Scholar of Revolution In Berlin 'I'm Not Fomenting Revolution, I'm Studying It'

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia remains rich soil for today's left-wing revolutionaries. Hundreds flocked to hear acclaimed US historian Alexander Rabinowitch discuss his latest work in Berlin recently. But the scholar is anxious not to be mistaken for a political figure.

A Berlin lecture hall was packed last month for a talk by Russian Revolution expert Alexander Rabinowitch.
Mehring Verlag

A Berlin lecture hall was packed last month for a talk by Russian Revolution expert Alexander Rabinowitch.

By Josie Le Blond

The lecture hall was packed. Latecomers stood in the aisles. An audience of over 300 spectators craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the historian waiting patiently at the podium for the excited buzz to die down.

Alexander Rabinowitch looked the picture of the son of a Russian émigré; intelligentsia right down to the black polo-neck and neatly trimmed goatee. He was speaking at Humboldt University in Berlin, the recent guest of far-left Trotskyist students eager to uncover the secrets of revolution.

For all his outward calm, Rabinowitch -- considered a leading expert on the Russian Revolution since the late 1960s -- was in an awkward position: Where there is enthusiasm for Rabinowitch's work it isn't difficult to find a political agenda. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 is still rich soil for Europe's would-be revolutionaries. And with aftershocks of the global financial crisis giving a shot-in-the-arm to advocates of workers' revolution, the academic is finding himself having to fend off ideological interpretations of his work.

"I'm not fomenting revolution, I'm studying it," he stressed in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I'm in no way a politician or a political figure."

Politics versus History

It is an odd claim for an academic to have to make, but a look at Rabinowitch's hosts in Berlin sheds some light on why he felt it necessary. The Berlin branch of the leftist-revolutionary International Students for Social Equality (ISSE) had invited Rabinowitch to present a new German translation of his latest work "The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd." According to the ISSE website, the organization's objective is to "reorganize society on a democratic, egalitarian and rational basis."

"From our perspective, which is to fundamentally change this society, we are interested in understanding both capitalism and all previous attempts to overcome it," Christoph Dreier, a member of the ISSE German steering committee, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "If you want to change something you have to understand it first.... Rabinowitch's work is full of sources to help understand these political issues."

Dreier argues the considerable interest in Rabinowitch's work is evidence that people are looking for new perspectives. Tough economic times have brought Europe-wide austerity measures as governments attempt to reduce yawning budget deficits and high sovereign debt. State spending is being slashed drastically and France has seen widespread protests against labor market reforms introduced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

This is prompting "the questions that thousands of young people and workers are busy trying to answer," said Dreier. "Just look at France." People want to know: "What did the workers do in the past?"

New Approaches to Old Themes

Luke March, senior lecturer in Soviet and post-Soviet politics at the University of Edinburgh, confirms the search is back on for new approaches to old themes. "This stands to reason given that the current economic crises have caused many to be disappointed with current perspectives. Clearly, also, there is a need to learn from past successes and defeats," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. March's new book, "Radical Left Parties in Contemporary Europe," will be released by Routledge next May.

Rabinowitch's first work on the political melting pot of revolutionary Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), "Prelude to Revolution," appeared in 1968. Thereafter, his verdicts on the Bolshevik leadership resonated on both sides of the Cold War's ideological gulf. "Prelude" was the first Western history of the revolution to be published inside the Soviet Union and his work remains influential today.

"My work is very, very empirical," he said. "I'm most comfortable working in archives, trying to put together an engaging story that is as close to a photographic image of the truth as I can make it."

Rabinowitch's latest work, "The Bolsheviks in Power," was published in German earlier this year. The book traces Lenin's Bolsheviks through their turbulent first year in charge of revolutionary Russia. The defining epoch saw the party grappling with a host of divergent crises in the soon-to-be abandoned capital Petrograd -- negotiating peace with the invading Germans and fending off a cacophony of political opposition amid severe fuel and food shortages.

Even the decision to translate "The Bolsheviks in Power" has been politicized by some on the far left. Ulrich Rippert is leader of the Trotskyist German Party for Social Equality (PSG). He insists the release by the Marxist publishing house Mehring Verlag (formerly Workers' Press) is breaking an unspoken taboo surrounding the publication of historical works on the Russian Revolution in German.

Searching for Ideology

"Since I've been here I've gotten my ears filled about the hostility to the Russian Revolution on the part of many in Germany," said Rabinowitch. "In a way, with what happened after the war and the split, I can understand it," he added.

During his lecture Rabinowitch repeatedly diverged from his Trotskyist hosts -- revolutionary followers of Leon Trotsky's theory of an international socialist "permanent revolution" under the leadership of the working class. The historian rejected what he saw as a tendency to over-emphasize ideological motives in the far left's assessment of historical figures.

He also found himself dodging questions on the bitter estrangement between moderate Social Democrats (SPD) and German Communists (KPD) in the early days of the progressive Weimar Republic (1918-1933). "If I involve myself in the controversies over theoretical studies now raging I'll never get to what I want to do, which is the study of 1919," he said.

Still, the packed lecture hall in Berlin clearly demonstrates the respect the historian commands here. Rabinowitch can only hope this is the result of regard for his historical works and not veneration of the revolutionaries he studies.

"I do think the (Russian) Revolution is so terribly important for everybody to know about," Rabinowitch said. While some are "trying to find out how to avoid revolutions," others "just want to study it in order to find out how to make revolution. That's not me. The way to avoid revolutions is to solve problems before they reach the revolutionary stages," he said, "I think the Russian Revolution is a good example for that."

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