Per Rudling, Associate Professor of the Department of History at Lund University in Sweden and author of The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931. His most recent article with Tarik Amar is “What Standards Should Be Applied When Deciding to Accept Funds?” published on the History News Network.
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By Sean — 12 years ago
Though the following has little do with Russia, (though one might think of it in terms of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy forced down historians’ throats in the Soviet period), it concerns my profession and thus my livelihood. The state of Florida has passed and Jeb Bush has signed a bill banning “revisionist” history from Florida public schools. New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman takes the bill to task in a column in the LA Times. Essentially, the bill prevents the teaching of “revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” American history is not to be taught as “constructed,” but based on historical “facts.” Forget that these nimrods in the Florida Legislature haven’t a clue about what they are talking about. I don’t think passing intellectual judgments on philosophy and complicated historical methodologies should be left to legislators. But references to such charged terms like “postmodernism” and French post-structuralism are enough to incite fear in those who are trying to protect the sanctity of American history. By sanctity, I mean a history that not only tells the story of the powerful in historical terms (usually a history where white, wealthy males are the primary historical agents), but more importantly reproduces their hegemony in the present. The rich and powerful’s right to rule is thus naturalized in history. The only role for history is, as Althusser suggested, to “reproduce the means of ideological reproduction.”
History in Florida public schools is not taught so students can challenge how there are many pasts, and a multiplicity of understandings of them. They are taught that there is a singular historical narrative for America. This of course is the worst aspect of “revisionism” in that it’s state sponsored. In addition, as Zimmerman cogently points out the bill is based on a misconception about the history of the historical profession:
“Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.
The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.
There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.
Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power ’60s, the concept of historical interpretation has been at the heart of our profession from the 1920s onward. Before that time, to be sure, some historians believed that they could render a purely factual and objective account of the past. But most of them had given up on what historian Charles Beard called the “noble dream” by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize that the very selection of facts was an act of interpretation.
That’s why Cornell’s Carl Becker chose the title “Everyman His Own Historian” for his 1931 address to the American Historical Assn., probably the most famous short piece of writing in our profession. In it, Becker explained why “Everyman” — that is, the average layperson — inevitably interpreted the facts of his or her own life, remembering certain elements and forgetting (or distorting) others.”
As one UCLA historian said to me when I told him about the law, “Isn’t revising history our job!?” Indeed. I wonder if American historians will have to one day perform the American equivalent to Soviet historians’ “Lenin sandwich” to get around the censors. For those who don’t know what the “Lenin sandwich” was, it was when Soviet historians in the 1960s and 1970s would begin and end their works with a quote from Lenin to evade censors and basically write decent histories in-between.
Such is the present strength of anti-intellectualism in American political culture. To think I thought all these tired debates about “revisionism”, “postmodernism,” “relativism,” and historical “facts” were sorted out in the 1990s. God I hope that this isn’t a sign of their return, especially since the above terms have been so watered down and popularized that they hardly retain any of their former intellectual rigor.Post Views: 692
By Sean — 13 years ago
Boris Kagarlitsky has weighed in on the significance of Khrushchev’s speech in a commentary in the Moscow Times. I think some of the passages are worth noting. Kagarlitsky has an interesting thesis: In order for not only Khrushchev, but the Communist Party to erase their complicity in Stalin’s crimes, a complicity which made the Terror possible, they had to essentially sacrifice Stalin.
Looking back on the congress, some accused Khrushchev of inconsistency and a lack of radicalism, while others objected to the fact that he made Stalin’s crimes public and turned political reform into a personal, posthumous reckoning with Stalin. The guilt or complicity of other Politburo members is not the issue, however. Khrushchev heaped all the blame on Stalin because he wanted to avoid a serious discussion of what had happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s.
Had Khrushchev’s view of the dead dictator been more balanced, questions might have been raised about the inherent contradictions of the Soviet state and about the extent to which the existing order reflected Marxist conceptions of socialism. These questions had been raised by Trotsky, who was anathema to the elite under Khrushchev just as he had been under Stalin. Had Khrushchev been a less virulent anti-Stalinist, he would almost certainly have been forced in the direction of Trotskyism.
