Stephen Whitefield in conversation with David Priestland

Stephen Whitefield: David, I really look forward to our conversation about October 1917 in Russia and its contemporary significance, which I am certain will be of great interest to all readers of Perspectives. You have written extensively about Soviet history and then, essentially, on modern world history. I remember long and fascinating discussions with you about all your work. Starting with your thesis and first book about Stalinism in the 1930s – Stalinism and the Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-War Russia (2007) – I was struck by how important it was to you to understand Stalinism by taking its often contradictory ideological claims and justifications seriously. You then moved on to write a comparative history of the communist movement – The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) – and from there to write another very broad comparative book – Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (2012) – about the ways in which these “castes”, as you call them, configure political alliances with each configuration containing contradictions which lead eventually to its collapse. You are now, I think, working on a book about the history of neo-liberalism. So, let me start by asking what, if anything, unites this body of work? Is it perhaps an underlying commitment to the importance of ideas and ideologies in shaping political arrangements? And do you face a lot of opposition to that perspective from other historians or from social scientists?

David Priestland: I too look forward to the conversation, and it’s good to have the opportunity to discuss the significance of 1917 in greater length than has been common in the media. Yes, as you say, how have ideological systems, very broadly defined, been understood by people who were not political theorists or even that interested in political ideas? When it comes to communism, polarised positions have often developed – communists have either been seen as cynics and pragmatists, or “true believers” whose dogmatic imposition of Marxist-Leninist ideas led to the Gulag. However, in my book on Stalinism in the 1930s, I tried to show how an apparently monolithic Marxism-Leninism included different views of how authority was to be exercised, and what sort of officials were to be in control, and especially one that emphasised mass mobilisation, and another that championed a more elitist, technocratic vision. I also argued that the Stalinist Terror of 1936–38 can be better understood in the context of conflicts between these two ideological positions.


This book was largely concerned with communist elites, but my next book, on global communism, tried to show how communist ideas affected a much broader range of people, and that forced me to examine how communism was related to other political ideas, such as nationalism and “neo-traditional” paternalistic views of politics. The project also encouraged me to think about how communist ideas were received among different social groups in very diverse societies across the world – from German intellectuals to Chinese peasants – and I became interested in combining the history of ideas with more sociological and ethnographic approaches. That was what led me to write an extended historical essay on social groups and “ethoses”, Merchant, Soldier, Sage – using the word “caste” in the way it was used by ancient thinkers to refer to social groups with their own moral systems and ways of life, or “dharmas” (as opposed to the way it is used in India today, to mean exclusive hereditary groups arranged hierarchically). So yes, I’d agree that all of the books are linked by an interest in the role of ideas in politics, and the need to examine the varieties and contradictions of ideological systems. But I have become more interested in how these ideas interact with other social and cultural forces in history, and today.

As to the reception of my work: I haven’t actually had much hostility from either academic or non-specialist critics. I had a couple of negative reviews of The Red Flag in the press from a Cold War liberal, anti-communist perspective when the book came out in 2009, but I think the ways I’ve tried to place communism in a historical context, hopefully avoiding Cold War polemics, have become more acceptable over time, and the book has been more widely read and translated than my other books. I was anxious about Merchant, Soldier, Sage, because it was much bolder in making generalisations than is the norm for a book of history, but the academics who reviewed it were generally positive. However, I suspect that the book’s interdisciplinary approach appeals to some more than others – I see myself as a historian of ideas, but I am not producing detailed analyses of political thinkers as many intellectual historians do; and I am more of a cultural historian than a social historian using social science methodologies, though I suspect many cultural historians would think I had an excessively social scientific liking for abstraction and generalisation.

