The modernity of the Bolshevik Revolution

One interesting aspect of Understanding Russia: A Cultural History (course by Lynne Ann Hartnett, a professor at Villanova) is how modern and familiar the ideas of the Bolsheviks are. After the October Revolution, for example, Prof. Hartnett talks about women gaining the rights to on-demand abortion and on-demand divorce (what today is called “unilateral” or “no-fault” divorce). The rate of abortion quickly grew to exceed the rate of live births. The divorce rate in the Soviet Union became the highest in Europe. Unlike in the U.S., no-fault divorce did not come with the need to hire a lawyer and litigate in a courtroom (see Real World Divorce). The wife could go to City Hall, fill out a form, and her now-ex-husband would be informed of the divorce via mail (“postcard divorce”). [Unlike in the U.S., though, there was no possibility of an alimony revenue stream following a no-fault divorce; women in the early Soviet system were considered capable of working to support themselves and if they wanted extra spending power from a man’s income they had to get it through a voluntary arrangement.]

The professor also cites paid maternity leave and state-run day care as early Soviet programs.

Radical thinkers today like to talk about reconceiving state-run education as a lifelong process rather than merely K-12. The Soviets were there 100 years ago! Prof. Hartnett talks about how lifelong education was an explicit goal and the Soviets quickly organized programs for both peasants and factory workers.

I wonder what percent of the positions taken by a modern American politician might have been anticipated 100 years ago by the Bolsheviks. It would be an interesting exercise to line up what our current leaders say and promise to what the Bolsheviks were saying and promising.

Separately, the lecture series adds a data point to how present-day academics think about capitalism and the market. Prof. Hartnett does not seem to be a fan of Marxism-Leninism due to its reliance on violence to keep the population in line. However, when talking about pre-revolutionary Russia, with its 7 percent annual economic growth (like China today), she describes factory workers as “underpaid.” There does not seem to be any evidence of collusion among employers and state intervention in the economy was minimal compared to modern welfare states. Thus, it seems likely that the workers were earning a market wage. Due to the ample supply of labor this might have resulted in “low paid” workers, but to the modern American academic “low paid” seems necessarily to imply “underpaid” (unfairly low wage).

16 thoughts on “The modernity of the Bolshevik Revolution

  1. The positions of the modern politicians weren’t anticipated by the Bolsheviks, they are the positions of the Bolsheviks. (See “The Long March Through the Institutions”)

  2. PhilG: From what I can tell, while your socialist-sympathizing Native American Senator may have changed what race she identifies as, she has not changed the fact that she has identified as a woman. The fact that she’s a Middlesex county divorcee have something to do with that?

  3. There does not seem to be any evidence of collusion among employers and state intervention in the economy was minimal compared to modern welfare states. Thus, it seems likely that the workers were earning a market wage. Due to the ample supply of labor this might have resulted in “low paid” workers, but to the modern American academic “low paid” seems necessarily to imply “underpaid” (unfairly low wage).

    That’s quite the assumption about modern American academics based on a few sentences from one writer. Though it is reasonable to suggest that she probably disagrees with your notion that a “market” wage is a fair wage.

  4. Regarding the fair market wage at the turn of the 20th century, from Adan Smith:

    “We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.”

    So there were clear market distortions by the state. That hardly makes prevailing wages “fair” and “market”

  5. The Russian Revolution was a fanatical religious movement that tried to restructure Russian society on a “scientific basis” by eliminating traditional family structures and incentives that have governed human societies since the beginning of time. It followed the “death of God,” as announced by Nietzsche and buttressed by Darwin and tried to replace God with an omnipotent and beneficent State. The best account of this is Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government,” which makes you see that the me too movement, diversity, the phony child abuse cases of the 1980s and global warming are best understood as religious movements. As Jordan Peterson points out, did anyone seriously think that the death of God would lead to a hyper rational humanity? The professor you cite is not a leading Russia scholar, though according to her CV she does seem to have expertise in “women’s history.”

  6. Is it possible now, after the “revelations” of Russian interference in American and other’s political and social affairs, to trust the opinions of anyone holding an established post in a university or elsewhere? Perhaps they are retailing Moscow’s line at Moscow’s behest! How and where can trust be placed?

  7. It’s easy to see who to trust by examining who is willing to pay for what. If you paid for it, you must’ve voted for its correctness with your hard-earned dollar, right?

    (1) The GOP political agenda is paid by Putin (according to well-informed media channels). So, do you trust Putin? Do you like Russia?

    (2) The Dems agenda will be paid by the American people when they come back to power. So, do you trust the people? are you willing to put your own wallet where your mouth is? and how about other people’s wallets? 🙂

  8. YZ: The obvious place to start is that there is no reason why the Tsar or his replacements after the February revolution should’ve allowed the German-funded Bolsheviks their freedom. The obvious thing to do is arrest and execute them. But they also could’ve addressed the deeper issues. When the ruling class is massively out of touch with popular opinion, they need to make concessions whether they want to or not, or else they will get their heads chopped off or be forced to live with the indignity of the Trumpenfurher.

  9. Under/overpayment can mean different things. E.g. if a capital scarce country opened its doors to foreign investment, local wages would generally increase. By maintaining controls on incoming capital, interest rates are maintained at an artificially high rate, and wages depressed, all without over collusion among employers.

  10. While defending the Bolshevik Revolution is a losing proposition…. having just read Tuchman’s “The Guns of August”, if I was a Russian soldier who had just spent some months with barely any food, poor arms, all but no shoes, and that marching through the winter, I have to figure I might be inclined to buy whatever those Bolsheviks had to sell.

    A few sources about the Eastern Front in WWII seems to confirm that the Soviet experiment in gender equality created some all-woman military units that scared the bejezus out of the German soldiers due to their ferocity.

  11. YZ: With the benefit of hindsight, what could the provisional government have done? This is covered well in a recent book by Sean McMeekin. I reviewed it at

    “I had always thought of Bolshevism as a kind of logical next step in the political development of Russia. Professor McMeekin presents the success of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin as almost an accident. The Tsar followed bad advice and entered World War I. The Germans, with whom Russia was at war at the time, financed the Bolsheviks with as much as $1 billion in today’s money. The provisional government that took over after the February Revolution got distracted by a fight with a popular general (the Kornilov affair) and failed to do the obvious thing of arresting all of the German-financed traitors. McMeekin’s point of view does not seem to be the consensus among historians, but it is an interesting perspective.”

  12. YZ: Certainly Marx himself would have been surprised by the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power so in that sense it wasn’t inevitable. Socialism was supposed to be the next step for a wealthy industrialized country, such as the U.S. or the U.K. What we are seeing right now in the U.S. is more consistent with Marxism. For example, Americans demand government-set wages for low-skill workers, for women, etc. Americans demand (apparently) a government-directed health care system that consumes 18 percent of GDP. These demands wouldn’t make a lot of sense in a country full of agricultural peasants.

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