glaeser book forum part 4: theories of revolution

Part 1part 2, part 3.

This is the last installment of this Fall’s book forum on Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics. I usually reserve the last installment of the book forum for criticisms and conjectures. This will be no exception. I’ll focus on the limits of the sociology of understanding as it pertains to explaining revolutions.

As you may remember from earlier parts of the book forum, the theoretical mission of Political Epistemics is to develop a “sociology of understanding,” which is a thick description of how people make sense of their social worlds. Glaeser used interview data and archival materials to explain how people developed their identity in East Germany and how that identity eroded in the 1980s to such an extent that the Stasi refused to repress anti-socialists movements in 1989.

What I like about the sociology of understanding is that it effectively undermines Western theories of socialist collapse. It wasn’t about folks reading Hayek. It was about East Germans using socialist ideas to formulate a critique of the whole system. The internal criticism was like tugging at a loose thread.

Now, what I take issue with is the incompleteness of this explanation. It doesn’t really tap into other elements of the socialist system and its eventual collapse. For example, you don’t really get a sense of the extreme violence involved in maintaining East European socialism. This system was imposed by political conquest. It was also supported by periodic mass repression (e.g., Hungary ’56, Prague ’68). East European nations did not treat dissidents well and many were violently treated. I’m a bit surprised that Glaeser didn’t delve into the violence that permeated the entire system.

Another issue is that by itself the sociology of understanding doesn’t explain the timing of the collapse. Why in 1989? Didn’t people question socialism before then? They did and there were uprisings as well. Heck, even Emma Goldman observed in the early 1920s that people weren’t thrilled with what was happening in the Soviet Union.

The key issue is that there was a generational turnover in the elite of the Soviet state and they were willing to let social change occur. This created a chain of protests first in the Baltic region, then Russia itself and then East Europe. As usual, various factions tried to repress these movements but the key elite group  – the secret police – refused to do so. Thus, Glaeser doesn’t really, in my view, replace conventional views of revolution that link elite support of protest to success. Rather, he provides an account for why the elite might defect from the state. This fits neatly within current theories of revolution.

Finally, let me add that what I’d like to see is additional work by other scholars. I’d like to see the sociology of understanding applied to other groups, not just the elites. How did, say, farmers in the Ukraine construct their experience of communism? What was it about the Baltic states or those souls in 1956 Hungary that made them come out in the street? I’d love to find out.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 27, 2012 at 12:04 am

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