American-Soviet relations can be approached in two ways. One approach avails itself of the techniques of meteorology, in that it concentrates on taking regular readings of the East-West climate as manifested in the level of rhetoric emanating from Washington and Moscow, the prevalence or absence of dialogues and negotiations, and the intensity of their competition in regions outside their immediate control. This approach is favored by journalists because it focuses on concrete events which they can report as news and subject to instant analysis. It also prevails in liberal circles whose adherents believe that there exist no genuine differences of either values or interests among nations and that such conflicts as do occur derive from mutual misunderstanding or lack of conciliatory spirit, mainly on the part of U.S. administrations.

The alternative approach has more in common with the science of geology. It perceives the East-West conflict as rooted in fundamental differences dividing the two societies, differences which are imbedded, as it were, in their respective ideological substances and political structures. Firm diplomacy and military preparedness may prevent these disagreements from erupting into overt hostility, but they cannot alter the reality of an inherent antagonism. This second approach, dominant among Western conservatives, happens also to be shared by the Soviet leadership.

Neither of these approaches is entirely satisfactory. Surely, relations among sovereign states involve more than atmospherics; there unquestionably exist significant differences in the nature and operations of democratic and communist societies that neither enhanced human contacts, nor good will, nor proper negotiating techniques can eliminate. These differences affect relations of the two societies because of the close and direct relationship that exists between a country's internal condition and its external conduct: foreign policy, after all, is driven mainly by domestic interests and shaped by a society's political culture. If this is the case, then the decisive factors influencing the course of East-West relations must be sought elsewhere than in the day-to-day decisions of the leaders of the respective blocs, and an understanding of the drift in their relations requires a greater effort than that involved in readings of the political barometer with its fluctuations between the extremes of sunny détente and bleak cold war. These factors reside in the political, social, and economic systems and cultures prevailing in Eastern and Western societies.

This point conceded, it must be said in criticism of the conservative view that nothing in nature is permanent and immutable: after all, even geological formations undergo evolution, slow and imperceptible as it may appear to the human eye. If continents shift, so do man-made institutions. If one postulates, therefore, that foreign policy is a function of domestic politics, then one has some assurance that as internal conditions in the blocs change, so too will their external conduct. The leadership of the Soviet Union is extremely anxious to create the impression that all changes occurring within its realm are the result of its own conscious and deliberate decisions; it is quite obvious, however, that it, too, must respond to the pressure of changing conditions brought about by such independent factors as the emergence of a large, well-educated technical intelligentsia, demographic developments, and the change in mood of the young generation.


Western commentators on East-West relations, however, persistently ignore the relationship between internal conditions in the U.S.S.R. and Soviet foreign policy. The level of analysis in the existing literature on the subject, including many academic monographs, rarely rises above that of journalism in that it concentrates attention on actions and events rather than on structures and processes, treating foreign conduct as if it were an entirely discretionary activity. This practice disregards the insights of the most outstanding dissidents from the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe—e.g., Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Djilas and Adam Michnik—who see the root of Soviet aggressiveness and the threat to international peace that it represents in the internal conditions prevailing in the Communist bloc. These writers argue that the manner in which the self-appointed and self-perpetuating elites of these countries treat their own citizens has critical bearing on the way they behave toward other states. From this premise they deduce that the West ought to concern itself with political and economic conditions inside communist societies, not only from philanthropic and idealistic motives but also from those of the most narrow self-interest. In an appeal issued recently to Western "peace" movements, which act on the premise that peace is endangered by the existence of weapons, a group of Polish Solidarity intellectuals sought to make this connection explicit:

States with totalitarian political systems are a threat to world peace; the necessity for aggressive expansion arises wherever authority is based on force and lies, wherever societies are deprived of the possibility of influencing government policy, wherever governments fear those over whom they rule and against whom they conduct wars. . . . The sole ideology of the adherents of totalitarianism is the maintenance of power by any means. In the present crisis, even war can be considered an acceptable price for this aim.[1]

