Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
WE are living in an age when the social sciences claim to be able to predict more and more accurately the behavior of groups and individuals, rulers and ruled. It is strange, then, to find that one of the political processes which still causes the greatest perplexity is to be found not in some unexplored realm of nature, nor in the obscure depths of the individual soul intractable to psychological analysis, but in a sphere apparently dominated by iron laws of reason, from which, supposedly, the influence of random factors, human whims, unpredictable waves of emotion, spontaneity, irresponsibility, anything tending to loosen the rigorously logical nexus, has been remorselessly eliminated. The process to which I refer is the "general line" of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Its abrupt and violent changes of direction puzzle not merely the outside world, but Soviet citizens; and not merely Soviet citizens, but members of the Communist Party itself at home and abroad--to whom, as often as not, it occasions disconcerting, violent and even fatal surprise.
Inability to predict the curious movements of the line is a crucial failure in a Communist. At best it upsets all his personal calculations; at worst, it brings total ruin upon him. Thus the history of Communist Parties outside Russia--and notably of the German Party--provides many instances where sudden switches of the Moscow "line" have involved these Parties in major disasters. The spate of books by such well informed ex-Communists as Barmine, Ciliga, Rossi and Ruth Fischer, as well as the romans à clef by gifted authors who have turned against the Soviet régime like Arthur Koestler, Humphrey Slater and Victor Serge, deal vividly with this phenomenon. Both in the ideological realm, and in the concrete economic and political aspects of Communist foreign policy, much of this uncertainty can doubtless be put down to the predominance of Russia's national interest over the interests of world Communism in general or of the local Parties in particular. Moreover, since even the Soviet leaders are not all of them men from Mars, they must be credited with the normal coefficient of miscalculation, stupidity, inefficiency and bad luck. But even allowing for disparate factors such as nationalism, human fallibility and the confusion of human affairs in general, the irregular path traversed by the ideological policy of the Soviet Union still remains abnormally puzzling.
Here perhaps some recourse to Marxist doctrine is inevitable, for it is reasonable to assume that Soviet leaders do not merely profess to judge events in the light of some form of Marxism, but in fact sometimes do so. No doubt the intelligence of the members of the Politburo is of a practical rather than a theoretical bent; nevertheless, the fundamental categories in terms of which the outside world is apprehended, and policies framed, continue to derive from the cluster of theories put forward by Marx and Hegel, and adapted by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito and others, as well as, in a distorted and inverted fashion, by Fascist dictators. According to this developed Marxist theory one must distinguish between "crests" and "troughs"--periods when "history" appears to be in a state of rising ferment and moving toward a revolutionary climax, and, on the other hand, those more frequent times when things tend, or at least seem to tend, to be quiescent and stable. And while, of course, the theory teaches that underneath the placid surface there is always a clash of factors which will ultimately lead to the inevitable collision (which constitutes progress), the process may at times still be latent, invisible--the revolution still "burrowing away," in Marx's (and Hegel's) image from Hamlet, like the old mole underground. These are the periods when revolutionary parties should husband and consolidate their resources rather than spend their strength in battle. This theory of alternating phases, which is at least as old as St. Simon, appears to be the only hypothesis which offers a plausible explanation of Stalin's policies in the late twenties and the thirties.
One of the best examples of the halting on an "activist" policy is found in the liquidation of Trotsky's aggressive line in China. The reasoning on the part of M. Stalin and his allies seems to have led to the conclusion that one of the "quiescent" periods had begun and that as a result the making or support of violent revolution would "necessarily" lead to frustration. Conversely, the most spectacular example of a call to arms is the notorious directive to German Communists in 1932 to concentrate their fire upon the Social Democrats as being more dangerous enemies than Hitler. M. Stalin's speeches of that period are very instructive in this respect: he seems clearly to have assumed that after a long trough of despond in the twenties the crest of the revolution was beginning to rise once more. He looked upon the economic crisis of 1929-31 as the most violent indication which had yet occurred that the contradictions of the capitalist system were at last about to perform their historic task of finally blowing up the entire rickety capitalist structure. (Nor, incidentally, was it to him alone that the situation appeared in this lurid light; many observers, in lands far apart and belonging to many shades of political opinion, spoke at this time in terms no less dramatic.) In a socalled "revolutionary" situation the Communist Party advances. The period of quiet incubation during which it is obliged to lull potential rivals and enemies into false security is over; it drops all pretense of solidarity with other left-wing and "progressive" forces. Once cracks have visibly begun to appear in the capitalist order, the decisive moment cannot be very far off, and Lenin's preparation for his coup in September-October 1917 becomes the proper model to follow. The Communist Party, bold, strong, alone knowing what it wants, and how to get it, breaks off its false (but at an earlier stage tactically necessary) relationship with the "soft" and confused mass of fellow-travellers, fellow wanderers, temporary allies and vague sympathizers. It takes the great leap across the precipice to the conquest of power for which it alone is--and knows that it is--adequately organized.
