Worlds Apart: Classes and Masses in the Communist State

When OSCAR HADLINX,Professor of History at Harvard, and his wife attended a recent international conference in Yugoslavia, he was constantly surprised by the thinking and motivation which separated the representatives of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites from those of the Western powers. The barriers of poverty, regimentation, and unquestioned ideology often stood in the way of a meeting of minds. A Pulitzer Prize winner in history, Mr. Handlin is the author of several books, the latest being Race and Nationality in American Life.



USUALLY we left the conference room in groups. But always the Russian went off alone with his interpreter. There were fifteen of us who had come together to discuss the past and the future of that changing world that borders on the Mediterranean and reaches from Morocco to Iran. They had been strangers to one another and to me when they had arrived from Egypt and Turkey and Israel and Syria. Yet we had quickly discovered a common level of discourse, and through the days of our meeting had much to say to one another. French and English were our languages; we had all been educated in the West; and we had the common intellectual concerns of our culture.

Only the Russian was an outsider. A dignified man of sixty, he had never before ventured out of the Soviet Union. The marks of the provincial showed in his reticence, in his inability to adjust to the men about him, and in his wary expectation of rebuffs that never came. Often he was at a loss as to how to behave; and rarely could he participate in the conversation that carried us through the social interludes of the conference.

Yet, in the conference sessions, I the American was the outsider, and the Russian gained a far more attentive hearing. The United States seemed to all the participants an anomaly; its experience, I was told, was not relevant elsewhere in the world. Nations that wished to expand economically could not afford the looseness of our society; they needed powerful governments, strict planning, rigid control overconsumption and investment, and a disciplined social order. From that point of view the Soviet Union was the more appropriate model.

This assumption did not rest on convincing evidence. As carefully marshaled facts and arguments were lost in the atmosphere of polite but determined disbelief, it became clear that there was another basis to the preference for the Russian position. My colleagues could envision themselves and their countries in the situation of the Soviet Union but not in that of the United States.

They were backward and underdeveloped as the Russians had once been, and they were striving for industrial might through revolution as the Russians had. They too were burdened by a corrupt and selfish ruling class and by anachronistic social institutions. Like the Russians, they felt themselves on the margin of Western civilization, sharing its values but not entirely able to identify themselves with the society that had produced those values.

The United States, by contrast, was altogether apart, Its material prosperity, its wealth, and its power distinguished it from the world of universal poverty that other men knew. The same wealth made it suspect. How could it have gained what it had without exploiting others? If its colonialism was less overt than that of France or England, and often functioned under the guise of altruism, perhaps it was all the more dangerous. I pointed to the docks at Rijeka built with American funds. “Ah,”I was told, “you see how the Americans are planning to conquer our markets with their goods.”

The sentiments that crop up thus as anti-Americanism or anti-colonialism, or nationalism, will not abate through simple discussion of the merits of the case. Are we or the Russians the imperialists, the threateners to peace, the exploiters of subject nations? The answers are predetermined by an intellectual dogmatism that satisfies the needs of men living under tensions difficult to imagine.

My wife and I had come into Zagreb, the conference city, by air. We followed our bags out of the terminal and walked after the porter, who had already shouldered the luggage and made off down the street. For a moment, we looked for the taxi to which we expected he would lead us. Then we realized that this journey was to be on foot.

The broad straight streets that led down to the central railroad station and the hotel were lined with imposing structures. Occasional neoclassical or baroque public buildings reminded us of Vienna. The apartment houses were solid, and even palatial; the dutiful plaster goddesses that supported the lintels of the entranceways reflected the aspirations of the comfortable middle class who once lived there. The dates on the cornerstones read: 1908, 1911, 1910, 1913. It was a long time since Zagreb had been the Austrian outpost for expansion toward the east.

Now it was Yugoslav and its best days were over. Gaping holes in the walls showed where the ornamentation had been worn away or had fallen off, and had never been replaced. Sagging hinges kept the great front doors from closing. The broken windows and the absence of paint created an impression of unending dreariness. We crossed street after street, walking directly onward. There was no need to pause, for there was no traffic. In all the way we had come we had seen not a taxi or a truck, not a car or even a cart.

