Understanding Soviet Socialism: (Twenty) Five Books
By Peter Boettke
I was challenged with listing 5 books to improve one’s understanding of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experience. I hesitated at first because that is such a big subject with such varying views, and while I have my own very strong priors, I didn’t think it was right to just list books that would reveal those. Though, of course, any listing would.
But then I saw my good friend Steve Horwitz “cheated” on the assignment he was tasked with and listed 10 books. Never to be outdone by Steve (inside joke), I have decided to provide a list that has 5 books for each of 5 categories on the topic of the Russian Revolution and Soviet Socialism. The 5 categories will be (1) The Russian Revolution; (2) The Soviet Economy; (3) Economic, Political and Social Ethnography of Soviet Life; (4) Revisionist Accounts; (5) The “Butcher’s Bill” of the Soviet Experience. Because the list is long, you’ll have to settle for getting it in pieces. So today, Part 1:
The Russian Revolution
Vladimir Lenin took control of the majority (Bolsheviks) due to a one-time strange vote in 1903 where he was able to coax his old mentor Georgi Plekanov to side with him at a critical moment in the internal struggles in the social democracy movement in Russia. The minority (Mensheviks) were always in fact the larger share of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, but the labels stuck for the Leninist wing and the non-Leninist wings ever after.
Lenin wrote voluminously and his collected works runs 45 volumes, and includes not only his various speeches and strategic communications but works such The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism (1917) and The State and Revolution (1917). These works are critical to understanding the motivating ideology behind the Russian Revolution. The revolutionary and anti-war writings of Leon Trotsky, and the theoretical writings of Nikolai Bukharin would also shape this history, and so must be consulted as well as one starts this journey to understanding the “grandest social experiment of the 20th century”.
My five books to understand the Russian revolution starts with the three leading historians of the Soviet period: Robert Conquest, Martin Malia, and Richard Pipes.
Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (originally published in 1968) is technically not on the events of 1917, but the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. But where the revolution ended gives us vital information on where we started. Conquest gives his readers a window into the consolidation of power required of the revolutionary project and its human toll.
Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy (published in 1994) explains the underlying ideological motivation that produced the Russian Revolution and the consequences that followed. It is ideas that light the fire in men’s minds, but sometimes that fire can consume them. Such is the tragedy of the Russian Revolution.
On the other hand, Richard Pipes’s The Russian Revolution (published in 1991) consolidates and reworks arguments that Pipes had developed in his earlier and equally monumental works in the area. Rather than the focus on ideas, Pipe’s version focuses more or less on interests, not exclusively monetary as economists often discuss, but power and control by certain specified interests. The Bolsheviks, in this sense, did not revolutionize society, but grasped control of the reigns of power. ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, The Who once declared. Pipes in many ways sees Russia under the Bolsheviks being ruled pretty much as Russia was ruled under the Old Regime of the Czars, just with new faces and labels.
The contrast between Malia and Pipes is, in my opinion, the critical issue to get clear in your head as you strive to understand. They are in very significant ways both right, but the trick is to see how the one results in the other. The ideology Malia explains comes into contact with a refractory reality, leading to the abuse of power and privilege that Pipes so accurately details. Malia’s story is a “tragedy”, just like Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom is a “tragedy”. In Pipes’s account, the only “tragedy” is that a governmental system of central and arbitrary power merely switched from one hand to another without any effort to establish new rules of governance that respected individual rights and private property, the rule of law, and constitutional principles of democratic government.
These positions of Conquest, Malia, and Pipes were staked out during the Cold War period, and as I will discuss shortly were challenged by Revisionist Accounts. This leads me to mention two other books on the Russian Revolution that I think will round out the 5 in your studies. First, William Henry Chamberlin’s The Russian Revolution, (two volumes, originally published in 1935) was a detailed account based on interviews and first-person accounts, as he was the Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor from 1922-1934. He had traveled to the Soviet Union as an enthusiastic supporter of Marxism and the Revolution, only to become a critic after watching events in Russia unfold over the next dozen years. Chamberlin’s book is an example of a pre-Cold War book.
On the other hand, Orlando Figes’ book A People’s Tragedy (originally published in 1996) is the classic work on the Russian Revolution published during the Post-Communism era. Again, in this rich history, ideas and interests align to conspire with historical circumstances to produce the devastation and social decay of the Soviet experience.
In my next post, I’ll share my recommendations for reading about the Soviet economy.
Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.