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New International, May–June 1954



Books in Review

The Dynamics of Soviet Society


From The New International, Vol. XX No. 4, July–August 1954, pp. 222–224.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Dynamics of Soviet Society
by W.W. Rostow
Published by W.W. Norton

The way in which this book came into being is worth mentioning at the very outset for the light it throws on the level of American scholarship in the field of Russian studies, or at least one section of it. The author of this book drew directly on the material and intellectual resources of one of America’s wealthy scientific and technical centers of learning, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, indirectly, on the entire American academic community engaged in this field. As Professor Rostow explains, the study was the outgrowth of a collective effort by a group of scholars at M.I.T.’s Center for International Studies. In addition, Mr. Rostow expresses his warm gratitude and thanks to such “experts” on things Russian as Clyde C. Kluckhon and Merle Fainsod of Harvard’s Research Center for their advice and criticism. However, Professor Rostow is man enough to take responsibility for the final results, and what results they are!

In his preface, Max Millikan, Director of M.I.T.’s Center for International Studies, stresses the point that this study is not a mere accumulation of “facts,” but rather is an exercise in probing the dynamics of Soviet society, its “prime motivating forces.” To that end, the Center asked Professor Rostow, a specialist in the field of 19th century economic history, to attempt such a theoretical appraisal with the help of a large group of specialists in the field.

One of the secondary aims, Professor Rostow himself modestly tells us in his introduction, is “to assist the makers of American policy.” It seems that “The questions which were keeping men awake nights in Washington were exactly those which trouble us.” We are inclined to believe this book will only aggravate the insomnia now so prevalent, according to Rostow, in Washington.

To demonstrate the fine edge of Rostow’s thinking, it is best to begin with the following quotation:

“What can be said is that Soviet society has emerged in the post-1945 years confirmed as a hierarchical structure, with its standards and privileges built around the higher levels of the bureaucracy – a class thoroughly different in values and objectives from the group of professional subversives and revolutionaries, the more or less idealistic thugs who seized power in 1917, dominated Soviet society over its first decade, and were mostly eliminated in the Great Purge.” (My emphasis – A.S.)

The exquisite choice of language we have underlined indicates of course the great objectivity which controls Professor Rostow’s thinking. And as for originality, surely we must grant him the laurel for discovering that Stalinist society is built on a hierarchical principle with corresponding grades of privilege!

Amid this great cascade of brilliance, Professor Rostow tends to confuse his readers. Thugs though Lenin and his Bolshevik associates were, Rostow is willing, as the above quotation shows, to grant they were guided by a thoroughly different set of values and objectives than Stalin and his less cultured thugs. But on page 245, we are illuminated by the blinding revelation which explains all of Russian history from Lenin to Stalin and including Malenkov in the following grand manner:

“It is the burden of this essay that there has been a remarkable continuity in the priorities, or effective scale of values, in terms of which dominant Soviet leaders have decided the issues with which they have been confronted.” (Emphasis mine – A.S.)


“Malenkov, Beria, Molotov, and the others now at the apex of Soviet power have lived their mature lives wholly within the Soviet tradition whose continuity can be traced over half a century, from the publication in 1902 of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done down to the present.”

We do not insist on too technical a use of language. However, you cannot in one and the same breath say that Lenin and his collaborators had a different set of values from those that governed Stalin and guide the post-Stalinist bureaucracy, and also insist that there has been “a remarkable continuity in the priorities, or effective scale of values.” You cannot, that is, if you are seeking to scientifically explain the origins and evolution of the present ruling class, and thereby to throw some light on its dynamics.

But if consistency is not your care, and you have the courage to ignore history, the magic principle is at hand that explains the past, present and future of totalitarian Russian society. If you want to know why Lenin introduced the NEP, read What Is to Be Done. If you want to know why Stalin reversed this policy and instituted forced collectivization, also read What Is to Be Done. As Professor Rostow explains, “The priority of power takes form first in Lenin’s conception of the disciplined party as the chosen instrument for implementing the Marxist historical progression”; from Lenin to Malenkov, the main concern of the Bolsheviks has been to maintain state power at all costs. All that has happened since the seizure of power in 1917 has been the continuous application of this principle to every sphere of Russian society.

Applying his principle of the “priority of power” to the area of foreign policy, Rostow marks Brest-Litovsk as the crucial turning point where the Bolsheviks identified their historic mission with the maintenance of Russian national power. But then the good professor has to explain away the fact that at the outset the dictatorial Lenin submitted to majority decision in the politburo and accepted Trotsky’s tactic of “neither war nor peace” as a means of encouraging the German revolution. Lenin, the reader will remember, did not believe in the imminent outbreak of the German revolution and felt Trotsky’s tactic would cost the Soviet power heavily in territorial losses.

Professor Rostow resolves the difficulty on page 138 by saying:

“In the winter of 1918 control of policy was more directly dependent on opinion within and without the party than it later became, and thus Lenin had to compromise.”

That is, because of party and Soviet democracy, the principle of the “priority of power” had to yield to the principle of revolutionary internationalism! This creates another difficulty which Rostow does not even touch. Following his line of reasoning, there must have been even more party democracy in the preceding year of 1917, and it must be assumed to have been greater as one recedes in time to the magic year of 1902 when Lenin wrote What Is to Be Done. Perhaps the Bolshevik Party and its program were infused with the very spirit of revolutionary socialism from the very day of birth. Perhaps they even took power on the basis of this same principle. And perhaps, also, Professor Rostow’s slick machine constructed on the principle of the “priority of power” does not work too well, and had best be sent back to M.I.T.’s engineering laboratories for some basic redesigning.

The truth is that The Dynamics of Soviet Society is for the most part a mere rehash of standard bourgeois versions of Russian history since 1917, and as such can safely be assigned to oblivion. What makes it truly offensive are its theoretical pretensions and the low level of scholarship.

Professor Rostow is a specialist in 19th century European economic history. But it is Professor Rostow who says on page 170:

“In general, it may be said that in allocating its national income for purposes of consumption, the Soviet system has followed an approximation of Ricardo’s and Marx’s ‘iron law of wages’.”

Leaving aside the fact that this observation is meaningless as it stands, it shows that Professor Rostow never heard of the fierce dispute which raged between Lasalle, who espoused this fictitious law, and Marx who rejected it.

The only possible justification for this book might have been the final chapters which deal with the post-Stalin period. But all Professor Rostow has done here is to read everyone else’s speculations and rewrite them in his own peculiar style, a cactus-like hybrid of cross-breeding between acadamese and state department prose. This section could have been condensed into a pamphlet of a dozen pages and issued as a modest pamphlet entitled, Some Not Too Original Speculations on What May Happen in Post-Stalin Russia. This would have saved M.I.T. some money and the reader some time.

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