МАГ/The International Association for the Humanities     ЖУРНАЛ МЕЖДУНАРОДНОЙ АССОЦИАЦИИ ГУМАНИТАРИЕВ | Volume 5, Issue 1 (34), 2016.

Political History and History as Politics

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2 RosenbergAs you have undoubtedly guessed from gray hair, I began serious study of Russian and Soviet history at the height of what now might be called the First Cold War, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was in many ways an “awesome” time, as the younger among you would say: the first orbiting satellite (a “victory” for the USSR); Nixon and Khrushchev debating kitchen appliances (a “victory” for the USA); and growing tensions over Berlin, Cuba, China, and Vietnam (real trouble for both). “Interesting times,” as the Chinese curse would have it.

The cold war was competition and struggle, of course, but it was also about particular understandings of history. These were written as books and articles, delivered as lectures and speeches, and broadly understood by the public in terms of two Grand Historical Narratives in competition with each other. One was the “great story” of Western liberal democracy, stretching back from the present through monopoly capitalism and benevolent imperialism to the enlightened revolutions of 1776 and 1789, and even before. The other, of course, was the triumphal story of Soviet revolutionary modernization, rooted in 1917. In constant tension with each other, these two grand narratives also had much in common. Both were centered on celebratory teleologies of modernization. Both shared conceptions of modernity based on technology, industrial development, and military might. Each was quite optimistic about the capacity of its “side” to reach the modern condition, already achieved in the American telling, just ahead in the Soviet one. In their 1950s articulations, both also took their recent point of departure in victories over fascism in World War II, a “great” and “good” war that proved inherent value, moral virtue, and undefeatable power. Moralities here were also written large, the American one embracing democracy and liberal values (despite the rigid separation of races in much of the country), the Soviet one embracing social equality and socialist values (despite institutionalized privilege, poverty, and repression.  Most important from the standpoint of history itself, however, was the way both narratives centered on politics and power. History was politics. It was made by great men (American presidents and generals) or great men and their great party (Lenin and Stalin and the CPSU, the irreplaceable vanguard of workers and peasants). Leadership cults abounded, albeit in different degrees. The only real question for young historians like myself at the time was whether ideas and ideologies or sheer political will drove politics and determined historical outcomes. I focused my own work on Miliukov and the Kadets partly to explore this question.

There was, however, a fundamental difference between these two narratives of great importance. The triumphant Soviet narrative served in constitutional ways as the very source of legitimacy for the party-state’s right to rule. In the grand Western narrative, legitimacy was located in functioning constitutional structures and institutionalized systems of values. Poorly governing Western regimes did not de-legitimize their political systems: bad politicians were easily replaced, often by ones just as bad. In the USSR, the party itself was the agent of history, “the only path history has created for the realization of is right,” as Trotsky put it to the 13th party congress. For him and so many others, who then could be against the party and hence against “history” itself?

This meant, of course, that the historical narrative legitimizing the party could never be challenged, something Lenin himself understood very well. On 1 June 1918 Lenin personally signed a decree establishing a Central State Archival Administration. All documentary materials from all public and private institutions immediately became the property of the state, their administration subject to party-state control. Independent archives were abolished and henceforth illegal. A modern Soviet Russia was to have a modern, total archive, totally controlled: the Central State Archive of the October Revolution and all of its regional branches. The production of an “authentic” and historically “legitimizing” national story was thus molded from the start into a quite specific technology of Soviet rule. In contrast, the U.S. National Archives, described by its founders as “the memory of the nation,” was only opened in 1934.

As you may know, the years I was in graduate school were tumultuous ones. I went from Cambridge to the Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. I was at working in the Hoover Archives in California when the Free Speech movement seized Berkeley, and at the Bakhmeteff Archive in New York when civil rights and anti-war protests first began to paralyze that campus. I arrived in Michigan in the summer of 1967 just after nearby Detroit burned down. My “probationary period” as an assistant, professor, when I almost lost my job for supporting the Students for a Democratic Society, ended just after four student protesters were killed at Kent State. All of this protest engaged established social and cultural values, especially after Richard Nixon was elected and the Vietnam War escalated. It also revealed to many of us, even those of us who had not yet read (or even heard of) Foucault, the ways power was located in social, economic, and cultural relations as well as in political parties and the hands of politicians. When Hayden White, Noam Chomsky and others turned us towards language and linguistics, we saw it was also clearly located in narrative structures themselves.

