Soviet Politics: At Home and Abroad. Frederick L. Schuman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.
Professor Schuman has written a comprehensive volume on Soviet politics that will remain the representative treatise for quite some time to come. An introductory part, subtitled “A Book of Origins,” deals with Marxism and its penetration into Russia, with the background and career of Lenin, the history of the Russian Communist movement, and the victory of the revolution, and with those factors of Russian history that still are determinants in the period of Soviet rule. The principal part, “A Book of Peace and War,” presents Soviet political history, the development of institutions, and the policies, both foreign and domestic, from the victory of the October Revolution to the end of the Second World War. The concluding part, “A Book of Prospects,” deals with the outlines of post-war politics as far as they have become visible and with the probabilities of internal development and foreign relations of the Soviet Union in the future.
The amount of material digested in these more than 600 pages is enormous; and every one who wishes to inform himself on any aspect of Soviet politics (with the exception of economic problems and institutions, which are excluded from treatment) will do well, as a first approach, to consult this volume.
It was not the purpose of the author, however, to present a piece of original research; the scope of the volume reflects rather the intention “to see steadily and to see whole the total fabric of Soviet politics, from the barbarian migrations to the Changchun Railway Co., from Marx in the British Museum to the Soviet Intelligentsia, from peasant rebellions to collective agriculture, from Portsmouth and Brest-Litowsk to Potsdam and Lancaster House.” This plan, rather of encyclopedic synthesis than of intensive monographic study, does not, however, prevent the author from treating certain aspects of Soviet constitutional life, to which he draws specific attention (xv), with a thoroughness surpassing earlier attempts.
The materials are presented with the intelligent vivacity that we can expect of Schuman. A conscious care for style is visible. In the formulation of terms and titles the author resorts frequently to the artistic device of alliteration that is known to the reader of his earlier literary productions. We find again such old friends as the forces of fear, fraud, and favors by which rulers keep their subjects in obedience; and we encounter new recherche coordinations like “Cipangu and Cathay” (for Japan and China) reminiscent of Marco’s account of his call on the khan at the court of Cambaleschia. The book is written throughout with a deliberate mellowness that will make its message tasteful to many.
Beyond this point the reviewer is somewhat at a loss about a critical evaluation of the volume. It is a book of opinion, not of scientific analysis. The facts are reported correctly, with a few negligible exceptions, but the interpretation does not conform to any standards of scientific method. The objectivity for which the author has striven is not one of science but of political judgment. Under these conditions there is not much sense in stating agreement or disagreement concerning specific propositions, and we might well conclude at this point.
Nevertheless, Schuman’s approach to politics is of a certain importance both because it is representative of a trend in contemporary political science and because the resulting picture of Soviet politics might influence a considerable public. A few reflections on the author’s aims and the means employed in their realization will, therefore, be appropriate.
What the author considers a sympathetic, objective analysis of the Soviet system is in fact a skillful apology. How in good faith is that identification of objectivity with apology possible? It is possible because Schuman proceeds on the tacit assumption that a rational, scientific approach to politics does not exist. People are for or against the Soviet system for emotional reasons, and objectivity consists in striking a middle course between unconditional Marxist praise and unconditional anti-Marxist antipathy.
The attitude expresses itself in a complete disregard for the considerable literature on Marxism and Russian events written from a well-elaborated theoretical position. The reader will search in vain in Schuman’s book for a justification of the author’s position as against the positions of such writers as Notzel, Gurian, Maritain, or Berdiaev, to take a few examples. Instead he will find the author engaged in achieving a more unbiased view than that provided by the “sick soul” of Max Eastman, or the charming “crypto-Fascist” Clare Luce, or Hiram Johnson “who died, as he lived, in his sleep,” or the “Menshevik” Dallin.
The author has succeeded, indeed, in steering a safe course between the Scylla of adulatory comrades and the Charybdis of enemies of the system or, as he would perhaps prefer to formulate it, between the Daily Worker and the Dies Committee; still, we shall not be surprised that an objectivity resulting from an equidistance from two parochialisms does not rise very high above the level on which the exaggerated distortions occur. In order to illustrate the result, I shall comment on a few of the points that attracted my attention in the chapter on “The Soviet State.”