The order to advance which M. Stalin issued to his German allies in 1932 had consequences fatal to them and nearly as fatal for himself--consequences, indeed, familiar enough to the entire world, which has been paying ever since with incredible suffering. Yet even this did not shake Communist faith in the simple formula. It remains unaltered and says again and again: In revolutionary situations, liquidate your now worthless allies and then advance and strike; in non-revolutionary situations, accumulate strength by ad hoc alliances, by building popular fronts, by adopting liberal and humanitarian disguises, by quoting ancient texts which imply the possibility, almost the desirability, of peaceful, mutually tolerant coexistence. This last will have the double advantage of compromising potential rivals by taking them further than they wish to go or are aware of going, while at the same time embarrassing the right-wing oppositions--the forces of reaction--by ranging against them all the best and sincerest defenders of liberty and humanity, progress and justice.
And indeed it may be that this simple maxim will to some extent account for the oscillations of Soviet propagandist policy after 1946, when Soviet planners began by expecting a vast world economic crisis and became correspondingly aggressive and uncompromising. There followed a gradual and reluctant realization (prematurely foretold by the Soviet economist Varga, who was duly rebuked for ill-timed prescience) that the crisis was not materializing fast enough, and might not come either at the moment or with the violence expected. This may account for attempts in the last two years to replace (at least for foreign export) straightforward propaganda, framed in old-fashioned, uncompromising Marxist terms, with non-Communist values, such as appeals to the universal desire for peace, or to local or national pride against American dictation, or to alleged traditions of friendship between, let us say, Russia and France as contrasted with no less traditional hostility between, for example, France and England. Soviet reliance on this historical schema of alternating periods of quiescence and crisis (which has a respectable pre-Marxist pedigree) may not be a complete key to all the convolutions of its ideological policies abroad, but without some such hypothesis these policies become totally unintelligible, and can be accounted for only by assuming a degree of blindness or stupidity or gratuitous perversity in Moscow which, on other grounds, can scarcely be imputed to the present rulers of the U.S.S.R. And this is a powerful argument for believing the hypothesis to be correct.
But whatever may be the theory of history which guides the Soviet Government's policy toward its agents abroad, it will not explain the zigzag movement of the Party line within the Soviet Union itself. This is the arm of Soviet policy of which its own citizens stand most in awe, in particular those whose professions cause them to be articulate in public--writers, artists, scientists, academic persons and intellectuals of every kind--since their careers and indeed their lives depend upon their ability to adjust themselves swiftly and accurately to all the alternating shapes of this capriciously-moving Protean entity. The principles of its movement are not always, of course, wholly inscrutable. Thus the adoption of the doctrine of "Socialism in one country" in the twenties could not but alter the entire direction of the Party's activities. Nor could an intelligent observer have felt great surprise when the ideological followers of the earlier, so-called "Trotskyite," line, or even the individuals personally connected with the banished leader, were, in due course, purged or ostracized. Similarly there was no cause for wonder at the ban on anti-German or anti-Fascist manifestations after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Nor yet at the rise of a nationalistic and patriotic mood, with strong official encouragement, during the war of national resistance against the Germans.
