Monday, March 4, 2013


Antoinette Burton's book, A Primer for Teaching World History, makes various suggestions about we should approach world history.  Wanting to test out these categories of analysis, I applied them to this blog as well as to book I happen to be reading right now, Diane Koenker's Republic of Labor.  Koenker's book held up well under fire, but Soviet Roulette faired less well.

One of Burton's principles is that global history should incorporate gender in organic, integrative ways.  It's not enough, she argues, to merely discuss women as some kind of epiphenomenon of fundamental historical change.  How does Koenker's book do when it comes to gender?  Diane Koenker's book certainly doesn't neglect gender.  In fact, when analyzing the history of the printers in the interwar period, Koenker spends quite a bit of time explaining the ways in which Soviet political, economic, and cultural discourse privileged masculinity.  To begin with, the heroes of the Russian Civil War were masculine ones, warriors by and large.  Moreover, the hero of Soviet labor was almost always depicted in male form.  

The result of this idealization of masculinity in the printing industry, and in the Soviet economy more generally, disadvantaged women in concrete ways.  For instance, Soviet labor laws--which sometimes allowed only one member of any given family to be employed in a factory--often led to the dismissal of wives from the workforce.  The more significant fact about gender and the working class in early Soviet Russia is that the very notion of skill was firmly attached to masculinity.  And although Soviet citizens were still debating the extent to which people should be paid unevenly for different levels of skills, "unskilled" female labor was likely to be poorly paid.  

And what of Soviet Roulette?  How far has this blog gone to analyze gender as a category of analysis?  Sadly, not very far at all.  I can see the problem in graphic terms every time I look at my bookshelves.  I have a women's section of the bookshelves, but this shelf of books is small relative to other sections, and wouldn't even be full if it hadn't been for Catherine the Great.  And of course my shelf of women--something akin to Mitt Romney's "binder of women" candidates for high office--doesn't offer too many examples of modern, integrative gender history.  Looking over my overall collection of Russian history and literature books, I note how hard I will need to work to correct the gender imbalance of Soviet Roulette.  The old books often don't deal with gender at all, and many of the new ones only touch on in tangentially.  

Another of Burton's suggestions for doing world history right is to approach history "from the bottom up."  Here again, Diane Koenker is on solid ground.  Focusing on a union, even one that had pretentions to be part of what Lenin derisively called "worker aristocracy," in an excellent way to avoid the pitfalls of focusing narrowly on Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, and a small band of influential men.  And of course working from the ground up inherently helps historians to move toward a more gender-balanced approach to the story of humankind.  On this score,Soviet Roulette, is a flawed but not quite failed state.  Soviet Roulette often deals with the idea of revolution, which is of course closely associated with proletarian actors, but this blog certainly privileges the stories of educated, literate--and even highly literate--revolutionaries.  Reading Diane Koenker's book I'm actually saddened to think that I've read so much without even delving into serious study of the very workers in whose name the Revolution was formulated.  

A third argument Burton makes is that global history should contextualize an event by placing it into its global context.  Thus Diane Koenker explains the Soviet experiment in socialist economics by showing that many of its putatively original approaches to labor relations had their counterparts in Britain, America, and elsewhere.  While acknowledging Communist coercion, Koenker also demonstrates that Soviet workers actually won some concessions that their counterparts in Britain and America did not, including worker participation in many "management" decisions.  While Koenker clearly grasps the international dimensions of Soviet labor history, Soviet Roulette has been somewhat more parochial.  In part, this has been due to the author's ignorance of Chinese, Turkish, Egyptian, Hungarian and other revolutionary traditions.  But why Soviet Roulette hasn't spent more time on events in the Soviet Union's Turkic regions is more difficult to explain.  (Note to self:  Next time your brother lives in Kyrgyzstan, visit him!).  Of course, even Burton acknowledges the difficulty of coming to terms with the world in all its complexity.  However, Burton would no doubt argue that ignoring global comparisons and treating the Russian Revolution as a strictly national event isn't ultimately tenable.  Without analogies, historians are likely to fetishize national events, creating Sonderweg stories or myths of exceptionalism. 

