;


Where Sovietologists Went Wrong

Historians/History




Mr. Pipes is Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard University.

An excerpt from Richard Pipes's VIXI: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, which was recently published by Yale University Press:

VIXI: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, by Richard Pipes - Yale University PressTo understand the attitudes-and failures-of the Sovietological community in the United States one must bear in mind the conditions under which the study of the Soviet Union had gotten underway in this country. It first emerged at the start of the Cold War in the 1950s and took off, as it were, in 1957, after the Russians had launched the Sputnik, a potential weapon system which (for the first time in U.S. history) directly threatened its security and even survival. It is commonly believed that the circumstance of its origin infused Sovietology with irreconcilable hostility toward communism and the USSR, breeding a Cold War mentality. In fact, it had the very opposite effect. In Europe, where communist ideology had a history going back at least to the middle of the nineteenth century and communist parties had come into being in the early 1920s, scholars and publicists had analyzed communism on its own merits for a century before it attracted the attention of the United States. Some of them -- notably the Poles -- had predicted with astonishing accuracy the nature of a communist regime, anticipating its political despotism and economic failures.

In the United States, such analysis was impeded by the fact that the phenomenon of communism came to be inextricably linked with the dread of nuclear war. Largely ignorant of Marxist theory and the history of both Russia and the Soviet Union, Americans tended to see the problem exclusively in foreign policy terms: that is, how to avoid the conflict between the two camps leading to a nuclear holocaust. It made them conciliatory and this meant that they stressed positive developments in the Communist bloc and interpreted them in the best possible light. Quite unconsciously they minimized differences and emphasized similarities. However well intentioned the sentiments behind this attitude, they misconstrued reality, as inevitably happens when truth is subordinated to politics. The Sovietological community was first and foremost committed to bringing the the adversaries together and in so doing ignored or downplayed whatever ran counter to this objective. As a result, it grossly misunderstood the nature of communist regimes and the forces that animated them.

This approach enjoyed popularity because it carried a comforting message. It appealed to those who had no sympathy for communism but were frightened of nuclear war and liked to think that patience and understanding would persuade the Russians to adopt a more friendly stance. Evidence to the contrary was rationalized. Thus when it became apparent that the Soviet Union, having attained by 197O nuclear parity with the United States, nevertheless proceeded to deploy additional missile systems, some of them MIRVed, this conduct was explained by (1) the alleged"paranoia" of Russians induced by frequent foreign invasions, or (2) the need to confront the Chinese with whom at the time they were at daggers drawn. Such rationalizations of what to any unprejudiced observer were aggressive buildups were the daily bread of opinion makers.

The misunderstanding of Russian motives and intentions had also deeper cultural causes. For most Americans the axiom that all people are equal leads more or less inadvertently to the belief that they are the same by which they mean that they are at heart like themselves so that given a chance, they would behave like themselves. If a nation behaves aggressively toward the United States, it is because it is justly aggrieved: by extrapolation, the blame for aggression falls not on the aggressor but on his victim. The logic is quite flawed but psychologically understandable. Throughout the years of the Cold War, a high proportion of educated, affluent Americans felt guilty of provoking the Russians and pressed for concessions to them to make them feel more"secure."(1)

The Russians exploited such American perceptions With admirable skill. They projected the image of a country aspiring to become another United States--if not, perhaps, as affluent then, at any rate, socially more just. Americans fell for this cynical propaganda because they liked to believe both in fundamental human goodness and the desire of the world to emulate the American way of life. The Soviet Union Today, the slick propaganda magazine distributed in the United States, resembled remarkably the equally slick Amerika, which had great difficulty gaining distribution there. For the American elite, the Russians fielded teams of crafty propagandists, like the loathsome Georgii Arbatov, the head of the U.S.A. Institute, an organ of the KGB, who played to perfection the role of a pipe-puffing, jolly fellow which many businessmen and academics found irresistible. By pretending not to take communist ideology seriously and cracking an occasional joke about their regime, the Arbatovs made one wonder what the East-West confrontation was all about.

