Five Books for Shakespeare Lovers, or Those Who Want to Be: Doorways In

If you’re enjoying this week’s EconTalk episode with Scott Newstok, you might be ready to jump in and read more about The Bard. There is an almost unlimited supply of books on Shakespeare. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the onslaught of critical literature, popular treatments, retellings, revisionings, and performances. It’s glorious.

It also makes creating a list of five recommended books about Shakespeare an almost impossible task. Do we recommend the classic works? The newest? The most popular? The most fun? Do we focus on the writer or the writing? How do we find a way into the grand edifice we have made of the poet, the playwright, the glove-maker’s son? 

I’ve decided to suggest 5 books (and a few extra) that I think provide a variety of useful and interesting doorways into Shakespeare. They’re older works, not cutting edge scholarship, primarily because older works tend to be written for a more general audience. And there are no biographies, primarily because my own personal interest is much more focused on Shakespeare’s work rather than on his life.

Think of each of these suggestions as a different doorway through which you can walk. They all take you into the same building, but through slightly different paths. Pick the doorway you think sounds the most interesting. 

 

Holinshed’s Chronicles: This is the great chronicle history of England that Shakespeare used as source material for his history plays as well as for plays like King Lear and Macbeth. There’s something really wonderful about reading what Shakespeare was reading while he was writing. If you’re so inclined, it’s also a fine way to think about the artistic changes he made to the accepted history of his day as he turned it into theater.  I have an ancient copy of the Everyman Library collection of excerpts from Holinshed titled Holinshed’s Chronicles as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays. It’s out of print, but you can find it used fairly easily, and at a wide range of prices. You can also get the full text of Holinshed online at The Holinshed Project

 

Shakespeare’s Bawdy: Shakespeare never met a pun he didn’t like, and he never met a raunchy pun he didn’t like even better. Slang has changed so much since he wrote, however, that his best bits of blue humor often slip right past the modern reader. Eric Partridge’s classic study, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, is the key to uncoding Shakespeare’s naughtiest, and often funniest jokes. You won’t believe what you missed in high school. (This book may also be the key to getting your own reluctant high school Shakespeare student to do the assigned reading.)

 

Theater History: The Elizabethan theatrical world was vibrant, rapidly changing, and politically and economically fascinating. Andrew Gurr’s Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London and Bart Van Es’s Shakespeare in Company usher you into Shakespeare’s theater as a physical space and as a company of actors and community of playwrights. Combine them with a virtual tour of London’s reconstruction of the Globe theater for a fuller understanding of what it would have been like to be in Shakespeare’s audience, or in his cast. 

 

Lectures on Shakespeare: There are few things more glorious than the experience of reading a great writer writing about another great writer. W.H. Auden’s set of essays titled “The Shakespearean City” from his book The Dyer’s Hand is a stunning literary project in its own right, but it is also good, deep, and thoughtful writing on Shakespeare’s plays. Paired with Lectures on Shakespeare, the series of lectures Auden delivered at the New School in the 1940s, you’ll have a private course on Shakespeare taught by one of the great modern poets. What could be better? 

 

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Before Shakespeare was a wildly popular playwright, he was a wildly popular writer of sonnets. Sir Patrick Stewart read one a day for 154 days at the beginning of the Covid quarantines, bringing new life and new attention to these often sadly neglected works. Those recordings, and Helen Vendler’s unequalled The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which analyzes each sonnet in its own tight 3-4 page essay, will give any reader a deeper appreciation for the rich and varied poetic technique that undergirds the beauty and power of Shakespeare’s language. 

 

P.S. You can read the complete works of Shakespeare for free online at our sister site, the OLL.

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Five Books on the Future of Work

Do machines complement labor, leading to higher wages and better living standards for ordinary workers?  Or do they substitute for labor, driving down living standards for ordinary workers and concentrating wealth in the hands of the few?

We are now in the midst of what many economists call the Second Industrial Revolution.  The First Industrial Revolution introduced machines with physical power.  The Second Industrial Revolution induces machines with mental power.

The First Industrial Revolution began late in the 18th century.  Early on, observers such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx focused on the harsh conditions of the working class.  But by the latter part of the 20th century, it was evident that most workers had achieved much higher living standards.  It now appears that industrial age machines turned out to be complementary with labor.  If there was a loser from the Industrial Revolution, it was the horse.