As we approached the hotel, we made a still more startling discovery. The streets had been ours alone. We had heard no sounds but our own footfalls, seen no moving images but our own shadows cast in the bright sun. We came up the stairs and thought, “Where are the people?”


THAT evening we saw some of them. Impatient of the empty hotel, where only a handful of foreigners sat cheerlessly in the grim lobby, we determined to find a restaurant.

As we made our way to the town center, we saw a man hurrying purposefully along, a brief case under his arm. We saw three women balancing baskets on their heads, undisturbed in their peasant stride. Now the streets were more fully populated; and by the time we reached Trg Republike, the central square, we had become part, of a shuffling, silent crowd. When we came to the restaurant, we could see hundreds of men and women, standing in little groups, occupied in conversation, but without the animation of Italian or Spanish street crowds.

W hen we emerged from the restaurant, the square was packed. Night had fallen and thousands of people stood looking quietly upward. Running across two stories of a building on its north side was a great screen on which the motion pictures gave the masses their entertainment.

Was this how men lived?

We asked these questions of the young professor. The introduction of a mutual acquaintance had brought us together, but it took several meetings to dissolve his initial shyness and reserve. He had invited us to dine in the city’s best restaurant and was already embarrassed, having lost his way as we walked there. Now he was ill at ease in the sparsely occupied establishment, patronized apparently by army officers, high bureaucrats, and foreigners, and he floundered in the ordering.

Of course, he had never been there before. The unfamiliarity of the place brought him closer to us, and with growing confidence he began to explain. We ought to understand why the streets were empty in the daytime. The new society discouraged idleness. The workday began early and ended late and everyone was engaged in the common effort. The streets were crowded enough, however, before seven in the morning. And the mass in the square was evidence of the public concern for the enlightenment and entertainment of the common people.

We must know that standards had changed in this society; and the change was beneficial, though not always comfortable. He himself, for instance, rarely dined out. Indeed, he wished that he had been able to ask us to visit in his home. But life was difficult and housing was short. There was simply no room; his wife, his children, his wife’s parents, and his own mother were crowded intolerably in the tiny flat. His evident sincerity aroused our sympathy, if it did not altogether convince us.

A few days later, curiosity led us to walk by the address he had given. We passed through the empty streets into a broad square, at the center of which was an impressive round stone building. Built as an Orthodox church by the sculptor Meštrovié, it had for a time been a mosque and now was a museum to the martyrs of fascism. Why a mosque in a city where there had been no Moslems?

That had been the war. Historically, the population of Zagreb had been divided between Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. During the invasion, the Croats had taken control, with German support. In the months of bitter fighting, there had been many unpleasant incidents. Some Serbs — two thousand or more, the number was not clear — had taken refuge in the church and had been slaughtered there. Then the Croat Quisling had sought the support of the Moslems in the south and had turned the building into a mosque. Naturally, later the Croats were paid back.

We were given a blunt statistic we tried often thereafter to forget. Of the 300,000 residents of the city in 1940, more than 110,000 had been killed - by one another.

How much more eager to forget were the Yugoslavs themselves, of whom one in seven had lost his life in the war! How could an American know the emotions of having lived through a struggle that left not a family untouched, that left, not a single institution intact? As desperate as the need for material reconstruction was the need for beliefs to live by and for moorings onto which to attach the emotions.

Through much of the east which lies beyond Vienna, men are tormented by the same painful vacuum. Two world wars, a depression, and massive industrialization accompanied the collapse of ancient institutions. As human life depreciated in value, there seemed but one alternative to despair: somehow to satisfy the desire for dignity and meaning in life through identification with the larger allcomprehending entity of the nation. As the individual grew weaker, there was satisfaction in seeing the state grow stronger; as housing deteriorated, there was pride in the great buildings of the capital cities; as personal relationships fell into disorder, there was a disposition to acquiesce in rigid public regimentation.

