Not so long ago anticommunist conservatives used to rail against the mirror fallacy, the leftist assumption that the Soviet Union could be studied in Western terms. If only we could strengthen the hand of the doves and “responsible” elements, we could keep the country from falling into the hands of the hard-liners and hawks—the Soviet analogues of Barry Goldwater. After supporting a KGB thug (Andropov) as an urbane. Westernized scotch-drinker, it was inevitable that Gorbachev be seen as the savior not only of his country but of the entire world. All that was left was the Nobel Peace Prize—routinely awarded to butchers and hypocrites (with a joint award to Le Due Tho and Henry Kissinger, they achieved a double word score). Now that he has the Norwegian medal of infamy, Gorbachev has carte blanche to proceed with his plans, whatever they are, for reconstructing his empire.
But if it is illegitimate to hold up the U.S.S.R to the mirror of the U.S.A, the reverse is still a useful exercise, and by looking at recent events in Eastern Europe, we may be able to learn something about ourselves. To tell the truth, I don’t know very much about the Soviet Union. Like most Americans who sound off about global conflict, I don’t know Russian, and a writer without an adequate grasp of the language is denied access not only to the newspapers, documents, and conversations that are the stuff of history, but also to the vocabulary of the spirit, the grammar and syntax of the national character.
Many of my conservative friends seem obsessed with all things Soviet in the same way that puritans can be obsessed with sin. There is a political prurience that leads us to gloat loathingly over the crimes of Stalin (or Hitler), as we thank God we Americans are not like other men. And if conservatives are prone to overestimate the crimes of Lenin and Stalin—Atilla the Hun or even Shaka Zulu might have killed as many, if only they had had the means—some of them are just as ready to overvalue the talents and accomplishments of the Russian people. We hear much of Russian “spirituality” and of the magnificence of Russian literature. Solzhenitsyn, before he was unmasked as a religious nationalist and therefore reactionary, was treated by some Western writers as an intellectual “heavy dragoon” (“take all the remarkable people in history / rattle them off to a popular tune”): the joint incarnation of Shakespeare and St. John of the Cross, with a little Montesquieu thrown in for seasoning.
Reading Russian literature only in translation, I have failed to discover the qualities that are supposed to elevate it above the other not quite first-rate literatures of modern Europe. From Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn, there may be half a dozen or even a dozen writers who have made an impact on the West, but the same can be said of German and Italian writers in the same period. Russia has produced no Goethe or Dante; no Shakespeare or Cervantes; no Balzac or Baudelaire. I do not wish at all to detract from the accomplishments of Russian fiction, which I continue to read with pleasure; at the same time, I firmly believe that Scott, Thackeray, and Trollope, Balzac, Flaubert, and Stendahl, Hemingway and Faulkner are as good, if not better. I also believe that there have been, writing recently in the United States, more accomplished novelists than Solzhenitsyn.
Ah, but what of the deep Russian soul, the great spirituality of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? You won’t find that in Trollope or Balzac. Exactly. Western novelists have always recognized that fiction is a bourgeois form of art that is concerned mainly with the vicissitudes of social life. Our best fiction is, for the most part, solid and skeptical of excesses. There is nothing more civilized, in our world, than Trollope’s investigations of the microcosms of parsonages and Parliament, and there is no better work of social prophecy than his most gloomy novel, The Way We Live Now.
There is not a drop of mysticism—or even of real religion—in Trollope, but England and America (to say nothing of France) have produced their share of Christian novelists. That great Christian gentleman, Walter Scott, prayed at church or read the Prayerbook with his family; yet for all his affection for the Scottish peasantry, he did not rush out onto his estate and hug the first yokel he could find or move out into a hovel to discover the wisdom that comes from the soil.
The Russians have had to become “spiritual” as their only means of defense against the tyranny and suffering they have inflicted upon themselves throughout their entire history. Incapable, as a people, of individual responsibility or political liberty, they have had to take refuge in religion or in the mysticisms of race and soil. Their liberals (in the old sense)—such men as Herzen, Turgenev, the elder Nabokov—were driven into exile and despair.
This is not to deny the validity or value of Russian mysticism. Suffering can confer both dignity and wisdom, although it is just as likely to degrade its victims. From this perspective, the Russian variation on our civilization has at least as much to teach us as the Italian, German, and Scandinavian.
