Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Airing Stalin's Archives

The following is an article (sent me by a reader) by Gary Saul Morrison from the “New Criterion” on the ongoing publishing of the Communist archives in the “Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism series. I’ll quote some interesting passages from the article:

“About two dozen volumes already published reveal documents, never seen before in Russia or the West, of the greatest importance in understanding world Communism. Though invented by Lenin in Russia, totalitarian Communism has, after all, ruled nearly twenty countries and about 40 percent of the world’s people at one time or another, and it has inspired true believers almost everywhere, including the United States. . . .”

“The first volume in the series, The Secret World of American Communism, caused shock waves by demonstrating that the American Communist Party was not a group of home-grown idealists, as so many apologists claimed, but, from the start, conducted espionage and took orders directly from Moscow. Despite decades of leftist mockery and vilification, the basic picture provided by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley of Alger Hiss and many others was correct. The Comintern, too, was from day one directed by Moscow as a tool of Russian foreign policy. . . .”

. . . Leninist and Soviet ideology held not just that the end justifies any means, but also that it was immoral not to use the utmost cruelty if that would help. And it was bound to help in at least one way—intimidating the population. From the beginning, terror was not just an expedient but a defining feature of Soviet Communism. In Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky was simply voicing a Bolshevik truism when he rejected “the bourgeois theory of the sanctity of human life.” In fact, Soviet ethics utterly rejected human rights, universal justice, or even basic human decency, for all concepts that apply to everyone might lead one to show mercy to a class enemy. In Bolshevism, there is no abstract justice, only “proletarian justice,” as defined by the Party.

“The series also published the last diary of the Tsaritsa, a volume on the Great Terror, and a documentation of the bloody war on the peasantry. One might imagine that, by now, there would be little of such importance to reveal, or, if there were, that the Putin regime, which has returned to praising Stalin, would call a halt. But the most important volumes are now in preparation: papers from Stalin’s personal archives. Soon to appear is one documenting his rise to power. It will be possible to see how strakh—terror or fear—became the guiding feature of Soviet life. Even Bukharin, the Bolshevik leader whom Stalin executed, wrote from prison that the Purges were a brilliant stroke that would, by creating ‘everlasting distrust,’ allow the regime to achieve ‘a full guarantee for itself.’”

“Brent gradually realized that even though the Soviet Union had disintegrated, the Russian army had become a shadow of itself, and the Russian Orthodox Church had returned to official favor, the very feel of life . . . remained. . . Culture matters, and culture, above all, consists of habits we do not even notice because they shape the very possibilities of action, or even thought.”

“Among Brent’s saddest discoveries is the fate of the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel. Brent lists several pages of writers, artists, and scholars who were executed, imprisoned, or otherwise repressed, but Babel’s case is special because he was such a brilliant writer. I would venture that only three Russian prose works written since 1917 will be read a hundred years from now: Bulgakov’s fantastic satire, The Master and Margarita, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Arch- ipelago, and Babel’s cycle of closely linked short stories about a sensitive Jewish commissar in a regiment of violent Cossacks, Red Cavalry. Babel’s arrest and shooting in the great purges have long been known, but what Brent has discovered is that, during the course of the horrible interrogations, Babel ceased to be Babel at all. They took his soul. The documents reveal how ‘the system attacked his essence—his consciousness and self-identity… . Isaac Babel no longer existed as Isaac Babel.’ He loved Big Brother.

Babel’s fate illustrates a key tenet of Soviet ideology, perhaps the single most important one. I have in mind the doctrine that there is no such thing as human nature or individual selfhood. As thinkers from John Locke to Margaret Mead and today’s many “social constructionists” like to say, people are simply whatever they are conditioned to be. In his 1921 treatise, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, Bukharin claimed that ‘if we examine each individual … we shall find that at bottom he is filled with the influences of his environment, as the skin of a sausage is filled with sausage meat… . The individual himself is a collection of concentrated social influences, united in a small unit.’”

“The endpoint of Bukharin’s logic is that everyone is a nonperson… . Inwardness and all that comes with it, selfhood, consciousness and conscience were nothing but the illusions of a long history of Western metaphysics. What remains after the illusions of the bourgeois sausage, such as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ universal justice, or truth are scraped away? Power alone and its terror, a fury that in Lenin’s words can express itself and ‘therefore must.’ … The physical destruction of individuals had long been preceded by their philosophical negation.

“Marxism-Leninism claims to be materialist, but, in fact, it is governed by ideas. It is the idea of social constructionism—certainly not empirical reality—that led Stalin and so many since to treat people as the wholly redesignable products of their environment, as so much sausage.”

“Under Putin, Russia has turned away from a fleeting opportunity to embrace legality. A sort of mafia rules without breaking the law—because there is no real law. And yet, by comparison with the Soviet period, Russia is free and humane. To be sure, any journalist or businessman who displeases the regime is likely to be imprisoned, maimed, or killed. But millions are not arrested at random. . . Solzhenitsyn once asked why the bloodthirsty Macbeth killed only a few people while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions. He answered: Macbeth had no ideology. So far as we can tell, neither does Putin. Today no one tries to remake human nature. For the time being, and however precariously, the human spirit survives.”


I looked up Brent’s book on and came away with the belief that the above article hasn’t done justice to the book. Morrison has his own ax to grind. We don’t learn, for example that Brent is the editor of the “Annals of Communism” series. This is one of the tidbits I read from S. McGee, an reviewer that helped my understanding: “The title of this fascinating book is actually somewhat misleading. Rather than a straightforward recitation of what Brent, the editorial director of the Yale University Press, unearths within the archives, it sets some such revelations in the much broader and fascinating chronicle of his experiences trying to win and maintain access to those records, of his relationships and discussions with Russian archivists. Brent also incorporates his personal observations of the changes that take place within Russia over the 15 years that he spends shuttling back and forth between New England and Moscow as he battles to publish a series of scholarly books based on the Soviet archives addressing questions such as who orchestrated and controlled the Great Terror of the 1930s; whether the US Communist Party engaged in espionage; the real role of the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War and the truth about the Katyn massacre of Polish officers during World War II.

On the other hand, the book doesn’t provide what McGee wanted: “, , , we hear few details of what is eventually published and few details of how they may have changed historians' views of the Soviet Union. (Indeed, there isn't even a bibliography detailing those works; that and an index would be immensely helpful to readers.)”

It May be that Brent doesn’t want to tell us too much too so soon else his welcome to the archives may be withdrawn, but who knows.

What interests me most is the comment about “Social Constructionism,” but I’ll save comments on that for a subsequent note. In the meantime we see that Brent is busily (I assume he is still busily) commuting back and forth between Yale and Moscow and publishing volume after volume of the Communist archives. I wonder if they are also being published in Russia or whether Michael will have to read them in English.

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