Commentary Magazine


The Road to Gdansk, by Daniel Singer

Crisis in the East

The Road to Gdansk.
by Daniel Singer.
Monthly Review Press. 256 pp. $15.00.

For a movement which took pride in its respect for freedom of expression and theoretical inquiry, the New Left contributed surprisingly little to the development of political ideas. One sure sign of its intellectual limitations is the almost complete absence of serious writing on the nature of left-wing totalitarianism. In marked contrast to the 1930′s, when a small but influential segment of the Left played a crucial role in analyzing and exposing the crimes of Stalinism, contemporary radicals, with very few exceptions, have turned their backs on the debate over Left totalitarianism. True enough, the anti-Stalinist wars of the 1930′s took on a special urgency for non-Communist radicals, who saw the emerging Soviet system as a terrible curse which would inevitably haunt democratic socialists as well as the Communists themselves. But this in no way absolves the New Left from its failure to confront sins committed in the name of revolution by its own pet politicians or regimes—Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, various Palestinian and Arab groupings being among the most prominent. While the New Left’s creative talents were not muzzled by an official party line, an unofficial line, often as obediently followed as if an ideological commissar were issuing decrees, set the boundaries of debate concerning authoritarian regimes of a “socialist” persuasion. Under the rules of this collective self-censorship, pro forma, limited criticism of specific abuses of civil liberties was permissible; thoroughgoing examination of the dynamics of totalitarianism was not.

A similar self-censorship or, more accurately, lack of interest, is evident in the Left’s attitude toward the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Left has not been alone here, of course. Until last summer’s upheavals in Poland, systematic investigation of possible sources of instability in the Soviet empire was regarded as off-limits by an ideologically broad spectrum within the foreign-policy establishment.

One of the few exceptions has been a small group of Marxists, mostly Europeans and Soviet-bloc émigrés, who have been observing and writing about developments in Eastern Europe with particular emphasis on dissident tendencies within the working class. Well before the Polish eruptions these young radicals were arguing that discontent within the industrial work force posed a formidable, and quite possibly explosive, problem for the Kremlin. Although this thesis might seem predestined, given the authors’ radical sympathies, their conclusions are supported by exhaustive research into the history of labor unrest in the Soviet bloc and some perceptive observations on the functioning of totalitarianism at the work place.

It is unfortunate that the most useful work of these anti-totalitarian radicals is so often accompanied by, and sometimes buried beneath, a simplistic and thoroughly obsolete vision of global politics. Daniel Singer’s latest book is so pervaded by a romantic, “Third Camp” (between East and West) mindset as effectively to undermine his more worthwhile perceptions. Born in Poland, Singer was educated in the West, and worked for a number of years as East European correspondent for the Economist (London). Singer has interviewed many of the key figures in the Polish Solidarity and dissident intellectual movements, and he devotes two of the four essays which comprise The Road to Gdansk to developments in that country.

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But it is the prospects of significant worker upheaval in the Soviet Union which most concern Singer. He believes that, in the period since the relaxation of the Stalinist terror, Russia has maintained a state of relative industrial calm through an informal social contract with its workers. For its part, the Kremlin has provided a decent level of social-welfare services and a steady, if unspectacular, rise in the standard of living. The regime has also moderated the more draconian restrictions on the mobility of workers and has tolerated a work-pace in the factories that is far less demanding than in previous times. In return, the workers have refrained from challenging the leadership’s political authority, accepting, among other things, trade unions which represent the interests of the state rather than the workers.

This arrangement proved satisfactory as long as high growth rates enabled the regime to keep its part of the bargain. But it is becoming increasingly clear that further progress can be achieved only through far-reaching changes in economic policy. An abrupt slowdown in growth, diminishing returns on capital investment, and a growing shortage of the industrial labor supply—already serious impediments to economic progress—will become critical problems by the mid-1980′s, just about the time a new, post-Brezhnev leadership assumes power. Moreover, these problems will be further compounded by the Soviet Union’s official ideology, a cornerstone of which is Communism’s uninterrupted march toward abundance.

This looming crisis presents the leadership with a real dilemma. The Kremlin may well seek to finesse Its economic difficulties by adopting one or a combination of quick-fix strategies—cybernetics, a massive step-up in the import of Western industrial technology, and a moderate level of decentralization being three likely possibilities. Ultimately, however, economic reform cannot succeed unless it is combined with far-reaching democratizing measures, an unlikely prospect because of the dangers this would pose to the control of the party bureaucracy. The only remaining alternative to economic decentralization and political reform, according to Singer, is an abrogation of the social contract through imposed measures to increase worker productivity combined with a reduction in the level of consumer spending.

