Did the members of the Soviet bloc copy Stalin’s economic policies after World War II because they were run by True Believers? Or were they just afraid of the Red Army? My knee-jerk reaction is to say “True Believers, of course,” but look what “liberal reformer” Khrushchev did to Hungary in 1956 when Nagy strayed too far from the Party line.

Just today, however, I came across a fascinating essay by Nina Halpern, “Creating Socialist Economies: Stalinist Political Economy and the Impact of Ideas,” (in Goldstein and Keohane, eds., Ideas and Foreign Policy) that proposes an interesting way to test for the independent power of Stalinist ideology:

In the case of the East European countries that depended on the Soviet army for their very existence, clear evidence for these propositions [that Stalinist ideology had a large, enduring effect on economic policy in the Communist world] cannot be derived from an examination of their early experiences; the alternative explanation that their choices were purely a response to Stalin’s commands is impossible to disprove. Thus, the case for the role of ideas must rest upon a close examination of the early experiences of the other two countries, China and Yugoslavia. [Why not Albania, too? B.C.]

Of course, if you know the early history of these regimes, you know what the answer’s going to be. Ideology mattered a lot; in fact, the Stalinists were often truer to Stalinism than Stalin himself:

In Yugoslavia, Tito asserted his personal independence of the Soviet Union in several ways, including adoption of Stalinist policies more rapidly than Stalin wanted… Tito insisted on following Stalinist ideas rather than Stalinist wishes.

Similarly, in China…

Many students were sent to study economics in the USSR, and measures were taken to reindoctrinate all of China’s economists… Although Mao at one point suggested that adoption of Stalinist economic theory was needed primarily to displace the hegemony of noeclassical economics… in fact Stalinist orthodoxy was enforced even for economists who were long-time Party members who professed adherence to Marxism… If the Chinese leaders were making obeisance to the Stalinist model only in order to maintain Stalin’s support and actually were contemplating adoption of an alternative long-term strategy for development, this behavior would be hard to understand.

The clincher is that China’s whole-hearted embrace of Stalinist policies began after Stalin died and his successors counseled moderation.

On reflection, Halpern’s approach is pretty obvious. But pointing out an obvious approach that others neglect is one of the highest forms of scholarship.