Editor’s note: This column appeared in “On the Right” in the May 5, 1989, issue of National Review.
Many years ago, the writer-philosopher-revolutionist Max Eastman stressed to me that voting is primarily a negative act. The vote in the Soviet Union last Sunday eloquently confirms that observation. The dissidents could not reasonably hope that the reforms of Arkady Murashev (he wants multi-party voting) would be adopted. Nor could Mr. Yeltsin (he wants Gorbachevism times ten) expect that, because he won 89 per cent of the vote notwithstanding that he had been officially reprimanded by Gorbachev as too advanced in the reforms he called for, he would become the political overlord of Moscow.
But oh-my-God, it was an exciting day. From it much is to be learned, but caution is also in order.
1. Both Lenin and-to an even greater degree-Mao set out to change the nature of man. Their common instructors, MarxEngels, promulgated the view that that in human nature which tends to aggression is rooted in the institution of private property. Eliminate private property, and all derivative vices evanesce. There is no longer greed, acquisitiveness, envy. And so a new man is born, and that new man, because his behavior becomes exemplary, gradually reduces the need for an overseeing state. Little by little the state withers away, and paradise on earth is the result.
Professor Donald Zagoria of Hunter College many years ago drew a shrewd distinction between the Soviet, and the Maoist, means of bringing about that internal human revolution. Under Stalin and his successors a list long but not infinitely long was drawn up of prohibited activities. Anything that was not prohibited could be engaged in. That left little interstices within which to maneuver. If the local soviet, for instance, did not get around to saying that you had to turn off your electric light by 11, why then you could keep it burning until midnight,
Maoism, Zagoria pointed out, was more comprehensive. Under Mao, everything was prohibited-except that which was specifically permitted. So that Mao-man needed permission to do anything he wished to do-to marry, to have a child, to travel to another part of the city. In China in 1972, pursuing President Nixon along with eighty other members of the press, we had from anyone we accosted these frozen replies to every question. “What would you like your son to be when he grows up?” James Michener asked a woman selling straw Whatever Chairman Mao wants him to be,” she replied, smiling.
In Leningrad, ten years ago, conversing with the U.S. consul there, I asked about the home life of Grigory Romanov, Moscow’s proconsul in Leningrad. The foreign-service officer said that no one even knew whether Romanov was married, so secretive were his habits. In Leningrad on Sunday the successor to Romanov was defeated even though he ran unopposed!
The experience last Sunday, together with scattered evidence that comes out of China, documents the failure of Communism to transform human nature. Yes, we all knew it. But it is now an official part of the Soviet record.
2. But democracy having delivered what we most want from it, we must not ask more. The enthusiasm our policymakers have for democracy tends to be undifferentiated. The Argentine voters never quite got around to repudiating Peronism, because voters at large cannot formulate a program and vote for a program. To begin with they don’t know how to externalize the political dimensions of the program they want. Besides which, each voter is likely to attach a different emphasis to this or the other objective.
It is one thing to say that democracy may save Russia from Marxism, quite another to say that democracy is sufficient to civilize Russia. And although we have seen that, where tested, the people of the Soviet Union are sick unto death of the fate visited upon them by their Marxist masters, they are far from achieving the strength to take over from those masters. Murashev and Yeltsin aren’t going to march to the gates of the Kremlin and demand that the Politburo give up, any more than China’s Fang Lizhi is likely to take over from Zhao Ziyang. The machinery of repression outpacesthe exuberance of the democratic spirit, and it is likely we will have long stretches of disappointment in the days ahead.
But it was a glorious day. And how splendid that it happened on Easter Sunday. God, clearing his throat.