All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1971

Soviet Dissent: Heat without Light

Mr. Barger is a public relations representative in Jackson, Michigan.

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 Russia. This thin wedge would some day split apart the Kremlin walls, opening the way for real freedom of expression.

But to anybody who has studied the Soviet Union, both the fears and the hopes of the Solzhenitsyn case are unrealistic and naive. It makes good newspaper copy, but little difference in Soviet life. It also ignores the realities of social­ism. It is heat without light.

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”

  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.