This is a cross-post by Mugwump
Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991by Leon Aron (Yale University Press, 2012), pp.483
The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters and Other Self-Destructive Killers by Adam Lankford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp.272
This post will be kind-of-reviewing the two books listed above. I say kind-of-reviewing because the review of the first book is more of an overview but with a few comments. The reason for the overview is twofold: first I think the book’s arguments can and should be used in future debates. Second, it is the approach of the first book that shows how wrong the second book really is. This is despite the fact they have no similarities aside from attempting to provide qualitative accounts of their subject matters (the Russian Revolution in 1991 and the trend of suicide bombers).
Roads to the Temple
The reason why I own and read this book is, I hope, obvious: I want to learn lessons from the Russian experience of bringing down unabashed socialism so that when Ed comes to power, I know how to act. Just kidding, I’m not a maniac. The real reason is because Leon Aron wrote one of my favourite essays. In that essay published inForeign Policy, Aron persuasively rejected the material explanations for the Fall of the Soviet Union and stated that it was a ‘intellectual and moral quest’ undertaken by writers, intellectuals and then the population
beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country’s past and present [which] within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991.
Roads to the Temple is an elaboration of this essay and it doesn’t disappoint. Aron is now the author of not just one of my favourite essays but one of my favourite non-fiction books. The book is an attempt to explain the collapse of the Soviet state as a result of the ideological change that warped the country in the aftermath of Glasnost policy which, finally, allowed a modicum of freedom of speech and press.
First, Aron seeks to explain why the economic and (materially) political factors were not significant in the downfall. As he points out, ‘no key parameter of economic performance prior to 1985 pointed to a rapidly advancing disaster’; GDP while slowing was still at a respectable 1.9% throughout the period (p.13). None of this should be taken as endorsing Soviet economic policy, merely that the material conditions cannot be a persuasive explanation for what happened and particularly how it happened.
Incidentally, you’ll find the same record if you look at Arab countries prior to the Arab Spring in 2011. GDP growth slowed – not least in the aftermath of the 2008 – but their growth levels were not different from the late 90s and earlier 2000s (see here). That the economic explanation for the Arab Spring seems wrong is apparent when you ask the people themselves: 59% of Egyptians say the main reason for the uprising was freedom and human rights, only 25% say economic. This is in line with empirical evidence (which Aron unfortunately doesn’t quote). As Jay Ulfield, a brilliant forecaster of regime downfalls has said:
Statistical forecasting of democratic transitions supports the supposition that, far more than leadership change or a slumping economy, the mobilization of nonviolent uprisings is what could tip China toward deep political reform
But it is not just the empirical record that shows that arguments like this are lacking – it is the approach itself, the ‘structuralist approach.’ As Aron explains structuralists ‘emphasise [the] state… as collective political actors’ and the causes of social revolutions are ‘traced back to state’s inability… to effect the necessary economic, social and political reforms.’ The main point is that these events are ‘independent of (or ‘exogenous to’) people and people’s ideas.’ This is a Weberian development on Marx’s historical materialism – the idea that the ‘causal scheme is centred on the ‘forces of production’ (the economic system)’ (p.16-17). The reason this approach fails?
If a revolutionary process is represented by a line on which letters from… a to d mark the stages of the revolution from first stirrings to triumph, the structuralist approach may be very helpful in uncovering what happened in the c-to-d stretch [but not…] what happens between a and c…
There were plenty of structural reasons why the Soviet Union should have collapsed but these fail to explain fully how it happened. In explaining the Soviet collapse we have no choice but to stray outside the universe of the ‘objective’ factors and take into consideration the enormous and subversive influence of ideas (p.17-18)
It is Aron’s approach that makes this book great. The structuralist idea has permeated public discourse. It exists in the idea that crime or terrorism is caused by poverty or foreign policy, that the choices of individuals are of little relevance. It is clear from my posts that I have an issue with structuralism (see my post on the riots and every single one of my posts on terrorism). The reason English law has given is because it ignores the role of an individual’s ‘free, informed and deliberate action’ and the authorship of that act (a view I adhere to). Aron says much the same: ‘it is ‘ideas and actors’ rather than structures… that are the primary engines of revolution.’ As Issiah Berlin has stated
these great movements began with ideas in people’s heads… We cannot confine our attention to impersonal forces, natural and man-made, which act upon us (p.18-9).
It is these ideas that ‘provide alternatives to the current view’ and explain how ‘pre-revolutionary situations become revolutionary crises’ (p.20). Freedom of speech allowed ‘every institution – political economic and social – to be subjected to trial by truth and conscience’ (p.51). It is following this process of self-discovery and criticism that surveys showed ‘solid majorities favour some key features of liberal capitalism’ (p.32-3).
Do read the rest of Mugwump’s post here