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Leonard Schapiro’s Russia

Russian Studies

by Leonard Schapiro, edited by Ellen Dahrendorf, introduction by Harry Willetts
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 400 pp., $24.95

In the introduction to his book The Soviet Political Mind, Robert Tucker remarks that the history of twentieth-century politics can be seen as a process of realizing the dreams of the nineteenth. Few scholars of Soviet history have been so passionately committed to demonstrating the truth of this view as Leonard Schapiro, and few have been more qualified to do so. Over the last decades Russian history and Soviet politics have separated into specializations whose practitioners have no common language. Schapiro never respected this artificial boundary. He is best known for his books The Origins of the Communist Autocracy and The Communist Party of the Soviet Union; but he also published a provocative study of nineteenth-century Russian thought, and one of his last books was a biography of Ivan Turgenev. Russian Studies, a posthumous collection of articles, reviews, and talks (some published here for the first time), reflects both the breadth of his concerns and the overriding vision that inspired and ordered them. From the Slavophiles to Solzhenitsyn, there are few Russian writers and thinkers of significance over the past one and a half centuries whose names do not appear somewhere in this volume—and all of them are measured by one dominant criterion: whether they embodied or opposed the “dreams” that led to the Soviet reality.

Schapiro was a leader of what from the 1940s to the 1960s was the dominant orthodoxy in Soviet studies, based on the premise that Stalinism was the logical successor to Leninism, and that the dynamics of Soviet history since 1917 can be explained by one determining factor: the ruling party’s commitment to total power. This, as Schapiro puts it in the first essay in the collection, is, broadly, the only valid approach to the study of Soviet government today. During the last twenty years of his life he expressed increasing alarm at new trends in Sovietology, which dismissed “totalitarianism” as a cold war term, saw power struggles within the Party as one among many conflicts of interest groups within the USSR, and even favored such approaches as “grass-roots sociology” under what Schapiro calls the “dangerous…illusion that at bottom the Soviet Union is reasonable and basically motivated by the same aims as the Western nations.”

The new “fashions,” as Schapiro dismissively labeled them, have destroyed the orthodox consensus in Sovietology, splitting the field into what the Princeton historian Stephen Cohen has called “totalitarianism” and “revisionist” schools.1 Among the leaders of the former (along with Schapiro) are Richard Pipes, Adam Ulam, and Zbigniew Brzezinski; the latter include Cohen himself, Jerry Hough, Moshe Lewin, and a number of younger Sovietologists. Recent events in the Soviet Union have increased the distance between the two schools of interpretation, as each attempts to influence Western reactions to Gorbachev’s reforms. Proponents of the totalitarian model of Soviet government (supported, it would seem from statements in the press, by many, but by no means all, Soviet dissidents now in emigration2 ) interpret these reforms as cosmetic changes, tactical maneuvers designed to shore up the existing system and win credits in the West. “Revisionists” argue that the reforms show that the Party is not the frozen monolith which it has been popularly assumed to be; that they reflect a genuine competition of factions and interest groups within the elite, and a degree of responsiveness to the demands of society. They suggest that the Soviet Union is not, as the old orthodoxy claimed, a sui generis phenomenon: that what is now taking place can be understood as a conflict between reformism and conservatism. The “totalitarianism” school warns that to respond to recent Soviet developments by relaxing hostility will be to play the Russians’ game. The revisionists reply that a negative response to Gorbachev on the part of the West will have the effect of creating an unholy alliance between their hard-liners and ours, and will, as has happened in the past, contribute to the defeat of the reformers.3

Because much of his analysis has been overtaken by events, Schapiro’s writings on the contemporary Soviet scene have not been included in this volume; but his reflections on prerevolutionary history and thought contribute a necessary dimension to the current debate. Although this tends to be conducted in ahistorical terms, it is based on two irreconcilable views of the historical roots of the Soviet state. The revisionists believe that, like all other governmental systems, it is a complex product of many strands, including the nationalism and anti-Westernism of the czarist bureaucracy and the Russian right. The totalitarianism school tends to ascribe the sole paternity of the Soviet system and all its evils to the Russian revolutionary tradition. As one of the most respected proponents of this view, Schapiro has had a dominant influence in shaping Western attitudes to the Soviet Union. The intellectual merits of his convictions can be assessed on the basis of the essays collected in this book.