(1) On pages 291 ff. the author discusses the election system of 1918, with its method of indirect election, under which the lower Soviets send delegates to the next higher, through a hierarchy of four levels, up to the central representation. Schuman compares this system with the indirect election of the United States Senate and president under the constitutional provisions of 1789 and with “the traditional form of American political party organization.”
The comparison, which obviously tries to engage the reader’s sympathy, is mistaken. In the first place, the Russian indirect system was applied, not to a Senate or president, but to a body that functionally would correspond to the House of Representatives. In the second place, the American indirect election has one level of indirection, and not four like the Russian, for the vast majority of the electorate; and third, the election to a representative legislative body is one thing, while an internal party organization is quite another.
Moreover, the method of election of 1918 is not at all inspired by Western models but is an adaptation of the electoral law of June 3, 1907, which Stolypin devised in order to get rid of the liberal membership of the first and second Dumas. The electoral body was split by Stolypin’s law into four colleges of landowners, urban population, industrial workers, and peasants. The election was made indirect, with three stages for workers, four for the peasants. The electoral procedure of 1918 abolished the landowners and nonproletarian urban population but retained the device for workers and peasants. The arrangement permitted Stolypin to manipulate the representation in the desired direction, and the Communist Party used it with equal success.
If I remember the figures correctly, the ratio of Communists to non-Communists at the lowest level of Soviets was 1 to 9, while in the central representation this ratio was inverted. Presumably Schuman chooses to omit this Russian context of the 1918 election procedure because he prefers to arouse in his readers associations with American democratic procedures rather than with the tsarist tricks for the prevention of democracy. The “facts” are rendered “correctly” by the author, but the interpretative wrappings may arouse misgivings among “crypto-Fascists.”
(2) On page 291 we find the sentence: “Like the Congress of the United States, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets and its CEC were vested with enumerated powers (Articles 49-52), but since they were of very broad scope and included ‘altering and supplementing of the Constitution,’ this legislature resembled more closely the British Parliament which, in theory, possesses unlimited sovereignty.” Again the attempt to arouse sympathy by comparison with American and British institutions is obvious. The trick lies in the equivocal use of the term legislature. The Russian “legislature” of 1918 resembled in no way the American Congress or the British Parliament except in the scope of its jurisdiction. But on the point of jurisdiction, there is no difference between Parliament and an absolute monarch. The relevant differences, may I suggest, lie elsewhere.
(3) In discussing the constitution of 1936 on page 301, the author considers Article 141, which vests the right to nominate candidates for election in various organizations of the working people. He omits to state that there is also an Article 126, which provides that the Communist Party forms “the leading nucleus of all organizations of the toilers.” Instead he stresses that “in contrast to the United States, where citizenship is defined by the federal constitution and suffrage by the States within the limits of federal constitutional restrictions, both citizenship and suffrage in the USSR are defined in the Union Constitution.” The net impression is that the election of representatives based on general suffrage is in Russia better secured than in the United States. The fact that the nomination of candidates is controlled by the Communist Party is suppressed. Otherwise the “facts” are reported with scrupulous correctness.
(4) On pages 304 ff., in discussing the federal organization of the Soviet Union, the author says, “The greatest glory of the Soviet State is its achievement of effective equality in rights and opportunities for peoples of all races, languages and cultures. Under the formula of a new civilization ‘national in form and proletarian in content,’ each ethnic group has been guaranteed cultural autonomy and local self-determination within the political and economic framework of Soviet society.” The facts again are correct. But there is a noticeable absence of comment precisely where it would have been necessary to explain that “national in form and proletarian in content” means in practice the ruthless extermination of national culture, of the social form as well as of its spiritual expression, insofar as it is incompatible with Communism as a creed and as a political and economic form of society. And all national culture is incompatible except language and perhaps a few customs on an innocuous folkloristic level.
