Commentary Magazine


The USSR & the Future, edited by Leonard Schapiro; and Polycentrism, edited by Walter Z. Laqueur and Leopold Labedz

The Future of Communism

The USSR and the Future: Analysis of the New Program of the CPSU.
by Leonard Schapiro.
Praeger. 324 pp. $6.00.

Polycentrism: The New Factor in International Communism.
by Walter Z. Laqueur and Leopold Labedz.
Praeger. 261 pp. $4.50.

Generations of philosophers have underscored the old wisdom that just as one can never step twice into the same river, so in the flux of history there is nothing constant save the constancy of change itself. It should come as no surprise in the 1960′s, therefore, to observe signs of change even within that leviathan known as the Communist bloc.

The facts of Communist change are puzzling only to people who subscribe to the Communist ideology or the inside-out version of anti-Communist ideology (evidently including some key U.S. government officials), and who, in either case, can see nothing but the rigid conformity of Communism to the Marxist-Leninist plan (something that has never yet happened in history). Up to now the inside-outers have taken the easy course of denying the evidence of Communist change, in order to avoid the trouble of rethinking their preconceived notions. The two books under review should be required reading for such people.

Admittedly, it is hard to know exactly what is happening in the Communist bloc because of the lack of unrestricted access, official control of public communication, and the mythical character of official statements. The Kremlinologist must work by inference from scraps of information and misinformation, somewhat in the manner of the specialist in medieval history. But, like the historian, he can often come to substantial truths. Both the Schapiro and Laqueur-Labedz volumes are remarkable examples of this difficult art.

A particularly weighty but medieval piece of evidence about the Communist bloc is the new (1961) Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly this was a basic, epochal document, the first such since the long disregarded Party Program of 1919. Its meaning—or lack of meaning—has been thoughtfully analyzed topic by topic in the collection of critical essays by the eminent British Soviet historian, Leonard Schapiro, and his associates (mostly British and emigré Russian scholars).

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The Schapiro essays make it startlingly clear that the 1961 Party Program is no long-term guide in the literal sense, but merely a propagandistic position paper of the moment, distinguished more by its theoretical confusion and manipulative contrivances than by any genuine insight into the present and future of Communist society. The core of the Program, no doubt, is the “transition from socialism to Communism,” suggesting that Soviet Russia is about to pass the threshhold into the blissful Marxian millenium. In reality these terms are only the cloudy expressions of the official mythology, manipulated to cloak the managerial industrialism of Soviet society in a suitable garment of Utopian phraseology. When checked against the specific points in the Marxist dream, we find that the Party Program has redefined every substantive point, so as to evade the whole purpose of the movement’s founders. Will money and inequality be abolished in the future “Communist” realm? No, because incentives must be kept, and some people with higher “requirements” will continue to be more equal than others. Will the state wither away? Only by transferring its functions to another organization with the same powers and a different name (“public self-government”). For the time being it is “the state of all the people”—an utterly un-Marxist expression, whatever its other implications. The Communist party, never mentioned by Marx in his plan for the future and hence not required to wither, is now declared to be a permanent fixture for the “Communist” order, and therefore we need look for no real diminution of totalitarian dictatorship.

Perhaps more immediate import can be seen in the Program where it reflects the growing centrifugal strains in the bloc of Communist countries. Here the crucial question—seemingly one of rabbinics or scholastic theology—is whether the official “transition to Communism” can be accomplished by one country at a time as soon as it is ready, or whether the transition must await the readiness of the entire bloc to embark upon it simultaneously. A very perceptive article by Christian Duevel in the Schapiro volume shows how the Program reflects Khrushchev’s views of 1958 and 1959 on the “more or less simultaneous transition to Communism.” However, the text of the Program in 1961 adds the qualifying phrase, “within one and the same historical epoch.” What does this word game signify in reality? Disagreement between Soviet Russia and China, on the entirely different plane of practical economic aid. To hold that “Communism” had to be achieved simultaneously implied a commitment by the more advanced “socialist” countries to help the less developed ones construct the “material-technical foundations of Communism” and thus hasten the day when the whole bloc could go over the top. In 1958 and 1959 Khrushchev offered a theoretical promissory note as a gesture of conciliation toward his restive Chinese allies. By 1960 the power rivalry between the two Communist giants was overt and verbal within the councils of the movement, and Khrushchev suspended his Chinese aid program. Accordingly, the theory of the simultaneous achievement of “Communism” had to be loosened up, so that Russia could shrug off its aid commitments and let a whole “epoch” of untold decades or centuries intervene between the Soviets’ imaginary claim of “Communist” perfection and any admission that the Chinese had reached the same level of virtue.

