From Russia with Love
During the 1920’s and 30’s, restless American progressives — “political pilgrims” in Paul Hollander’s phrase — returned from their obligatory hajj to Moscow lauding the Soviet regime and indicting the hopelessly inferior American order. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Berlin Wall, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Solzhenitsyn, Afghanistan, and KAL 007, almost no one is heedless enough to assert the superiority of the Russian government over our own. Instead, the gentlemen of the Left now returning from the Land of Lenin claim to have found the mirror image of a seriously flawed America.
The latest version of this equation was presented recently in the pages of The New Yorker by John Kenneth Galbraith. Reflecting on his four visits to the Soviet Union over the past 25 years, this celebrated economist concludes that comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. reveals that “neither capitalism nor socialism can be said to be working so very well.” More specifically, Professor Galbraith asserts that both the Soviet Union and America are finding it difficult to carry “the formidable burden” of a “modern consumer-oriented economy.” Galbraith admits that the Soviet Union’s economy has defects, but “one wonders not that it has major areas of failure but that it works as well as it does. “The cause of the longlines in Leningrad stores, he further avers, is simply American-style inflation, not any real lack of consumer goods. The Soviet Union, he also suggests, exerts no direct economic control over its Eastern European neighbors, no more at least than America does over Canada or Mexico. Conceding that overcentralization and the lack of immigrant agricultural labor causes some hardships not felt by Americans, he urges us not to forget the counter benefits of “much cleaner” streets, lower crime rates, and “far more efficient” public transportation than is found here.
As much as Soviet leaders rail against the iniquities of American capitalism, the reader suspects that they are actually quite pleased to have a Harvard scholar equate their problems with those of the U.S. In framing the comparison Galbraith comes dangerously close to the official parry line. His aim in offering this analysis of the superpowers is “to contribute a little to the understanding and confidence that are essential before real progress on arms reduction is possible.” A survey of the unofficial views of millions of average Russians and Russian dominated peoples, however, would reveal that Galbraith has fostered dangerous misunderstanding and false confidence. For the U.S.S.R. is a land beset with radically un-American woes.
To begin with, when told that he waits hours in line to get a couple bars of inferior soap not because there is a shortage of soap but because there is an oversupply of money, the average Russian factory worker would laugh in Mr. Galbraith’s well-meaning face. A Russian housewife who has for years endured bare shelves and long May Day parades would hoot at the idea that she lives in a “consumer-oriented economy.” The suggestion that Russia does not control the Polish economy would meet with even more bitter derision from Solidarity members. The streets are clean, every Russian knows, because paper is far too scarce to litter. But millions of innocent Soviet citizens who have ridden the rails to forced labor camps in Siberia could confirm Mr. Galbraith’s report concerning public transportation: like Mussolini’s, communist trains are always on schedule. cc