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History's Locomotives: The Intellectual Legacy of Martin Malia

Terence Emmons, Professor Emeritus of History, Stanford University; David Goldfrank, Professor, Department of History, Georgetown University; Norman Pereira, Professor Emeritus of History and Russian Studies, Dalhousie University; Hugh Ragsdale, independent scholar

Date & Time

Feb. 1, 2008
1:30pm – 3:30pm ET


Martin Malia left a lasting legacy as a scholar and educator in the field of Russian studies, according to a panel of historians convened by the Kennan Institute. Along with Richard Pipes and Leopold Haimson, Malia is commonly considered to be among the most influential American historians of Russia of his generation. He is known for his strongly held view that Russia belongs to European civilization and for his belief of the idea that a cultural gradient spans from west to east across the European continent.

David Goldfrank, Professor, Department of History, Georgetown University, called Malia's first book, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812–1855, a major contribution to the study of Russian history in the United States. Had Malia only written this book, Goldfrank stated, he would still qualify as a major historian of Imperial Russia and of Russian intellectual history. In the book, Malia combined a running commentary on Herzen's memoirs and works with incisive explanations of the ideas of both Herzen's contemporary Russian intellectuals, and, more importantly, their major European sources of inspiration. In that sense, the book was able to place the Russian Revolution into a wider context of other revolutions in Europe.

As all observers of Malia's career have noted, Goldfrank stated, his subsequent books are intimately connected. Malia's two books The Soviet Tragedy and Russia under Western Eyes focused on the paradox of the working out of successive Western intellectual and cultural influences in Russia, a country whose institutional configuration and political culture at the start of such influences were despotic. As such, Goldfrank, along with others, interprets them as part of Malia's constant struggle with revisionists. Malia's continued polemics with the revisionist school of Russian history defined his career and eventually led him to call for historians to reassess the methodological and ideological assumptions that underlay their work.

Norman Pereira, Professor Emeritus of History and Russian Studies, Dalhousie University, who was a student of Malia's, discussed his legacy as an educator and his career as a scholar. After studying under Michael Karpovich at Harvard University, Malia moved to the University of California, Berkeley. From Karpovich, Pereira observed, Malia gained several ideas that stuck with him throughout his career: that Russia had been an integral part of Europe since at least the 18th century; that the systemic collapse of 1917 was attributable to governmental incompetence; that World War I was a decisive and catastrophic event in Russian history; and that ideology and politics were central to the Soviet experience.

According to Pereira, Malia's students were a diverse group ideologically, a situation facilitated by his liberal outlook on intellectual debate. Echoing Goldfrank, Pereira noted that Malia's first book was followed by a long silence, caused in part by his disillusionment with the "revisionist" direction of the field. During this period, he accepted an invitation to spend time at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In 1980, colleagues persuaded him to have a collection of his lectures published in French.

Pereira summarized Malia's views of the Russian Revolution: first, Lenin's party theory provided the missing link in the Marxist vision of revolution, providing a vanguard for action; second, Communism followed Marx's vision of socialism as "non-capitalism," which included the suppression of private property; third, the alternative to Stalin was not the ideas of a figure like Nikolai Bukharin, but rather a demolition of the system as a whole; fourth, the Great Purges of 1936–37 were not an aberrant rampage, they were rather the genuine functioning of the Soviet system, masking the gap between reality and ideology; and finally, there would be no second socialist revolution after 1789; all attempts to bring it about would result in massive repression.

Hugh Ragsdale, independent scholar, provided a chronological summary of Malia's major works. In Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, Malia discussed the problem of why the radical political ideology of socialism arose in perhaps the most socio-economically backward major European country. According to Ragsdale, Malia addressed this issue in part by applying de Tocqueville's ideas on the roots of the French Revolution, most notably, the gulf between intellectuals and those people who actually engage in practical politics. By highlighting a similar disconnect in Russia, argued Ragsdale, Malia demonstrated that the Russian idea of freedom was only plausible in the imaginative preoccupation of the intellectual, which led naturally to a kind of teleology of socialism.

Ragsdale reviewed Malia's next scholarly success, the book Comprendre la revolution russe, which analyzed the events surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia's failure to reach a liberal breakthrough of the English type or a conservative breakthrough of the Prussian type. In assessing The Soviet Tragedy, Ragsdale argued that Malia focused too much on the ideological nature of the Soviet experience without taking into account other factors, such as the influence of traditional tsarist autocracy. In Russia under Western Eyes, Ragsdale discussed how Malia used the idea of a cultural gradient in Europe, an idea that was influenced by Alexander Gerschenkron's postulation of the existence of an economic gradient running from east to west across Europe. Ragsdale agreed that a gradient undeniably exists and said Malia was correct in his emphasis on the importance of culture in determining outcomes. Ragsdale argued, however, that in Russia's case, this gradient was emphatically material as well cultural and ran both north to south and east to west. Another element of the cultural gradient theory that Ragsdale noted as troubling was its inclusion of Russia as an intrinsic part of Europe. Ragsdale objected that while Russia is ethnically and linguistically a part of Europe, psychologically and anthropologically it is not. If a country "westernizes," Ragsdale argued, then it is by definition not part of the West. Russia pioneered the experience of Westernization, Ragsdale added.

Malia's final book, History's Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World, was praised by Ragsdale for explaining the medieval concept of society correctly and for accurately defining the term "revolution" in the early modern and late modern contexts as a return to origins and as an overthrow. Ragsdale criticized the book, however, for being Eurocentric and for not taking into account what he believes are some of the most important revolutions in world history. Ragsdale also took issue with the book's notion of the West as the leading force of progress in the world. In conclusion, Ragsdale stated that Malia's terminology and criteria in the book apply most productively to a much broader world than the European dimension to which Malia limited it.

Terence Emmons, Professor Emeritus of History, Stanford University, recounted a personal recollection about being Malia's research assistant from his student days. The book manuscript for Russia under Western Eyes began as a conference paper in the 1960s. It eventually appeared as a book in 1999, but only after several rounds of revisions and updates that took into account the various changes taking place in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. History's Locomotives was edited and prepared for publication by Emmons, who said the book aspired to place the Bolshevik Revolution in the longue durée of European revolutionary history. Malia's idea was that the revolutionary process began in the 15th century with the Hussite uprising in what would later become the Czech republic. The book proceeded to trace the path of history through the Atlantic revolutions—the English, French, and American—and finally the socialist revolutionary movements between 1848 and 1917. Malia saw a progressive radicalization of the European revolutionary process.

Emmons noted that Malia was particularly interested in European politics and ideology, arguing that the two single most important events in the development of that ideology were the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Emmons asserted that the book would have included the spread of Leninist ideology beyond Europe after 1917 and the rise of fascist movements in Europe and elsewhere, if Malia had lived longer. Although the book has received limited notice in the popular and academic media, Emmons said he thought the book told a grand narrative of history and made numerous interesting observations about European history.


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