Schapiro was concerned to refute what he saw as a “legend” fostered by Marxist historians: “that there never was any choice in Russia between dark reaction and red revolution, and that liberal order was an alien plant which could never have taken root.” He argues that the main impediment to the establishment of a liberal democracy in Russia was not the intransigence of the autocracy but the radical intelligentsia’s opposition to the principle of legal order.

In the introductory essay, Schapiro describes how he came to this belief: his study of law (he became an academic after sixteen years as a practicing lawyer) left him with the lifelong conviction that the rule of law was a necessary condition of human dignity, that

a society can only progress by evolution and not by convulsions, by growth and not by surgery dictated by belief in some system…and that the only condition for ensuring organic growth is a well-rooted legal system and a strong and independent judiciary to safeguard it.

Approaching Russian history with this criterion in mind, he was deeply influenced by two books. The first, Karl Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism, revealed to him the gulf between the societies of the West, founded on legal order, and the historical nature of the Russian governmental system; while the conservative liberal Victor Leontovitsch’s Geschichte des Liberalismus in Russland helped him to understand why the government’s reforming and westernizing policies in the nineteenth century met with so little support and cooperation on the part of Russian society. The Russian intelligentsia, whatever their political differences, were united in seeing advocacy of law and order as “cold, calculating, immoral, selfish, un-Russian or unpatriotic.” The Slavophile movement saw the absence of a legal order as evidence of a superior moral principle underlying the Russian state. In its idealized vision of the autocracy, the relations between governor and governed rested on patriarchal bonds of trust and love—the coercive force of legal guarantees was superfluous. The radical intelligentsia dismissed Western constitutional structures as empty forms, and feared that liberal reforms would seduce Russia away from its “separate path” of development based on the allegedly socialistic principles inherent in the peasant commune.

The consolidation of capitalism in Russia and the foundation of a Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) party at the beginning of the twentieth century did not, Schapiro argues, transform the intelligentsia’s attitude to legal order. Quoting the Kadet leader Miliukov, who designated the revolutionary parties as “our allies on the Left,” Schapiro argues that by their hostile position toward the government the liberals contributed to the victory of the revolutionary forces. The intelligentsia “all dreamed of some short cut to freedom which would avoid the laborious construction of solidly based independent institutions such as had been slowly built over the centuries in western Europe.” As a result, their only positive achievement—the assassination of Alexander II—was futile and retrograde: it halted the progress of reform, polarized Russian society into extremes of revolution and reaction, and led eventually to the triumph of Bolshevism.

Few Western historians would not agree with Schapiro that the intelligentsia’s negative attitude to law was a factor in the failure of liberal democracy to take root in Russia. But a number of scholars, such as Marc Raeff and Theodore von Laue, have questioned whether liberal doctrines were feasible at all as a basis for political behavior in a country possessing neither a substantial middle class nor representative government, and where those whose demands would have been regarded as mildly reformist in the West were treated as dangerous subversives by a government determined not to relinquish its claim to absolute power.4 Hence the view, which was far from unique to radical historians, that would-be liberals had little choice but to align themselves with the left against the autocracy.

Schapiro’s answer to this was to argue the existence of a “tenuous, but more truly liberal Russian tradition” of conservative liberalism, which maintained that once a major change had been accomplished “the most important ally is conservatism, not revolution.” He traces this tradition back to the thinker Piotr Chaadaev, whose famous “Philosophical Letter,” published in 1836, first advanced for public debate the problem of Russia’s future as a country that was cut adrift by historical catastrophe (the Mongol invasion) from Western Europe, and that had failed to develop the ideas of “duty, justice, law and order,” which were the moral essence of European culture.

