Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
AN ENGLISHMAN who has had the good fortune to spend five to six months in the United States would be foolish if he did not learn a great deal and even more foolish if he assumed that he had learned enough to make large and dogmatic generalizations about American opinion. Indeed, he will find that his impressions are too vivid and in many respects too contradictory to allow hard and fast conclusions. Above all, he will hesitate to commit himself to any political judgments. Nevertheless even here one fact stands out clearly. In spite of the widespread interest in British affairs and in spite also of the high ability and keen eyes of American correspondents in London, the interpretation of Great Britain in most American books and papers is slightly out of focus. This is inevitably the case. The distortion would be greater if the journalists were less good at their job; but journalists have to report news, and on the old theory that "man bites dog" is news, whereas the reverse is not, most of what happens in England fails at least to reach American headlines.
Past history, from the point of view of the press, belongs mainly to the "dog bites man" category, and yet this lack of focus, which is even more noticeable in the British view of America, is due in part to an underestimate of the significance of historical forces. The influence of the past upon the present is more difficult to analyze in the United States than in Great Britain, but it is not less potent. Without a considerable knowledge of American history, an Englishman must fail to understand why the extraordinary coalition of opposites known as the Democratic Party and the other extraordinary coalition of opposites known as the Republican Party can maintain themselves as units. If they were stars, and not parties, they would certainly explode and out of their fragments new political worlds would be formed. In other words, logic would suggest an entirely new "setup." But tradition is stronger than logic.
It may be that tradition in the United States has this peculiar clamping power because it is so recent. At all events, Americans cannot easily realize why a country like Great Britain, which has carried into the present so much history, can jettison a great deal of the past without fear of a revolutionary break in national habits. The English have known and survived so many changes that they are not afraid of change. They are less nervous about "un-English" activities by their fellow-countrymen than Americans tend to be nervous about "un-American" activities. A nation possessing a house of hereditary peers, to which a Labor Government continues to make additions, need not trouble overmuch about the disturbing effect of getting rid of lesser anachronisms.
Similarly, there is more submission to the laws but less respect for written documents in Great Britain than in America. The railway station at the state capital of Wisconsin displays a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence. For many years -- until after 1939 -- the Great Western Railway terminus in London had a royal waiting room; although it was practically never used, no one thought of taking the much-needed space for other purposes. Americans would hardly tolerate an anachronism of this kind at the Pennsylvania Station; a loyal English citizen would be astonished to see a facsimile of Magna Carta in a railway station. More fuss is made about early copies of this Charter in the United States than in Great Britain, yet again only one American in a million realizes that the document belongs to an epoch in which "free enterprise" and the "capitalist system" hardly existed, agricultural serfdom was taken for granted, and justice was largely a matter of personal status. It is true that few Englishmen know that the "free men" of King John's reign were a privileged minority, but there is in England a vague realization of the meaning of continuous historical change because there is everywhere present some visible evidence of a remote and "different" past; for example, the King's consent to the bill nationalizing the coal mines was given in Norman French. The English habit of preserving nonessentials is, in a way, an acknowledgment that essentials change. English conservatism is less timid than American conservatism, since the English are more able to envisage how small are the effects of any one political measure against the total background of a "historical" people. The changes brought about by legislation are in any case smaller than those which take place unawares. The invention of the bicycle has had social consequences more extensive than anything likely to come out of the present program of the Labor Government except the Education Act, and this was more or less agreed upon by all parties.
These considerations, however, are not intended to belittle the importance of deliberately planned social or political change or to suggest that the last general election in Great Britain was not an event of historical importance. They merely show that the British people have not suddenly become enamored of what Queen Elizabeth called "newfangledness." Even on a basis of figures, there was nothing startling about the general election; the number of seats won by a very small margin of votes was enough to warn sober party managers that, even if they had a wish to do so, ministers had not obtained a mandate to upset everything in the country. There has been, of course, a certain amount of trumpet-blowing and, one might add, of coat-trailing by the victors; on the other side, a number of Conservatives have begun to fear that chaos and ruin are approaching. It will be remembered that a stout-hearted man like the first Duke of Wellington held this view for years on end during the most remarkable era of English progress in the nineteenth century.
