Monday, September 28, 2009

Syllabus for the Revolution

As a former teacher, I've often wondered whether teaching helps or hurts your grasp of a subject matter. I've heard people say that preparing for class really helps you think through the issues at hand. It's like science that way. If you can't test it, you're dealing with metaphysics rather than physics. And if you can't teach it, you don't really know what you're talking about.

I suppose that's part of the motivation for doing a blog. You need some accountability, no matter how small the readership. On the other hand, when you're teaching a class, you're gearing up for the lowest common denominator. Unless you're teaching a graduate seminar, you want to spit out digested material that makes sense to somebody with no prior training in the subject, and probably no prior interest.

At any rate, I can't help but think in terms of classes. When I approach Soviet history, I imagine a class. What would the syllabus look like? I would think the best class would focus on the Revolution proper. One can talk about antecedents, and one can talk about legacy, but ultimately it's the revolt itself that makes for a unique historical experience with something interesting to say about the human experience. Revolutions don't happen often, and they don't happen very often because the world can't stand on its head for long stretches of time.

Scholars of the Soviet experience (see Djilas' The New Class for example) revel in what they perceive to be an irony about the Revolution's aftermath: and that is that the revolutionaries became the new elites, the new bureaucrats. Yet this isn't real irony. How long could any society remain so volatile? The Social Revolutionaries and Anarchists were already shocked by societal ossification even as the Bolshevik's consolidated their power.

But back to Syllabus... I'd say you would want to cover Marx in some detail, with a quick description of socialism in general. You'd also want to cover 1905, World War I, the February Revolution, and October. Perhaps something on the structure of the Ancien Regime, especially in terms of class and gender, would be useful. Then I'm thinking that a lecture on comparative revolutions would help to contextualize the great event. Separate lectures on politics, economics, gender, and the arts would be nice. Separate lectures on the various segments of society would be nice too, especially the intelligentsia, military, peasantry, nationalities, Jewish minority, working class, aristocracy, church, and tsar. After that, you move into Stalinism, World War II, and the decaying legacy of the revolution.

Most importantly, you'd want to consider the collapse of the Soviet Empire and what the Revolution continues to mean today and might mean tomorrow.

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