Rudolf Schlesinger and His Role in the Development of British Soviet Studies

Stephanie Mckendry (Central and East European Studies: University of Glasgow)


1 This paper will explore the different roles in which the description of Rudolf Schlesinger (1901-1969) as a trailblazer is appropriate, concentrating in particular on the part he played in establishing the academic discipline of Soviet studies in Britain. Schlesinger was a representative and leader of those workers and intellectuals who attempted to instigate unprecedented social change in Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century in the name of Marxism. His participation in the newly emerging Austrian Social Democratic movement as well as his role as party activist, editor and writer in the KPD (German Communist Party) of the 1920s and work for the Russian Communists in 1930s Moscow would have made him, by his own estimation, a member of the revolutionary vanguard. In the latter part of his career, as a political commentator and Marxist theorist, Schlesinger also appears as a trendsetter or trailblazer. Having aided the evolution of theory within the KPD he spent his émigré life in post-war Britain, primarily employed by the University of Glasgow. Here he elucidated his own Marxist political theory, and wrote hundreds of articles and books on all areas of Soviet life and socialism; significantly developing Soviet studies as an academic discipline in Britain in the process. Schlesinger was also a member of the first generation of historians to critically engage with events in the Soviet Union. A colleague of historians such as E.H. Carr and I. Deutscher, Schlesinger co-founded and edited the respected journal Soviet Studies and lectured on the subject at Glasgow University.

