman, like Mazower, writes about a country’s concern for its productivity level, as it is directly correlated to the creation of social welfare for its people.

In Mazower’ interpretation of history, he views Communism as a favorable political solution. He touches upon the positives of Communism, explaining the basic goals of tackling corruption and social injustice. This interpretation sheds a positive light on Communism, which the reader may not have expected. He believes that the Soviet Union dealt with the issue of minorities and nationalism the best out of all of the governments. The Soviet Union was able to win over the minorities in the country by offering them involvement in the government (50). This united the country in a way in which no other country in Europe was able to do.

Mazower also examines the growth of Nazism in Europe, especially Germany. Nazism grew from citizens’ hatred of communism. This is apparent from many SS members’ own testimonies, including Hitler’s bodyguard, Rochus Misch. Like many members of the Nazi Party, he stated that he joined the SS because it was a “counterweight to the threat of the left,” and that it was for anti-communist goals. Yet Nazism was a form of imperialism that fits into history better than many believe it should (74). It did have a focus on social welfare; however that focus was then manipulated to benefit a minority of Germans, the Aryan race.

The most discussed form of government, which failed quite often, was democracy. In interwar Europe, there was not a universally agreed upon definition of democracy (5). This directly lead to the development of “democratic governments” which were no more than totalitarian or militant, non-parliamentary regimes. This can be seen in post-World War I Germany when a Constitutional provision, Article 48, was created in order to suspend the Constitution under specific conditions. This article was inevitably abused by then-Chancellor, Hitler, and although he was democratically elected, it is obvious that this abuse was not one of good faith and democratic idealism (33). From democracy, Nazism was born.  On the other hand, in other countries’ democracies, there was great distrust of the executive branch of government (19). Mazower does a good job of linking, comparing, and contrasting each individual European country’s form of democracy with the others.

From Mazower’s descriptions alone, the reader can see that these three forms of governments had similar goals. These three governments grew from and were related to each other; one cannot exist without the others. Each was constantly evolving, rising and falling with the changing climate of worldwide political trends. This leads to a greater understanding of the political structure, and conflict, in interwar Europe.

Overall, Mazower’s Dark Continent is a great text for an undergraduate history course. It intelligently follows the rise and fall of vastly different political ideologies in Europe, while also following the social struggles stemming from each. It does so without confusing the reader with irrelevant details, employing the use of brevity through text. It goes without saying that Mazower provides the reader with an extensive overview of the interwar period and successfully supports his thesis.