SW: Well, can I ask how you might apply your arguments about the role of ideas and ideology to the October Revolution? There is an aspect of this question which perhaps you might clarify at the start. My understanding of your position is that we might be better off thinking about intellectual currents rather than individual commitments. What I mean by that is that “leading thinkers” of the Revolution have a variety of more or less coherent ways to explain why, for whom and how the Revolution was produced and would develop, all plausibly Marxist, but that they couldn’t coherently hold all positions at the same time. In that frame, we can perhaps make a bit more sense of how Lenin could be someone who thought the state could be abolished and administration taken in turn, and in short order someone who thought that experts and a long period of development were necessary. As I understand your position, you think that these apparently contradictory positions were evident for most of the Soviet period, regularly surfacing but never resolved. A bit like the seemingly endless reconfigurations of Merchant, Soldier and Sage. Some might think of these about-turns in Lenin’s stances – and many others – as appropriate expedience and flexibility over tactics to reach an agreed goal, others that it is evidence just of opportunism and that the ideology was actually of no meaning. How do you think about the role of Marxist ideology in the Revolution and indeed throughout the Soviet period given these apparent contradictions?

DP: The Russian Revolution, like all major social revolutions, involved a challenge to state and other forms of authority staged by a coalition of opponents, and following that a struggle between the revolutionariesto reconstitute a new state and social hierarchies. As much of the recent scholarship on 1917 shows, the “Russian Revolution” was made up of multiple revolutions across the Russian empire, including peasant revolts against landlords, often inspired by anarchistic ideas of local autonomy, and nationalist rebellions of ethnic minorities against imperial rule – as well as the urban revolution that comes to mind when we think of “1917”. And in the cities, too, we can see a whole range of revolutionary movements and ideas – from vanguardist Marxism to radical feminism, from cultural avant-gardism to worker council participatory democracy. Some of those different strains survived for a time within Bolshevism – one of the most radical Marxist groups – but over time, as the Bolsheviks fought the civil war and built their new state, Bolshevism narrowed and became more authoritarian, and radicals were marginalised. Even so, I have argued that we need to avoid common assumptions that Marxism-Leninism was monolithic, or that we can see it as either a programme of egalitarian modernisation as used to be popular, or as a utopian totalitarian project that would inevitably result in terror, as is more normal now. Rather there were always tensions within the ideology, and one of the main divisions was over the question – how can economic developmental goals be achieved, while at the same time fulfilling the socially egalitarian promises of the revolution?


As you say, Bolsheviks could find rather different answers to those questions within Marx’s very ambiguous ideological legacy – including a revolutionary challenge to social hierarchies and inequalities, as well as visions of a scientifically planned economy, which implied some form of technocratic hierarchy. And as I argue, it is possible to identify a very limited number of strategies, which were repeatedly tried in various forms in the history of communism. Among the most historically significant were: a technocratic one, with expert elites in control, which promised a solution to economic underdevelopment; one based on revolutionary mass mobilisation, which could be justified according to a more radical Marxist vision and which appealed to the “experts” in political mobilisation – the party officials and “activists”; and finally a “pragmatic” one, in which elements of the market were tolerated as a way of overcoming the problems of state centralisation and planning, and was popular among peasants and some technocratic interests. We can find all three strategies in Lenin’s own thinking in and after 1917, though broadly speaking we can say he moved from a more radical mobilising one, to a more technocratic, statist one during the civil war, towards a pragmatic one at the end of his life (seen in his New Economic Policy of 1921). And these strategies survived the Leninist period not only because they could be justified ideologically, but because each offered different, but incomplete and flawed, solutions to the problems facing Bolshevik regimes.

Each strategy was also advocated by particular interests, and as you say, in some ways this looks like the Merchant, Soldier, Sage model of history – that is a series of struggles between different ideological visions, each associated with particular social groups and their cultures or ethoses. Though I would argue that Soviet systems empower a limited set of groups and ethoses – and specifically two forms of “sage”, the expert technocrat, and the mobilising party official; each absorbed some elements of a “worker” collectivist culture, but probably rather more aspects of a “soldier” culture, including military-style mobilisation and more conventional military hierarchies. And of course, in some communist systems, including the USSR, militaries themselves had a great deal of political and economic, as well as cultural influence.

SW: I read your long and very positive review in the Financial Times recently of Yuri Slezkine’s book House of Government, in which he portrays the Bolsheviks as a kind of millenarian sect inspired by a belief that “full Communism” really would be the fruit of the Revolution – and that the viciousness of Communist rule was the result both of a sense of justification to take harsh action in pursuit of this goal, but also a kind of response to the difficulties in explaining to themselves why Communism was failing to materialise. It must be because of enemies within and without. The issue is important to my mind because if the Communist movement is just a sort of weird form of millenarianism, in which a country – Russia – is captured in a moment of state collapse and war by a gang of violent extremists who used force to hold power for generations, we can hardly find much in retrospect to inspire in it. The Communist movement rather seems like some odd late 19th Century cult. But you seem to take a much more multifaceted view of the Revolution and its aftermath. So, what would you say are the contemporary resonances of October 1917 that make thinking about it interesting today?

