The Big Two

Political Power: USA-USSR: Similarities and Contrasts, Convergence or Evolution

by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel P. Huntington
Viking, 461 pp., $7.50

To tell us anything new or illuminating, a comparison of political power in the US and the USSR requires imagination. The authors of this book appear to think that their academic standing precludes using imagination or indeed anything else apart from some very conventional perspectives. In irreproachably leaden prose, they present unexceptionable conclusions. In the USA, society dominates the state; in the USSR, the reverse is true. America’s “pluralism” renders the conduct of government, especially in foreign affairs, difficult and often nearly impossible. The oligarchs of the Soviet Communist Party, by contrast, can and do act with despatch. The book is full of similar commonplaces. The authors rely upon the weight of material rather than upon sustained analysis to make their case, but not all of their evidence is weighty. Oscar Gass has shown in a recent review that their statistics on Soviet economic growth are dubious, their comparison of Soviet and American agriculture faulty, and their account of Kremlin politics at times rather fanciful.

This is a book without a major thought. It is organized about a counter-thesis: it is an answer to those who suggest that the two great industrial societies, the USA and the USSR, will in the future come to resemble each other This view is familiar enough; the authors are at pains to refute some of the premises on which it rests. One is that affluence will somehow increase the Soviet populace’s demand for freedom. The authors have little difficulty in suggesting that the connection is neither so obvious nor so inevitable as many think, though they might have strengthened their case with the observation that American affluence has not visibly increased popular political participation nor stimulated a demand among the affluent for more freedom. Another assumption of those who expect the convergence of the two societies is that a greatly enlarged intelligentsia in the USSR will ultimately reject Party tutelage. The authors stand this argument on its head by asserting that computers will simplify centralized economic and political administration, and may well increase the power of the Communist oligarchs. Unfortunately, they do not consider the implications of computer technology for the USA, whose alleged pluralism might be constricted by improved methods of elite control. Their basic point, however, is that nothing is likely to diminish the Soviet Communist Party’s power in the foreseeable future.

Two propositions are indispensable to their argument. One is that the answer to the problem of power in the Soviet Union is simplicity itself: it belongs to the inner circle of Communist leaders, who can and do manipulate everyone and everything else in Soviet society to stay in control. The other is that the US is in fact, as well as in self-proclaimed theory, a pluralistic society. Neither of these assertions will stand up to critical reflection. That Khrushchev is more powerful than an American President is clear; it does not follow that he (and his colleagues) are immune from pressures, organized or inchoate, from any number of sectors of…

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