U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What do historians and Bolsheviks have in common?

mensheviksIn one of the most intriguing classes I took in college about the making of the Soviet self we read journals, diaries, and even interrogation records of Bolsheviks as we analyzed the formulas used by them to construct their selves. Lately, as I have been preparing in earnest for what everyone seems to ominously call “the market” I have found far too many parallels between my-self and those early Bolsheviks, which I think raise intriguing and perhaps disturbing questions regarding the state of our discipline.

In their accounts of themselves members of the Russian Communist Party had to abide by certain indispensable, well understood—yet informal—rules. For instance they always sought to present their family’s heritage as originating from the working class. If that was not clearly the case, people employed myriad ways to obfuscate their origins and to cast it in as positive a way as possible. Furthermore, the earlier in life they could associate themselves with the Communist Party, and even better the Bolshevik wing of the party, the better. At the very least one should have been committed to Marxism quite early on as a testament to one’s long term commitments.

One account we read sought to make up for a relatively late formal engagement with the party by presenting in quite romantic terms his very early first encounters with the ideas of socialism as an adolescent—although he did not have a theoretical framework within which to couch them early on. He then went on to portray his first early encounters with the writings of Marx and Engels which he read as he developed his socialist consciousness. Even some of the most distinguished party members had to construct and uphold their selves as deserving. Despite his early commitment to Marxism, Trotsky, for example, suffered from these predicaments, since he joined the Bolsheviks very late in the game and since his family had been relatively well off. It was only his heroism and accomplishments during the war that enabled him to demonstrate his unyielding commitment to the party’s cause—and even then many sought to second guess them.

Seeking to emulate similar “well understood—yet informal—rules” in the history discipline I have found that especially in early American history I must craft a narrative of myself as an historian that hinges on my engagement with the archive. Sifting through introduction chapters to first monographs and my experience attending job talks, it appears that the best one could do is present one’s growth as an historian through what I have in my inner dialogues termed an archival “baptism of fire.” The ideal narrative involves a first hunch; followed by a stage of disappointment; then a decision that involved untold grueling hours in the archives, and finally a monumental epiphany that came from engagement with primary sources.

Granted, few historians can present their stories in such dramatic terms, but not for lack of trying. If, for instance, one does not have a trove of barely legible manuscript sources, and only say published sources—and even worse these days if they are available on line—we have a problem on our hands, especially for first book projects. Thus one historian related how they read every word of ten runs of different weekly newspapers throughout a twenty five year period. Other scholars do everything they can, it seems, to find a category of sources that no one thought of—even if they were published. While others find sometimes somewhat contrived topics to add to their research that can demonstrate their capacity to engage with “real research.”

Though archive-wise my project has both strengths and weaknesses, I have recently found a curious upside. I can to a certain extent cast myself as an intellectual historian. Curiously, intellectual historians often manage to evade this disciplinary straight jacket, for they supposedly engage primarily with a larger repertoire of lofty ideas written and published by intellectuals. Indeed, even when intellectual historians use correspondences, they often use only published manuscripts. I suspect they are given a pass primarily once they are able to command the respect of their peers by demonstrating very broad erudition. I also suspect that since early Americanists seem to fetishize the archive more than many of their counterparts, intellectual history is less fashionable in that body of scholarship. It simply is not what people do these days, it’s a bit of an oddity. If early Americanists turn to intellectual history they often do so only once they have established their archival credentials.

The good news however, is that early America scholarship seems on its way out of this weird funk. As a more democratic notion of intellectual history seems to emerge, intellectual historians use a broader array of sources. Combining both “high” and “low” brow texts, they can engage with traditional sources as well as an eclectic collection of both published and unpublished texts of various kinds. In so doing, I hope, and I do think that is the case, historians come to share a greater appreciation for diverse scholarly approaches that can involve any number of engagements with the archive, be it published, digitized, or of the moldy variety.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The archive thing is one I’ve never understood, for the reasons stated toward the end of the post. There can be interesting archival work done in intellectual history (for example, the interesting story of how the proper page order of Rousseau’s “State of War” was discovered). But for the most part I think it, if not irrelevant, often besides the point.

    If “archivality” was the criterion, my field would disappear. You’re not going to be able to write anything about the Enlightenment if you couldn’t use the published versions of: Hume, Smith, Rousseau, Voltaire, et al. Some historians will consult manuscripts and original editions; but for a lot of us that’s not necessary. In that case, it’s what you’re saying and how that matters. There’s plenty of stuff in eighteenth-century intellectual history where you’d need to consult archives. But in my part of it, not so much. I think it really depends on the field, and more specifically on the subfield. Not to mention, there are fields where archives are impossible.

  2. the interesting story of how the proper page order of Rousseau’s “State of War” was discovered

    If there’s a relatively short version of the story, I’d be interested in hearing it.

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