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John Dewey, like many other American intellectuals between the world wars, was fascinated by Soviet events. After visiting Russia in 1928 he wrote excitedly about the “Soviet experiment” and especially about Soviet educational theorists. In his early enthusiasm Dewey hoped that the US and the USSR could learn from each other, especially among the cosmopolitan group of progressive pedagogues he met on his trip. Observing the rise of Stalinism in the 1930s, though, his optimism dissipated; at the same time he came to emphasize historical and cultural differences between the US and the USSR. The result is apparent in Dewey's writings in the late 1930s (especially Freedom and Culture, 1939), as he began to evaluate the Soviet Union in terms that would have been anathema to him a decade earlier. He increasingly blamed Russia's cultural heritage for inhibiting Soviet development along the lines he had envisioned. Dewey's transformation suggests the importance of a cultural reading of American ideas about the USSR. Many American observers joined Dewey in seeing the USSR as the product of Russian culture, with its historical traditions and its own national character—and not just as the instantiation or betrayal of a political doctrine.

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I am grateful to Thomas Bender, David Hollinger, Mark Hulliung, Christopher Phelps, and Alan Ryan for their critical and engaged readings of earlier drafts of this essay, and to Jim Campbell, Jonathan Hansen, James Kloppenberg, and Ethan Pollock for insightful discussions about this topic (and others). Special thanks to the anonymous reviewers for useful comments, and to Charles Capper for shepherding the article through the revision process.
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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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