Many strange things happen in Russia, but this is one of the more intriguing. Not so long ago, I was told while in Russia that one could not speak of Marxism directly in many circles. Marxism is a dirty word, I was told; indeed, there are no Marxists of any influence. The only way to undertake research on Marxism and find a job in a university was to focus on the various forms of the opposition to Lenin and Stalin.
Something has changed. It began with an invitation from Algoritm Press to write a book on Stalin that would be translated into Russian. Debate is heating up over Stalin’s legacy, with an increasing number of people calling for a reassessment. They also want foreign engagements with this debate. It has also generated works like Oleg Khlevniuk’s new biography of Stalin, which is an alarmed response to these developments.
But it really struck me this year at a couple of conferences, one celebrating 120 years since the death of Engels and the other called, innocuously, the World Cultural Forum. At the first conference, in Nanjing, a number of Russian scholars were present, with their journeys covered by the conference organisers. They spoke mostly of Chinese Marxism, although one chose to speak in Russian since it was ‘the language of Lenin’. However, one of them spoke of socialism as a cultural force, in both the Soviet Union and China, if not worldwide. Afterwards, I said to him, ‘I was told there are no Marxists in Russian any more’. He replied, ‘Well, I am one. She is one. He is one …’.
At the next conference, a few days later in Beijing, the handful of Russian scholars became scores. They had all attended an earlier conference there (which I had missed) called the ‘World Socialist Forum’ – which may be seen as the twenty-first century’s version of the Comintern. Now it became even more interesting. Some of the Russian speakers sought to draw upon and assess positively aspects of the Soviet Union. One spoke of Soviet education, another of Soviet cultural policy, another of Sino-Soviet ties. I dared to speak in front of such an audience (a little nervously) of the philosophical connections between the nationalities policy, affirmative action, anti-colonialism and the redefinition of ‘people’ and state in the Soviet Union. Quite a few came up to me afterwards with appreciative comments. One senior philosopher from the Academy of Sciences even told me that I had managed to identify some of the key philosophical developments he had been studying for 40 years.
So what is going on? I am not quite sure. Partly, it has to do with the recent development of very close ties between Russia and China, thereby negating much of the efforts of NATO and the USA. But it goes well beyond strategic and economic interests. Partly, it has to do with finding common ground between Russia and China, via the Soviet era, although an occasional Russian will assert that the Soviet Union was ‘more advanced’ than China. But I sense much more is under way, with both older scholars who spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union and younger scholars seeking to re-engage. What these developments might actually mean is still unclear to me.