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Career as a historian of Communism

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Soviet cogitations: 794
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 28 Jan 2008, 19:10
Ideology: Marxism-Leninism
Komsomol
Post 06 Jan 2019, 05:38
Has anyone here ever considered a career as a historian of Communism? I assume its already a major interest of all of us here that we pursue for free. And while some might see academic work as overly-intellectual, it plays its small part in revolutionary struggle by letting future communists learn from the lessons of the past both good and bad, hopefully for the day we once again commence on socialist construction. Having devoted my life to Communism, its fascinating to study the days in which Communism ruled 1/3 of the world, including the lesser known states in Africa, Yemen, Mongolia.

I don't think academia is the ideal place to propagandize and proclaim Communism is Great, although some do it. But theres definitely a strong faction of historians of the Stephen F Cohen revisionist type who say Communism was not as bad or as totalitarian as the Robert Conquests say. If anything its the "totalitarian school" who is more openly political, ideological and polemical. While the revisionists have more "bourgeois objectivity" getting down to the nitty gritty facts of how communism was actually experienced.

I recently watched this

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0426911/

Where they make researching Stalin in 2002 Russia into a James Bond, Daniel Craig thriller, with KPRF types hunting him down.
Last edited by heiss93 on 07 Jan 2019, 00:38, edited 1 time in total.
Kamran Heiss
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Soviet cogitations: 9196
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 19 Mar 2005, 20:08
Embalmed
Post 06 Jan 2019, 09:33
Modern "leftists" are basically maoist-third-worldists and already think that all the bad things about communist history are actually good things, as an upside. As a downside, they don't care about class struggle, economics, etc and focus on people using bad words. So being yet another academic Marxist in an atmosphere where academic Marxism has more or less completely defeated political Marxism would probably not be very productive.
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"Bleh, i don't even know what i'm arguing for. What a stupid rant. Disregard what i wrote." - Loz
"Every time is gyros time" - Stalinista
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Soviet cogitations: 794
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 28 Jan 2008, 19:10
Ideology: Marxism-Leninism
Komsomol
Post 06 Jan 2019, 18:26
Academic Marxists mostly focus on understanding Marx and western marxist theorists better, and then applying that critique to everything wrong in western capitalist society especially in the field of culture. "people using bad words" as you put it. Of course I'm not against the critical study of capitalism, but its part of the pessimism, that no one even bothers to study real existing socialism anymore.

There are relatively few academic marxists in the field of Communist Studies, exploring attempts at constructing socialism. I'm not even saying that the primary motive should be propagandistic in contributing to the revolution. It could just be studying some steel factory in Siberia in the 1960s under bourgeois historiographic objectivity.

I don't say its a job that contributes the most to revolution, but all of us have to have day jobs. And in its small way if socialist construction ever begins again, the nitty gritty objective facts of what went right and wrong under Gosplan will be more relevant than any pro con propaganda polemics. Western academia still isn't the best place to openly praise Communist history. Grover Furr is an example, but he is an English professor and largely pursues his Stalin historiography as a private individual. But the center-left revisionism does it part in making Communism less demonized. And a popular book on the topic could make Option B to capitalism a little less scary. Even under capitalism we have to find employment, and it might as well be in fields we enjoy and that suits our talents. So I think it might make sense for many of us on an individual level. And on a political level the belief that the Option B to capitalism is a nightmare is part of what keeps capitalism so secure and ensures that any radical opposition comes from the populist right. So it does its small role in the ideological grounds in which economic political battles are fought.
Kamran Heiss
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Soviet cogitations: 9196
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 19 Mar 2005, 20:08
Embalmed
Post 06 Jan 2019, 22:19
There are two problems with what you are suggesting, the first is the structure of the university, which has internal disputes and power structures that largely dictate what to teach and how. The second is that you are suggesting pursuing political Marxism in an academic setting, which is not the appropriate place for it.

Political discourse in general is formed outside the university, generally in the form of think tanks that are independent from institutions of learning as much as possible, so as not to let their internal politics impact the organization. Not only for things like Democrat/Republican partisan discourse in the US, but also ideological stuff like liberalism in general, which is largely done by us government funded institutions like the NED. Many people who write in those journals are indeed professors, but many are activists and politicians.