In response it can be argued that even if this thesis is correct, it is irrelevant since totalitarian regimes are by definition incapable of evolution from within and impervious to change from without; hence Western attempts to attenuate Soviet aggressiveness must limit themselves to modest efforts at removing points of friction through treaties and "dialogues." This rejoinder is unconvincing. A deeper insight into internal conditions of communist societies, the Soviet Union included, indicates that they are in the throes of a serious systemic crisis which sooner or later will require action of a decisive kind—action which, in turn, will exert the most profound influence on Soviet external policy. It is much less clear whether this change of course at home will lead to heightened or to lessened truculence abroad, whether it will express itself in a turning inward toward peaceful reform, or seek outlets abroad in enhanced military aggression as a surrogate for reform.


The current crisis of the Soviet system has two aspects, a political one and an economic one. Speaking in the broadest terms, both arise from a growing discrepancy between the responsibilities assumed by the communist elites at home and abroad, and the human and material resources with which to carry them out. The political crisis is, first and foremost, the crisis of the Communist Party establishment. The Party was originally designed as an infinitely pliable instrument in the hands of its leadership with which to force a reluctant population toward the vision of a utopian society conceived by a band of radical intellectuals. Over the years, however, it has evolved into a self-serving, privileged class that in its highest echelons, the so-called nomenklatura, has turned into a completely parasitic stratum. Corrupted by privilege and peculation, it has lost, since Stalin's death, any sense of service or obligation, whether to the ideal of communism or to the nation: it so dreads any change in the Stalinist system, from which its power and privilege largely derive, that it chooses ever weaker general secretaries as Party leaders. A Party thus self-serving and estranged from the population, and weakened by lack of decisive leadership, is in grave danger of losing control. This was demonstrated in Poland in 1980-81, where the Communist establishment found itself pushed aside by a discontented populace and forced to hand power over to the military. The political crisis also afflicts the Soviet empire, which is overexpanded and whose inhabitants make political and other demands that Moscow is ever less capable of either satisfying or beating back.

The economic crisis is due to inadequate productivity; this, in turn, is caused by two factors: excessive centralization of economic decision-making in the hands of Party organs, and inadequate incentives offered to workers and farmers, who are essentially paid not in proportion to output but according to the time spent working. Declining rates of economic growth adversely affect the ability of Moscow to engage in its ambitious military and imperial ventures. For more than a decade now, Soviet planners have been forced to transfer resources from the capital investments sector into the military sector, which ensures in the long run further declines in industrial growth. The country's productive resources are stifled by an economic system that is designed primarily to ensure the security and power of the nomenklatura. The government theoretically could, but in reality does not dare to, decrease further the impoverished consumer sector for fear of strikes and riots in industrial centers, preferring instead to risk undermining the country's industrial future. One of the by-products of the economic crisis is declining birth-rates, caused in good part by fantastic abortion rates (estimated at ten per Russian female): for the first time in recorded history, the Russian population, once with the highest reproduction rate in Europe, is not replacing itself, as each year more Russians die than are born.


A crisis of such dimensions, camouflaged by massive disinformation and saber-rattling, fits very well the concept of a "revolutionary situation" as defined by Lenin. The term meant to him a condition of stalemate between the ruling elite of a country and its population: the former could no longer rule, and the latter would no longer let themselves be ruled in the old way. Once a society reached this stage it was objectively ready for revolution. But for revolution to break out, another element, subjective in nature, was required as well, and that was the ability and the will of the people to act—"it being a rule," in Lenin's words, that "the old government . . . never, not even in a period of crisis, 'falls,' if it is not toppled over."[2] When this subjective element is missing, as, according to Lenin, it was at certain critical moments in nineteenth-century Germany and Russia, then the "revolutionary situation" dissipates without issue.

