[Note for bibliographic reference: Melberg, Hans O. (1996), Logical Logic (Review of M.
Malia (1994): The Soviet Tragedy), http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/papers/960405.htm]
After a period of rain the sun will shine
Review of Martin Malia (1994), The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia,
1917-1991, New York, The Free Press
ISBN: 0 02 919795 3
by Hans O. Melberg
When I was an undergraduate I had to write an essay on the following question:
"Was Stalin necessary?" In his book, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of
Socialism in Russia, Martin Malia asks - and answers - similar questions, but on a
much larger scale. Was Communism in Russia inevitable? (Yes) Could Bukharin and/or NEP
have saved "true" Communism? (No) Did Stalin follow logically from Lenin? (Yes)
Did Stalinism - the purges, the cult, collectivization and centralized economic planning -
follow from Marxist ideology or was it the result of Stalin's personality? (Ideology) Was
the Cold War inevitable or was it caused by an avoidable tragedy of misunderstandings?
(Inevitable) Finally, was the collapse bound to happen or could the Communist system have
survived if it had not been for the mistakes of Gorbachev and other leaders? (Bound to
In this way Malia deals with all the major historical question relating to Communism in
Russia. As with A. Nove's famous question, most of Malia's answers point to the logical
necessity of the events. The logical pattern is, according to Malia, caused by the
underlying driving force of the system: ideology. As he writes: "The central agenda
of the book ... is to reassert the primacy of ideology and politics over social and
economic forces in understanding the Soviet phenomenon." (p. 16). Thus, his book is
more than a collection of isolated surveys of the major questions in the study of
Communism in Russia. Rather it is an attempt to argue that all the events belongs to a
logical pattern since they are mainly caused by one factor - ideology.
Malia traces the ideology of Marxism back to the Enlightenment and the belief in Reason
combined with a moral outrage against inequalities. Marxism was build on the idea that a
reorganization of society according to rational criteria could make the lives of
individuals better both materially and in other respects. According to Marx the most
rational organization or society implied the abolition of private ownership of the means
of production. Nationalization and collectivization was therefore logical applications of
the Marxist idea and not the abnormal result of Stalin's personality.
When discussing ideology Malia also draws an enlightening distinction between
Capitalism and Socialism. Capitalism, unlike Socialism, is not an ideology which was
created by a man in a library and then applied to society. Capitalism exists, while
Socialism is a blueprint for a society which some people hope can be made to exist. Thus,
Capitalism and Socialism is not simply two different ways of organising society between
which one must make a choice. The difference being that we know that Capitalism works
(admittedly imperfectly), while Socialism is only a blueprint which may not work.
The question is what happens when we try to implement the blueprint of socialism, or as
Malia formulates it, "What happens when one tries to realize the intrinsically
impossible goal of building a just and humane society by concentrating all political,
economic, and cultural power in one set of hands?" (p. 160) From our personal lives
we all know that events seldom occur as planned. In fact, frequently we achieve the
opposite of what we want: When I try to impress I often fail utterly since nothing is as
unimpressive as the attempt to impress; When I try to fall asleep I stay awake; When I try
very hard to hit a target I often fail. As explained by Jon Elster in a series of books
these failures have systematic causes such as the tendency to overestimate our own
abilities or the logical incompatibility between the mean and the goal.1
In the case of Russia Malia argues that there was an incompatibility between the means
necessary to implement socialism and the aim of socialism. As he writes:
"...the instrumental program of socialism leads quite logically to the pervasion
of its moral program. ... For the suppression of private property, profit and the market
is tantamount to the suppression of civil society and all individual autonomy." (p.
The mere assertion of this logical incompatibility between means and ends is not
enough. We must, and Malia does, go deeper so examine exactly what creates this
As already argued the central claim of Marxism is that the abolition of private
property is the means to create a better society. Even Marx realized that the Capitalists
were not going to voluntarily give up their property without a fight, hence force was
required to implement the program. Using force as a mean is not necessarily incompatible
with the creation of a good society. However, historical and psychological experience
suggest that violence as a means tend to corrupt the original good aims.
In the case of the Soviet experiment the real cause of the failure was the mistaken
belief that abolishing the private means of production would lead to a higher rate of
economic growth. It is as if I though wearing pink hats would make me more attractive and
then proceeded to force my surroundings to act as if this belief was true. For some time I
might be able to do so with the necessary application of force (pretend you like this or
I'll sack you/deny you a new apartment/shoot you), but it is bound to create a surreal
society in which people keep their true thoughts to themselves, though professing
adherence to the official ideology in public.
