Soviet ideology and American rhetoric

By , Richard J. Willey is professor of political science at Vassar College.

The age of ideology ended for the West in the post-World War II period, but almost 40 years after that war, ideology is still a part of everyday life in Soviet-bloc states. Called ''Newspeak'' by George Orwell, its special style matured under Stalinist socialist realism. Artists presented life, not as it was , but as it would be if Soviet visions were realized. Writers were designated ''engineers of souls,'' and words were put together in new and unnatural ways that over time became the official manner of speech.

Consider some recent examples from East Germany: ''The Great October Socialist Revolution (was an) historic turn-around (brought on by) an inexhaustible world-renewing force.'' ''All Soviet citizens (live) under conditions of full equality of rights,'' are ''heroic,'' and ''campaign unswervingly'' for socialism.'' ''In a mockery of all law and morality, the aggressive policy course of the USA (is) utterly prejudicial to the interests of all people, all mankind,'' whereas ''the historical mission of the Soviet Union (is) trailblazer of social progress and powerful bulwark of peace and the freedom and independence of all peoples.''

How many souls has this idiom engineered? Sixty-five years of preaching collectivism and the individual Russian today, in the scramble of everyday life, still holds to the principle ''Me first, the devil take the hindmost.'' Some idealistic types in these countries become true believers. But they include at the most 10 percent of young people, and their idealism fades with the shocks of adult experience. The result? As Irving Howe wrote in a recent review of ''The Joke'' by Czech writer Milan Kundera: ''Nobody believes what everyone must say and everyone knows that nobody believes.''

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Nobody? If no one believes, how and why is this system of thought maintained? One important function of ideology is to serve as a loyalty test. Those who employ its terms identify themselves as supporters of the regime. When the style began to disappear from Czech newspapers and broadcasts in the ''Prague spring'' of 1968, people knew that a real revolution was taking place. A second function is to impede critical thought about the regime. In ideological terms, the regime is never wrong, giving potential critics no way to mount an attack. Most important, Marxism-Leninism justifies the dictatorial power of those at the top. In ''people's democracies'' wise elites supposedly know better than the masses what is best for them. Elites, therefore, buttress their positions by making certain that ideology prevails.

This use of ideology creates an interesting situation. People are recruited into party and state who are potential elites, but most are also nonbelievers deep inside. Yet, they must constantly form their thoughts and speak in ideological terms. Otherwise, they might destroy their careers. This places them in a state of tension. And it can be acute. Said a 1979 escapee from East Germany: ''All the while you've got to mouth the line to get ahead. So you live a double life, one in your office or factory, and one with your family and friends. It is exhausting. There's not a single person who doesn't think at one time or another of making a run for it.''

How does the mind escape such tensions? Employing a common psychological trick, it simply shifts inner beliefs to match those that must be outwardly professed. In other words, the brain washes itself. In America we call it ''co-optation by the system'' and see it when one-time campus radicals return as alumni with shorn hair, three-piece suits, and tales of the great social benefits of private enterprise. The salesman who truly convinces himself that his product is best is the one who sells, and his success in turn deepens his conviction. In the same way in the Soviet bloc, the longer officials of party and state deal with ideology, the more it becomes their genuine system of thought. Their very success and high standard of living attest to its veracity.

This is especially true for that handful of gray, old men at the very top who review their enormous parades and take applause from great party congresses. They have been ideologically conditioned to feel genuine attachment to what they have built. It gives meaning to their lives, and one of the rare comforts of gray, old men is to look back on lives of meaning. A few, therefore, do believe. And they're the ones with all the power.

Thus, a highly ironic evolution of the function of ideology. It started out as a tool in the hands of a narrow elite to convince the broad masses to join in the construction of a perfect world. The masses resisted, however. It is now the means whereby narrow elites - many who joined the cause as cynical careerists - become convinced with time that they have given their lives to truth, justice, and beauty. In this way, highly repressive political regimes are perpetuated, and within the Soviet empire, the age of ideology maintained.

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