Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why the October Revolution Failed

Here is the long-promised post on the reasons why, in my opinion, the October Revolution (the one that resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union) failed.

One of the things that today's Marxists have been particularly hard pressed to explain away is the utter failure of the Communist revolution that transformed the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union. The easiest explanation always insisted that the conditions for the revolution in the predominantly agrarian Russian Empire simply weren't right. Since the capitalism in that country had not reached the needed level of internal contradictions, the revolution was not supported by the needed level of class consciousness among the paltry numbers of proletarians. Today we know that this explanation is, at best, very limited and misguided. We have seen that in countries where industrialization occurred early and ran its course successfully capitalism has evolved in a way that allowed to reconcile the most glaring of the system's inadequacies without any popular need for a massive uprising.

In my opinion, the October Revolution of 1917 was destined to degenerate into massive terror, genocide, and totalitarianism because of the very nature of the social experiment that its leaders attempted to conduct. Simply put, communism relies way too heavily on things that are contrary to human nature. Social animals that we might be, we are still not collective animals. I believe that the history of the country where I was born proved this point once and for all. And, by God, have we paid a huge price to demonstarte to the world one of the central weaknesses of the Marxist project.

What the example of the Soviet Union has shown to the planet is that people simply will not work for something defined as "the common good." At least, not for any significant period of time. I know that nobody want to hear this but the simple reality of the matter is that when there is no private ownership of businesses, when there is no difference in monetary compensation for the quality of your job performance, what happens is that people simply stop working. They just do. No amount of propaganda (and the Soviet propaganda was absolutely amazing) is going to change this simple reality. When people stop working, then the only way to make them go back to producing anything is terror. This is why Stalin's industrialization required millions of people toiling away in concentration camps. This is why after the breakup of the Soviet Union, working for a regular salary was considered shameful and unprestigious in the former-SU countries. Many people preferred to live in complete and utter poverty to accepting well-paid employment that was offered to them. Of course, actually looking for a job was considered so shameful that it made people massively deppressed.

When I discuss this issue, the main objection that I hear to my view of things is that the Soviet people were somehow not evolved enough and that's why they didn't manage to understand the supreme value of working for the benefit of their colelctive (whatever that collective might be) instead of just for their individual profit. I insist, however, that the absolute majority of people - myself included - are still not evolved enought for that, and in all probability will never be. Take, for example, my attitude to research. If I were told that from now on my publications will appear under the collective name of my department and the rewards for publishing a lot will be given to the entire department, I have to confess that I would start publishng a lot less. I love research, adore my colleagues, and feel very attached to my academic institution. Nevertheless, unless it's mine, I simply don't need it. I remember feeling like that since I was a little child. When I was given a toy and told that it would belong to both me and my sister, I would always say that I prefer it to be hers. I notice the same attitude in my students. When they have to create a group project, unless I specify (many, many times) that the project will be graded based on individual performance, the quality of the project becomes extremely poor. As human beings, we need to know with a lot of certainty where "I" end and "they" begin. This is why children who do not have enough personal space in their childhood develop all kinds of neuroses as adults.

I would love hearing what my readers think about this topic.


Khephra said...

Well, for starters, I think you have a creative reading of history, and an imagined conflation that you've identified as 'human nature'. If I had to guess, I'd say you haven't much familiarity with research into social psychology or altruism. For instance, I might point out that the drive to posses that you describe is *exceptionally* mediated by culture. It isn't 'natural' any more than taboo.

In particular, I might recommend Alfie Kohn, who has extensively studied altruism, competition, individualism, etc.

Further, I also think you have either ignored or rejected a tremendous body of literature that addresses your query - i.e. "Why did the Russian revolution 'fail'?". There are all sorts of reasons why it didn't start the global awakening it was hoped to. I can't imagine any serious historian suggesting otherwise, or that the reasons why it failed were some great mystery. Contention, certainly. But definitely no mystery.

Clarissa said...

The question I addressed in this post was not "why the Revolution didn't start the global awakening it was hoped to." So I have no idea what anybody's vision of this completely unrelated issue has to do with my topic.

In what concerns Alfie Kohn, I find him completely unconvincing on the "no grades / no homework issue." I find him even less convincing on his rejection of merit pay. In my opinion as an academic, merit pay is an absolutely wonderful thing that makes me very happy.

His articles on parenting, however, are great, and I always recommend them to people.

Clarissa said...

I also wanted to add that "a tremendous body of literature" on a subject that is very familiar to me in no way prevents me from having an opinion of my own. For the most part, Western slavists publish incredible junk on the subject of the Soviet Union. What can I learn from ignoramuses who believe that the US won World War II and caused the Soviet Union to fall apart?

