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Socialism and the Future of Gender Justice: Part 2

A Dialogue about Feminism in the Marketplace of Ideas

On August 12, 2017, Kristen Ghodsee published an op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Why Women Had Better Sex under Socialism.” The piece was due to appear in print a few days later, but the editors published the online version on that date. Coincidentally, the late night of August 11th and the morning of August 12th turned out to be the Charlottesville white nationalist rally that shocked the world and shed a harsh light on racism and toxic masculinity in this country. What followed was a period of trolling, harassment, and nearly paralyzing attacks against Ghodsee. Fox News featured “analyses” of the op-ed by “experts” who equated Ghodsee’s writing to Stalin’s approach to human rights. For months, nasty messages and phone calls inundated her inbox and appeared on social media, including death threats. Colleagues at other universities also went after her, parsing the arguments of the op-ed to suggest she was a naïve Westerner, narrowly and uncritically interested only in what the propaganda of the Politburos of the communist bloc had to say, and that her research for the op-ed was not solid. The response to this onslaught of nasty criticism, much of it ad hominem, is the book Why Women HaveBetter Sex under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence. Read part 2 of a discussion between Kristen Ghodsee and Maria Bucur-Deckard below. (Read part 1 here)

MB: I would like to pick up on something that you mention earlier, in part 1 of our discussion, about the preponderance of men among the authors who have been risk takers in offering critiques of capitalism during the Cold War. This is, of course, in part a function of who were the tenured or authoritative voices in academia at that time, and specifically how women and scholars of color tended to be doubly marginalized in academia: they were often seen as having “specific” (i.e., not generalizable) expertise and needed to show their scholarly “chops” by first establishing themselves in well-established outlets, before moving on to broader ones. Things have changed somewhat, but I think the response to your op-ed and book are testing the limits of such progress.

In your response above you mention that people have attacked your analysis because you are someone without a personal connection to the communist bloc. This sort of attitude suggests to me certain presuppositions that belie lack of self-awareness with regard to gender stereotyping. I am trying to remember if I have ever seen a critique of Stephen Kotkin for his lack of familial connections to Russia in writing extremely critical analyses of communist region in the twentieth century. Or, conversely, looking at Yuri Slezkine’s work, people don’t praise him because of his connections with Russia. So, are we still talking about a double standard here?

KG: Yes, I think there may be a double standard, although you are correct to point out that there were fewer women doing Slavic Studies in earlier periods because of the gender composition of the academy more broadly. But it is also important to consider the history of Slavic Studies in the United States. The two earliest research centers – The Russia Institute (now the Harriman Institute) at Columbia University, founded in 1946, and the Russian Research Center at Harvard (now the Davis Center), founded in 1948 – both had direct and indirect connections to the United States military and intelligence establishment and were based at all-male colleges that didn’t go co-educational until the late-1970s. The Association for Women in Slavic Studies didn’t even get formed until the 1980s. The major national scholarly organization in the US ­­– ASEEES – has (since 1970) granted a “Distinguished Contributions to Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies” award to “eminent members of the profession who have made major contributions to the field.” Of the 78 individuals who have won this award (in some years there were multiple winners), I think there have been only nine women, and four of those were in the last decade. And only three women have won the award individually (i.e. not sharing it with another winner). So, I think women certainly face challenges in establishing their authority in the field.

But I also think that quite a few women who work in our field identify as feminists and embrace feminist methodologies that give ammunition to those who would question our credibility. For example, as a feminist ethnographer I am always open and honest about my subjective relationship to my research. I was trained to use the first person and to fully situate myself in relation to the people I study or with whom I work, and I know that a lot of feminists feel compelled to expose the power dynamics and imbalances of the academic research enterprise. But in some ways, this exposes us to all sorts of critiques of our subjectivity. I have been very open about my family background, for instance, and although I had one grandparent from Azerbaijan, I have always identified as a Western scholar born and raised in the United States. I don’t understand why this makes me (or anyone else) less able to do research in or write about the region, since as you say, men do so all of the time.

