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New Left Review I/158, July-August 1986

Teodor Shanin

Soviet Theories of Ethnicity: The Case of a Missing Term

All through the twentieth century the significance of ‘ethnicity’ in the structuring of social life and in setting patterns of political action has been extensive and usually unpredicted. Neither its treatment by 19th-century ‘rationalists’ as a retrograde piece of barbarism nor its biological-racial explanations by their ‘romantic’ foes stood well the test of further experience. Ethnic diversity and nationalist ideologies proved extra-biological, persistent, pernicious and inexplicable—a major tool in the arsenal of political demagogues, a determinant of repression, and a spanner in the works for socialist theory and action. The theoretical inadequacies and predictive failures of social scientists and political activists, especially on the Left, were a constant cause for disappointment. This was particularly true with regard to the Third World, where the analytical meaning of ethnic divisions was as under-researched as its significance was major for the prevailing ideologies, collective cognitions and political life. Even the debate on such questions was slack. To expand these theoretical fields by introducing a different vision rooted in a different political experience, rich in ethnic complexity, should be particularly useful. What follows is a brief review of the theoretical positions adopted in mainstream Soviet studies of ethnic phenomena after a major debate in the 1960s. These positions differ substantively from those of their West European counterparts, non-Marxist and Marxist alike. [*] This paper was initially prepared as the introduction to a discussion of categories of Soviet ethnic theory by Yu. Bromley and V. Kozlov. Both texts will appear in a volume on State and Ideology, edited by H. Alavi and F. Halliday, to be published by Macmillan.

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Teodor Shanin, ‘Soviet Theories of Ethnicity: The Case of a Missing Term’, NLR I/158: £3

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