Some echoes of the trumpet-blowing have been heard in the United States; their reverberation has led at times to false impressions. In fact, politicians never have the freedom of action to which they pretend in election addresses; English politicians at this moment have very little freedom. Circumstances dictate a particular line of policy aiming at the restoration and maintenance of economic well-being. It is unlikely that any body of sensible men would differ very much about the essentials of this dayto-day policy, although they might describe it in different ways. Thus few people in England really believe that "controls" could be abolished here and now without economic disaster or that the coal industry could be reorganized without drastic state interference. In the sphere of foreign policy there is room for differences of opinion about methods, but again there is not a very large freedom of choice. On the specific question of Anglo-American relations, no one desires to weaken the forces making for coöperation between the two countries, though there is a certain bewilderment and also a certain nervousness about American policy. The average Englishman feels bewildered at the present contrast between American abundance and British scarcity. He cannot understand why after a war effort supposed to be "100 percent" on each side of the Atlantic, the British people should emerge with the loss of a considerable part of their national wealth while the American people at least appear to be richer than before. An English housewife finds it odd that English china to match a teaset shattered in the Blitz can be bought in New York but is not on sale in London. The nervousness, which is increasing, is due to fears that America, having willed the restoration of multilateral international trade, will now refuse to will the means necessary to secure this end. In other words, the British standard of life may fall still further, at all events for a time, as a result of a volte-face in American economic policy. But there is no alternative to a policy of "wait and see" as far as America is concerned. Everyone, for obvious reasons, would welcome a lasting improvement in Anglo-Soviet relations; no one would purchase this friendship at the cost of Anglo-American coöperation.
All this goes to reinforce the view of the French statesman Thiers nearly a hundred years ago that British governments tend to be left-center. It is historically true that governments which have deviated noticeably from the left-center line have suffered heavily on an appeal to the electors. The general election of 1945 was in this respect a deferred day of reckoning for the mistakes of the Baldwin-Chamberlain era. From this point of view the war made little difference to the result. Indeed, it is probable that, if there had been no war, and if the election had taken place in the autumn of 1939, the Labor majority would have been greater. A sense of obligation to Mr. Churchill for his immense services kept and still keeps a good many possible wanderers within the Conservative fold.
Nonetheless, left-center is left-center and not right-center. Even after discounting a good deal of post-election shouting and after allowing for the narrowness of the immediate choices allowed to any British Government today, there remain many aspects of the 1945 victory which ought not to be explained as accidental. The Labor victory represented a real change, although it should not be called a revolutionary change, in the temper of the English people. The victory was not won by chance accretions to the Labor vote. It was not merely the result of the soldiers' impatience of discipline or exasperation of women voters over shopping queues. It was not due only to the solid core of trade unionists conscious of the work which the unions have done in the past for the working class. The Conservatives might well have come back with a small majority if a large section of the middle class had not voted against them. A section of this vote belongs to the "floating" electorate and cannot be relied upon for continued support. What might be called the highly educated Labor vote is unlikely to be lost. A generation ago it would have been given mainly to the Liberals. Political forecasts are dangerous things, but a revival of a Liberal Party seems a little improbable. In a sense the Liberal Party in politics today resembles the Church of England in religion. Except for those born into the faith, each stands for a complicated intellectual position; neither is likely to produce mass conversions.
What did the supporters of Labor mean by their vote? What did they expect a Labor Government to do? It is difficult in any country to define the "working class" except in an arbitrary way, and still more difficult to know what this class thinks about politics. On the whole, Dickens' picture of the English workingman is true -- minus a good deal of sentimentality. There is considerable class feeling, a certain amount of jealousy, but surprisingly little class hatred. One would rather notice a quick resentment at injustice, a distrust of rhetoric (including rhetorical appeals to revolution), a rough common sense, and a very shrewd judgment of the possible. There is also, as events have shown time after time, a remarkable power of "holding on;" an analogy with the habits of bulldogs is not merely a caricaturist's fancy.
The English working class has long known that the franchise was an instrument conferring political power. This power is now in their hands. They propose to use it. They also propose to "hold on" to it. They will "hold on" to the Labor Party in politics even if their leaders make mistakes, just as they have held on often enough in battles where their commanders have committed blunders. They do not want revolutionary action; they have no need of it. They do not want to turn their power against other classes; a class with political power in England has rarely used it in this way. Finally, they are patriotic Englishmen (or Scots or Welshmen); their habits are not those of a downtrodden peasantry or an outcast proletariat suddenly in the possession of authority. It must not be forgotten that Mr. Churchill is still the most popular subject of the Crown. There is -- as he well knows -- no inconsistency in cheering him and voting against him.
