Five (More) Books: Revisionist Accounts of the Soviet Experience
As you can glean from my recommendations for reading so far, I have stressed learning about the dysfunctions and dystopian aspects of the system. I will come back to that in my final post in this series. But right now I do think it is valuable to also acknowledge alternative perspectives.
During the 1970s, a “revisionist school” of historians rose to challenge the standard “Cold War” totalitarian system narrative. They provided counter evidence to say either that they system was more decentralized and democratic than the totalitarian model suggested, or that it was less repressive than the totalitarian model claimed; or that the economic system was more successful than the critics acknowledged. Some of these claims made in the 1970s were subsequently challenged when the archives opened in the 1990s, revealing the full extent of Soviet repression. Other claims are still part of the ongoing contested conversation in Soviet studies. I personally believe that many of the revisionist accounts have important insights, but that in general they tend to miss critical aspects of even the stories they are telling. I also think, and of course I would, that there are serious errors of a methodological and analytical nature committed in many of these revisionist accounts due to ideological precommitments. Still, to become an informed student, one must be knowledgeable of these alternative accounts.
The first one to read would be Jerry Hough’s The Soviet Prefects (originally published in 1969) explores the role that local party organs play in industrial decision making. It is a challenge to the idea of a unified and comprehensive central plan. Hough’s work was an initial challenge to the idea that Stalin’s regime represented an institutionally strong and robust centralized administration, and starts to push toward the revisionist account that the Stalinist system was actually institutionally weak, and thus the totalitarian account of the control and repression of the system must be exaggerated.
Hough was not as strong in that revisionist account as was Arch Getty, who in Origins of the Great Purges (originally published in 1985) argued that the archival evidence from the 1930s demonstrates that the Communist Party under Stalin was chaotic and confused rather than ruthlessly efficienct in its execution of terror. The totalitarian account must be exaggerated, Getty concluded. Stalin didn’t orchestrate the terror, but was responding to political threats as they arose in the struggle for survival.
Stephen Cohen’s wonderful book Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (originally published in 1973) tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experience through the eyes of one of its main architects, who was later a tragic casualty of the betrayal of the revolutionary ideas. I am extremely partial to this because Bukharin wrote seriously about the economics of communism. Bukharin, in fact, actually spent time in Vienna attending Bohm-Bawerk’s famous seminar, and he wrote a book criticizing the Austrian School of Economics. He was familiar with the works of Ludwig von Mises, and in fact would invoke Mises during debates within the Soviet Union on the shift toward the New Economic Policy. He was dubbed “the most learned critic of communism”. Bukharin wrote the economic policies for the initial communist period which I mentioned earlier in reference to the work of Malle, and he wrote the New Economic Policy after the collapse of the Russian economy forced the Bolsheviks to chart of new course to stay in power. He was named by Lenin, along with Trotsky and Stalin, as the potential successor to his leadership in 1923, ironically sealing his fate. Stalin first aligned with Bukharin to purge Trotsky for exhibiting “left-wing childishness”, and then flipped sides to purge Bukharin for “right wing opportunism”. Cohen’s book asks the question, what if Bukharin had won out in that political struggle rather than Stalin? Many communists had been asking a similar question about Trotsky ever since Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, but Cohen successfully got a new generation to ask that similar question. As perestroika matured as public policy under Gorbachev, Bukharin would be “liberated” and even became a symbol of market reforms such as the “Cooperatives Act of 1987”, and photos of Bukharin could be seen around Moscow.
Back to the nitty gritty of Soviet history, one of the most horrific tales of the Soviet experience is the Holodomor, as depicted in Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) or more recently in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (2017). But the revisionist account by R. W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft in their book The Years of Hunger (originally published in 2004) argues that the famine was not intentional, but resulted from mismanagement and environmental circumstances. Similar to what I mentioned in my previous post about the “debate” between Malia and Pipes, it appears difficult at times for academics to see their way to explanations that blend ideas and interests with historical circumstances to tell a more nuanced story, as their penchant is for either/or narratives. That said, detailed scholarship and careful reworking of numerical information is always valuable in helping gain an understanding.
This also leads to my last revisionist work, and I think the one that most challenges my own priors about Soviet economic performance through time, Robert Allen’s Farm to Factory (originally published in 2003). He argues against the now conventional wisdom that the Soviet experiment was a horrific failure, and that if you measure correctly it must be counted as one of the greatest economic development stories of the 20th century. One cannot be conversant in the contemporary conversation about the legacy of the Soviet Union without careful study of Allen’s bold reinterpretation.
Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.