The scholar advocate: Rudolf Schlesinger's writings on Marxism and Soviet historiography

McKendry, Stephanie J (2008) The scholar advocate: Rudolf Schlesinger's writings on Marxism and Soviet historiography. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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As a notable academic, Marxist writer and one-time political activist, an extensive critique of Rudolf Schlesinger’s writings is long overdue. Raised in the revolutionary atmosphere of early twentieth century Austria, Schlesinger soon became embroiled in central European communism, taking on full-time work for the German Communist Party in Berlin, Prague and Moscow. He left the Soviet Union during the purges, having been described as ‘alien to the party’, and made his way to the UK where he fostered a reputation as an informed and prolific scholar.

This investigation is not intended to be a biography of Schlesinger, but rather an ‘intellectual biography’, an examination of his monographs, papers, drafts and memoir reflections. This allows for an appreciation of his academic contribution and an understanding of his unique personal motivation and perspective. Given his experiences, as well as the cultural, political and ideological paradigm from which he emerged, this analysis provides insights into Marxist theory, the labour movement, the Soviet Union and German communism. It also throws light upon the intellectual climate in the West during the cold war, providing a historiographical snapshot of academic Soviet studies, particularly in the UK.

The thesis is divided into two sections, with each exploring a different aspect of Schlesinger’s writing. The first traces Schlesinger’s theoretical development and education, detailing and analysing the impact of Luxemburg, Lenin, Marx and Engels on his thought and writing. Schlesinger emerges as a Leninist, whose understanding of the dialectical nature of Marxism leads him to seek the next stage in its development, since Lenin’s revolutionary successes forever altered the socio-economic landscape and thus fated his theories to obsolescence. An examination of Schlesinger’s attitude towards Stalin as a Marxist theorist illuminates his pragmatic stance regarding the Soviet leader. Whilst Stalin’s rule had a considerable human cost and a deleterious impact upon Marxist theory, to Schlesinger, his leadership was necessary to further the existence of the Soviet state, the sole manifestation of the great social democratic experiment.

The second section focuses on Schlesinger’s writings concerning Soviet historiography. It is possible to discern changes in tone, emphasis and argument in his work on this subject. A dichotomy emerges between Schlesinger’s positive portrayal of historiographical developments in the Soviet Union in papers written before Stalin’s death and his retrospective condemnation of these events after 1953. This latter attitude chimes with his personal memoir reflections of life as an intellectual in Stalin’s Russia, in which he described a highly controlled, academically stagnant society; yet it contrasts starkly with his earlier position. It is also possible to detect parallels between Schlesinger’s changing emphasis and the dynamics of official Soviet attitudes. An explanation is required if Schlesinger is not to be dismissed as inconsistent or polemical.

It is argued that Schlesinger can be accurately described as a ‘scholar advocate’, both in terms of a defender of the Soviet experiment and a proponent of Marxism and social democracy. This characterisation allows for an understanding of Schlesinger’s changing stance and motivations and explains his apparent inconsistency. Schlesinger was loyal to Marxism in general, but not to the fluctuating dictates of the Russian party. He was not a polemicist or propagandist but instead sought to stay loyal to wider Marxist ideals and methodology. For Schlesinger, his pragmatism ensured that he did not judge events in Russia from the rose-tinted spectacles of utopianism; his attitude was not swayed by single events, however tragic, and he was aware both of the utility and the transient nature of Stalin’s rule. This helps to explain his positive attitude.

In addition, Schlesinger was keen to defend Marxism and the Soviet Union against what he perceived as unfair criticism; he sought to counter myths and misunderstandings propagated by disillusioned supporters and opponents. Schlesinger consciously attempted to combat what he saw, and many academics have recognised, as the cold war bias of a section of Western comment and scholarship. This may, perhaps, have led Schlesinger to paint too optimistic a picture of the Soviet Union, but his work is a useful and necessary counterbalance to other literature. Schlesinger was no propagandist, and recognition of his unique and conscious motivation allows for a full appreciation of his rich and varied writings.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Rudolf Schlesinger, Soviet historiography, Soviet Marxism, Soviet studies
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DD Germany
D History General and Old World > DK Russia. Soviet Union. Former Soviet Republics
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Modern Languages and Cultures > Slavonic Studies
Supervisor's Name: White, Prof James D
Date of Award: 2008
Depositing User: Miss Stephanie Mckendry
Unique ID: glathesis:2008-73
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 Feb 2008
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:15

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