It’s almost hard for anybody who isn’t a Marxist-Leninist to really realize it

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

What is it that you understand about Stalin, at least possibly, that maybe most other economists would not?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

Wow. I think that probably the single best thing is that Stalin was, in his own way, a sincere Marxist-Leninist. The ideology is not just a rationalization for totalitarianism. It’s not just a rationalization for him to loot the country or anything like that.

All the historians who know the details of Stalin’s life will say he lived very modestly. He slept on a cot. He wasn’t like a tin-pot despot, going and building palaces for himself. I think a lot of economists would just assume that the guy is living high.

Instead, it seems very much like it’s the power, and not any kind of conventional luxury, that he cares about, and that not just the general goal but even very small policy details seem to be heavily influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Caplan did find one counterexample, where Stalin dumped his ideology:

Stalin sent Beria to go and talk to one of the leading Soviet nuclear physicists. I think it was Kurchatov. He said, “So, is it true that relativity theory and quantum mechanics are idealist?” Which is something where you have to know a bunch of Marxist-Leninist philosophy to even understand the question.

The Soviet scientist says, “Well, if they’re idealist, if that’s bourgeois science, then nuclear weapons are bourgeois science, too.” “All right, fine. Then forget philosophical objections to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If this, the science, lets us build a nuclear bomb, I don’t care what the philosophy says. We’re just going to believe the science.”

Occasions like that are fairly rare, and really, the more you study Stalin’s career, you do see, even bizarre doctrinal things like the farmers are kind of revolutionary. It’s like, “What are you talking about?”

It was like, “We have to go and set up a system based upon this, and that’s very important to Stalin in a way that it’s almost hard for anybody who isn’t a Marxist-Leninist to really realize it.”

Usually Westerners don’t have such a shallow understanding of the philosophy. They don’t realize how much of it is all part of this bizarre package. They think it’s just about high levels of redistribution, and that’s not the story.

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