H-NATIONALISM: BILL KISSANE INTERVIEW WITH RISTO ALAPURO, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI: NOVEMBER 7, 2012
Bill Kissane first met Risto Alapuro in Helsinki in 1995 when the former spent a year in Helsinki University as a PhD Student. He thought Finland a very organised, indeed functionalist Nordic democracy at first, but its twentieth century history has been very dramatic. Risto Alapuro's work focuses in large measure on the formative and dramatic stage of Finnish history from 1905 to 1938. This is unusual for a sociologist. Yet Alapuro's work is a rich source of conceptual tools for anyone considering questions of statehood on the European periphery and on the nature of national identity after civil war. He is a contributing a chapter on the latter question to a forthcoming volume edited by Bill Kissane on Reconstructing National Identity after Europe's Internal Wars 1918-2011.
Risto Alapuro, first as a student, then as Researcher and Professor, has been working as a sociologist in Finland, mainly at the University of Helsinki, since the mid-1960s. In this period, in both Finnish and English, he has published countless articles, chapters, and books on the Finnish experience of democracy, civil war, and statehood. Alapuro was also part of the Research Group on Comparative Sociology within the Sociology Department of Helsinki University. This group, which included the sociologist Erik Allardt, has published many important research reports, such as on the Scandinavian route to modernity, the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, the impact of geo-political location on the social and political structures of Finnish society, and some studies comparing Finland to other small European societies, such as Hungary. Most of these studies have been translated into English. Fluent in several languages, Alapuro's own work has involved comparisons between Finland and the other Nordic states, with Russia and the Baltic States, and sometimes with France. It is no exaggeration to say that a major part of his intellectual ambition has been to place the Finnish experience in a comparative context. His work ranges over many issues; such as the role of intellectuals in Finland, the legacy of agrarian structures for modern politics, the nature of associational life in east and west Europe, democratization in Finland, and of course nationalism.
These interests were largely those of the broader field of comparative historical sociology which has developed since the 1960s. Indeed a major influence was the year he spent in 1973-74 as a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Center for Research on Social Organizations at Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Charles Tilly. Tilly's work clearly influenced his major monograph Revolution in Finland, one of the few studies of the Finnish civil war that did not accord primary explanatory power to socio-economic hardship or ideology. Rather, Alapuro argued, the impact of the Russian revolutions, the collapse of the security forces, and the strong organisational tradition of the Social Democrats, were the main factors behind the polarisation and violence which accompanied Finnish independence in 1917-1918. Yet unlike Tilly, Alapuro was also interested in nationalism. In the twentieth century Finland experienced one major civil war, two short wars against the Soviet Union during World War Two, and the end of the Cold War, which led to a radically new alignment (away from Russia) with the E.U. Scholars from outside tended to be interested in Finland for three reasons: Finland's survival as a small independent state sharing a border with the Soviet Union; the surprising strength of Finland's communist party compared to those in western democracies after 1945; and the bloody 1918 civil war that followed soon after independence. Much of Alapuro's work reflects the interconnected nature of these themes: the unique geo-political location, the experience of civil war, and the question of how social and national dimensions of politics relate to each other. All three make the question of nationhood especially important.
