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CHAPTER THREE - COMMAND VERSUS SPONTANEITY
Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.
Instead of unity among the great powers—both political and economic—after the war, there is complete disunity between the Soviet Union and the satellites on one side and the rest of the world on the other. There are, in short, two worlds instead of one.
—CHARLES E. BOHLEN,
A SINGLE PLANET shared by superpowers who shared the means of wiping each other out—but who now also shared an interest in each other’s survival. So far, so good. What kind of survival, though? What would life be like under each system? How much room would there be for economic well-being? For social justice? For the freedom to make one’s own choices about how to live one’s life? The Cold War was not just a geopolitical rivalry or a nuclear arms race; it was a competition, as well, to answer these questions. The issue at stake was almost as big as that of human survival: how best to organize human society.
“Whether you like it or not, history is on our side,” Nikita Khrushchev once boasted before a group of western diplomats. “We will bury you.” He spent the rest of his life explaining what he meant by this. He had not been talking about nuclear war, Khrushchev claimed, but rather about the historically determined victory of communism over capitalism. The Soviet Union might indeed be behind the West, he acknowledged in 1961. Within a decade, however, its housing shortage would disappear, consumer goods would be abundant, and its population would be “materially provided for.” Within two decades, the Soviet Union “would rise to such a great height that, by comparison, the main capitalist countries will remain far below and way behind.”3 Communism, quite simply, was the wave of the future.
It didn’t quite work out that way. By 1971, the Soviet Union’s economy and those of its East European satellites were stagnating. By 1981, living standards inside the U.S.S.R. had deteriorated to such an extent that life expectancy was declining—an unprecedented phenomenon in an advanced industrial society. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself, the model for communism everywhere else, had ceased to exist.
Khrushchev’s predictions, it is now clear, had been based on wishful thinking, not hard-headed analysis. What is striking, though, is how many people took them seriously at the time—by no means all of them communists. John F. Kennedy, for example, found the Soviet leader’s ideological self-confidence thoroughly intimidating when he encountered Khrushchev at the 1961 Vienna summit: “He just beat hell out of me,” the new president admitted. Kennedy had “seemed rather stunned,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan noted shortly thereafter, “like somebody meeting Napoleon (at the height of his power) for the first time.”4 J.F.K. was hardly alone: communism had been intimidating statesmen and the states they ran for well over a century. The reason was that it had inspired—and aroused—so many of their own citizens, who saw in Marxism-Leninism the promise of a better life. The early Cold War saw the intimidation and the inspiration peak. By the end of the Cold War, there was little left to hope for from communism, and nothing left to fear.
TH E BEST PLACE to start, in seeking to understand the respect communism commanded and the anxieties it caused, is with another novel. Its title was Sybil, it appeared in 1845, and its author, Benjamin Disraeli, would also become a British prime minister. Its subtitle was The Two Nations, by which Disraeli meant the rich and the poor, who co-existed uneasily within a society in which an industrial revolution—Great Britain’s crowning achievement over the preceding half century—was widening the gap between them. “The capitalist flourishes,” one character complained, he amasses immense wealth; we sink, lower and lower, lower than the beasts of burthen; for they are fed better than we are, cared for more. And it is just, for according to the present system they are more precious. And yet they tell us that the interests of Capital and of Labour are identical.5
Sybil was a warning: that a state whose economic progress depended on exploiting some of its citizens for the benefit of others was headed for trouble.
Karl Marx, living in England at the time, witnessed and warned of the same phenomenon, but he did so by means of a theory, not a novel. Because capitalism distributes wealth unevenly, he claimed, it produces its own executioners. The social alienation generated by economic inequalities could only result in revolution: “[N]ot only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.” Capitalism’s grave-diggers would sooner or later replace it with communism, a more equitable method of organizing society in which there would be common ownership of the means of production, and in which extremes of wealth and poverty would no longer exist. Neither, therefore, would resentment, so the happiness of the human race would follow. Communism, Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels claimed, would mark “the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”6 This was not just a profession of faith: Marx and Engels also saw it as science. The linkage Marx established between technological progress, social consciousness, and revolutionary consequences, they believed, revealed the engine that drove history forward. This was the class struggle—and because industrialization and the alienation it produced were irreversible, this engine had no reverse gear.
Marxism brought hope to the poor, fear to the rich, and left governments somewhere in between. To rule solely on behalf of the bourgeoisie seemed likely to ensure revolution, thereby confirming Marx’s prophecy; but to do so only for the proletariat would mean that Marx’s revolution had already arrived. Most political leaders therefore fudged: whether in Disraeli’s Britain, or Bismarck’s Germany, or the most rapidly industrializing country of all, the United States, they set out to preserve capitalism by mitigating its harshness. The result was the social welfare state, the basic structure of which was in place throughout much of the industrialized world by the time several of its most prominent representatives went to war with one another in August, 1914.
Whatever progress capitalists had made in easing the brutalities of industrialization, World War I showed that they had not yet learned how to preserve peace. Despite unprecedented economic development and the interdependence that had accompanied it, the great powers of Europe—some of them the most socially progressive governments anywhere—blundered into the worst war the world had ever seen. The vast quantities of weaponry their industries were producing made it possible to continue the fighting far longer than anyone had expected. The bourgeoisie, it now appeared, was digging its own grave.
That, at least, was the argument Lenin put forward, at first from exile, and then after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II early in 1917, from within Russia itself. Lenin differed from Marx and Engels, however, in his determination to move from theory to action: his coup d’état in November—for that is what it was—remains as striking an example as exists of the extent to which one person can change the course of history. Or, as Lenin would have put it, drawing on Marx, by which the “conscious vanguard of the proletariat” can accelerate history toward its scientifically predetermined conclusion. What the Bolshevik “revolution” meant was that one state had gone beyond trying to save capitalism: it had, in the middle of a war capitalists had started, declared war on capitalism itself. And if the expectations of Lenin and his followers were correct, the citizens of other states—themselves embittered by capitalism and battered by war—would soon seize power and do the same. The irreversible engine of history guaranteed it.
