Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE RUSSIAN EXPERIENCE
THE development of the West European sovereign state in the early modern period was an important innovation in the art of political organization. The most successful states of earlier times had either been large empires which were militarily strong but which failed to enlist the loyalty and active support of their subjects, or small kingdoms and city-states which secured loyalty and participation but which were militarily weak. In the great empires, only a small core of military-political leaders had any real interest in preserving the state. When their position was threatened, either by internal dissension or external pressure, the bulk of the population passively accepted the collapse of the political structure, as in the case of Rome. The little states were far more effective in using their human resources, but they seldom flourished for more than three or four generations. Sooner or later a powerful neighbor swallowed them up and their citizens sank back into apathy, as in the case of Athens. The West European sovereign state combined the strengths and avoided many of the weaknesses of its predecessors. It was large enough to generate the military strength necessary for survival; it was small enough and homogeneous enough to attract the loyalty and participation of an increasing number of its subjects.
Both these advantages, however, depended on the existence of stable, effective and respected leadership. This leadership, at first, was provided by hereditary, divinely sanctioned monarchy. The king was a focus of loyalty, and he could invest his officials with enough of his authority to obtain the obedience and coöperation of his subjects. But, as usual, success raised new problems. States developed more complicated mechanisms of government, took on new responsibilities (e.g. regulation of the economy), involved more people in their operations, and required more from them. Increased complexity and greater involvement led, almost inevitably, to wider discussion of political issues. More men had to be consulted and informed; more men were affected by decisions of governments. In order to ensure understanding of and compliance with their orders, governments had to issue public explanations. Any explanation invites discussion and any discussion is apt to lead to criticism. Criticism could be suppressed among the masses; it was somewhat more difficult to silence men who had essential roles in the intellectual, economic or political life of the state. Government actions, especially in the fields of religion and economic policy, often elicited angry responses from preachers, writers, lawyers, merchants and landholders. And the example was contagious: at the end of Elizabeth's reign Cecil said in horror that "men were discussing Parliament matters in the street!"
Some states were more successful than others in suppressing public criticism, but driving criticism underground did not mean that it ceased to exist. Over the long run, belief in the sanctity of monarchy and the authority of the small ruling group was impaired. Loyalty and coöperation diminished and the structure of the state was weakened. It became evident that a new kind of leadership was needed, a leadership based more on appeals to common interests (especially nationalism), and less on hereditary right, a leadership which actively sought support (at least from key men and powerful groups) rather than commanded obedience. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were widespread attempts to shift to this new basis of leadership. The transition was difficult but when it succeeded, the state-based on nationalism and the active participation of most of its citizens-became more powerful and closely knit than ever before.
On the other hand, there were many failures and partial failures. To strengthen the state by the general consent of its subjects required consensus on general principles and adherence to a rather unusual set of rules of political behavior. Such a consensus and such adherence often depended more on good luck than good management. Even when they were obtained, they did not guarantee adequate leadership in times of stress. Thus where the consensus was imperfect, as in Latin America, or where the leadership proved weak, as in France, there was a tendency to try the short cut of dictatorship. Dictatorship theoretically combined the most effective aspects of divine-right monarchy (charisma and personal loyalty) with the most effective aspects of the nation-state (nationalism and appeals to the public interest). Most dictators began their rule with these advantages, but they also usually began with the great disadvantage of depending primarily on military support. If the dictator kept the army happy he gradually alienated civilians, and vice versa. Moreover, no dictator solved the problem of succession. As he aged, military factions began to vie for his inheritance, or else the army began to lose its grip and suppressed popular forces began to emerge. No dictatorship lasted for more than one generation. Even in Latin America, where dictatorship was endemic, there were interludes of democracy or bloody factional fights between the departure of one dictator and the consolidation of the power of the next. Down to 1914 the apparent short-cut of dictatorship proved to be a blind alley. Dictatorship weakened rather than strengthened the state.