 

How will the Second Industrial Revolution turn out?  These five books offer differing perspectives.  In chronological order, they are:

 

Robert Reich, The Work of Nations, 1992.  Reich saw that the future did not bode well for America to have a large manufacturing work force.  He saw information-age technology as complementary with  workers whose skills involve manipulating symbols–words, numbers, and computer code.  But it would substitute for workers who manipulate things.  As he saw it, America needed to train its work force to be symbol analysts.

 

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, 1995.  In this science fiction novel, Stephenson depicts a world in which nanotechnology, as described in Eric Drexler’s monograph “Engines of Creation,” has matured.  As a result, no one lives in hardship.  Any standard product can be  made cheaply by a “matter compiler,” what we would now think of as a 3D printer with superlative capabilities.  Machines have substituted for labor to the point where a lower class, called “thetes,” enjoys a coarse consumer lifestyle without having to work.  An upper class, called “Vickies,” has skills that complement the machines, and this elite indulges in a taste for old-fashioned hand-crafted goods.

 

Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999.  This is not a novel, but to many it reads like science fiction.  Kurzweil depicted a future in which artificial intelligence would catch up with and surpass human intelligence.  At that point, computers would be a substitute for every current form of work but still complementary with the human race, as humans and computers would eventually merge.

 

Robert Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700 – 2100.    Fogel, an economic historian and Nobel Laureate, points out that there is a long-term trend of a rising share of consumption devoted to education and health care and a corresponding decline in the share devoted to food and manufactured goods.  If he is correct—and I believe that he is—then the many politicians, commentators, and policy wonks who argue for trying to preserve American manufacturing jobs are engaging in a Canute-like exercise of trying to hold back the tide.

 

Tyler Cowen,

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Five Books on Macroeconomics

Recently, Raffaele Rossi offered his recommendations for the best macroeconomics textbooks at Five Books. Here, Arnold Kling offers his recommendations:

 

 

Macroeconomic Patterns and Stories, by Edward Leamer.  This provides an excellent introduction to the data that are central to macroeconomics—how they are collected and what they mean.  Although it is framed as an introductory textbook for business school students, it is valuable for economists at all levels.  Leamer wisely steers the reader away from thinking in terms of systems of equations and instead looks for patterns in the data and stories that could explain those patterns.   Note that I recently suggested that Leamer deserves a Nobel Prize for his insights into empirical methods in economics.

 

Manias, Panics, and Crashes, by Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Z. Aliber.  The late Charles Kindleberger was an economic historian, and I believe a historian’s perspective is crucial for looking at macroeconomics.  After all, there are no repeatable experiments in macroeconomics, only historical episodes.  Kindleberger looks at the most dramatic episodes in history, using the framework of financial instability developed by Hyman Minsky.  Kindleberger is a better expositor than Minsky.  Also,  Kindleberger emphasizes the phenomenon of “displacement,” in which a sudden change in world conditions, brought about by a major new discovery or the outcome of a war, triggers a dangerous mania.  My own thinking about macroeconomics is a combination of Kindleberger-Minsky and Fischer Black (below).

 

The Midas Paradox, by Scott Sumner.  Sumner tells the story of the Great Depression, probably the most important episode in macroeconomic history.  Sumner believes in a monetarist interpretation of the Depression.  Although I personally do not subscribe to this framework, his book provides an outstanding exposition of this important macroeconomic theory.

 

Exploring General Equilibrium, by Fischer Black.  If Kindleberger-Minsky macroeconomics is heterodox, Black’s macro was even more so.  Black does away with conventional aggregate demand and aggregate supply altogether, and instead constructs a theory of economic fluctuations based on general equilibrium, with physical and human capital sometimes suffering from rapid obsolescence.  Black even denies the relationship between money and inflation!  Tyler Cowen wrote, “It’s not an easy book for most people to read, as Black just comes out and states what he thinks, without much in the way of trappings or preliminaries or traditional narrative structure. There are also no models, just strings of statements about models.That said, virtually every sentence has substance.It is one of my favorite books in economics and it still contains many unmined insights.“

 

Macroeconomics, by J. Bradford Delong and Martha L. Olney.  I see this as a textbook that presents what I call the “academic” approach to macro, treating the economy as a system of equations.  This is not an approach that I share, but it is certainly important in the history of economic thought.  When I read the first edition of this book, I was impressed by its coverage of the topics of economic growth and international macro.  A more recent textbook that also emphasizes economic growth is Modern Principles of Macroeconomics, by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok.

