Part of illustration. Katrin Stenmark.

Reviews Critique and morality. Consensus and dissent in post-revisionist Soviet studies

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4, 2012, pp 78-79
Published on on januari 8, 2013

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Few scholars today deny that that their work is in some way related to values. On the contrary, most scholars acknowledge and even make use of a certain value-relatedness in order to emphasize the importance of their work. This means that the nature of the questions posed may be determined by values, but the answers given should not be value judgments but value-neutral empirical or logical statements. The ethos behind this attitude is value subjectivism. Cognitive norms are universal, inspiring values that are subjective and freely chosen. The formula behind this ethos is freedom and rational self-control. The spheres of morality and cognition are supposed to be separated so that they can be theoretically clarified and the relation between their separate means and ends scrutinized. This hampers immediate emotional experience but simultaneously enhances moral agents’ ability to leave a mark on the world by making them better informed. In the case of historical research, this doctrine prevents the moral passions from defining the entire research process in detail, which is helpful, since large parts of human history are quite a grim business from the viewpoint of contemporary moral standards.

Value subjectivism is not an idea without alternatives, however. Proponents of Lebensphilosophie on both the left and the right have argued that the technical character of the scientific ethos dispossesses the human intellect of will and intensity, thus leaving it powerless and agnostic. Another way to overcome the agnosticism intertwined with value subjectivism is to hold the position of value objectivism. Morality is then immanent in historical facts, and not at all separated from cognition. Intellectual quality coincides with moral certitude. A strong proponent of value objectivism in history is the German scholar Jörn Rüsen. Rüsen has earned a lasting reputation as one of the world’s leading experts on German historicism. In recent decades, he has also launched a large-scale normative project regarding the uses of “history for life”. At the core of this project is the claim that the past is impossible to conceive of as static other. It is rather a precondition for all historical thinking that the past is inseparable from the present and also from the visions of the future. The merging of these dimensions is unavoidable because historians, unlike other scholars, can only conceive of the past by narrating it, according to Rüsen. It is of course possible for the historian to have separate views of morality in the past and in the present. Rüsen tries to say rather that such double standards would be irrational. They would, in German philosophical terminology, be expressions of “instrumental reason” with the whole of the human “life-world” taken into account. Their narratives would in that case be devoid of “meaning”, that is, cognition would not be related to values. The traditional, value subjective scholar is portrayed as powerless in the face of ideological forces, unless he consciously adopts them.1

Rüsen was recently granted an honorary doctorate at the University of Lund, where his normative and highly abstract thinking has earned him a dedicated following. It is not surprising, then, that a recently published study from Lund aims to follow in his footsteps. Valter Lundell’s study is a bold attempt to analyze history from the standpoint of value objectivism. Although this standpoint is not clearly stated, value objectivism is the theoretical underpinning of the study, and Lundell would certainly regard the sentence “communism is evil” as descriptive truth rather than subjective opinion. The aim of Lundell’s study is to investigate “how it can be that, with the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years behind us, it is still difficult to form a consensus around what role the communist experience should play in Swedish historical culture”. Lundell would certainly not agree that the lack of consensus, or “the asymmetrical historical culture”, as he chooses to call it, mirrors the plurality of views among researchers and democratic citizens. Inspired by Rüsen’s thinking, the social psychology of Leon Festinger, and the conservative American sociologist Paul Hollander, Lundell searches for the “deeper causes” of this lack of consensus. He has therefore conducted in-depth interviews with nine university historians and eleven history teachers from the Swedish secondary education system, the gymnasium. The university historians are especially interesting to him because they all signed an infamous appeal to stop a recent state sponsored exhibition of crimes against humanity under communist regimes.

The method applied consists of confronting the respondents with questions derived from three different paradigms of research: the totalitarian paradigm, which originates with the attitudes of the Cold War; the revisionist paradigm, which proposes a challenge to the totalitarian view in the seventies and eighties; and last but not least the “post-revisionist paradigm”, which conforms with the views of modern Sovietological research, according to Lundell. The first two paradigms are summarized quite brilliantly in short explanatory narratives. The third paradigm, however, Lundell declines to summarize, which is quite surprising since he unabashedly proclaims it to be the supreme alternative that has refuted the revisionist paradigm altogether, and thus reinstated the totalitarian paradigm in a new and more versatile form.

