History, “Life” Style
The Russian Revolution.
by Alan Moorehead.
Harper. 301 pp. $5.00.
This book has had an unprecedented success, having been selected as a Book-of-the-Month after being run in an abridged series of installments in Life Magazine. An illuminating case history of bureaucratic-cum-commercial ax-grinding, it demonstrates how easily a tendentious view of politics, as a coherent explanation of “what happened,” can be grafted on to sources smoothed together by a popular style and the whole swallowed painlessly by professional reviewers—to say nothing of the larger public—forty years after a revolution which has come to engulf one-third of the human race. Though it cannot be taken seriously as history, it is of interest as an illustration of that Western combination of moral smugness and intellectual obtuseness which has enabled the Soviet leadership, despite its own radical shortcomings, to win many strategic victories.
The Russian Revolution has no scholarly ax to grind: It does not even reflect the interminable pedantries of what has come to be known as the field of Sovietology, for the author claims no particular expertise in Soviet affairs; his reputation is that of a popular journalist. In this book he applies his journalistic competence to the task assigned to him by Time, Inc., in conjunction with the “Possony group,” described as a team of “students” headed by Dr. Stephan T. Possony, professor of international relations at Georgetown University and an Air Force consultant. Mr. Moorehead’s “Preface” and “Notes on Sources” credit the Possony group with having “provided the main foundation” of the book, through their intensive study of a mass of hitherto unexamined documents in the German Foreign Office Archives captured during the Second World War.
Dr. Possony’s point of view, with which Mr. Moorehead’s book is supposed to be informed, revolves around the theme of “German gold,” a theme now revived for the umpteenth time since 1917. The Bolsheviks, the charge goes, were among other things German agents, and their political success is attributed to their possession of German funds. What is astonishing about the resuscitation of this ancient piece of nonsense is not the degree of plausibility worked up by Mr. Moorehead’s conscientious efforts; there is, after all, not much difference in principle between Lenin’s accepting Ludendorff’s train and his money. What baffles one is a point of view which can consider this thesis of any practical use, even as propaganda, forty years later in a world totally changed by Soviet expansion.
Obviously, even if it were to be proven incontrovertibly that Lenin took money from Ludendorff, this would seem to be of concern only to Russian Social Democrats, for whom Lenin’s personal integrity is, understandably, an issue of great moral significance. But outside this tiny circle, why should it be of any interest today? Of scholastic interest, undoubtedly, and of human interest in general, but why should Life Magazine think it is interesting enough to warrant the quarter of a million dollars it is reputed to have spent on the magazine installments alone? Surely in any case the issue would only be whether Lenin changed his program to please the German General Staff. But no one has ever maintained this; and so, even if Lenin’s taking German money could be proved up to the hilt, all it would really show is that Lenin had far clearer political vision than Ludendorff: i.e., Lenin won and Ludendorff lost. It tells us nothing that would enable us to understand the triumph of either the Bolsheviks in 1917 or of their successors later on. Time, Inc., has, in short, sacrificed political comprehension on the altar of provincial blindness in hiring Mr. Moorehead to construct a so-called history of the revolution around this preposterous theme.
But the book fails to do even this; some amusement is afforded by the incoherence that paralyzes the book intellectually because of the author’s inability to reconcile his sources. In spite of Mr. Moorehead’s solemn gratitude to Dr. Possony’s revelations after “ten years of study,” it turns out that Mr. Moorehead has simply pinched nine-tenths of his material from perfectly accessible, indeed standard, source books: viz., Trotsky, Sukhanov, Bernard Pares, John Reed, Bruce Lockhart, etc. In fact, to the extent that the book has any structure, it is derived from Trotsky (largely unacknowledged) and Sukhanov (partially acknowledged). Dr. Possony’s laborious researches over the “past ten years” are, in fact, limited to the contents of chapter eight and part of chapter eleven, which is where the attempt is made on a documentary basis to link Lenin to the German treasury. Here the evidence, despite rhetorical embellishments, is negligible. Mr. Moorehead has thus had a painful job to do from a purely technical point of view: namely to reconcile Trotsky’s analysis of events with what Dr. Possony and Mr. Luce would like to see. It is a thankless business, and its inherent difficulties lead to an effect of high comedy. The Romanovs, for instance, are systematically sneered at, which from a primitive anti-Bolshevik point of view might seem rather mysterious, until one recalls that it follows quite naturally from the author’s basing his account of the Russian revolution on Trotsky. (Life Magazine itself, still more mysteriously—actually, of course, irresponsibly—displayed a great deal of anti-Tsarist, indeed quasi-Bolshevik, propaganda in the illustrations it used to depict conditions under the ancien régime.)
Here is one example that illuminates Mr. Moorehead’s method of amalgamating his contradictory sources: in discussing the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which took Russia out of the war, Mr. Moorehead writes (as it appeared in Life): “It is now known, from the German Foreign Office files, that some bribery was involved here. In any event, early on February 24th, Lenin and Trotsky sent a message to the Germans saying that they would sign.” The words “in any event,” simple as they seem, are a tour de force of English style. Mr. Moorehead is not exactly saying that Lenin personally took the money; on the other hand, since Lenin and Trotsky were the ones who made the decision, what role could “bribery” have played? But it would clearly be foolish to demand an exegesis of this technique. Some way had to be found of fusing Dr. Possony’s “ten years of research” with the largely pro-Soviet sources used by Mr. Moorehead, and rhetorical assimilation was the one method possible.
An even more vivid illustration of the simple-mindedness of Mr. Moorehead’s approach is his account of the fateful Bolshevik decision to make the October insurrection. I happened to be looking at this particular passage during a conversation with an old Menshevik, who was puzzled by the attitude of a certain university press which had returned his lengthy memoir with a recommendation that it be rewritten in the “American style.”
“Tell me,” said my Menshevik acquaintance, “American style—what does it mean?”
My eye fell on Moorehead’s description of Lenin’s secret meeting with the Central Committee of the party in Sukhanov’s apartment, a literally world-shaking event:
“The debate continued for ten hours. Lenin spoke up for an immediate rebellion and finally demolished all his opponents except Kamenev and Zinoviev. . . . In the end Lenin had his way. . . .” Kamenev and Zinoviev’s only arguments are described as a “feeling” that “the party was not yet strong enough.” One easily imagines the vehemence of the argument, with the tempestuous talkers who were present, but can the issues really be reduced to this blandly grotesque platitude? If they were that simple, what could Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and all the rest have been talking about so long? Why did Lenin have to harangue the others? What objections were raised by those who wavered? On what grounds did Kamenev and Zinoviev venture to oppose Lenin? The whole point of their differences, after all, lay in Lenin’s break with previous Socialist doctrine; with the support of Trotsky, a newcomer to the Bolshevik fold, he managed to smother or circumvent opposition. But how? And why?
You see, this is the ‘American style.’ You must leave out everything.
I have the impression he thought me flippant. Nevertheless, this is a precise description of American journalism. For the sake of “readability” and “liveliness,” the peripheries of events are simply stitched together; the core is omitted. Perhaps the very discrepancies and contradictions which Mr. Moorehead was compelled to encompass in one way or another will arouse some interest in the inwardness of the events whose consequences are now occupying the world at large. But a far greater likelihood is that the “smoothness” of Life-style journalism will make for a feeling of satiety—in this case, alas, only too well justified.