All Commentary
Thursday, December 1, 1988

Book Review: Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man by Mikhail Heller

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 400 Hahn Road, Westminster, MD 21157 1988 • 293 pp., $22.95 cloth,

Asentiment commonly heard in recent discussions concerning future Soviet-American relations is that conflict and tension are inevitable unless these two “great nations” are able to “understand” one another. The presumption is that ignorance breeds fear and war, while knowledge creates a bond of mutual respect and peaceful relationships.

It is certainly true that, even in the new era of glasnost in Gorbachev’s Russia, the people of the Soviet Union are still limited in the information and ideas they are permitted to receive from the West. In the West, on the other hand, the situation is different. The information available about the Soviet system is vast, but often what gets filtered through the news media is a Soviet Russia seen through rose-colored glasses: they are really just like us, only different. This is supposed to mean that the Soviets really want the same things we in the West desire—peace, prosperity, justice; it’s just that they sometimes use methods that seem a bit brutal by our more sensitive Western standards. If only we could humanize them a little . . . .

Mikhail Heller’s recent book, Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man, forcefully argues that an understanding of the Soviet Union requires an appreciation that, from the inception of the Soviet State in 1917, not only the means chosen were different from those in the West, but also the ideological ends for which the power of government has been applied are different. Nationalization of the means of production by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was a tool for a specific purpose: to control all aspects of the social and economic environment so as to create the conditions necessary to make over human nature and produce a new Soviet or Communist Man.

Believing, as good Marxists do, that man is a product of his material environment, the Russian Communists had a vision of a new human being: selfless in character, collectivist in orientation, boundless in his love of labor for the common good, and heroic in his defense of the revolutionary cause. But what Lenin and the Bolsheviks found after the Revolution was a Russian people imbued with the same “bourgeois” traits as everyone else: individuals primarily looking out for number one, more interested in improving the economic conditions of their immediate family, reluctant to work except for incentives and rewards for the labor to be performed, and generally disinterested in making sacrifices for a world revolution.

To achieve their goal, therefore, Professor Heller explains, the Communist Party proceeded to destroy all the cultural and economic institutional structures that surrounded and protected the Russian people. As the author expresses it, the Soviet authorities began a process to “infantilize” every Russian, i.e., to make every Russian completely dependent upon the Soviet State, and, therefore, moldable in a social cast constructed by the Party elite. No comer in the society would be left in which the individual could hide and protect any personal qualities and characteristics undesigned by the State.

In one of the most intriguing chapters, Professor Heller argues that the introduction of the “Five Year Plan” served as an instrument enabling the Party to control the very concept and boundaries of time. All conceptions of temporal horizons, beginnings and endings, goals and intermediary points, were defined in terms of the clock of the plan. The Party could accelerate time (by meeting the plan’s goals ahead of schedule), apportion time (by subdividing the plan into weekly, monthly, or yearly production quota periods), and change time (by shortening or lengthening the plan’s horizon). By manipulating time and the plans within it, the Party could perform miracles before the eyes of “the masses”; by juggling the numbers and massaging the facts of production, the Party could make it appear as though the laws of nature were subordinate to it.

In the new social order, the individual could have no existence outside of the State—no plans, no identity, no sense of self other than his place as an assigned cog in “the people’s” machine.

After explaining the goals and strategies for making the new Soviet Man, Professor Heller methodically describes the techniques: the introduction of fear through an omnipresent and omniscient secret police; the control of labor through internal passports and the State as monopoly employer; the breeding of guilt through corruption, as the black market became a primary avenue for survival; the control of minds through an educational system that intrudes beyond the classroom to the family itself; the planning of culture via Party domination of literature and art; and the manipulation of language and, therefore, thought by a constant bombardment of slogans, phrases, and images that make it difficult to think of words or con cepts other than in terms of the meanings bestowed upon them by Party ideology.

In his earlier work, Utopia in Power (co-authored with Aleksandr M. Nekrich), Heller exhaustively and impressively traced the history of the Soviet Union. Now, in Cogs in the Wheel, he helps complete that picture with a portrait of the cultural and human order Soviet power has produced. Through it, we see that the Soviets are not the same as we are. Those who role in the Soviet Union have a design different from the Western ideals of a free society. While 70 years of Marxist role may not have replaced human nature with a new Soviet Man, it has influenced the minds of the Russian people. This is seen even in those most recent documentaries on Soviet life in which Western camera crews are approached by ordinary Russians on the street and asked, “Who has permitted this?” What is not explicitly permitted is strictly forbidden. For many Russians, “freedom” only means knowing the difference. And the Party’s telling people that they can now have more freedom of expression and action under glasnost does not imply that the words will be immediately translated into Western meanings in the minds of the Russian populace. []

Professor Ebeling holds the Ludwig von Mises Chair in Economics at Hillsdale College.

  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.