Were Lenin alive today, he would very likely conclude that conditions in his country and its empire meet the criteria which he had established for "revolutionary situations." Certainly, the Soviet bloc is currently in the throes of a much graver economic and political crisis than either Russia or Germany had experienced a century ago. What is lacking today, as it was then, however, is the subjective element, the ability and the will of social groups and political parties to transform the "revolutionary situation" into a revolution. The ability to revolt is frustrated by the apparatus of repression which communist regimes have developed to a degree never before known; having come to power by revolution, they are determined to prevent being overthrown in the same way.

But a way could be found around even this obstacle, as events in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland have shown, if the revolutionary will were there. In Russia, at least, it is missing. Historical experience since 1917 has caused Russians of every political orientation to fear the collapse of authority even more than despotism and to reject violence as an instrument of change. Before 1917, the Russian intelligentsia had unbounded faith in the innate goodness and democratic spirit of its people. It was convinced that as soon as Tsarism fell democracy would emerge and triumph all along the line. These Rousseauean illusions were shattered by the experiences of the revolution. The present generation of the educated in the Soviet Union has been cured of all revolutionary romanticism. It believes that if the Soviet government were to collapse, the result would be a political vacuum that would only give license to the quarter of a billion inhabitants to settle old scores: village would move against city, nationalist against communist, Russian against Jew, Muslim against Russian, Armenian against Muslim, in a murderous Hobbesian war of all against all. But even the few who might be prepared to pay this price if it would rid the country of communist tyranny no longer believe that it will purchase anything worthwhile. Having experienced revolution in all its fury, Russians have learned not only its terrible costs but also its futility: no matter how many eggs it breaks, it somehow never produces an omelette.

Thus, there is universal disillusionment with political violence in the Soviet Union—at any rate, no prominent dissident of either the democratic or the nationalist opposition is known to advocate it. The two camps are in agreement that if Russia is to emerge from its crisis it must do so by means of gradual and peaceful changes; if this requires the Politburo and the rest of the nomenklatura to stay in power, so be it—at any rate, for the time being. The following passage from a recent samizdat tract, strongly anti-communist in content, is typical in this respect:

In its mass, the population of the U.S.S.R. is far from ready for direct democracy. And we will assert that a new revolution in the U.S.S.R. would be a genuine misfortune for the country. Solzhenitsyn believes that the moral level of the people today is even lower than it was in 1917. I do not know. Perhaps. In any event, it is entirely clear that without sufficiently prolonged experience of consistent democratization of the existing sociopolitical order one cannot take the risk of involving millions of politically uneducated people in the immensely complex task of sociopolitical transformation of the country. . . . The structural improvement of the country is preferable to its destruction. A reformed system has many advantages over one newly brought into being. The experience of Western democracies is for us a guarantee of this. Where the principle of continuity between the old and the new is strictly observed . . . there the result is a stable system of representative democracy of the English or Swedish type.[3]

Widespread conservatism of this kind among the educated classes provides no assurance, of course, that a revolution will not break out on its own, uncalled for and unwanted, from a collapse of authority. Lenin's insistence that if governments are to fall they must be toppled is too rigid, considering that the Tsarist regime did fall under its own weight when it proved unable to cope with the strains of war. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a revolutionary explosion in the Soviet Union is certainly much reduced by virtue of the fact that the nomenklatura has public opinion on its side on this issue. Essentially, its opponents do not want to overthrow it and take power, but prefer to circumscribe its authority by expanding the private sphere; this desire may be dangerous to a totalitarian regime, but it does not threaten it with uncontrollable violence.


If revolution is excluded, the Soviet regime faces three alternatives: reversion to Stalinism, intensified external aggression leading to a world war, and internal reform.

Among the nomenklatura and the less educated public there is much nostalgia for the days of Stalin—not, of course, for his genocidal savagery, but for an idealized regime of order and discipline, when everyone did his duty and corruption was pitilessly punished. Such glorified Stalinism seems to offer a way out of the difficulties that Soviet society faces, without resort to dangerous reforms. But this is an idle fantasy.

