WHEN the Second World War was drawing to a close hopes ran high that the Soviet Union had undergone fundamental changes. Britain, and even more the United States, persuaded themselves that Russia had abandoned the aim of world revolution and had reverted to the traditional anxieties of a great power determined to safeguard its own security, and that a real basis existed for a permanent accommodation between the Soviet and the Western powers. This delusion was fostered by the unexpectedly superb military endurance and prowess of the Russian soldier, by the upsurge of patriotic and national, and the decline of ideological, feelings and by Stalin's skill. It is the factor to which, more than any other, we owe our present predicament. This predicament could perhaps have been avoided had those in leading positions taken more note of the history and political system of the Soviet Union.

Since Stalin's death there have been many outward changes in the U.S.S.R.--scientific advance, industrial progress, an improved material standard of living, and relaxation of internal fear and tension. Once again hopes are rising that the time is ripe for a settlement of differences between the Communist and non-Communist blocs on a basis of mutual advantage and concessions--a settlement which had seemed unattainable since the delusion of 1945 was rudely shattered by the cold war. Let us consider what light history and the principles of politics throw on the question: Has Russia changed?


A mere glance at Soviet history reveals the close parallel in several respects between what happened after 1921, when the New Economic Policy came into being, and the position in the years after 1953. In each case there was a strong and widespread desire for relaxation after a period of strain--in 1921 following the Civil War and in 1953 following Stalin's last grim years. (This is particularly true if, as seems probable on the evidence, Stalin's death came only just in time to avert a new large-scale wave of terror.) In each case the problem arose of replacing an acknowledged leader without there being any general agreement in the top hierarchy on the successor. In each case after a makeshift and insincere experiment in "collective leadership" the man who controlled the apparatus of the Communist Party emerged as the acknowledged leader.

The parallel becomes closest when one looks at the predicament in which the Soviet rulers found themselves in 1921 and in 1953 and at the principles which they adopted to meet it. In 1921, Communist rule faced the danger of imminent collapse. In March 1953, with the terrible figure of Stalin removed, and confronted with the accumulated hatred and dreams of revenge which his rule had engendered, his survivors issued an appeal against "disorder and panic," revealing in those two words the slender foundations upon which they themselves believed their legitimacy to rest. The predicament was dealt with in exactly the same way in the two crises separated by 32 years. First and foremost there were economic concessions and some relaxation of the more extreme forms of state repression. Under N.E.P., concessions to private initiative and economic laws at the expense of doctrinal rigidity, and a serious attempt to conciliate the infuriated (and often embattled) peasants, led before long to a recovery of agricultural and industrial production and to an increase in the standard of living, at any rate to the prewar level. After 1953, similarly, concessions to the peasants first averted a catastrophe on the land and then led to substantial progress in agricultural production; while industry and science benefited both from more rational decentralization and from the substitution of initiative for terror as a spur to progress.

Yet neither after 1921 nor after 1953 was there the slightest relaxation in the basic principle of Soviet government--party control. Indeed, it was in March 1921, at the very Party Congress which approved the transition to N.E.P., that the modern form of party control was first consolidated, and it was during the years of N.E.P. that the modern form of party apparatus grew up. It was no longer necessary after 1953 to construct a party apparatus, since it already existed in a highly developed form, and Mr. Khrushchev, as its leading secretary, was soon in control of it. Whatever material concessions have been made since 1953 by the Communist leaders, they have repeatedly made it plain that they will not tolerate any kind of relaxation of the grip of the party apparatus on the whole life of the country. The constant attacks on "revisionism" which have been so noticeable since the Hungarian revolt bear witness to the fact that the right of the party machine to control all institutions within the state, the state itself and all creative activity of the individual has been asserted as forcibly as before. For, on analysis, all cases of "revisionism," whether it be an attempt by a novelist to write as his instincts and not the party officials dictate, or an attempt by Imre Nagy to create a government enjoying popular support in place of one consisting of Moscow's nominees--reduce themselves to such a challenge to the Communist Party's authority.