The main conclusion of his study is that the university historians, and, to a lesser extent, the secondary school teachers are lagging behind the progress of Sovietological research, that is, the “post-revisionist paradigm”. They come up short as moralists and are haunted by quasi-religious sentiments towards communism, the loss of which causes mental dilemmas such as “cognitive dissonance”, “moral relativism”, and a bundle of similar things. As interesting as these questions may be, it is not clear whether Lundell actually pursues an active interest in them, or simply suggests his explanations for derogatory purposes. Attributing an opponent’s position to mental illness might make a spectacular TV show, but ranks low in a scientific debate.

Although Lundell fails to give a clear account of what the post-revisionist paradigm consists of, it is possible to deduce its components from frequent references to it in his analysis: it is a thoroughly idealistic and hermeneutical explanation that posits the Soviet terror against its own citizens as chiefly caused by the ideology of communism, produced by Karl Marx and consciously put into practice by Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet people. As a historical explanation, this may of course be true, but Lundell is not out to validate this explanation or to show that it reflects a consensus or a majority among Sovietologists. The explanation rather serves to elevate communism to the same mythical level as Nazi ideology: an archetype of evil for our secular time. Why not attempt a demythologization of Nazism instead, if the concern is to improve the symmetry of historical culture?

He also has a very sanguine idea of objectivity. The state-sponsored exhibitions are repeatedly referred to as “pure enlightenment”, and on page 134 he proclaims the explanations of his survey respondents to be intellectually weak because of their “caution towards ideology and morality”. He devotes a chapter to methodological self-reflection but does not try to invalidate or challenge his position of value objectivism. It is fair to say that his methodology consists of moral identification with certain views, coupled with a few pinches of armchair psychology and German Wesensschau. In fact, Lundell’s “post-revisionist paradigm” is more or less synonymous with the view expressed in a much-debated article by Kristian Gerner from 1999.2 Lundell has not managed to achieve critical distance from the biased brilliance of Gerner, and a paucity of guidance seems to have been offered by the academic supervisors. Gerner’s position is hardly strengthened by such doctrinaire apprenticeship, which naturally leads to ideological ossification rather than critical development.

I agree with Rüsen and his followers that the scientific ethos of value subjectivism is problematic. Clearly, it is not a norm that serves its purpose independently of the use individuals make of it. It might degenerate into indifference to moral problems, and so in practice resemble the hollow catechism of value nihilism. But here I think that Rüsen and his followers are beating a dead horse. Few scholars in the humanities and social sciences would agree that statements expressing values are equivalent to “any arbitrarily compounded series of words” as Rudolf Carnap provocatively stated in his The Unity of Science (1934). On the other hand, the logical perfection Carnap professed has a certain similarity to the moral perfection envisaged by Rüsen. Both share the dream of consensus. There is a general weakness in Jörn Rüsen’s thinking in that he tends to suppress the possibility of irresolvable conflicts between norms. Cognitive norms such as disinterestedness, universalism, and organized skepticism might not at all be reconciled harmoniously with norms of morality. So if the case for value objectivism in history is hardly furthered by Lundell’s study, perhaps there is still a lesson to be learned. Historical writing is fostered by righteousness, but not always the most intense forms of righteousness. ≈


  1. Jörn Rüsen, Berättande och förnuft: Historieteoretiska texter [Narration and reason: historical-theoretical texts], Göteborg 2004, p. 57.
  2. Kristian Gerner, “Kommunismens anatomi: En historiemoralisk översikt” [The anatomy of communism: A historical-moral overview], Historisk tidksrift [Historical journal, Swedish] 1999:2.
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Den goda tanken och den onda erfarenheten [The good idea and the evil experience] Lund University Department of History Lund 2011, 157 pages