Stalinism cannot be restored for any number of reasons, the most weighty of which is the impossibility of running the country's present-day sophisticated industrial plant and military establishment by brute force and in isolation from the rest of the world. Nor can the nomenklatura have forgotten how insecure and hard its life under Stalin was and how many of its people perished in his wholesale massacres. In any event, after 30 years of gradual dismantling and decay of Stalinism, it is senseless to speak of its restoration; it would have to be recreated and reimposed anew. One suspects that those who recall it so wistfully realize this, and Stalinism is the last thing they want or would put up with if it really returned. The current nostalgia for Stalinism is very reminiscent of the longing of Russian bureaucratic and conservative circles during the "revolutionary situation" of the 1870s and 1880s for the "good old days" of Nicholas I (1825-1855), when the peasants had been kept in their place by serfdom and the government suppressed all dissent. Then, as now, this habit of looking backward was symptomatic of the unwillingness of the ruling apparatus to face up to changed realities and to venture on painful but unavoidable reforms.

In some ways the easiest, if most dangerous, way out of a crisis is to keep raising the level of international tension. War scares, one of the major products of the Soviet propaganda industry since the 1920s, divert the masses' attention from their own condition and make it possible to demand extraordinary sacrifices from labor as well as to silence the opposition in the name of patriotism. The constant harping on memories of World War II in the Soviet Union and the linking of "fascism" with American "imperialism" serve this purpose. But war scares are risky, because they have a way of getting out of hand: the logical outcome of war scares is war. The possibility of the nomenklatura taking a chance on war as a way of avoiding internal reforms cannot be precluded; in the opinion of some East European observers it is a risk that the nomenklatura would take if it felt sufficiently endangered internally. The greater the likelihood of quick and cheap victory, the greater the temptation to use this avenue of escape from an intolerable internal predicament. Clearly, the more the West forecloses this option with its own military counterpreparations, the less attractive will it appear.


If revolution is set aside because it lacks social support, a return to Stalinism because it is unrealistic, and recourse to war because of its uncertain outcome, reform looms as the only viable way out of the "revolutionary situation" which the Soviet Union faces. The vital question for Russia, its subjugated nations, and the rest of the world is whether the nomenklatura will come to see its predicament in this light, whether a dispassionate analysis of the facts will prevail over bluster and the "after us the deluge" mentality. The nomenklatura is not the first ruling elite to face the choice between holding on to all its power and privilege at the risk of losing it all, or surrendering some of both in the hope of holding on to the rest. History knows both outcomes. England has avoided revolution for three centuries because its monarchy, aristocracy and middle classes have always seen in time the inevitability of change and made the necessary concessions. In Imperial Russia, die-hard sentiment was much stronger, and so it is today in Latin America.

The behavior of the Soviet nomenklatura under these circumstances is a subject on which expert opinion is divided.

A rather pessimistic assessment is provided by Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav author of a pioneering study of the nomenklatura under the title The New Class, and a person who, as a close associate of Tito, has had much opportunity to learn at first hand how the Soviet elite thinks. "In my opinion," he writes,

changes in the Soviet system are least likely. One reason is that this system is more than the other systems permeated, one might say, with imperialist class privileges. I believe that the Soviet system has no internal potential for change, just as Soviet imperialism cannot stop of its own will. In theory, the only possibility of change in the Soviet Union lies in the creation of some kind of enlightened absolutism which could initiate reforms, but even then bureaucratic repression can strangle the process of democratization. Even for such an enlightened autocrat to emerge, it is imperative that there be some sort of a national crisis: a military crisis or a revolutionary crisis, or both at the same time. Such a perspective, it must be noted, is in accord with Russian history.[4]

Djilas's conviction that nothing short of a catastrophe will induce the apparatus to undertake reforms is shared by many dissenters as well as loyal but apprehensive Communists in the Soviet Union.