The recent scandal between two leading slavists that was widely publicized in the media makes any lingering respect for these people vanish for good:

Pagan Topologist said...

I think I mostly agree with you. I hate assigning group projects. But, some of my colleagues love them and insist that they prepare students for the real corporate world. This freaks me out.

Izgad said...

In terms of the failure of the Russian Revolution I can only think to turn to Edmund Burke and his attack on the French Revolution. Governments require some moderate form of tradition to justify political authority and as a check. Anything less is a trip down to violence, chaos and rule by the strongest.

Af for Alfie Kohn, I did a pair of pieces on him a few months ago.
I must admit to having a horror fascination with him. I disagree with him, but there is something utterly compelling about how he presents things.

Clarissa said...

What Alfie Kohn fails to understand is that one of the goals of assigning homework is to teach students to work on their own, organize their own time, etc. I always tell my freshman students that I assign huge amounts of reading on purpose. They have to learn to read in a way that allows them to identify the central points of a text fast, often without reading every single word. This is an invaluable skill in a world where we are bombarded with tons of information all the time. A person who can look at a text and say within a couple of minutes what the text is about, what the author's political convictions are, and whether this text will be useful to them will do a lot better in school - and in life - than those who can't do this.

I do love, however, how he shreds to pieces Dr.Phil and Supernanny. That part of his theory is really useful.

Khephra said...

Wow. Yet another glaring hole in your understanding : pedagogy.

And, regarding homework (you've misrepresented Kohn's argument, btw), there's no contention within the literature: it works for a very limited set of understandings, and is countererproductive for a good many others.

And, regarding merit pay and manufactured competition, again, there is no contention in the literature. A huge class of literature and practice ignores this empirical data, but it's there for all who would look. Try, for instance, Dan Pink.

Defending Rand, endorsing merit pay, generalized projected misanthropy... I'm finding myself wondering if my initial impressions of ideologic congruence were woefully premature.

Clarissa said...

I'm sorry, Khephra, I honestly have no idea what you were trying to say in the two paragraphs that start with "And,".

As to my understanding of pedagogy that you find so lacking, this year I will celebrate 20 years of my teaching career. My students adore me and keep writing to me years later to say that I have changed their lives. My student feedback is always fantastic. Not only do I not get negative reviews, I don't even get indifferent ones. So please come talk to me about pedagogy when you achieve what I have in this area, ok?

Not knowing what Alfie Kohn said about whatever in a whole lot of detail only means that I consider Anglo pedagogy to be a little bit of a joke. One can memorize Alfie's works in their entirety but I promise you that this will not make you a good teacher.

As to "defending Rand", I haven't noticed that anybody was attacking her around here. What makes you think that she needs my defense?

As to "endorsing merit pay", I'm not in college administration so nobody is asking for my endorsement of this practice. I repeat that it makes me very happy. It will, however, exist whether it does so or not.

Khephra said...

It's a rare exception to find a prof who knows anything about pedagogy. Most know a subject but lack any consciously-crafted theoretical foundations in their dissemination.

And falling back on positive student feedback won't win you *any* merit in my worldview. It's simply irrelevant. The greatest successes of any teacher are unseen and unheard.

Having taught for more than 15 years myself - in a dozen countries - I don't find your 20 years' all that relevant to the discussion, either.

To reiterate,

1) You have misrepresented Kohn's argument against homework.
2) There is no ambiguity in the literature: certain types of homework work for certain types of understandings, but is counterproductive for many types of understandings. The ambiguity lies in which homeworks fall in which category. But, even then, there is little ambiguity within the critical literature. Kohn is just *one* of the pedgogic critics to highlight the true implications of homework. John Gatto, Henry Giroux, Paulo Freire, and a whole host of others have hit on the topic from mutually-reinforcing discourses.
3) There is no ambiguity in the data tracking merit pay. It destroys creativity, diminishes morale, and reduces passion. Sir Ken Robinson, for example, touches on these effects in "The Element". Or, Dan Pink, one of the world's foremost experts on motivation, who exhaustively covers the field in "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us".

"I consider Anglo pedagogy to be a little bit of a joke"

Then, perhaps I might be forgiven for considering your critiques a "little bit of a joke"?

Re. Rand: I noticed a decidedly objectivist slant to one of your posts/comments. I pointed out this congruence. You responded by aligning your views with Rand's and expressed sympathy for her models. This was the first strong indication to me that I shouldn't take you seriously.

