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On Dictatorship

These stability conditions are indeed distilled from the experience of the Soviet dictatorship, but the same dynamic force, the same inability to rest on their laurels, was characteristic of Napoleon and Hitler, and even of Napoleon III and Mussolini. “I am an upstart soldier,” said Napoleon; “my rule will not survive the day on which I have ceased to be strong and feared.” It was the search for stability, the need to vindicate his power, that pushed Napoleon into the disasters of the Spanish and Russian campaigns. It was the same force that propelled Hitler, saturated as he was with immense success both at home and abroad, into the catastrophe of the World War. Just so Stalin, after having conquered the peasantry in the highly dubious battle of the collectivization, plunged the country into the tragedy of the Great Repression.

It makes no difference in this context that Napoleon and Hitler lost and Stalin won. When Stalin, during his night vigils in the Kremlin, used to telephone—in the small hours of the morning—factory managers and party bureaucrats throughout the huge country, inquiring, commanding, and threatening, he knew well that incessant and arbitrary intervention of dictatorial power is one of the conditions of its stability. Napoleon acted very similarly when, at the height of his power, he used to issue orders from Berlin or Vienna concerning trifling administrative decisions in Paris or Naples. The only difference is that Stalin, because of the nature of the Soviet economic system, had a range of decisions at his disposal that greatly exceeded that of Napoleon’s.

It cannot be said that Conquest is entirely unaware of the fundamental problem of dictatorial rule. In describing Stalin’s studious efforts to manufacture his own charisma, to create the cult of his personality, Conquest sees those efforts “at least in part” as “the necessary cement of autocracy” (p. 70). When Stalin has the NKVD executioners executed, Conquest refers to “an old autocratic tradition” (p. 466). What is much more, he discerns the basic elements of Stalin’s dictatorship in the system created and perfected by Lenin, who said that he recognized “neither freedom, nor equality, nor labor democracy, if they are opposed to the interests of emancipation of labor”—naturally as these were interpreted by Lenin himself and as they curiously coincided with the interests of the dictatorship. It was Lenin who, in 1921, introduced resolutions prohibiting factions within the party and instituted surveillance of dissenting party members by the secret police, with Trotsky supporting him by declaring denunciations of such dissenters “an elementary obligation” of party membership (p. 6). Conquest is not blind to the connection between the confessions at the trials and the tradition of public self-denunciations at Party meetings which was established by Zinoviev and Kamenev, Trotsky and Pyatakov, as early as 1926 (p. 12).

But there are other things of crucial importance which Conquest understands less well or does not understand at all. When he says—quite correctly—that by 1934 Stalin for five years had been the undisputed head of party and state, the implication is that it was entirely unnecessary to launch an attack upon defeated men who lay prostrate at the dictator’s feet. For Conquest is unable to relate the Great Purge to the need for creating enemies and maintaining an atmosphere of distrust and mutual suspicion, a point on which Aristotle had incisively commented in his discussion of tyranny twenty-three centuries ago. The stern regimen of the dictator does not remove but on the contrary seeks to establish a Hobbesian situation in which a man is a wolf to his neighbor. Conquest wonders why an immense effort was made by the secret police to extract signed confessions from the arrested millions and is inclined to attribute it to formalistic insanity. But here again he fails to understand that the relation between the dictator and the security forces that protect him reveals the same basic instability of the dictatorship: in the nightmarish lawlessness of the regime, the order to obtain confessions, however preposterous they might be, implied the control of the dictator over the primary instrument of his power.

What seems to be the fantastic madness of the purge need not be attributed wholly, or even mainly, to Stalin’s sick mind. It can be viewed as rational behavior on the part of the dictatorship; as can be the sudden recourse to anti-Semitism after the war, which Conquest mentions but does not attempt to explain (p. 498), and which occurred during a dearth of possible or plausible enemies. No doubt, the problem of maintaining the stability of dictatorship is shot through with paradoxes. Keeping down the levels of consumption is not a popular policy, but it avoids a situation in which relative abundance would inevitably raise the question of the need for the continuation of the dictatorship. For a greater supply of material consumers’ goods tends to underline the scarcity of the less tangible commodity called liberty. At the same time, however, it did make very good sense to use the purge in order to attribute the desperate shortages of necessaries not to the policy of investment for investment’s sake and to the inefficiencies of the system, but to the nefarious actions of the wreckers, and to argue brazenly, as did Vyshinsky, that “In our country, rich in resources of all kinds, there could not have been and cannot be a situation in which a shortage of any product should exist.”

Nor was the mass purge of party bureaucrats likely to detract from the stability of the regime. For the fall of all those sub-tyrants meant promotion for at least an equal number of those who came to replace them. True, many beneficiaries of one stage of the purge became its victims at a later stage. But in a dictatorial regime men’s time horizon is low on either side of the prison bars.