On the other hand, no one expected or could have foretold such curious incidents as the denunciation of the official Party philosopher, G. Alexandrov, for maintaining that Karl Marx was merely the best of all Western thinkers, and not, as he should have pointed out, a being altogether different from, and superior in kind to, any thinker who had ever lived. The Party authorities maintained that Marx had been described inadequately--almost insultingly--by being called a philosopher; the impression was conveyed that to say of Marx that he was the best of philosophers was much as though one had called Galileo the most distinguished of all astrologers, or man himself the highest and most gifted among the apes. Again, no one had, or perhaps could have, predicted the explosion of feeling (so soon after the mass murders and tortures of Jews by the Nazis) against the older generation of intellectuals, mostly writers and artists of Jewish origin, as a gang of rootless cosmopolitans and petty Zionist nationalists; nor the summary disbandment, not long after, of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Nor, again, could any of the philologists who for so many years had faithfully subscribed to the highly fanciful (but officially approved) doctrines of the late Academician Marr be blamed for not foreseeing his sudden eclipse. How could anyone in the world have imagined that so much devoted sacrifice of knowledge and intellect upon the altar of duty to country and Party would be visited by so eccentric a fate as intervention by the Generalissimo himself, with an ex cathedra pronouncement on the real truth about the inter-relationships of language, dialects and the social structure?
Everyone who has ever been in contact with Soviet writers or journalists, or for that matter with Soviet representatives abroad, is aware of the extraordinary acuity of ear which such persons develop toward the faintest changes of tone in the Party line. Yet this is of little ultimate avail to them since it is accompanied by a helpless ignorance of the direction in which the "line" is likely to veer. There are, of course, endless hypotheses about each individual lunge and lurch, some frivolous, some serious; in Soviet Russia itself they are at times characterized by the sardonic and desperate quality which belongs to the humor of the scaffold, that typically Soviet Galgenhumor which is responsible for some bitter and memorable shafts of wit. But no general explanation seems to have been advanced to cover all the facts. And since it is, after all, unlikely that human beings so coldly calculating as the masters of the Soviet Union would leave the central line from which everything derives, and on which everything depends, to chance or the snap decision of the moment, we may find it a not altogether idle pastime to consider a hypothesis which may account for much of this peculiar situation.
Our theory starts from the assumption that there are two main dangers which invariably threaten any régime established by a revolution.
The first is that the process may go too far--that the revolutionaries in their excessive zeal may destroy too much, and in particular exterminate those individuals upon whose talents the success of the revolution itself and the retention of its gains ultimately depend. Few, if any, revolutions bring about the ends for which their most fervent supporters hope; for the very qualities which make the best and most successful revolutionaries tend to oversimplify history. After the first intoxication of triumph is over, a mood of disillusionment, frustration and presently indignation sets in among the victors: some among the most sacred objectives have not been accomplished; evil still stalks the earth; someone must be to blame; someone is guilty of lack of zeal, of indifference, perhaps of sabotage, even of treachery. And so individuals are accused and condemned and punished for failing to accomplish something which, in all probability, could not in the actual circumstances have been brought about by anyone; men are tried and executed for causing a situation for which no one is in fact responsible, which could not have been averted, which the more clear-sighted and sober observers (as it later turns out) had always expected to some degree. Trials and penalties fail to remedy the situation. Indignation gives way to fury, terror is resorted to, executions are multiplied. There is no reason why this process should come to a stop without external intervention or physical causes, for there can never be enough victims to expiate a crime which no one has committed, to atone for a crisis which must be attributed to a general and very likely inevitable failure to understand the situation correctly. But once the nightmare of mutual suspicion, recrimination, terror and counterterror has set in, it is too late to draw back: the whole structure begins to crumble in the welter of frantic heresy hunts from which scarcely anyone will escape. Every schoolboy knows of the violent climax of the Great French Revolution in 1794.
The second danger is precisely the contrary: and is often the natural sequel of the first. Once the original afflatus of revolution is exhausted, enthusiasm (and physical energy) will ebb, motives grow less passionate and less pure, there is a revulsion from heroism, martyrdom, destruction of life and property, normal habits reassert themselves, and what began as an audacious and splendid experiment will peter out and finally collapse in corruption and petty squalor. This, too, happened in France during the Directoire, and it has marked the end of the revolutionary phase in many other cases. It seems to be the unavoidable aftermath of many a romantic rising in Latin and Latin American countries.