Once again it is not enough to assert that Marx was mistaken
in the belief that public ownership was more effective than private. We must demonstrate
the causal mechanisms that makes private ownership superior. In this effort Malia is less
helpful than on the political mechanisms creating a surreal reality discussed in the above
There are at least three major problems of central planning: Two static and one
First, in economic terminology Central Planning gives rise to a series of
principal-agent relationships. This is simply economic-speak for the problem a superior
has in making sure that his subordinates do not shirk or lie. For example, a landlord
wants his workers to work as hard as possible, but he cannot know whether a mildly poor
result is due to laziness of the workers or some other factor such as the weather. To
solve these problems one needs some kind of disciplining device. In our case the landlord
could hire a person simply to monitor his workers to see if the were shirking. This method
was commonly used in the Soviet system. However, in a system of central planning there are
numerous principal-agent relationships and there is a large need for people who simply
monitor other people. There is further the problem of monitoring those who are supposed to
monitor other people (and so forth). This large need for monitoring represents a problem
because it is an inefficient way of maintaining discipline: All those who monitor other
people could be doing productive work if there was another way of monitoring people.
There are at least two ways of reducing the monitoring demand. First, one may use
so-called "boil-in-oil" contracts which means that you dramatically increase the
penalty for shirking. The strict labour laws under Stalin may be seen in this light. Malia
suggests that he is aware of this mechanism in politics (but not economics) when he writes
that "In the absence of terror, the General Secretary was now ultimately accountable
to them [the Politburo]" (p. 354). The second solution is to use the market mechanism
to decrease the number of principal-agent relationships. If the farmer owns his own land,
there is no incentive to shirk since he himself would bear the full loss of his laziness.
Thus, with private ownership the principal-agent problem disappears. The lesson seems to
be, contrary to Marxism, that a system of private ownership of the means of production is
indeed more effective than one of public ownership.
Even if there was no problem of shirking or lying, there would still be problems in a
centrally planned economy because of what Hayek called "information overload."
Imagine you are working in Gosplan trying to create a plan of how many units of certain
goods you should produce. The problem is this: You need to know the desired amount of
various goods for all the individuals, the optimal production processes and the available
resources. The problem is further complicated by the fact that all the variables are
interdependent. If you decide to produce more shoes, you also need to produce more rubber
and other raw materials, to produce more rubber you need more of the tools needed to
produce rubber and you may have to cut the production of some of the other products
requiring rubber and so forth almost forever. You may imagine the complexity of this
thought process for about 24 million goods.
Of course, there are some economic and mathematical theories that help in this process.
The economist W. Leontief developed a mathematical technique - "the Leontief
Input-Output analysis" - dealing with the problem of interdependencies described in
the above paragraphs. But even if this technique had been available in 1917 when the
Communist took power, it could not succeed because the procedure assumes that you have
precise knowledge of aggregate demand, the production possibilities and the available
resources. As if this was not enough you also have the problem of time lags in planning
and production. Finally, there is the problem of planning effectively in this system with
"political prices" (p. 335) which, unlike market prices, do not reflect the
scarcity of the good. How do you determine the most effective way of producing a
refrigerator, when you do not know the "real" prices of energy, metal and all
the other materials?
The third problem - the problem of innovation - is probably the most serious problem of
Central Planning (noted by Malia on p. 335). The causes of this problem are multiple, but
one major cause is the inherent conservatism in a bureaucratic structure. There is little
incentive for a factory manager to risk trying a new production system if he can get his
salary without dangerous experiments. Furthermore, even if he is willing to take the risk
he cannot simply go out and buy research or new machinery. He must produce plans which
must be sent for approval at a higher level (which in turn must be approved at a higher
level and so on). In a free market system the incentive structure is exactly the opposite.
You are greatly rewarded if you are able to invent a new and more effective method of
production. Moreover, the factory owner is free to do so without obtaining a time
consuming approval from the minister of that industry. Finally, because of the existence
of market prices production is automatically switched to those sectors which people demand
goods from. Capitalism is constantly and automatically changing, unlike Central Planning
which has an inherent tendency to favour extensive over intensive economic growth.
It thus seems clear that the attempt to create Communism was build on a mistaken
belief. Central Planning is less, not more, efficient than free market capitalism. In
itself this mistaken belief need not do too much damage, but combined with the acceptance
of force as the means to implement the program it becomes lethal. As correctly described
by Malia it gives the history of Russia a certain rhythmic quality. First, the leaders try
to implement their blueprint. Next - because the real world does not react in the way the
ideology predicted - they retreat to gather force for a new attack. The attack leads to a
new retreat and so it goes back and forth. One might question why the leaders simply did
not give up at once when they experienced the failures. The truth is that in a way this is
what they did in the end. In the words of Malia:
"... the economic decline discredited the claims of ideology, and Glasnost made it
possible to proclaim this fact, thereby delegitimizing the system and, ultimately,
depriving it of the will to coerce. And this circumstance in turn made possible the revolt
of the minority nationalities and the collapse of the people's democracies..." (p.
492 and 493)
The problem, of course, was the slow learning process. It took more than 70 years before
they were willing to attribute the failure to the system and not to the mistakes of
individual leaders. There are three major reasons it too such a long time. First,
psychologically people are not likely to give up a belief which you have fought extremely
hard to implement or have held publicly for a long time. Second, and also psychologically,
you are likely to attribute the failures not to the system, but to personal mistakes or
external circumstances. Third, the propaganda made sure that many people did not believe
they were as far behind the West as they really were.
