Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Fall of the Soviet Union and Suicide Bombing

Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 by 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 in Foreign 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.[1]

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).

Aron then engages in a comprehensive social history of the change of ideas. So comprehensive is Aron’s study – it is based on ‘8,000 pages of Russian originals: newspapers, magazines and books’ (p.4) – that it is better described as a rigorous qualitative study. Prior to Glasnost, it was not just the concealment of the truth but the ‘hourly construction and maintenance of a parallel, brilliant reality’ (p.64). The first element of the qualitative study, then, is justifiably targeted the Russian people, ‘relearning Soviet history became a national pastime’ (p.72).

Aron  spends three chapters on the deconstruction of the myths of the Soviet Union – each page of these chapters tries to move away from the monotonous history that everyone knows to fascinating details that were being published in newly liberated Soviet papers. Each Soviet construction crumbles:  the myth of outstanding healthcare (‘the number of scalpels made in the country was 62% of the amount needed’ (p.119)); the myth that the U.S paled USSR poverty levels (‘131 million people, or 46% of Soviet citizens were [earning around $200 per month]’ (p.127)); the myth of technological development (‘India was said to have more paved roads’ (p.136)); the myth of worker efficiency (the Soviet worker ‘had to labor 10-15 times [longer] for eggs, 18-25 times for bananas and oranges’ (p.137)).

In the third part of the book, the question of who is to blame for this state of affairs is handled. For Russian intellectuals and the people the blame lay with Stalin and  Marxist-Leninist ideology. Stalin’s death didn’t affect his legacy which was found ‘in the economic, political and ideological and moral threads that riddled the society’ (p.200). The ‘cause of communism’ justified everything for Stalin (p.219) – and here ‘everything’ included the consequences described above. This ideological framework had two fundamental consequences: ‘de-individualisation’ and the complete control of the economy.

‘De-individualisation’ or the ‘nationalisation of conscience’ was a process by which the people lost their rights to define their own interests, autonomy and rights to liberty. One cause of this illiberal process was directly related to an orthodox interpretation of Marxist thought:

His [the Soviet man’s] “petty bourgeois” insistence on a better life now and for himself was an impediment to history’s glorious future for all. [It was based on] the coming of the kingdom of peace and justice (p.212-3).[2]

The Soviet economy – based on centralisation and nationalisation of the means of production – was also a cause of the deepening misery of the people. It was both a cause of the de-individualisation and a consequence. The political act of de-individualisation can only be completed by taking away of people’s private property and the scope to take control of their own lives – which inevitably leads to nationalisation of property (p.206-7). But, similarly, the economic control (which led to de-individualisation) was a ‘fundamental principle’ of the ideology (p.202).

The solution, realised by the populous and printed in newspapers, was a liberal democracy: ‘the individual was not to be the means of the party-state’s aims but a key objective himself’ and they were the rightful ‘subject[s] of the national economy’ (p.272-3). And this was translated into the political sphere: Yeltsin called for the regime to be dismantled. The Communist Party, of course, stood in the way but by now, the legitimacy of liberal democracy had made their position untenable:

The revolution culminated in August 1991 in the rallies and strikes throughout Russia in support of Gorbachev and Yeltsin against the communist coup.[3]

Despite a couple of minor gripes[4], this is, without question, one of the best non-fiction books I have read. Aside from my point above about the Arab Spring, I have only one more comment to make. Last year Chris Dillow and the late Norman Geras were debating about free speech. Norm echoing John Stuart Mill stated

It is a commonplace of political liberalism that discussion and debate are good; we learn through considering different points of view, including those to which we are opposed.

Chris Dillow disagreed:

Discussion and debate lead not so much to learning as the mere exchange of prejudice. Free speech gives us not a rational pursuit of truth but rather the mindless and often dishonest venting... Mill's defence of free speech seems to have been a rationalist Victorian optimism which isn't supported by the evidence.

And, as if by magic, the New York Times had a summary of the evidence of what happened when people were exposed to opposing views in that same week:

You might expect that people’s views would soften and that divisions between groups would get smaller. That is not what usually happens. On the contrary, people’s original beliefs tend to harden and the original divisions typically get bigger. Balanced presentations can fuel unbalanced views.

