What you now see as a change for the worse (“Stalinism”) is really a change for the better in knowledge on your part.
—Vladimir Nabokov to
Edmund Wilson, 1948
The events of the past year in Central and Eastern Europe have unfolded so swiftly and with such cinematic surrealism as to have left, amid the celebration, a good deal of intellectual confusion. How can forty years of history have been erased overnight, repudiated as if by reflex? Many in the West seem to have had no inkling that the peoples of Eastern Europe, inured to the false promise of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “democratic reforms,” would insist instead on democracy itself, and, at the first opportunity, tear down the scaffold of Communism. Some have credited the resultant burst of freedom to Gorbachev alone, or to some hitherto unacknowledged power of renewal within the Communist system. What they have forgotten, or never knew, is that the seeds of revolt were planted the instant the Soviet imperium first sprang into being.
We can all, it appears, use a refresher course in 20th-century history, and there is no better curriculum than a number of books, testaments really, written by those who witnessed the Communist empire as it formed, intuited the shape it would take, and tried to warn us against its perils. These classics of anti-Communism were once better known, but in the last twenty years or so they have fallen into near-oblivion. Four in particular cry out for appreciation today: Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom; Milovan Djilas’s The New Class; the collection edited by Richard H.S. Crossman under the title The God That Failed; and Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind.
The authors of these works all observed Communism when its prestige was great and its power ascendant. Some lived near the centers of its strength; a few stood face to face with its potentates. All aimed their urgent messages to readers in the West, where illusions about Communism were deep-seated. Each has much to tell us about the world that is ending and about the new one waiting to be born.
Of the four, The Road to Serfdom is probably the least known today, though it caused a stir in England and the United States when it was published in 1944, and in the 1970’s and 80’s, thanks to samizdat, it found a second life in Eastern Europe.
The historical moment in which The Road to Serfdom was conceived and written accounts, in part, for its special relevance today. For, like us, Hayek’s readers had arrived at the threshold of a new, ambiguous era. World War II was winding down, although it was not yet over. The United States and Russia were emerging as superpowers. In England, where Hayek, an Austrian émigré, had been living and teaching as an economist for more than a decade, hard times were in the offing. There would be shortages and rations. The resurgence of the Labor party was a foregone conclusion.
This last development worried Hayek because he had noticed that British public opinion—“particularly among my friends who held ‘advanced’ views on social matters”—seemed curiously sanguine about the dangers of collectivism, despite the bitter examples of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia. Although many “progressives” had sobered up briefly at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, as soon as the Soviet Union parted company with the Axis powers and joined the side of the Allies, they reverted to the fashionable belief that Communism and fascism were, as world views, diametrically opposed, one the harbinger of the shining future, the other the final gasp of the wicked past. At a time of war between them, it was distinctly unfashionable to dwell on disturbing resemblances between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.
Yet this is what Hayek now did. Both systems, he pointed out, were authoritarian. Both disdained “bourgeois” liberalism. Above all, both were rival forms of socialism (the word “Nazi” itself was an abbreviation of “National Socialist”), united by their “common hostility to competition and their common desire to replace it by a directed economy.”
Given the enormity of the political crimes being committed in Germany and Russia, it might seem bathetic to have singled out their economic policies for opprobrium. But Hayek did so for a reason. He wanted to locate the ideological place where Western idealism intersected Eastern totalitarianism. That place, he wrote, was incontestably their mutual enthusiasm for social planning, and specifically economic planning. For among the entire range of socialist ideals, the planned economy was the most widely endorsed and seemed most likely to become a reality in the free democracies. In the United States, planning of a sort had already been introduced via the New Deal, and England was sure to follow suit. Indeed, by the time Hayek began to assemble notes for The Road to Serfdom, “it was already fairly obvious that England herself was likely to experiment after the war with the same kind of policies which I was convinced had contributed so much to destroy liberty elsewhere.” (In fact, Britain soon nationalized its railroads, inaugurated a national health plan, and wobbled onto the path of collectivism.)
In a key chapter entitled “Planning and the Rule of Law,” Hayek pointed out that to the missionaries of the planned economy, a disinterested legal system, with its delays, its rigmarole, its hair-splitting, loomed as nothing more than an obstruction. The late 18th- and early 19th-century fathers of socialism, horrified by the furies unleashed by the French Revolution of 1789, had hoped to bottle them up by building a society that was stable, orderly, rational—and “frankly authoritarian.” Freedom of thought, to them, was “the root evil of 19th-century society.” They “had no doubt that their ideas could be put into practice only by a strong dictatorial government.”
