Confessions of a Humble Country Historian
George M. Enteen, May 1997
I became professor emeritus of Russian history at Penn State University on June 30, 1996. My retirement came not a semester too soon; in that last year of teaching, my world turned topsy-turvy. From the beginning my creed had been, "history is about chaps." As my teaching days numbered down, my conviction wavered, and the chaps slipped out of focus and finally dropped from view. Processes stood in their place, a sense of process, as though an alien operating system had taken possession of my mind.
Two processes, in particular, moved to the forefront. Mythology—I suppose I must write mythologization for want of a better word—was the first. Law, legalization, a product of rationalization in the Weberian sense, was the second. In combination they had compelled a recasting of the history I had been teaching for over 30 years—the history of Russia and the history of modern Europe. How had this happened?
Let me go back to the beginning. When I was an undergraduate history major at Emory University, a highly Anglophile institution in the 1950s, my teachers persuaded me that abstractions are dangerous things. I had been taught by the generation that had won the Second World War. My teachers, immune to Freud, had suggested that history was the study of the achievements of our ancestors. Our world was the product of their accumulated wisdom. All of these doctrines were implicit, of course; gentlemen did not talk about such matters.
Even though my teachers, the generation that delivered us from Hitler, had possessed immense authority, we managed to shake off parts of their outlook. Fascism required explanation along less optimistic lines than their outlook provided; racial segregation posed a similar challenge; and besides, where did all those Reds come from who jeopardized our well-being? Of course, they were in one sense a necessary presence. Were it not for the damned Reds, how could we identify the good guys? "Totalitarianism," a popular concept at the time, nevertheless, begged for an explanation that did not rely on a presumed rationality and a premise of accumulated wisdom. As cunning as men were in their aggrandizements, they could at other times be stupid. Their pursuit of mindless, feckless, ideologically manipulated chimeras showed this. Freud, a puzzle to our teachers, was our guide. A decade or so later I discovered that Max Weber taught many of the same lessons and in a format more useful for historians. Perhaps he stood closer to the source, having devoted more time, than had Freud, to the study of Dostoyevsky and having drunk deeper of the metaphors of Nietzsche.
As a graduate student concentrating on Russian history, I willy-nilly pursued the study of Marxism. Actually it engrossed me fully, containing as it did so many answers. I never succumbed to it, however, because I still sought to find the questions; besides, our undergraduate intoxication with Freud had left marks. As I learned more about Russia and had an opportunity as early as 1959 to meet and observe Soviet historians, I became increasingly negative about historical materialism. Russia, I learned, was in some respects a vessel of 19th-century German academic traditions, priceless traditions that I had never encountered in my own education and training as a historian in the United States. I came to realize that Marxism, in its Leninist-Stalinist variant, had almost obliterated these traditions by covering them with thick layers of bureaucratization, falsification, ideology, and myth, but they had survived and revealed themselves with startling freshness at important moments. With some measure of surprise, I found myself anti-Marxist and anti-communist. My appreciation of Marxism varied in inverse proportion with my growing affection for Russia and Russians.
It was in this context that I discovered the concept of myth. As a graduate-exchange student in Leningrad, I became acquainted with Soviet historians and was struck by the discrepancy between the flatness of their writings and the lively intelligence of their face-to-face exchanges. I abandoned my original research proposal and began to study the history of Russian historical scholarship. Myth was a natural by-product of my dissertation about M. N. Pokrovsky, the leading Soviet Marxist historian of the 1920s and early 1930s, who was repudiated and vilified by Stalin in a campaign that lasted for years and reverberated for decades. Ultimately, I came to understand this campaign as the replacement of a myth-laden ideology by an ideologically laced mythology. I turned more and more to the history of the Communist Party and the notion of contrived myth.
The immediate occasion for employing the concept of myth was a talk I gave at Stanford University in 1980. I confess a touch of gimmickry, a search for something clever to say in those surroundings so august for a historian from central Pennsylvania. I had been invited to present a paper on E. M. Iaroslavskii, Stalin's amanuensis. To talk about Soviet historiography as propaganda or ideology, or even as falsification, seemed commonplace. "Myth" seemed to be the thing; perhaps it was in the air. My talk went well, thanks at least in part to the fine wines of the Stanford faculty club.