Above I referred to Roads to the Temple as a qualitative study – and I did so deliberately. This book supports the idea that free speech matters – it changed the views and then the actions of the Russian people. The studies that Chris cites are evidence of what seem to be short term confirmation bias. When confronted with the truth consistently, with good evidence and outside of short term lab conditions where results don’t matter, Norm and Mill are right. Recent human development – the constant moral progress, declining war and crime, the rise of liberalism and the decline of religion - is a testament to their correctness. Rest in peace, Norm.

Myth of Martyrdom

This was a disappointing book. Lankford is arguing against the prevailing view in the academic literature on the psychology of suicide terrorists. These are not normal terrorists but specifically the three percent who kill themselves as well as others (p.12). As Lankford explains:

[Experts] made the logical leap that in terms of their psychology, suicide terrorists were essentially just like ordinary people. “Sure, the 9/11 highjackers had extreme political and religious beliefs,” the experts admitted. But were they unstable? No. Were they suicidal? No (p.4)

Lankford believes that the “experts got it wrong” (p.2). And on his main thesis, he is right that the experts overstated that view. Robert Pape for example claims that in his study into suicide terrorists he ‘found no documented mental illness, such as depression, psychosis or past suicide attempts’ (p.29). Lankford notes the absurdity of such a position:

How likely is it that you could walk into a room with 462 people anywhere on the globe and not a single depressed person would be present? [The odds are] 1 in 19,574,665,823... Either Pape has unintentionally discovered that suicide bombing is the most remarkable cure for... mental illness or something is seriously wrong with his so-called “comprehensive and reliable research.” (p.30)

Lankford draws on a study carried out by Ariel Merari whose research looked at 12 regular terrorists (that is non-suicide bombers) and 15 suicide bombers who were stopped. The results show that Pape is wrong: 53.3% of would-be suicide bombers had depressive tendencies compared with 8.3% in regular terrorists; 20% of them had post traumatic stress disorder compared to 0%; 13.3% previous suicide attempts compared to 0%.

Clearly, despite Merari’s small sample, this is enough to disprove Pape’s idea that there are no documented cases of past suicide attempts or instances of depression. But Lankford goes beyond this and suggests that it is part of the explanation for terrorism. Lankford is clearly aware of the study carried out by Bryan and Araj (2012) (he quotes it on p.50) – and yet does not take their criticisms seriously. Here is what they say in their response to Merari:

Merari finds that one of four respondents who tried to activate their explosive device displayed suicidal tendencies in interviews, compared to five of eleven respondents who did not try to activate their explosive device. [But taking into account the margin of error] there is no statistically significant difference between the two categories of respondents in terms of their likelihood of displaying suicidal tendencies (p.435).

This severely weakens an attempt at ‘explaining’ terrorism using mental illness. Moreover, as Lankford rightly notes, even if we take Merari’s findings at face value, it is still only half of suicide terrorists that have depressive tendencies.[5] Lankford’s mistake is ignoring the role of ideas in these individuals. Clearly mental illness does not cause terrorism (not even Lankford makes this claim) and clearly it is not a necessary component in suicide terrorism (as Merari’s research shows). Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to follow trends of suicide terrorism (the author notes that there has been a 300% increase in suicide terrorism between 2001 and 2010 on p.20 – but there is likely no tangible difference in (i) incidence of mental illness compared with other countries and (ii) change over time in the Middle East itself, ignoring the issue of home-grown terrorists – see here).

Rather, the main cause is the acceptance of the idea that terrorism is an acceptable form of conduct and is essential to fight that forms a necessary and sufficient explanation (see here for evidence and elaboration). Indeed, Lankford is right note it is a misconception to say that ‘suicidal people are crazy and irrational’ – as he notes, ‘there is a broad spectrum of people who struggle with suicidal urges and mental health problems... [some] have no grasp of rationality, but many [do]’ (p.31). But he doesn’t seem to realise that this means that the suicide-terrorist population, then, is able to have individuals committed to the cause who happen to be suicidal – and hence in terms of explaining their actions or culpability, there is no difference. And this fits in with the statistics: 5% of the general population are depressed and roughly half of the 3% of terrorists who attempt to blow themselves up are depressed.

