All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1963

All Freedom or No Freedom

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and many nation­ally known magazines.

From Moscow recently has come an impressive lesson in the eternal truth that freedom is integral and indivisible, that without economic and political freedom there can be no freedom of the mind and the spirit. The occasion was the long, scolding, threatening lecture which Nikita Khrushchev deliv­ered to an audience that included leading Soviet writers, artists, and composers. The Communist Party, with Khrushchev as its represent­ative and spokesman, is not con­tent to control the entire political and economic life of the Soviet Union, to make all the big deci­sions of foreign and internal policy, to “plan” every year how much every Soviet citizen will be permitted to consume, from bread and sugar to furniture and mov­ing-picture tickets. It also assumes the right to plan and dictate what its subjects may hear, read, see on all media of communication, to determine, so far as this is possi­ble, what Russians shall think.

Since Stalin’s death ten years ago there have been changes in the Soviet Union, although the ex­tent and significance of these changes should not be exagger­ated. Khrushchev’s personal style as a dictator differs from Stalin’s. Stalin was a paranoid introvert who, especially in his last years, saw very few foreigners as he lived secluded in the Kremlin, never leaving Russia. Khrushchev is a bouncy extrovert who seems to enjoy travel, crowds, and min­gling with diplomats and journal­ists. The ghastly terror of Stalin’s rule has abated; during the last decade there have been no mass deportations, many prisoners have been released, and conditions in concentration camps have become less barbarously inhuman. Arbi­trary arrests are less frequent.

However, the Soviet Union re­mains a strict police state, governed from above. A self-perpetu­ating party bureaucracy is the source of all power. Elections are farces; it is still true, as Lenin is reported to have said, that there may be any number of political parties in Russia, provided that the Communist Party is in power—and the other parties in jail. The Iron Curtain is no empty phrase; the Soviet authorities do every­thing in their power to insulate the Soviet people from knowledge of conditions abroad. Moscow re­mains the only European capital where it is impossible to buy the New York Times, or any other foreign noncommunist newspaper.

The Soviet government invests a vast amount of money and tech­nical resources in jamming foreign radio broadcasts. The status of the peasants remains what it has been since collective farming was forced on them thirty years ago: that of serfs assigned to their tasks by the state. And, as against the relaxation of terror in some fields, there has been in recent years an extension of the death penalty, especially to so-called eco­nomic crimes, which in some cases are nothing more than the exer­cise of initiative and ingenuity in short-circuiting the processes of the cumbersome bureaucracy.

This same mixed pattern—re­laxation here, tightening there—has been equally evident in intel­lectual life. Under Stalin the rules for the writer, artist, musician were simple. Every novel, every painting had to point the moral that all was for the best in the communist world. It was a matter of conform or, at best, not be pub­lished; at worst a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. The re­sult of this kind of force-draft “culture” was the most barren period in the creative arts since Russia assumed its place in Euro­pean culture through the creations of such poets as Pushkin and Ler­montov and such novelists as Tol­stoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. Apart from one epic novel, Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don, the whole of Soviet literary pro­duction during the quarter cen­tury of Stalin’s personal absolute rule (1928-1953) may be dis­missed as mediocre to worthless.

Temporary Release

The same considerations that led Stalin’s successors to abate political terror induced them to relax somewhat the shackles on the intellectuals. A more sophisti­cated and educated generation had grown up, restive and disillusioned with an unvarying diet of coarse propaganda which was often in glaring contradiction to the reali­ties of everyday Soviet life. So, very cautiously and gingerly, and with many jerks and halts, a little more license was granted in the creative arts.

Literary magazines began to let a little fresh air into their con­tents. Now and then a novel ap­peared which most probably would not have been submitted and cer­tainly would not have been pub­lished under Stalin’s reign of ter­ror. The most striking example of this was the recent appearance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a matter-of-fact account, without any injection of spectacular hor­rors, of the normal life of the half-starved, half-frozen slave laborers in the Arctic climate of Northern Siberia. How complete the system of thought control and censorship in the Soviet Union is may be gauged from the fact that this was the first printed word in Rus­sia which documented the very ex­istence of the slave labor camps to which millions of human beings were consigned.

But the relaxation of restric­tions on free expression did not proceed in a straight line. Doctor Zhivago, the great novel of Rus­sia‘s outstanding man of letters, the late Boris Pasternak, became a literary sensation in Europe and America and sold in hundreds of thousands of copies. But it could not be published in Russia, and the author and his book were over­whelmed with coarse abuse. Pas­ternak was put under such pres­sure that he declined the invita­tion to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm.

Now, progress has come to a dead halt and a retrograde move­ment seems to have begun. Khru­shchev’s manifesto—given the widest possible publicity through press and radio—indicates that, in the opinion of the ruling group, intellectual ferment had gone too far and that the authority of Com­munist Party dogma must be re­affirmed. Khrushchev sneered at what he called the moldy idea of absolute freedom and declared that the Party regards the press, literature, painting, music, radio, pictures, and theater as “sharp ideological weapons.” “In ques­tions of art,” he continued, “the Central Committee of the Party will demand from everyone—from the most merited and renowned as well as from the young budding artists—unswerving adherence to the Party line.”

Czarist Censorship

Here, in a nutshell, is the blight that has fallen on creative expres­sion in the arts under communism. There was censorship in Czarist Russia; but this did not prevent the emergence of literature second to none in depth of psychological insight, in the quality of human compassion, in imaginative depiction of characters. But the Czarist censorship was purely negative and fairly easy to evade.

No one demanded of Tolstoy or Turgenev or Chekhov that he de­pict Imperial Russia as a happy place in which to live; and this is certainly not the impression the reader gains from the Russian lit­erature of the nineteenth century. So long as the nineteenth century Russian novelist abstained from open endorsement of revolution and from disrespectful references to the Imperial family, he could write pretty much as he pleased.

