Economic History of the Soviet Union

I decided to continue with my economics education with this course on the Economic History of the Soviet Union, motivated in part by the fact that I’m very pro-capitalism without actually having much knowledge of its greatest ideological rival, Marxism. Plus of course one of our closest friends is a big fan of Marxist philosophy and it might be useful to have some intellectual ammunition. Although it’s hosted on Marginal Revolution University, this course is taught by neither Tyler Cowen nor Alex Tabarrok but instead Guinevere Liberty Nell. As far as I can tell, she has never been a professor at any university but is a scholar who has written several books on this topic.

The course runs across eleven chapters, which could be interpreted according to standard practice with these online courses as eleven weeks of study, and ends with a final examination. Unfortunately this is deceptively long as the total running time of the videos come to only about two hours as most are only about two minutes long each. Nell never actually appears in the videos either and most of them consist of narration over black and white slides filled with quotes from various sources. The course ends with a final exam but there are no quizzes at the end of each chapter. Needless to say that’s not exactly what you would call a wealth of content. Nell’s preferred lecturing style seems to be opening with a bunch of questions on the topics. Unfortunately the videos are so short that it often feels as if she merely asks the questions but doesn’t stick around long enough to provide answers.

Lack of content aside, the course at least does touch upon the relevant bases. It begins with a consideration of whether or not the Soviet Union truly represents a fair and serious attempt at implementing the ideas of Karl Marx, goes on to talk about Marx’s Labor Theory of Value and then delves into the economic history of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution. The overall thrust seems to be to try and address why a revolution that was originally so well intended went so wrong and how it ended up with the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. The question of whether or not it was inevitable given the fundamental principles of Marxism is a fascinating one and Nell examines whether or not there were plausible alternatives at various turning points. The broad answer according to Nell is that it does seem to be inevitable and that although there was plenty of opposition to Stalin, none of them differed from him much in the way of policy.

I liked some of the little factoids and anecdotes, like how collectivization resulted in more livestock losses than the war and how the Marxists’ claim that the value of land is tied up with the value of the labor applied to improve it is startling close to the libertarian view of the value of land. But given the shortness of the videos, the course doesn’t give these topics the depth that they deserve. In particular, it feels to me like much more time could have devoted to the Labor Theory of Value, especially in contrast with value as determined in mainstream economics. Plus I would have really appreciated it if the course were to step outside the Soviet Union from time to time to compare the state of its economy to the rest of the world. Mentioning the differences between how the Soviets implemented Marxism and how the Chinese did it seems like an obvious and invaluable step to take.

Anyway this is another course that I can’t really recommend as it’s so perfunctory that it barely deserves to be called a course. It may be better than nothing but feels like only the barest of introductions to the topic, serving only as a springboard towards fuller study. I guess that’s why so much of the course are references to other sources.

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