Indeed, as will be seen later, the party apparatus has since 1953 extended and consolidated its hold over the country to a greater extent than ever before. Our familiarity today with this form of one-party dictatorship should not be allowed to obscure the fact that when it was first devised by Lenin, after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, it was brilliantly original. There have, of course, been autocracies and dictatorships of all kinds throughout history. But their methods of control had been to prevent for so long as they could the emergence of any kind of political institutions which might acquire independence and therefore rival the supreme authority of the dictatorship. Where they failed to do this, they failed to preserve their authority. So it was that Alexander II initiated the downfall of the autocracy when he allowed in 1864 the emergence of local self-government bodies--the zemstva. Nicholas II completed the process in 1905, when he was forced to allow the emergence of the Duma. For, however hampered and restricted by all kinds of arbitrary action, these bodies were real, and their reality was incompatible with centralized autocracy. So from the zemstva grew the liberal movement of 1905, which in turn operated through the Duma in February 1917 to bring about the downfall of the monarchy.

Lenin made no such mistakes. The institutions which he created were from the start fake institutions, in the sense that they were party-controlled, and not the freely elected bodies which they purported to be--soviets, trade-union councils, law courts and the like. This made it possible for the Party to preserve the semblance of popular democratic activity, and indeed in the course of time to destroy all memories of the real nature of free institutions, without in any way endangering executive control over all aspects of life. It is small wonder that the preservation intact of this powerful new device of control should be the first aim of those who stand to lose most by its disappearance.


But if Mr. Khrushchev has thus, no less than Lenin or Stalin, striven to maintain intact the principle of party supremacy, it is clear that his methods are radically different, at any rate from Stalin's. Where Stalin ruled at best by dictation, at worst by naked terror, Khrushchev rules by persuasion, intimidation and a form of paternalistic discipline which though strict is at any rate rational. Even his severest critics will admit that he has increased the material prosperity and strength of his country to an unexpected degree. He has introduced more rational methods of administration and released new forces of discovery, initiative and pride of achievement, forces which Stalin had almost stifled. The question is often posed whether Mr. Khrushchev's policy is the result of internal pressures which he cannot resist or of a genuine desire to make his country great and prosperous. It is really irrelevant, however, since political motives are seldom unmixed. The question with which we are concerned is that of the developments which have taken place in his instrument of rule, the Communist Party, since obviously an instrument designed for rule by terror is not suited to rule by persuasion.

The Party remains as strictly disciplined and as centralized as before. True, the central apparatus, the Secretariat, has adapted its pattern to correspond to the increased functions of the republican governments, by splitting its main departments into two--one for the Union as a whole, one for the union republics. But this in no way impairs the supreme authority of the First Secretary and his powerful subordinates. Again, whatever new freedom to speak his mind may have been cautiously asserted by the ordinary citizen, few signs of real democracy are discernible in the Party. Except very occasionally, and at the very lowest levels of the party hierarchy, officials and delegates are still obediently elected in accordance with the instructions sent down from above. Party organs now meet regularly, as laid down in the rules. But again, except at the lowest levels (sometimes with serious consequences to the bolder spirits) the evidence does not suggest that these meetings are centers of real discussion. For example, the verbatim account of a plenary meeting of the Central Committee in December 1958 follows the pattern long made familiar by party congresses: a statement of policy by the leaders, and approval of the policy by the less exalted. It is possible that freer debate takes place in less formal and unpublicized meetings--in the Praesidium, for example. But here again, since his victory over the "anti-party group" in June 1957, Mr. Khrushchev and seven (originally nine) of his subordinate secretaries make up a safe majority of the votes. Policy-making and administration are thus conveniently fused.

Yet in three respects at least the Party has undergone change. First, it has become more representative. Its growth to eight million in 1959 marked an increase of a million members (and candidates) for the period since 1956, as contrasted with a growth of only one-third of a million for the longer period of 1952-6. Some of the nationalities, long under-represented, are now more fairly treated, and more manual workers are being admitted than hitherto. In the higher ranks of the Party the younger generation of members, who form the great majority of the Party as a whole, is better represented than it was. Members who had joined since 1946 formed 21 percent of delegates to the Twenty-first Congress in 1959, as compared with 13.3 percent at the Twentieth Congress in 1956. Older members are now pensioned off, and younger members are more frequently selected for rapid promotion.