If we do not hear more of the unspeakable misery inflicted by this “greatest glory,” which resulted, for instance, in the wholesale massacre of nomads who did not care to become factory workers, the reason is that the nationalities in question are mostly on a primitive level, which prevents them from being sufficiently vociferous to be heard beyond the Soviet border. In one instance, that of the Volga-German Republic, the destruction of national substance does not seem to have been quite successful. The republic was dissolved in September 1941, when the German armies approached; its territory was divided among neighboring republics, its population was deported to Siberia. The necessity for this measure might give food for thought, but Schuman disposes of it incidentally as “a disregard for constitutional niceties” (314).
Moreover, he does not relate what would have been most pertinent in this context, that Stalin’s policy concerning nationalities was evolved on the basis of his critical study of the Austrian problem of nationalities. The fact that the Austrian Social Democrats did not organize as one party but preferred to form their respective Czech, German, etc., Social Democratic Parties aroused Stalin’s disapproval. The mistake was not to be repeated in Russia. I wonder whether the genesis of Stalin’s policy was suppressed by Schuman because it would have been a bit difficult to explain why the growth of national culture in substance, which characterized the Austrian development, constituted inequality and serfdom, while the destruction of the substance by Communist intellectuals in the Soviet Union constitutes equality and freedom.
(5) The author gets into a fix on pages 321 ff. in explaining the unanimity of Soviet elections, which smacks strongly of the unanimity achieved by the National Socialist government on similar occasions. The parallel is not denied, but the author resorts to minimizing its significance: “Electoral unanimity is an old Slavic custom, long antedating Sovietism and Marxism. It is reflected in the procedure of the ancient Russian Veche or assembly and in the liberum veto of the Polish Diet.” The Russian vieche as an institution has nothing to do whatsoever with the Polish Diet and its liberum veto, and neither institution has anything to do with the unanimity secured by the pressure of a totalitarian party. In this groping for support at all cost, even factual correctness is surrendered.
These points should be sufficient for the purpose of illustration. They are not isolated instances; the entire book would require a similar sentence-by-sentence commentary. Moreover, only points were selected that lent themselves to a comparatively brief analysis. They are by far not the worst that occur in this chapter. They were, furthermore, chosen from the chapter on constitutional questions because in the field of institutions and legal provisions there is comparatively little leeway for extravagant interpretation. The well-circumscribed facts and the rigidity of legal concepts make it easy to detect and reveal the disregard for reality. Subject matter that requires a more complex conceptual apparatus for its interpretation offers more ample opportunities for the type of apology Schuman undertakes; but the unraveling of his propositions concerning personal motives, political intentions, historical causes and effects, religious experiences, political ideas, etc., would be a task beyond human powers. What goes on in some of the chapters would definitely be worth attention, but it defies analysis within the space of a review. I can only assure the reader that it is hair-raising.
The tensions between apology and science that pervade the book can be fully understood only by the professional scholar. Nevertheless, even the layman who will read the book primarily with a pragmatic interest in current politics will get an inkling now and then of the problems involved, for the author very considerately caters to this interest by bringing his story up to date. As a matter of fact, I have never seen a book quite as up to date as this one. On page 545 we find, “The USSR, Britain, and the United States, along with all other victims of the Nazi assault on civilization, were necessarily preoccupied in 1945-46 with de-Nazifying Germany, punishing war-criminals, collecting reparations, and rendering the Reich militarily impotent.”
The events of 1946 are reported in the past-tense in a book that was released on February 11, 1946, while the sentence presumably was written before January 1, 1946. In this case there is perhaps some hope that the post-diction may prove correct when we consider it on December 31.
In his elaborate interpretations of postwar Russian policies with regard to the area south of the border from Creece to Cathay,1 however, the author may have run ahead of events in the wrong direction. In these days, when secret agreements pop up before breakfast, when the several secret services waltz separately around each other and all together around the atom bomb, when dark things are going on in Iran and Manchuria, and when in general history happens much faster than even a brilliant intellectual can write, the layman may read about these matters any day in his morning paper and then resort to Soviet Politics in order to experience the unholy joy of catching the author with his comments down.
