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.

In the arguments of these thinkers the interests of the people tended to be identified with the interests of the state, and the interests of the state with those of the ruler. Their attempt to fit Russian history into a rigidly Hegelian frame led them to glorify autocrats such as Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, who forced their centralizing designs on Russia at terrible human cost, and to idealize the contemporary autocracy as a progressive and rationalizing force. Field and others have argued that the major factor in the estrangement of this group from other sections of Russian progressive society was not their gradualism but their veneration of the state—their bizarre determination to present a primitive, corrupt, and floundering system of arbitrary rule as the historical instrument of rational reform. In this they were the forerunners of those Soviet historians whom Stalin pressed into service when he needed to invest his dictatorship with the authority of national tradition, and who obediently presented the bloodthirsty monster Ivan IV as a national hero and his reign of terror as the “historically inevitable” and “objectively necessary” means of controlling and unifying the Russian state.

Similarly, much of the Landmarks criticism of the intelligentsia flowed from ideological positions with which few Western liberals would wish to identify—nationalist messianism, the cult of a strong state, and a neo-Slavophile mysticism are just a few of the strands that met in the symposium of 1909. With hindsight its calls to patriotism and traditional national virtues, and its demand for the preservation of cultural values may seem prescient warnings; but very similar slogans had been voiced during that period by the reactionary Black Hundreds in their officially inspired pogroms. In prerevolutionary Russia, the meaning of eminently respectable concepts could vary enormously, depending on context; but a sense of the historical setting is a luxury with which the totalitarianism school frequently dispenses. Just as some Russian émigrés—whose nationalist messianism and views on the relation of the individual and the state are worlds away from the outlook of Western liberals—are frequently quoted by the totalitarianism school in support of their own position, so also their politicizing of historical study precludes them from making too close a scrutiny of the liberal credentials of the prerevolutionary critics of the Russian left.

Schapiro’s own brand of liberalism was wholly in the English empirical tradition. It is defined by Harry Willetts (in his introduction to the present volume) as being even more concerned with legal safeguards against the encroachment of the state on the rights of the citizen than with society’s need to set limits to the disruptive activities of individuals. In other words, Schapiro was drawn to the classical liberalism of Locke, Bentham, and Mill, based on the concept of “negative liberty”—that man is free only inasmuch as he is granted a sphere of activity in which he can do as he likes without interference from others, and has freedom to consent to or dissent from particular forms of government.

Liberals of this sort have frequently pointed to the despotic implications in the concept of “positive liberty” outlined in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which is the cornerstone of Rechtsstaat liberalism: the belief that man achieves liberty only through the state as the incarnation of his rational consciousness. Once the state is identified with man’s rational nature, he can be seen to be free when he is most coerced, resistance on his part being interpreted as the expression of irrational urges. Schapiro, of course, was well aware that Russian liberal conservatism was rooted in Hegel and not in Mill; but the antilibertarian implications of this tradition are only very lightly touched on in this book of essays, and then only in a non-Russian context, in a lecture on the general relation of law to the study of history and politics. Schapiro points to the weakness of the concept of the Rechtsstaat, as interpreted by the German positivist tradition of jurisprudence, which established the state as the source of the validity of law; it followed for those who embraced this concept that such travesties of law as Hitler’s destruction of the Weimar Republic were valid and enforceable.

Schapiro does not pursue this line of thought—had he done so, it is difficult to see how he could have avoided discussing the affinities between the ideologists of the Rechtsstaat and those of other offshoots, via Marx, of the Hegelian tradition. His reluctance to distance himself from his “allies on the Right” has resulted in considerable confusion of his two central categories. In their attachment to vast historical abstractions and universal principles the conservative liberals belong to the same political type as the “terribles simplificateurs” of the left. Those whose pragmatic and gradualist approach to change was genuinely motivated by a concern for individual liberty as the supreme value represented a far more “tenuous tradition” than that which Schapiro believed he had discovered, and it was one that did not respect party barriers. One of its representatives was the socialist Alexander Herzen. Another, and the only one who is given detailed consideration in this volume, was Ivan Turgenev.

Isaiah Berlin has pointed out that Turgenev both created as a literary type, and himself embodied, a figure that has since become universal: “the well-meaning, troubled, self-questioning liberal, witness to the complex truth.”6 At a time of acute polarization of opinion in Russia, Turgenev possessed the rare ability to see many sides of a case; repelled by the fanaticism and simple solutions of many of the left, he was unable to identify his cause with that of the generals and bureaucrats who persecuted radicals. His uncertainty was expressed in a political inconsistency that infuriated both left and right. He professed himself “an old-fashioned liberal, in the English…sense…. I oppose revolution on principle.” Yet he was friendly with leading revolutionaries and gave financial support to subversive publications. There was no Russian figure with whom Schapiro identified more closely than with this “English” liberal. His attachment to Turgenev is movingly expressed in the essay (included in this collection) on the “triumph of humanity” in Turgenev’s work—its acceptance of love and goodness as ends in themselves, and not for what they achieve in practice: “The important matter in life for Turgenev is neither system…nor abstract theory but human beings in their relations to one another.”