The Party elite in the late-1950s opted to forgive no one and to comprehend nothing. Stalin had to be sacrificed in order to protect the system. The secret speech was not one man’s initiative; it reflected the general view of the Party machine after three years of infighting.
What is more interesting, and unfortunately it is a point he makes in passing, is how Kagarlitsky characterizes Stalinism. The standard view is to see Soviet society under Stalin as atomized society where the diversity of opinion was annihilated for fear of arrest and execution. Stalinism, however, was more complicated than that. And it was this complexity, an irreconcilable blend of democracy and authoritarianism, or how I like to characterize Stalinism—authoritarian populism—that made extreme violence acceptable and deplorable in the same breath, uttered within the same system.
Soviet society was never entirely monolithic. The proof of this can be found in the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as well as in the Soviet archives. There was, however, a strong sense of a common fate and a common cause that united not just the working class and the bureaucratic elite, but even gulag inmates and their captors. The Stalinist regime was directly linked to the history of the Revolution. It was a sort of communist Bonapartism. It combined totalitarianism with democratic principles, fear and repression with enthusiasm and sincerity. This blend made the 20th Party Congress possible.Post Views: 599
By Sean — 11 years ago
I thought Mark Ames said something quite interesting today. He concluded his addition to the Medvedfest, “Dmitry Medvedev & The Banker’s Murder” with,
If this sordid story reveals anything, it’s that the only way to grasp the current power-transfer is through Russian eyes. Trying to understand Medvedev and his significance through the liberal/Stalinist prism explains nothing; Dmitry Medvedev is neither liberal nor neo-Stalinist, but rather, Russian, the sort of Russian who was groomed in the chaotic and savage transition from perestroika through Putin’s stabilization.
I think Ames’ emphatic statement that “Dmitry Medvedev is neither liberal nor neo-Stalinist” but rather, a “Russian, the sort of Russian who was groomed in the chaotic and savage transition from perestroika through Putin’s stabilization” deserves some thought.
Russia is not a “this” or “that.” It’s never been the first, and the second, the venerable “neo-Stalin,” is just analytically lazy. First, this Russia is capitalist (albeit, protectionist.). Second, Russia has a history. We know many of you are suffering from “Cold War syndrome” and long for a more manageable (or is it imaginable?) enemy than the “Islamists.” But get over it.
What and who is this princely traumatized, “morally complex” Russian “groomed in the chaotic and savage” times of the smuta of the late 1980s and 1990s? That’s a great question worth pondering.
For some reason I thought of Nicholas I. Not that I think Putin is some neo-Niki. It’s more that Russia imperial past (a past that spans 1200 years) is often left out of the “What is Russia?” grab bag. Also, for some reason I think he and Putin possibly share a lot of qualities.
So I grabbed W. Bruce Lincoln’s Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russians off my bookshelf to give him a revisit. I found Lincoln’s opening paragraph something to think about in regard to Ames’ words.
Perhaps no ruler left more of an impression upon nineteenth-century Russia than did the Emperor Nicholas I, for the origins of nearly every major change or event during the last century of Romanov rule can be traced to his reign. Certainly was an imposing figure. Many Russians admired, even venerated him; others saw him as the personification of oppression. But none who lived during his thirty-year reign cold remain indifferent to the force of his personality and the system which he developed.
He continues on second page,
Nicholas’s reign was a good time for many Russians, and some looked back upon it with a sense of longing even nostalgia. It was, after all, the last time in Imperial Russia’s history when things were certain and predictable. Russia stood at the pinnacle of her power during those years, and Russian society was plagued by few of the self-doubts that would begin to tear the old order apart in the half century after Nicholas’s death. As the Baroness Fredericks, who had lived at Nicholas’s Court as a child, wrote in the 1880s, when looking back upon his reign after some three decades of social turmoil . . . “during the lifetime of Nikolai Pavlovich, Russia had a great and noble stature . . .[and] he heaped still greater glory upon her. Everyone and everything bowed down before him and before Russia!”
Lincoln’s book should prove to be an interesting read as Russia shuts down for the holidays.Post Views: 970