marți, 23 aprilie 2013

Roundtable on Mark Edele's Stalinist Society, 1928-1953 (2011), with Lynne Viola

Notes from the round table / reading seminar on the recent debates and (re)interpretations of Soviet social history during the Stalinist era. The discussion was focused on the recent book by Mark Edele: Stalinist Society, 1928-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Keynote speaker: Prof. Lynne Viola.
Moderator: Alexandr Voronovici. Participants: the PLURAL Doctoral Seminar and the World History Department members.

The round table took place at the Department of World History, Moldova Pedagogical State University (MPSU), Chisinau, on April 11th.

Notes by Prof. Lynne Viola

I. Some background notes...
            A. totalitarian model dominated American historiography on the Soviet Union
                        1. under the rubric of "know thy enemy," Russian research centers created at Harvard and Columbia; money poured in; government contracts abounded
                        2. totalitarian model was useful to the US government in so far as it
                                    a. highlighted ideology/communism
                                    b. seperated state from people, suggesting people were at least                                             passively resistant and awaiting the universal gift of democracy
                                    c. became a powerful academic movement with strong ties to government                                      and intelligence, not to mention funding
            B. revisionist scholars began to challenge the totalitarian model
                        1. first generation--1960s and 1970s
                                    a. politicized in the opposite direction
                                    b. suggested that Stalinism was not inevitable
                                                1.) revolution was a social revolution
                                                2.) NEP was an alternative to Stalinism
                                                3.) Lenin had turned against Stalin in his last years
                        2. second generation--1980s
                                    a. led by non American Sheila Fitzpatrick
                                    b. key arguments
                                                1.) social support for Stalin, esp. in FFYP (Fifth Five Year Plan)
                                                2.) center-periphery conflicts
                                                3.) undergovernment
                                                4.) push for professionalization--sources, etc.
            C. 1990s
                        1. Malia leads renewed attack on revisionists, without differentiation,                                 comparing them to Holocaust deniers; Richard Pipes also active with memoir, Vixi
                                    a. could write this off as hysterics of an angry old man
                                    b. but this angry old man had good contacts in the press
                                    c. discussion widens; people talk about "revisionists" in the                                                  abstract, often without naming names while at the same time not discussing the content of their work; witch hunt aspect
                        2. two key schools developing in US at Columbia and Chicago
                                    a. Columbia: modernity, subjectivity (theory)
                                    b. Chicago: social history, archival prowess (empirical bent)
                                    c. competition between the two schools
                                    d. attacks continue on Sheila Fitzpatrick and revisionists, mainly                                         led now by young Columbia scholars, regroups at Kritika
                                    e. key politics here--neocon anti-government stance; in this case, the Enlightenment and its supposed stress on the role of the state in "gardening" society became the enemy

II. Edele's book comes in response
            A. in a sense, it is a revisionist manifesto, arguing against
                        1. the dominance of ideology
                        2. the idea of the Soviet Union as a kind of monolithic entity
            B. argues that "Soviet society was complex and not completely 'totalized'." focus   on pluralism, complexities of social identities, continuities with earlier period of Russian history; characterizes state as "limping Behemoth", meaning weak government, esp. in countryside
            C. also argues about small 'p' politics in the field and the enforcement of conformity, largely via Kritika
III. My read
            A. I agree with much of what he says, but...
                        1. question the form of this book--an essay? a textbook?
                        2. also think almost of all of what he writes is decidedly not new
                        3. but what is most important is an acknowledgement of the unfairness of                          the attacks on revisionists and the dominance of one tendency
                                    1.) attacks have been veiled--no names attached; no discussion of                                        work; not clear whether a revisionist is a personal attribute (Sheila Fitzpatrick and Arch Getty will always be revisionists) or has something to do with content of work
                                    2.) my own opinion, is that it is time to go beyond the cold war; to                                      cease polemics; to encourage multiple points of view--otherwise, the field stagnates
            B. I would recommend as best surveys of American thinking about Russia and Soviet Union--the works of David Engerman: Modernization from the Other   Shore and Know Your Enemy
                        1. to understand the historiographical debates in American sovietology,                              one must contextualize within American history; Engerman is an Americanist
                        2. he is also able to analyze historiographical developments within the                                 larger context of the development of history as a discipline, looking at influences from other national areas as well as looking at the growing pains of a field as it pulled away from its government minders.

