Commentary Magazine

Totalitarianism Today

There is an understandable tendency for many in the democratic world to identify the totalitarian phenomenon exclusively with its most dramatic and brutal manifestations: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, China during the Cultural Revolution, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, martial law in Poland. Certainly terror and raw military might are intrinsic to the initial attainment of Communist or fascist domination, and the threat of renewed terror plays an essential role in insuring popular obedience once power has been consolidated. Yet it is not the willingness to employ violence which distinguishes a totalitarian regime from traditional dictatorships of the authoritarian kind. As those who deny the continuing validity of the totalitarian political model never cease to point out, traditional right-wing dictatorships frequently act with abject cruelty in their attempts to subdue political opponents. Rather, the distinctive feature of the totalitarian system, and Communism most notably of all, is the elaborately constructed apparatus of control which is inevitably set in place after the seizure of power.

Among authoritarian regimes, there is nothing comparable to the calculation, creative thinking, and long-range planning that totalitarianism devotes to regulating the most mundane details of an individual’s existence. And while the ultimate goal is nothing less than the wholesale transformation of society, the most important byproduct of what is euphemistically called the “revolutionary process” is to render the party-state practically invulnerable to internal challenge. Where maintaining power is the objective, not even the most vicious junta can compete with the sloppiest totalitarian regime. Poland’s Communists, corrupt, cynical, having failed at every aspect of governing society, were still able to crush an overwhelmingly popular mass movement, and to do so with awesome efficiency. It can thus be said without exaggeration that martial law was the most signal achievement of Communism during its nearly forty years of rule in Poland.

Few Communists, of course, would point with any pride to the reassertion of party domination in Poland; the overriding purpose of party rule, after all, is the prevention of precisely the kind of political deterioration which, in the official view, made General Jaruzelski’s extraordinary measures an unfortunate necessity. For Communists today, the ideal society is not one defined by its vast gulags, but one where people accept the rules and restrictions of the new order as a matter of course. No less an authority than Lenin provided one of the most candid descriptions of how the well-run totalitarian society of the future should function. In a famous passage in State and Revolution, he wrote:

When all have learned to manage . . . the escape from this national accounting and control will inevitably become so increasingly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift punishment . . . that soon the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of everyday social life in common will have become a habit.

This passage ironically was included in the midst of a discourse on the eventual “withering away” of the state, and it is a cogent reminder that the link between Communism and statism was understood from the outset, at least by the more prescient Bolsheviks. Lenin foresaw, and approved of, the bureaucratic methods his successors have perfected in order to execute his system of “accounting and control.” And while Lenin’s vision has yet to be fully realized, the current generation of Soviet leaders still seeks a society where discipline and conformity are the overarching values, a society, in the recent words of a high party official from Estonia, where “every member would unconditionally carry out all rules and commands, do everything he’s supposed to, and not violate any form of discipline. . . .”

There is nothing more fundamental to this official’s “ideal order” than the state’s ability to regulate the movement of its citizens. During their nearly seventy years of rule, the Soviets have developed a series of policies and structures which together have given the state unprecedented control over movements across and within its borders. Nowhere in the world is the role of the border guard as exalted as in the USSR. Where in the United States efforts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to stem the flow of illegal aliens are routinely treated with derision by the press, the Soviet media feature regular accounts of the heroic exploits of the men who guard the country’s sacred soil. Typically, press stories give the distorted impression that the border guards’ major job is keeping subversive elements out, when in fact almost all their efforts are geared to snaring defecting Soviet citizens. The Soviets, moreover, are altogether prepared to share their expertise with fraternal allies. Recently Bulgaria awarded high state honors to the KGB officials who administer training courses for Bulgarian border-guard commanders, citing their “many years of all-’round assistance in perfecting the protection” of the Bulgarian borders.

The Soviets give no less scrupulous attention to regulating their own citizens’ internal movements.1 To this end, the Kremlin requires that all Soviet citizens maintain a wide variety of internal documents. In contrast to the United States, where the Social Security card is the only universal personal document, Soviet citizens must keep an internal passport, work book, housing papers, medical documentation, records of military service, special documents for travel to border regions, vacation passes, and written authorizations granting permission to travel around the country for job purposes. The most important personal paper, the internal passport, is a substantial document, running to fourteen pages and containing such information as the bearer’s nationality, social class, records of marriage and divorce, and information about his work history. The work book contains the individual’s complete job history, including sanctions for poor performance, difficulties with the law, and reasons for leaving a particular job.

