Matthew W. King on Christopher Kaplonski’s The Lama Question
In December 1911, Khalkha Mongol Buddhist monks and nobility met in secret to declare autonomy from the failing Qing Empire. They elected the Jibzundamba Khutugtu, the highest of their incarnate lamas, as Holy Emperor of a new Buddhist theocratic nation-state. So began a brash and self-consciously modernist experiment at the heart of Asia. Nationalists twinned European models of nationalism, parliamentarianism, and industrial development with administrative structures and socio-religious hierarchies left over from the Qing formation.
Geopolitical intrigues threatened the fledgling nation almost immediately. In 1919, the Mongol capital was occupied by Chinese forces and then again by White Russians in 1921. Mongolian socialists backed by Soviet forces ousted the Whites that same year. Power now lay with a motley and fractious band of leftist elites of “especially energetic activists suffering crises of identity, who became authors of nationalistic conceptions and ideals for the Asian country’s development.” Under their fractious leadership, this sparse and mostly rural nation began to transition from a “feudal” Qing outpost to the world’s second socialist state with uneven momentum and purpose after the Jibzundamba’s death in 1924.
The challenges revolutionary leaders faced in their project were mammoth. Mongolia was vast with a largely illiterate population of nomadic pastoralists. Their lives were centered — ideologically and economically — around the old “black” (khar) society of secular nobility and the “yellow” (shar) society of Buddhist monastic institutions and estates. The 700 temples and monasteries that dotted the steppes and deserts of Mongolia were their only sedentary buildings. Incarnate lamas, or “living buddhas” (khuwilgan, khutugtu) such as the Jibzundambas and the Dalai and Panchen Lamas in Tibet occupied an almost unassailable position as enlightenment embodied on the human stage. One-third of all adult men were lamas (lam) with some kind of formal monastic affiliation, the highest per capita rate of monasticism anywhere in Asia during all 2500 years of Buddhist history.
Who were to be the proletariat of the steppes? Herders? Women? Lower-tier monastics? Just where was this nation of livestock herders and monks situated on the received evolutionary charts of historical materialism? Noting these problems of categorization, in 1921 Lenin cautioned an early delegation of Mongolian socialists that:
The revolutionaries will have to put in a good deal of work in developing state, economic and cultural activities before the herdsman elements become a proletarian mass, which may eventually help to “transform” the People’s Revolutionary Party into a Communist Party. A mere change of signboards is harmful and dangerous.
Against the enduring authority of the Buddhist religious establishment, the fledgling socialist state remained contingent; it occupied a liminal position between enacting direct military action against Buddhist monasteries and having the authority to impose the rule of law. A fundamental “lama problem,” in other words, beleaguered the first historical effort to produce socialism in Asia.
Christopher Kaplonski’s The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia scrutinizes the strategies adopted by the people’s party to advance their claim to sovereignty. In the socialist party archives that have been the fodder for much of Kaplonski’s important scholarship to date, the “lama question” (lam naryn asuudal) was common shorthand for a cluster of political, economic and social impasses between 1921 and 1937. Kaplonski centers the lama question as the very heart of “Asia’s first modern revolution.” He finds that it was the ambiguities, split loyalties, contingencies, and unexpected outcomes that eventually created a socialist world on the steppes of Asia’s heartland.
Establishing a new socialist order would come in Mongolia, but at great human cost. While early revolutionary leaders worked closely with monastic leaders or were themselves prominent Buddhist monks, the majority of monasteries and their elite prelates opposed the centrifugal forces of reform advanced by the government. Even if it is true that “in the long history of Buddhism perhaps no country or people in the world were as affected by the faith as were the Mongols of Great Mongolia,” it took just years for monastic institutions to be criminalized, and just months for the terror of state violence to erase its institutional traces.
Beginning in 1937, nearly thirty years after the Qing collapse and sixteen years into the socialist period, the lama question was given a final and bloody answer. At least 40,000 “counterrevolutionaries,” half of whom were monks, were tried and shot over eighteen months. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned or forcibly returned to lay life. Soviet-era historiography would remember this as the time of the “Struggles of the Mongolian Nation for a Non-Capitalistic Route to Development.”
Beyond offering a revisionist history of modern Mongolian history, Kaplonski uses the Mongolian case to develop a wide-ranging argument against a prevalent scholarly model that assumes states adopt political violence because it is effective. The Lama Question asks not why state violence is enacted and how, but rather why and when extensive state violence is avoided. Why did it take so long to kill the lamas? How exactly were certain monks (and especially the “living buddhas”) made killable?
Answering these critical questions, Kaplonski draws upon two key theoretical traditions in the (historical) anthropology of political violence. The first emerges from the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben on the “state of exception.” The second is a line of revisionist anthropology that has approached statehood and sovereignty as dynamic, contingent, and contested rather than stable, consensual, and legitimate.
Agamben’s notion of the state of exception pivots on a curious Roman legal concept of homo sacer. A homo sacer (a “sacred person”) was someone legally stripped of citizenship who could be killed but not sacrificed. In Agamben’s view, homo sacer began a long Euro-American tradition he calls the state of exception: political power founded in legal exclusions enacted during “states of emergency.” For Agamben, the result is a legal construct of sovereignty that worked by “at once excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order, [and thus] actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested.”
