Soviet Dissent: Heat without Light
JUNE 01, 1971 by MELVIN D. BARGER
Mr. Barger is a public relations representative in
You could feel passion and spirit in the storm of protest rolling over the world intellectual community when it was announced last November that Soviet Novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would not be allowed to accept his Nobel Prize in person.
Like Boris Pasternak 12 years before him, the brilliant Solzhenitsyn became an instant martyr. His case was hot news in the western press, a cause célèbre among the intelligentsia. His plight was one more depressing example of the Soviets’ heavy-handed approach to the arts. It raised fears that the mild liberties of the post-Stalin era were fading, that a new period of harsh subjugation was setting in. Would it now be more concentration camps and terrorism, repeats of the thing Solzhenitsyn wrote about so well in his best-selling One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?
There was also speculation of a hopeful nature. Solzhenitsyn and his fellow artists, so this thread of reasoning went, were really driving a thin wedge of freedom in
But to anybody who has studied the
One problem of the Solzhenitsyn case is that most of his champions are socialists themselves, leaning towards government ownership or control of production facilities.
They do not understand the role of private property in the implementation of intellectual freedom. There is also a certain snobbishness in this defense of a distinguished author. In other words, the Soviets are wrong in suppressing a creative person, but entirely justified in regimenting factory workers and collective farmers. Finally, the intellectuals do not understand why the Soviet government, and probably any government organized along socialist lines, must curtail intellectual freedom.
Outside My Field
This lack of understanding was revealed in the remarks of the noted Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, who not only defended Solzhenitsyn but also permitted the author to share his home. Rostropovich said, "The political and economic questions of our country are not my business. There are people who know these fields better than I. But please ex plain to me why in our literature and art the decisive word comes so often from people who are absolutely unqualified."
Rostropovich gave away the ball game by conceding that the political and economic questions were not his business. In agreeing to the right of the Soviet dictatorship to run the country from top to bottom, owning and controlling most property, he in effect signs away his right to make decisions in the fields of literature and art. Being a product of the Soviet Union and its educational system, he can be excused for this erroneous reasoning. But what can be said for his fellow intellectuals and artists in the Western nations who should know better, and yet constantly work to impose socialism on the rest of the world?
A large number of them carefully avoid any argument that lays the restrictions of Soviet artists at the door of socialism. The villain is the man Stalin, rather than socialism itself. Hence the frequent use of the term "Stalinism." The aim of this apparent differentiation may be to suggest that Stalinism is wrong and hateful, while socialism can be decent and humanitarian.
But the Soviet leaders themselves, whatever their other shortcomings, make little attempt to cooperate with this theory. They unashamedly require artists and writers to serve the system and to present only what is called socialist realism. In actual practice, this turns out to be work that follows the party line at a particular time. As for the writers and artists themselves, they must be people who do not give signs of becoming troublesome.
The Reality of Power
Solzhenitsyn was rather unique among Soviet writers in being allowed to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an attack on the prison camps of Stalinist days. This was interpreted in the West as the beginning of a change in the rigidities of socialist realism. But that was only because Western intellectuals do not understand the realism of socialists in power. There was a need, on Nikita Khrushchev’s part, to assign Soviet crimes to the ghost of Stalin, and the Solzhenitsyn book helped serve that end. Khrushchev had not become so liberal that he would have permitted publication of a book attacking his own programs. Nor would a book have been permitted if it argued that socialism itself had been the evil behind the concentration camps.
Far from being a change in the Soviet system itself, the liberalism of the Khrushchev days was just a minor adjustment. There was no intention at any time of permitting anything like real intellectual freedom or freedom of the press. It is doubtful that such concepts ever were understood in the Soviet Union. The men in power would no more permit an author to publish freely than they would permit a factory manager to use machines to produce and sell products under his own brand name.
This kind of thing is not perceived as being consistent with socialist realism.