Now, especially, that the Russians and their subjects are paying the bills for Lenin and Stalin, we can learn many lessons from their experiences. Perhaps we can only foretell our own future. But as the West falters and stumbles, as the foundations of our culture crack and crumble, eventually bringing the jerry-built-political, economic, and social structures down upon our heads, we would do well to take instruction from a nation that has given the world so many men who are experts at inflicting and enduring misery.
It is impossible to do justice to the worst features of the Soviet Empire, but any intelligent outsider reading the newspapers would conclude that the main problems have to do with the creation of a centralized political system that manages a planned economy, the campaign to suppress national identities, and the attempt to establish a new political order, based not on history or tradition, but on ideology and propaganda. These causes, quite apart from other difficulties, would be sufficient to explain the secession movements in the Baltic states and the ethnic conflicts throughout the Union, the chronic food shortages and grotesque inefficiencies of production and distribution, and the helplessness and paralysis of both the people and the local authorities in the face of economic disaster and political disintegration. The most frequently heard cry, at least in the press, is the desire for a strong leader who will restore order, punish the wicked exploiters, and get the system moving again. Oh for the days of Comrade Stalin.
Sensible critics in the West have been saying for years that the Soviet system could not survive, much less prosper. Free market competition for resources and status is an inherent part of human nature, and if individuals are prevented from owning property and advancing their fortunes in farming or commerce through individual initiative and hard work, ambitious natures will find other outlets. “Whatever is the road to power,” Burke warned, “that road will be surely trod upon.” If Party membership and positions in the nomenklatura define status and power, then the best and brightest will gravitate toward those official institutions that offer the best advantages.
Washington, D.C., is full of the healthiest and best-looking young people in America, because in large measure that is where the action is, not just in government, but for all those gigantic business interests whose existence and prosperity depend upon special privileges from government: agribusiness worried about subsidies, communications and entertainment companies eager to retain their monopolies, utilities and other industries anxious to make sure that environmental regulations are all written in their favor.
The corruption of Congress and the wealth and power of lobbyists are only the superficial symbols of an increasingly centralized American economy. While every new technology smashes through the monopolies and cartels that dominate American business, it does not take long for the cartels to harness the technology—air travel, fax machines, 900 numbers—in the service of the great interests. The conspiracy of business, labor, and government that we now call economic planning used to go by its correct name: corporate fascism. America’s first major experiment in fascism was Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration. Senator William Borah correctly perceived that the aim and end result of such planning would be the destruction of small businesses, which he regarded as the backbone of the American republic:
I look upon the fight for the preservation of the “little man,” for the small, independent producer and manufacturer, as a fight for a sound, wholesome, economic national life. . . . It is a fight for clean politics and for free government. When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power. . . . The concentration of wealth always leads, and has always led, to the concentration of political power. Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel.
The NRA was opposed by most honest businessmen, even in large corporations, and in 1935 the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional. It did not take long, however, for the great corporations to recognize the benefits of a cozy relationship with government. As Adam Smith among many other champions of the free market observed, businessmen hate competition above-all else, and the Morgans, Boeskys, Milkens, and Trumps of this world do not make their money by creating or producing, but by the bribery, blackmail, and manipulation that comprise “the art of the deal.”
The cynicism of big business in America can be measured by the support of Eastern coal companies for the Clean Air Act, the contributions to NOW made by manufacturers who like cheap labor, and the general enthusiasm for importing unskilled legal and illegal aliens, regardless of the social, economic, and political costs to the nation as a whole.
The ethnic conflicts in the U.S.S.R and Eastern Europe ought to serve as a warning to the United States. Soviet rulers deliberately drew national and territorial boundaries that made neither historical nor ethnic sense; they also transferred populations: Russians to Lithuania, Volga Germans to Siberia. Stalin’s motives were the same as those of ancient tyrants and emperors: suppression of nationalist aspirations. The most obvious lesson for America is that it is difficult if not impossible to create a unified nation-state out of disparate ethnic groups that have a history of conflict. Undeterred by either common sense or the terrible example of Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R, our own Kremlin has recently imposed a liberalized immigration law that will insure a deepening of ethnic hostilities and the gradual Balkanization of the country.
The government, apparently, is not importing cheap labor fast enough to suit the new globalists. Despite the poor record of assimilation earned by many Soviet emigrants, who are uncomfortable with American freedoms, and despite the FBI’s chilling statement that the most violent criminal gangs in America are composed of Russians, the Heritage Foundation is calling for admission of one million additional Russians and proposes to pay for them by “selling” $4.2 billion of Liberty Bonds. This is the polite way of saying borrow $4.2 billion dollars and pay twice that back in principal and interest. Once upon a time we sold “liberty” bonds to finance the defense of America. Now it is to promote the interests of unhappy Russians.
