The late Ernest Gellner, a life-long anti-communist, deplored the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Here he explains his regrets-for those in the east who have had their moral universe shattered, and for those in the disorientated west who have jumped to the wrong conclusionsby Ernest Gellner / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The manner of the dismantling of the Russian revolution may come to be seen as a disaster comparable only with the revolution itself. I do not wish to be misunderstood. I write as a life-long anti-communist and anti-Marxist. For a person of my age and background, I belong to what sometimes felt like a small minority of people who never passed through a Marxist phase. As a schoolboy in wartime England I was powerfully influenced by Arthur Koestler and George Orwell; later, Karl Popper made the strongest impact on me in philosophy, and Raymond Aron in sociology. The toolbox of the halftrack I drove to Prague for the victory parade in May 1945 contained four books: Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Orwell’s Animal Farm, the now forgotten but then widely discussed Managerial Revolution by James Burnham, and Cyril Connolly’s Unquiet Grave.
Yet I deplore the disintegration of the Soviet Union; not because I ever sympathised with the ideology which had inspired it, but because of concerns about the need for continuity. Marxism had provided the societies under its sway with a moral order-a set of moral values which helped people to orient themselves. They knew what the rules, the idiom and the slogans were. These added up to a system you could understand and adjust to, whether or not you approved of it. An east European living under communism who confronted a person from the free world had a measure of dignity: deprived of many civil liberties, and a western standard of living, he nevertheless belonged to a rival civilisation-one which stood for something different. It had not been doing very well, by its own standards or by most others. But that had not always been obvious and no single individual had been personally dishonoured by the historic mistakes which had led to communism. Today, a typical east European is simply a very poor cousin. If he is an intellectual, his best prospect is temporary or permanent migration. East Europeans do not represent a failed, but important, alternative; they represent failure by the standard norms.
Meeting them, you feel a certain embarrassment-a bit like what you might feel in the presence of a person suffering from a disfiguring physical ailment. In the past, he could decently hide it by his clothing; but now, for some reason, he is obliged to lay it bare, and you are obliged to observe it-and he knows it. Imagine you were living in a Catholic country, without being a believer in any way. Over the years, as a matter of courtesy, you have developed a habit of referring with respect to your neighbours’ beliefs and practices. In formal discussions, you do not hide the difference between your convictions and theirs; but in everyday life, “in front of the children,” you subscribe to the polite convention of equality-in-difference. Then, one day, there is an internal crisis in the Vatican and the Holy Father declares that the Catholic faith must be abolished; it was based on an error. This is the predicament of former communists.
They had either believed, and now stand exposed as fools; or they had not, and are now revealed to have been opportunists, hypocrites, or cowards. The faith had permeated their lives to such a degree that it became part of their identity. What or who are they now? When talking to ex-communists, you fear to meet their gaze lest they read in your eyes the question: were you a fool or a coward? Institutionally imposed faiths confer an identity on their captive client?le: if the faiths suddenly disestablish themselves, they betray their adepts, leaving them naked overnight. Not all faiths do this. (There ought to be a law against it.) But the Marxist church, in the manner of its sudden, total and unqualified surrender and dissolution, seems to have acquired yet another inglorious historic first.
I would have preferred a gradual ideological and institutional transition-one which would preserve the idiom and ritual of the past, but empty it of content, or make its content adjustable to taste and occasion. The red flag and the romanticism of the revolution would be retained (as, in fact, Lenin’s statues are, at least in Russia), but the distribution of power would gradually change. Retaining the idiom would have the advantage of preserving the semblance of continuity, while providing some orientation in daily life. The CPSU (Soviet Communist party) would be, so to speak, anglicanised; it would concern itself with the fight against enthusiasm; ensure that no one took Marxism with undue seriousness.
Mikhail Gorbachev, however, seems to have been prey to two illusions: the Soviet illusion that the problem of nationalism had been solved; and the western laissez-faire illusion that liberalisation would promptly yield economic benefits. Boris Yeltsin had a better grasp of politics in the post-Soviet era: he used the dissolution of the union to rid himself of his rival (repeating Lenin’s historic surrender of the Ukraine), and then later tried to recover what he could of the power of the Russian state.
