The June 1944 issue of the American Sociological Review featured an article by Bernhard J. Stern entitled “Soviet Policy on National Minorities” (Stern 1944). In it the author argued that “the Soviet Union can claim with a high degree of accuracy that it has solved the difficult problem presented by the existence of national minorities in a strongly centralized state” (ibid.: 229). In extolling the virtues of Soviet nationalities policy, Stern took at face value all of the rights that the ethnic Soviet republics supposedly enjoyed, including the right to secede from the union. Moreover, drawing on the new Soviet constitution and Stalin’s speeches, he praised the dictator, whose “skillful statesmanship” was said to have laid the foundation of the wise ideology behind this policy (ibid.: 230). Given the fact that just a few months prior to this paper’s publication, the Soviet secret police had accused entire ethnic groups, such as the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars and several others, of being Nazi collaborators and exiled them from their historic homelands in Europe to Central Asia under extremely harsh conditions, Stern’s piece was not much more than a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda. The aim of this paper is to explain why an American scholar, trained in both sociology and anthropology, and a respected pioneer of medical sociology, came to be regarded as an expert on the Soviet nationalities policy and produced a piece of such questionable scholarship. My goal is also to challenge the one-sided portrayal of Stern as an innocent victim of McCarthyism presented in the works of David H. Price (2004).
Born in Chicago in 1894 to a Jewish émigré family, Bernhard J. Stern studied for a BA and an MA at the University of Cincinnati from 1913 to 1917. In 1923 he travelled to Europe, where he studied at the University of Berlin and the London School of Economics. Returning to the US that same year, Stern entered Columbia University to study sociology under a prominent left-leaning scholar, William F. Ogburn. While sociology remained his main discipline and his doctoral thesis was in it, in 1925 he also undertook an intensive study of anthropology with Franz Boas and his degree was actually in both sociology and anthropology. Stern’s Ph.D. thesis, Social Factors in Medical Progress, completed in 1926 and published as a book in 1927, earned him a reputation as a serious medical sociologist and historian of sociology (Bloom 1990:19). In fact, he is considered one of the earliest American historians of science (see Bloom 2002 passim). While Stern’s early academic works revealed his critical attitude towards Western, and particularly American, economic systems as well as the way in which its science and medicine were organized, his left-wing views, including pro-Soviet sympathies, were even more clearly revealed in his conduct as a young college instructor. Nonetheless, in the late 1920s he was not yet a member of any leftist political organization (Bloom 1990:21). Charlotte Todes, however, whom he married in 1923, was a whole other story. A labor movement activist since the early 1920s, she joined the Communist Party USA in 1926 and encouraged her husband to become a member as well.
In 1927 Bernhard secured a three-year renewable tenure-track assistant professor position in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. His experience at that school was similar to the one at City College: he was a popular instructor and productive researcher, but his politics made him suspect in the eyes of the administration. Hence at the end of his second year, he was put on probation by the department chair. During his sojourn in Seattle, Stern strengthened his position as a left-leaning liberal who was becoming gradually more sympathetic to Communist ideas but was not yet willing to join the Party (Bloom 1990:22).
Despite the setback in Seattle, Stern did not break stride and managed to get a job as an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and in 1934 a part-time teaching appointment as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, known for its outstanding progressive faculty (CS, Audio Interviews 1-3). That same year he also began teaching as a lecturer in the sociology department at Columbia, initially on a single course basis as well. Two years later, after significant pressure from his senior colleagues in the department, Columbia finally appointed him Lecturer in the School of General Studies but without rank; that was the position he occupied until the end of his life in 1956 (ibid.). Thanks to the respect Stern enjoyed among his Columbia colleagues and students as a scholar and teacher he was not fired from the university during the McCarthy era, when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated him for his Communist activities (Bloom 1990:24-32; Price 2004:136-153).