It was only later, as the revolutions of 1848 neared, that socialists applied to their thinking the varnish of democratic rhetoric. Labeling themselves proponents of a “new freedom,” they heralded the “science” of a centrally directed economy that would eliminate social disparities. But, as Hayek argued:
What the promise really amounted to was that the great existing disparities in the range of choice of different people were to disappear. The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth. But the new name gave the socialists another word in common with the liberals, and they exploited it to the full.
The idea of the planned economy, in sum, despite its overlay of democratic rhetoric, was inherently tyrannical, and fatally at odds with pluralism, independence, and “the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides.”
Hayek himself was convinced that the genuinely admirable ideal which socialists espoused—namely, equality—could in fact be attained. Not, however, through the flimflam of scientism, the pieties of universal uplift, or the coercions of statism, but through commerce—that is, competitive capitalism. In our own time, what has excited the Eastern Europeans about The Road to Serfdom is no doubt Hayek’s jubilant depiction of the free-market economy. He wrote not only as an economist who considered it sound and just but also as a rapt student of cultural tumult. Like Whittaker Chambers, another believer in capitalism’s catalytic powers, Hayek relished the hurly-burly of the free market, the social kinesis it created. It was, he pointed out, commerce that had softened the rigid class divisions of pre-industrial Europe, instilled in the poor the hope, often realized, of vaulting up the social ladder, brazenly put a price on things and thereby placed them within plausible reach of nearly everyone. Money, wrote Hayek in a remark that would have pleased Balzac, “is one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man.”
This exuberant materialism has now been loosed in Eastern Europe. We see it in the entrepreneurial energies blossoming in Warsaw and Leipzig, in Budapest and Prague. Placards in Moscow read: “Socialism? No Thanks.” It is more than a slogan; it is the culmination of disgust with fourteen Five-Year Plans, including the latest, Gorbachev’s. An implicit tribute to the wisdom articulated by Hayek, the placards serve as a rebuke to those still-dominant elements among our own spiritual elite who remain enmired in the myth of socialism’s “new freedom.”
Months after The Road to Serfdom was published, Stalin prepared to seize the nations of Central Europe, henceforth known as Eastern Europe. By 1949, with the ascendancy of Mao Zedong, the road to serfdom stretched from Berlin to Beijing.
How would these spanking new socialist states work? It was a question Hayek, in England, could not answer. But others could, and did, none more cogently than Milovan Djilas. Born in Montenegro in 1911, Djilas reached manhood in the early 1930’s, a time when many European writers were trying to reconcile literary and revolutionary ambitions. Djilas did so with rare success. While an undergraduate in Belgrade, he won renown for his early poems and fiction; at the same time he joined the (illegal) Communist party. He went underground, rose to a position in the party’s central committee, and, when war came, commanded partisan troops that fought the Nazis. When the air cleared, with Tito’s Communist party in control of Yugoslavia, Djilas took his place in the cabinet.
So close to the action, he saw too much, and by the early 1950’s began to doubt. His open criticism of party bureaucracy cost him his job and, in periods of imprisonment totaling nine years, his freedom. During this time he wrote memoirs, fiction, and studies of Communism, most famously The New Class (1957).
In this book Djilas explained exactly who had come to compose the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The greatest illusion of the Communist revolution, he wrote, “was that industrialization and collectivization in the USSR, and destruction of capitalist ownership, would result in a classless society.” Instead it created (rather as Hayek had suspected) an entirely new caste—of apparatchiks, political bureaucrats. They descended from the functionaries of Lenin’s reign, professional revolutionaries reared within the narrow cloister of Bolshevism, “distinguished by a special discipline based on identical philosophic and ideological views,” bound by a “unity of belief.” What was more, whereas “bureaucrats in a non-Communist state have political masters, usually elected, or owners over them, . . . Communists have neither.”
The chief exemplar of the new class was Stalin, who possessed a gift, even a genius, for bureaucracy. Djilas met him often enough to compose a memoir about their têtes-à-têtes (Conversations with Stalin, 1968) and came away convinced that Stalin was not only a “relentless dogmatician and a great administrator” but the “lawful although wicked offspring” of the revolution, the logical successor to Lenin, perfectly cast as the guarantor of the party’s hegemony. Like Hayek, and unlike many in the West to this day, Djilas maintained that the reputed Stalinist saboteurs of “true” Communism were, in fact, its dearest progeny.