Taking a dip in icy water during Orthodox Epiphany celebrations in Rostov Veliky, Russia, January 2008
Thomas Peter / Reuters

Others maintain that the nomenklatura will soon have no choice in the matter, that life will push it onto the path of reform whether it likes it or not. An articulate spokesman for the more optimistic school of thought is Valerii Chalidze, a pioneer fighter for human rights in the U.S.S.R.:

Russia is filled with the sharpest contradictions. They are so numerous that sometimes it seems as if this were done on purpose, so that one contradiction would eclipse all the others. But should all these contradictions speak up, then the government will not be able to confine itself to promises and repressions, as it is doing now, because the entire people will be pulled into this mass of internal contradictions. The government will have to disentangle these contradictions: it will have to busy itself improving internal conditions and organizing economic as well as social relations. And then, for a time, all the imperial dreams will fade, compared with the importance of internal problems.

One may object that the authorities will not bother to improve social relations, and instead resort to mass repressions. I think this will not happen. The country is ruled by a class of professionals who are interested in the Empire's stability and grandeur. Any outburst of dissatisfaction can be suppressed by force: no need to consider the morality of the rulers. But the growing social tension in the whole country, the sharpening of the many contradictions will cause these professionals to react in a manner that endangers the stability neither of their position nor that of the empire; this will compel them to carry out social reforms, and these reforms will mark a piecemeal, gradual transition to a more democratic system of government. The authorities are ready for such reforms as long as they do not threaten stability: being gradual, they will not do so.[5]

The difference between the two schools of thought, the one more optimistic, the other less so, is really one of degree: Mr. Chalidze believes the conditions for an acute crisis to be much closer at hand than does Mr. Djilas. They agree, however—and this is of essential importance to Western policy—that reforms are conceivable only as a result of major internal and external setbacks, that they will come about only when the nomenklatura concludes that they are the price it must pay for its survival.

The intimate link between crises and reforms to which Mr. Djilas refers is corroborated by the record of Russian history. Russia is an extremely conservative country, so much so that even its socialism has acquired a thoroughly reactionary character. It is so vast and complex and so loosely held together that its leaders have always feared and rarely volunteered changes. They have consented to make changes only under duress caused either by humiliations abroad or upheavals at home. Tsarism finally screwed up its courage to abolish serfdom and introduce both an independent judiciary and local self-government when the defeat in the Crimean War demonstrated Russia's backwardness. Nicholas II was determined to preserve the autocratic system that endowed him with a monopoly on legislative authority until Russia's drubbing at the hands of Japan, and the internal disorders which followed, compelled him to grant the country a constitution and a parliament. Even Lenin had to veer sharply toward more liberal economic practices in 1921, when social unrest and the near collapse of the economy placed his regime in jeopardy.

Russian history thus strongly suggests, and informed Russian opinion corroborates, that such changes for the better that one can expect in the nature of the Soviet government and in its conduct of foreign relations will come about only from failures, instabilities, and fears of collapse and not from growing confidence and sense of security. This assessment is antithetical to the one that underpinned détente and that continues to dominate thinking in the foreign services and liberal circles in Europe and the United States—that the more confident and secure the Soviet elite feels, the more restrained its conduct will be. The latter thesis cannot be supported by any evidence from the past and can only derive from ignorance of the mentality of the Soviet elite and the record of Russia's past.


Clearly, it makes a profound difference for U.S. foreign policy which of these two interpretations is correct. Assuming that the crisis-reform thesis is correct and the "revolutionary situation" will ripen to the point where something must be done, what kind of reform can one reasonably expect from the Soviet leadership?

