The World and I

(Washington Times Co.)

June 1989

Zinoviev’s “Homo Sovieticus”

Communism as Social Entropy

Tomislav Sunic

Students and observers of communism consistently encounter the same paradox: On the one hand they attempt to predict the future of communism, yet on the other they must regularly face up to a system that appears unusually static. At Academic gatherings and seminars, and in scholarly treatises, one often hears and reads that communist systems are marred by economic troubles, power sclerosis, ethnic upheavals, and that it is only a matter of time before communism disintegrates. Numerous authors and observers assert that communist systems are maintained in power by the highly secretive nomenklatura, which consists of party potentates who are intensely disliked by the entire civil society. In addition, a growing number of authors argue that with the so-called economic linkages to Western economies, communist systems will eventually sway into the orbit of liberal democracies, or change their legal structure to the point where ideological differences between liberalism and communism will become almost negligible.

The foregoing analyses and predictions about communism are flatly refuted by Alexander Zinoviev, a Russian sociologist, logician, and satirist, whose analyses of communist systems have gained remarkable popularity among European conservatives in the last several years.

According to Zinoviev, it is impossible to study communist systems without rigorous employment of appropriate methodology, training in logic, and a construction of an entirely new conceptual approach. Zinoviev contends that Western observers of communism are seriously mistaken in using social analyses and a conceptual framework appropriate for studying social phenomena in the West, but inappropriate for the analysis of communist systems. He writes:

A camel cannot exist if one places upon it the criteria of a hippopotamus. The opinion of those in the West who consider the Soviet society unstable, and who hope for its soon disintegration from within (aside that they take their desires for realities), is in part due to the fact that they place upon the phenomenon of Soviet society criteria of Western societies, which are alien to the Soviet society.

Zinoviev’s main thesis is that an average citizen living in a communist system -- whom he labels homo sovieticus -- behaves and responds to social stimuli in a similar manner to the way his Western counterpart responds to stimuli of his own social landscape. In practice this means that in communist systems the immense majority of citizens behave, live, and act in accordance with the logic of social entropy laid out by the dominating Marxist ideology. Contrary to widespread liberal beliefs, social entropy in communism is by no means a sign of the system’s terminal illness; in fact it is a positive sign that the system has developed to a social level that permits its citizenry to better cope with the elementary threats, such as wars, economic chaos, famines, or large-scale cataclysms. In short, communism is a system whose social devolution has enabled the masses of communist citizens to develop defensive mechanisms of political self-protection and indefinite biological survival. Using an example that recalls Charles Darwin and Konrad Lorenz, Zinoviev notes that less-developed species often adapt to their habitat better than species with more intricate biological and behavioral capacities. On the evolutionary tree, writes Zinoviev, rats and bugs appear more fragile than, for example, monkeys or dinosaurs, yet in terms of biological survivability, bugs and rats have demonstrated and astounding degree of adaptability to an endlessly changing and threatening environment. The fundamental mistake of liberal observers of communism is to equate political efficiency with political stability. There are political stability. There are political systems that are efficient, but are at the same time politically unstable; and conversely, there are systems which resilient to external threats. To illustrate the stability of communist systems, Zinoviev writes:

A social system whose organization is dominated by entropic principles possesses a high level od stability. Communist society is indeed such a type of association of millions of people in a common whole in which more secure survival, for a more comfortable course of life, and for a favorable position of success.

Zinoviev notes that to “believe in communism” by no means implies only the adherence to the ruling communist elite of the unquestionable acceptance of the communist credo. The belief in communism presupposes first and foremost a peculiar mental attitude whose historical realization has been made possible as a result of primordial egalitarian impulses congenial to all human beings. Throughout man’s biocultural evolution, egalitarian impulses have been held in check by cultural endeavors and civilizational constraints, yet with the advent of mass democracies, resistance to these impulses has become much more difficult. Here is how Zinoviev sees communism:

Civilization is effort; communality is taking the line if least resistance. Communism is the unruly conduct of nature’s elemental forces; civilization sets them rational bounds.

It is for this reason that it is the greatest mistake to think that communism deceives the masses or uses force on them. As the flower and crowning glory of communality, communism represents a type of society which is nearest and dearest to the masses no matter how dreadful the potential consequences for them might be.