No one sensed the significance of this moment more clearly than the president of the United States at the time, Woodrow Wilson. He understood, as did Lenin, the extent to which ideas could move nations: had he not brought the United States into the war in April, 1917, by calling for a “world safe for democracy”? But as Wilson conceived it, such a world would not be safe for proletarian revolution, nor would the reverse be true. He quickly found himself waging two wars, one with military might against Imperial Germany and its allies, the other with words against the Bolsheviks. Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech of January, 1918, the single most influential statement of an American ideology in the 20th century, was a direct response to the ideological challenge Lenin had posed. There began at this point, then, a war of ideas—a contest among visions—that would extend through the rest of World War I, the interwar years, World War II, and most of the Cold War.7 At stake was the issue that had divided Disraeli’s two nations: how best to govern industrializing societies in such a way as to benefit all of the people who lived within them.
LENIN’S POSITION was an extension of Marx’s: that because capitalists caused inequality and war, neither justice nor peace could prevail until capitalism had been overthrown. Marx had been vague about how that would happen, but Lenin had provided a demonstration. The communist party would lead the way, and a single individual, as he had done in Russia, would lead the party. A dictatorship of the proletariat would free the proletariat. Because the enemies of the revolution would never yield power voluntarily, that dictatorship would use all the methods available to it—propaganda, subversion, surveillance, informants, covert action, conventional and unconventional military operations, and even terror—in accomplishing its objectives. Its ends would justify its means. This would be, then, an authoritarian revolution that would liberate those on the bottom by commanding them from the top.
Wilson’s objective, like Disraeli’s, was to reform capitalism, not destroy it. The way to do this, he believed, was to encourage spontaneity: the problem with capitalism was that it had left people too little freedom to manage their own lives. It had collaborated with empires that denied their inhabitants the right to choose their leaders. It had limited the efficiency of markets through protectionism, price-fixing, and recurring cycles of booms and busts. And of course—here Wilson agreed with Lenin—capitalism had failed to prevent war, the ultimate denial of freedom. Wilson’s plan for the postwar world would promote political self-determination, economic liberalization, and the formation of an international collective security organization with the power to ensure that the rivalries of nations—which would never entirely disappear—would henceforth be peacefully managed. This would be a democratic revolution that would open the way for those on the bottom to liberate themselves.
Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail. To see why, track the legacies of Lenin and Wilson, both of whom died in 1924, over the next two decades.
Wilson, at the end of World War II, would have looked like a failed idealist. He had compromised so often in negotiating the 1919 Versailles settlement—by accepting its harsh treatment of Germany, its deference to the territorial claims of victorious allies, and its thinly disguised perpetuation of colonialism—that it had hardly been an endorsement of political self-determination and economic liberalization.8 His own countrymen had refused to join his proudest creation, the League of Nations, thereby severely weakening it. Capitalism had revived precariously after the war, only to crash in 1929, setting off the worst global depression ever. Authoritarianism, meanwhile, was on the rise, first in Italy under Benito Mussolini, then in Imperial Japan, and finally—most ominously—in Germany, where, having come to power constitutionally in 1933, Adolf Hitler immediately abolished the constitution by which he had done so.
The United States and the other remaining democracies made no serious effort to prevent Japanese aggression in Manchuria in 1931, or the Italian seizure of Ethiopia in 1935, or the rapid rearmament of what was now Nazi Germany—a process that by the end of the decade had made that country the dominant power on the European continent. And when, as a predictable result, World War II broke out, the Americans and the British found themselves depending on Stalin’s Soviet Union—which had itself collaborated with Hitler between 1939 and 1941—in order to win it. Victory was certain by 1945, but the nature of the postwar world was not. To have expected vindication for Wilson, given this record, would have seemed at best naïve: as a pioneering theorist of international relations had put it at the beginning of the war, “[t]he liberal democracies scattered throughout the world by the peace settlement of 1919 were the product of abstract theory, stuck no roots in the soil, and quickly shrivelled away.”9 Lenin, at the end of World War II, would have looked like a successful realist. Stalin, his successor, had carried out a revolution from above in the Soviet Union, first by collectivizing agriculture, then by launching a program of rapid industrialization, and finally by ruthlessly purging potential rivals, real and imagined. The international proletarian revolution Lenin expected had not come, but the U.S.S.R. was nonetheless, by the end of the 1930s, the world’s most powerful proletarian state. And unlike its capitalist counterparts, it had maintained full production and therefore full employment throughout the Great Depression. The rise of Nazi Germany posed a serious challenge, to be sure, but Stalin’s pact with Hitler had bought time and territory, so that when the invasion came in 1941 the Soviet Union not only survived but eventually hurled it back. As the end of the fighting approached, the U.S.S.R. was poised, physically and politically, to dominate half of Europe. Its ideological influence—given these demonstrations of what an authoritarian system could achieve—might well go much farther.
For Marxism-Leninism at that time had millions of supporters in Europe. Spanish, French, Italian, and German communists had led the resistance against fascism. The idea of social revolution—that those on the bottom might wind up on top—had widespread appeal, even in a country like Poland, with its long history of antagonism toward Russia. 10 And given the devastation the war had caused, together with the deprivation the prewar depression had brought about, it was not at all clear that democratic capitalism would be up to the task of postwar reconstruction—not least since the greatest capitalist democracy, the United States, had shown so little willingness in the past to take responsibility for what happened beyond its borders.
Even among the Americans there was self-doubt. Roosevelt’s New Deal had patched, but not healed, the nation’s economic problems: only wartime spending had done that, and there was no assurance, as federal budgets shrank to normal after the war, that the depression would not return. The power of government had expanded dramatically under F.D.R., but the future of markets, spontaneity, and even—in the eyes of his many critics—freedom itself was much less clear. “We have, on the whole, more liberty and less equality than Russia has,” one observer wrote in 1943. “Russia has less liberty and more equality. Whether democracy should be defined primarily in terms of liberty or of equality is a source of unending debate.”11 The comment could have come from Roosevelt’s well-meaning but guileless vice president at the time, Henry A. Wallace, who always had trouble making up his mind about such matters. In fact, though, its author was the tough-minded theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, remembered now for his staunch resistance to communism during the Cold War. That Niebuhr during World War II could wonder whether liberty or equality should primarily define democracy is as good an illustration as any of how clouded the prospects for Wilson’s vision then appeared to be.
THE COLD WAR changed all of that, with the result that Wilson is remembered today as a prophetic realist, while Lenin’s statues molder in garbage dumps throughout the former communist world. Like the nuclear war that never came, the revival and eventual triumph of democratic capitalism was a surprising development that few people on either side of the ideological divide in 1945 would have foreseen. Circumstances during the first half of the 20th century had provided physical strength and political authority to dictatorships. Why should the second half have been different?