Stern’s journey towards becoming a Communist appears to have begun with his joining the John Reed Club in 1932. By 1933 he had already become a member of the Club’s executive committee. Founded in 1929 by the staff members of a pro-Communist magazine The New Masses to support Marxist writers and artists, that organization was originally politically independent but in late 1930 became officially affiliated with Moscow and the Communist Party USA. In 1932 Stern also joined a group of active Communists as well as representatives of several Communist front organizations to form an American anti-war committee (Lyons 1970: 148). Delegates representing similar organizations from various countries met in Amsterdam in August 1932 to form the World Congress Against Imperialist War. The organization’s main goal was to “support the peace policies of the Soviet Union” and sabotage (through peaceful means) the war preparations in their own countries. By the mid-1930s Stern had definitively joined the Communist Party USA. This was the time of the Popular Front, when the Party, having proclaimed a new policy of cooperation with all the progressive anti-fascist groups and organization in the country, increased its membership significantly and enjoyed greater sympathy in the wider American society. It appears that Stern was a member of one of the New York branches of the Party, which was composed mainly of writers and other intellectuals. In 1936 Stern became one of the founders and editors of a Marxist social science journal, Science and Society. In addition, he contributed articles on social evolution and other anthropological subjects to a Communist periodical New Masses under a pseudonym Bennett Stevens and taught occasional courses at the Workers’ School affiliated with the Communist Party (Price 2004: 138-141).
While still at the University of Washington, Stern developed an interest in the history of the social sciences and conducted archival research on the papers of Lewis H. Morgan. Using previously unpublished writings, journals, and correspondence from the Morgan archive preserved at the University of Rochester Library as well as his published works, Stern tried, in his words, “to cast new light on the development of Morgan’s theories and to evaluate them in light of contemporary knowledge” (Stern 1931:VI). This work resulted in a 1928 article “Lewis Henry Morgan: American Ethnologist,” a 1931 monograph Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist, and several publications of valuable primary sources from the Morgan archive (Stern 1930, 1933; Kan and Arzyutov 2016).
Given Stern’s work on Morgan and the new developments in his political orientation in the first half of the 1930s, it made perfect sense for him to be eager to establish contacts with Soviet ethnographers and visit the land of socialism. Consequently in 1931 he initiated correspondence with Mark Kosven, a Soviet anthropologist who had also been working on Morgan. By this time Morgan had already become a key “ancestor” venerated by Soviet anthropologists as the precursor of Marx’ and Engels’ theory of the evolution of human society. In his letter Stern informed Kosven that he had just published a study “of Morgan’s anthropological theories in terms of his milieu and in the light of contemporary anthropology and have told of the use of his work by Marx and Engels” (BJS. Box 1, f. 3. Stern to Kosven, 2/1/1931) and claimed that his study of Morgan was written “from a historical materialist standpoint.” Eager to demonstrate to the Soviet scholar his credentials as a “fellow-traveler,” if not (yet) a Communist, for whom a critical evaluation of the book by a Soviet scholar was of particular importance, Stern wrote “As a member of the John Reed Club, an organization of revolutionary artists and writers, and as a contributor to the New Masses, I would greatly appreciate your critical comments on the book when you read it” (ibid.). Two months later Stern received a courteous response from Kosven and thus their seven-year long correspondence was established.
Stern’s next letter to Kosven, sent in early July 1932, contained an important piece of news: he and his wife were planning to visit the USSR in August on their way to Amsterdam. This was to be largely an “exploratory visit,” as Charlotte Stern called it, which was to last for two weeks. Here is how Ms. Stern described the goals of their trip: “We decided we must see the Soviet Union. I decided I must see it from the standpoint of what the Communists had achieved, and my husband wanted to see it from the standpoint of whether it was the ideal society” (CS, Audio Interviews 1-4). According to Bernhard himself, “the primary purpose of learning what the Soviet is [sic] doing in the field of anthropology and related subjects” (BJS. Box.1, f.3. Stern to Kosven, 7/4/1932).
