Review: Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity (1917–1941) by David L. Hoffmann. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. viii, 247 pp.
In this exhaustive study of Soviet official culture and values, David Hoffmann challenges the post-war historiography which claimed that Stalinism was a conscious reversal of Soviet socialism and a revival of tzarist conservatism. Hoffmann offers a plausible alternative, one that explains away the supposed ‘counterrevolutionary’ actions of the Stalin dictatorship by showing that the use of traditional symbols and institutions were deliberate and selective and were ultimately in the service of socialism. Hoffmann sheds new light on the Stalin dictatorship by examining its persistent intervention into the lives of its citizens. He shows that Stalin’s attempt to create a socialist mass culture was affected by the great challenges that existed for all of inter-war Europe. Hoffmann encourages the reader to judge Stalin’s selective implementation of traditional institutions and culture in this context. While the book does not in any way condone the violence of the Soviet “Great Terror,” Hoffmann’s Stalin emerges more like a pragmatic Robespierre than as the leader of a Soviet “Thermidor Reaction.”
In characterizing the Stalinist regime as a pragmatic crusade in the pursuit of socialism, Hoffmann attempts to disprove Leon Trotsky’s indictment of the Stalin dictatorship as being a betrayal of revolutionary values. Trotsky blamed Stalin’s counterrevolutionary success on the “triumph of bureaucracy.” Trotsky claimed that the Stalinist bureaucracy had displaced the proletariat as the supreme stratum in Soviet society and that it now used its position to reintroduce traditional institutions and bourgeois social mores so as to further secure its hold on power. While Hoffmann disagrees with Trotsky’s notion of a counterrevolution, he certainly acknowledges the primacy of the bureaucratic machine under Stalin. For Hoffmann, this machine was consistent with the goals of the Revolution.
Hoffmann also challenges the anticommunist Nicolas Timasheff’s theory of the “Great Retreat.” Timasheff claimed that by 1934, Soviet leaders realized that socialism had not taken hold at a grass roots level. Because of this internal weakness and the growing threat from Nazi Germany, Stalin was forced to use the restoration of traditional institutions and culture as a way to rally the people around the regime. While he acknowledges the Nazi threat, Hoffmann presents compelling evidence in Stalinist Values that all of these measures were employed to further the revolution and not to dismantle it.
The book is organized thematically and the evidence is presented clearly. The Stalinist “civilizing process,” with its comprehensive campaign to improve public health, hygiene, fitness, literacy and cultural tastes, is well described in the first chapter. In chapter two, Hoffmann describes the strict code of behavior to which all party members must adhere. Communists were not only to be clean, sober, and orderly as was expected of all Soviet citizens, but also polite and neatly dressed. Party members were expected to have a sense of decorum in order to work with others more effectively and to solidify their common identity and purpose. We also learn of the demographic realities which influenced the formulation of Stalinist family values in chapter three, which was a retreat from Bolshevik revolutionary feminism because it encouraged traditional families, outlawed abortion, and glorified motherhood in order to raise the birth rate. “Mass Consumption” and “Social and Cultural Unity under Soviet Socialism” are the titles of chapters four and five. In Stalinist Values, Hoffmann is thorough in his examination of the totality of the Stalinist social intervention policy, which he argues was ‘intended to fashion a better, more just world, in which alienation and class conflict would be replaced by a sprit of collectivism and social harmony’, and this vision was simply a Marxian version of ‘Enlightenment and Romantic impulses’ of rational progressive change that included a ‘recovery of the organic wholeness of humanity.’ However, rather than create the intended utopian state, Stalin built a brutally repressive system whose victims numbered in the millions.
The depth of the primary sources drawn upon for the writing of the book is impressive. Hoffmann uses Russian correspondence from the British Foreign Office, documents from the Hoover Institution Archives, and a wealth of newly released Soviet documents. The newly released Soviet documents are of particular interest because this information was not available to the previous generation of historians who have, up until now, helped shape the West’s collective view of Stalin. Hoffmann’s interpretation of these new documents is bound to fire up debate for years to come.
For students of Soviet history, Stalinist Values provides a much needed dimension to the historiographical narrative on Stalin. One must read Hoffmann’s work with the understanding that this was in fact a brutal period in Russian history. Without such an understanding, casual readers might find the reading an occasion to celebrate Stalin and his accomplishments. That said, Hoffmann does rightly place the Stalinist crusade for cultural modernity within the overall context of the greater European attempt to reconfigure society based on Enlightenment principles. Yet in the Stalinist march to modernity, the Enlightenment inspired social interventionism gave birth to a powerful bureaucratic machine which sought to control every aspect human life in ways never imagined by Marx or Lenin.
Hoffmann, David, Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity (1917–1941) Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Husband, William B., Reviewed work: “Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917–1941,” by David L. Hoffmann, Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 63, №3 (Autumn, 2004): 659–660.
Wynn, Charters, Reviewed work: “Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929–1941” by David L. Hoffmann, The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, №2 (Apr., 1996): 531–532.