The reasons had less to do with any fundamental shift in the means of production, as a Marxist historian might have argued, than with a striking shift in the attitude of the United States toward the international system. Despite having built the world’s most powerful and diversified economy, Americans had shown remarkably little interest, prior to 1941, in how the rest of the world was governed. Repressive regimes elsewhere might be regrettable, but they could hardly harm the United States. Even involvement in World War I had failed to alter this attitude, as Wilson discovered to his embarrassment and chagrin.
What did change it, immediately and irrevocably, was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That event shattered the illusion that distance ensured safety: that it did not matter who ran what on the other side of the ocean. The nation’s security was now at risk, and because future aggressors with air and naval power could well follow the Japanese example, the problem was not likely to go away. There was little choice, then, but for the United States to assume global responsibilities. Those required winning the war against Japan and Germany—Hitler having declared war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor—but they also meant planning a postwar world in which democracy and capitalism would be secure.
It was here that Wilson became relevant once again, because there was so much to learn from what had gone wrong since the end of World War I. Behind his call to make the world safe for democracy had been the implied claim that democracies do not start wars. The interwar years seemed to confirm that assertion, but what was it that caused nations to cease to be democracies? Germany, Italy, and Japan had once had parliamentary governments; the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, however, had discredited them. They and too many other states had embraced authoritarian solutions, which then led to military aggression. Not only had capitalism generated social inequality, as Marx had predicted it would. By this line of reasoning, it had also produced two world wars.
How, then, to prevent a third? The answer seemed obvious to the Roosevelt administration: it was to build an international order in which capitalism would be safe from its own self-destructive tendencies ; in which people would be safe from the inequities these produced and from the temptations that then arose to flee from freedom; in which nations would be safe from the aggression to which the resulting authoritarianism tended to lead. “A world in economic chaos,” Secretary of State Cordell Hull warned in 1944, “would be forever a breeding ground for trouble and war.”12 F.D.R. and his advisers would hardly have admitted it, but they were drawing as much on the Marxist-Leninist critique of capitalism as on Wilson’s. Where, though, did this leave Stalin?
The ever-pragmatic Roosevelt had welcomed the Soviet Union as an ally during the war: “I can’t take communism nor can you,” he told a friend, “but to cross this bridge I would hold hands with the Devil.”13 He understood as well as anyone that cooperation with Moscow might cease once victory had been achieved; but he wanted the responsibility for that to reside there, not in Washington. To that end, he offered the U.S.S.R. membership in three new international organizations behind which he proposed to put the full support of the United States: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations.
Together, these institutions were intended to lessen the possibility of future depressions by lowering tariff barriers, stabilizing currencies, and coordinating government planning with the workings of markets, while providing the means by which the international community would contain and if necessary defeat future aggressors. They pulled together two parts of Wilson’s program: economic liberalization and collective security. The third, political self-determination, would have to wait, F.D.R. believed, at least for those nations and peoples who had fallen, or were likely to fall, under Soviet rule. The important thing was to win the war, secure the peace, and ensure recovery. Then, he hoped, there would be room for democracy.
Stalin was happy to have the Soviet Union a founding member of the United Nations: the veto in the Security Council would make that organization only what the wartime victors wanted it to be. The Fund and the Bank, however, were quite another matter. Once he understood that their purpose was to save capitalism—and not, as he had initially thought, to provide the structures through which the Soviet Union could extract reconstruction assistance from the United States14—Stalin wanted no part of them. That decision, together with his increasingly obvious determination to impose authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, meant that F.D.R.’s effort to bridge the gap between Wilson and Lenin had clearly failed. But Wilson’s vision, at least, had been revived: the contest of ideas that he and Lenin had begun during World War I would continue now within the emerging Cold War. That became apparent in three important speeches, given within thirteen months of one another in 1946–47.
Stalin made the first one in Moscow on February 9, 1946, and in it he went back to basics. He restated Marx’s condemnation of capitalism for distributing wealth unevenly. He reiterated Lenin’s claim that, as a result, capitalists were likely to go to war with one another. He drew from this the conclusion that peace could come only when communism had triumphed throughout the world. He emphasized that the Soviet Union’s industrialization prior to World War II had allowed it to prevail in that conflict, and he said nothing about assistance received from the United States and Great Britain. Finally, he called for equally arduous sacrifices on the part of the Soviet people to recover from the damage the last war had caused, and to prepare for the next war that the contradictions of capitalism were sure to bring about.15 Winston Churchill, recently turned out of office, gave the second speech in the improbable setting of Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, with President Truman sitting at his side. In characteristically portentous cadences, the former prime minister warned:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of ancient states of central and eastern Europe. . . . [A]ll these famous cities and the populations around them . . . are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence, but to a very high and increasing measure of control from Moscow.
The Russians did not want war, Churchill acknowledged, but they did want “the fruits of war and indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” Only strength could deter them: “If the Western Democracies stand together . . . no one is likely to molest them. If however they become divided or falter in their duty and if these all-important years are allowed to slip away, then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”16
Truman himself gave the third speech a year later, on March 12, 1947, in which he asked Congress for aid to Greece and Turkey and announced the Truman Doctrine, with its implied American commitment to assist victims of aggression and intimidation throughout the world. His ideological justification for these measures was Wilsonian: the world was now divided between “two ways of life”—not communism versus capitalism, but democracy versus authoritarianism, a distinction that allowed him to link this new American involvement in European affairs with the ones that had preceded it in 1917 and in 1941. His decision to do so was deliberate: it had been necessary to show the world, one of the drafters of Truman’s speech later recalled, “that we have something positive and attractive to offer, and not just anti-communism.”17 That became the point of the Marshall Plan, as well as the decisions, taken at the same time, to begin the rehabilitation of occupied Germany and Japan. These were Disraeli-like efforts, which Wilson and Roosevelt would have applauded, to salvage capitalism and secure democracy in circumstances so unpromising that authoritarian alternatives—despite their obvious dangers to human liberty—could easily have taken hold. The idea was not to brand “as a Communist anyone who used the language of Marx and Lenin,” Marshall’s aide Charles E. Bohlen commented, “since there is much in Marxism . . . which in no sense reflects a belief in Communist theory or involvement in modern day Communist organization.”18 It was rather to create an alternative to communism, within the framework of democracy and capitalism, which would remove the economic and social desperation that drove people to communism in the first place. This could only have happened because the United States, after World War II, assumed peacetime responsibilities beyond its hemisphere. Stalin’s challenge had helped to bring that about.
