“Long promise and short observance is the
road that leads to the sure triumph.”
Inequality under socialism—or under putative socialism—remains largely unknown and barely under stood in the West even by the educated public. If by now the political practices of countries insisting on being called socialist (sometimes even democratic) are better grasped, the same cannot be said about their socioeconomic arrangements. The still prevailing cliché or stereotype is that in countries like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc., political liberties are certainly sharply curtailed, but this was required for making vast economic improvements and went hand in hand with the drastic decline of inequalities. Thus one of the great myths of our times—prevailing in Western countries at any rate—that the so-called socialist countries achieved greater social equality at the expense of political freedoms (which, in any event, are supposedly seen as luxuries by the masses, grateful to their rulers for up lifting them materially).
Those embracing these beliefs ur gently need to consult the massive volume produced by Michael Voslensky, a former professor of history in the Academy of Science in Moscow and the occupant of several important political positions as well. He left the Soviet Union in 1977 and now heads the Institute of Contemporary Soviet Research in Munich. As a scholar, former Soviet citizen, and member of the Soviet elite, he knows all too well what he is talking about. His study is probably the most thorough and comprehensive treatment of inequality in Soviet society, certainly the most exhaustive examination of elite privilege. It is made all the more persuasive because of the double credentials of the author as social scientist and erst while beneficiary of these privileges.
His scrutiny of these privileges and of the class which enjoys them expands into an analysis of the entire political system. It is indeed one of the virtues of this book that its analysis of stratification and elite privilege is intertwined with an examination of the political system and its fundamental characteristics.
Nomenklatura highlights what has been known before but not given sufficient attention: the crucial connection between material advantage and commitment to the maintenance of the status quo. It has been the genius of the Soviet political system that it succeeded in the complete and meticulous integration of material and status rewards with political reliability or loyalty. The political importance of Soviet citizens thus can be measured and quantified precisely by their daily calorie intake, the square meters of their housing space, the forms of transportation used, medications available, or the quality of their clothing among other things. Few political systems have been more successful in systematically calibrating allotments of privilege in such a highly centralized, administrative fashion, leaving nothing to chance. Hence money per se is not that important; many of the most vital goods and services—housing, travel, transportation, medical care, child care, schooling, access to quality and scarce goods, etc.—are not for sale, but are apportioned administratively for groups ranked on the basis of their political-functional importance. Those at the pinnacle of this resource allocation system belong to the nomenklatura defined as a “list of key positions, appointments to which are made by the higher authorities in the party and lists of persons appointed to those positions.” Elsewhere, the author describes the nomenklatura as “the group of intellectuals whose profession is leadership.” More simply, the nomenklatura is the governing class, the new class of politicized bureaucrats in high position, scattered in different institutions and areas of life encompassing industry, agriculture, higher education, research, KGB, and of course, the party apparatus itself. Voslensky estimates their number at about three-quarters of a million.
The untroubled enjoyment of the numerous privileges rests on the nomenklatura’s belief in its historic mission and the important political services it renders to the nation and the “socialist commonwealth.” The rewards are also legitimated by their bureaucratic structuring: they are seen as less due to personal striving and more to the benevolence and wisdom of those in the upper reaches of the hierarchy and sanctioned by goals and principles which transcend personal welfare.
Members of the Party elite in some ways resemble the capitalists of the old days, imbued by the Protestant ethic, who justified their wealth by transcendent religious belief (and regarded its possession proof of their personal worth). Correspondingly, the privileged Soviet functionary derives assurance from the hierarchal, politically determined origin of his advantages which supposedly reflect the principle of social-distributive justice. In other words, the Soviet regime’s insistence on being meritocratic has been successful, at least as far as the recipients of privilege are concerned. Unlike in the West, material privilege has yet to inspire self-doubt, unease, or social criticism among these groups.
It is also characteristic of members of the nomenklatura that they are divorced, to a remarkable degree, from the rest of the population, not unlike the aristocracies of the past:
Ordinary citizens are just as carefully isolated from that country, which we shall call Nomenklatura, as they are from foreign countries. It is the country of the special, with special accommodations built by special builders, special country houses and vacation homes, special hospitals . . . special shops, special buffets and canteens, special hairdressers, garages, gas stations and license plates, a special information network, special kindergartens, schools, institutions of higher education, special waiting rooms at stations and airports, and even a special cemetery.