The recent electoral success of the populist True Finn party shows the strong current of nationalism that still exists in Finland. One can trace this current, under different forms, back to at least the First World War when 'activist' Finnish nationalists, tired of the policy of conciliating Russia, went to Germany and received military training. Alapuro's own work on nationalism actually began with his doctoral dissertation in the 1960s on an influential student movement between the wars, Akateeminen Karjala Seura (The Academic Karelian Society), that was immersed in Finnish language politics and irredentism (the Soviets had formed their own Karelian People's Republic). The subtitle, Ylioppilasliike ja kansa/ Student Movement and People, reflects how important the concept of people (kansa) was to the sense of nationhood promoted by the elite. Alapuro has written about how the nationalist intelligentsia had a strong leadership role in the state and a considerable hold over its people when Finland entered the twentieth century as a poor and agrarian country. It was therefore quite a shock to them when the working classes embraced some form of socialist politics after 1905. For the most part, however, Alapuro has not been a student of nationalist doctrines or ideas, but rather stresses how geo-political factors interacted with domestic structures to shape Finland's pattern of political mobilisation. As a sociologist he has a nuanced view of social structures not found in many general theories of nationalism. Yet these structural factors are always related to the peculiar geo-political situation. Two representative examples of this sensitivity are found in his conception of Finland as 'an interface periphery', and his stress on the way civic and ethnic traditions were combined when Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Tsar (between 1809 and 1917). Recently, some more interpretive works on the legacy of the civil war speak to the general debate about nations and nationalism in a very specific sense. Finland, unlike many new states, actually has no foundation myth as such, and the civil war saw rather the categories of what is inside and outside the nation becoming blurred at the precise moment of state formation. This experience has had a fundamental impact on the nature of national identity, and remained important when a strong communist movement asserted itself after 1945. As discussed in the interview, this experience continued to matter in leftist student politics into the 1970s. Nationalism continually re-appears, but one must consider the very particular geo-political context in which it makes its claims.
(At the end of this interview you will find a list of some of his most important works related to the civil war and to Finnish nationalism).
Risto, could you tell me something about your route into academic life and why you chose to become a historical sociologist working primarily on Finland?
I guess it was very much due to the intellectual climate in the 1960s when I became an adult and started my studies. That is, I was a sociologist, but there was this Marxist type of interest, which included an interest in history, which is different from the prevailing sociology today. So I became interested in sociology at a time in which the relevance of history became clear to me. The other thing was that I was supposed to prepare my dissertation at Helsinki University by comparing two student movements, one from the 1930s and one from the 1960s: that also included a historical dimension.
And also when you went to the United States your work on the Finnish civil war or the Finnish revolution was greatly influenced not only historical sociology in general but also by Charles Tilly's work on mobilisation?
One of the most influential books I read when I was preparing my PhD about the student movement in the 1930s was Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; it really affected me. It was very impressive and had a big impact. That was perhaps most important. Then, when I went to the United States (I had a Fulbright), I wrote in my application that I would like to go somewhere where this historical perspective was present, and found myself at the University of Michigan in Charles Tilly's research centre.
One of the things I think that makes your work on Finland different from such scholars is that obviously in Finland the national question has been far more important -- almost an existential one -- whereas Moore and Tilly and those were not primarily working in the area of nationalism.
That's right I think, yes, but for somebody who was interested in questions of state and conflicts -- in the Finnish civil war to be concrete -- nationalism immediately entered the picture. That's one thing, and the other thing is that my PhD was about a semi-Fascist student movement which was very strong in Finland in the 1920s and 1930s; this by definition brought me to the questions of nations and nationalism.
And when you've been working on the emergence of Finland as a nation state, one of the interesting ideas (which formed part of the title of one of your first monographs) was that Finland was an interface periphery. In other words, you could compare the Finns to other small nationalities in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but their geopolitical position and their space was very distinct.
Yes sure, what from the beginning seemed to be important was a comparative perspective, or putting Finland in a larger context, and it is for this purpose that the term interface periphery served, a term I picked from Stein Rokkan who used it with a different meaning. The interesting thing in the Finnish situation was that in a way it was the most eastern of the small western nationalities, but at the same time it was the most western of the peoples in the Russian Empire. This double situation seemed extremely interesting. It somehow provided the background to the interpretations I tried to develop.
It seems as if for scholars working on small and relatively isolated countries, to establish a comparative perspective is very difficult, and in terms of popular discourse when you do that you do something that is so unfamiliar that it is always people working within the national story whose accounts of the past have the greatest impact on the public. Would you say that is true of Finland?
I think it is true in Finland, and it affected my motivation. It struck me that Finnish historiography was very inward-oriented in the sense that the historians liked to stress that our experience is unique, different from other national experiences -- that you cannot relate it to what happened elsewhere. This was something which I hated from the beginning, and I think that I wanted to show that Finland is not so different, that we are not so specific that we cannot be compared. Historians' reluctance to make comparisons included a kind of nationalist undertone. I simply thought it was salutary to try to do comparisons and to make the Finnish experience related to experiences in other countries.
