Communism and Shamanism

Maurice Bloch

  • Karl Marx Collective: Economy, Society and Religion in a Siberian Collective Farm by Caroline Humphrey
    Cambridge, 522 pp, £30.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 24456 0

Most of us have very little idea of what life is actually like in the Soviet Union for ordinary people. We are so bombarded by various kinds of propaganda that the Communist world becomes a mythological place, to the extent that when we catch glimpses of the reality, we are surprised to find it peopled by ordinary human beings. Caroline Humphrey’s book, Karl Marx Collective, tells us what we want to know: what is the relation between theory and practice, what is the relation of the state and the party to the local unit – in this case collective farms – how much are individuals constrained in their lives by central planning, what is family life like, what are schools like, what are funerals like? This is not, however, a subjective account, such as we would find in an autobiography or a short interview. It is a very thorough study of the institutions, laws and government which apply to collective farms, but it combines this with the effect of external structures on daily life. This combination of levels would make the study an outstanding example of modern anthropological description, even if its subject-matter was not of such intrinsic interest in the first place.

Going down from general Soviet policy concerning the political economy of the Union and the place of collective farms in it, to a specific case, inevitably necessitates an understanding of the culture and history of the people studied. Nowhere can there be a typical collective farm, unmarked by the peculiarity of the place and people. Humphrey’s study concentrates on two farms, both named after Karl Marx and found in the part of south-east Siberia which constitutes the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The Buryats, who form most of the population of the Republic, are a people with close Mongolian affinities. As such, they are part of a group of cultures for which there have been very few recent studies. This makes the book even more interesting and important.

Caroline Humphrey started her study of the Buryat as a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at Cambridge. From there she set out in 1966 for the USSR with a view to examining kinship and shamanism, the old traditional religion of that part of the world. She studied in Moscow and at Ulan Vole, the capital of the autonomous Republic, and was able to do fieldwork for two months. She returned again in the winter of 1974/5 to do more direct observation. The conditions of research in the USSR have meant that she has done less ‘participant observation’ than is usual for British social anthropologists, but the perspective given by the period that elapsed between the two visits has been put to good use. In other ways, too, practical obstacles have been turned to advantage. Humphrey has scoured the available literature with a thoroughness and a care that is still often lacking in anthropology. In doing this, she makes us aware of the amount of ethnographic research carried out and published in the Soviet Union and by judicious quotations we get a good impression of its detail and the occasional surprising frankness. Also put to excellent use are newspaper articles and local novels which illustrate well many of the points she makes, often with intentional, as well as unintentional, humour. It is extraordinary to realise what can be done with a little field-work and much scholarship, care and sensitivity.

Perhaps most important of all, her need to use material other than what she was able to observe directly has made her include in the study of these two collective farms an examination of official publications and policy towards collective farms. This is a little forbidding, coming as it does so early in the book, and it is surely the most difficult part to read. The cause of this difficulty comes from the material itself, and this is very significant. The obscurity, contradiction and pomposity of the theories and instructions which should govern collective farms are an important ethnographic fact. Part of the difficulty seems to come from the attempt to discover from the work of Marx himself indications of how such organisations should be run. The difficulty here is simply that the overwhelming mass of the writings of the founder of Marxism consists in a critical examination of the workings of capitalism. This leads to the bizarre situation in which we find that Soviet economic writings transpose Marx’s description of how capitalism worked into recipes for the organisation of a socialist economy. The result is that, as we go down the administrative hierarchy, nobody is very clear what should be done, except for a general notion that productivity should be pursued above all.

The problem of communication from the higher state and party levels to that of the collective farm is one of the major themes examined here. The complex and sometimes conflicting interactions of party, Soviets and collective farm administration is looked at and clarified as far as it is possible. Two themes seem to emerge from all this. One is the arbitrariness of decisions handed down from higher levels to lower levels. The other is the vulnerability of officials.

