- The Soviet Century by Moshe Lewin, edited by Gregory Elliott
Verso, 416 pp, £25.00, February 2005, ISBN 1 84467 016 3
When I was growing up in Australia in the late 1950s and 1960s, the displaced European intellectual turned academic was a familiar figure on university campuses. Refugees from totalitarian and wartime Europe, conversant with Marx and Weber, polyglot and multilingual (but always with strongly accented English), veterans of complicated doctrinal wars in the sectarian world of European socialism, these rumpled figures, whom it was impossible to imagine had ever been young, provoked awed attention in some students and light-hearted mockery in others. For those who attended, there was an aura of mystery and suffering about these postwar refugees, who had lost country, family and possessions, and suffered multiple uprootings; they dwelt among the innocent – or at any rate ignorant – Australian young as exemplars of European experience and its burdens. Small groups of disciples clustered around them, absorbing political philosophy and an eye-witness view of the 20th-century history of Germany, Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. Charismatic and demanding to the initiated, uncomfortable with outsiders and ultra-sensitive to slights, these Europeans taught their disciples political tactics too, including Leninist conspiracy, though their politics were usually strongly anti-Communist.
Moshe Lewin’s politics are different, and fate never landed him in Australia. Yet he has something in common with these figures from my youth, starting with a kind of gnomic (in both senses) charisma, an exotic life story, a first-hand view of Soviet history, and the crucial ability to personify European experience for Anglo-American disciples – in his case, mainly Marxists from the New Left of the 1970s – who feel the lack of it. Born in 1921 in what was then Wilno in Poland (later Vilnius, first in the Soviet Union and then in independent Lithuania), he was active as a young man in a variety of left-wing Zionist politics that favoured a binational Jewish state, with equal rights for Jews and Arabs. When the Germans advanced in June 1941, he fled eastwards and spent five years in provincial Russia, working in mines, factories and collective farms before ending up in the Soviet army, in training to be an officer. From the moment in 1941 when Red Army soldiers allowed the fleeing Lewin and his friends to climb onto their trucks in defiance of their officers’ instructions, he felt a kinship with the Russian people. As he said in a 1982 interview, Vasilii Terkin, the unheroic hero of Alexander Tvardovsky’s vastly popular wartime poem of that name, a kind of Good Soldier Schweik whose survival skills coexisted with a bedrock layer of Soviet patriotism, ‘really meant something for every Russian – and for me too. I knew therefore that if I ever had the chance to write history, it would be the history of those popular layers.’[*]
After the war, Lewin spent a few years in Poland and France before moving in 1951 to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz and as a journalist for ten years, received a BA from Tel Aviv University, and made his first serious study of Marxism. However, as an old-fashioned idealistic Zionist, he was out of sympathy with the direction of Israeli politics, and in 1961, he left for the Sorbonne. There, he became acquainted with the Annales school and wrote the dissertation that was the basis for his Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, published in French in 1966 and in English in 1968, the same year that he moved to England as a research professor at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies in Birmingham. Lewin’s international reputation as a Soviet historian was made in the Birmingham years, but his status as a guru for the Marxist wing of Soviet historical ‘revisionism’ came mainly after his relocation to the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s.
In Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, Lewin (like the sociologist Teodor Shanin) addressed the Marxist debate about the kulaks: did an exploiting class of peasants such as the term implied exist in Russia and, by extension, was the collective victim in the Soviet ‘dekulakisation’ of the late 1920s some actual ‘kulak class’ or the Soviet peasantry as a whole? Lewin believes in the objective existence of classes in general, but not this one: he saw the whole peasantry as the victim. Lenin’s Last Struggle, published in French in 1967 and in English the following year, presented a democratic and gradualist Lenin, struggling during his last illness against the ‘oligarchic’ tendencies he only now perceived in the Communist Party leadership, and fighting with Stalin, whose fellow oligarchs had given him the thankless task of seeing that Lenin obeyed doctors’ orders and kept out of politics. In Lewin’s picture, Lenin and Stalin were hopelessly divided on issues of political principle, though to be sure the issues on which they quarrelled might seem rather secondary, and it was not easy to square this democratic, gradualist Lenin with the man who had insisted on seizing power, against the advice of all around him, in 1917. In its insistence on the gulf between Lenin and Stalin, Lenin’s Last Struggle was a book that was in tune with the emerging trend towards de-Stalinisation in the Soviet Union (Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge, for example, combined denunciation of the evils of Stalinism with endorsement of the ‘Leninist norms’ of an earlier era) as well as appealing to young American ‘revisionist’ scholars like Stephen Cohen, who wanted to decouple Leninism and Stalinism in order to rescue the former from the stigma of ‘totalitarianism’.
Lewin’s next book, dauntingly entitled Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates, had Nikolai Bukharin – the doomed intellectual whom Lenin called ‘the Party favourite’ – as its hero, and offered Bukharin’s thoughts on the economy of the 1920s as a guide to would-be economic reformers of the 1970s. Written in the hope that the Revolution would finally be salvaged and the Soviet Union get back on track, it resembled one of Lewin’s most engaging works, The Gorbachev Phenomenon (1988), which offered a brilliant overview of socio-economic developments in the Soviet Union from Stalin’s death to perestroika. Between the two came The Making of the Soviet System (1985), which included Lewin’s major statement on the nature of Stalinist society (in the essays ‘Society, State and Ideology during the First Five-Year Plan’ and ‘The Social Background of Stalinism’). The themes here were social flux and upheaval (‘the quicksand society’), the ‘peasantisation’ of cities, and – with a considerable debt to Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed and Djilas’s New Class – the growth of bureaucracy and bureaucratism, meaning both the emergence of a new privileged class and the strangling of the revolutionary impulse.
Despite the interest he expresses in the experience of ‘the popular layers’, Lewin’s contribution as a historian has not been in the realm of everyday life. Structures (especially class structures) and directions of structural change are central in his work. He is at his best writing about the relationship between social and political development, on the one hand, and economic, on the other, with frequent recourse to statistics as a basis for his analysis. At the same time, the injection of personal experience lends a note of authority to his work: Lewin has the distinction of having been in his own person a Soviet peasant, worker and soldier, not to mention an intellectual, thus achieving, in his five-year stay in Russia, membership of all the canonical class categories of Soviet society. There is an infectious sweep to his writing, a fairly cavalier attitude to such academic conventions as citation of sources and acknowledgment of other scholarly work, and a generous scattering of Russian words (not always translated). Unlike many Marxists working on Soviet social history, he deals sympathetically with peasants (as long as they remain in situ) and has never been much interested in the proletariat and its putative ‘leading’ role. In his picture, Russia was a peasant country whose rapid modernisation produced ‘peasantised’ cities and – to its detriment – a bureaucracy of the same sort.
Lewin’s best genre has always been the long essay rather than the monograph. Many of his books – including the most influential of them, The Making of the Soviet System, and his last book before The Soviet Century, Russia-USSR-Russia (1995) – are collections of essays, more or less linked by common themes. The 1995 volume was a lively and readable overview, organised more or less chronologically; it must have helped many non-specialist readers understand the dramatic changes Russia underwent in the 20th century. The Soviet Century covers much the same ground, but less successfully. Historiographically, the context is purely Russian: never a great reader of the work of other Western scholars, Lewin now admits (somewhat apologetically) to ignoring it almost completely. The book is essentially a grab-bag of his summaries of and responses to various interesting documents that have emerged from the Russian archives in the last ten years, along with a few interpretative essays that have caught his attention. The publication of archival documents – generously subsidised by various Western foundations, and providing a haven for Russian scholars trying to find their feet in a newly internationalised and commercialised world – has indeed been one of the great post-Soviet boons to historians, and The Soviet Century provides evidence that Lewin is still keeping up. But it doesn’t amount to a coherent narrative, and – a result, it would seem, of poor editing – a number of the most interesting documents discussed are unsourced.
