Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere, by Emmanuel Todd.

Translated by John Waggoner. New York: Karz Publishers, 1979, pp. 236.

French social scientist Emmanuel Todd's biggest claim to fame is his prediction of the collapse of the Soviet Union in a book he published in France in 1976, The Final Fall (which was translated into English three years later). He was neither the first, nor the last, to make such a prediction, but his subsequent researches have brought Todd renewed attention, notably his 2003 book After the Empire (also published in English, with a foreword by Michael Lind).

Todd, making oblique use of foreign trade and demographic data (Soviet imports of machinery, motor vehicles and foodstuffs and exports of raw materials, a spike in infant mortality) and anecdotal evidence (regarding such matters as the quality of its industrial output, and the growth of the informal sector) to compensate for Westerners' poor access to the Soviet system, concluded that the Soviet Union had not just become stagnant by the 1970s, but done so at a point at which it was still deeply backward compared with the advanced industrial nations.1 Less developed than quasi-developed, its social structure was not like that of a contemporaneous Western country, let alone a realization of socialist aspirations, but rather a mix of the "Asiatic mode of production" identified with "Oriental despotism," with a Victorian level of inequality and exploitation in the relationship between its ruling apparatchiks and its workers, whose living standard he suggested had not increased appreciably since World War II.2

Accordingly, the Soviet Union was not only falling behind the West (and for that matter, ascendant Third World countries like Brazil), but its own satellites in Eastern Europe. While Todd repeated the old saws about the folly of replacing markets with central planning, and the conflict between the incompatibility of authoritarianism and innovation, he argued that
the Soviet crisis is not the crisis of Communism. It is the crisis of a particular Communist country which had the misfortune of having glutted itself with territory in the past (221).
Whether the issue was the standard of living, or the restrictions on the mobility of citizens or the scope allowed to dissenters, states like East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary appeared to him more prosperous, and freer, than the Soviet Union. Rather than its weird mix of Oriental despotism and Dickensian Coketown, they reminded him of Western Europe in the 1950s, and Hungary of the France in that period, which gave him the impression that these states were not merely functional, but catching up to the West. (Todd attributed this difference in performance to their smaller sizes "proportionately reduc[ing] the inconveniences of centralized control" (95) compared with the vast Soviet Union, their lighter security spending, and their greater leeway to make pragmatic adaptations and innovations – in part, because of revolts like Hungary's in 1956, and the Soviet Union's declining ability to control their internal policies.)

The result was that the Warsaw Pact offered the bizarre spectacle of a poor, repressed core and a comparatively rich, free periphery, a situation he regarded as ultimately untenable – in part because of its implications for the domestic situation of the Soviet Union itself. Todd posited that a literate population (and literacy was universal in the Soviet Union, as he pointed out) cannot long be managed through totalitarian methods, and that in contrast with the peasants living under many a Third World dictatorship, they were decreasingly passive, and increasingly Western in their outlook and attitudes (as reflected in low birth rates, and the alienation evident in high suicide rates and the worker discontent which were major factors in the economy's low productivity). It appeared to him that their consciousness of the difference between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe only fed their discontent (through, among other things, the experiences of the Soviets' own occupying forces).

The resulting mess was increasingly held together through a combination of a permanent war economy, and a turn by an elite which no longer believed in its system and ideology (but remained committed to the protection of that system because of the privileges that system afforded it) to nationalism, militarism, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-intellectualism and cultural stupefaction – in short, to fascism – to legitimize the Soviet state and control dissent.3 However, these all fell short of actually resolving the problem, a fact testified to by the Soviets' reliance on wheat imports from the West. Quite the contrary, Todd argued that nothing short of deep, structural reforms to the end of increasing production, raising living standards and liberalizing society could have alleviated these problems.

Any conceivable reform process, however, carried grave dangers for the regime. Decentralization would have meant suffering a greater shift of labor and material from the rest of the economy to the informal sector, inflation, and the elevation of short-term expectations beyond what the Soviet government could hope to deliver on the way to any real, concrete gains, which were themselves no sure thing. Despite these obstacles the Soviets' East European satellites did manage such transitions in his analysis, but the Soviet Union faced a significant challenge that they did not – their country's multitude of repressed nationalisms (and also the developmental disparities between its nationalities, with the non-Russian republics in an intermediate position between Russia and East European states like Hungary), which such a reform process would turn turn into a centrifugal force, breaking up the Soviet sphere. At the same time, continued avoidance of those reforms would make the Soviet Union only more backward and brittle, and the inevitable changes more dangerous when it did decide on them.