Burton's next contention--she uses the phrase, design principle--is that historians (or pedagogues) should discuss how archives work, transparently acknowledging how and why sources come into our hands. Another Burton book, Archive Stories:  Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, goes into more depth here.  But the main point is that good history reveals its subjectivity.  The explanatory power of history works best when its operations are exposed to the light of day.  Koenker, to her credit, does exactly this.  She tells her readers which assumptions are linked to which specific pieces of evidence, and talks at length about why certain sources are more or less credible than others. In fact, she is careful to discuss the unique nature of the printers' union, a union that represented a unique subpopulation of the working class--urban, skilled, literate men and women.  Moreover, Koenker spends some time analyzing the extent to which the printers were unique in the country as a whole, exploring demographic trends and rural and urban statistics.   

How well does Soviet Roulette meet Burton's call for a self-revelatory attitude toward history?  Although I haven't used many primary sources, I can say that my attempt to persistently link the personal to the historical seems useful to Burton's project.  If I’m honest about my points of reference, the reader has a better chance of adjusting for my biases to come up with reasonable conclusions about the relative value of my various arguments.  On the other hand, Burton’s main point seems to be that the work of identifying the historicity of archival material is never done.  Reading her second book, Archive Stories, shows just how much work an historian can do to let readers know how and why sources come into our hands.  The process of knowing history is an inherently ideological one, suffused with power, as Michelle Foucault would argue.

Burton’s next piece of advice for doing global history right is related to periodization.  Although every historian uses dates to establish a framework for analysis, it’s amazing how often we forget that we are doing that.  It’s as if we got dressed up for Halloween but soon came to think that we had really turned into ghosts and goblins.  The simple fact is that dates are an artificial construction, at least when we use them to shed light on a particular event or historical process.  The October Revolution happened in 1917, but what other dates should frame it?  Diane Koenker seems to have a good approach.  While she freely ranges around the Western World (she seems less comfortable in the non-Western World) in order to offer context to Russian events, she also explores pre-revolutionary artisanal and labor traditions to make sense of the interwar period. 

For its part Soviet Roulette is almost completely free of a temporal framework.  This is perhaps more a matter of the author’s haphazard reading habits.  Be that as it may, Russian Roulette is firmly committed to the idea that pre-revolutionary history, Soviet post-war history, and even the Russian present, all offer new perspectives on the historical drama of 1917.  In terms of time, “I cover the waterfront,” as Fran Leibowitz tells us Tennessee Williams once said about his sexuality.  I will say, however, that I’m intrigued by Burton’s suggestion that we may even “work backwards” from the present to arrive at an understanding of the past. 

This post has already gone on too long, but Burton offers us one other useful idea about global history, and that is related to theorizing empire.  This is something Diane Koenker doesn’t do at length.  Her book talks about a Soviet economy transitioning from one cataclysm to the next, from war to revolution to civil war to five-year plans and back to war again.  And in a sense this is a story of empire, the rise of a socialist economy that would someday undergird one of the world’s two superpowers.

Koenker isn’t particularly focused on tracing the global dimensions of her subject matter.  She needed be, and certainly Burton never asks all history to be global history.  But when analyzing Soviet Roulette for its approach to empire, I recognize that the Soviet story is above all a story of empire.  For this reason, why not compare the Soviet version of empire to its rivals, both vanished and contemporaneous?  Why not ask what characteristics socialist empire had in common with pre-modern or colonial versions?  Just as Soviet labor history is most revealing when compared with Western or non-Western versions of the same essential subject matter, the Soviet Empire can be best understood when its set against the backdrop of other global political entities. 

If Burton offers us an overarching theme on global history, it’s “connectivity.”  Essentially, she asks us to make linkages between local events and international movements. If we stand in the middle of the Illinois cornfields, we might well be tempted to believe that we are isolated from the world, cut off from history itself.  But this would be a myth.  We see evidence of global economics and global culture all around us, if we’re careful enough to look.  One need only locate a Walmart, with all of its international merchandise, with all of its ties to diverse global communities of interest, to know this to be the case.  The irony of the Revolution is that the event has long been held to be the quintessence of globalism, the epitome of a world-historical process. Probably historians will continue to accept this claim, but on other grounds.

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