But under the communist dis­pensation a neutral, apolitical at­titude is not tolerated. You must either ballyhoo the cause of com­munism or face the dry guillotine of not being published—in a soci­ety where the state is the only publisher. The case of Doctor Zhivago is very instructive. Had there been no censorship and had there been competing private pub­lishers, this work would have been a best seller for a Russian public sickened of stereotyped propa­ganda fiction that bears no rela­tion to the realities of life.

Khrushchev has unconsciously and unwillingly given new proof that liberty is integral and indi­visible. Many in the United States and Western Europe probably agree with the Soviet Premier’s blunt characterization of modern abstract art as suggesting some­thing “smeared with a donkey’s tail,” find much modern music tiresomely and earsplittingly ca­cophonous, and object to trends toward obscenity and contrived ob­scurity in some modern literature. But no one in a free country would deny the writer, the com­poser, the artist the right to ex­press himself according to the dictates of his inner impulse.

The Blight of State Dictation

Far worse than the most ob­noxious and absurd cultural ex­periments is the prospect of a political party or any other im­personal authority assuming the right to dictate the form and con­tent of novels, poems, plays, paint­ings, and symphonies. Public opin­ion, in the long run, usually sifts out the valuable from the phony in fields of creative expression. But no culture worthy of the name can survive the blight of state dic­tation.

It is interesting and significant that the same system which elim­inates consumer choice in material things and which substitutes the judgment of the state for that of the consumer and the free market in deciding what, and how much of what, should be produced, ar­rogates this same privilege in matters of the intellect, carefully pre-tasting and prefabricating what the Soviet citizen may read and hear and determining, so far as possible, what he is to think.

It is no accident that such polit­ical institutions as free elections, freedom of speech, press, and as­sembly, safeguarding of the legal rights of the individual against arbitrary state authority, are in­timately bound up with a free economy, with the maintenance of a free market, with the acknowl­edged right to acquire, own, and transfer private property. Where one finds free trade, there will also usually be free thought; and the converse of this proposition is equally true.

The Gadarene swine who rushed over a cliff to their destruction were models of discretion com­pared with intellectuals who have advocated socialism, communism, fascism, and other forms of col­lectivism which would substitute state planning for individual ini­tiative. For the surest prediction that can be made about such sys­tems is that they will not leave the human mind and soul out of the range of things which it is proposed to control.

The Arrogance of Planners

It is only on the foundation of free political institutions and a free economy that there can be any security for the intellectual to create and express himself freely.

That is why resistance to the ten­dency of the modern state to swell and expand beyond its proper functions is an essential element of the vigilance that is always needed if freedom is to be main­tained in all fields, not least in those of the mind and the spirit.

Adam Smith pronounced a final and devastating judgment on the illusions and delusions of the state economic planners with his wise observation:

“The statesman who should at­tempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to em­ploy their capitals would not only load himself with a most unneces­sary attention, but assume an au­thority which could safely be trusted to no council or senate whatever, and which would no­where be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy him­self fit to exercise it.”

The same overwhelming arro­gance that leads state planners in all societies to claim for them­selves this privilege of substitut­ing their judgment for that of the impersonal free market is easily transferred to the sphere of the intellect. If planning is good for industrial output and for the pro­vision of the people with just what they require, or ought to require, in food and clothing and housing, why should it not also be extended to books, magazines, press, radio, every medium for influencing thought?

The principle of the free market is just as sound in cultural values as in the production of material things. The state as patron is only the other side of the coin from the state as censor; it is miscast in both roles. A good illustration is the contrasted position of opera in New York and in London.

Experiments in cacophonous modern compositions have been infrequent at New York‘s Metro­politan Opera because they invari­ably have proved unsuccessful from the box-office standpoint. Not being subsidized, the Metro­politan directors are obliged to pay some consideration to what their audiences wish to hear. (There is, alas, no such pressure on the program makers of the symphony orchestras, whose con­certs are regularly sold out. Con­sequently, they are able to in­flict what they wish on what are essentially captive audiences).

Unmelodic music is just as un­popular in London as it is in New York. But an organization called the Arts Council, supported by public funds, steps into the breach by furnishing subsidies which are used to cover the deficits incurred by performing unpopular operas to half-filled houses. So, as is apt to be the case, the greatest satis­faction of the greatest number—whether it be in the choice of opera or in the thousand and one other items that enter into the standard of living—is insured by leaving the decision to the free operation of public taste. A sys­tem of state subsidized art in any form is likely to turn into a play­ground for cranks and doctrinaires.

Freedom Is Indivisible

So, one always comes back to the proposition that freedom is integral and indivisible. To violate the principle of the free market, of consumer choice, is equally dis­astrous in economics and in the arts. It is difficult to calculate how much a free economy is superior to a controlled one, merely be­cause of the fact that it is free. The first steps toward a controlled economy may seem attractive, de­sirable, even necessary; but the final station on this road is the substitution of some bureaucratic agency’s judgment for that of the individual in one element after another involving the individual’s standard of living.

State planning in the arts is almost certain to end in one of two pitfalls, censorship and thought control, or foisting on a captive audience eccentric and un­popular forms of expression. It is remarkable how many problems, cultural and economic, could be avoided and/or solved by the on one side from those on the simple device of leaving people free to follow the bent of their own taste and judgment.

Indeed, if one would seek to re­duce to a single formula the ideo­logical struggle of our time—a struggle that is both international and intra-national—the best touch­stone for distinguishing those other might well be belief in the saving virtue of free consumer choice. There is the dividing line between libertarians on one side and totalitarian communists, so­cialists, fascists, collectivists of all kinds and degrees—authori­tarian so-called reformers—on the other.

  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.