If we ignored this ideological element, these individuals could kill themselves in their rooms but they choose not to – why? Lankford claims that the answer lies in the cultural stigma of suicide:

When a community strongly condemns conventional suicide as a certain path to hell, it virtually disappears as potential escape route. And when a significant percentage of people believe that suicide terrorism is justified, a new door opens for desperate individuals (p.153)

I have argued against this idea before: as the research on attitudes to suicide terrorism shows, there is no significant difference between communities around the world. Israeli Jews are 1% more likely to approve compared with Palestinians – and way above both groups are Mormon Americans. Lankford’s argument does not fit with the empirical record (presented above and in these two posts) and inevitably requires him to rely on cultural views in one respect (on suicide) but ignore it in another (on suicide terrorism).

Aside from the aforementioned empirical research and failings, Lankford has to contend with a further point. If suicide terrorists are stopped from committing plain suicide in their rooms because of the religious sanctions, we would expect them to have high religiosity. But they do not. Faiza Patel in Rethinking Radicalisation notes that ‘the religiosity-terrorism connection is simply not borne out by empirical research’ (p.10) – and an there is an indirect connection according to Lankford.[6] That Lankford is wrong is shown in another way. In his chapter on the psychology of the 9/11 terrorists he says the following:

Other members of Atta’s group acknowledged their sexual desires, flirted with women on the street [in Las Vegas] and even boasted of sexual conquests... sometimes it is those who appear to be most repressed on inhibited who are actually most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviours (p.78)

Lankford posits that culture presents a closed door for people who want to kill themselves – and the only way they can is through terrorism and so ‘a new door opens for desperate individuals’ – and yet, the culture against promiscuity doesn’t stop terrorists from having premarital sex. This makes yet another thing that Lankford has to ignore to sustain his argument. As these criticisms build, it is unsurprising why the view of the ‘experts’ which Lankford derides stands in stark contrast to his view.  

Still, Lankford is extremely consistent in his view so much so that he applies his reasoning to Oprah Winfrey. But this wrong-headed consistency goes to show how much Lankford is ignoring ideas. Oprah’s destiny – nor a terrorists -  was not decided by her own views, deliberations and actions. Lankford states that she attempted suicide after finding out that she was pregnant (out of wedlock) and wanted to avoid her father’s disapproval. He goes on to say:

Oprah Winfrey is not a suicide bomber... But if a teenage Oprah had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, she may have snuck out of her house, filmed a martyrdom video, cursed the infidels, strapped explosives to her chest and blown herself up (p.51)

At times Lankford seems to contradict himself or is not clear enough to understand. He (rightly) rejects the ‘foreign policy’ causes terrorism viewpoint (p.160). But he does believe there is a link because of the (i) psychological effects of war which increase suicidal people and (ii) the influx of weapons. If my criticism of his view above is convincing then we can clearly reject even this indirect argument about foreign policy – however the reason I raise the point is for two reasons. Firstly, inexplicably, he goes on to state to ‘these types of conflict will likely boost social approval of suicide terrorism against nearby enemies’ (p.161). This is an empirically false statement (see, in particular, the reduction in support for terrorism following Operation Cast Lead).

Secondly is a non-empirical point. Lankford’s prose throughout the book is barbed against his opponents – and even more than that, he believes their work brings happiness to terrorists:

You’re a terrorist leader. In front of you sits stacks of newspapers from around the world. You can’t believe your good fortune... You couldn’t have hired a better publicist. [The world’s leading academic scholars] say that suicide terrorists are psychologically normal and their attacks are caused by West’s military occupation of your lands... And you laugh. (p.38-9)

It is as though Paul Krugman wrote a book about suicide terrorism. But the point I’m making is this: Lankford’s views on foreign policy – both as an indirect cause and then his empirically false statement about support – is exactly the kind of thing that makes terrorists ‘laugh.’ Lankford should not be so barbed if he is then going to say the same thing. At times the author makes other ill judgments and extrapolates on the basis of facts where he really shouldn’t. He says ‘powerful evidence that suicide terrorists’ are not psychologically normal can come from ‘Zuheir’ (a single individual) on page 48.  In an attempt to show that a terrorist was suicidal, he cites her statement that ‘she [the terrorist] should have died in [her dead brother’s] place’ (p.56).  He even starts whole paragraphs of speculation knowing what he is doing (p.79).

