I recently finished Tomislav Sunić’s Against Democracy and Equality: The European New Right and while my feelings on it are somewhat mixed (you can read my brief GoodReads review here), I overall think that, despite the misleading name which Alain de Benoist critiques, it serves as a decent cursory introduction to the European New Right. This post, however, is not about Sunić’s book as a whole, but rather about the analysis he provides of Soviet dissident Alexander Zinoviev in the final chapter of the book.
More specifically, writing the book originally in 1988 and analyzing Communism and the Soviet Union before it collapsed, Sunić makes interesting use of Zinoviev’s cultural analysis of Communism that is even more interesting to read in a post-Soviet era. Indeed, based on Sunić’s commentary on Zinoviev, it seems as if the latter was sure that Communism was a sustainable system and would endure any economic hardship the arms race with the U.S. brought to the Soviet Union. It is my contention that if we take Zinoviev’s view of Communism at face value — that is to say, as explicated by Sunić –, then in a post-Soviet world, we are forced to conclude that the Soviet Union was not, in fact, a Communist society as per Zinoviev’s view.
Before I continue, I should make it clear that I have not read Zinoviev’s 2002 book The Russian Tragedy: Death of a Utopia (indeed, I’m not sure that it is available in English) wherein he reflects on the collapse of the Soviet Union. In The Russian Tragedy, Zinoviev could very well answer every point I raise in the following post and I wouldn’t know it, but nevertheless I shall comment on his views pre-collapse as they are likely not only distinct from his later views, but provide intrinsically interesting insights.
In the chapter “Homo Sovieticus: Communism as Egalitarian Entropy,” Sunić takes on the task of explicating Zinoviev’s cultural view of Communism as not merely a “historical zig-zag,” but rather as “an epoch.” For Zinoviev, Communism, true Communism, is characterized by social entropy. For him, large scale stability and prosperity are not characteristics of Communism, instead, “social devolution” wherein individuals can “develop defensive mechanisms of political self-protection and indefinite biological survival” are characteristics of Communism. Indeed, for Zinoviev, not only is power in a Communist society not centralized, the society itself is truly egalitarian with everything distributed horizontally. Given such a feature, under conditions of stress — namely economic hardship — there ought not be revolts as everyone is in an equally terrible situation as everyone else. Further more, conditions of economic stress ought not be seen as indices of the system buckling, but rather as instances of the system surviving. As Sunić points out:
In his usual paradoxical way, Zinoviev rejects the notion that Communism is threatened by economic mismanagement, popular dissatisfaction, or an inability to compete with liberalism. Quite the contrary: Communism is at its best when it faces economic difficulties, famines or long queues. It is a system designed for the simple life and economic frugality. Affluence in Communism only creates rising economic expectations and the danger of political upheavals.
Continuing on, Sunić pre-empts reader’s worries by saying that
[f]or contemporary readers, Zinoviev’s theses may often appear far-fetched. In an age of glasnost and the unravelling [sic] of Communist institutions all over Eastern Europe, one is tempter to believe that Communism irreversible. But if one reverse this assumption, glasnost may also be seen as a turning point for Communism, that is, as a sign of the system’s consolidation that now allows all sorts of experiments with liberal gadgetry.
Given this, it seems hard to claim that Zinoviev did not have a romantic view of Communism wherein words meant their opposite: hardship meant prosperity, mismanagement meant security, etc. If one takes Zinoviev’s theses at face value — namely that contradictions to Communism are not death spells –, it seems difficult to simultaneously maintain that the Soviet Union, a highly unegalitarian society that was brought down by economic mismanagement, popular dissatisfaction, and economic difficulties, was real Communism. Or perhaps Zinoviev is just wrong. Regardless, the collapse of the Soviet Union either disproves Zinoviev’s theses, or proves that the Soviet Union was not an example of real Communism. Both options seem unpalatable, but one must be true.