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A Journey Into the Soviet Future

Stalin’s Successors: Leadership, Stability, and Change in the Soviet Union

by Seweryn Bialer
Cambridge University Press, 312 pp., $19.95

What will the Soviet Union be like in the Eighties? What will it do? Will it wish to cooperate with the Western world? Will it remain aggressively expansive? And, if so, will it have the economic and political strength to survive? Regrettably, these questions are among the most important ones with which the Western world will be faced in the next few years. I say “regrettably,” because they are a measure of the weakness and lack of will that beset the West. These qualities are illustrated by the fact that in place of a policy in the face of advancing communist influence and power, the West has been able to produce nothing but squeaks of surprised and indignant reaction to every new Soviet move.

For better or for worse, the state of the USSR in the next decade will affect the lives of all of us. Prediction is not the most promising—or for that matter successful—of the political scientist’s activities. To embark on it is courageous and, in a manner, self-sacrificing. Seweryn Bialer is to be congratulated on his valor for taking the burden of prophecy upon himself. He has done so with the best kind of perception, wide reading, immense research into the past—which are still the only basis (if any exists) for divining the future—and no doubt much discussion and reflection.

He begins with a review of Stalinism—if there is such a thing. Mr. Bialer has no doubt that there is, or was. Different from “Leninism,” different from what has come after, since Stalin’s death in 1953. Now obviously Soviet Russia under Lenin was different from what it was under Stalin—just as it is obvious that significant changes have taken place in the past twenty-seven years. It would indeed be surprising if in an autocratically ruled country the changing personality of the autocrat were not reflected in the system of government. Few would dispute, I suppose, that while Stalin took over the instruments created for him by Lenin he put them to very different use—if only because he had a lust for power and for the gratification of his vanity as well as fear for his survival, which, naturally, increased as rapidly as the toll of his victims mounted. It would also be generally agreed that Stalin’s personal dictatorship differed from the somewhat more institutionalized rule practiced by Lenin or by Stalin’s successors. The implied premise underlying Mr. Bialer’s general analysis is undoubtedly sound: that Stalin was an aberration in Soviet history, and that if we wish to guess at the future with some degree of success we have to recognize this fact—even if we cannot altogether exclude the possibility that another Stalin may emerge at some future date.

But I think Mr. Bialer wants to go further than this—and to elevate the period of Stalin’s rule into some kind of system which is sui generis. This interpretation of Soviet history, which rests on a very dubious foundation, is normally resorted to by those who are anxious to salvage Leninism, and therefore the “honor” of the Russian Revolution which the catalogue of Stalin’s crimes and brutality has besmirched. It is unlikely that this is Mr. Bialer’s aim—though he does suggest that “Stalinism” differed from “Leninism” because Lenin was “moving to socialism,” whereas Stalin moved away from it.

This is a very questionable proposition: whatever “socialism” may mean, it must include some freedom for the working class, at any rate, and some degree of equality—both had been effectively destroyed by Lenin by 1921, and conjectures that Lenin, had he lived, would have brought both about are purely speculative. Incidentally, Mr. Bialer is wrong when he says that Stalin’s personal dictatorship had “no ideological anchoring.” Theoretical foundation for the role of “leader” was provided at the very outset of Stalin’s ascent by the professional priesthood.1 Mr. Bialer could have used this flagrant departure from Marxism to bolster his argument that “Stalinism” was a distinct system—though it is probably little more than a further example of the fact that the dictator was all, and theory nothing.

Of course, the elevation of “Stalinism” into a system leads Mr. Bialer straight to the core of his argument—that the Soviet Union since Stalin’s demise is no longer totalitarian, but stable and pluralistic. The argument is a fashionable one, especially among some American scholars. Mr. Bialer seems to me to be even more emphatic than some advocates of the view that the Soviet Union has become just another bureaucratic police state. “The still massive Soviet police state,” he tells us, has been “reduced to the political functions of a traditional authoritarian polity”—this about a country where the police openly run penal psychiatric institutions for the subjugation of those critics whom they cannot silence by other means, and where “traditional authoritarian” methods include pushing under a bus a priest whose sermons the police dislike.

But the central argument that Mr. Bialer advances against totalitarianism in the Soviet Union is that “the bureaucratic hierarchies and the elite structure” have become “highly institutionalized,” with “relatively clearly delineated lines of authority,” and with the party acting as coordinator; and that a “complex and regularized domestic decision-making process” has evolved, based on “bargaining and compromise” among major groups which play “an increased and systematic advisory role in the policy-making process.”

With this picture in mind one would expect, at least, that these “highly institutionalized” groups might begin to have some influence on policy. But no: we are told a little further on that all change in post-Stalin Russia “can be ascribed to initiative from above or at least to volition of the strongest factions within the Soviet leadership and elites”; and “most of the intra-elite conflicts within Soviet society are located within the area of specific interest differentiation, utilitarian concerns, specific policy disagreements, and not within the sphere of norms and values, especially the core values of the political regime.” So much for “pluralism” at any rate, in the meaning normally attached to that term.

