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The Big Two

Political Power: USA-USSR: Similarities and Contrasts, Convergence or Evolution

by Zbigniew Brzezinski, by Samuel P. Huntington
Viking, 461 pp., $7.50

To tell us anything new or illuminating, a comparison of political power in the US and the USSR requires imagination. The authors of this book appear to think that their academic standing precludes using imagination or indeed anything else apart from some very conventional perspectives. In irreproachably leaden prose, they present unexceptionable conclusions. In the USA, society dominates the state; in the USSR, the reverse is true. America’s “pluralism” renders the conduct of government, especially in foreign affairs, difficult and often nearly impossible. The oligarchs of the Soviet Communist Party, by contrast, can and do act with despatch. The book is full of similar commonplaces. The authors rely upon the weight of material rather than upon sustained analysis to make their case, but not all of their evidence is weighty. Oscar Gass has shown in a recent review that their statistics on Soviet economic growth are dubious, their comparison of Soviet and American agriculture faulty, and their account of Kremlin politics at times rather fanciful.

This is a book without a major thought. It is organized about a counter-thesis: it is an answer to those who suggest that the two great industrial societies, the USA and the USSR, will in the future come to resemble each other This view is familiar enough; the authors are at pains to refute some of the premises on which it rests. One is that affluence will somehow increase the Soviet populace’s demand for freedom. The authors have little difficulty in suggesting that the connection is neither so obvious nor so inevitable as many think, though they might have strengthened their case with the observation that American affluence has not visibly increased popular political participation nor stimulated a demand among the affluent for more freedom. Another assumption of those who expect the convergence of the two societies is that a greatly enlarged intelligentsia in the USSR will ultimately reject Party tutelage. The authors stand this argument on its head by asserting that computers will simplify centralized economic and political administration, and may well increase the power of the Communist oligarchs. Unfortunately, they do not consider the implications of computer technology for the USA, whose alleged pluralism might be constricted by improved methods of elite control. Their basic point, however, is that nothing is likely to diminish the Soviet Communist Party’s power in the foreseeable future.

Two propositions are indispensable to their argument. One is that the answer to the problem of power in the Soviet Union is simplicity itself: it belongs to the inner circle of Communist leaders, who can and do manipulate everyone and everything else in Soviet society to stay in control. The other is that the US is in fact, as well as in self-proclaimed theory, a pluralistic society. Neither of these assertions will stand up to critical reflection. That Khrushchev is more powerful than an American President is clear; it does not follow that he (and his colleagues) are immune from pressures, organized or inchoate, from any number of sectors of Soviet society. The authors attribute the struggle within the Communist leadership entirely to factors of power and self-interest. Yet they trace Khrushchev’s shift from a Neo-Stalinist position on industrial development and thermonuclear war to his present views, a shift which suggests that ideological disputes and a rudimentary public opinion are more effective in the Soviet Union than they allow.

The authors are least convincing when they argue that “in the Soviet Union, economic or social power is not an autonomous political resource.” If so, they leave unexplained the Communist Party’s determination to control the structure of production itself. Interestingly, that control is exercised by those Party bureaucrats whom the authors liken to American lawyers in their political functions. Perhaps convergence is more apparent here than the authors suppose. In America, the lawyers and the law are important elements in the maintenance of the property system. (The authors mention the cooperation, for instance, between Federal regulatory agencies and the industries they are supposed to regulate.) In the USSR, the managers cannot oppose the Party because the Party incorporates the managers. In both systems, then, political and economic relationships are exceedingly difficult to separate. The problem of the general relationship between political and economic power in advanced industrial societies has yet to be solved. The authors would have done better to admit that they are as puzzled as the rest of us. Instead they advance conclusions contradicted by their own evidence.

A certain ambivalence characterizes their discussion of American politics. They are critical enough about many of the facts. They see that America’s political system is inefficient, indeed anachronistic, that it produces political brokerage far more often than democratic leadership. They also see that the much-discussed American “consensus” entails a considerable measure of obfuscation, that American public opinion is a remarkable compound of passive credulity and moralizing hypocrisy. In the circumstances, their conclusion that America is genuinely pluralistic, that its democratic institutions correspond—however roughly—to national beliefs, is a triumph of apologetic mind over recalcitrant historical matter.