Compared with the persecution of a Sakharov or Shcharansky, the internal-documents system is hardly the stuff of high drama. Yet as an instrument of totalitarian control, the internal passport, work book, and other papers occupy a crucial place, as important in many ways as police-state terror. Hannah Arendt described the introduction of the work book as having “transformed the whole Russian worker class officially into a gigantic forced-labor force.” If it is no longer accurate to characterize the Soviet Union as one massive slave-labor camp—as against the approximately 15 million prisoners serving sentences in labor camps at any one time under Stalin, the figure today is about 2 million—the fact remains that the internal-documents system guarantees the systematic intrusion of the state into the most ordinary details of a person’s life. It also has substantially contributed to the attainment of the Leninist Utopia where escape from rules, restrictions, and prohibitions is extremely difficult. A black mark inscribed in a young man’s work book will follow him, from job to job, for the rest of his life, as will descriptions of scrapes with the police or questions concerning his political outlook.

Moreover, the quite particular way in which internal documents are used by Soviet bureaucrats simplifies the implementation of repressive measures which, in less tidy dictatorships, would provoke widespread and unfavorable publicity. The exclusion of ethnic or religious groups from important jobs or university admissions also becomes a relatively routine procedure when the individual’s nationality appears in his internal passport. In addition, the passport system creates daunting obstacles for those with opposition views, whether they be human-rights advocates, religious believers, or independent-minded artists. In a huge country like the Soviet Union, simply meeting and discussing common ideas becomes a formidable undertaking when the authorities maintain constant watch on one’s movements, particularly since there is no such thing as the “right” to move about as one wishes; these problems are compounded by limitations on private automobile ownership and the state’s ability to withdraw the “privilege” of telephone ownership at any time.



Restrictions on internal movement and communication are but one of the problems faced by the democratic opposition in what appears to be a losing struggle for survival. Especially since the accession to power of the late Yuri Andropov, the Kremlin has introduced a series of new measures, or, more accurately, reintroduced or refined old measures, to strengthen the state’s hand in its campaign to eliminate all manifestations of dissent.

The most widely known innovation is the sentencing of political prisoners to terms in mental hospitals, a policy which, typically, has been emulated by a number of satellite regimes. Two important purposes are served by the use of psychiatric terror: first, it injects an added element of fear into the campaign against dissent, since Soviet citizens are all too aware that the “therapy” in Soviet psychiatric hospitals consists almost solely of heavy doses of drugs. Given over an extended period, this “treatment” can produce irreversible brain damage; thus the prospect of a term in a mental hospital is far more frightening than a stint in a labor camp. Second, by packing political prisoners off to mental institutions, the state is able to punish its opponents through exclusively bureaucratic channels, eliminating the need for public trials which sometimes draw the scrutiny of the Western press.

Psychiatric abuse has not been totally ignored; frequent articles have appeared in Western newspapers, and the practice has been condemned by world psychiatric bodies. Considerably less coverage, however, has been given to a number of recent laws and decrees designed to further intimidate the opposition and, as well, to reduce contacts between the Soviet people and foreign visitors. These measures include a broadening of the definition of treason to embrace practically all political offenses, a similar broadening of the interpretation of what constitutes “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” harsher sentences for Soviet citizens carrying out “anti-state” activities with the assistance of funds from abroad (a measure which could be applied to a dissident writer whose works were published in the West, or to Jewish refuseniks receiving money from the United States), and a law which makes it a crime to transmit “work-related” secrets to foreigners. Here again, the definition of work-related secrets is vague enough to be applicable to just about anything having to do with Soviet industry or trade.

The most chilling new law, harking back to similar practices under Stalin, deals with the treatment of prisoners currently serving terms in prison camps. In recent years, failure to obey camp rules was dealt with through administrative sanctions: that is, by a term in an isolation cell or a reduction in the inmate’s pay. Under the new law, prisoners guilty of “malicious disobedience” of camp regulations are subject to criminal prosecution, and prisoners can be given extended terms in the camp on the sole basis of testimony from the camp administrator. This law too has been drafted with purposeful vagueness; “malicious disobedience” can mean whatever the authorities want it to mean, and a political prisoner faces the real possibility of having his sentence lengthened simply for refusing to renounce his convictions.

From a narrowly legal standpoint, the whole series of new laws enacted under Andropov and Chernenko are superfluous, since Soviet legislation dealing with crimes against the state has traditionally been written in such a way as to insure the widest possible application. The major, perhaps sole, intent of the new measures would thus appear to be intimidation. And there is some evidence to suggest that the Kremlin’s strategy is paying dividends. Recently, for example, several prominent political prisoners have issued public recantations in exchange for pardons from lengthy terms in the gulag. Recantations are big media events in the Soviet Union, and are shrewdly exploited for their propaganda value. A public recantation is an especially humiliating experience, as the individual is compelled not merely to renounce long-held political beliefs, but to denounce friends, acknowledge the insidious influence of “foreign” elements in leading him astray, and declare undying love for the Soviet Union and the ideals it embodies. In one incident, a Ukrainian dissident characterized former associates in the democratic movement as “traitors to the fatherland” and a “fifth column” in the country, and declared that the human-rights movement was nothing more than the creation of Western intelligence agencies. Other dissidents were described as lacking courage or the dupes of Western imperialism. The decision to disavow friends and convictions was reached under extreme duress; in his mid-fifties, this man, already serving a long term in the camps, faced the prospect of an additional term for refusing to cooperate and was thus confronted with the prospect of near-certain death in the gulag.



