Commentary Magazine

The Dream That Failed, by Walter Laqueur

Missing the Boat

The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union.
by Walter Laqueur.
Oxford. 231 pp. $25.00.

In the summer 1989 issue of a leading scholarly journal, A. James McAdams, one of America’s top experts on East Germany, recounted a recent trip he had taken to East Berlin. The Communist officials with whom he met had impressed him, McAdams wrote, with “the air of quiet self-satisfaction” they displayed. The biggest potential problem facing East Germany, he concluded from his visit, was that the country’s achievements were so formidable they might, if anything, prove to be obstacles to further progress. Several months after these words appeared under the title, “The GDR at Forty: The Perils of Success,” McAdams suffered something of a professional misfortune: the German Communist regime collapsed.

McAdams was not the only knowledgeable observer who missed the boat. His views in fact were conventional wisdom among experts on East Germany in the United States, and more than a few of McAdams’s colleagues, according to Walter Laqueur, “went considerably further in their belief in the achievements and stability of the GDR.”

As Laqueur shows in The Dream That Failed, professional observers of Soviet politics by and large cannot claim a better record. “[W]ho got it wrong—basically, consistently, confidently—and why?” are perhaps the two most fascinating questions he takes up in a book that assesses seven decades of Western scholarship on the USSR and the Communist world. Once again, Laqueur, the author of numerous books and articles on Communist affairs and other aspects of contemporary history, tells us much that is truly worth knowing about a topic of genuine importance.

As for “who got it wrong?,” Laqueur’s answer is virtually everyone in the profession including himself. But not everyone “got it equally wrong”; differing degrees of intellectual delinquency can be assigned.

From the picture of the profession that Laqueur has assembled, experts writing about Russia two or so decades ago can be usefully divided into three groups. Fewer than a handful of observers argued at the time that the USSR would face a crisis so severe that it would likely topple the Communist regime. A somewhat larger contingent observed widening fault lines running through Soviet society, but most of these thought it unwarranted to issue a warning that a devastating political earthquake could hit. An astonishingly large number of experts saw the same fault lines, but insisted that Soviet Communism was all but earthquake-proof.

Of those who saw the disaster coming from afar—most famously the Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik in his 1969 Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?—Laqueur maintains, without begrudging them their success, that they were largely accidental prophets, possessors of both brilliant insight into the regime’s weaknesses and even more brilliant luck. Despite all of the visible socioeconomic rot, had the USSR’s rickety social structure not been subjected to Mikhail Gorbachev’s hapless efforts to brace things up, it could have remained standing for many long years. The Soviet populace, disaffected and exhausted as it was, was far from ready to explode in violence; in the end it was Gorbachev’s ascension to power—hardly an inevitable development—that set in motion the revolution from above which brought about collapse.

For those observers who did not anticipate this course of events, Laqueur has written a brief setting forth the elements of an honorable and persuasive defense: the chain reaction that began slowly in 1985 and exploded in 1991 was as unforeseeable by American students of Communist affairs as it was by the rivals for power within the ruling Soviet Politburo itself. At worst, those who sounded the seismological alarm only after severe tremors had been detected, says Laqueur, had failed to grasp

that the process of decay had proceeded much further than generally assumed, that the self-confidence of the leading stratum had largely been undermined, and that as a result the existence of the regime depended on mere accidents.

Adherents of the earthquake-proof school of Sovietology committed a far more radical and consequential type of blunder. Although this group includes some on the Right who overestimated the strength and durability of the Soviet regime, it is heavily dominated by “revisionist Sovietologists” of the Left, who in the 1970′s had risen to positions of prominence in leading American universities and think tanks, and by the 1980′s had become the profession’s new “mainstream.”

Although the revisionists were (and remain) a diverse group comprising historians, economists, and political scientists, they are united by the defining tenet of their creed: profound antipathy to the interpretation of Soviet politics that had gained broad influence following the publication of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 and Carl Fried-rich and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy in 1957. The older view that the Soviet Union was not a garden-variety dictatorship, but an extraordinary form of tyranny—ideological and expansionist in character—came to be regarded by the revisionists as offering an intellectual foundation and implicit justification for the Vietnam war and the cold war, and hence as self-evidently false.



What led the revisionists astray? Laqueur’s book suggests they committed virtually every kind of transgression—short of outright fraud—that a scholar can commit: ideological bias; uncritical treatment of data; a blinding preference for abstraction and generality over the particular and concrete; and an approach to their subject wholly at odds with the moral tradition that good scholarship demands.

These traits, as Laqueur’s book shows, were all visible in the fierce assault that the revisionists launched against the concept of totalitarianism. It is easy to agree with the case made by Laqueur that the battle waged against this term—in barrage after barrage of articles and monographs—casts far more light on the climate of opinion on American campuses than on the nature of Soviet politics or anything else.

Certainly, the anti-anti-Communism that gave the attack its intensity was plainly evident in the benign interpretations of Soviet history and politics that the revisionists embraced. To refute the “myths” fostered by historians whose methods and conclusions were tainted by the “cold-war” totalitarian approach, the revisionists rewrote the Soviet past with methods they proclaimed were “value-free” but which, in Laqueur’s deservedly harsh judgment, made “a mockery of the search for historical truth.”