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The “transition to Communism” issue is but one example of the theoretical and tactical gyrations which the Communist movement has had to perform under the impact of international differences and rivalries within its once monolithic structure. This tendency toward national autonomy and “polycentrism” within the movement has been studied by numerous writers, but one of the most far-sighted and comprehensive treatments of the whole question is the volume of articles from the London bimonthly Survey brought together by Walter Z. Laqueur and Leopold Labedz. The editors and their associates—British, American, French, and West German experts, for the most part—have probed every aspect of the “polycentric” trend, in every quarter of the globe, to produce a complex but rewarding picture of the events, ideas, and circumstances which are disrupting the Communist movement at the present time.

The term “polycentrism” was coined by the free-wheeling Italian Communist chief Palmiro Togliatti in 1956. The word was a little too frank and has gone out of official Communist favor, replaced by vague references to “autonomy” and “equality” among the Communist parties, but the facts of polycentric development in the movement have grown even more undeniable (both to its leaders and its enemies). To be sure, polycentrism does not mean that Communist unity has suddenly been shattered or that open warfare is likely to break out between the chief Communist powers. Polycentrism clearly does mean, however, that the binding leadership and total doctrinal authority which the Soviet Union was able to impose on the international Communist movement throughout the era of Stalin has now come to an end. We can date this either from the consolidation of Mao’s regime in China in the early 1950′s, or from Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign of 1956. Whatever its motives, and they remain somewhat obscure, de-Stalinization had a shattering effect on international Communist discipline (and to some extent on loyalty). The central authority with its binding theoretical manipulations ceased to exist. While Stalin’s dictation of ideology is gone, the Khrushchev regime, as Melvin Croan notes in Polycentrism, has not even managed to work out a theory to describe its leading role in the movement. In effect, the leaders of most of the Communist governments and of most of the non-governing Communist parties are free to work out their own plans and their own destinies, though of course many of them owe their leading positions to Stalin’s favor, and they continue to move with their old momentum in the same general direction of policy and doctrine. The important point, however, is that Communist disunity is potentially far more extensive than the Russia-China cleavage.

One entirely novel development is the emergence of new Communist or pro-Communist movements—particularly in Africa or in Latin America—into a Communist world which has lost its old power to impose strict international conformity. The Polycentrism contributors find that Castroism and West African Marxism, in particular, are free to adapt to local conditions or pursue their own idiosyncrasies—just as the Russians did in the first place after their own revolution. The new movements of Communism-gone-native have a better chance to succeed than did earlier Communist efforts under the dead hand of Stalinist centralism, but as they succeed they are subject to less and less control, discipline, or theoretical guidance on the part of the Soviet Union. The Russians are reduced to treating their Communist brethren as they would any susceptible neighbor, through diplomacy, pressure, aid, trade, or perhaps even force. With heightened differences and crumbling discipline inside the Communist bloc, it becomes difficult to draw a line between Communists and non-Communist revolutionary nationalists. Both the inner bonds and the outer limits of the movement have become hard to define.

The contributions both in The USSR and the Future and in Polycentrism point emphatically toward the prospect of further doctrinal decay and international disunity within the Communist movement. Under these circumstances, a semblance of unity within the bloc can be preserved only through the toleration of ever greater national variations. This is the price that Khrushchev has paid, for instance, in his recent rapprochement with Tito, admitting in effect the old Yugoslav demand of “separate national roads to socialism.” But beyond this, even the goal of “socialism” is becoming subject to diverse national definitions and redefinitions. It is doubtful whether there is any longer a binding Marxist unity in the Communist movement. Instead we see a plurality of Marxisms, all distorted one way or another from the original, and each one more and more difficult to reconcile with the others within the limits of one consistent faith.

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