2 Schlesinger was involved in a number of organisations of the labour movement during his youth in Vienna and was instrumental in its development. During the 'revolution' of November 1918 'councils' were formed throughout Austria. These were formed within schools by the more advanced of the youth movement and in his unfinished memoirs Schlesinger described doing so at his school, the famous Schottengymnasium in Vienna. He was immediately elected to the Central Committee of the youth council and became responsible for its educational activities. He was re-elected when his school failed to back him, after an anti-Semitic smear campaign by a teacher.[1]
3 After an abortive attempt by Schlesinger to unite the Students' Association (the 'council'), the Communist Young Workers' Association and the Socialist Young Workers' Association (SYWA) into a loose federation, he joined the SYWA as a member of the Education Committee. This kind of work made Schlesinger very aware of his 'emotional distance' from the average worker, a problem that he felt was common to many of the best working-class activists.[2]
4 Whilst attending the university of Vienna, Schlesinger joined the Free Association of Socialist Students. He describes it as being a predominantly communist group, without being sectarian in nature. It was around this time that Schlesinger decided that his future lay with the labour movement, "Under the impact of World War One I became a socialist; under the impact of the revolution of 1918-1919 I decided to devote my life to service of the socialist cause. Without the war, I would have become a somewhat radical liberal intellectual".[3] After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 Schlesinger became a defeatist and began to read Marx. This attitude led to a near permanent rupture in his relationship with his father, an army officer. The various tremors and aftershocks necessarily involved in the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire also affected Schlesinger. For example a demonstration of the unemployed workers on 'bloody' Maundy Thursday 1919 gave Schlesinger a picture of the awful conditions in which the Viennese population were struggling. He witnessed starving women risk their lives by rushing into the streets between shots to take flesh from the dead police horses.[4] Schlesinger also described his first confrontation with political opponents as occurring at around the same time. In one incident Schlesinger's Association invited Otto Bauer, the Austrian Marxist, to speak at his university. Fascists stormed the meeting and Schlesinger had to run to the nearby left wing Rossauer barracks to get help. When leaving the university he was confronted by a fascist gang and was only able to escape by pretending his spectacle case was a revolver.[5]
5 Schlesinger was one of the first people to join the Austrian Communist Party founded in November 1918.[6] He officially registered as a member in 1921 but was always relatively critical of its policies and leaders. He felt that communist propaganda during the revolutionary period contained more enthusiasm than actual understanding of political realities. He cites Elfriede Friedlander's (Ruth Fischer) speech in the Soviet Congress of June 1919 as an example of this. She closed her talk with a call to assume power saying, "Follow the way on which Rosa Luxemburg has preceded us, the way of triumph and of death".[7] Yet the Chairman of the Soldiers' Council then outlined the technical conditions necessary for a successful struggle and demonstrated that many were wholly lacking, over one hundred machine guns for example.
6 Schlesinger was a member of the KPD from his arrival in Germany in 1926 until his expulsion in 1937, during the 'purges' in Soviet Russia. He witnessed and participated in many of its key events including the eventually unsuccessful struggle against the Nazis in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He had many different roles within this trailblazing movement and was a keen participant in the development of the party's theoretical positions, although his influence was often limited. This limitation is clearly evidenced in the development of the theory of 'social fascism'. With the increasing success of fascism in late 1920s Germany, the KPD sought a new theoretical line on which to base its tactical decisions. The key theory to emerge from this debate was that of 'social fascism'; whereby the main enemy of communism and the labour movement was Social Democracy, rather than Nazism.[8] Social Democracy and its party had increasing collaborated with the bourgeois government to create an authoritarian and fascistic state, all propaganda and tactical considerations should therefore be directed towards exposing its true nature. This theory was of little use when encouraging resistance to fascism and led to a disastrous underestimation of Hitler's appeal and support.
7 As Schlesinger explained: "I had been one of the first who had coined the term, and I immediately made my effort at elaborating the concept - not quite on those lines on which it soon became a popular slogan and greatly harmed our struggle against fascism".[9] Schlesinger participated in the debates that led to the theory's elaboration but disagreed with its eventual development into a slogan that suggested all Social Democrats were in fact fascists. He argued that he was less concerned with whether Social Democratic workers would be prepared to give up their party tickets than whether they would join the revolutionary struggle against the advice of their leaders. Schlesinger used the term 'left-wing social fascists' in terms of insincere Social Democrat leaders but was very much against the generalisation of the term.
8 Yet Schlesinger was undoubtedly an active worker within the Communist party machine. He was a prolific contributor to the party press and many of his posts within the KPD were as a freelance writer or editor of party organs. For example in spring 1925 Schlesinger moved to Halle to work as an editor for Klassenkampf, a KPD provincial daily.[10] After a gap of a number of years Schlesinger became the organ's temporary chief editor in autumn 1928.[11] He also participated as a party activist; spending most of the two months of the Mansfeld strike of 1930 racing around the district on a motorbike acting as party liaison for the strikers and making public speeches of encouragement.[12] He went on to play an active role in the Berlin underground after the KPD was outlawed on Hitler's accession to power. One of his illegal activities was to produce information sheets for factory and district newspapers, from which local editors could pick out relevant material.[13] On 7 August 1933 Schlesinger was arrested as a result of his KPD work. He was taken to the notorious General Pape Street headquarters of the SA and then the equally infamous Columbia House.[14] After weeks of torture and interrogation Schlesinger's wife, Mila, was able to secure his release and expulsion to Austria on account of his Austrian citizenship.
9 Schlesinger occupied two responsible positions within the Soviet Union before his eventual expulsion from the KPD and subsequent departure from the USSR in 1936;[15] he had fallen foul of the increasingly authoritarian regime's demand for ideological and political homogeneity. These roles inevitably add to his significance both as a historical figure and writer. In early 1926 Schlesinger went to Russia to work for the newly established International Agrarian Institute.[16] Within the Institute Schlesinger ran his own sub-department concerned with agrarian problems of Central and Western Europe. His librarian and personal secretary was Stalin's wife, Allilueva, whom he praised for the manner in which she carried out her junior role, 'notwithstanding all political differences, the impression was in favour not only of her but also of her husband and of the Russian party's general setting'.[17]
10 In 1935 Schlesinger became editor of the German edition of Comintern's official publication Communist International,[18] based in Moscow. Again it would appear that Schlesinger was to play a trailblazing role in this significant organ of international Communism; yet he was quickly to become disillusioned with his post. There was little room for initiative or indeed much real thought on his part at all; 'In such a setting, I might for weeks have little more to do in my job than to read the German newspapers, to check the correctness of the translations from Russian...and to give the Board one or the other information on factual German questions'.[19] Schlesinger had taken the post on the assumption that it would provide the opportunity to learn about other communist parties and to write articles for the clarification of party disputes in the German underground. In the 1920s he had written many articles for publication in Comintern organs. He had frequently contributed 'on most important questions, without holding any party office more senior than that of the chief editor of a Provincial daily and of a member of the Provincial Party Secretariat'.[20] Yet Schlesinger discovered that by 1935 there were to be no more opportunities for him to publish any named articles despite his more responsible party position. There was now a tendency to regard national party leaders as the main contributors. However even the articles of the major leaders of foreign parties were subject to a great deal of editing, 'Buzhinsky, during the latter part of my work the responsible secretary of the Board, used to regard original work of authors - in particular prominent ones - as hooks on which statements, regarded as necessary from Comintern's standpoint, had to be hanged [hung]'.[21] This would inevitably create a somewhat stifled intellectual atmosphere and would certainly curb inter-party debate.
11 As significant as Schlesinger's activities and memoir accounts of the social democratic and communist movements are, it is his role as a scholar and writer in his subsequent émigré life for which he perhaps most deserves the epithet trailblazer. Schlesinger published academic and theoretical work throughout his life on a vast number of differing topics including Soviet foreign policies, the Sino-Japanese War, Marxist philosophy and Soviet legal theory. Schlesinger became an expert in many academic disciplines; originally trained as an economist but also a proficient and well respected sociologist, historian and political theorist.
12 Immediately on leaving the USSR Schlesinger sought to publish his scholarly output. In exile in Prague in 1938 he was invited by the reputable Institut für Sozialforschung, based in Frankfurt, to submit a report on recent ideological developments within the Soviet Union.[22] In the report Schlesinger argued that genuine progress had been made in the development of the Marxist theoretical front with the overcoming of diverse schools of theory that had enjoyed monopoly positions in the 1920s and 1930s. In the field of historiography he referred to the now total condemnation of the work and approach of the Soviet historian M. N. Pokrovsky, a progressive move in Schlesinger's opinion. This was a controversial interpretation in the West where it was, and still is, widely thought that the authoritarian degeneration of the Stalin era had resulted in an intellectually impotent and politically subservient historical profession.[23] Schlesinger was perhaps writing such a positive interpretation of Soviet events in order to "refute, not a certain sociological concept of the party, but the assertion that Rudolf Gerber was morally capable of lending any support to the enemies of the USSR or of his party".[24] In his memoirs this was the promise he claimed to have made to himself after being branded 'alien to the party' on his expulsion; he would prove his loyalty by remaining faithful to the Soviet Union whilst in the West. Such a stance inevitably affects any judgement on the value of his writings as source material for the better understanding of the Soviet Union yet he always wrote from a consistent and stated perspective allowing for an immediate and transparent grasp of his political motivations and ideological assumptions, thus tempering any condemnations a reader may have on questions of objectivity.