Now I have more evidence which leads me to think there is less reason for me to be syndicating or commenting on your blog. It seems as though sustaining that connection would be about as ideologically hypocritical as if I were to do similarly for a Bible-thumping Bush-supporter.

Clarissa said...

You have an absolute right only to read those blogs where you agree with every single word the author says. Far be it from me to dispute that right.

The funny thing, though, is that I really have no idea what your opinions are on any subject under discussion. You keep quoting people but you never state what your experiences and your knowledge have led you to think on any given subject.

I willingly accept that my knowledge of Alfie Kohn's ideas is very superficial. I also gladly concede that I don't follow any developments with Anglo pedagogy because I don't respect what it has done in the past 5 decades. If we simply look at the results, you have to recognize that students in Europe have much better knowledge of pretty much any subject than American students. I can't respect pedagogy that produces such bad results.

As to your statement that "There is no ambiguity in the data tracking merit pay", please tell me: have any of the researchers you quote conducted their studies on a group of people comprised of 260 million individuals? Where they able to conduct their research over the span of 4 generations? If not, let me tell you: that experiment does exist. It has been conducted in the Soviet Union where everybody was paid the same amount irrespective of absolutely anything. The result: people stopped working. This strategy didn't "reduce morale and passion," it simply destroyed them altogether. I would love to here from somebody an intelligent argument of why all this data should not be taken into account, but nobody has an actual argument to offer. Do you?

Why should I trust this phenomenon that I observed with my own eyes and that happened on such a massive scale less than something that some guy said based on a much more limited set of data?

On a more personal basis, I can add that the moment I found out that my university has merit pay, my research productivity tripled. Am I to trust my own feelings less than something that some guy said based on some research I don't know I trust?

It wold be great to get some actual answers to these questions (not just from you, I'd love to hear from anybody else).

Khephra said...

"You have an absolute right only to read those blogs where you agree with every single word the author says. Far be it from me to dispute that right."

It isn't an issue of 'agreeing with every single word', but of ideologic resonance.

"I also gladly concede that I don't follow any developments with Anglo pedagogy because I don't respect what it has done in the past 5 decades. If we simply look at the results, you have to recognize that students in Europe have much better knowledge of pretty much any subject than American students. I can't respect pedagogy that produces such bad results."

Silliness. The "results" of "Anglo pedagogy" aren't poor. It's doing exactly what it was designed to do - perpetuate classist hegemony. It seems like you don't have much familiarity with the history of Western pedagogy, either. If you'd like to address that gap, you might try Gatto's "The Underground History of American Education". Most of it is available online, too:

"have any of the researchers you quote conducted their studies on a group of people comprised of 260 million individuals?"

Non sequitur straw man. Combining two logical falaces for more effect or ???

The Soviet Union has no bearing on discussions of merit pay. That you would link it to creativity and productivity indicates to me that your prejudices in this area may be very thick.

"Why should I trust this phenomenon that I observed with my own eyes and that happened on such a massive scale less than something that some guy said based on a much more limited set of data?"

Trust is a fickle beast, and I'd say Buddha phrased it well: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

But, insofar as your own psychological predispositions, I'd say the fact that you respond well to merit pay is probably diagnostically helpful, but sociologically irrelevant. IMO it's an indication of psychopathy, not health - just like ingrained competitiveness, addiction, or religious fundamentalism.

For more elaboration on my views on competition (the ideologic basis of merit pay), see:
• Competition vs. Cooperation (
• Maladaptive Values (
• Projecting Generalized Misanthropy (
• Strategies for Revolutionaries: Collaboration (

For pedagogy, see:
• Synteresis (
• The Future of Academia, Pedagogy, Creativity & TED (
• Time Well-Spent: John Taylor Gatto (
• Excellence, Underachievement & Judgment (

Obviously, none of them make a point-by-point refutation of your arguments, but as a whole they go a long way in illuminating the ideologic gap.

Clarissa said...

In view of your readiness to diagnose people you've never met with psychopathy on the basis of their feelings about merit pay alone, what kind of a diagnosis would you offer to a person who after being asked to stop quoting and offer his own opinion about at least one subject under discussion responds with nothing but a bibliography?

Anonymous said...

Khephra: What makes you think that "The Soviet Union has no bearing on discussions of merit pay."?

Clarissa said...

"Khephra: What makes you think that "The Soviet Union has no bearing on discussions of merit pay."?"

A. Ignorance
B. Americocentrism
C. Cold War legacy

Khephra said...