The Communist Party USA did not provide Charlotte with the names of any contact persons in Russia, but given her interests in organized labor, she and her husband asked for and were granted permission to visit several factories. While admitting that this visit had been “entirely a surface experience” and that the only people they had been able to speak to were English speakers, Charlotte asserted that both of them were very impressed with the “great spirit of achievement, and effort, and love of the society itself among all of the people that we met” (CS Audio Interview 4). As far as the political situation was concerned, she stated that they had been completely uninformed about it and did not notice anything dramatic, even though this was the time of a major internal struggle within the Communist Party as well as the expulsion of Trotsky from the USSR. Charlotte’s evidence of the general contentment among the academics they met shows how naïve she and her husband were. What made Bernhard even more enthusiastic about the USSR were the impressions he got from interacting with Soviet anthropologists and other social scientists. As his widow reminisced,
In Moscow my husband was very warmly welcomed as a young scientist—social scientist—by the anthropologists and the people in the social science field. They were very kind to him and since he was interested in anthropology, they spent many hours telling him of their plans for the native peoples—who had no written language and whose knowledge of the world outside their own little communities was absolutely primitive. The plans they had and the efforts that they made so impressed him that he became quite convinced that this was a world he could support. Furthermore, he was tremendously impressed with the developments there (CS Interview 4).
One specific experience that made an enormous impression upon Bernhard was a plenum of the Committee of the Peoples of the North he attended in Moscow as a guest of Vladimir Bogoraz, a senior Soviet scholar specializing in the ethnology of the ethnic minorities of Siberia. Without any knowledge of Russian or understanding of the true nature of the nationalities’ politics of the early Stalinist era, Stern took everything that was said from the podium at face value. As he wrote a decade later in the article being discussed here, “I was then struck by the eager exchange of data between the native leaders and the Soviet leaders on both economic and cultural problems of these pre-literate peoples” (Stern 1944: 234; cf. BJS. Box 1, f.3. Stern to Kosven, 10/24/1932). To him such active participation of ethnic minorities in the decisions and policies affecting their own lives contrasted sharply with the discriminatory and paternalistic policies of the federal and state governments in the US toward African Americans and Native Americans.
The two and a half weeks spent in the USSR not only turned Stern into a diehard supporter of the Soviet regime but also strengthened his relationship with Soviet anthropologists. From now on, he not only looked to the Soviet Union as a model of a progressive and just society but also became a champion of its anthropology, despite some serious disagreements on specific issues. This relationship became so important for the Columbia lecturer that, following his 1932 visit to Russia and especially after a second one he made in 1937, he would frequently mention it in his public presentations and published works, and use it to legitimize his status as an expert on Soviet ethnic groups and state policies towards them.
The irony of Stern’s enthusiasm about Soviet cultural anthropology is that despite his unquestioning loyalty to the USSR, being a serious scholar, he expected Kosven and his colleagues to apply Morgan’s-Engels’-Marx’s theory of social evolution creatively and without dogmatism. In reality it was precisely the Soviet research on the evolution of “primitive” society that had already become quite dogmatic and was becoming even more so. Stern, who kept a close watch on that research had to be aware of this trend but chose to downplay and excuse it, attributing the dogmatism to the growing pains of a new and young Marxist social science. Thus, when a Russian émigré scholar alerted Stern to a senior Soviet ethnologist’s misrepresentation of the reason for Stern’s dismissal from the University of Washington and asked him whether he intended to do something about that, Stern replied, “I see no purpose in pursuing this correction further. Undoubtedly few people have even noticed it. I am certainly not in sympathy with any attempt to discredit [the] Soviet scientific endeavor, which, though in this field still crude, is making, I believe, valiant efforts and has vast potentialities which should not be gainsaid because of crudities manifested in the formative period. I therefore prefer omission” (BJS. Box 1, f. 9, Stern to Fedotov-White, 1/29/1937).
