Thursday, October 5, 2017

Soviet Communism Then and Now

Berlin 1945

We are very near the centenary of the Bolshevik coup d’état or “October Revolution” of 1917 that brought the Communists to power in Russia, and there are dozens of scholarly conferences and other conclaves marking the event.  This has meant that real experts on Soviet Communism, much bidden, have been in such short supply that program committees have been willing to turn to some fairly marginal “experts,” such as yours truly.  My modest claim to fame is my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, which is mainly about European and American literary critiques of Communism.  I am a day later than usual in posting this essay because most of yesterday was taken up with travel home from a conference, at which I had given a lecture, at Hillsdale College in Michigan.  Both the conference and its host institution were full of revelation to me.

            I have a reasonable knowledge of the contours of American higher education, but I was unaware of Hillsdale, a pioneering liberal arts college, coeducational since its founding in 1844 and an early hotbed of abolitionism, that prides itself on staunchly conservative attitudes in political and educational theory.  Practice is not far removed from precept.  To avoid the annoyances of entangling federal regulations and mandates, Hillsdale accepts no federal funds.  Most institutions with which I am familiar have sizable bureaucracies tasked with securing as much federal funding as possible.  I suspect that few other campuses feature a statue of Margaret Thatcher, or are in the midst of building an imposing and expensive new house of worship.  I sensed that many of the attendees at the conference were not alumni but affluent elderly admirers and financial supporters of the institutional mission.  My guess would be that the percentage of Trump voters in the Hillsdale academic community is about that of the percentage of Clinton voters in the Princeton academic community.  In a country that is so dangerously polarized, it is very salutary to switch bubbles now and again.  Though the concept of  “diversity” approaches sacral status in current educational theory, what I found in my career was that it often meant “some more people who think the way I do.”

Hillsdale College Campus: Two Iron Ladies (one technically bronze)

            I have often commented on the happy coincidences of my life.  This one involves my experience with military history.  As you may know from last week’s post we are recently returned from a wonderful house party in the south of France.  Like most vacation homes, this one has over the years constructed an eclectic library reflecting the tastes of its owners and frequent visitors.  Two strong suits developed over the years are long biographies and military history, sometimes overlapping as in the nine hundred pages of Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.  Ordinarily, I don’t read much in this genre, but when in Rome, or rather Salernes….  One author copiously represented is the historian Antony Beevor.  In previous years I had read his books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin.  I was astonished by the skill deployed in the Stalingrad book to organize in clear and compelling narrative such an epic struggle of such complicated and protracted nature.  Just this past month I read two more Beevor volumes, both of them excellent: the book on D-Day, and that on Hitler’s “last stand” in the Ardennes (the “Battle of the Bulge”) in the final winter of the War.  The man has an unusual gift.

            To my delight and surprise—as I had not noted his name in early announcements of the conference—Beevor was a fellow speaker at the Hillsdale conference.  Sir Antony (he has recently been knighted) gave a terrific lecture on “The Soviet Role in World War II”.  We hit it off in a couple of memorable private conversations.  He told me that historians reckon that at Stalingrad alone the military commissars shot 13,500 of their own troops for cowardice, desertion, or insufficient enthusiasm.  The execution squads needed to be kept in a state of semi-permanent drunkenness to carry out their task.  By way of contrast there was one execution for dereliction of military duty (as opposed to murder or rape) in the American army—that of Eddie Slovik.

            The level of the formal academic lectures—leaving my own aside--was very high.  Two I would point out for special praise were the first and the last.  The first speaker, Professor Mark Steinberg of the University of Illinois, spoke with sparkle, verve, and lucidity on the complicated revolutionary scene in late Romanov Russia (1905-1917).  I left the lecture room thinking I understood some rather complicated matters—sort of.  Now, if I could only reach similar quasi-enlightenment concerning the Spanish Civil War….The last talk was by Daniel Mahoney, a professor of political science at Assumption College, a prolific author on themes and figures in modern political theory, and an expert on the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I think I have read everything by Solzhenitsyn available in English translation, but I don’t think I would have the nerve to write about him.  For me he remains too strange, too prophetical, too Dostoyevskian, too alter—as he did to his shocked audience at the Harvard Commencement of 1978.  But Mahoney got to the very essence of the Gulag Archipelago in a fashion that elucidated its spiritual and even theological core in a way I had not previously seen.  An additional pleasure was learning for the first time that Solzhenitsyn refused to meet with Jean-Paul Sartre, a man my petty mindedness cannot forgive for temporarily corrupting my youthful intellect.  I believe that videotapes of all the conference talks will soon be available on the Hillsdale website.

Berlin 1989