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January 18, 2012

Scholars long ago noted that Soviet party meetings and congresses had changed by the 1930s. Before that time, they had been lively forums for policy debate and discussion. In the 1930s, when open opposition was no longer tolerated, these meetings seem at first glance to have been pointless scenes where policies already decided above were dictated to the assembled members, where challenges to and debates about those policies were prohibited, and where those decisions were approved unanimously.
It was always the same. Attendance was mandatory. A reporter read a long report and draft resolution, carefully prepared in advance with attention to the approved slogans and linguistic conventions. Then, each speaker (and most activists were expected to speak) expressed “complete agreement” with the report and provided appropriate embellishments. In short, party meetings from the Central Committee down to the party cell had become apparently empty rituals


Kritika/samokritika is an example of an “apology ritual” in which the apology element served to affirm the “mistake,” to pronounce a lesson to others below not to make the same mistake, and to recognise the status and rights of the party receiving the apology (the leadership) to set the rules. It thereby affirms the unity and authority of the collective. The subject, who was either removed or censured, was supposed to play his part by recognising that the leadership’s position was “completely correct”, reiterating the critique in the context of “self-criticism”. These apologetic rituals were a “show of discursive affirmation from below,” indicating that the dissident “publicly accepts … the judgment of his superior that this is an an offense and reaffirms the rule in question.” In this sense, they had a transactional component, in which the self-criticism paid “symbolic taxation” to a higher authority. As we shall see, these rituals were not frozen set pieces. They were contingent and unpredictable performances in which outcomes and punishments depended more on how well the subject complied with the symbolic transaction than on the nature of the offense itself


Much of Stalinism involved attempts to create an interpretive template, a collective representation of reality or discourse that made sense of a society in crisis. Whether we call them dominant discourses, master fictions, ruling myths, transcripts, hegemonic ideologies, or party lines, it is clear that elites everywhere support a basic system of beliefs, assumptions and tenets. Whether they are about democracy, socialism, fascism, patriarchy, or religion, they provide an organising thought pattern and validation of the existing order (even if that order be revolutionary): ‘This is the way things are and this is the way things should be.” They also provide a “self-portrait of dominant elites as they wold have themselves seen.” They facilitate a unified elite self-representation, cohesion, and integration and offer a means of social control by insisting that people adhere to the belief system; they thereby provide a definition of heresy in the form of non-adherence or, as in the cases examined here, in the form of non-participation in unity rituals

J. Arch Getty. Samokritika: Rituals in the Stalinist Central Committee, 1933-38

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