Eastern Europe's `Historical Inevitability'

`BUT the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power ... bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.'' The author of this precocious assessment was George Kennan, then a US State Department official. He offered it in a brilliant review of ``The Sources of Soviet Conduct,'' published in July 1947 in Foreign Affairs. Given the profound flaws in Soviet Communist absolutism, said Mr. Kennan, the US should opt for ``a long-term, patient but firm containment of Russian expansive tendencies ... and in this way to promote tendencies, which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.''

We are often told of the failures of public policy. But policies sometimes succeed. Against the backdrop of the extraordinary changes now sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, we need to remind ourselves that the ``containment'' policy Kennan expounded and justified - and which the generation of American foreign policy to which he belonged managed to achieve - is a spectacular success.

Besides this, though, Kennan's words are worth reviewing as a response to the rhetorical question so often posed these days: ``Who could have dreamed that such sweeping changes could occur so swiftly in Soviet Communism?'' George Kennan surely didn't have a calendar telling him that the sprouting seeds of that system's decay would - 42 years after he wrote - see such surging growth. But he did understand the conditions which would, given prudent policy by the West, make such growth inevitable.

No other irony of modern politics approaches this one, that Communism, whose leading lights from Karl Marx on saw their system's triumph as ``historically inevitable'' and ``scientifically'' ordained, is itself only a transitional aberration in the unfolding of another, truly inevitable, political idea system.

The greatest student of the latter system is the French social theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose masterwork, Democracy in America, was published when Marx was a raw youth of 17. Tocqueville called the political values whose flowering he foretold by a number of different names - as the principle of ``egalite,'' or of ``equality of condition,'' or sometimes simply as ``democracy.''

Today we might be most precise in naming them liberal individualism - a body of ideas which places the sovereign individual at the epicenter of society. According to this philosophy, no government or movement can be deemed legitimate unless and until it respects individual rights: of expression; choosing leaders; gaining and disposing property; defining, however imperfectly, one's own future.

Tocqueville did not precisely state it this way, but he clearly understood that only two large philosophical systems had for a millenium shown enduring legitimacy: aristocracy, which posited a collectivist society based inherited privileges and duties; and liberal individualism, which began stirring when deep underlying changes in the economy, religion, science, and politics began to topple the ancient aristocrat order. Aristocracy had long prevailed. In most countries the collapse of so comprehensive a system would entail painfully chaotic transitions, where all manner of charlatans might win out before the new order finally prevailed.

Here is Tocqueville on the historic inevitability of individualism's victory: ``The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a Providential fact. It has all the chief characteristics of such a fact: it is universal, it is lasting, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress...''

The young Frenchman can to America, he explained in 1835, because it was there that liberal individualism found its first full historical expression.

In time, Tocqueville explained, this individual-centered view of man and society would reach out and triumph everywhere: ``It appears to me beyond a doubt that, sooner or later, we shall arrive, like the Americans, at an almost complete equality of condition.'' It should be noted that he saw society based on thorough-going individualism as something far from perfect. But it was inevitable, and far preferable to the transitional regimes, and it should be prepared for.

To someone imprisoned in Stalin's Gulag in 1935, or arrested in the Hungarian revolt of 1956, talk of Soviet Communism as a ``transitional system,'' carrying the seeds of its own destruction, might have seemed unbearably naive and callous. But the developments we see today across the USSR and Eastern Europe are indeed part of the process Tocqueville saw a century and a half ago as inevitable and which, over the ensuing years, has in fact continued to work its way.

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