That said, Verso surely published Lewin’s manuscript – and went to the trouble of getting Gregory Elliott to edit it – out of respect for a man who is not only a major scholar of Soviet history but also a figure of distinction in the world of radical historians. On the assumption that many people will approach the book wanting to know how he has reacted to recent developments and archival discoveries in Russia, and whether these have led him to modify his earlier analyses, the first thing to say is that he is still in his own way a Leninist. That means that he feels strongly that Leninism and Stalinism are totally different entities and that Stalin hijacked the Revolution and took it somewhere Lenin would never have wanted it to go. It also means that he defends the argument of Lenin’s Last Struggle that the late Lenin was a convert to democracy and gradualism; indeed, the new book contains additional data on the various policy disagreements between Lenin and Stalin in the last years of Lenin’s life which are intended to buttress that argument. Lewin’s account of Lenin’s and Stalin’s interactions is very different from the one given by Robert Service in his biographies, and to my mind less persuasive. As before, Lewin does not address the apparent contradiction between his moderate Lenin and the revolutionary Lenin who seized power half a decade earlier, nor does he address the new material on Lenin’s more bloodthirsty and ruthless side (see The Unknown Lenin, edited by Richard Pipes) or even the human side uncovered by Service.
Lewin might also be called Leninist in his analysis of what went wrong with the Soviet Union: bureaucratism spoiled everything. ‘Bureaucracy’ has always been a dirty word in Soviet vocabulary, and all Soviet leaders (with the exception of Brezhnev) liked to take a bash at it. In Lenin’s time, the main issue about bureaucracy was that the state administration was largely staffed by holdovers from tsarist times who could not be trusted to advance the Bolsheviks’ goals even if they professed to accept them; to circumvent this, Lenin suggested various forms of proletarian promotion and inspection which, not surprisingly, failed to solve the problem. When Lenin spoke of bureaucratism, he almost never meant the Communist Party bureaucracy, though such a thing already existed in his lifetime; and Lewin follows Lenin in making a sharp distinction (for the whole of the Soviet period) between the state’s bureaucracy and the Party’s.
In the post-Lenin period, Lewin’s story follows Trotsky’s and Djilas’s lead, seeing the bureaucracy as a ‘new class’ that subverted the Revolution and was increasingly prone to corruption. (Unlike Trotsky, though, he thinks Stalin was more than its ‘creature’.) The accusation of corruption was commonly made by the Communist elite against ‘enemies of the people’ during the Great Purges, but Lewin does not address this. Instead, he seems to date its significant onset from the postwar period (though this may be an unintended inference; it could be pure accident that the pertinent document – no source indicated – happens to come from 1946). Lewin gives better marks to Khrushchev than most commentators for his efforts to combat bureaucratisation, but these were largely unavailing; and under Brezhnev, corruption blossomed and bureaucratic inertia was sufficient to block any reforms, including those Kosygin proposed for the economy. Finally, Lewin throws out the intriguing suggestion that corruption had risen to such a level that the ‘privatisation’ of state assets essentially occurred before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This sober summary of Lewin’s account of the irresistible rise of Soviet bureaucracy misses some of its flavour. When he punctures the pretensions and foibles of Soviet bureaucrats, he does so with a certain mischief and sense of pleasure. The tone of his anti-bureaucratic writing is not so much Leninist or Trotskyist as Terkinesque: in a sequel to the wartime poem circulated in samizdat in the 1970s under the title ‘Terkin in the Other World’, Terkin found himself locked in endless battle with bureaucratic idiocy and inflexibility. Terkin’s creator, the poet Tvardovsky, was also editor of the loyal opposition journal of the 1960s, Novyi mir, of which Lewin is a great admirer. As a Novyi mir Soviet socialist at heart, Lewin has little time for the journal’s sometime protégé and later harsh critic, Alexander Solzhenitsyn – or, for that matter, the whole dissident movement of the 1970s, which was ‘used … for its own purposes’ by the West.
