From what I know about Andreĭ Sakharov, I don’t dislike him. He was a socialist and a humanist. He once wrote in The New York Times (1968), “Only universal cooperation under conditions of intellectual freedom and the lofty moral ideals of socialism and labor, accompanied by the elimination of dogmatism and pressure of the concealed interests of ruling classes, will preserve civilization.” I find myself in agreement with these sentiments.
However, like most of Sakharov’s philosophical and moral assertions, the statement is rather obvious. Less positive is his influence on those who sought to establish a free market in the wake of the destruction of the Soviet political system, a project to which he was committed. Destruction rather than transformation plunged Russians into deep poverty and uncertainty, ruled by crony capitalists, robbers protected by a corrupt police state. Of course, we can’t blame all this on Sakharov’s idealism. One wonders how he would feel today look at the plight to his countrymen.
Because of his politics, Sakharov was the victim of state repression. I was reminded of this during a recent discussion about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism. The man who argued the case against socialism, a colleague, used the Sakharov case, as well as Sakharov’s criticisms of the Soviet Union, to argue that socialism is a terrible system. His argument was very revealing of the problematic of ideology. His convenient blindness of repression in the United States, far worse than that suffered by Sakharov, as well as the hierarchical and unequal character of the United States, provides a lesson for us to see how dogma incapacitates reason in an otherwise rational man.
The exchange began when I formed an off the cuff commentary, agitated by the recent events at the Texas Board of Curriculum, about my son’s high school economics text, which, in the chapter on capitalism and socialism, represented capitalism in bright color pictures featuring joyous and materially well-off citizens, while representing socialism in black and white photos that depicted shabbily dress victims of bread lines. My comment was that the photos amounted to a distortion of the realities of both situations. Neither picture represented the reality for every citizen of the respective countries. The economist responded by asking me the standard question: “Have you ever lived in a socialist country?” Of course, I could only answer, as I have so many times before, “No.” In fact, I have never even visited a socialist country, I noted earnestly.
My colleague then proceeded to tell his audience that he had lived under socialist rule twice. However, he did not talk about his experience. Instead, he talked about something he read by Andreĭ Sakharov. He told me about how Sakharov had been the victim of Soviet police repression (about which I knew) and told me of Sakharov’s opinion concerning hierarchy and inequality in the Soviet system (again, I knew this). He explained that Sakharov wrote about how the Soviet system was divided into two groups, a small elite, around 10 percent of the population, and a large majority. The majority, he claimed, worked to support the small elite. It was an unbearable situation, he added.
Whenever anybody brings up Sakharov and his relocation to the semi-closed city of Gorky, I am reminded of Geronimo Pratt, the former propaganda minister for the Black Panthers who was framed by the FBI during the COINTELPRO years for the 1968 kidnap and murder of Caroline Olsen, a crime for which he spent 27 years in prison, eight of which were in solitary confinement. The injustice of his false imprisonment was finally ended when his conviction was vacated and he released in 1997. The goal of the FBI’s efforts against Pratt, to use the agency’s own words, was to “neutralize Pratt as an effective BPP functionary.”
If the claim is that Sakharov’s ordeal (he was sent to Gorky in 1980 for his protest against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and allowed to return to Moscow in 1986) is the paradigm of a totalitarian society, then what does Pratt’s false imprisonment for political reasons signal. Pratt isn’t the only political prisoner in the United States. Nor was Sakharov the only case in the Soviet Union. But who is more well known?
Therein resides the point perhaps? I talk to people in the US all the time who haven’t a clue who Pratt is. But they know about Sakharov. And they know about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. They know about these individuals because anti-communist propagandists proclaim their suffering to illustrate police state terrorism and the gulags. They don’t know about Geronimo Pratt the political prisoner or Fred Hampton the victim of state assassination, or any of the other many instances of state repression of dissent in the United States. This is because of dogma, ideology, and propaganda.
Likewise, the suggestion that communist ministers were rewarded or behaved as capitalists and their managers in western nations obfuscates reality. Michael Parenti writes in Black Shirts and Reds,
The perks enjoyed by party and government elites were modest by corporate CEO standards in the West, as were their personal incomes and life styles. Soviet leaders like Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev lived not in lavishly appointed mansions like the White House, but in relatively large apartments in a housing project near the Kremlin set aside for government leaders. They had limousines at their disposal (like most other heads of state) and access to large dachas where they entertained visiting dignitaries. But they had none of the immense personal wealth that most US leaders possess.
There are few socialist countries left to visit, so it is not easy to find one to travel to. I suppose I could and should travel to Cuba. But this is beside the point. I don’t need to travel anywhere to read the voluminous studies of the capitalist and socialist experience, both of which are highly variable in the concrete. I have written about the Soviet Union on this blog, as well as in other outlets. There is much to appreciate about the experiment. The goal of constantly highlighting the abuses of the state bureaucracy is to distract people from that.