In retrospect Todd seems prescient in anticipating that clumsily executed reforms aimed at revitalizing the Soviet economy would open the door to the break-up of the Soviet sphere, with Eastern Europe, and then the non-Russian republics breaking away from Moscow. Additionally, those who tend toward the more extreme views of the Soviet economy's weakness (as now seems to be the conventional wisdom) would also applaud his diagnosis of the country's ills from the limited information available to him.

However, Todd was far off the mark on a great many other points, not least the endurance of Keynesian capitalism (which he regarded as having been the salvation of capitalism, in practical and political terms), missing the fact that in his own period the reversion to a pre-1930s attitude toward labor was already underway. Unsurprisingly, he also failed to foresee that the Third World countries which at the time appeared to be following a dynamic course (like Iran and Brazil) would, excepting a few East Asian states, remain "developing" countries thirty-five years later.

Moreover, few now pay much mind to the distance between the Soviet Union and its satellites in the unraveling of the Soviet sphere, emphasizing instead the gap between Eastern Europe and Western Europe (and generally preferring to regard states like East Germany as Soviet-style messes rather than as the functional, advancing states as which he depicts them). Where the collapse of the Soviet Union is concerned, they generally note the increased military pressure of elevated U.S. defense spending; falling oil prices in the 1980s; the arrival of the age of fourth-generation computing and digital communications, which are frequently held to mark a point beyond which Soviet-style socialism cannot pass; the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan; or simply the personal role of Mikhail Gorbachev.

This differing view of Eastern Europe's Communist-era development may or may not be a mistake that denies Todd the proper credit. However, disagreement is hardly surprising. Over fifteen centuries after the overthrow of Romulus Augustus, we continue to debate the causes of Rome's fall, not least because the debate still has some stakes for us. The comparative roles of the material and the moral in making or breaking a society and polity, the questions of technological and ecological constraints, the ability of cultures to absorb foreign elements or coexist in a larger polity, the likelihood of regressive "dark ages," among other matters prominent in this historiography, are very much relevant to our own concerns. It seems unlikely that it will be much different with the Soviet Union, though to be fair there has been little in the way of real debate and a great deal more of smug gloating over its corpse.

1. In this analysis the informal sector is not a complement to the former, but parasitic on it because of the sources of its inputs (material stolen from state businesses, and the transfer of workers' time and effort from their state jobs to this area), and the limited nature of its outputs (services like plumbing and medicine, handicrafts, and produce grown on private plots – rather than, for instance, significant industrial activity).
2. Todd holds the Soviet Union to be like these societies in its leaders being "inaccessible demi-gods, whose will cannot be questioned" (158), and its possession of a centralized, ubiquitous bureaucracy ruling over a population which is "ignorant of private property" (79) and relatively equal "as far as the more privileged masses are concerned" (158). The analogy extends to those societies having an initial, dynamic phase which lays down the key infrastructure (here, the Stalin era), after which the "bureaucratic machine proves itself stronger than technological progress" (79), stifling development and producing stagnation – a mode of operation which might be viable were the Soviet Union isolated, but not in the competitive, globalized world of the late twentieth century.
3. This was also indicative of a fundamental shift in the attitude of Soviet elites. Todd characterizes the 1917-1962 as a period of "false consciousness," in which, for all their aberrations, atrocities and failures, they believed in their system and its ideology. Near the end of this period Khrushchev, for instance, could attempt to elevate Soviet living standards because "no one yet was resigned to the reality of economic exploitation and class antagonism" (36). By the Brezhnev era (1962–), however, the Soviet leadership was simply resigned to the inequities and limitations of their system, and cynically devoted to protecting their privilege within it. Accordingly, the deluded "false consciousness" of the earlier era gave way to a "bad conscience" in which the "people are feared" (139) by elites who had actually come to see the Marxism for which the Soviet system was supposed to stand as subversive of it (as the country had uncannily come to resemble Marx's description of industrial capitalism in Todd's view), forcing them to neutralize it by converting it into empty rhetoric.
The shift from "false consciousness" to "bad conscience" is also reflected in the Soviet Union's loss of cultural dynamism and external appeal. As Todd puts it, before 1950 the Soviet Union was an ideological threat to the West (especially amid the Great Depression and World War II), which was in turn a military threat to the Soviet Union; while by the 1960s this situation was reversed, with the Soviet Union a military threat to the West which it had come to find ideologically threatening.

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