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Although Singer acknowledges that the Stalinist system has outlived Stalin, he is dubious about the Kremlin’s ability to revive the tight control over the working class which prevailed during Stalin’s reign. Where Stalin ran roughshod over a docile, ignorant, and terrorized proletariat of largely peasant origin, the current leadership must deal with workers who are much better educated and far less fearful than their fathers or grandfathers. Because of limited educational opportunities and a system which reserves the majority of university positions for the offspring of the intelligentsia, many Soviet workers are overqualified for the jobs they perform and bitter about the lack of opportunity built into the Soviet system. Consigned to jobs well below their potential capabilities, workers deeply resent the hypocrisy of official pronouncements which proclaim them to be the owners of Communist society. Thus where the threat of the Gulag was once an effective means of enforcing workplace discipline, today reimposition of labor coercion might well push workers into open and possibly violent opposition.

Singer is well aware that episodic strikes or riots will produce little in the way of broad reform unless these scattered manifestations of discontent evolve into an organized opposition. But because its class identity has been shattered by years of totalitarian repression and manipulation, the Soviet proletariat is incapable of organized response, at least for the present.

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A disciplined and democratically-oriented Soviet working class could develop if the Polish experience proved transferable to the Soviet Union and to other Soviet-bloc regimes. Here Singer emphasizes the fact that the achievement in Poland of a trade-union movement independent of party and state—unprecedented in the Communist world-was the culmination of a decadelong struggle, during which the workers had ample opportunity to test the limits of their strength and develop a cadre of sophisticated leaders. This process began in 1970, when thousands of workers rioted over massive increases in food prices. Although that uprising cost the lives of hundreds of workers, ultimately the workers achieved a stand-off with the regime. Not only was the top leadership of the Communist party reshuffled but, more significantly, henceforth the workers were to enjoy what amounted to an effective veto over key areas of economic policy. This veto was successfully exercised in 1976, when planned food-price increases were hastily rescinded after several days of protest. At the same time, a number of the most talented dissident intellectuals began to focus their attention on the defense of workers’ rights, initiating a process of cooperation between worker and intellectual which has been one of the remarkable features of the Polish democratic movement.

Singer takes the Polish experience a step further, suggesting that the transformation of East European society will be forged by a coalition of a class-conscious proletariat and an avowedly socialist intelligentsia. Aside from the omnipresent menace of Soviet tanks, the major obstacle to this ambitious program is the East European people who, Singer admits, do “not seek inspiration in what [they] still view as the creed of [their] class enemy.” To overcome this understandable resistance, Singer says that those sharing his Marxist faith “will have to invent a new language” and “redefine the road leading to social equality, to the abolition of classes and the withering away of the state, taking into account past errors and the unpredicted complexity of modern society.”

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In a previous book concerning the momentous European upheavals of 1968, Singer wrote that the French student uprising and the Prague Spring were fundamentally reflections of the same struggle. His views on this subject remain unchanged today. The West is still seen as a corporate-dominated, essentially undemocratic, and only slightly less malign twin of the Soviet Union. Like most Third Camp purists, Singer seems to believe that his rejection of the powerful elites who hold sway on either side of the Elbe requires a high degree of intellectual courage, much in contrast to those who, like the French New Philosophers, have thrown in their lot with Western “imperialism.”

Actually, Singer has selected a rather easy path, one which permits him to duck responsibility for facing up to the hard questions that will determine the future of Poland and the Soviet Union as well. If one stubbornly persists in believing that Western democracies are as illegitimate as the Soviet Union and its satellites, or nearly so, it is a simple matter to avoid such issues as the proper Western response to Soviet expansion, whether the West should help bail the Poles out of their economic mess, or whether we should permit the export of high technology to the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, perhaps Singer’s even-handed distaste for East and West is the price he must pay in order to reach people who persist in seeing the specter of McCarthyism lurking behind any hint of criticism of the Soviet Union. Twenty-five years after the Hungarian revolution and forty years after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Daniel Singer still feels compelled to remind the Left that “the discarding of mythical models and the recognition, however belated, of crimes committed in the name of socialism are indispensable steps on the road to recovery.” We should give Singer credit for understanding his audience, though his undertaking would appear foredoomed as an exercise in futility. Overwhelmingly, the Western Left has regarded Poland as a side show to the far more tantalizing issue of American “aggression” in El Salvador. If support is voiced for the embattled Polish workers or the even more vulnerable dissident intellectuals, it is usually motivated by a fear that Soviet intervention, as a recent statement issued by a group of American leftists put it, “will strengthen the hand of those advocating U.S. military interventionism.” For these people, anti-Americanism remains a far more enticing value than the prospect of Poland’s transformation from totalitarianism to democracy.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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