Rewriting the Russian Rules

How the Soviet Union Is Governed

by Jerry F. Hough and Merle Fainsod
Harvard University Press, 679 pp., $18.50

The late Merle Fainsod’s How Russia Is Ruled was first published in 1953. Ten years later it appeared in a second edition, which examined the changes which had occurred since Khrushchev had replaced Stalin. Professor Fainsod’s work was a milestone in the study of the Soviet Union. It was probably the first analysis to appear of the Soviet system of government as it really is—not as it pretends to be in the formal documents, such as its laws and constitution, which formed the basis of that lamentable study of Soviet “civilization” by Sidney and Beatrice Webb; or as a separate, Marxist world, where freedom, justice, or democracy had to be given special meanings or judged by separate criteria from those which have applied to political analysis for centuries. How Russia Is Ruled was squarely based on the assumption that the Soviet system is totalitarian, in the sense that total control is exercised at the top by the leaders of the Communist Party through the medium of party domination over all aspects of life.

The structure of the book reflected this basic conception, with its aim “to communicate a sense of the living political processes in which Soviet rulers and subjects are established.” The book was divided into four parts. A short Part One dealt with the historical background of the Bolshevik revolution and its transformation after power had been attained. A much longer Part Two dealt with the Communist Party in theory and in practice. Part Three examined the soviets, the bureaucracy, the police, and the armed forces, and Part Four looked at the impact of controls in industry and agriculture, and concluded with a general appraisal. The work was lucid, balanced, well written, readable, and as devoid of what is colloquially known in the British Army as “waffle” as a billiard ball is of hair. Its influence was immense. No one in a university, in public service, or the press who had not read Fainsod could claim to be educated on the subject of Soviet government.

Much has happened in the Soviet Union since 1963—and, in particular, since the ousting of Khrushchev in 1964. Most of that ebullient character’s political innovations have been reversed, and the country has witnessed fifteen years of stable, unadventurous, and undramatic, if not very efficient, government on more traditional Soviet lines. Professor Hough’s new version of Fainsod is described as “an extensively revised and enlarged edition.” I do not understand in what way it has been “enlarged,” since it only has 576 pages of text as against the earlier edition’s 601 pages of the same size—but this is a minor point. There is no doubt about the “revision”—it is, in fact, a completely new book.

In Mr. Hough’s words, it

increases very substantially the amount of attention given to aspects of the political process: How policy is formed and how the Soviet Union is governed. It supplements the analysis of Lenin’s struggle against the various oppositions with more discussion of the beginnings of bureaucratic struggle; it expands the analysis of Stalin’s rise to power with more analysis of the economic debates of the 1920s; it brings together and amplifies much of Fainsod’s description of the policy process of the Stalin period.

Indeed, about two thirds of the new text is devoted to the study of the “policy process” as it is today. The change of emphasis in this new edition is symbolized by the alteration in the title from “ruled” to “governed”—I suppose “governed” sounds rather less arbitrary and authoritarian, though the Oxford English Dictionary does not bear out the distinction.

The change of emphasis has also resulted in a completely different structure. The book is now divided into two parts. The first, on the development of the system, is much the shorter: it traces Soviet government from its origins through the struggles of the Twenties, the “petrification” under Stalin, “revitalization” under Khrushchev, and the “return to normalcy” since the departure of that eccentric. The second, much longer, part deals with the individual in relation to “the policy process” and the Communist Party, and with the institutions of government and party (with more extensive attention to the latter) at federal and local levels. The penultimate chapter discusses “the distribution of power” and, in effect, questions the extent to which “totalitarian” is still an apt description of the Soviet system. The last chapter takes a cautious look at the future.

It is not to be wondered at that little of Fainsod’s original work survives—a certain amount of the text is reproduced in the early, historical parts and in the later sections there are a number of quotations from the original, usually chosen for the purpose of emphasizing or illustrating a point. Mr. Hough is, of course, entitled to write any book he pleases, and his method of analyzing Soviet government may be of interest. Fainsod had, apparently, contemplated an extensive revision of his work, but left no indication at the time of his premature death of the lines on which he proposed to refurbish it.