The avoidance of these opposite dangers--the need to steer between the Scylla of self-destructive Jacobin fanaticism, and the Charybdis of post-revolutionary weariness and cynicism--is therefore the major task of any revolutionary leader who desires to see his régime neither destroyed by the fires which it has kindled nor returned to the ways from which it has momentarily been lifted by the revolution. But at this point Marxist revolutionaries find themselves in a peculiar predicament. For according to that element in Marxism which proceeds from the doctrine of Hegel, the world--everything animate and inanimate--is in a condition of perpetual inner conflict, mounting ceaselessly toward critical collisions which lift the battle on to a new plane--tensions and conflicts at a "new level." Consequently the "dialectic" itself--for this is what the process is called--should in theory be a sufficient guarantee of the vitality of any genuine revolutionary movement. For since the dialectic is inexorably "grounded in the nature of things" and can be neither stopped nor circumvented, the course of the post-revolutionary régimes must--cannot help but--obey its laws. And just as the French revolution broke out in obedience to those laws, so it declined and ran into the shallows of the Directoire, and, worse still, was followed by the Empire and the Restoration, presumably in obedience to the same dialectical process. Whatever degree of determinism Marx's historical materialism is held to entail (and the doctrine is far from clear, either in Hegel or in Marx, and grows particularly dark in the later works of Engels), M. Stalin seems to have resolved that the gloomy fate apparently in store for previous revolutions should not overtake his régime. Although the majestic self-fulfillment of the world pattern cannot be tampered with or deflected to suit capricious human wills, yet History (to judge by its past performances) did not seem too sure a guarantee of the survival of what M. Stalin and his Party considered the most desirable features of the Russian revolution. Nature herself (although in general dependable enough) sometimes nodded; and some slight adjustments could perhaps be made to render her processes even more regular and predictable. Human skill would be employed in aiding the Cosmos to fulfill even more faithfully its own "inner laws."
Consequently, M. Stalin made use of an original expedient, thoroughly in keeping with the inventive spirit of our time, and in particular with the new fashion of producing synthetic equivalents of natural products. As others produced artificial rubber or mechanical brains, so he created an artificial dialectic, whose results the experimenter himself could to a large degree control and predict. Instead of allowing history to originate the oscillation of the dialectical spiral, he placed this task in human hands. The problem was to find a mean between the "dialectical opposites" of apathy and fanaticism.[i] Once this was determined, the essence of his policy consisted in accurate timing and in the calculation of the right degree of force required to swing the political and social pendulum to obtain any result that might, in the given circumstances, be desired.
Let us apply this hypothesis to the conditions of the Second World War. In 1941, when the fate of the Soviet system seemed to be in the balance, full vent was given to patriotic sentiment. This acted as a safety valve to the pent-up feeling which the population had had to repress during the two previous decades. The Party leaders clearly realized that this rush of national feeling acted as the most powerful single psychological factor in stimulating resistance to the enemy. The process clearly was not compatible with keeping Communist indoctrination at its full prewar pressure; the war was won on a wave of patriotic rather than ideological fervor. A certain loosening of bonds began to be felt. Writers wrote more freely; there was, temporarily at least, the appearance of a slightly less suspicious attitude towards foreigners, at any rate those connected with the Allied countries. Old-fashioned, long disused expressions of Great-Russian sentiment, and the worship of purely national heroes, once more became fashionable. Later, however, the victorious Soviet troops who came back from foreign countries, filled (as so often after European campaigns) with a favorable impression of foreign customs and liberties, began to give cause for anxiety; after all, the great Decembrist revolt of 1825 sprang from a similar experience. It became clear to the authorities that a powerful re-inoculation with Communist doctrine--ultimately the sole cement which binds together the ethnically heterogeneous peoples of the Soviet Union--was urgently required. The returned soldiers--both victors and prisoners of war liberated in Germany and elsewhere, as well as those likely to come into contact with them at home--would need careful supervision if centers of resistance to the central authority were not to spring up. Unless such reindoctrination were done swiftly, the entire pattern of Soviet life, depending as in all totalitarian states on ceaseless discipline and unrelaxing tautness, might soon be in danger of sagging--notoriously the beginning of the end of all such régimes. Toward the end of 1945, a call was issued for stricter orthodoxy. The policy of encouraging nationalism was halted sharply. All were reminded of their Marxist duties. Prominent representatives of various nationalities were found to have gone too far in glorifying their local past, and were called to order with unmistakable severity. Regional histories were suppressed. The all-embracing cloak of ideological orthodoxy once more fell upon the land. The Party was commanded to expose and expel the opportunists and riffraff who had, during the confusion of war, been permitted to creep into the fold. Heresy hunts were instituted once more (though not on the appalling scale of 1937-38).