Working class interests begin with the acquisition of material things. Why not? Workingmen know that their standard of living has risen in the last hundred years. Industrialism has made life longer, given more varied choices, provided better food, better clothing, better houses. The rate of improvement has been slow, but it can be speeded up and a more even distribution of purchasing power can secure for the working class a larger share of wealth here and now. No Englishman, whatever his party, can feel in his heart that these demands are unreasonable. Moreover, they are not demands for material things only. The desire for more leisure is a desire for liberty. There are things in England, as elsewhere, which money cannot buy, but the poor are less likely to get them than the rich, since cultural values depend ultimately upon the possession of leisure. Similarly, working class demands put great emphasis upon security. "Social security" is a misleading term if it is taken to imply a decline in the vigor of the English people. It merely means insurance against risks which threaten a man's standard of life; these risks are not comparable with those taken in the reasonable employment of capital. It is not a sign of timidity or slackening of energy to take out a life insurance policy.
Finally, there is a sense of democratic equality, a belief in the high value of the individual, behind this insistence upon a more even distribution of purchasing power. Such a belief in equality is not new in English history. It was given explicit statement in a time of social unrest six centuries ago. It does not necessarily carry with it the abolition of distinctions of rank. It means only that no one shall fall, as it were, below a certain margin of independence and level of human dignity.
No one, and certainly no American, is likely to quarrel with these demands or to regard them as evidence of national decline or social disintegration. The field of possible disagreement lies in the methods used to bring about the desired changes. Obviously they cannot be brought about merely by "soaking the rich" and otherwise leaving the existing social and economic order unaltered. The average of political intelligence in Great Britain is too high to allow any party to get away with this kind of naïveté. The main theme of the Socialist program for which a majority of the British electorate voted in 1945 was the removal of the "profit motive" from the provision of the essential needs and services of the country. There was and is much exaggeration in the attacks upon "private profit." All political slogans, not excluding those of so-called individualism and "free enterprise," tend to exaggeration. In fact, no political group with any appreciable following in Great Britain wants to confiscate or destroy all sources of private profit or to remove all opportunities of private enterprise. The government which now has the support of the working class is acting only on the belief 1, that certain industries and services are essential to a modern community; 2, that these main requirements of the community have been supplied hitherto by private interests whose primary motive has been profit-making; and 3, that such methods of getting essential work done may have been necessary in the past but are unnecessary, wasteful and socially undesirable in the present stage of industrial technique which allows and even demands for efficiency a much greater degree of planning and control by the whole community.
This view may be right or wrong. It is not just the view of a class out for loot. It cannot be set aside merely by calling it the road to serfdom or to the police state. Moreover, as far as Great Britain is concerned, the desire for better planning and social control is not felt by the working class alone. Herein lies the importance of the second and smaller class of voter which gave Labor its majority. It is a mistake to suppose that all the professional men or women who voted Labor belong to the type known, a little unfairly, as "intellectuals." (Incidentally, some of these are tiresome exhibitionists or social misfits, but most are hardheaded people who have to earn a living in a real world.) The Labor program has an appeal to many Englishmen with practical experience of running a business because to their minds the program takes account of the essential facts that the technique of modern industry is social and that it implies a division of function, a multiplication of effort, a dovetailing of countless individual acts which will run to waste if there is not planning and control.
There is, of course, a certain tautology in describing any act of society as social. Even Diogenes did not make his own tub or, for that matter, cut and transport the wood for it, but it can be said that in certain types of society, for example, in a simple agricultural community working with locally-made appliances for home consumption or a nearby market, or in a community where industry is a matter of handicraft, there is no need for anything more than local coördination. Individuals or small communities are obviously not the effective units of modern agriculture or modern industry. The argument can be pushed too far, but it is not unconvincing in a general sense. Moreover, in Great Britain the logic of modern industrial technique has already been accepted to a very considerable extent. The phrase "we are all Socialists now" is more than fifty years old and was coined by a Gladstonian Liberal. Experiments in municipal enterprise and social services have been carried a long way, and on the whole with successful results. The faults of "bureaucracy" are not more noticeable in these enterprises than in most large-scale concerns. The advantages are that the consumer has shaken off a good many of the servitudes to which he has to submit in an order where "free enterprise" really means not the freedom of the individual but that of large private corporations.
Thus when full allowance has been made for the attraction of catchwords and slogans, the present program of the Labor Party represents not a weary surrender of effort and still less a vengeful but negative plan of spoliation. This program generates enthusiasm and attracts young and active minds because it represents an adjustment of society to the economic environment and because it means liberation and not enslavement for the individual. There are dangers in any experiment. The opponents of the present government have laid enough stress upon the dangers of "planning" and of all forms of collectivism for the public to be aware of their existence. There are also safeguards. The habits of the English, their love of political freedom, their incessant watchfulness against undue interference, their sensitiveness to any tampering with their rights, and, one might add, their hearty dislike of the restrictions put upon them by present circumstances, provide strong barriers against the spread of totalitarianism. A free parliament, a free press, a legal system and courts of law which have always upheld the rights of private citizens against arbitrary power supply an institutional framework which will not easily admit the despotism of the state. Finally, there are the limits set to experiment by present-day facts. The life of Great Britain depends upon the export trade and, paradoxically, the "survival test" of the Labor experiment must be whether it can give the foreign buyer what he wants at the price he is willing to pay.
