Magazines: Slow March Toward Freedom
The continuing story of the crumbling of communism is the most interesting—and worst reported—political drama of our time. For communism's fall has prompted both the right and the left to question the assumptions on which they have based their views of how to conduct American foreign policy.
Rightists have to ask themselves how to be anticommunists in a world where hardly anyone (outside the Sorbonne, Harvard, and the London School of Economics) is in favor of communism anymore. Leftists have to keep asking themselves what they stand for in a world where long-time revolutionary heroes (Fidel, Kim-Il Sung, Col. Mengistu) are now cast as the blackest of reactionaries.
Many conservatives have consoled themselves by painting Big Pictures about what the events in Moscow, Budapest, and Warsaw really mean. The grandest of these big-picture analyses, composed with the intellectual equivalent of six-track Dolby sound and 70-millimeter film, was provided by State Department scholar Francis Fukuyama in the summer issue of The National Interest.
According to Fukuyama, what is happening is nothing less than "The End of History." Basing his analysis on an obscure French disciple of tendentious German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Fukuyama argues that the major challenges to Western liberal democracy—fascism and communism—are now spent forces. Therefore, except for reactionary Third World states that insist on being "involved in history" (by starting wars, that sort of thing), every civilized state will ultimately become a capitalist democracy. Thus life, without the excitement provided by ideological struggle, will be boring, with "neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history."
Meanwhile, Free Congress Foundation pundit William Lind argues in the summer issue of Policy Review that the future will be full of history. Indeed, Lind says, if the Soviet Union collapsed, all sorts of scary long-dead groups would reemerge, a Hit Parade from Hell of the West's greatest enemies. Not only might "Moslem armies be besieging the gates of Vienna" (just like in the 17th century!), but crazed "pre-Columbian nationalists" in Peru would be busy restoring the Incan Empire. Most frightening of all, "it is perhaps no accident that the left-wing candidate for president in Mexico last year boasts the name of an Aztec emperor." I look forward to future articles in which Lind warns of forthcoming menaces from the Visigoths, Mongols, and Spartans.
If the right has been composing romantic variations on a theme of Soviet defeat, the left has been trying to deny that anything unusual is happening east of the Vistula. Atypical leftist response is provided by Nation European correspondent Daniel Singer in the August 21–28 issue of that magazine. According to Singer, the Poles and Hungarians are not freeing themselves from socialism, because these nations aren't socialist. Yes, Singer says, socialism in Russia ended when Alexander Kerensky was overthrown in 1917; what Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev implemented was not true socialism but a thuggish imitation, so the citizens of Poland and Hungary, after suitable lessons about the wickedness of the czarist knout, will quit their quest for freedom and discover socialist bliss.
"Socialism exists nowhere," Singer says. "It has not even been tried in the advanced countries for which it was designed." This is certainly news to the ministries of planning in Eastern and Western Europe.
The Progressive has outdone other leftist publications by discovering Robin Blackburn, editor of the New Left Review. Blackburn is what the wicked anticommunists of the 1950s would have called "a dupe." He has been to Moscow and, he told the thrilled readers of the July Progressive, he has seen a future that works. Why, the Sovs build airplanes that don't always crash! The subways are all clean—and the trains run on time! Best of all, the members of the nomenklatura, while helping themselves to all the goodies the Soviet system can provide, do so in a discreet and tasteful manner.
"The chauffeur-driven car," Blackburn informs us, "is both a common and wasteful perquisite, but it is not accompanied by the display of conspicuous luxury that can be seen any day in Manhattan, or in London's West End, or in the choicer suburbs of the West."
This is splendid stuff. I never expected to read someone today as magnificently naive about the Soviet Union as Lincoln Steffens or Beatrice Webb. I congratulate The Progressive on preserving this time-honored leftist convention.
The magazines of the left and the right are usually not the ones from which to learn what is happening in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Indeed, most magazines and newspapers fail to answer many of the questions in the mind of the serious reader.
This is due to ingrained habits of the American press. Most American foreign correspondents divide political life overseas into three categories—Us (friends of America), Them (lackeys of Moscow, Peking, or Havana), and a Third Force (not quite Us, but nearly so). Moreover, Western journalists (not just American ones) tend to exaggerate the strength of the political left and underrate the political right—not out of bias, but because leftists tend to be friendly to the press (and also to speak English) while rightists tend to be hostile.
