Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Martin Malia's USSR

In organizing their scholarly shindigs, academics tend to favor the centenary—the so-many-hundredth anniversary of this or that.  The last time I got caught up in centenaries was two years ago, when modern historians were much caught up with the implications of the Battle of Waterloo (1815) leaving us medievalists to the comparative obscurity of Magna Charta or the Fourth Lateran Council six hundred years earlier.  As a scholar of Franciscanism, among other things, I naturally had to opt for the latter.  But should you have no clue what I am talking about, indeed if you have never even heard of the Fourth Lateran Council, not to worry.  It followed the Third Lateran Council and preceded the Fifth.

Now I am at it again—on a purely amateur basis.  Just at the protracted moment we are in the midst of assessing the First World War, formerly known as the Great War (1914-1918) and, with a more particular focus, the “October Revolution” of 1917, which saw the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Major war events of 1917 included sensational instances of continuing slaughter (as in the third battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele) and America’s belated entry into the hostilities.  However, it is in retrospect pretty obvious that the most important events of 1917 were those taking place in Russia.  For the first time in history ideological Socialism came to political power in concrete form that amazed, inspired, or terrified the world and largely dominated its attention for the next seven decades.

So I have been doing a bit of a refresher course on the Soviet phenomenon, a subject in which I perforce read fairly widely when I was writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos.  A phenomenon that struck me during those years was the extraordinary reluctance of Western intellectuals of the Thirties and Forties—and to a certain extent even of today’s intellectuals—to recognize and acknowledge the profound political pathologies of the practiced Marxism of the last century.  This began with the fantasy that the coup d’étât of October 1917 was a “proletarian revolution” rather than a criminal power-grab by a gang of conspirators, and a general denial that from its very origins Bolshevism imposed itself by terror, violence, and coercion.  It included the utter rejection, expressed with a kind of theological outrage, of the obvious similarities between Hitlerian Nazism and Stalinist Communism, and a cultivated blindness to such world-class atrocities as the Ukrainian famine, the purges, and the growth of the gulag system.

For a non-specialist I had read pretty widely in English language Soviet history, but I somehow had missed the essential book.  That would have to be Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (1994).  I recently completed a slow reading of this large, conceptually rich work, and have emerged with a feeling of having seen at last the Big Picture, or at least a much bigger one than I had ever before grasped.  I already knew something of Malia and the general contours of his own anti-Communism.  (He wrote the introduction to the English language version of The Black Book of Communism.)  I was, however, unprepared for the elegance of the writing and the capaciousness of his thought—always a powerful combination.

It is not exactly a polemical book, but he does offer trenchant criticisms of the mainstream of Anglo-American academic “Sovietology”, especially as represented by two huge and hugely influential works—E. H. Carr’s Bolshevik Revolution and Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume dithyrambic biography of Leon Trotsky.  Malia’s criticism of the major Sovietologists is that they constantly mistake a philosophical question (What is the “best” way to build Socialism?) for a historical question.  If you begin from the a priori position that Socialism is highly desirable and should work, you must spend a great deal of time either in denial or in rationalizing explanations of “what went wrong”.

What “went wrong” was that Russia was too backward, or the peasants too stolid and obdurate, or that Lenin didn’t live long enough, or that Bukharin was marginalized, etc., etc.  What really went wrong was that the vast “superstructure” of the Communist Party had no actual “base” over which to be super, and the unceasing attempt to create one necessitated ceaseless cruelty, coercion, and homicide on a staggering scale.   Malia is particularly hard on Trotsky, the great if imaginary hero of a counterfactual Soviet history still alive and well in the Academy.  He calls Deutscher’s three volumes of biography, which I remember several radical undergraduates of 1970 schlepping about in their bulging backpacks, a “Marxo-Miltonic trilogy”.   But authorial stamina and indefatigability cannot in themselves command a reader’s assent.  As Malia points out, Trotsky embraced no particular doctrines that would differentiate him on such issues as mass murder from his fellow Bolsheviks.  They were all required as a matter of principle to follow out a sanguinary “logic of history” that directed the seventy-four years of the life of the USSR.

As we have found in our own recent national discussions, historical events rarely command a permanent interpretive consensus.  The Chinese premier Chou En Lai, when supposedly asked about the effects of the French Revolution supposedly replied “Too soon to tell”.  Truth may be the daughter of time, but she has many quarrelsome sisters.  Scholars have another big chance coming up quite soon.  2024 will mark the centenary of the death of Lenin.