Thinking about thinking about dissent: Comment

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  • Thinking About Thinking About Dissent: Comment by Jerry F. Hough

    There are many individual points in A. Y. Shtromas article that strike me as quite sound. Certainly his central thesis that the Soviet regime has fought against dissent for more than sixty years is incon- testable. It is equally incontestable that the regime has failed in various ways to accomplish its goals. His analysis of the technocrats seems to suggest that the main forces for change within the Soviet Union are found within the Establishment, rather than within the dissidence movement, and that too is an argument that I find congen- ial. His suggestion that the consensus between the regime and the population limits the absolute power of the authorities also seems sound to me.

    By contrast the consensus between regime and population that Shtromas insists is schizophrenic seems less so to me. Or at least it is unclear to me that it is so much more schizophrenic than consen- sus often is. Political philosophy has wrestled with the problem of why men should obey since the time of Plato, but the fact that the problem remains unresolved only highlights the difficulties and con- tradictions inherent in political authority. Governor George Wallace threatened to run down those who burned the American flag while himself flying that flag under the state flag on the state capitol, and American public opinion polls about domestic political institutions and leaders have repeatedly shown great cynicism among people who would be absolutely horrified at the idea of an overthrow of the system.

    That there is discontent, grumbling, and cynicism in the Soviet Union is absolutely clear, but that is true of every political system in the world and at every period of time except the briefest moments of euphoria. The serious question is whether such discontent is as marked as it was in Hungary in 1956 and, one suspects, as it is in Poland today or whether it is closer to my perception of the mood in the United States over the last five years. In my judgment, consensus or legitimacy as a practical matter does not entail universal love for the entire political system. Rather, it rests on an attitude akin to Winston Churchills famous statement about democracy: Democ- racy is the worst system in the world except for all the others. That is, legitimacy rests on the conviction that change would only make matters worse.


    From this perspective, I believe that Shtromas underestimates the force of nationalism among the Russians. For them, Western democ- racy means not only an abandonment of a political system that Russians created but, more important, the breakup of the Union and a decline in Russian national power. The totally different relationship of the regime to the achievement of nationalist goals makes analogies between Russians and East Europeans very dangerous. The situation within the non-Russian areas of the Soviet Union should be quite different, but many non-Russians must fear the consequences of civil WX.

    There are many points within Shtromas article that could serve as the basis for agreement, disagreement, or amplification. To be frank, however, the article really raised in my mind thoughts of a quite different nature. These thoughts might well have been ignored, but if the purpose of combining an article and a comment is to generate an honest exchange of ideas for the consideration of the reader, then perhaps the commentator has some obligation to be honest.

    The questions that absorbed my thoughts while reading this manu- script centered not on the Soviet Union, but on Soviet studies in the United States. The central question that was difficult to suppress was simply: what is the point of it all? In my opinion, scholarship should involve an effort at making distinctions, at clarifying issues, at building upon an existing literature, at pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. This article, whether one agrees or disagrees with spe- cific points in it, does not have that character. It is a personal witness to political dissent, a political manifesto, a statement of belief.

    Other than polemics, what purpose is served, for example, by simply treating the whole history of the Soviet regime in terms of a fight against dissent? The NEP was a stage in the fight against dissent; collectivization was a stage in the fight; World War II was a stage. Does this really further understanding?

    What is the point of expanding the word dissent beyond all recognition? People striving to achieve personal goals are engaged in dissent; consumerism is dissent; proposals to increase the use of market mechanisms are dissent; a failure to work conscientiously is dissent; the advocacy of efficiency and professionalism is an obvi- ously dissident ideology. The present regime-society relationship is marked by a consensus between the regime and the people, but, of course, there are 250 million political prisoners in the country, including presumably the tiniest babies in their mothers arms.