The theoretical foundation of this approach, whose true basis was fear coupled with greed, came from the Sovietological profession, recruited mainly from university departments of political science, economics, and sociology and enthusiastically endorsed by the scientific community for which ideology and politics were not serious matters. Lavishly funded by the government and private foundations, its members held endless conferences in the United States, Europe and the USSR, published no end of symposia, and collaborated on many research projects. For the sake of harmony, scholars who held significantly different views were barred from these activities. In this manner, considerable unanimity was obtained and"group think" flourished. That is not to say that there was no room for controversy: there was room but it was strictly circumscribed. Thus, for example, it was permissible to maintain that the Soviet regime was more stable or less stable but not that it was unstable.

Insisting that moral judgments have no place in science (and they considered themselves scientists) the Sovietologists treated societies as if they were mechanisms, One of their basic premises held that all societies performed the same"functions," even if in different ways, on which grounds they interpreted in familiar terms all those features of the communist regime which to a mind untutored in social science appeared outlandish. One such"expert," for example, found no significant difference between the way New Haven was administered and any city of similar size in the Soviet Union.(2) The net result of this methodology was to depict communist societies as not fundamentally different from democratic ones: a conclusion that reinforced the policy recommendation that we could and should come to terms with them.

In this manner a consensus was forged. Nothing, not even travel to the Soviet Union or the appearance in the West of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees with their own tales to tell, could sway the Sovietological profession in its opinions because here science coincided with self-interest. None of these experts asked themselves--at any rate, aloud--such obvious questions as, for example, if things were indeed so normal and stable there, why did communist governments prevent their citizens from freely traveling abroad? or why did they insist on unanimity of public opinion? or why did they allow only one candidate and one party to run in"elections?" Such embarrassing questions were ignored, and when raised, went unanswered. To an unprejudiced mind such facts about the USSR suggested insecurity, and insecurity indicated fragility.

Footnotes

(1)I must confess with shame that for a short time, in the years immediately following World War II I, too, fell victim of this kind of reasoning. In November 1948, disgusted by what I considered Truman's provocatively aggressive policies toward the Soviet Union, I voted for Henry Wallace, a presidential candidate backed by the Communist Party.

(2)In the words of Jerry F. Hough:"If we could engage in a detailed case study of local government in the Soviet Union, it is highly probable that we would arrive at many of the same conclusions that Robert Dahl did In his study of New Haven": How the Soviet Union is Governed (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), 512.


This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Yale University Press.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Andy Hughes - 12/9/2003

That the Soviet Union no longer exists is largely attributable to economic conditions that were accurately detailed by the CIA and ignored by the Reagan administration.

Whether Reagan hastened the break-up of the Soviet Union through his enormous military spending is debatable, but the post mortem conclusion that he was carrying coal to Newcastle is pretty hard to deny. And it was such expensive coal!


David - 12/8/2003


Wasn't Richard Pipes known as "Doctor Doom" during his time in the Reagan administration?

I suppose the quality of his being "Doctor Doom" can be inferred from the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/5/2003

Mr. Greenland,

Truly, the ratio of substance to noise hasn't improved much over the last few months. But I'd rather start with some form of moderation, minimally a registration system which would keep both spoofing and shifting pseudonyms out of the discussion. There is too much to be gained by an open discussion to abandon it as the first step.

Though if we don't take at least a first step soon, the professionals are going to give up on this generation and go back to working on the next one.


Josh Greenland - 12/5/2003

I've made myself purposefully scarce and now that I'm back and looking around, the ratio of trolls and idiots to people who post intelligently is higher than ever. I don't like regulation, but maybe it's necessary. And maybe it won't matter to most serious posters when it happens, because most of us could be gone by that time.

Make it an "academics only" board? It wouldn't matter to this non-college graduate if he isn't here anymore.


