George Walford: Power and the People

THINKERS not wanting to accept that relations between the major ideological groups set the main outlines of the social structure (continuing domination by the state among them) often seek an alternative explanation, and they commonly argue that the state maintains itself by force, more or less direct. The theory seldom gets put very clearly (perhaps because of the obvious consequence, that if the state can maintain itself by force then the opposition to it has no hope of success), but Menachem Begin, former Prime Minister of Israel, went farther than most. Writing in 1957 he said the N.K.V.D. (successor to the OGPU, the Cheka and the Tsarist Okhrana) ruled by terror:

It has succeeded in inculcating into the inhabitants of the Soviet Union the absolute recognition of the hopelessness, the futility, of any sort of opposition to the government. It has succeeded in instilling abject fear into the marrow of the bones of its citizens. It is not the ordinary fear of authority and punishment. It is the horror of disaster. Like a man hanging by his hands over a deep, dark, yawning abyss – so does the Soviet citizen dread the sight of the green caps of the state security service. There is profound “social” envy in Russia, just as there is in other countries; but in other countries envy is sometimes stronger than fear; in the Soviet Union fear is stronger than envy. [1]

Begin himself also offers a more perceptive account, advancing in his closing paragraphs the likelihood of substantial change in Russia (although without reconciling the two approaches), and since he wrote we have had it clearly demonstrated that for all their efforts, in the Gulag and elsewhere, neither the N.K.V.D. nor the Bolsheviks nor the Russian state as a whole were able to maintain themselves when consensus failed. The Russian people did not even have to engage in any very forceful revolt. Simple withdrawal of willing cooperation proved enough to render the Soviet system, with its command economy and its totalitarian state, unworkable.

[1] Begin M. 1977 (1957) White Nights; the story of a prisoner in Russia. NY etc. Harper & Row.

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from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.