Arnold Kling is the author of Specialization and Trade, which includes chapters that spell out his views of macroeconomics.

 

 


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Five Essential Books on Public Choice

Earlier this pandemic year, I shared a post on five great books to read first if you want to start learning about public choice economics. Looking back at that list, I’m still pleased with those selections, and think they hold up as “must-reads” for anybody with an interest in public choice. Now, I’d like to build on that list by sharing five contenders for most defining, most impactful, most essential books in public choice economics.

My focus here is on works that I’ve personally found most useful in being able to use public choice as a framework for conducting applied research. There is of course much that gets left out here, and no doubt I have colleagues working in the field of public choice who would come up with completely different lists. Those more influenced by the Rochester than the Virginia or Bloomington approaches to public choice would come up with the most different set of selections. While the Virginia and Bloomington approaches are closely linked in that they are both embedded within political economy and heavily invested in questions of constitution-building and rule formation, the Rochester approach tends to place more emphasis on modeling political coalitions and voting behavior. But that’s an over-simplification; for those interested in more detail on the relationship between these three approaches, I highly recommend William C. Mitchell’s article “Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-five years of public choice and political science.”

So, with caveats in place, here are five essential books in public choice economics that belong in every library:

 

Calculus of Consent: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy

James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock

The theory at the core of this book is about why people form governments and how particular decisions and areas of life are deemed either in or out of the bounds of public influence. Although the dividing lines between public and private can be easily taken for granted at any particular moment in time, the answers to these questions are actually quite varied across societies and can change radically over time. The book’s approach to these fundamental questions is deeply democratic in that it roots collective action in individuals pursuing their plans and interests while remaining keenly aware of the limits of large scale collective action. This balancing act between optimism about the coordinative power of rules and skepticism about the high potential for abuse and misuse of political power, which can be traced back to the constitutional debates at the time of the American founding, is still a defining feature in public choice today. The importance of this book to the development of the field is a big part of why Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and why Richard Wagner called Calculus of Consent the “Ur-text” of the Virginia political economy approach to public choice.

 

Bureaucracy

Gordon Tullock

This volume is actually a mash-up of two books by Tullock, The Politics of Bureaucracy and Economic Hierarchies, Organization and the Structure of Production. The vision that brings them together is the desire to understand behavior within political organizations from the perspective of those on the inside. By providing a framework for understanding political behavior as a function of what it takes to advance within a particular system, Tullock offers a way forward for those seeking to better understand the incentives and constraints facing decision makers within bureaucracies.

 

The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups

Mancur Olson

Olson’s enduring contribution to public choice economics is perhaps best remembered for its presentation of the free rider problem, and the implied difficulties that any group of significant size will face when trying to work together. Seeming to have a shared goal is not always enough—differences in strategy, priorities, and the trade-offs faced by individuals raise the possibility of shirking and conflict. By exploring the internal politics of groups, Olson’s Logic of Collective Action gives us another useful way to look under the surface of collective action in order to really understand the ways that what people want out of their associations—governments, unions, lobbies, corporations, NGOs, clubs—might differ from what they are likely to get.

 

Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

Elinor Ostrom

This book is the culminating presentation of the first thirty years of theoretical and applied research into local public goods and community problem solving by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues in the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. The big idea here, in a sense, is to turn Olson on his head. Instead of focusing on the ways groups might fail, Ostrom’s emphasis in this book is on the ways groups might succeed. (Though admittedly the contrast is overblown, because both find cooperation among groups to be most successful when power is scaled down to the level of local actors with the most relevant information and incentives.) In additional to providing a theoretical framework, the book catalogs extensive case studies of local populations working together to resolve seemingly insurmountable problems and analyzes them for common threads.

