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4.0 out of 5 stars An analysis of the 'conservative turn' under Stalin, 16 Aug. 2010
By 
M. A. Krul (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941 (Paperback)
David Hoffmann's book "Stalinist Values" discusses a widely noticed but not often fully analyzed phenomenon in Soviet history: the shift away from avant-garde, progressive socio-cultural values to traditionalist cultural conservatism in the 1930s. For many opponents of Stalin and his government on the left this has been seen as one of the proofs for Stalin's alleged betrayal of real socialism; for some rightist critics, of whom Hoffmann interestingly cites some examples, this has been interpreted as a necessary and obvious move away from untenable avant-gardism. But the shift itself has not been much analyzed from the point of view of Stalin c.s. themselves, and that is particularly what this book is about.

Hoffmann's thesis is that the conservative turn (to coin a phrase) should not be read as a move away from socialism, because the people involved did not perceive it as such. The book studies all the different fields in which the shift presented itself noticably, from family relations and sexuality to artistic and literary endeavours, and in each case Hoffmann tries to show that the Soviet leadership saw their move as one consolidating the reality of socialism rather than a move away from it. His thesis rests strongly on the fact that Stalin declared in the early 1930s that 'socialism had been achieved'. This implied that where before this period avant-gardism, strongly progressive social reforms and general anti-authoritarianism in social relations were positive for socialism and warranted, from the moment of socialism being 'achieved' on this was no longer the case. Any kind of conservatism would now not be a conservatism maintaining capitalist relations, but a conservatism maintaining socialist relations stably as they were, and therefore now a good thing. Accordingly, things that were perceived as tending to individualize people and undermine unity and stability were now a bad thing. This, according to Hoffmann, explains how the Soviet leadership could re-ban homosexuality and abortion, implement strong restrictions and guidelines on artistic expression, and so on, without seeing this in any way as contradictory to socialist goals (although even at the time many did).

The author strengthens his case by re-interpreting some other events from the period through the same lens. He sees the massive deportations of 'suspect' ethniticies as well as class enemies not just as part of war preparations against fascism (the usual view) but also as strengthening the fabric and unity of the now already socialist state. The great purges, too, are interpreted this way, in particular since they fell strongest on minority ethnicities and on people considered to be failing in aspects other than the political (morally and culturally). Hoffmann also pays all the deserved attention to the other side of the coin, namely the fierce campaigns by the Soviet government to install 'culture' into its hitherto backward rural peoples - by means of literacy campaigns, preventing them from spitting on the floor everywhere, teaching hygiene and good manners, proper dress, and so forth. In the fields of literacy, basic preventative healthcare and the like the Soviet state achieved immense improvements, and Hoffmann is not too critical to give them the deserved credit for it, although he points out how the authoritarianism of these campaigns is linked to their negative counterpart in purges and repressions.

The thesis is a strong and interesting one. Its main flaw is that Hoffmann does not really analyze or contextualize the central concept itself, namely Stalin's idea of having 'achieved socialism' in the early 1930s. Based merely on the works of Marx and Engels, or even those of Lenin, this is a very odd claim indeed and if it played ao central a role in Soviet policy shifts as Hoffmann makes it seem, it deserves more thorough political and historical scrutiny. Moreover, there are a couple counter-examples that the author mentions himself; for example, Lenin himself and many others close to him in governing circles disapproved of the avant-gardist tendencies in art and probably of many sexual and family reforms too, as has been shown in Richard Stites' fantastic work on the Soviet values of the 1920s (Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution). Yet, they did not implement prohibitions on this nor did they seriously attempt to politically repress them, since they generally seemed to see this as part of the socialist transformation, even if sometimes distasteful or unnecessary. This fact works somewhat in favor of the 'Stalinist betrayal' school. Also, Hoffmann cannot explain entirely why the Stalin government of the 1930s did keep some of the social reforms, such as relatively extremely liberal divorce laws and a commitment (not always fulfilled in practice) to female participation in the labor force. Finally, the book puts some of the 1930s 'reversals' into a comparative context, showing that other European nations, fascist and liberal, were implementing many of the same restrictions and pro-natalist policies during the same period and much for the same reasons. It is an excellent and long overdue thing to place such controversial subjects of Soviet history into a larger comparative context, and Hoffmann should be praised for doing so, but it also to some extent undermines his case that the reversals were due to a very Soviet Union-specific political shift (the 'achievement of socialism').

Nonetheless, the book is an important contribution toward understanding Stalinism and the extremely important interbellum period in the USSR generally, and it is recommmended reading for people interested in Soviet history.
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Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941
Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941 by David L. Hoffmann (Paperback - 22 May 2003)
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