U . S . AND U . S . S . R . ALLIANCES AND BASES Early 1970s
“[T]he gulf is impassable,” one of Disraeli’s characters acknowledged in Sybil, “utterly impassable.”19 A century later the gap between the rich and the poor—between the few who had the means to live well and the many who did not—had taken on global geopolitical significance, with two competing visions for how to close it. As Bohlen put it in the summer of 1947: “There are, in short, two worlds instead of one.”20
BOTH OF the ideologies that defined those worlds were meant to offer hope: that is why one has an ideology in the first place. One of them, however, had come to depend, for its functioning, upon the creation of fear. The other had no need to do so. Therein lay the basic ideological asymmetry of the Cold War.
It has never been clear how far Lenin intended his dictatorship of the proletariat to extend. He certainly saw the ends of revolution as justifying its means, including the use of terror.21 But would he have favored concentrating all authority in the hands of a single individual, who would then retain it by imprisoning, exiling, or executing anyone who questioned—or who he thought might question—this process? Whatever Lenin would have done, that is what Stalin did.
By the end of 1930, his agents had arrested or killed some 63,000 opponents of collectivization. By 1932, they had deported over 1.2 million “kulaks”—Stalin’s term for “wealthy” peasants—to remote regions within the U.S.S.R. By 1934 at least 5 million Ukrainians had starved to death from the resulting famine. Stalin then began purging government and party officials, producing the imprisonment of another 3.6 million people and the execution, in just 1937–38, of almost 700,000. They included many of Lenin’s surviving associates: the most prominent exception was Leon Trotsky, whom Stalin then hunted down and had murdered in Mexico in 1940. By that time, one historian has estimated, the Stalinist dictatorship had either ended or wrecked the lives of between 10 and 11 million Soviet citizens—all for the purpose of maintaining itself in power.22 The full scope of this tragedy could not be known at the end of the war: Stalin had censored his own 1937 census, which would have revealed much of it, by arresting all of its top administrators and shooting many of them.23 Enough was clear, however, to instill fear as well as hope in the minds of Europeans as they awaited liberation from Nazi oppression by a state whose record seemed almost as bad. The Red Army’s behavior as it fought its way into Germany intensified these anxieties: armies are rarely gentle in occupying a defeated enemy’s territory, but the Russians were particularly harsh in their looting, physical assaults, and mass rapes.24 A culture of brutality within the Soviet Union, it appeared, had spawned one beyond its borders.
This was, in one sense, understandable: the Germans had been even more brutal in occupying the U.S.S.R. during the war. But Stalin’s objective now was not just retribution. He hoped to spread Marxism-Leninism throughout as much of Europe as possible. He knew he could not do this, however, solely through the use of force and the cultivation of fear, the methods he had employed with such ruthlessness at home. Communists in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and, after 1949, East Germany would be governing ostensibly independent states. Stalin could certainly control them—Tito and the Yugoslavs to the contrary notwithstanding, most communists in those days followed Moscow’s orders. But his hand could not be too heavy, lest it give the appearance of a revolution that required repression to keep it going. It was important, therefore, for communists to gain popular support. “With good agitation and a proper attitude,” Stalin told the Polish communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1945, “you may win a considerable number of votes.”25 If the Kremlin boss thought this about the Poles, of all people, then it would not have seemed unreasonable to him that Germans and other Europeans who lived beyond his sphere of military and political influence might also support local communists, whether by electing them to office or including them within governing coalitions. This would be preferable to confronting the Americans and the British directly; moreover, as Leninist doctrine suggested, the capitalists would be confronting each other soon enough.26 The proletarian dictatorship, if it was to spread into these regions, could not do so by the means with which Stalin had installed it in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. A majority of Western Europeans would have to choose it.
Stalin’s strategy had a certain logic, except for one thing. It required that he cease to be who he was: a tyrant who had come to power and remained there through terror. When the slightest intimations of independence emerged among his East European satellites—as when the Czechs sought permission to participate in the Marshall Plan—he dealt with those responsible in the same way he had handled his real and imagined prewar rivals within the Soviet Union: they were removed from power, frequently put on trial, usually imprisoned, and in several instances executed. He would surely have done the same to Tito, had Yugoslavia not been beyond his reach. By one estimate, a million East European communists were purged in some way between 1949 and 1953.27 Much the same thing was happening within the U.S.S.R.: Stalin’s last years saw an ever-widening circle of arrests, trials, executions, and where these were not easily justified, arranged “accidents.” At the time of his death, Soviet prisons were fuller than they had ever been.28 “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution,” Marx had proclaimed in 1848. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.”29 A century later, however, proletarians who had not yet fallen under Stalin’s dictatorship had every reason to tremble at the chains with which he had bound those who had already suffered that misfortune. It was no accident that Orwell’s Big Brother had a Stalin-like mustache.
IF CHAINS were required to control Stalin’s proletarians, then it is hard today to see how such an arrangement could ever have attracted support elsewhere. Privation does lead to desperation, however, and when the choice is between starvation and repression it is not always easy to make. To succeed as an alternative, the American ideology could not simply show that communism suppressed freedom. It would also have to demonstrate that capitalism could sustain it.
There was never a plan, worked out in advance in Washington, for how to do this. Instead there had been conflicting objectives at the end of World War II: punishing defeated enemies; cooperating with the Soviet Union; reviving democracy and capitalism; strengthening the United Nations. It had to become clear that not all of these were possible before a realignment and ranking of priorities could take place. By the end of 1947 that had happened: the new goal, best articulated by Kennan, now Marshall’s top policy planner, would be to keep the industrial-military facilities of former adversaries—chiefly those of western Germany and Japan—from falling under the rule of the current and future adversary, the U.S.S.R.30 This could have been done by destroying what remained of those facilities, but that would have driven the Germans and the Japanese toward starvation while precluding the economic revival of nearby American allies. It could have been done by restoring and then collaborating with German and Japanese authoritarianism, but that would have compromised the purposes for which the war had been fought. So the Americans came up with a third alternative. They would revive the German and Japanese economies, thereby securing the future of capitalism in those and surrounding regions. But they would also transform the Germans and the Japanese into democrats.