Secondly, the Party has extended its administrative network into spheres where it formerly could not penetrate successfully. This is particularly evident in the case of agriculture. As late as 1952 there were no primary party organizations in nearly one-fifth of the collective farms, and where they existed they were very weak. All this has progressively improved: all farms now boast adequate party organizations, in some cases even elaborate two-tier organizations. It is perhaps this, more than any other factor, that has made Mr. Khrushchev feel that it is safe to allow much greater initiative than ever before to the individual farms--always, of course, under close party supervision and control. Under Stalin, when such party control on the spot was impossible, agriculture was stifled under a maze of conflicting bureaucratic and police controls, all emanating from Moscow.

The third and perhaps most important development in the Party as a whole is a fresh attempt to solve a problem which is perennial in the Soviet system of government, and which arises from the dual nature of party and state--in other words, from the fact that there have evolved two networks of control, the normal state network which is broadly supposed to do the job, and the completely parallel network of full-time party officials who are broadly supposed to see to it that the job is done. The administrative inconveniences of the system are obvious: they caused perpetual friction under Stalin, and under Mr. Khrushchev the problem is far from solved as yet--if indeed it is capable of solution. But he has at any rate shown that he is alive to it. One method has been to ensure that party functionaries should receive appropriate technical training, no doubt to make their control over their expert colleagues a little less galling. This is, however, only a small palliative. Much more ingenious has been the attempt to effect a demarcation of function between the two machines. For example, the industrial reorganization of 1957 rests squarely upon the principle that, while very real and extensive powers of decision can be left to the Councils of National Economy within their areas, the territorial party network, which always remains completely centralized, will ensure (mainly through the secretaries at the regional level) that the national interest is not dissipated by parochial enthusiasm. Similarly, the abolition of some U.S.S.R. ministries, such as the Ministry of Justice, and most recently the Ministry of the Interior, which in a federal state without the benefit of a one-party system would cause chaos, is presumably considered possible in the U.S.S.R. because the central party apparatus in Moscow can ensure adequate national coördination through its all-embracing departments. Most significant of all has been the recent move towards the replacement of some state organs by what are euphemistically referred to as "voluntary public organizations," but which are in fact all under strict party control. In the language of Marxism this has been described by Mr. Khrushchev as "the withering away of the state" as Communism approaches. It has perhaps very little to do with Marx. But it enhances the role of the Party and has the administrative advantage of reducing the much overgrown bureaucratic apparatus by eliminating some kinds of dual control.

The argument is frequently advanced that the greater prosperity, well-being and confidence of the Soviet Union and its population must in time lead to greater political freedom. This seems to me to be based on a misapprehension as to the nature of a free society. A free society is one which believes that its course of action must emerge from a free clash of opinions within the state, and which for that purpose encourages or tolerates free and uncontrolled institutions. The Soviet Union, on the contrary, uses every endeavor to prevent the emergence of any institution which is free in the sense that it is not controlled by the Party--none has emerged in the past six years. The reason is plain. The Soviet leaders believe that the true course of action must be determined "scientifically"--or, in practice, by the leader or leaders who may be in power for the time being. This view has been consistently held since Lenin first threw Russian social democracy into confusion by proclaiming that social consciousness cannot be developed by the workers themselves but must be brought to them "from the outside." So long as this view persists--and there is nothing to indicate that it has been shaken so far as the present leaders are concerned--the road will remain closed to free government in any real sense of the word. It was in order to prevent the emergence of free institutions that the whole Leninist system of party rule was devised and has hitherto been preserved. On present indications, it should last at any rate as long as Mr. Khrushchev remains at the helm. Precisely because it is more broadly based, more rational and more extensive, his rule is the more durable. For it is essentially a relatively benevolent despotism, and benevolent despotism is the most lasting kind. It was Diderot who, after a visit to Russia in 1773-4, urged upon the Empress Catherine the need for some form of representative institutions, arguing that a just and benevolent despotism was the worst fate that could befall a nation, since even more than tyranny it deprived men of their will for freedom.