This brief review of the experience of West European states, and of their offshoots, is of some value in explaining the political problems of Communist states. Without exception, they are countries in which a transition to the new West European model had been begun but had not been completed, countries in which participation in the political process was limited and loyalty to the state was weak. It is true that the original aim of Communism was not to strengthen the state, but rather to create a society so perfect that the state would wither away. But when the Communists seized power in Russia, they found that a strong state was necessary, not only to put their ideas in practice, but also to ensure their personal survival. They had to create this state rapidly, before their foreign enemies and internal rivals overwhelmed them. So they fell back on the short-cut of a dictatorship, not the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which had been a vague and ill-understood article of their creed, but a one-man show in which all the devices of earlier dictators were employed.
They did, however, avoid the fundamental weakness of earlier dictatorships. Instead of basing power on an army, with all the dangers this involved, they based it on a party. This was a new and promising variation on the old theme, and in developing the Communist Party they showed great ingenuity in combining hitherto separated elements. The party had all the assets of an ordinary political party, a widespread network of local branches, personnel in key government positions, and effective machinery for propaganda. In addition, it directed and controlled activities in which ordinary Western parties had shown little interest, such as science, literature and the arts, education and recreation. Finally, and most important, it had many of the characteristics of a military organization. It had its own armed forces in the secret police. It had rigid discipline which was strong enough to keep the party functioning even when there were bitter quarrels among the top leaders. It was highly centralized so that control could be maintained at the local level even when disastrous mistakes were made by local leaders and the appeal of propaganda had worn thin. In short, the party was far more useful than an army in supervising the varied activities of an increasingly complex society and just as efficient as an army in suppressing threats to the dictatorship.
As a result, the U.S.S.R. has broken all the records by keeping a dictatorship going for two generations. It has accomplished the difficult feat of transferring power from one dictator to another four times, not without argument or bloodshed, but certainly without the kind of disturbance that would seriously weaken the state. It is quite likely that another change in leadership is impending. The position of party boss Brezhnev is by no means secure and he could be forced out at any time. But such a change would cause even less commotion than the ouster of Khrushchev did a year ago. Brezhnev lacks the popularity which Khrushchev, with all his faults, had acquired; a new leader might have wider support, both within and outside the party.
On the record, it looks as though the Soviets have created a new and viable type of political structure which has all the strengths and few of the weaknesses of previous dictatorships. Actually, they are probably in the position of West European states at the time when divine-right monarchy first began to face criticism. The charismatic quality of leadership has almost vanished, the need for involving more people in the process of decision-making is growing and the frequency of open debate on important issues is increasing.
The "cult of personality" was denounced by Khrushchev, but his own actions showed that he realized its importance in the Soviet system. The leader must be respected, even if he is not admired; he must appear to be in full control of all important activities, even if in practice he is guided by an inner circle of advisers. Lenin was admired and Stalin was feared, but both achieved full control of the country. Malenkov had too brief a period of authority to make much of an impression and he certainly never had full control. In retrospect, it looks as if Khrushchev was always in a precarious position. He certainly had a vivid personality, but he was never admired enough or feared enough to overcome a rising tide of ridicule and criticism. The present faceless leadership is very much in Malenkov's position and may suffer the same fate. It is always possible that a stimulating and powerful figure, such as Shelepin, will emerge from the present unresolved situation, but even such a man probably will be unable to recapture the prophet's mantle of Lenin or the tyrant's scepter of Stalin. Too many people know that a leader gains his position by intricate political manipulations and not by apostolic succession from Marx and Lenin. With senior party leaders established in strongly entrenched positions it is not easy to override all opposition and criticism. Finally, and most important, Soviet society has become too complex for one man to make and impose decisions in all fields. What is needed is a top-flight manager and coördinator, a man who is as much a politician as a dictator.