Derek Catsam - 12/4/2003

David -- But be fair. Pipes was and is a major Sovietologist. But that does not mean that he decides who is and what is a Sovietologist -- indeed, he is one, Conquest is one, Stephen Miner won the Beer Prize, and he ain't no soft apologist lefty, and so on and so forth. "Sovietology" is simply not just one thing, which is what my post a while ago meant. Furthermore, move away from simple "Sovietologists" and let's face it -- when it comes to Cold War historiography, John Lewis Gaddis has not exactly been marginalized, and let's go further and say that those who supposedly have a stranglehold on Sovietology from the left are likely not too sympathetic to Gaddis, who has hardly had a troubled career trajectory (he did after all go from being Director of the Contemporaryt History Institute at Ohio University to a pretty sweet job at Yale.) No one -- wait, this will get me in trouble, let me shift course -- I do not deny that there is a stream of Sovietology out there that was noxiously apologist. But there is more stuff that fills a middle ground. Beyond that, I give Pipes legitimacy in his work on the Soviet Union, which at least for the purposes of his article is damning -- he can't, after all, both be a respected Sovietologist and then again be marginalized.
Now here is what I will concede on in any case: The very word "Sovietologist" is a barbarous neologism, and whoever came up with it ought to be sent off to the gulag. (That was a joke, sensitve types).
dc


Derek Catsam - 12/4/2003

Homer, Homer, Homer. I won't ask your motivations for being so hostile to somehow who spends a great deal of time devoted to studying arguable the number one dpmestic issue in the history of America -- race. Instead, I will simply point out that if a weasel I am, it is a weasel who has published a handful of articles on a range of topicsw, most of which were not even about race. Certainly my Israel piece was not. Nor was my article on the red Sox. My piece on African policy surely had someelements of race, but that was not the gist of it, and my oft-criticized article elsewhere on this week's roster is not about race at all. So what's the problem?
But as for race, well, we all know where you are coming from . . .


John Brown - 12/4/2003

Before such a devastating intelligence, I guess I'll run off to lick my wounds. Thanks for speaking a language Reagan could understand.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/4/2003

Prof. Catsam and I don't agree on everything, but we're certainly a lot closer to each other than either of us is to most of our interlocuters on this site. So?

Is "Homer Simpson" is a pseudonym for "Stephen Thomas"? Probably not. Mr. Thomas was polite enough to at least grant that our degrees were real and earned. So, someone with even less class or substance, then.

If this board is evidence of dimwitted anything, it is evidence of the immense amount of work we college-level faculty need to do to raise the level of discourse in this country. And perhaps the need for registration or moderation on this board....


David - 12/4/2003


Daniel Pipes is a rabid anti-communist. His red-baiting, liberal-baiting and appeasement-baiting can't be taken seriously by anyone who remembers him from the Reagan Administration.

Why can't he be taken seriously? After all, it was the "Reagan Administration" that gets most credit for the fall of communism. In fact, that only ADDS to Pipe's credibility

Your mistake is in your belief that merely citing "Reagan" in the visceral way you do will somehow discredit Pipes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And you accuse Pipes of being a "rabid" anti-communist. I'm not familiar enough with Pipes to know if this is indeed true, but you accuse him of it as if being such a thing is a pejorative, which it doesn't.

But from your comments one may gather that you are both a liberal and an appeaser, and certainly sympathetic to the communist cause (no surprise there). Otherwise Pipes would not have you is such a stitch.


Josh Greenland - 12/4/2003

"I suppose the quality of "appeasement" can be inferred from the fact that the world still exists."

Just so. Wasn't Richard Pipes known as "Doctor Doom" during his time in the Reagan administration?


Josh Greenland - 12/4/2003

"If a nation behaves aggressively toward the United States, it is because it is justly aggrieved: by extrapolation, the blame for aggression falls not on the aggressor but on his victim. The logic is quite flawed but psychologically understandable. Throughout the years of the Cold War, a high proportion of educated, affluent Americans felt guilty of provoking the Russians and pressed for concessions to them to make them feel more "secure."(1)"

Daniel Pipes is a rabid anti-communist. His red-baiting, liberal-baiting and appeasement-baiting can't be taken seriously by anyone who remembers him from the Reagan Administration.

"These sovietologists must have been a bunch of Leftist appeasers because this is exactly what the Lefties have been doing since 9/11. Same crowd."

The statement above is insane. If you believe this, you need serious help.


Bob - 12/3/2003

George Santayana was a Spanish philosopher, not a historian. What he said was that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.

Dr. Pipes comments may be valid up to a point, but I think he overlooks the ideological question almost entirely. Throughout the fifties' and early sixties', anti-Communism was the bottom line of U.S. foreign policy. Different approaches usually involved questions of containing or defeating the Soviet Union through hard-line measures like NATO and the Berlin air lift or through softer measures like foreign aid, trade, and negotiations. This was reflected in academia, as one might expect, because academics usually focused on the questions that were being asked rather than speculating in a vacuum.

