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The Party’s Power

In response to:

A Journey Into the Soviet Future from the October 9, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

The reason for sending you the following remarks is the context in which my book was mentioned by Professor Schapiro’s critique of Seweryn Bialer’s Stalin’s Successors [NYR, Oct. 9]. There is certainly a difference of perspective between the endeavor of one scholar to investigate future possibilities of change for a system, generally known for its totalitarian structure, or, on the other hand, to affirm the prevailing aspects of this very system as not apt to change in comparison to Western democratic procedures.

When I wrote my book in the late 1960s I certainly did not intend to stress the fact that “real power of decision remains with the CPSU” (Schapiro), but rather I meant to show that by the system of consultation access was given to representatives of different groups of the population to decision-making bodies who during Stalin’s regime were not listened to.

If Bialer had read my book—to quote Professor Schapiro it is a pity that he hasn’t—he would, if I may guess at this possibility, certainly not have taken the results as an argument for the unchanged totalitarian structure of the system, but, on the contrary, as supporting data on its potential for change.

My recent research on economic decision-making during the 1920s (cf. Sowjetische Industrialisierung—geplanter oder spontaner Prozess? Eine Strukturanalyse des wirtschafts-politischen Entscheidungsprozesses beim Aufbau des Ural-Kuzneck-Kombinats 1918-1930, Nomos, Baden-Baden 1979) and my present study on Magnitogorsk 1928-1932 (to be published next year) proves that the practice of consultation is not new to Soviet politics. But, of course, it must be very carefully observed who is consulted and at what level of decision-making.

Perhaps the controversy shown in Professor Schapiro’s article reveals the problem of applying methods of social sciences originally developed on and for America and other Western systems to a system so different in political culture. It is our task to construct and derive a new set of terms and concepts for the study of the Soviet system. Let’s work on this.

Tatjana Kirstein

Berlin, West Germany

Leonard Schapiro replies:

I did not in my review attribute any view of Soviet Government to Dr. Kirstein. I made use of her meticulous research into the Soviet process of consulting various interests which she has carried out to argue that the communist party, through the departments of the Central Committee Secretariat, exercises stringent control over the effect on policy-making that these interests are allowed to exercise. I concluded that this system of government should be described as totalitarian because the same ruling elite, which is subject to no effective control by the public in the last resort, controls both the decisions and the information on which they are based. I see no reason “to construct and derive a new set of terms and concepts for the study of the Soviet system.” Perhaps Dr. Kirstein’s forthcoming new book, to which I look forward with interest, will convince me that I am wrong.

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