Prediction in politics is a dangerous pastime. One has to be very bold to engage in it, or perhaps the boldness comes from a failure to realize all the pitfalls. Mr. Braverman is certainly more courageous than most of us. He tells us what Russia is going to be like, and no nonsense about it. What puzzles me is whom he is trying to convince.
“The most characteristic Western view of the Soviet Union,” he tells us, “sees it as a fixed and immobile dictatorship which will never change until compelled to do so by an external force.” But where is this extraordinary view to be found? Among millions of readers of tabloid newspapers, no doubt—but they are extremely unlikely to read Mr. Braverman’s book. There can be, after all, scarcely any informed student of the Soviet Union who is unaware of the major changes in the U.S.S.R. in the past ten years, and they are the most likely readers of a book of this kind. They will find a highly optimistic projection of the Russia of the future, for Mr. Braverman believes, as do many others, that the economic development of the Soviet Union will inevitably bring in its train greater liberty, rationality, and general relaxation. The trouble with this kind of economic determinism is that forty-six years of Soviet rule have conclusively proved the primacy of politics over economics—there is no reason to suppose that this primacy will disappear in the future, so long as the Communist Party remains in power. That is not to say that there will be no development—after ten years of continuous change further modifications of the system can confidently be expected. They may be in the direction foreseen by Mr. Braverman—or they may not. But they will depend on quite different factors—the need of the party to adapt to the requirements of a modern society, the skill with which it maneuvers to keep the kind of monopoly of power which neither logic nor reason justifies, and a whole lot of quite unpredictable human factors, which Mr. Braverman does not take into account—the personality of the next autocrat, for example, in a country in which this factor has for centuries been predominant in political life.
Professor Ulam, though also much concerned with the changes which are taking place in the U.S.S.R., more wisely avoids the pitfalls of seeing, as he puts it, “in certain political trends the inevitability of the future.” The seven articles of which this book is composed (six of them reprinted from previous publications) deal with different facets of change or contrast. One of the changes which he discusses in several essays is the decline or even death of ideology: he believes Marxism to be a spent force as a doctrine, but drawing new strength from practical successes which are, rightly or wrongly, and presumably wrongly, attributed to it. In his last essay he uses with effect Boccaccio’s story of the Jew who is converted to Christianity by a visit to Rome: the conditions which he finds there convince him that if anything so venal and corrupt can survive at all at the head of a religious movement the future must lie with it. This seems to me to be sound political analysis. It is not Marxism-Leninism which produces sputniks, but sputniks which enhance the reputation of Marxism-Leninism. This is indeed sound Leninism—it even has a grand name, the “unity of theory and practice.” It has led many scholars (including Professor Ulam in an earlier book) to the conclusion that Leninism is not so much an adaptation of Marx’s analysis of society as a good system for rapidly industrializing backward countries. Most of these sensible and wellwritten essays are, however, concerned to gauge the extent to which the Soviet Union has evolved since the death of Stalin. Professor Ulam (unlike Mr. Braverman) tries to show the limits within which evolution is possible, so long as the party retains the kind of power which it shows every intention of retaining. This is where rationality comes into conflict with power—and it is a bold man who is prepared to assume that the party, with its extended monopoly not only of power, but of administrative techniques, will readily yield up power in the interests of a more rational life. Soviet agriculture is perhaps the most striking example of the way in which rationality is sacrificed in the interests of power. United States farming produces, with one-fifth of the Soviet agricultural labor force, 60 per cent more products than the Soviet Union on an area only two thirds the Soviet sown acreage. Mr. Khrushchev is presumably aware of this. But to give the Soviet farms the kind of incentives and freedom which would encourage increase of production would be, according to deep-rooted Soviet convictions, to place too much political power in their hands. These and many other similar dilemmas underlie the new form of Soviet totalitarianism, and pose the problems which, from its own point of view, it faces in groping, as Professor Ulam says, “to retain mastery over a changing society.”
Professor Fainsod’s classic work is, without doubt, the most important single book ever to have been written on the government of the Soviet Union. The original education appeared in 1954. This revised edition, enlarged by over a hundred pages, takes account of changes up to the end of 1962. Generations of students in many countries have been trained on this magnificent work, which has stood impregnable against criticism for nine years. The merits of the book are so outstanding that they need no praise from me—the analysis unfolds with a lucidity and balance, with a mastery of sources, with a fairness and a sense of the essential, which put all other books in this field out of countenance. There must be many teachers of Soviet government, like myself, who feel that this new edition has solved a problem for them. In public life, in journalism, in politics, the revised Fainsod will take its place as the most up-to-date handbook for reference and, one hopes, close study.
The familiar shape of the book is unchanged. The four parts, dealing with history, the party, the system of rule, and the problems which arise in the management of industry and agriculture, have been supplemented and enlarged in the light of new information and sources. The last three parts have been brought up to date by the inclusion of developments since the death of Stalin. Here, therefore, is a complete study of the most durable of modern totalitarian systems this book, rather than to prophecies, that one should turn in search of the answer to the question which fascinates us all—including its most difficult, contemporary phase—the phase of evolution after the stagnation of naked terror. It is to what is going to happen in the U.S.S.R.?
Professor Fainsod is much too good a political scientist to indulge in prophecy. But he provides, especially in his last chapter, entitled “The Soviet Political System—Problems and Prospects,” some of the basic realities which must be taken into account before even intelligent guesswork (which he leaves to others) becomes possible. Like Professor Ulam, Professor Fainsod sees the decline of ideological fervor—but he warns against any facile assumptions that the party leadership is likely to cast the whole structure overboard. Unlike Mr. Braverman, he does not see any necessary connection between improved economic prosperity and greater liberty. On the contrary, the better the party succeeds in its materialist promises, the less risk there will be of erosion of its power. This view, which is a sobering corrective to much facile optimism which is abroad these days, is really only another aspect of Professor Ulam’s view, that material success is the greatest bulwark of the system.
The conclusion with which one emerges from re-reading this book (apart from a renewed sense of its outstanding qualities) is that what matters most in politics is built-in tradition. This tradition in the Soviet Union is party rule. This means in practice an indefinable habit of reliance on more or less arbitrary constant manipulation behind the scenes of the formal and usually quite chaotic business of government which appears on the surface. It means government by the party secretary’s telephone, without which the whole unwieldy structure would probably grind to a standstill. Once this fact is grasped, speculation about “erosion” of party power, and “pressure by technocrats”, and the other familiar gambits of the many who speculate on the future of Soviet power begin to fall into proportion. Of course there will be change—there may be gradual evolution or there may be drastic change. A new generation of leaders may in time adopt a different tradition, or lack the skill to maintain the old. All is possible, and all is largely unpredictable. But speculation which fails to take this basic factor of Soviet political tradition into account ignores the reality which Professor Fainsod’s pages so eloquently depict.
September 26, 1963