Stephen Kotkin simply doesn’t get it

The further I dig into Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin, the more exasperated I become. Four further points, to add to earlier observations (here and here).

1. He is unable to control the material, so that at times you gain the impression that he is simply trying to write a history of the Russian Revolution – and a bad one at that. It is somewhat weird to find that the subject of a biography makes occasional cameo appearances, almost as though Kotkin thought in the copy-editing stage, ‘oh bugger, must mention Stalin’.

2. Kotkin’s approach is clearly one of the ‘great men of history’. The conditions under which they arise may be somewhat important, but ultimately the ‘great men’ bend history by sheer force of personal will. Thus, the various socialist parties in Russia can be characterised in terms of their leaders: Yuli Martov for the Mensheviks, Victor Chernov for the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, Maria Spiridonova for the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, even Lev Kamenev in light of his efforts to form a coalition of socialist parties in government. None had the ‘fanatical commitment’ of Lenin, his ‘deranged’ and ‘maniacal’ will to dictatorial power.

The implications for the whole study are significant and far-ranging. Apart from the consistent caricatures, I would add Kotkin’s curious liking for counter-factual speculation (if such-and-such had done this, then …), and the suggestions that there really was no ‘counter-revolution’ (which is always in scare quotes), that the civil war resulted from mistakes in dealing with the Czechoslovak Legion, indeed that the enemies of the revolution were largely the result of Bolshevik imagination, especially Lenin’s. As for classes, of the socio-economic variety, they were simply creations of the Bolsheviks (Sheila Fitzpatrick’s worst argument shows its influence here). Oh yes, Lenin was clearly in the pay of the Germans, whom he constantly favoured right to the end of the First World War.

3. All of this means that Kotkin simply doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand even the basics of Marxism, the dynamics of parties and classes, of subjective and objective factors in revolutions, of economic and extra-economic compulsion in constructing a new system. I am not quite sure whether he can’t (the typical flatness of some historians) or doesn’t want to understand, since he is inescapably tied to a liberal agenda concerning the prime role of the individual leader in history.

4. At the same time, one can occasionally glean a different perspective from the data. Kotkin does show how Russia was rushing towards a collapsed state (although he mistakenly blames the Bolsheviks for such collapse). That they managed to re-found the state, albeit in very different form, makes little sense to Kotkin, except that it was ‘beyond fantastic’ (229). He simply cannot consider that it may have been the result of their tenacity and not a little ability.

Stalin joke 02


2 thoughts on “Stephen Kotkin simply doesn’t get it

  1. Actually, it appears one of the key sources of methodological inspiration of Kotkin (at least in his earlier books) is the work of Michel Foucault (especially his idea of subjectivity). Can’t say I have studied the man’s work in any detail, but from its application to the entirely different subject of archaeology I’ve come to greatly loathe the use of Foucault by others. It always appears to involve someone adopting a sort of intellectually superior pose and use the evidence available (in this case early states) in really strange ways.

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