All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1972

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1972/5

Laurence W. Beilenson must feel like the man who sees an automobile bearing down on a blind man and suddenly loses his voice. He wrote a book not long ago called The Treaty Trap, which tried to tell our statesmen that nations which depend on treaties for safety invariably discover that promises in international life only last as long as they prove convenient. In spite of Mr. Beilenson’s warnings the quest for written assurances of detente, or arms limitation, or defined spheres of influence, goes on.

Meanwhile, as communiqués are issued and treaties are signed, the nations continue to break their word in almost routine fashion. Save for those who are weak, all of them are guilty, whether they happen to be communist, capitalist or “middle way” socialist. In his second book, Power Through Subversion (Public Affairs Press, $8), Mr. Beilenson explores the long and lamentable history of the various ways in which nations have tried to weaken each other as they pursue the game of balancing the power. Curiously, this is the first history of its kind. But who, as we eek a “generation of peace,” will end it? Must Mr. Beilenson’s rynx fail him again as the auto- mobile moves toward the blind man?

Various “Blades” of Subversion

Mr. Beilenson begins by clarifying the ambiguous words he is forced to use. He speaks of the various “blades” of subversion. An influencing subversion” will use he blades of propaganda, agitation or offensive terror to get anther government to follow certain policies without actually trying to overthrow it. A “decisive subversion” will employ an armed fifth column within an enemy state to change the government without actually using the means of external warfare. “Traditional subversion” is subversion before Lenin. “Spigot subversion” is when you turn it on and off. There is “auxiliary subversion,” “opportunist subversion,” “spotty subversion,” the “Vergennes Variation,” and the “Lenin Adaptation.” The last is the worst, for, as Mr. Beilenson makes plain, it never sleeps and it never ends.

Lenin actually developed no new “blade” of subversion. He learned without benefit of Marx, by going to the history of Bourbon and Hapsburg Europe and by studying the way Napoleon spread the French Revolution. Traditional subversion, using such “blades” as bribery and the smuggling of arms, usually preceded the marching of armies. Britain employed “spigot subversion” to keep continental Europe off balance.

The Vergennes Variation

The Vergennes Variation was employed by France to help America. Vergennes expected no immediate benefit by sending arms to help the colonists defeat the British Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga. The French foreign minister expected that an independent republic in America would follow its own interest, even to the point of rank ingratitude. All he wanted out of the deal was to keep the British from deriving strength from America in wars still to come.

The young United States fulfilled Vergennes’ expectation of ingratitude the moment when it became profitable to our Founding Fathers to sign a treaty of peace with Britain. A century and a half later Truman, Marshall and Acheson used the Vergennes Variation on their own to help France through Marshall Plan money and the NATO alliance. De Gaulle proved just as ungrateful as America’s John Jay had proved at the end of the Eighteenth Century. But an ungrateful France, says Mr. Beilenson, is better for the United States than a Communist France.

The Lenin Adaptation

The Lenin Adaptation has made use of all the traditional blades. But where “traditional subversion” often ended in open war, Lenin used his own adaptation as a substitute for war. Lenin did not believe in an adventurous policy. He had a fanatic’s fixation on preserving his socialist base. He believed that one could recognize a revolutionary situation, but he made no pretense to being a prophet about timing. In 1848 there were revolutionary situations all over Europe. But the revolutions were either aborted or repressed. Since nobody could be sure about timing, Lenin believed in the long-term financing of foreign Communist parties, fronts and secret agents who would be on the spot if a revolutionary situation should become ripe. Khrushchev, who followed Lenin’s strategy, couldn’t have known that Castro would turn the anti-Batista revolution into a full-fledged Communist revolution. But the Communists had their party and their “sleepers” ready to exploit Castro’s discovery that he had always been a Marxist.