With Stalin’s death in 1953, the new class took on a new identity. Exhausted by purges and paranoia, it sought peace and comfort in “collective leadership.” This led to the generation of potentates whose repudiation we have seen in the past year. Few (with the obvious exception of Ceausescu in Romania) were dictators on a Stalinist scale. But they were, nonetheless, powerful men, fortified (as Djilas wrote) by “one specific form of ownership—collective ownership—which the class administers and distributes in the name of the nation and society.”
The brutal farce of postwar Communism appalled Djilas, although not enough to dislodge his faith in democratic socialism. Yet he was too honest and too outraged to seek refuge in the myth of a Communist Eden betrayed, or despoiled by interlopers. It was not a glitch of history that made the dictatorship of the proletariat a dictatorship plain and simple. As Stalin was the stepchild of Lenin, so Lenin had been heir to Marx, who was himself the architect not only of Communist theory but also of its ingrained dogmatism, which could brook no dissent.
Still, if this monomania contained the germ of despotism, its trespasses also inspired an opposition that could never be fully eradicated. A professional politician, Djilas saw that the “collective leadership” could amass power but not authority. The new class was insulated from its subjects and therefore also estranged from them. Writing at the apogee of the Communist empire, Djilas predicted its inevitable defeat in passages that today ring with prophetic portent. Thus: “Communist regimes are a form of latent civil war between the government and the people.” And thus: “Spontaneous resistance—the dissatisfaction of millions with the everyday details of life—is the form of resistance that the Communists have not been able to smother.” And, most remarkably, thus:
Just as personality, various social classes, and ideas still live, so do the [subjugated] nations still live; they function; they struggle against despotism; and they preserve their distinctive features undestroyed. If their consciences and souls are smothered, they are not broken. Though they are under subjugation, they have not yielded. The force activating them today is more than the old or bourgeois nationalism; it is an imperishable desire to be their own masters, and, by their own free development, to attain an increasingly fuller fellowship with the rest of the human race.
“It is not difficult,” wrote Friedrich I Hayek, “to deprive the great majority of independent thought. But the minority who will retain an inclination to criticize must also be silenced.” Alas, Hayek reasoned from first principles and not from hard evidence, for in the West it was precisely the minority schooled in criticism who led the parade to the Communist altar and tremblingly yielded up their independent thought. A skeptical student of modern liberals put the matter this way: “We are at heart so profoundly anarchistic that the only form of state we can imagine living in is utopian; and so cynical that the only utopia we can believe in is authoritarian.” So lamented the American intellectual Lionel Trilling in 1948, the year the Soviets blockaded Berlin and sent tanks into Czechoslovakia. It was not the Czechs or Germans whom Trilling had in mind but his own colleagues, many of whom never quite accepted that the utopian promise of the Soviet Union had been delivered in the totalitarian form of labor camps and mass murder.
Trilling himself had briefly flirted with the new faith, but by the 1940’s lost patience with intellectuals who continued to feign innocence long after the brutal shocks of the 1930’s, from the show trials to the Hitler-Stalin pact, had become common knowledge. This perverse tropism did not infect “ordinary” men and women—sharecroppers and factory hands, the proletarians idealized by socialism but seldom attracted to it. Even in the labor unions, the one area of American economic life penetrated by Communists, the party scored few successes within the rank and file and had to load apparatchiks into executive positions or at the head of bogus “front” groups. It was literary men and women who plunged into the party’s humbling ablutions.
“Why do I long for Communism? Because I believe it to be equitable and because I suffer on account of the injustices which I feel more strongly than ever when it is myself who am favored.” So wrote Andre Gide in notes published in The God That Failed, an anthology of essays by six writers (in addition to Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender) who had leaped into—and then out of—the fiery furnace. Gide’s irony typified the stance of ex-Communists; in fact, irony was a motif that ran arterially through their confessions. This, plus (as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out1) the confessors’ as-yet-undimmed enmity toward capitalism, lent cachet to the book when it was published in 1950. Yet as the very title of The God That Failed suggested, it was not irony that drove literary Communists (and fellow-travelers) to the party but, precisely, a yearning for faith. “The party became family, school, church, barracks,” wrote Silone. “[T]he world that lay beyond it was to be destroyed and built anew.”
