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The Independent Institute

Learning to Unlearn the Leninist Mindset

We all know the economic and ecological disasters of the Soviet era. What has perhaps not been stressed enough is the moral and intellectual collapse of the regime. One reason for this is that for more than half a century the whole system had, as a major characteristic falsification on an enormous scale. History, production figures, census results—all were faked. Even more demoralizing, the whole sphere of thought was controlled and distorted.

As truth penetrated, it became increasingly the case that only the stupidest and most abject could really accept this delusional world. One of the most difficult things to convey to a Western audience is how disgusting the rank and file of the old Soviet ruling class really were—how mean, treacherous, shamelessly lying, cowardly, sycophantic and ignorant. (Unfortunately, these concepta are unknown to “political science.”) Thus, the Soviet system underwent a long process of decay. After the failure of last year’s incompetent coup, a Russian said to me: “We’ve been ruled by morons for 40 years and this is the first time it’s paid off.”

The political situation in the former Soviet Union is still very dangerous, but at least the people there are rid of Marxism-Leninism. They may not quite know what they want. But they know what they don’t want. Even the failed conspirators in August 1991, in their manifesto, did not dare to mention socialism or Marxism—speaking only of restoring order and preserving the borders of the USSR.

What Russia went through (and what Ethiopia. for example went through) was not some sort of natural change. It was the ideas possessing the minds of the Leninists that caused the disasters.

First, the destructive concept was promulgated that a rigorous scientific understanding of human society had been achieved, Then, the theory included the notion that the whole-of-life was dominated by an unappeasable struggle, on a worldwide scale, between sections of society. Next, human beings were found who would accept such dogmas without serious consideration—and not only In the USSR.

For if the Soviet ideology is dead in its homeland, we must next ask, has the lesson been learned here in the West? For the mere existence of the USSR, and its ideas, distorted the way in which many people over the whole world thought about society, the economy, and human history. A not inconsiderable number of members of the West’s elite were to one degree or another deceived, or self-deceived, about the communist regime. Some saw it as, in all essentials, more advanced than ourselves. This view was mainly held by “idealists.” Others argued that the USSR was a normal state, one like any other, and that it should be treated as such. This view was mainly held by "pragmatists." Both were wrong: far from being advanced, it was based on an archaic fantasy; far from being normal, it was a revolting aberration.

One reason for such delusion was factitiousness. Argument in America about the nature of Sovietism became confused, quite illogically, with internal liberal-conservative disputes. Certainly it has no Republican-Democrat content. My own initiation into American politics was with Sen. Scoop Jackson; and Sen. Daniel Moynihan has recently written an enthusiastic blurb for one of my books. Still, it was mostly the far left who palliated communism. And, as Albert Camus wrote, speaking of similar pro-Soviet elements in France: It was not so much that they liked the Russians as that they “heartily detested part of the French.”

Many were seduced by the comfortable word “socialism,” even to the extent of rejecting the Western Ideas of free discussion, political compromise, plural society, piecemeal practicality and change without chaos. Moreover, this socialism carried with it the primitive belief that the state could solve all problems. Connected with this, the other great lesson of the Soviet regime is, of course, the destructive effect of a pervasive bureaucracy. It is clear that this lesson has not been learned, or not adequately so. Examples proliferate from the European Community bureaucracy in Brussels to General Motors in Detroit.

Parochialism played a major part in the self-deception, usually involving an ignorance of world history. Admirers of the Soviets could not believe that a regime could kill millions of its own subjects. The decimation of the peasantry because it would have been "economically counterproductive" could not have happened: just as, presumably, Tamerlane could not have built that pyramid of 70,000 skulls.

Political scientists and others used in the USSR the methods they had derived from a study of totally different societies. Then, we were told that academic objectivity meant that one should not be “judgmental.” But, of course, it was impossible to write objectively about the Soviets without being judgmental, and the attempt to do so was thoroughly misleading.

Nevertheless, work such as my own was for long by no means slandered, seldom even rejected, except by a few sub-Stalinists (and oddballs like Jerry Hough). It was only in the mid-1980s that a more or less concerted “revisionist” effort began in Sovietological academe. The revisionists argued, in effect, that there had never been much of a terror, against either the peasantry or the population as a whole, and that what there was had been of little importance compared with administrative and personnel changes. Moreover, they accepted the facts and figures provided by the Soviet authorities as truthful.

“Historians” with little knowledge of history believed Soviet documents. Demographers with little knowledge of the Soviet Union believed Soviet census figures. Bad timing! It was precisely at this juncture that Moscow started to make the facts public, and the whole enterprise collapsed amid general contempt.

Or so you would think. But this would be to underestimate the obstinate survivability of dead ideas, particularly in the minds of those who have invested emotional capital in them. We still find, especially in parts of academe, the damaging notion that everything is a struggle for power, or being empowered, or hegemony, or oppression; and that all competition is a zero-sum game. This is no more than repetition of Lenin’s destructive doctrine. Intellectually, it is reductionism; politically, it is fanaticism.

How do fanaticism and dogmatism of, or resembling, the Soviet type arise? Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some such glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother. Is this adequately discouraged? Is the student induced to think, to aim for intellectual responsibility; to seek knowledge and practice judgment; to avoid formulas?

I am afraid that much of the education we now find does not, to put it mildly, even approach these criteria. Indeed, it is an educated, or half-educated, stratum whose minds are still infested with what in the language of computers we would call viruses, which distort their calculations.

It has been wisely said that the two great causes of human troubles are impatience and laziness. Intellectually, these are precisely the phenomena that produce such destructive fantasies. Ideological quick fixes for all intellectual and social problems are sought, rather than an understanding of their real complexities. The Soviet Union was a proving ground for such approaches. We in the West still have much to learn, and to unlearn, from the events in the former communist countries.

Robert A. Conquest is Research Fellow in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.