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The Crisis in the Soviet Empire

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IF we are much too near the recent tumultuous and tragic events in Poland and Hungary to write their history or to venture any predictions for the future in Eastern Europe, we can at least make a serious, if tentative, appraisal of what we feel we know and do not know about the nature of this crisis which has shaken the satellite empire. What is the significance of the changes and disturbances in the Soviet orbit since Stalin's death, and more especially since the monolithic apparatus of party and state control which he perfected has come under criticism by Communists themselves?

When we consider four of the more illuminating developments in 1956--the Twentieth Party Congress of the C.P.S.U. and the secret Khrushchev report; the stormy advent of the Gomulka régime in Poland; the Hungarian revolution and its suppression by Soviet troops; and the reactions of Tito's Jugoslavia to these happenings--we see that the trend away from Stalin's rigid pattern of organization and control has proceeded along three different, and conflicting, lines: 1) toward modified centralized control; 2) toward a "polycentric system," to use a phrase adopted, though not invented, by Palmiro Togliatti; and 3) toward the ascendancy of centrifugal forces. Within the Communist world the play of these divergent trends is framed, on the one hand, by an almost universally felt need to reduce some of the rigors and excesses of the Stalin era, and, on the other, by the need to prevent the return to a non-Communist political and social order. There is no reason to question the reality, from the Communist point of view, of either of these needs. Some Party members may feel that things were simpler in the old days, but there is ample evidence, for example in Khrushchev's secret report, that even the most powerful Communist figures felt the pistol pressing at the base of their skulls.

Within the Soviet Union itself, where both the state and the individual have long been under the control of the Party, the problem is largely one of managing this "decompression" so as to arrive at what is rather cloudily termed "a new stage in the creative development of Marxism-Leninism." From the perspective of the non-Communist observer, this is no easy task and may call for a nice sense of balance and timing--rather like a fakir shifting position on his bed of spikes. Still, we have a good deal of evidence that over the last 40 years the Russian people have been rather thoroughly conditioned to the Soviet system, and on the whole the Soviet leaders have shown a reasonably accurate sense of what the Russian people will or will not accede to.

It is another matter when we turn to the Soviet Union's relations with the satellites. Here, too, despite statements about the fraternity of Communist parties and admissions of domineering behavior in the past, it seems clear, and natural, that the Soviet leaders should prefer a pattern of modified centralized control, stressing the notion of primus inter pares. It is quite likely that there may be some difference of opinion among the Soviet leaders as to the actual application of this principle in dealing with the satellite parties, but it appears almost inevitable that the Soviet Union, having been the creator of these régimes, should continue to demand acknowledgment of its parental status. Nevertheless, the Soviet effort to maintain a modified form of centralized control does encounter both the highly important fact of national pride and the relatively short span of Communist control in the satellites.

National pride and the absence of a generation's conditioning have obviously had a decisive part in the events leading to Gomulka's "national Communist" régime in Poland. Indeed, it is hard to see just how the Russian Communists, for all their ideological blinders, could have failed so profoundly to take adequate account of the fierce pride of the Poles and their still vivid memories of 1944-45. Yet one cannot but have the impression that the Russians somehow made a serious miscalculation in estimating the effect of de-Stalinization in Poland. As it turned out, there was formed a working alliance between a leading faction of the Polish Communist Party and Polish nationalism against Soviet interference and control. The new régime, however, has not moved toward withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact--perhaps because of a continuing and generally held concern about the security of Poland's Western frontier--nor has it gone beyond the limits of a single-party system. In other words, Polish Communism for the moment enjoys a coördinate rather than subordinate relationship to the C.P.S.U.--the pattern of "polycentricity."