What burns Mr. Beilenson up is that “bourgeois” statesmen can never seem to realize that Communist nations believe in having their mounts “well shod on all four feet” even when the talk is of detente, or co-existence, or peace. All Communist agreements are like pie crusts, made to be broken if a revolutionary situation develops. Ho Chi Minh waited for twenty years to take over in North Vietnam. Mao Tse-tung was willing to enter a coalition with Chiang Kai-shek in 1946, but when the Soviets gave him all those captured Japanese arms he would settle for nothing less than the total defeat of the Kuomintang. Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Imperial Germany to take Russia out of World War I. But when the Soviets opened an embassy in Berlin, they used it to spread subversion inside the country that had permitted Lenin to ride to the Finland Station in a sealed car. The Lenin Adaptation makes no connection with gratitude.

The Cautious Soviets

As Mr. Beilenson sees it, the Soviets, in using the Lenin Adaptation, err on the side of super-caution. If the United States hadn’t been obsessed with Suez in 1956, Khrushchev would never have dared send his tanks into Hungary to suppress the revolt. The Soviet army had withdrawn from Budapest in fear that Britain and America might send help to the Hungarians. But when it became plain that Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles were giving priority to their dispute with England, France and Israel, the Soviet army returned to Hungary.

This does not mean that the Soviets will always be cautious. Lenin believed in the inevitability of war with the capitalist world, and if the Soviets ever thought they could win that war without risk to the socialist base they would certainly fire off their missiles and send their armies marching.

The Not-So-Cautious Chinese

Mao Tse-tung’s aphorisms are paraphrases of Lenin’s words. `Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is simply Lenin’s `supremacy of violence.” “Enemy advances, we retreat; enemy tires, we attack; enemy retreats, we pursue” is Mao’s way of expressing Lenin’s “doctrine of the situation.” “Fight no battle you are not sure of winning” is Lenin’s “caution about war” in Chinese. But Mao has been more adventurous than Lenin in risking his forces. After all, the Red Chinese invaded North Vietnam and have tried to capture Quemoy and Matsu.

Mr. Beilenson would like to see the United States develop an “American Adaptation” to be directed against Communist rulers who are trying to destroy our form of government. Alas, in our current state of mind, this won’t be done. Our “advocates of a good-on-paper world” would consider American subversion a breach of international law. Our friends would welcome an American subversion, but we are too soft in the head to see it. Poor Mr. Beilenson.


MAN, ECONOMY AND STATE by Murray N. Rothbard (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Co., 1971, 987 pp., two-volume hard cover $30, one-volume paper $10)

Reviewed by Tommy W. Rogers

This is a welcome reissue of an excellent treatise which originally appeared in 1962. Rothbard develops the edifice of economic science in the manner of the old-fashioned “principles” approach — slowly and logically building an integrated and coherent edifice of economic truth from a few simple and basic axioms. First, the Fundamental Axiom of action—that men employ means to achieve ends, followed by two subsidiary postulates: that there is a variety of human and natural resources, and that leisure is a consumers’ good.

Beginning with the immediate implications of the action axiom, Rothbard discusses various types of interpersonal and social relations; the economics of voluntary exchange, the economics of consumption, the pricing of consumer goods, and production theory. A “radical” feature of Rothbard’s analysis of production is a complete break with the “short-run” theory of the firm and its replacement with dynamic Austrian theory of marginal value productivity and capitalization.

The author emphasizes the immense benefits accruing to all participants in the system of free exchange, and demonstrates the harmful effects of political interventions in the marketplace. A centrally planned economy, Rothard observes, is a centrally prohibited economy. The concept of “social engineering” is a deceptive metaphor, since in the social realm, it is largely people who are being planned rather than machinery and resources. Furthermore, bureaucracy, incompetent enough at handling a stationary system, is vastly more incompetent at planning a progressive one.

This book frankly takes off from Mises’ Human Action, attempting to spell out some of the implications of the earlier work, but also devoting considerable space to the refutation of opposing doctrines. It has meat enough to satisfy the professional economist, but it is not beyond the thoughtful layman. A book like this one is indeed a basic instrument of economic education. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.