 

The Political Theory of a Compound Republic: Designing the American Experiment

Vincent Ostrom

This may be the least orthodox choice on the list, but in my view, Vincent Ostrom’s work here is an integral part of the big picture of public choice. In this book, Ostrom engages in a careful analysis of Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s contributions to The Federalist in a return to the great question of the American founding: is it possible to design a better government through reflection and choice? Or are we doomed to the vagaries of history and tyranny? All the books above can be seen as addressing versions of this question. And it is a critically important one. Understanding what can and cannot be accomplished in a political setting is critical to avoiding missed opportunities, yes, but also the excesses of power (and the abuse, oppression, and waste that accompany them) that are the greater problem in the modern world.

 

 

These five books are essential reads for anyone wanting to get the full picture of public choice. Taken together, they represent a holistic and adaptable approach to understanding political and economic systems that takes seriously the great power of working together—for better and for worse. There are many more works that deserve a place on this list, too many more to even name here. Share your picks in the comments below and we’ll all get to reading.

 

 

Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

 


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Five Books: The Butcher’s Bill of the Soviet Experience

Communism kills. 100 million lost souls in the 20th century, not from war or natural causes, but from state execution.  Let that sink in – 100 MILLION.

 

OK, now back to scholarly recommendations for books to learn about and understand this experience.  Obviously, the classic work in this regard is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (originally published in 1973). The impact of this work cannot be overstated. And, it should be read by every student of civilization in the 20th century.

In addition to the official prison system that the Soviet system utilized for repression, there existed the day-to-day repression of everyday life and social interaction outside of the prison walls. But it was still a prison culture of the mind.  The best book I know of to explore this is Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (originally published in 2008). The book demonstrates how daily life revolved around having to whisper to your close confidantes to hide from the prying eyes and ears of state surveillance. There were also those who you believed would be your confidantes who themselves would strategically whisper behind your back.

In one of my books on post-communism, I relay the story of Vera Wollenberger, who was a leader of the dissident group “The Church from Below” in East Germany. After the collapse of communism and German re-unification, she agitated for the Stasi to open their files as part of the reconciliation process. When her file was opened, it turned out her own husband – Knud Wollenberger – continually filed reports on her activities with the Stasi.

 

Think through the logic of attempting to live under such a regime.

 

The most comprehensive study of the archives and the death toll under communism in the 20th century is The Black Book of Communism edited by Stéphane Courtois (originally published in 1997). This is the book that establishes in excruciating detail from the archives the 90 to 100 million deaths by communist governments in the 20th century through political repression, execution, labor camps, and orchestrated famines.  As I said to start this section – COMMUNISM KILLS.

 

Another gruesome tour through the crimes against humanity committed in the name of communism is Steven Rosefielde’s Red Holocaust (originally published in 2010), which argues that the most accurate number is 60 million. Still Rosefielde admits that there are most likely tens of millions more that we just cannot corroborate with the archival data and never will because they are lost.

 

Let me end this section referencing a book by Alain Besancon, that ties together the ideology, the institutional manifestations, and the terror of the Soviet experience.  There are other great sweeping books in this genre, such as Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich’s Utopia in Power (1988), but if you had to read one book to make sense of the economic deprivation and political repression of the Soviet Union, and why those in the west misunderstood for so long it would be Alain Besancon’s The Origins of the Gulag (originally published 1981).

 

Conclusion

I used to kid around with my students about “nonsense speak” in writing papers, and I would give as the example someone starting a paper with the phrase, “The history of the Soviet Union is very, very, very interesting.”  Of course it is, but lots of things are very, very, very interesting. But that sort of opening phrase  says nothing. Do not do it. Claims in social science papers should have a bite, they should be bold, and they should be potentially wrong. Science and scholarship should “hurt” if we are wrong. “The history of the Soviet Union demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of communism as an ideal.”  Now we can begin a contested conversation over a claim. We must offer conjectures subject to refutation in the dialogue with our peers.

 

Key to understanding Soviet Socialism is coming to grips with the claim that communism is not an ideal that humanity failed to live up to, but that communism is an ideology that is simply incompatible with humanity and human betterment.  It is an ideology, as Oscar Wilde warned, that robs the soul of man, and it is an ideology, as Ludwig von Mises warned, that destroys the means of our material progress.  The greatest large-scale social experiment of the 20th century was also the greatest large-scale social failure of the 20th century.

