Just two weeks ago, August the 13th 2010, saw the death of famous socialist historian Moshe Lewin in Paris. Lewin was particularly known for his works on the history of the Soviet Union, specifically his relatively recent classic The Soviet Century, which earned him a wide readership. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union was not the country of his birth. Lewin’s life itself was a representation of the vagaries of 20th century history: born in Wilno when this city was still a regional center in Poland (it is now as Vilnius the capital of Lithuania), he fled the invading armies of Nazi Germany to the USSR in 1941. Adopting the ‘bulwark of socialism’ as his new fatherland, he joined the Red Army and attended its officer training school, serving in the last years of the war that was more destructive than any in history and more in the USSR than anywhere else. Possibly the experiences of this destruction as well as the Stalin government, which he from the start seems to have disliked, caused him to attempt building up yet another life in Israel after the war. Lewin left Israel during the period of its first structural turn towards militarism and fascism, in the 1960s, to move to France to finally receive some formal higher education.
Between 1965 and 1966 Lewin served as historian at the EPHE in Paris after having earned his PhD in a historical study of Stalin’s collectivization, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization. It was planned to be a larger social study of the socio-economic backgrounds of Stalin’s rule and industrialization policies, but was limited to a study of collectivization specifically, possibly due to time constraints or the risk of duplication of Carr and Davies’ works. From this work on, the general tendency of his historical work would be quite clearly delineated. He opposed Stalin and his rule as a tyrannical and ruthless implementation of nonetheless basic socialist principles; where Lenin had set out the correct path, he had, according to Lewin, also allowed a much greater degree of internal democracy and input from below. Nonetheless, he was in the context of the Cold War considered to be among the leading ‘revisionist’ historians, by which is meant those historians working in the Anglo world (Lewin worked in Birmingham as well as Philadelphia) who were not political hirelings of their respective governments in propagandizing against the USSR only, but to show in a more balanced manner the benefits and downsides of the road that was followed by the successive Soviet leaders. The interesting fact is that the socialist nature of the Soviet state, its fundamental basis in the ideas of Marx and Engels as much as Lenin, does not seem to have been doubted by either the ‘totalitarian’ school of anti-Soviet professors nor by Lewin c.s.
Both The Soviet Century and Lenin’s Last Struggle followed this line. As mentioned, the general tenor was to approve of Stalin’s economic policies as rooted in Lenin’s principles (although Lewin maintained sympathy also for the N.E.P. course), but to disapprove of him personally, his repression of great groups of people, and the colleagues he gathered around him. But Lewin also maintained the central importance of socialism to Soviet practice and defended the ideas he saw alive in the USSR, if by no means always their practical implementation. This made him sympathetic to ‘what if’ figures that are popular as people who, in alternative historical timelines, might have created a socialism with a more human face than that of Stalin and his successors in the USSR. Lewin was not a ‘Trotskyist’, a nebulous political category in any case, and did not particularly see Trotsky in this role. Rather, he seemed to empathize with Stephen Cohen’s suggestion of Bukharin as the man representing the ‘other road’. Whether this makes much historical sense can be doubted, given Bukharin’s lack of political and administrative skills and his favoring of much more NEPist policies than the Soviet Union needed for its development, as Robert C. Allen has emphasized in his work Farm to Factory. But his wishful thinking on this front does represent a real belief in socialism, and his responses to the Cold Warrior historians were deservedly scathing because of this. He called Solzhenitsyn “politically inept”(1), something few others have been willing to acknowledge, and was one of the first historians to point to the exaggerated nature of some estimates of the victims of Stalinist repression.
None of this made him an outright apologist or nationalist for the USSR, a country he had lived in only a number of years. But it made him a steadfast historian who introduced the new historical methods in the study of the Soviet Union, bringing this subject into a more objective ‘normality’, which certainly the least two decades has led to a great outpouring of excellent works of serious research into Soviet social and cultural history. This and his excellent writing style, which made him one of the first popular historians of the USSR not part of the ‘totalitarian school’, are his enduring legacies.
1) Neal Ascherson, “The brothers grim”. The Observer (March 6, 2005).