@Clarissa: If you want my opinion, I have given it. If it didn't come in the package you would like, this might also be diagnostically relevant, no?

@Anonymous: The Soviet Union didn't eliminate merit pay; it just reconstituted it. And, perhaps more importantly, the Soviet Union wasn't in any way shape or form intended to foster creativity, personal agency, or healthy socialization. Even still, there wasn't a lack of applied psychology in the Soviet Union - Stalin's support of Pavlov was done with the assumption that his results could be applied to control populations through conditioning and imprints rather than armies. I'd say he was successful, but I guess you can be your own judge of that. ;)

Clarissa said...

Khephra: you are embarrassing yourself, seriously. I understand that it's hard to stop once you have started, but your diagnostic efforts as well as your insistent ignorance about the history of other countries are making you look kind of ridiculous. Psychiatry and Soviet Union are both definitely not the topics where you have any knowledge at all.

Khephra said...

Yet another straw man. I said *nothing* about psychiatry. If you can conflate psychiatry with psychology, I wonder how many other elementary misattributions you are purveying.

Further, Stalin's support of Pavlov is uncontestable. I hazard to guess that no serious historian (who knew what they were talking about) would disagree. For instance, see: Horowitz, I. "The politics of physiological psychology Ivan Pavlov’s suppressed defense of scientific freedom and its consequences".

Insofar as "embarrassment", I think that would best be applied to the one relying on logical fallacies, apologizing for Rand, endorsing misanthropic ideologies, etc. But I realize it's your blog, so perhaps it's a lot more fun to ridicule others as being wrong than to admit your own prejudice.

Irregardless, I'll do us both the favour of removing your blog from my RSS aggregator, will gladly cease my comments therein, and will refrain from tweeting your posts.

Zhenya said...

"the Soviet Union wasn't in any way shape or form intended to foster creativity, personal agency, or healthy socialization."

- LOL, LOL, LOl, LOL, LOL. It must be Lenin or Stalin who told it to you in person. During one of your hallucinations. Ever hear about the Silver Age of the Russian Literature? How about creativity there?

You don't even see how you contradict yourself.

I'll quote you as a big joke to all my friends.

Khephra said...

@Zhenya: To say that no creativity or innovation occurred would be specious. But that isn't what I said at all.

Nevertheless, I'm glad to have provided some amusement. :)

Clarissa said...

Now Khephra decided to begin the Cold War all over again. :-) This is too funny. :-) Is anybody willing to act as our own special Gorbachov? :-) Or at the very least Reagan? :-)

Khephra: I will be eternally grateful to you for making me laugh so hard.

Zhenya: You see what Le Carre's and Nelson De Mille's novels have done to people? And you say that nobody remembers this rubbish any more.

Clarissa said...

I think I should repost the following on a regular basis to prevent people from having false expectations of my blog:

"Some of my political views are so far to the left that some people might consider them radical. For example, I believe that women should have a right to abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy whatsoever. At the same time, my political beliefs also rely on certain concepts that are considered to be deeply conservative. For instance, I am a strong believer in individual responsibility. As a result of these seemingly contradictory views, I have never been able to identify with any political party or program."

eric said...

Witnessing the above exchange makes me miss academia already! Just kidding. I'm not sure if "individual responsibility" is, strictly speaking, "conservative." Joining the struggle for better working conditions, race and gender equality, environmental protections, universal access to health care, etc., is hardly an abdication of individual responsibility. But when you introduce a loaded phrase that has also been thrown about by the likes of the late Robert Novak, some people may demand further elucidation as to exactly what you mean by such a term as "individual responsibility."

Anonymous said...

This is what "individual responsibility" means at the current ideological juncture:

I am much better working collectively, although I reserve the right to write my own things as well. But seriously, I don't see the point of sitting in rooms in alienating parts of the country and writing specialized articles just for my own individualistic glory; it's one of the main reasons I don't work harder.

I don't like to assign group projects in the US, though, because most Americans aren't like me. Group work functions a lot better in points South.

Re USSR / Cuba, etc., yes, you do have to allow for individual initiative and all of this. I don't think it's just the pay issue, it's the authorization issue; centralization issue; authoritarianism issue. BUT pay gaps in the US are too large, and academia isn't a meritocracy, it just plays at that.

Clarissa said...

Great article, profacero. Gracias por dejar aqui el enlace. Espero que se autil para muchas personas.

Clarissa said...

"We are born self-centred as an effect of our biology. Egoism is a natural condition, whereas goodness involves a set of complex practical skills we have to learn."

-Terry Eagleton. "On Evil".