It was an ambitious, even audacious, strategy, so much so that if anyone had announced it publicly, alongside the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, it would have sounded wildly improbable. For while Germany and Japan had indeed had parliamentary systems before succumbing to dictatorships in the 1930s, the culture of democracy had never taken root in those countries: that was one reason they had succumbed so easily. Those dictatorships themselves, however, had now been discredited by defeat in war. That gave the Americans a clean slate and, through their military occupations, a free hand. They responded in just the way that Stalin had done: by relying abroad on what had worked at home. But because the domestic institutions of the United States could hardly have been more different from those of the Soviet Union, the Americans’ objectives in running their occupation could hardly have been less similar.
The function of government, as they saw it, was to facilitate freedom. That might require regulating the economy, but never, as in the Soviet Union, commanding it in all respects. People could still be trusted to own property, markets could be trusted to allocate resources, and the results could be trusted to advance everyone’s interests. Leaders would lead only by consent; laws, administered impartially, would ensure fairness; and a free press would provide transparency and therefore accountability. The underlying basis of government would be hope, not fear. None of these conditions existed within the U.S.S.R., its satellites, or the occupied territories it administered.
All of this would mean little, however, without performance. This is where the Marshall Plan came in. The idea here was to jump-start the European economies—and, simultaneously, that of Japan as well—through a substantial infusion of American assistance, but to involve the recipients from the start in determining how it would be used. The only requirement was that they work together: that old antagonisms fade in the face of new dangers. The goal was to restore self-confidence, prosperity, and social peace by democratic means: to show that while there might now be two ideological worlds, there need not be, within the one that was capitalist, the separate nations of rich and poor that had given rise to Marxism in the first place. Nor need there be the wars among capitalists that Lenin had insisted must happen.
Only the United States had the economic resources—perhaps also the naiveté—to attempt this task. The Soviet Union was in no position to compete: that is why Stalin responded by cracking down in those parts of Europe he could control. The Americans had another advantage over the Russians, however, that had nothing to do with their material capabilities: it was their pragmatic reliance on spontaneity. Whatever its roots—whether in market economics or democratic politics or simply national culture—they never accepted the idea that wisdom, or even common sense, could be found only at the top. They were impatient with hierarchy, at ease with flexibility, and profoundly distrustful of the notion that theory should determine practice rather than the other way around.
It did not unduly disturb Truman and his advisers, therefore, when the American military authorities in Germany and Japan rewrote their own directives for the occupation of those countries to accommodate the realities that confronted them. The deficiencies of a “one size fits all” model did not have to be explained. Nor, staunch capitalists though they were, did Washington officials object to working with European socialists to contain European communists. Results were more important than ideological consistency. And when several recipients of Marshall Plan aid pointed out that self-confidence could hardly be attained without military protection, the Americans agreed to provide this too in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the first peacetime military alliance the United States had entered into since the termination, in 1800, of the one with France that had secured American independence.
The Soviet Union under Stalin, in striking contrast, suppressed spontaneity wherever it appeared, lest it challenge the basis for his rule. But that meant accepting the proposition that Stalin himself was the font of all wisdom and common sense, claims his acolytes made frequently during the final years of his life. Whether he believed them or not, the “greatest genius of mankind” was in fact a lonely, deluded, and fearful old man, addicted to ill-informed pontifications on genetics, economics, philosophy, and linguistics, to long drunken dinners with terrified subordinates, and—oddly—to American movies. “I’m finished,” he acknowledged in a moment of candor shortly before his death. “I don’t even trust myself.”31 So this was what the aspirations of Marx and the ambitions of Lenin had come down to: a system that perverted reason, smothered trust, and functioned by fear—but that now competed with capitalists who offered hope.
WHAT IF Stalin himself was the problem, though, and communism might be salvaged with different leadership? The men who sought to succeed him all believed the diagnosis to be accurate and the prescription to be appropriate. Each of them set out to liberate Marxism-Leninism from the legacy of Stalinism. They found, though, that the two were inextricably intertwined: that to try to separate one from another risked killing both.
The first post-Stalinist leader who tried to do this wound up getting killed himself. Lavrentii Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief since 1938, was a member of the triumvirate which assumed power upon his death—the others were Molotov and Malenkov. A serial murderer and a sexual predator, Beria was also an impressive administrator who more than anyone else deserved credit for building the Soviet atomic bomb. He was surprisingly critical of the system that had given him such power. He could scarcely conceal his delight at Stalin’s demise—some historians suggest that he even arranged it32—and he moved immediately afterward to try to undo some of the worst aspects of Stalin’s rule.
Beria suspended the latest round of purges, which Stalin had launched, most unwisely, against his own doctors. With his colleagues, Beria then instructed the North Koreans and the Chinese to end the long stalemated armistice negotiations and bring the Korean War to a close; they also placed an article in Pravda expressing hope for better relations with the United States. Beria then went beyond his colleagues with a proposal to grant the non-Russian nationalities of the Soviet Union much greater autonomy than Stalin had been willing to allow them.33 His most controversial move, however, was to try to resolve the dilemma Stalin had left behind over the future of Germany.
The formation of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in May, 1949, frustrated whatever hopes Stalin may have had that communism would spread there on its own. Reunification was less important, for the new government of Konrad Adenauer, than remaining independent of the Soviet Union while closely linked to the United States. This left Stalin little choice but to authorize the formation of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in October, but he did so with little enthusiasm. He remained prepared to sacrifice that regime, headed by the veteran German communist Walter Ulbricht, if there was any way to prevent West Germany’s incorporation into NATO. In March, 1952, with this goal in mind, Stalin offered reunification in return for neutralization.34 The proposal went nowhere: Stalin’s motives were too transparent. East Germany then set about transforming itself into a proletarian state, no easy task since it had always been chiefly an agricultural region—and because the Russians had removed much of what industry there was for reparations. However, Ulbricht, a good Stalinist, insisted that East Germans could fix this problem by simply working harder: he instituted a program of rapid industrialization similar to what Stalin had undertaken in the Soviet Union. It quickly became clear, though, that this was deepening the economic crisis, provoking unrest, and driving thousands of East Germans to emigrate to West Germany, which was still possible through the open border that separated East from West Berlin.