Again and again nationalism compensated for intolerable social deficiencies, particularly because it permitted men to explain the difficulties of the present by the sins of outsiders in the past. The emotional fervor of this nationalism serves a twofold purpose. It creates the loyalties for which masses of desperate men long and it shifts the blame for their difficulties to outsiders.

Hence the West is vulnerable not only, or not so much, for its faults of the past, but because it is the source from which still radiate the disruptive cultural and social influences that disturb all other societies and because its own people have escaped the penalties of their guilt. And most vulnerable is the United States, because it is most Western and because it has suffered least. In countries where ownership of individual homes is limited to members of a hated master class, the fact that so many Americans have possessions is often a sign that they are all members of a master—that is, of an exploiting — nation.

By contrast, the persistent will to believe that the Soviet Union is progressive— despite even the Khruschev revelations or the events in Hungary — is supported by the fact that the Russian people in their poverty seem closer, more comprehensible, and therefore more sympathetic to those who live under strains similar to their own.


PARADOXICALLY, in these societies the intensity of the strain increases with the attainment of power or positions of prestige. As we became at home in Zagreb we began to recognize a veritable host of men with brief cases — clerks, managers, technicians, and civil servants. Ultimately we discovered that the problems of life for the members of this group were difficult and disturbing. And we understood better the professors who conferred with us, when we recognized them too as members of this group.

We spent a weekend at the seaside. The old resort town on the Adriatic had been built by the nobility and the wealthy middle classes of central Europe in the 1890s. Now it had fallen on meager days; it barely survived on the summer patronage of German vacationers eager for a bargain. When we arrived, the great Edwardian hotel seemed empty; we had our choice of rooms. We sat alone at dinner and the surprised waiter scurried about to pull together a meal.

Beyond the lobby was a long corridor with a door at its far end. From where we sat, we could see little groups of people passing through the door, some of them in costume. Idly we inquired as to what was going on, and were surprised at the abrupt answer: “Nothing.”

Now our curiosity was aroused. What did the waiter mean, “Nothing"? Obviously all those men and women were going somewhere.

The worried little man shrugged this all off. We would not be interested. It was just a kind of “ folklore ” in there. But we were indeed interested in folklore. Could we go and watch?

We received a grudging consent and passed along the corridor. Opening the French doors, we discovered ourselves in an immense ballroom. Against one wall was an orchestra, enthusiastically supplying conventional Continental jazz to the dancers on the crowded floor. These were predominantly young, many of them boys and girls, having a gay time on a Saturday night. They were well dressed, some of them in evening clothes; and the little tables around the floor were liberally set with bottles of wine. It might have been a college prom back home!

Only it was hard to understand who these people were. We knew enough of Yugoslav prices from the shopwindows. The young men were spending for the evening, and the girls had spent for their gowns, the equivalent of the highest month’s salary paid by the state. Had they anything in common with the masses who watched the movies on the square?

Later, back in Zagreb, we put our questions to a friendly official. What made this ball possible in a regime of socialist austerity? It was hard to believe, as we were told, that these were “economic criminals" spending illegitimately gotten gains. Surely the state was more effective than that in its centrols. But we got nothing more than apologetic evasions.

We had hit upon one of the great underlying problems of the new societies. Their historical development had not left them a substantial middle class; and now, although often committed to an ideal of equality, they were uncomfortably making places for men of superior status, position, and power.

Every new industrial development called for the employment of technicians, engineers, and managers. At the same time, the elaboration of governmental and party services opened positions for an army of clerks and officials. The civil service in Iran, for instance, more than tripled in size in the last decade. In the Soviet Union by now there are some 24 million white-collar employees. These positions require specialized skills and training and they impose upon some of the men who occupy and hold them power and responsibility.

Such men are moved by the desire for rewards commensurate with the risks they take and with the skills they bring to their tasks. After many years of hardship and struggle they naturally expect that somehow their efforts will bring them whatever pleasures their society can afford.

