The Stalin Cult—Once More On Weber & Reception

Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult has catalyzed a dynamic, wide-ranging set of exchanges in the past week or so on  Russian History Blog.  His responses to the posts—particularly his engagement with Joan Neuberger—have been equally provocative.  Here I’d like to prompt him to spell out his position a bit further on two other issues.

First, amid Plamper’s open-ended analysis of the emergence of the Stalin cult—“the historical paths . . . were tangled and many” (p. 2)—he rules out a Weberian approach to understanding the cult as an instrument of charismatic power.  He writes Weber off with reference to an earlier publication,1 Edward Shils’s concept of sacrality and Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s comment that a Weberian reading of the cult fails to account for crisis times (e.g. 1930-1933, 1937-1938, 1941-1944) when Stalin’s secretariat reduced the prominence of the cult instead of bolstering it.

This argument presents a bit of a conundrum.  If Plamper and Falasca-Zamponi are right that the regime scaled back the cult during times of crisis, then this dynamic ought to confound Shils as well as Weber. Shils’s theory, after all, offers a sense of legitimacy and authority that would presumably be in high demand during turbulent times.  So is Shils somehow less vulnerable to Falasca-Zamponi’s critique than Weber?

Second, Plamper remains dismissive in regard to the question of reception—indeed, he seems more critical of this area of inquiry in his blog posting than in the book itself.  He contends that I am recommending an “older,” “positivistic” approach that is apparently unable to satisfy concerns regarding “representativity,” self-fashioning, document genre, etc. What’s more, he suggests that any inquiry based on the Harvard Project, party and secret police svodki, etc. will inevitably produce an accommodation vs. resistance binary.  This is an argument he has made before.2

Plamper concedes to Falasca-Zamponi that his skepticism in regard to reception and reception theory may be “slightly dated” and “caricature-like.”  Perhaps he refers here to the disagreement in the 1970s-1980s between the German school of reception theory (which he obliquely refers to on p. 295, n. 6) and other traditions of literary criticism.3 In any case, more recent commentary on the subject recommends a hybridized approach, affirming that concerns over authorship, representation and self-fashioning can be reconciled with inquiries into the question of reception.4

This, I suspect, is something Plamper could agree with.  After all, in The Stalin Cult, he frequently refers to what he imagines the popular reception of the Stalin cult to have been. This is most visible in his analysis of the cult in Pravda, where such concerns metastasize into a rhetorical device of sorts.  For instance: “If a Pravda reader on that December day [in 1929] had any inkling that the eight pages gave but a foretaste of a full-blown Stalin cult, the reader would have certainly thought that this phenomenon was going to be verbal, not visual” (p. 35).  “Did images like these [Stalin as pallbearer] establish an uncanny link between Stalin and (violent) death, as in the purges that followed the Kirov murder?  Did this link stay in collective memory, ready to be reactivated during mass terror as in 1937?” (p. 42). “In the spring of 1945, Pravda readers could get further visual cues that the end of the war was nearing.  Stalin again appeared in the background of photographs…” (p. 55). “There may have been real-life explanations for this change [when Stalin’s profile in Pravda shifted after 1945], such as frail health.  However, to Pravda readers this change announced a shift toward absent representations…” (p. 59). “On 23 February 1947 a quarter-page photograph showed Stalin in his parade greatcoat….  He peered attentively and pensively both at and past our imaginary Pravda reader” (p. 65). “[On May 1] [r]eaders encountered ritualized self-commitments to higher plan targets or greetings, both addressed to Stalin, by Yakut reindeer herders, Estonian collective farmers, and Abkhaz lemon growers. [...] On May 2, 1947, our imaginary Pravda reader would have looked at a front-page with the usual paratextual matter occupying the masthead—the Pravda title on the left and a prolix slogan on the right” (p. 66). “Stalin alone gazed straight ahead into the camera—making eye contact with our imaginary reader” (p. 67). “To [Stalin’s] left there was another decree by Bulganin ordering a thirty-gun salute—ten more than on any other holiday our Pravda reader would have encountered so far in 1947” (pp. 68-69). “As our imaginary reader leafed through the newspaper there would have been more encounters with Stalin on pages two and three, shown in large posters in the stadium during the parade of white-dressed athletes” (p. 70). “In other words, our imaginary Pravda reader witnessed a double movement of Stalin’s dead body in the photographs during these three days in March 1953: by moving into the background it in fact moved into the foreground” (p. 83).  Clearly more than just a figure of speech, Plamper’s fictional Pravda reader indicates concern over how the newspaper coverage was received within Soviet society at large.

