All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1960

Feet of Clay

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.

Overestimation of the success of communism in the Soviet Union and in China is becoming the fash­ionable intellectual disease of the West. Khrushchev’s transpar­ently phony boasts of surpassing the American standard of living in the fairly near future are taken seriously, although as yet no queues have begun to form before Soviet consulates for permanent immigration permits. And it is a rare day when someone does not tell us that, unless American tax­payers put up a big contribution for the (who are somewhat fancifully sup­posed to keep their eyes glued on comparative production statistics of India and China) will decide that communism is really what the doctor ordered.

Writes the British publicist, former Laborite MP, and hot gos­peller of nationalization, Mr. Michael Foot, in a recent issue of The Spectator:

“Like it or not, one of the most spectacular events of our age is the comparative success of the communist economic systems… Considering the tumultuous forty years through which the Russians have lived, the achievement by any reckoning is stupendous.”

And Mr. Foot, who would quite sincerely repudiate the imputation of being a Communist him­self, uses the alleged stupendous success of the communist economic system as an argument for his own pet panacea: wholesale nationali­zation, public ownership and allo­cation of resources. And not a few Americans are proceeding from the assumption that the Soviet economy has turned out a howling success to the conclusion that America also should have more public direction of its economy and imitate the Soviet Union in other ways, as in greatly extending fed­eral controls and federal expendi­tures in education.

It is always easy to create a utopian picture of conditions in a country which is imperfectly known, like the Soviet Union, or hardly known at all, like Red China. It is always a temptation to assume, if something is amiss in the United States, that things are better ordered in Russia.

Mere misjudgment of a foreign country is relatively harmless. But it becomes harmful if it leads to ill-advised recommendations for imitation of the practices of this country, without any considera­tion of the over-all comparative balance sheet.

The Dead Do Not Complain

What about this assumption that the Soviet economy, now in its forty-third year, has fully vindicated itself by its results? First, it might be noted that a good many Russians and other na­tionals of the Soviet Union are in no position to express an opinion on this question—because their lives were prematurely cut short as a direct result of certain eco­nomic and administrative policies of the Soviet government.

Several million people perished in the famine of 1921-22, which was in large part a result of irra­tional persistence in a system known as war communism, which destroyed peasant incentive to pro­duce by requisitioning arbitrarily whatever the State decreed was his surplus grain. Several million more would have perished if American “imperialist capitalists,” large and small, functioning mainly through Mr. Herbert Hoover’s ARA (American Relief Administration), partly through various religious and philan­thropic groups, had not violated all the accepted rules of class war by bringing in food to save Rus­sians, Communists and non-Com­munists alike, from starvation.

There was another famine in 1932-33 which took at least four million victims. This was even more clearly due to Soviet eco­nomic policies than the disaster of 1921-22. It grew directly out of the determination of Stalin to im­pose collective farming; starvation was the penalty when the peasants cut down production and neglected their fields.

Some ten million persons passed through slave labor concentration camps during a quarter of a cen­tury of Stalin’s terrible rule. Here again there was a direct connec­tion with the economic policies which Mr. Foot finds so admirable and successful. For much timber cutting, digging of canals, coal and gold mining, and railway con­struction was the work of the hor­ribly maltreated, overworked, underfed prisoners in these camps, of whom a large number died.

If one further counts the un­known numbers put to death in paranoid purges, the many victims of the deportations under appal­lingly inhuman conditions from Poland and the Baltic States, the abnormally high percentage of German, Italian, and other war prisoners who died in captivity, it is evident that the price of the Soviet economic system, in terms of human lives, was fantastically high and incomparably higher than any sacrifice required under alternative systems.

Few Consumer Items

And, even if one puts aside the dead, and thinks only of the living Soviet citizens today, have they so much reason to regard their lot in life as supremely happy? It is true that, by forced development of a state-directed economy along militarist lines, the Soviet Union has developed capacity to inflict formidable damage on the United States or any other enemy—but with the virtual certainty of re­ceiving formidable damage in re­turn. But, as regards the thousand and one little comforts and ameni­ties that, along with such staple needs as food, clothing, and hous­ing, make up a national standard of living, the Soviet Union is easily at the bottom of the list of indus­trialized powers and shows little prospect of emerging from this position. One might think, on reading some of Khrushchev’s flights of fancy, that “catching up with America” was a reasonable prospect just around the corner.