Political dissidents are not the only targets of what some see as the gradual re-Stalinization of Soviet society. While the Kremlin—and, indeed, with the exception of Poland, the Communist world in general—has been highly successful in minimizing overtly political forms of nonconformity, all Communist societies suffer from a striking increase in what is described as a breakdown in socialist discipline. Problems with which Western societies are only too familiar—crime, high rates of divorce, alcoholism, even drug addiction—have become widespread in the Communist world as well. Communist countries, moreover, face an almost universal problem of declining labor productivity, a phenomenon largely caused by the idiosyncrasies of centrally planned economies, but which the Communists themselves attribute to an unwillingness of their workers to work hard enough.

Communist propaganda traditionally insisted that social pathology and worker indiscipline were the exclusive province of the capitalist world, and it is only in the past few years that the Soviets have begun to own up to the reality of their own social crises. More recently, and especially since the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviets have given indications of a determination to attack their social ills through a variety of punitive and intimidatory policies. One sign is the renewed use of one of the staples of the Stalinist arsenal, the anonymous denunciation. The practice of denouncing one’s neighbors, co-workers, or even family members was widespread during the height of the Great Terror. Sometimes denunciations were resorted to as a means of gaining some coveted possession—say, a neighbor’s apartment. More often, however, denunciations served as a form of self-protection, the ultimate demonstration of loyalty to Stalin and the Soviet state. Eventually, denunciations became so pervasive and uncontrolled that the authorities ended the practice.

Today the use of denunciations appears to be winning increased support from the police. In certain cities, forms have been distributed on which Soviet citizens can inform on their neighbors or co-workers without fear of discovery. A new twist has been added. Formerly, the person making the denunciation was compelled to write out the relevant details, thus running some, albeit minimal, risk of being revealed as a snoop. The new forms, however, greatly simplify matters by providing separate boxes listing various offenses which can be checked off by the person making the denunciation. Among the listed categories are: living off “casual earnings,” refusing to pay alimony, having “no place of work,” drinking to excess or using drugs, or, a catchall, violating “the rules of socialist communal life.”

A similar innovation has been developed by the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, as part of a public campaign to ferret out violators of work discipline. The centerpiece of this campaign, dubbed Operation Chronometer, is a coupon, published in various newspapers, on which readers can write in and provide specific accusations against alleged work shirkers and “truants.”

The Soviet Union is not the only Communist country to have resorted to “extraordinary measures” in an effort to deal with mounting social and economic crises. Rumania has conducted show trials for workers found drinking on the job, and has made it a criminal offense for a worker to leave his work station without permission. A series of decrees by the Ceausescu regime has at one stroke reduced the national standard of living while providing harsh penalties for violations of labor discipline. One new law has effectively established a class of indentured servants by tying workers entering the labor market to their first job for five years. Another measure has abolished the minimum pay a worker can earn at a particular job. Nor has the regime ignored the agricultural sector. The size of private plots which collective farmers are entitled to own has been reduced, and peasants have been compelled to abandon single-family houses for multidwelling units.



Regarding freedom of the press, it is only dimly recognized that the kind of censorship exercised by the Kremlin, and adopted by every other Communist country, is distinctly different from the haphazard censorship carried out by non-Communist dictatorships. The term censorship, in fact, is somewhat misleading in describing what exists in the Communist world, since Communist press policies seek not only to prevent the publication of observations or facts which contradict the official position on this or that issue, but also to shape, direct, and manipulate public opinion. News management is, to be sure, a more complicated enterprise than in the past. The endless paeans to the leadership which were once the distinguishing features of the Communist press are no longer acceptable to a better-educated population. Moreover, Communist regimes cannot ignore the reality that their citizens have access to alternative media in foreign radio-broadcast services such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the BBC. The Communist media thus face a formidable task: to convince their citizens of the wisdom of official policies and the superiority of Communism as a system, and to do this cleverly enough to be minimally acceptable to a more critical audience.

Among the Soviet-bloc countries, Poland has for some time enjoyed a reputation for cultural and journalistic independence. Nonetheless, the role of the censor was considered every bit as important in pre-Solidarity Poland as in such bastions of Stalinist orthodoxy as Rumania and Bulgaria. Indeed, as Jane Leftwich Curry points out in a study of Polish censorship in the 1970’s,2 the press was more rigidly controlled during the regime of Edward Gierek, much praised as a “liberal” Communist by many in the West, than during the rule of Gierek’s predecessor, Wladyslaw Gomulka, an obedient follower of the Soviet line. Curry bases her conclusion on an analysis of some 700 pages of documents issued by the Polish censor’s office and smuggled to the West by a defecting censor in 1977. These documents represent a gold mine of information about one of the basic control mechanisms of the totalitarian state.