In fact, the very success of the Communist effort to modernize Russia has created a new political climate. Large groups of experts have emerged- administrators, economic managers, scientists, military leaders-and the opinions of these groups cannot wholly be disregarded. Each group has its own interests to protect; each group believes, often with reason, that it knows better how to solve its own problems than does the top leadership. Each group not only includes many party members, but also has access to and support from men who rank well up in the party hierarchy. The result is that too many people are involved in basic policy decisions to continue the practice of settling all important issues in small secret meetings. There has been an increasing amount of public discussion of politico-economic problems ever since the death of Stalin.
The oldest argument, which was heard occasionally even in the days of Stalin, is about the size of the military budget and the share to be given to each service. Soviet military leaders are not very different from those of other countries. They are never sure that they have enough; they dislike admitting that introduction of new weapons systems can justify cuts in conventional forces. Allied with the proponents of heavy industry, they have resisted proposals to decrease the percentage of G.N.P. devoted to defense and they have been outraged by reductions in military manpower. Consumer-oriented groups naturally advocate a different allocation of resources and have found some support in the top leadership. Malenkov, Khrushchev and Brezhnev have all found it necessary to discuss this controversy in public statements. Any literate inhabitant of the U.S.S.R. must know that the controversy exists and that it has caused divisions in the party and some wavering in the party line. This is not calculated to preserve the image of a monolithic, all-wise leadership.
Even more interesting is the discussion of reform of the Soviet economic system. Every leader since Stalin has recognized that the economy was not performing as well as it should, but none of them has been very certain about the proper remedies. Khrushchev's fluctuating and often contradictory economic policies were probably one of the chief reasons for his ouster. Uncertainty at the top and confusion at the operating level have encouraged Soviet economists to express their views. Since they agree no better than their American counterparts on the best policies to promote healthy economic growth, the result has been a long and increasingly public discussion of such topics as the role of centralized planning, the degree to which market demand should influence production and the effectiveness of present types of collective farming. To discuss these topics is to question some of the basic theories and institutions of Soviet society.
The party has not only tolerated this discussion; at times it actually seems to have welcomed it. It is always possible, of course, that leaders who prefer traditional policies are hoping to give the proponents of innovation enough rope to hang themselves. If so, it is a risky game. This may be one case in which the lie will find it hard to catch up with the truth, and in any event the lack of unanimity among the leadership will have been made painfully evident.
It seems somewhat more likely that the top leadership sees no other way of finding answers to its difficult economic problems. It cannot impose a solution because it doesn't have one. It cannot assemble all the leading Soviet economists in a room and expect them to come up with a unanimous report. Only through a certain amount of public discussion can it get the ideas it needs to reach a decision. Only by experimenting with some of the new proposals can it discover which solutions are desirable. Every new idea and every experiment encourages the formation of groups defending or attacking the innovations. And if economic policy, so fundamental to a Communist state, can be the subject of open discussion and political man?uvring, what is left that is sacred and untouchable?
When stronger leadership emerges and postponed decisions are made there will doubtless be an attempt to suppress the present extraordinarily free discussion of economic problems. But the history of the last two decades shows that real differences of opinion are not killed by driving them underground. Powerful interest groups have shown remarkable stubbornness in clinging to their opinions and in surfacing them again as soon as they felt it safe to do so. No one, for example, has ever succeeded in silencing for long the proponents of emphasis on heavy industry, the "steel-eaters," to use Khrushchev's angry phrase. No one has ever kept the military from fighting for bigger, stronger and more expensive forces or from resisting cuts in conventional forces as advanced weapons become more numerous and more effective. A much weaker interest group, the scientists, showed the same stubbornness in the Lysenko case. They would not accept half-measures or a quiet reversal of policy; they kept up their pressure until they had gained an almost complete victory. The debate on economic policy, which has already been mentioned, did not spring full-grown from the cracks in Khrushchev's brain. It was preceded by a long period in which the economists, while outwardly conforming, were becoming more and more convinced that reform, both in economic techniques and economic policy, was necessary.