The next day, however, I had to ask myself what I had meant by myth. Then began a process of re-education, a merry chase at the outset and then an arduous search. I went back to some of the names I recalled from undergraduate philosophy courses, Ernst Cassirer to begin with, then Hannah Arendt, who had tied me in knots for a long week. Then I went forward to anthropology, Clifford Geertz leading me, through his criticism to Claude Levi-Strauss, and then to post-structuralism. I found myself in the field of semiotics and looking into the yard of the deconstructionists. I could not comprehend Jacques Derrida and had no taste for his prose. I learned that even mention of his name or movement could raise eyebrows and produce scowls. Roland Barthes, in contrast, opened doors to narrative coding and the world of connotation.
What did I learn about myth? First of all, there are, I now know, enough definitions and theories in the library, to confuse the dilettante, even without browsing in cyberspace. It made me wish that I had majored in taxonomy. I have a definition for every occasion, if my notes are on hand. Problem one is to distinguish between myths in preliterate societies and myths in the modern world, which is akin to the distinction between natural and contrived myths, which in turn presupposes a distinction between true and false myths. (There are those who say that the modern world is populated by pseudo-myths.) A second problem is to distinguish between myth and ideology, between myth and utopia and still other forms of nonrational thought. The distinction between myth and fiction is crucial in the Soviet context, a system that so heavily depended on hypocrisy for its survival, that is, both for the survival of the system and the survival of individuals who composed the society.
Before I had sorted out these problems, I became aware of myth as a process, mythologization. This approach to myth grew out of another concern that had begun to agitate my mind-the problems of law, legality, and legal culture. Again it was Russia that prompted my concern. Just when Russians strove to establish democracy in the wake of Soviet lawlessness, law (more precisely, the absence of law) and the low level of Russian legal consciousness thrust themselves into the foreground. Democracy glittered not only in the minds of the intelligentsia during the waning years of Soviet power, but in the popular imagination as well. The failure, so far at least, to establish democracy underlines the importance of democratic mythology. Voting is not enough; belief is required to have and exercise rights—yours as well as mine. It helps to believe in rights as natural and not just as conventions and to accept the fiction of social contract, as is implied in the concept of constitution. These myths help to establish the conviction that government is a contrivance of men and women to advance their own purposes. They counteract the rival conviction that the state is an instrument of divine purpose or an organism that history itself has produced as an expression of ineluctable laws.
This scandalous conclusion of mine about the importance of myth for the establishment of democracy and legality was one of the matters that prompted me to think about retirement. I reluctantly drew still another conclusion: myth, perhaps even more so than reason, had brought about the destruction of the Soviet Union. A host of actions and conditions, of course, had produced that outcome. As a historian who had a small voice in the Russian discussion, I was happy to think that knowledge had undermined that ideocratic regime built upon a foundation of lies and a superstructure of rigidly enforced intellectual controls. I still believe there is some truth to this-the revelations about mass murder in themselves transformed the system. These crimes had been widely known, history written on the skin of the Soviet peoples. Bringing them into the light of day, enabling people to talk, grimace, shake one's head and point one's finger meant that the old regime no longer existed, just its husk. With these actions, subjects became citizens. From Stalin's crimes to Lenin's ideas, and then to Lenin's crimes and Marx's ideas, then the cretinism of the Brezhnev years came into full view. By the end, nothing but fragments of the old system remained.
Also important in this story, perhaps more important than knowledge, though I hope not, was the myth of America. The United States was a powerful presence. As a symbol it was multivalent, as the semioticians say, and, therefore, it is difficult to describe its content. How does one measure its significance? It is probably too late for survey data to be aggregated and too early for memoirs to appear, but all of us who witnessed those events, or some of them, know that its force was great. During my first stay in Russia as a graduate-exchange student in 1959, I realized that I was not just a person but a symbol. The Russian writer, Vasily Aksenov, now a resident of the United States, confirmed this recently when he spoke of Americans in those days as windows onto another world. Soviet peoples pushed and jostled for just a peek through that window.