DP: Yes, the book, which is a study of a group of second-tier Bolshevik officials who lived in a large famous apartment block near the Kremlin, “The House of Government”, is the most persuasive defence I have read of the view that the Bolsheviks can be compared to a millenarian sect inspired by apocalyptic traditions in the Abrahamic religions – that is they believed that the communist utopia was about to arrive, and they were engaged in the violent, apocalyptic struggle with the forces of evil which would inevitably precede it. However, as I argued in the review, while I am happy to accept that there are important Christian millenarian aspects to the language and even thinking of some Bolsheviks in some periods – which Slezkine identifies very interestingly – I do not agree that we can see the Bolshevik party as essentially, or even primarily, a millenarian sect. There are many other elements to Bolshevism – I would stress the commitment to a rather technocratic vision of modernity, as well as to much more conventional socialist ideas of equality. And while periods like the Terror did see the use of millenarian language to justify the persecution of “enemies of the people”, these episodes, while destructive, were short-lived. Another issue that needs to explained by defenders of the “millenarian” thesis, is why we see a similar form of good versus evil “class struggle” in episodes such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which do not have obvious roots in Abrahamic religions. A convincing use of the model would need to explain these cases too.


The “millenarianism” or “political religion” argument was popular among some Cold War critics of communism to discredit the Bolsheviks as an irrational or fanatical movement (which, to be fair to him, Slezkine does not do); and this was used to counter the argument among some on the left that 1917 was an inspiring story of rational modernisation. My view is that neither position helps us understand the Bolsheviks: they were neither crazy fanatics, nor rational pragmatists, but were operating within a particular ideological context. But if we take this careful contextual view and avoid politicised judgements about the Bolsheviks’ “rationality” and “irrationality”, why, as you rightly ask, should we be interested in 1917 today at all? Is it just of interest to historians? I’d have a couple of responses to that. Firstly, it’s crucial to understand what 1917 was and how it was interpreted if we are to understand the history of the twentieth century. If we accept simple interpretations devoid of context – whether that Bolshevism was a fanatical movement which duped millions, or indeed a virtuous movement that was betrayed by a few leaders or destroyed by American imperialism – it is difficult to understand the many strands of the tradition of 1917, and why they appealed to so many different people and social groups. And secondly, thinking about 1917 can help us to understand the thinking of radicals, as well as the problems facing any social reformers, in the poorer parts of the world. It’s often difficult for us in the West to understand the appeal of 1917, because it had greatest resonance in agrarian societies that were not only economically unequal but highly stratified culturally. For many on the left in the 20th century, these systems, dominated by landowning or military elites, could only be changed through radical, even violent action. Today, some of the sharpest of those inequalities have gone – sometimes as a result of communist rule, as is the case with the expropriation of land and its distribution to peasants. But sharp and entrenched inequalities remain in much of the world, and that fuels anger and calls for radical change – even if that social discontent often provides more fuel for radical right than radical left movements, most notably in the Middle East.

SW: I wonder if that gets the whole picture. There are probably lots of reasons why there is interest in the UK in October 1917 and much of it is likely fatuous. Anything 100 years on seems to provoke a flurry of articles. Perhaps the Revolution has become so anodised by the collapse of the Soviet Union that it can now be dealt with as pure nostalgia. But could there be more to its contemporary resonances than that? I don’t mean that Marxism is resurgent – am I wrong? But rather that we see more in 1917 than an uprising in a pre-modern agrarian society. Other parallels may be more striking. I think about Theda Skocpol’s work on states and revolutions. In Russia, there was a state that was so captured by powerful interests that it had no capacity or autonomy to act even in the ruling class’s longer term interests. It arguably failed to deal with issues of social mobility leaving many of its most educated and capable citizens entirely alienated from government and authority, and angry. Persistent failures to reform interacted with other crises – especially war of course. For Skocpol, it wasn’t so much the agrarian character of Russian society that explained its revolution, as the failure of the state to deal with the tidal wave of demands – in particular the international challenges – that Russia faced. Is this perhaps not more why October 1917 is of contemporary interest? Not just nostalgia but a sense now not yet of revolutionary possibilities but of a weak and failing social and political order unable to deal with the most obvious social problems? Into which vacuum who knows who might walk, especially given the failure and collapse of neo-liberalism in the aftermath of the Crash?