The danger of this kind of move is that it places power in the hands of a class of zealots dedicated to the unending task of purifying the church by severing all offending limbs--and presently of anything remotely capable of promoting growth. Such men will be effective only if those, at least, who compose their central nucleus are fanatically sincere; yet when this happens their activity will inevitably go too far. After purging major and minor dissentients, the inquisitors are perforce carried on by their own sacred zeal until they are found probing into the lives and works of the great leaders of the Party themselves. At this point they must be swiftly checked if the whole machine is not to be disrupted from within. An added reason for stopping the purge and denouncing its agents as deranged extremists who have run amok is that this will be popular with the sacred and desperate rank and file, both of the Party and the bureaucracy (not to speak of the population at large). A mighty hand descends from the clouds to halt the inquisition. The Kremlin has heard the cry of the people, has observed its children's plight, and will not permit them to be torn limb from limb by its over-ardent servants. A sigh of relief goes up from the potential victims; there is an outpouring of gratitude which is sincere enough. Faith in the goodness, wisdom and all-seeing eye of the leader, shaken during the slaughter, is once more restored.
Something of this kind occurred after the great purge of 1937-39. It occurred again, in a much milder fashion, in 1947, when purely doctrinal persecution was somewhat relaxed and gave way to a period of national self-adulation and a violent assault on the very possibility of foreign influence, past and present. However grotesque this ultra-chauvinism may have looked when viewed from abroad, and however ruinous to the few representatives of a wider culture still surviving in the Soviet Union, it was probably not ill received by the mass of the population (when has nationalist propaganda been unpopular among any people?); and it did stay the hand of the Marxist inquisitor in favor of the more familiar national tradition. On this occasion the pendulum was swung in the direction of Russian pride and amour propre. But just as the earlier ideological purges went too far in one direction, so this reaction in its turn duly overreached itself.
The Soviet Government wishes to preserve a minimum degree of sanity at least among the elite upon which it relies; hence any violent swing of the pendulum always, sooner or later, demands a corrective. In normal societies a movement of opinion, whether spontaneous or artificially stimulated, does not occur in a vacuum. It meets with the resistance of established habits and traditions and is to some degree swallowed, or diluted, in the eddying of the innumerable currents created by the interplay of institutional influences with the relatively uncontrolled trends of thoughts and feelings characteristic of a free society. But in the Soviet Union this random factor is largely absent, precisely because the Party and the state are engaged in sweeping away the smallest beginnings of independent thought. Hence there is a kind of empty region in which any artificially stimulated view (and in the U.S.S.R. there can scarcely be any other) tends to go too far, reaches absurd lengths, and ends by stultifying itself--not merely in the eyes of the outside world but even within the Soviet Union itself. It is at this point that it must be swung back by means which are themselves no less artificial. This is what occurred when the nationalist-xenophobic campaign reached a point almost identical with that of the most violent phases of the brutal policy of "Russification" of Tsarist days. (The recent denunciations of cosmopolitan intellectuals were framed in language almost identical with that of the reactionary, anti-Semitic, fanatically anti-liberal press and police after the repressions following the Revolution of 1905.) Something had evidently to be done to restore the fabric of Soviet unity. The Party can, ex hypothesi, never be mistaken; errors can occur only because its directives have been misinterpreted or misapplied. Again, no serious alteration of the bases of the Marxist theory itself is feasible within a system of which it is the central dogma. An open attempt to modify--let alone cancel--any Marxist principles in such central and critical fields as political theory, or even philosophy, is therefore out of the question: for there is too serious a danger that, after so many years of life in a strait-jacket, confusion and alarm might be created in the minds of the faithful. A system which employs some hundreds of thousands of professional agitators and must put their lessons in language intelligible to children and illiterates, cannot afford doubts and ambiguities about central truths. Even M. Stalin cannot disturb the foundations of ideology without jeopardizing the entire system.