The “linguistic turn,” marked early on by Hayden White’s Metahistory, soon complemented new explorations in social history, the move towards gender, the turn to race, ethnicity and identity, and perhaps especially an explosive new interest in memory, which involved the rediscovery of Halbwachs work and the institutionalization of holocaust studies. Historians and other scholars sought new explanations for events that whose causes had seemed obvious and familiar. The political glubina of the 1970s was intellectually a terribly stimulating time. By the 1980s, the subjects of scholarship as well American life and university campuses themselves were “decentered.” New “identity” archives were created around groups and topics “excluded” from history, reifying the identities (blacks, women) or topics (labor, immigration) to which they opened new access. In Germany, the “historians’ debate” (Historikerstreit) soon raged over the social and cultural origins of fascism, with Ernst Nolte and others who argued that Nazism and its death camps were a defensive reaction against Bolshevism and that Lenin and October really brought Hitler to power largely defeated. In the process, the Grand Western Narrative was thoroughly “deconstructed.” Cultural studies, social history, and memory studies were growth industries. 1989 was first marked by the appearance of two imaginative new journals, Representations and History and Memory. “Nobody” did political history any more, at least in the old way, unless they wanted to sell their books in airports.

Of course, 1989 was a bit of a turning point in other ways as well, truly in fact a quite remarkable year. It may be an interesting coincidence that it was the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, for which many regarded 1917 its illegitimate successor. France itself witnessed a number of “anti-celebrations,” one even featuring Queen Elizabeth paying homage to her late lamented French monarchical “cousins.” Regard for revolution in any form was clearly on its way out, even before the celebratory destruction of the Berlin Wall essentially collapsed the entire Soviet bloc. Indeed, the raspad Sovetskogo Soiuza itself was now fully underway, although absolutely no one could quite believe it at the time

This end of life process for a great world power was remarkable in every way. Reform, sure, most likely through a NEP-style mixed economy and a move towards European forms of social democracy. But a sudden total collapse from within by a feared and an undefeated great world power was historically unprecedented and entirely unforeseen. It was therefore also and inevitably quite problematic in terms of the narrative that sustained it, as well as for the historians whose massive numbers of archival citations scientifically proved its truths. Archives themselves began to open, of course, even in 1989. (I remember vividly being allowed to move for the first from the special room assigned to foreigners at the Archive of the October Revolution into the main reading room, where miracle of miracles, there was a large kartoteka listing every fond and its opisi.  I tried to scribble every listing down for two whole days, certain this window into the past would soon again be slammed shut.) Soviet court historians also began to reinvent themselves. The study of every possible subject now seemed possible, as least in principle. Some very good studies on subjects like political reform got underway, along with new collaborations with non-Russian scholars. Intense discussions about the all sorts of elements of the Russian and Soviet past soon dominated much of the serious press and all of the better TV talk shows.

All of this, of course, necessarily engaged the fundamental connection between a particular telling of history and the Soviet regime’s own legitimacy. As the authority of the historical story collapsed, so did the foundation of the party’s right to rule.  The repeal of Article 6, guaranteeing tits monopoly on power, once seemingly appropriate and logical, now led steadily towards new declarations of sovereignty, both within and among the Soviet republics. Indeed the raspad itself soon seemed  “inevitable,” the ineluctable force of history finally moving in the “right” direction. The final dissolution of the USSR in 1991 was shocking in its almost banal simplicity, its last moments suddenly cloaking new or unformed national identities in the loosely fitting ethno-political garments of new national states.

