Urgent Tasks of the Soviet Orientalist-Historians (1949) 

Voprosy istorii


In the ideological notion of Orientalism put forward by the late Edward Said as well as his followers the views of Marx and the Marxists are incorporated in the general schema of the endeavours of the western thinkers to subordinate and inferiorise the East in relation to the West. The views of Said have been extensively subjected to criticism in this journal (see: T. Wahi,’Orientalism: A Critique’, RD Vol.II, No. 1, April, 1996). It is apparent that Soviet orientalism had no connection with that of the metropolitan states. Soviet historians criticised the bourgeois writers who projected the view that imperialism facilitated the spread of civilisation, minimised the role of the national movements, exaggerated the extent of the specific features of the East, emphasised the details of religious cults, held forth on the palace anecdotes of the dynasties and sang the praises of such reactionary nationalist theories as Zionism, pan-Islamism, pan-Iranianism, Kemalism and Gandhism. It was considered the task of the Soviet orientalist historians to assist the oppressed nations in the struggle against imperialism, examine their class relations and struggles and fight against those theories which idealised the role of imperialism. The following extract from the editorial of the Soviet journal ‘Problems of History’ has its importance today in India as after the 20th Congress of the CPSU a Marxist school of Indian history failed to develop such that the notions of ‘bourgeois-orientalism’ have become the norm. The rest of the editorial distinguishes between the situation between the Soviet East and the rest of the orient on the basis of Soviet national policy which had created a fraternal union of nations. It noted that ‘the work on the actual problems of the history of the East, mainly of the history of the modern and most modern period, presents itself as one of the most important problems of the Soviet historical science’ The editorial further confirms that Edward Said’s analysis of orientalism which subsumes Marxist approaches on the East within that of an undifferentiated classless orientalist discourse is seriously flawed.

Vijay Singh

What sort of questions demand the immediate attention of the Soviet Orientalist-Historians?

This is, first of all, the question around which the sharpest ideological-political struggle is taking place at present.

The bourgeois-oriental studies serve imperialism in an extraordinary vigorous manner and strive ‘to prove’ the historical inevitability and even ‘the necessity’ of the rule of the western colonial powers over the multi-million people, who are lagging behind in their progress and, therefore, ‘incapable’ of independently deciding their fate in the East. All possible false, pseudo-classical ‘theories’ and ‘conceptions’, evidently invented with the apologetic aims and started by the American and the Western European scholars, who are the servants of imperialism, differ in details and on particular points but they bear a testimony to a full agreement on the principle and fundamental question. If the fascist spokesmen of the colonial-anthropological school cynically justify the extermination of the Indians in North America or of the Negro tribes in Central Africa with their heinous arguments, the liberal-bourgeois professors try ‘to prove’ that in spite of the negative role of the British colonial system, it has facilitated, all the same, the gradual spread of civilisation in the colonies and led the ‘fortunate’ India to her ‘independent position’, though specifically ‘recognising the supremacy of the King of the Republic’.

The bourgeois study not infrequently covers its political tendency with an outwardly ‘dispassionate’ objectivism, formally applies the descriptive method in the study of the East and digress from the analysis of the socio-economic processes and the class struggle in the Eastern countries. They either ignore or under-estimate the national movements against the imperialist oppressors and with their pre-conceived notions exaggerate the cultural-historical specific characteristics of the Eastern countries. After having formed an absolute idea of the Eastern specific characteristics and having spread the mystical nonsense about the special type of ‘Eastern soul’, which serves imperialism, the bourgeois oriental studies readily relish the unimportant details of the religious cults or repeat the palace-anecdotes of an entertaining character about the dynastic histories.

But a special consideration must be given in every possible way to the much boosted and so-called ‘Eastern ideology’, i.e. to the reactionary teachings, which help in the enslavement of the mass of the people and weaken their will to fight against imperialism. It is not accidental, for example, that not only the official bourgeois propaganda but also the so-called ‘study’ of the Western countries sing the praises of Gandhi and of reactionary Gandhism.

Encouraging bourgeois nationalism which takes advantage of the existence of the imperialist powers in breaking the common anti-imperialist front in the colonies, semi-colonies and dependent countries, the bourgeois doctrinaires boost Gandhism, Kemalism, Pan-Islamism and give publicity to the anti-popular reactionary ideology of the Kuomintang and encourage Pan-Arabism, Pan-Iranism, Zionism and so on.

The most refined bourgeois diplomat-lackeys try in every possible way to inject the poisonous illusion of social reforms to the fighting people of the East. Encouragement of national reformism in the colonies and dependent countries brings the immediate problem of a split in the working class movement of these countries and weakens the working class, which is the predominant force in the colonial revolution and fights most consistently the imperialist oppression.

The Soviet Orientalist-historians must take part in the sharp struggle of the oppressed nations against imperialism and its lackeys – the bourgeois-orientalists. Their first duty is to facilitate with the help of their own studies the exposure of the false theories of the bourgeoisie. They should further counterpose against the bourgeois theories the genuine scientific history of the East, based on the great teachings of Lenin-Stalin, which takes into consideration all the historical events of the world with an analysis of the class relations and the struggle of the oppressed nations for their social and national freedom. The Soviet Orientalist-historians must show the retarding effect on the process of historical development of the peoples of the East, which was started and is still being continued by the foreign colonisers and the reactionary regimes supported by them.

It is particularly necessary to vigorously uproot the false legend being spread by the right-wing socialists to the effect that, within the limits of the British or the French or the American colonial system, conditions for a gradual transfer of the ‘civilised’ backward nations to the path of independent national development were created and are still being created. It must be shown that the British rule in India brought neither culture not civilisation, but poverty, hunger, epidemic and devastation. It is all the more important to do so because even in the works of some progressive historians, who by no means belong to the imperialist camp, one may discover elements of idealisation of the British rule in India. So, for example, even the very valuable work of Palme Dutt ‘India Today’ is not free from a similar type of mistake.

The Soviet Orientalist-historians can render a great help to the progressive forces of the East by mercilessly exposing the counter-revolutionary Gandhism, Kemalism, Zionism the different other bourgeois-nationalist ideologies, which are being used by imperialists and their agents.

Very little has been done yet by the Soviet historians in the field of the study of the mass movements or the peasants of the Eastern countries, As it is known to everybody, the overwhelming number of the population of the Eastern countries consists of peasants, who for a long time have been subjected to a many-sided exploitation by the feudal lords, landlords, usurers, merchants, civil servants, clergymen and in the more recent period by foreign exploiters.

Source: Voprosy istorii, Moscow, April 1949

CP/IND/DUTT/24/108, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester

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