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David Joravsky

David JORAVSKY (1925-2020)

      I first encountered Dave Joravsky in graduate school, when I read his Soviet Marxism and Natural Science (Columbia, 1961).  The overarching subject was the shift of the official version of Soviet science from a rather mundane positivist-materialist reductionism in the 1920s (largely ignored by practicing scientists) to an imposed “dialectical materialsm” that took hold in the early 1930s and provided ideological cover for (the most famous example) Lysenko’s Lamarckian view that traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime – i.e., not determined by genes - could be inherited by its offspring.  Almost everything in the book was new to me.  What startled me most, however, was Dave’s demolition of the belief, to which almost all Western scholars at the time subscribed, that Lenin, in a 1905 article on “Party organization and party literature” (“party” not yet capitalized) had provided the authoritative basis for Soviet leaders’ subsequent insistence that literature – belles lettres – should be written from a Bolshevik point of view.  That was, in fact, the position that Stalin took in the 1930s.  As Dave pointed out, Lenin had asserted only that political and social analysis published in the Bolshevik’s then miniscule press should reflect the party’s positions; competing socialists were not welcome.  That might seem to be no more than a puzzling aside in a book on Soviet science, but in fact it was a refreshing reminder that Soviet scholarship then and later offered a very unreliable history of early Bolshevism, as of Soviet science.  Yet Western historians decided to turn the Soviet false credit into a false accusation (which they nevertheless seemed to think was true).  Dave reminded them that they should look at the original documents.   Not really a necessary reminder, you might think, but Cold War-era historians made that mistake over and over again.  Even as recently as 15 years ago I had to recommend that a publisher not accept a book proposal on the history of Soviet art whose reasonably well-known, would-be author claimed the same Lenin article to be the foundation stone for the history of Soviet art.

      Dave wrote two other remarkable books on Soviet science, The Lysenko Affair (Harvard, 1970), and Russian Psychology, A Critical History (Blackwell, 1989), but I want to introduce you instead to his last, as yet unpublished but completed book:  Great Nations of the West, a meditation on nationalism, antisemitism, and attitudes toward war in 19th- and 20th-century Europe, using literature (Zola, Tolstoy, Proust, Musil and many other greats) as his sources:  how did those writers frame the nation, how did they justify nationalism, what did they think about war – useful? Necessary? Inevitable? Central to the nation?  Dave was the opposite of a nationalist, and appalled by the justifications great writers offered for war, but his purpose was not to denounce:  too easy, but of course he didn’t hide what he thought.  Dave really did want to understand the writers’ points of view.  The book sits at the boundary of history and literary studies:  Dave assumed that literature maps and perhaps shapes intellectual trends.  The book reflects Dave’s astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge, and his writing is compelling.

     Dave was an intellectually generous colleague, with a habit of asking fundamental questions.  When I talked with him about my own work, he routinely honed in on what he took to be the essential question – what was my basic assumption?  Was I writing from a political or a moral point of view (he deployed other dichotomies as well), and why?  Sometimes I found that style of interrogation useful, sometimes – temporarily, at least – annoying, particularly when I didn’t have a ready answer.  But the questions were useful even when I tried to ignore them. When the department dealt with hiring decisions Dave tended to pose questions just like that.  Indeed – Dave himself confessed to this – when he hadn’t managed to read a candidate’s work, he would listen to what others had to say, and when he had a good sense of what a book was about, he would ask a question about the essence of the book’s approach to the question under study, or its underlying premise. That provoked some of us - or at least sometimes me – to reassess my own opinions.  Sometimes he seemed overly blunt, or stubborn, but that was because he treated everyone in the room as an intellectual equal.

     By contrast, when he was chair in the 1980s, he had to deal with a group of history students who wanted to protect the freedom of speech of a tenured member of the faculty in our School of Engineering who was a Holocaust denier.  David listened to them respectfully, and then suggested – very tactfully - that while that engineer certainly had a right to say what he wished, denying the Holocaust was no more rational than denying electrons, and we, as a history department, had no reason to provide a forum that might seem to legitimate such a perverted view.  My memory of that encounter is somewhat vague, possibly even second-hand, but my recollection is that the students departed, if not completely satisfied, then at least no longer feeling that we had willfully suppressed free speech.  Dave showed his respect for faculty by needling us, as it sometimes seemed.

John Bushnell

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