As Schapiro points out, such “Western” principles were basic to the outlook of Pushkin, among other writers, but he argues that they were elaborated systematically only by a small group of thinkers who were isolated and misunderstood in their time, and subsequently consigned to the oblivion of history’s losers. The first of these was the legal philosopher Boris Chicherin (whose significance Schapiro stresses in an article republished in this book), who argued, after the Emancipation Act of 1861, that once the government had embarked on the road of reform, the chief obstacle to the ultimate attainment of civil rights and political freedoms was the mentality and beliefs of the left. The principal other “conservative liberals,” to whom Schapiro devoted an article republished in this book, were a group of seven, several of whom (including the philosopher Berdyaev) had been leading Marxists before moving to philosophical idealism and religious belief. In 1909 they published a symposium called Landmarks attacking the intelligentsia’s tradition of opposition to power and its maximalist demands, and calling for its moral rebirth through an affirmation of traditional cultural and religious values. Like Chicherin, they called for gradual evolution, based on a respect for law and the national cultural heritage. These calls, Schapiro writes, fell on deaf ears: the intelligentsia could not be weaned from its “fanatical conviction that there is one complete answer to all questions, past and future, if only it can be found.”

Schapiro’s view of the importance of Chicherin and the Landmarks authors is confirmed by the considerable body of work that has appeared on both since he published his articles. But subsequent scholarship has interpreted their significance rather differently. Few scholars now approach Russian liberalism from the narrow perspective of Leontovitsch, whose book so greatly influenced Schapiro, and whose criterion of liberalism was the Hegelian Rechtsstaat model. Instead, historians such as Daniel Field5 have stressed the gulf between the pragmatic approach of classical, Anglo-Saxon liberalism and the doctrinaire nature of the Hegelian variety preached by a group of historians and jurists, Chicherin among them, who together founded the Russian “statist” school of historiography. This was based on Hegel’s vision of the modern, centralized state as the incarnation of man’s rational consciousness and the crown of historical progress.

  1. 1

    Stephen Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917 (Oxford University Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    See for example Alexander Zinoviev’s proclamation to the recent emigration, warning them not to fall for Soviet propaganda and support the authorities’ “hypocritical pretense of liberalization” (Kontinent, No. 51, 1987, pp. 240–241). Sakharov’s belief that Gorbachev should be “encouraged” in his reforms (see his interview with Nicholas Bethell in Kontinent, No. 52, pp. 425–445) has been bitterly attacked by exiled dissidents; but for a different émigré view, see Alexander Yanov, “Dissident Sakharov is Right After All,” Los Angeles Times (April 10, 1987), and “Why We Should Root for Gorbachev,” The New York Times (April 19, 1987). See also Vladimir Voinovich’s conclusion that “we are in a moment of hope…. I am definitely for this process of reform” (“Vladimir Voinovich, Satirist in Exile,” International Herald Tribune, June 9, 1987).

  3. 3

    For an example of the two approaches, see Stephen Cohen, “An Anti-Stalinist Tide is Flowing Again,” and A.M. Rosenthal, “How to Make this Glasnost More Interesting than Ever,” International Herald Tribune (February 3, 1987). The extreme bitterness of much of the present debate can be seen from the correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement between March and June of this year, following a review article of March 27, in which the British Sovietologist Archie Brown expressed the view that a political struggle, whose outcome is uncertain, “is going on in the Soviet Union—and not on the fringes of society but within every major institution.” Brown and “revisionist” scholars like him have been accused of gullibility, dishonesty, and groveling before the Soviet authorities in order to gain visas and advance their careers. For the kind of reasoned and qualified optimism that has provoked these attacks, see Brown’s article “Gorbachev and Reform of the Soviet System,” The Political Quarterly (April–June 1987), pp. 139–151; and Alec Nove, ” ‘Radical Reform,’ Problems and Prospects,” Soviet Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (July 1987), pp. 452–467.

  4. 4

    See Marc Raeff, Understanding Imperial Russia (Columbia University Press, 1984), and Theodore von Laue, “The Chances for Liberal Constitutionalism,” Slavic Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1965), pp. 34–46.

  5. 5

    See his “Kavelin and Russian Liberalism,” Slavic Review, Vol 32, No. 1 (1973), pp. 59–78.

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