These intellectual abdicators of independent thought eventually awoke to find themselves in limbo, bereft not only of their new pieties but of the old humanism which had left them, after all, susceptible to the manipulations of the party. This point would be made most eloquently by Whittaker Chambers in the statement he delivered to the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1948 and later in his autobiography Witness (1952); but Chambers, a self-professed “man of the Right” and no ironist, adopted a tone of Christian penitence. Arthur Koestler, whose message about Communism hardly differed from Chambers’s, struck a more palatable tone, self-mocking, almost apologetic. In a key passage in The God That Failed, Koestler wrote of the “lesson” taught by the Spanish Civil. War and other follies. That lesson
always appears under the dowdy guise of perennial commonplaces: that man is a reality, mankind an abstraction; that men cannot be treated as units in operations of political arithmetic because they behave like the symbols for zero and the infinite, which dislocate all mathematical operations; that the end justifies the means only within very narrow limits; that ethics is not a function of social utility, and charity not a petty-bourgeois sentiment but the gravitational force which keeps civilization in its orbit. Nothing can sound more flat-footed than such verbalizations of a knowledge which is not of a verbal nature; yet every single one of these trivial statements was incompatible with the Communist faith I held.
Perhaps the most illustrious of all contemporary Eastern European émigrés is Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet, born in Lithuania, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 and has held, for nearly thirty years, a professorship at Berkeley. He first became known in the West as the author of The Captive Mind, an account of intellectual life in the Eastern bloc. It is one of the great documents of the postwar era and grows more illuminating with each passing year. But when it was published, in 1953, it baffled many American reviewers. Some were convinced either that Milosz was a bad writer or that he had been poorly served by his translator.
What confused them was Milosz’s sensibility, which translated poetic intuitions into airtight logical arguments. This brand of verbal economy, whose highest expression is found in Franz Kafka and Robert Musil, may be peculiar to Central Europe. Today’s reader of The Captive Mind himself becomes a captive of Milosz’s mordant aphorisms and elegant mental swoops. Where one expects an indignant cri de coeur, often one is treated instead to something akin to Zeno’s paradoxes.
An example is Milosz’s reflections on the phenomenon of “socialist realism,” the official literary style of Stalinism: “Poetry as we have known it can be defined as the individual temperament refracted through social convention. The poetry of the New Faith can, on the contrary, be defined as social convention refracted through the individual temperament.” Were these words intended in jest, as a witticism? By no means; in fact, Milosz was taking pains to demonstrate the feature of Marxist doctrine that was most overpowering to an artist living in Communist society, namely, its precise formality. This, more than fear, was what turned artists, whose only weapon was intuition, into apparatchiks. They were not so much bullied as mesmerized.
Milosz did not apologize for writers who caved in to the party, but he tried, as few others have done, to put us in their shoes. We tend to forget that for every Joseph Brodsky, every Vaclav Havel (both of whom sat in jail cells), there were hundreds of smaller talents, equally besotted by the vision of beauty, equally betrothed to the European tradition, yet unable to resist the demands of their political overseers. The temptations were many, especially for those stranded at the base of Parnassus, for in “the people’s democracies” anyone “who displays any talent is used.” Indeed, “the capacity to follow the political line is a selective criterion by which the most mediocre [artists] attain the greatest renown.”
But material rewards alone seldom sufficed. Pure cynics aside, most artists under Communism, according to Milosz, cultivated an advanced form of deception, sophisticated doublethink. Outwardly they embraced official dogma; secretly they tended their inner flame. It was a risky masquerade but its practitioners were filled with satisfaction, even pride, at their ability to “say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one’s adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one).”
Milosz likened this elaborate dumbshow to the Islamic tradition of ketman, developed by heretics who, in order to save their skins, concealed their true convictions from religious authorities. In Eastern Europe, he wrote, the burlesque grew into a national institution. Millions participated—not only writers but everyone who at bottom opposed the indignities of totalitarian rule.
The world now knows just how thorough the deception was. Ketman was practiced so skillfully in the Eastern bloc that for two generations the commissars were fooled. Nor were they alone. In the West, many intellectuals and policy-makers had succeeded in persuading themselves that the regimes of Eastern Europe, unpleasant though it must have been to live in them, nevertheless enjoyed, or had earned, a certain legitimacy—and besides, who were we, with so many sins of our own, to find fault with them?
When, therefore, Gorbachev embarked upon his cosmetic reforms in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, he was not the only one astonished to discover that he had stumbled into a full-scale revolt. Yet he, and his Western well-wishers, should have known better. That revolt was long in preparation, as the anti-Communist writers—often to the jeers, and worse, of their fellow writers—foresaw so many years ago.
1 See “Why The God That Failed Failed,” in The Bloody Crossroads (1986).