Hence safer areas must be found for the ideological manœuvres required in situations which seem to be moving slightly out of control. Music, poetry, biography, even law, are peripheral territories in which doctrinal pronouncements, modifying the "line," can be made without disturbing the vital central region. The moral of such public statements is very swiftly grasped by the (by now) highly sensitized eyes and ears of intellectuals working in other and often quite distant fields. Philology is still remoter from the center and, consequently, even safer. Perhaps that is why M. Stalin chose the theory of language, in what seemed to the uninitiated so whimsical a fashion, to indicate that the "clarion call" for Marxist purity had had its full effect and must be muted. The mild rectification of the line ordered in the field of linguistics was no sooner made than other relatively "non-political" specialists must have begun hopefully to ask themselves whether their windowless worlds too might not expect some small relief--perhaps a chink into the outer universe, or at least a little more breathing space within. Bounty to grammarians and linguists means that musicians and acrobats and clowns and mathematicians and writers of children's stories and even physicists and chemists cower a little less. Even historians have raised their heads; a writer in a Soviet historical journal in the summer of 1951 argued timidly that since Stalin had said nothing about historical studies, might not they also, like linguistics, be excluded from the Marxist "superstructure," and possess an "objectivity" and permanent principles which Stalin had so sternly refused to artistic or juridical institutions? Physicists, chemists, even the harassed geneticists whose studies lie so unhappily close to the heart of the historical dialectic, may presently be afforded some relief; certainly the vagaries of the "line" in their subjects seem to spring from internal political needs more often than from metaphysical considerations or an incurable penchant for this or that philosophical or scientific "materialism," to which some of their more hopeful or naive Western colleagues, in their anxiety to understand Soviet scientific theory, so often and so unplausibly try to attribute them.
The themes of "peace" and "coexistence" indicate unmistakably which way the dialectical machine is veering after the Korean misadventure: hence faint and pathetic attempts to hint at "Western" values again on the part of professors whose love of their subject has not been completely killed. And if such first timorous feelers are not too brusquely discouraged, those who make them know that they may at last begin to look to a period of relative toleration. But the more experienced know that this is unlikely to last for long. Presently symptoms begin inevitably to indicate that the ties have been loosened too far--too far for a machine which, unless it is screwed tight, cannot function at all. Presently new calls for conformity, purity, orthodoxy are issued; elimination of suspects[ii] begins, and the cycle repeats itself.
Yet something depends on the force with which the pendulum is swung: one of the consequences of driving the terror too far (as happened, for example, during the Yezhov régime in the late thirties) is that the population is cowed into almost total silence. No one will speak to anyone on subjects remotely connected with "dangerous" topics save in the most stereotyped and loyal formulae, and even then most sparingly, since nobody can feel certain of the password from day to day. This scared silence holds its own dangers for the régime. In the first place, while a large-scale terror ensures widespread obedience and the execution of orders, it is possible to frighten people too much: if kept up, violent repression ends by leaving people totally unnerved and numb. Paralysis of the will sets in, and a kind of exhausted despair which lowers vital processes and certainly diminishes economic productivity. Moreover, if people do not talk, the vast army of intelligence agents employed by the government will not be able to report clearly enough what goes on inside their heads or how they would respond to this or that government policy. When the waters are very still, and their surface very opaque, they may be running much too deep. In the words of a Russian proverb, "devils breed in quiet pools." The government cannot do without a minimum knowledge of what is being thought. Although public opinion in the normal sense cannot be said to exist in the Soviet Union, the rulers must nevertheless acquaint themselves with the mood of the ruled, if only in the most primitive, most behavioristic, sense of the word, much as an animal breeder depends on his ability to predict, within limits, the behavior of his stock. Hence something must be done to stimulate the population into some degree of articulate expression: bans are lifted, "Communist self-criticism," "comradely discussion," something that almost looks like public debate is insistently invited. Once individuals and groups show their hand--and some of them inevitably betray themselves--the leaders know better where they stand, in particular whom they would be wise to eliminate if they are to preserve the "general line" from uncontrolled pushes and pulls. The guillotine begins to work again, the talkers are silenced. The inmates of this grim establishment, after their brief mirage of an easier life, are set once more to their backbreaking tasks and forbidden to indulge in any interests, however innocent, which take their minds off their labors--the great industrial goals which can be accomplished only with the most undivided attention and by the most violent exertions. Communication with the outside world is virtually suspended. The press is recalled to a sense of its primary purpose --the improvement of the morale of the public, the clear, endlessly reiterated sermons on the right way of living and thinking. When this state of things grows too dreary even for Soviet citizens, the "line" oscillates again, and for a very brief period (the penultimate state of which is always the most dangerous moment) life once more becomes a little more various.