In Poland, and throughout the Soviet bloc as well, the job of the censor is much simplified by the self-censorship which working journalists accept as a matter of course. By the 1970’s most Polish journalists had lived through some three decades of Communist rule, during which they had learned the futility of attempting to challenge the prevailing doctrine. The state, for its part, could discipline errant writers by denying them jobs or refusing to print ideologically unacceptable articles. Another weapon at the state’s disposal is its monopoly on the supply of paper, which can be withheld from journals that demonstrate too much independence.

Gierek saw the censor as occupying a quite specific position in helping to mobilize public support for the regime’s economic strategy. Whatever legitimacy Gierek earned was predicated on the fulfillment of his vow of economic betterment, particularly for Poland’s restive workers. A crucial element in this strategy was what came to be known as the “propaganda of success,” which amounted to an endless stream of articles and analyses extolling Gierek’s policies and ignoring the nation’s gathering crises. Thus, central to the censor’s mandate was seeing that nothing reach print which could remotely be construed as critical of the economic course or which might raise questions in the minds of foreign investors about the country’s stability. The list of forbidden subjects reached well beyond questions of economic policy, narrowly defined; it included the total elimination of references to environmental pollution, food contamination, agricultural disease, and other health-related issues.

In similar fashion, the censorship system was used to preclude debate on a whole series of social problems. No mention was to be made of the endemic housing shortage, or of the poor quality of newly built housing. Similarly, informed discussion of agricultural issues was impeded by the decision to eliminate references to the fact that private farming performed better than the collectivized sector.



Another subject which drew the censor’s careful scrutiny was religion. While even in pre-Solidarity days the Polish Catholic Church enjoyed a measure of autonomy unknown in other Communist countries, references to the Church or religion in general were frequently changed or deleted. The censorship of religious material went well beyond statements which could be interpreted as critical of Communism; the goal was to keep references to religion, no matter how politically innocuous, to the minimum. For example, churches were denied permission to print cards which could be used by parishioners to inform the priest of their illness. Any mention of the popularity of Church-sponsored activities was forbidden even in the Church press. Also censored were sociological surveys which reported a high degree of religious belief among the Polish people, and statements which appeared to link social problems to a loosening of religious faith, as in the following sentence, which was deleted from a parish bulletin: “The Church sees the cause of all of this [various social ills] in the fact that people have turned their back on Christ. . . .”

The censors also participated in the ongoing process of rewriting Polish history. It was, in fact, instructions to falsify information about the Katyn forest incident, in which thousands of Polish officers, including his own grandfather, were murdered by Soviet troops during World War II, which prompted the defection of the censor who smuggled these materials out with him. In this particular case, censors were compelled to change the date of the massacre from 1940 to 1941 in order to remove any evidence suggesting possible Soviet guilt. Another typical example of the doctoring of historical fact was the purging of positive references to the Polish forces who fought with the Allies at the battle of Monte Cassino from a book of wartime underground writings.

If the Polish censors harbored doubts about the handling of sensitive historical issues, they could, if they chose, turn to their Soviet comrades for advice. The Soviets maintain a large press section in their Warsaw embassy, whose major function is reading and criticizing the Polish press, right down to the regional level. It was not uncommon during the 1970’s, and presumably is not uncommon today, for Polish journalists to receive a telephone call from a bureaucrat in the Soviet embassy with pointed remarks about the treatment of a particular issue. The Soviets also prepared lists of people and events from Soviet history to which no reference was to be made in the Polish press. Whether it was due to Soviet pressure or, and this is more likely, a conscious decision of the regime, the 1970’s brought a notably different approach to the treatment of Stalinism in the Polish press. Where previously it had been common to blame Poland’s difficulties during the early years of Communism on the “excesses” of the Polish Stalinist leadership, under Gierek references to Stalinism were almost automatically expunged from press accounts.

As Curry points out, a more accurate picture of Polish life in the 1970’s could be gleaned from material written by Polish journalists but deleted by the censors than from the distorted pieces which actually reached print. With the single exception of accounts of Nazi brutality during the war, modern Polish history has been thoroughly distorted, reformulated, and falsified. Censorship under Gierek was approached with all the high seriousness of a five-year plan, and was executed with far more success than Gierek’s grandiose economic schemes. Gierek, moreover, invested great hopes in his censorship apparatus. At one time he actually considered transforming the censor’s office into a kind of apprenticeship school for future journalists, who would undergo a period of training as censors before going on to regular jobs on newspapers, journals, and in the broadcast media. Gierek’s plan was never implemented, but there is an unquestionable logic to the notion that, by temperament, experience, and philosophy, no one is better qualified to manage the news in the Communist world than the censor.