Still, I cannot help wondering whether in view of Mr. Hough’s so very different approach to the subject it would not have been better and more honorable for the distinguished publishers to have launched this book as an entirely new work, rather than to sail it under the Fainsod flag. Professor Hough is himself a former student of Fainsod. But, not for the first time, there are occasions when the pupil falls short of the master. Let me cite one example, from the early part of the book dealing with the Bolshevik victory in 1917, in which much of the actual language used by Fainsod is retained. Mr. Hough, quite rightly (as did also Fainsod), devotes much attention to the kind of support that Lenin and the Bolsheviks enjoyed, and in particular to Lenin’s skill in exploiting it to the maximum. Yet (unlike Fainsod) he nowhere, so far as I can see, shows awareness of what was possibly the most vital factor in Lenin’s victory. This was the way in which Lenin knew how to exploit popular support for a Soviet victory in order to bring about a victory of his own party, rather than the emergence of a coalition of all kinds of socialists that was widely expected. (The short-lived, ill-fated quasi-alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was in fact a sop to this popular feeling.) The political crisis of 1920 and the Kronstadt Revolt of 1921 were indirect consequences of Lenin’s maneuver of 1917.

There is much that is useful about this book. Soviet as well as Western textbooks and articles have been combed with indefatigable energy. A great deal of published primary source material has been used for such sections of the work as those that deal with the composition of the Communist Party, the party apparatus, the leading party organs, and the government machine. (Unlike Fainsod, however, Hough devotes little space to the armed forces or to the KGB.) But the prime focus of attention in Professor Hough’s book is always on the “political process,” by which, as I understand it, is meant the influences which are brought to bear on the formation of policy and the relation between the different elements of government in this process.

Those who start from the assumption that Soviet government is in its essentials totalitarian have no difficulty about this question: they see Soviet policy, domestic and foreign, as emanating from above, whether from one man or from a narrow elite coalition. No one who knows anything about the Soviet Union would, of course, dispute the fact that various interests, such as academics and their manifold institutes, and even individuals, make themselves felt before this policy is formulated. But the “prototalitarians” would argue that not only is this input processed and channeled to the Politburo by the apparatus of the Central Committee, which can to a large extent control it in doing so. They would also argue that the Politburo, with no elections to fear, with no public opinion or independent courts of law to consider, and with ultimate control over all livelihoods, can ignore any pressures brought to bear on it with impunity. Again, no one would deny that all dictators have to take some account of the limits of the population’s endurance and of opinion abroad, or that Khrushchev and Brezhnev had to take more notice of these factors than Stalin. But this has nothing to do with pluralism, which means institutionalized opposition and opinion which the government is unable to ignore, even if it wishes.

Mr. Hough, who devotes most of a whole chapter to arguing against the various totalitarian “models” in their application to the Soviet Union, probably goes to the other extreme when he discerns “institutional pluralism” in the Soviet Union, and even raises the possibility that the General Secretary may be subject to the informal restraints that are not unlike the restraints affecting, say, the British prime minister, whose power of party discipline he sees as basically similar to the Soviet picture. He describes the great powers which the cabinet and prime minister have to work their will on legislative policy.

All this is true so far as British government is concerned (subject to some restraint by the House of Lords and by public opinion), with one vital difference. The prime minister can probably use party discipline to blight a political career within his own party; be cannot do anything, as recent events have shown, to stop the pursuit of a career by a member of his own party in another political party, let alone have any effect on that member’s future in earning his living outside politics. The General Secretary can do all that.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party is often envisaged as a forum of debate. As Mr. Hough says, “If the leader’s ability to remove Central Committee members is severely restricted, the Central Committee would be far more independent of the General Secretary and in a far better position to control him.” This may well be so, as a hypothesis; there is nothing to suggest that it is likely to become a reality. There is, probably, genuine debate in the Central Committee—one such debate, in April 1973, took place on the issue of détente.