Speaking very generally, the trouble with the Soviet system as presently constituted is that it has the worst of both worlds: it suffers from all the drawbacks of a regime based on the command principle, but it no longer enjoys many of the benefits that this principle has to offer. Man can be motivated either by fear or by hope, either by threats or by inducements. Communists have always preferred to rely on the first of these methods. This practice has not given them the stability and productivity of democratic and free-market societies, but it has enabled them to concentrate the limited resources at their disposal on whatever goals to which they chose to assign high priority. What they lacked in quantity, quality, and diversity of resources, they made up for with the ability to mobilize resources for crash programs.

This ability has been eroding for some time. In a sense, the current crisis of communism is due to its vegetating in a kind of limbo between compulsion and freedom, unable to profit from either. The all-pervasive fear that Stalin's regime had instilled in the people is gone beyond recall, and one can no longer rely on the faint memory it evokes to exact hard work and unthinking obedience: for Communist bloc citizens under 40—that is, the majority of them—Stalinism is ancient history. But fear has not been replaced with hope and inducements. As a result, the creative energies of the people living under regimes of the Soviet type are directed into private and opposition channels that not only bring those regimes no benefit but in many ways do them positive harm. The normal and healthy spirit of economic entrepreneurship, deprived of legitimate channels, seeks outlets in semilegal or illegal activity connected with the "second economy," bribery and the black market. Citizens concerned with public affairs take to overt or concealed dissent, which the regime is unable to wipe out and can only try to keep within safe bounds. In other words, everything dynamic and creative, whether in economic or intellectual activity, is driven by the system into criminal channels; forces which should strengthen the regime are made to undermine it.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem that post-Stalinist regimes have had to face and with which sooner or later they must come to terms. A way has to be found of reconciling the interests of the state and its ruling elite with the creative energies of its citizens. This cannot be accomplished unless the elite is prepared to sacrifice some of its authority and bring society into partnership, if only of a limited kind.

There is no need to spell out possible reform programs for the Soviet Union and its colonies in any detail. It is more useful to indicate the principles on which reforms must rest if they are to be of any benefit. The basic task is to harness the creative forces of the country in public service, to bridge the gap between the pursuit of private goals—presently the sole objective of the vast majority of citizens in communist countries, their leaders included—and the interests of the whole. To this end, three reforms appear essential.

One is legality. The citizen of communist society need not necessarily participate in the making of laws—this is a right which the nomenklatura would certainly not concede of its own will—but he must be assured that those laws that are on the books are binding on all, representatives of state authority included. For the citizen to know what he can and cannot do is a sine qua non of any properly functioning society. This requirement entails, among other things, strict judiciary control over the Party bureaucracy—that is, an end to the tradition inherited from Tsarism that servants of the government are above the law. Since legality is compatible with authoritarian methods of government, this innovation should not prove unacceptable, once reforms are decided upon.

The other is wider scope for private enterprise. The economy directly controlled by the regime must link up with the second, private sector, and draw on its dynamism. This calls for the decentralization of industrial decision-making, the dismantling of collective farms, the adoption in industry and agriculture of the contractual principle as the rule rather than the exception, and the turning over of a good part of the consumer and service sectors to private enterprise.[6] The consequence of such reforms would be a mixed economy, in which the state and the Party establishment would continue to wield immense power but no longer stifle productive forces. That which the nomenklatura would give up in managerial authority it would gain many times over in increased productivity.

The third is administrative decentralization of the U.S.S.R. The nomenklatura will have to acknowledge that the days of colonialism are over, that it will never succeed in creating a synthetic "Soviet" nation by having the ethnic minorities dissolve tracelessly among the Russians. There is no likelihood that the Soviet government will voluntarily dissolve the Soviet Union into its constituent republics, but genuine federalism of some sort, with broad self-rule for the minorities, is not inconceivable; it calls only for making constitutional fiction constitutional reality. Such a step would go a long way toward reducing the ethnic tensions that now exist.

