America’s chip off the old block can’t promise potatoes forever


When I was studying Soviet politics at graduate school in the 1960s, my professors were adamant about one thing: Soviet leaders viewed the world through the prism of their ideology (Marxism-Leninism), while we Americans were democratic, pragmatic and open to discourse.

Therefore, we were bound to win the war of “hearts and minds.”

The T-word of the era was not terrorism but totalitarianism. The “total” in totalitarianism signified that the Soviet take on realpolitik was all-consuming, blinding them to the realities on the ground.

Here’s an example.

When I visited the Soviet Union for the first time in the summer of 1964, I heard a joke there about Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the head of government. The joke began with Khrushchev, on a visit to a kolkhoz (collective farm) that produced potatoes, calling in the director.

“So,” said Khrushchev, “how’s the harvest this year?”

“Why, the harvest is unbelievable,” enthused the farm’s director. “We’ve got potatoes growing on trees. We’ve got potatoes growing on the roofs of houses. There are mountains of potatoes all the way up to the knees of God!”

“But, comrade,” scowled Khrushchev. “There is no God.”

“Well, there are no potatoes either.”

In October that year Khrushchev was deposed; and when I went back to the Soviet Union in 1965, the country was being run by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, both of whom were being hailed inside and outside their realm as technocrats who were more democratic, more pragmatic and more open to discourse than their predecessors.

Opposite paradigms of planning

The background to the polemic — which shall prevail, having an ideologically pure approach to issues or a methodical one that stresses expertise — goes back to the very first years of the USSR in the 1920s. “Red” and “expert” were the two opposite paradigms of planning. Was it advantageous to have planners who were unstinting communists, or to promote academics and experts who were not tied down by dogma? With Stalin’s accession as Vozhd, which is the Russian equivalent of Fuhrer, the case was closed. Undying loyalty to the Vozhd’s cause became the only criterion of expertise; and the result was a government run by apparatchiks, mountebanks and toadies.

If you examine the doctrinaire approach to governance of the current Bush administration in the United States, the similarities with the Soviet Union of the 1960s and ’70s are striking. Personal loyalty to the president and faith-based assessments of the state of the country and the world underpin the principles of leadership. Rhetoric replaces reason.

When President George W. Bush cites “liberty and democracy” as his goals, it is clear to anyone but the faithful that these are cover-words for American “involvement.” Brezhnev, once he nudged the real technocrat Kosygin aside and surrounded himself with nodding sycophants, spoke constantly of “freedom” and “peace and friendship with all nations.” His disastrous invasion of Afghanistan was undertaken precisely in the name of those noble principles.

The greatest disaster for Brezhnev’s leadership and the future of his country was not Afghanistan, just as it will not be Iraq that will ultimately discredit the ideology of Bush and his circle. It was the gross deterioration of the environment — air, water and land — in the Soviet Union that opened people’s eyes to the vacuity of the leadership’s ideology.

Brezhnev and his planners certainly believed that “scientific Marxism-Leninism” assured the success of their economic enterprises. If your “experts” said there were potatoes, then there were potatoes. All along the line from the drawing board to the farm and the market, all you had to do was believe that there were potatoes. When it came, finally, to the table, you promised the people that someday they would have more potatoes than you could shake a stick at. The future was rose-colored and potato-rich.

During the stagnation that occurred in virtually all aspects of Soviet life in the 1970s, people began to see through the empty promises, to realize that the ideology was no more than a ruse for retaining power.

Unmitigated catastrophe

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in April 1986 dealt the final blow to the Soviet faith, and the ideology that had propped up the ruling elite for 70-odd years came down to earth with the fallout.

If Iraq turns out to be for Bush what Afghanistan was for Brezhnev — an unmitigated strategic and political catastrophe — then it is likely that Hurricane Katrina will be Bush’s Chernobyl — though, of course, the American democracy is much too stable and vibrant for there to be any fundamental changes in the structure of government. (Bush’s fall will, on the contrary, prove that the enduring rule of law outlives its renegades.)

The American press has finally begun to focus the main anti-Bush argument on the hypocrisy of faith- and rhetoric-inspired policies. Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, both writing in The New York Times, argue that cronyism and loyalty appointments have led to appalling miscalculations in the planning and execution of policy. Theories like “intelligent design” are no more scientific than was Marxism-Leninism; and the ignoring of the real effects of global warming by Bush and “Halliburton Hegel” (Dick Cheney) will only lead to hurricanes with different names that will, one by one, wreak havoc on the land. The Bush-Cheney political religion cannot stand too much reality, just as the Brezhnev-Kosygin ideology could not bear the brunt of truth.

It is often said that history repeats itself. What this means is that history is ripe with analogy. The sounds and the trappings of the faith may not be the same. The names of the apparatchiks, mountebanks and toadies may differ. But the policies and events that overwhelm and destabilize them are remarkably similar. The moral of the analogy is: The show can’t go on forever.

Mr. Bush, where are the potatoes?