With the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in early 1939 Schlesinger and his wife were forced to flee to Poland. They escaped on foot over the Carpathian Mountains[25] and from Poland were able to secure a place on a refugee ship from Gydnia to Britain on 21 April 1939.[26] In England they were provided with some money by a fund for refugee scholars and lived in an abandoned cottage in the Fens near Cambridge.[27] Schlesinger was able to supplement their income with the publication of several monographs, enhancing his reputation as a scholar of the Soviet Union in the process. However his real contribution to the development of a British Soviet studies began when he secured a position at the University of Glasgow in 1948. One of Schlesinger's colleagues, R. Beerman, wrote that 'his wide variety of interests and encyclopaedic knowledge of the Soviet Union made him invaluable to the students of the Institute and the University as a whole and especially to his colleagues'.[28] Schlesinger also helped found and edit the trailblazing, multi-disciplinary journal Soviet Studies. This reputable publication helped to establish Soviet studies as an academic discipline in its own right. As the co-founder J. Miller pointed out,

Schlesinger and I were both communists, in very different ways, but it never occurred to us that Soviet Studies could be anything other than a vehicle for the purpose of publishing any reasonably serious scholar, the more empirical the better, who cared to use it.... When the late Naum Jasny, who was at the opposite pole to Schlesinger amongst serious students of the USSR, found publication difficult in the United States we both encouraged him to the utmost to use Soviet Studies[29]

His administration of the periodical provides evidence of an academic striving for the creation of an objective forum for the discussion of all questions related to the study of the Soviet Union.