 

Hopefully, this reading guide will get you started on your own course of study to see what the lessons learned from this experiment are, and why we must never forget them.

 

 

Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.


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Five (More) Books: Revisionist Accounts of the Soviet Experience

In my previous posts, I offered recommendations for reading on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet economy, and the Ethnography of Soviet life.

 

As you can glean from my recommendations for reading so far, I have stressed learning about the dysfunctions and dystopian aspects of the system.  I will come back to that in my final post in this series. But right now I do think it is valuable to also acknowledge alternative perspectives.

During the 1970s, a “revisionist school” of historians rose to challenge the standard “Cold War” totalitarian system narrative. They provided counter evidence to say either that they system was more decentralized and democratic than the totalitarian model suggested, or that it was less repressive than the totalitarian model claimed; or that the economic system was more successful than the critics acknowledged.  Some of these claims made in the 1970s were subsequently challenged when the archives opened in the 1990s, revealing the full extent of Soviet repression. Other claims are still part of the ongoing contested conversation in Soviet studies.  I personally believe that many of the revisionist accounts have important insights, but that in general they tend to miss critical aspects of even the stories they are telling.  I also think, and of course I would, that there are serious errors of a methodological and analytical nature committed in many of these revisionist accounts due to ideological precommitments. Still, to become an informed student, one must be knowledgeable of these alternative accounts.

 

The first one to read would be Jerry Hough’s The Soviet Prefects (originally published in 1969) explores the role that local party organs play in industrial decision making. It is a challenge to the idea of a unified and comprehensive central plan.  Hough’s work was an initial challenge to the idea that Stalin’s regime represented an institutionally strong and robust centralized administration, and starts to push toward the revisionist account that the Stalinist system was actually institutionally weak, and thus the totalitarian account of the control and repression of the system must be exaggerated.

 

Hough was not as strong in that revisionist account as  was Arch Getty, who in Origins of the Great Purges (originally published in 1985) argued that the archival evidence from the 1930s demonstrates that the Communist Party under Stalin was chaotic and confused rather than ruthlessly efficienct in its execution of terror. The totalitarian account must be exaggerated, Getty concluded.  Stalin didn’t orchestrate the terror, but was responding to political threats as they arose in the struggle for survival.

 

Stephen Cohen’s wonderful book Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (originally published in 1973) tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experience through the eyes of one of its main architects, who was later a tragic casualty of the betrayal of the revolutionary ideas.  I am extremely partial to this because Bukharin wrote seriously about the economics of communism.  Bukharin, in fact, actually spent time in Vienna attending Bohm-Bawerk’s famous seminar, and he wrote a book criticizing the Austrian School of Economics.  He was familiar with the works of Ludwig von Mises, and in fact would invoke Mises during debates within the Soviet Union on the shift toward the New Economic Policy. He was dubbed “the most learned critic of communism”.  Bukharin wrote the economic policies for the initial communist period which I mentioned earlier in reference to the work of Malle, and he wrote the New Economic Policy after the collapse of the Russian economy forced the Bolsheviks to chart of new course to stay in power.  He was named by Lenin, along with Trotsky and Stalin, as the potential successor to his leadership in 1923, ironically sealing his fate. Stalin first aligned with Bukharin to purge Trotsky for exhibiting “left-wing childishness”, and then flipped sides to purge Bukharin for “right wing opportunism”.  Cohen’s book asks the question, what if Bukharin had won out in that political struggle rather than Stalin?  Many communists had been asking a similar question about Trotsky ever since Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, but Cohen successfully got a new generation to ask that similar question.  As perestroika matured as public policy under Gorbachev, Bukharin would be “liberated” and even became a symbol of market reforms such as the “Cooperatives Act of 1987”, and photos of Bukharin could be seen around Moscow.

 

Back to the nitty gritty of Soviet history, one of the most horrific tales of the Soviet experience is the Holodomor, as depicted in Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) or more recently in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (2017). But the revisionist account by R. W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft in their book The Years of Hunger (originally published in 2004) argues that the famine was not intentional, but resulted from mismanagement and environmental circumstances.  Similar to what I mentioned in my previous post about the “debate” between Malia and Pipes, it appears difficult at times for academics to see their way to explanations that blend ideas and interests with historical circumstances to tell a more nuanced story, as their penchant is for either/or narratives.  That said, detailed scholarship and careful reworking of numerical information is always valuable in helping gain an understanding.