If for communism the censor represents the ideal writer, it follows that the atheist represents the best qualified clergyman. With the exception of Albania, which claims to have achieved the first atheistic society and where houses of worship have been transformed into museums of atheism, Communist countries have abandoned, for the time being, the original goal of the total elimination of religion. They are content rather to control religion, and to restrict the Church’s role in society to the most narrow functions. To be sure, Communists continue to hope that at some future time people will simply cease believing in God, and to further this process the Soviets and several other Communist regimes still publish anti-religious propaganda and support “research institutes” dedicated to the propagation of atheistic themes. At the same time, Communist authorities are unbending in the persecution of believers who belong to denominations which refuse to accept state domination. Nevertheless, unless confronted with outright resistance, Communist regimes prefer to control religion rather than suppress it.

Communists today approach the job of controlling the churches much as they approach censorship. The preparation and implementation of policies are carefully planned, and the bureaucracy which monitors the activities of the churches (or “sects” in Communist parlance) is staffed by party officials who, while not zealots, are quite clear about what they want to achieve. For obvious reasons, the bureaucracy which controls the churches in the Soviet Union takes precautions to avoid publicity in the Western press. We are, however, fortunate in having a document which provides valuable insight into the inner working of the apparatus of religious control, a report written by Vasili Furov, deputy chairman of the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, the agency which oversees religious activities throughout the country. The report, which was smuggled to the West, focuses on the current condition of the Russian Orthodox Church, the USSR’s largest denomination and, with 50 million members, one of the largest churches in the world.3

Furov claims, inter alia, that the council “controls the Synod” of the Orthodox Church, reviews the appointments of major Church officials, and approves all decisions before they are acted on by the Church leadership. Although allowance must be made for the report’s generally self-serving tone, its meticulously detailed information about Church affairs suggests that if Furov’s claims are exaggerated, it is only by a little, and that he is probably right in asserting that the Orthodox Church today “is basically a product of the Soviet era.”

The current objective of Soviet religious policy is to transform clergymen into transmission belts linking the state with religious believers. Obviously, the role of the priest in the struggle for “peace” is not ignored. The ideal clergyman is one who can effectively represent the Soviet position on peace at various international congresses and before such groups as the World Council of Churches.

This ideal cleric may believe in God but, according to Furov, he refrains from pressing his convictions on his parishioners with too much enthusiasm. Furov cites the rueful comment of one priest: “Authorities of the state ideological system have succeeded in turning the priests into clergymen. Priests and clergymen—servants of the cult—that is not one and the same thing. The priest is a spiritual man, but the servant of the cult is a tradesman and a wage earner.”

One obvious question raised by Furov’s report is how an official of a state agency got access to the content of sermons and the passing remarks of various priests. The answer is simple. As the report makes abundantly clear, the Council on Religious Affairs maintains an extensive intelligence-gathering operation whose focus goes beyond overtly political questions. The report is replete with gossip about the private lives and human failings of various priests; presumably such information is stored away for future use in convincing priests to adopt a more cooperative attitude in dealings with the state.

The report is also interesting for the light it sheds on the state’s role in influencing the curriculum and administration of Orthodox seminaries. The Council participates in the selection of faculty, helps choose textbooks, determines how Soviet history is to be presented, and even advises Church officials on the preparation of curriculum dealing with religious subjects.

At one point Furov observes that, by manipulating the seminary course material, the state hopes to inculcate in new priests a “spirit of materialism” which “will undercut the religious and mystical ideal of the future clergy” and “bring them to understand their own uselessness as clergymen.” The utter cynicism of this statement should disabuse Westerners of the notion that the Kremlin’s relatively tolerant attitude toward the Church (as compared with its uncompromising hostility in the past) signifies a genuine coming to terms with religious faith.

If more evidence of the unchanged Communist view of religion is required, one need look no further than the Kremlin’s most loyal satellite, Czechoslovakia, where the regime has been forced to contend with a modest revival of interest in the Catholic Church, particularly among the young. An indication of the vast array of weapons at the regime’s disposal can be seen in its current campaign to discourage schoolchildren from attending classes on religious subjects. The centerpiece of this campaign is the establishment of what are known as atheistic commissions in the schools, with teachers as commission members. The commission’s principal assignment is to persuade parents not to enroll their children in religious classes; if the parents balk, they are reminded that religious belief can be a serious stumbling block to university admission or better-paying jobs. Bonuses are handed out to teachers who are successful in minimizing enrollment in religious classes, and there are reports that children who insist on attending religious classes have been subjected to ridicule before their classmates.