This appears to be an inherently precarious, though possibly durable, situation: it could easily be impelled further in either direction. Except for Gomulka's personal tribulations under Stalinism and the fact that the new régime has stood up against Khrushchev and Bulganin, there are few positive bonds uniting the Polish people and the present leadership. It is quite conceivable that further domestic demands, political and economic, may well up and sweep beyond the limits of even national Communist tolerance. The Hungarian tragedy and the preoccupation with Germany may moderate their expression. But we certainly do not know enough to predict or even to guess how the Gomulka régime, or the Russian, would respond (and perhaps respond in anticipation) to such demands.

Notwithstanding its tragic outcome, the Hungarian case resembles the Polish in several respects: an intense pride, a tradition of national battles against Russians, a schism in the local Communist Party and rising popular demand for a change.

At this point we probably lack the information we need to explain fully why the repercussions of de-Stalinization led to such catastrophically different consequences. The absence of a frontier dispute with Germany; the rather different, and apparently less well organized, development of the opposition within the Hungarian Communist Party; the uncertainty and delay in dealing with Rakosi and Gerö; and, of course, the preceding events in Poland--these doubtless contributed to the explosion. But it may have been simply accidents of timing and of individual behavior that set it off: inept handling of troops and unnecessary provocation. At any rate by the time that Imre Nagy (who seemed slated to be the Hungarian Gomulka) was called in, the panicked Communist leadership had already called for military aid against the people. In consequence, the revolution, under the pressure of conflict, quickly moved beyond the "national Communist" position to one that was increasingly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet. The Soviet decision to crush the revolution by force seems to follow directly from this movement beyond the confines of Communism and the Warsaw Pact. In addition, of course, the Russians had good reason to fear the spread of the recalcitrant Polish and Hungarian temper to the rest of Eastern Europe; the sudden and, for the Russians, fortunate eruption of fighting in the Near East may have led them to conclude that the time was favorable for a crackdown. Whatever the particular reasons--and this is a subject for historical inquiry--the Hungarian revolution clearly demonstrates the momentary ascendancy of centrifugal forces which were rapidly bearing Hungary out of the Communist orbit until the Russians moved in with Stalinist severity.

The reaction of Titoist Jugoslavia to all these events is of particular interest, since Tito for some years has been the explicit advocate of a "polycentric" system of national Communist régimes, independent in their relations with Moscow and with one another, but also proceeding along the road, or roads, to "socialism," as the Communists use the term. In the Jugoslav case, the working alliance between Party and national interest goes back to the origins of Tito's real power, his leadership of the Partisans in the Second World War, and was greatly strengthened during the years he successfully defied Stalin and the Cominform. In this respect the positions of Tito and Gomulka are in no way similar. It is to be observed, however, that this working alliance has not meant any great advance in political liberty; indeed, when Djilas urged in 1953 that "to weaken the monopoly of political movements . . . is the demand of the times," he was slapped down. Kardelj defended the need for "certain elements of coercion in order to get away from old and backward ways as soon as possible," and Tito declared that extending democracy to the bourgeoisie would lead "to anarchy, to a terrible uncertainty." Here, then, in a régime that was relatively stable and not under immediate pressure either from the Soviet Union or from an aroused populace, the limits of Communist tolerance were clearly and frankly demonstrated.

The Jugoslav régime's reaction to events abroad, in Poland and Hungary, is in full accord with their reaction to the Djilas challenge domestically. On November 4, 1956, the Foreign Affairs Editor of Tanjug made the following comments:

The justified revolt of the people against the policy of Rakosi, Gerö and others began to follow the course which obviously was not desired by the forces which were in the majority and whose purpose was to eliminate all the negative consequences of the past, which hindered a normal and healthy development of the consolidation of Socialism and Socialist Democracy in Hungary. . . .

An objective and coldblooded analysis of events forces us to approach the present-day happenings and the most recent situation from a realistic position. This means that a return to the old régimes either in Hungary or in other Eastern European countries is, under the present circumstances, impossible to imagine or suppose. . . .