In the early days of perestroika there was a great deal of talk about Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which had, for a time, partly liberalised the Russian economy (during the early stages of Soviet power). An attempt was made to invoke it as a precedent. But a return to the NEP would have amounted to an open-even if provisional-use of the old economic order. This was ruled out-although there is a plausible theory which maintains that the Soviet world was in any case operating under a form of industrial feudalism, with the bosses of regional or institutional units haggling out terms with each other, and calling it the Gosplan. (This would explain why the economic situation in the Soviet world was not even more catastrophic.) In this informal sense, there is a good measure of continuity: a phoney market replacing a phoney central plan.
the astonishing and unexpected collapse of communism did not only leave the inhabitants of the rival belief system naked and undignified; it has disoriented all of us. The opposition between liberal and Marxist industrial societies defined not only the political map of the world, but also its conceptual map. People became used to thinking in these terms; this liberal/Marxist divide characterised the European world-much in the same way that the Catholic/Protestant divide had done previously. Yalta and Potsdam were the Peace of Westphalia of the postwar system. We might have expected the two systems to become more routinised, more tolerant, more ecumenical; to communicate more and to excommunicate less. But history did not repeat itself. This time, one of the two opponents capitulated, conceded defeat-to an unprecedented degree.
What does it teach us? The collapse of communism resembled an experiment carried out with outstanding thoroughness: all conceivable variables were present. The lands subjected to Bolshevism included Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Sunni, Shi’ite, Buddhist and Shamanistic communities (even this list is not complete); they included initially industrial, agrarian, pastoral and hunting societies; some had democratic traditions; many didn’t; in some, communism had been imposed by external force; in others, it had emerged as a result of an internal development; some societies had been colonised; others were themselves imperial; some were neither; some were cravenly subservient to Moscow; others were defiant or insolent; some were ethnically plural; others fairly homogeneous. But the effect of the imposition of Marxism did not differ much, and when the collapse came, the degree of loyalty to Marxism was similarly negligible. Given the range of these variables and the similarity of outcome, it would seem that, for once, a single cause, independent of surrounding circumstances, was operating. What was it?
There are two options: it was either extreme socialism, which concentrates the control of property in a single agency or power structure; or ideocracy, which builds a social order on an all-embracing theory, covering the nature of both reality and moral value. I believe that both elements were operating-and moreover that, under modern conditions, the two cannot be separated. In an agrarian world, with its feeble and stable technology, ideological fanatics did not need to be socialists; they were not obliged to take over the economy. The totalitarian schema proposed in Plato’s Republic is a good case in point: communism is imposed on the elite (so as to free it from the temptations of greed and factionalism), but not on the lower artisanal orders. The latter are powerless and insignificant; it matters little whether their limited wealth corrupts them or not.
All this changes drastically in industrial societies, where the economy is perpetually expanding. The political system can no longer afford to be indifferent to the economy. It is a case of who does whom, as Lenin put it. If the economic realm is granted autonomy, it inevitably acquires a life of its own-even in authoritarian regimes, which allow no political pluralism or liberties. It will develop associations, institutions and thoughts of its own which will erode the political centre’s monopoly on power and truth. There are two possibilities: either the centre takes over the economy; or it ceases to be total. Full totalitarianism in industrial societies requires state communism. But state communism cannot successfully manage industrial societies because economic growth is incompatible with a fully socialised economy.
this, then, appears to be the lesson of the unanticipated outcome of the cold war. There is another lesson which some would like to draw, but it is invalid: the vindication of a laissez-faire vision of society. But this model, too, is unworkable in industrial societies. Why?
First, the enjoyment of industrial affluence depends only in part on individual possession of material goods; above all, it depends on a shared, weighty and indivisible infrastructure. Take a familiar example: the use of a car. It depends not only on the machine, but on the availability of a well maintained and regulated road system, parking facilities, and so on. The enormous proportion of the national income which goes through the hands of politicians (between 30 and 50 per cent) is not due, as rightist ideologues would have it, to creeping socialism: it is inherent in the logic of industrialism. Decisions concerning our shared infrastructure cannot be left to “the market.” They involve long term, complex considerations. They are necessarily political.
Second, the power of modern technology is so huge that, if left uncontrolled, its consequences for ecology and terrorism are horrifying. Early human societies could not be market societies because their technologies were too feeble: they could not leave social stability and security at the mercy of the vagaries of the interactive strategies of individuals freely operating in “the market.” In poor and stagnant economies, there is no use for those famous signals which, according to Friedrich Hayek, indicate the best use of resources. These societies know but one signal: they must survive; and they can only do so by allocating resources in a way which perpetuates internal order and ensures external defence. Advanced societies cannot be laissez-faire either, but for the opposite reason: their economy is not too feeble, but too powerful.
