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Response to Review no. 1014

I confess some degree of embarrassment in replying to Mark Smith’s review of my book. Unbeknownst to him (or so I assume), I have recently reviewed his own study of postwar Soviet housing, Property of Communists, for another journal. There I had a far smaller word limit, and so could not explore a number of potentially contentious issues in his book in the way he has done here with mine, but my overall evaluation was that he has produced a first-rate, provocative, and imaginatively constructed piece of historical research. Therefore, before anything else I should like to assure readers that there is no conspiracy between us, nor even the slightest hint of Soviet-style blat (a term we could loosely translate as an exchange of favours). On the contrary, to my great regret I was totally unfamiliar with Dr. Smith’s work prior to receiving a review copy of his book, nor did I have any knowledge that he would be reviewing Hazards of Urban Life. The fact that we appear to hold each other’s work in high regard is a totally aleatoric happenstance.

There is a small number of relatively minor empirical points which I should like to clarify, not so much to ‘set the record straight’, as to use them as a lead-in what I take as the main interpretive difference between us, namely, the utility of using Marxist analysis to understand the history of the Soviet Union and the nature of Soviet society.

Dr. Smith is quite correct to emphasize that hinterland cities, and the home front in general, were badly affected by the war. I only wish to stress that I make this point myself throughout my book, including in the introduction. The methodological reasons for looking at hinterland, as opposed to war-damaged and war-devastated cities and regions, may have only a conditional validity, but they are important nonetheless. Although there is no ‘pure’ urban environment which reveals an equally ‘pure’ essence of the Stalinist system, the distinction between hinterland and war-damaged cities was profound, and it is only through an analysis of the former that we can grasp the extent to which the Soviet urban environment was the specific child of the Stalinist system as a system. We see this all the more clearly if we bear in mind that almost all of the essential characteristics of the early postwar urban environment, and most of the barriers that blocked the efforts of concerned officials who tried to reform it, existed before the war, and were a manifestation of what Trotsky called ‘combined and uneven development’. In this case, they were the product of the specific manner in which Stalinist industrialization absorbed, modified, and in many respects worsened, the state of pre-revolutionary cities and towns, or created brand new urban nightmares when establishing new industrial centres, such as the steel city of Magnitogorsk.

This does not mean, as I think Dr. Smith implies, that I attribute this urban environment and the regime’s failure to reform it as a direct expression of, in his words, ‘the elite going to war against the working class’. Such a ‘war’ did exist, not just against the working class, but against the peasantry as well. In this sense Stalinism was at war with virtually all of Soviet society, but this does not mean that you can reduce every policy, every political and economic decision to it, or that everyone in a position of political power, whether at the base of the system or at its summit, perceived their actions and decisions in these terms. As Smith rightly says, there were many of what he calls ‘”enlightened officials”’: that minority of professionals and bureaucrats based in Moscow and republican capitals who designed the social policies that were grounded in an explicit desire to fulfil the promise of 1917 and pay back the sacrifice of 1941–5. Such officials took seriously the war’s rhetorical re-legitimation of the Soviet project’. One of the recurring themes of my book Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism deals explicitly with this issue (see in particular the Conclusion). There was no shortage of trade union activists, Communist Youth League (Komsomol) inspectors and officials, and professionals within the legal apparatus (including at times the heads of the Procuracy itself), who repeatedly expressed their disapproval and outrage at the way in which the regime or its local plenipotentiaries treated the workers, old and young, for whom they saw themselves responsible. The same is true of the sanitary physicians, clinicians, and other public health officials whose reports provided much of the information for Hazards of Urban Life. The point, however, is that they proved powerless to alter the course of events, not because of the ill-will of Stalin and other top decision-makers (although such ill-will was hardly in short supply), but because of the rigidities and contradictions of the Stalinist system – rigidities and contradictions which derived from the essential class antagonisms at the very root of that system.

