Book Conversation with Mike McGovern

An Interview Regarding “A Socialist Peace?”

Larisa Kurtovic interviews Mike McGovern about his new book, A Socialist Peace? Explaining the Absence of War in an African Country (2017, University of Chicago Press).

To start, please tell us a little bit about this book, its central arguments, and the impetus for writing it.

The book starts from a puzzle that was proposed to me by dozens of Guineans and many of their West African neighbors. Though Guinea has many internal and external challenges that might have led to war, it, alone among its neighbors, has avoided civil conflict, separatist insurgency, or other forms of war. This doesn’t mean Guinea has been a pleasant place to live—the levels of ambient violence visited upon citizens by the state, or enacted as collateral violence from the wars in neighboring countries like Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, or Sierra Leone, has been extremely high. And yet there seems to be some form of social “glue” that has kept the polity from disintegrating, even (or especially) when different groups stood right at the edge of the abyss, ready to take up arms against the state in what they certainly believed to be legitimate defense.

At a certain point, I began pondering the legacy of Guinea’s socialist period—1958 to 1984, a time most Guineans remember with a lot of ambivalence. The title of the book, “A Socialist Peace,” plays on the “Democratic Peace” theory that suggests liberal democracies don’t go to war with one another. But what might be the legacies of even highly coercive socialist societies in terms of creating communities of shared suffering? Most Americans and western Europeans carry around the image of Yugoslavia’s descent into internecine war as their answer to the question of how socialism’s legacies are linked to peace and war. But ex-Yugoslavia is not the only such historical experience, nor is it even representative. So the book explores this dynamic through a deep empirical dive to try to discern the structure of a series of emerging conjunctures that emerged in Guinea during the time of my fieldwork there, from the mid 1990s until 2010.

At its base, A Socialist Peace is an ethnography of contemporary Guinea, the first among the French colonized African states to formally achieve independence. What might be interesting about this specific story about an African postsocialist experience from the point of view of other Soyuz-affiliated scholars, most of whom are working in Eastern Europe and Eurasia?

I think there are two “posts” implicit in your question that make for an important distinction. It is different, I would argue, to be both postcolonial and postsocialist than to be European and postsocialist, or Chinese and postsocialist. The politics of decolonization in Guinea, as in many other colonized countries in the post-Bandung (1955) period, promised more equal and just relations among Guineans and throwing off the yoke of foreign domination that had been justified by pernicious European racism. There’s no doubt that Soviet and other Eastern Bloc nations also felt the force of Russian imperialism, which has had its own ideologies of racial hierarchy, as Alaina Lemon’s work shows. But the legacy of European colonialism in Africa and parts of Asia was built upon the same ideological foundations that had justified the slave trade, various forms of corvée labor, and legal distinctions between mostly white citizens and “native” subjects.

The advent of socialism and decolonization in the 1950s and 60s, together with affiliated ideologies like pan-Africanism and the Non-Aligned Movement, was thus invested with tremendous hope and optimism. But that legacy was complex and perhaps never managed to overcome its Eurocentric philosophical origins. This meant that in countries like Guinea, Marxism did two kinds of work simultaneously. It offered poor postcolonial nations the promise of a path to rapid progress that could even mean leapfrogging over the stage of industrial capitalism directly into a classless society. The price of that offer, however, was that the nations in question had to admit to being far “behind” in civilizational terms. Don Donham describes the symbolic violence of this wager that gives with one hand and takes back with the other in his masterful Marxist Modern. Aimé Césaire’s open letter to Maurice Thorez, in which he resigned from the French Communist Party, is another such document.

In this book, you are making an argument that certain socialist political legacies live on through what you term a (post)socialist habitus—which includes orientations towards the future that might help explain why Guinea has been able to keep war at bay. When and how did you notice the differences that socialist experience made in the lives of Guinean citizens? How did you come to recognize certain aspects of the Guinean political culture as distinctly (post)socialist?

The part of Guinea where I have lived and worked since 1989 borders Liberia. Loma speakers, among whom I work, are split roughly in half by the arbitrary border between the two countries. When Liberians began arriving in that part of Guinea in 1990 as a result of the Liberian civil war, I was shocked to find that the differences between Liberian Loma and Guinean Loma were far greater than between Guinean Loma and any of the other ethnic groups in Guinea. National culture, as historically shallow and arbitrary as it might have been, was real and had real effects. Most scholarship on Africa is guilty of treating national culture as a thin veneer over some form of “tribalism,” even if other terms are chosen. Many West Africans I know also treat national culture and identity as secondary. This may be accurate for some countries, but others, like Guinea, invested heavily in creating a sense of national unity and identity, and in fact succeeded. This investment included great care in articulating goals and means of achieving them, the kind of planning (and sacrifice) for the near future that Jane Guyer has discussed and whose master example might be the much-maligned five-year plan.

Scholars of postsocialism are used to responding to claims that socialism was a failed political and economic experiment. You seem to be arguing something quite different. Were socialist states in Africa in some ways more successful at generating a shared sense of national belonging? And if yes, what in your view made possible such an outcome?

Socialist countries like Guinea and Tanzania created qualitatively different senses of belonging and citizenship than many of their neighbors, like Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, to take two relevant comparisons. They invested positively through nationalist spectacle, the articulation of social and economic programs that operated through a step-wise process over years and decades, and they demanded sacrifices by their citizens in the name of a greater good. I don’t consider socialism a failed experiment, inasmuch as it lives on as an idea that exists in dialectical relationship with the idea of capitalism, while actually existing socialisms come and go, with their various shortcomings. In Guinea, it was the fact that people had recourse to an idea, a vocabulary, and a rhetoric of revolutionary sacrifice and unity that gave some Guineans ammunition for arguing against large-scale violence. These legacies existed independent of the fact that socialism as it had been practiced failed many Guineans in many different ways.

Larisa Kurtovic, Soyuz’s Convenor, is assistant professor of anthropology at University of Ottawa. She is working on a book manuscript entitled Future as Predicament: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Political Action after Catastrophe.

Mike McGovern is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is currently conducting fieldwork in Shan State, Myanmar (Burma), another country that had a more than nominally socialist government from 1962 to 1988.

Deborah Jones is contributing editor for the Soyuz Postsocialist Studies Network’s AN column. She is seeking suggestions for additional book conversations that might interest Soyuz members.

Cite as: Kurtovic, Larisa, and Mike McGovern. 2017. “Book Conversation with Mike McGovern.” Anthropology News website, August 21, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.580

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