David L. Hoffmann


On his book Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939

Cover Interview of January 12, 2012

The wide angle

The Russian Revolution seemed to promise human liberation and equality. But instead it produced a Stalinist dictatorship, with extreme interventionism and unprecedented state violence. Why did a government purportedly dedicated to social harmony cause such enormous human suffering?

Conventional wisdom blames socialist ideology itself. This view sees the suppression of private property and the market economy under Soviet socialism as leading automatically to state violence. It is true that Marxism espoused violent proletarian revolution and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie as essential steps on the road to a communist utopia. But neither Marx nor Communist Party leaders invented the specific forms of state intervention and violence subsequently deployed by the Soviet government. These forms were borrowed from more general practices that developed in Europe, particularly during the First World War.

I first applied a comparative approach to Soviet history while working on my previous monograph, Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941. One of the topics I researched for that book was Soviet family policy, in particular the Stalinist leadership’s efforts to strengthen familial obligations in the 1930s. Previously, scholars had seen Stalin’s efforts to buttress the family as part of his “Great Retreat” from revolutionary values in favor of more traditional institutions and culture. But when I began to look beyond the Soviet Union, I was struck by how countries throughout Europe and around the world in this period introduced similar policies to strengthen the family and increase the birthrate. I began to see Stalinist family policy as one particular manifestation of an international trend toward state attempts to manage reproduction.

In Cultivating the Masses, I place not only reproductive policies but Soviet welfare provision, public health, surveillance, and state violence in an international context. While I do not argue that the Soviet case was typical, or even a logical extreme, of the more general phenomenon of state interventionism, I do see it as an integral part of world history.

Through such an approach I seek to understand Soviet history not simply as a cautionary tale about socialism. Instead I argue that the Soviet system represented one particular response to the challenges of the modern era—particularly the challenges of mobilizing the population for industrial labor and mass warfare.

The purpose of my project is not to deny essential differences between the Soviet system and other modern states. A comparative approach permits me to highlight the distinctive as well as the common features of Soviet social policy.  I seek to explain these differences through an analysis of the historically-conditioned particularities of the Soviet case. These particularities included Russian authoritarian traditions and Marxist-Leninist ideology, but they were not limited to them. Also significant were the social and political conditions in which pre-revolutionary Russian professionals developed their ideas and practices, borrowing from Western European thought but also drawing upon their particular concerns with uplifting the masses and battling the autocracy. I also explore the place of historical contingency in the development of the Soviet system. The Soviet system was formed at a moment of total war, and wartime institutions and practices of total mobilization became the building blocks of the new state and socio-economic order.