Great Socialist Sex: Debunked

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Over the holidays, I off-and-on read through Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World, by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell, and I highly recommend it. The book is overall entertaining and clear, and despite my lifelong advocacy of capitalism, I learned a few things, such as what, exactly, "exploitation" means to a Marxist. (I had never explicitly tied it to the Labor Theory of Value.)

That said, its chief value will be helping ordinary people who may not be that interested in economics or politics understand why capitalism is good and its opposite ... sucks. Along the way, the authors set straight a few sins against journalism, such as Kristen R. Ghodsee's 2017 New York Times piece, "Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism," which I commented on at the time.

The below -- a quotation from a Leningrad-based sexologist -- is just a sample of their total evisceration of that despicable piece:

Soviet Apartments: Ugly on the outside, and with unwanted roommates inside. (Image by Marshal Bagramyan, via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
Soviet women may well have the highest rate of culturally repressed orgasm in the world... Look, what kind of orgasms do you expect in a society which, on top of all the shame we've loaded on sex, lived for decades in communal apartments? I have one couple for whom I've found no solutions; the mother-in-law still sleeps behind a screen in the same room, the young wife can't allow herself to make one moan, one cry... How, how to make love that way ... the mother-in-law lying there hearing every creak of the bedding.
And that's the lighter side of the problem (if you can call it that): The authors cite a poll revealing that 70% of Soviet women never had an orgasm and over half detested sexual contact. And yet, due to the gruesomeness (an understatement) of the "free" government abortions, there was a strong black market for illegal, private ones.

-- CAV

P.S., They rather ably take apart Walter Duranty, too.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, sounds like an interesting book! Since I don't have access to it, I can't comment on their argument, but it surely wouldn't need much to eviscerate the original editorial. I finally went and read it and applied far better critical reading skills than Ghodsee's political fervor allowed her to apply. Most of the argument was purely anecdotal and the rest was tendentious regurgitations of out-of-context facts clearly intended for people who don't know much 20th century intellectual history. I then did a quick search and found one critical review of the book that must have inspired the Times to run her editorial, and it made the same basic points I would have made.

A perfect example from her editorial is this: “As early as 1952, Czechoslovak sexologists started doing research on the female orgasm, and in 1961 they held a conference solely devoted to the topic,” Katerina Liskova, a professor at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, told me. “They focused on the importance of the equality between men and women as a core component of female pleasure. Some even argued that men need to share housework and child rearing, otherwise there would be no good sex.” The simple answer is, quite literally, so what? It takes a typical academic radical to think that a single scientific conference somehow is entirely representative of the history and culture of an entire nation! (Then there's the secondary question, how much academic and psychological attention had female orgasms received in the West even before Freud by 1961? Never mind that Freud was stupid on the issue, he and his followers and all the people influenced by them at least knew it existed and was important, self-satisfied stereotypes projected onto the wall or TV screen as intellectual history notwithstanding.)

The rest of it is on the same level of rigor--rather, her argument doesn't attain rigor even in morte. It's as cherry-picked as the blather by her like-minded comrades about such topics as Victorian sexuality, where about the same range of figures and institutions as Eastern European sexologists are somehow to be taken as significantly representative of practice as opposed to simply being one strain of culture--and this in a realm of life where it's exceedingly difficult to elicit representative, much less accurate data, even without the difficulties of delving into more modest periods of the past; and when people do manage to do so, they find a rather more variegated picture. (It's not a subject I have read much about and later books probably provide an even richer picture.) Her method is: Someone said something once, so there!

Which of course is a game anyone can play, even me. Though I have no interest in retailing all the horror stories about sex I heard from Russian friends (intimate and otherwise) who grew up in the Soviet Union, so I'll just say that for many of them, especially outside the intelligentsia, it was hardly a land of, shall we say, cream and honey. Which brings us to probably her greatest interpretive failing. The feminism associated with early Communism in Russia was partly a reflection of socialist thought (though not just socialist thought in the west) and partly a reflection of the fact that in the early Soviet period the Soviet state cut lots of intellectual deals with the non-Communist socialist intellectuals in the cities to neutralize opposition. Later that changed, and only partly because Stalin was at the helm.

Gus Van Horn said...


" It takes a typical academic radical to think that a single scientific conference somehow is entirely representative of the history and culture of an entire nation!"

Hah! True, too, and kind of addressed by an integration of this point (and others) with their chapter, "Back in the USSA," where the authors attended a socialist conference and concluded that such things as sexual equality are what really motivate most of the nominal socialists who attend -- and who largely don't even really know what socialism is.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "I learned a few things, such as what, exactly, "exploitation" means to a Marxist. (I had never explicitly tied it to the Labor Theory of Value.)"