But the positionality of the Western versus native researcher is particularly fraught in the context of Eastern Europe because of the history of knowledge production during the Cold War (as documented in Engerman’s book). Immediately after WWII, the United States had few specialists on Russia and Eastern Europe, so they relied on Russian and East European émigrés. These refugee populations were often virulently anti-communist and hoped to spur the United States to intervene in Eastern Europe (as in the case of the Hungarian émigrés working for the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe during the 1956 uprising). After 1958, the U.S. government invested heavily in the training of American experts who would provide the government with more “objective” intelligence and scholarship about the region and support U.S. foreign policy goals. But during and after the Vietnam War, a lot of these American scholars began to speak out against U.S. foreign policy and drifted toward the political left. At this point, the government turned back to East European émigrés, defectors, and dissidents who could be reliably anti-communist, especially during the Reagan era. In some ways, our field has been shaped by these tensions between American and émigré scholars as much as it has been shaped by the tensions between the revisionists and those who support the totalitarian thesis. So perhaps in addition to gender, this history is key to understanding the roots of contemporary ad hominem attacks.

MB: I want to ask about a related aspect of your writing in general, and especially in this book. The most gripping passages in your books, at least for this reader, are the moments where the personal and the scholarly are embraced as a continuum. You place yourself at the site of your research in a very transparent way. And in this book, you start each chapter with a particularly revealing story, both on a personal and more widely social level. How do such forms of subjectivity contribute to knowledge making, and why did you make these choices?

KG: As discussed above, I think part of this comes from my commitment to feminist ethnography, which operationalizes the idea that the personal is political, and part of it comes from wanting to appeal to readers who know little or nothing about the region or the themes I discuss. Using the first person gives the reader a narrator they can identify with. Opening with a relatable story or anecdote makes the subsequent pages of tedious East European history or long digressions on economic theory easier to digest. Over the last decade, I have spent a lot of time reading narrative ethnographies and what is often called creative non-fiction. I’ve carefully studied the compositional techniques that make for serious scholarly books that are also a pleasure to read and have tried to emulate them in my own writing. I think the downside of this kind of writing is that it perhaps undermines the credibility of the scholar, especially in fields which prize a certain style of constipated third person academese that acts as a secret code comprehensible only to initiated members of the guild. Perhaps I would be less vulnerable to critique if I could rewrite all of my books, erasing the first person and stuffing them full of impenetrable technical jargon, but that just isn’t who I am.

MB: You’ve obviously been attacked from the right, from those who accuse you of Stalinism and ignoring the crimes of communism. Have you also been attacked from the left? If so, in what ways?

KG: Alas, the left has a long history of internecine conflict, and the politics of resistance in 2019 is no exception. Although I’ve had plenty of criticism from conservatives and libertarians who often willfully misread the book to present me as some crazy Stalinist, it’s the careful critiques from the left that are the most devastating because they come from people who I think might be allies. In their eyes, I am not radical enough, not revolutionary enough, and I engage in anti-utopian thinking because I am not advocating for the immediate imposition of “full Communism now.” My careful assessments of the state socialist past apparently render me a dupe of neoliberalism who is upholding the status quo because I am willing to acknowledge the famines, purges, secret police, travel restrictions, and consumer shortages as serious downsides of the regimes. There are also those feminists who take issue with my discussions of cis-women and others who disapprove of my focus on boring, garden variety, heterosexual sex. But most dishearteningly, I am faulted for not proposing THE SOLUTION to all of the problems of contemporary capitalism. Some of this critique comes from a place of genuine theoretical and practical disagreement, but I had a strict word limit and I could not discuss every single issue that the large and diverse left considers important. I was also limited by my focus on the historical experiences of the countries in Eastern and Northern Europe. Some of this critique probably comes from generational differences as well; I’m just less idealistic than I used to be. I’ve been politically active since the late 1980s and have grown to be more jaded about the possibilities for sudden political change and have often felt soul-crushed by the desperate exhaustion of being a fully-adulting, working parent under late capitalism. But I think no matter what I wrote, the left has a long tradition of infighting, and there will be deep disagreements. I don’t expect this to be any different today than it was a century ago when the German Social Democrats gave the orders to murder Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 or in the 1930s when Communists considered the German Social Democrats (the so-called “social fascists”) an enemy as dangerous as the Nazis.

Purchase Why Women Have Better Sex under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence on the Hatchette Book Group website here , or on Amazon here .

Kristen R. Ghodsee is an award-winning author and ethnographer who has spent the last thirty years studying the lived experiences of socialism and post-socialism in Eastern Europe. She has written seven books on everyday life and the social, political, and economic upheavals following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Dissent, Jacobin Magazine, Transitions Online, Eurozine, Aeon, The World Policy Journal, The Lancet, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Maria Bucur-Deckard is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.

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