Historian: Adam Ulam

Name: Adam Ulam

Lived: 1922-2000

Nationality: American of Jewish-Polish origins

Profession: Writer, academic (professor of history and politics at Harvard)

Books: Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia; Communists: The Intellectual and Political History of Communism; Communists: The Story of Power and Lost Illusions; Lenin and the Bolsheviks; History of the Soviet Union.

Perspective: Unclear, no obvious alignment

Adam Ulam left Europe in August 1939, avoiding World War II and the Holocaust that would eventually claim the lives of his family. In 1947 he obtained a doctorate from Harvard, where he would remain as an academic and a professor until his death. In his lifetime he would write 18 books, the vast majority concerned with communism, Soviet Russia and Cold War politics. Assigning Ulam a label is difficult: he was neither Marxist nor liberal nor revisionist; he did not judge or condemn the people he studied. Instead, Ulam was predominately humanist, interested in how individuals responded to conditions and crises, curious about why they acted as they did. He did not believe people were wholly motivated by ideology, by systems or organisations; there were more fundamental reasons for their choices and behaviors. He was also never satisfied with simple explanations: his writing continually asks rhetorical questions about his subjects. Ulam’s best-known work is his 1965 text The Bolsheviks, which remains one of the definitive studies of the revolutionary party. In its pages Ulam traces the roots of Bolshevism back into the early 19th century. He contends that Lenin and his ideas were shaped by history, context and circumstance. Lenin himself then finalised the Bolshevik movement, in a similar way to how the Indian independence movement was defined by Gandhi. Ulam was not interested in judging or condemning Lenin, only explaining him.


“The Bolsheviks did not seize power; they picked it up.”

“Lenin’s was a grandiose experiment that failed only because Russia of those years was not suited to socialism. The man himself was a teacher and practitioner of intolerance, but one cannot fault his ultimate vision and goal – that of social justice and of humankind united under socialism, and thus freed from the scourge of war.”

“In the beginning there was the enormous shock of his brother’s execution. This was followed by curiosity … A simple motive of revenge and veneration of his brother would have urged Lenin into the same path, that of a revolutionary and a terrorist. But in fact no sooner was his period of study of revolutionary movements and literature over, than the eighteen-year-old Lenin chose a different road to revolution: Marxian socialism.”

“It must be an indelible stain on Lenin’s record that for all his humane instincts he allowed this cult … of terror to develop … He allowed mass terror not only to be practised, but to become legitimate and respectable.”