As far as we in Jugoslavia are concerned, as fighters for Socialism, for active peaceful coexistence and for consolidation of peace and progress, it is clear, as we have many times reiterated, that there is neither peace nor progress, nor independence in the countries of Eastern Europe except on the basis of Socialism. Every attempt to change the state of affairs in these countries contrary to the objectives of Socialism, as was tried in Hungary, can lead to consequences which are not in the interest either of these peoples or of the preservation of peace in the world. However, a normal development is possible which would enable the strengthening of real democratic relations on the basis of true Socialist growth which is in the interest of the people, peace, international coöperation and a relaxation of tension in the world. Poland is proof of this where the development leads to the consolidation of Socialism, Socialist Democracy, independence and equal relations among Socialist and other countries. . . .

Of course, we consider to be a negative fact that the new government had to appeal for the help of the Soviet Army. The use of foreign troops to deal with domestic affairs is in contradiction to the principles on which Jugoslavia bases her foreign policy and which should rule in international relations. However, we cannot overlook the fact that the use of these troops is precisely the result of such a negative development which we refer to above. . . .

For the Jugoslav Communists there is thus a definite similarity in the Polish and Jugoslav positions (with the important exception that Jugoslavia is not in the Warsaw Pact); the Hungarian revolution is regarded as an understandable but impermissible retrogression which had to be checked, regrettably by force. That an open Soviet attack on the Titoist critique should have occurred, however, on the same day, November 19, that the Jugoslav Government was reported to have arrested Djilas for attacking national and Soviet Communism alike is a most striking illustration of the double tension generated by the Titoist line.

In some respects we seem to be witnessing one of the classical problems in politics: how to retreat from a full dictatorship without losing control over the course of events or opening the way to a "restoration." That this is a delicate problem is illustrated by the troubles Cromwell found in seeking an alternative to the Protectorate or Napoleon III in creating his "Liberal Empire." Still, it might be argued, such a task, while difficult, is not necessarily impossible; a proper balance of popular forces and party controls might create a new pattern of political and social organization in Eastern Europe along the lines the Jugoslav Communists anticipate.

It is not necessarily impossible. Nevertheless, Professor Hammond correctly points to "the difficulties which the Jugoslav leaders are having in finding a new kind of 'Socialist democracy' which is supposed to be different from both Soviet Communism and Western democracy. With no other models to go by, there is always a temptation for them either to continue to imitate Soviet methods or to move in the direction of Western democracy, although actually they want to copy neither."[i] In addition to the lack of models to go by, there are two further difficulties, one of which relates to the nature of Leninism itself (to which Tito as well as Khrushchev subscribes) and the other to the international repercussions of de-Stalinization.

When we seek for parallels and analogies to the Communist revolution and its consolidation in the Soviet system, we should perhaps think less in terms of the swing of a pendulum than of a tour de force, and see Lenin less in the company of a Cromwell or a Napoleon III than of a Napoleon I or a Bismarck: that is, as the creator, through his own will, insight and aims, of a quite new "solution" to a political and social issue, a solution which is in no sense a "natural" outcome proceeding from the interaction of political and social forces, but a tour de force which would have been very difficult to anticipate before its achievement.

In Lenin's case this element is particularly dominant. As early as the turn of the century, he was attacking "worship of the spontaneity of the labor movement" and stressing the decisive rôle of theory, of consciousness and of the "distinction between the vanguard and the whole of the masses." This intense, disciplined will to revolution in turn involved a reforging of Marxism to make it apply, by main force if need be, to conditions in Russia. Certainly there was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik capture of the Russian revolution; rather, it stands out, much mythology to the contrary, as one of the great demonstrations of the rôle of contingency, accident and personality in history. Nevertheless, the capture took place and was maintained; and the whole subsequent history of Communism has been deeply influenced by this tour de force. Indeed one might say that it is precisely the heart of the theory and practice of Leninism. This mistrust of "spontaneity"--i.e. of the free popular will--is not just a passing mood or even a personal feeling of scorn or misanthropy (though these attitudes are certainly fostered in the system) but integral to Leninism.