In communist political discourse this is generally done at the party level, with a newspaper and a theoretical journal attached to it. It is true that we should seek alternatives to that structure, but using the university has historically meant the neutralization of the movement - imagine if Lenin opted to become a professor instead of a politician, how far would he have gotten?

Honestly, Althusser is not wrong and the state of discourse matters, but not in a way that makes it degenerate into discourse about discourse, as has happened with academic Marxism.
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"Bleh, i don't even know what i'm arguing for. What a stupid rant. Disregard what i wrote." - Loz
"Every time is gyros time" - Stalinista
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Soviet cogitations: 794
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 28 Jan 2008, 19:10
Ideology: Marxism-Leninism
Komsomol
Post 06 Jan 2019, 22:30
1) I'm not proposing this as the ideal place for all Communist activists to be. If people find work in areas more directly helpful to socialism, more power to them. But many of us I assume will probably end up working in day jobs that don't contribute to revolution at all, and do our political life in our own time. I'm just saying it could be a good place for S-E members to pursue our interests and maybe in a small way contribute to ideology.

2) I'm not saying we should go in to academia primarily to spread Marxism. I would say we are more just trying to contribute to the understanding of the history of communist parties and states, from an objective historiographical approach. We want to uncover more about the empirical facts of communism, how it was lived and experienced, from below from the top, from the factory to the politburo and the intellectual history of theory, doctrine, ideas.

Like theres an entire academic journal just on "American Communist History", should its contributors only be Cold Warriors?

https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rach20

So I'm not saying its a replacement for political work, or a decisive front for spreading Marxism. But it just seems like a field many SErs would enjoy, and I don't think its *entirely* worthless on the ideological front either. Even if we are not arguing from an explicitly Marxist position, but just trying to understand Communist history objectively and empirically, from the revisionist perspective, without the rightwing cold warrior "totalitarian school" bias. It seems like most leftists and marxists who do enter academia are more interested in criticizing capitalist culture than researching communist history. So to the extent that academic leftism does exist, this is largely a blank spot. It appears sadly that even on the Left, most regard communist history as a deadend failure and aren't very interested in studying it, and S-E is somewhat unique in that regard.

If a SE-er believes that becoming a labor organizer or something contributes more to the revolution, I wont disagree at all. I myself pursued something like that in my younger days. I'm not claiming this is the best approach for political marxism. Just a potential career path for those with SE interests, who aren't currently planning on becoming professional revolutionaries.

As historians we can write both academic and popular histories, and a popular history that shows some of the positive sides of the communist experience, from a university press as opposed to a Party press, could be a useful tool in the hands of activists in showing what we are fighting for, and exorcising the "totalitarian" boogieman of red-baiting fearmongering. They very negative views towards communist history in the West, does play a real life role on the ground in creating pessimism that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism other than rightwing populism.

No its not the place the next Lenin should be, but maybe the next Eugene Tarlé, who also has his place in capitalist and socialist societies.
Kamran Heiss
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Soviet cogitations: 4386
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 07 Oct 2004, 22:04
Ideology: Marxism-Leninism
Resident Soviet
Post 06 Jan 2019, 23:28
Given their regular contributions of interesting articles and/or books, I would love to see someone like heiss93 or Ismail fighting the good fight in academia, if only to get it away from this post-class struggle identity politics-centric leftism that much of Western academia seems to be struggling from.

heiss93, I also think your contributions in academia could be novel, in the sense that while China and Cuba have intensely studied the successes and failures of real-existing socialism (including the reasons for the collapse of the Eastern Bloc), that doesn't really seem to be the case in the West, which has generally just written everything off with a 'see we told you it wouldn't work' attitude.

That said, the question, as Kirov points out, is finding the niche where such studies would be needed. Western universities, while sheltering an above average number of radical leftists, do tend to have certain standards, including this 'bourgeois historiographic objectivity' you mention, which in my experience usually tends to come down to having to defend socialist countries with a 'hey come on it wasn't that bad guys' format, rather than a 'hey remember the time the commies offered a real viable alternative to capitalist modernity' one.