Zinoviev refutes the widespread belief that communist power is vested only among party officials, or the so-called nomenklatura. As dismal as the reality of communism is, the system must be understood as a way of life shared by millions of government official, workers, and countless ordinary people scattered in their basic working units, whose chief function is to operate as protective pillars of the society. Crucial to the stability of the communist system is the blending of the party and the people into one whole, and as Zinoviev observes, “the Soviet saying the party and the people are one and the same, is not just a propagandistic password.” The Communist Party is only the repository of an ideology whose purpose is not only to further the objectives of the party members, but primarily to serve as the operating philosophical principle governing social conduct. Zinoviev remarks that Catholicism in the earlier centuries not only served the Pope and clergy; it also provided a pattern of social behavior countless individuals irrespective of their personal feelings toward Christian dogma. Contrary to the assumption of liberal theorists, in communist societies the cleavage between the people and the party is almost nonexistent since rank-and-file party members are recruited from all walks of life and not just from one specific social stratum. To speculate therefore about a hypothetical line that divides the rulers from the ruled, writes Zinoviev in his usual paradoxical tone, is like comparing how “a disemboweled and carved out animal, destined for gastronomic purposes, differs from its original biological whole.”

Admittedly, continues Zinoviev, per capita income is three to four times lower than in capitalist democracies, and as the daily drudgery and bleakness of communist life indicates, life under communism falls well short of the promised paradise. Yet, does this necessarily indicate that the overall quality in a communist society is inferior to that in Western countries? If one considers that an average worker in a communist system puts in three to four hours to his work (for which he usually never gets reprimanded, let alone fears losing his job), then his earnings make the equivalent of the earnings of a worker in a capitalist democracy. Stated in Marxist terminology, a worker in a communist system is not economically exploited but instead “takes the liberty” of allocating to himself the full surplus value of his labor which the state is unable to allocate to him. Hence this popular joke, so firmly entrenched in communist countries, which vividly explains the longevity of the communist way of life: “Nobody can pay me less than as little as I can work.”

Zinoviev dismisses the liberal reductionist perception of economics, which is based on the premise that the validity or efficiency of a country is best revieled by it high economic output or workers’ standard of living. In describing the economics of the Soviet Union, he observes that “the economy in the Soviet Union continues to thrive, regardless of the smart analyses and prognoses of the Western experts, and is in fact in the process of becoming stronger.” The endless liberal speculations about the future of communism, as well as the frequent evaluations about whether capitalist y resulted in patent failures. The more communism changes the more in fact it remains the same. Yet, despite its visible shortcomings, the communist ideal will likely continue to flourish precisely because it successfully projects the popular demand for security and predictability. By contrast, the fundamental weakness of liberal systems is that they have introduced the principles of security and predictability only theoretically and legally, but for reasons of economic efficiency, have so far been unable to put them into practice. For Claude Polin, a French author whose analyses of communist totalitarianism closely parallel Zinoviev’s views, the very economic inefficiency of communism paradoxically, “provides much more chances to [sic] success for a much larger number of individuals than a system founded on competition and reward of talents.” Communism, in short, liberates each individual from all social effort and responsibility, and its internal stasis only reinforces its awesome political stability.

For Zinoviev, communist terror essentially operates according to the laws of dispersed communalism; that is, though the decentralization of power into the myriad of workers’ collectives. As the fundamental linchpins of communism, these collectives carry out not only coercive but also remunerative measures on behalf of and against their members. Upon joining a collective, each person becomes a transparent being who is closely scrutinized by his coworkers, yet at the same time enjoys absolute protection in cases of professional mistakes, absenteeism, shoddy work, and so forth. In such a system it is not only impossible but also counterproductive to contemplate a coup or a riot because the power of collectives is so pervasive that any attempted dissent is likely to hurt the dissenter more than his collective. Seen on the systemic level, Communist terror, therefore, does not emanate from one central source, but from a multitude of centers from the bottom to the top of society, whose foundations, in additions to myriad of collectives, are made up of “basic units,” brigades, or pioneer organizations. If perchance an individual or a group of people succeeds in destroying one center of power, new centers of power will automatically emerge. In this sense, the notion of “democratic centralism,” derided by many liberal observers as just another verbal gimmick of the communist meta-language, signifies a genuine example of egalitarian democracy -- a democracy in which power derives not from the party but from the people. Zinoviev notes:

Even if you wipe out half the population, the first thing that will be restored in the remaining half will be the system of power and administration. There, power is not organized to serve the population: the population is organized as a material required for the functioning of power.