So most reporters have treated the recent Polish elections as a Solidarity vs. Communism showdown, as if it were an Eastern European version of a Democrat vs. Republican contest. In fact, there were dozens of parties competing, many of which owed no particular allegiance to either Washington or Moscow. Similarly, most reporters covering Soviet politics concentrate on interviews with such left-wing dissidents as Boris Yeltsin, while ignoring such large rightist organizations as Pamyat ("Memory"), a shadowy combination of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Nazi Party that is the largest private organization in the Soviet Union.
The questions most reporters should be asking about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are simple ones. What do socialists and nonsocialists in these nations believe these days? How much influence do various parties have? What shape is the economy in, and how capitalistic are these countries becoming? Here's a consumer's guide to which journals are best able to answer these questions.
The American publication that best covers the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is The New York Review of Books. I always worry about praising the Review; I fear this will cast a spell that will force me to wear sensitive sweaters and burble bon mots about French thinkers I haven't read. But The New York Review of Books has better analysis of the Soviet Union and its satellites than any of its competitors, largely because the Sovietologists the Review employs use the vast space given to them to provide information instead of pontification.
In the August 17 edition, for example, George Washington University political scientist Peter Reddaway offers the best piece of Sovietology I've read this year, an account of Gorbachev's struggles with rightists and leftists in the Politburo that displays a shrewd awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of Gorbachev's foes. In the same issue, the Review prints a translation of an Andrei Sakharov speech in full. This is a practice other journals should emulate; it would be a useful project for someone to translate and publish five or six articles from Soviet journals, representing all points of the Russian political spectrum, with an introductory essay by a Soviet scholar explaining how political debate is conducted in the Soviet press. (It would make an ideal "Forum" in Harper's Magazine.)
The best British coverage of the Soviet Union and its satellites is found in The Spectator, largely because of that magazine's foreign editor, Timothy Garton Ash. Ash is a rarity, a good reporter who is also a superb analyst. Back when other reporters were wondering where the n in Lech Walesa's name was, Ash was making contacts in Solidarity and the Hungarian opposition. This has led him to see trends most reporters miss. For example, Ash was the first writer to note that the Catholic Church in Poland was not backing Solidarity but was instead supporting its own candidates.
Ash's work comes in two versions: short articles in The Spectator and expanded accounts for The New York Review of Books. I prefer the Spectator pieces, such as Ash's account in the April 29 issue of his visit to a Hungarian shipyard, where he saw "privatization," Eastern European style: The communist bosses who ran the place simply declared themselves "capitalist owners," who then announced that the yard would be closed! Ash also occasionally hires his contacts in the East to write articles; his most important discovery is G.M. Tamas, a conservative Hungarian whose articles provide important guides to the immense diversity of politics in that nation.
The best guide to Soviet intellectual life this year is an interview with University of Western Ontario historian Dimitri Pospielovsky in the July/August Idler. The editors of The Idler ask Pospielovsky the right questions; the interview not only decribes the uses various factions make of the Soviet press but also gives an accurate account of the debate within the Soviet nationalist right, a topic other journals have ignored.
Lastly, I commend John Judis's article in the June 21 In These Times, where Judis notes the superficiality of seeing the revolution in Eastern Europe as a triumph of capitalism. What the Poles and Hungarians want, Judis believes, is not to be Hong Kong but to be like Sweden or Austria. "The question in Eastern Europe is not between laissez-faire and collectivist economics, but between different combinations of public and private enterprise."
Unfortunately, Judis is right. What we are witnessing in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union is not a capitalist victory, but a convergence; socialist states are becoming more capitalist, capitalist countries more socialist. The idea of capitalism has not won; what consumers in Eastern Europe want is not free and unfettered markets but easy access to the goods capitalism creates.
For the foes of big government, history will never be over. While I cheer the slow march toward freedom in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, there are still plenty of statist dragons to be slain. The collapse of Marxism-Leninism simply means that these dragons will be pink, not red.
Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Magazines: Slow March Toward Freedom".