Malia has thus created a theory which explains both the tendency to reform and the
tendency to implement hard line policies. First there was War Communism, then reality
forced the Communists into a period of economic relaxation with the New Economic Policy.
After some time this gave way to Stalin's hard-line policies, which in turn was followed
by a period of experimentation with Khrushchev. Brezhnev then put the breaks on and
Gorbachev tried to reform. In sum, Malia's rhythmic theory does seems to explain a pattern
in Soviet politics.
One may present the counterargument that his theory is a bit like a theory which says
that the weather will constantly alternate between days of sun and days of rain. This
seems to be a theory which cannot be refuted since it does not specify the length of time
between the intervals. At some point in time it is bound to rain, as it is bound to stop
raining at some other point. It is true that Malia's theory has this self-confirming
quality and that this is a major weakness. I am not equally sure it is a fatal flaw since
one might assess the plausibility of the theory even if it is theoretically impossible to
ever assign it a zero probability of being true. For example, Malia's theory is more
plausible than the weather theory because it gives a large and plausible causal account of
why there were such alternations. The account is probable because both economic
theory (and empirical evidence) lends plausibility to the statement that there was a
conflict between the causal beliefs implicit in the ideology and the true causal
connections in reality.
Malia's specific theory of the collapse of Communism, as presented above, is somewhat
contradicted by his general thesis. The general thesis is that ideology has supremacy
compared to economic forces in the explanation of the collapse of Communism. The specific
theory is that "The most fundamental cause [of the Collapse] was the economic
decline." (p. 492). Malia might argue that the economic decline was a consequence of
the ideology and hence ideology is still the most fundamental factor. However, the cause
of the economic decline is not simply ideology, but the incompatibility of the laws of
economics and Marxist ideology. In this frame it makes as much sense to assert the
supremacy of ideology over the law's of economics as to argue that the egg came before the
chicken. The collapse was caused by an incompatibility of two factors, both were
needed to create the incompatibility, neither were supreme.
Malia's general thesis may be viewed from a slightly different perspective. He might
simply be arguing against the schools which held that Soviet policies were shaped by
forces from "below" as opposed to the ideology of the leaders. For example Malia
argues that "So long as the Stalin-bred generation of Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Suslov
remained in charge, the belief in the 'international class struggle' was a real guide to
policy" (p. 378) On this reading Malia would be more acceptable, but I still maintain
that the consequence of policies (such as the collapse) is best viewed as the
combination of policies and "true" causal connections.
In addition to the main argument dealt with in this essay, Malia offers a wealth of
intelligent and provocative insights. I would like to share two of these with the reader.
First, Malia has a provocative argument against the cultural explanation of events in
Russian history. As he writes:
"The totalitarian nature of Communism is not to be explained as the prolongation
of traditional Russian authoritarianism or Oriental despotism; nor is the collectivist
nature of Soviet society to be construed as the continuation of traditional Russian
communal and servile social relations. It is difficult to find any such agencies of
transmission from the old to the new Russia in the actual policies pursued by the
Bolsheviks after 1917, but it is very easy to find the origins of these policies in the
socialist purposes of the Leninist party." (p. 134)
On this issue Malia seems to be in direct disagreement with another famous historian,
Richard Pipes, who has written that "Unlike most historians, who seek the roots of
twentieth-century totalitarianism in western ideas, I look for them in Russian
institutions".2 To judge who is most correct would require
another article and I am here content simply to point out the disagreement.
Second, Malia has an interesting discussion about the wisdom of the Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact of August 23, 1939. He writes: "The real question is whether Stalin made a
sensible decision in terms of the defence of the Soviet state; and the best answer is that
he did not." (p. 281). Malia argues it was a mistake because Hitler would not have
started World War II without the Pact, and Britain and France would have been willing to
strike a deal with Stalin if only Stalin had wanted it. Once again I can only say that the
answer may be right, but it is certainly contested.
Among the weaknesses of the book I would mention the weak treatment of economics and
the self-confirming quality of Malia's theory of Soviet history. There are also a few
stylistic flaws. First, the main argument is repeated several times in only slightly
different terms. Second, although the book is clearly written and the language is superb,
there is a very minor - but still annoying - stylistic flaw caused by the author's
unrestrained use of the terms "logic" and "logical" These flaws
notwithstanding, this is a good book which I recommend. It is full of intelligent
discussions, empirical examples, and provocative arguments. Nobody should attempt an
autopsy of Communism in Russia without reading this book.
1. For a summary see J. Elster (1993), "Why things don't happen as planned"
in Nordal Åkerman (ed.), The Necessity of Friction, Physica-Verlag, Heidelberg,
2. p. xvii in R. Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, Penguin books, London, 1990
(Reprint of the first edition from 1974)
[Note for bibliographic reference: Melberg, Hans O. (1996), Logical Logic (Review of M.
Malia (1994): The Soviet Tragedy), http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/papers/960405.htm]