The new Kremlin leaders ordered the reluctant Ulbricht to slow down his program—which he only partially did—and in May, 1953, Beria put forward a truly radical proposal: that in return for neutralization, the Soviet Union accept a reunified capitalist German state. Ulbricht and the East German communists would simply be abandoned. Before this plan could get anywhere, though, riots broke out the following month in East Berlin and elsewhere.35 The rioters were chiefly proletarians, the very people whose dictatorship, in theory at least, was supposed to have brought them freedom. In practice, it had denied them freedom, and that posed a dilemma for Stalin’s successors because at least one communist regime was sitting on a powder keg of resentment, fueled by the failure of Marxism-Leninism to keep its promises. What if there were others?
Beria’s colleagues solved the immediate problem by using Soviet troops to crush the East German uprising—a highly embarrassing admission of failure for them and Ulbricht. They next arrested Beria himself, charged him with having been an agent of Anglo-American imperialism, put him on trial, convicted him, and had him shot. Khrushchev, who orchestrated these events, then aligned the Soviet Union closely with Ulbricht’s repressive regime, something Stalin had never done.36 It was not an auspicious beginning for those who sought to liberate communism from Stalinism—but it would not be the last such attempt.
IT WA S Khrushchev himself who made the next one. Having deposed and executed Beria, he then over the next two years pushed aside Malenkov and Molotov—he did not, however, kill them—so that by mid-1955 he was the dominant leader of the post-Stalinist U.S.S.R. Quite unlike Stalin in his personal qualities, Khrushchev was also sincere—and fundamentally humane—in his determination to return Marxism to its original objective: a better life than that provided by capitalism. The path he chose, once he had consolidated his authority in the Kremlin, was to take on the legacy of Stalin himself.
On February 25, 1956, Khrushchev shocked delegates to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party by candidly cataloging, and then denouncing, Stalin’s crimes. In doing so, he pulled down the façade—the product of both terror and denial—that had concealed the true nature of the Stalinist regime from the Soviet people and from practitioners of communism throughout the world. He did so with a view to preserving communism: reform could only take place by acknowledging error. “I was obliged to tell the truth about the past,” he later recalled, “whatever the risks to me.”37 But the system he was trying to preserve had itself been based, since the time of Marx and Engels, on the claim to be error-free. That was what it meant to have discovered the engine that drove history forward. A movement based on science had little place for confession, contrition, and the possibility of redemption. The problems Khrushchev created for himself and for the international communist movement, therefore, began almost from the moment he finished speaking.
One was simple shock. Communists were not used to having mistakes admitted at the top, and certainly not on this scale. It was, as Secretary of State Dulles commented at the time, “the most damning indictment of despotism ever made by a despot.”38 The Polish party leader, Boleslaw Bierut, had a heart attack when he read Khrushchev’s speech, and promptly died. The effect on other communists was almost as devastating, for the new Soviet leader seemed to be telling them that it was not enough now to assert, as a theoretical proposition, that they had history behind them. It was also necessary to have their people behind them. “I’m absolutely sure of it,” Khrushchev announced at Bierut’s funeral. “[ W ]e will achieve an unprecedented closing of ranks within our own party, and of the people around our party.”39 The Polish Communist Party took the lesson to heart, and in the wake of Bierut’s death began to release political prisoners and remove Stalinists from positions of authority—only to have riots break out, as had happened under similar circumstances in East Germany. In this case, though, the hard-liners did not regain power: instead the Poles brought back Gomulka, who had fallen victim to one of Stalin’s purges, and installed him in the leadership without Khrushchev’s approval. Furious, he flew uninvited to Warsaw, threw a tantrum, threatened to send in Soviet troops, but in the end quietly accepted the new Polish government, which had after all only promised what he himself had said he wanted to do: to give “socialism”—meaning communism—“a human face.” But the problem with powder kegs—even those that do not blow up—is that there are often others nearby. Hoping to ward off further disturbances, Khrushchev had arranged the removal from power of the Hungarian Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi in July, 1956: Rákosi was told that he was “ill,” and needed “treatment” in Moscow.40 This only provoked demands for further concessions, and by the end of October—inspired by the events in Poland—the Hungarians were mounting a full-scale rebellion, not just against their own communists, but against the Soviet Union itself. Confronted with bloody fighting in the streets of Budapest, Red Army forces withdrew, and for a few days it appeared as though Hungary might be allowed to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance set up by the Russians the previous year as a counterweight to NATO. Khrushchev agonized over what to do; but in the end, under pressure from Mao Zedong, he ordered Soviet troops to re-enter Hungary and crush the rebellion.
This they promptly did, but not before some 1,500 Soviet soldiers and 20,000 Hungarians had been killed. Imre Nagy, who as premier had reluctantly led the rebel regime, was arrested and later executed. Hundreds of thousands of other Hungarians who survived tried desperately to escape to the West. Those who could not faced a return of repression, which seemed—such was the lesson of Hungary—to be the only way in which Marxist-Leninists knew how to rule. Being a communist was “inseparable from being a Stalinist,” Khrushchev told a group of Chinese early in 1957. “[M]ay God grant that every Communist will be able to fight for the interests of the working class as Stalin fought.”41 Whatever God thought about it, the old dictator’s ghost was not so easily exorcized after all.
IT WAS fitting that the Chinese played such an important role in Khrushchev’s decision to suppress the Hungarian uprising, because Mao Zedong himself was another post-Stalinist leader with ideas about how to salvage communism. His solution all along, though, had been to go back to Stalin.
Mao had not been consulted in advance about Khrushchev’s February, 1956, de-Stalinization speech—no foreign communist had been. He respected Stalin and deferred to him, but never found him easy to deal with. Stalin had been slow to support the Chinese communist revolution, and surprised by its success. He had been less than generous in setting the terms of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty, and in providing military support to the Chinese during the Korean War. He had insisted that the war be continued when Mao and Kim Il-sung were ready to end it. Was Chairman Mao sad to hear of Stalin’s death, his translator, Shi Zhe, was once asked. “I don’t think the Chairman was sad,” he replied.42 But Stalin was useful to Mao in another way: as a model for how to consolidate a communist revolution. It fell to Mao to play the role, in China, of both Lenin and Stalin. He had followed Lenin’s example in making the leap from Marxist theory to revolutionary action, reversing only the sequence of events so that in China the civil war preceded the seizure of power rather than following it. He was also, however—unlike Lenin—robustly healthy, and so he lived to take on the task that Lenin never had to confront: how to turn a country in which Marxist theory had said the revolution could never take hold into one in which it would. Stalin had done that, in Russia, by proletarianizing the country. He built up a huge industrial base, even to the point of attempting to turn agriculture into an industry by collectivizing it. There were not supposed to be any peasants left in Russia by the time he finished, and he came close to achieving that objective.
