In This Review

Red Sunset: The Failure of Soviet Politics
Red Sunset: The Failure of Soviet Politics
By Philip G. Roeder
Princeton University Press, 1993, 317 pp

This is fashionable political science theory applied to what will surely be one of the great social science puzzles of the twentieth century why the Soviet system collapsed. But it is theory in search of a problem, not a problem in search of theory, in the sense that Roeder had the approach in mind even before the Soviet order disintegrated. The theory, called new institutionalism and borrowed from economics along with a core of rational-choice theory, roots the sources of political behavior in the rules, formal and informal, that determine political roles and relationships. These rules are called institutions, much as marriage and organizations such as the U.S. Congress are institutions. Briey stated, the author argues that the peculiar rules of the Soviet system fostered a number of political relationships. Those political relationships shaped policies that were suited to transforming early twentieth-century Russian society. But those rules and relationships served badly to adapt the new, and then not so new, political structures to the changed society produced by these structures. The result was a system highly resistant to reform, and when a leadership finally insisted on far-reaching change, the whole thing broke rather than yield.

Putting Roeder's thesis so starkly does it a disservice: Fully developed, it is far from as self-evident as this would make it seem. Although the book's primary audience is in the universities, the general reader will gain insight into the ultimate weaknesses of the Soviet system and a good idea of how new institutionalism stacks up as an explanation against traditional alternatives, particularly those stressing the importance of political culture.