DP: Yes, I would agree that 1917 has become much more of an inspiration for the radical left in the West than it has been for some time – arguably since the 1970s. A good example is the writer China Mieville’s sympathetic account of the revolution which has had a good reception from many critics and is selling well, something I doubt would have happened ten years ago. And a rather more politically neutral, contextualised account of the legacy of 1917 I wrote for the New York Times this year did not get the Cold War anti-communist response The Red Flag got from some quarters – except from the popular right-wing shock-jock conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones.


But I think we need to ask what this interest in 1917 means – what is it about 1917 that is valued? And do the understandings of “1917” that inspired the left in much of the twentieth century explain the interest today? Anger at the domination of the state and the economy by elites who seem to be wedded to a failed, selfish neo-liberalism is a crucial element, and as you say there are certainly resonances today, especially in the United States, where so many aspects of political life, including the electoral process, have been corrupted by corporate money. But looking back at the history of communism, I’m sceptical that this is enough for a revival of 1917-style leftist politics. I mentioned agrarian societies not because I think peasants are essential participants in revolutions, but because these societies had an important precondition of radical left-wing politics – the convergence of cultural alienation between elites and the mass of the population, and socio-economic conflict. Pre-industrial, agrarian societies, often run by landed aristocracies, were not only unequal in socio-economic terms, but had very sharp cultural divisions between elites and ordinary people – they lived in very different ways, and even sometimes spoke different languages. So when Russian revolutionaries tried to mobilise ordinary people against the “bourgeois” (“burzhui”), they could combine socio-economic resentment with a sense of cultural alienation. So the common distinction made in the contemporary debate between something called “identity politics” and some “purer” form of Marxist socio-economic left-wing politics, is unhelpful. The revolutionaries of 1917 benefited from the merging of the “socio-economic” with the cultural, and this also helps to explain the power of “1917” in the colonial and post-colonial global South after World War II, where they could exploit a huge cultural distance between ordinary people and foreign or collaborating elites.

If we contrast these situations with the West today, it is much more difficult for a radical left to link socio-economic with cultural divisions in society, because other forms of identity compete with class identity. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011–12 did try to do that, by mobilising a “99%” against a plutocratic “1%”, but cultural divisions often cut across socio-economic conflicts, because of the importance of educational, ethnic, generational and other differences. So debt-laden university-educated groups may feel culturally alienated from the blingy plutocratic elite embodied by Trump and Putin, but do they believe that the T-shirt-wearing Mark Zuckerberg – in many ways a more powerful plutocrat – is equally worthy of their hostility? And poorly paid blue-collar British workers may not have much in common socio-economically with the tweed-wearing stockbroker Nigel Farage, but they can unite along culturally nationalist lines against an educated cosmopolitan elite.

I am not saying that it’s impossible to create alliances of groups disadvantaged by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic issues, mobilising them against economic elites behind a programme of equality, and that is something the left clearly has to do if it is going to succeed politically. Nor am I saying that they cannot use some elements of the very diverse legacy of 1917 to do so. Indeed, the meaning of “1917” has changed over time and can do so again – for instance the shift from the industrial proletarian revolution of Petrograd during World War I to the peasant guerrilla war in China or Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s was a major transformation in the image of communism and the legacy of 1917. But in my view it would take an even greater polarisation of western politics on economic issues than has occurred so far for that to happen. It’s telling, I think, that the most important politically significant movement that still takes the revolutionary legacy of 1917 seriously (as opposed to the legacy of the vanguard party as in China), is the Maoist Naxalite guerrilla insurgency in central India, which is focused around the issue of land rights and the rigid caste divisions that exist in India.