Does acquiring that comparative perspective really require you to not only mentally but also physically to go abroad, and to study abroad and become familiar with other cultures: is it something that you cannot do if you remain all your career in in one country?
Well I don't know if it is impossible to become a comparativist while staying at home, but it certainly helps if you leave your country at least for a while. My experience is that it is extremely important. You can of course go to the library and read the same books which you will read somewhere else, but you will not be open to a fresh perspective which you can get when you are reading in an environment that does not cherish the domestic certainties. You can feel that something which seems so evident in your home milieu is not evident; it is relative. This kind of experience is very important for a comparative sensitivity to develop; and you cannot acquire it if you only sit in your home library in your own country.
You mentioned in an article the attempt in the 1950s by Erik Allardt to treat Finnish communism as a scientific problem, and you compared it to certain movements within linguistics that wanted to reduce the Finnish language to its most elementary forms, and it is almost as if, in a place like Finland, and your work on the Finnish civil war is a bit like this too: it involves an exercise of 'cooling down', when you apply these perspectives to these formative events.
I think the cooling down is a very important dimension in the adoption of a comparative approach to the Finnish civil war; through comparison you take some distance to the event. At the same time there may be, indirectly, an emotional undertone in this effort, because it implies a willingness to show to the domestically-oriented historians that their view is too narrow or erroneous. This latter aspect as well was a part of my motivation, I think.
Well obviously you are acknowledging the emotional importance and one response to that is to cool it down. That is not to deny these events are emotionally important. It is just another way of dealing with them. Where I would see in your work a very important theme generally is the whole obsession with the left , and whether the left were genuine revolutionaries or whether they were also Finnish nationalists, because I think part of the milieu within which you grew up, was one where there was a dominant interpretation of the Finnish civil war, the White nationalist interpretation, and in that sense even if you are cooling down the topic, you are also trying to do justice to the situation which existed at the time, and therefore to place the different combatants in that civil war on an equal footing.
This is certainly true. Cooling down involved a willingness to look at the event in a theoretical frame -- the study of revolutions -- that did not imply a division of the combatants into those who were right and those who were wrong. 'Objectively', in relation to the nationalist interpretation, it meant an attempt to do justice to the defeated, to the revolutionaries. But this kind of 'cooling down' obviously also included an emotional and even a political dimension, which I shared with many others who grew up or reformed the historiography of the civil war in the 1960s and the 1970s. I was of course far from being alone in my hope to revise the former interpretations at that time.
We see for example in Spain, when the political system opened up, or in Greece in the 1970s, when that part of the historical and social science scholarship, even when it is rigorous and objective is about doing justice to people who were up to then excluded from the picture.
Yes, exactly. One more aspect in my attempt to adopt a historically oriented social science approach to the civil war was a kind of double perspective. On the one hand it was a cooling down effort vis-a-vis the Finnish audience, an attempt to show that we are not so different from others, that we can deal with the war with concepts and approaches which apply elsewhere. On the other hand I tried to make the war accessible to the non-Finnish audience of social scientists and historians, showing that the Finnish case can bring something to the discussion about revolutions and nationalism more generally, by being analyzed through concepts that make it commensurable with other cases of revolutions and nationalism.
I must say, when I introduce Finland as a case in my comparative politics courses, people are always surprised that there was such a major conflict at the very beginning of its independent history. And it almost seems as if the kind of small country/ consensual/ homogenous/ plucky people/ image of the Finns, is the one that shapes the outside perspective, but of course nation and state building in Finland were no less complicated just because the society was relatively homogenous.