What was problematic about this in historiographical terms was not simply that the Soviet historical canon was also suddenly discredited (along with many of its authors) but that the USSR’s dissolution also gave “old” political history and historians new credibility against their “revisionist” colleagues. The various “turns” and new explorations that had made the study of revolution and social transformation in the 1980s so exciting were now suddenly on the defensive. “Revolution” as a complex event with multiple intersecting causes was “done,” brusquely pushed aside by various restatements of Hannah Arendt’s newly popular dictum that “freedom has been better preserved in countries where no revolution ever broke out, no matter how outrageous the circumstance of powers that be.” (My italics). Circumstance, in other words, no longer “mattered.” Fukuyama’s “end of history” was the end of the revolutionary socialist narrative, the “proper” neo-liberal understanding of history’s teleologies and causes now fully realized “everywhere” in practice. Politics and political actors driven by ideology or individual will were once again the key to historical understanding, especially of and within the now “former” Soviet Union.

All of this, of course, was thoroughly embraced by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, among others, reaffirming somehow the now triumphant Grand Western Narrative so badly bruised in the 1970s and 1980s. The long pendulum of anti-socialism swung rapidly back to its pre-Vietnam position at the height of the Cold War 1950s.  Somewhat paradoxically, moreover, this suddenly dominant conception of how history “worked” was also, suddenly, quite convenient as well to the new rulers of post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine, and other newly independent states. If all of history was politics and political rulers, no need now to explore how the values and practices of Leninism or Stalinism might have been broadly internalized, culturally and socially instituted, or for many a thoroughly “normal” way of life. Unlike Germany and its bitter historical disputes, no need here to think carefully about Stalin’s “willing executioners,” much less to explore the complex set of issues Soviet political culture involved through careful scholarship and, possibly, even some sensitivity. The USSR not been defeated or destroyed. It had dissolved itself, or rather, its broad-minded leaders had yielded to new historical “laws” and let it pass away. The abuses and horrors of its internal past could now be laid quite easily on the chastened and discredited CPSU, and especially its cultified leaders.

In one sense, this avoidance was a good thing. Real fears of civil war and a militarized struggle for power quickly faded, especially after the aborted “coup” of 1991 and Boris Yeltsin’s assault on the rebellious Duma in 1993. Politicians of various stripes and dubious persuasions contested for authority among uncertain electorates, even as the old nomenclatura was reinventing itself. People selling vouchers stood in the cold right next to people who were buying them, as if they could not close the transactions by themselves and go home. The unclear concepts and mechanisms of “mixed privatization” competed with the values and practices of criminality, sometimes quite openly. For a long time, the only unifying national narrative was the one focusing on getting rich, with both material betterment and civil liberties widely thought obtainable through the institutions and practices of unrestrained neo-liberal democratic capitalism. The “end of history” would be “Santa Barbara,” whose image had captured millions on Soviet television. That even Santa Barbara was not “Santa Barbara” was hardly worth considering, especially when the road to this new radiant future was charted by Nobel Laureates like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.

The absence of any more coherent national narratives was a good thing in other ways as well. Especially in the Russian Federation, but in the other newly independent states as well, historians flocked to wide open archives and library collections, social scientists to new “laboratories,” ethnologists and anthropologists to their people. Anthropology itself was a brand new discipline, like Western economics. Those who mastered either gained respect and academic prominence. In a sense, all of the former Soviet Union was “decentered” along with its narrative, “deconstructed” into a myriad of interesting if sometimes contentious stories and parts. Schools everywhere lacked good history textbooks, partly because the there had been no serious study of the 70-year Soviet experience. An annual conference at Teodor Shanin’s new Moscow school of sociology focused not on where Soviet Russia had been but on where the new Russia was “going” – Kuda idet Rossiia? Nobody really knew. Most did not seem to care. In a way, the formerly “modern” post-Soviet republics had become quintessentially post-modern, without clearly conceptualized or institutionalized purpose other than “doing well.”  “Really lived Socialism,” in effect, had dystopically become “really lived deconstruction.” Anything good (or maybe bad) was possible. Politicians soon labeled Russia itself the “Land of Possibility!” (Strana Vosmozhnosti!)