It is ironical that the Soviet system, which was intended to give power to the people, has in fact so often placed them under the dictatorship of remote bureaucrats. The problem is of course that of central planning. How is the state to ensure that the socially necessary tasks are done, if it leaves to the constituent part of the structure the choice of what, and how much, to produce? This is not a specifically Soviet problem, but because of the nature of the socialist economy, it is not possible to pretend that the mechanism governing these choices is left to such things as the market, which in a capitalist economy can masquerade as a rational extra-social regulator. In a socialist economy the direction of the productive process is set by targets, which become orders when handed down. This presents the difficulty that, for these targets to be appropriate, the ruling authority needs to be very well informed about conditions on the ground both before the plan is instituted and while it is being carried out. This requirement can be met by appropriate feedback mechanism, and in theory the hierarchy of Soviets and party committees should make this possible. In fact, feedback does not occur.

Humphrey shows how orders, targets and other directives are based on insufficient information and are therefore totally unfair and impracticable, how prices are arbitrary and therefore tend to lead to major distortions, and how the whole productive process is notoriously and grossly inefficient. This is so both in detail and in general. The obsession with reaching or exceeding fixed numerical quotas leads to shoddy work. For example, in order to plough a large area a tractor-driver ploughs shallowly. Milkmaids may reach their amazing targets in terms of volume but may produce dirty milk which has gone sour. This is also true at the level of the farm, where quantity is more important than quality. Most damaging of all, this inefficient use of resources applies to the region as a whole. The Buryat economy was, traditionally, in the main pastoral. Then the Buryats were pushed to produce more grain and also more meat. This has led to shortages of fodder, over-pasturing and erosion, threatening a dramatic ecological disaster. It is brought about, and also hidden, by a system of quotas which stress cereals above everything else and ignore fodder. Indeed, the whole system is so inefficient that it can only be kept going by ad hoc measures, so-called ‘socialist competitions’ intended to boost production in honour of a great event.

The lack of feedback of information is a result of the complex administrative structure of the Soviet state, where meetings are merely audiences for receiving orders from above and for allocating praise or blame for not fulfilling targets, with no possibility of discussing the appropriateness of these targets. This is particularly serious for policy in a geographical area such as this, which is far removed from the centres of decision-making and where local variations are very significant.

The rigidity of the administrative structure, however, does not make the various officials into petty dictators. The reason is that they are the ones who have most to lose when quotas are not reached. They are the ones who will lose their relatively privileged positions, while the sanctions against ordinary collective members are slight; and the rewards are double-edged. This situation means that the officials are dependent on the good will of their subordinates, since only these can ensure that the targets are met. Here socialist theory and practice meet in a way not recognised by the authorities. If there are no great inequalities in the possession of productive goods, the one scarce means of production becomes labour. The ordinary collective farmworker can more or less openly refuse to contribute his labour and thereby undermine the position of his superiors. This situation means that officials and non-officials must reach a modus vivendi: the ramifications of this relationship occupy much of the most interesting part of the book.

One important element in the accommodation between officials and others is the existence of what Humphrey discreetly calls ‘manipulable resources’. These are resources which somehow escape the formidable system of official accountancy. They are used in order to manipulate what the collective farm actually does produce into what it has been asked to produce by the officials. This gives a certain flexibility in the carrying-out of the plan, without which it would be very doubtful whether the whole system would not break down. Manipulable resources, however, are equally important in the possibility that they give for profitable exchanges to take place between the collective farm as a whole and individuals. For example, it is clear that scarce resources such as fodder are given to individuals at very low prices on an informal basis. The same is true of transport, and a whole lot of other services. In return, the officials can expect relatively willing cooperation and help in emergencies in fulfilling quotas. Humphrey shows how the collective farm and the individual plots are not in competition with each other, as is often suggested by both Soviet and Western writers, but, on the contrary, form an organic whole, linked by the two-way transfer of ‘manipulable resources’.

These economic transactions are, however, only one side of an unofficial social network which is described with great skill and clarity. As an anthropologist, Humphrey is particularly at home in the field of kinship and she follows the evolution of Buryat kinship through from the 19th century onwards. The Buryats used to have large patrilineal descent groups as well as permanent unit families. The expectation of Soviet anthropologists and historians was that these particular Buryat institutions would disappear with socialism; any signs of them found today would be mere survival. In a sense, they were right, the old structures do not exist as such. In another sense, they were wrong, certain aspects have remained: the rule that one should not marry within one’s own descent group, the particularly strong relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, the complex and jolly marriage rituals. These, however, are not ‘survivals’: they are part of an adaptation to the new politico-economic conditions. The new groupings are not the same as the old groupings but a transformation of older ideas in new conditions. The same is true for links through marriage. Humphrey is able to show how these adaptations and transformations are responses to the way the collective farm works. Kinship links are important for ordinary people, given the need to maintain links to officials. They are important for officials in their endless need to mobilise labour, and in case of difficulty. Marriages, and the complex network of gifts they involve, create and cement co-operative groups, which make life in the co-operative farm, and the life of the co-operative farm itself, possible.