Yes that's right. What you say is related to my view of the breakout of the civil war in 1918. Basically the political development in Finland followed the same lines as in Scandinavia up to the First World War, despite the nineteenth-century freezing of political reforms in the Grand Duchy under the Russian rule, and the dramatic introduction of universal suffrage and a unicameral assembly in 1906 as a consequence of the so-called first Russian revolution. Then the number of those who were entitled to vote multiplied tenfold. This reform, as sweeping as it was, can well be put in the tradition of Finland as a Scandinavian country in its social structures and institutions. But the breakout of the civil war is indeed very difficult to put in the historical continuity of Finland. My view is that in pitting the different social classes in Finland against one another, it represents a major discontinuity that was made possible by the way the Finnish developments, taking place in the frame of electoral politics, were intertwined with the Russian developments in 1917. Consequently Jeff Goodwin's maxim that the ballot box is the coffin of the revolutionaries does not hold in the Finnish case. In my view one should stress the role of the political process in 1917, whereas those who like to stress continuities (and retrospectively you always find continuities if you want to) stress the direct influence of social inequalities, hardships, and grievances, both during the World War and prior to it.
It's interesting if you look at your career overall, that in 1988 you published State and Revolution in Finland about the civil war, and here we are over 20 years later, and at least in terms of what I read, you are still writing about the civil war, but I think you are writing it in terms of very different concerns.
Well yes, the civil war has remained one subject that continually interests me, but the concerns or at least the themes linked to it have somewhat changed, even though my basic view has not. I still want to stress the primacy of the political process, as a contrast to the still largely prevailing view of a very unmediated and direct role of social hardships as the main factor leading to the revolution. Two themes on which I have worked lately, are the nature of the post-civil war reconstruction in the Finnish case (in fact in a book you have edited), and the violence in the Finnish civil war. About the latter theme I have written for Stathis Kalyvas' project of the violence in the twentieth-century European civil wars. And finally, after State and Revolution in Finland I wrote a book, in Finnish, about one local community during the same period, from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1930s.
By writing that book, The Birth of Finland as a Local Phenomenon, you seem in a way to have anticipated in a way what Kalyvas was trying to establish with respect to the Greek civil war.
I don't know. It is true that Kalyvas' great book The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2006) brings together a huge amount of information from the local level, but the Greek experience is only one example of it. Interestingly from a comparative point of view, it seems to me that in Finland the unfolding of violence followed a somewhat special chronology. In Finland the violence climaxed at the end of the war and immediately afterwards, and consequently the aspect of revenge seems strong. But more typical experience is, as Kalyvas shows, that the violence intensifies during the war, in its irregular conditions, when the combatants arriving in an area need to control people living there.
It certainly brings into question the aftermath of the civil war -- the issue we have both been working on in this reconstruction project -- and what it tells you about nationalism in a given country -- at least in the sense that the side that won was more nationalist and exploited that nationalism to try and benefit from their military victory and also to exclude the losers.
Yes for sure, the nationalist tradition was taken over by the victors and modified at the same time. There is a still going discussion of the name of the war -- was it a civil war or a War of Liberation (from Russia) -- and if you define a war as a war of liberation, as the victors did, and as many people do today, this is a very strong statement about the national and nationalist nature of the war.
I see a strong contrast -- even though you say you stick to old interpretation of what caused the Finnish civil war -- I think later on in your career, much of your work has reflected the fact that this experience of conflict has been symbolically very charged: as you say yourself it reaches symbolic possibilities for those who try and interpret what it means, and I don't find it surprising that for example you have written a kind of conceptual history essay on what the word revolution meant in Finland, and to what extent this specific conceptualisation of revolution was reflected in the way the actors themselves understood events both before and after 1917. So I would say that you have, maybe not in terms of your understanding of the causes of this conflict, but in terms of approach and the interdisciplinary nature of some of these more interpretive studies, you are paying more attention to the conflict's symbolic legacy: its cultural meaning.
This may be true in the sense that I have tried to assess the implications of the civil war for the shaping of Finnish political culture in the past century, for example in the essay on the concept of Vallankumous/ revolution in the Finnish political vocabulary. One interesting thing is the role of this concept in the radical movement of the 1960s. It was adopted in its new-left wing version as elsewhere, but in the Finnish context its adoption also served in approaching the big Communist movement and in making a contrast to the Communists' Soviet-type conception of revolution. For the intellectuals it provided a medium to go to the left but without the baggage of the old-world Communist view that was one of the lasting legacies of the civil war. But paradoxically enough, the old world of the civil war struck back one more time in the 1970s. Then in Finland there emerged a considerable Soviet-oriented student movement, unique in its kind in the Western (or any!) countries. It is as if the rehabilitation of the defeated Reds of the civil war could not have taken place without a positive reassessment of the Soviet Union among the young intelligentsia; so closely were these two things intertwined in the Finnish political imagery and culture.