 

This also leads to my last revisionist work, and I think the one that most challenges my own priors about Soviet economic performance through time, Robert Allen’s Farm to Factory (originally published in 2003). He argues against the now conventional wisdom that the Soviet experiment was a horrific failure, and that if you measure correctly it must be counted as one of the greatest economic development stories of the 20th century.  One cannot be conversant in the contemporary conversation about the legacy of the Soviet Union without careful study of Allen’s bold reinterpretation.

 

 

Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.


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Five (More) Books: Economic, Political and Social Ethnography of Soviet Life

In my previous two posts, I offered recommendations for reading on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet economy. Today, I’d like to turn our attention everyday life in the Soviet Union.

My most cherished comment on one of my books dealing with the Soviet system was from then Department Chair of Economics at Moscow State University, who upon reading my discussion of the contrast between how the system was supposed to work and how it really worked wrote to me to tell me that my description fit perfectly with the daily life that he and his family had to endure.  I had done my job then.  I think the purpose of economic theory is to aid us in our task of making sense of the political economy of everyday life.  Not theorems and graphs on blackboards and textbooks, but the lived reality out the window in the social settings we find ourselves exploring as social scientists and scholars.

Perhaps the best window into everyday life is through ethnographies, either loose ones such as those written by journalists, or rigorous ones written by social scientists.  Since this was always my intent, rather than merely writing down the history of the political leaders, I was from the beginning drawn to first-person accounts and the impact of the Soviet experience on the lives of ordinary citizens.  Obviously, given the weight I place on ideology and policy initiatives, I think you also have to pay attention to the official view and the official documents. But truth lies in the interaction between the official policy and the impact felt in the day-to-day life of people experiencing those policies.

 

The first work I would suggest then is Emma Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia (originally published in 1923) based on her time in Russia in 1920 and 1921.

Emma Goldman was a Russian anarchist who had emigrated with her family to the United States in 1885. She was arrested multiple times in the US for political activism and for distributing pamphlets advocating for social change. She was deported from the US under the Anarchist Exclusion Act, and she went to Finland and then eventually to Russia.  A revolutionary, Goldman was originally prone to view the Russian Revolution as a positive signal of world-wide revolution, but once inside the system her disillusionment began.  She witnessed first-hand an economic system that could not work, and the origins of political terror which were unspeakable to her.  One of my favorite scenes in her book is the description of a May Day parade which was supposed to exhibit great enthusiasm for the revolution but instead only revealed the thinly veiled pain and suffering of the people in the streets with forced shows of support for the regime.  Read this book and then watch the movie Reds, with a new appreciation for the scene where Emma Goldman confronts John Reed with the reality of the situation in 1921.

 

Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism (originally published in 1999) is a wonderful social history exploring the systems of survival that ordinary individuals developed to cope with the scarcity and repression of the Stalin regime.  The informal norms and networks that make life possible in such harsh conditions are unearthed in Fitzpatrick’s account.

 

Warren Nutter’s The Strange World of Ivan Ivanov (originally published in 1969) is an examination in comparative terms of the economic life of an ordinary individual and their family in the Soviet system as compared to the US. It is an eye opening comparison, and one that anyone hoping to understand the impact of communism on the lives of those who have the misfortune of having to live under that system. Any romantic notion of a move from a “kingdom of necessity” to a “kingdom of freedom” will be disabused quickly by any cursory reading of Goldman, Fitzpatrick, and Nutter.

 

There are two journalistic accounts from the Brezhnev years and from the Gorbachev years that I would suggest are foundational to get a window into the daily life of a Soviet citizen.  The first would be Hedrick Smith’s The Russians (originally published in 1975), which explained the underground market, the queuing system, and the samizdat culture (including jazz music).  The second is David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb (originally published in 1993), which details everyday life during the last days of the Soviet empire.  Both of these books give a fantastic bottom-up account of the day-to-day life of ordinary individuals struggling to survive and cope with the difficult conditions and changing circumstances as the Soviet system economically, politically and socially corrosively eats itself from within.

 

 


Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.


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