Finally, the book is extremely badly written and filled with self-aggrandisement – it not only as though Paul Krugman wrote the book but also Nick Hornby. Here are a few of the stellar statements that are representative of the books cringe-worthy writing style:

Answers are sexy and true enlightenment can be orgasmic (p.148)

As Michael Jackson explained in his critically acclaimed song “Man in the Mirror” sometimes the best you can help others is to “take a look at yourself, and then make a change” (p.154)

I wrote that “the best scenario might be if [Bin Laden] is killed by soldiers in a surprise attack...” Looking back, these words now appear prophetic. If Bin Laden wanted to see what was coming... maybe he should have read my book (p.152).


[1] Aron dedicates a whole chapter to the inefficiencies of the Soviet economy: ‘redundant material items (that is, thing made but not utilised) reached an estimated 570 billion rubels or about half of the national economy’ (p.181). While the causes of failure are well known and noted by Aron (‘this system could not but reproduce economic “disproportions”: they were “built into the very principle of centralized planning”’ (p.203) + the bad incentives), he does not explain why the Soviet economy grew so much despite this backward economic system. For an answer to that question, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty provides a good answer. As Acemoglu and Robinson explain in the book

There was unrealised economic potential from reallocating this labour [i.e., peasants in the countryside using primitive technology] from agriculture to industry. Stalinist industrialisation was brutal way of unlocking this potential. By fiat, Stalin moved these very poorly used resources into industry, where they could be employed more productively, even if the industry was very inefficiently organised relative to what could be achieved (p.127)

As they note, institutions like the Soviet system cannot be maintained over extensive periods of time because they cannot generate ‘technological change for two reasons: the lack of economic incentives and resistance by  elites’ (p.128).

[2] Another cause was the idea that there was no objective morality. Virtue was defined by how much it was a ‘tool in the “service of the cause of communism”... it “accepted and justified everything”’ (p.217).  

[3] It’s interesting to contrast the book with Francis Fukyama’s The End of History where the non-structuralist approach is seemingly adopted: ‘critical weakness that eventually toppled these strong [authoritarian] states was in the last analysis a failure of legitimacy – that is a crisis on the level of ideas’ (p.15). But the inconsistency arises in the details: ‘the absence of legitimate authority has meant [when there is] some failure in some area of policy, there was no higher policy to which the regime could appeal’ (p.39). For the USSR, ‘economic failure’ could not be ignored because the regime ‘based its claims to legitimacy on its ability to allow for a higher standard of living’ (p.28). Fukyama’s timeline, like Aron’s, draws attention to glasnost and the liberalisation that stems thereof – but Fukyama’s timeline starts well before: ‘the beginning of the end [can be] traced to... period following the death of Stalin [1953]’ (p.31-2).

Fukuyama does explain that it was only after the 1980s liberalisation that civil society began reconstituting itself (and thus contributed to preventing the Communist coup from taking over in 1991) (p.31, p.28) but the differences between two authors are (i) when the Soviet people became aware and (ii) the effect of Krushchev in 1953 (p.32). These two questions deserve further study.

[4] The connection between ideology, Marxism and the consequences could have been a lot clearer. Aron doesn’t distil the connection adequately because, in my view, his book is reporting what people were saying – and therefore an analysis of ideology does not seem apt. Secondly, at times Aron’s own ideology comes out. For example, in a chapter entitled ‘The Disintegration of Souls’ which is aimed at showing the “moral degradation” of the Soviet people (p.191), he marshals the following as evidence: “Abortions were pandemic” (p.193).

[5] Lankford attempts to argue against this by talking about suicidal tendencies. That is not the same as depression.

[6] This connection is belied by Marc Sageman’s study (‘a lack of religious literacy and education appears to be a common feature among those that are drawn to [militant] groups’) and also the work of Rich Nielsen:

Rich Nielsen of Harvard University recently published a study in which he found that the main factors driving radicalism were not poverty or ideology of teachers. Rather, it was the poor quality of academic and educational networks. Based on his research, Nielsen found clerics with the best academic networks had a 2-3 percent chance of becoming self-styled jihadists, as opposed to a 50 percent chance for those who were badly networked.

It is not religion that matters, but an ideological view on religion. A more recent example to exemplify this trend was the Tsarnev brothers, see this comprehensive report from the Boston Globe


Susan said...

Awesome Review on both the books. I would like to read Roads to the temple

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