Reading Sheila Fitzpatrick's "What's Left?" (a multi-review written for the London Review of Books) was an unexpectedly interesting -- indeed, almost gratifying -- experience, partly because she is a subtle writer, partly because of the books she discusses, and partly for what she says about them and their subject matter.
2017 is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the books Fitzpatrick reviews are about it: as you might imagine, there is no dearth of writers intent on cashing in, while displaying their courage denouncing those once-again hated Russkies. To put it bluntly, I expected the wordier title "A non-Marxist Historian Reviews 5 anti-Marxist Books" would have fit her essay better.
I was wrong… kinda.
I was right about Fitzpatrick being a non-Marxist: intent on avoiding wrong impressions, she makes that clear from the start. She, however, is not an anti-Marxist. The non- versus anti- distinction, it turns out, is crucial, and you'll see why soon.
So far, my score was perfect.
Fitzpatrick reviews "October", by China Miéville, "The Russian Revolution 1905-1921", by M.D. Steinberg, "Russia in Revolution", by S.A. Smith, "The Russian Revolution", by S. McMeekin; and "Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution", edited by something named Tony Brenton.
Fitzpatrick's review of Miéville's "October" surprised me: far from being an anti-Marxist diatribe, "October" takes a sympathetic view of the Russian Revolution.
But there's more. As if to give it pride of place, Fitzpatrick starts with "October" and, on top, writes rather nice things about it. She is not alone on that, but that she broadly coincided with Corey Robin's unambiguously enthusiastic review, for instance, was unexpected.
I was definitely wrong. Strike two.
But one might discount all that on the grounds that the revered LRB would have looked like The Guardian if the only books Fitzpatrick discussed approached the Russian Revolution in the same let's-crucify-Corbyn spirit exhibited by the venomous Jonathan Freedland or the repulsive Nick Cohen. Fitzpatrick was aware of it: maybe that brought out the contrarian in her.
Besides, "October" does not escape some subtly ironic comments from Fitzpatrick.
The Russian Revolution was cause of excited historical arguments during the Cold War, Fitzpatrick reminds us. Although by nature not "a revolutionary enthusiast", her choice in that debate was to remain "above the political battle". Free from the need to arrive at preordained conclusions, Fitzpatrick found that, whatever its failings, the Revolution had "also many achievements in the realm of economic and cultural modernisation, notably state-sponsored rapid industrialisation in the 1930s".
The four historians she reviews chose differently. They had to reach, by hook or by crook, the most damning verdict to justify their "free-market triumphalism": accomplishments had to be denied or ignored, argumentative consistency be damned. In that scenario to deny that the revolutionary triumph was inevitable (as allegedly claimed by Marxists) while claiming that the Revolution would inevitably degenerate into Stalinism isn't too great a price to pay. Historical contingency is a one-way street: the Revolution succeeded by accident and achieved nothing; no favourable circumstances would have avoided Stalinism.
As a Marxist, upon reading that I couldn't help feeling a sensation of déjà vu: the inevitability thing Fitzpatrick writes about is the determinism non-historian critics of Marxism claim to no end plagues Marxism, while at the same time warning that Marxism will lead inevitably (or deterministically) to totalitarianism.
You can indulge any masochist inclinations by other means. The same crap is available over the internet, for free and in more condensed form. Try DeLong's blog, the Mises Institute, or Stormfront: pretty much the same.
Read, instead, "October: The Story of the Russian Revolution" by China Miéville: it has had many good reviews, it may surprise you, it costs £18.99 and its Kindle edition is even cheaper.
At this point the more conscientious reader may ask: shouldn't one consider arguments contradicting one's preconceptions?
In theory, yes, of course. However, Fitzpatrick teaches us another extremely important thing:
"But [right-wing historian Richard] Pipes saw them [less ideologically committed historians, like Fitzpatrick] as, in effect, Soviet stooges, and was so contemptuous of their work that, in defiance of scholarly convention, he refused even to acknowledge its existence in his bibliography."If