Also, I can't say that I fully agree with Kirov's characterization of academia's limited influence. The fact is that the people who go on to work at and run think tanks, become activists or politicians often start out at university. Now naturally not all of them are liberal arts majors, but if there is material at the local university library with a fresh approach to a tired subject (like the Soviet experience), I can only see it as a positive. And Kirov, Lenin was a unique figure in history - a genius the likes of which the world would have to be very lucky to see again. In other words, we can all aspire to be Lenin-like, but one should be grounded regarding one's prospects.

Finally, I must say that I have a personal reason for supporting your aspirations, heiss93. In the last 20 years a lot of great stuff has come out in Russian on precisely the topics you're talking about (the Soviet experience, its successes, failings, etc.). I have a whole stack of books on the collapse alone, and more and more are released all the time. If I were wealthy I would like to set up a miniature version of Progress Publishers, overseeing the translation of a small collection of the best works on these subjects, to create a better balance at the university level between Western academics writing on the USSR, and actual (former) Soviets, who tend to have better access to archives and just tend to be more intimately acquainted with the subject matter. Heck, Yuri Zhukov, probably the greatest living Russian academic on the Stalin period at the moment, practically lives in the archives, and his books are absolutely packed with nothing but archival citations.
"The thing about capitalism is that it sounds awful on paper and is horrendous in practice. Communism sounds wonderful on paper and when it was put into practice it was done pretty well for what they had to work with." -MiG
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Soviet cogitations: 794
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 28 Jan 2008, 19:10
Ideology: Marxism-Leninism
Komsomol
Post 07 Jan 2019, 00:26
The story of western academic historiography is you had the Totalitarian cold warrior model of the 1950s, and then the revisionists who challenged it in the 60s and 70s, Stephen F Cohen being the best representative, and since 1991 its a mixture of neo-totalitarians who feel the Soviet archives proved them right, and social historians who focus mostly on the lived experience of communism is very niche specialized areas. And of course all 3 schools have existed across all periods and in the present. So I don't think one has to openly defend a pro-Communist position, but both the revisionist and social-cultural history approaches offer the chance to both sympathetically and objectively explore the facts of Soviet life.

Just some recent academic books

Soviet Orientalism and the Creation of Central Asian Nations

The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies

Film and Television of the Late Soviet Era

Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World

Socialist Fun: Youth, Consumption, and State-Sponsored Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1945–1970

Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin

Inside the Apparat - Perspectives on the Soviet Union from Former Functionaries

Soviet Influences on Postwar Yugoslav Gender Policies

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism

Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937

Small comrades. Revolutionizing childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932

Socialist Senses: Film, Feeling, and the Soviet Subject, 1917–1940

Its just a random sampling of the most recent academic literature on the USSR, but it shows the author doesn't have to love or hate the USSR, the empirical research will largely be the same. If anything its the Robert Conquest totalitarian types who show more partiinost against academic objectivity.

Quote:
Finally, I must say that I have a personal reason for supporting your aspirations, heiss93. In the last 20 years a lot of great stuff has come out in Russian on precisely the topics you're talking about (the Soviet experience, its successes, failings, etc.). I have a whole stack of books on the collapse alone, and more and more are released all the time. If I were wealthy I would like to set up a miniature version of Progress Publishers, overseeing the translation of a small collection of the best works on these subjects, to create a better balance at the university level between Western academics writing on the USSR, and actual (former) Soviets, who tend to have better access to archives and just tend to be more intimately acquainted with the subject matter. Heck, Yuri Zhukov, probably the greatest living Russian academic on the Stalin period at the moment, practically lives in the archives, and his books are absolutely packed with nothing but archival citations.


And yes this is exactly the type of western-Russian cooperation that could help bring education on Soviet civilization to the West, especially with the help of western academic university institutions behind it. Its not pro or anti Soviet, but simply recording and analyzing what was. Studying it like the lost civilization of the Roman Empire. Ideally it could be applied not just to the USSR, but to all communist states, as well as communist parties that did not take power. And an oral history of those who did participate in the world communist movement.