The authors’ difficulties seem to follow from their political views. They favor something like antagonistic co-existence: the great powers are to agree to avoid thermonuclear war, but they are to contend by all other means for the domination of the world. The authors present neither a demonic image of the Soviet Union nor a patriotic caricature of the USA, but they insist upon an essential and enduring antithesis between the two societies. They speak in something like official tones.

Their political attitudes, perhaps, account in some measure for their uneasiness with historical ideas. They amass considerable historical data, but they treat it ahistorically. They conceive of the present as the result of the past, but they see the past in turn as a set of factors, statistically enumerated, acting mechanically on the present. (I bey tell us that Jeffersonian notions about the virtues of small-holding influence present American policy towards agricultural capitalism, that Tsarist centralization shapes Communist government—assertions which are neither right nor wrong, but simply crude.) Not surprisingly, they think of the future as a simple extrapolation from the present. The tone of their discussion is flat, almost dead. The lack of a conception of historical movement brings them to a point at which they cannot exercise historical imagination: all they can think of tomorrow is that it will be like today, only more so. This is administrative social science, scholarship at the intellectual level of an official “position paper.”

For America, they fear a conservative counter-revolution which could eradicate the liberalism of the educated elite. They do not ask to what extent the ignorance, stupidity, and ressentiment of Senator Goldwater’s followers are the results of a contradiction: told that America belongs to themselves, the small-town businessmen and white-collar workers who agree with the Senator’s inanities have to live with the fact of elite domination. For the Soviet Union, the authors hope for little or nothing. They do not anticipate a widening of intra-party democracy, much less the development of democratic institutions elsewhere in Russia. They think that the intellectuals who want more freedom will be unable to organize support from other groups. They are, then, skeptical about the maintenance of liberty in the US and its extension in the USSR. Their analysis of power, in other words, here turns into the resigned acceptance of its dictates. Perhaps the authors’ pessimism is justified, but a number of objections are possible:

(1) When Professors Brzezinski and Huntington began their careers, Dulles and McCarthy dominated American politics, and Communism and Stalinism were nearly synonymous. Brzezinski’s first writings stressed the irreversible nature of totalitarianism. The East German rising of 1953, the events of 1956 in the Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary, Communist polycentrism and the new Soviet generation have since given him ample opportunity to enlarge his view of historical possibility. Professor Huntington, in turn, in an early work rebuked American liberals for their negative judgment of the American military tradition. Perhaps, at the time, he was right to do so. In the year of Dr. Strangelove, we cannot expect many American liberal professors to pursue this line. Who in the early Fifties supposed that the mid-Sixties in America would witnesses Negro revolt, public discussion of poverty, concern over automation and serious proposals for disarmament? The libertarians in both the USA and the USSR may be defeated or suffer severe disappointments in the conflicts that lie ahead. But the very fact of conflict suggests that the future is more open than the authors allow.

(2) The constraints which suggest a pessimistic reading of these possibilities may well point to a convergence between the two systems—despite the authors’ efforts to dispose of this idea. A combination of formal pluralism with the real concentration of power—the simulation of democratic processes—characterizes both societies. How else explain the fact that Americans, who can have so much more political liberty than Soviet citizens, make so little use of it? The Communist Party could afford to grant far more freedom than it now allows; it might not make all that much difference. It is, finally, unclear why the authors should fear a conservative counter-revolution of a “populist-fundamentalist” sort only in the US. The Soviet Communist Party might systematically, and not just spasmodically (as in some of Khrushchev’s more repulsive diatribes against the intellectuals) cultivate the chauvinistic sentiments of a considerable part of the Soviet populace.

In their conclusion, the authors suggest that the contemporary French technocracy might constitute a model for the new Soviet intelligentsia to emulate. Political efficiency, a degree of rational control of the economy, a certain sense of the public welfare, and democratic institutions are indeed found in France—and elsewhere in western Europe. One would suppose that this state of affairs would influence, in the first instance, American liberals rather than Soviet technicians. However, that raises other problems (dealt with by George Lichtheim in his book The New Europe). The authors clearly did not intend to promulgate anything but an administrative critique of America: it is difficult to disagree with their view that the present organization of American society makes life difficult for the State Department. Quite unintentionally, however; they are quite convincing on one point. For both super-powers, there are too many flagrant discrepancies between ideology and reality to allow either to claim world political leadership. A bit of reflection on this, and the authors might one day return to give us a more interesting book.

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