Third, the moral legitimacy of a wealth-based social hierarchy made some sense during the period of the early industrial revolution, when individual producers were, so to speak, “face to face” with nature; those who returned with greater booty wrested from nature could claim legitimacy in virtue of their contribution to the general good. In modern societies, virtually no one is face to face with nature-except in the course of recreation. Innovation is carried out on the shoulders of the achievements of countless others; it is entirely dependent on a shared scientific/technological culture, to which many have contributed, and which is quite impossible to disaggregate. All trading is insider trading.
Fourth, and notoriously, modern societies are confronted with the problem of nationalism. This crisis is not rooted in some bizarre atavistic stirrings of the human heart, the call of blood and soil; it is an underlying condition of industrial life. On the one hand, the very nature of industrial production requires and engenders cultural homogeneity: “work” is semantic, not physical; it entails communication with a large number of anonymous interlocutors; effective participation is possible only for those who master the shared literate culture of the society within which they operate. The dependency on a culture which we have mastered, and within which we are accepted, engenders the political identification known as nationalism. It is simply the political expression of a social order in which participation requires a shared codified culture. At the same time, however, the unevenness of economic development between different areas produces unstoppable labour migrations, so that even if a region has not inherited an ethnic patchwork from its past, it will become ethnically plural after industrialisation. At its worst, this leads to “ethnic cleansing.” But the existence of a few societies which have coped with this problem successfully allows us to hope that it may be soluble.
Finally, the free play of the market and the atomisation of family units, combined with labour migrations, engender a new form of inequality of wealth and social participation, with an underclass composed partly of handicapped, isolated individuals and partly of members of stigmatised subgroups caught in a vicious circle of discrimination and criminalisation. This form of destitution in the midst of plenty is not only morally obscene; it has social consequences which affect everyone. These problems cannot conceivably be solved by “the market”; they can only be handled politically.
ironically, it was one of the most devious and trimming-addicted of Labour leaders who declared, moralistically, that the Labour movement was nothing if not a “crusade.” The point about any new socialism is that it must not be a crusade. It must, as Stendhal said about his study of love, be dry-free of ardour. It must look at the boundary between private and communal economic power, not with faith and passion, but coldly, without messianic or crusading zeal. Political control of economic life is not the consummation of world history, the fulfilment of destiny, or the imposition of righteousness; it is a painful necessity. To those on the right, one has to say that it is a painful necessity. There is nothing inherently good about political interference in economic life; the idea that it is a sufficient condition of virtue or of human fulfilment is absurd. But it is a condition of decency, just as its partial absence is a condition of liberty.
The liberal societies which have emerged as the victors of the cold war have had their institutions and quasi-ideologies (it is of their essence that they are held in a lukewarm, ambiguous, spirit) vindicated, to some degree. But they are not vindicated in any firm, permanent or clear manner: history has not come to an end, as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed. If the end of the cold war has decisively eliminated one alternative, it has not established the other. What has been eliminated is the messianic manner of running an industrial society-one which treats power as the agency of righteousness rather than as a public convenience.
Industrial societies cannot be run by an absolute moral order-the final imposition of righteousness on earth. This was the essence of Marxism, and it envisaged a future which does not work. An absolute moral theory requires a firm and permanent vision of the nature of things. This is incompatible with science and technology, which operate within a fluctuating framework and a morally neutral ontology; these, if given free rein, end up eroding any faith. Moreover, an expanding economy requires autonomy and elbowroom for the constituent productive units-also a condition of freedom and the rule of law. A modern state must have the monopoly of legitimate force. (Office workers, unlike pastoral tribesmen, cannot simultaneously attend to their work and their physical security; computer and fax users cannot, like shepherds and occasionally even peasants, be expected to shoot their way to work.) Pluralism, deprived of any base in the political system, finds its base in the economy.
The victors of the cold war have established various social-political cultures. All of them share a family resemblance: they have refrained from completing doctrinally the transition from the values and faith of an agrarian order to those of a scientific/ industrial one-the transition which was meant to be the glory and achievement of Marxism. It was Marxism’s claim that it had understood why the attempt to establish the reign of reason during the French revolution had failed. By understanding both the obstacles which had thwarted this first effort, and the forces which would aid a later, better attempt, Marxism would liberate mankind from both transcendental illusion and earthly exploitation. This was not to be; the recipe is now known to be fatally flawed: we can find no liberation in the abolition of differential relations to the means of production. The old transcendent truth cannot be replaced by a new earthly revelation-only by doubt, irony and compromise. Given the interdependence of the world, our best hope is for an unholy alliance of consumerist non-believers, committed to government through bribery by growth, who do not take their own beliefs too seriously.