"In my opinion, Mark Edele's book is an interesting attempt to frame, what he calls, the “neo-totalitarian political economy of Stalinism”. At the same time Edele has also other, additional goals in the book. Thus, he tries to challenge the “modernity school” in the Soviet studies, which in last decade became one of the dominant schools in the historiography. At the same time he aims to resurrect the economic history of the Soviet Union, written in a simple and comprehensible manner. Following these goals, Edele is also trying to create a new interpretation for the analysis of the Stalinist society, which should go beyond the existing historiographical clashes and struggles in the Soviet studies. Nevertheless, as the last chapter of the book suggests his views, positions, and attitudes are still deeply embedded in and influenced by the existing historiography of the Soviet Union and its politics.
Edele's arguments are also weakened by his inconsequent and ambiguous use of many key terms and concepts. For instance, his use and understanding of the concepts “totalitarianism” or “neo-totalitarian” is not always clear. Mostly, it looks like for Edele the “(neo-)totalitarian” character of the Soviet Union under Stalin boils down to the use of terror and violence. Yet, this is a rather simplistic and one-sided use of the concept. Similarly, Edele's understanding of “Stalinist” and “Stalinism” remains ambiguous. It remains unclear whether Mark Edele uses the terms only in chronological sense, just as the shortcut for the Soviet society under Stalin, or he attributes some qualitative characteristics to them.
Despite certain shortcomings Edele's book is an engaging and useful reading for anybody interested in Soviet history. It is written in a relatively easy and comprehensible language. Very possibly, while writing the book, Edele viewed as one of his main target groups undergraduate and graduate students, whom he aimed to “convert” to his interpretation of the Stalinist society. At the same time Edele's book would be also an interesting and provocative reading for the specialists, who may find the author's arguments and readings of the historiography of use for their research and teaching." 
(note by Alex Voronovici)

 “In the Stalinist Society, 1928-1953, M. Edele purposely simplifies the history of USSR in the Stalinist era. Edele’s book proposes a synthesis of the current historical debate on Stalinism. The author is ambitious in his scope, but modest in the form of his writing: as Edele points out in the introduction, the book is rather a historical essay, than a classical scholarly monograph.

While reading this book, I hoped that it will succeed to overcome the antagonistic paradigms (‘totalitarianism’ vs. ‘revisionism’) of the Soviet history, as well as the usual biases and binary concepts (e.g. state vs. society, victims vs. perpetrators, etc.) related to the study of the USSR. Indeed, Edele tries to do so, at least until the last chapter, where he overtly expresses his sympathies, antipathies and scholarly allegiances.

As Lynne Viola said earlier (in this discussion), Stephen Kotkin could not make his scholarly work without Sheila Fitzpatrick’s contribution. We can add that Fitzpatrick herself could not write her books without the contribution of the first historians of the USSR, the so-called ‘totalitarians’. The debate and the polemics are intrinsic features of the academic life, all the more in historical milieus. However, sometimes, when exacerbated by ideological and political adhesions, the polemics biases the academic / historical communication, instead of stimulating the discussion and exchange of ideas. Thus, it is also needed to go beyond the polemical dimension of the academic / historical writing, by reconciling the traditionally opposite paradigms.
In the first chapter (“Stalinist life”), Edele uses the socio-biographical approach, in order to go deeper into the ‘Soviet society’, through the life story of a specific individual. By shedding light over the contradictions and the shadows of a particular life experience, in the context of an epoch of tremendous changes (the “Revolutions from above”), the author attempts to de-reify the ‘Stalinist society’ itself.

Edele also makes an attempt to analyze ‘sociologically’ the state building process – i.e. the bureaucratization and setting up of a state totalitarian authority – in Stalin’s Russia / USSR, trying to explain the relationship between the Soviet people / citizens and the Soviet / Communist State-party and the sources of the Soviet power’s legitimacy in terms of M. Weber’s theory of authority.”
(notes by Petru Negura)

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