There were some very good western journals during the Cold War period that consisted entirely of translations from Soviet and Chinese journals in topics like philosophy, economics, law, politics, culture, anthropology, sociology. The editors were not Cold Warrior sovietologists, but somewhat sympathetic, like John Somerville of Soviet Studies in Philosophy and Nick Knight in Chinese Studies in Philosophy. They were mostly published by ME Sharpe. I got the 1st hand discussions of the Liberman reforms and mathematical economics of the 70s. As well as a book by a French Sovietologist which was a good middle ground between Progress Publishers and US Cold Warrior Sovietology. A non-polemical study of both the good and bad in Soviet-style economics, which acknowledged it had a higher growth rate than the west at time of writing in 1970.

Actually I think this is something Grover Furr was very good at, in that he included the direct Soviet quotes for any footnotes in his books, on his webpage. So its not the same thing as translating whole works, but at least we can see important primary source passages 1st hand.

This is just a sample from his most recent book on Trotsky

https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/res ... pendix.pdf

I don't know what the future of neo-communism holds, but it would be a shame to leave the story and narrative of the 1st wave of communism entirely in the hands of its enemies. I assume that at least part of the reason we all participate in S-E is we believe that the history of communism has a value, besides just the daily political battles of current events.
Kamran Heiss
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Soviet cogitations: 4386
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 07 Oct 2004, 22:04
Ideology: Marxism-Leninism
Resident Soviet
Post 07 Jan 2019, 21:11
heiss93 wrote:
Its just a random sampling of the most recent academic literature on the USSR, but it shows the author doesn't have to love or hate the USSR, the empirical research will largely be the same. If anything its the Robert Conquest totalitarian types who show more partiinost against academic objectivity.


I agree; I vividly remember reading a debate between Conquest and Stephen Wheatcroft from the 1990s about the Holodomor in some academic journal, where Wheatcroft was like 'hey the archival documents prove you wrong' and Conquest was like 'no.' What I always found frustrating (if understandable) is that Conquest-types were almost household names among the intelligentsia, and could be found in every snooty Chapters-like bookstore, whereas the Wheatcrofts of the world always seemed to get shortchanged, even though their work was vastly superior from the point of view of empirical research.

heiss93 wrote:
And yes this is exactly the type of western-Russian cooperation that could help bring education on Soviet civilization to the West, especially with the help of western academic university institutions behind it.


But is there a demand for such a thing do you think? I mean from my research, the only resources professionally dedicated to translating Russian-language social studies works tend to be funded by either a) the Boris Yeltsin Fund (guess the political slant of that one) or b) those by some oligarch, the most famous being the Prokhorov Fund, who also give off a very liberal anti-commie vibe.

heiss93 wrote:
There were some very good western journals during the Cold War period that consisted entirely of translations from Soviet and Chinese journals in topics like philosophy, economics, law, politics, culture, anthropology, sociology.


Yeah, I've seen some of those in academic libraries, and they did tend to be surprisingly objective, promoting for example the models of Soviet politics as a battle of interest groups rather than the more simplistic 'totalitarian theory'. Dr. David Lane is probably my favorite among those. Interestingly, the USSR had a similar program, believe it or not, with an entire huge institute in Moscow dedicated to translating and cataloguing various Western works, even those with a heavily bourgeois and/or anti-Soviet slant. I've found so many books in used book shops dedicated to topics that you would think the 'totalitarian Soviet Union' would have banned, such as various debates of market economists or 'the future of humanity' as imagined by bourgeois futurologists.

Re: Furr, yes he's a very interesting person. Actually his books are very popular here, and can be found in the Russian equivalent of Chapters-type (i.e. mass market) bookstores, at least in the big cities.

heiss93 wrote:
I don't know what the future of neo-communism holds, but it would be a shame to leave the story and narrative of the 1st wave of communism entirely in the hands of its enemies. I assume that at least part of the reason we all participate in S-E is we believe that the history of communism has a value, besides just the daily political battles of current events.


I agree!
"The thing about capitalism is that it sounds awful on paper and is horrendous in practice. Communism sounds wonderful on paper and when it was put into practice it was done pretty well for what they had to work with." -MiG
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