Marxism-Lewinism and the origins of Stalinism: Moshe Lewin

Postgraduate student Emmanuel Gruzman reports on this year's History seminar in the Library, where 20th century history and the controversial writings of Moshe Lewin were a focus.

The 20th century saw the rise and unravelling of the communist Soviet Union. After the Bolshevik’s October Revolution in 1917, Leninism soon gave way to the despotic Stalinism. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union became far less repressive and went through several phases. Under the aegis of Mikhail Gorbachev, this grand experiment ended in December 1991, when it unexpectedly and rapidly disintegrated into 15 independent republics. Much has been written about this 20th century history which was the topic of this year’s History Seminar in the Library.

Professor Mark Edele speaking at the lecture
Professor Mark Edele  from the University of Melbourne presented a chapter of the book he is currently working on titled A historiography of Stalinism. Associate Professor Paula Michaels from Monash University introduced Edele and elaborated that this is only one book of three he is currently working on, with the other two books being A history of Stalinism at war and A global history of war veterans (with Martin Crotty and Neil Diamant).

The chapter Edele presented is about Moshe “Misha” Lewin, who became a social historian in his 40s and was a pioneer in Western scholarship on Stalinism. Edele portrays Lewin as a most interesting character with a grand personality. Lewin was born on 7 November 1921, four years to the day after the October Revolution, a point he liked to make. He was born in Wilna, now Vilnius, Lithuania, to a Polish-Jewish father and Russian-speaking Ukrainian mother who did not convert to Judaism.

Despite his mixed lineage, Lewin identified as a Jew. Antisemitism during that period was often violent and Jews referred to it as “zoological”. Lewin joined the Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth movement that offered him the means for self-defence from nationalists and anti-Semites. This experience in his youth made Lewin wary of nationalism and a strong believer in the promises of socialism and Zionism that was not of the nationalist strand.

Wilna was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania and in 1939 about 37 per cent of its population was Jewish. During the Holocaust about 95 per cent of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated with the assistance of Lithuanian auxiliaries. Lithuanians carried out violent riots against Jews even before the German forces arrived in 1941.

Lewin’s family members and friends were among those murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian auxiliaries, while he successfully escaped by joining an evacuating truck with retreating Soviet soldiers. The Soviet officer did not allow Lewin to get onto the truck, but the conscripts—ordinary peasants—disobeyed the officer’s order and pulled him aboard. This episode remained with Lewin, who in his historical works always defended the peasantry’s position in the face of Stalin’s terror and so-called liquidation of the kulaks as a class.

In the Soviet Union Lewin worked as a kolhoznik, factory worker and Red Army recruit. He graduated as an officer on the last day of war and never saw battle. He declined joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and instead joined the Jewish underground, helping smuggle Jews to then Palestine. In 1951, he made Aliyah to Israel and worked in a kibbutz with a rifle hanging over his shoulder.

In Israel Lewin joined the Israeli Communist Party. Later when he applied for a permanent visa in the USA, his party membership haunted him and a special bill in Congress was needed to recognize him as a “national resource”.

In 1956, Lewin was recruited as a soldier in the Israeli army during the Suez Crisis and was stationed near Gaza. After his experience in the Israeli army Lewin became disillusioned with the young State of Israel which according to him diverged from the Zionist ideals. Lewin decided to embark on an academic career and enrolled at the Tel Aviv University in the faculty of economics from which he graduated in 1961. In 1964 he graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris with a doctoral thesis about Russian peasants and Soviet power that was to become his first book published in 1966 in French: La paysannerie et le pouvoir soviétique: 1928-1930.

Lewin’s scholarship can be divided into three broad themes: Russian peasantry and its relation with Soviet power; Soviet bureaucracy; and the limits of Soviet leadership. He did not approve of reducing the entire Soviet experiment to Stalinism and believed in alternatives that could have followed from Leninism and would not have deteriorated into Stalinism.

Seemingly a man of alternatives and ideas, Lewin insisted on making a distinction between the idea of socialism and the Soviet system. But this insistence of speculating possible alternatives to Leninism seemed for many post-Soviet historians an irrelevant exercise based on his own ideological preferences.

It was because of his ideological preferences that Lewin did not write much in support of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union and the Jewish discrimination by the Soviet regime with the resulting controversy over Jewish emigration. Lewin was more concerned that these issues were used as a campaign against the Soviet Union.

A further important missed contribution was the writing of his autobiography. But Lewin explained that his (grand) life story, as WWII, were subjects too painful for him to write about. Maybe because his beliefs compelled him to write alternative histories for grandiose and messianic aspirations to save the world, whereas no person can offer alternative endings to painful histories. Painful histories are survived, not altered.

This blog post is further partially based on the following articles which are recommended readings about Moshe Lewin: Rieber, A. J. (2011). Moshe Lewin: A reminiscence and appreciation. Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 12(1). 127-139; and Suny, R. G. (2012). Living in the Soviet century: Moshe Lewin, 1921-2010. History Workshop Journal, 74, 192-209.

Emmanuel Gruzman is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University and recipient of the Jewish Care Victoria and Zeleznikow scholarship. His research project is about the settlement experiences, adaptation patterns and identity formations of Jews from the former Soviet Union in Melbourne.

For details on the posters and rare items displayed at the seminar see our previous blog post
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