As a result, the search for a popular or national Communism as a real system of government may be a search for a chimera, not because a "mixed" economic or political system is impossible to achieve but because Leninism is an explicit denial of control by the people, or even by a class. The question arises, for example, whether the Polish Communists can possibly hold free national elections, not necessarily because they would lose them--very likely they would, but it is certainly possible that some day a Communist Party might win a free election somewhere--but because they may be unable to admit the premise of having elections as the determinant.

It is for this reason that the concept of "two stages" in the liberalization of a satellite,[ii] while logical enough from the non-Communist point of view, may--in suggesting that the tragedy of the Hungarian rebellion was the effort to bypass the first stage--miss the mark as far as the play of forces in Eastern Europe is concerned. The prospect of passing to full liberation via national Communism is, up to now at least, purely a mental projection. The actual road, it is granted, has nowhere been constructed, and the mere possibility of this second stage can serve, in the first instance, to inhibit liberalization in the national Communist stage and, in the second instance, to intensify Soviet suspicion that national Communism may indeed be the first step toward the reintroduction of capitalism. The very hope which non-Communists may entertain of a gradual, natural process of moving by stages toward liberation is well calculated to ring the alarm bell of "spontaneity" in Leninist ears.

We have not, then, been able to gain any clear picture from recent events in the satellites of what a more "normal" and stable situation in a still Communist Eastern Europe might be. It is not that democracy is necessarily the only answer; in our view it is the preferable one, though historically it has not been the prevailing form of government in that region. Rather it is that the essential traits of Leninism have survived not only the passing of Stalin but even the creation of independent centers of Communist power, and that these traits, deeply rooted now in underlying premises, habits of thought and practice, and institutions, may operate to some extent independently of the persons involved and indeed profoundly condition their behavior.

The difficulty of envisaging the course of an evolutionary path out of the present situation in Eastern Europe, or even a stabilized grouping of national Communist régimes, is heightened by the existence of tension between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers. This tension, of course, in no small part arises from the situation in Eastern Europe. Indeed, the two are so intimately and mutually related that one cannot be understood without reference to the other.

The obvious Soviet fear, which is certainly comprehensible, is that a satellite which threatens to become non-Communist and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, will soon be anti-Communist and seek Western protection. The vigor and brutality with which the Hungarian revolution was suppressed, in urgent disregard of damaging reactions elsewhere in the world, testifies to Soviet sensitivity on this point. It seems evident that in this case military and ideological considerations, which may not always be in harmony, found common ground in destroying the Hungarian revolt.

From this it is tempting to conclude (especially in view of our failure to make any effort at intervention in support of the revolution) that the better part of American policy is to accept the "national Communist" solution and drop the idea of democracy and independence. This, however, requires some consideration. Admittedly, half a loaf is better than none. Most of us would agree that Titoism or national Communism is preferable to the solid Stalinist bloc. But there is no need to make necessity, if it is that, virtuous, as we are frequently inclined to do. National Communism may be a lesser evil; it is not a positive good. This is so partly because we do not know what it may become (nor do the national Communists), but chiefly because the element of autonomy, of free choice, is still absent.

Many people in the United States and abroad feel that Americans are too formal and moralistic on this question of free choice. It may be that we do place too much emphasis on the particular touchstone of "free elections" in situations where problems are both delicate and complex and the chances of such elections remote. It may be that elections must be the final product, the ultimate symbol of autonomy rather than its first condition. But all this really misses the point. Americans, I believe, would be satisfied with other real evidence of autonomy, if it were forthcoming, such as, for example, an uninhibited communication with all elements of the population and a sense that the people felt able to speak their own minds freely to approve or disapprove of the régime which governed them. But such evidence is lacking.