The political leaders know by now their dependence upon these elements of the population. They realize furthermore that the means of coercion that keep men at the assembly line or peasants at their plows will not keep an engineer effectively at his drafting board or induce a manager to remain honest or to keep a plant producing efficiently. There is consequently unremitting pressure upon the state to create genuine incentives to satisfy and to stimulate its bureaucrats.

Yet it is not easy to do so. Resources are limited. The rulers must also keep in mind the needs of the masses of laborers; and the managerial groups themselves are not sure of what they want.

These managers and “workers of the brain” differ from their opposite numbers in our society in three vital respects. They are, to begin with, all bureaucrats. There are, of course, significant differences among the monolithic economy of the Soviet Union, the pluralistic socialism of Yugoslavia, and the limited free enterprise of Greece, Turkey, or Iran. But in all of them the state plays a dominant directing role in the productive system; and in all of them the acquisition and retention of desirable managerial posts calls not only for technical competence but for political loyalty if not for actual party membership. That creates a general uneasiness and a sense of insecurity which disturbs men’s work in the laboratory or at the desk and follows them home and intrudes on their leisure.

Furthermore, these people are isolated in their own society. In the United States, or France, or England, the holders of similar places sprang mostly from a middle class with long historical traditions and values of its own. They enjoyed a defined relationship to the landed aristocracy, to the great capitalists as well as to the laborers and peasants beneath them in the social order. They were thus able to develop a style of life appropriate to their status; they operated with recognized norms in disposing of their income, in buying a car or a. home, in joining a society or subscribing to a. magazine.

There is no such stability in the choices made by managers in societies undergoing rapid economic change. In the socialist regimes the landowners and capitalists have been entirely liquidated. In countries like Iran and Egypt, where the old aristocracy still persists, it is regarded with distrust as reactionary and as tainted with foreign imperialist connections. For the rest, there are only the masses of laborers and peasants. Ideologically, the bureaucrats are perforce driven to insist that the working class is the only progressive force in the nation; yet they by no means wish to be identified with it in their mode of living. The servants of the people know the immense difficulties in the way of raising the general standards of material existence, yet they are unwilling to wait for decent homes or for a taste of personal pleasure until enough is available for everyone. The conflict is often resolved by elaborate systems of indirect rewards. But even so there is a strain that mars the enjoyment.

Finally, as time goes on, the managers become concerned about the future of their children. Family relationships have changed radically in these societies in recent years; but the anxiety to provide a desirable place for one’s sons and daughters persists. The manager or technician cannot pass on his own position to his son; nor does he have wealth to leave in inheritance. Yet he is fearful of the alternative of degradation into the mass of laborers or peasants. Hence, the pre-eminent emphasis on education in these societies. The rapid expansion of the universities is frankly professional in objective. This is the means of preparing the technicians who will occupy the desirable places of the future.

The growth of the educational apparatus is impressive even by American standards. Zagreb’s university has 14,000 students; Belgrade’s, 40,000. Fully 60,000 are enrolled in the universities of Cairo. The Soviet. Union accommodates almost 2 million in more than 800 institutions of higher education.

But this very expansion threatens to be selffrustrating. Desirable places may not be found for everyone; and there is acute fear of competition. Paradoxically, therefore, countries which are themselves underdeveloped are often attracted by the prospects of developing their less-developed neighbors. The Russians send technicians into the Near East, while the Yugoslavs build a dam in Syria and the Egyptians send aid to Yemen and Kuwait. This concern adds a special dimension to the nationalism of such countries. More important, it reflects a deep instability in societies with a great mass base and a much smaller elite group at the top.

Much might become comprehensible from this perspective if only we knew more about these groups. Too often we have accepted literally the totalitarian or socialist views of their own society. We are constantly being surprised by events that run counter to those conceptions. No one predicted what happened in Poland or Hungary; or indeed, what happened in Israel and Egypt. No one can predict now the likely shape of developments in Ceylon, Indonesia, or India. For the critical men in these new societies are new in type and subject to tensions we can scarcely imagine. Yet they will certainly play a decisive role in the future history of their own countries, and perhaps of ours as well.