So, it also takes you back to the 1960s, when you yourself were comparing the earlier and later student movements, so it seems in terms of your interests over time, that the 60s were a formative period. The interesting thing about Finland in the 1960s is that the legacy of past events was still there. It wasn't just about opening up to the western student movement, with its very distinct historical generation in Europe, but I remember reading in David Kirby's recent book on Finland that even in the 1990s when the discourse was still about European integration, that the Finns were still understanding processes through the prism of being Finnish. That seems a way of recycling certain themes and maybe values.
One theme recycled several times is Russia. Its neighbourhood has remained sensitive, even though the sensitivity of the Civil War has largely disappeared. Russia's presence was clearly felt in the process of Finland's entrance in the European Union.
Finally, in the general area of nationalism you have taken from Stein Rokkan, you've used the ethnic and the civic distinction, you have worked on social movement theory, and now of course Kalyvas on local politics, conflict, and state formation. Where do you think the study of nationalism should go? I often feel it is bogged down in classical if very rich paradigms.
I have not been involved lately in nationalism research from a historical perspective, or in any perspective, but more concerned with today's European issues and problems, linked in the Finnish case very clearly to the immigration and populism. The Finnish 'True Finn' version of the populist tendency won a landslide victory in the latest parliamentary elections, on a scale unknown in Finnish electoral history. This is a phenomenon on which I would like to work a little, accompanying my younger colleagues who are beginning to examine it.
And as an Emeritus Professor are you involved in a major research project or is it just mainly articles from now on?
Mainly what I have done lately is to work with Russians. This has been much more important than it used to be. Last year I published, as a co-editor with Oleg Kharkhordin, a volume called Political Theory and Community Building in Post-Soviet Russia which will come out in Russian in a few months, and I hope to continue the cooperation with Russian sociologists. Another volume, Nordic Associations in a European Perspective, I edited with Henrik Stenius two years ago. And with my colleagues in the Helsinki Research Group for Political Sociology we plan to work on populism, with people from some other countries, and notably from France, where we have very close relations of cooperation with Laurent Thevenot and his group at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
OK Risto, that was really interesting, thanks for this interview.
Bill Kissane is a Reader in Politics at the London School of Economics.
Akateeminin Karjala-Seura: Yliopilasliike ja kansa 1920 ja 1930 luvulla. (The Academic Karelian Society: The Student Movement and the People in the 1920s and 1930s). Helsinki: W. Soderstrom, 1973.
'Nineteenth Century Nationalism in Finland'. Scandinavian Political Studies, 2. (1979), pp.19-29.
Finland: An Interface Periphery. Helsinki: Helsinki University, 1980.
State and Revolution in Finland. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Suomen synty: paikallisena ilmiona 1890-33 (The Formation of Finland as a local phenomenon 1890-33). Helsinki: jaja,1994.
'The Finnnish Civil War, Politics and Microhistory: Between Society and History: Essays on Micro History', Collective Action and Nation-Building (eds.) A.M. Castren, M. Lonkila, M. Meltonen. Helsinki: SKS, 2004, pp.130-147.
'Coping with the Civil War of 1918 in Twenty-First Century Finland', in Kenneth Christie and Robert Cribb (eds.), Historical Injustice and Democratic Transition in Eastern Asia and Northern Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
'Vallankumous' (Revolution). Kasiteer liikessa. Suomen polittisen kulturinen kasitehistoria. (eds.) M. Hyvarinen et al. Tampere: Vasta Paino, 2003, pp.519-568.
'The Reconstruction of National Identity after the Finnish Civil War'. In B. Kissane (ed.) Reconstructing National Identity after Europe's Internal Wars. (in press), Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.