It is a pity that Mr. Bialer, who has read very widely indeed, does not appear to be familiar with the work of Dr. Tatjana Kirstein, which it is to be hoped will be translated and made more accessible to English-speaking students of Soviet government.2 Dr. Kirstein has examined in great detail the processes and procedures by which the different groups and interests are brought into consultation by party and state organs in the USSR. She pays particular attention to the crucial role in this process of the departments of the Central Committee of the Communist Party—to which Mr. Bialer pays little attention; these departments are the “key element” in Soviet government because, as Dr. Kirstein shows, they can draw on the experience and expertise of these interests while at the same time exercising strict control over the kind of representatives they are allowed to choose as spokesmen, and over the selection of those parts of their evidence which the Politburo is allowed to see. In this way a process of consultation of widespread interests is made possible which, while certainly acting as a stabilizing factor, ensures that the real power of decision remains with the CPSU.

This, therefore, is the picture: at the top, the effectively self-appointed Politburo decides policy; lower down the permanent staff of the CPSU processes the information supplied by the various interests for the Politburo; its methods of doing so and its criteria are subject to no control, by public opinion or otherwise, save by the general secretary of the CPSU to whom the staff members are subordinate, and who is also chairman of the Politburo, Policy is decided by the Politburo, which, like the departments of the Central Committee, is subject to control neither by the courts nor by public opinion; this policy is arrived at according to an ideology which is shaped and altered at will by those same Politburo and Central Committee departments. If that is not totalitarianism, it is difficult to see what practical purpose is served by retaining the term in the vocabulary of politics.

Much of Mr. Bialer’s analysis, perhaps the most interesting and convincing part, is devoted to the ways in which the Soviet regime has sought, since the departure of Stalin, to make itself more acceptable to the population. The main factor in stability perhaps is the general acceptance by the population of the kind of government that the CPSU provides—though there may be dissatisfaction over detail. This case has, of course, been argued with devastating force by Alexander Zinoviev in his satirical novels. Mr. Bialer quotes a telling passage by Pavel Litvinov:

Under the czars we had an authoritarian state and now we have a totalitarian state but it still comes from the roots of the Russian past. You should understand that the leaders and the ordinary people have the same authoritarian frame of mind. Brezhnev and the simple person both think that might is right. That’s all. It is not a question of ideology. It’s simply power. Solzhenitsyn acts as if he thinks this has all come down from the sky because of Communism. But he is not so different himself. He does not want democracy. He wants to go from the totalitarian state back to the authoritarian one.

Mr. Bialer does not ignore either the democratic or the national dissent movement. But he thinks that the regime will be able to keep these trends under control as it has successfully done in the past. In the case of national strivings there is the additional factor that the government has built up local elites with an interest in the survival of the regime. “The Soviet leadership, in contrast to its own pre-revolutionary past and to other modern empires, has been willing and able to allow or even foster the development of ethnically indigenous elites who have a stake in the system.” The regime has also been able to satisfy the moderate economic expectations of a population that tends to contrast its conditions not with other countries, of which it knows little, but with its own much grimmer past. Mr. Bialer also attaches importance as a factor in stability to the universal participation which the regime has encouraged in the business of government through meetings, forming groups, etc.: even though this has little if any effect on policy, it creates a popular impression of involvement.

Stability is to a large extent a question of opinion, as Mr. Bialer would, I am sure, admit, because he is usually far from dogmatic in his judgments. There are those who would argue that he has failed to give sufficient weight to potentially destabilizing factors like the universally prevalent corruption, cheating, alcoholism, and absenteeism, to say nothing of the all-pervading “second economy,” or semi-official black market. All these may even be factors of stability as long as all goes well: but they can become factors of disintegration once the cracks appear. For the national minorities the operative principle could become what Professor Seton-Watson has dubbed “the law of colonial ingratitude,” and for the majority there could operate the even older law of the rats and the sinking ship. The Romanov dynasty looked stable enough in 1917, even though everyone had talked about revolution for years. And I can vividly recall the seminars of experts in early 1956 at which the basic stability of the Hungarian regime was agreed on by the participants.

Mr. Bialer’s purpose in writing his book is to look into the future, and this he does with all due circumspection. On the top leader to succeed Brezhnev he has nothing very new to say: the immediate successor will probably be some safe septuagenarian—“safe” in the sense that he will not threaten the position and the protégés of the other Politburo members, as Stalin did by terror and Khrushchev did by his disruptive style of government. And he will be followed by a younger man whose identity cannot in any rational way be predicted, since his selection will depend on his securing the support of his fellows, and since it cannot at present be asserted with certainty that he is already now a member of the Politburo. Where Mr. Bialer is on more secure ground is in predicting a considerable change in the next decade in the party and state leadership below the present gerontocratic upper layer, whose average age is 66.8.