Yet the historical “vacuum” of dystopia, even as some of its “blank spots” were soon descriptively filled in, was also politically problematic in one fundamental way for both governments and their old/new leaders. With the important exception of the Russian Federation, where elections leading to sovereignty occurred dramatically in 1990, most Soviet citizens suddenly found themselves within the borders of national states constituted not by legitimizing elections, instituted value systems, or even homogeneous ethnicities and languages, but as multi-ethnic and multi-cultural political locations created as the result of Very Big Deals, made between the new republics’ old party bosses. (The process is superbly described in a new book by our MAG colleague Serhi Plokhii.) In each of these new states, in other words, a new foundation for legitimizing how and why governments and politicians held power had to be created, literally reconstructed on the ruins of the legitimizing historical narrative that collapsed along with the USSR.

In the best of circumstances, this could not be easy. New constitutions can be written quickly but the political values they may reflect cannot be quickly learned or institutionalized, especially during times of great material hardship, social dislocation, and real personal loss. It is hardly surprising in these conditions that politics in most former Soviet republics began to reflect the authoritarian practices of the past, or that the succession of political leaders that displayed them were already well trained and talented in this regard. Nor is it surprising that in Russia and elsewhere, a new national narrative also began to re-emerge, reifying state power and political leaders once again on the basis of a particular historical story. National historical narratives abhor a conceptual vacuum.  Nor is it surprising that in the Russian Federation and elsewhere, the post-modern “kuda?” has now been displaced by a clear visioned return to 20th century “modernity,” maybe even 19th, one that promises individual and social security along with national “greatness” and international “respect.”

What is problematic about this new form of history as politics is precisely what was problematic under Soviet rule. If history itself is the fundamental source of political legitimacy, it has to be properly – that is, “correctly” told. This raises difficulties for historians, of course, but as a technology of rule, it also discourages the free thinking that produces economic, social, and cultural innovation and normalizes critical thinking. In the process, humanists and social scientists are readily marginalized if their scholarship appears “non-conforming.” In effect, the political seeps back into the places and mentalities from which, in 1991, it had been formally disconnected.

In this respect one might say, finally, that in contrast to the Russian Federation and the rest of the former USSR, Ukraine is still largely in its moment of dystopian post-modernity, struggling to find its collective way.  Here a new national narrative is also emerging, centered in most of the country around a loose concept of “Europeanization”. What is important in this is not what “Europe” might mean in any specific terms (Greece? Portugal? Germany? Poland?/Culturally? Socially? Economically? Religiously?). Nor can “European” here mean “not Russian” or “versus Russia,” since in many important ways contemporary Russia is also quite “European,” just as tsarist Russia had been. What “Europeanization” seems to mean instead is a serious if still uncertain effort to constitute the foundations of political legitimacy not in any particular historical narrative itself but in specific kinds of institutions and instituted values historically developed and reflected in “Europe.” If these institutions and values could take hold in Ukraine, or in Russia and Belarus too for that matter, governments could work cooperatively with each other or with “Europe,” or not, without history in either case determining or compromising their legitimacy.

In all of this, it seems to me, humanists and the humanistic social sciences in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine have a very important social role, as indeed they do everywhere. Our tasks are to interrogate values and analyze institutions and cultures, political and otherwise, from the perspectives of our accumulated scholarship and knowledge. Fourth century Byzantine texts can be as important in this regard as 21st century literary criticism, the analytics of gender relations and social memory as useful as the contention among historians about the causes, meanings, and legacies of great past events, including revolutions. As individuals, scholars, teachers, and if we have the talent, as public intellectuals, humanists have a responsibility to ask good questions, to offer good answers, and to discuss both thoughtfully with others, however different their perspectives. After all, this is what our seminar, and MAG itself, is really all about.


William (Bill) G. Rosenberg, former AAASS (ASEEES) President, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.


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