Although Plamper is considerably more cautious in regard to archival sources’ potential to inform popular reception, he does not assume an absolute position here either.  He notes that comment books contained “genuine sociological information on visitor reactions” during the 1920s (p. 213), before their transformation into more formalistic, performance-oriented exhibits during the 1930s.  Even then, Plamper quotes from them at length, setting up a dialogue between the cult’s consumers and its producers (pp. 209-212).  Fan mail for the actor A. D. Dikii is treated in the same way for the 1940s (pp. 215-217). After Stalin’s death, comment books once again are held to include a variety of popular views (pp. 219-220).

Plamper is certainly right to question whether the former Soviet archives can ever fully satisfy every question regarding reception.  As Plamper noted in my earlier post, I readily concede that even when used critically and triangulated against other sources, these materials can at best offer only glimpses of this “holy grail.” But it seems rash to dismiss such investigations all together or to assert that they must inevitably collapse into some sort of accommodation vs. resistance binary. Especially in regard to the study of the personality cult and other forms of official propaganda, the question of popular reception would seem to be an essential one, not only to inform the dialogue between producers and consumers, but to avoid relying exclusively on our own potentially anachronistic assumptions about how such material resonated in Soviet society.

  1. Jan Plamper, “Introduction: Modern Personality Cults,” in Personality Cults in Stalinism / Personenkulte im Stalinismus, eds. Klaus Heller and Jan Plamper (Gottingen: V & R Unipress, 2004), esp. 34-37.
  2. Jan Plamper, “Beyond Binaries: Popular Opinion in Stalinism,” Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes, ed. Paul Corner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 64-80.
  3. See Robert C. Holub, “American Confrontations with Reception Theory,” Monatshefte 81:2 (1989): 213-225; Peter U. Hohendahl and Philip Brewster, “Beyond Reception Aesthetics” New German Critique 28 (1983): 108-146; Holub, “Trends in Literary Theory: The American Reception of Reception Theory,” The German Quarterly 55:1 (1982): 80-96; etc.
  4. See, for instance, Martyn P. Thompson, “Reception Theory and the Interpretation of Historical Meaning,” History and Theory 32:3 (1993): 248-272.
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2 Responses to The Stalin Cult—Once More On Weber & Reception

  1. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi says:

    Picking up on David Brandenberger’s recent comments, I would like to add a few more words on the questions I posed about the beginning of the Stalin cult. I was not asking for more information about the genesis of the cult per se. I was rather pointing out the need to understand the motivation for initiating the cult. Following Plamper’s analysis, we know that the cult was not spontaneous but fabricated. What was in the minds of those who promoted it, and what meaning did the manufacture of the cult have for those who worked to make it happen? This is my question. In other words, I am curious not so much about how and when the cult exactly emerged, but why. For this reason I invoked Weber and his interpretive understanding of action, later transformed by Geertz into the concept of thick description. The issue is: what does it all mean?

