The Entrenchment of the State
FEBRUARY 01, 1989 by MATTHEW HOFFMAN
Mr. Hoffman is a senior in the media department of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s new themes for the Soviet Union, glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform), and their scant but widely publicized concrete manifestations, have caused a great stir in the West. Speculation about what has caused the Soviet leaders to attempt such changes varies widely, but one of the most popular theories is that they are desperate: their empire is crumbling from within, and if they do not change their system and relax controls, they will lose their power completely.
To classical liberals, this line of reasoning is appealing, for it is consistent with the principles of the free market. The lack of productivity incentives, supplied in a private property order by the availability of profit, as well as the inefficiency of a vast, corrupt, bureaucratic system of economic management devoid of the benefits of monetary calculation, will cripple the economy of any socialist nation. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, “In the face of the ordinary, everyday problems which the management of an economy presents, a socialist society would stand helpless, for it would have no possible way of keeping its accounts.”
The theoretical unworkability of socialism is, without a doubt, consistent with socialist experience. To dispute this would be to contradict the implications of almost all available data gathered from numerous failures of socialism around the world.
It is wrong, however, to conclude that the failures of the stated goals of socialism, and the resulting public dissatisfaction with the system, are the causes of the reformation movement currently under way in the Soviet Union. In reality, the popularity of an entrenched Communist government is not a factor in its behavior. To such governments, public opinion is irrelevant, because it is for all practical purposes impossible for the populace to rebel successfully against their rulers. In fact, no major Communist government has ever been overthrown from within. To discover why this is so, we must analyze the system.
The Use of Terror
One of the principal ways a Communist totalitarian regime maintains its grip on the populace is the unconstrained use of terror.
The Bolshevik Party, for instance, had only an estimated 200,000 members when it overthrew Russia’s Kerensky regime in 1917. Aleksandr Kerensky was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which had the support of vast numbers of peasants, and received 58 percent of the vote in the elections of the Constituent Assembly, a congress elected by universal suffrage. The Bolsheviks quickly abolished the Assembly, but the fact remained that the majority was clearly against them. How, then, did they maintain their power?
A short lull followed the Bolshevik coup, but preparations to consolidate their power began almost immediately. On December 20, 1917, Lenin established the Cheka, a secret police organization designed to “combat counterrevolution, speculation, and sabotage.
Several months later, after a failed assassination attempt directed at Lenin, the Central Committee resolved that, “To the white terror of the enemies of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government the workers and peasants will reply by a mass red terror against the bourgeoisie and its agents.”
With this decree, the Cheka was unleashed upon the population, indiscriminately arresting and torturing thousands of people, especially intellectuals. They paralyzed the country with fear, eliminating trust by creating false resistance organizations, and extracting “confessions” from victims at any cost.
The Cheka, today called the KGB, has grown over time, and now penetrates every sphere of Soviet society. It contains hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people and maintains a vast network of informants. Dissidents are regularly arrested by the KGB and tortured in mental institutions. The country is held in an iron grip of fear.
The use of terror to consolidate power has been adopted by many, if not all, Communist regimes. The Chinese Communists, after promising to maintain private property and free enterprise in 1949, began in 1950 a program of mass terror against property owners and “counter-revolutionaries,” in which millions died. The Khmer Rouge annihilated approximately one-third of the Cambodian people during their four-year reign.
George Orwell, who ironically was a socialist, had a keen understanding of the ability of totalitarians to maintain their power, despite a lack of popular support. He modeled the workings of his futuristic police state in 1984 after the Bolsheviks, who practiced most of the repressive measures that Orwell’s imaginary Oceania used. Orwell has the novel’s antagonist state: “Obedience is not enough. Unless [a man] is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
After a Communist government secures control over a people, it usually sets out to construct the utopia it has promised them. This often satisfies the socialistic intellectuals who may have been spared in the initial purges, as well as the masses, who often believe the party line. Many are convinced that their economic and political hardships are merely temporary, and will fade away as the Communist paradise evolves. In the new atmosphere of fear and lofty promises, dissent tends to abate. The government then will attempt to implement its policies, which usually include the complete abolition of private industry and free trade, the collectivization of farmlands, and bureaucratization of the economy.
In China, after the initial purge and the end of the Korean War, the government set out to do all these things, as did the Soviet Union after its Civil War. The Soviets enacted programs such as “War Communism” and the “New Economic Policy” (which allowed limited private enterprise), and finally settled on their system of five- year plans. Mao Tse-tung attempted “the Great Leap Forward,” the failure of which ultimately led him to unleash the “Cultural Revolution.”
None of these policies stimulated the economies of the two countries or improved the citizens’ standards of living. However, they did put the economies under strict central control, exercised through immense bureaucracies. Today, for example, the People’s Republic of China has approximately ten million government officials.
Governments of such size and economic power are not overthrown. The only coups that take place do not result from mass uprisings, but from struggles within the bureaucracy. Viktor Suvorov, a defector from the Soviet Army, describes gigantic hierarchical factions within the government, supported by a system of interdependency. These struggles may lead to government manipulation of the general populace, often using mob psychology.
When Stalin wished to collectivize Soviet farms in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he met with great resistance from the upper class of peasants (the kulaks) as well as the vast middle class (the seredniaks). Both groups had nothing to gain from the collectivization of their lands. However, the lower class, called bedniaks, were quite poor and favored the plan.
Stalin turned the bedniaks against the other groups, allowing them to attack the other peasants and take what they would. A great civil war erupted in the rural areas of the Soviet Union, and Stalin used the opportunity to force the collectivization. In doing so, he caused a famine that killed between 5 and 10 million people. Yet, they did not rebel against the government itself. Stalin had transformed a statist imposition into a conflict between groups.
When the paranoid Stalin perceived the growing power of his rivals, he began to eliminate them one by one, in numerous assassinations and bogus trials. In order to consolidate his personal control of the state, he engineered the Great Terror, which resulted in millions of deaths. Under these horrible political conditions, the people did not rebel.
Similarly, with the failure of Mao Tse-tung’s “Great Leap Forward” in China, various factions within the government suggested revising policies in order to cope with the economic problems of the country. Mao perceived this as a direct threat to his power, and struck at his enemies within the party by unleashing the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in which children and teenagers were organized in “Red Guard” groups, and told to annihilate anything “traditional,” “luxurious,” or “revisionist.” They swept over the country in what may have been the most phenomenal orgy of destruction in history, and successfully purged the party ranks of anti- Maoists. The economy was left in rains. The people, however, did not rise up against the government.
As the antagonist in 1984 said: “It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective.”
Entrenchment in the United States
Because of the growth of government power in the United States during the last century, America has acquired some of the characteristics of the totalitarian nations that facilitate the entrenchment of power.
Our government continues to send its tentacles deeper and deeper into the nation’s economic life. The federal, state, and local governments employ almost 16.7 million people, about 7 percent of the entire population!
The collectivization and factionalization of our society continue, as special interest groups vie for coercive privileges, power, and government largess. Today, 90 million Americans depend on the government for support.
In addition, the state controls our children’s intellectual development through compulsory education laws, public schools, and school licensing. The regulation of thought is essential to the entrenchment of the state.
If we do not wish to meet the Orwellian fate of the citizens of the Communist nations, we must halt the growth of our government, and reverse the coercive, collectivist trends that threaten to deliver us to a potentially eternal tyranny. Walter Cronkite wrote in his preface to 1984: “It has been said that 1984 fails as a prophecy because it succeeded as a warning. Well, that kind of self-congratulation is, to say the least, premature. 1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s always 1985."