Actually, the gap between the United States (and the more pros­perous countries of Western Europe) and the Soviet Union in almost everything that makes for individual comfort and satisfac­tion is wide and, in many cases, growing wider. For instance, the number of new telephones in­stalled every year in the United States exceeds the total number of telephones functioning in the Soviet Union. The number of auto­mobiles that will roll off the United States assembly lines in 1960 will surpass the total number on the Soviet roads today.

One subject never mentioned by Nikita Khrushchev when he en­deavors to draw favorable com­parisons with the United States is bathtubs and plumbing facili­ties. Here the American lead is so long that one would hesitate to set any date, however distant, for Soviet “catching up.”

Even in those straight figures of industrial output which often bear little direct relation to indi­vidual well-being, and where the Soviet showing is apt to be strongest, the lag behind America during the early fifties was in some cases widening, not narrow­ing. Between 1950 and 1956, the United States lead in kilowatt hours of electricity increased from 298 billion to 483 billion. In oil output, the United States margin grew from 229 million tons to 270 million tons.

Some Progress Inevitable

That the Soviet Union today is enormously ahead of Czarist Rus­sia in most branches of industrial production, although not in agri­cultural output, is undeniable. But is this not equally true if one looks back to the status of production technique in any industrialized country over a period of forty-two years? Think how American life has been revolutionized in that time by the automobile, the air­plane, the radio, and a host of lesser inventions, which either are altogether new or have developed from rare luxuries into everyday possessions.

Moreover, it is a safe assump­tion that, had there been no com­munist revolution in Russia, the country, with its vast population, its rich natural resources, its proved ability in science and in­dustrial development, would have moved forward enormously during the last four decades. Maybe some figures of output of coal, steel, machinery, and tractors would not have been so high, although even this is uncertain. But the living of the average Soviet citizen would have been much more comfortable and the grim casualty list from famines, purges, and executions would have been spared.

In Spite of Controls

Conversations with two experi­enced journalists who were re­cently in Russia and in other coun­tries of Eastern Europe, one an American, the other Swiss, should dispel decisively Khrushchev’s image of a Soviet Union breathing down the neck of the United States in peaceful economic competition. The American, who speaks fluent Russian and was able to make com­parisons with the Soviet Union as he knew it in the thirties, re­marked on how little had changed in the villages where half the Soviet population lives: the same sim­ple huts, the same poor roads, the same absence of almost all the conveniences that the American farmer takes for granted. He was also in Bulgaria and reported that the Russian guide, assigned to Soviet tourists in that country, had a hard time explaining why living conditions in Bulgaria were visibly more agreeable than in the Soviet Union.

The Swiss journalist, one of few Westerners who got into this most secluded of the Soviet satellites, obtained the impression that Albania is more comfortable for the foreign visitor than the Soviet Union. He also felt that Poland was far ahead of the Soviet Union in its standard of living. Perhaps it would be more realistic for Khrushchev to set as his goal catching up with Poland and Bul­garia before he tackles a race with the United States.

The Party Line Is Unconvincing

Part of the fascination of com­munism for some Western minds is that it supposedly supplies all the answers, eliminates elements of doubt and conflict. But this is a false image. The outwardly im­posing statue of a monolithic po­litical, economic, and social order has feet of clay.

Consider the implications of a statement put out early in 1960by the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party on the great and serious shortcomings in the field of communist propa­ganda. For more than forty years the Soviet government has en­joyed, in many ways, monopoly control over the minds of its sub­jects. The schools, the press, the radio have published only official viewpoints. Yet the Central Com­mittee admits, in a statement which is given maximum publicity, that propaganda for the Party viewpoint has “only a narrow sphere of influence,” that it “does not embrace the masses,” that “the merits of socialism and commu­nism are often described in weak terms,” and much more to the same effect.

In short, when propaganda is strongly at variance with the facts of life and human nature, it is apt to backfire.