Here I reach one of the most-discussed points of the position today. Many people argue that, whatever may be the merits of removing large sections of British economic activities from the region of private profit, the present moment is not suited for undertaking such experiments. We need short-term and not long-term programs. There is a good deal of truth in this argument. It was, I think, rather stronger 12 months ago than it is today. In the excitement of their victory, ministers and their supporters tended to forget that they had to provide the next meal rather than plan the menus of a distant future. The recent White Paper, and the appeals to workers to increase production, show that the gravity of the situation is not unrealized. The Labor ministers may be mistaken in their policy, but they are not daydreaming. Moreover, it is at least open to discussion that, so far from interfering with the short-term program, the far-reaching schemes of the Government are as essential to immediate recovery as to a more remote well-being. Once again it is necessary to remember the nervousness felt by all parties, and not only by the Labor Party, about the trend of opinion in the United States. If America turns towards economic isolationism, that is to say, if she not only fails to absorb her own increased productive power but fails also to buy from those to whom she wishes to sell, then Great Britain will find herself requiring as much planning and direction of effort as was essential to her political and economic existence at the height of the war. The present long-term plans are from this point of view a form of insurance which the English would be unwise to neglect. Furthermore, there is a strong psychological or at all events practical argument in favor of getting on with the long-term program. There is no doubt that the attempt to put it into effect is satisfying the electors and is making a response on their side more probable.
It would be idle to deny that there is a real problem in getting this response. The British consumer -- and the majority of consumers belong to the working class -- has had to put up with a great deal in the last seven years. Year after year hope of relaxation has been deferred. After a war which the Germans provoked, the consumer now has to "go without" to the tune of some $300,000,000 a year to keep the Germans alive. "Fill the ships and we will fill the shops" is a good phrase from the Government to the workers in the export trades; the shops are not yet any fuller, but the workers are more likely to listen to the advice when it comes from a Labor Government and from Ministers who are trying to carry out their promises. The wonder is not that there have been strikes and a falling-off in production in Great Britain after the strain of the war, but that the unrest and slackening have not been greater. No government could maintain or improve the position if it had not the confidence of the working class; for good reasons or bad, the Conservatives had forfeited this confidence as far as concerned the management of peacetime affairs. If they are to regain the popular support which they have lost, they will have to readjust their ideas on a scale comparable with the change from Toryism to Conservatism in Sir Robert Peel's time. I do not think that they are incapable of such an adjustment. There is as much life and ability in the Conservative Party as in the Labor Party, and not less goodwill. Within the general picture which I have tried to draw it will be seen that there is ample room for criticism of the methods of the "new course" in British politics, but this criticism will be barren if it does not take account of the fact that the course is at all events as new as anything can be in the long years of English history, and that the novelty is a sign of life and energy.
Thus if I might return to the question of the lack of focus in the American view of England, I should say that American opinion has misinterpreted these signs of growth and adaptation and has taken them to be evidence of a certain lack of backbone or of the collapse of the "little man" into the arms of an all-too-paternal state. As a corrective of this view it is perhaps worth while for Americans to notice that in English eyes they are the people who cannot read the significance of the times and who allow themselves to be ensnared by outworn catchwords and imprisoned in economic policies out of relation to the present-day world. English nervousness about American action is due simply to this fact that the English see the United States heading for another economic disaster through sheer failure of intellectual analysis. It is probable, or at all events it is to be hoped, that this view of the immediate future of American policy is as wrong as the American view of the decline of English enterprise and initiative. Nonetheless, the English do believe that they have made the more correct diagnosis of the troubles of the world and that they have found a way out.
The way out, as so often in English history, is a middle course between anarchy and constraint. Ideologically as well as geographically, England is set between the United States and the Soviet Union. There are dangers in this position, but there are also great advantages; and, on balance, although they know that they must do a good deal of rather drab and monotonous "holding-on," the English people are not without a strong sense of optimism about their own future. At any rate, if these English have remained as self-satisfied as ever they were of their own thrice-blessed intellectual superiority, they cannot be said to have thrown away in a mood of revolutionary excitement all the qualities which their critics have observed in them over past and more prosperous years.