Liberal societies have worked out a whole range of suitable compromises, but they have had several centuries to do it in. The process was often turbulent, sometimes bloody; it is only of late that the rival parties have settled down to amicable cohabitation. Our century saw not only the elimination of the Marxist alternative (intended to realise the Enlightenment by sociologically more sophisticated means), but also the elimination, by a hot rather than cold war, of the attempt to run industrial societies through a return to a pagan version of the hierarchical, military, blood-and-soil values of an archaic social order. That struggle was more demanding than the cold war-it was a damn close run thing. The conversion to a liberal outlook only took place after the war, when the losers found that industrial growth is a more effective way to power and prosperity than striving for Lebensraum through valour.
the elimination of the messianic plan for industrial society does not mean, as has been suggested by Samuel Huntington, a switch to a “clash of civilisations,” at least in the literal sense of competition with pre-industrial civilisations. It is too early to tell what will happen to the latter: it would be rash to assume that they will all be liberal. There is some evidence to suggest that a fundamentalist regime-one which seriously implements its own values rather than privatising virtue and salvation in the liberal manner-may be attempted within Islam. The thrust in this direction is very powerful, and the only (but very costly) cure seems to be to allow it its head for a period. This may be self-curing: there are signs of such a development in Iran, in the emergence of a new trend seeking to find an Islamic way to the separation of state and faith. But such a totalitarianism, when it exists, differs significantly from the Marxist form: it does not sacralise the economy (and so is not brought down by its failure), and is not inspired by the technological transformation of human life-though it seems to be compatible with it.
The stunningly sudden collapse of Bolshevism has presented the ex-communist world with the same problem-but virtually no time in which to solve it. In a moral and institutional vacuum, any strategy constitutes a shock therapy. Peter the Great may have chosen shock therapy to liberate Russia from its Byzantine past, but his successors are having shock therapy thrust upon them. The fact that they do not believe with any great conviction the theories underlying the shocks, makes their task even harder.
The problem of erecting a liberal, stable and prosperous society on the ruins of a totalitarian industrial ideocracy is absolutely new; no one knows what the answer is, or indeed whether there is one. Marx said, on no good evidence whatsoever, that mankind only sets itself such problems as it can solve. My own impression is that people often face problems set by their historical situation for which they lack solutions. The victorious version of industrial society is not without problems, options and uncertainties, as the end-of-history thesis would suggest. The moral vacuum in the east presents at once a serious problem and a new source of evidence for the understanding of our own predicament. In the west, liberalism emerged as a result of at least three elements: the remnants of the old honour ethic, a new individualist work ethic, and a reactive egalitarianism trying to correct the previous two. In Russia, the Bolsheviks made a fine job of destroying the past: individualism was never all that strong, and faith in the capacity of formally egalitarian socialism to correct injustices has received a powerful blow. What’s left? Russia resembles the Weimar republic-inflation, humiliation, criminalisation, illegitimate new wealth-except for one element: in interwar Europe, the worst were full of passionate intensity, the best lacked all conviction. Now, fortunately, the worst lack all conviction too. We must wait and hope, and assist when we believe that our aid will be effective.
What is certain is that the pattern will not be the same in all the former communist countries. Those favoured by smallness, ethnic homogeneity and sound local traditions (or merely 40 rather than 70 years of Bolshevism) will probably be successful: there can be little doubt that the Czech Republic will succeed; the prospects in Hungary, Poland and the Baltic republics are not too bad; in the Balkans, the situation is varied; and the Yugoslav catastrophe has already taken place. The real question mark hangs over the eastern Slav states, the Muslim ex-Marxist world, and the Caucasus.
And what of Russia? A country which has great difficulty in conquering Chechnya seems unlikely to embark, for the time being, on a new drive to the river Elbe. The perpetuation of an economic and moral slum in large parts of eastern Europe, possibly involved in the peddling of nuclear arms, is a much more realistic danger. The Russians have made their contribution to the exploration of dead ends for industrial society: messianic righteousness through total collectivisation has been conclusively shown to be unviable. The same is true, I believe, of total laissez-faire, unsustained by other moral and institutional support. Let us hope that we can spare the Russians the task of demonstrating this truth as well. For once, let someone else have a go. n