We are in fact writing about the present…
A review of The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. Illiberal Liberation 1917-1941. Edited by: Laura Douds, James Harris and Peter Whitewood. Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, London 2020.
The book this article discusses is a collective work, which means that the publication possesses various strengths and weaknesses. One advantage of such a book is the wide thematic scope. At the same time, they are usually not arranged in a totally natural manner, thereby presenting chapters that may appear random or loosely connected. This kind of book should not only be viewed as a resource to discover history, but as an artefact of our times. They help reveal networks of experts, intellectual trends and how today’s historians think about the past.
The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. Illiberal Liberation 1917-1941 is not free from these kinds of flaws. Academia has the right to create an environment for publications according to its own criteria. This would not have been an issue, however, if not for the ambitious benchmarks set by the editors in the introduction. They want to see their collection as yet another resource that can be used to re-examine the “Cold War myth”. This idea has entrenched itself in American historiography of the post-war period, as well as in general Anglo-Saxon historiography which the editors do not mention.
This “myth” has been deemed worthy of debunking, which poses questions with regards to the authors’ academic intentions. Recognising a certain view of history and then setting out with the goal of arguing against it seems to contradict the principle that ought to guide historical research. This is namely the desire to find truth that is free from different kinds of intellectual issues. The attempt to revise historical views by researchers such as Richard Pipes, Zbigniew Brzeziński and Carl Friedrich has become common in America. Those continuing this trend, such as the “early revisionists” like Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen, now find themselves in top positions in universities and research institutions focusing on the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. The approach of this new school of thought (called “neo-revisonism” by some) attempts to create a division between a “positive” Leninism and a “negative” Stalinism. It attempts to prove that Bolshevik rule did not have a totalitarian character in the beginning. It excuses decisions made by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union because of the state of society and the West’s aggressive behaviour. These are not terms created by researchers in today’s US, but rather in Soviet historiography. This issue has been discussed further by the Polish historian Andrzej Nowak in one of the most recent issues of The Polish Diplomatic Review.
Another ideological assumption of the editors is the forced attempt to recognise the Russian Revolution as an “illiberal liberation”. The editors contradict themselves when they argue that the Bolsheviks were democratic and liberal, before arguing that Soviet authority was anti-liberal by definition. This is despite the fact that the revolution had liberal results such as national liberation. In the introduction, there is a discussion regarding the similarities between democracy and liberalism. The editors come to the conclusion that they were not always the same.
Democracy can be “illiberal”. In this comparison, Soviet Russia and the USSR have a place alongside British or French democracy before the extension of voting rights after the First World War. In the French case, this only occurred after the Second World War. This debate is strongly reminiscent of the current debate on “illiberal democracy”, which connects this work with more explicitly modern ideas. A book about history becomes a debate about our contemporary times. This therefore makes it difficult to believe in the objective nature of the contributors.
The book aims to show the transformation of an idealist regime into a brutal autocracy, regardless of whether it makes any sense or if the aim was actually achieved. The ideological introduction is quickly challenged by two essays in the first chapter: “Dictatorship Unlimited: Lenin on the State, March-November 1917,” written by Eric van Ree, and “The Permanent Campaign and the Fate of Political Freedom in Russia,” written by Lars Liha. Both researchers follow the tradition of Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov. The Soviet Union is depicted as a country that is threatened by authoritarianism almost from the start because of the nature of its founder. The second essay showcases how swiftly political and social freedoms were crushed after the October Revolution. These ideas are not fully discussed in the three essays that follow, which include a chapter on how the Soviet state was built. One of the essays discusses the beginnings of post-revolutionary statehood, while the other two are loosely connected to the first one. These focus on more marginal issues, such as the international recognition of the Soviet government and other Soviet initiatives related to the concept of democracy in the 1930s.
The chapter on internal democracy consists of two texts that discuss the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky. At the same time, the two essays which attempt to measure political repression and moments of respite do not contribute much to the overall discussion. The authors largely ignored the differences between “Leninism” and “Stalinism”, which contradicts the premise drafted in the book’s introduction. The chapter on national issues and international conflicts contains brief outlines of national politics in Ukraine. This kind of text now appears in almost every volume of collective work on the USSR published in the English language, which is probably the result of a growing number of young Ukrainian researchers in Anglo-Saxon universities. This is followed by an essay which proposes a strange correlation between persecuted nations in the Soviet Union and Soviet authorities’ anxiety in relation to the nations with which they were associated. Such an idea sounds similar to that of Vladimir Medinsky and the new Russian tendency to promote history propaganda.
The most interesting part of the book is devoted to Soviet canteens, the fight against prostitution, literary censorship, Soviet educational projects and combating illiteracy. These essays could easily be part of a collective work on Soviet lifestyles. Here, they are an interesting addition to an ambitious project, but lack a clear contribution to the field.
Overall, the book could be understood as a collection of essays put together in the hope of somehow forcing a connection between them. Even though a lot of effort has been put into the work, it will remain an example of an attempt to combine history with current trends. Furthermore, the book shows how gathering texts according to a certain theme does not necessarily work out. This book makes us understand, yet again, why the most interesting debates in historical research are increasingly occurring outside the academic system. Books such as The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution, which are influenced by fashionable ideas, often do not leave the reader with much to think about.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Łukasz Jasina is a Polish historian and columnist specialising in the politics of memory and the history of film. He currently works at the Polish Institute of International Affairs as an assistant editor of Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny(Polish Diplomatic Review).