The myth of America gained force as the Western presence became stronger and as Soviet power ebbed. In the time of Gorbachev and glasnost many urged, "Once we finally rid ourselves of these Reds, we'll be free and powerful, friends with America and with Americans. Wealth and freedom will be ours." It was the music of America, the films replete with violence and sexuality, and the Disney characters as well; it was our literature, but above all, it seems to me, it was the smiles of Americans. This was the core of the myth. Peaceniks and other demonstrators regularly populated Soviet television, comfortably smiling as they marched against their own government's policies, smiling all the time to each other and to their government, smiles that were always relaxed, if sometimes goofy.
I had been taught that rationality and rationalization as both intellectual activity and social process drove mythology from the field and from the heavens. In Russian history I first glimpsed the reciprocal influence of rationalization and myth; then I saw them play into and against each other at every turn.
Discursive reason is one of the more recent achievements of our species, a fledgling in comparison with myth, its sibling. Max Weber traces rationality back, its Western variant at any rate, as far as the Hebrews. There is some irony in the fact that the Protestant reformers, who drew inspiration from the Hebrew bible, produced an antirational revolution. They swept out of Northern Europe the vast structure of Thomistic philosophy and the Church itself. The Catholic Church, Europe's first grand bureaucracy, was clearly a product of the rationalizing impulse, and it became a powerful instrument in rooting out the tribal myths of barbarians. Mystically inclined Protestants, in turn, created the setting and the institutions for the development of physical science in the seventeenth century, which many deem the highest achievement of human reason. The correlation between Protestantism and the "scientific revolution" is evident, even if the connection remains ineffable. Very likely the emptying of the Aristotelian cosmology from the Protestant mind forms part of the connection.
The witchcraft trials of the early modern period still figure in our memory and are usually deemed a product of a particularly savage mythology. Historians increasingly see them as a paradoxical outcome of rationalism-the codification of laws and legal procedures spurred prosecution. A powerful argument has been made to this effect. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, the Church deemed belief in witchcraft a superstition of the peasantry, one of the myths to be combatted whenever possible. It was judged foreign to Christianity. Only with the revival of Roman law and the refinement of legal procedures did it became an issue for those in authority, a belief that registered with the educated portion of society. Only then did the fires burn.
Economic rationality, that is, capitalism, is a necessary theme in any European history course. One of capitalism's fundamental processes is the creation of the entrepreneur, both the concept and the thing itself. Without unduly stretching the metaphor, I think we can say that political rationality, that is, democracy, spawned its own entrepreneurs, who hawk, as the occasion demands, nationalism, religion, and social conflict. Is it possible to imagine the First World War, from which the blessings of communism and fascism flowed, without including democracy and its entrepreneurs in the account? These entrepreneurs are, of course, still with us. No doubt they claim greater skill and power than they possess, but with their polling techniques and focus groups, their ability to capitalize on our fears with their mastery in creating narratives and manipulating symbols, they are formidable. Their own rationality of technique can perhaps in the long run drain the very substance of political rationality. They are masters of rationally contriving myths.
I was shocked further at my own naivete, as I realized the extent to which democracy rested upon a mythology of its own and, moreover, set the scene for rival mythologies. The realization came to mind while presenting to my students an account of the outbreak of the First World War. I came to understand that democracy was deeply implicated.
Alongside the traditional bungling diplomats, militaristic barons, and aggressive imperialists, democratic politicians should also be brought to the docket. Democracy had whipped the flames of national hatred, just as it had whipped the flames of social conflict by making it urgent to seek an enemy without. Democracy, which required elections and created the technology for winning them, was without peer as a seedbed of national passions.
Long ago I had read and forgotten a writing of Konstantin Pobedonotsev, a Russian ideologue and the teacher of the last two tsars. He had rejected democracy, arguing that it was divisive in principle and a ruinous possibility for Russia. I thought his polemic glib and formulaic. Did not democracies have the greatest cohesion? This was a natural conclusion for an American; sometimes it is beyond possibility to distinguish rival principles even among our own presidential candidates. Why had it taken me so long to appreciate that in Europe the symbols and paraphernalia of democracy were grafted onto a cluster of rival myths. Each political party stepped forth not merely with a different sense of rational interest, but with its own view of history, its own gallery of heroes and other sacred symbols, and its own notion of villainy and treachery—that is to say, with its own mythology. Here I am using the term mythology in an elementary sense as a collection of stories that inspire loyalty, provide identity, and convey codes of conduct.
