The New KGB: Engine of Soviet Power, by William R. Corson and Robert T. Crowley. New York: William Morrow & Co. 560 pp. $19.95. Sovieticus: American Perceptions and Soviet Realities, by Stephen F. Cohen. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 160 pp. $12.95. Power, especially the power over other human beings, creates its own momentum, feeding upon itself and filling any vacuum around it. When the Inquisition was established in Spain and Italy during the Renaissance to combat religious deviation, it irresistibly gathered far wider powers over many nonreligious aspects of life.
During the 20th century, Hitler's black-shirted Schutzstaffel (SS) is a prime example of an organ of the state that expanded ceaselessly -- not only in the field of national security but in all manner of industrial and economic enterprise as well as social planning. Thus it is no wonder to find a volume such as Corson and Crowley's The New KGB, devoted to the thesis that the Soviet Union's secret police has long acted and is still acting exactly as did the Inquisition and the SS: ``The KGB has forsaken its traditional role as the `shield and sword of the party' to actively become master of the Soviet Communist Party and the dominant force in the government of the USSR.''
The authors, both of whom have had extensive careers in American intelligence services, tell us that this dreaded organization has killed four times as many men, women, and children as did Nazism. The KGB, they say, found its role greatly expanded under Yuri Andropov, its former chief, and will be further encouraged under Russia's new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Why? Because the striking slowdown in Soviet economic growth during recent years has convinced the leadership that only the weight, ruthle ssness, and nationwide tentacles of the KGB can drive the country forward. The enormous number of enterprises operated by the KGB makes the largest American conglomerates appear as economic pygmies.
From this increase in KGB power and position, the authors draw gloomy conclusions: ``With the gradual but certain consolidation of the KGB's dominance of the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the military, there is no rational argument on which to base expectations of any concessions or reforms in the future.''
To some extent, Professor Cohen's book contradicts the pessimism of ``The New KGB,'' although there is no playing down of the danger that, under certain conditions, the Soviet Union poses both to the West and to human freedom. Composed primarily of columns that the professor of Soviet politics and history at Princeton had earlier written for The Nation magazine, Sovieticus presents what must be termed an unemotional view of the Soviet Union.
The question is whether Cohen goes too far, both in decrying American ``Sovietophobia'' and in believing that the choice of Gorbachev indicates a powerful movement toward economic reform. Like Corson and Crowley, he finds the Soviet Union experiencing severe economic problems, and even suggests that Gorbachev is interested in Lenin's famous New Economic Policy, which succeeded the drastic communization of the Russian Revolution and restored many facets of freer enterprise.
Cohen proposes a three-pronged policy for the US vis-`a-vis Russia: (1) recognize Soviet political parity with America; (2) realize that although Russia is ``a powerful and dangerous adversary,'' there are restraints on Soviet power; and (3) understand that d'etente is not appeasement, but a diplomatic process more effective than confrontation.
As with most significant issues, Soviet-American relations are so many-faceted that almost any conclusion can be drawn. Between them, these two studies stress what are perhaps the two most important points: the might and essential ruthlessness of the Soviet Union, and the fact that there is really no recourse for the US other than to get along with Russia in as wise, unemotional, hardheaded, stalwart, but nonbelligerent a manner as possible.
Joseph Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.