But by the late sixties' there was a sea change in American academic opinion. Pro-Communist sentiments were becoming more respectable than they had been since the 1930's. The Vietnam War was the primary reason for this, but attitude of the Nixon Administration played a part. Nixon tried to replace our policy of containment with a policy of detente. He reduced our forces in Vietnam. He signed new treaties with the Soviet Union and visited Red China.

As a result of these developments, anti-Communism became passe, and containment wasn't revived until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These were intellectual developments that changed the questions that the public and policy makers were asking. It was bound to have its effect on academic thinkers.


John Brown - 12/3/2003

David,

I'm always impressed how you and your chorus of ignorant cheerleaders manage to scream so perfectly in unison that you are the only freethinkers in the US. Even more impressive -- indeed, almost inexplicable -- is the astonishing coincidence of how closely all your independent inquiries so faithfully correspond to the unpredictable zigzags of Bush's party line of the moment.

From Harry Truman to JFK to Nixon to Reagan, it's hard to see the Russophilic doves Pipes claims were calling the shots. George Kennan's "containment" and the domino theory dominated U.S. policy toward the USSR. They have nothing to do with preserving peace at all costs, as Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and Central America demonstrate. I suppose the quality of "appeasement" can be inferred from the fact that the world still exists.


Derek Catsam - 12/3/2003

Thanks, Jonathan.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/3/2003

While I'm a big fan of shooting from cover in combat situations, in polite discourse it is less worthy. Moreover, Prof. Catsam is an acknowledged expert on race and racism and opposition to same, so the frequency with which he contributes to HNN discussions on those topics should be viewed with gratitude, not disdain. And it is pretty weird for a pseudonymonous poster who has never contributed anything but corrosive criticism (as far as I remember) to be complaining about someone extending their comments beyond their immediate area of expertise.

Prof. Catsam's comments are entirely on the mark: Pipes is viewing Soviet Studies as a monolith, which is silly, and as a dupe, which is absurd, and as fundamentally wrong, which is ironic given the almost uniform frequency with which Dr. Pipe's predictions about Soviet politics and actions were incorrect.


David - 12/3/2003


You should re-read the article Catsam. I'm no expert on "sovietology", but Mr. Pipes is.

And here's what he says about your above comment:

Lavishly funded by the government and private foundations, its members held endless conferences in the United States, Europe and the USSR, published no end of symposia, and collaborated on many research projects. For the sake of harmony, scholars who held significantly different views were barred from these activities. In this manner, considerable unanimity was obtained and "group think" flourished.


Derek Catsam - 12/3/2003

It is, frankly, idiotic, for someone to ascribe one ideology to "Sovietologists." David's doing so indicates that he never read Robert Conquest and others who loathed Stalin, but that he is also unfamiliar with about fifty years of scholarship on "Sovietology," a coinage not borne of Soviet sympathizers, but rather of those who wanted to study the Soviet Union, oftentimes from the vantage point (indeed under the payroll of) the State Department. Is this the rudimentary knowledge that HNN was intended to distribute? Idiocy is not a crime, but it ought not to be rewarded either.


David - 12/2/2003


If a nation behaves aggressively toward the United States, it is because it is justly aggrieved: by extrapolation, the blame for aggression falls not on the aggressor but on his victim. The logic is quite flawed but psychologically understandable. Throughout the years of the Cold War, a high proportion of educated, affluent Americans felt guilty of provoking the Russians and pressed for concessions to them to make them feel more "secure."(1)

These sovietologists must have been a bunch of Leftist appeasers because this is exactly what the Lefties have been doing since 9/11. Same crowd.

Like sovietologists tyring to understand the USSR, let us try to "understand" Osama Bin laden; we mustn't do anything to further "agrieve" Al-Qaeda; let's wallow in self-reflection and try to understand what they're really trying to tell us about or "foreign policy", if only we would change they wouldn't hate us so much, etc, etc.

Pretty sickening. Like the Spanish historian once said, history repeats itself.