These are, of course, mild forms of pressure when compared with other frequently employed punishments—the jailing of believers on charges of smuggling Bibles into the country or the sentencing of priests for performing Mass without “state sanction.” Totalitarian regimes are not alone in their willingness to persecute priests. The strict and scrupulously enforced regimentation of religion is, however, a purely totalitarian innovation. And so, for that matter, is the peculiarly totalitarian capacity to harass, humiliate, taunt, and discriminate against children for no other reason than an avowed belief in God.



An argument that is frequently advanced against the usefulness of the totalitarian model is the thesis that the admittedly reprehensible course taken in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is not being copied by “revolutionary” regimes in the Third World. Thus the refrain that Cuba, or Vietnam, or Grenada, or Nicaragua is pursuing a “different” road to socialism, one designed to avoid the “pitfalls” of Soviet-style repression and overbureaucratization while respecting the cultural and historical traditions of the particular society. Yet when one examines the techniques of domestic control—the keys, really, of the Communist system—the overriding reality is the similarity in the pattern of totalitarian development between the Soviet Union and Marxist and radical Third World regimes. And the great disparities in geography, culture, and level of economic development make the similarities all the more striking.

If anything, indeed, the policies adopted by Cuba and Vietnam more closely resemble those which obtained in the regimes of Eastern Europe in the early, formative years of Communist control than the less oppressive atmosphere which has prevailed since the death of Stalin. The pattern is distressingly similar: reeducation for those who refuse to conform or whose class backgrounds are suspect; vast concentration camps which provide a pool of slave labor for the public-works projects that will form the infrastructure of the new society; hostility to private property—including home ownership and the right to keep a few farm animals; persecution of the churches; transformation of independent trade unions into state-controlled labor fronts; establishment of neighborhood surveillance committees; subjugation, repression, and expulsion of minorities who do not “fit in.”

A clear parallel can be discerned in the approach to political reeducation. A Vietnamese official, writing in the People’s Army Publication, described the process in words which have a decidedly Leninist ring:

Reeducation is a meticulous and long-range process. Management must be tight, continuous, comprehensive, and specific. We must manage each person. We must manage their thoughts and actions, words and deeds, philosophy of life and ways of livelihood, social relationships and travel. . . . We must closely combine management and education with interrogation.

Accounts of life in the Vietnamese gulag are grimly reminiscent of the prison-camp literature written by the unlucky victims of assorted other Communist regimes. Much emphasis is placed on confessions; prisoners must write and rewrite their life histories until a document with the proper class perspective is achieved. The confessions are then read before the assembled camp administrators and prisoner population, and prisoners are encouraged to criticize the confessions in such a way as to foment hatred among fellow inmates. Further to discourage prisoner solidarity, inmates are constantly shuffled from one camp to another, a procedure which makes it extremely difficult for relatives to maintain contact with husbands, fathers, or brothers. The more gruesome details of camp life—backbreaking work, wretched food, general squalor, widespread use of torture—are distressingly familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with accounts of camp life in the Soviet Union, China, or Eastern Europe.



In building up its police-state, Vietnam has clearly drawn inspiration from its sworn enemy, China, which remains a strong totalitarian society. “In its regimentation and singular lack of privacy, life in China is not much different from life in an army barracks,” concluded New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield after completing an assignment there a few years ago. The pivotal figure in the Chinese system is the party secretary at the workplace or enterprise level. Each workplace retains a sealed file for each worker in which is recorded such information as the party’s evaluation and any political charges brought against the individual by anonymous informers. The file also contains the worker’s class background for three generations—whether his father or grandfather were landlords, capitalists, or peasants. The worker cannot marry or divorce without the party secretary’s permission; he must also obtain permission for something as seemingly routine as traveling for more than one day.

Another important mechanism of state power is the urban street committee. The committees have wide authority; they combine the functions of employment agency and housing authority. Committee members have the right to enter a person’s home at any hour; they also report to the authorities on such intimate matters as presumed sexual liaisons between unmarried Chinese. The street committees also check women’s menstrual cycles; if a woman’s period is late, she is instructed to obtain an abortion. (Conversely, in Rumania, where abortions are illegal, a new policy now being implemented requires women factory workers to obtain blood tests each month; if those found to be pregnant are no longer pregnant a month later, they are liable to penalties.)

Cuba is also notable for its determination to intrude into the private affairs of the individual. Fidel Castro’s persecution of homosexuals has been much commented on, and is one aspect of his rule which has alienated, minimally, his supporters on the Western Left. But two points about Castro’s anti-homosexual policies need to be emphasized. The first is that while, as apologists for the regime often point out, a contempt for homosexuality is not unknown in Latin American culture, only Castro has actually translated these prejudices into a national policy of outright persecution. The second point is the legislative overkill employed to insure that no manifestation of homosexual conduct go unpunished. A vast body of law has been enacted in whole or in part to deal with homosexuality, much of it based on laws adopted in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including the Law against Extravagance, the Law against Public Scandal, the Law on Dangerousness, the Law on the Normal Development of Youth and the Family, and the Law on Pre-Delinquency, a measure which categorizes the homosexual not only as immoral but as a potential criminal subject to punishment if he cannot be found guilty of specific criminal acts.