My typewriter had an acute attack of alliteritis.
We cannot close without giving consideration to an argument that pervades the whole book and forms the cornerstone of the apology: the misery inflicted by the Soviet regime on the Russian people and the terroristic suppression of all opposition that arouse the resentment of the West have to be understood as a reaction to the threatening attitude assumed by the outside world toward Communism since the October Revolution. The experience of intervention and the later fear of attacks on the part of Western powers motivated the building of the industrial apparatus and of the war machine at the tremendous cost of human happiness. The policy was amply justified by events, and we have all to be grateful to the Soviet leaders for the foresight that enabled them to stop the German attack.
Hardly anyone will disagree with Schuman’s political judgment concerning the importance that the Russian military performance had for us; none of us cares to imagine what might have happened if the Russian front had cracked. So far, so good. But while the time span of a decade may limit the horizon of a political intellectual who wishes to plead a cause, the political scientist has to place the events into a somewhat larger context of historical time. And while the scientist will agree that in the short term the Soviet policy was justified, if ruthless, in face of the Nazi menace, he will also have to raise the question whether the Nazi menace would have arisen at all if Marxism and the victory of the October Revolution had not been introduced as determining factors into Western politics.
In the perspective of a century we have to say that the socially disruptive and irresponsible gibberish of half-baked intellectuals about class wars and dictatorships of the proletariat has created the symbols and evoked the patterns for the solution of political problems that, once they are launched on their public course, are at everbody’s disposition. They can be used not only by the intellectuals who created them, and not only in the interest of the class for which they were originally meant; they can also be used for mobilizing the war of the lower middle-class against the proletariat and for the establishment of fascist dictatorships.
Once the patterns of violence and atrocity are set, one never can know what effects they will have. The ways of causation in these matters are tortuous and often incredible. Those who scream today in horror at the Nazi gas chambers, for instance, might read with profit Mein Kampf in order to learn when and where Hitler’s idea of judicious extermination of political enemies by means of poison gas germinated (Reynal and Hitchcock edition, p. 984).
The paths that lead from the Communist class-war to Fascism, however, are not so obscure. Anybody who cares to study the intellectual biography of Georges Sorel will recognize the transitions. And there is a direct relationship between the fasci of industrial workers, founded in the 1870s in the Romagna by Bakunin and his friends during the expansion of the First International, and the fasci of the Romagnole Mussolini whose parents grew up in this environment.
The book under review shows no traces that the author is aware of such connections; there is no awareness that the deeds of hatred have a habit of growing into further deeds of hatred with an increasing ferocity; and there is no awareness that the end of this chain of intensification may not have been reached. Not only is there no such awareness, but Schuman adopts an ethics of raison d’etat that connives unconditionally in atrocities and approves the pattern of hatred. Political necessity justifies the means as long as the end is Communism.
When, for instance, the idea of a Communist society and proletarian dictatorship runs into the reality of the independent Russian peasantry, who after all are the majority of the Russian people, political necessity does not require that the Communist intellectuals beat a retreat and leave the peasants alone when the intellectuals cannot influence them by persuasion; political necessity requires that the peasants be butchered in the name of the holy class-war until the survivors see the light and let themselves to be organized in collective enterprises.
The continuation of the apologetic game into such situations, the disrespect for the victims of a historical catastrophe, and sometimes even a tone of flippancy in the face of their suffering are truly regrettable features of the book. They will arouse the revulsion of many readers, who for their “sentimentalism” will promptly be classified as “crypto-Fascists” by the author, and they will arouse an apprehension of the Nemesis that will overcome the intellectuals of whom the author is representative.
In spite of all that had to be said, Schuman’s book is the outstanding treatise on Soviet politics and by far the best that can be recommended to the reader for information on this subject. Let us be clear, however, that this recommendation is the worst condemnation conceivable of the present state of political science.
This excerpt is from Selected Book Reviews (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 13). Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, pp. 138-46.