The trend of the past few years in the Soviet Union has therefore been in the direction of benevolent despotism rather than towards a free society. The basic principle of party leadership, the morbid suspicion of any public or private activity which the ruling power cannot control through its party tentacles, and the initiation of policy by direction from above all remain as before. Neither increased prosperity nor industrial development is likely to affect this pattern, so long as the party stranglehold is preserved. At best they will tend to make the system more acceptable, and therefore more durable: with more at stake in the material sense, the ordinary citizen will become ever more reluctant to disturb or endanger a régime which could be a great deal worse; and he will be more easily disciplined by the modern sanctions of loss of promotion, loss of employment or social ostracism, which a state enjoying a monopoly of all employment can so easily wield. Long tradition of despotic government in Russia will make the Soviet citizen more than ever inclined to take refuge in the customary Russian "inner immigration," while outwardly conforming to a government that he cannot dream of controlling or even influencing.

However, there are several factors which may suggest a more optimistic conclusion so far as the future of liberty in the Soviet Union is concerned. First there is the possibility of evolution within the Party itself or, more specifically, within the professional apparatus of the Party, which is its only influential section. The men in power at the top are today, with unimportant exceptions, in their fifties or older. They are men reared in Stalin's school: if they do not all actively bear the guilt of supporting him in his ruthless policy, they at least benefited from it by stepping into their liquidated comrades' shoes. It is unlikely that such men will break with the hallowed tradition of party control as devised by Lenin, on which alone their authority depends. But pressing hard upon them are younger men in their middle thirties, the rulers of the future. These men have no complicity with or responsibility for Stalin. They have come to maturity fighting for their country and rebuilding the ravages caused by both Hitler and Stalin. To all who have observed them, their confidence and comparative flexibility contrast strikingly with the dogmatic rigidity of mind of most of their elders. Marx, Lenin and the revolution are mere legends to them; they are primarily practical men of action. The possibility therefore exists that when they come to power they will break with the tradition of Lenin's form of party rule, and see it in its true light--as a method devised to enable a minority to seize and hold power in a ravaged and relatively backward country. They may then turn to new forms of rule in which some degree of real liberty may play a part.

The second factor is the awakening of some semblance of public opinion. It seems as yet to be at best a negative force, one which operates to some extent to restrain or soften the government's instinct to use its power ruthlessly. The new rulers now seek to persuade influential segments of the power apparatus; and this implies tolerating, within the limits of the Party, some discussion, if not of ends, at least of means. This embryo public opinion is not yet a positive force in the sense that it can of its own initiative promote government policy, nor yet in the sense that it is conscious of its own power. But confidence grows with time and experience. The iron curtain of Stalin's day is no more, and, for all the limitations on free information that the Party can and does impose, more contact with the outer world exists today and more knowledge of facts and ideas concealed from him are available to many a Russian than at any time since the early 1930s. Here again is a potential force--it is no more than that--which may yet transform Soviet society.

Thirdly, there may exist in politics, as in aviation, a point of no return. Mr. Khrushchev's rule has been maintained by claims of more legality, more rationality, a break with the shameful past, and respect for the individual. It may not be so easy for him to reverse this policy, should he ever be prompted to do so for fear that the situation was getting out of hand. If so, circumstances could arise in which he, or his successor, might be forced at the end of a series of concessions to yield more control than he intended, even to the extent of endangering the crucial party monopoly of power.

But all these considerations belong to the future. Today they are, at most, discernible possibilities. They do not as yet affect the question posed at the outset, whether Russia has changed, except in the sense that the mere fact that such possibilities can be envisaged shows how far the Soviet Union has traveled since 1953.