    In this discussion, the standard of comparison and judgment is constantly shifting. Sometimes dissent is defined as deviation from the purest idealism of Bolshevik ideology-an ideology, it should be


    said, that has little relationship to Lenins talk about bourgeois specialists, the glories of electrification, the need for Bolsheviks to learn how to trade, and so forth. At other times, however, dissent is deviation from Shtromas very cynical view of the Soviet Union as a frozen, bureaucratic partocracy. Language loses all meaning, and only the emotional attitude toward the regime remains clear.

    Shtromas discussion of the political process is no more precise. Footnoting Gordon Skilling for views about pluralism in the Soviet Union that Skilling most vehemently rejects, Shtromas returns to the old primitive notion of an arbitrary, nonprofessional, ruling Party apparatus and the good professional technocracy (which in his view even includes the workers and peasants!). In a footnote he gives credit for this analysis to N. Znakov, who, he reports, stated that he found it in Orwells 1984. This latter attribution is believable, for the analysis cannot have been derived from any study of Soviet reality.

    There is insufficient space here to repeat an analysis of the Party- state relationship that has been presented at great length in other sources. The exact nature of the role of the Party apparatus and its officials is, of course, a subject on which we have much to learn, but at a minimum it can be said that an image of Soviet politics centering on a conflict between the partocracy and the technocracy is as over- simplified as an image of American politics centering simply on a conflict between the politicians and the people.

    Shtromas completely neglects the great specialization and differ- entiation that has occurred in the Party apparatus and the influx of professionals into it. It is unclear why the tens of thousands of engineers and agronomists with managerial experience who work in the Party apparatus, and were progressive technocrats in their past work, are something quite different while in the Party apparatus, and then progressive again when they return to other work. In fact, the technocrats have a variety of views and the differences among them cannot be ignored. To move from an endorsement of market mecha- nisms to a discussion of the strengthening of Gosplan as a second pivot that would end the partocracy is truly breathtaking to anyone who knows how Gosplan is viewed by the economic reformers. Although all technocrats are not so conservative as Gosplan, my sense is that the top governmental apparatus is rather more resistant to change than the Central Committee apparatus.

    What really disturbs me is not that Shtromas definitions are muddled nor that his understanding of the inner workings of the Soviet Establishment is unsophisticated. It is not clear that most of us would do much better if we were called upon to summarize our own society without the benefit of detailed study or at least a detailed


    examination of a professional literature. What disturbs me is that we take Shtromas and others of similar style (such as Yanov) so seri- ously.

    The first great generation of postwar scholars behaved virtually like archeologists as they combed through the meager Soviet sources of the time for clues about Soviet reality. They had a sense of excitement as they tried to penetrate the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. When they dealt with the emigration of the time-an emigration much more random and representative in its character than the present one-they took the greatest care to try to guard against the biases in their source. They interviewed the emigres on their professional experiences and details of their lives rather than push them to generalize at scholarly conferences about their society.

    It seems to me that we have often lost the sense of discovery of that earlier generation, at least so far as the contemporary Soviet Union is concerned. The work being done is history, political science, and economics on the 1920s and 1930s in frequently extremely impres- sive, but the amount of detailed, quality research done on the Brezhnev era, especially on the political system of the Establishment, has been quite small. Without realizing it, we have come to rely heavily on the journalists and the dissidents for our information and even judgments. We excuse these sources much imprecision and many exaggerations, thinking that we can correct for them, but the precision of our own thinking is affected more than we realize. In practice, we have often come to value emotional response more highly than a quest for new knowledge.

    Articles such as Shtromas deserve respect as personal testaments of persons who have fled from dictatorship. They may provide interesting material for someone who wants to do a sociological study of a vocal substratum within the emigration. But if serious scholar- ship means the presentation of new hypotheses or data, the clarifica- tion of issues, or a cogent give-and-take with the existing literature, then the need to apply the standards of professionalism is as great in this country as it is in the Soviet Union. Like those from the last generation of emigrants who became scholarly specialists on the Soviet Union, those in this generation who want to contribute to our understanding need to master the literature and engage in serious research rather than simply present impressions they formed while living in a society notorious for its censorship.