In general, politics determines just about every aspect of the individual Cuban’s private life: the choice of a marriage partner, a decision to seek a divorce, where one lives and works, the friends one associates with. Being seen with the wrong people can have unpleasant and long-lasting consequences. Each person applying for admission to a university or even trade school must submit documentation on his political reliability. These forms are completed by members of the Committee in Defense of the Revolution, the ubiquitous cadre organization which constitutes the basic layer of the totalitarian state. A typical form, in this case for an institute for fishermen, asks such questions as: “Does he [the applicant] associate with people unfriendly to the Revolution?” “Do you know if the comrade holds religious beliefs?” “Does he maintain relations with persons from abroad?” “From what country?” “Does the comrade associate with antisocial elements?”



And what of Grenada and Nicaragua, the most recent models of Marxist-Leninist experimentation? In Grenada, a combination of factors prevented Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Movement (NJM) comrades from advancing to the goal of a Sovietized social order. This failure should not, however, obscure an understanding of the NJM’s long-range intentions. By October 1983, when the Grenadian revolution devoured itself, the New Jewel regime had already managed to destroy the independent press, expand the police and army (and launch an ambitious indoctrination campaign aimed primarily at the security forces), initiate island-wide domestic surveillance, seize the leadership of most trade unions, and jail several hundred Grenadians on political charges (taken proportionately, the number of political prisoners would have amounted to tens of thousands in the United States). As for their future plans, documents uncovered by the invading forces leave no doubt that Bishop and his colleagues were dedicated Communists, that in foreign affairs the NJM was firmly set within the Soviet orbit, and that the kind of society it wanted to build differed little from what exists in Bulgaria or East Germany.4

The plans for domestic surveillance were quite thorough. Principal targets were schools, churches, neighborhood organizations, and trade unions; anyone indiscreet enough to criticize the regime at the wrong forum often found himself imprisoned without charges. Reports on the political situation in each section of the island were filed by the security forces; these reports were minutely detailed, listing by name each person deemed hostile to the revolution. The Grenadians were also eager to obtain the advice and assistance of more experienced Soviet-bloc countries for a wide variety of undertakings, including the establishment of an apparatus of repression. They turned to the Vietnamese, no less, for assistance in setting up a program of political reeducation and to help devise “methods of dealing with lumpen elements.”

The Grenadians likewise sought counsel from fraternal allies in their struggle to emasculate the churches. Even though the Grenadian churches never played a militant opposition role, the NJM perceived organized religion as an obstacle to the consolidation of social control. The regime monitored church services, kept tabs on those who met with the religious hierarchy, and apparently tapped the telephones of church officials deemed to have joined the counterrevolutionary camp. The Grenadians also asked the Cubans to share what they had learned while successfully stripping the Catholic Church of its role in civil society. The Cubans recommended, as first steps toward taking control of the churches, that a New Jewel official responsible for religious affairs be trained in Cuba and that a formal registration of churches and other associations be set up, a totalitarian device used throughout the Communist world as a means of subverting and dominating previously independent institutions.



A pattern of steady totalitarianization is also proceeding apace in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, many in the United States seem ignorant of or oblivious to the accumulated evidence of an emerging Soviet-style dictatorship there. In certain circles an attitude of “Let Nicaragua be Nicaragua” seems to prevail, the underlying premise being that if only the CIA and the contras would stop their harassment, then the pluralistic instincts of the Sandinistas would somehow prevail over their Leninist convictions.

The notion that American imperialism is responsible for the despotic path taken by the Sandinistas is as absurd as the thesis that the United States is to blame for the renewed Soviet crackdown on the dissident movement. Nor is the fact that the Sandinistas have moved only rather cautiously toward a Sovietized social order an indication of an underlying desire to follow a different and more democratic path to socialism. A number of East European regimes were cautious in the introduction of Communist policies; the fact that the Sandinistas have proceeded at an even slower pace is primarily due to the inescapable realities of geography.

The basic instrument of social control in Nicaragua is the Sandinista Defense Committee, an institution patterned after the Cuban Committee in Defense of the Revolution. The committees are run by Sandinista loyalists, and exist in most neighborhoods, especially poor neighborhoods. Like similar organizations in other Communist societies, the committees dispense housing and jobs, and control many aspects of daily life. In one other revealing way are the committees similar to the cadre structures in certain Communist regimes: like those postwar East European regimes in which members of the political police were drawn largely from the ranks of former Nazis and fascists, many Sandinista Defense Committees have come to be dominated by former Somoza supporters, men and women who have found that snooping and spying can be a rewarding enterprise in dictatorships of both Right and Left.