In fact, one could even argue quite convincingly that Soviet leaders would be derelict in their duty if they permitted authors to publish freely. The Soviet state owns all the newspapers, magazines, and printing plants in the USSR. This is an immense publishing network which annually turns out thousands of newspapers, more than 4,000 magazines, and at least 80,000 different books and pamphlets. Like most owners of publishing facilities, the Soviet state prints the materials that get official approval, and rejects the rest. Private publishers in America and Europe do the same thing, but with a great deal more sophistication and for different purposes. A private publisher in America, for example, may print material he dislikes, if he knows that it will sell. Or he will print letters and other writings that oppose his point of view, the rationale being that it gets readership and also presents him as a fair person.
But the profit aims and fairness practices need not be observed in a socialist state where there are no alternate publishing sources. It is even doubtful that we would find all points of view being published in the United States if the government became the single owner or regulator of all printing. Despite our long traditions of free speech and expression, a great deal of material would end up in the ash can if the U.S. Government Printing Office were the sole publisher. The author in the United States has the protection of the First Amendment, but this would be virtually meaningless if all of his likely publishers were under government ownership. It is the diversity of publishing sources as well as the First Amendment that helps advance freedom of the press.
No Credit to Private Enterprise
The astonishing thing, however, is that private enterprise gets virtually none of the credit for the free expression enjoyed by intellectuals in the Western nations. There’s also irony in the fact that some of the outstanding works of Soviet writers never would have reached printed form without the hated capitalist press. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, for example, was first published in Italy by a private publisher with socialist views. Worse yet, even the fallen Khrushchev, though never repudiating the socialist philosophy, finally had to deal with private publishers in order to print his memoirs. One wonders how any of these people would have found self-expression had the socialist goal of worldwide state ownership of production been reached.
The writers in Western nations, if they give the matter any thought, apparently feel that a socialist America or England will always provide for the expression of different points of view. They are under this delusion because they have been accustomed to the free market place of publishing in their own countries. They easily forget that hard economic decisions are necessary in all publishing, and that somebody must decide to allocate scarce resources for the production of a certain book or pamphlet.
In the harsh Soviet regime, those decisions are made by party leaders who are guided by socialist realism rather than the profit motive. But how would publishing decisions be made in the United States or England if all ownership rights resided in the government?
Like it or not, these government publishing officials would have to be guided by socialist realism. In the early stages, they would probably make a token show of presenting all points of view. But with the consolidation of their power and the arrogance typical of social reformers, they would soon find the will and suitable rationalizations for rejecting work they did not like.
We can see the beginnings of such practices today in the socialists who want to extend the government’s control over advertising and the television networks. There is a great deal of pressure to establish government guidelines on TV programs for children. It does not take a lot of imagination to see that such controls, if accepted for one group, will soon be enlarged to include other groups. There is always a high-sounding purpose behind such measures, but they are not greatly different from socialist realism. In a government-owned or -controlled communications system, the aims must always be the service of the state, and only secondarily the self-expression of the creative artists. This is as true for the United States as it is for Russia or Red China.
That being the case, it is likely that we will continue having protests on behalf of the Soviet Union’s Pasternaks and Solzhenitsyns, but no way will be found to implement the writer’s freedom in Russia. It takes more than heated protest to provide effective dissent. It also requires the light of understanding; in this case, an understanding of how the free market place works and how it automatically provides for the expression of many points of view.
More than most people, artists and writers need the commercial world that many of them detest. They need the free market place, because the market place for goods and services is also the market place for literary and artistic works. They need to live and work in a climate of freedom — freedom for everybody, and not just privileges for the favored few who serve the regime. Until the world’s intellectuals insist on that kind of freedom for the Soviet Union, they are wasting their time defending men like Solzhenitsyn. And nobody knows that fact better than the socialist realists who hold the real power in the Soviet Union.
The Question of Freedom
We should remember that in an area controlled by such a process as national socialism, or any similar philosophy of governmental direction, the question and definition of what human personality is, and what human rights and fundamental freedoms are, rest with the dominant political power.
RUSSELL J. CLINCHY, "Human Rights and the United Nations"