An identity crisis in the East

We should regret the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union: it has deprived East Europeans of their self-respect along with their faith, writes Ernest Gellner, a lifelong anti-communist
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The Independent Online
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 lifelong 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 that 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 values that 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. 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?

I would have preferred a gradual ideological and institutional transition - one that 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.

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, Shia, 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. 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.

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.

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 that 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 elbow-room for the constituent productive units. 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. 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 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 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. 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 inter-war 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 that 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.

The writer, Professor of Social Anthopology at Cambridge University, wrote this essay for 'Political Quarterly' before his death in November last year. A fuller version appears in the May issue of 'Prospect' magazine.

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