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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.4 (2004) 675-708

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Socialism as Will and Representation, or What Legacy Are We Rejecting?

Dept. of Russian and Slavonic Studies
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom
Translated by Jesse Savage and Gust Olson

Contemporary Russian studies (in the West and in post-Soviet Russia) resemble an overloaded hot air balloon, weighed down over the decades with ideological cobblestones so that it can hardly break free of the ground. Historians, political scientists, sociologists, and cultural and literary scholars have mostly recognized that we need to take a second look at the ideological ballast of this "cultural legacy." I admit when I read the title of David Hoffmann's article, I thought that I was dealing with just such a second look at one of the "sacred cows": Nicholas Timasheff's theory of the "Great Retreat." Hoffmann marshals the arguments of the latter in some detail, freeing me from repeating Timasheff's classic invective against Stalinism, which he saw as a de facto return to the ideology and practice of prerevolutionary Russia.

Hoffmann contends that the Stalinist leadership never declared a retreat from socialism; that the construction of the New Soviet Person continued in the USSR; that a fully socialist economy was established there; that Stalin adhered to socialist ideology, struggled for socialism, and so on. In response, one could argue that Hoffmann fails to distinguish between ideology and politics and accepts the leadership's rhetoric at face value. But even a Sovietologist would not be permitted such naïveté. Throughout, Hoffmann overstates the role of ideology (in particular, "Bolshevik ideology") and ignores the fact that for the Bolsheviks, and above all for Stalin, ideology was only a tool. Stalin's fiercest attacks were against "revisionism" and "opportunism," but who would seriously seek anyone in Soviet history more revisionist or opportunistic than Stalin? Hoffmann's quest seems hopelessly romantic. He conscientiously surveys all of Timasheff's "retreats" in the realms of "family construction," the erection of cultural institutions, the affirmation of discipline, and culture as a whole. Hoffmann even disagrees with Timasheff on official patriotism, asserting that "Soviet appeals to patriotism did not necessarily negate socialist ideology" (671). In sum, wherever Timasheff sees [End Page 675] a "retreat," Hoffmann finds a dialectic of socialism and traditionalism. He then concludes with a reflection on why Stalinism was not "true" socialism.

To someone like me, who came of age under perestroika, this whole debate is reminiscent of the late 1980s, while explaining Socialist Realism as "classicism" takes me back even further (almost to Timasheff himself), to the late 1950s and Andrei Siniavskii's hopelessly outdated tract which defined Socialist Realism in just those terms. Only near the end of his article does Hoffmann mention (barely!) that "to explain Stalinism fully, we need to look beyond both socialist ideology and Russian political traditions" (673). Where Hoffmann concludes, I would like to begin.

What Timasheff could not but Hoffmann ought to see is that when we enter the arena of ideology and "socialism," we enter a zone where the value of historical reasoning is limited. This is a political and ideological debate, not one for historians. In a wider sense, it is a continuation of the debate over socialism that defined the political, intellectual, and cultural landscape of the 20th century. The debate is endless and never conclusive: Did socialism ever really exist? Was there a retreat from it? The debate is never framed in terms of the truly basic questions, which Timasheff and Hoffmann likewise fail to pose. Questions about the implementation of the theory—but then, whose theory? There were countless theories, and they mutated over the course of several centuries. Questions about the concrete facts of the "socialist experience"—but then, we need to clarify what was actually "socialist" about these experiences, and what was purely historical or distinctly national and determined by real countries' social needs and political interests...


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