Viewed superficially, the fate of reforms in communist societies may appear to hold merely academic interest for citizens of other societies. After all, it is not for them to tell Russians how to manage their affairs; all that matters to them is that the Soviet Union respect international standards of conduct and cease its aggression. But because of the intimate relationship between a country's internal system and its conduct abroad, the issue is exceedingly relevant. Soviet militarism and aggressiveness are not, as widely believed, the product of a mythical paranoia brought about by centuries of foreign aggression: it requires only a slightly deeper acquaintance with the history of Russia to realize that that country has engaged in aggression against its neighbors far more often and more persistently than its neighbors have ever acted against it.[7] Imperialism is endemic to the Soviet system in part because its ruling elite has no other justification for maintaining its power and privilege than to create the phantom of an ever-present external threat to the country's survival, and in part because it seeks to compensate its citizens for deprivations at home by manifestations of its might abroad. The root of the problem—and the principal threat to world peace today—is the political and economic system of Stalinism which the successors of Stalin have retained even as they turned its originator into a virtual non-person. As long as the nomenklatura remains what it is, as long as the Soviet Union lives in a state of lawlessness, as long as the energies of its peoples are not allowed to express themselves creatively, so long there can be no security for anyone else in the world.


The key to peace, therefore, lies in an internal transformation of the Soviet system in the direction of legality, economic decentralization, greater scope for contractual work and free enterprise, and national self-determination. The obstacles to such reforms are formidable. The nomenklatura will resist changes of this nature as long as it can, and that means, in effect, as long as it is able to compensate for internal failures with triumphs abroad. It will always find the pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy preferable to coping with internal problems, because in the former case it can buy time with tactical maneuvers of all sorts, whereas internal problems call for structural changes which are far more difficult to undo.

The point is that the majority of inhabitants of any country, the U.S.S.R. included, are not deeply concerned with foreign policy. They may be disgusted with their country's humiliations and elated by its triumphs, but they experience the effects of such events only indirectly. What happens at home, however, is to them of immediate and direct relevance; here, every citizen is an expert. Competing against democracies, which only want to be left in peace to pursue their commercial interests, a government like the Soviet one can always stay on the offensive. At home, by contrast, it is forever waging a defensive campaign against its own people, who are ready to exploit every opportunity, every sign of weakness, to arrogate for themselves more economic and political power. Once they have seized a position, they are difficult to dislodge.

These difficulties conceded, it is nevertheless true that the Stalinist system now prevailing in the Soviet Union has outlived its usefulness and that the forces making for change are becoming well-nigh irresistible.

A Soviet Union that will turn its energies inward will of necessity become less militaristic and expansionist. It is a precondition of all Soviet reforms that the nomenklatura surrender some of its authority to the people over whom it rules, that it restrain the arbitrary powers of its members, that it allow law and contractual relations to replace bureaucratic whim. Anything that occurs in this direction has to act as a brake on the regime's hitherto unbridled appetite for conquests because, much as they may be flattered by the might of Russia, its citizens have other concerns closer to home. The immense task of internal reconstruction that confronts the country cannot be undertaken as long as military expenditures remain at their present levels. Cutbacks in military budgets, however, demand a more pacific foreign policy. In other words, the greater the pressures on the Soviet regime to deal with genuine crises at home instead of artificially created crises abroad, the greater its dependence on its citizens, and the greater, in consequence, the ability of these citizens to deflect their governments from foreign adventures. This point was already made by Friedrich Engels a century ago:

This entire danger of a world war will vanish on the day when a change of affairs in Russia will permit the Russian people to put an end to its tsars' traditional policy of conquest and attend to its own vital domestic interests—interests which are endangered in the extreme—instead of fantasies of world conquest.[8]

Anyone who doubts this prospect has only to consider the evolution of China since Mao's death. As long as Mao ruled China, that country conducted an exceedingly truculent foreign policy, threatening to set the Third World afire with campaigns of "national liberation" and even making light of nuclear war. Washington took these threats so much to heart that it sent hundreds of thousands of men halfway around the world to prove its ability to cope with them. Mao's successors, however, decided that their first priority had to be economic modernization; once this decision had fallen, aggressive actions and words miraculously ceased. Economic modernization entailed a series of reforms, including decentralization of decision-making, the gradual dismantling of the collective-farm system, and greater latitude for the private sector. Concurrently, attempts have been made to introduce greater legality into relations between state and citizenry. The entrenched bureaucracy has been sabotaging these measures in its own quiet way, but even so their effect on foreign policy has been startling. Realizing that better relations with the West were essential to the modernization program, China has cautiously moved to establish with it closer economic, political and military relations.

