The Russian working class was an object of intense interest for historians in the 1970s. This wasn’t only because social history was in fashion in the profession at the time, with labour history a popular sub-field, but also because of the political implications: did the Bolshevik Party in fact have working-class support and take power, as it claimed, on behalf of the proletariat? Much of the revisionist Western work on Russian social and labour history despised by Pipes focused on workers’ class consciousness and whether it was revolutionary; and some but not all of its practitioners were Marxist. (In the non-Marxist wing, I annoyed other revisionists by ignoring class consciousness and writing about upward mobility.)
The authors of the centenary books all have their own histories that are relevant here. Smith’s first work, Red Petrograd (1983), fitted the labour history rubric, although as a British scholar he was somewhat removed from American fights, and his work was always too careful and judicious to allow for any suggestion of political bias; he went on to write a fine and underappreciated study, Revolution and the People in Russia and China: A Comparative History (2008), in which the workers and labour movements continued to play a central role. Steinberg, a US scholar of the next generation, published his first book on working-class consciousness, Proletarian Imagination, in 2002, when social history had already taken the ‘cultural turn’, bringing a new emphasis on subjectivity with less interest in ‘hard’ socio-economic data. But this was more or less a last hurrah for the working class in writing on the Russian Revolution. Pipes had rejected it outright, holding that the revolution could be explained only in political terms. Figes in his influential People’s Tragedy focused on society rather than politics, but minimised the role of the ‘conscious’ workers, emphasising instead a lumpen proletariat raging in the streets and destroying things. In their new works, Smith and Steinberg are both uncharacteristically reticent on the subject of workers, though street crime has entered their field of vision.