Jan 21

Quoting Marx in a Tajik University: Producing Docile Bodies

The Soviet Union may be dead, but Marx retains his grip on Tajik academia.  His thinking still pervades the teaching of history in some universities in the country. In September 2013 I had the privilege to spend the day at the newly established Garm State University in the Rasht Valley.  Originally established as a regional campus of the Pedagogical Institute in Dushanbe, the university gained independence in 2013. During my visit the caretakers were busy tending to the grounds and cleaning the new campus buildings in preparation for the visit of President Rahmon later that month.

I spent the morning with the Rector of the university, who gave me a tour and told me about how he had trained as an economist in Moscow during the Brezhnev era. He lamented the deterioration of academia since the collapse of the USSR, but told me that the government was keen to develop the minds of young people through education. This was less than evident when I visited the classrooms in the university.

The first lecture I attended was part of a course on the History of the Tajik People (Tarikh Tojikon Halki). The lecture focused on the Middle Ages (Miyona Asri). To my surprise the lecturer opened his talk with a quote from Marx describing how feudalism was an unjust system in which the gentry ruled over the peasants. The lecturer proceeded to outline this period of history, with frequent insertions of Marxist wisdom. After the lecture I spoke with Davlatbek, the lecturer, who explained to me that history progressed in the five stages outlined by Marx and Engels: primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. “But Tajikistan has already passed through a communist stage. What stage is it at now?” I asked him. He smiled back, telling me that Tajikistan was now a democracy. “Hasn’t it reverted back to capitalism?” I inquired. “No,” he replied. “Capitalism is what you have on the west (gharb). Here in the east (sharq) we have democracy.” This message was echoed in the next lecture that I attended. This time the lecture was on the theme of international relations. The lecturer explained Tajikistan’s position as a peaceful and democratic country within the international system.

From my exchanges with staff and students at the university and through observing lessons I drew a number of conclusions. First, I observed the ways in which knowledge and power interact in Tajik universities to produce docile political subjects. Michel Foucault observed that bodies become docile when they become the “target of power.” The body is “subjected, used, transformed, and improved” through disciplinary acts (Discipline and Punish, p.136). Such a process is taking place at Tajik universities. There is no space for independent thought. The lecturer reads the “Truth” about what is means to be Tajik from a sheet and the pupils obediently copy this down, reproducing this as reality. Pupils do not engage in debates or question what the lecturer tells them. Any sense of individuality is stamped out. Pupils all wear uniforms; boys have to keep their hair short and girls cannot wear the hijab. Such policies are enforced by staff, who check students as they enter the campus. One such “uniform policeman” entered one of the lectures that I was attending. Taking me for a student he asked why I had such long hair and was not wearing a uniform. All of these disciplinary acts render the students submissive and accepting of authority.

Second, Marxist ideology retains its grip on the teaching of history and on the ways knowledge is produced in Tajik academia more generally. This indicates how Tajikistan remains a “post-Soviet” republic. When analysing the Tajik habitus with regards to national identity, religion and political practices, it is necessary to recognise the pervasive influence that the Soviet legacy retains. Soviet ways of knowing and modes of being still dominate even in rural Tajikistan.