The success of Kalashnikov? Still elusive

Before the New Year I asked why the recently-deceased inventor of the AK-47 was able to become so successful. There were a couple of good responses from Paul and Roman, but Jonathan Finegold’s response is worth highlighting:

Whatever I once knew about the process of military procurement in the Soviet Union, I’ve mostly now forgotten. But, the AK-47 is just one out of many Soviet military inventions that have become mainstays of global militaries: T-54 and T-72 tanks, MiG-29, et cetera. The USSR was generally head-to-head with the United States in military technology, although arguably the U.S. started to pull away during the late 1980s. This legacy of military technology follows back to the Second World War, and even before. It was the Soviets, under the leadership of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who developed what is commonly known as “blitzkrieg” (typically associated with the Germans, who trained with the Soviets during the late 1920s and early 1930s). Their T-34 has become one of the emblem tanks of WWII.

But, rather than a success of the Soviet system, this should be interpreted as a failure. The criticism of socialism is not that it cannot achieve certain ends, or even that it cannot achieve these ends with success, in some sense of the word. The critique of socialism is that they cannot economize on the resources used towards achieving these ends, and that these ends are not representative of the general welfare of society. In other words, the capitalist system is the achievement of a plurality of ends; socialism is the opposite. The USSR put military success, especially in terms of “out-showing” their American rivals, over other ends, especially those of their people. Thus, despite the poverty of Soviet society, the USSR accomplished great military and scientific achievements. (This is why comments like “socialism works, because we were able to mobilize resources towards the war effort and mass produce more military equipment than any other country” is not a good response to the critique of socialism — it fails to grasp what the critique of socialism actually is.)

Contrast this with the United States, which achieved both great military and scientific achievements and improvements to the general welfare of society.

This helps to clarify a number of important concepts (including why socialism failed), but I’m still puzzled as to why Moscow allowed one of its products to be nicknamed after an individual at the height of the Cold War.

6 thoughts on “The success of Kalashnikov? Still elusive

    • I will check out his blog, but the idea isn’t new to me. I had the privilege of living in the Ukraine for four years in the nineties. I learned of the hardships the people faced by talking to people who lived through those tough times. I’m glad people are realizing the tremendous price paid.

  1. I don’t know but would guess that you’ll find the AK was nicknamed in the west, and don’t forget that Soviet design bureaus (MiG, YAK, etc) were usually named after their lead designers.

    Blitzkrieg actually goes back much further. First appearance is usually credited to Sherman’s Atlanta campaign (or even Grierson’s Ride) in the ACW, and was written out by Basil Liddell-Hart and JFC Fuller (both British) and then first executed in it’s mechanized form by Guderian. But in truth even the Schlieffen plan (if security had been maintained) might have been an application.

    The main point is the application of the Schwerpunkt to an area where the enemy is weak and ruthless exploitation. It’s not specifically an armored concept, more cavalry actually.

    • Thanks NEO.

      I did a little bit of browsing on the history of the AK-47 and while the West didn’t name it the Soviets – following the tradition of naming a product after the design team’s leader, as you pointed out – did.

      What Moscow evidently did was hold competitions between organizations (“factories”) and within markets to produce innovative new products.

      This is fascinating to me for a few different reasons. 1) it appears that even the Soviets recognized the benefits of competition, 2) looking at the great lengths Moscow went to in order to avoid profit-making as an incentive almost makes me laugh (the gulags temper my smugness), 3) the fact that Moscow would reward an individual (Kalashnikov, for example) rather than a collective (his entire design team) strikes me as the type of policy that would display prominently – for all to see – the inherent contradictions of Leninism, and finally 4) I always marvel at the humble nature of the profit and loss system.

    • Yeah, that was pretty much how the defense procurement went, I guess it never crossed my mind that anyone didn’t know, it was pretty much common knowledge when I was young (60s-70s). But they didn’t talk all that much about how the rope they were buying from us was on a competitive bid. The Soviets weren’t 10 feet tall, but they were no fools either, although often they look like it in history.

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