Consequently, it does not appear likely that communism can ever be “improved,” at least not as Westerners understand improvement, because moral, political, and economic corruption of communism is literally spread throughout all pores of the society, and is in fact encouraged by the party elite on a day-to-day basis. The corruption among workers that takes the form of absenteeism, moonlighting, and low output goes hand in hand with corruption and licentiousness of party elite, so that the corruption of the one justifies and legitimatizes the corruption of the others. That communism is a system of collective irresponsibility is indeed not just an empty saying.

The corruption of language in communist societies is a phenomenon that until recently has not been sufficiently explored. According to an elaborate communist meta-language that Marxist dialecticians have skillfully developed over the last hundred years, dissidents and political opponents do not fall into the category of “martyrs,” or “freedom fighters” -- terms usually applied to them by Western well-wishers, yet terms are meaningless in the communist vernacular. Not only for the party elite, but for the overwhelming majority of people, dissidents are primarily traitors of democracy, occasionally branded as “fascist agents” or proverbial “CIA spies.” In any case, as Zinoviev indicates, the number of dissidents is constantly dwindling, while the number of their detractors is growing to astounding proportions. Moreover, the process of expatriation of dissidents is basically just one additional effort to dispose of undesirable elements, and thereby secure a total social consensus.

for the masses of citizens, long accustomed to a system circumventing al political “taboo themes,” the very utterance of the word dissident creates the feeling of insecurity and unpredictability. Consequently, before dissidents turn into targets of official ostracism and legal prosecution, most people, including their family members, will often go to great lengths to disavow them. Moreover, given the omnipotent and transparent character of collectives and distorted semantics, potential dissidents cannot have a lasting impact of society. After all, who wants to be associated with somebody who in the popular jargon is a nuisance to social peace and who threatens the already precarious socioeconomic situation of a system that has only recently emerged from the long darkness of terror? Of course, in order to appear democratic the communist media will often encourage spurious criticism of the domestic bureaucracy, economic shortages, or rampant mismanagement, but any serious attempt to question the tenets of economic determinism and the Marxist vulgate will quickly be met with repression. In a society premised on social and psychological transparency, only when things get out of hand, that is, when collectives are no longer capable of bringing a dissident to “his senses,” -- which at any rate is nowadays a relatively rare occurrence -- the police step in. Hence, the phenomenon of citizens’ self-surveillance, so typical of all communist societies, largely explains the stability of the system.

In conclusion, the complexity of the communist enigma remains awesome, despite some valid insights by sovietologists and other related scholars. In fact, one reason why the study of communist society is still embryonic may be ascribed to the constant proliferation of sovietologists, experts, and observers, who seldom shared a unanimous view of the communist phenomenon. Their true expertise, it appears, is not the analysis of the Soviet Union, but rather how to refute each other’s expertise on the Soviet Union. The merit of Zinoviev’s implacable logic is that the abundance of false diagnoses and prognoses of communism results in part from liberal’s own unwillingness to combat social entropy and egalitarian obsession on their own soil and within their own ranks. If liberal systems are truly interested in containing communism, they must first reexamine their own egalitarian premises and protocommunist appetites.

What causes communism? Why does communism still appear so attractive (albeit in constantly new derivatives) despite its obvious empirical bankruptcy? Why cannot purportedly democratic liberalism come to terms with its ideological opponents despite visible economic advantages? Probably on should first examine the dynamics of all egalitarian and economic beliefs and doctrines, including those of liberalism, before one starts criticizing the gulags and psychiatric hospitals.

Zinoviev rejects the notion that the Soviet of total political consolidation that can now freely permit all kinds of liberal experiments. After all, what threatens communism?

Regardless of what the future holds for communist societies, one must agree with Zinoviev that the much-vaunted affluence of the West is not necessarily a sign of Western stability. The constant reference to affluence as the sole criterion for judging political systems does not often seem persuasive. The received wisdom among (American) conservatives is that the United States must outgun or out spend the Soviet Union to convince the Soviets that capitalism is a superior system. Conservatives and others believe that with this show of affluence, Soviet leaders will gradually come to the conclusion that their systems is obsolete. Yet in the process of competition, liberal democracies may ignore other problems. If one settles for the platitude that the Soviet society is economically bankrupt, then one must also acknowledge that the United States is the world’s largest debtor and that another crash on Wall Street may well lead to the further appeal of various socialistic and pseudosocialist beliefs. Liberal society, despite its material advantages, constantly depends on its “self-evident” economic miracles. Such a society, particularly when it seeks peace at any price, may some day realize that there is also an impossibly high price to pay in order to preserve it.

Mr. Sunic, a former US professor and a former Croat diplomat, holds a Ph.D. in political science. He is the author of several books. He currently resides in Europe.