In the spring of 1937, Stern and his wife made their second trip to the Soviet Union. Stern signed up to lead a summer travel seminar/excursion to the USSR for schoolteachers and social workers, organized by the Compass Travel Bureau of New York City. The Sterns and their twelve students were supposed to arrive in Leningrad on July 19. After spending two days there, they were to travel to Moscow for a four-day stay. Their itinerary also included Kharkiv, Tbilisi, Erevan, Kiev and several other cities. They were to depart from the USSR on August 19. Since this trip was billed as an educational one, Stern was anxious to have as many Soviet scholars as possible lecture to the participants, and asked Kosven and other colleagues for help in lining up such lectures. He also asked them to arrange presentations for his group by people in the national republics who were “most likely to impress the visitors… with the great significance of the Soviet approach to the treatment of national minorities and the superiority of the socialist method as opposed to the imperialist” (BJS. Box 2, f. 3. Stern to Kosven, 3/3/1937).
As for his expectations from the trip as a whole, Stern already knew he was going to be impressed. Since his previous visit, he had become an even greater fan of the USSR. In fact, in mid-1934, having finished his work at the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, he asked Kosven for assistance in arranging a long-term visit to the USSR, which would enable him to teach and possibly do research there. Despite Kosven’s efforts, this plan did not work out. Science and Society, a Marxist journal co-edited by Stern, made frequent references to the Soviet political and social system, its economy and high culture, all of them laudatory. Stern’s own scholarly paper published in that journal in 1937, which dealt with the obstacles to technological progress in capitalist societies, offered high praise to the new forms of that progress as well industrial production (e.g., the Stakhanovite movement) in the USSR. Continuing to take the propaganda generated by the Soviets at face value, he was in awe of the new (Stalin) constitution of 1936, referring to it in a letter to a Soviet colleague as “very inspiring to us here” and “having a tremendous symbolic value to the world in its struggle against Fascism” (BJS. Box 1, f. Stern to USSR, Stern to Meshchaninov, 11/27/1936). And like all of the American Communists and quite a few of the liberals, he was convinced that the Old Bolsheviks and other prominent Soviet leaders paraded in Stalin’s show trials of 1936-1937 were indeed guilty of the most heinous crimes.
The Sterns must not have realized that they had picked the worst time to visit the USSR. According to Charlotte, the couple was unable to see any of the people they had met on their previous trip, because they did not want to see Americans. As she put it, “There was such a restrictive atmosphere in the country. The Soviet government was discouraging people from seeing foreigners. The fear of meeting foreigners was great” (CS, Audio Interview 4). According to Ms. Stern, she and her husband did not know what to think, but they did not suspect that some of the people they had met before had been arrested, since nobody talked to them about the purges. Despite those disappointing experiences in Moscow and Leningrad, the Sterns enjoyed their trips, especially to the outlying regions where they observed the (seeming) enthusiasm of the Soviet people continuing the construction of socialism (ibid.). Four years later, when the USSR was already fighting Hitler, Stern summed up his impression of the 1937 visit in an unpublished paper The Soviet Fight Against the Nazi Invasion as follows,
Everywhere we saw the courageous effort of workers and farmers to build a society without the exploitation of man by man. We saw the prodigious advances in education and science, the remarkable strides in the standard of living, not merely in a small segment of the population, but in the masses of people. The efforts that were being made to enlarge the range and extent of the depth of human happiness were apparent to us . . . Beyond that we saw a nurturing of the creative forces among the people, a fostering of their senses of beauty and their love for knowledge and truth . . . [Yet] the people and the government were wisely alert to the danger of attack from abroad. They were ever vigilant and ready to sacrifice” (BJS. Box 5, f. 6).
Upon his return, Bernhard seems to have never mentioned the negative aspects of Soviet life in 1937, which he must have justified by the threat of fascism and the need to be on alert for foreign and domestic enemies. Consequently in 1938 without any hesitation he added his signature to a letter signed by 150 left-wing and liberal American scholars and artists expressing their support for the trial of Bukharin and other enemies of the USSR (Lyons 1970: 246-250). And unlike a large number of American Communists, who left the Party after Soviet Russia signed the infamous pact with Nazi Germany in August of 1939, Stern, despite being a passionate anti-fascist, remained steadfast in his pro-Soviet views, following the party-line as far as justifying and even praising Stalin’s sudden about-face. Of course, once Hitler attacked the USSR in the summer of 1941, Stern became a staunch advocate of the need for the United States to aid Soviet Russia and eventually join the anti-Nazi coalition.