As an American educated in an Anglophile university, I was, of course, predisposed favorably toward law. Even common law should be thought of as a product of rationality, and law can be admired not only as a social and political institution but as an index of civilization and as an intellectual achievement. As an intellectual achievement it perhaps rivals seventeenth-century physics. Law-governed nations tend not to fight each other. Thus only law promises social stability and peace. Law, more than anything else, provides hope for the future.
A few years ago, I became aware that I only vaguely touched upon the history of law in my teaching. I partly forgave myself, recollecting that I had never been taught the history of law. It was not present in the textbooks I studied or in those I assigned. I tried to remedy this but wonder now whether I conjured up a myth of my own.
Russia's weak legal tradition is common knowledge. What is less well known is that a legal profession and a modern legal consciousness emerged forcefully in the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, it never held sway and revolutionary ideology and then revolution finally engulfed it. One of the great obstacles to legality was and is Russian literature, most notably the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Each in his own way derided law as unjust and an obstacle to community based on love. Tolstoy's tracts in particular formulate a powerful critique of law and demonstrate in ways that produce tears how law can produce injustice. It is a timeless reminder, but in Russia it was premature. It downgraded a culture scarcely institutionalized, thus constituting an obstacle to rather than an instrument of reform.
Soviet power was weighted down by statutes, but they by no means signified legality. The fact that the government never felt bound by its own statutes or recognized the rights of citizens proclaims its lawlessness. The Communist Party presented itself as the instrument of historical laws of class conflict that cleared the path to the radiant future of communism. These laws were deemed higher than—transcendent, I should say—to ordinary statutes. Stalin cosmologized the historical process and for the most part the government acted consistently with its own mythology.
The Gorbachev era revealed the full extent of Soviet lawlessness—the systematic criminalization of the population. The persistent shortfalls in production since 1917 placed a premium on illegally produced goods, on goods smuggled from abroad and even large-ticket items left over from Imperial Russia. An extensive underground economy existed, and it seems that almost the entire population had recourse to it at one time or another, hence the phrase "institutionalized criminalization."
Without an effective legal system there can be no prosperity. Legality implies contract, which implies rights and responsibilities, the prerequisites for production and exchange. The nonpayment of wages and salaries in Russia is, perhaps above all, a sign of the weakness of legality, the inability of the government to enforce its tax laws.
In teaching the survey course on modern European history, I began to stumble and hesitate over words and meanings. Democracy, child of Athens, reborn in the Enlightenment, was a product of reason if ever there was one. Modern democracy rested on the laborious rationalization of English common law—in both the codification of legislation and in the articulation of rules of evidence. The very idea of a social contract to be expressed in a constitution is a supreme achievement of human reason. To go a step further, the very conception of freedom was out of mind until the shattering of the world of myth by theological and philosophical abstractions. Rationality, nevertheless, nourishes myth and creates new settings for its growth. What metaphor shall we choose for the social contract itself—myth, fiction, or a design to explain and promote how a society should function? It is all of these at one time or another.
Upon reflection, I wonder whether I had been wrong all along, throughout all those years of teaching. I had pictured myself in the trenches at war—in the classroom combating the dragons of ignorance, and in meeting rooms wrestling with the dragons of reactionary pedagogy and entrenched bureaucracy that impeded the flowering of a university dedicated to truth, beauty, and goodness. Only in my last year of teaching did I realize how many of my blows had fallen idly.
Sometime in the course of these events, some of my students must have told my colleagues that chaps had dropped from view in my classroom, and that an alien sense of process had taken over my mind. My colleagues, of course, ran to the dean, who keeps a psychiatrist on retainer for just such cases (she alleges). The dean rightly concluded that my case was beyond repair.
I like retirement; my wife suggests that I'm a natural at it; I was born to retire. She found a park bench with some friendly squirrels, and every day she gives me a bag of peanuts. I have a nice talk with the squirrels for as long as the peanuts last; then I go home. I sleep well in the afternoon. But sometimes at the witching hour, I lie awake amidst the sound of laughing dragons.
—George M. Enteen is emeritus professor of Russian history at Penn State University.