The Defense Committees derive much of their power from their control over the distribution of ration coupons. Americans tend to identify rationing as the ultimate reflection of Communist economic failure; in fact, rationing can be a highly effective means of coercion. “A formidable form of blackmail,” is how Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban exile writer, has described rationing. “When you go with the rationing book to get your quota, you have the impression of being alive thanks to the government’s generosity. . . . If you rebel, you can be left without food or clothing.” In Nicaragua, too, the regime is making deliberate use of the rationing system to impose its will on the people. For example, workers are “asked” to participate in midnight-to-five work details in their neighborhoods. These projects often have no economic rationale; their purpose is to make workers more open to Sandinista propaganda, to convince the people that the Sandinistas are securely in control, and that to resist their will is futile. Those workers who do balk often have their ration coupons withheld. Alternatively, they may find themselves the target of the turbas, or mobs, organized bands of Sandinista thugs who carry out extralegal enforcement jobs for the regime. (An interesting parallel is the workers’ militias which played an essential role in the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.)

In education, indoctrination is the order of the day. Children are force-fed propaganda claiming that the Sandinistas are the only legitimate force in society. The much-heralded literacy program has been used primarily as a vehicle for such indoctrination and mobilization. The program’s director has stated that “There is no education that is not political.” Given the literacy campaign’s essentially political mandate, it is hardly surprising that many observers are now raising serious questions about the program’s educational achievements. On several occasions the regime has also made threatening gestures toward a takeover of the Catholic schools. Although spared for the moment, these schools are subject to constant inspections to determine if their curriculum conforms to Sandinista policy; the inspection teams include officials from Cuba and even the Soviet Union.



Lenin’s vision of a society where all would voluntarily yield to the dictates of the state has thus far eluded his successors. Some opposition has managed to survive, and in attempting to influence events in the Communist world, the democracies are not without resources; they may even soon find new means of undermining Communist rule through developments in the communications revolution.

We are, however, talking about nibbling at the margins of totalitarian society. The fundamental fact remains that, once in power, no Communist regime has yet to be dislodged by internal forces alone. As hated as Hudson Austin and Bernard Coard were after the murder of Maurice Bishop, they and their well-armed security forces could easily have held power had opposition been limited to the Grenadian people.

Today, then, the test of a serious anti-totalitarian policy lies in Nicaragua. Thus far, the Sandinistas have failed to win absolute domination over Nicaraguan society. For this, much credit is due to the twin pillars of internal opposition: the Catholic Church and the newspaper La Prensa. Nonetheless, a crucial part has been played by forces outside the country, by the contras, and by American foreign policy, a policy which has sought, in part, to prevent a consolidation of Sandinista power.

However, the main goal of American policy seems to be to stem Nicaraguan intervention in El Salvador and other Central American countries. This is a worthy goal; but there would be serious repercussions if a noninterventionist Nicaragua were to become the sole aim of American policy. Indeed, a few of the Sandinistas’ shrewder American supporters are now saying that while the U.S. has a legitimate interest in a Sandinista agreement on hemispheric noninterference, we should abandon any effort to compel the Sandinistas to adopt some form of pluralistic government.

If the United States were to accept such a formula, the likely consequence would be the entrenchment of yet another totalitarian regime in this part of the world. Despite efforts to camouflage their real nature, the Sandinistas in fact appear to be rather orthodox Communists, deriving inspiration from Cuba, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union, lining up with the Soviet bloc in the struggle against “imperialism,” and harboring strong prejudices against institutions which have somehow evaded state-party control. Left unmolested to pursue their own revolutionary path, the Sandinistas’ course of action is all too predictable: the Catholic Church will be destroyed as an independent institution; La Prensa will be closed; the property of the middle class will be expropriated; agriculture will be collectivized; restrictions on internal movement and emigration will be imposed; “reeducation” and concentration camps for political prisoners will become a distinct possibility.

In the words of Alfonso Robelo, a former member of the post-Somoza Nicaraguan government who has since joined the exile opposition: “If the United States allows the ‘Finlandization’ of Nicaragua—that is, a situation where the present regime is accepted as long as it doesn’t try to expand—then the Nicaraguan people are finished.” The entire history of 20th-century totalitarianism, including its softer present-day manifestations in Eastern Europe, bears these words out and demands that they be heeded by the United States.




1 For a fuller discussion of the Soviet internal-documents system, see The Other Establishment by Thomas B. Smith, Regnery Gateway, 205 pp., $18.95.

2 The Black Book of Polish Censorship, edited and translated by Jane Leftwich Curry, Vintage, 451 pp., $8.95.

3 The Furov report has appeared in the United States in the publication, Religion in Communist Dominated Areas.

4 See The Grenada Papers, edited by Paul Seabury and Walter A. McDougall, Institute for Contemporary Studies, 346 pp., $16.95.

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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