The problem which now faces the Western powers is how to interpret this situation in terms of its impact on Russian foreign policy. All the factors enumerated above, if they should ever come into play, are more likely, at all events at first, to affect the internal situation rather than the conduct of foreign affairs. It is generally the case that public opinion is more slow to develop in matters of foreign policy than in internal questions, and there is no reason to suppose that the Soviet Union is an exception. Again, as Mr. Khrushchev quickly realized in 1953, there is a limit to the extent to which even a totalitarian state can continue to hoodwink its population over internal conditions, as Stalin tried to do. But with foreign policy the element of national pride comes into play: peoples of all countries, not least the Soviet people, will very readily be persuaded that in disputes with foreign countries their own government is in the right. Territorial expansion, a succession of diplomatic successes, repeated discomfiture or failure of the Western powers, the growing international prestige of the Soviet leader--such is the catalogue of achievements in the foreign field in the past years as it must appear to the Soviet observer. There is no reason to suppose that any of this is unpopular.

Above all, one must recall the enormous advantage which a dictator enjoys in the conduct of foreign policy, as compared to the statesman in a democracy who has to account to a free legislature, a free press and a free public opinion. The dictator--and especially one like Mr. Khrushchev who, since 1957, probably need not fear criticism even within the Praesidium--can freely transform his foreign policy into political warfare. He can create international crises at will; he can accuse his opponents of doing what he has been doing himself for years; he can manœuvre for diplomatic discussions, not with any intention of resolving tension which he has usually himself created, but in order to score a political victory; he can talk with governments while directing his gaze to the free public opinion of the countries which he desires to hoodwink. What can a democratic country do against such advantages? And is it likely or conceivable that Mr. Khrushchev is prepared to abandon these advantages at a time when he perhaps stands to gain more from them than ever before?


The conclusion therefore emerges that, despite all the important developments which have taken place in the Soviet Union since 1953, there has been no basic change. At home the supremacy of party rule remains not only unchallenged but, by reason of its broader base and greater benevolence, more firmly established than ever before; abroad, the conduct of foreign policy remains a bold game of political warfare, aimed not at compromise, agreement, equilibrium and relaxation of tension, but at gaining, more skilfully than ever before, a succession of points on the long road to "world Communism." Both sides in the conflict may be presumed to recognize that the threat of mutual destruction implicit in modern war has revolutionized traditional international relations. This inevitably drives us on to hope against hope that a solution may be found in endless parleying.

It might be said that ideally the Western powers should retort in kind. This means that they should adopt the Soviet technique and go to the conference table with no intention of allowing discussions to end in an agreement--except on their own terms--but in order to score a political warfare victory. In such case, their diplomatic moves in the full glare of publicity would, like those of Russia, be aimed not at compromise but at weakening the standing of their adversary. Their speeches would be directed not to their fellow statesmen, but to the audience outside--the neutrals, and the dissatisfied behind the iron curtain. Their offers, so long as there was no risk of their being accepted, could be, like many Soviet offers, grandiose and insincere. Such a policy, were it possible, might restore diplomatic initiative to the West. It is probably what the Soviet Union suspects the Western powers of doing--but in that case the Soviet leaders must be wondering why they do it so inefficiently. To anyone familiar with the working of a democratic system it is of course obvious that a government which is accountable to its public opinion cannot for long pursue such a policy of diplomatic duplicity.

The Western powers, it would seem, are therefore doomed like Sisyphus to roll the stone to the top of the summit repeatedly and with endless patience, hoping against hope that one day in some unforeseen manner it will stay put. Meanwhile, so long as fear and tension in the world are maintained, their adversaries, from their position of advantage, need only watch and wait. At best they can hope to wring new concessions, and at worst to throw the blame for the failure of discussions on the Western powers, should they hold out in defense of freedom. We are in a situation in which, if we cannot hope to gain, we can at any rate strive not to lose. For, whether we lose position or not depends not on the whims of Mr. Khrushchev or on the relative skill of his diplomacy and ours, but on certain objective factors. Among these are our military strength; our will to resist rather than surrender our freedom; our readiness if need be to sacrifice our standard of living to our will to resist; our unity; and, perhaps we should add, our gullibility.

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  • LEONARD SCHAPIRO, of the London School of Economics; author of "The Communist Party of the Soviet Union," "The Origin of the Communist Autocracy" and other works
  • More By Leonard Schapiro