SW: I think I agree with you about how fractures over culture between left and right and their social bases make building political majorities very difficult. But let me ask one final question. Revolutions, and whatever we will call fascist seizures of power, happen in times of crisis and there is perhaps an ever more palpable sense that conventional politics is unable to resolve the most pressing problems facing the world. Another crash and who knows what kinds of alliances will emerge. Now, we clearly see some countries in which an alliance of conservative, xenophobic and illiberal forces that present some elements of pro-working class welfarism – often emphasising traditional family gender roles to be sure – against the failures of cosmopolitan neo-liberalism have won power and even absolute majorities. I think about Hungary and to a lesser degree Poland. Bannon-style Trumpism is a similar project perhaps. Even Theresa May gestured at that agenda in her Downing Street and other speeches, though has done nothing beyond her inconsistent rhetoric. Yet, there are significant political opportunities in that political space that I fear. On the left, to state the obvious, we have Corbyn and Sanders, in many countries Green parties, parties of the left in Southern Europe – and in Scotland of course, the Democratic Left. These attempt to build majorities for left, liberal, generally internationalist (even if anti-EU and against aspects of globalisation), and environmentalist policies. One difference between 1917 and now is that, to my mind, the left has almost everywhere fully embraced democracy and liberalism. The old mainstream of centre-left and centre-right is in retreat in many places, though I would not say it is yet finished. But politics may be simplifying and polarising. It is often more angry. So in the likely battles to come, when the current order actually has to change – as I suppose I think it does – which way will the world turn? Or I am just revealing my own millenarian tendencies?

DP: I agree that the period we live in is deeply worrying, and it is difficult to imagine a good way out of this, because we are not only living through an economic crisis, the loss of faith in a dominant ideology – market liberalism – we are also without any coherent and practical alternatives to the current unstable system. For any attempt to resolve the environmental problems that plague us, or to achieve a degree of national and international equality requires international co-ordination and social compromises that are very difficult to achieve, especially at a time of low growth. And that ideological vacuum brings a crisis of confidence among politicians, experts and elites more generally, which in turn fuels mistrust of governments, and leads to simple solutions which claim to protect people against further declines In their economic or status position, from nostalgic nationalism to the magical neo-liberalism of some of the Brexiters or American Republicans (more deregulation will make people work harder and revive the country).


Of course, these ideological and economic crises happen regularly in history – the last was in the 1970s – and many at the time were deeply pessimistic. But this seems to me to be a worse situation than that – at least there were neo-liberal alternatives, for good or ill. The 1930s parallel is closer – then again an international system founded on global finance and liberal ideology collapsed, and the result was sharp political polarisation between left and right. And then, as now, the right was better able to forge alliances than was the left. But it was possible to see a Keynesian alternative, albeit underdeveloped and imperfect. The 1917 example in Europe is less encouraging: the collapse of the old aristocratic and imperial world after World War I led to violent conflict between left and right, which resolved itself in a highly unstable liberal order, and laid the foundations for the crises of the 1930s.

But ultimately compromises of some sort did emerge – even if that happened after destructive conflict – so a historical perspective should not encourage pessimism. I do not think fascism is round the corner, and awareness of the past does change behaviour in a way designed to learn from the past. As you say, the left is much more committed to liberal ideas of democracy than it was in 1917. But one lesson we seem stubbornly unwilling to learn is more relevant to the 1920s and 1930s than to Russia in 1917: that unfettered markets are highly dangerous for economic and political stability, let alone environmental sustainability.

David Priestland is Professor of Modern History and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.  His book, The Red Flag. Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Allen Lane, Penguin Press) combined a comparative approach with a broadly narrative structure, and was shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Prize for the best history book of 2010.  He has subsequently published Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, Penguin) in 2012 and is now working on a book on the history of neo-liberalism.
Stephen Whitefield is Professor of Politics and a Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. His first book, Industrial Power and the Soviet State (Oxford University Press, 1993) won the Ed. A Hewitt prize for the best book on the political economy of Communist and post-Communist systems.  He has more recently published (with Robert Rohrschneider) The Strain of Representation: How Parties Represent Diverse Voters in Western and Eastern Europe (OUP 2012) and is now working on a study of the impact of globalisation in the stances of parties and voters on the left and the right. 

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