    On the question of reception, let me briefly add that I understand Plamper’s hesitation about embarking on such an analysis, especially considering the predictable path such an enterprise normally leads to: figuring out whether people resisted or were actually manipulated. Although I cannot comment on the specifics of the Harvard Project, I would want to maintain that reception can still be valid for raising the issue of the meaning people find in the activities they are involved in, the cult of Stalin in this specific case. The answers might end up being more unpredictable than the mere dichotomy resistance/manipulation would lead us to expect. As Janice Radway has shown in her research on romance novels’ readership, the meanings readers found in those novels were less clear cut than one would think. More importantly, it turned out that the activity of reading romance books, rather than the stories themselves, played a crucial role in the women readers’ lives.

    • Jan Plamper says:

      Thanks very much to David Brandenberger for his thoughtful post and for continuing the conversation on the applicability of Max Weber’s charisma concept to the Stalin cult, which also offers an opportunity to take up threads laid by Falasca-Zamponi. Thanks as well for persisting with the thorny issue of reception.

      CHARISMA. Let me try and clarify why I rule out Weber. Weber’s charisma concept has two major problems. First, it assumes that charisma is something innate in a person rather than the result of a social relation (this claim is hotly debated and there are passages in _Economy and Society_ that suggest otherwise, but I believe the essentialist definition of charisma to be more prevalent in Weber’s work).[FN: Clifford Geertz was one of many to stumble over the essentialism of Weber’s charisma concept, writing that “the concept of charisma suffers from an uncertainty of referent: does it denote a cultural phenomenon or a psychological one?” Clifford Geertz, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power,” in idem, Local Knowledge (New York, 1983), p. 121.] Connected with this problem is the fact that Weber was born too early to fully appreciate the power of the mass media in influencing the relationship between ruler and ruled. Yet the mass media are critical for modern personality cults like Stalin’s and their structural features—dissemination with a time lag or in real-time? black/white or color? textual, visual, audial, audiovisual? etc.—are so influential that many media theorists place a fair amount of historical agency in them. Media, it is worth repeating, are not just empty vessels that carry messages; they critically shape multidirectional communicative processes.

      Second, charisma in Weber is inextricably linked with charismatic authority, and charismatic authority remains locked in a grid of three ideal-types of rule, rational authority and traditional/patrimonial authority constituting the two others. By buying into Weberian charisma it is very hard not to get the entire package, and this creates problems, for example, when you think that Stalinism was a mixture of several types of authority, in fact, so hybridic that the clear delineations stop working and the grid itself collapses.

      But no theory is set in stone and many other scholars have refined and redefined Weber’s charismatic authority.[FN: See, for example, Stefan Breuer, Bürokratie und Charisma: Zur politischen Soziologie Max Webers, Darmstadt 1994.] I also toyed with this but in the end decided it wasn’t worth the effort; time and again, either in the classroom or at talks, my interlocutors would use charisma in an essentialist fashion and I needed to use a lot of words in order to emancipate it from the clutches of this essentialism. Had I thought that the analytical payoff of the charisma concept were greater than that of other instruments in the conceptual toolbox, I’d have continued to use all of these words.

      I opted for Shils—a translator of Weber, by the way—because at some point I decided I needed an axiom to start from and the axiom that society has a center struck me as right. (Re: Falasca-Zamponi’s 28 March point: the minor cults of regional Party bosses et al. and thus the existence of multiple centers doesn’t seem a contradiction to me; these minor cults and centers were always oriented toward the main center, Stalin in Moscow, as Malte Rolf has shown.[FN: See Malte Rolf, “Working Towards the Centre: Leader Cults and Spatial Politics in Pre-War Stalinism,” in Balázs Apor, Jan C. Behrends, Polly Jones, E. A. Rees, eds., The Leader Cult in Communist Dictatorships: Stalin and the Eastern Bloc (Basingstoke, 2004), pp. 141-157; idem, “The Leader’s Many Bodies: Leader Cults and Mass Festivals in Voronezh, Novosibirsk, and Kemerovo in the 1930s,” in Klaus Heller, Jan Plamper, eds., Personality Cults in Stalinism – Personality Cults in Stalinism (Göttingen, 2004), pp. 197-206]) The second axiom that this center is endowed with sacredness also struck me as right but less so than the first axiom, which is why I added that “sacrality need not exist a priori in every society; rather it is historically conditioned and culturally constructed in many different shapes and forms” (p. xvi). Shils had the advantage of being sufficiently forgotten to save me the work of freeing him from interpretations that had accrued but didn’t serve my conceptual needs for the case of the Stalin cult. Geertz was less of an influence and his formulations on charisma are mostly borrowed from Shils anyway.