The results of the “value-free” history bear out this verdict, and Laqueur has performed a public service by showing the misbegotten provenance of revisionist historiography’s many less-than-precious gems. To cite just two examples of a genre that has not yet entirely disappeared, Lenin’s seizure of power in a coup d’état in October 1917 was recast by the historian Alexander Rabinowitch as the expression of a genuinely popular, authentically democratic movement in which, in Rabinowitch’s own words, “the Bolshevik party as a whole expressed the fundamental interest of the masses.” In the same vein, the blood purges of the 1930′s in which millions perished were portrayed by the historian J. Arch Getty as a period of great social mobility during which “many thousands” died when Stalin devoted insufficient attention to supervision of wayward underlings.

With Stalin’s Great Terror depicted so mildly by historians, the political scientists among the revisionists could not but characterize the post-Stalin era in even more clement terms. The Khrushchev and Brezhnev years they described as a period of continued “modernization” in which the distortions stemming from rapid industrialization were ameliorated while the system as a whole was increasingly rationalized.

And if the notion of totalitarianism was held to be inapplicable to high-Stalinism, it was regarded as positively worthless as an aid for understanding the dynamics of the post-Stalinist age. Revisionist political scientists replaced the “decisively-refuted” approach with a multitude of new concepts such as “institutional pluralism” and “limited pluralism” that highlighted the “participatory” elements of Soviet political life which the “obsolete” totalitarian model had obscured from view.

Along with new models came research tools to match; not surprisingly, these were the same social-science techniques hitherto employed by political scientists in the study of democracies in the West. Laqueur cites a typical example: a 1988 committee report issued by Sovietologists from leading universities that was “wholly preoccupied with operational definitions of variables, deductive theory, the interaction of multiple factors, predictive underdetermination,” and so forth. “Model mania” is how one longtime non-revisionist Sovietologist diagnosed the affliction that had overcome the profession. Another is quoted by Laqueur ruefully noting the paltry results of all the theoretical toil: “[E]very important event that has taken place in the Communist world within the last few years or so has come as a surprise.” Laqueur is entirely right in saying that the failed track record of Sovietology “raises searching questions concerning the validity of much of contemporary social science.”



Apart from stuffing the heads of undergraduates with a toxic blend of sham history and political-science twaddle, what harm, if any, did all of this counterfeit scholarship wreak?

One count that could be handed down in a jury-proof indictment is that the revisionists provided U.S. foreign policy-makers with a spurious justification for reaching an accommodation with the USSR. To be sure, Richard Nixon’s détente with Russia never rested on such a flimsy footing; Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew their way around the world well enough to elaborate a more convincing (if also ultimately flawed) rationale for their policy. But did Jimmy Carter know his way around so well?

If one recalls Carter’s genuine shock and amazement when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, if one traces the intellectual roots of Carter’s assertion that we were now free “of that inordinate fear of Communism” that had led us “to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear,” and if one flips through the roster of Carter’s gullible foreign-policy advisers like his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, who described Leonid Brezhnev as “a man who shares our dreams and aspirations,” there can be no doubt that many of the revisionists’ false propositions about the USSR had become accepted wisdom in high places during Carter’s presidential term.

In the Reagan years, when the revisionists were largely ignored by the executive branch, they still continued to provide a coherent, if utterly specious, rationale for the chorus of condemnation that greeted Reagan’s effort to challenge the Soviet Union in the military, economic, and ideological sphere. “To believe that the Soviet economy is incapable of an adequate response to President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative,” wrote one prominent revisionist economist in 1988, “is self-delusion.” Fortunately, common sense and moral fortitude won out. By the end of the cold war, all the revisionists had really accomplished was to pave the way for one of the most pathetic scholarly debacles of all time.

Abroad, the revisionist scholarship had the baneful effect of demoralizing Russian dissidents. By the 1970′s, thanks to samizdat and Western broadcasting, Russian intellectual life no longer existed in total isolation from the West; one underground channel or another conveyed what many Western scholars were saying. Sober-minded Russian intellectuals could not help being puzzled, disgusted, and dismayed as they read or heard things like this (from the same revisionist economist): “An egalitarian wage system, combined with subsidized prices for most necessities, fills out the USSR’s institutionalized cushion of economic security which is unmatched in capitalist countries.”

Or like this: “The Soviet citizen—worker, peasant, and professional—has become accustomed in the Brezhnev period to an uninterrupted upward trend in his well-being. . . .”—which is how the political scientist Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University characterized life in the USSR. Conspiratorially-minded Russians, for their part, became convinced that a great number of American professors were “agents of influence” in league with the KGB in a terrible plot to keep Russia enslaved. To this day, many of them fail to understand, as Laqueur points out, that the misjudgments “were self-administered and sincerely believed.”

“Mainstream” Sovietology’s final fiasco came after power passed from septuagenarian Leonid Brezhnev to septuagenarian Yuri Andropov to septuagenarian Konstantin Chernenko and finally to the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev. The presentable new Soviet leader was hailed by the revisionists as the long-awaited representative of a new generation of reformers who at last would return socialism to the more humane and prosperous path that Lenin had envisioned all along, with Princeton’s Stephen F. Cohen the cheerleader performing the most vigorous calisthenics on this count.

To the very end, the revisionists were insisting that Gorbachev and perestroika would prevail. In 1991, the Brookings Institution expert Jerry Hough confidently asserted: “[T]he belief that the Soviet Union may disintegrate as a country contradicts all we know about revolution and national integration throughout the world.” For once, Hough was right. It did contradict everything he and his colleagues knew. By the close of the year, the Soviet Union was no more.

The revisionists, however, many of them tenured, others making foreign policy in the Clinton administration, are with us still.

About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.