Thus, it was not success but failure that caused Communist China to turn from a mortal enemy of the "capitalist" countries into their quasi-partner—not promises of assistance from the West, but the desperate need for such assistance. And even after due allowance is made for the fact that Russia is not China, it is difficult to see why the experience of the one Stalinist state is not of immediate relevance to the other.

The implications which these observations hold for Western policy should not be difficult to draw. The West would be well advised to do all in its power to assist the indigenous forces making for change in the U.S.S.R. and its client states, forces that are eating away at the Stalinist foundations of communist regimes. This end it can partly promote by staunch resistance to Soviet expansion and military blackmail: such resistance will have the effect of foreclosing for the nomenklatura the opportunity of compensating for internal failures with triumphs abroad. Secondly, by denying to the Soviet bloc various forms of economic aid, it can help intensify the formidable pressures which are being exerted on their creaky economies. This will push them in the direction of general liberalization as well as accommodation with the West, since this is the only way of reducing military expenditures and gaining access to Western help in modernization.

Experience has repeatedly shown that attempts to restrain Soviet aggressiveness by a mixture of punishments and rewards fail in their purpose because they address the symptoms of the problem, namely aggression, rather than the cause, which is a political and economic system that induces aggressive behavior. The West, therefore, should in its own interest encourage anti-Stalinist forces and processes active inside the Soviet bloc. Such a policy calls not for subverting communism but for letting communism subvert itself.


1 Cited in The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 1983.

2 "The Collapse of the Second International," V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1963, p. 214.

3 Iu.K. Petrov, pseud., "Metamorfozy russkogo liberalizma" (Metamorphoses of Russian Liberalism), pp. 109-110; manuscript in the author's possession.

4 Sintaksis, Paris, No. 6, 1980, pp. 112-113.

5 "O politicheskom prosveshchenii naseleniia Sovetskogo Soiuza" (The Political Enlightenment of the Population of the Soviet Union), Problemy Vostochnoi Evropy, New York, No. 2, 1981, pp. 133-34.

6 Under the contractual system of work, which is practiced here and there in Soviet agriculture and industry, groups of farmers and workers enter into agreements with state enterprises which allow them to be compensated by the product they turn out rather than draw standard wages for the fulfillment of norms.

7 In 1898 the Russian Imperial General Staff completed a study of Russian warfare through the ages. The editor, in the concluding volume, assured readers that they could be proud of their past and face the uncertain future with confidence: of the 38 military campaigns that Russia had waged in the preceding 200 years, 36 had been "offensive" and only two defensive. N.N. Sukhotin, Voina v istorii russkogo mira (War in the History of the Russian World), St. Petersburg, 1898, pp. 13-14.

8 Friedrich Engels, "Die auswaertige Politik des russischen Zarenthums" (The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsarism), in Die Neue Zeit, Stuttgart, Vol. VIII, 1890, p. 202.

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  • RICHARD PIPES is Baird Professor of History at Harvard. In 1981-82 he served as Director of East European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council. His books include The Formation of the Soviet Union, Russia Under the Old Regime and U.S.-Soviet Relations in the Era of Détente. He is presently working on a history of the Russian Revolution. This article is an expanded version of a section in the author's forthcoming book, Survival Is Not Enough, to be published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) 1984 by Richard Pipes.
  • More By Richard Pipes