Whilst at Glasgow University Schlesinger contributed prolifically to the journal as well as writing a number of books and source collections, most notably a study of the foundations of Marxism and its modern day application, Marx: His Time and Ours[30] and his monograph concerning the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, History of the Communist Party of the USSR.[31] He also lectured on the subjects of Marxism, the Soviet Union and its legal theory. One of his final trailblazing acts within academia was to help establish and edit the journal Co-existence from 1963 until his death in 1969. As the editor of its intellectual successor, International Politics, pointed out, this international journal

provided an insistent and innovative reminder that the problems of statecraft and governance were not merely explained by ideological distinctions or the differences between developed and underdeveloped world. In an era when little constructive dialogue existed across East-West ideological divides or North-South developmental chasms, Co-Existence offered much of lasting significance while widening the audience of scholars from both sides of Cold War divides.[32]

Co-existence can rightly be regarded as a trailblazing undertaking.

15 Schlesinger was viewed as one of a small circle of intellectuals and academics with expertise on what was still a new subject. For example in 1947 Miller wrote in an initial proposal for Soviet Studies, 'The outstanding five or six authorities on the USSR in Britain (Dobb, Baykov, Sumner, Rothstein, Schlesinger and E. H. Carr) are all very interested in the proposal'.[33] It was clear to Miller that Schlesinger was an 'outstanding authority'. His academic pre-eminence, and notoriety within the cold war context, was thought to be as great as other notable scholars of his generation, such as I. Deutscher and E. H. Carr. In fact Zbigniew Brzezinski, the academic and one time US national security advisor, was reported to have said that alongside Carr and Deutscher, Schlesinger was one of the most dangerous scholars in the UK.[34]

In conclusion it is clear that the description of Schlesinger as a trailblazer is more than apt. He played a significant role in the early stages of the Austrian labour and communist movements whilst at school and university. He had a full-time post in the KPD in the 1920s and early 1930s. Schlesinger worked as party activist, strike coordinator, writer and newspaper editor in this trailblazing, revolutionary organisation. In Moscow Schlesinger held responsible positions within the Communist organisation. Exiled from both Germany and the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, Schlesinger became a trailblazer as a writer and academic. The author of hundreds of publications, this leading authority on Soviet matters went on to found two distinguished journals and helped establish Soviet studies as an academic discipline within the UK. Schlesinger was a trailblazer as a revolutionary and as a creator. 


[1] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Memoirs, Volume I, p23, Unpublished

[2] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p37

[3] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p19

[4] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p32

[5] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p84

[6] Fischer, R., (1948), Stalin and German Communism, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, p64, footnote 14

[7] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p41

[8] Fischer, R., (1948), p655-656

[9] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, 363

[10] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p202

[11] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p371

[12] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p409

[13] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p17

[14] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p57

[15] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p223

[16] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p245

[17] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume I, p257-258

[18] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p136

[19] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p153

[20] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p152

[21] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p153

[22] Schlesinger, R., (1938) 'Neue sowjetrussische Literatur zur Sozialforschung', Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Jahrgang V11, Doppelheft 1/2, pp166-199

[23] Litvin, A. L., (2001) Writing History in Twentieth Century Russia, Basingstoke, Palgrave, edited and translated by Keep, J.; Barber, J., (1981) Soviet Historians in Crisis, 1928-1932, London, The Macmillan Press Ltd.

[24] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p229, Rudolf Gerber was Schlesinger's pseudonym for illegal KPD activities

[25] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p353

[26] Schlesinger, R., (1957), Volume II, p380

[27] Beerman, R., (1970), 'Rudolf Schlesinger - An Appreciation', Soviet Studies, Volume 21, Number 4, p410

[28] Beerman, R., (1970), p409

[29] Miller, J., (1973), 'The Origins of Soviet Studies: A Personal Note', Soviet Studies, Volume 25, Number 2, p168

[30] Schlesinger, R., (1950), Marx his Time and Ours, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd

[31] Schlesinger, R., (1977), History of the Communist Party of the USSR, Calcutta, Orient Longman. The book was originally published in Italy in 1962, however this first English version was completed by Schlesinger in August 1966

[32] Nelson, D. N., (1997), 'Introducing International Politics', International Politics, Volume 34, Number 1, p1

[33] Miller, J., (April 8, 1947) Proposal for a Journal of Soviet Studies

[34] Haslam, J., (1999) The Vices of Integrity: E. H. Carr, 1892-1982, London, Verso, p223

eSharp issue: spring 2004. © Stephanie Mckendry 2004. ISSN 1742-4542.