The very relaxation of the ex­treme terror which prevailed un­der Stalin poses new problems and difficulties. For, when people no longer live in dread of the mid­night knock on the door, they begin not only to think, but to speak more freely. There is much evidence that Khrushchev has been obliged to walk a narrow tight­rope, on the one hand rejecting the crude Stalinite methods, but on the other hand seeing to it that the trickle of permitted liberalism does not become a flood, sweeping away the very bastions of communist dogma.

Another contradiction comes up in connection with the new policy of professing to favor closer cul­tural relations with foreign lands, exchanges of visits between Soviet and foreign scientists, artists, scholars, students, and common or garden tourists. Here the diffi­culty, from the standpoint of the Soviet rulers, is to go through the motions of implementing such a policy while preventing the entry of dangerous ideas from the West. Even now, very few Soviet citizens are permitted to travel outside the frontier of the Iron Curtain.

This situation is hit off by a current Moscow joke. A Soviet professor is supposedly telling the members of his class that, as a result of the achievements of So­viet science, they can soon travel to Venus, to Mars, to the moon. “Yes, Professor,” pipes up a timid voice, “but how soon can we travel to Vienna?”

The Situation in Red China

In communist-ruled China there is perhaps a still wider gap be­tween propaganda appearances and living realities than there is in the Soviet Union. Indeed, by comparison with Red China, the Soviet Union could almost be con­sidered an open society.

If one could accept at face value the propaganda “facts and figures” reeled off by communist officialdom and the more ecstatic tales of individuals who return from subsidized trips, China would have to be considered an earthly paradise, and it would be difficult to understand how anyone would wish to leave. But, although there has never been even the semblance of a free election in China or in any country under communist rule, there have been some rather impressive unofficial plebiscites which point in a very different direction.

For instance, about 20,000 Red Chinese soldiers were captured during the war in Korea. Although the United States military authori­ties leaned over backward to give representatives of Red China full opportunity to urge these men to return to their homes after the end of hostilities, about three-quarters preferred to go to For­mosa and take their chance under the nationalist government there. There was an equally significant reluctance on the part of North Korean prisoners to return to their Red-ruled homeland.

When the Chinese Nationalists evacuated the Tachen offshore islands in 1955, they offered the 18,000 inhabitants a free choice: to remain under communist rule or to be evacuated to Formosa.

The option was about 1,000 to one in favor of Formosa.

The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, an island directly off the coast of China with an ad­jacent strip of mainland, has an overwhelmingly Chinese popula­tion, very much increased by an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Red China. This is an age when the tides of na­tionalism and opposition to for­eign rule are rising high. Britain has faced various forms of anti-colonial trouble in many parts of its rapidly shrinking empire, in Cyprus, in Malta, in British Guiana, for instance.

Had conditions in China under communist rule improved, it would have been reasonable to expect stormy demonstrations in Hong Kong calling for the return of the territory to China. But there has not been even a peep to this effect. And the reason is obvious. The stories of pillage, slavery, and hunger under Red rule, brought by the refugees, have created in the whole Chinese community of Hong Kong a mood of complete willingness to let the British “im­perialists” go on running the place.

Lenin remarked once that the Russian Army, at the end of World War I, voted for peace with their feet—by running away. And that is how people have invariably voted against communism, by run­ning away from it, in Asia and in

Europe, in China and Korea, in Germany and Hungary.

The essence of communism, in Russia or in China, is its awesome effectiveness in exploiting the in­dividual by means of the power of a State that is absolutist, in poli­tics as in economics. When the State fixes prices, wages, and profits (in state-run enterprises), the individual is caught coming and going. Such an omnicompetent State beats the progressive income tax as a means of stripping the individual of the chance to direct his own life and of reducing him to the status of a robot serf of the government.

Should the United States be so misguided by the hasty accept­ance of the counterfeit coin of communist propaganda as to in­ject still larger doses of statism into its own economy, the time might come when Americans would be running away from their country at the risk of their lives and when a foreign visitor would find that—although American satellites were touching all points in outer space—the American standard of living was rather in­ferior to that of Paraguay or Bolivia.

  • 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.