When Shrimps Learn To Whistle
by Gwydion M. Williams
After the end of World War Two, a revival of free-market capitalism seemed no more likely than a revival of the Holy Roman Empire. Everyone vividly remembered how the brief prosperity of the 1920s had led on to slump, economic collapse, fascism and war. The Soviet Block had shown the effectiveness of a planned economy combined with totalitarian politics and high idealism. But most advanced countries preferred a mixed economy, combined with democratic politics.
The Soviet Union had many of the same strengths and weaknesses as a large corporation. Pravda, Izvestia etc. were very similar in style and content to the newssheets that corporations put out to tell their employees how wonderful everything is. There are even companies in the West offering a service whereby managers or directors can be tactfully removed from old photos if they have since been fired. True, the losers in corporate power battles do not end up being shot, except perhaps in Dallas, Texas. But the similarities are strong and numerous. Almost up until the final fall of the Soviet Block, there was an expectation of convergence between the managerial elites of west and east. In China, indeed, it still seems to be happening.
The great weakness of the Soviet elite was its strong but superficial hold over public opinion, combined with a lack of democratic checks and balances. In the West, no one can afford to ignore public opinion. Leaders are typically replaced after eight or ten years, no matter how popular or successful they may have been. Thatcher undoubtedly damaged herself by failing to spot the time to make a graceful exit, and damaged the Tory party also, but the damage was limited. In the Soviet Union, leaders typically carried on until they actually dropped dead, causing great damage in the process.
Nikita Khrushchev is unique in having been ousted by his own supporters. Leaders of the East European satellite countries could be ousted by pressure from above, ousted when Moscow wanted this to happen. This applied even in Rumania, once the West stopped acting as a counter-balance. Khrushchev alone was ousted by pressure from below, albeit not very far below.
Lots of people still see Khrushchev as a lost liberal hero. They conveniently forget that his rule saw the invasion of Hungary, the building of the Berlin Wall and a close brush with World War Three during the Cuban missile crisis. Given the way he had begun, with the ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin, the logic of these moves is hard to follow. They look very much like desperate moves to preserve the old order he had grown up with, after he himself had chosen to disrupt it.
In a Fabian lecture given in October 1957, Denis Healey made the following comments, which have proved highly prophetic:
“Second to the physical instrument – indeed, perhaps more important still to Soviet control of foreign Communist Parties – is the religious loyalty of Communists to what I hope I can call without offense a Vatican in Moscow. That type of centralized clerical control demanded an absolute acceptance of the infallibility of the central authority. Once doubt is cast on that infallibility, the whole structure begins to disintegrate. At the twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, Khrushchev did a thing which has never happened in any other similar clerical system – as the reigning pope he made an ex cathedra denunciation of papal infallibility. Once you have done that, nothing in the world can re-establish the doctrine. The very fact that he made this statement, right or wrong, proves that the pope is not infallible. In my opinion, Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Congress has knocked the lynchpin out of international Communism as an instrument of Soviet policy. We have seen the consequences all over the Communist world in the last twelve months.” (A Neutral Belt In Europe?, included in When Shrimps Learn To Whistle. Penguin books 1991.)
In his introduction, Healey says:
“I believe that Khrushchev in 1955 genuinely wanted to change Soviet policy towards the West in much the same way as Gorbachev does today. In practice that meant abandoning Lenin’s doctrine of a world that was divided finally by the October Revolution into two camps which were doomed to mortal conflict. However, this was something which Khrushchev found quite impossible to do. ‘We are in favour of detente’, he said, ‘but if anybody thinks that for this reason we shall forget about Marx, Engels, and Lenin, he is mistaken. This will happen when shrimps learn to whistle’. And thus he failed to convince the West of his sincerity.”
Myself, I would ask what right had Khrushchev to proclaim a new truth, replacing the old one without consulting the people? Rather like Vatican II ripping up the faith of ordinary Catholics in the same era. [Both systems have gone downhill ever since, though the Papacy has survived since the Anglosphere has found it useful from the 1920s onwards.]
[I wrote this in the early 1990s, before it was clear how much of a mess the USA was making of its unique opportunity. I don’t think it was ever published. I have removed an unfinished final sentence, replacing it with what I think I was getting at.]