Stalin and Stalinism are still Lewin’s bugbears, and he draws a firm distinction between Stalinism and what preceded and followed it. He is sharply opposed to ‘“Stalinising” the whole Soviet phenomenon, as if it had been one giant gulag from beginning to end’. Stalin, whom Lewin thinks felt ‘profound hostility’ to Lenin (a dubious assertion, in my view), was never a real Leninist but an interloper who got power by fooling and outmanoeuvring his competitors. The gulag receives considerable attention, Lewin’s main points being that the numbers of prisoners, though high, were not as high as some Cold War scholarship claimed (this is convincing, and has already been argued by Arch Getty and others) and that the system was effectively dismantled after Stalin’s death (he slightly overstates his case here, since the huge outflows of the 1950s were partially offset by substantial inflows, though not of ‘politicals’, in the Khrushchev period). The Stalinist regime does turn out to have had one virtue in Lewin’s eyes, however: it was better at dealing with bureaucratisation than the Soviet leadership before or after it. Lewin writes that Stalin relied on ‘tough, authoritarian taskmasters (Stalin called them “commanders”), forming a ruling stratum (nachal’stvo) whose structural hierarchy covered the whole system. They were supported and flattered, but not allowed to settle down and stabilise their position. This was something peculiar to the Stalinist dictatorship, which would be abandoned after it.’
There are a couple of surprises for Lewin-watchers. First, the Party appears in a rather benign light, as the ginger group which at least sometimes fought the good fight against bureaucratism until its extinction as a principled political force in the Brezhnev era. Second, Bukharin, whom Lewin once saw as the standard-bearer of a viable and principled socialist alternative, has fallen from favour and hardly makes it into these pages. Even more striking is the near total omission of Gorbachev: the former ‘phenomenon’ has been downgraded to a ‘“classical” general-secretary’, operating via manipulation of his colleagues, whose downfall was ‘as pitiful as his rise had been meteoric’.
What was the nature of the Soviet system? ‘Not socialist’, is Lewin’s answer – one that harks back to a long tradition on the left of agonising over this essentialist (and essentially unanswerable) question – because ‘socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not by a bureaucracy.’ He adds that socialism ‘has always been conceived of as a deepening – not a rejection – of political democracy’, an agentless formulation that leaves one slightly uneasy. In any case, the Bolshevik Revolution is still in Lewin’s eyes a noble if flawed world-historical event. If what it gave birth to was not socialism, it wasn’t totalitarianism either, a concept that Lewin judges conceptually inadequate because of its ‘blatant disregard for the social dimension’. ‘Bureaucratic absolutism’ is one characterisation of the Soviet system that Lewin offers, meaning that ‘the Party’s top bosses, putative masters of the state, had actually lost any power over “their” bureaucrats’; at other times he writes of the old Russian autocratic state (for which he coins the term ‘agrarian despotism’) as a significant progenitor. And yet, bureaucratic and/or autocratic as the Soviet state may have been, Lewin has some nostalgia for it, in particular for the Khrushchev period, when change for the better still seemed possible and the reforming ideas of socialist intellectuals mattered.
Lewin promises a ‘more systematic’ work on Soviet history for the future; he even touchingly undertakes to read the Western scholarly literature before writing it. But is that really necessary? Lewin’s great strength has always been his ‘I was there’ perspective. He has told us a lot about ‘there’ over the years, but what about that interesting but still elusive ‘I’? Let us hope that the next book Lewin gives us is his memoirs.
[*] The interview from which this quotation comes, conducted by Paul Bushkovitch for Radical History Review and published in Visions of History (1984), is an excellent source on Lewin’s life and politics.