To the Editor:
The articles by Bertram Wolfe and Richard Lowenthal in your August issue (“The Durability of Soviet Despotism” and “The Permanent Revolution Is On Again”) present an interesting contrast in method; it would perhaps be going too far to suggest that their methods lead them to differing conclusions, since both are wise enough in the perverse ways of history to leave their conclusions partly implicit and altogether conditional. Wolfe seeks to develop a theory of totalitarianism as part of a general theory of the historical development of societies, and from it to deduce what may be expected of one particular totalitarian state.
The search for general laws of this nature is always a tempting one; the broader the sweep, the more fascinating it becomes—and the more dangerous. For there are few aspects of the past which are not susceptible of diverse interpretations, and each way of seeing the past has different implications for the present. Thus Wolfe says that Western monarchical absolutism had a continuity of several centuries; to another observer, it might appear that absolute monarchy was something which had to be achieved again and again by strong kings, and was in most instances soon submerged again by the forces of nobility and church, gentry and burgherdom. (It is interesting to compare the fluctuating relation to the monarchy of these independent forces, each capable of being alternately its prop against another and of using the accretion of strength thus gained to threaten it in turn, with that which Lowenthal points to between the Russian regime and its four pillars of party, police, economic bureaucracy, and army.) Thus the absolutism of William the Norman collapsed within a generation after his death; rebuilt by Henry II, it was surrendered again by his son John Lackland at Runnymede, and on the average had to be rewon every other generation thereafter.
Similarly, one may wonder whether the continuity of the Roman Empire was really that of a single system, or whether it represented a succession of systems ranging from the oligarchic centralism of Augustus to the anarcho-feudalism of the Emperors of the camp. Indeed, one lesson which might be drawn from past systems—Roman and West European alike—is that the agents of power sooner or later become its possessors in their own right. If they are broken as a class, as they were in England after the Wars of the Roses, in France after the reign of Louis the XI, or in the Soviet Union after the Great Purge of the thirties, their successors soon take on their characteristics and again become a repository of independent power. Nor is this a process confined to tyrannies, as anyone who has had the occasion to deal with democratic governments can testify!
Where Wolfe tries to derive the laws of Soviet totalitarianism from those of history, Lowenthal tries to discover them by an examination of the details of recent Soviet history. Certainly his interpretation of Khrushchev’s policies is a plausible one; it is borne out by the charges which have appeared in the Soviet press that the defeated faction had wanted to subordinate the party to the government. And his estimate of the possible future role of the army seems eminently reasonable—though I think that the evidence points to a somewhat more active role for Zhukov in the major post-Stalin crises than that which Lowenthal as signs to him. But is it quite correct to interpret Soviet history in terms of “the logic of self-preservation of the party regime”? Has there really been a party regime any more than there has been a “police regime” or a “bureaucrat regime”? Or has each of these aspects not come to the fore at one time or another, either as the chosen instrument of a personal dictatorship, or as the momentarily dominant partner in a situation in flux? Indeed, did the party really exist as a significant factor in the years between the Great Purge and the death of Stalin, even in the limited sense in which the secret police have continued to exist since the fall of Beria? Or was its former role taken over completely by the police, in that period when thirteen years elapsed between party congresses, the Central Committee had fallen into desuetude, and Politburo members were too busy trembling for their heads to raise a voice in council? But the technical and administrative bureaucracy did exist; bureaucrats can die, but bureaucracy is immortal. And it seems to me that the control of the party over the bureaucrats is bound to be a limited and ephemeral thing—unless the bureaucrats take over the party. For if the party secretary is to be responsible for the economic achievements of his region, he will be directly dependent on the technicians and administrators who must produce those achievements; a technocratic influence which previously found expression chiefly at the center will be transferred to every level of the party, whatever Khrushchev intends.
Maurice J. Goldbloom
New York City