One of the most valuable parts of this impressive book is the intensive research which has enabled its author to show the extent to which the elite posts throughout the country are filled by men whose replacement on grounds of age will necessarily be called for in the Eighties, even after all allowance is made for the Soviet predilection for old men in positions of authority (seventy is considered middle age, as Kirilenko remarked, quite seriously, when he was presented with a medal on that birthday). Assuming that the new second-rank leaders can influence the top leaders—and this, in Soviet conditions, is quite a big assumption—it becomes very important to guess what the new men will be like. And here a most important fact is the emergence of the professionals “who exert a considerable influence on the entire administrative structure. The era of the political dilettante lording over an uneducated, developing society and a semiprofessional self-taught administrative structure is over.” Indeed the “political dilettante” has himself been replaced by party leaders and officials whose education, in addition to the irrelevant doctrines of Marxism-Leninism, has centered on very relevant disciplines of engineering or agronomy.

Mr. Bialer devotes considerable space to an attempt to draw a profile of the post-Stalin generation of the elite from whom the new middle-to-top leaders will most probably be drawn in the Eighties—though he admits that the picture is necessarily tentative and based on insufficient evidence. He is right to emphasize that this generation grew up under the impact of Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign, of recognition of the inadequacies of the Soviet economy and especially Soviet technology, and of the embarrassing failure of predictions of matching Western achievements in the near future. This generation of elites, he writes, is patriotic, accepts the basic features of the Soviet system, and is less suspicious of the outside world. It is materialistic, conscious of the shortcomings of the Soviet system and committed to modernization, yet unwilling to modernize at the expense of any aspect of the existing political system.

All this seems as well-based a guess as it is possible to formulate. I would add only one feature: a commitment to maintaining and expanding the armed forces. After all, this generation has witnessed the growing international influence of the Soviet Union, which has been due entirely to the expansion of the armed forces. In a country where neither the economy nor the political system is anything to arouse much pride, the armed forces retain an unblemished record (even though they are far from having pacified resistance in Afghanistan). What efficiency there is in Soviet life is to be found in the military sphere (though Mr. Bialer, somewhat surprisingly, will have nothing to do with this view). I believe this aspect of the mentality of the rising generation of the elite must also be taken into account in looking toward the Eighties.

The question of Soviet armament is, indeed, likely to dominate both external and internal affairs in the foreseeable future. Rationally the intensive Soviet race to build up their armory may make little sense—Mr. Bialer apparently thinks so, because he quotes, with evident approval, Dr. Kissinger’s cry, “In God’s name, what does strategic superiority mean?” I’m afraid it may mean quite a lot in the minds of the Soviet leaders—the ability at least to knock out US power one day with a preemptive strike, the opportunity to terrorize Western Europe into opting for a subservient neutrality and to break away from the alliance with the US, for example. These possibilities may be exaggerated, even unfounded—but I should have thought that experience has by now proved up to the hilt that in estimating Soviet intentions it is wisest to err on the side of caution, and that to ignore such possible explanations of Soviet search for superior armament power is to court disaster.

The Soviet Union enters the 1980s with a number of serious problems on its plate. Mr. Bialer discusses a few of them in his last chapter, which he calls “The Politics of Stringency”: these include the halting of economic growth, the demographic trend which will before long ensure an ever-increasing Asian element in the army and the work force, shortage of oil which can only be made up either by expensive imports or by exploitation of indigenous resources which requires high capital investment, an inefficient economic system which comes up against ideological obstinacy if attempts are made to reform it, and, above all, a growing military machine which makes ever-increasing demands on a stagnant economy. And all this will be happening at a time when the Soviet regime has itself encouraged its population to believe that consumer demands will not be ignored.

Of course, with a rational policy these problems could be alleviated—if dogma were to yield to sense the economy could be made to function better, if a genuine policy of detente were pursued the expenditure on arms could be reduced to the benefit of the consumer and moreover Western technology and capital could be attracted. Is such a rational policy likely? The new generation committed to efficiency and modernization may conceivably opt for this course. There is another possibility. They may, in their fear of losing power, refuse to allow any modification of the economic system—the memory of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is still alive. Besides, a serious economic situation will arise if the new leaders persist in maintaining the present exaggerated emphasis on arms. This they may do because not only is their whole sense of national prestige linked with military superiority, but the prizes which are bound up with it in their minds, as I believe, may prove too tempting to abandon. In such circumstances, a serious situation could arise which might even threaten the stability that Mr. Bialer has so convincingly analyzed in his book.

It is at this point that the relevance of the question whether the Soviet Union is still totalitarian, or has become a rational, efficiency-conscious, bureaucratic and autocratic, pluralist regime becomes apparent. For Soviet ability to make the departure from traditional policy which the rational course for the Eighties outlined above would involve may well turn on the question whether indeed there has been such a fundamental change of system as Mr. Bialer argues has taken place.

Letters

The Party’s Power April 30, 1981

  1. 1

    E.g., K. Popov, “Partiia i rol’ vozhdia” in Partiinoe stroitel’stvo, No. 1, 1930, pp. 3-9.

  2. 2

    Tatjana Kirstein, Die Konsultation von “Aussenstehenden” durch den Parteiund-Staatsapparat sowie den Obersten Sowjet der UdSSR als stabilisierdender Faktor des sowjetischen Herrschafts-systems (Otto Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden, for the Free University, Berlin, 1972). See also her contribution to Gruppeninteressen und Entscheidungsprozess in der Sowjetunion, edited by Boris Meissner and G. Brunner (Köln, 1975).

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