      Broadly speaking, the axiomatic status of Shils’s formulation lends the Stalin cult a more solid and “routinized” quality and one less dependent on Weberian “deeds” to prove its legitimacy. Once Stalin had successfully maneuvered himself in the center of society and become endowed with sacrality, he had to do less by way of maintenance than a Weberian charisma framework would suggest. This is why I see less of a challenge in the fact that the cult was curbed in times of crisis, as Brandenberger points out in turning Falasca-Zamponi’s and my argument against us. But I realize that this doesn’t entirely explain the curbing and sense that Brandenberger has put his finger on something critical that I don’t know how to resolve at this point.

      Would Walter Benjamin’s concepts of aura/auraticization/de-auraticization have done the job, as Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi suggests? I am not sure. Benjamin, it seems to me, works much better if the focus is the aesthetic-political project of fascism tout court (or, perhaps, socialism), not the more circumscribed topic of the cult of Mussolini (or Stalin). At least that’s the sense I got from Falasca-Zamponi’s own brilliant book, one of my major influences.[FN: See Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy (Berkeley, 1997), esp. pp. 9-10]

      What all of this really demonstrates is that we’d all benefit if the modern personality cult experience gave rise to some fresh and serious theorizing. Until then we’re best served with theorists like Shils who are situated somewhere below Weber’s status of master theorist—and the overinterpretation that comes with that status—so that we can tailor them to our needs without having to do too much explaining.

      RECEPTION. Brandenberger provides a string of quotations from my book that are meant to show that I too subscribe to the concept of reception I rejected in the book and in my April 3 post. These quotations, however, are quite different from one another. Some are open questions suggesting one of many possible readings (“Did images like these [Stalin as pallbearer] establish an uncanny link between Stalin and [violent] death, as in the purges that followed the Kirov murder? Did this link stay in collective memory, ready to be reactivated during mass terror as in 1937?” [p. 42]). Some are surface descriptions of Pravda “content,” to use an old-fashioned term (“In the spring of 1945, Pravda readers could get further visual cues that the end of the war was nearing. Stalin again appeared in the background of photographs…” [p. 55]). Some use the device of an imaginary reader. Clearly, these quotations represent different voices; it is questionable practice to reduce them to a single voice. And yet, in the case of the imaginary reader, Brandenberger has convinced me: this reader is indeed meant to embody a dominant strand of interpreting Pravda and thus a “reception” that I weighted and ended up considering more plausible than others, all of which comes close to the kind of balancing and triangulation and ultimately “objective” picture Brandenberger has in mind by “reception.”

      A final and minor point. Brandenberger writes: “Plamper concedes to Falasca-Zamponi that his skepticism in regard to reception and reception theory may be ‘slightly dated’ and ‘caricature-like.’ Perhaps he refers here to the disagreement in the 1970s-1980s between the German school of reception theory (which he obliquely refers to on p. 295, n. 6) and other traditions of literary criticism.” I don’t consider the so-called Constance School of reception theory in 1970s-1980s literary studies and its application to images during the 1980s-1990s (the Wolfgang Kemp book I cite on p. 295, n. 6) dated. To me, it still is one of the most sophisticated attempts to think through reception. What I consider slightly dated and caricature-like is my description of reception in the opening paragraphs of chapter 6, but this description is unconnected to the Constance School. In fact, my “imaginary” reader was inspired by Constance reception theorist Wolfgang Iser’s “implied reader.”

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