This is not so very different from the way all but the most mechanistic of Marxists have tried to analyze capitalist society. Neither the capitalist ruling class nor what Gramsci euphemistically called the ‘subaltern’ classes are homogeneous entities, nor in ‘normal’ times are relations between them clearly polarized. The ‘collaborative’ elements that Dr. Smith sees in some post-war Stalinist social policies (he cites here the example of post-war loans for individual house-building) certainly existed, but my reading of late Stalinism suggests that, unlike post-war Western capitalism, Stalinism largely failed to create a hegemonic ideology through which it could incorporate significant sections of the working class or peasantry. Had it even partially succeeded in this effort there would have been little need for Khrushchev’s ‘de-Stalinization’, the goal of which above all others was to try to restore to the regime the legitimacy of which the late Stalin years had deprived it. Nor was Khrushchev the first to realize the imperative of reform and relaxing the intolerable pressure that it placed upon society, not just within the USSR but also in Eastern Europe. Virtually the instant that Stalin died Malenkov and Beria, his two most prominent henchmen, both of whom had been up to their necks in the repressions of the 1930s, began to vie for the mantel of ‘De-Stalinizer Number One’.(1) The ‘collaborative’ aspects of the system reached their apogee under Brezhnev and Gorbachev, when workers became heavily dependent on the paternalism of their enterprises and their associated trade unions to provide them with housing, pensions, holidays, summer camps for their children, and (most important of all) scarce foodstuffs. Yet such paternalism did nothing to bind workers to the regime, which was universally scorned under Brezhnev and collapsed almost as soon as the Gorbachev government legalized the right to strike in 1989.

Speaking of the early post-war period, Dr. Smith notes that, ‘People cooperated and quarrelled across all kinds of faultlines’. This is absolutely true, and not just of late Stalinism, but of any period in Soviet, or indeed capitalist history. However, this does not change the fact that such quarrels and cooperative efforts all took place, and continue to take place, within the structures of hierarchical, class societies. No matter how fluid the ‘faultlines’ may be, we still face the analytical problem of what drives these societies and what are their characteristic social relations. If, as Dr. Smith laments, a Marxist approach, or at least my specific Marxist approach, cannot account for all of the nuances of inter- and intra-class relationships, we still require an overarching theory that can explain how and why the Soviet/Stalinist system developed the way it did, how its social structure came into being and reproduced itself, and why that system was plagued by permanent crisis and proved ultimately to be non-viable. There are certainly other, non-Marxist, analytical approaches that can try to answer these big questions, but I personally have yet to see one that has adequate explanatory power.

Dr. Smith himself hints in his review that the tendency within Soviet history now is to abjure these ‘big questions.’ If you go to the annual conference of the Association for Slavonic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES, formerly the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies), the largest regular international gathering of Slavic specialists, you can listen to literally dozens of outstanding research papers presented by young scholars, many of whom are still doing their PhD’s. With each passing year we learn more and more about the minute details of Soviet history, yet few people any longer address the larger questions: To what do these details add up? Of what type of system were these phenomena a concrete expression? What larger social forces interacted to create these phenomena? The fact that scholars rarely now pose these questions does not make them irrelevant.

Whether my approach is ‘dated,’ as Dr. Smith suggests, remains to be seen. For while Marxism may have fallen out of fashion both as an analytical method and as a political weapon for combatting the problems of modern capitalism, neither capitalism nor the crises which it generates have disappeared. For many of us, and not just people of my generation, Marxism still provides the most useful framework for understanding the modern world and for working out answers to the biggest question of all: How do we change it and what do we put in its place?


  1. See Robert Service, ‘The road to the Twentieth Party Congress:  an analysis of the events surrounding the Central Committee Plenum of July 1953’, Soviet Studies, April 1981, 232–45; and ‘De-Stalinisation in the USSR before Khrushchev’s secret speech’, and Il XX Congresso del Pcus (Milan, 1988), pp. 287–310.Back to (1)