From the Comments: Lenin knew what he was doing when he picked Stalin

Barry and William had an interesting discussion in the ‘comments’ threads of Dr Rosi‘s post about Lenin. At the heart of the dialogue is whether or not Lenin thought Stalin was an incompetent fool. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response:

This all depends on accepting that a text written by Krupskaya was Lenin’s own view. Leaving that aside, Kotkin is very against the idea that Stalin was stupid and I don’t think we should equate Stalin’s crassness with stupidity. Even leaving aside Kotkin, it is clear that Stalin did intellectually demanding things over many years, with regard to political organisation, political journalism and writing on Marxist doctrine (particularly the national question and this was before the Revolution long before issues of Stalin getting people to write things for him).

General Secretary of the Party was a very influential job, which meant selecting the people to run the party and therefore the country along with a complex range of other tasks which require some intellectual capacity. If Lenin appointed Stalin believing that Stalin was not very bright and could therefore be given an unimportant job, he was bizarrely mistaken about the demands and influence of the party secretary, the head of the Party in a party-state. Lenin did not need this title as he was the undoubted leader and instigator of the October Revolution. After he was off the scene, the party secretary would inevitably be the most powerful person in Russia. Stalin was at all times crude, brutal, cunning, calculating and dishonest in his behaviour, but this is not same as intellectual lack.

As Robert Service, amongst others, have pointed out Trotsky portrayed himself as the great intellectual with the right to inherit Lenin’s mantle and needed to portray Stalin as stupid and maybe needed to believe that someone lacking in his formal education, knowledge of foreign languages and manners associated with intelligentsia culture really was stupid. Well Stalin won the power struggle and I think it had something to do with intelligence behind the crassness.

Lenin and Trotsky themselves have been exaggerated as Great Thinkers by their followers. Clearly they had some scholarship and intellectual capacity, but what did they write which anyone would care about if they hadn’t come to power in 1917? Interest in Lenin’s writings has dropped off in a quite extreme way since Leninism stopped being the official ideology of what used to be the USSR, allied regimes and some large allied political parties outside the socialist bloc. Sort of equalises the intellectual legacy of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

Read the whole thing.

“Cybernetics in the Service of Communism”

In October, 1961, just in time for the opening of the XXII Party Congress, a group of Soviet mathematicians, computer specialists, economists, linguists, and other scientists interested in mathematical model and computer simulation published a collection of papers called “Cybernetics in the Service of Communism”. In that collection they offered a wide variety of applications of computers to various problems in science and in the national economy.

From this video interview of MIT Lecturer (and historian) Vyacheslav Gerovitch conducted by the website Serious Science. The interview is only 15 minutes long.

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.

Kalashnikov, hero and inventor, is dead, but how did he do it?

Mikhail Kalashnikov is dead. From the LA Times:

Weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, […] The creator of the legendary AK-47, which became widely known as the Kalashnikov, […] died Monday […]

Over six decades, Kalashnikov’s cheap, simple and rugged creation became the weapon of choice for more than 50 standing armies as well as drug lords, street gangs, revolutionaries, terrorists, pirates and thugs the world over.

Here is a great piece by CJ Maloney celebrating the AK-47. What I really want to know is this: How was such an invention able to be created in the Soviet Union?

The only option I can think of is that the military-industrial complex of the USSR was so powerful and influential that incentives actually drove innovation in that sector of the economy.

But even this doesn’t fully explain how Kalashnikov was able to invent the gun, patent it, put his name on it, and reap the benefits from creating it in the first place. How could any of this be possible in a command-and-control economy?

How ’bout Communism?

Note: Most of my adult life and all of my childhood were dominated by the threat of Communism. People of my generation who wanted to know understood well the horrors of Communist societies. We knew of the slave-labor camps, of the mass executions, of the constant spying on ordinary citizens by the secret police, of the betrayals of friend by friend that were everyday life in Communist countries. We were well aware also of the grinding poverty in those countries.

I am concerned that thinking individuals who are in their twenties and even in their thirties now might know little about the reality of Communism as it was practiced. It seems to me that no one asked them to study the matter. A Russian friend of mine is going back to Russia this summer for a couple of months. If a few readers ask, I will request of my friend that he contribute to this blog from there, drawing on the memories of older friends and relatives who survived the Soviet period.

There was once a “Communist” movement whose followers were often motivated by generous impulses and by economic ignorance, in more or less equal parts. There has never been a Communist state, whatever that would be. Historically several Communist parties did achieve political power. None did so through democratic means, although the Czechoslovak Communists may have come close, in 1948. We will never know because the presence of a large contingent of the Soviet Red Army in the country forever mars the analysis. Continue reading