Thus, to consider the Great Purge as irrational rather blurs our understanding of the horrible rationality of a dictatorship. Nor is it easy to accept Conquest’s statement that in 1934-38 Stalin carried out a revolution from which an entirely new political system emerged (p. 481). What is true is that unprecedented events took place in the course of which the group of old Bolsheviks was exterminated, the party bureaucracy radically renewed, and, above all, unbelievable sufferings were inflicted upon the population. Unprecedented was the degree to which the lie was given the status of a normal instrument of governmental policy. Conquest claims that Stalin was a constant reader of Machiavelli’s The Prince. This may very well have been the case. But if Machiavelli’s ghost had an opportunity to welcome Stalin’s arrival on the other bank of the Styx, he probably repeated the devil’s reproach to Prince de Bénévent: “Monsieur Talleyrand, you have exceeded my instructions!”

Yet it is much more reasonable to say that the “new political system” was established a long time before Stalin’s rise to monocracy, when a small group of desperate men seized the absolute power over the country and resolved to maintain that power at any cost. It is significant that Conquest, in a sentence I have quoted earlier, mentions in one breath “the will of one man” with that of a “small group.” A dictatorship is presumably stronger when headed by one dictator rather than a group of dictators, but the difference is not one between “political systems.” Besides, it is not even clear that, except for the removal of a possible threat from the army, Stalin’s personal position was much stronger at the end of the purge than at its inception. What can be said is that the stability conditions of the dictatorship were impressively displayed and effectively asserted over the period; and Conquest’s astonishment that this was done during a relative improvement in economic conditions from the miseries of the “man-made” famine of the early Thirties only shows that the requisites and mechanics of the exercise of dictatorial power are less clear to him than they should be.

Having explained so much in terms of Stalin’s personality, Conquest naturally finds it somewhat difficult to interpret the course of events after Stalin’s passing from the scene. He says: “After Stalin’s death, the machine he created continued to rule the country, as it does to this day. The principle of one party rule, the overriding competence of that party in all spheres of life, the preservation of its monolithic nature—and rule over it by a small central body—all continued” (p. 518). This statement is rather awkwardly phrased, because what Conquest, in a parenthetical afterthought, calls “a small central body” should have come first, and he may well have added that what is called “the party” is not, and has not been for a very long time, a party in any accepted meaningful sense of the word. Moreover, it is strange and at variance with Conquest’s own presentation in his introductory chapters to credit—or debit—Stalin with the establishment of one-party rule or of its overriding competence in all spheres of life.

But what is Conquest’s explanation for the continuation of the system? His answer is inertia: “Terror builds its own cadres, institutions, and habits of mind. And the party machine, whose loyalties for so long had been in practice simply to itself…had become Djilas’s New Class, no more capable of easily changing its ways than the old classes and bureaucracies of the past had been” (p. 520). I do not find this very convincing, and not just because in democratic societies classes did “change their ways” in a very thorough fashion. Something else is more important. Conquest makes no attempt to scrutinize the personality of the members of “the small body” that is currently in power. At length he has shifted his explanation from personality to system, but he has done so at the price of consistency and without focusing on the essential moving force of that system, that is to say, the unwillingness of the dictatorship to renounce its power and its vital interest in maintaining the conditions of stability—which indeed have been weakened in the throes of the succession crisis and the ensuing power struggles.

In the concluding passage of his book Conquest quotes from a pamphlet by Rosa Luxemburg. Written in 1918, the pamphlet contained a critique of the young Bolshevik dictatorship. She argued there that the absence of general elections, of unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, of a free struggle of opinion—in short, the absence of democracy—must cause a brutalization of public life. One may safely assume that Rosa Luxemburg never dreamed of the horrible extent to which her prediction would come true. But what matters here is that the prediction was made without any reference to the personalities involved and certainly without any inkling of Stalin’s political potentialities, a circumstance Conquest would have done well to mention. In fact, had he put that quotation from Rosa Luxemburg at the beginning rather than at the end of his book, he probably would have been led to place his unbelievably rich store of critically sifted information within a broader and more convincing interpretative framework.

Let me repeat, however, what I have said before. Distribution of emphasis in historical interpretations is an uncertain and elusive matter. In a little story by Zoshchenko—the great Soviet satirist who finally ran afoul of Zhdanov—the mother of a young communist comes to a priest anxiously asking advice about her son who is a member of the League of Godless, who claims that there is no God and that everything is simply chemistry. The priest ponders the problem and then surprisingly says: “Who knows, perhaps there is nothing but chemistry.” Who knows then? Perhaps there is nothing but personality.

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