Here again we do not know to what extent the discussion was manipulated in advance by the International Department of the Central Committee, which is the mainspring of all Soviet foreign policy formation (a fact of which Professor Hough seems unaware). What we do know is that on the occasions when the Central Committee was called on to make a vital decision for the future of the country—to vote on the fate of the General, at that date called “First,” Secretary—it was easily controllable by the men in whose hands their future lay. In June 1957, this decision was controlled by Khrushchev (who though out-voted in the Presidium, or Politburo, was still at large and very much alive when the Central Committee met), and in October 1964 by Brezhnev, who had in effect deposed and silenced Khrushchev by the time the Central Committee assembled.

Few would disagree with Professor Hough’s analysis of the way in which Brezhnev, in contrast to Khrushchev, has tried to lead “deferentially,” that is to say with due regard for his colleagues’ opinions. He points, with insight, to the dilemma that will face the elite in choosing a new leader: if they pick a man with greater dynamism than Brezhnev, a man who will rejuvenate the top elite, “how do they prevent him from building a machine that could emancipate himself from Politburo and Central Committee control?” If they choose to maintain the present relative autonomy of an aging Central Committee, “how do they prevent loss of administrative vigor?”

But it seems to me that later on Professor Hough falls into a contradiction. He says, quite rightly in my view, that:

Whatever the division of power among the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the General Secretary, some combination of these party officials obviously has unlimited authority to make any decision that it deems desirable. No institution can declare its decisions unconstitutional and so far as can be judged, there are no checks and balances of the American type within the top party organs themselves. Despite the federal nature of the political system, the central party organs can override any local decision or intervene on any local question.

One could add that there exist neither independent courts in which the individual can test government action, nor a free press and public opinion, and that the leadership has no future elections to bother about. Why, then, are we told a few pages further on that “it is absolutely clear that we should not be speaking as if there were some sharp line between some elite which shares in political power and a mass which has none”? I should have thought that these words exactly describe what the great majority of Soviet citizens feel to be the case, and indeed the position described by Professor Hough on earlier pages.

Mr. Hough is rightly very cautious in his predictions—in any case it is no part of the duty of the student of government to predict. He rightly points to the dismal record of failure of past predictions. He draws attention to the elements of stability which favor the continuance of something very like the present system whoever succeeds Brezhnev: steadily increasing standards of living, great advance in national power, and upward mobility for the ambitious and talented. He adduces powerful arguments against the emergence of anything approximating to liberal democracy in the foreseeable future: a free system would involve personal risk for many communists or ex-communists if called on to answer for the past; and the danger that democracy could result in disintegration of the Soviet Union as the result of national self-determination. He ends on a note of moderate optimism:

Yet, no man born after 1923 presently sits on the Politbureau. As an aging leader or generation tries to hold on against pressures for change within the party, it conceivably may take some frightened defensive steps, but the natural course of action for any leadership seeking to consolidate power is to accommodate itself to major social forces rather than to resist them.

Very true. But can we be so confident that the “major social forces” want either a share of power or greater liberty, rather than more consumer goods at home and ego-bolstering expansion abroad? On the successor to Brezhnev, Professor Hough wisely refrains from doing more than listing the problems facing those who will have to choose him.

Professor Hough’s contribution to the study of Soviet government is somewhat uneven in quality—very diffuse in parts of its argument, but at the same time a mine of information on various important aspects of the Soviet institutional framework. The complete contrast to Fainsod’s How Russia Is Ruled which it offers is, no doubt, partly to be explained by a change of fashion. Fainsod and his generation were faced with the problem of stripping away from the picture of Soviet reality the encrustations imposed on it by fellow-travelers and ignoramuses. The present generation of scholars in the Soviet field often seem obsessed with guilt about the shortcomings of the West and with the fear that their work may be pressed into political service in the interests of the “cold war,” and therefore they sometimes tend to lean over backward to demonstrate, somewhat speciously, that in spite of obvious differences politics in the Soviet Union are really basically like our own. Their contribution to true scholarship cannot therefore equal that of their predecessors.

No doubt thousands of students are already reading this book. I hope that in the interests of Fainsod’s memory and great reputation they will not be misled by the words “revised edition”; and that at all events the more intelligent among them will also find the time to turn to the taut, austere, elegant, and wise prose of Fainsod’s masterpiece.