Review: “Socialist Revolutions in Asia: The Social History of Mongolia in the Twentieth Century” – Irina Y. Morozova

Irina Y. Morozova’s “Socialist Revolutions in Asia: The Social History of Mongolia in the Twentieth Century” was not what I had expected — and not in a good way!

When I first ordered this book from Routledge, I had hoped for a more balanced history of socialist development in Mongolia than B. Shirendyb’s heavily pro-Soviet book “By-Passing Capitalism” (not that I think B. Shirendyb’s book is bad). Instead, I found this book confusing and contradictory, and while I hope I am wrong, some of the author’s implications seem racist to me.

Throughout the book the author makes extremely confusing and contradictory statements or conclusions. For example, the author is (unsurprisingly) anti-communist, and like most Western anti-communists, she is sympathetic to the plight of the wealthy feudal lamas in Mongolia. Nonetheless her statements and conclusions dumbfound me. She describes the feudal lamas as “the biggest, richest and most privileged strata” at the beginning of the twentieth century (pp. 28). She then laments efforts to weaken — and eventually eliminate — this “biggest, richest and most privileged strata” and secularize the country as an “insidious policy” intended “to create a new generation of lamas who were not beholden to the Buddhist spirits of compassion and humbleness, but rather cultivating in them a truly earthly neglect of tradition and lust for power. In other words, the true teaching of Buddha and monastic ritual had to be perverted from within by the Buddhists themselves” (pp. 94). According to the author, the lamas were already “the biggest, richest and most privileged strata” and already had all the power. This is hardly in keeping with the teachings of Buddha, since it is difficult to imagine these lamas accumulating all this wealth and power in an impoverished nomadic society with “compassion and humbleness”! Moreover, if the lamas already had all the power and wealth before Mongolian revolutionaries seized control of Mongolia, it doesn’t sound like they needed to assistance in cultivating a “lust for power” by the Mongolian revolutionaries! On the next page (pp. 94) we see this “compassion and humbleness” of the wealthy lamas in practice, when the author describes how the lamas accumulated “huge stock[s] of weapons” in the monasteries and condemned the “red threat”.

Another frequent contradiction throughout the book is the threat of internal enemies and of Japanese militarism. On pp. 93, the author writes: “To increase the activity of the extraordinary supra-legal organizations, an ‘external threat’ was fabricated: the idea that foreign enemies were ready to prevent the Mongolian people from building socialism.” The implication of this was there was no threat of Japanese militarism, that Mongolia’s leaders had to create a threat to justify further repression, which the author writes “approached the level of genocide” (pp. 97). But earlier, on pp. 52, the author describes how in 1925-27, the deposed lamas “still hoped for revenge. Japanese agents endeavoured to support them, provoking and stimulating pan-Mongolist movements in Inner Mongolia.” The author then seems to do a complete U-turn on pp. 99: “In such a poor state, the country faced a real threat — it had to resist a strong and militarized Japan.” In other words, had Mongolian revolutionary leaders not “fabricated” an external threat of “foreign enemies” within Mongolia, which the author admits existed, the country would have been better prepared against the real external threat, Japan! Pardon the language — but what the hell?!

Finally, and I hope I am wrong about this, some of the author’s conclusions seem to be thinly veiled racism towards the people of Mongolia. For example, instead of the Marxist theory of the class-struggle being relevant to conditions in Mongolia, the author makes this highly dubious and seemingly racist conclusion: “As Mongolian history had included the slaughtering of entire ethnic groups according to the customs of tribal rivalry, the principle of the class struggle might have been in a certain way acceptable to the Mongols” (pp. 32). Uhm…, what?! There are many more instances of highly dubious and seemingly racist conclusions in this book. According to the author, the expropriations committed against the wealthy lamas had less, if anything, to do with the objective class struggle between rich and poor than it had to do with the nature of nomads: “First, it should be remembered that the resources of a nomadic economy are limited, and an active exchange and trade with sedentary societies are required for is sustainability. That is why, against the backdrop of the changing international situation, when all ‘peaceful’ means for acquiring essential means and goods had been expended, the nomads sparked economic expansion through forced expropriation of resources and property…” (pp. 63). Thus, when Mongolian revolutionaries began expropriating the property and wealth of the feudal lamas, this wasn’t due to the class struggle as Marxists understand it but rather it was an expression of “the militant expansionism of the Central Asian nomads…turned inward” (pp. 64).

A very disappointing book indeed!

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