In the wake of World War II, the radical Columbia sociologist produced another piece of pro-Soviet propaganda: a co-edited anthology entitled Understanding the Russians: a Study of Soviet Life and Culture (Stern and Smith 1947), which aimed at covering a variety of aspects of Soviet life, from its constitution to music. Produced explicitly to counter a negative image of the Soviet Union widely promoted in the US during the Cold War, this collection featured either Soviet authors (including Stalin himself) or strongly pro-Soviet Western ones. Despite being criticized as a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda by several reviewers, Understanding the Russians appears to have been read fairly widely, at least by those who still refused to believe that the USSR was not really the land of freedom and democracy.
The case of Bernhard Stern could serve as a cautionary tale for anthropologists and other social scientists who let their scholarship be guided by strong sympathies towards totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, be they right- or left-wing. In Stern’s case, his blind devotion to Communism and the Soviet Union led to a number of publications representing propaganda rather than serious scholarship. Moreover, in my opinion, it is not right to discuss the persecution suffered by leftist American scholars like Stern during McCarthyism without discussing their misguided advocacy of Stalinism, as David Price (2004: 136-153) has done.
BJS – Papers of Bernhard J. Stern. Archive of the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.
CS – Audio Interviews with Charlotte Stern. Archive of Columbia University.
SPF ARAN – Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography Collection. St. Petersburg Branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Bloom, Samuel W. “The Intellectual in a Time of Crisis: the Case of Bernhard J. Stern, 1894-1956.” Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences 26 (1990): 17-37.
———. The World as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Kan, Sergei. “‘My Old Friend in a Dead-End of Empiricism and Skepticism’: Bogoraz, Boas, and the Politics of Soviet Anthropology of the late 1920s-Early 1930s.” History of Anthropology Annual, vol. 2, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederick W. Gleach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Kan, Sergei and Dmitry V. Arzyutov. “The Saga of the L. H. Morgan Archive, or How an American Marxist Helped Make a Bourgeois Anthropologist the Cornerstone of Soviet Ethnography.” History of Anthropology Annual, vol. 10, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederick W. Gleach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Lyons, Eugene. The Red Decade. New Rochelle: The Arlington House, 1970.
Price, David H. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Stern, Bernhard J. Social Factors in Medical Progress. New York: Columbia University Press, 1927.
———. “Lewis Henry Morgan: American Ethnologist.” Social Forces 6 (1928): 344-357.
———. “Selections from the Letters of Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt to Lewis Henry Morgan.” American Anthropologist vol. 32, no. 2-3 (1930): 257-279; 419-453.
———. Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.
———. “The Letter of Asher Wright to Lewis Henry Morgan.” American Anthropologist 35, no. 1 (1933): 138-145.
———. “Resistance to the Adoption of Technological Innovations.” In Technological Trends and National Policy, edited by David I. Walsh. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937.
———. “Review of Leninism: Selected Writings by Joseph Stalin.“ American Economic Review 33, no. 2 (1943): 395-397.
———. “Soviet Policy on National Minorities.” American Sociological Review 9, no. 3 (1944): 229-235.
Stern, Bernhard J. and Samuel Smith, eds. Understanding the Russians. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc, 1947.
 This time the Communist Party USA gave the Sterns the names of some people they were to contact in the Soviet Union (CS Audio Interview 4).
 Not surprisingly, Stern signed the infamous “Letter to American Liberals,” published in the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and reprinted in the pro-Soviet propaganda magazine Soviet Russia Today, which attacked the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry organized in 1936 by the Committee in the Defense of Leo Trotsky and headed by a distinguished American philosopher and educator John Dewey. The letter, signed by eighty-eight Communists, Communist sympathizers, and a few liberals warned American liberals that the Committee in the Defense of Trotsky was a Trotskyite front and hence an ally of fascist and reactionary enemies of the Soviet Union.
Sergei A. Kan: contributions / website / firstname.lastname@example.org
Leave a Comment