Mao took a different path. His principal theoretical innovation was to claim that peasants were proletarians: that they did not have to be transformed. A revolutionary consciousness resided within them, needing only to be awakened. That was very different from Stalin’s approach, and it accounts for some of the uneasiness that existed between them—although the elderly Stalin, frustrated by the failure of workers in Europe to arise, did take some solace in the prospect that peasants outside Europe might do so.43 Where Mao did follow the Soviet model was on the question of what to do with a revolution once it had gained control of a country. The one in China would fail, he believed, if it did not replicate, with mechanical precision, the steps by which Lenin and especially Stalin had consolidated the one in Russia.
Recalling Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Mao allowed a brief period of experimentation with market capitalism during the early 1950s, only to reverse that with a Five-Year Plan for crash industrialization and collectivized agriculture along Stalinist lines. After Stalin’s death— unimpressed with his successors in Moscow—Mao encouraged a “cult of personality” centered around himself, not just as the head of the Chinese Communist Party, but as the most experienced and respected leader, now, of the international communist movement.
It was, therefore, an unwelcome surprise for Mao when Khrushchev, without warning, denounced the Stalinist “cult of personality” early in 1956 and insisted that communists everywhere disassociate themselves from it. “He’s just handing the sword to others,” Mao grumbled, “helping the tigers harm us. If they don’t want the sword, we do. . . . The Soviet Union may attack Stalin, but we will not.”44 Mao would stick to his plan of following Stalin’s example, but—perhaps inspired by Khrushchev’s ambitions to overtake the West in both missile strength and material goods—he resolved to compress and accelerate the process. The U.S.S.R., he argued, was losing its revolutionary edge. The truly revolutionary country, China, would not make that mistake.
Accordingly, Mao added to his industrialization and collectivization campaigns his own purge of potential dissidents. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” he proclaimed ; but then he arrested as “rightists” those critics unwise enough to have taken him at his word. It was a strategy designed to “coax the snakes out of their holes, . . . to let the poisonous weeds grow first and then destroy them one by one. Let them become fertilizer.”45 Then he decided on something even more dramatic: he would merge the industrialization and collectivization campaigns by transforming peasants into proletarians after all, but by means that went beyond anything Stalin had ever considered. He ordered farmers throughout China to abandon their crops, build furnaces in their backyards, throw in their own furniture as fuel, melt down their agricultural implements—and produce steel.
The result of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” was the greatest single human calamity of the 20th century. Stalin’s campaign to collectivize agriculture had caused between 5 and 7 million people to starve to death during the early 1930s. Mao now sextupled that record, producing a famine that between 1958 and 1961 took the lives of over 30 million people, by far the worst on record anywhere ever.46 So Mao did wind up surpassing the Soviet Union and everyone else in at least one category. But it was not one of which the ideologists of Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, or Maoism could be proud.
THE REST of the world, at the time, was hardly aware of what was happening in China. Mao kept his country at least as opaque to the outside as Stalin’s U.S.S.R. had been, and the Chinese ever since have censored their censuses almost as carefully as Stalin did his own. It would take many years for the costs of the Maoist version of Marxism-Leninism to become apparent. That ideology’s deficiencies were much clearer, at the time, in the one transparent arena where communism and capitalism competed: the divided city of Berlin.
Only the Cold War’s peculiarities—the way it froze in place what were meant to be temporary arrangements at the end of World War II—could have produced a city separated into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors, lying more than a hundred miles inside the East German state Stalin had created in 1949, surrounded by several hundred thousand Soviet troops. Thanks to Marshall Plan aid, together with generous subsidies from the West German government as well as support for universities, libraries, cultural centers, and broadcasting facilities from the United States—some of them quietly funded through the Central Intelligence Agency—the western-occupied parts of Berlin became a permanent advertisement for the virtues of capitalism and democracy in the middle of communist East Germany. West Berlin led a precarious existence, though, for there was nothing to prevent the Russians—or the East Germans, if given permission—from cutting off land access to the city, as Stalin had done a decade earlier. It was clear this time that an airlift would not work: there was no way to sustain, by air, a city that was considerably more populous—and far more prosperous—than it had been in 1948. West Berlin’s very success had made it vulnerable. It survived only through forbearance in Moscow.
Soviet-occupied East Berlin, however, had its own vulnerabilities, as the riots that broke out there in 1953 had made clear. The discontent had arisen, in large part, because Berliners were then allowed to travel freely between the eastern and western portions of the city. “[I]t was really a crazy system,” one East Berliner recalled. “All you had to do [was] board a subway or [a] surface train, . . . and you were in another world. . . . [Y ]ou could go from socialism . . . to capitalism in two minutes.”47 From West Berlin in turn, emigration to West Germany was easy. The obvious differences in living standards had caused “great dissatisfaction” within the Soviet zone, Kremlin leader Georgii Malenkov admitted in the immediate aftermath of the riots, “which is particularly obvious, since the population has begun to flee from East Germany to West Germany.”48 The figure Malenkov cited was 500,000 over the previous two years, but by the end of 1956 Soviet statistics showed that well over a million more East Germans had departed. It soon became clear as well that the refugees were disproportionately well-educated and highly trained, and their motives for abandoning communism had as much to do with the absence of political freedoms as with economic shortcomings. Choosing his words carefully, the Soviet ambassador to East Germany, Mikhail Pervukhin, summed up the situation in 1959: “The presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which, unfortunately, does not always turn out in favor of Democratic [East] Berlin.”49 Khrushchev had tried to solve this problem with his 1958 ultimatum, through which he had threatened either to end the four-power occupation of the city, or to transfer control over access rights to the East Germans, who could then presumably “squeeze” the American, British, and French sectors—as his various anatomical metaphors suggested vividly—with impunity. But that initiative had fallen victim to the Eisenhower administration’s firmness, together with Khrushchev’s own insatiable desire to visit the United States. After his return, the Soviet leader promised a disappointed Ulbricht that by 1961 “the GDR [East Germany] will start to surpass the FRG [West Germany] in standard of living. This will be a bomb for them. Therefore, our position is to gain time.”50 Instead, time was lost: by 1961 some 2.7 million East Germans had fled through the open border to West Berlin and then on to West Germany. The overall population of the German Democratic Republic had declined, since 1949, from 19 million to 17 million.51 This was a major crisis for communism itself, as Soviet Vice Premier Anastas Mikoyan warned the East Germans in July, 1961: “Our Marxist-Leninist theory must prove itself in the GDR. It must be demonstrated . . . that what the capitalists and the renegades say is wrong.” After all, “Marxism was born in Germany. . . . If socialism does not win in the GDR, if communism does not prove itself as superior and vital here, then we have not won. The issue is this fundamental to us.”52 This was the same Mikoyan who had so emotionally welcomed, the year before, the surprising but historically determined revolution in Castro’s Cuba. Now, though, the revolution in Marx’s Germany was in peril. The forces of history, it seemed, were not proceeding in the right direction after all.
