Five Questions for Steven Marks


Note:  This is the fifth post in what will become an ongoing “Five Questions with” series where students enrolled in the Fall Havighurst Colloquium on Russia in war and revolution pose questions to the guest speakers who speak to the class.  Today’s five questions were posed to Dr. Steven Marks, Professor of History at Clemson University.

By Grant Collins, Jennifer Fargo, and Chris Quigley

Question 1: Why did you become interested in studying the Russian Revolution and the development of the Soviet State?

I never consciously decided on late Imperial, early Soviet history, it was more a matter of falling into it. At Miami, Andre de Saint-Rat introduced me to Russian avant-garde art, then in graduate school my first seminar was on the Duma era. At Clemson I have taught the Russian Revolution probably more often than any other Russian history course. Of course my research and teaching cover a broader time frame than 1900-1924, but that is the pivotal era, because from the beginning much of my work has addressed the issue of continuity of the Russian present with the pre-1917 past.

Question 2: Based on your research, what do you think the biggest misconception is about the Soviet Union?

This is not totally based on my research, but I do think the biggest misconception about the Soviet Union (among mainstream Americans anyway) is that there was nothing but propaganda in Soviet cultural life. In reality, it was vibrant, from pop culture to more formal genres, and in all periods, even the 1930s. As far as my work goes, I would say it depends on which work you are referring to. My article on Russian money shows that even in Bolshevik circles there was a real diversity of opinion expressed about economic policy, and Lenin supported some of the more moderate positions. Contrary to what most academics were taught, for instance, he did not advocate destroying the wealth of the bourgeoisie through a policy of printing money and creating hyperinflation. (That’s an important issue in American politics too, because it was one excuse conservatives, among them Ronald Reagan, used to scare people into opposing social spending: the Bolsheviks did it to destroy the bourgeoisie, and we aren’t going to fall for that trick by Democrats here).

Question 3: In light of your research, what is your perspective on the divide between Capitalism and Communism?

Even taking into account differences among capitalist nations in taxation, regulation, social welfare support, and corporate cultures, capitalism wherever it exists entails the following: a profit incentive, entrepreneurship, mainly market-based pricing, autonomous securities markets, and a free press that allows for maximum flows of financial, economic, and political information to investors, producers, and consumers. The divide between capitalism and communism is greater in some periods than others. None of the elements of capitalism I just listed existed in the era of the Five Year Plans in the Soviet Union or equivalent periods in other communist countries. But in NEP Russia some of those elements existed, at least partially, and in today’s China even more of them are present. But no communist society at any time or place that I can think of had (or has) a free press, and since I believe capitalism can’t exist without a free press, that is where I believe the key difference lies. If you are asking whether communism can produce economic vitality and rising living standards, again, it depends on the period. An economy with partial market features (e.g.  China today; NEP) works better than one without any (e.g. Stalinism). As for innovation, the key to long-lasting economic growth, I would say historically it only happened under capitalism (it remains to be seen for today’s China, but my bet is against).

Question 4: If students take away only one thing from your lecture, what would you like them to remember?

That capitalism, our understanding of which was conditioned by the Russian Revolution, is not necessarily what we think it is.


Question 5: As an alumnus, how would you describe your experience at Miami University?

I got an excellent education at Miami and a lot of personal attention from my professors. It also gave me the opportunity to study abroad (Luxembourg), work abroad (West Berlin), and explore life under communism (GDR).

Grant Collins, Jennifer Fargo, and Chris Quigley are all History majors.

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