Nor should our making do with "national Communism" promote the illusion that this will necessarily promote international understanding. It might, but we should not forget that we and the Soviet Union look at this phenomenon in diametrically opposed ways. We see it as a moderate increase in national independence, with the hope of an eventual further reduction of Communist power and influence. The Soviet leaders, in so far as they are willing to accept it, probably see it as a necessary concession to maintain a Communist camp, and perhaps some of them entertain the hope that it may prove a more flexible device for the eventual victory of Communism. The situation might resemble the Stresemann-Briand coöperation of the 1920's--Stresemann welcoming coöperation as a step to the revision of the Versailles settlement, Briand welcoming it as a reinforcement of the settlement; both sides were subsequently disillusioned.

If Soviet-Western tension influences the crisis in Eastern Europe, the converse is no less true. Even in the brief interval since the Soviet intervention in Hungary a number of very important consequences have emerged. The first is that even in a case where an anti-Soviet uprising managed to achieve a territorial base the United States took no steps to give effective support for "liberation." This is not the place to pursue the question whether the United States could have done more under the circumstances or whether it had raised false hopes among the insurgents; these are matters requiring closer study and further knowledge of pertinent facts. It is clear that the incredible bare-handed heroism of the Hungarians caught everyone by surprise and that in the somewhat different setting of the Polish crisis the United States had already indicated that it would not intervene militarily. But whatever the final judgment of our rôle may be, there is little doubt that the Soviet Union, at no little cost to the "thaw," demonstrated that it was the only Great Power that counted on its side of the Iron Curtain.

Not only that, the Soviet threat to intervene, through "volunteers," in the Suez conflict has had a very marked effect on that crisis. When we look at the two crises together--as all the world is doing--the unpleasant fact emerges that the Russians have been much more successful in exerting pressure in the non-Communist world than we have been in the Communist orbit. The conclusions that may be drawn from this, especially by the uncommitted nations, can obviously be very damaging. Moreover, in the game of "walking to the brink" the Russians have, in this case, outmatched us, and the exploitation of this advantage could lead to most dangerous blackmail against our allies and ourselves.

The question arises whether the best way to check this development is to exert corresponding and equivalent pressure on the satellite area or to take all steps necessary to block Soviet actions on this side of the Iron Curtain. Apart from the obvious and perhaps unavoidable risk of war in both cases, each approach has its disadvantages. Limiting our actions to the curbing of Soviet activities in the Near East leaves us entirely on the defensive, and in an area which, while non-Communist, is certainly not pro-Western. On the other hand, exerting counter pressure via the satellites may not have the effect of diminishing Soviet pressure in the Near East but might only produce a revolving-door effect, with the intensification of both crises.

In the light of its international repercussions, then, the crisis in Eastern Europe, while not without serious costs to the Soviet Union, does appear, when taken in conjunction with the Suez conflict, to have had unfavorable consequences for us. Still, beneath the more spectacular and violent events of these days we catch intimations of certain other developments that may eventually prove to be of the greatest importance: the fact that even after being struck down militarily the Hungarians persevered in passive resistance, sufficiently effective, it appears at this moment of writing, to baffle efforts to reëstablish a working régime; the stories of Russian soldiers who refused to fire on the crowds and who were horrified to discover they were not wanted; the continuing ferment created by the admission of "errors" committed under the "cult of personality;" and finally the overwhelming desire of the Russian people themselves for a "thaw," for a respite from their 40-years' forced march. In all this we see signs of real "spontaneity" which could become so pervasive as radically to alter the world situation.

[i] Thomas Taylor Hammond, "The Djilas Affair and Jugoslav Communism," Foreign Affairs, January 1955, p. 314.

[ii] See, for example, Walter Lippmann in the New York Herald Tribune, November 6, 1956: "There are, we have every reason to believe, two stages in the liberation of a satellite. The first stage is Titoism or national liberty, which is not anti-Communist and which remains within the Soviet sphere of military and political influence. The second stage is complete liberty at home and abroad. No country which has once been within the Soviet orbit--not even Jugoslavia--has ever reached the second stage."

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