Review: “The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia” – Christopher Kaplonski

Christopher Kaplonski’s “The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia” is the third book I have read about socialist Mongolia. The book is not a comprehensive historical analysis of the struggle between Mongolian socialists and the feudal Buddhist establishment like its name might suggest. Rather, Kaplonski’s interest is in elaborating on anthropological theories of state violence, especially Giorgio Agamben “state of exception” and to a lesser extent Michel Foucault’s theories of power and knowledge. Agamben’s singular “state of exception,” Kaplonski argues, is inapplicable, or at the very least inappropriate, in the case of Mongolia due to the absence of a “state of exception” except during the brief 1932 rebellion or civil war. Kaplonski instead proposes that the use of various “technologies of exception,” an analytical tool Kaplonski develops, is more appropriate to the see-sawing power struggle within Mongolia that began first within the confines of the legal system before culminating in the mass repression of lamas in the late 1930s. That being said, Kaplonski does cite a lot of valuable information from the Mongolian archives and does challenge many bourgeois conceptions of socialist Mongolia (ex. that Mongolia was a mere “satellite” of the USSR, that Stalin ordered the mass repression, that the lamas were all innocent, etc.).

Nevertheless Kaplonski’s book suffers from that terrible disease that seems to afflict so many academic scholars, including Irina Morozova, whose book Kaplonski cites and which I have also read: a pathological disdain for class analysis arising from their neoliberal ideology. Throughout this book Kaplonski seems to use “technologies of exception” to substitute for a class-based analysis a highly abstract, anthropological model too far removed from material reality to be of historical or political use to anyone but philosophers and academics. The words “capitalism,” “Marxism,” and “feudalism,” are hardly mentioned in the book, except where they are unavoidable such as citing Mongolian archival documents. Each “technology of exception” that Kaplonski describes corresponds with the balance of power in the class struggle in Mongolia, as a class analysis with no doubt show. The Mongolian socialists were not in a position to tackle head-on the feudal Buddhist establishment at the time of the 1921 revolution (the Bogd Khan even continued to serve in this role until his death in 1924). The less repressive, more legalistic measures adopted to counter the lamas at this time was not due to some abstract conception of sovereignty, governmentality, or Agamben’s “state of exception,” like Kaplonski attributes them to, but simply due to the objective realities existing in Mongolia. The transition from less repressive, more legalistic measures to mass repression similarly could and should be explained by the balance of class forces and the existing conditions in Mongolia: increased support from the USSR, which was itself struggling against Trotskyism and other counterrevolutionary movements; more than a decade of socialist measures to increase literary, women’s rights, etc.; the threat of another counterrevolutionary war by the lamas such as occurred in 1932; the rise of Japanese imperialism, which no doubt would have supported such a counterrevolutionary war against both Mongolia and the USSR; etc. The class struggle is an analytical tool sufficiently capable of explaining when and why the Mongolian socialists, perhaps unnecessarily and most definitely excessively, reacted to the threat of the lamas with mass repression. Proposing a new analytical tool, such as the “technologies of exception,” as Kaplonski does, is a fruitless academic exercise, and is a symptom of the liberal’s pathological disdain for a scientific class analysis.

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