Ulbricht had had plans in place since at least 1952 to stop the flow of emigrants by walling West Berlin off from East Berlin and the rest of East Germany. Soviet and other East European leaders, however, had always resisted this idea. Molotov warned in 1953 that it would “call forth bitterness and dissatisfaction from the Berliners with regard to the government of the GDR and the Soviet forces in Germany.” Khrushchev insisted that the better way to fight the West German challenge would be “to try to win the minds of the people by using culture and policies to create better living conditions.” The Hungarian leader János Kádár—who had himself forced a dissatisfied population into line after the 1956 uprising—predicted early in 1961 that the construction of a wall in Berlin would “cause serious harm to the reputation of the entire communist movement.” The wall was a “hateful thing,” Khrushchev admitted, but “[w]hat should I have done? More than 30,000 people, in fact the best and most qualified people from the GDR, left the country in July. . . . [T]he East German economy would have collapsed if we hadn’t done something soon against the mass flight. . . . So the Wall was the only remaining option.”53 It went up on the night of August 12–13, 1961, first as a barbed wire barrier, but then as a concrete block wall some twelve feet high and almost a hundred miles long, protected by guard towers, minefields, police dogs, and orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to cross it. Khrushchev’s decision did stabilize the Berlin situation as far as the Cold War superpower relationship was concerned. With West Berlin isolated from East Berlin and East Germany, he had no further need to try to force the western powers out of the city, with all the risks of nuclear war that such an effort would have entailed. He could breathe more easily now, and so too—if truth be told—could western leaders. “It’s not a very nice solution,” Kennedy acknowledged, “but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”54 The president could not resist observing, though, when he himself visited the Berlin Wall in June, 1963, that “we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” The ugly structure Khrushchev had erected was “the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see.”55 X.
AND ON the other side of the wall, capitalism was succeeding. No single event, date, or statistic marks the point at which that became clear: what was significant instead was what had not happened since the end of World War II. For contrary to the fears of capitalists based on history and the hopes of communists based on theory, the Great Depression had not returned. And any possibility that capitalists might fight another great war with one another—as Stalin, drawing on Lenin, had predicted they would—had become ludicrous.
It was left, years later, to one of the last great Marxist historians, Eric Hobsbawm, to give the early postwar era a name: he called it the “Golden Age.” What he meant by this was that “[a]ll the problems which had haunted capitalism . . . appeared to dissolve and disappear.” World manufacturing output quadrupled between the early 1950s and the early 1970s. Trade in manufactured products increased by a factor of ten. Food production rose faster than population growth. Consumer goods once considered luxuries—automobiles, refrigerators, telephones, radios, televisions, washing machines—became standard equipment. Unemployment, in Western Europe, almost disappeared. “Of course most of humanity remained poor,” Hobsbawm acknowledged, “but in the old heartlands of industrial labor what meaning could the [communist] Internationale’s ‘Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers’ have for workers who now expected to have their car and spend their annual paid vacation on the beaches of Spain?”56 Hobsbawm found it easier to catalog this phenomenon than to account for it, however: “[T]here really are no satisfactory explanations for the sheer scale of this ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the capitalist world economy, and consequently for its unprecedented social consequences.” It might, he thought, have reflected an upturn in the long cycles of economic boom and bust that extended back several hundred years, but this did not explain “the extraordinary scale and depth of the secular boom,” which contrasted so strikingly with that of “the preceding era of crises and depressions.” It might have resulted from technological advances, but these were more important with the advent of computers in the 1970s and 1980s than in the immediate post–World War II years. What really did the trick, he finally decided, was that “capitalism was deliberately reformed, largely by the men who were in a position to do so in the USA and Britain, during the last war years. It is a mistake to suppose that people never learn from history.”57 If that was correct, though, then what remained of Marx, who insisted that capitalism produces, in an angry and resentful proletariat, its own executioners? Or of Lenin, who claimed that the greed of capitalists would, in the end, breed war? Or of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Mao, who promised their people a better life under communism than capitalism could ever provide? The fundamental premise of all of them was that capitalists could never learn from history. Only communists, who had discovered in the class struggle the engine of history, could do that. Only theory, which cut through complexity while abolishing ambiguity, could point the way. And only dictators, who provided the necessary discipline, could ensure arrival at the intended destination. But a lot depended on getting the history, the theory, and the dictators right. If any of them turned out to be wrong, all bets were off.
This is where the capitalists got it right: they were better than the communists at learning from history, because they never bought into any single, sacrosanct, and therefore unchallengeable theory of history. Instead they were, over the century that separated Disraeli’s two nations from Bohlen’s two worlds, pragmatic, adaptable, and given to seeking truth in results produced rather than in dogmas advanced. They made mistakes, but they corrected them. “[T]he prospects of socialism as a world alternative depended on its ability to compete with the world capitalist economy, as reformed after the Great Slump and the Second World War,” Hobsbawm concluded. “That socialism was falling behind at an accelerating rate was patent after 1960. It was no longer competitive.”58 That is putting it rather narrowly, for Marxism and its successors, Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism, cannot be judged on their economic performance alone. The human costs were far more horrendous. These ideologies, when put into practice, may well have brought about the premature deaths, during the 20th century, of almost 100 million people.59 The number who survived but whose lives were stunted by these ideas and the repression they justified is beyond estimation. There can be few examples in history in which greater misery resulted from better intentions. The sign that went up on an East German factory wall just after the Berlin Wall came down was entirely appropriate—if long overdue: “To the workers of the world: I am sorry.” There hardly needed to be a signature.
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