In short, the Soviet Government cannot function without using these groups; it cannot make sensible decisions without their advice, and it cannot get that advice without allowing some discussion of basic issues. Just as it cannot falsify statistics without creating gross errors in planning and production, so it cannot distort expert opinion without making gross errors in policy. Just as it is beginning to allow some of the mechanisms of the market place to influence the economy in order to improve production, so it is beginning to allow some ideas to be tested in the intellectual market place in order to improve policy. This permissiveness is strictly limited and the limits are subject to change without notice. The party could decide to suppress all public discussion, though only at the price of stagnation and economic inefficiency. It seems more likely, however, that some debate on important issues will continue, and if it continues, it will have a significant impact on the Soviet political system.
As every absolutist government has always known, freedom of discussion, however limited, has inherent dangers. In the first place, if one set of problems can be openly discussed, or if one group of experts is encouraged to voice its opinions, then there is bound to be pressure from other experts to discuss other problems. Moreover, the number of problems and the number of interest groups increase geometrically with the growth of the political and economic complexity of the state. Finally, if administrators and technical experts can express their ideas publicly, others may feel that their opinions should be given some consideration. So far, the ordinary inhabitant of the U.S.S.R. who holds no key position and who can join only party-controlled organizations has had no way of making his voice heard. This does not mean, however, that he can be entirely disregarded.
For one thing, the intellectuals, as in many earlier dictatorships, can express frustration and discontent in subtle and ambiguous language which is hard to control. They stand halfway between the apparatus of the state and the unorganized masses. They have no independent organization; they are not absolutely essential to the state (while scientists and technicians are), and in a pinch they can be either silenced or made to conform. But they do have a place in the kind of society the Soviet leadership envisages, and to silence them is a real confession of defeat. It deprives the ruling group of a potentially valuable asset and it tarnishes the Soviet image abroad, especially in areas like Western Europe where intellectuals are both influential and inclined to favor leftist causes. So in recent years there has been a rather wobbly party line which has given the intellectuals some freedom of expression and allowed them to voice rather strong criticisms of some aspects of the régime. Warnings and occasional crackdowns have not been very effective. The intellectuals are proving to be almost as stubborn as the scientists; as soon as pressure eases they return to forbidden topics. And they have a following. The enormous popularity of poetry readings shows that the intellectuals are providing an outlet for deep-rooted feelings.
Furthermore, there is a public opinion in the U.S.S.R., nebulous, unorganized and powerless though it be. It is doubtful if the Soviet leaders themselves know quite what this public opinion is or how strong it is. But they know it is there, and ever since Malenkov they have tried at times to play upon it. Khrushchev occasionally sounded like an American politician running for office. The present leadership seems less eager to placate the public than he, but it has not abandoned all efforts to persuade and cajole the masses. It is interesting to note also that every leader who has tried to appeal to public opinion has stressed the themes of nationalism and material self-interest, not Marxist ideology.
Here we come to a more important point, the role of the party in assuring the continuity and authority of the leadership. The effectiveness and the degree of responsibility assigned to the party have varied considerably over the years, but it has never ceased to be an efficient agent of political control. On the other hand, it has never been much more than an agency for political control. Soviet leaders have hoped that it could change the thinking of the mass of the population and create the "Soviet man" who accepts without questioning the decisions and requirements of the leadership. They-and especially Khrushchev-have also hoped that the party could stimulate economic growth. But, quite understandably, politicians have not been very successful either as entrepreneurs or as priests. The party's business is to maintain and use its political power, and this it has done effectively. It has preserved its organization; it has survived its factional disputes without any serious loss of authority; it has continued to control access to all positions of power. These are not small accomplishments; on them are based the continued existence and growing power of the Soviet state. But they are not enough to ward off the difficulties which are emerging. The party can undoubtedly keep criticism and dissent from reaching dangerous levels for at least another generation, but it should play more than a policeman's role if it is to make the most of the human resources of the U.S.S.R. Coping with the problems of an increasingly complex society will require the cheerful coöperation of large numbers of people, and this coöperation can be achieved only if the party develops a credo which inspires real enthusiasm. So far it has failed in this task.