A member of the nomenklatura family can spend his life from the cradle to the grave working, resting, eating, shopping, traveling, talking, or being ill, without ever coming into contact with the Soviet people, whom he is supposed to be serving.
Given the elaborate and entrenched nature of these privileges and the proverbial vested interests growing out of them, there is little incentive for change as far as the nomenklatura is concerned.
Voslensky displays none of the hopefulness often found in the West regarding the connection between Soviet domestic and foreign policies. He does not share the conventional wisdom embraced by the Western media and even some specialists on Soviet affairs, namely that the Soviet leader ship is eager to reform the Soviet economy and is distressed over the magnitude of military expenditures. He sees a different relationship between domestic economic difficulties and foreign policy: “[A] substantial improvement in productivity is inconceivable without a change of system, something unacceptable, since it would interfere with the nomenklatura’s . . . monopoly of power. It therefore aims at external expansion, the establishment of its rule over foreign countries and the exploitation of their wealth.”
It is difficult and unpalatable for educated Westerners to give much credence to such a scenario—seen as conspiratorial and discredited by the unsophistication and crudeness of some of its adherents, such as the late Senator McCarthy and other right wing extremists. Whether or not there is a “master plan” for the conquest of the world is not the issue here. What seems evident—and made more understandable by this book—is the persistent Soviet effort to alter the balance of global power in its favor.
At the same time, the author is not unaware of the weaknesses of the nomenklatura and the system it has created. The major problems he identifies include the lack of “orderly and routine succession of power at the summit of the nomenklatura” and the attendant time and energy consumed by infighting. He also finds the en trenched monopolistic power of the nomenklatura a liability contributing to the parasitic degeneration of this class that need not face any competition or challenge to its power and privilege. The details of this parasitic existence are forcefully rendered and illustrated by a description of the typical day of a Party functionary.
It is not fully explained—neither in institutional nor social-psychological terms—exactly how members of the nomenklatura are recruited and groomed, how the high degree of homogeneity and cohesiveness is attained and the peculiar blend of opportunism, power-hunger, and sense of collective self-importance nurtured. My other reservation concerns the presentation of the rise and evolution of this class as perhaps more deliberate and determined (“a three-stage process”) than may be warranted. It is partly a matter of terminology; I am somewhat dubious about concepts such as “historical law” in explaining the rise of the nomenklatura or any other event or institution.
Having read concurrently Thomas Sowell’s new explication and commentary on Marxism leads one to reflect—as has been done by so many people before—on the relationship between Marxism and the Soviet regime. Did the adoption of Marxism as the official ideology and original inspiration shape decisively the character of the regime or, quite to the contrary—as has also been argued—is the Soviet regime a travesty of Marxism? Answering such questions was not Sowell’s goal, but rather to distill his thoughts of a quarter-century about the economic and philosophical doctrines of Marx. Although a philosophical conservative, Sowell is not hostile to Marx—neither to the man nor the thinker. His book is a reasonably detached survey of, among other topics, dialectics, philosophical materialism, Marx’s theory of history and capitalist economy, his treatment of political and especially revolutionary change, Marx as a person and his legacy.
It is in that final chapter that the connection can be established between Marxism as an ideology and systems of domination—such as the Soviet regime—which use it for purposes of legitimation. Sowell notes, for instance, that “the long Marxian tradition of speaking boldly in the name of the workers—not only without their consent but in defiance of their contrary views and actions—made Marx ism an instrument of elite domination with a clear conscience.” The Soviet experience also lends substance to Sowell’s comment about “the hubris of imagining that a whole society could be reconstructed from the
ground up on the vision of one man.”
While few would argue that the humane vision of Marxism has found a home in the Soviet Union (and the ideas of Marx exercise little attraction to those who live in societies which claim to be the guardians of his heritage), in Western capitalist countries Marxism is taken seriously by intellectuals in need of a sustaining world view. Correspondingly, Marxism “has provided,” as Sowell so well puts it, “both intellectual and moral insulation for those who wield power in its name. Some of the most distinguished names in Western civilization . . . have become apologists for brutal dictatorships ruling in the name of Marx and committing atrocities that they would never countenance under any other label. People who would never be corrupted by money or power may nevertheless be blinded by a vision.”
[Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, by Thomas Sowell; New York: William Morrow]
[Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class, by Michael Voslensky; New York: Doubleday]