This is affirmative action conservatism with a vengeance, and it comes at a time when the continued centralization of power in the hands of the national government and federal courts is already alienating the various ethnic, religious, and regional minorities. Hispanics, blacks, fundamentalists, and Southerners—to name only a few of the most prominent groups—will eventually have to give up the futile contest for power and privileges at the national level and will turn increasingly to one or another form of separatism. The federal system set up by the Founders served us well, but federalism amounts to little more today than the right to collect state and local taxes under the watchful eye of the central state. For a vast and diverse territory of the size of the United States, there are only two alternatives to federalism, and we shall probably experience both of them in some form in the coming years: imperial tyranny and secession.
Since the 1930’s, the national regime has attempted to create e pluribus unum, not by the federal system that allows for local and regional diversities, but through various devices invented and developed by nationalists, fascists, and Stalinists: the imperial architecture of Washington, so similar in intent and design to Moscow and Berlin; the rigmarole of flag reverence and pledges of allegiance that would have sickened most of our ancestors as much as the flag desecration that such idolatry inevitably invites; the political indoctrination into “democratic values” that replaced the teaching of history in our schools (facts can get in the way of the “truth” that serves “the national interest”). Symptomatic of the transformation has been the evolution of the President from a limited constitutional executive to an emperor responsible directly to the national will and not answerable to the Congress that represents the authority of the states and localities. The imperial President, who cannot do without a Byzantine retinue of chamberlains, secretaries, counsels, and advisors, can now undertake wars on his own initiative. The ultimate justification, as his agents in the Senate expressed it, was the protection of the President’s “credibility” in foreign policy. In a burst of republican candor. Senator Nunn informed Arlen Spectre (in the Senate debate on the two Gulf war resolutions), that he had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and not to defend the prestige of George Bush. But Senator Nunn has been silenced, and other honest Senators who followed their conscience in opposing the war, notably Fritz Hollings, are now being attacked as traitors in language reminiscent of FDR’s attacks on Charles Lindbergh.
No one understood the role of propaganda in the ideological state better than George Orwell. In Animal Farm the beasts are constantly terrorized by rumors of the renegade Snowball; the traitor Goldstein plays the Trotsky role in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both in years and sophistication, we have already gone beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Americans cannot be loyal to their country unless they are constantly reminded of an arch-enemy that threatens to destroy us: the wicked Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Richard Nixon, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein.
But propaganda takes its toll on a people. The most faithful and patriotic elements begin by swallowing the bait whole, but eventually they become cynical and lazy. In the U.S.S.R. propaganda has done its job all too well, and if there were any responsible groups that could serve as a liberal aristocracy and a nucleus for building the habits and institutions of self-government, they have remained in hiding. For all I or most Americans might know, the soundest elements may be loyal military men and Communist Party stalwarts in the bureaucracy—people who show up for work in the morning and know how to take orders. These are the so-called “conservatives” that American journalists are fond of deploring, if only as a convenient way of needling Washington conservatives who insist—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—that they are the party of individual liberty. Obedience and unreflecting loyalty are the characteristic virtues of ideologues and party hacks everywhere, whichever C-word they use to identify themselves with.
Perhaps this explains the incredible gullibility displayed by conservative anticommunists who, before the arrival of Gorbachev, never had a good thing to say about any Soviet leader. Even the Committee for the Free World, whose raison d’etre was the sort of knee-jerk anticommunism (complete with enemies lists) that might have made McCarthy blush, disbanded in a mood of despair-in-victory that has no name but is the opposite of schadenfreude.
Now that the American right is part of the establishment, they are prey to the same follies, the same blind faith in progress that used to characterize liberals. They cannot learn the lessons the U.S.S.R. can teach, because they are too busy advocating enterprise zones, voucher plans, increased immigration, minority set-asides, state capitalism, and the New World Order. Inexperienced in the ways of real power, they are pawns in the hands of their latest leader, George Bush, a master politician who makes no secret of his contempt for the conservative movement whose leaders fawn upon him with the guilty sincerity of a puppy that has just made a mess on the rug. Don’t listen to their occasional criticism of the President: just look at their calendars or count how many pictures of themselves arm-in-arm with George and Barbara they send out to supporters. Simply put, Washington conservatives and their hero President Bush—in the guise of defending free markets—are now championing the latest version of Roosevelt’s NRA, and they are keeping the country on a steady course toward the total state. Nazdarovje.