Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4
Alter Litvin and John Keep,
THIS is an odd review to write. It is a review of a review, or rather of an extended review of recent Russian and Western (defined as British, American, French and German) writings on Stalinism. The authors aim to illustrate ‘what has been achieved of late by professional historians’, ‘to take stock of this literature, to offer encouragement or constructive criticism where it seems to be called for, and to indicate how the gaps in our knowledge might best be filled by future researchers’ (p. vii). The book is divided into two parts, the first a survey of Russian writings by a Russian (Alter Litvin of Kazan) and the second a survey of Western writings by a Westerner (John Keep of Bern). The surveys are of necessity confined to certain key works related to ‘political, economic, social and cultural matters, and even so have had to be selective’ (p. ix). The division of labour is all too obvious. Might it perhaps have been better to treat ‘knowledge’ as complete whatever its point of origin and had a genuinely co-authored book; or why not have had Litvin comment on the West and Keep on the East? As it stands the book is a reflection of current world politics in that Russia is included but marginalised, with Keep writing the bulk of the material plus the conclusion. Nevertheless the authors do provide what they promise, especially when all of the relevant qualifications have been put in place. The book can therefore be consulted for a flavour of what has been said by professional historians with comments from our authors. There also emerges a picture of what trends have dominated recent writings from those on offer.
First the status of the archives and archival research. Litvin begins the first chapter on sources thus: ‘The quest for truth about the Stalin era must begin with a look at the situation in Russian archives’ (p. 3), and by ‘situation’ he means issues of access, bemoaning the fact that ‘it used to be much easier to gain access to sensitive material under Boris Yeltsin than it is today’ (p. 3). This no doubt tells us something about the changing political situation from Yeltsin to Putin but even with complete and open access to the archives we should be clear that ‘truth’ would not leap out at us. This is partly because the archives were not kept with the intention that one day they would reveal the truth to curious historians. It is important to understand how archives were established, at what time and by whom. How was material stored and has it undergone any reorganisations? This comment relates in particular to local archives targeted by some historians in the expectation that they provide a ‘view from the periphery’ but often ignoring the fact that local archives were modelled on or affected by the central archivists. It is also because documents are only ever a partial reflection of individuals, groups, movements, institutions, and historical and social processes. One may thus read every document in the Trotsky archive at Harvard and still not know ‘the full Trotsky’. Keep’s comment that even after the opening of the archives ‘the inner recesses of Stalin’s mind (and it was he who took the decisions) still invite speculation’ (p. 192) can come as a surprise only to anyone who thought that the archives would reveal the inner recesses of Stalin’s mind. Of course they will not!
Second, there is the issue of no matter how many materials one reads what counts is what sort of questions one asks of documents, i.e., one’s methodology is key. Here attention focuses on the use of ‘revisionism and post-modernism’ and the ‘totalitarian controversy’. Keep acknowledges that there are nuances within these ‘schools’ and that there can be a fair amount of overlap between different methodologies. The conclusion however that ‘all approaches are valid and there is something to learn from each’ (p. 99) is just bland and all too typical of the type of ‘critical analysis’ engaged in throughout the text. The authorial judgements are brief and passed on very brief summaries. I wonder, for example, of the use to anybody to know that Keep wonders whether ‘the sub-title of her study (Melanie Ilic’s Women Workers in the Soviet InterWar Economy: From ‘Protection’ to ‘Equality’) is appropriately worded’ (p. 141). The only way to reach one’s own view is to read the work itself, but then this is true of every work mentioned.
Third, the issue of morality and moral stances is clearly of import for both authors. For Litvin, ‘state socialism turned out to be rotten at the core and eventually collapsed. This means that there can be no excuse for the Terror either: it is in fact unpardonable from every point of view. In the Soviet era, its only defenders were the people responsible for it; the rest just went along with them out of fear.’ (p. 69) For Keep, ‘licensed and arbitrary violence was the principal characteristic of Stalinist rule … “Stalinist civilization” is a phenomenon of our own age and has to be judged by contemporary criteria of right and wrong’ (pp. 214–215). For Keep the lesson that Russians must draw is how wrong the USSR was to take Russia from the path of capitalist, liberal democracy. A study of Stalinism should help Russians ‘to promote the development of a mature civic society, democracy and the rule of law, and to make industrial enterprises more efficient and internationally competitive, for in today’s globalized world market increased trade (preferably not just in raw materials) and foreign investment are the surest means of improving popular living standards’ (p. 216).
Such ‘liberal morality’ is no doubt shared by most authors considered in this book for ultimately one is struck by how little an understanding of Stalinism is promoted by modern scholarship. Stalin did not operate in this moral universe. Rather his rule was the outcome of battles won and lost within the revolutionary movement. It is this movement that seems to be completely forgotten by modern scholars – a reason no doubt that Keep did not consider any of the volumes of Revolutionary History in his survey of recent Western literature on Stalinism. Rather than trouble oneself with the modern academe, readers are better advised to go back to the classics of contemporary Marxism, particularly Trotsky and even the Menshevik observers around The Socialist Herald. My failure to connect with revolutionary politics is a flaw of my Trotsky biography and reading this book has helped me to understand that better if nothing else.
Ian D. Thatcher
Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011