The Second Congress of the Soviets took place in October 1917. The representatives of all Russian parties were called to ratify the Bolshevik’s seizure of power that took place only a few days earlier.
Those who objected to the seizure of power and thought it was illegal walked out of the congress before the resolution was passed, knowing that their voice won’t be heard anyways, and thinking the Bolshevik government will fall soon after. Little did they know about the consequences of the events they’ve just witnessed.
As they were leaving the assembly Leon Trotsky shouted after them: “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!”
The Bolsheviks believed that history was a science, a universally determined process, which unfolds and plays itself out according to the stages and the order outlined by Marx. The universal scientific process will lead to the establishment of communism. Being a party member, and participating in realization of history – by helping build communism – was a powerful attraction for many Soviet men and women. Now, from passive observers and servants, they could become the makers of history, they could occupy an important role in the historical process. In the words of the Russian translation of the Internationale – “those who were nothing, will become everything”.
History and one’s place in it are important issues in many cultures and societies. But the Soviet Union, was probably the only place where these questions reached almost to the levels of collective obsession. Because history was so important, one could not simply join into the making of history. What if, like that annoying bully kid, he wants to join the building so he could ruin that for everyone else? Making history became an elite club: one had to be admitted (become a party member) and could have been banished from history. Ironically, Trotsky, whose role in the Revolution was systematically erased from Russian history texts throughout the entire 20th century, was one of the first elite members of the club to fall into the dustbin of history.
Although the Bolsheviks were probably the most radical and outspoken in their definition of what is historical process and who can join, the membership in the History Club was never an open thing. Predominantly old, and definitely white, men from certain universities from certain countries claimed to be the only legitimate voice of history for many years. Theirs, was history of wars and diplomacy, of colonial conquest, supremacy and glory. Only in the 1960s the historical voice was gradually claimed by women and non-white narrators. As the consequence, there was a change in the ideas about what kind of stories constitute history, and what kinds of voices and experiences should be preserved on the historical record. And yet, to become an historian, one still had to become the member of the club: by acquiring a certain education and demonstrating relative capacity in certain methodologies.
Like all members of elite clubs the members of History Club are very reluctant to open its doors just for anyone. Although there members of the historical profession are now much more diverse in their gender, race and sexual orientation, they still insist on admittance rules. Thus, without a PhD in history, one doesn’t count as a “professional historian” and independent historian is appreciated much less than a tenured faculty in a leading university. In the same way, while a book published by an academic press is considered a trustworthy source for university paper, a Wikipedia entry, is not.
Today we are living through another historical process, tremendously important in the scale of change it brings to the world: globalization and the revolution of knowledge and technology. The impacts of this revolution are banging on the doors and windows of the elite History Club, and will soon bring it down, so it seems.
Being trained to become a professional historian within the old paradigm of academic preparation and methodology I am nevertheless part of the new world that engulfs the History Club. Yes, we still sit in the archive and go to the library, but we look at different sources, ask ourselves different questions and have new technologies and methodologies available.
As the connecting link between old and new paradigm, it is our duty to democratize the history club by bringing in new methods, new sources, new standards, as well as new ways to organize, present and preserve knowledge. At the same time, we cannot just knock the history club down, tearing off pictures, abolishing traditions and throwing the existing members out, because then, we won’t be better than Trotsky and his mates. While introducing the innovations and the changes, we must preserve the good rules and traditions, such as the need to ground one’s arguments in the sources, to conduct rigorous examination of available materials, to be aware of the limitations of our perspectives while striving for as most well rounded and impartial view as possible. We also must maintain and pass on the things that made us want join the club in a first place: a strive for open discussion, critical thinking and intellectually engaging dialogue with other people.
I am hoping that this blog would be the avenue for new ways of thinking about history and for maintaining the good traditions of the history club.