Rapid social and political change leaves most people bewildered. It forces a minority, however, to seek historical bearings, to relate the precarious present both to past and future. These two books reveal the extent of common preoccupation with such themes in the Soviet and the non-Soviet world. The collection of Soviet papers, carefully edited by Thomas Perry Thornton, reflects a deliberate, if not always consistent, attempt to place changes in the “third world” in what the editor calls “Soviet perspective”: in the carefully chosen words of the Communist summa, “Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism,” “one of the basic problems today is that of the paths and prospects of historical development of the countries liberated from the colonial yoke.” Mr. Sinai, who is less interested in choosing his words carefully than in shocking the tender-minded reader, argues powerfully that contemporary men of power, above all others, need to be guided by “a long-term historical perspective, by a tough-minded public philosophy endowed with the insight to understand the world’s turmoil and to see beyond the turbulence of the present to the possibilities of the future.”

Common to both books are a number of assumptions—first, that, in Mr. Sinai’s eloquent words, “at no other time has the earth’s social and political crust been as thin and brittle as it is today”; second, that it is possible to generalize about different countries and different societies in such a way that a common strategy of action can be evolved; third, that it is no use being sentimental about the “developing countries” and failing to subject their failures as well as their achievements to cool and critical appraisal; and fourth, that in all of them history needs to be prodded. “The Communists are not inclined to let history take its course but prefer to prod it,” Mr. Thornton writes. Mr. Sinai, not only for reasons of counter-attack, agrees. Indeed, he urges in somewhat general terms an active and far-ranging interventionism which will put Communist maneuvers in their proper place. “History is a field of action where possibilities are sometimes converted into actual realities. But these possibilities do not become realities of their own accord. It is only by labor and self-sacrifice, that realities are made of them.”

From this point onwards the differences between the two books proliferate. To the Soviet writers the break with “colonialism” opens up immense new possibilities, even though young independent states belong neither “to the system of imperialist states, nor to that of socialist states.” To Mr. Sinai the political changes of recent years constitute a kind of masquerade, “a sort of superior political orgy, superficially exciting but essentially undermining.” Because he is an independent writer, he feels that he has no need to concern himself about the psychological impact of what he says about particular countries. By contrast the Soviet writers reflect in varying degrees the diplomacy of the Soviet Union; they tend to judge the effectiveness of economic and political effort in new countries in terms of the diplomatic relations between those countries and the government of the Soviet Union.

Yet there is more to the Soviet volume than this. There is an intrinsic interest in the debate carried on by Soviet writers on the nature of “state capitalism” or the delineation of “social classes” in pre-industrial societies. There is no reason, indeed, why problems of this order should not be debated outside the Soviet Union. Non-Soviet Marxist and non-Marxist writers, particularly the former, have already made many valuable contributions to the debate, particularly in Europe. The academic style of thinking of the Soviet writers also commands interest. They are caught up in discussion of the scope of “area studies,” forced to meditate on the relationship between the general and the particular, driven into a study of the role of cultural traditions in periods of economic transformation. In other words they are becoming more sociologically minded.

Since this volume of essays appeared there has been published in London a fascinating transcript of a discussion held in Moscow in 1964 under the auspices of the magazine Mirovaya Ekonomika i Mezhdunarodnyye, a journal which figures at the head of Mr. Thornton’s bibliography. During the discussion, which showed how far old-fashioned Soviet “orientology” has been pushed into the shadows, many points were made which have more than Marxist interest. One speaker, for example, put the problem of social class far more vividly than any of the writers in Mr. Thornton’s symposium. “The social development of many young national states has little resemblance to the sharply sculptured forms of class struggle and is more like a graphic representation of the Brownian movement of particles in suspension, where the chaotic nature of the phenomenon conceals its inner natural cause.” Another speaker stressed the need for new lines of thinking, pleading that “to blaze a trail is more difficult than to analyze established phenomena, and it calls for skill and resolve.” A third general comment concerns the heart of the problems discussed by Mr. Sinai.


There is much that is contradictory about the development of the new states. In some countries you find radical and progressive reforms, but at the same time unexpected sharp swings towards reaction; democratic transformations, but with them a curtailment of democracy in social life. While backward pre-capitalist structures are rejected, features of tribal and communal society are idealized.