This--the "artificial dialectic"--is Generalissimo Stalin's most original invention, his major contribution to the art of government, even more important, perhaps, than "Socialism in one country." It is an instrument guaranteed to "correct" the uncertainties of nature and of history and to preserve the inner impetus--the perpetual tension--the condition of permanent wartime mobilization--which alone enables so unnatural a form of life to be carried on. This it does by never allowing the system to become either too limp and inefficient or too highly charged and self-destructive. A queer, ironical version of Trotsky's "permanent revolution," or, again, of his "neither peace nor war" formula for Brest-Litovsk, it forces the Soviet system to pursue a zigzag path, creating for its peoples a condition of unremitting tautness lest they be caught by one of the sharp turns made whenever a given operation begins to yield insufficient or undesirable returns.
Naturally, the need to keep the population on the run in this way is not the sole factor which shapes the ultimate direction of the line. This is determined in addition by the pressures of foreign policy, national security, internal economic and social needs, and so on--by all the forces which play a part in any organized political society, and which exert their influence on Soviet policy too, albeit in a somewhat peculiar fashion. The Soviet Union is not a Marxist system working in a total vacuum, nor is it free from the effects of psychological or economic laws. On the contrary, it claims to recognize these more clearly and shape its policies more consciously in accordance with the findings of the natural sciences than is done by "reactionary" policies doomed to be victims to their own irreconcilable "internal contradictions." What, then, makes the political behavior of the Soviet Union seem so enigmatical and unpredictable to Western observers, whether they be practical politicians or theoretical students of modern politics? Perhaps this perplexity is due in some measure to the failure in the West to realize the crucial importance attached by the makers of Soviet policy to the zigzag path upon the pursuit of which they assume that internal security and the preservation of power directly depend. This technique of determining the "general line" in accordance with which all the means available to the Soviet state and to Communist Parties at home and abroad are to be used is a genuinely novel invention of great originality and importance. Its successful operation depends on a capacity for organizing all available natural and human resources, for completely controlling public opinion, for imposing an ultra-rigid discipline on the entire population; and, above all, on a sense of timing which demands great skill and even genius on the part of individual manipulators--above all, of the supreme dictator himself. Because it requires this--because the exactly correct "line," undulating as it does between the equally unavoidable and mutually opposed right wing and left wing "deviations" (extremes out of which it is, like the Hegelian synthesis, compounded, and which, in the shape of its individual human representatives and their views, it destroys)--it cannot be determined mechanically. It is an artificial construction and depends on a series of human decisions; and for this reason its future cannot be regarded as altogether secure. So long as someone with M. Stalin's exceptional gift for administration is at the helm, the movement of the "line," invisible though it may continue to be to many both within and without the Soviet Union, is not altogether unpredictable. Its destiny when he is no longer in control (whether or not the Soviet Union is involved in a general war) is a subject for hope and fear rather than rational prophecy. For it is certainly not a self-propelling, or self-correcting, or in any respect automatically operating piece of machinery. In hands less skilful or experienced or self-confident it could easily lead to a débâcle to which human societies are not exposed under more traditional forms of government.
Will M. Stalin's successors display sufficient capacity for the new technique, which calls for so remarkable a combination of imagination and practical insight? Or will they abandon it altogether, and, if so, gradually or suddenly? Or will they prove unable to control it and fall victims to a mechanism too complicated for men of limited ability--a mechanism whose very effectiveness in the hands of an earlier and more capable generation has so conditioned both government and governed that catastrophe is made inevitable? We cannot tell; all that seems certain is that Generalissimo Stalin's passing will sooner or later cause a crisis in Soviet affairs--a crisis which may be graver than that caused by the death of Lenin, since in addition to all the other problems of readjustment peculiarly acute in a tight dictatorship, there will arise the agonizing dilemma created by the future of M. Stalin's elaborate machinery of government, too complex to be used save by a great master of manipulation,[iii] and too dangerous to interrupt or neglect or abandon.