True. The example of specialized vocabulary I remember bemusing, confusing, and amusing people was the statement way back when that the right-wing Communists had tried to overthrow Yeltsin, or something like that. I remember trying to explain to a coworker who decided it was some sort of media plot to portray Yeltsin as a leftist and thus acceptable to him (my coworker) and his like-emoted that it was basic Marxist-Leninist terminology. Marxist success requires a proper balance of approaches to political action based on objective (economic) and subjective (psychological and cultural) approaches. If someone overemphasized objective factors (like lots of guns but no revolutionary sentiment among the workers), he was a rightist; someone who overemphasized psychological factors (like worker revolutionary sentiment without guns) was a leftist. If they succeeded, they were Marxists; if they failed, they were right or left deviationists, where deviation supposedly means going too far to one extreme due to lack of proper Marxist purity or whatever, but in practice meaning "he lost" (usually to the ladder-climbing blood-thirsty weasel like, say, Stalin).

Gus Van Horn said...

Good grief: Marxism isn't just evil. It's a rabbit hole of evil...

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "Marxism isn't just evil. It's a rabbit hole of evil..."

True. At least in the Leninist version and its descendants, it's a lust for power wedded with just enough canniness to seize opportunities and a vaguely humane gloss, at least if you're committed to altruist ideals, to disarm much of the opposition. It recalls to mind one of the more lasting though less enjoyable parts of my high school education. Our history teacher was a retired college professor, and she taught AP history like college-sophomore-level history courses--from the time she was a college sophomore. We used an older, solid college textbook that at that time was till in print and reams of original documents. She gave me extra credit one semester of, yes, reading Mein Kampf--not all of it, because, as she put it, "You don't deserve all of it inflicted on you." She gave me a list of selected chapters, probably about 2/5 of the text, and additional readings of chapters by Gobineau and Chamberlain, the major "scientific racists" before Hitler, and had me write a fairly long paper by modern high school standards (I think 10 pages) comparing and contrasting them on certain issues. So I got a first-hand guided tour of the Nazi mindset, and what is also useful for historical training, its profound differences from earlier racist thought. I later read communist history and thought starting about four years later, when my preferred occupation had shifted to history, and for well over a decade in some detail and too much since then; understanding it is, alas, far too necessary for understanding places I do research in. The similarities in the basic attitude of Nazis and Leninists/Maoists to power and the humanitarian ideals of their day was striking.

[*] Yeah, Marx and Engels quite a bit, Lenin far too much, and most of the first three of the five volumes of Mao's collected writings, and lots of the "deep cuts" besides the "greatest hits," especially in social science and philosophy of science in the later Soviet period, which is about as tedious as it sounds. (And for that, sadly, you have to read Stalin, since he liked to inject himself into doctrinal disputes in much the same way Constantine injected himself into Christian theological disputes so's to put a thumb on the scale for political aims... Like this pronouncement from on high is often considered to have saved linguistics from Lysenkoist, or more precisely Marrist, orthodoxy, and which I made the mistake of translating the most important parts of as an assignment in a language reading class once. I really should have gone with Bunin or Bryusov, but I was young and foolish. I also learned rather less of the language and far more of the mind-deadening jargon than I ought to have done.)

Gus Van Horn said...

Ugh. You have much more patience than I.

Having just re-read parts of "The Comprachicos," it saddens me that reams of crap like this usually await those who manage to retain an interest in intellectual matters. (I one time noticed that even Enver Hoxha produced reams of it.)

Anonymous said...

Yo, Gus,you write, "I one time noticed that even Enver Hoxha produced reams of it." Heck, I gather there were even much ballyhooed Russian editions of collected writings of Gus Hall that more than one of my acquaintances from the former Soviet Union showed more than passing acquaintance with (usually with a sardonic smile). My old boss during grad school, a Goldwater Republican, liked to wax rhapsodic at the sputtering response of Hall to glasnost and perestroika, which he would read in the university library during the twilight of the Soviet Empire. I joked with him nce, "Why did you go to all that trouble? Couldn't you have just read the New York Times editorial page?" He coughed and said, "Weeeell..."

Gus Van Horn said...

It could be fun to ask millionaire socialist Bernie Sanders whether the higher commercial success he has experienced relative to Gus Hall implies he is a more effective "revolutionary." Which shade of red would he turn?