Kaplonski shows that to identify and exclude homo sacer immediately in the Mongolian case — as the Nazis had done to Jews during the Holocaust and as the Americans continue to do to “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo — was untenable. Positioning state power opposite bare life presumes a position of power that the Mongolian socialists did not possess. Walter Benjamin’s opinion that the state of emergency in which we live is no longer the exception but the rule was quite true of revolutionary Mongolia in the 1920s and 1930s. The government however was at pains to make it appear not to be the case: an actual state of emergency (onts baidal) was declared only during the “armed rebellion” (zevsegt boslogo) of 1932. Producing bare life as an exercise of established power eluded the socialist party. This was precisely the problem, as Lenin noted.
Buddhist monastics and especially the living buddhas were too heavy with social meaning: they resisted being reduced to a bare life, to a killable subject position. Covert assassinations, death squads, and the like would thus have delegitimized any claims to sovereignty the socialists hoped to make. Weber’s classic observation that a state is an entity with “a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” is creatively inverted in Kaplonski’s analysis: the Mongolian socialist state needed to gain legitimacy before it could use physical force at all.
Acquiring the authority and legitimacy to render monks killable thus became fundamental. Kaplonski’s unique attention to process and practice in this regard allows him to shift from Agamben’s notion of the state of exception to what Kaplonski calls technologies of exception: a series of strategies used by socialist leaders to contain and exclude the sovereignty of the Buddhist establishment. Foucault’s notion of governmentality (a way of ruling wherein “the population became not only the subject of rule, but also of study by the rulers, both a source and an object of knowledge”) is central here, as it was for Agamben. In The Lama Question, however, the ambiguous boundaries between exception and governmentality in the Mongol case are used to confront some of the presuppositions in Foucault’s model. This is especially true of Foucault’s classic formulation of the population, a model that can hardly account for the exceptional social meaning of “living buddhas” who remained outside the everyday population subject to law and socialist party authority. The elite Buddhist victims of state violence in Mongolia would have remained both unkillable and unknowable according to Agamben’s and Foucault’s models.
Instead, Kaplonski tracks how socialists sought to legitimize their authority over many years, accruing knowledge of the lamas and their institutions by collecting demographics and statistics about them, thus reducing the monks to data points in a governable population. Knowing, legality and economic deployment, rather that brute force, unexpectedly emerges as the backdrop for the execution of five percent of Mongolia’s population in just eighteen months. Critical in Kaplonski’s argument is the fact that these earlier technologies of exception were enacted through legal frameworks. The economic and ideological routes legally available to monastics were gradually tightened. Counter-revolutionaries were tried, convicted, and punished with prison sentences or death. Guilt or innocence was decided in a court, in other words. “The exception needs to be contained, to be made unexceptional. To do otherwise, to highlight the exception, could be read as highlighting the contingent nature of the state.” Abiding by norms and regulations was precisely what helped mediate the delicate sovereignty of the socialist government and what, it was hoped, would help invent a strong socialist polity in Mongolia. “The system had to be seen as functioning to be seen to be normal.”
This legal strategy to contain the Buddhist establishment ultimately failed, however. Monks, “living buddhas,” and their monasteries escaped totalized state knowledge, legal inscription, and economic suffocation. By the mid-1930s, after a decade of socialist party rule, the monastic population had actually increased. The faith and loyalty of the people were hardly opposed to their lamas. Class-consciousness remained frustratingly (and, when scrutinized by Soviet advisors, embarrassingly) dormant. It was only when it became clear that these had definitively failed that the final technology of exception — a desperate, mass exercise of state violence — was implemented.
Kaplonski’s close and unparalleled reading (outside Mongolia) of the available archival evidence allows him to challenge the usual scholarly idea that Mongol events simply mirrored Stalin’s “Great Terror” (c. 1936-38). Not only does this older view deny Mongol agency by conveniently absolving Mongol complicity in the atrocities. It also allows the rather abrupt exercise of excessive state violence — an endpoint — to overshadow political strategies developed to handle the lama question for nearly two decades. Such a view “blinds us to much that can be learned about politics and political violence from the Mongolian case.”
The Lama Question thus performs one of the most difficult of historical tasks: to humanize the perpetuators of mass violence and to see ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty, and not an inscrutable monstrousness, as directing events. “The Mongolian socialists, Buddhists, and those who were both — were simply people trying to make sense of the world and shape it as best they could.” The comforting banality of applying theory to violence thus falls away. As Kaplonski rightly notes, humanizing state violence within living memory implicates the heirs of that violence and leads to victim blaming. (This work will surely be subjected to such readings in contemporary Mongolia).
Mongols took up a socialist project, sought to move forward from old imperial and theocratic structures, and eventually, killed each other in huge numbers. They did so as socialist cadres, Buddhists, and early on, often as both. Assigning agency to people — and not state structures, foreign polities or ideologies — is the difficult but assured move of The Lama Question. Humanizing killers and those deemed killable remains a sickening imperative for historians of modernizing movements in Asia, even when this will necessarily implicate those who would prefer distance and will expose logics that are terrible for being so recognizably sensible.