Mr. Sinai is passionately concerned with the contradiction between the vapid slogans of leaders and parties in new countries, particularly “socialist” leaders (“we are all socialists now” in new countries), and the facts of social change. There has been little real modernization, despite the talk of it, no transformation of minds. “The present-day regimes are mere synthetic substitutes for the genuine revolutions that will still have to be made.” He is as unhappy about the idealization of past societies as the Soviet writers. Indeed, he is more willing to draw on Marx than they are, for they have made relatively little of Marx’s theory of “oriental despotism,” preferring Lenin on “imperialism.” He also quotes a fascinating passage from Hegel about “Flower-life” and a “Garden of Love” in which Hegel concludes, as Mr. Sinai would, that the more attractive such visions look at first sight “the more unworthy” shall we ultimately find them “in every respect.” Mr. Sinai is completely unimpressed by India, where there is a lack of “intrepid hardiness of mind and body” and only a “minimal and distracted effort” at modernization “in no way commensurate with what is so urgently required.”

Much of what he says makes sense. The “heavy burden of the past” certainly impressed Nehru, who talked of the coma that often went with it. Indian intellectuals are uncertain about the relationship between the pull of the past and the hope of the future. There is a great and growing gap between manifestoes and political and social realities. In India, “all the well-known Western concepts—liberty, democracy, reform and progress—take on a nightmarish meaning”: in the meantime, the power of the caste system is strengthened rather than weakened. Psychiatrists are needed as much as economists when the right kind of help from outside is being considered. Yet by the tone of his language and his impatient abrasive commentary Mr. Sinai disqualifies himself from offering either economic or psychiatric aid. He is very imprecise also on the kind of aid he thinks other people should give, particularly those people who recognize that it is only since 1947 that India has been independent. His book could be used as ammunition by people who believe that all economic aid from the West is a waste of valuable resources, yet there is ample evidence to show how selective aid, of far greater dimensions than we have yet offered, could help. He is wrong also, I believe, in his belief that ideologies of modernization must be total or nothing. No industrial revolution, no transformation of society has yet been carried out with such completely single-minded dedication. There is a more complex relationship between past and future than is expressed in the words of a quite uncharacteristic Japanese who once told a German friend, “We have no history. Our history begins today.” Mr. Sinai never says why he wants to abolish history or meditates on the relationship between cultural traditions and economic transformations. His very simplified historical account of a very simplified West, with which he begins his analysis, leaves this aspect of the Western story out. His “tough” paragraph on Israel—“its democracy shot through with abuses and aberrations”—is not so much an explanation as a tirade.

How do we set about encouraging the emergence of new elites committed to modernization and forceful enough to act? Certainly not, in my view, by inculcating unlimited “unscrupulous self-confidence” of the kind that Mr. Sinai admires. The most that we can hope to do from outside is first to be able to communicate and second to educate. Under-developed countries are, above all else, in need of genuine educational advice. They alone can create their elites. The elites may be more “ambivalent” than Mr. Sinai likes, more tortuous, less sure even about what he thinks they should take for granted. Yet Mr. Sinai is quite right about the immensity and urgency of their task.

Much the most powerful chapter in his book deals with Burma, which he saw at first-hand. Indeed, his experience there seems to have shaped the thesis that he argues in the book, with the argument becoming far thinner when it moves from Asia to Africa or touches on Latin America. It is fascinating to read his detailed account of how Rangoon—which he writes about vividly and perceptively—became for a brief moment in 1955 “a place of animation, of excitement, of grand dreams and dizzy ambitions” and of how the animation gave way to passivity, the excitement to frustration, the dreams to cruel, if often concealed, realities, the ambitions to platitudes. “Unable to move forward and unwilling to engage themselves or their country in the Darwinian struggle for existence, the Burmese leaders found themselves stymied and hemmed in.” The result was military power. Unfortunately Mr. Sinai is no more able to tell us how the situation will develop in the future than the American and British professors of international relations and the world-famous journalists whom he accuses, sometimes with justice, of wallowing in sympathy and closing their eyes to the real facts. Why does he find sympathy so distasteful?


In places it seems to me that he leaves out necessary elements in the analysis—Islam in Chapter 1, for instance, although he plays with it later; America in Chapter 4 on “the irrelevance of Asian socialism”; ecological factors in his survey of under-development; diversity in his picture of the West, above all special features of Asian economic problems, particularly the peculiar relationship between capital and manpower. He likes “stark existential alternatives” and is adamant that in all the societies he is discussing “a predominantly agricultural society must be transformed into one significantly engaged in industry, communications, trade and services.” The West also, he concludes, must learn to be ruthless, to “be really, literally Western.” “It should support only those non-Western countries, like Turkey and Japan, which are determined and committed to saving themselves.” This “vision of greatness” seems to be unbelievably narrow, the perspective unbelievably short. Yet this is the kind of harsh, unyielding book to read and to argue about, provided that it does not stifle our own imagination or blind us to the fact that West and East, Communists are, after all, living in the same world.

This Issue

May 20, 1965