But Schapiro was curiously reticent and ambiguous about the political attitudes that flowed from Turgenev’s humanism. On one occasion he includes him in a list of Russia’s only “true” (i.e., conservative) liberals; on another he remarks (without elaboration) that Turgenev “almost” belonged to this tradition. In the three essays on Turgenev included in this volume he discusses only the least contentious aspect of Turgenev’s political vision: his consistent opposition to the idea that Russia should embark on a path of development separate from that of the West. Schapiro was clearly uncomfortable with the ambivalence that was an essential quality of Turgenev’s liberalism but that could in no way be made to serve his own polemical ends. In his book on Turgenev he much underplays this ambivalence, dismissing his actions in the 1870s, when he gave moral and financial support to the revolutionary cause, as the expression of a “romantic” mood. In this period, Schapiro notes disapprovingly, Turgenev let his heart rule his head.

Schapiro’s mistake as a historian was to have let his head rule his heart. Those who knew him were struck by qualities that he had in common with Turgenev—generosity, tolerance, commitment to liberal and humane values; the same qualities drew him with such missionary zeal into the battle against the system that he believed to be the greatest threat to these values, and to the uncompromising position of the totalitarianism school, which represented the Soviet system as wholly evil in its essence and intentions. It was the desire to show that the dream as well as the reality of that system had no moral legitimacy that drew Schapiro to the nineteenth century, and here the remorseless logic of the totalitarianism model dictated the simple scheme of oppositions one finds in much of his work. To have recognized the hesitations of Turgenev and others like him as the expression of a genuine liberal dilemma would have been to concede by implication some degree of legitimacy to the aims and motives of the left. Hence the conclusion dictated by the wisdom of hindsight, that Turgenev was a liberal only when he was not a fellow traveler.

The perspective of the totalitarianism school justifies its narrowness by the allegedly sui generis nature of the Soviet system, but these essays show that when applied to prerevolutionary Russia, its analyses are alarmingly shallow and distorted, producing a history cleansed of complexity and gray areas, whose polarized systems of oppositions resemble the Marxist schemas that Schapiro so greatly detested.

Fortunately, Schapiro was incapable of consistently following this approach. The same ambivalence that drew him equally to such opposing human types as Chicherin and Turgenev frequently resulted in judgments incompatible with the “totalitarianism” position. As the leading “revisionist” Stephen Cohen recently remarked, while Schapiro set out in The Origins of the Communist Autocracy to demonstrate that the Soviet government was a monolithic regime, “his work actually shows that this was not the case.”7 The same is true of the essays in this book, in which Schapiro’s sympathetic and penetrating analyses of character and motivation frequently refute his own generalizations. His articles on Lenin and Plekhanov are two such examples. But the most remarkable instance is his review of Cohen’s book on Bukharin, whose publication in 1974 was a major contribution to the revisionist approach, arguing that the New Economic Policy (whose main architect was Bukharin) was not a tactical deviation from a predetermined path but a long-term strategy aimed at countering the effects of a premature seizure of power and bringing the peasantry to socialism through incentives and persuasion; that the brutal termination of the NEP by Stalin was neither “necessary” nor “inevitable”; and that (as shown by events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and by demands for the “rehabilitation” of Bukharin by members of European Communist parties) the “Bukharinist” tradition continues to offer an alternative to Stalinism within European communism.

Schapiro welcomed Cohen’s “magnificent” book, above all as a rebuttal of those “communisant” intellectuals (he has E.H. Carr principally in his sights) who argue that Stalin’s policy was realistic and necessary. He himself, from a very different standpoint, had frequently insisted on the necessity of Stalinism as the logical outcome of Leninism—and he would continue to do so; but here he agrees that Lenin in his last years developed a vision of socialism that was more ethical, conciliatory, and evolutionary, and he insists that Stalin’s victory came from a number of contingent factors: his personal ruthlessness and mastery of the Party apparatus, and his appeal to the most degenerate and corrupt aspect of the Party—its self-seeking urge for power. In contrast, Schapiro points out, Bukharin, the principal theorist of Bolshevism in the early 1920s, although no democrat, expressed fears that a party enjoying a monopoly of power might become dangerously corrupt. Bukharin believed that socialism should be built on harmony and reconciliation, Schapiro wrote, and he should command our “respect and admiration” for his innumerable humanitarian acts and for the part he played in creating a relatively free and varied Marxist culture that survived until the 1930s.

In his survey of the controversy between the two dominant approaches to Soviet history, Stephen Cohen blames the cold war origins of Sovietology for the fact that many Sovietologists, far from being enamored, of their chosen discipline, “seemed to dislike or hate it.”8 Schapiro’s essay on Cohen’s book shows how far in spirit he was from the tendency with which he has been identified. One of his most attractive qualities was his ability to respond with generosity and warmth to people with whose ideas he deeply disagreed. This capacity to distinguish between views he detested and the people who held them injected a note of hopefulness into his attitude to the Soviet scene, which was at sharp variance with his more deterministic prognostications. Schapiro’s response to Bukharin’s humanity and decency led him to a heretical conclusion in his review of Cohen’s book. Agreeing with the author that Bukharin offers the only alternative to Stalinism and various forms of violent revolution—“a sort of post-revolutionary revisionism”—he concludes: “The rehabilitation of Bukharin may come—and who can tell? If it ever does it will be a sure sign that real and substantial changes have taken place in the essential nature of the Soviet system of rule.”

Thirteen years later, such changes seem less unlikely: if they do come, they will make the weaknesses and limitations in Schapiro’s historical thinking more evident, but they will also justify its essential—if thoroughly inconsistent—hopefulness.

This Issue

September 24, 1987