The same approach is used in the study of religion, which was also believed to be disappearing. Buryat religious history is complex. Until the 18th century they were ‘shamanists’, then they came under the influence of Lammaist Buddhism, which was spreading from Tibet with great success. The Tsars attempted to counter this influence by sending Greek Orthodox missionaries, with less success. Then came the Revolution, a brief local attempt to combine Buddhism and Communism, and finally a determined atheist campaign. The result of all this is complex and thought-provoking. The Communists have been most successful against Buddhism, in part because they were able to attack its institutions, such as the monasteries, directly. They were less successful against shamanism, which was already under attack from Buddhism. The reason is that shamanism was, or at least had become, much less systematic, a whole rag-bag of beliefs which are much less easily isolated. What shamanistic practices do imply, however, is an involvement with the cyclical processes of nature, which the state rituals notably fail to produce, regulated as they are by political and calendrical events from far away. Shamanism, as well as some aspects of Buddhism, also offers something which the Soviet state seems to fail to do: an explanation of misfortune, and emotionally satisfying practices for dealing with death.

It would, however, be a mistake to imagine that in the field of religion, any more than in the field of kinship, we are dealing with mere survival. Humphrey shows well that Buryat religion is an evolving system, a response to collectivisation and modern events. This manifests itself in profound as well as in more superficial ways. For example, there is a belief that the spirits of the Communards of the Paris of 1871, founding heroes of international Communism, have come to live in Lake Baikal and can be propitiated to help local fishermen improve their catch. A detail of this kind is of course amusing, but it is also a sign of the continual process of historical analysis, reflection and construction which Buryat existence implies, and which treats Soviet realities as raw material out of which something new is to be made.

This is a most important book, not only because it deals with such interesting subject-matter with great skill, but also for more general reasons. Inevitably, it will become a tool in the hands of dedicated anti-Communists who are looking for confirmation of their ideological positions. There is no doubt that the picture revealed is one of great inefficiency and of considerable oppression, though this is not uniformly the case and there have undoubtedly been periods when conditions were much worse. But the book should not be taken simply as a justification of capitalism or the ‘free-market’ economy. A study of capitalist enterprise done in the same way would also find much inefficiency and much oppression and humiliation. Above all, one would find the same lack of fit between ideological representation and actual practice. It is the nature of this relation between these two levels which the book highlights and which is so thought-provoking.

Humphrey shows quite clearly how the overall policy and the theories guiding this overall policy are crucially relevant to the life of the ordinary collective farm member in southern Siberia. To ignore this level would have simply been wrong. It is also clear that the lack of fit between theory and practice does not mean that the Buryats are anti-Soviet or anti-Communist. They may be, but there is little evidence of this here. What seems to be happening is that the Buryats consider the directives, instruction and theoretical guidance they receive as partly incomprehensible, partly not fully applicable to their lives, and in any case insufficient. They try to make sense of all this and insofar as they think it good, they try to apply it. But because they make sense of this externality in their own homes, in their own lives and in their own terms, they have no alternative but to create for themselves a new social and intellectual system different from the past and different from the official model. The directives and ideas they receive do not create a model of Soviet socialism divorced from space and time: rather they join the complex polyphony of historical and geographical processes of which Buryat life is constituted – where they transform and are transformed.

This is an important lesson for politicians or social planners, whatever their political character. There can be no question of creating something entirely anew anywhere, as though people had no history, no view of the world, no ability to establish a dialectic between what is to be changed and what there was before. Change is a creation of the recipients of new ideas and new institutions, not of external originators, As a result, the effect of introductions will always be different from that intended. When the Buryats were collectivised, they did not merely become collective farmers. They created new religious constructions and new social networks to deal with each other, and with the uncertain future, and they did so partly in terms of what they knew before.