One other thing seems moderately clear: those who believe that such a system is simply too heartless and oppressive to last cruelly deceive themselves. The Soviet system, even though it is not constructed to be self-perpetuating, certainly bears no marks of self-destructiveness. The government may be brutal, cynical and utterly corrupted by absolute power: but only a moral optimism, fed by passionate indignation or a religious faith rather than empirical observation or historical experience, can cause some students of the Soviet Union to prophesy that such wickedness must soon itself erode the men who practise it, render them incapable of retaining power, and so defeat itself. The governed, a passive, frightened herd, may be deeply cynical in their own fashion, and progressively brutalized, but so long as the "line" pursues a zigzag path, allowing for breathing spells as well as the terrible daily treadmill, they will, for all the suffering it brings, be able to find their lives just--if only just-- sufficiently bearable to continue to exist and toil and even enjoy pleasures. It is difficult for the inhabitants of Western countries to conceive conditions in which human beings in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union (or for that matter India or China) not merely can survive but, being surrounded by others in no better plight, and with no alternative forms of life visible through the Curtain to attract and discontent the imagination, adapt themselves to conditions, look on them as normal, contrive to make arrangements, like soldiers in an unending campaign, or prisoners or shipwrecked mariners. Such arrangements may seem intolerable to the average citizen of a civilized community, yet because, if not liberty, then fraternity and equality, are born of common suffering, a human life can be lived--with moments of gaiety and enthusiasm, and of actual happiness--under the most appalling and degrading conditions.
And it should be remembered that the art of manipulating the "general line" consists precisely in this--that human misery must not, taking the population as a whole, be allowed to reach a pitch of desperation where death--suicide or murder--seems preferable. If the citizens of the Soviet Union cannot be permitted a degree of freedom or happiness which might make them too unruly or insufficiently productive, neither must they be permitted to fall into a state of panic or despair or indifference which would in turn paralyze their activity. The oscillations of the "general line" are designed to be a means which avoids precisely these extremes. Hence, so long as the rulers of the Soviet Union retain their skill with the machinery of government and continue to be adequately informed by their secret police, an internal collapse, or even an atrophy of will and intellect of the rulers owing to the demoralizing effects of despotism and the unscrupulous manipulation of other human beings, seems unlikely. Few governments have been destroyed by a process of inward rotting without the intervention of some external cause. As the Soviet Government is still conspicuously in the full possession of its political senses, the experiment of a nation permanently militarized has, in the long terms of historical periods, hardly reached its apogee. Beset by difficulties and perils as this monstrous machine may be, its success and capacity for survival must not be underestimated. Its future may be uncertain, even precarious; it may blunder and suffer shipwreck or change gradually or catastrophically; but it is not, until men's better natures assert themselves, necessarily doomed. The physical and nervous wear and tear exacted (to no purpose, at least no discernible human purpose, beyond the bare self-perpetuation of the régime) by the system is appalling: no Western society could survive it. But then, those finer organisms in which, before 1917, Russia was no poorer than the West have perished long ago. Many decades may be required to recreate them--as recreated one day they surely will be, when this long, dark tunnel is nothing but a bitter memory.
In the meanwhile, the astonishing invention itself surely deserves the most careful study, if only because it is as mechanically powerful and comprehensive an instrument for the management of human beings--for simultaneously breaking their wills and developing their maximum capacities for organized material production--as any dreamt of by the most ruthless and megalomaniac capitalist exploiter. For it springs out of an even greater contempt for the freedom and the ideals of mankind than that with which Dostoevsky endowed his Grand Inquisitor; and being dominant over the lives of some eight hundred million human beings, is the most important, most inhuman and still the most imperfectly understood phenomenon of our times.
[i] The problem was not, of course, one of pure theory, and did not arise in the void--in the course of abstract contemplation of history and its laws on the part of M. Stalin or anyone else. When the excesses of the first Bolshevist terror and "war Communism" were followed by the compromises of the New Economic Policy, the danger of repeating the pattern of the great French Revolution, or, for that matter, of the revolutions of 1848-49, must have appeared very real to Bolshevik leaders. They were certainly reminded of it often enough, especially by foreign critics. The technique of political navigation here described was therefore born, as most notable inventions are apt to be, of urgent practical need.
[ii] These are as often as not the orthodox of yesterday. One wonders what is to be the fate of Professor Kon who sought, in the summer "breathing spell" of 1951, to protect history from the fanaticism of the ultra-Marxists of 1946-47.
[iii] We do not wish to imply that M. Stalin is solely responsible for all of even the major decisions of Soviet policy. No system so vast, however "monolithic," can literally be directed by any single individual, whatever his powers. But, on the other hand, we have no reason for supposing that M. Stalin's henchmen, however competent under his leadership, will prove any more capable of carrying on his methods after him than were the companions of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, in whose hands the system of their master disintegrated very fast. On the other side we must place the opposite experience of Kemal's Turkey. Time alone will show.