Marxist-Leninist doctrine for some time has had little effect on the attitudes and feelings of the people of the U.S.S.R. There are still some party members-Suslov is the most conspicuous example-who are interested in the problems of Communist theory. Even these men at times seem to be engaging in intellectual exercises rather than in the discussion of deeply felt convictions. Most party members are mere careerists who use Marxist doctrine only as a shield to defend their own actions and as a sword against their rivals. The intellectuals think doctrine is boring; the administrative-managerial types find it irrelevant to their problems. The masses do not understand sterile repetitions of the orthodox creed and are not moved by them. Just as the loss of faith in divine right created a demand for a new set of political beliefs in the West, so loss of faith in the infallibility of the leadership and in the doctrines it proclaims requires a new source of inspiration for the U.S.S.R. This need has not yet been met.
The course of the Sino-Soviet dispute confirms some of the hypotheses advanced above. The basic Chinese criticism of the Soviet leadership is that it has subordinated doctrinal purity to political expediency. The Chinese are unquestionably right; to anyone who takes Marxism seriously the Soviet leaders are backsliders. The Chinese leaders are still true believers who are convinced that they can impose their faith on the masses and so create a new type of man. They have made tremendous sacrifices to uphold their beliefs and they are ready to make more. They are grimly determined not to repeat the Soviet experience and they will attempt to suppress every tendency which might lead them toward "revisionism." As long as their leadership is drawn from the comrades of the Long March they will probably be successful.
The Soviet response to the Chinese challenge is equally revealing. The Kremlin quite clearly does not wish to engage in an ideological debate. Its comments on doctrinal issues have been infrequent and almost perfunctory. On the other hand, in defending its foreign policies it has used the arguments which any great power, including the United States, would use-the dangers of war, the need to preserve its alliance system, the unimportance of differences in dogma and even of differences in political and economic organization as long as its partners give it support on major issues. Soviet leaders have been less vocal in defending their internal policies, partly because they may not be quite sure just what those policies are going to be. But they have made it quite clear, if only by silence and inaction, that they also reject Chinese theories in this field. In fact, while Chinese ideas about foreign policy are adventurous, some Soviet leaders may believe that under certain special circumstances they could succeed. But the Kremlin must feel that an attempt to apply Chinese doctrine and practice to Soviet society would be a disaster. This is why there is little chance of complete reconciliation between China and the U.S.S.R. The present Soviet leaders, less bitter than Khrushchev, could perhaps reach some accommodation with China on foreign policy. But they cannot agree to reverse the evolution of Soviet society and go back to the early type of Communism from which they emerged some years ago and to which the Chinese are so firmly attached.
All this is not to say that the U.S.S.R. is on the verge of a great upheaval or that it will necessarily become a democracy of the Western type. It also does not imply any weakening of Soviet military power; in fact, if intelligent discussion could solve some of its current economic problems, the U.S.S.R. might be a more formidable opponent than it now is. In any case, a strong political organization has considerable staying power; it can be both harsh and economically inefficient and still survive the resulting criticism and discontent. It can endure for generations, even when the ideology which originally justified its authority is moribund.
It is also true that ideologies have considerable staying power. Even if an ideology seems to be reduced to a set of empty formulae, the mere use of the formulae will influence the style and at times the behavior of those who invoke them. But to say that a process will be slow and uneven is not to say that it will not occur. There are signs of political change in the U.S.S.R.; there is at least a beginning of open discussion of important problems. We know what the eventual results of such discussion were in the West; we should also remember that it was more than a century before the full effect of criticism and discussion was felt. Historical parallels are always dangerous, but they are not always completely misleading. Only in our century has the U.S.S.R. become a modern state. It is hard to believe that it will not repeat some of the experiences of the countries which became modern states three centuries ago.