Russian and American Perspectives on Social Justice


Gregory Freidin


A Russian version of this article appeared in Rossiiskaia gazeta (Moscow, September 3, 1992).


In the days when the Soviet Union was the Soviet Union, and history was History, the mental picture of the world fitted nicely the design of the Moscow subway. The up escalator was reserved for the progressive species, who, with the Soviet Union at the head of the pack, were ascending toward a socialist heaven. By contrast, such "vestiges of capitalism" (perezhitki kapitalizma) as greed, crime, and alcoholism were driven down into History's pit. Now that the Soviet Union has become history, and history itself has grown too shy to sport a capital H, capitalism in Russia may once again be looming as an ascending species, but it would folly to suppose that vestiges of socialism will go softly into that good night. The most powerful among them and one of the greatest obstacles to economic reform is Russian egalitarianism -- a compulsion to demand immediate economic equity at whatever price.


This "vestige" has an eminent pedigree in Russian culture. Dating back to the first half of the nineteenth century when socialist ideas became popular among the educated, it acquired its distinctly Russian character by fusing with the intelligentsia's reverence for the Russian peasant commune (mir). A key aspect of Russian nationalism, it was able to survive all the vicissitudes of the country's history, even the end of Communism, and to this day continues to animate of the rhetoric and attitudes that block the introduction of a market economy. As recently as October of last year, the "vestige" haunted Russia's legislators when they rejected Yeltsin's proposal to turn land to the peasants with the right to sell. In another version, the law on land privitization was again rejected this April by the same august body, which seems to have yielded to Yeltsin on many other fronts. The vestige has inspired the year-long haggling over the privatization of Moscow's housing stock and in the on-again-off-again implementation of the project to turn over the city's retail shops to employees or the highest bidder.


Few denounce privatization outright. What they say instead is that before privatisation can begin, property must be assessed and its true value determined to assure the people and the state of their equal share. To act otherwise, goes the "vestigial" argument, would violate the popular sense of justice and might lead to an unpredictable consequences. It does not matter that the value of a thing -- as everyone knows -- is set by the market and not a committee of government experts; it does not matter that the government system of food distribution has long ago collapsed and serves as a cover for black market speculation, which yields no revenue to the city or state; it does not matter that over half of all the vegetables in the former Soviet Union have grown on private plots occupying only 3% of the arable land. No matter. Justice, demands the ghost of socialism, must prevail -- even if people continue to suffer. And people continue to suffer, in part, because they have grown accustomed to expressing their sense of justice in one form only: through a rigid demand for equity. Therein lies what is, perhaps, the most formidable mental obstacle to the transition to a market economy, with its competitive pricing, and the development of stable social and political institutions.


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When a Russian peasant prays, goes a familiar adage, once cited by Gorbachev, he asks God not to increase his own stock of cows but to reduce that of his richer neighbor. Members of the political elite (and it has not turned over much since the demise of Communism) have been particularly fond of this anecdote, using it as to illustrate the difficulty of introducing capitalism, with its inevitable inequalities, and to remove the blame for the stalemate from themselves. But of course, the folk ways of the Russian people to which this adage alludes can only be a part of the problem. After all, greed and envy are hardly unknown outside the Russian borders. What is different about Russia or, more precisely, the Soviet Union, is that this all-too-human disposition was liberally exploited by the Communist party-state to obliterate the ownership of private property ostensibly for the sake of a truly egalitarian society. In that society, the Communists maintained, such vices as envy would naturally wither away. Whatever the original intentions of its inventors, the scheme has acquired a life of its own. In the hands of the Bolsheviks, it became a clever ploy for creating an all-powerful state while disarming its potential opponents by the ultimate flattery to human vanity, the vision of the Perfect Man. After all, the scheme, rested on the assumption that vices, unlike virtues, had no part of the human being, were separate from Man. But what was a flattering assumption for Man had lethal consequences for the physical integrity of men and women, as the Guillotine and the Gulag amply demonstrate. This vision has had it history and we know the outcome. Vices have survived nicely, people and property have not. By contrast, in the United States and Western Europe, where a less congratulatory view of humanity predominated, the same envy was used as a spur to production, leading to a tremendous accumulation of cultural and material wealth.


That story, too, is well-known in Russia, but the vestiges of the socialist mentality appear to be so deeply ingrained that even after the collapse of the Party state, the social justice game continues to gain influential players, among them such popular figures as Russia's Vice President, Alexander Rutzkoy and, apparently joining him in January, the Speaker of the Parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and countless former bureaucrats holed up in Russia's Supreme Soviet. If Rutzkoy's and Khasbulatov's objections to radical market reform are an instance of political opportunism, it is the opportunism that is seamlessly bonded to a deep-seated prejudice, especially strong in men of power, against the power of the market place. The "socialist idea," as Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Yakovlev called the guiding star of this mentality, may have dimmed considerably, but it has hardly been extinguished, and may yet flare up.


True, to be human means to aspire to justice and fairness in this world. But it does not follow from this simple truth that any single idea of social justice can or should be fully realized. Indeed, the opposite is true: people who have attempted to construct a perfect society to match their vision of perfect humanity, be it racially pure or absolutely class-conscious, have travestied justice, caused colossal suffering, and waste. But it did not have to happen that way. Nor does the alternative lie in the bleak dog-eat-dog world which has been prophesied by some vestigial Communists or their dogmatic counterparts among the extreme nativists of Igor Shafarevich's variety. The choice is not between a brotherhood based on class (Marx) or race (Shafarevich) and the proverbial satanic mills of capitalism.


There is another, modern political system, pioneered by the framers of the American Constitution, who, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, did expect "a perfect society created by imperfect men." Distinguished not only for their book learning but also for their economic enterprise, and military and political leadership, these 18th-century Americans had little trouble in acknowledging sober truths. Unlike their revolutionary counterparts in France and 20th-century Russia, they understood that people were as inseparable from their ignoble passions as from their virtues and that it would be intellectually dishonest and politically impractical to have the one suppressed and the other extolled. What they hoped to and did accomplish was to create a functioning political system of balances and checks and to pattern it in such a way that vices would tend to cancel each other out and virtues, such as conscience and reason, would be amplified. No need trying to eliminate greed or present envy as a form of instinctive egalitarianism, better to create a level and closely watched playing field where these vices would be playing themselves out. With greed pitted against greed and envy against envy, an endless stream of goods and ideas has been generated along the way. As to the unfair advantage -- what advantage is ever fair? -- a system of taxation is meant to take care of that.


There are politicians in Russia, and Yeltsin and Gaidar appear to be among them, who have accepted the lessons of this other Enlightenment tradition, one that may not have prevented a civil war but did not culminate in the Guillotine or the Gulag. These people are prepared to work in a new way. But it remains to be seen whether they would be able to educate the public in another form of new thinking, exposing this vestige of socialism as a powerful weapon for establishing dictatorial rule. Unless these new people succeed, the advocates of social justice socialist style might once again evolve into a dangerous dominant species. A few billion dollars is a small price to pay for avoiding this horrifying eventuality.

Copyright (c) (1992) by Gregory Freidin